New Grantland: Mark Dantonio and Pat Narduzzi’s Stingy, Adaptable Michigan State Defense in the Age of the Spread Offense

My latest piece on Mark Dantonio and Pat Narduzzi’s Michigan State defense is now up over at Grantland:

Rather than trying to call the right defense and maybe being right or maybe being wrong, Dantonio and Narduzzi have responded to this challenge by building a responsive defense that mutates into the right alignment depending on what the offense does. Against four vertical receivers, Michigan State wants four man-to-man defenders who can carry the receivers all the way upfield; against crisscrossing underneath receivers, the Spartans want to be in a zone coverage that lets their defenders break hard on the ball and on those receivers, rather than forcing them to chase in man-to-man; and against the run, the Spartans want as many as nine defenders in the box.

How do they manage all that at once?

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Read the whole thing.

New Grantland: How Chip Kelly’s influence — both on and off the field — is spreading around the NFL

It’s now up over at Grantland:

So far, most of the attention surrounding Kelly has centered on his spread offense, particularly the way in which he gives his quarterbacks multiple run, keep, or pass options on the same play, all from a no-huddle, up-tempo pace. And those ideas are certainly having an impact. The Dolphins hired Kelly’s quarterbacks coach, Billy Lazor, to implement a version of Kelly’s scheme in Miami; the league in general is trending toward more no-huddle; and several NFL coaches have told me their teams will be using “Chip Kelly plays” this season.

But Kelly’s influence extends far beyond read-options and the no-huddle, and into the subtler and more fundamental aspects of the game. In just one year, Kelly’s question-everything approach has caused many smart NFL coaches and executives to ask themselves why they’ve been doing things the same way for so long. And many are realizing that Kelly has better answers.

Read the whole thing.

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New Grantland Bits On Andy Dalton and Ryan Tannehill (and Dolphins OC Bill Lazor)

Bill Barnwell invited me to write some sidebars for his Grantland pieces analyzing Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton and Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill.

TannehillCheck out the Tannehill piece:

Ryan Tannehill enters his make-or-break third season with a new offense coordinated by Bill Lazor, a promising but relatively unknown coach. Joe Philbin let his friend Mike Sherman go and brought in Lazor, who has coached with Joe Gibbs, Mike Holmgren, and, most recently, as the quarterbacks coach in Philadelphia under Chip Kelly. Miami is hoping Lazor can do for Tannehill what he did for Eagles quarterback Nick Foles, who went from an iffy rookie year in 2012 to a sparkling 27-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a league-high passer rating in 2013. Nonetheless, Lazor, who, befitting his Cornell degree, looks less like an offensive coordinator than he does a management consultant, is something of a blank slate and has never called plays in the NFL before.

And while several players have intimated that the new Dolphins offense will look like Philadelphia’s, Lazor has maintained it will be a blend of what he has learned throughout his career, not just his lone season with Kelly. But while we don’t know if Lazor brought the Eagles’ playbook to Miami, we do know he is trying to replicate Kelly’s fast-paced approach. “The number one thing we want to do is play with great tempo,” Lazor explained recently. But the best no-huddle offenses in the NFL — the Broncos, Patriots, and Eagles — expertly vary their tempos, a skill Lazor is going to have to develop.

And the one on Dalton:

It’s a shame because when he has a comfortable pocket, Dalton is able to show everyone what his coaches clearly see in him, namely that he understands defenses, route concepts, and even how to look defenders off and throw with anticipation before his receivers make their breaks. Unfortunately for Dalton, the threat of pressure can’t be wished away in the NFL.

One question often asked about Dalton is whether his background with the spread offense in college helped or hurt him. It probably helped, but it’s hard to say. TCU — the rare college spread offense team that boasted top-five defenses while Dalton was there — ran a standard spread: multiple receiver formations, a mix of inside zone and read-option runs, coupled with quick passes and a bevy of screens, which sounds a lot like what he did in Cincinnati under Gruden, minus the emphasis on read-options. Dalton’s other top passing concepts at TCU are also found in NFL playbooks, and the reality is that he’s going on Year 4 as a starting quarterback — he’s had plenty of opportunities to adapt to the pro game.

New Grantland: Better with Age: How 37 year-old Peyton Manning (and his Broncos offense) got better than ever

It’s now up over at Grantland:

Even though the actual plays in Manning’s current Denver playbook are largely the same ones he used in Indianapolis, the emphasis has shifted this season. With the Colts, a large percentage of Manning’s throws went to “vertical stem” routes, where receivers ran straight down the field before breaking inside, outside, to the post, to the corner, or curling up. Those throws are still heavily present in Denver — and no one has thrown a prettier fade pass this season than Manning; the above record-breaker to Julius Thomas is just one example — but a big chunk of Manning’s completions this season came on routes designed to be thrown short. The goal on such plays is to throw short and let Denver’s receivers run long, particularly with the “Drag” or shallow cross series.

 

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Read the whole thing.

New Grantland: Who’s Laughing Now? Breaking Down Pete Carroll and the Seattle Seahawks’ Multiple Defense

It’s now up over at Grantland:

Coaching is a hard profession. It certainly has its rewards, as skyrocketing salaries for NFL and college head coaches illustrate, but failure is the norm. Being a coach means eventually getting fired, and making a career out of coaching at all is an accomplishment. Carroll, however, has done something especially rare, pushing through wrenching public failure to succeed beyond all expectations. A coach can’t do that without learning from past mistakes, and Carroll has certainly changed for the better.

Much of the credit goes to Carroll’s defense, which has been the foundation of his success and remains closely tied to the first lessons he learned as a very young coach. “To be successful on defense, you need to develop a philosophy,” Carroll said at a coaching clinic while still at USC. “If you don’t have a clear view of your philosophy, you will be floundering all over the place. If you win, it will be pure luck.”

Carroll’s Seahawks, who face the San Francisco 49ers in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game, don’t win with luck. They win by physically dominating opponents and playing championship-level defense. They also win thanks to Carroll’s new spin on an old scheme.

Read the whole thing.

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New Grantland: Goodbye to the BCS… But Careful What You Wish For

It’s now up over at Grantland:

The primary advantage of a playoff is certainty, and after years of endless BCS debate — which followed decades of debate under the earlier bowl systems — certainty has real allure. But in most sports that have playoffs, like the NFL or the NBA, the criteria for getting to the playoffs is basically objective. Most playoff spots are decided based on win/loss records, with certain mechanical tiebreakers in place and known in advance. It’s not that the playoff crowns the best or most deserving team — just ask the 10-6 New York Giants that knocked off the undefeated New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. It’s that the loser has nothing to complain about: Everyone knows the rules.

Yet the new College Football Playoff lacks the very thing that makes playoffs in other sports so palatable, namely a semblance of objective certainty. While the defective BCS formula should have been interred long ago, it has been replaced by a Council of Platonic Guardians. The College Football Playoff selection committee will meet confidentially, then announce the identities of the playoff participants by edict. That’s not exactly what I’d call “settling it on the field.”

Read the whole thing.

New Grantland: Florida State’s “Most Improved Person”: Jimbo Fisher

It’s now up over at Grantland:

Winston piled up yards and touchdowns on his way to the Heisman Trophy, and his 190.06 passer rating is good for the second best single-season rating of all time, just shy of the mark Russell Wilson set in 2011. And it’s not as though Winston has run some watered-down attack; Manuel said this fall that learning the Buffalo Bills’ system was actually “easier to learn than the offense [he] had at Florida State,” as it required fewer adjustments based on defensive coverages. Fisher’s system, by contrast, puts a heavy burden on the quarterback to alter his reads depending on the defense’s coverage or alignment.

Earlier in Fisher’s career, he asked both his receivers and the quarterback to adjust routes based on the defense, but in recent years he’s simplified things — for everyone but the quarterback. “There are so many schemes and we all want to be gurus in football and think we created something,” Fisher said at the clinic. “I am just as guilty as everyone else, I promise.” Over the last few seasons Fisher reduced the number of plays while building options for his quarterbacks within each play. “Against Clemson [in 2012] we ran the same pass play nine times,” said Fisher. “We completed all nine of the passes, to five different receivers. I did not need a new play.”

Read the whole thing.

New Grantland: What Really Went Wrong with RG3 This Season?

It’s now up over at Grantland:

Griffin’s footwork not only hurt his reads, it hurt his accuracy. “Body position is absolutely critical,” Redskins quarterback coach Matt LaFleur recently told ESPN’s John Keim. “If you don’t have good body position, your balance is off and your accuracy will be off. It’s absolutely critical you get your body in correct position to make the correct throw.” LaFleur added that, for Griffin, this season has “been a constant work in progress.”

Read the whole thing.

New Grantland: The Architect: How Art Briles and his potent offense have taken Baylor from conference doormat to national title contender

It’s now up over at Grantland:

There’s no question, though, that it’s Briles’s offense — currently averaging more than 64 points and 713 yards per game — that is the engine of Baylor’s success and the source for all the optimism surrounding his program. When Baylor’s offense is rolling — when the aggressive plays, speedy weapons, and up-tempo pace work in unison — the offense is less about executing football plays and more about waging psychological warfare. Two weeks removed from Baylor’s 73-point, 872-yard thrashing of West Virginia, WVU defensive coordinator Keith Patterson described the loss as “unlike anything I’ve ever been associated with in my entire life. It was just catastrophic in a lot of ways to our psyche.” When Baylor scores 35 in a quarter, 50 in a half, or 70 in a game, it’s hard for the opposing team to recover mentally — not just in that game, but for the rest of their season. The fact that it’s Baylor — yesterday’s footstool — is not lost on anyone, either.

Read the whole thing.

New Grantland: Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Sid Gillman, and the Mysterious Art of Quarterbacking

It’s now up over at Grantland:

No position is more scrutinized — How tall is he? How far can he throw? Who is he dating? — and nowhere in football is greatness valued or debated more, but exactly how young, promising quarterbacks become Tom Brady and Peyton Manning remains something of a mystery. The results are apparent, but most are unversed in the actual process. Manning, Brady, and Rodgers are great because they’ve taken the raw materials of the position — an understanding of defenses, of why receivers get open and how to find them — and transformed them into muscle memory they can use to fluidly perform, every time. Greatness isn’t something quarterbacks stumble upon. It’s something that becomes ingrained into their very constitution.

[...]

Now, let’s say the quarterback’s first read isn’t open. How does he know when to move to the next receiver? The idea of finding a secondary receiver leaves some quarterbacks looking like they just lost their wallet. For others, like Brady or Manning, it looks easy, and it’s because it’s not only their brains telling them when to look.

“His feet are telling him when to move to no. 2 and no. 3,” current San Francisco head coach Jim Harbaugh said to a room full of quarterback coaches back when he was coaching at the University of San Diego. “One-two-three-four-five-plant — throw it. If it’s not there, first hitch is to the [second read], and then the second hitch is to [third read].”

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Read the whole thing.