Friday, October 14, 2011

Skycam, bump and run coverage, and Eli Manning fumbling (again)

Right then, picture time.

I should point out before we get onto the pictures themselves that they are screen captures taken from a playback of a Fox broadcast. No editing has been done, the pictures are as broadcast. I'm sure Fox won't mind, not least because of "small fish, big pond" type stuff.

So anyway, yes, pictures. The reason I want to show you picture number one from the Seahawks/Giants game is simple. It's a picture taken from their Skycam, that's the camera that runs on four wires and sits above the field of play tracking back and forth to follow the action. And to me personally, I think it's the best angle to watch a game of football from. Just take a look;

That - to me - is a great shot. Maybe it's just because I'm a football nerd, but in that picture I can see the splits of the offensive line, I can see the defensive front (the actual screen image is slightly larger than the capture, that's just how the picture came out when captured), I can see the safety on the right hand side who's sitting about 20 yards deep off the ball. When the ball is snapped, you get a great view of the pass rush, including any blitzes. You can also often see the receivers when the camera begins to back up and zoom out after the snap.

But most importantly, you get right into the game. The reason the 'Madden' franchise uses a game camera angle like this is because it offers you the best look at the game. And surely that's what a TV broadcast is all about? Getting the best possible angle for the viewer? Helping people to immerse themselves in the game? If I was the director I think I'd show a wide shot of the field, like the traditional camera angle used in broadcasts now, just to show the audience how the receivers are lined up. Then I'd cut to this shot to give fans the "quarterbacks eye" view during the action (assuming the quarterback has grown... significantly).

I just think the Skycam is such a great tool for TV and yet it barely gets any attention. God knows why. With the league now fining Centers and offensive guards for not wearing microphones because they want to immerse the audience in the game (hint; hearing the snap count doesn't really do a lot to enhance the viewing enjoyment) why would the league not encourage TV networks to make greater use of this awesome angle? It doesn't make sense to me. It can't be cheap or easy rigging up all the wires to the trucks outside etc, so why not make more use of easily the best camera angle in football?

Anyway, if you're wondering what happened on that particular play, here's the end result;

Eli Manning turning the ball over? Are you sure? That NEVER happens!

Yes, that is Eli Manning fumbling the football, which would be recovered by the Seahawks. Same shit, different season.

Moving on, let's talk about Manning's team mate, corner back Aaron Ross. Because not only did Ross play his part in what was actually a pretty good performance by the Giants defense by getting a pick, but he did it using a technique that I love and that seems to be a dying art in the NFL. Like tackling. Or Fullbacks.

It's the bump and run technique.

Basically the under lying assumption of the bump and run technique is this; you're lined up opposite a wide receiver. You're probably standing withing a yard or two of the line. You have safety help over the top. As soon as that receiver crosses the line of scrimmage, you're going to get your hands on him and delay his release upfield. If he knocks your hands aside and beats you then it doesn't matter because you have safety help over the top, just as long as you turn and run in order to get underneath the guy.

The purpose of all this is to disrupt the receivers route and the timing of that route. See, pretty much every pass offense in the NFL runs on a timing basis. What this means is that the routes being run by the receivers have been specifically chosen because they match the quarterbacks drop. for example an "out route" at 10 yards (12 once you take into account the slight bend upfield that occurs) is matched to a 5-step drop by the quarterback. By the time the quarterback has taken five (quick) steps and reached the top of his drop, the wide receiver running the out will just be making his break to the outside.

The stated goal of this timing is to avoid two problems encountered with older passing offenses; 1) If the quarterback is standing around waiting for the receiver to get open, defenders can follow the quarterbacks eyes and jump the route, 2) if a receiver is standing around waiting for the quarterback to finish his drop, nearby defenders can close in on him, potentially jumping the route.

So by timing the receivers break with the quarterbacks drop (which is the real crux of the matter), you can avoid the two problems above. The ball is often in the air before the receiver has even turned his head back to look for it. If the receiver doesn't see the ball coming till the last second, even though he knows when the ball will be thrown, then what chance do the coverage defenders have of making a play on the ball?

Which is where the bump and run comes in. By getting his hands on the receiver, the corner can mess up the receivers otherwise beautifully timed route. Almost all receivers time their breaks by counting their own footsteps as opposed to running a mental clock in their heads. This is why receivers always start with their inside foot forwards when they line up. They know that on a quick slant they need to take three steps and then break to the inside quickly on that third step.

By bumping the receiver, the corner throws off the timing. The receiver can't count his steps and make an efficient, clean break when he's having to take multiple steps as part of a pushing fight at the line of scrimmage. All that timing and all that practice against air on the practice field goes right out of the window.

It's for this reason that most teams, in the past at least, would tell their receivers to convert a significant number of their routes into fade routes when the corners played bump and run. It was basically an admission that against bump and run coverage, precisely timed routes were near useless.

The other thing that bump and run coverage does is to force the quarterback to hold onto the ball. He takes the snap, takes five steps back and then looks up only to see that his receivers aren't where they're supposed to be and in fact all of them are heavily covered. His only option now is to hold onto the ball, moving around in the pocket to buy time for one of them to get open. Either that or make a very risky throw.

This in turn buys time for the pass rush to get home. People always think of good offensive linemen as a strong, almost impenetrable wall. This is a grand misconception. Every O-line, no matter how good, is merely delaying the inevitable. The difference is that a good offensive line can often delay the inevitable for just long enough for their quarterback to get the ball out. Whereas the Bears O-line can often delay it long enough for Jay Cutler to breath in and not do a lot else.

Bump and run coverage is therefore an incredibly effective technique, one which was demonstrated aptly by Aaron Ross against the Seahawks. Here's the starting look, just as the ball is being snapped;

As you can see, Ross is lined up head to head with the receiver, just waiting to make contact and 'chuck' the receiver as he crosses the line. Notice that the receivers feet are by the big "50" marker and Ross is standing on the 45 yard line. Now look at this picture;

The receiver has travelled all of about 3 yards and still has Ross all over him, busting his route up. Ross also has his eyes still in the backfield, so if this was a run he'd be able to see it and come down to make the tackle. By this point the quarterback was just hitting the top of his drop. He looks right and this is what he sees; his receiver, with Ross hanging all over him.

The receiver made a break to the sideline and Ross undercut him, knowing he had safety help over the top in case this was a double move. Tavaris Jackson was still in at the time and made the throw, presumably without looking first. It was Ross who made the catch for the interception.

The receiver? He'd covered all of about 7 yards downfield in total when Ross caught the ball. Off a five step drop by the quarterback. That makes a big difference and it shows the strength of the bump and run technique.

Now there's probably a reason why teams don't use this coverage more often, I just can't figure out what it is. If I was facing Wes Welker of the Patriots for example, I'd much rather have my corner, especially if he's a less talented nickel corner, bump Welker off the line of scrimmage and significantly disrupt and shorten his route. Yeah sure, they'd complete some passes to him eventually. It's Brady to Welker we're talking about here. But at least I'd reduce the amount of easy passes. At least I'd make that throw as tough as possible for Brady. And at least I wouldn't be letting Welker run free right up the middle seams of my defense for 70 odd yard gains, which is something teams seem to be doing a lot lately.

Is the bump and run a silver bullet? No way. Big receivers are harder to bump and indeed there are techniques to defeat the bump and run coverage. But even the application of those techniques takes time, time that the receiver isn't blazing down field through the middle of your defense.

I just think that in the pass happy league that the NFL is today, there is plenty of life left in the good old fashioned bump and run coverage.

And the Skycam.

I'll be back tomorrow with my picks for week 6. See you then.

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