Thursday, October 07, 2010
Vince Young confuses me. Several years into his career, it's still quite unclear to me whether or not he is a starting-caliber quarterback. Since returning to the starting lineup last year, his stats are pretty acceptable. On a per-play basis, everything is sort of good-not-great. He shows he's accurate enough with a completion percentage around 60. He shows he's not terrible at moving the offense with a yards per attempt figure a little over 7. His touchdown-to-interception ratio is acceptable. Especially for someone who gives you the scrambling ability he does, this is reasonable quarterback play. You can win with this. Vince Young is pretty good (though his two--TWO--Pro Bowl appearances still make him the cautionary case for these over-inflated Pro Bowl rosters).
But I'm still confused. In part because I saw those picks in the Pittsburgh game this year where he entirely misread the coverage. In part because wen I watch him I get the feeling the wheels are begging to come off. But mostly because it seems like Jeff Fisher doesn't think Young is any good. Of the quarterbacks who have started all four games this year, Young has the fewest attempts. Passing plays were called at the same frequency last year, too. He only has 70 more passing attempts than Marion Barber.
The lack of attempts is one thing that indicates to me that Fisher doesn't trust Young. Another is the nature of those attempts. A lot of the Titans' pass plays look like their primary design is not to challenge the defense or to create winnable match-ups downfield but to find an easy completion for Young. Now, I guess those goals aren't exclusive of each other. You can have plays that create good match-ups AND easy completions. But watching the Titans and diagramming their plays, there's so many crossing routes and hitch routes designed to just create easy five-yard gains at the expense of stretching out the defense.
But if that's what they're going to do, let's examine one element of it. Despite being a team with a running identity, the Titans have no hesitation to forgo having fullback Ahmard Hall on the field. Of their plays outside of the two-minute drills, 26 of their 44 plays (60%) were without a fullback. When they had a fullback, they were 50-50 between run and pass. In those situations where the Titans passed with a fullback, they nearly always passed to the flats, that area outside the hashmarks within about five yards of the line of scrimmage.
Attacking the flats aren't just for setting up easy completions. They can be useful in drawing the defense towards the line of scrimmage and setting them up for a long pass over the top. The Titans, however, never used that pass. They never tried for that bomb. So unless they're setting up something for a later game, the Titans are not using this as a means to allow for a high-flying bomb fest. This is about getting the ball out of Young's hand easily and quickly and getting it to one of their playmakers in space.
Our first play is the most garden variety of that. They ran more or less a variation of this play seven times. The Titans line up in the I-formation with Hall offset to the right of the formation. It's unclear based on the camera angle exactly what the two receivers and tight end do on this play, only that they run downfield and out of the picture. But that's all we need to know in this play; they're just drawing the defense down the field to open up the flats.
Chris Johnson heads to the left flat and Hall to the right. The corners retreat with the receivers. Robert Ayers, the strongside linebacker, takes a couple steps forward, probably to feign a blitz, before backpedaling and looking to cover his zone. That zone includes Ahmard Hall, but while Ayers was trying to look like he was blitzing, Hall was attacking the flat and is now outside of Ayers. Young finds him. Hall is open and might have the chance to get to the edge before Ayers can, but he takes his eye off the ball as it's coming and drops it.
This particular play was in no way crucial to the game, but I include it because it's the bread and butter of the sort of thing I'm talking about. The Titans will run this play, where the receivers draw the defenders downfield so that Young can throw to one of the running backs in the flat, five times agains the Cowboys. And with their personnel it makes sense. Hall is not a bad receiving fullback, and the advantages of getting Chris Johnson the ball with one linebacker to beat are obvious. And, you know, it doesn't ask much of Young.
The second play in this series shares a lot with the tight end screen we looked at against the Bears. The play starts almost identically to the last one we looked at. Kenny Britt does run a slant instead of running downfield and out of the picture, and Bo Scaife starts out the play blocking. The key is that the running backs are doing the same thing.
The idea here is that the defense has by this point seen the flat pass to the running back enough times to be looking for it. So the Titans make it look like that's what's going on in order to pull the defense to the sides, opening the middle up for Scaife. Young goes along with the act, keeping his eyes on Johnson for a couple beats. Robert Ayers is blitzing, and Scaife blocks him for a few beats. As Young takes his eyes off Johnson, Sacife lets Ayers go and readies himself for the pass.
I don't know if it's part of a zone blitz or just a heads-up play, but Justin Bannan is lined up over Jake Scott and when Scott heads out to block for Scaife, Bannan stops rushing and follows him. That puts him between Scott and Scaife when Scaife gets the ball, making it easy to stop the play after just two yards. Had Bannan done what defensive linemen normally do (rush the passer), this could've been a lot more successful. Either way, it prevents the defense from committing too many resources to stopping those easy passes to the flat that the Titans love so much.
In the final example, the Titans use motions and an odd alignment in order to get more speed into the flat, making the play more dangerous for the defense. Tennessee starts out with the offset I we've seen, this time with two receivers to the right. Nate Washington then moves from the outside across the formation, settling in behind the tight end.
That's usually an odd place for a receiver. He's not in position to run most of the routes receivers normally run. Furthermore, the tight ends and fullbacks that generally line up in that area have some blocking responsibility on a lot of plays. Any play that relies heavily on Nate Washington to block is a poorly designed play.
At any rate, Champ Bailey follows Washington across the formation. Vince Young fakes as if he's handing off to Chris Johnson while Washington runs back across to the right, possibly to block on the backside of the play. Once the fake is done and it's clear Young is keeping the ball, Washington goes out to the flat for the pass.
Before the snap, there were two cornerbacks in this area, but with Bailey now on the other side of the formation and the other corner covering Britt on his 'Go' route, it's all clear for Washington to catch the ball and turn it upfield. With his speed, he picks up 19 yards. Bailey doesn't even really bite on the play fake, he just has trouble picking his way through the linebackers, whereas the play is designed for Washington to have a clear path without picking through anyone.
This is just a neat little way that they move personnel around to create space and give Young safe, comfortable completions.
As a sidenote, the Titans tried this play again later in the game, but the defense recognized it quickly and got pressure on Young. It seems teams do not respect any play that tries to convince them Nate Washington will be doing too much in-line blocking.
So watch to see who the Cowboys use to defend this on Sunday. If the Titans can find ways to get Keith Brooking assigned to Chris Johnson while Johnson is heading to the flat, watch out. If they can even use this to get DeMarcus Ware to pay a little more attention to pass coverage than rushing the passer, that's probably a plus. But if the Cowboys can just stop these as the 2- and -3yard completions that they should be against a properly-tackling, assignment-correct defense, they'll be taking away an element of Vince Young's comfort zone, forcing him into more of the sorts of passes that generated his two ugly picks against the Steelers.