The Read-Option and the Evolving Defensive Response

Lions defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham had some interesting comments for Tim Twentyman at detriotlions.com about the read-option offense, how to play it and what affect its having on the league.

“‘It’s a big thing in the league now, and that’s why we’ve got bigger corners, because they’re going to have to tackle,’ Cunningham said. ‘The ball is going outside, they’re spreading you, and quarterbacks are running the ball.'”

“The read-option puts pressure on the defensive end to make the right play and then the cornerbacks to come up and make a play out wide.”

“‘The key is you need extra people to stop the run because they spread you out,’ Cunningham said. ‘So, you end up playing some man-to-man or shorten your safeties down and if the quarterback can really throw the ball, that’s where we get into trouble.

“‘Miami couldn’t do that with Rickey (Williams) and the other kid that was running the option (Ronnie Brown). But their design was as good as I’ve ever seen in my life and then it got away from them for whatever reason.'”

Cunningham has never been one of my favorite NFL coaches but he’s spot on here. I don’t know that cornerbacks necessarily have to get bigger but everyone, including the corners, is going to have to be able to tackle better at a time when physical contact in practice for refining technique is more and more limited. Being bigger certainly would make you more durable, however, and, as Cunningham rightly points out, shut down corners who can handle receivers in single coverage with a safety in the box are also going to be at even more of a premium than they are now.

The whole interview makes me wonder if zone defenses like the one the Bears have relied upon for so long aren’t going to become more and more difficult to run. Even the Bears spent more time in single coverage in recent years and we’re likely to see it even more. The days of the classic cover-two cornerback may be numbered.

In Defense of Jon Gruden

Michael David Smith at profootballtalk.com describes comments that Packers quarterback Aaron Rogers made via Twitter during the NBA Finals. One of those comments took Magic Johnson to task for his almost entirely positive commentary on individual players and, as he did it, Rogers also took a back handed swipe at Monday Night Football commentator Jon Gruden:

Magic is quickly becoming the John Gruden of ESPN NBA coverage. Everybody is the greatest everything. #bedtime


Aaron Rodgers (@AaronRodgers12) June 21, 2013

Smith seems to agree:

I don’t watch enough of ESPN’s NBA coverage to know if Rodgers’ criticism of Johnson is valid, but I do agree with Rodgers that Gruden can be so relentlessly positive about every player that his analysis becomes pointless: When you call every player great it can serve to diminish the players who are truly great. Perhaps that’s why it took a truly great player to call Gruden out.

This is a surprisingly shallow comment from the usually thoughtful Smith. It reflects comments that I frequently hear after writing up my “Game Comments” after Bears games during the season. I usually devote at least one line to how I thought the television commentators did if I watched the game at home. This single entry draws more comments from people than almost anything else I typically address in the post. Like Johnson and Gruden, most people think I’m “relentlessly positive” in my comments.

There are a couple reasons for this. First, the Bears play a lot of night games and when they aren’t in prime time, they often get an afternoon slot where much of the country sees them. What that means is that the Bears naturally have been getting the best football commentators available for their games. If you were to look back into the history of this blog into some of those darker years where the Bears weren’t very good, you’d see many more critical comments as they drew the fourth or fifth announcing teams.

However, its the other reason that’s relevant here. I think many fans have a warped idea of just what constitutes a good color commentator for a football game, indeed for any sport. These men really aren’t there just to hammer on players for bad play. In fact, in my opinion, its the least of their duties. As a research scientist one thing became clear to me very early on in my career: any moron can criticize. You can always tell when comments on your work came from a young investigator in training because they pick on things that everyone knows are a problem but which few people think are a real obstacles to supporting a particular conclusion. The trick is to recognize when its appropriate to both listen to and offer a critical comment (i.e. when the criticism is important) and when its not. In the case of football players, everyone – even the best of them – makes mistakes. We all know that. For that reason whatever criticism a good commentator offers on individual players is usually in terms of individual technique. Beyond that, frankly, if Gruden isn’t too free with his critical comments, he’ll hear few complaints from me. I don’t care if he says if a player is great or isn’t great. I can usually see that with my own eyes.

What really makes for a top notch commentator – what really makes the difference between a Cris Collinsworth and some schlub off of a local television station somewhere – is the ability of the person involved to teach the viewer about the game. This is where Gruden excels. He’s always going to be the guy to notice some little point about how the defense is playing, where the mismatches are or where the offense is attacking in a particularly notable way. Almost all fans are limited by the fact that they aren’t good enough to actually get on the field and do the things that NFL football players do. We can’t go to mini-camp and learn about the ins and out of the cover two defense. Its these comments from the likes of Gruden and Collinsworth that are so valuable because they increase understanding of a game we all love and would like to know better but where opportunities to do so are limited.

This is far more important than criticizing the play of individuals because those types of comments die after the game is over or after the player involved is no longer on the field. In contrast, the lessons taught about how the game is played last a lifetime and whatever criticism we, ourselves, offer should be targeted with that in mind.

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Sharrif Floyd

ESPN NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert has some interesting thoughts on the Vikings plans to use newly drafted defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd:

“Floyd plays the same “three-technique” position as veteran Kevin Williams, and during minicamp this week, the two rotated with the first team while Letroy Guion and Fred Evans took turns at nose tackle. Asked how he plans to use Floyd at least initially, [Vikings head coach Leslie] Frazier said: ‘We’d like to be able to get him in a rotation system where he’s a part of what we’re doing with our four-down when he’s getting in sometimes with Kevin [Williams] and just rotate. Hopefully it gets to the point where he’s productive enough where he can warrant increased reps as the year goes on. That would be optimum if he’s able to get in the rotation, have success and we can gradually add more reps to his play as the season goes on.’

“We discussed the issue briefly in Tuesday’s SportsNation chat, and my feeling is simple: I don’t really care who starts, but in the end, the best two defensive tackles should get the most snaps over time. There is a very good chance that Williams and Floyd will be those two players. But because neither is a traditional nose tackle, does that mean they’ll have to share time at one position while two lesser players share the other?”

Of course Seifert has a point. Its particularly relevant when you are talking about offensive players where there’s a lot more versatiliity in terms of what you can do while attacking a defense. But its problematic when you are talking about dong it on the other side of the ball where you are to a large extent reacting to what the offense decides to throw at you. The problem is that there’s a reason for having a nose guard on the line and the way the team functions as a whole trumps individual talent. That’s why the NFL is such a great game compared to, for instance, the NBA where a one or two players are the difference between winning and losing.

The nose tackle in a cover two defense (or really almost any defense) has the job of taking on a double team between the guard and the center. Sure, he’s expected to penetrate more in the cover two than in, say, the defense former head coach Dick Jauron was so fond of where his job was to occupy the linemaen and keep them off of the linebackers. But if you put a nose tackle who is too light in that spot, he’ll get moved out too easily and leave the run up the middle open.

Seifert doesn’t have any constructive suggestions for how you could get both Williams and Floyd on the field at the same time without weakening the defense but I would suggest that its possible in passing situations where a quicker, penetrating tackle might be better for the pass rush. That will get both Williams and Floyd more reps. But you are still going to need a nose tackle for at least half the snaps.

The post illustrates the challenges facing general managers as they approach the draft, again particularly on the defensive side of the ball. The Lions, even more than the Vikings, have embraced the “take best guy available regardless of position” philosophy. This can leave you in a situation that the Vikings currently face – they took Floyd but now have to cut his reps to get WIlliams on the field. Long-term its the best plan as Floyd will be primed to step in for the aging Williams as he approaches retirement age. ven this year, Williams will be better rested and Floyd will have time to gradually adjust to the NFL. But still, the situation isn’t ideal.

In any case it will be interesting to see what the Vikings do here. It sounds like they’ll play it conventionally but Frazier isn’t likely to want to give their plans away in June and he still might surprise us with some interesting alignments as the season progresses.

Pompei Is Honored With Prestigious Award

Dan Pompei at the Chicago Tribune has been selected as the 2013
winner of the prestigious Dick McCann Memorial Award
for distinguished
reporting and will be honored during enshrinement week ceremonies in
August at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

There are times when I write this blog that you would have thought
that Pompei’s articles are the only ones I read all week. In fact, I
read dozens of newspapers and magazines but the Tribune articles in
general and Pompei’s articles in particular are most often the ones
that teach me the most about the game. This award is well deserved.

Despite Consistent Offseason, the Rams WIll be Sporting a Very Different Look This Season

Josh Alper at profootballtalk.com discusses the fact that the Rams will have the same offensive coordinator two years in a row for the first time in quarterback Sam Bradford‘s career:

“”The day Sam walked back into the building [this offseason] we started making adjustments,’ [offensive coordinator Brain*] **Schottenheimer said, via Mike Sando of *ESPN.com*. ‘We are a thousand years ahead of where we were last year.’

“While an increased comfort level with the offense is significant, it isn’t the only reason why the Rams might feel like they’ve gone from working with stone tools to the Industrial Revolution in a matter of months. Adding wide receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey in the draft after signing tight end Jared Cook and tackle Jake Long has given the Rams offense a very different look than it had last season.

I don’t know about those additions but I can guarantee the offense will be significantly different with the loss of running back Steven Jackson. Jackson, for my money the best running back in the NFL, was a work horse. Daryl Richardson looked good in the role in limited duty last year but a lot is riding on his ability to pick up the slack.

Lions Lack of Discipline on the Field Is a Reflection of Off-Field Problems

Drew Sharp at the Detroit Free Press puts his finger on the problem when commenting on the Lions lack of discipline:

[Head coach Jim] Schwartz didn’t take the off-field nonsense seriously last year. It reflected his head-coaching inexperience. Commitment is a 24/7 proposition in the NFL. It isn’t a light switch you can flick off when you’re not at minicamp or OTAs and then flip it back on when reunited with your teammates and coaching staff.

It always bugs me when I’ll write something about an off-field problem with a player and fans will come back at me with “I don’t care about what kind of citizen they are. I just want a good player on the field”. The problem is that you are talking about players as whole people. There is no “here’s how I am off-field” and “here’s how I am on the field”. Its always just “here’s how I am”, period.

Bottom line, a lack of discipline off-field will almost always show up on the field in some way. It won’t always hurt you as badly as it has the Lions. But it will hurt you.

The Bears Offense Is Taking Shape and Other Points of View

“‘I look at my past history and I know what I am capable of doing,’ [Hester] said. ‘We all know I am the best return man that is stepping on this field. Coach Joe D. and I, we have spent a lot of time watching film on some of the things that can be corrected. It’s a team thing.'”

“‘The mistakes that I made and the mistakes that we made as a unit, those are easy to correct,’ he said. ‘At the end of the day, I am the best returner in this game, and I know that for a fact. What man can sit here and tell me that I lost it when I know what I am capable of doing?'”

“Who is the best fit for the slot WR position long term? — @Tjacobs78, from Twitter

“With the way the slot position is evolving in the NFL, that’s a difficult question to answer. In the past, most teams had a specific profile for a slot receiver—they wanted a quick, tough receiver who could create separation with craftiness, burst and change of direction on underneath routes. That is not necessarily the case anymore. Most teams play multiple players with different body styles and athletic talents in the slot. The Bears did it that way last year, and I anticipate they will do it the same way this year. I don’t believe they will have one slot receiver. They’ll have two or three players who get a lot of time in the slot. One is sure to be Earl Bennett though. He fits the traditional definition of a slot receiver. If the Bears can get advantageous matchups, you can count on Marshall spending some time in the slot too.”

On a related note, Cardinals coach Bruce Arians makes a good point as he talks to the Associated Press about wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald. Via Mike Florio at profootballtalk.com:

“’If you want a hundred balls, move around. If they know where you’re at, it’s easy to take you out of the game.’

“Of course, that means taking Fitzgerald out of his comfort zone.

“’I think as a human being you’re a bit of a creature of habit,’ Fitzgerald said. ‘I’ve played the same position since I was in junior high school.  I’ve never had to really move around and you know I’ve gotten good at it.  So I think we all resist change to a certain degree, especially if you’ve had a little bit of success.  But as I’ve gone through the offseason workouts, I’ve definitely become more receptive of it.’”

Teams are doing a good job of moving their best players around to create mismatches now a-days and a good spot to do that is in the slot. Perhaps the most interesting thing to watch for scheme-wise this season will be what the Bears do with running back Matt Forte. There is much talk in Chicago about creating mismatches with the tight end but moving Forte, a versatile offensive weapon, around the formation will likely be a big key to the offense.

“Changes up front

“The Bears’ offensive line has undergone major changes personnel-wise and scheme-wise. Center Roberto Garza described it as a ‘totally different offense [with] totally different techniques.’ It’s an inside-out protection scheme under offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer.

“‘[It’s] different footwork, hand placement, some of the ways our combination blocks are being done differently, targets and things like that,’’ Garza said.

“Marc & Jay

[Head coach Marc] Trestman is doing everything he can to get to [quarterback Jay] Cutler and get the best from him. He has used a verbal clock to speed up his reads and release and brought in some of his former quarterbacks, notably Rich Gannon, to speak to him, Josh McCown and Matt Blanchard.”

These two points from Jahns were of interest because they tell us more about what to expect the offense will look like. Despite all of the talk about adapting to Jay Cutler’s strengths its now becoming evident that Trestman is going to expect him to adapt to his general style of offense rather than completely changing his own ideals to fit Cutler.

Blocking from the inside out means conceding the outside rush to keep a clean pocket up the middle for Cutler. It probably means that, with the occasional exception, we aren’t going to be seeing Cutler in roll outs or plays where the plan is to get him on the move where he often performed best in previous years. Trestman is going to expect him to step up and throw from the pocket the vast majority of the time.

Cutler probably also isn’t going to be able to scan the field and wait for receivers to pop open. If Trestman has Cutler on a verbal clock, counting seconds for him to get rid of the ball, that means Cutler is going to be expected to throw the ball on time to a receiver with anticipation. This has been tried before. Former offensive coordinator Mike Martz evidently worked to get Cutler to do the same thing. Cutler lost confidence in his receivers and eventually stopped trying to do it, leading Martz to give up. Personally, I have little hope that Cutler is capable of doing it here, either, but the situation is different this time around. This time if Cutler doesn’t adapt, he will be the one on the street, not Trestman. That, along with a more dependable group of wide receivers, could make the difference.

“Books

“A book: a Father’s Day gift slightly less clichÉd than a tie. ‘Here, Dad, I got you a reading assignment as a gift.’ Congratulations — you are the Phil Jackson of sons, only with zero championship rings.

“If you must go the book route, get him a bundle of laughs on the cheap. For one cent, you can get Charlie Weis‘ book “No Excuses: One Man’s Incredible Rise Through the NFL to Head Coach of Notre Dame.” For another cent, you can get “Return to Glory: Inside Tyrone Willingham‘s Amazing First Season at Notre Dame.” And for a third cent, you can get Lance Armstrong‘s “It’s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life.” That’s three cents (plus shipping and handling) for hundreds of pages of side-splitting laughter. Can’t beat that. (And by that, I mean the value, not Weis, Willingham or non-PED-fueled Armstrong. They’re all quite beatable.)

How Will the Bears Do in 2013? Look No Farther Than the 2012 Draft. And Other Points of View

  • John Mullin had some interesting things to say about the Bears current status on offense:

“As last season spiraled down from its 7-1 start into a series of disappointing losses, communications in and around the offense reached a point where backup quarterback Josh McCown was pressed into the role of liaison between quarterback Jay Cutler and then-coordinator Mike Tice, a source told CSNChicago.com.”

“’I was just talking to McCown this morning and one of the things we said is it’s so cool to come to work where it’s not one of those things where it’s dreadful,” wide receiver Brandon Marshall said this week.

“‘And it’s not just coach [Marc] Trestman and the new guys here. It’s just the organization, period. When you could come in and just do what you’re supposed to do and you don’t have to worry about all of the other fluff and the business side of things, it’s cool.’

“It was cool last offseason when Jeremy Bates was brought in as quarterbacks coach, having worked with Cutler and Marshall in Denver. And cool with Cutler when the Mike Martz tenure began. A key to the franchise future, short-term and even longer-term, is achieving a more lasting ‘cool.'”

  • Those Bear fans who prefer a rosy outlook are going to love this ESPN article from former scout Gary Horton, who describes what to expect from the new Bears offense. He positively gushes about new head coach Marc Trestmen:

Trestman is a very cerebral guy and this will be a thinking man’s offense with amazing attention to detail and meticulous preparation — something he’ll demand from his players and assistants as well. They will be challenged to outwork their opponents each week and their mental approach to the game will be a key to their success. He will call offensive plays — one of his big strengths — he will work very closely with offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer and QB coach Matt Cavanaugh, and he will sit in all of the QB meetings. But that’s not simply to preside over the proceedings.

Who will have the most targets after Brandon Marshall — another WR or Martellus Bennett? — @eddygchitown, from Twitter

I think opposing defenses may dictate that to a degree. If they try to take away Bennett, it will be [Alshon] Jeffery. If they try to take away Jeffery, it will be Bennett. But if defenses focus all of their attention on Marshall and the run game, which they may have to frequently do, both Bennett and Jeffery will get plenty of opportunities. In that case, I would suspect Jeffery would be the second leading receiver on the team. Bennett had a career year in 2012 and was the third leading receiver on the Giants behind Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks. I could see a similar scenario playing out with the Bears.

Just as the development of Bears defensive end **Shea McClellin** will be the single biggest key to the Bears performance on defense this year, the development of Jeffery will largely determine what the offense will accomplish. Defense will do exactly as Pompei says. They’ll take away Marshall first (if they can), then running back **Matt Forte**. I’m not holding my breath on Bennett and his one big season with the Giants being a huge factor. Its Jeffery who is going to have to come through with big yardage against single coverage.

How the Bears go in 2013 is going to be all about the success of the 2012 draft.

I read your piece on the Bears new strength coach, and how the focus is now on explosiveness rather than sustainability and player protection. Are we in for another training camp like Lovie Smith‘s first, with hamstrings popping on every drill? The strongest players in the world won’t help you if they’re on the sideline nursing a pull. One of the Bears strengths in recent years was their relative lack of non-contact soft tissue injuries. Is Phil Emery just changing everything for the sake of change? Are the players really buying into something that will likely shorten careers? — Mark Early, Arlington, Va.

If muscle pulls are the result of the new strength program, it will be a disaster. But I can assure you special attention is being paid to proper form and injury avoidance. And the team is using the same nutritional program that was used under previous strength coach Rusty Jones. It’s not like what Mike Clark is doing never has been done before. Many of his methods have been used in football programs for decades, going back to the 1970s when weight training became widely accepted. Clark wouldn’t have lasted 35 years as a strength coach and have been inducted into the USA Strength and Conditioning Coaches Hall of Fame if all he did was invite injury. Many teams have gotten outstanding results with similar philosophies. But it certainly is something worth monitoring.

Darned right it is. I remember those days as well as the questioner and it wasn’t fun. Player health is one of the biggest determining factors for team success in the NFL. USA Strength and Conditioning Coaches Hall of Fame or not I, too, fear that we’ll see significantly more hamstring pulls this year.