What I’ve been reading

- Coaching Defensive Football, by Bill Arnsparger. 330-plus pages of non-stop hard-core football — can the reader take it? Bill Arnsparger was the architect of the Miami Dolphins’ “no-name” defense under Don Shula, head coach of the New York Giants and LSU Tigers, athletic director for the University of Florida (during which time the school was put on probation but he also hired Steve Spurrier), and, finally, defensive coordinator for the San Diego Chargers in the early 1990s under Bobby Ross, again heading to the Super Bowl. Yes, there have been football developments since this book was written, but a perusal of the table of contents that they are minor when compared to what the book covers.

- The Anthologist: A Novel, by Nicholson Baker. Very quick read that I much enjoyed a lot, though people uninterested in poetry might not find it as pleasant as I did.

- Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, by Richard Rorty. A reread of a book I never quite finished before. Again I’m skipping around some, but I think Rorty wouldn’t mind. Not sure I agree with everything but it is difficult to be enthused about philosophy in the analytic tradition after reading this, which is, of course, much of the point of he book.

- The Years with Ross, by James Thurber. This is Thurber’s famous profile of Harold Ross, longtime steward of The New Yorker. I just picked this up so it’s on the pile.

Nick Saban schools you on how to play pass coverage

saban22This is seriously one of the best explanations of this I have heard, from a coach or anyone else. I guess it helps that he’s been doing it for thirty-years. And keep in mind, this is from his radio call-in show. Not your typical call-in.

Although Saban is known for having one of the most complex defenses schemes to play against, he has a pretty simple philosophy for how he wants defensive backs to defend opposing receivers, whether to play the ball or the man. He explained it without too much coach-speak during his radio show last Thursday:

“There were several occasions last week [against Florida International], where guys should have played the ball and they didn’t. That’s something [where] if you can see me on the sideline I’m always going to be yelling at them, ‘Why didn’t you play the ball? Why didn’t you play the ball?’

“Let me explain it to you this way: There’s two positions you can be in when you’re defending a receiver. You’re either ‘in-phase’ with him or you’re ‘out-of-phase’ with him. Now, . . . ‘in-phase’ means that you’re pretty much even with the guy [as he runs straight downfield], but if you can see the guy’s number nearest [to] you, you’re in-phase when you’re covering him down the field. So when he gets through the move area — the move area defined being 14 to 18 yards down the field where the guy’s going to break a route in or out — we play a lot of closed coverage, [i.e.] we’re in bump-and-run a lot; we’re in that position with the guy when he gets in the move area. Now, if you’re in-phase with him when he gets into the move area, you should be become the receiver and look for the ball. That’s what you should do, and then the ball has to go through you.

“If you’re in the out-of phase position, which means you can’t see his near number, you can’t be even with him, then you have to play the guy’s eyes and hands for the ball because you’re not in position and if the quarterback throws it correctly [on a fade type pass] you’re not going to be able to get to the ball — you’re behind him too far.

“Now, to explain why some of the guys didn’t play the ball last week, is [this is] what FIU is really good at: If you play bump-and-run and you have pretty good corners, and they keep the guys cut off, that means my shoulder is ahead of his shoulder going down field so I can control his speed and he can’t run all over the place, [and because] I have good coverage on him, they’ll throw it to what’s called the back shoulder [fade]. By the time you turn around he catches it.

“The way the defensive back should read that is you read the guy’s upfield shoulder and when his upfield shoulder turns back you should turn into him and play the ball into him and you’ll be able to play that pattern. I think with a lot of our guys we probably over-coached that last week and did it in practice a lot. They were waiting for the guy to make the back shoulder throw when he had him cut off and they ended up not playing the ball.”

So much good stuff in here, but I particularly liked this last bit about reading the receiver’s “upfield” (i.e. inside) shoulder so as to defend the back shoulder fade. The idea that your man coverage DB wants to turn away from the QB and “into” the receiver when he opens up to catch the back shoulder fade is a very good coaching point.

(H/t deaux on CoachHuey.)

Wild Bill: double coverage and drawing up plays in the dirt

belichickerSome interesting tidbits from the post-game pressers regarding Bill Belichick. First, his defensive tactics against the Falcons and how worried he was about Falcons tight-end Anthony Gonzalez:

Q: Can you talk about the job the defense did on Tony Gonzalez? He was a big topic of conversation this week.

Belichick: Well, he’s good. We devoted a lot of coverage to him. We doubled him a lot and he’s a guy — game plan-wise — that you’ve got to account for. You’ve got to put some coverage on him; he’s really hard to handle. Again, I thought our guys stepped up and did a good job on him. We doubled him plenty of times and he still caught the ball. He’s tough, but then we held up in some other spots as well. Terrence [Wheatley], Shawn [Springs] and Leigh [Bodden] really did a good job out there. We didn’t give them very much help and they stepped up to the challenge on a good group of receivers and did a competitive job. . . .

Q: Can you talk about the job Brandon McGowan did today? It looked like he was part of your coverage on Tony Gonzalez.

Belichick: Oh, he was. Brandon [McGowan], it seems like he does a good job for us every week in the kicking game and on defense. He’s involved in a lot of plays, makes tackles and is a good coverage player and he did. He had a lot of responsibility on Gonzalez today. But we put a lot of coverage on Tony, too, and I’m not taking anything away from the job Brandon did, but we gave him some help. I mean Gonzalez is almost impossible to matchup with. . . .

Q: Were there changes defensively in the second half?

Belichick: No, not really. It was basically the same game plan we went into the game with. The calls matchup differently like they always do. Certainly, a big part of this game was to deal with Gonzalez, which I am not coming in here talking about him being seven [catches] for 110 [yards] with two touchdowns. . . .

And then Tom Brady had some interesting insight into Belichick’s role with the offense, specifically in drawing up plays in the dirt:

Q: On the Chris Baker touchdown, a guy had you in his grasp, but you were able to get away from the defense and deliver the ball well.

Brady: Yeah it was great protection. It wasn’t how we drew that play up. It was pretty much on the sideline, Coach Belichick said, ‘Well, what do you think about this?’ The guys that ran the play didn’t run it all week in practice and they made an adjustment. Chris [Baker] has been really dependable for us since the day he got here, and he made a great catch and run. . . .

Q: You said Bill Belichick drew up the Chris Baker touchdown play on the sideline. Was he more involved in the offensive communication with you and the play calling this week?

Brady: He’s always involved. He’s involved in every play that’s called. That one, like I said, we just kind of drew it up there on the sidelines and made it work.

Two coaching decisions, a review

Scenario 1: Your team is up 28-23, though the other team has moved the ball quite efficiently all game. There is 10:56 left in the fourth quarter, and you have fourth and goal from the one yard line. A field goal puts you up by eight points; a touchdown probably ices the game. (“Checkmate,” as Urban Meyer would say.) What do you do?

Scenario 2: Your team is up 21-17. The other team has the ball on roughly your two-yard line. Thirty-six seconds remain; they have just run the ball on second down so the clock is moving. They have no timeouts, but you have all three of yours. The other team has just quickly driven the field to get into this position. Question: do you call timeout to preserve some time for yourself in the chance that they score a touchdown on third or fourth down? Or do you leave the pressure on them to execute on those two downs over thirty-six seconds. What do you do?

Analysis (and identities of the coaches) after the jump.

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Throwing a football while staring down a blitz

Very good quarterbacking video from Dub Maddox of Jenks, OK, HS, and who helps run Darin Slack’s quarterback camps.

Monte Kiffin’s scheme for Urban Meyer’s offense

monteMuch of the offseason chatter around the SEC centered on how the legendary Monte Kiffin, now the defensive coordinator for the University of Tennessee under his son, Lane, would deal with the extremely productive but decidedly “college” (in a good way) Florida Gator spread offense, orchestrated and designed by Urban Meyer.

And, while the game itself, a 23-13 affair, was quite possibly a snoozer, the ennui that has followed the game has been remarkable. The storylines have swirled: Tebow’s passing was questionable, Meyer says that he put the brakes on because Lane Kiffin wasn’t interested in winning, and he mentioned that his team was flu-stricken. Yet there is no overshadowing that Monte’s defense did a nice job against Florida’s offense. His plan was to take away the inside run game and make the receivers beat them. And, indeed, the subtext of Meyer’s post-game comments indicate that Monte’s plan was pretty much on target:

“You don’t have to be a genius to figure out the strength of our team right now,” Meyer said. “And that’s a big offensive line running off the ball and a freak quarterback that just takes the game over.

“Is it perfect? No, it’s not perfect. But until we get the full allotment, the full compliment, of wide receivers playing at the level we need them to play, we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do to win.”

So what was Monte’s plan? A few bullets:

  • The basic theory was clear: focus on Florida “inside to out,” meaning focus first on the line and the gamebreaking runningbacks, then on Tebow running and the inside receivers and tight-ends like Hernandez, and, only last, Florida’s outside receivers. I had predicted Monte might do this, but I was wrong with his prescription. I had said they might plan man and use Berry as a “rover” like Dungy used Bob Sanders. I was wrong: Monte played zone defense almost exclusively, played his cornerbacks way off usually to help deep inside, while the other nine guys — Eric Berry included — all kept their eyes in the backfield. And this is why Monte gets the big bucks: this was better than what I had suggested.
  • For example, Kiffin played a lot of Cover 4 or “quarters” against Florida. Florida, in turn, uses a lot of “trips” sets with three receivers to a side to try to force them out of it. The defensive adjustment is to have the safety to the single-receiver side cheat over and help with the inside slot. The diagram below shows this, though I admit it looks a little confusing. The point is that the safeties help with bracketing coverage but also fly up for run support; both guys can hit people on the line of scrimmage.
    cover4trips
  • Where are the weaknesses? To the outside receivers. The single receiver backside is basically in one-on-one coverage because the safety to his side has cheated over for trips. Yet Tebow could not get the ball outside.
  • And when he tried, the Gators looked awful. Tebow was 14-19 for 115 yards and an interception, and also took a couple of sacks. First, Monte was able to make Florida’s line look poor with a lot of stunts and occasional blitzes, though he never brought an all-out one. Frequently, Tebow had very little time to go through his reads.
  • But even when he did, he looked off-kilter. The interception he threw to Eric Berry was a prime example. Kiffin changed up his coverage to what was (I believe, the camera angles were not great) an “invert Cover two” where instead of two deep safeties, a safety and the cornerback played deep. Yet this wasn’t heavily disguised: Eric Berry just sat in the flat. Tebow stared at him, and stared at him, and stared at him…and then threw him the ball. (Senior?!) Anyway Kiffin was mixing up the schemes well, but again the common theme was zone with pressure on Tebow to get him rattled.
    berry_pick
  • Below is video of the pick; it should begin at the proper point. If not, skip ahead to the 0:50 mark.
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Smart Notes 9/25/09

The “ski-gun.” I’ve been getting a lot of questions about a funky shotgun triple-option offense run by Muskegon, MI high school. (“Ski-gun” or “skee-gun” refers to Muskegon.) It’s basically Paul Johnson’s flexbone triple option offense run from a pistol set. They use a shallower pistol-gun set than does Nevada, but that’s because Nevada is more focused on traditional runs than with the quick hitting veer. Below are some clips of Muskegon’s triple: first the give reads, second the QB keeps, and third the pitches.

- Clock mismanagement. The commentary after the Dolphins lost to the Colts was partially about how much time of possession matters (my view is not that much, but I have more to say on it later), but even more about the ‘Phins awful clock management at the end of the game. And it was bad.

The biggest issue was they had no sense of urgency. I do not like teams that scramble and run around frenetically, but they were very lazy about it. They wasted a lot of valuable seconds, and there is little reason the game should have ended on second down from where they were on the field. They also spiked the ball unnecessarily. As I’ve said before, in college a spike is almost never necessary, except to get your kicking team on to the field. In the NFL, because the clock doesn’t stop except on out of bounds, incomplete passes, timeouts, and the two minute warning, a clock play might be necessary if there is a gang tackle and time is flowing off the clock, etc. But I’m still very skeptical because I firmly believe you can call a play with the same amount of communication as necessary to indicate a spike play. In this case though the Dolphins bad clock management overshadowed their improper spike because they ran out of time rather than downs.

How can you get better? Here’s the best drill I know of for being ready for the two-minute drill. It should be used to finish practice at least once a week, and I know of a team that ends every practice with it. The ball is placed on the practice field at either the 5 or 10. The quarterback and first team take the field; the coaches line up on the sidelines, just as if it is a real game. (You need a manager or ref to set the ball.) The point is to replicate the game-like scenario. You can use it against no defense but it is best I think to go live against the first or second team defense (and work on that planning as well), but don’t use any tackling to the ground. (I.e. routes, blocks, etc are fully speed but no tackling.)

The offense then runs its plays but, after every play, regardless of the play’s outcome, the ball is set 10 yards ahead, i.e. to the 15 or 20 and so on. The coaches signal the play in (or the quarterback does), the players deal with the time management, and the coaches keep a stopwatch.

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Breakdown of Drew Brees’s Saints passing game, and four verticals

Available over at the NY Times’s Fifth Down blog. Check it out there.

My breakdown of Miami’s downfield passing game

Available over at Dr Saturday. Thanks as always to the good Doctor, so check out my analysis of Jacory Harris, Mark Whipple, and some thoughts on what Virginia Tech might do in response.

Aaron Rodgers: “For better pass protection, we need fewer blockers.”

aaronrodgersSpread offense aficionados rejoice — who needs blockers? From the Green Bay Press-Gazette:

With a couple of days to think about what went wrong in Sunday’s 31-24 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals — a game in which Rodgers was sacked six times and hit 10 times despite a game plan that relied heavily on six- and seven-man protections — Rodgers on Wednesday said the best thing might be for coach Mike McCarthy and offensive coordinator Joe Philbin to let the front five on the offensive line fend for themselves.

“I think one of the things that happened last week was because of struggles (in protection) in Week 1, we’ve kept more guys in (to block),” Rodgers said. “Our backs were staying in a little bit longer, and so our stuff was all down the field because we didn’t have any of our check downs out.

“The push, hopefully, this is week is, ‘Hey you guys got to hold up up front.’ We need more options underneath the coverage. When they’re dropping off so far, you need some check downs.”

It might seem counterintuitive that the guy who’s been getting killed — 10 sacks and 19 hits in two games — wants less protection, but the logic is that by keeping in running backs and tight ends less often, Rodgers will have more options to get the ball out quicker if he’s facing pressure. Against the Bengals, many of his throws were deep because there were so few short options.

Rodgers’ theory might not be so far-fetched. McCarthy and Philbin have admitted in the days following the Bengals’ game that they may have given the line too much help.

Note too that you can have different types of pass protection — i.e. “slide” (also known as “gap”) protection or man (also known as “BOB,” big on big, back on backer). Slide protection is a little sturdier — the line, tight-ends, and/or runningbacks are each responsible for a gap, and just step that direction and zone or “area block” all stunts and twists, but man-protection, when done correctly, allows the line to just block the obvious rushers while the runningback can “check-release” a linebacker or safety and release into the pattern if no one rushes. Defenses have countermoves too, but in that way you can both max-protect and get five into the route if the defense only rushes four.

Finally, there are pass protections that use both schemes; many teams’ six-man protection scheme “man blocks” one side while “zones” the other:

passpro

It’s not clear what kind of pass protection schemes the Packers were using, but expect more variety this week.