Wednesday, December 09, 2009

TC's Drive Of The Quarter-Month

In a continued effort to be sporadically topical, we look at the Chargers' this week. By process of elimination I settled on their final drive against the Giants. All of their other key scoring drives kind of sucked for our purposes. I'm also sticking with what we did last week, of only focusing on the completions, mostly for the sake of brevity and time. I also am trying some tweaks to the format. Mostly I just want to use more pictures and less words. It is my hope that those changes will make these both easier to read and produce, so instead of taking a paragraph describing the formation and routes, I'll just make a nice picture conveying all that. Please do note that the TV angles make it tough to see what receivers are doing downfield, so on those routes where I indicate the receiver is running straight down the field, he might be making some moves down the field that the CBS cameras are not catching.
This Giants' game was pretty pivotal for the Chargers. Had they lost, they would have fallen to 4-4, two games back of the 6-1 Broncos. In that key game, the Chargers held a decent lead before seeing it evaporate in the fourth quarter, which is the Norv Turner equivalent of Wade's late-season struggles: Turner is the all-time leader in coughing up late-game leads. The lead change set the Chargers up with the most exciting situation in football, when a team gets the ball back with two minutes left down by one score. I am stating the obvious when I say that I watch every football game where I do not have a rooting interest hoping that this will happen.

The drive starts from the San Diego 20 with 2:07 left in the game. The Chargers operate from the shotgun with pretty consistent personnel throughout the entire drive: Vincent Jackson is lined up wide to the right. Malcom Floyd is wide left. Gates is in the right slot, just off the offensive line. Legedu Naanee is the other slot receiver, either to the left or right. For the first half, Tomlinson is the halfback before Darren Sproles comes in later.

The Giants worked out of the nickel package with five defensive backs and two linebackers. They placed both linebackers right up with the defensive linemen with the corners outside over the receivers, so no one is over Gates. At the snap, only the lineman rush as the linebackers sprint back to be in a position to cover. Antonio Pierce sprints too far back (and also gets tangled with the ref), so Gates heads inside away from the nickelback and under Pierce. Pierce is so far back, Gates makes the catch, turns upfield, and has time to make a move to fall forward. The play gains nine yards.

The Giants blitz both linebackers, so Rivers is just looking to hit his hot receiver. That's Naanee running a short out after Floyd has cleared out his corner. Naanee does do a little move to the inside, but he seems to really create his separation just by keeping his speed through his break, and he's got a lot of space coming out of it. Rivers throws to him right after his drop, and the throw is definitely a little hurried and off-target, but Naanee has space to go and get it, which he does. The play gains five yards and a first down.

Two incompletions and a defensive penalty later, the Chargers have 2nd and 10 at their own 39.

The Giants are playing a little game before the snap: linebacker Chase Blackburn is standing up where the defensive end would be playing while defensive-end-turned-linebacker-turned-defensive-end Mathias Kiwanuka is at linebacker. Kiwanuka blitzes while Blackburn drops into coverage. So it's a zone blitz without putting a defensive lineman in coverage (then again, it also tips the offense that something's up). Antonio Pierce also blitzes. Blackburn looks like he is assigned to Tomlinson in man coverage. Tomlinson will make some show of pass protecting often on this drive, but he does not in this case. He heads straight towards the left sideline, holding Blackburn and allowing Floyd to get him. That leaves Floyd one-on-one with the corner, and he has inside position. Gates is also pretty open, so I think Floyd is just the first read on this play, and he is now pretty open, and Rivers hits him with a very well-placed pass. For a catch on the move, it's made as simple as possible by the throw.

While I don't want to drag this out with breaking down the incompletions that occurred on the drive, I did watch them, and if I can really over-simplify, Rivers just looked inconsistent. His accuracy was not there on a lot of those throws, and there wasn't a good excuse for it, like pressure in his face or a bad route or any of that. I don't know enough (or much of anything) about the mechanics of throwing, so I can't offer any more than to say he lost his accuracy at times. That was the number one reason that some of the plays didn't work.

Interesting wrinkle on the right side of the play. Look back at the previous play. After Jackson and Naanee ran crossing routes on the previous play, they look to be doing the same thing here for their first few steps before Naanee cuts more straight up the field and Jackson takes things back outside. The Giants rush both linebackers again, so those routes on the right probably take more time to develop than Rivers can afford. With the linebackers blitzing, Gates is probably the responsibility of one of the deep safeties. This seems like a poor decision by the defense, because Gates--who is very often the first place Rivers would look on a blitz--is wide open over the middle. In the case of a blitz, the secondary needs to be worried first about short, quick passes, because hopefully the blitzers sack the quarterback before longer routes can develop. In this case, however, the Giants left the Chargers primary threat, especially in this situation, wide open for a short pass, though he would be defended on longer routes. I think I would have considered bringing a safety closer to Gates, leaving the other safety deep and in the middle. I do not know why the Giants did not do this. Gates catches the pass and gets eight yards before encountering contact and fights for two more, gaining ten yards and the first down.

Sproles was in on the previous play, and he stays in here. Before the play, the Giants had to take a time out because Justin Tuck was injured. The Chargers had actually lined up in their three to one side alignment they went with for much of the rest of the drive, but after the timeout, they lined up with this. The Giants are committed to rushing five, with Chase Blackburn reading Sproles. If Sproles stays in to pass protect, Blackburn is free to blitz. If Sproles goes out for a pass, Blackburn has to cover him. At the snap, Sproles takes one step forward and hesitates, which gets Blackburn moving towards Sproles. With the movement, Blackburn is done. He now has to change directions to chase a player who was already much faster than him Sproles catches the ball in space and races to 18 yards before a safety slows him up, allowing Blackbrun to make the tackle. This was a very savvy route by Sproles.

This is the final play of the touchdown drive. Vincent Jackson gives a little head-fake to the inside early on in the route. The cornerback defending him, Nate Webster, looks pretty determined to take away the inside, so he bites a little. Jackson uses that motion to get behind Webster to the outside, then outraces him to the corner once the ball is thrown. Rivers holds the safety with his eyes a little bit, and the presence of Gates surely helps with that.

A year or two into Rivers holding the starting job, his numbers against the blitz were alarmingly less efficient than his number when the defense rushed four or fewer. That no longer appears to be a concern. He was able to go to three different hot receivers on this route and make quick completions to each of them. Then on that final play, the Giants rushed only four, played coverage, and one of San Diego's tall, fast receivers was able to make a big play downfield. The chemistry between Rivers and his receivers is pretty stunning to watch, as they all made the right adjustments to beat the pressures the Giants were using (though I guess it was not that hard, since the Giants only blitzing involved one or both of their lienabckers. That struck me as unimaginative.) It's also an interesting template for the Cowboys. San Diego was viewed as having a pretty average-to-below-average set of receivers for much of Rivers' time, though now this group looks pretty lethal. However, it's still the same bunch of unheralded receivers. Three of the four receivers playing on this drive have been on the team since 2005 (Naanee was drafted in 2007). They don't have stunning pedigrees either. Malcom Floyd and Antonio Gates were undrafted. Naanee was drafted in the fifth round. As a second-round pick, Jackson is the only exception. They have drafted a wide receiver in the first round recently (LSU's Buster Davis in 2007), but he's pretty much been a bust, is currently fifth on the depth chart, and has not caught a pass this year.
These receivers have developed together over time and by staying in the same offense with the same quarterback have come to a point where they feel comfortable and are able to get the most out of their talent. Some players suck no matter how familiar they are with the system, but there's also a lot of guys out there who look like borderline players until you let them get comfortable with a few years of repetition. Like the Steelers do with their linebackers. My point here with how this applies to the Cowboys is their chemistry when operating out of the shotgun and facing the blitz. The Chargers used to have real problems doing that, but now they're pretty awesome at it. They did not have to change their personnel to achieve this effect, they just kept working at it, and after a couple years of having the same lineup, they now have the chemistry to pull it off. Lost in all this talk about the Cowboys' balance and Garrett's supposed overuse of shotgun is the fact that most teams have more success passing from the shotgun than they do under center. Further, some teams (Patriots, Colts, Chargers, etc.) can pass from shotgun quite a bit and keep having success. For now, I support the idea that the Cowboys should ride what gets them yards (the 22 and 12 packages) more than they do. But if they want to use shotgun often, that can be fine if they learn to do it as well as they do their under center, two-tight-end stuff, and the Chargers' show that there is hope they can get there one day.

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