Thursday, September 22, 2011

Protecting the quarterback in empty sets

Right. I have finally beaten Microsoft's insistence on making everything about their products as unintuitive as humanly possible and figured out how to export my funny little diagrams made in PowerPoint onto the blog, although at the minute the process of enlarging those images makes them look they were made using a BBC basic, but one step at a time and all that.

So the first subject that I've decided to turn my arty hand to (stop laughing) is the Chicago Bears and their troubles with keeping Jay Cutler upright. The specific example I want to look at is notable because a lot of teams in the NFL do this and it drives me insane.

As the league as a whole expands its offensive wings, we're seeing a much greater rise in empty sets - where the quarterback is left alone in the backfield and five receivers are set out wide to run routes - during the course of normal play (outside of the final two minutes for example). It's something that those who watch College ball will be entirely familiar with (a bit more on this, sort of, later).

Now, empty sets are not what draws my ire. What annoys me is that the whole point of setting up with an empty set is to spread the defense out, make them extend their lines over the whole field, and hopefully make the quarterbacks reads a little easier.

Why then do teams - like the Bears - insist on lining up receivers in the slot?

There are two important things that happen when the offense does this. First of all, they somewhat compact the defense in again, dragging defenders towards the middle of the field. Secondly, without any backs in the back field to help the O-line with blocking, it leaves the quarterback exposed to blitzes off the edge. Even worse - and the Bears are probably the most heinous perpetrators of this crime - if you're in an empty set then chances are you're not going to run the ball unless it's a designed QB draw or some kind of sweep play with jet motion from a receiver (think the Dolphins and their 'Wildcat' package), so why in the name of God would you line up in an empty set with the QB under center?

It's like the Bears are trying to find an excuse to put Jay Cutler put on IR. In the diagram below I've tried to demonstrate where the problem lies. I've taken the liberty of cutting the offensive line in half, which as far as the Bears are concerned isn't entirely a bad thing. "N" represents a Nickel back lined up over the slot receiver. For the benefit of easy diagram drawing I've assumed that the other three receivers are on the other side of the field, that we have a 3 man line with two backers (only one shown) and I've shifted the safety over more than he likely would be against an empty set (unless the defensive coordinator felt the two receivers on the weak side to be more of a threat than the three on the other side).

As you can see, having a receiver that close to the formation provides the defense with an opportunity to blitz the Nickel defender (or whomever that may be over the slot receiver). With the defender that close, and with the quarterback under center, it gives the blitzing player a great chance to get the sack, or at the very least get in the quarterbacks face and force him to make a pressure throw of his back foot.

With an end over the tackle who can rush outside, you make it very difficult for the offensive line to pick the blitz up, requiring either the guard to drop back and come outside, or for the tackle and guard to open out, with the tackle taking the Nickel and the guard taking the end. Of course that would then leave a vulnerability to a blitz from the Will backer....

Now the best solution to a blitz from a secondary player such as this is to have the quarterback throw the ball "hot", that is as soon as he sees the blitz he looks to the receiver who was originally being covered, who should have also identified the blitz and turned immediately to look at the quarterback. The problem in this case is that the close proximity of the receiver shortens the path of the blitzing player to the quarterback. I would guess that few quarterbacks could take any more than about three steps back before that blitzer gets home.

That doesn't leave a whole lot of time for the quarterback to recognise what is happening and then make the throw. Worse, the Will linebacker is in such a position that he can take a step forward to hold the guard momentarily, then drop off to cover the receiver, anticipating the quarterbacks decision to throw "hot".

Alternatively the Will backer can blitz as well, presenting three rushers for the guard and tackle to deal with - which is obviously a bad numbers mismatch (over load blitz). All you need now is for the safety to come flying downhill to cover the potential for the "hot" throw and your quarterback is in a bad spot. If he doesn't throw it, he's going to get hit. There is no way that an unblocked defender is going to take so long to get home that the quarterback will be able to leisurely sit back and wait for his receiver to get open downfield (as Cutler found out Sunday).

The best solution, in my opinion, is to simply not put your quarterback in that position in the first place. Don't go to an empty set and then line up a receiver just a few yards outside the tackle. And put the QB in the gun. You're not going to be running the ball anywhere unless your QB is carrying it, so put him back somewhere safe where he can read the field properly.

In the above diagram we can see that now the Nickel defender has a much greater distance to cover. With the Quarterback already 5 yards back in the gun, he's likely to end up as much as 9-10 yards deep when he hits the top of his drop. Coupled with the greater horizontal separation from the blitzing secondary player, it gives him much more time to read the field and make his throw.

Importantly, if the Will linebacker or the Free safety is going to be taking over in man to man coverage, the sheer width of that inside receivers alignment means that they would have no hope of making it across without cheating pre-snap, giving the quarterback a much clearer read of what was coming, as well as making the use of a "hot" route a lot more viable.

So there you go. That's a pet peeve of mine. If you're going empty, get those receivers away from the quarterback and stop giving teams an opportunity to smash your QB around. Get him back in the gun and let him read the field properly. That goes double for you Mike Martz and the Bears!

I hoped you enjoyed the introduction of the diagrams. Now that I've finally figured this stuff out I plan to make much more use of it. Hopefully that will continue later this week with a diagram of a running play from the Eagles game which caught my eye, because it harked back to the heyday of the split backs sets in the 70' and 80's, when pass and run combined so gloriously (for some teams anyway).

Ohh, I almost forgot!

I mentioned earlier about College football. Now one of the great pains of living in the UK from the perspective of a football fan is that watching lots of College ball is basically out of the question, but I recently realised ESPN has highlights so I can keep up.

Now when I first clicked on one of the games and went to the highlights I was dreading what I might find. You have to understand that my only comparable experience of watching such highlights online has been on, an experience that can best be described as being slightly more painful, annoying and frustrating than having a loose tooth.

So there was the first game, there was the first highlight. I hovered my mouse over it in trepidation. I took a deep breath, expecting the worst. Then I clicked that fateful left mouse button. And the result was almost unimaginable.

It was.... good. It was really good.

First thing I noticed - no advert. None. If this was then the 40 second clip would have been proceeded by a 30 second advert for NFL Game pass, a product which I can only imagine (judging by the normal standards of's content delivery) would be an extreme waste of money. Then once the clip started it loaded no problems. None. No delays, no glitches, no picture freezing while the video skipped backwards. Nothing. Just normal video delivery, you know, the same thing you would expect of every video content delivery system in the world, except

I could click backwards and forwards to certain points and the video would load and play instantly, without me having to wait ten seconds while the video tried to figure why anyone would be insane enough to want to choose a certain section of the video that they wanted to watch again.

There was no auto play shoving a video (and an advert) down my throat before I was ready to watch, or deciding for me what video it was that I'd chosen to log on and view. There was no continuous play, deciding for me that once I'd watched one video I would instantly want to watch the next one in the list, regardless of whether its content interested me or not.

And the sheer number of highlights was amazing. Well, compared to anyway. 19-25 videos per game, covering all scoring plays, some of the big runs and passes, and what's this?

Sacks! Interceptions!

They have video clips dedicated to defensive plays! Are they insane?! If the NFL were to be believed, then there would be nobody on the planet who might be interested in something as uncouth and unworthy as defensive plays. But as someone who loves seeing defenses get air time, I was very heartened to see this.

Now I know, I know, not a lot of people like ESPN. I've been critical on here about them in the past. But sometimes you just have to take your hat off and applaud good work. This is such a case.

ESPN's College highlight delivery service is - frankly- exceptional when compared to It represents the polar opposite, righting all the wrongs of the NFL's service. If only - if freaking only - the NFL would learn from this, then I would be delighted. Of course ESPN has picked up additional rights to show NFL highlights now, which if they deliver them as well as they do College ball, will surely spell the beginning of the end for

I live in hope. Goodnight.


Teoita said...

If you are interested in watching college football, espn has a satellite channel called "espn america" with a pretty good number of games; i'm not sure about this year's schedule as i had to change my satellite subscription, but it's usually 3-4 of the most interesting matchups at least, plus national championship, bowl games and whatnot.

Chris said...

There is an ESPN channel here in the UK, but a) it's expensive for just the one channel, and b) finding the time to fit that stuff in. For the minute the highlights serves my purposes admirably.

Oh and hello again Teoita! Long time no see.