Thursday, December 15, 2011

Todd Haley, Ricky Stanzi, the deep pass and a Thursday night pick. But no Partridge in a pear tree

So this week Todd Haley was fired - somewhat out of the blue - as the Head Coach of the Kansas City Chiefs.

With Haley's departure there was a void, and that void has been filled (for now) by Romeo Crennel. One of Crennels first acts was to announce to the team and the press that the God awful Tyler Palko has been relegated down the Quarterback chart... all the way to third place. Kyle Orton will start this week, providing he's fully recovered and healthy enough to play. If not then the gauntlet will fall to Ricky Stanzi, the rookie out of Iowa.


Other than correctly predicting the round in which Stanzi would be taken, which had as much do with skill as predicting lottery numbers, I was really high on Stanzi pre-draft. At one point I had him pegged number one among the quarterbacks in the 2011 draft, but later revised that in favour of Ponder by a smidgen.

That still makes Stanzi number two though. I just really liked what I saw from Stanzi at Iowa. Some of the underneath passes were a little errant under pressure and his footwork in the pocket was sometimes a little heavy, but generally speaking he was really good. It helped that he played for a team that ran a lot, so he had plenty of play action opportunities, and also that his receivers were pretty good. But that doesn't take away from the fact that Stanzi had a great deep pass, slotting the ball in beautifully over his receivers shoulders.

That's what I'm hoping to see if the Chiefs go with Stanzi; deep passes to unlock the potential of guys like Dwayne Bowe and Jonathan Baldwin.

The deep passing game has always interested me. It's not so much the idea of making big plays that appeals, although obviously that's a big part of it! The thing that interests me the most is the genuine stretch of the defense that is achieved through throwing the ball deep.

Coaches often talk about "spreading the field" and "making the defense protect every blade of grass". But it's surprising how few teams genuinely do this. There are a lot of teams that run "spread" offenses, that force the defense to string themselves out horizontally to cover four or five wide receivers, but a lot of these teams seem to neglect the deep pass.

The threat of the 40 yard fade pass down the sideline does so much for an offense. It forces the corners to play looser, sitting back a little more in order to avoid getting blown past. It makes safeties conscious of the need to protect the deep middle of the field, making them slower to react to run plays as they understand all too well the consequences of biting on what turns out to be a play action fake.

It even affects the linebackers. Now in this regard we're talking more about the deep-in passes, breaking across the middle of the field at a 15 yard depth, but the effect is still the same. It forces them be wary of run action, in case they bite on something that isn't really there and get burned over the top.

That - to me at least - is what stretching the field is truly about. Sending wide receivers and tight ends to attack the middle to deep areas of the field (10-40 yards), while letting the fullback and tail back (I'm an I-formation guy, just in case my numerous posts about running the ball hadn't given that away) work the spaces underneath, both in the flats to the sides and in front of the linebackers.

Again, the key to a stretch like that is not just to make the defence cover the whole width of the field, but to also cover much of it's length at the same time, combining routes in such a way as to force defenders to make tough choices about how far they're prepared to go in any one direction, lest they leave a gaping hole somewhere else;

Just some of the dizzying array of pass route options

I think it's safe to say looking at the diagram above that the defense has it's hands full on every passing play, but only when a team fully exploits the potential of the passing game by using all of the available routes in various combinations to confuse defenses and cause hesitation in their decision making, which is the absolute bane of any defense.

Defensive players are always taught to trust their eyes and play fast. Defensive Coordinators (the good ones at least) are always looking for ways to simplify their schemes as much as they can get away with, particularly by simplifying the reads their players have to make. The coaches want to make it as easy as possible for their players - at least from a mental perspective - to identify what's going on and to respond to it.

The longer a defensive player has to wait before reacting, the less time he has to actually get to the ball and make a play. At the NFL level, even a slight hesitation can be costly. By stretching the defense out both horizontally and vertically you can force defenders to wait longer before making choices; whether to sit short or drop back deep, whether to go inside or out.

An offense that stretches the defense horizontally but not vertically is doing the defense a favour, making it easier for them to play soft zones underneath or to bring heavy pressure combined with tight initial coverage. Teams that stretch the defense vertically but not horizontally are not much better, permitting the defense the advantage of sitting back and pinning the offense into tight throwing windows.

An offense that pulls the defense around both horizontally and vertically gives itself breathing room. It drags defenders out of position and it creates passing lanes (and running lanes). It also gives the quarterback options, giving him the chance to throw deep for a big gain, throw an intermediate pass for ball control or just a check down to help set up a convertible down and distance for the next play.

By the simple expedient of mixing up the routes - and with a bit of forward planning - an offense can make the defenses job several times harder with little additional effort on their own part. I'll be watching the Chiefs closely this week if Stanzi plays to see whether they use the deep pass to help take some of the pressure off the rookie quarterback.

And I'll be taking Atlanta over Jacksonville in tomorrow nights game.

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