Friday, October 07, 2011

The Eagles and Panthers in the red zone

So I forgot to tally up my picks for Week 4. Largely on account of the fact that I shit out again, but there you go. For the record I was 11-5 in week 4, which looking at it now doesn't actually look that bad. That puts me up to 37-27 for the season, which looks worse than I just thought it would. Hmm, my perceptions are playing games with me today.

Which is almost coincidental because today I want to talk perceptions. Or more specifically, the perceptions surrounding certain offenses.

See, we all know what Cam Newton has achieved on the field so far this season, regularly lobbing the ball down field in a manner that appears to my cynical eyes to be a hail mary type pass. We've also seen the Eagles tear great chunks out of people with both the run and the pass. But what intrigues me about both of those teams is their lack of success at converting all that accumulated yardage into touchdowns. Which brings us to the wider question; why do some teams suck in the red zone?

The reasons are many. A lot of them boil down to the same issue though, time and time again; space. Or rather, a lack of space. Providing for the fact that the end zone itself is ten yards deep and the red zone is measured from the 20-yard line in, that gives an offense 30 yards to work with, vertically speaking. Perhaps a better way of putting it is that the defense only has 30 yards to defend vertically and that's really the crux of the problem.

It's not that offenses become inherently less capable the closer they get to the hallowed ground at the end of the field, it's the fact that defenses have less things to worry about all of a sudden. And as the space available gets more and more compressed, the less the defense has to worry about. The types of routes they're likely to face from wide receivers in the passing game gradually shrinks from a tree of about 10-12, down to maybe 8-9 around the 20 yard line, and then down to perhaps 5-6 from the 5 yard line, and then slowly down to 3-4 from there on in.

There are two mitigating factors, but we'll get to those later.

For now we need to concentrate on the wide outs and the first routes to go are the deep routes. The 40 yard fade route off a 5-step drop by the quarterback will - from the 20 yard line - mean that the receiver doesn't catch the ball until he's in the stands, in the tunnel, or has run into a wall. There is simply not enough room to execute that play without some sort of significant and beautifully timed delay by the receiver. Get it right and you might just make the catch in the end zone. Get it wrong and you wont make it far enough down field for the catch.

The deep post route is also off the menu. You can run a post of sorts, but in the slightly more compressed space it won't be caught until the receiver is in the end zone and he'll probably have to bend the route horizontally across the end zone, leading the quarterback dangerously close to the safety on the opposite side of the field. By extension this also nullifies the post-corner route somewhat.

The 20 yard comeback is also off the menu. In this route the receiver runs like the wind for 20 yards, then slams on the brakes and comes back to the sideline. Hence 20 yard comeback. Except this route is predicated on selling the 'go' route to the corner, the notion being that a full speed receiver running down field has the potential to go deep and must be covered full speed. Except now the corner knows that's not going to happen. He knows that you only have 30 yards to work with, so you're not going to be speeding anywhere. That sets him up perfectly to get under the comeback and jump it.

Most other routes are good for the next 15 or so yards until we come to the 5-7 yard line region. Here we start to lose some of the medium-deep routes, mainly those that kind of bridge the gap. The 15 yard deep in - often referred to as the 'Dig' - is basically lost, as by the time the receiver makes the break they'll be running out of the end zone. The deep out at the same depth is also gone. The fade route off a 3-step drop is largely gone (though not the one step fade). It becomes difficult but not impossible to run a form of the skinny post route. And finally the pure 10-yard hook is lost, as again the threat of a deeper route is lost, although a 10-yard curl is manageable.

It's around this time that the structure of the defense also begins to change. As the vertical depth of the field compresses, it becomes less and less useful for the defense to run a standard cover 2 shell, with both safeties back deep. They simply don't have the threats they otherwise would. This can allow corners (if cover 2 is still played) to take slightly wider alignments on their receivers, knowing that any inside break will be funnelled right into their safeties, who are now playing much closer to the line of scrimmage.

As the depth gets reduced right down, you also begin to see more man coverage, with a single high safety to cover the middle of the end zone, freeing up the strong safety to come down and play the run and/or blitz. Some teams will dispense with the high safety all together, preferring to bring both down close to the line, where they can blitz, play close run support and still get back into a coverage position in the middle of the end zone if needed.

The much more compacted nature of the defense now begins to favour variety and aggression on the part of the defensive coordinator. It's not like he's going to get burnt deep over the middle in this situation (off play action for example) and because of the short distances involved for dropping coverage players, he can be a lot more creative in his blitz schemes and still be confident that everyone will get into place on time.

Probably the most significant advantage conferred on the defense at this point - and why the offenses in Philadelphia and Carolina are struggling in particular - is that speed no longer kills. Someone like a DeSean Jackson or a Steve Smith (the Carolina version) derive much of their threat to opposition defenses due to their speed in the open field. Once you get DeSean Jackson humming along there's not a lot of people that can catch him.

But down in the red zone the space simply doesn't permit such free running. By the time Jackson has hit full stride he'll either be back in the locker room or his quarterback will be lying on the ground as a result of the heavy pressure. It's at times like this that tall, strong, wide bodied players come to the fore. Guys like your Andre Johnson's, your Calvin Johnson's, your Brandon Marshall's. Guys like Plaxico Burress for the Jets and Dez Bryant for the Cowboys. And tight ends.

Tight ends suddenly become big targets. They're strong enough to shed off most coverage defenders, and the linebackers that they can't out strength they can usually out run. They can make tough catches in tight spots and still hold onto the ball all the way to the ground. And in the face of additional pressure from the defense, the fact that they often run routes right down the eye line of the quarterback (in the middle of the field) makes them easy targets to find in quick decision situations.

It's precisely these kind of players that both the Eagles and Panthers lack. They both have tight ends, good ones at that, but down in the red zone that's about all they have.

Now I've painted a pretty bleak picture from the offenses stand point, but it's not all doom and gloom. As we've seen, a big bodied receiver can be very difficult to stop. Just look at the success Matthew Stafford has had this year with the Lions when throwing to Calvin Johnson in the red zone. But as I mentioned earlier, there are also two other advantages that the offense holds, and they're both advantages for a similar reason.

That reason is the short distance between the line of scrimmage and the goal line. Out in the open field a rushing play that only makes 3 yards is not a great gain. It's ok on first down I suppose, but not much use on third and ten. From the three yard line though, a three yard run is a touchdown. On third down and ten with the ball on the 50 yard line, a dump off pass to a running back who picks up 6 yards before being tackled is a win for the defense. The same situation from the 5 yard line results in another touchdown.

And that's what the defense has to be wary about. Short runs and passes suddenly become very dangerous. The shorter the distance, the more dangerous it is. With the ball on the two the defense has to make a choice; when they see run action in the backfield, do they plow in en masse? Doing so gives them a good shot at stopping the 2 yard run, maybe their only shot. But it also leaves them vulnerable to a simple play fake that gets a tight end in a few yards of space on one edge, and boom, you got another touchdown.

So what about if the offense lines up in an empty set? Let's say we're talking about the Green Bay Packers with Aaron Rodgers at quarterback. Now Rodgers isn't just one hell of a throwing quarterback, he can sprint to. So are you prepared to put a spy on him? Doing so leaves you one man down in your overall coverage. And are you even sure your guy can keep up with Rodgers? The only alternative is to bring six rushers, fill every gap along the offensive line, and hope that your remaining guys can cover Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, Jermichael Finley etc man to man. That's a decision I'm glad I don't have to make.

Even a simple screen pass can be dangerous. Whether it's hitting a wide receiver on the perimeter, or a little dump off to a back from ten yards out, the screen game has lots of damaging potential in the red zone, because even a small gain can result in a score.

Which is why I'm so surprised at the lack of scoring from both the Eagles and Panthers. They've had their opportunities, that's not their problem. They're getting down into the red zone and putting up video game numbers of yards along the way. And the stupid thing is both teams have the perfect set of tools for this kind of work. Having bashed DeSean Jackson and Steve Smith, allow me to now explain.

The Panthers have Cam Newton and Jonathan Stewart. Even if we discount DeAngelo Williams for the second on account of his poor season thus far, the Panthers still have two perfect tools for scoring in the red zone. With Cam Newton you have an incredible athlete, whose strength and agility for his size is very impressive. We've seen flashes of what he can do, but the Panthers really need to give this guy a lot of latitude down in the red zone. Go empty, let him have a read of the field, and if he doesn't like it he can run it in himself.

You can even incorporate this with Stewart, a big back with great power who can deliver tremendous hits to defenders, by having run action in one direction with Stewart and with Cam Newton rolling out the opposite side. The threat of these two players travelling in two different directions is enough to give defenses nightmares. With the weapons they have, the Panthers really should be lethal in the red zone. Right now they're not.

The Eagles should be doing even better. They have Mike Vick for a start. He may not be quite as strong as Newton when it comes to breaking tackles, but Vick is probably a step or two quicker, and certainly accelerates quicker. The threat Vick poses to run out of empty sets or on bootlegs off the running game is probably the greatest among all quarterbacks in the NFL. Yet what do we see from the Eagles? Dive/Toss plays up the middle, with complicated blocking and ball handling that the Eagles don't seem to have got the hang of just yet.

To me it seems like a waste. Almost as much of a waste as their lack of a screen game right now. This is what the Eagles under Andy Reid have lived by for years. The combination of McNabb to Westbrook was one of the most dangerous screen games in the entire NFL (which makes it all the more puzzling as to why McNabb is struggling with the screen game in Minnesota). In all honesty, while LeSean McCoy may not be as comfortable with screens as Westbrook was, he's certainly faster than Westbrook was. Right around the red zone would be a great place to get that screen game rolling, especially as we've seen plenty of evidence this season demonstrating how athletic the Eagles linemen can be in open space.

I dunno, it just baffles me that the Eagles and Panthers are struggling as bad as they are. They have the players to make it happen, no question. Play calling? Err.... not so much. Though given how bad they've been so far, I'd expect experienced coaches like Andy Reid and Ron Rivera to get their teams knuckled down into some red zone work during practice over the course of this week.

Of course I also keep waiting for the Cowboys and Vikings to learn how not to blow 20 point leads as well....

So there you have it. That's me vented for another day. Tomorrow I'll be back to do my picks for week 5, with a reduced work load this week as the bye weeks begin. Till then, have fun and spread the word about your favourite blog.

What do you mean which one?


Teoita said...

Bill Walsh also mentioned this (i read it somewhere on smartfootball). He said he almost always ran 4verticals at the 25ish yard line to hit a TD rather than tyring to move further up, because defenses would be a lot more aggressive after that mark...and in the end zone he ran all sorts of bootlegs, sprints and whatnot (The Catch for example). It's wierd that 30 years later some coaches don't get it, especially Andy Reid.

Chris said...

Hey Teoita!

Yeah, Bill Walsh did a coaching seminar back in either 1979 or 1980, and there is a transcript of it kicking about on the web somewhere. He explained he'd rather take three shots from deep and then kick a field goal than try and fight it out down in the trenches.

Of course over the years that didn't always pan out. The 49ers under Walsh spent a lot of time in the red zone, but they had a good success rate, partly due to having some good runners (Tyler, Craig, Rathman) and partly down to the variety of the play calling.

As you mentioned, "The Catch" was a sprint out, the famous 'Sprint Right Option'. A play like that in the hands of Vick or Newton is quite a scary thing, given the potential for the QB to run it in themselves.

We'll see this weekend. The Eagles are away to Buffalo, who haven't exactly been the toughest of teams to run on, and the Panthers are at home to the Saints, which means a lot of pressure coming at Cam Newton.

If neither team fixes their problems, despite the amount of time and film they have to work with, then that for me will throw serious doubt on how successful these teams can be this season.