Thursday, October 10, 2013

Xs and Os: The Denver Pick Plays

For this week's Xs and Os breakdown, I realize I am risking the possibility of too much Peyton Manning this week.  But, then, I countered that possibility with the idea that he is the industry leader in a very competitive business and that we may never see him again during his career vs Dallas (which I am sure they are thankful for), so I decided to cover one more impressive thing about their offense.

This one is certainly the type that you wonder about legalities involved.  It is the patented Peyton Manning "pick plays".  He certainly isn't the only offensive mind that designs these, but he is a master at it.  Most offenses have found this area of the field (0-10 yards) to be a place where yards can be found with relatively small amounts of risk compared with trying to thread the needle down the field into coverage.  The pass arrives quickly and on time and the defenders in zone or man have such a short amount of time to close off the pass windows and no idea what the smallish, quick receivers are going to do.  They are given option routes and can respond to the defensive coverages with a counter for every look.  

The pick play can honestly work against man or zone because the only real goal is to find one guy's defender and impede his ability to stop the pass for just that split second needed.  From there, assuming he is isolated on the flanks, he now has no chance to recover until the completion is made and the receiver is headed upfield.

Is it illegal?  Let's review offensive pass interference from the NFL Rulebook:

There shall be no interference with a forward pass thrown from behind the line.  
It is pass interference by either team when any player movement beyond the line of scrimmage significantly hinders the progress of an eligible player of such player’s opportunity to catch the ball. Offensive pass interference rules apply from the time the ball is snapped until the ball is touched. Defensive pass interference rules apply from the time the ball is thrown until the ball is touched. 
Actions that constitute offensive pass interference include but are not limited to: 
(a) Blocking downfield by an offensive player prior to the ball being touched.   
(b) Initiating contact with a defender by shoving or pushing off thus creating a separation in an attempt to catch a pass. 
(c) Driving through a defender who has established a position on the field. 
Actions that do not constitute offensive pass interference include but are not limited to: 
(a) Incidental contact by a receiver’s hands, arms, or body when both players are competing for the ball or neither player is looking for the ball. 
(b) Inadvertent touching of feet when both players are playing the ball or neither player is playing the ball. 
(c) Contact that would normally be considered pass interference, but the ball is clearly uncatchable by involved players. 
Note 1: If there is any question whether player contact is incidental, the ruling should be no interference. 
Note 2: Defensive players have as much right to the path of the ball as eligible offensive players. 
Note 3: Pass interference for both teams ends when the pass is touched. 
Note 4: There can be no pass interference at or behind the line of scrimmage, but defensive actions such as tackling a receiver can still result in a 5-yard penalty for defensive holding, if accepted. 
Take special note of "Note 1" - "If there is any question whether player contact is incidental, the ruling should be no interference." 

Also, note that the pick play is basically a legal play if the pass is behind the line of scrimmage.  So, these two loopholes keep these picks from ever being called, even if the letter of the law is not followed by the offense.  

Remember, this league wants offense and wants games with high levels of drama and excitement.  Calling offensive pass interference is not that. 

In fact, just to give you the up to date numbers, there have been 77 league games this season and we have seen just 22 offensive pass interference calls (83 defensive pass interference).  Eric Decker has been called twice this season, but when nobody ever calls these plays, why not run them?  They are nearly impossible to defend.  Let's look at the 3 most obvious pick plays on Sunday.  

Play #1-

This is the 1st play of the Broncos 2nd Drive on Sunday.  It had Welker stacked on top of D Thomas on the top, and the Cowboys showing a man-look.  Manning brought Julius Thomas, his tight end, across the formation in motion.  This helps him see the coverage and also lets him switch from Ernie Sims to Sean Lee as the man that the Broncos want to pick off.   So, when you watch the play, watch 88 (D Thomas) and 83 (W Welker) who are both going to run inside routes that are there just to occupy 80's man - Sean Lee.  Julius Thomas is going to run to the sideline and catch a quick out and then truck upfield with Lee trailing 5 yards behind because he was hit with "incidental" contact.

The frame above shows how absurdly easy the play can be as Manning is not looking anywhere else and sees a very easy 17 yards to start the drive.  The pass is "close enough" to the line of scrimmage and the contact is "incidental enough" to prevent any calls - and frankly, they do it all so smoothly that you hardly even protest.

Same play, end zone view:

Lee knows he is going with Julius Thomas #80.  Everything is fine, above.

Now, look at his traffic.  How is he supposed to get out there?  He has no chance to defend this.  Even if everyone switches men, it is still difficult to see how to defend this.  

Play #2 - Late in the game, in fact, it is the play immediately after the Romo interception.

Same concept, except this time Knowshon Moreno is supposed to go get Brandon Carr.  Then, Demaryius Thomas will just run a wheel route and Carr does a nice job fighting through the traffic and getting to Thomas but it is still a quick 15 yard gain.

In this frame above, you can see Moreno squaring back to Manning as if he expects a pass.  I am quite sure this is taught as a way to not look so obvious and to sell the "incidental" aspect of all of this.  He will say that he was simply was running his route and was caught up in traffic.  Meanwhile, Thomas gets his free release, Manning is looking nowhere else, and it is pitch and catch time.

In the video below, look at Thomas telling Moreno what he needs and where he needs it.  I am guessing that Denver might have been annoyed with Moreno's effort here had they not completed it, because he likely did not get enough of Carr to please his side.  How do you defend this?  Carter switches to defend Demaryius Thomas?  I am sure Denver is fine with that switch.

Play #3 - just 2 snaps later:

This time, the Broncos know they have the game if they don't take any chances.  They would love to not give the ball back, but the reason they go with a throw like this is that either it is a gain or incomplete.  There is almost no way this go turn into a interception.  Not with this play and this QB.  If you notice, there is also a pick play at the bottom of the screen as Demaryius is going to free up Welker, too.

Above, see Decker cut in and just try to impede Wilcox.  This gives Julius Thomas the edge with a nice space.  Again, is the ball behind the line of scrimmage?  No.  Is the contact incidental?  Of course not, but is it blatantly obvious?  No.   Again, how do you defend it?  I am not sure you can.

In the big scheme of things, it is silly to say this is their entire offense.  At the most, they did this 5-6 times on Sunday.  But, when they want a no-risk pass and a rather easy result, it seems they know when to go to it.

My takeaway is that this is one of many ways that this Denver team can beat you and that smart offenses should look to steal these ideas.  Not sure the officials will always afford you the same wiggle room that Manning gets, but if the NFL doesn't see this as anything more than "football", then teams are not using all their advantages to mount drives and scores with a simple technique like this.

Because it sure frustrates the defense who is trying to stop it.

No comments: