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:


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.

Nov 142014

Overcomplexity in a defense can be dangerous (see here). The Chicago Bears gave us another example, this time in the context of excessive pre-snap checks.

A national television audience witnessed the six passing touchdown first half by Aaron Rodgers. Perhaps the most notable of the six was Jordy Nelson’s 73 yard touchdown reception. The play was – as was obvious to the naked eye – a blown coverage. But why was the coverage blown?

Before the snap, Aaron Rodgers performs a hard count, attempting to draw the Bears into the neutral zone. As he does so, the Bears show blitz, with six defenders on or near the line of scrimmage, and a seventh (linebacker Lance Briggs) creeping in that direction. Safety Chris Conte follows a receiver in motion from left to right, showing (or at least feigning) man coverage.

After the hard count and the motion, Rodgers stops, turns to face his receivers to the right (in a trips formation), and signals while making a call. At the same, we see Briggs turning to motion and call to his fellow defenders.

Rodgers turns to the line as Briggs yells to his teammates

Rodgers turns to the line as Briggs yells to his teammates

The defenders begin to move, as Briggs continues shouting orders and motioning.

The defenders begin to move, as Briggs continues shouting orders and motioning.

Moments before the snap, we see Bears defenders backing away from the line of scrimmage.  Conte backs up, showing (or feigning) zone.

Moments before the snap, we see Bears defenders backing away from the line of scrimmage. Conte backs up, showing (or feigning) zone.

The structure of the defense becomes clear as soon as the ball is snapped. There is one high safety, and cornerbacks in press. There are several options for what the Bears might be trying to play. The most likely are cover 3 or man free. In either of those options, the press cornerbacks would be covering any vertical pattern by the #1 receiver, who they are aligned over.

Cornerbacks in press, free safety deep in the middle of the field

Cornerbacks in press, free safety deep in the middle of the field.

In the cover 3 or man free scenario, the answer to who blew the coverage is clear: the cornerback. There is no doubt that he played as if he had help over the top, forcing the receiver inside while jumping on a shallow route. This is classic cover 2 cornerback play.

The cornerback has forced Nelson to take an inside route, while eyeing a receiver who threatens the flat - classic cover 2 cornerback play.

The cornerback has forced Nelson to take an inside route, while eying a receiver who threatens the flat – classic cover 2 cornerback play.

Other (less likely) possibilities are (1) that Conte should have retreated in cover 2. This is not likely, because the free safety did not shade to the other half of the field. Alternatively, (2) the free safety may have been the guilty party, playing a version of cover 2 where he is over the top to Nelson’s side, while the opposite cornerback manned the other deep half, or (3) a version of cover 3 where the middle linebacker (who is dropping deep on the play) takes the deep third.

Nelson catches the ball.  The free safety has not reacted from his deep middle zone, the cornerback trails from his cover 2 positioning, and the middle linebacker chases from his zone.

Nelson catches the ball. The free safety has not reacted from his deep middle zone, the cornerback trails from his cover 2 positioning, and the middle linebacker chases from his zone.

For the purposes of this post, knowing who was responsible for the coverage bust is immaterial. A particular player can be blamed, but the point is – as a coach – that someone did not get the message. “Not getting the message” is an inherent risk in playing such a cat and mouse game, and the Bears got burned.

The benefit that the Bears were striving for is clear. The opposing quarterback has just changed the play in order to beat our defense, so we will change our defense in order to frustrate his intentions. And there is no doubt that the caliber of quarterbacks in the NFL requires a defense to show different looks, lest a great quarterback such as Rodgers pick them apart. On paper, it makes sense to attempt to frustrate Rodgers in this fashion, especially towards the end of the play clock, when Rodgers cannot audible again. But the game is played on a noisy field in front of thousands of fans, where communication is difficult, and the draining play clock also means that the Bears have little time to make their adjustments. Players need to call and receive the new front/blitz/coverage, adjust their alignments, and mentally digest the information – all in the final few seconds before the snap. It can – and does, on many occasions – work. But when it doesn’t work – as is often the case – it can lead to catastrophe for a defense. The defensive coordinator must always consider this balancing, essentially asking himself “Is the benefit of confusing the offense worth the risk of confusing ourselves?” There is a fine line between creating confusion for the opposition and creating confusion for yourself, and in this case, the Bears beat themselves before the ball was put into play.

Apr 292014

In part one, we discussed the advantages of playing with a cheap quarterback, and asked whether an NFL team would ever consider implementing a system designed to minimize reliance on a traditional “pro style” quarterback.  This would allow such a team to refuse to pay a quarterback over a certain cap figure, therefore gaining an advantage in their ability to strengthen the remainder of their roster under the salary cap.

Please note that this isn’t to say that paying a franchise NFL quarterback is a bad idea.  If the quarterback is a star, it is of course smart to pay that quarterback, and players like Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Aaron Rodgers have proven their ability to put their team on their shoulders as consistent championship contenders.  This article is a hypothetical for those teams who never seem to stumble upon the star quarterback, and who therefore remain stagnant in mediocrity year after year.

The rarest commodity in football is the great drop back pocket quarterback.  It has proven nearly impossible to predict which quarterbacks will succeed in the NFL, because so many of the skills are intangible and hard to measure against college competition.  That is why the list of number one overall picks includes the likes of JaMarcus Russell, David Carr, and Tim Couch.  The list of top NFL quarterbacks currently in the league is a mix of number one overall picks like Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck with overlooked prospects like Tom Brady (a “fringe” NFL prospect selected in the 6th round), Aaron Rodgers (too slight and with too much attitude to be taken with the first pick) and Drew Brees (too short to be a first round prospect).

The specific quarterback skills that have proven almost impossible to predict are: the ability to make complex progression reads against complex, fast NFL defenses; the ability to deliver the ball from the pocket against pressure from an NFL pass rush; and the ability to deliver the ball with accuracy and proper timing despite the above mentioned factors.  While arm strength and accuracy (now referred to as “arm talent”), leadership, intelligence, and positive demeanor all play a role in predicting the success of a pro style quarterback, none of them have been able to predict whether the player would possess or have the ability to develop the intangible skills that make a successful pro style quarterback.  Plenty of smart, hard working, positive leaders with great arms have failed in the NFL because those skills are so rare and hard to develop.

An “interchangeable quarterback offense” would seek to minimize the reliance on such skills, and would emphasize easier to predict qualities, such as arm talent, running ability, leadership and intelligence.

The following offensive systems and coaches are candidates to run such a system.  Please note that inclusion on the list does not mean that a quarterback who plays in such an offense is not or cannot become a good pro style quarterback in a traditional offense.  It is only to say that the offense does not require a traditional pro style quarterback to be successful.

(1) Chip Kelly.  Kelly has already proved this possible in the NFL, shifting between Michael Vick and Nick Foles with great success.  His offense spreads the field to create easy pre snap reads for the quarterback and offensive line.  The offense is built on the run game, as the spread formation forces the defense to defend the width of the field, making it easier for the offensive line to count and block the box (see here).  It can accommodate fast quarterbacks like Vick who can take advantage of over pursuit against the zone run game by keeping the ball (the “read option”), or it can accommodate more stationary quarterbacks like Foles by creating easy reads, quick throws, and taking advantage of packaged plays in order to hold backside defenders.  Kelly’s tempo allows the quarterback to get into a rhythm without over thinking the offense, while also limiting the defense’s ability to call complex schemes.  Because the offense is built on the run game, a top offensive line and above average running backs are a necessity, while favorable coverages mean that the offense can succeed without premier pass catchers (Kelly’s confidence in the latter is evident in the Eagles’ release of DeSean Jackson).  Money can be spent on the offensive line and defense.

(2) Gus Malzahn.  Malzahn is perhaps the most intriguing coach on the list.  His offense is also a hurry up spread offense, but is schematically dissimilar to Kelly’s attack.  Malzahn’s offense is based on the Delaware wing t, one of the most potent running offenses in the history of football.  Unlike Kelly’s zone scheme, the wing t takes advantage of angle blocks and a variety of pulls and traps.  The offense is built on an order of play calling to systematically attack any defense.  The up tempo pace simplifies this process (especially with a master such as Malzahn at the helm), as the defense’s ability to substitute and vary schemes is limited. This order of attack of the traditional wing t is combined with elements of modern spread option and spread passing games to create a potent attack that takes advantage of a great athlete at quarterback.  Like Kelly’s offense, the potency of the run game and the spread formations create easy reads and progressions in the pass game, making the offense ideal to plug and play non traditional quarterbacks.  This is why Malzahn has thrived with a variety of athletes at quarterback, from prototypically built #1 overall pick Cam Newton, to the smaller, quicker Nick Marshall, who began his career as a cornerback at Georgia, to less physically imposing Paul Smith at Tulsa, who threw for over 5,000 yards in his season with Malzahn, proving the versatility of the system.  In fact, Malzahn had a streak of needing to find a new starting quarterback for 8 straight seasons (see here), his system flexible enough to adjust year in and year out.  Should he choose to move to the NFL, Malzahn would have his pick of under the radar quarterbacks to run his potent system.

(3) The pistol offense.  The pistol offense makes a quarterback’s job easier in several ways.  The run game is powerful and downhill.  The veer scheme requires a quarterback with top flight speed (such as Robert Griffin III and Colin Kaepernick) because the mesh point happens deeper in the backfield, but with that speed, the defense is forced to decide between playing aggressive against the option elements (potentially leading to over aggressiveness that the veer scheme can exploit, and easy reads for the quarterback in the pass game) or playing a more passive defense that is susceptible to the power elements of the scheme.  The pistol also takes the quarterback out from under center, giving him increased vision in the pass game.  The offense has already thrived with the Redskins and 49ers, though neither has used it exclusively.  While Chris Ault is retired and unlikely to get an NFL look, the offense is popular enough for other coaches to implement the scheme.  The most likely scenario is for it to continue to be used within “typical” NFL offenses, as a weapon to take advantage of a quarterback with the speed of Griffin III or Kaepernick.

(4) Jim Harbaugh power offense.  Jim Harbaugh makes the list because he is confident enough in his system and his ability as a quarterbacks coach to believe he can make a wide range of quarterbacks successful.  He has already proven adept, resurrecting Alex Smith’s career, and turning raw Colin Kaepernick into one of the league’s premier playmakers.  His system is built on a powerful and complex run game, unbalanced lines, pre snap shifts, and versatile personnel.  Defensive coordinators know that Harbaugh is looking to assert his will with his complex run game.  The potent run and play action games in turn create easier reads for the quarterbacks.  Unlike the spread and many NFL offenses, Harbaugh often keeps extra blockers in the backfield, giving his quarterback simpler 4 or 3 or even 2 receiver reads.

Harbaugh’s offense is complex, however, requiring quarterbacks to choose between multiple plays at the line of scrimmage on most snaps depending on the defense.  But those decisions are a matter of intelligence, not instinct, and intelligence is more easily measured than intangible NFL quarterback skills.  This is why Harbaugh has been successful with Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick, both of whom have size, speed, arm strength and intelligence, but whose NFL drop back quarterback skills were questioned before Harbaugh became their coach.

Harbaugh and the 49ers will soon show their intentions.  Should they pay Colin Kaepernick like a top NFL quarterback, they take the course of the typical NFL franchise.  Should they attempt to low ball Kaepernick in negotiations, it will be a sign of their confidence in Harbaugh’s quarterback development abilities.  Don’t be surprised if the 49ers pick another raw, athletic, developmental quarterback with great arm strength in the upcoming draft, such as Virginia Tech’s Logan Thomas.

(5) The Air Raid crew.  The coaching tree that Hal Mumme started (including Mike Leach, Kevin Sumlin, Art Broyles, Dana Holgorsen, and Tony Franklin)  continues to tear up the college ranks.  Rooted in LaVell Edwards’s BYU passing offense, hallmarks of the Air Raid are simplicity, tempo, and a willingness to throw the ball all of the time (in the original Air Raid offense).  These factors – like Kelly’s and Malzahn’s offenses – simplify quarterback reads.  Unlike Kelly’s and Malzahns, the Air Raid offense centers on the passing game.  The core Air Raid coaches (Mumme, Leach) seek to throw the ball to the extreme, therefore perfecting their limited plays and creating some of the most potent offenses in NFL history. The simple reads, small playbook, and insistence on throwing help a quarterback get into a rhythm, which is one reason why Leach was able to plug in one record setting, below the radar recruit after another at Texas Tech and now Washington State.

The two most likely NFL coaches – Sumlin and Broyles – seek more balance in the offense.  Both have produced major NFL prospects in the last several years (Johnny Manziel for Sumlin and Griffin III for Broyles).  More importantly, both have been just as successful with quarterbacks who were seen as having little NFL potential.  They are masters of the spread passing game, and with so many quarterbacks throwing from the spread in youth football, high school, and college, it only makes sense that an experienced spread coach would ease the transition to the NFL for such quarterbacks.

(6) Run and shoot.  The run and shoot makes the list because it has already thrived in the NFL.  The offense is designed as “organized playground ball,” allowing receivers to find open space after the snap depending on the defense.  While the offense is difficult to master, it has thrived in the NFL and USFL with a variety of quarterbacks.  The reads required are different from the complex NFL progressions that make the position so difficult, and as the name implies, the ball is often thrown from outside the pocket.  Unfortunately, June Jones is one of the last remaining true run and shoot coaches, and the offense has probably been absorbed into the greater NFL schematics (see here), making it unlikely to return to the NFL in its true form.  If it does, expect success with proper modernization to adjust for modern blitz schemes.  As long time NFL coach Marty Shottenheimer once said: “I don’t think anybody stops it. They always make their yardage. What you hope to do is keep the scoring down the best you can to give yourself a chance to be successful.”

(7) Split back veer adapted to the pro game.  Admittedly, this is getting into science fiction territory.  I do not think that this will happen.  However, there are reasons to believe it could be successful in the NFL.  First of all, the veer scheme has worked in recent years (see: pistol).  The NFL is warming to the idea that the option game can succeed.  The split back veer is also a “pro” formation – the split backs are in the same alignment as the original Bill Walsh west coast offense and the original Edwards BYU/Air Raid configuration.  The offense is designed for a fast, tough, smart, competitive quarterback, which are easier to find than true drop back quarterbacks.  The reads in the pass game are simplified by the potency of the run game.  Like the wing t, the split back veer has a system for play calling, with answers for every defense imaginable.  With multiple options after the snap on every play, in theory the defense is never “right.”  This is part of the reason that the offense has driven some of the most successful programs in the country, from De La Salle high school in Concord, CA, to NCAA division II power Carson Newman.

With the professionalism and skill of NFL players, the most often cited drawback of the offense (poor passing game) could be overcome with a reliance on simple, proven concepts, such as those found in the Air Raid or run and shoot systems.  Like many offenses on this list, the potency of the run game would create a strong play action passing game with easier quarterback reads.

Of course, the split back veer would require a full commitment that is unlikely to happen.  The offensive line would be in unbalanced, forward leaning stances, as would the running backs.  The quarterbacks would need to learn how to protect themselves in the run game, or face a severe beating.

It won’t happen, but it would be interesting.