Analysis Notebook: Week 14
It’s not that easy to consistently beat your man up front and generate pass rush. More often than not the offense has more blockers than the defense is sending rushers, and they are paid a lot of money to create a solid pocket around the quarterback and prevent pressure. It seems logical to think that defenders should be able to beat the guy in front of them on a regular basis, but at this level it’s simply not that easy, so defenses have to supplement that organic pass-rush with some tricks.
The art of the blitz takes many forms as we know, but what about the ways that pass-rushers can work together up front, generating pressure without needing to send extra men to overload or confuse the protection? Stunts and twists by defensive linemen can put stress on the pass protection without needing to send more defenders than the offense can block, and can generate pressure simply by exploiting the difficulty in blockers working in tandem.
Part of the issue with the Wide-9 alignment is that it made stunting very difficult with the gap between defensive linemen so large. Detroit’s pass-rush is a shadow of what it should be because they rush in pretty much the same pattern on every play, simply expecting their defenders to beat their man one-on-one, rarely resorting to the kind of simple combination move that the rest of the league relies on to generate a good portion of their pass-rush.
So let’s take a look at a few different versions from last week, each of which led to a sack on the play.
The Twist – New York Jets @ Jacksonville | 3rd Q, 5:36
The Jets run a twist inside resulting in a sack up the middle from Muhammad Wilkerson.
This is probably the simplest of the combination moves, a twist between the inside players, usually the defensive tackles. In this case the Jets line up with just two defenders rushing with their hand in the ground, and two outside linebackers at the line of scrimmage. When you hear people say it doesn’t matter whether you run a 3-4 or a 4-3, this is the kind of play they are talking about.
In essence this is a nickel-look from a 3-4 defense, but the defenders are spaced exactly like a traditional four-man defensive line, the only difference is that two of them are in a two-point stance. The Jets are actually going to go all-out with this pass-rush, sending all four players up at the line, but also crossing their inside linebackers and blitzing both of them as well. This is designed to create maximum confusion within the protection scheme even if the Jaguars have enough blockers to account for every rusher.
Because the Jaguars are keeping six blockers in (the five offensive linemen and fullback Greg Jones), the Jets can’t rely on an unblocked defender, so need someone to either win in their matchup, or tilt the odds in their favor with a combination move.
They run a twist between the two defensive tackles, Muhammad Wilkerson and Quentin Coples. At the snap Wilkerson slants hard to his left from the nose tackle position, drawing the center along with him and attacking the inside shoulder of the right guard. Coples then crosses behind his back looking for a wide open backside A-gap with the center occupied on Wilkerson. Brad Meester at center sees it coming well and comes off the double in time to pick up Coples, but when he leaves, RG Uche Nwaneri immediately loses leverage on his block, allowing Wilkerson to drive through that gap and get the sack.
This move puts a tremendous amount of stress on the teamwork of the RG and C, demanding perfect execution and timing between them as they exchange defenders because if they don’t manage it, one of them will get through. Most of the time pressure occurs the exchange doesn’t happen quickly enough and the player coming in behind (Coples in this case) is the one that gets free, but even if the C is able to get off the block in time, if the player he is passing it off to isn’t in full control when he leaves then it is just as destructive. Had both players simply tried to beat their man head-up then they may have both been stopped at the line and the Jaguars been able to pick up the six-man rush, but just a simple twist on the inside was able to destroy the interior protection and collapse the pocket.
The Stunt – St Louis @ Buffalo | 1st Q, 14:14
The Rams run a stunt on the left side of their rush, generating pressure and allowing Kendall Langford to get the clean up sack.
The stunt is essentially the same move as the previous play, but on the edge between the defensive tackle and defensive end. Again the defense is simply trying to tie up two blockers with one defender and exploit the gap left with the other one. At the snap Kendall Langford is going to attack the outside shoulder of the RG, drawing help from the RT on the play, while DLE Chris Long quickly loops in behind him to attack the A-gap vacated by the guard. As it happens, Langford doesn’t actually do a particularly good job of occupying the two blockers, and is almost blown back right into Long when the right tackle engages on the block, but the defensive end is quick enough to beat the guard back to the point of attack anyway.
By the time Kraig Urbik is able to get hands on Long he is already alongside him and powering through the gap on his way to the quarterback. Even when the move isn’t executed to perfection it is problematic enough for an offensive line to cope with that it can produce.
The Rams throw a little wrinkle into this stunt, sending SS Quentin Mikell on the blitz to that side to take the running back out of the equasion. The combination of that blitz, the pressure up the middle from Long, and Robert Quinn actually beating his man around the outside on the far side of the line causes the pocket to collapse entirely, but Ryan Fitzpatrick is able to duck and squirm his way out of the pile, creating a nice opportunity to demonstrate another benefit to this move.
If you have four rushers all trying to beat their blockers they attack gaps and are often driven to the outside, creating a yawning hole up the middle for the quarterback to simply step up and jog into. You regularly see quarterbacks able to avoid pressure and scramble straight ahead for the first down, but by occupying two blockers on his part of the stunt, Langford was stoned at the line of scrimmage and is in position to clean up, taking down Fitzpatrick as he tries to escape past him.
The Chess Match – Tennessee @ Indianapolis | 3rd Q, 2:08
The Colts win the strategic battle pre-snap, sacking the quarterback from a stunt only to have the play nullified by a defensive holding penalty in coverage.
This is the most interesting of the three plays because it is by far the most complex, and demonstrates the kind of chess match occurring between defenses and protection schemes both immediately before and after the snap. The Colts line up with a similar formation to the one the Jets used in the first play, except both of their inside linebackers are crowding the A-gaps, showing blitz. The Titans have to expect rush, but they don’t know how many players will be coming, and where from, making it very tough to assign the correct protection. The center has a player threatening to attack the gap either side of him, so the Colts have already forced Tennessee’s blockers to work together.
Dwight Freeney is also moving around pre-snap from a standard rush position to a spot in the slot covering TE Jared Cook so the Titans have to consider whether he is rushing at all or dropping into coverage.
When the ball is snapped one of the inside linebackers drops out into coverage (and is the player ultimately flagged for a somewhat suspect holding call) along with Freeney, while everybody else up at the line rushes. The Titans have six blockers to pick up the rush, and only four players up on the line are rushing, but the Colts send an additional blitz from the safety to the left side of their line, creating an overload to that side. The two inside rushers (the defensive tackle, and inside linebacker), slant their rush to the left, but OLB Robert Mathis runs a stunt, looping around the pair of them and hitting the A-gap that has widened massively when the LG and LT both followed the tackle to that side.
As was the case all the way through this play, the Titans actually had enough bodies to pick up this move, with RB Chris Johnson reading the inside of the line for pressure before looking to release through it as a dump-off option for the pass, but Mathis comes around the corner so fast that Johnson simply doesn’t see him until it is far too late to react and do anything about it.
Both Johnson and the C are able to get hands on Mathis but little else as he is through the gap before the blockers can close it and takes down the quarterback.
This play shows perfectly the kind of cat and mouse game that goes on between rushers and blockers on any given play, and even though the Colts sent five players to rush the passer, the only one to get home was the one freed up by the stunt.
Everybody wants to have a Von Miller or J.J.Watt, a guy who is so physically dominant he can simply beat whoever is in front of him for pressure on a regular basis, but most of the time the players rushing aren’t dramatically better than the guys trying to stop them, and they simply wouldn’t generate heat on a reliable basis without help in the form of stunts and twists.
These moves represent a significant proportion of the total pressure generated in the NFL. Beating your guy one-on-one is tough sledding at this level, and just a simple stunt or twist puts enormous stress on blockers working together that would otherwise have their jobs well in hand.