Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Football Laundromat: Chicago Bears Edition

Hi there, readers. TC Fleming here. Each week I think it'd be nice to watch the Cowboys' upcoming opponents' previous week's game and target a specific wrinkle in that team's offense as something to watch for when they play the Cowboys.

The Bears are one of the worst pass-protecting teams in football. Their right tackle couldn't hold down the left guard spot last year. The right guard is a second-year player thought of so highly coming out of college that he fell to the seventh round. The left tackle is a former first-round pick who in his first two years couldn't beat out the indomitable John St. Clair and a nearly-retired, definitely done Orlando Pace for the left tackle job. And their best lineman, Olin Kreutz, ended his string of six straight Pro Bowl selections a full four seasons ago. The first job of any coordinator overseeing this offense is to find ways to distract from the fact their line cannot block.

The obvious, bread-and-butter way to do this is via the screen pass. While it still requires the linemen to do blocking, they are now taking on linebackers and defensive backs rather than defensive ends and tackles. It's just really tough to design a play where your linemen do no blocking whatsoever, so this is the best they could do.

Screens also provide the benefit of being constraint plays. They are plays that take advantage of the defense overplaying one aspect of the game, thereby discouraging the defense from relying on that aspect. The screen lets pass rushers get near the quarterback before the quarterback flips the ball to the space the pass rushers just vacated. In order to defend the screen, pass rushers have to be patient and stay aware of potential screens. That prevents them from focusing entirely on attacking the quarterback.

However, screens lose their effectiveness if the defense can quickly recognize that the play is a screen. A defender is nearly always assigned to the player who is supposed to catch the screen. On a screen pass, one of the offenisve lineman will allow his pass rusher to run himself out of the play as that lineman goes block for the man catching the screen pass. If all of the defenders know that's coming, it's fairly easy to avoid letting it happen that way. Further, if the defenders feel comfortable that they know when the screen is coming, it negates some of the pass-rush-slowing effect the screen game is supposed to have. So in addition to just throwing screens, an offense has to throw well-hidden screens.

That's all pretty basic football stuff, I know. And so is probably everything you read here. I did not play football past the eighth grade. I just watch it on TV. But I, at least, found this next part pretty exciting.

While four of the Bears' six screen passes against the Lions, I thought two of them were pretty cleverly hidden and should give the Cowboys pause as they prepare for this aspect of their week two contest. So let's first break down your standard screen to the running back before diving into the two "hidden" screens they ran against the Lions.

The first screen is of a standard variety but was the most effective pass the Bears had all day, Jay Cutler's 89-yard scoring pass to Matt Forte. Thus far the Bears had not gone to the screen well very often, running the play only once to that point in the game. With 1:25 left in the half, the Bears go to a shotgun, four-wide look. They were actually in the 11 personnel but with tight end Greg Olsen in the right slot acting as a receiver. At the snap, Cutler drops back and waits a few beats to allow the play to set up. Forte steps up to behind the lineman, hesitates as if he's staying in to pick up any pass rushers before heading to the right flat. Center Olin Kretuz does the same thing, making sure to stay behind the line. Once Cutler turns to Forte and hits him with the pass, Olsen and Hester turn into blockers.

On this screen to the right, there are really four defenders the offense is concerned with: the middle linebacker (Landon Johnson), the linebacker aligned over Olsen (Julian Peterson), the corner over Devin Hester (Chris Houston) and the deep safety on that side (Louis Delmas). The Bears are backed up with limited time on the clock, so Johnson has a very deep, cautious drop that takes him away from the initial action going on in the flat. From that point, he takes a poor angle and never really has a chance to make a play. Once Forte catches the pass, Peterson leaves Olsen but is blocked out of the play by Kreutz. Hester dives at Houston's legs, not so much blocking him as slowing him down long enough for Forte to get by him. With Olsen free, he seeks out Delmas and does an excellent job locking onto him and taking him out of the play. From there, no defenders are close enough to make the tackle. A few defensive backs probably had a chance to chase Forte down, but they take really poor angles and end up diving at his ankles. This is a super-basic play that succeeds half because of execution and half because of poor defensive play. There's only one lineman even going out to help on the blocking. Without that, this is pretty much a dump-off.

In the next quarter they would go back to the screen but with far more effort to mask their intentions. The play begins, as a fair amount of the Bears' offensive plays under Mike Martz do, with a high amount of pre-snap motion. They start out aligned thusly:

And after four of the five skill players re-align themselves, they look like this:

If you're a defense analyzing what the offense is trying to accomplish, the bunch that has formed to the left is the big concern. By switching quickly to that formation, the Bears are probably looking to generate confusion among the defenders in that area as to who is guarding whom. In fact the Bears would use just that tactic to score the game-winning touchdown when they used the same motion and alignment to get Matt Forte behind his defender. But that is not actually the objective here. The objective here is to get the defense focused on the bunch so that they can throw a screen back across to the other side. 

The other thing this formation does to promote the success of the screen is make it obvious the offense is going to pass. Matt Forte can't really execute many traditional running plays from his spot in the formation. With the defense knowing the offense is going to pass, the defensive line is setting themselves into full get-to-the-quarterback mode, and if the Bears are really lucky, some of the other defenders are checking to a blitz.

Given this seemingly-vulnerable situation, it makes a lot of sense that Greg Olsen would be on the line to help in pass protection (the Bears actually did a lot more leaving extra players into block throughout this game than one would expect given Martz's reputation), and at the snap he appears to do just that, engaging the defensive end across from him, Cliff Avril. Cutler drops back and keeps his eyes focused to the left on the bunch of receivers. Just as Olsen releases Avril, Cutler looks back to Olsen and hits him with the pass. As that's happening, the right tackle (Frank Omiyale), center (Kreutz) and left guard (Roberto Garza) all release their defenders and head out to create a convoy in front of Olsen. 

That this play only picks up nine yards is a tribute to how poor a job those linemen do with their blocking. Omiyale is assigned with blocking Avril, whom Olsen has just left in order to catch the pass. Omiyale does not so much block Avril as he gives him a half-hearted shove. That's enough for Olsen to maneuver past Avril, but he has to slow down a bit to do so. The other two lineman are executing more of a cut block, rolling down in front of the defenders with the intention of slowing them down long enough for Olsen to pass them. I figure they have decided this is the best strategy out of the fear that linebackers and defensive backs would be too quick for linemen to block in space using their normal techniques. At any rate, with Olsen slowing down to avoid Avril, it gives Julian Peterson enough time to move around Kreutz and make the stop after nine yards. I feel like there were six or seven more yards to be had if Omiyale had just done a better job getting in front of Avril. Setting that aside, this play does and good job getting the attention of the defense in one area before hitting them with the screen in another area. Furthermore, it creates the threat of a screen from a different position in a different place on the field, only doubling the headaches caused by the screen game.

The final example of creative deployment of screen passes is the one that gains the fewest amount of yards (six) but might be my favorite yet. The offense lines up thusly, with Manumaleuma (#86) motioning before the snap probably just to see how the defense would react:

At the snap, the left side of the line immediately pulls to the right side, becoming the two right-most pass protectors on the play. Cutler fakes to Forte before sprinting to the right to get behind his newly-shifted line. The fake is probably made a little more convincing by the presence of pulling linemen.

Moving the pocket like this is right there with the screen pass in How To Combat A Poor O-Line 101. It changes the angles of pursuit for the pass rushers and creates different passing windows than the defensive backs were anticipating. The limitation of the moving pocket, however, is that it effectively cuts the field in half. With the quarterback moving to his right, it would normally be a poor decision to try to throw back to his left. So the defense can move all their attention to the right side of the field. With this screen, however, the throw across to the left is a short one to a receiver largely unfettered by the nuisance of defenders. After chipping the defensive end (Kyle Vanden Bosch) to both buy the screen time to set up and to try to get the defense to forget about him, Forte heads left and readies himself to receive the pass. As this happens, the center (Kreutz) and right guard (Lance Louis)--the two left-most lineman after the two other lineman pulled--leave their men and go to block for Forte.

In this instance, Vanden Bosch does an excellent job of reading the play. He reacts immediately to Forte releasing him and follows after the running back even before he has caught the pass. Louis attempts the dive-at-the-linebacker's-legs move, but Julian Peterson does a nice job of sidestepping him. When Forte has to slow up in an effort to break down Peterson, Vanden Bosch is able to tackle Forte. With a more effective block by Louis or a less heads-up play by Vanden Bosch, this play goes for more yards. As it is, it's a very easy six yards on a first down play that also serves to give the defense something else to think about.

It was a common (and from my view, very fair) criticism of the Bears' 2009 offensive coaches that they merely ran their offense, which was meant to hide the quarterback, rather than feature the talents of the player that had traded so much to acquire. This play is a great example of the new staff using the best talents of all the players involved: it makes use of Cutler's mobility and strong arm, it doesn't ask the offensive line to block the defensive line for too long, and it highlights Matt Forte's talents as a receiver out of the backfield.

At pretty much all times, the defense--and especially the pass rushers--have plenty of enticement to try to get to the quarterback. On a team like the Bears, it's very difficult to prevent them from achieving that goal. These plays do a fine job of using that desire against the defense, appearing initially to combat the pass rush one way only to reveal another strategy in the middle of the play. It was an extremely effective tool for the Bears last week. Cutler went 6-for-6 on screen passes with a perfect 158.3 quarterback rating. Even taking out the 89-yard pass that was as much the result of poor angles as anything else, Cutler's rating was still an even 100.0 on the remaining five passes. Expect the frequency of those passes to increase as the Bears try to combat a Cowboys defense with a pass rush threat that is considerably greater than anything the Lions could muster. If the Cowboys expect to be able to fully use that pass rush as the weapon it normally is, they will have to prepare to quickly diagnose the hidden screens that the Bears will be sure to dial up against them.


Roger Light, artist said...

Bob, once again, what a pleasure to read your stuff. I think you have really nailed it here. Without great execution on the screens and draws, what chance do the Bears have? (a Redskins chance, perhaps?) Last weeks game has cured me of attempting to predict outcomes of games. I will settle for getting more educated, via your blog, about the chess match taking place each week between the coaches.

Lets all hope this is the week the Cowboys D starts getting traction on the takeaways front.

K5 said...

Good to see you again this season :-)

Thanks for the informative breakdown. I enjoyed it and look forward to trying to recognize it this Sunday