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.

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: