Analysis Notebook: Week 3
Dominant players show up with big plays all the time in games, but on occasion those same players are conspicuous by the absence of their impact. The final seconds tick off the clock and you suddenly ask, ‘what happened to that guy?’
That’s exactly what happened when Geno Atkins and the Bengals faced the Green Bay Packers this week. The Bengals came away with a 34-30 win but Atkins, the league’s premier defensive tackle, came a whisker away from being blanked from the stat sheet entirely. Only a solitary hurry from 48 pass rushing snaps kept him from a whitewash statistically speaking. So what happened? How was the league’s best DT neutralized and kept out of a game in which he would have been expected to make a significant impact?
The answer to that, of course, is more complicated than any single reason, and it is that complexity that is the larger answer to the question. The Packers shut Atkins down by employing a number of tactics and schemes to ensure that he could never affect the game. They didn’t set out with one, consistent strategy that he might at some stage adapt to and overcome. They hit him with myriad different things to the point that Atkins never knew what was coming, but began to understand that he was simply never going to be permitted to influence the game directly. By the third quarter Atkins looked defeated mentally as well as physically, as his head dropped and he began to give questionable effort on plays that he knew weren’t going to come near him. At that point the Packers had already succeeded. They had shut him down to begin with, and then succeeded in breaking his spirit, allowing him to take himself out of the game.
It’s also worth noting that Atkins wasn’t playing with his usual style of unstoppable leverage and aggression in this game. He was rushing with his head high, eyes on the quarterback for most of the game, as if he had been instructed to try to contain Aaron Rodgers rather than penetrate and disrupt him with pressure. Rodgers hadn’t had a huge game scrambling on the ground so far this year, but he did gash the Bengals repeatedly a year ago in preseason, so it’s possible that this was a game plan, albeit not one I can endorse. It strikes me as a false economy to take your best pass rusher, and one of the best interior rushers in the league, and ask him to basically spy the quarterback for the odd occasion he might try to break contain up the middle, rather than disrupting him regularly through inside pressure and occasionally paying for it when the QB makes a play. If you’re going to keep Rodgers contained I would think you would be far better served letting Atkins do his thing and asking a linebacker behind him to keep an eye on him — but nobody has yet invited me to be a defensive coordinator in the NFL…
Maybe the Bengals knew the Packers would do everything in their power to take out Atkins, and decided to try to take advantage of that by using him as a contain player anyway. We can’t be sure, but it is worth noting that some of his lack of production was down to this and not Green Bay shutting him down.
Let’s take a look at some of the ways the Packers did deliberately set out to take Atkins out of the game.
Flipping NT/3T – Green Bay @ Cincinnati | 1st Q, 0:38
Green Bay doubles Atkins and pulls a guard from the nose tackle’s side to lead through the point of attack.
When a four-man front lines up they are traditionally shifted to one side of the line of scrimmage or other to give the linemen a gap or shade which they can attack, rather than stacking them head up over the offensive players. Any way they line up they are at a numerical disadvantage, with only four defensive linemen facing five offensive linemen, and so the front has evolved to include a nose tackle and a three-technique defensive tackle on the inside. The three-technique (Atkins) is the pass-rushing tackle and is aligned outside of the guard to give him a one-on-one matchup as often as possible. The nose tackle lines up between the center and guard on the other side, drawing the double team from those two players and freeing up everybody else to rush against just one blocker. This is age-old and has been set in stone for decades, and rarely do you see teams alter their blocking scheme to try and double the three technique instead — but the Packers did that a few times in this one, both in the run and pass game.
Green Bay ran away from Atkins for much of the game, but on this play they’re going to run right at him. Instead of leaving the double team on Domata Peko as the nose tackle, the Packers slid their blocking to the left, and pulled LG Josh Sitton to the right to lead through the point of attack. This allowed the RG and RT pairing to double team Atkins, collapsing him inside and opening up a decent running lane for James Starks. Ordinarily Atkins would expect to find himself facing RG T.J. Lang one-on-one, but pulling Sitton away from the nose tackle gave them the option of putting two players on Atkins instead.
As Starks received the ball the double team had done its job and Sitton was leading through the hole to take on a linebacker. There is was pretty sizeable running lane and only Bengals DE Carlos Dunlap beating the TE on the edge saves what would have been a significant gain on the play. Dunlap managed to get around the TE and make the stop for just a 3-yard gain.
The Double Cut – Green Bay @ Cincinnati | 4th Q, 8:48
The Packers execute a quick pass and gain 10 yards as Atkins is cut by two linemen at the same time.
Another strategy the Packers employed for much of the game is quick passing, getting the ball away before Atkins had a chance to beat anybody and create pressure. Rodgers’ average time to throw the ball was just 2.31 seconds, and 58% of his passes were out in under 2.5. Often, when teams want to get a pass away quickly, they will just cut defenders they want out of the throwing lanes. The cut block isn’t a long-term solution on the play, but if executed properly it should get the defender down for long enough to pass the ball and be sure there won’t be any hands in the way as it clears the line of scrimmage. As I’m sure you’re aware, defenders hate being cut blocked. In its simplest terms it’s a 300lb man diving at your knees, so you can see why it might grate. Imagine what Atkins must feel on this play when he finds a double-team cut block coming his way. Not content with assigning one person to block him, Atkins found a lineman launching himself at his knees from either side.
Chip Blocks – Green Bay @ Cincinnati | 2nd Q, 7:48
The Packers send chip blocks from both the FB and HB as they release into patterns to make sure Atkins doesn’t beat his man.
I think the best way of describing how the Packers blocked Atkins for much of this game was by using ‘monitored one-on-ones’, letting a guard block him on his own, but having a backup plan in the form of a waiting double team or chip blocks in place, in case he got the advantage in the matchup. On more than one occasion the guard got help from the center who had been in pass protection ostensibly to help out on either side, but only ever had eyes in Atkins’ direction. In this case they employed chip blocks, two of them in fact, to make sure that he never had any chance of getting off the block.
Green Bay ran play action on the play, and they end up passing into the end zone on the left side of the field, but the important thing is what happens to the runner and lead blocker after they have faked a run off right guard. Both players released into the pass pattern after the fake to provide Rodgers with a dump off option, but neither did so without throwing a hard shoulder into Atkins on their way through the line. First the lead block blasts him from the outside as he released through the B-gap, and then the running back throws his shoulder into him as he released up through the A-gap to his inside. They may have left him one-on-one with a guard on the play, but they made damn sure there was no chance he would be able to beat him.
After this kind of treatment all game long Atkins had clearly become resigned to the fact that this would not be his day. At best he was a decoy on the defensive line while plays went away from him or went off so quickly he never had any chance to involve himself. While understandable, this led to a pretty lazy effort on some plays, which only made matters worse. There were times he understood quickly that he was unlikely to get involved in the play, and simply mailed in the rest of the action. Sometimes, however, plays come to you when they should never have come close by design, and by simply switching off because you shouldn’t have much involvement in the play, you end up creating a far bigger problem for the defense than there should have been in the first place. Take this run play in the third quarter. Atkins recognized immediately that the pitch was going away from him yet again and simply stood up with his blocker Josh Sitton in that unspoken agreement opponents sometimes have on the field: “If you don’t try, I won’t try an we’ll live to see the next play”. The only problem is that this opened up a yawning chasm of a cutback lane for the running back to the point that Rodgers is yelling and pointing it out to him as he struggles to find room on the front side of the play.
When you’re as good as Geno Atkins is you’re going to have days where the opposition makes it their life’s work to take you out of the game. Sometimes all you can do is make the most of the few opportunities you do get on those days and embrace the role of creator, opening things up for your teammates as the offense unbalances itself to focus on you. Both Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap had big days from their defensive end spots thanks in large part to the attention given to Atkins. What you can’t allow yourself to do is drop your head and throttle back on effort. At that point the offense has won. Atkins looked like he did that in this game, and that is something he must right going forwards.
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