Why They Called What They Did
Posted by Derek
Today was Thursday aka coordinator press conference day aka defend last week's gameplan day. To mark the occasion, let's talk more about playcalling.
And yes, there will be pictures. But some blah blah first.
One of the things that drives me nuts is post facto analysis that doesn't consider what the coaches might have been thinking before their meticulously crafted game plan blew up all over their faces. It's just X didn't work, so clearly NotX was the better choice.
There's a place for this sort of thing during the game -- RUN THE %$#@ING BALL ANDY -- but after we've had a couple days to sort through everything and take a more dispassionate look, it's time to dig a bit deeper.
Starting with the offense, one of the ways in which Marty and his critics* disagree is the definition of the word "work." When we say, "Dude, whatever you were trying to do last game, that stuff didn't work at all," we mean "You scored six points."
That's not Marty's definition. Marty watches the film and sees plays where receivers were open but didn't get the ball, either because Vick didn't see them or was running for his life. Or plays where the receiver would have been open if he'd run the right route. Or screen passes that would have worked if his running back would just forget about the right joystick for once.
My issue with this line of thinking is that execution is not an exogenous variable. Vick missed guys because he was under pressure all day. The line struggled picking up seven rushers who had zero concern about the run game. Rookie receivers always make more mistakes the more chances you give them.
And no, we don't really "hope they blitz."
But enough about the offense, let's talk about Todd Bowles and Juan Castillo, two guys who have been much maligned for their choice of coverages against Larry Fitzgerald, even though he ended up being about the only guy who did anything. And they only gave up 17 points, playing with an offense that thinks ball security has something to do with a kevlar athletic supporter.
After watching the all-22 a couple times and from what we've seen so far this season, I think Bowles and Castillo had three issues coming into this game, two of which they knew about, one they didn't.
The first known problem was Brandon Boykin. He's too good.
Remember all the way back in August we were still talking about "Nickel Nnamdi":
That project is apparently on the fast-track, as Juan Castillo seems to be full-steam ahead with his plan to use Asomugha in a variety of ways. That means Marsh – or whoever wins the job — gets thrust into an important role.
“That’s our plan right now – we put [Marsh] in a lot of different packages just so we can try to take advantage of matchups,” said Asomugha. “The more he progresses, the more we’ll be able to do.”
The Eagles still see value in putting him in the interior. There’s even a name for the package – the “Nickel Nnam” – where Asomugha slides inside and Marsh gets the call on the outside.
“I approach it as being a starter because I have to come in and play with the first team in certain situations, so I have to be just as prepared as somebody that’s out there all the time,” said Marsh.
-- Tim McManus, Birds 24/7
So much for that. Boykin was so good so early that the coaches seem to have decided they're going to run with him as the #3 cornerback no matter what. Having said that, they don't seem all that fired up about letting him play outside.
Some evidence for that viewpoint in a Castillo non-answer from today's presser:
On whether there is still an option for an alignment with Asomugha on the inside and CB Curtis Marsh on the outside: “Well, again, it depends on the down, whether it’s first or second down. Sometimes in base, when you’re going against their two backs, two receivers and tight end, if the two receivers are on the same side, you may see the two corners and you may see (CB) Dominique (Rodgers-Cromartie) inside, or Dominique outside and Nnamdi inside. Same thing as when they play two tight ends and one back and two receivers; usually, our corners go over and match up with their wide receivers.”
Evidently the coaches think the dropoff from Boykin to Marsh is so big that it's not worth playing the situational game where one guy is Mr. Inside and one is Mr. Outside. That was issue #1.
The second challenge had to do with the type of team we are and the type of quarterback Kevin Kolb is. When we've looked our best this year on defense, it's been playing a man underneath look with two deep safeties watching everyone's backs. Unfortunately, when you're game planning for the Cardinals, that's almost the last thing you want to do.
The shortest distance between two points is generally pretty wide open, which means against Captain Checkdown, there's not much point in just sitting those two safeties back there. They're kind of wasted, and by the way, wouldn't it be nice to use at least one extra man on Larry Fitzgerald?
The Cardinals also run a lot of short, crossing crap, so really you want to flood the short zones and make Kolb look for something downfield, all with your pass rush bearing down on him.
So, issue #1, we want to play Boykin and we need to keep him inside. Issue #2, we like to play 2-man, but that's a bad fit for Arizona and ideally we'd rather not just let them tee off on Boykin inside all day once they figure out what we're doing.
Which brings us to the game plan we actually used -- lots of zone and combo coverages -- and then issue #3 ... which is that it turns out some of these guys kinda struggle with zone and combo coverages.
As Bobby April might say, here's how we paid our tuition on that one.
Last week I showed a good play by DeMeco, pushing his man to the safety and them coming off to take away the crossing route.
This week, we saw Kendricks facing almost the exact same situation (he's inside, Boykin actually circled, sorry for confusion):
He's inside, his receiver is running up the hash marks, and the outside receiver is going to hook it up short. Last week's DeMeco play, very similar situation at this point:
But check out the difference. Here's Kendricks as the play continues:
Note that he's run another five yards, and is no longer in position to help with the short receiver. Contrast with Ryans, who had already come off his man and was giving help:
And in fact, the pass has already been completed before Kendricks ever comes off his man:
Sticking with Kendricks for a minute, the Cardinals also attacked him when he was in man. They love their pick plays. Here's one he doesn't see coming:
And here's another one where they're actually trying to pick Ryans (Kendricks circled, DeMeco next to him):
Annnd, oops, the rookie forgot he was in man, not zone, so the picker actually ends up running free across the middle while Kendricks double covers what looks to be the super dangerous Beanie Wells:
Boykin had even more difficulty in zone than Kendricks did. This play is a pretty straightforward four-covering-three situation. Boykin should know he has outside/short, so his responsibility coming out of this bunch should be obvious pretty early:
A beat after the snap, it's clear he's having trouble identifying what's coming at him:
Which makes him late:
The ball's in the air and he's barely moved. Now, having said that, Kolb put the throw in a bad spot and Boykin is so fast that that mistake was all he needed to close it down and help ensure Doucet didn't make the catch. But that's not good zone defense.
Here's another one where we have to guess a bit, but I think we have enough info to do so. Boykin in the slot at the snap:
Allen is going to move to the middle as the play progresses and Nnamdi is going to run deep as fast as he can (more on that in a moment), so I believe Boykin had the short outside. As opposed to, literally, the middle of nowhere:
Maybe he was supposed to be short, maybe he was supposed to be deep ... we know for sure he wasn't supposed to be in the middle not covering anyone.
Now, take one more look at that play as it continues:
That's not Larry Fitzgerald. We need to be really careful asking Nnamdi to play deep thirds out of press.
More Boykin. Here's a blitz that would make Sean McDermott happy. CB coming from the bottom (off Fitz), we rotate a double team into his spot, and Trent Cole's dropping up top:
The routes (that's Boykin in the slot):
How it plays out:
Criticize the coaches all you want for dropping Cole into coverage -- at least he's covering someone. Easy pitch and catch as neither Kendricks nor Boykin is close to the receiver.
I think you could even argue that the slant Fitz almost turned into a first down on fourth third and a million was another example of Boykin not showing great zone awareness. Routes:
Nnamdi says, "By all means, please go inside":
Boykin stays focused on the man in front of him, rather than his area of the field:
That one's a bit more arguable, but I still think he could be a couple steps further outside and further back.
Now, contrast his zone work with what we see when he's locked up on someone. Fitz is still going to beat him here:
But it takes an absolutely evil route and he's not beating him by much:
We also shouldn't leave the impression that only the rookies struggled in zone. No need to re-hash the Coleman touchdown here, but how about this one from Nnamdi:
It's cover three and he's five yards deeper than the other safeties, even as the man in front of him is sitting down and the ball's coming his way.
Brian talked a couple days ago about the way it sometimes looks that Nnamdi is more interested in appearing that he wasn't beaten than he is sticking his nose in to help make a bad play a little less so. I have the same observation, but a different take. I think Nnamdi is scared to death of guys running past him these days, so we see him overreacting to moves and -- as in the above -- leaving cushions that are a bit too big to be effective.
Here's another mess-up, this time from DeMeco. Sitting in zones with crossing routes and a man coming right at him:
He's going to react to something -- I think a little move by Kolb shifting in the pocket -- and take himself towards the top of the screen, also know as "out of position" for this throw:
I think we might go back to playing a lot more man this week.
* We have a whole fanclub, you should check it out.