Analysis Notebook: Week 2
We tend to assume sometimes that once you know the playbook and you’re physically able to play in the NFL, everything should pretty much take care of itself. But one of the biggest things players need to master is the art of in-game communication. Football can often be a contest of individual matchups, but just as often it’s a game that relies on communication between teammates to effectively operate and execute plays on both sides of the ball.
If a wide receiver doesn’t get the message from the quarterback he can be at fault for an interception by being somewhere other than where the passer is expecting him to be. If offensive linemen can’t communicate the stunt from the defensive line the looping defender can find himself with a completely unblocked path to the quarterback. If anything, communication is even more important on the defensive side of the ball where the majority of play is reactive. The call in the huddle may be one thing, but with the endless shifts, motions, and audibles that an offense can call, not to mention simply aligning in a formation the defense hadn’t anticipated from the personnel grouping, defenders may need to adjust the call to have any hope of defending the play. That only works if everybody communicates and coordinates to wind up on the same page. When they don’t, bad things happen.
In this week’s slate of games there were a couple of plays that resulted in game-winning touchdowns at the death that came about entirely because of a lack of communication, or a lack of successful communication, on the defensive side of the ball.
Carolina @ Buffalo | 4th Q, 00:06
The Bills score a game-winning touchdown on a corner route to Stevie Johnson from the slot who finds himself uncovered in the back of the end zone.
Sometimes the communication necessary is the simplest of switches, but that failure can result in a wide-open receiver in the end zone. Here the Bills had reached the Carolina 2-yard line with 6 seconds left on the clock. A field goal would have done them no good, so on 2nd-and-1, they likely had just a single shot at the win, two if they were very lucky. Tim Graham of the Buffalo News wrote a fantastic piece on this play, with quotes from those involved, but let’s take a little look with the help of some Analysis Notebook imagery too.
The Bills lined up with two receivers to the left side of the formation, while the Panthers crowded the line of scrimmage and showed the all-out blitz they would run on the play. This left their coverage in isolation on the outside to play man-on-man. At this point Carolina was suffering with injuries and was down to the bare bones at corner, which made this kind of communication breakdown ever more likely. Traditionally in man-coverage the corners would stick to their receivers regardless of the routes run, but offenses have long developed route combinations specifically designed to shake off this kind of coverage, usually involving receivers crossing each other and aiming to legally pick-off a coverage defender and leave one of them wide open. Slot corner D.J. Moore recognized the Bills were likely to run a smash concept with the two receivers to that side, sending the outside receiver on a slant and the inside guy on a corner route. He desperately signaled to RCB Josh Norman to switch if the receivers cross. Instead of each tracking their man on their respective patterns, if the receivers cross the corners would switch assignments and track the incoming man, putting them ahead of the play and not trailing it — something vital in these tight quarters down by the end zone.
Unfortunately though, Norman for whatever reason never got the message, or chose to ignore it (since it was being relayed from less than 5 yards inside him), and when the receivers crossed, both corners jumped down on the slant, which left Johnson wide open and uncovered in the back of the end zone. The Panthers came close to getting there with their house blitz up the middle, but a pick up from RB Fred Jackson bought rookie QB E.J. Manuel just enough time to read the breakdown from the Panthers and loft the ball over the top for the easy score. This is the simplest of errors from the Panthers, but the mistake cost them the game.
Minnesota @ Chicago | 4th Q, 00:16
Chicago score a 16-yard touchdown at the front left corner of the end zone to TE Martellus Bennett as the Vikings can’t execute the called coverage correctly.
In this case the communication was a little more complex, but the result wa similar, in that the Vikings weren’t been able to communicate the adjustment in coverage and left themselves exposed by that failure. Minnesota lined up initially showing a Cover-3 look, with only Harrison Smith deep in the middle of the field and corners Chris Cook and Xavier Rhodes playing off on the perimeters. SS Jamarca Sanford was up at the line of scrimmage. The issue there was that the Bears had two receivers to the left side (three potentially if RB Matt Forte released to that side of the field), and only RCB Chris Cook to cover them.Cook started frantically calling across for help and Harrison Smith was unable to relay the message that the defense was now playing Cover-2. Given their alignment, in order for Smith to have helped out over the top of Cook with a two-deep look he needed somebody to drop and take the deep half on the other side of the field. Either Sanford needed to drop back off the line, or Rhodes needed to roll over the top with slot corner Josh Robinson fanning out to cover the flat, but neither player got the message and Smith was left struggling to decide what to do.
As the ball was snapped the Vikings’ defenders that had been crowding the line of scrimmage and showing blitz all dropped out to cover the underneath across the field, but nobody dropped deep to allow Smith to come across and help out Cook. As the two receivers to the left both ran vertical routes into the end zone to challenge the corner, Cook got left between a rock and a hard place with no real chance of stopping the inevitable. He played it about as well as he could and picked up the more immediate danger of the two routes into the end zone before he read Cutler’s pass to Bennett and came off to try and make a play on the ball, but he was just too late.
By the time Cook could come off the first receiver he arrived a fraction behind the ball, and the best he could hope for was to make life difficult for Bennett and hope he didn’t come down with the football. Unfortunately, Bennett was able to make an impressive adjustment to the back-shoulder throw and hauled it in before Cook could interfere.
Though the switch that needed communicating on this play was no more complex than that in the previous play, it did require the information to pass between more players which made the chances of failure all the higher. Cook was the player that looked beaten on the play, but he was hung out to dry when the rest of the coverage didn’t roll to his aid. Much has been said about the Vikings’ defensive call on the play, but the two-deep coverage they tried to get into would have had a good chance of success. The failure on the play wasn’t that of the chalkboard or play-calling, but rather the failure of the players on the field to ensure that everybody understood what the call had become.
Perhaps the biggest indictment about each of these blown communication plays is that they occurred away from home, with the defense facing a relatively quiet stadium as the home-team offense tried to steal the game at the death. This wasn’t a case of a deafening din preventing adequate communication between defenders, it was simply a case of the coverage defenders being unable to relay vital information among themselves before it was too late. Each failure resulted in a game-winning touchdown, and showed that for all the great athletes you might have on defense, basic failures in communication can instantly erode it all.
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