Feb 202015
 

Super Bowl XLIX featured vintage Bill Belichick game planning – identify your opponent’s comparative weakness, and attack it repeatedly. Belichick is not unique in this strategy, but few teams have shown the ability to so successfully reinvent themselves schematically over and over again from week to week while maintaining excellent levels of execution. As noted here, however, it was unclear how the Patriots would attempt to attack a Seahawks defense with no clear weaknesses.

Belichick’s answer was obvious from the start: the underneath passing game. This makes sense, from both a personnel and schematic standpoint.

From a personnel standpoint, the Seahawks defense is filled with tall, rangy pass defenders; each of their top four cornerbacks are at least 6′ tall. While height has many advantages, a taller player with longer legs will have a harder time changing directions in small spaces than will a shorter player with shorter legs. Of course, some tall cornerbacks are special enough to match such short area quickness (Richard Sherman is one), but, in general, a quick footed short receiver has an advantage in tight spaces over a longer striding defender.

The Patriots under Belichick have a strong tradition of utilizing this lack of height as an asset – from Super Bowl XXXIX MVP Deion Branch (5’9”) to prolific Wes Welker (5’9”) to current players Danny Amendola (5’11”) and Super Bowl XLIX star Julian Edelman (5’10”). Running back Shane Vereen (5’10”) also figured heavily into the passing attack during the game, catching 11 pass while only rushing 4 times. Amendola, Edelman, and Vereen combined in the game to catch 25 (!!) passes for 221 yards and two touchdowns. As evidenced by the 8.84 yard per catch average, these receptions were largely of the underneath, move the chains variety.

From a schematic standpoint, the Seahawks are primarily a cover 3 team. They are, in some ways, the anti-Belichick team – they win because they are great at what they do, and they dare you to beat them at it (rather than making drastic schematic changes from week to week). There was no mystery to Belichick regarding the Seahawks defense. Their cover 3 defense would primarily feature 4 pass rushers, 4 underneath pass defenders, and 3 deep pass defenders. In theory, Belichick could gain a mathematic advantage with his 5 receivers in either the underneath zones (5 on 4) or the deep zones (5 on 3). The skill of the Seahawks, however, complicates theoretical discussions. The cornerbacks align in press coverage while matching patterns and being responsible for deep zones. Because they take away quick, short throws in the flat with this press alignment, and are talented enough to turn and run with receivers to the deep zones (Sherman being the prototype for such a technique), they almost function as if running a 463 zone. When combined with the fact that Earl Thomas is one of the fastest/best free safety “centerfielders” in NFL history – seemingly covering the ground of two safeties -, the defense can feel like a 464 to the opposition, explaining why they are among the all time great units to play the game.

The advantage for the Patriots would come underneath, in the middle of the field. It is there where Belichick could get his speedy trio of short receivers – Edelman, Vereen, and Amendola – matched up (often with option routes) on taller, rangier defenders, where their shorter legs would give them a quickness advantage and allow Brady to release the ball quickly, thus negating the ferocious Seahawks pass rush while avoiding the top Seahawks pass defenders. Belichick would then also work matchups, scoring one touchdown by taking advantage of a Rob Gronkowski versus linebacker matchup on the outside, and, as explained below, by isolating Edelman on a taller cornerback on the game’s decisive score.

First, we see the alignment. The Patriots align with a 3 receiver passing strength to their right. They have a good idea that this will leave Edelman lined up across from 6’3” Tharold Simon, with plenty of space to operate. They know this because the Seahawks rarely swap cornerbacks – there is a high degree of certainty that putting Edelman alone on the left would give him a one on one matchup with a tall cornerback not named Richard Sherman, and this is the matchup they wanted to exploit.

Three receiving threats to the right, and Edelman on the left, with plenty of space to work with to his right or left.

Three receiving threats to the right, and Edelman on the left, with plenty of space to work with to his right or left.

At the snap, Edelman breaks to the inside as if running a slant. Note the space to the inside of the field. Simon has no help – he MUST respect the threat of the slant and defend it with urgency.

No help and space to the inside = must defend the slant.

No help, and space to the inside = must defend the slant.

Now, from a closer angle, we see Edelman’s Michael Jordan moment. Like a great crossover dribble in basketball, the whip route (in which the receiver starts on a slant before pivoting to the outside) forces the defender’s momentum to one side, and then uses that momentum against the defender as the offensive player changes directions. And, as with Jordan’s NBA Finals winning crossover against Bryon Russell and the Utah Jazz in 1998, Edelman uses his left arm to help usher the defender to the inside.

Simon's momentum is to the inside; Edelman's left arm helps Simon on his way as Edelman quickly pivots to the outside; the 6'3'' Simon can't keep up.

Simon’s momentum is to the inside; Edelman’s left arm helps Simon on his way as Edelman quickly pivots to the outside; the 6’3” Simon can’t keep up.

We see the separation as Brady releases the ball. Simon’s long legs cannot match the short area change of direction of Edelman, and Edelman (for the second time on the route in the game) only needs an accurate throw to complete the go ahead score.

Simon's momentum is only just recovering as Edelman breaks to the outside.

Simon’s momentum is only just recovering as Edelman breaks to the outside.

The catch is secured with Simon in no position to contest the reception.

The catch is secured with Simon in no position to contest the reception.

The catch is secured with Simon in no position to contest the reception.

Compare Edelman’s whip route to Jordan’s game winning shot:

http://www.nfl.com/videos/nfl-super-bowl/0ap3000000467432/Brady-3-yard-touchdown-to-Edelman

There were many stars of Super Bowl XLIX. Tom Brady earned his third Super Bowl MVP with a surgical 4th quarter comeback into the teeth of one of the best defenses of all time. But Belichick’s ability to take advantage of his players’ abilities (in this case, the asset of short receivers) while attacking his oppositions’ weaknesses (in this case, the liability of tall pass defenders) paved the way for success, with Julian Edelman’s Michael Jordan moment as a fitting end to the scoring.

Jan 312015
 

Like last year, I’ve been asked to give an hour long presentation at the Brøndby IF Super Bowl party. Rather than attempt to adapt those notes into traditional post, I’ve decided to post them in their original bullet point form, which is probably the quickest way to convey the information. I was asked to start with a discussion of the evaluation process for quarterbacks and the developments of that position. Afterwards, I discuss the matchups between the offensive and defensive units of the Seahawks and Patriots (less lengthy notes, as I will use film for much of that portion of the presentation). As I state in the presentation, I hope that these notes will make the game more interesting by illuminating sometimes hidden aspects of the game:

  • Quarterback Position
    • I’ve been asked to talk about the quarterback position – how do you evaluate it and what do you look for in a quarterback, why are the players drafted where they are drafted, and how has the position developed – through the lens of Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, and Johnny Manziel
    • Probably the hardest position to evaluate in all of sports – why?
      • My theory is that growth and development are never a sure thing in the NFL.
      • The NFL is so fast and complex that you can almost never know how a player will adjust – it isn’t book smarts/pure intelligence, it is the ability to scan the entire field and anticipate with the correct timing and take in large amounts of information on the fly – you won’t know if they will develop until they do – there are some predictors, like success at the college level, intelligence, accuracy, etc – but a quarterback is never sure to develop beyond where they currently are, and it is hard to now where they are when they are playing in college (so many factors, like the offense they played in, the talent around them, the level of competition, etc).
        • If a QB is 75% of the way there during their rookie season, there is no guarantee that they will even get to 80% – Andy Dalton might be an example
        • Other times, a QB goes from 75% to 85% to 100% – Peyton Manning had a rough rookie season, but kept improving and improving.
        • Colin Kaepernick probably started at 50% pro style offense refinement as far as what he was asked to do in college in a run/option heavy offense, 100/100 potential when he came into the league.         Sat for a year, worked hard, jumped to maybe 80/100 refinement, plus all of that great athleticism, presence, competitiveness, intelligence, etc. But most will say that he stalled in 2014 at 80/100 on the refinement scale. Can he make the leap and bust that plateau? Hard to predict.
      • Tom Brady is a great example of difficulty in evaluation. When he was at Michigan, there was a more physically talented quarterback there – Drew Henson. He threw harder, ran faster, was a better athlete – basketball star and drafted high in baseball. In college, if they were throwing a curl route, the ball might have gotten there at the same time. BUT Brady may have been more aware of other routes and anticipated that throw, and released the ball a split second before Henson would have.         Henson may have been more locked in on that one route, and thrown the ball a split second later – but it got there at the same time because his arm was stronger, and it probably looked more impressive.
        • As a talent evaluator, that makes it tough.         As an NFL coach you look at Brady coming out of Michigan and think – he isn’t a great athlete, he isn’t going to be able to scramble, his arm isn’t amazing, he isn’t very well built…many evaluators thought he fit the mold as a backup at best.
        • But sometimes (and this is what evaluators seem to be shifting their opinion on), being able to do less makes you better.         Brady couldn’t run, he didn’t have the Jay Cutler rocket arm, he couldn’t out muscle guys like Cam Newton can – his only chance was to develop as a true pocket quarterback – so he was forced to, his back was against the wall – either he developed as a pro style QB, or he failed. He had no chance to find success in the NFL because of other physical traits.
        • Henson was kind of the opposite. He could do everything. He got a $17 million baseball contract. His back wasn’t against the wall – he didn’t just have to be a pocket quarterback. He made it to the big leagues in baseball briefly, played a few years in the NFL, but his career never took off. Maybe if he couldn’t play baseball, and if he wasn’t such a good athlete, and if he couldn’t have thrown as hard, he would have been forced to develop like Tom Brady. Or…maybe he wouldn’t have developed in that way, anyways (almost no one develops into a Tom Brady level quarterback).         This is why predicting success is so difficult.
        • Back to that curl route example – The way Brady does it computes better for the NFL, obviously. Arm strength IS very important, but Brady has enough.         In the NFL, all of those other factors play more of a role. In that example, over the course of time, Brady has made the NFL throw – the quarterback who didn’t see the whole field may have missed something else open, or his lack of anticipation may have allowed a faster defender to get in the throwing lane. Over time, the quarterback who can see the field and process the information and throw with the correct anticipation, touch, and accuracy, will far outperform the rocket armed quarterback.
      • Similar evaluation with Aaron Rodgers v Alex Smith
        • Rodgers was kind of skinny, not imposing, not an amazing athlete, arm wasn’t thought to be sensational.
        • Smith was thought to be the entire package by many scouts – bigger, stronger, faster, smarter, easier to coach than Rodgers.
        • I thought it was an obvious choice for Rodgers – quick release, great feel for the game and pocket presence – but the NFL is tempted by the “prototypical quarterback” – which is big, strong, fast, throw hard, etc. Especially with the #1 overall pick.
        • Smith was not a finished/refined product – came from a spread system – took him time to become a solid NFL QB.
        • Rodgers was a finished product in a pro system and had time to sit behind Favre – not many QBs get this anymore
          • But many evaluators thought he would fail because other Tedford quarterbacks failed
          • Similar draft profile in recent years was Teddy Bridgewater – slipped in the draft because of his slight build and lack of great athleticism or arm strength, but showed an accurate arm and the ability to process information in a pro style offense in college, and a good enough athlete to evade pressure.
            • His rookie season was good…but, as stated above, my opinion is that it is almost impossible to predict improvement in a QB.
      • Russell Wilson:
        • First round talent, had everything except for height. It is that simple – if he were a few inches taller, he would have been a top pick.
      • But it is important to note that I am not saying that there is a way to accurately find a great NFL quarterback – my point is that it is nearly impossible to predict and therefore has an enormous failure rate. This is not to downplay the importance of scouts and that some scouts are not great quarterback evaluators – but history has shown that the failure rate is extremely high.
        • If you look at what I said above, you’d be looking for a pocket quarterback with success and refinement in a pro style offense in college – guys who fit that bill include Joey Harrington and Matt Leinart – they just couldn’t do it in the NFL.
      • Best bet to find a QB who is successful: build the team around him, which will give whoever you choose the best chance to succeed.
    • Developments in the position
      • An argument that seems to be gaining steam among NFL evaluators is that an extremely mobile quarterback cannot also be a great pocket passer. The argument is that a pocket passer must have been a pocket passer for all his life, with his back against the wall like Tom Brady, in order to be great. Arguably, there is only one great QB who went from a running quarterback to a GREAT pocket quarterback – Steve Young. Russell Wilson is looking to change that perception – even though he was never exactly a “running” quarterback – he played in pro style offenses prior to the NFL – but the Seahawks currently ask him to run plenty of zone read plays and play action passing – he isn’t yet a great pocket quarterback (even though he executes exactly what Seattle asks of him – the offense just isn’t based on pocket passing to the extent of most NFL offenses).
      • Trend of previous 15 or 16 years: look for the QB who has it all. The player who was thought to revolutionize the position was Michael Vick. Strong arm, as electric as a ball carrier as anyone in the league – the idea was that he could kill you with his legs or from the pocket. This is what the quarterback of the 21st century was going to play like.
      • In most cases, it hasn’t quite worked out. Also important to note that the fail rate for first round quarterbacks was very high overall – so it is not as if drafting a pure pocket quarterback is close to a sure thing (as is probably obvious by this point in the presentation).
      • Here is a list of first round quarterbacks since Michael Vick who were thought to come from that mold – great athlete, great arm, came from a non-pro style offense
        • Michael Vick – “the future” – solid/electric NFL career, but never developed into a consistent/dependable pocket quarterback.
        • Ben Roethlisberger – played wide receiver until his senior season of high school, was mostly recruited as a tight end, but has developed until a multiple Pro Bowl, Super Bowl winning QB. Not entirely applicable to this list as he was never known as a running quarterback, and also important to note that he – like Russell Wilson – led his team to a Super Bowl championship early in his career on a run heavy team. Roethlisberger eventually developed into a pocket passer with great pocket awareness and similar evasion/improvisation skills to Wilson.
        • Alex Smith (arguably) – not a freak athlete like Vick, but a terrific one who came from Urban Meyer’s spread and had to be molded into a pocket QB – he did develop into a solid quarterback, but it took time.
        • Vince Young – some would argue that he was the most physically dominant quarterback in college football history his senior season and took over a Rose Bowl national championship against a USC team filled with NFL talent – looked promising early in his career, but failed to develop into an NFL caliber quarterback.
        • Tim Tebow – amazing athlete, failed to develop into an NFL caliber quarterback (a complicated issue – there are still people who make the argument that he could have succeeded if the offense had been built around his talents).
        • Andrew Luck – exceptional athlete and star NFL QB was always a pass first pocket QB despite his running ability – not entirely applicable to this group, but is a great athlete who was able to focus on becoming a great pocket QB.
        • Cam Newton – jury is still out on whether he will develop into a true pocket QB (or whether it is necessary). Has been successful and has won while developing into a pocket quarterback in an offense that takes advantage of his athleticism.
        • Jake Locker – great athlete so far has disappointed as a pocket quarterback – injuries have played a role.
        • Robert Griffin III – great rookie season, but fundamentals regressed since then – dropped very low in 2014, but still has a chance to regain form. Needs to rebuild fundamentals to have a chance – intelligence and great accuracy (when fundamentals are there) give him a chance.         Injuries may force him to do so (and thus could be beneficial to his development as a pocket QB – if he makes it).
        • Ryan Tannehill – jury is still out on the former WR, though looks to be a starting caliber QB in offense that takes advantage of his legs (uses the zone read in a similar fashion to Seattle).
        • Johnny Manziel – Incomplete, but did not look good his rookie season. Failed to win starting job and looked overwhelmed in few appearances.         Manic, amazing improvisational quarterback in college, strong arm – but can he fit into an NFL offense? His best chance seems to be to develop the maturity and game of Russell Wilson (their skill set in terms of size, athleticism, and arm strength is similar), or be used in an offense similar to what he ran in college. Manziel’s ratings would probably be: refinement 50/100, “magic/improvisational” potential (this is the argument that most people had for drafting him) 100/100 – unclear if that refinement will increase.
        • Notable non-first round quarterbacks:
          • Colin Kaepernick – similar to Newton, shows star potential and big game winning ability, but the jury is still out on whether he can develop into a traditional pocket QB.           Amazing athletic specimen (speed/arm strength combo among the best ever). Great work ethic, intelligence – but even work ethic and intelligence and talent do not guarantee ability to develop as a pocket passer.
          • Russell Wilson – has thrived and won a Super Bowl while in a run first offense with a dominant defense. Intelligent, smart with the ball, great arm and improvisational qualities – great pocket presence and footwork.           Refined pocket quarterback skills (also, like Luck, developed as a pocket QB) but has not yet been asked to be a high volume NFL pocket passer.
      • Trend that I believe is starting in the NFL: back to traditional pocket QBs. Speed may be seen as a detriment – the thought being that if the QB could run in college and high school, they did not have to develop the same kind of pocket passing/footwork/read the field skills as other QBs.
        • The interesting thing: more and more colleges are using spread systems with dual threat quarterbacks, and thus, while demand for pocket quarterbacks may be increasing, the supply has been decreasing for years.
          • From a college coach’s perspective, it is much easier to find an athlete with a good arm at QB (who may lack traditional pocket skills) than a traditional pocket QB (high schools are also moving away from pocket QBs)
    • Why are they drafted where they are drafted?
      • Take everything I just said into account – the trends in what coaches want to see out of a quarterback, the quarterbacks who are successful in the NFL, etc.
      • NFL teams are looking for a prototype at the top of the draft:
        • Tall, well built, strong arm, accurate arm, smart, competitive, great footwork, evidence of ability to scan entire field, success in an NFL style offense, mobility, maturity
      • This prototype rarely exists. The most prototypical prospect in recent memory was Andrew Luck: he was at least above average in all of those categories.
      • As noted, the trend may shift to placing less value on mobility.
      • Many great quarterbacks do not fit the prototype.         Tom Brady slipped because he was not well built, was not a mobile quarterback, was not considered to have above average arm strength, and to some extent because Drew Henson cut into his playing time.
      • Russell Wilson slipped because he is short. A short QB is not a prototypical QB – if he were 6’3”, he’d have been a high first round pick – he has everything else.
      • Aaron Rodgers slipped because the 49ers thought he was arrogant, and perhaps because he has a slight build. He played for a coach (Jeff Tedford) who had produced several first round QBs who failed in the NFL – Rodgers was penalized for this. Some scouts felt that he was a “system” QB who got flustered under pressure and wasn’t enough of an athlete to evade it.
      • It is an inexact science with a high fail rate.         The Patriots look like geniuses because they drafted Tom Brady, but in reality, they passed on him 6 times in the draft.
      • Which brings us to another issue that we do not have time to fully explore: even in the NFL, is it the system (Wilson in an offense that plays to his strengths and is supported by an all time great defense, Brady in a creative, talented franchise, had time to sit behind a good NFL QB). In other words, the eternal question is: would we be talking about these two players if they had been drafted by the Bills, or Raiders, or Jaguars, Browns, or any of the other number of teams who have struggled to find a quarterback for years – or is the reason why those teams are not relevant because they could not draft a Russell Wilson or Tom Brady caliber QB?         It is a long debate, but something to think about.
      • This upcoming draft, another tough decision.
        • Jameis Winston is very close to the prototype for an NFL quarterback prospect, but he has shown major red flags in immaturity and off field decision making.
        • Mariota has zero off field issues/question marks and has many prototypical features, but did not play in an NFL style offense and thus his ability as an NFL pocket QB is a bigger projection – unless the Eagles trade to get him, where his former college coach (Chip Kelly) will know how to take advantage of what he brings to the table.
  • Seahawks offense
    • Ball control – they’ve made their money by relying on their defense, running the ball, and making a few big plays each game, often at key times.
  • Patriots defense
    • Very good defense. Talent across the board, Revis is probably the best cover cornerback of the past 10 years.
    • Belichick is a versatile coach and therefore difficult to predict, but is consistent in molding his strategy to take away the strength of the opposing offense.
      • For that reason, I suspect that he will seek first to stop the Seahawks zone read, their most potent weapon
      • He has cornerbacks that match up well with Seattle wide receivers, thus freeing more defenders to focus on run defense.
      • Many coaches like a 1 high safety look in this situation, because it frees 8 men in the box to play the run.
      • I like 2 high safeties with press corners – we Monarchs have run the option for a few years with success, and the 2 safety teams give us more schematic problems – it is hard to block the safeties, and the cornerbacks can help build a wall across the front.         We look forward to teams who want to load 8 or 9 players into the box and play man coverage, because (as long as the personnel is relatively equal) we feel that we will create big plays as there is no real 3rd level of defense. That style of defense is more boom or bust – we’ve had times where we exploited it, and other times when it gave us trouble…but when it was the latter, usually because we had injuries or were otherwise outmanned, anyways.
        • Downside of 2 high safeties is fewer players devoted to Marshawn Lynch on traditional runs, which is problematic (and why the zone read and Seattle present problems to opposing defenses)
    • Show examples of Revis making a good play – patience is combined with his elite athleticism, range, and instincts
      • Quarter 3 – interception and pass breakup pretty close together
  • Patriots offense
    • Very good offense, versatile
    • Like their defense, Belichick will mold it to attack the weakness of the opposing defense.
    • The problem is, it is hard to identify the Seahawks weakness
      • They have great DBs and a great front, often with 8 in the box (base cover 3) to take away the run.
    • One thing that is possible, because the Seahawks are a zone heavy team, is to get your players matched up on the defenders that you want them matched up against
      • Seattle rarely swaps cornerbacks (though they did play more man coverage against the Packers)
      • Look for Belichick to use Gronkowski in creative ways to try to isolate him in a favorable matchup – he is always creative with Gronk and Gronk is his most dangerous weapon.
    • The Patriots might look to the Chargers film
      • The Chargers beat the Seahawks by taking advantage of their great tight end – Antonio Gates. They often did this with trips formations. Trips formations force the defense to either compensate to the trips side and leave a favorable matchup on the one receiver side, or help with the one receiver side and give away numbers to the trips side.
        • This is a way that the Patriots may look to get Gronkowski in favorable matchups.
    • Gronkowski quarter 3 touchdown
      • Trips away from him – can get Gronk isolated away from Sherman
      • Simple slant, but Gronk is so big and athletic, the pass is perfect, hard to defend
      • Blount TD 3rd quarter – good solid football, line up and pound you – bodies on bodies up front, Blount finishes with authority – a big back who runs with power
        • Shows that the Patriots are a rare offense that can really shift identities from week to week – one week they are rushing for a ton of yards in an old school power/traditional NFL offense, the next week they are basically running a spread offense.
    • Patriots have versatile players to create personnel problems for defense
      • I.e. with Vereen and Gronkowski in the game, no telling if they will align in a traditional running formation or in a 5 wide spread
        • Though, as further explained below, the Seahawks are a simple defense that doesn’t really care what the opposition does – they will adjust and not be caught off guard.
    • Simplicity of Seahawks defense makes it less likely to be fooled by eligible/ineligible tactics
      • The Seahawks are in base so often that they can focus entirely on any exotic looks
  • Seahawks defense
    • Best unit on the field – an all time great defense
    • Execution defense – they do not run a ton of stuff, they just do what they do really well
      • Quarterbacks like Brady and Manning are so great because they can figure out exactly what a defense is doing – the defense tries to outsmart them and those quarterbacks pick them apart
        • But that doesn’t matter against the Seahawks.         Brady says: “I know what you are doing.” The Seahawks say: “So what? Try to beat us.” That is what happened last year with the Broncos in the Super Bowl and the Seahawks dominated (and people forget, the Broncos were an all time great offense going into that game).
    • THE SIMPLICITY OF THE SEAHAWKS DEFENSE IS A HUGE POSITIVE!!!!!
      • It is common to think that more complex is better.         But the simplicity of the Seattle defense allows them to play faster, execute better, and adjust to anything the offense sends at them. They are much less likely to be “caught” in the “wrong” defense than complicated defenses.
    • Brady has, in the past, struggled against teams who can effectively rush the passer with their defensive line (i.e. do not have to bring pressure) – think of Giants teams in the Super Bowl, who were built upon the foundation of their defensive lines.
      • Seahawks are such a team – their defensive line is versatile, fast, and dynamic – and they don’t even have all of their best players – great scheme and talent to meet that scheme.
    • Linebackers are also terrific – tons of speed – Wagner is one of the best in the game.
    • Richard Sherman interception first Packers drive – coach’s film
      • Amazing patience, technique, intelligence, closing speed, meets the ball at the highest point, great body control
        • Quarterbacks need to be kind of machines when processing information, if the receiver has good leverage, the QB is machine-like in processing that information and taking advantage – but Sherman can recover with his rare size/athleticism combination for the position.
        • This is why he is so great and such a great fit for the defense
      • Also shows their base cover 3
    • 1st quarter stop of Eddie Lacy on second drive (4th play)
      • Shows why Earl Thomas is so great – cornerback speed, fills exceptionally fast and hits for keeps – closest player in the NFL these days to Ronnie Lott – Lott started as a cornerback – Thomas has that kind of speed and range as well – not to mention the intensity and hitting ability.
      • Seahawks do not stay blocked and this is why they are great against the run – it isn’t because of a magical scheme – they play fast and don’t stay blocked and fly to the ball (cliché, but true for them)
      • The Packers had a chance to put the game away early, but the Seattle D stood tall and kept the Seahawks in the game
    • If you like defense, this really is one of the best of all time to watch
  • Final notes
    • Miscellaneous factors
      • Deflategate
        • I’m not going to spend much time on it, but yes, throwing and hanging on to a deflated ball can provide an advantage.
        • We do not know the facts of the case, so we can’t know the effect it will have on the Patriots – if they really have been using deflated balls for years, this could hurt them – you never want your first experience with a “new” ball to be in a big game. If this was a one time thing/accidental, it may have zero effect on the Patriots. We do not know the facts
      • Odd statistic: the Seahawks have not beaten a team with a healthy starting quarterback and which ended with a winning record since week three.
        • Very obscure sounding statistic, but also crazy how well their schedule played out – they played some bad teams, played the Cardinals a few times with injured quarterbacks, the 49ers were down this season, Rodgers was hurt in their playoff game. The last time they played against a winning team with a healthy starting QB was the Chiefs – loss. Their record against winning record teams with healthy starting QBs: 2-3 (wins in week 1 v Packers and week 3 v Broncos, losses to Chiefs, Cowboys, and Chargers…also a loss to Rams).
          • They have been dominant on defense, but this is the best argument against them. The Patriots are the best test they’ve faced since those early season games.
          • They are – no doubt – one of the best defenses of all time, and of course had no control over their schedule – they have knocked down everything in front of them down the stretch of the season.
          • If they were to lose, this will probably be a statistic people will point to in hindsight. If they win, it was meaningless.
    • Seahawks have the best unit on the field (defense), but the Patriots have a very good offense and defense. Seahawks offense serves the team well – ball control, great running back, underrated wide receivers (perhaps because of perception because they weren’t drafted high), quarterback who has made many big plays in key moments…but is less consistent than the other units in the game.
      • The great matchup is all time great Brady against all time great Seattle defense…BUT…it is very intriguing to see how Belichick will try to take away the zone read, and if Seattle can either defeat that strategy or generate offense in other ways. I think everyone who came here tonight knew that Brady v the Seattle defense was the all time great matchup, but hopefully now you can see why the Seattle offense v Patriots defense matchup is also intriguing.
Jan 202015
 

Don’t listen to the talking heads who say otherwise. The zone read is not dead.

Common, uninformed, regurgitated, and recycled arguments regarding option football in the NFL are as follows: it is a gimmick that cannot last, the speed of NFL defenses is too much for it, and NFL defensive coordinators are too smart to allow it to succeed.

The continued success of option concepts in the NFL proves such arguments to be ignorant.

The 2014/15 Seattle Seahawks are the latest example. Doubters still existed (or, perhaps more accurately, overlooked Seattle’s reliance on the zone read) even after Russell Wilson ran for 849 yards (16th in the league) on 7.2 yards per carry, Marshawn Lynch ran for 1,306 yards (4th in the league), and the Seahawks led the NFL in rushing by more than 400 yards en route to a 12-4 record and the #1 seed in the NFC.

The zone read is built on solid fundamentals – it is a zone run with a quarterback “read” of a designated defender on the backside, which either “blocks” the option key by forcing him to respect the quarterback run, or opens a running lane for the quarterback if the defender chases the running back. In equation form, zone read = zone run + quarterback option to run. If you believe that the zone run is here to stay (and you should, as it has thrived in the NFL for decades), there is no reason that the zone read should not also function well with appropriate quarterbacks (i.e., those with speed). See here for a more in depth discussion of the simplicity and fundamentals behind the zone read.

The Seahawks’ comeback victory over the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship game should leave no doubt that the zone read will continue to be a successful NFL scheme.

Both of the Seahawks’ final regulation touchdowns came on the zone read – the first by Russell Wilson, the next by Marshawn Lynch. They leaned heavily on variations of the play down the stretch, incorporating the complimentary waggle pass (see here for an in depth description of the waggle concept).

If the zone read were a “gimmick” that NFL defenses could easily solve, the Packers were the one team who should have solved the problem by this point. Two seasons ago, the Packers were thrashed by Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers’ option attack (see here to differentiate between the “read option” and the veer scheme) in being eliminated from the playoffs.  Last season, they fell to those same 49ers at home in the playoffs.  Kaepernick ran for a total of 279 yards in those two games (181 and 98, respectively).  And here the Packers were again, with years to “solve” the option game, giving up two option touchdowns in under a minute as the Seahawks went to their zone read in the biggest moments and with the clock winding down.

Lynch goes for 14 yards on the first play of the drive. The option key plays it well, square to the line, ready to play Wilson and help with Lynch, but is ultimately "blocked" by the threat of Wilson running.

Lynch goes for 14 yards on the first play of the drive. The option key plays it well, square to the line, ready to play Wilson and help with Lynch, but is ultimately “blocked” by the threat of Wilson running.

The Seahawks have bodies on bodies, allowing Lynch to exploit a crease up the middle.

The Seahawks have bodies on bodies, allowing Lynch to exploit a crease up the middle.

Later in the drive, Wilson makes a questionable (unless it was a designed handoff or he was reading the defensive back) read (the option key's shoulders are turned perpendicular to the line, meaning that he cannot react to a Wilson keep, and can chase Lynch from behind).  Because the zone read is based on solid fundamentals, however, Lynch stills gains four yards.  Wilson's incorrect read became a traditional inside zone play (and any option coach will tell you that they do not expect their quarterbacks to be perfect on their reads; 75% is excellent.  The shotgun alignment, which provides the quarterback with more space for his read than a traditional under center veer scheme, should increase the quarterback's "good read" percentage).

Later in the drive, Wilson makes a questionable (unless it was a designed handoff or he was reading the defensive back) read (the option key’s shoulders are turned perpendicular to the line, meaning that he cannot react to a Wilson keep, and can chase Lynch from behind). Because the zone read is based on solid fundamentals, however, Lynch stills gains four yards. Wilson’s incorrect read became a traditional inside zone play (and any option coach will tell you that they do not expect their quarterbacks to be perfect on their reads; 75% is excellent. The shotgun alignment, which provides the quarterback with more space for his read than a traditional under center veer scheme, should increase the quarterback’s “good read” percentage).

 On third and goal, Wilson makes the correct read: two defenders have their shoulders turned perpendicular to the line, so Wilson keeps and glides into the end zone with ease.


On third and goal, Wilson makes the correct read: two defenders have their shoulders turned perpendicular to the line, so Wilson keeps and glides into the end zone with ease.

Easy path to the end zone.

Easy path to the end zone.

After a successful onside kick, the Seahawks start where they left off, with the zone read.  Here, Julius Peppers - one of the best defensive ends in NFL history - doesn't play it poorly.  He shuffles down the line with his shoulders parallel to the line, giving him the chance to play both options.  But his momentum down the line is too much.  Wilson keeps, starting the drive with a 15 yard gain.  Imagine how many talking heads would scoff at the notion of an NFL team starting a make or break, NFC Championship, two minute drill drive, with only one timeout remaining, with an option run.

After a successful onside kick, the Seahawks start where they left off, with the zone read. Here, Julius Peppers – one of the best defensive ends in NFL history – doesn’t play it poorly. He shuffles down the line with his shoulders parallel to the line, giving him the chance to play both options. But his momentum down the line is too much. Wilson keeps, starting the drive with a 15 yard gain. Imagine how many talking heads would scoff at the notion of an NFL team starting a make or break, NFC Championship, two minute drill drive, with only one timeout remaining, with an option run.

Wilson exploits the wide open space.

Wilson exploits the wide open space.

On the next play, the Seahawks - not surprisingly - went to the zone read again.  Here, the Packers play it perfectly - note how every front 7 player has his shoulders square to the line, the option key muddying Wilson's read while having the ability to react to either option.  Lynch still gains 3 on the play.

On the next play, the Seahawks – not surprisingly – went to the zone read again. Here, the Packers play it perfectly – note how every front 7 player has his shoulders square to the line, the option key muddying Wilson’s read while having the ability to react to either option. Lynch still gains 3 on the play.

Two plays later, the Seahawks go to - you guessed it - the zone read.  Note all of the Green Bay eyes on Wilson as he carries out his fake.  Lynch exploits the ensuing opening for a 24 yard touchdown run.

Two plays later, the Seahawks go to – you guessed it – the zone read. Note all of the Green Bay eyes on Wilson as he carries out his fake. Lynch exploits the ensuing opening for a 24 yard touchdown run.

Lynch breaks through the line with daylight ahead...

Lynch breaks through the line with daylight ahead…

Lynch is able to turn and walk backwards into the end zone.

Lynch is able to turn and walk backwards into the end zone.

Think about it: a 2 minute drill in the NFC championship game, and the Seahawks needed 4 plays to complete a go ahead touchdown. 3 of those 4 plays were zone reads. The Seahawks acted like a Madden player who found an unstoppable play, going to it repeatedly, even in hurry up situations.

On their opening drive to win overtime, care to guess what concept the Seahawks featured? 4 of the 6 plays were zone read or built off of the zone read, and, arguably, the success of the zone read led to the 0 safety alignment that left the middle of the field open for a perfect Russell Wilson throw to Jermaine Kearse.

On the first play of the drive, the Packers played the zone read well, the option key again eying Wilson with patience (but, again, this is also the purpose of the zone read, as Wilson has essentially "blocked" the defender). The play became a traditional zone run, and Lynch gains 4 yards.

On the first play of the drive, the Packers played the zone read well, the option key again eying Wilson with patience (but, again, this is also the purpose of the zone read, as Wilson has essentially “blocked” the defender). The play became a traditional zone run, and Lynch gains 4 yards.

Finally, we see the complimentary zone read pass, the waggle (you can read much more about how this concept fits into a zone read scheme here).  Notice how Wilson, Lynch, and the line appear the same to the defense as they do on a zone read play.  We can see the defense inching up in respect of the run, while Baldwin is hidden behind the line as he crosses towards the right flat.

Finally, we see the complimentary zone read pass, the waggle. Notice how Wilson, Lynch, and the line appear the same to the defense as they do on a zone read play. We can see the defense inching up in respect of the run, while Baldwin is hidden behind the line as he crosses towards the right flat.

Wilson lofts the ball to Baldwin as the defense struggles to catch up.  Baldwin goes for 10 yards on the play.

Wilson lofts the ball to Baldwin as the defense struggles to catch up. Baldwin goes for 10 yards on the play.

On the third play of the drive, the Seahawks again go to the zone read.  The Packers play it well, and Lynch gains 4 yards.

On the third play of the drive, the Seahawks again go to the zone read. The Packers play it well, and Lynch gains 4 yards.

Next, the Seahawks go back to the waggle concept.  The Packers play good defense again, and Wilson is sacked by Peppers for a 1 yard loss.  This was the final appearance of the zone read or a zone read concept in the game (which would be over in two plays), but the effect of the Seahawks running game played a large role in the finish.

Next, the Seahawks go back to the waggle concept. The Packers play good defense again, and Wilson is sacked by Peppers for a 1 yard loss. This was the final appearance of the zone read or a zone read concept in the game (which would be over in two plays), but the effect of the Seahawks running game played a large role in the finish.

On first down after a 35 yard pass to Doug Baldwin, the Seahawks substitute heavy personnel into the game - two tight ends, a fullback (who shifts to a wide receiver position on the left), a running back, and a lone receiver - Kearse.  The Packers - expecting a run and responding to the heavy personnel - react by bringing both safeties into the box.  They align with 9 defenders within 6 yards of the ball, leaving both cornerbacks with no deep help.  The center of the field is vacated, and in that void Wilson sees victory.

On first down after a 35 yard pass to Doug Baldwin, the Seahawks substitute heavy personnel into the game – two tight ends, a fullback (who shifts to a wide receiver position on the left), a running back, and a lone receiver – Kearse. The Packers – expecting a run and responding to the heavy personnel – react by bringing both safeties into the box. They align with 9 defenders within 6 yards of the ball, leaving both cornerbacks with no deep help. The center of the field is vacated, and in that void Wilson sees victory.

No help in the middle, a perfect throw by Wilson, and a great catch by Kearse equals victory over good man coverage.

No help in the middle, a perfect throw by Wilson, and a great catch by Kearse equals victory over good man coverage.

The Seahawks are going to their second straight Super Bowl on the strength of their zone read game. The Packers are going home for the third straight season at the hands of a zone read centric team.

The zone read is not a magic bullet. It is good, fundamentally sound football.

The zone read is alive and well, and it is here to stay.

Nov 082014
 

Many coaches and fans believe that a man pass coverage scheme leads to better run defense. This is because – the thinking goes – primary run defenders are given more freedom to attack the run with aggressiveness, while primary pass defenders focus on covering receivers. If the defensive coordinator is willing to play with limited help over the top, it also allows the defense to load the box to stop the run. For example, in a common “man free” scheme against a traditional two wide receiver set, the two cornerbacks lock up the wide receivers and the safety plays over the top, while the remaining 8 defenders can play close to the line to stop the run.

Such thinking has extended to defend spread offenses. Against a “spread to run” opponent, one strategy is to lock in man coverage on the receivers to take away quick patterns, while giving your team a numerical advantage inside the box. Because of this numbers advantage, the defense can be aggressive with run fits, blitzes, and stunts. The numbers advantage can often be achieved even while keeping two safeties on the field, because of pattern matching principles, which allow outside linebackers to stay closer to the box and safeties to play the run more aggressively (further explained below).

Man coverage principles can, however, weaken a run defense.

The primary reason is because it is very difficult for a defender to play man coverage and maintain proper run discipline and pursuit. With responsibility focused on a receiver, a defender is much more likely to be run out of a play by a receiver simulating a pass pattern. Edge defenders will have difficulty preventing the ball from being run outside when they also have to defend routes that take them inside. The offense can also more easily manipulate defensive alignment in order to break contain. For example, a trips formation to one side with a tight end on the other side may lead to only a linebacker standing between the offense and the sideline on the tight end side of the field. If the offense can break that contain (against a linebacker instead of a defensive back), they have a big play on their hands.

Enter California and their prolific offensive coordinator, Tony Franklin, against the Oregon State Beavers. Oregon State under Mike Riley is and continues to be one of the most sound and well coached programs in the country, consistently fielding rugged, overachieving teams. They came into the game with a strong pass defense that seemed to match up well against Cal’s powerful air attack. In this game, however, their man principles hurt their ability to stop Cal’s running game.

As one can see below, Oregon State lines up in a two safety shell against Cal’s four wide receiver (2×2) offensive set. The outside linebackers split the distance between the #2 receivers (the 2nd receiver from the outside) and the offensive tackles. The safeties play inside shade of the #2 receivers, while the cornerbacks line up in press coverage on the wide receivers.

What is not clear is whether the Beavers are playing true man coverage, or pattern matching principles. Pattern matching is a method by which particular defenders lock in man coverage against certain offensive patterns, while playing zone against others. For example, a typical pattern matching scheme is for the outside linebackers to cover any short out route by a #2 receiver in man coverage, while they would re-route any vertical stem by the #2 receiver, and then look to help in the flat. The safety would cover any vertical route (more than 7-10 yards) by #2, while the CB would cover any vertical route by #1. In many ways, pattern matching combines the best of both zone and man coverage – nobody has to cover every pattern, so they can be more aggressive against the run, while maintaining the benefits of man coverage against the pass. Teams such as Michigan State (which bases out of a 2 safety, cover 4 pattern matching defense) and the Seattle Seahawks (a primary 1 high safety [Earl Thomas, perhaps the best safety in the game], cover 3 defense) have built dominating defenses on such principles (see http://www.totalamericanfootball.com/improving-cornerback-play-with-cover-3-and-cover-4-press-the-rise-of-richard-sherman-darqueze-dennard-the-seattle-seahawks-and-the-michigan-state-spartans/ for an in depth explanation of how such principles aid cornerback play). Michigan State’s defense has – in particular – taken the coaching world by storm. Simply put, the Spartans have laid out a blueprint that allows safeties and linebackers to play the run aggressively (thus effectively creating a 9 man box) while having less fear of being burned in the passing game, because they do not have to cover every pattern by a particular receiver. The Spartans defenders are terrific at reading run or pass and reacting accordingly. Unfortunately for the Beavers, even if they were using such a pattern matching scheme (it is unclear if they were), they were much too quick to jump into man principles on any particular play against Cal.  Franklin exploited this over-zealousness on many occasions, both on run/pass neutral downs and on obvious passing downs.

Whether or not the Beavers were playing man or a pattern matching zone on this play, their defenders locked in on receivers in man coverage as soon as those receivers ran their routes. When Cal ran the ball, Oregon State was left with little support.

Oregon State is lined up in a typical 2 safety shell, with safeties on the inside shade of the #2 receivers, OLBs splitting the distance between #2 and the offensive tackle, and the cornerbacks in press coverage.  With the outside linebackers so close to the box, Oregon State would appear to have a numbers advantage against the run.  Their front seven remains close to the ball (though both OLBs are slightly outside the box), while Cal only has 5 offensive linemen to block the interior, with no lead backs or tight ends to help counterbalance the Oregon State front.

Oregon State is lined up in a 2 safety shell, with safeties on the inside shade of the #2 receivers, outside linebackers splitting the distance between #2 and the offensive tackle, and the cornerbacks in press coverage. With the outside linebackers so close to the box, Oregon State would appear to have a numbers advantage against the run. Their front seven remains close to the ball (though both outside linebackers are slightly outside the box), while Cal only has 5 offensive linemen to block the interior, with no lead backs or tight ends to help counterbalance the Oregon State front.

Cal quarterback Jared Goff turns and immediately hands to running back Daniel Lasco.  There is no pass fake from the backfield action (though Goff does fake setting up for a pass after he hands the ball to Lasco).

Cal quarterback Jared Goff turns and immediately hands to running back Daniel Lasco. There is no initial pass fake from the backfield action (though Goff does fake setting up for a pass after he hands the ball to Lasco).

After the ball is handed off, we see that the Beavers have already lost both CBs.  Both have their backs turned, defending pass patterns.  Even worse, their playside outside linebacker has turned his back to the ball, and is covering a slot receiver on a quick out route.  Both safeties are eyeing the slot receivers.

After the ball is handed off, we see that the Beavers have already lost both cornerbacks. Both have their backs turned, defending pass patterns. Even worse, their playside outside linebacker has turned his back to the ball, and is covering a slot receiver on a quick out route. Both safeties are eying the slot receivers.

As Lasco reaches the line of scrimmage, the Beavers have lost their advantage.  The playside outside linebacker is almost beyond the hash marks, still chasing the quick out route.  The playside safety IS outside the hash marks, most likely looking to help with the vertical route being run by receiver #1 to his side.  Both cornerbacks are completely removed from the play, as is the weakside safety, who is also likely to be helping with the vertical route by his #1.

As Lasco reaches the line of scrimmage, the Beavers have lost their advantage. The playside outside linebacker is almost beyond the hash marks, still chasing the quick out route. The playside safety IS outside the hash marks, most likely looking to help with the vertical route being run by receiver #1 to his side. Both cornerbacks are completely removed from the play, as is the weakside safety, who is also likely to be helping with the vertical route by his #1.

Notice that the Cal offensive line hasn't manhandled anybody - they simply put bodies on bodies.  The Oregon State middle linebacker has filled his gap decently well - but there is no help from the playside linebacker or safety to squeeze the play, and Lasco easily scoots outside.  No support means that nothing is squeezed to the middle of the field, effectively rendering meaningless any pursuit from the Oregon State front.

Notice that the Cal offensive line hasn’t manhandled anybody – they simply put bodies on bodies. The Oregon State middle linebacker has filled his gap decently well – but there is no help from the playside outside linebacker or safety to squeeze the play, and Lasco easily scoots outside. No support means that nothing is squeezed to the middle of the field, effectively rendering meaningless any pursuit from the Oregon State front.

Lasco heads towards the secondary.  The playside safety has now reacted, but - as with his middle linebacker - he has no help from his opposite safety, allowing Lasco to veer easily away from his pursuit.

Lasco heads towards the secondary. The playside safety has now reacted, but – as with his middle linebacker – he has no help from his opposite safety, allowing Lasco to veer easily away from his pursuit.

As Lasco cruises into the end zone, neither the backside safety nor the backside cornerback has come into view - both have been occupied by the #1 receiver.

As Lasco cruises into the end zone, neither the backside safety nor the backside cornerback has come into view – both have been occupied by the #1 receiver.

Every defense has its weakness. This post is not meant to say that man coverage and man principles cannot produce great defensive football. The aim of the post is to point out a (perhaps) hidden weakness in man coverage that many fans and coaches do not consider.

See the video here:

http://espn.go.com/video/clip?id=espn:11807066

Oct 202014
 

Innovative clock management and game strategy are becoming the norm throughout all levels of football. From taking timeouts earlier in the 4th quarter in order to preserve more time (common), to never punting and always attempting onside kicks (rare), coaches are increasingly willing to use strategies that would have been frowned upon not long ago.

The St. Louis Rams embodied this new school approach in their upset victory of the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks on Sunday.

At first glance, few things in football appear crazier than faking a punt on your own 18 yard line while nursing a two point lead with under three minutes to play. But consider the following:

Russell Wilson and the Seahawks offense had just completed three straight touchdown drives of 80 or more yards. On the day, Wilson became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for over 300 yards while rushing for over 100 yards in the same game. Simply put, Wilson and the Seahawks were unstoppable down the stretch.

Rams head coach Jeff Fischer and special teams coordinator John Fassel knew it.

Old school thinking would be to punt the ball away anyways, and to put trust in your defense to keep the Seahawks out of field goal range.

The key to the risk assessment is this: There was 2:55 left on the clock. The Rams had two timeouts left. If the pass was not completed and the fake failed, the Seahawks would take over on the 18. They could only get one first down. The Rams could stop the clock three times (two timeouts and the two minute warning). With proper use of timeouts and barring extra first downs through penalties, the Rams would be able to get the ball back with some time left on the clock after the Seahawks scored. In other words, it would be difficult for the Seahawks to kick a winning field goal with no time remaining if the Rams were to fail on the fake punt.

Thus, a failed fake would serve to give the Rams one last chance with the ball. If the Rams had punted the ball, they have given the ball to Wilson with plenty of time and space to move the Seahawks into position to kick a field goal with no time remaining on the clock.

The downside to failure on the fake punt was no more than missing out on the upside of converting it. Failure was, as argued above, in many ways preferable to punting.

The upside to converting the fake was massive. It gave the Rams the opportunity to keep the ball out of Wilson’s hands altogether, and this is exactly how they won the game.

Thus, one can easily see why the balancing of risk versus reward led the Rams to attempt the fake.

Not to mention that the fake itself was built on solid fundamentals, not hit or miss trickery. The Rams motioned their gunner to the inside, in order to clear the flat for the personal protector – running back Benny Cunningham. Punter Johnny Hekker – an athletic 6’5” 227 pound ex star high school quarterback – then took his first step as if punting, before calmly throwing a spiral to a wide open Cunningham. In structure, it was nothing more than a common goal line or short yardage concept in which a motioning receiver clears space for a running back to outrun coverage to the outside, and it worked to perfection.

While the fake punt seemed like an enormous role of the dice, it is more usefully analyzed as an example of new school risk assessment, in which punting the ball away isn’t always the best – or safest – decision.

See the fake punt here:

http://www.nfl.com/videos/nfl-cant-miss-plays/0ap3000000413387/Wk-7-Can-t-Miss-Play-Rams-have-guts-and-glory

Apr 052014
 

The Seattle Seahawks defense and the Michigan State Spartans defense were the darlings of the NFL and NCAA, respectively, in 2013.  Despite some schematic differences, these defenses shared important similarities.  Both were simple in comparison to their peers, executing their base defense to perfection, allowing their defenders to “play fast” because they had no doubt about their assignments.  The defenses were also each led by a breakout performer at cornerback – Richard Sherman for the Seahawks, and Darqueze Dennard for the Spartans.

Contrary to popular belief, neither cornerback is a man to man bump and run player.  The Seahawks and Spartans are both zone teams (the Seahawks primarily cover 3, the Spartans primarily cover 4), with the cornerbacks aligned in a press position.  They appear to be in man coverage because, if the receiver runs a pattern deeper than 10 yards (approximately), the cornerback stays locked on that receiver in man coverage.  If the receiver runs a short pattern, the cornerback is often in position to take this pattern away once the ball is in the air by their pre-snap alignment, which adds to the man to man illusion.  But the short patterns are not their responsibility.

This may seem like a minor distinction, but it pays major dividends.  Instead of needing to worry about every pattern the receiver might run, the cornerback can focus on re-routing the receiver (helping out all aspects of the defense) and turning and running to take away deep patterns.  This is a perfect defense for fast, physical corners such as Sherman and Dennard.

Take Sherman.  A tall, lanky track star at cornerback, his theoretical weakness would be against double moves and short, quick patterns. This is because a taller player at cornerback with longer legs has a comparative disadvantage when making quick, fast cuts and redirections.

The Seahawks defense means, however, that Sherman merely needs to use his length to throw the receiver off his pattern, and his speed to turn and run if the receiver runs a deep pattern.  His 6’3”, spidery frame, track jump background, and intelligence make him the ideal athlete for this technique.

He also illustrates the Seahawks’ rise to prominence.  Much like the Oakland Athletics who Michael Lewis chronicled in Moneyball, the Seahawks found undervalued athletes late in the draft who fit their system to perfection.  In Moneyball it was specifically about finding players who had patience at the plate; in Seattle it was about finding tall, physical defensive backs late in the draft who could execute Seattle’s defense.  Richard Sherman was a number one overall pick in terms of fit for the Seahawks, though in reality he was picked in the 5th round.

Denard, too, was an underrated prospect who rose to prominence due to a perfect mesh of scheme and athleticism.

No example of this technique is better than Sherman’s game clinching play against the San Francisco 49ers in the 2013 NFC Championship game.

In diagram one (below), we see Sherman lined up in press on Michael Crabtree to the bottom of the screen.  On the opposite side, of the field, Byron Maxwell (Seattle’s other big, physical cornerback) is lined up in press on Quinton Patton.  Also note that Seattle is in a two high safety alignment, which differs from their base cover 3 look, but is similar to Michigan State’s base alignment.

Cornerbacks Sherman Denard 1

At the snap of the ball (below), Sherman gets a hand on Crabtree and turns to run with him.  It looks like man coverage.  But look to the top of the screen.  Maxwell is also bailing deep on the play, as if he is covering Patton deep.  Patton, unlike Crabtree, stands still at the line of scrimmage.  Sherman – while appearing to be in man coverage – knows that if Crabtree stops short, Sherman can continue deep, because linebacker Malcolm Smith is underneath Crabtree’s pattern.  Therefore, Sherman can focus all of his attention on sprinting downfield in defense of any deep Crabtree pattern.

Cornerbacks Sherman Denard 2

The television broadcast camera made it appear that Crabtree had a step on Sherman. This was never the case.  As we see below, Sherman was a step ahead of Crabtree the entire play.  He has positioned himself perfectly – he will beat Crabtree to the spot should Crabtree continue on a fade (as is the case) and has inside leverage to undercut any deep in breaking pattern (such as a post or dig) that Crabtree might run.  His ability to “sell out” on these deep patterns is made possible by the zone principles that let him play without hesitation.  We can see Smith – who will catch the interception – dropping in the underneath zone, ready to pounce on a short pattern.  He was not occupied on the play by any other receiving threat, allowing him to drift farther back and eventually gather the Sherman’s deflection.

Also note that Maxwell has continued to bail deep (he is actually deeper than Sherman) and is now 14 yards away from Patton, who remained at the line of scrimmage.

Cornerbacks Sherman Denard 3

Below, we see the moment when Sherman reaches the ball at its highest point, deflecting it to Smith for the game sealing interception.  For the television camera, it appeared that Crabtree was behind Sherman.  In reality, Sherman found the ball, slowed, and leaped to tip it, creating the illusion that Crabtree was behind him.  Make no mistake, Sherman was not beaten on the play.

Cornerbacks Sherman Denard 4

Cover 3 and Cover 4 press, pattern matching teams require a specific athlete at the cornerback position.  The cornerback must be physical and skilled enough to jam a receiver at the line, and fast enough to run with that receiver on all deep patterns.  The cornerback does not need the same short legged quickness that is required to guard fast twitch receivers in the short or slot game.  This simplified role has allowed Mark Dantonio at Michigan State to build the top defense in the country with many lower tier recruits (Dennard, for example, was a 2 star recruit with no other BCS offers from a tiny high school in Georgia), and for Pete Carroll to build one of the greatest defensive backfields in the history of the NFL out of largely late round and free agent prospects.  The ability to play fast breeds confidence, and has helped two elite yet overlooked athletes climb to the top of their game, bringing the rest of their respective defenses with them.