Saturday, January 22, 2011

X's and O's with Troy Aikman Part 2

I certainly hope you had a chance to check out Part 1 of Troy Aikman talking us through the Bang 8. If you did not, I would highly recommend you start there and then all of this will make a lot more sense.

In the first part, Troy discussed the role of the route and what was expected of his Wide Receivers on the play that made the Cowboys offense famous in the early 1990's. Now, we begin with the discussion of how coverage from the defense would help Troy decide where to go with the ball and also he then brilliantly ties in other famous moments to that original play in Super Bowl 27.

For proper context, here is the play that started this whole conversation:

Here is our transcription of Part 2:


Sturm: When you guys are doing this it’s first and 10, so the Bills have a safety walking up, it looks like eight in the box or at least a couple guys are waiting for Emmitt and Moose to come out of the backfield in coverage, how often would you guys get kind of a three-on-three situation there?

Aikman: That was rare. That was run defense that they were playing, but rarely would we not have a safety in the middle of the field. They would bring the eighth guy in the box, but what happened on that play was that they were in man coverage. They brought a safety up on the weakside, and the other safety was strongside since he was playing Novacek in coverage. So they bring the safety up to the weak side and had an eight-man box and had what’s called zero coverage: there was no free safety in coverage. There was a safety that was up playing run support, and then they had a man on Novacek, a man on Harper and a man on Irvin. So they were playing essentially a nine-man front since had it been a run, they would have had nine defenders in the box.

Sturm: How long does it take you in pre-snap or at the snap of the ball to realize that you’ve got no safety there?

Aikman: I see it immediately. I know immediately the safety’s up, and now Michael just has to beat that guy. And when they show the end zone angle, there’s a linebacker (#97 - Cornelius Bennett) who almost gets his hand on the ball. It’s a close throw. Here’s what coaches typically ask when I take them through the 8 route: if you’ve got a corner and you’ve got a safety in the middle of the field, what would take you off that throw, and I say nothing would take me off that throw. Unless I just knew we were playing a corner that was so good. If I pre-snap read it, and I’m going against Deion and Deion’s inside leverage was as hard as Nate Odomes was, I wouldn’t have gone his way, because it would be just a collision at the top of the route. Michael would just be trying to defend the pass and keep it from being intercepted. Which is actually what Michael did on a little different route—it was a double-move 8 route—in the Pittsburgh Super Bowl. He caught it for a touchdown, but he had to throw the defender out of the way to get to it.

Note: The play from Super Bowl XXX - a play that ended up being nullified by offensive pass interference

Aikman: What happens is, coaches will think that if the weakside linebacker is in a certain position then we can’t throw it. The weakside linebacker never got me off of that throw. He never did. I would either be able to lay it over him or his angle would be such that I would just throw it off his helmet, I would throw it off his ear. Buddy Ryan used to try to defend it by turning and running a linebacker at the snap underneath those routes, whether it was the short-side 8 route or the long-side 8 routes. He would play outside leverage with the corners and then he’d run the linebackers underneath it thinking they could get underneath the 8 route or underneath the comeback route. What invariably happens is that the linebacker doesn’t know what you’re throwing—he doesn’t know if Michael’s releasing up the field to run an 8 route or a square-in or a comeback—so he doesn’t really know what angle to run at other than what the receiver’s running. He can’t defend it no matter what we’re throwing, so I would just throw it off his helmet. Buddy never knew it, but that helps us because the guy’s a non-factor.

That’s how we ran it. It’s the one route that, as I said, I guess if you asked coaches around at that time, what route did Aikman and Irvin throw more than any, they’d say ‘that damn 8 route. We couldn’t stop it.’ And most of them couldn’t.

Michael was so good at running it, and in the NFC Championship game against San Francisco two weeks earlier, we had called a route called 896 F Flat. It was the exact same formation. Michael would have been on the Bang 8, Novacek would’ve been running the vertical seam route, and then Harper would’ve run a 12-yard curl route, and Darrell would’ve run the same thing to the flat. So everything else would’ve been the same except Novacek and Harper. We’d run that play about 10 times in the game, but they never gave us the safety in the middle of the field so we never got the 8 route. I was either checking it down to Emmitt because they were running cover-2, or a couple of times they rolled to Michael but they played single on Harper so I threw the curl route a couple times to Alvin.

So now we’re in that moment in the game where the 49ers had just cut the game to four points, and there’s four or five minutes left in the game. I call it again, 896 F Flat, and before I could even get it out of my mouth, Michael was a smart player and knew we had called it 10 times already and had not seen the ball thrown to him. So he says to Alvin, you go to X, which was Michael’s position, and I’m running the curl route. I break the huddle, and I don’t think much of it because Michael would sometimes do that. He would just go where he thought the ball was going to be thrown. So we’re breaking the huddle, and as we’re walking up to the line, I’m starting to see that they’re giving us blitz coverage, there’s no safety in the middle of the field, and now instead of Michael running the 8 route, I’ve got Alvin over there and Michael’s running the curl. I was a little nervous because I wasn’t certain that Alvin would cross this corner’s face. I knew Michael would because he always does, but I’m thinking “Son of a, I don’t know if Alvin’s gonna do it,” and in the middle of the cadence, I just said, ‘I’ve gotta trust this guy and believe he’s going to do it.’ And he did. And Eric Davis falls down, Alvin catches it and goes 70 yards, and we end up scoring on the next play or whatever it was to basically win the NFC Championship game against San Francisco. But as Alvin’s catching the ball and running down the field, Michael’s yelling at the top of his lungs “That was my ball! That was my ball!” But he was the one who told Alvin to go over there because he didn’t think I was going to throw that route.

Note: From NFL Films, America's Game - Dallas Cowboys 1992

Aikman: I’m convinced that had Michael lined up at the X position, which is where he should’ve been, I’m convinced that we never would’ve gotten that blitz coverage from San Francisco. They would’ve played it the same way they had all day long. So in a way that Michael being greedy and wanting the ball, essentially he was able to get us the coverage we got and Alvin makes a historical play in Cowboys’ history.


Brady said...

This is great, GREAT stuff. Why can't all interviews come out like this? In my opinion, if an athlete or coach isn't talking like this, quoting him in a story is worthless and insulting. Great job, Bob, and thank you to Troy for the insight.

C said...

Your best work yet.
P1 Charles

Paul said...

Bob, Wow...this is amazing stuff. Book quality stuff that I would buy in a heartbeat. Thank you for pushing Troy for the insight here. It's this kind of stuff that really brings the game within the game to light.