Mastering the Sack

I recently stumbled across some pretty nifty cut-up videos of NFL sacks, which highlight the effort, techniques and schemes that result in losses for offenses. It’s an understudied area, as sacks and pressures that move the QB off the spot and force bad throws or decisions are often seen as results rather than processes: it happened or didn’t, but how and why remains hidden. And it’s hidden because (1) it’s an extremely technical, delicate ballet of footwork, leverage and hand placement and (2) it’s also a total melee in there.

This excellent post from Shakinthesouthland lays out some of the basic pass rush moves, and most others you may see are just variations of these:

There are several we’re going to cover here but all start with the proper stance, with weight over their feet and not the down hand, and correct alignment. The initial step is always important. Every man has a pass rush lane that he shouldn’t deviate from until he has to do so. Every man must constantly be moving his feet and his hands, no matter what. Every pass rusher will start with one or two in high school and progress from there, and some in the NFL may only use 3 or 4 different techniques with variants off of those. Here I’ll cover the basic pass rush techniques

  • Bull Rush
  • Speed Rush
  • Swim
  • Grab
  • Rip/Inside
  • Spin
  • Under
  • Counter/Club

Of course, the beauty of these moves is that, over the course of a game, a defensive lineman or even a rush linebacker can vary and set up moves for down the line: the bull rush works when the offensive lineman isn’t expecting it after dealing with a steady dose of speed rushes; the rip inside and the spin work well against a lineman who is well coached to handle the speed or bull rush; and so on.

And understanding these moves helps us in appreciating the really special players. J.J. Watt breaks countless “rules” in the moves he uses because he studies, because he plays psychology versus his opponents and because, well, he can:

When [Wade] Phillips first saw Watt try the maneuver, 35 years of NFL practices set off alarms in his head. “The first time you see it, you think about the old coaching adage, ‘You never go around the block,’” Phillips says. “Well, you do when you can make the play.” Coaches refer to these plays as calculated risks, and what Phillips and defensive line coach Bill Kollar soon realized is that Watt’s were more calculated than most. Because Watt watches so much film, he has an ironclad grasp on what plays to expect out of formations. Because he was quicker, he could recover faster. Because he has the best hands in the league, he could shed blockers more easily.

Here is a link to a PDF analyzing J.J. Watt’s moves, and here is Ben Muth on stopping pass rush moves from an offensive lineman’s perspective. After the jump are a few more video clips on pass rush techniques.

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Translating Nick Saban: Three Plays from the BCS Championship

Nick Saban did the full ESPN car wash today, and ESPN, to their credit, fit in a brief bit of actual football talk as they looked at three plays from the BCS Championship game against Notre Dame. The segment is definitely worth watching:

Although there was good information here, the segment was also a bit rushed and the hosts didn’t do much to get Saban to more clearly explain some of his technical football jargon. So let’s do that right now.

Eddie Lacy’s Run. This is the most jumbled presentation as they appeared to want to be able to freeze the footage and were unable to, but Saban still gives some insight:

Lacy13

  • Saban: “You picked one of our basic plays, which is a zone play.”Translation: The play is inside zone to the left, which is one of Alabama’s bread and butter plays. I’ve written about the inside zone extensively and Don Kausler had a very good story on this very play before the BCS title game.
  • S: “We’re in an overloaded Y-Y Wing type situation here.”Translation: The formation has two tight-end type players, or “Y” players,” to the same side, which can also be referred to as a a “tight-wing” formation. Remember, Saban is a defensive coach so even when he describes his own team’s offensive concepts, he’s often thinking about them in terms defensive coaches use. Here he ends up using three different descriptions (“Y-Y”, “wing” and “overload”) to describe the same idea: a tight-end with another tight-end or “wing” player to the same side, which presents an “overload” formation which the defense must react to.
  • S: “[It’s] a zone cut play where 31 is going to go back.”Translation: It’s very common on zone running plays to leave the backside defensive end unblocked — teams used to control him with the threat of a bootleg, but nowadays many do it with the zone read — but it’s also common to simply bring another offensive player to the backside to block that defender. The primary purpose is to seal that backside defender to help create a cutback lane, but it also gives a traditional zone play a bit of a misdirection element. Here 31 refers to tight-end Kelly Johnson, who acts as the “block back” player, also known as the “sealer” or “kicker”.
  • S: “Now we point out the MAC… Eddie Lacy does a fantastic job of pressing downhill and making a zone cut… we’re stretching the guard area….”Translation: The video can’t be paused and Saban ends up saying three non-sequiturs and isn’t really able to finish his thoughts, but there’s still real football here. “Pointing out the MAC,” which is another term for the middle linebacker, is something most zone teams do before every snap. The reason is that once the middle linebacker has been identified, all of them linemen will know who they are responsible for, both for defensive linemen and linebackers, typically through a “count” method which counts out from the nose guard or middle linebacker out.

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New Grantland: How the Ravens Will Try to Contain Colin Kaepernick and the Diversity of the 49ers’ Offense

It’s now up over at Grantland:

Making whichever choice this unblocked defender makes the wrong one is read option 101. It’s an idea that’s been around for more than a decade. When fully realized, San Francisco’s read option goes far beyond those basics, to places college teams haven’t even been. “We’ve gone down our own road and we do what we do, not just traditional things other teams have done,” remarked Roman this week. “We’ve taken it and are going down our own path.”

Most significantly, on many of the 49ers’ read plays, it’s not just the quarterback who is reading the defender. A lead blocker is often doing the same.

gore1

Fullback Bruce Miller isn’t given every option on every play, but generally, there are three possibilities as the lead blocker on these plays: (1) If the end crashes down for the running back, Miller’s job is to feign blocking him and arc around to seal any linebacker scraping for the quarterback; (2) if the end stays home but slides inside, Miller can block him, opening a crease for Gore to slip through; or (3) if the end goes for the quarterback, then Miller slips inside of him and blocks the nearest linebacker.

Read the whole thing. Also, as a bonus, I had originally intended to describe the 49ers’ use of the Inverted Veer in the NFC Championship game but didn’t end up having a chance. Below the jump are some bonus diagrams.

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New Grantland: How Joe Flacco’s Big Arm Can Exploit the 49ers’ Secondary

It’s now up at Grantland:

The key to the 49ers’ success in that game, as well as for much of the past two years, is rooted in a common misconception about their defense. It’s often noted that the 49ers play almost entirely with two safeties deep, splitting the field into halves while the remaining defenders play man-to-man coverage. This tactic, which also relies heavily on the front seven to stop the run, is known as “Cover 2 Man” defense. The notion that the 49ers use this coverage almost exclusively is, like most misconceptions, rooted in some fact. The 49ers do use this coverage a great deal, but if they used it on every down, San Francisco’s defense would be much easier to attack than it actually is.

What Fangio and the 49ers actually do is mix and match their two-deep, Cover 2 Man coverage with a variety of “pattern match” zones — zone defenses that transform into a kind of man coverage after the snap. The 49ers use a variety of these pattern-match schemes (each of which is differentiated by a subtle change in a defender’s rules), but one I’ve seen them use with success all season is known to many coaches as “Two Read.

f-post

Read the whole thing.

Nick Saban Doesn’t Teach Backpedaling?

Former Alabama and current Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick caused something of a stir when he told the media that he “never backpedaled at Alabama.” Apparently, this is something Bengals coaches value, as Kirkpatrick had to learn to backpedal. Some fairly questioned whether this was hyperbole — How do you not teach defensive backs to backpedal? — but, although he does teach backpedaling, Saban very specifically focuses on other techniques.

Seems to work pretty well

As Saban tells it, he used to teach backpedaling until he was with the Cleveland Browns with Bill Belichick. The ownership signed the legendary Everson Walls, who, much to the dismay of the young defensive backs coach, Saban, ran about a 4.8 forty yard dash and simply could not, under any circumstances, backpedal. He was awkward, couldn’t accelerate, and there were other guys on the roster much better at backpedaling.

Walls also, however, was being paid significantly more than his coach, and it was clear from the ownership that Walls would be starting. He also, it must be said, was still a great player, and just happens to still rank 10th on the all time list of most interceptions in NFL history. So Saban began teaching his now famous “shuffle” technique, rather than the traditional backpedal. There’s a good deal to it, and it can adjust depending on the receiver’s exact release, but essentially it is a three-step shuffle technique, at which point the defensive back may break on a short route or can turn and run and play the receiver down the field.

Complementing this is that Alabama’s cornerbacks spend about 90% of the game in a press coverage position, from which they either stay in press or can bail to a zone or off-man position. They do this because it threatens the offense and helps take away screens and quick passes, and they feel that if a defense doesn’t press it’s a huge advantage to the offense who is simply throwing routes on air. I have to say that having excellent corners like Saban has had at Alabama helps, but, as more of an offensive guy, I would much prefer my corners to show a lot of press (even if they bail a lot) and use the shuffle technique as opposed to the backpedal. There’s nothing easier than seeing a bunch of corners lined up at seven yards backpedaling at the snap; you can run just about anything at that, and they simply will not be able to react quickly enough.

I was reminded of this as I have spent a little time catching up on the games from the past few weeks. Of special note was the tremendous job Alabama’s Dee Milliner did against Michigan in week one. Other than a few extremely poor throws/reads, for the most part Denard Robinson’s throws were on the money, but Alabama and Milliner in particular shut down Michigan’s receivers, who were simply not up to the challenge. Watch and judge for yourself.

And next time you hear someone talk about defensive backs backpedaling, you can tell them you know of what is, at least in the view of many (though certainly not all) coaches, a better way.

Manny Diaz Gets It

From an excellent interview Texas’s defensive coordinator did with LonghornDigest.com:

But statistics were also changing for in-game analysis. Whereas it might once be considered an advanced metric to look at red zone efficiency, Diaz said Texas is focused on red zone touchdown efficiency.

“You can win a national championship by making people kick field goals in the red zone,” Diaz said. “And you can finish last, in theory, in red zone defense. It just doesn’t make sense.”

[…]

That phenomenon has given rise to statistics like Slow Grind — the number of plays a defense forces an offense to take to score — and the FootballOutsiders.com S&P+ Ratings, a play-by-play success rate that factors for situation and competition. Looking at the latter rating, you can see Diaz’s 2011 Texas defense come to life through the numbers. The Longhorns finished No. 4 nationally in the statistic, but were especially good on running plays — a major Diaz focus — and on winning passing situations (defined as second down with eight or more yards to go, or third or fourth down with five or more yards to go). Texas was third nationally in Rushing S&P+, and second only to national champion Alabama in Passing Downs S&P+.

“Those are the tenets of our defense,” said Diaz, who follows both S&P+ and Slow Grind. “We’ll show those kinds of things to our players during the season just to reinforce what we already know. There aren’t usually any ‘eureka’ moments, but it works more side-by-side with what we see on film.”

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Smart Links – Strategery Round-Up – 2/27/2012

Strong Scrape Fire Zone and Fire Zone Adjustments:

scrape

I have borrowed a lot from Manny Diaz when it comes to Fire Zone adjustments. There are many adjustments that can be run, which include having the DT being a dropper at times, but there are two adjustments that I think are the most important. Diaz talks about how the coverage needs to be the easiest thing as far as Fire Zones go, so it is important that we not over-complicate things. If a defender blitzes the wrong gap, you may have a bad play but it won’t be a disaster. Now, if there is a mistake in coverage, that’s a disaster.

Bill Belichick’s blitz package versus empty:

The Ravens have five potential pass blockers. It doesn’t take great mathematical abilities to realize that if the defense brings 6 rushers there will be a defensive player unblocked. New England gets a free rusher while only rushing 5 by having the Mike and SS execute a read out blitz based on the slide of the protection.

blitz

The SS is reading the block of the Left Guard. If the LG blocks the DT the SS blitzes and is unblocked. That is both what is diagrammed here and what happened in the video clip. The Mike is reading the guard to his side as well. If the guard is stepping toward him he will drop out, looking to cover the hot route from the opposite side. The Mike knows where the hot route is coming from because the protection and hot routes are linked. The offense can pick up 3 rushers to the defensive right of the center with 3 blockers. . . .

The offense is more likely to slide to the Mike linebacker than toward a SS. Bill Belichick is manipulating the pass protection by exploiting the offense’s expectation of the SS’s role on defense. A SS should be covering a receiver or a zone not walked up into the B gap to blitz. Where else can you find this pressure concept? In the Alabama playbook of former Bill Belichick assistant Nick Saban.

In defense of success rates:

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Joe Paterno’s Penn State Defense

Joe Paterno has passed away.  I am not the right person to put his lengthy career, decorated career together with the tragedy at Penn State, and, ultimately, his death, in proper context. Others will assuredly do it and do it well. Below is instead a meager contribution to Joe’s legacy, however mixed it may ultimately be. Before the Jerry Sandusky scandal and all that went with it became public last fall, I wrote this simple strategic-focused piece on Penn State’s traditional but very effective approach to defense. I wrote it to be a part of a larger project to be published; once I learned what happened with Jerry Sandusky, Joe Paterno, and so on, the piece simply became an orphan.

So I offer this here not as any commentary on what Joe’s legacy should be; that question now is about a lot more than football. But I hope it is of some value — maybe not today, but at some point in the future — given that it was written in what can only be referred to as a more innocent time, even if that was only just a few months ago.

Penn State’s Defense – Written in August 2011

Once upon a time

Penn State will – and should – always be defined by its defense. Despite some glances in the direction of being “Spread HD,” the foundation of the program is its rugged yet simple defensive schemes. When that team, wearing those same, historic uniforms, led by that coach, shuts down a hapless opponent under a sea of blitzes and gang tackles, “Linebacker U” speaks to something primitive within each of us. When you think of Penn State, you think of linebackers with bloody knuckles and neck roll padding, and a camera close-up of the opposing coach and quarterback wearing that “I-just-got-screwed” face after being on the wrong end of a goal line stand – like Michael Douglas at the end of so many of his movies – and all is right with the world.

Joe Paterno must get primary credit for building the program in his tough, irascible image. It’s a legitimate question how involved Joe is on a day-to-day basis these days, but the foundation is his and he still coaches the coaches. And he’s had some great ones, especially on the defensive side of the ball. The defense has evolved in response to the revolutions that offenses have undergone, from option football to I-formation running to west coast passing and even the early rumblings of the spread in the late 1990s. Current de facto defensive coordinator Tom Bradley (in one of its many traditions, Penn State does not actually name its coaches “offensive coordinator” or “defensive coordinator”) and linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden are among the very best and most knowledgable guys in the game, while anyone who has heard defensive line coach Larry Johnson speak will no doubt remember it for years afterward. Bradley, who nearly left the program to become Pittsburgh’s head coach and was rumored for several other head coaching positions, in particular has kept the Penn State tradition intact, by keeping the framework that Penn State has used for decades while updating it for the newest waves of offensive evolution.

Penn State is nothing if not tradition, and that includes always being surrounded by the ghosts of those who came before you. Each linebacker is given a position name so he can make sense of the defensive calls: “Sam”, “Fritz” and “Backer.” Penn State’s linebackers are supposed to know which historical greats that made “Linebacker U” what it is were Fritzes, which were Sams, and which were Backers. Similarly, in many systems the strong safety is known as a “monster” player because he plays all over the field. For tradition rich, they keep the view Penn State of Rip Engle, who coached the Nittany Lions from 1950 to 1965: that “monster” is a derogatory, déclassé term, and thus the strong safety is known as “Hero.” For Penn State, the age of Eisenhower continues to be the model for present day battles.

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A closer look at the New England Patriots defense

No one suggests that the Patriots defense is good, or even average. For starters, well, look at the starters. Here was New England’s starting lineup this weekend against the Broncos:

I'm working on it

DE	 Brandon Deaderick 
DT	 Kyle Love 
DT	 Vince Wilfork 
DE	 Andre Carter 
OLB	 Jerod Mayo 
MLB	 Dane Fletcher 
OLB	 Rob Ninkovich 
CB	 Devin McCourty 
FS	 Matt Slater 
SS	 James Ihedigbo 
CB	 Kyle Arrington

Casual fans have heard of Wilfork and Mayo, and McCourty was one of the top rookies in the league last season. But don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of Deaderick (2010 7th rounder) or Love (undrafted) or Fletcher (undrafted from Montana State) or Slater (5th round draft pick — at wide receiver — who converted to safety in the middle of this season), and it’s not like Ihedigbo (undrafted, special teams ace for the Jets) , Arrington (undrafted, Hofstra) and Ninkovich (5th round pick by New Orleans) are high profile players, either. Now that Andre Carter — New England’s best pass rusher — is out for the season, the situation looks even worse. And among the “name players” on the Patriots’ defense, only Mayo (who missed several games earlier this season) isn’t having a disappointing season.

The Patriots do not have much talent on defense. So it’s not too surprising that the Patriots rank last in the league in yards allowed. But the situation is even bleaker than that. The 1981 Baltimore Colts were one of the worst teams in football history; they’re also the only team that allowed 5800 or more yards in the first 14 games of the season. Well, they were: now the Patriots have joined the list.

But the Patriots total defense is still better than the Patriots pass defense. Until this season, no team had ever allowed more than 3,910 passing yards after 14 games; the Patriots have allowed 4,154.

Part of that historical ineptness is because the Patriots often play with the lead. New England has faced the third highest number of pass attempts this season, and ranks 30th (as opposed to 32nd) in net yards per pass attempt. So instead of having a historically terrible pass defense, it’s probably fairer to just note that they have one of the league’s worst pass defenses. New England’s rush defense isn’t very good — the Pats rank 26th in yards per carry allowed, and because they face so many more passes than rushes, 19th in rushing yards allowed.

But New England ranks 14th in points allowed. That means despite a terrible pass defense and a bad rush defense, the Patriots actually have allowed fewer points than the average team this season. So what gives?

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Smart Links – Strategery Round-Up: two-tight ends, the 3-4 defense, rocket toss and “Iso” – 12/8/2011

Old school Green Bay Packers’ use of two-tight ends:

Two good links from Ron Jenkins:

Wisdom from Woody Hayes:

[W]hen I first starting coaching listening to Woody Hayes talk about designing an offense. He talked about you start with your schedule and rank all your opponents from one to ten in terms of toughness to beat. Then you base your offense on beating the top 3 or 4 teams. That’s it. Once you are done there you just make sure you’re sound against everything else.

The importance of choosing your coverage in the 3-4 defense:

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