Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Wednesday Musings - Tackling

On Wednesday, we go in any number of directions as sort of a "reset" day. It has also grown a life of its own with TC's drive for the final 3,000 words or so at the bottom of the page. And, as someone who has previewed his work, allow me to say that he is debuting the "Easter Egg" strategy that some DVDs do these days. I will try not to spoil it.

But, before we get to all of that, here are a few other things before we check our weekly numbers:

1) Occasionally, while watching a Cowboys game, I will see something that I have no place for in one of my entries, but I just wanted to share it with you anyway. Here is one of those cases. I can't explain why, but for some reason, nothing makes me crazier when watching a football game than the Defensive Backs who refuse to tackle altogether or refuse to tackle properly. It seemed like once upon a time there was the idea that DBs could tackle and would do so utilizing proper technique with arms wrapping up and driving. Somehow, over the years, DBs have found that it is easier (albeit lower percentage) to simply launch a shoulder and hope you knock the player silly.

Well, here is Terence Newman in this video. DcFanatic cut up the attempt that jumped out at me in the 2nd Quarter against Atlanta where he completely missed Roddy White, along with a similar result with the Giants, followed by his strong connection later in the game on 84:

It reminded me of a story I was reading out of Philadelphia where Asante Samuel is being critiqued for his lack of tackling and makes no apologies:
Samuel on Friday responded to the mouting critics of his tackling acumen. They didn’t bring him here to take down ball carriers, he promised.

“I didn’t get signed here because I was a great tackler,” Samuel said. “Everbody saw my film [before he was signed].”

Maybe so, but that answer won’t satisfy defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, who in his own way insinuated that Samuel is one of the highest-paid cornerbacks in football, so he better tackle like one.

The issue comes after Samuel’s less-than-aggressive tackle attempt on Zach Miller’s 86-yard TD catch Sunday, the lone TD in the Eagles’ 13-9 loss to the lowly Raiders, who hadn’t scored a touchdown in three games.

So, after reading that, I had to find the play that they were talking about. Thanks to Youtube, here it is:

Right after Miller catches the pass, watch Samuel bail out at about the 36 yard line. Awesome unintentional comedy.

Poor tackling is not a Cowboys issue, it is all over the league. And I suggest that often times, it is the highly compensated DB making a "business decision" as Deion used to say. That might be why I generally enjoy the fine work of Minnesota's Antoine Winfield who loves to tackle in all situations - despite his hefty paycheck. Of course, he is also going to miss a month with an injury, but don't worry about that.

In case you care, here is Asante's deal of 6 years/$57m:
The details are in on Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Asante Samuel's contract, and he'll make $32.14 million in the first three years of the deal. The contract looks like this:

Signing Bonus: $6M
Roster Bonuses: $7M in 2008, $7M in 2009
Workout Bonuses: $500K in 2008, $100K per year for the rest of the contract.
Base Salaries (Cap Number)
2008: $645K ($9.145M)
2009: $1.9M ($9M)
2010: $8.895M ($9.995M)
2011: $5.9M ($7M)
2012: $8.4M ($9.5M)
2013: $10.4M ($11.5M)

And, Newman's deal :
5/20/2008: Signed a six-year, $50.2 million contract extension through 2014. The deal contains $22.5 million guaranteed, including a $12 million signing bonus.
2009: $895,000,
2010: $9 million,
2011: $8 million,
2012: $6.016 million,
2013: $7,600,417,
2014: $7.5 million,
2015: Free Agent

Bob Gainey used to say that "it is tough to be hungry when you are full."

2) Now on to our statistical studies we update on Wednesdays. The top one tracks how often the winners of the turnover battles actually win the game. The numbers are staggering, but about where they are every season. So far in 2009, the winners of the turnover battle have won the game 69 of the 83 game for a 83% number. This is obviously not related in any way to home field, talent discrepencies, play-calling, or injuries. This simply says: take care of the football better than your opponent, and you win almost all of the time. Just 1 team was able to overcome a -1 this week, and that was the Saints in that crazy game in Miami.
Totals for Week12-1
Totals for Season69-14, 83%

Table Tutorial

TotalRecordWin %

Table Tutorial

And, then below we compare the winning correlation between the 100-yard rusher and the 300-yard passer. Through 7 weeks, the results are too close to call:

Cedric BensonCinChi189W
Ryan GrantGBCle148W
Shonn GreeneNYJOak144W
Steven JacksonSTLInd134L
Thomas JonesNYJOak121W
Totals for Week 4-1
Totals for Season 35-13, 73%

Table Tutorial

Brett FavreMinPit334L
Jake DelhommeCarBuf325L
Tony RomoDalAtl311W
Tom BradyNETB308W
Totals for Week2-2
Totals for Season30-10, 75%

Table Tutorial


TC's Drive Of the Week: (Each week, my young, trusty intern, TC Fleming, breaks down a drive from around the NFL from a purely X's and O's perspective - just because he can. Warning, when other people say "break down" they are not serious. TC is very serious)

I think the real reason we’re focusing on the 49ers is because most of the games this week were boring. Except for the Saints-Dolphins, who we did last week, and Steelers-Vikings, who I considered heavily, this was about the only game where the final score was close. But among those slim pickings, I felt most intrigued by what schemes could get Alex Smith and the 49ers offense not to suck, especially when they had sucked so badly earlier in this same game. To satisfy that interest, I turned to the team’s final touchdown drive against the Texans.

They opened the drive with one of their two plays from under center with both wide receivers to the right, Vernon Davis in tight to the left, and two running backs in an offset I in the backfield. The wrinkle here is that the fullback was former Penn State quarterback and current 49ers backup halfback Michael Robinson. Before the snap, outside receiver Josh Morgan starts toward the backfield. Smith snaps the ball, fakes the handoff to Frank Gore and to Morgan before setting up to pass. This is something they have been setting up all game, motioning Morgan into the backfield and then executing a normal running play but with a fake to Morgan after the handoff. I suspect the real goal in this is not to trick them into a big gain off of this play action but is rather to open up the regular, straight-forward run. The 49ers have quite a claim to sporting the worst offensive line in football, so they need to do things to trick it up if they want to have success on the ground. So if they hit on one of these plays, either the end-around or the play-action pass, then the Texans defenders will be more hesitant and give the blockers an advantage they need just to be competitive.

The formation is also of interest, too, as Brian Billick pointed out on the broadcast. By putting two receivers to the same side, the Texans are forced to make obvious statements about their coverage, either putting a corner over the slot receiver and showing they’re in man or leaving one corner to each side and showing they’re in zone.

As to the pass itself, it’s slow in developing with all the fakes, so both Vernon Davis and Frank Gore stay in as blockers. With Morgan on the fake, this leaves only Michael Robinson and Michael Crabtree as options. Crabtree is running a ‘Go,’ hoping the safeties will bite on the fake and that he will be behind them before they realize the mistake. Robinson first acts as if lead blocking before looking back for a pass from Smith. Before too long, he, too, heads straight upfield. However, Mario Williams kills right tackle Adam Snyder at the snap and puts pressure on Smith from the start. It’s all Smith can do to toss the ball away.

I question how much of a chance at success this play had with good protection. There were only two receivers against all the defenders in coverage, all 6 of them. So they would have to fool quite a few defenders, all of whom are probably not too afraid of a running attack that hadn’t done much to that point. And that’s a downside of the aforementioned formation: by putting the receivers on the same side, you’re calling the defense’s attention to that side. Attention is not what you want when you’re trying to sneak a receiver past the coverage.

The next play is more typical of what we would see on this drive. Smith is in shotgun with five receivers at or near the line of scrimmage. As we have seen both the Cowboys and Saints do, they do so from their 12 package, with their tight ends and running back playing as wide receivers. As stated in weeks past, the advantage is that when the defense sees the players in the huddle, they match up by sending out their normal complement of linebackers. In most cases, at least one of these linebackers is poor in coverage.

The focus on this play is the right side of the formation, where Davis, backup tight end Delanie Walker and Morgan are lined up. Davis is just off the line and Morgan is on the outside with Walker in the slot. Both Davis and Morgan take off at the start, and once their defenders go into their backpedal, they break the route off into a hitch. Walker is running a ‘Go’ between them. Brian Cushing is lined up over Walker, and Cushing is bumping Walker. When Morgan makes his turn back to Smith, Cushing is still engaged with Walker, so there is no one in between Morgan and Smith. Further, Smith’s timing is very good, so the corner has no time to recover. As seems to be the norm with many-receivered sets like this, the safety is playing too conservatively to be a factor in preventing a completion. This is precisely the sort of play the 49ers need. For years they have shown an inability to generate big plays, and until Crabtree really becomes a factor, that does not figure to change. But if they can find lots of easy completions like this one where the quarterback has an easy read, and the line has as little pressure on it as possible, then they can have hope of finding something they can hand their hat on offensively. I think that is where this team can carve out an offense with their current middling talent: easy little plays where they exploit a soft spot to pick up 5 yards without asking too much of anyone.

There’s a weird substitution penalty, and the 49ers get backed up to 1st and 15. The next play is the final time on this drive that Alex Smith goes under center. Much like the Saints did last week, the 49ers put an extra lineman in at tight end, to bring the tight end count to three, with Morgan at wide receiver split to the left. Smith fakes to Gore, which doesn’t get too much of reaction from the defense. Morgan runs deep, with the hope of taking his corner and safety with him. Davis then works behind the linebackers before breaking for the corner. Unfortunately, Eugene Wilson, the safety on that side, does not go with Morgan (after all, he is still just Josh Morgan). He locks on to Davis a little before he breaks and makes a very nice play to break up the pass.

From 2nd and 15, the 49ers go back to the four-wide set with Smith in the shotgun next to Gore. The patterns are roughly the same, with the outside receivers running deep and the slot receivers running curls. Gore might make the slightest chip of the defensive end, then releases out to the flat. The Texans seem to be in man coverage, with the weakside linebacker chasing Gore when he goes out for a pass. Meanwhile, the strongside linebacker blitzes. So when the two slot receivers run curls well in front of the safeties, the middle linebacker is defending both of those slot receivers. Smith throws to Vernon Davis on the left, who is very open and the best choice of the two. The middle linebacker is at least there to make the tackle, but it’s another easy completion to a soft part of the defense that nets an easy nine yards.

That gain of nine sets up the only third down of the drive, obviously a very key play. Short aside: Smith makes the hand motion where he makes a steeple with his fingers. I think we’ve all seen this a number of times watching football. Billick explains this is the quarterback letting the offense know they are huddling up. I’ve seen the motion plenty of times and did not know until now what it meant. Maybe I’m alone in my ignorance, but I thought that might be a nice tidbit for somebody. Anyways, back to the play. The 49ers again are in their favorite formation, shotgun with four receivers, two to each side. They do switch what receivers are where from play to play. Every time, the two tight ends are split out to one side with the two wide receivers to the other. I believe the wide receivers, Morgan and Crabtree, are to the open side of the field, the one with the most distance to the sideline, while the tight ends are to the closed side. This time, the open side is the left side, so the receivers are there.

Play 5 PrePlay

Initially, the Texans give a 2-deep look (this is a benefit of the four-wide formation, it becomes clearer who is covering whom, since they are so spread apart that it is not possible for a defender to look like his assigned to one guy but switch to the other or things like that). Before the snap, the safeties rotate with the safety in the left coming over the top and the safety on the right coming down towards the two receivers. That is because the cornerback on the slot receiver is blitzing. This is in addition to the linebacker on that side, who is blitzing as well. That leaves both receivers in single coverage with minimal hope of help over the top. Morgan, who is in the slot, first runs a quick hitch but almost immediately begins working towards the sideline. The benefits of this are two-fold: Morgan is hopefully getting open in order to be a hot route for Smith, while he is also pulling his man towards the sideline, opening up a window for Crabtree, who is running a square-in behind him. Crabtree’s man is playing to keep Crabtree in front of him, so when Morgan opens that window, there is no one in between Smith and Crabtree. Smith’s pass is a little high, but Crabtree makes a nice little grab to convert the third down. It’s a pretty impressive play for someone who hasn’t played football in a number of months and never played football in the NFL. The real star of the play is the protection. This play takes a little bit to set up, more than the previous few completions, and the Texans are bringing six rushers. Gore stays in to block, so it’s six-on-six, and that is not usually a good outcome for San Francisco, but it is on this play. Smith also is good for trusting his protection, staying in the pocket and waiting for the receiver to come open. I don’t think the 49ers could execute a play like this very often, but they do an admirable job here.

San Francisco does a little wrinkle before the snap, where they’re standing as if they’re going to line up in the offset I with Smith under center, but before they’re set, Smith backs up and everyone trots out to again form the four-wide shotgun look they’ve had so much success with.

Play 6 Diag

As has been the case before in the drive, the routes on either side are a mirror image of each other. Both outside receivers run an out pattern, heading upfield before breaking for the sidelines, and both slot receivers run a ‘Go.’ The Texans look to me like they’re in a Cover-3, where both corners are dropping with the receivers and one of the safeties playing over the top. The end result is three deep defenders, which is how it gets the name. What happens here is that the corners go with the outside receivers, and the safety is playing more to clean up any completions rather than prevent them. Smith also holds the safety with his eyes, looking right before coming back to the left. With the corner over with Crabtree and the safety too deep to be a factor, Morgan just has to get behind the underneath defenders, and he’s got a huge space to work. He does just that, Smith makes the necessary throw over the heads of the underneath defenders, and Morgan has plenty of room to go up and get the ball without fear. In all, it nets 23 yards, attacks another soft part of the coverage and doesn’t ask too much of the protection. This is as quick-strike as you can get with a 23-yard gain.

Play 7 PrePlay

For the final play of the drive, San Francisco returns to the five-wide set from the 12 personnel. The play bears a strong resemblance to the Saints’ four verticals play that got their touchdown on the drive we looked at last week. The outside receiver to the left runs a quick hitch, maybe even faking a quick screen, but the other receivers all runn ‘Go’ patterns down the field. The other exception is Vernon Davis who, from the right slot, runs a little bit of a post. Much like Colston last week, Davis is matched up on the middle linebacker (in this case, DeMeco Ryans). Ryans is very good, and he stays with Davis pretty well, but Davis is faster and taller than just about any linebacker in the league. Smith, like Brees before him, draws the deep safety away from Davis with his eyes before placing the ball over Ryans’ head and into Davis’ hands.

[caption id="attachment_18074" align="aligncenter" width="622" caption="Davis makes his catch over Ryans."]Davis makes his catch over Ryans.[/caption]

This play capped off a curious trend from this drive: there were a lot of Saints plays in here. If someone had handed me the diagrams of the plays and asked me to name the team, I would have said the Saints with confidence, with the extra lineman, and the four verticals and the five-wide from 12 personnel. It seems odd to me that two offenses so disparate in their results would be so similar in their schemes. And there is no shared branches I can see on their coaching tree. San Francisco’s offensive coordinator is Jimmy Raye, who is really old (he was the backup quarterback in the Notre Dame-Michigan State 10-10 “Game Of The Century,” which was played in 1966. Sherm Lewis thinks Jimmy Raye is old.) but does not appear to have run across Sean Payton is his many years. I told all this to Bob Tuesday morning, and he pointed out that if one’s offense was not working, a good place to go for new ideas would be tape of Saints games. This is a very interesting point that the evidence suggests is possible. If true—and it’s by no means certain that it is true—it raises a lot of questions. After less than a year on the job, is Jimmy Raye really so out of ideas already that he’s lifting his offense off of Saints tapes? What about core principles and offensive design? How do you keep those things together when installing plays you saw last week? How long does it take for an offense to feel comfortable with a play? Most of these passes were effective in part because of their simplicity, but it’s supposed to be harder than it looks, right? Then again, Crabtree played much of the game despite being on the team for only a few weeks, so what does that say about how hard all this is to learn? But if building an effective attack is as easy as watching the Saints’ tape and mimicking it, why doesn’t every team in the league do it and put up big yards? And why didn’t the 49ers do it from the beginning when Shaun Hill was in there (with Hill, they only went to shotgun on third down and in general ran much more of what you would expect from an offense as traditionally mediocre as the 49ers in the last few years)? And I suspect the fact that they were down 21 points by halftime had something to do with all of this. They would be desperate enough to try anything, though they would have had to install all this in practice at some point.

I guess an alternative explanation is that all this stuff that I think is revolutionary (play-action from heavy sets, five wide from 12, managing to get tall, athletic players matched up on linebackers, etc.) is muc more ordinary than I understood. I mean, all three teams we’ve looked at have had a little bit of that. It will be interesting to track as we go along. It certainly makes me glad I branched out to look at other teams. It’s already turning up some fascinating (to me, at least) results.

The fact they were down by 21 should also be considered in their success. The 49ers offense was working against a Texans defense that did not feel much urgency. Likely as a result, they did not blitz much or play particularly aggressively. Given the line’s performance this season and earlier in this game, I think that more frequent blitzing would have posed significant problems. Then again, these were all plays that stressd getting the ball out fairly quickly, and they did have success in their one play against the big blitz. It would be interesting to see what this offense and scheme could do against a defense playing in a more urgent situation.

Also of note is that the 49ers made no attempt to run on this drive. That’s pretty understandable given the game situation, but if the 49ers want to build on the offensive success they had here, I would like to see how they plan to mix in more running with these four-wide sets and whatnot.

And as I indicated throughout, I do think they have some concepts to build off of here. The formations make it easier for Smith to know where he’s going with the ball, and the patterns make it easy for Smith to get those passes there quickly. The spread formations make it hard to have extra blockers, but one of Smith’s supposed strengths coming out of Utah was his elusiveness. I didn’t see anything specifically on these plays to confirm or deny that, but it would be an asset in this scheme. Like I said at the top, the 49ers don’t have anyone to break big plays on a regular basis, so for them to have hope, they need to use these high-percentage plays to keep the ball moving while taking their occasional 20+ yard shot when it’s open and available quickly.

Bonus Coverage: In my research for this article, I discovered that the Houston Texans cheerleading squad features a pair of twins. I thought Bob should know, given his history with twins.

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