Monday, January 30, 2012

Playing to your strengths

When reading today's article please keep in mind that I am in indescribable pain thanks to a lost filling in one of my teeth. If I seem like I'm aimlessly ranting at any point, it could just be pure frustration from the pain or loss of senses from the painkillers. Or it might just be me going on one of my rants. Either way, I'll be using the pain as an excuse.

Basically today I want to talk about a subject that invariably seems to bug the hell out of me every year, mostly because every season - without fail - there will be numerous examples of teams failing to adhere to what is effectively a foundational adage of football; get your best players involved in the game. Or "feed your studs". Or "let your kid make a play". Or any other version of that same theme.

Because for me the difference in the Giants/49ers NFC Championship game was, at least from an offensive perspective, the greater ability and desire of the Giants to get the ball into the hands of their best players, such as receiver Victor Cruz. The 49ers meanwhile barely tried to get the ball to Vernon Davis and Frank Gore, arguably the two most talented players on that offense.

It's an issue familiar to fans of a number of teams. Talking to Vikings fans about this subject is like preaching to the converted. They've spent the last few seasons watching in vain as Adrian Peterson either stands on the sidelines or else gets called on to pass block (probably the weakest part of his game) as the Vikings insist on trying to pass their way to victory, despite having a dynamite running back who many consider to be the best in the league.

Nor will I have to lecture Ravens fans, who got all the ammunition they needed earlier this year from Terrell Suggs, who bemoaned on TV a lack of carries for Ray Rice, who without question is their most explosive playmaker on offense. That's not to say that receivers like Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith are bad, they absolutely are not. But the guy throwing to them can be very sketchy at times, the offensive line doesn't always hold up that well, and it still doesn't detract from the fact that Ray Rice is truly one of those "touchdown waiting to happen" type players.

Just ask the Chicago Bears. For a long time now Bears fans have been frustrated by the 'pass first' offense of Mike Martz, with the press pitching in too to apply the pressure. So it seems Martz decided to take it a little literally this year by saying - and I'm paraphrasing here - "fuck it, I'll run the ball every play for the first ten plays and I'll show them who's rig... oh shit this actually works".

Matt Forte had a fantastic season until he went down injured, showing off his skills in the open field after the Bears O-line opened up some big holes for him. Thus, in games where the Bears stuck with Forte and their running game, they actually did pretty well.

Now before we go any further, I accept that it's not feasible to just completely rely on one player for your entire offense. You can't run the ball with the same guy 60 times per game, or throw the ball to one player 40 times. You can try, but I'd hasten to suggest that in the modern era of adaptable and somewhat advanced defenses that you wont get very far.

But highlighting a certain player in your game plan (or indeed the adjunct to this; targeting a weak opposing player) should be a key feature of every coaches consideration in the run up to game day. If you have a great running back who has a knack for finding space and breaking off big runs then it makes sense for you to give him plenty of opportunities to do what it is that he does best.

If you have a great receiver who can run like the wind blows (yes, Forrest Gump is one of my favourite films, so screw you) and who has a great talent for catching jump balls then it makes sense to adjust your passing game plan to emphasis this talent and take advantage of it with plentiful opportunities for your star guy to get down field and make plays on jump balls. You can then set out much of the rest of your passing game to take advantage of a defensive over reaction to this threat.

And hell, the theory even applies to defense. If you have a great pass rushing outside linebacker then it makes little sense to have him dropping off into coverage 50% of the time. That means that on half of your defensive snaps you're not using one of your best players to his full potential. It doesn't mean you can go to the extreme and have him rush 100% of the time, not least because of the element of surprise opportunities that are present when you do ask him to drop off. However such a player probably should be spending 75% of your defensive snaps (or around that) doing the thing that he does best.

Got a safety who plays great coming down into the curl flat zone? Then for goodness sake make sure he gets plenty of chances to come down and poach in that zone. Admittedly here you have to be a little more careful about presenting the exact same coverage to the offense 75% of the time, and indeed you might even be looking at a figure under 50%, but at the very least you have to give your playmakers ample chances to play in the roles that suit them best.

It's just a real hobby horse of mine to jump on.

I just can't stand watching teams that clearly have a lot of potential squandering it through the misuse of key talent. When you see teams that have great running backs and terrible wide receiver corps trying to emulate the Colts and Patriots it kind of makes me sad, for the fans if not for the teams themselves. Or conversely when you see a team that has some great receivers on their roster, yet they're chucking the ball to the third string wide out on a screen pass or trying to throw deep bombs to the kid that's only caught two passes all season.

Compare and contrast to Tom Brady of the Patriots. Brady has some deep talent in his receiving corps, but fundamentally you know that when Brady drops back to pass he's only really interested in Rob Gronkowski or Wes Welker. Occasionally he'll distribute the ball to guys like Aaron Hernandez who is another excellent tight end, but there is a very good reason why Chad Ochocinco, Deion Branch, Tiquan Underwood and Julian Edelman haven't had their names called all that much this season. Brady knows where his money guys are and he goes looking for them early and often.

Even Aaron Rodgers (Discount Double Check!) has his favourites. Sure he distributes the love around that receiving corps a little more than some, but Jordy Nelson and Greg Jennings still lead the way, mainly because they've been hot this season. Rodgers isn't a fool. He knows which receivers he trusts and which receivers are likely to make plays in the various scenarios that come up during a game.

On defense the principle can also be seen in action. The 49ers bringing Ahmad Brooks on plentiful blitzes. The Giants using linebacker blitzes to guarantee they get one on one matchups for defensive linemen like Jason Pierre-Paul. The Ravens getting plenty of mileage out of Terrell Suggs. The Eagles using a wide nine alignment for their defensive ends to take advantage of their pass rushing attributes.

It's a basic cornerstone of most team sports, not just football. You try and emphasise your key players, putting them in such a position that they can have the most effect on the outcome of a game. That's not to say that teams can just lean on one guy or that the other team members aren't important, but most successful basketball teams are the ones that create plenty of chances for their best players. It's the same with soccer, rugby, hockey and just about any other team sport you can name.

Simple things like designing three or four plays that are specifically designed for a key playmaker, or moving that playmaker around so that the opposition finds it hard to key in on him can make a huge difference. Consider as well the effect when teams have shut down key members of the opposition. When the Cowboys and Patriots met earlier this year, Rob Ryan must have dug up his game plan from the previous year with the Browns, as he managed to press Welker and Gronkowski practically out of the game entirely, at least until that final Patriots drive.

Or the amount of times this season that teams have doubled up on Clay Matthews with their running back or tight end helping out the right tackle with a chip, not to mention the fact that because the Packers have hardly moved Matthews around this year he's practically been a sitting duck for quarterbacks to set their protection against.

It really is one of the easiest ways that a coach can have a big influence on his team or on his opponents, by emphasising his strongest players while shutting out the opponents biggest threats. It takes very little in the way of adjustments on the part of the coordinators, especially given the impact that it can have on the game.

That's the main thing I'll be watching out for next Sunday as the Giants take on the Patriots. I want to see what steps - if any - that the Giants defense takes to try and erase Welker and Gronkowski (if he plays, which it looks likely that he will) from the game, as well as what blitzes and stunts they use to try and get their playmaking pass rushers into favourable match ups.

Also I'm intrigued as to how the Patriots will use motion and formations to try and keep Welker away from the likes of Aaron Ross, while giving themselves plenty of chances to get the ball to their key receivers. On defense I'm interested to see what blitzes Bill Belichick will come up with to emphasise the talents of guys like Rob Ninkovich, and how he's going to organise a secondary that doesn't look like it matches up well with the Giants plethora of talent at the wide receiver position.

Remember; play to your strengths!

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