Xs and Os with the Bros: The Most Special Team There Is

by Cleveland Frowns on October 20, 2011

The Cleveland Browns, of course! Welcome to the latest edition of “Xs and Os with the Bros” by Xs and Os editor @rodofdisaster. This feature represents a basic attempt to dive deeper into the game of football, learn something about X’s and O’s, and try to appreciate the games within the game by taking a close look at a play from the previous week. It’s called “Xs and Os with the Bros” because you don’t have to be a rocket surgeon or a former NFL player or coach to get something out of taking a closer look at a football play, so please enjoy the post and the discussion in the comments. OK, here’s Rod:

Every football fan understands that football games are won and lost with offense, defense and special teams. Most coaches and analysts tell us that if you win two of the three phases, you should win the game. Most people can look at offensive and defensive stats and decide for themselves whether or not it was a good day. Special teams, on the other hand, are a different story. There simply isn’t a lot of attention paid by fans and commentators to that part of the game.

The Browns made a furious comeback last Sunday in Oakland — made possible by an incredible Hue Jackson brain fart — but came up short, thanks largely to two special teams touchdowns by the Raiders. Getting hit with one special teams touchdown will happen from time to time (although generally not to the best teams), but suffering two in one game is understood to be fatal on any given Sunday (and let’s not forget that Jacoby Ford had a return in the second half that was a single tackle away from another six points).

With that and the usual disclaimers in mind, let’s take a closer look at kickoff coverage. Keep in mind that television coverage rarely shows you what’s going on away from the ball and this part of football may suffer the most in televised coverage.

Situation: 2nd Quarter; 12:07 left
Score: Tied 7-7, Browns have just equalized.

I. The Personnel

Some special teams coaches have special names for guys that are running down the field to cover kicks. The outside guys are typically called “gunners”. There are also guys called “wedge busters” , the “bomber” and the “spear” although the terminology may vary. Others are more simple and they just designate them by the terms “L1-L5” and “R1-R5” with the L’s being left of the kicker going out to the sideline and the R’s by exclusion lining up to the kicker’s right.

If you look at kickoff coverage as a specialized kind of running play, what kinds of players would you choose to put into the game? What skills should a coverage guy possess? They need to be fast enough to get downfield, elusive enough to avoid blockers, strong enough to shed a block and a sure enough tackler to take the ball carrier down. You won’t necessarily exclude any position from this team except for QBs and offensive linemen but the bulk of kick coverage units are composed of defensive backs and linebackers. You will also see a few WRs. The team can’t be too small however because you still need guys who can eat up the blockers and disrupt the blocking scheme. That means you’ll also see some defensive ends on the unit.

If we look at who the Browns sent out to cover this kick, the breakdown is 3 defensive linemen, 2 LBs, a FB, and 4 defensive backs. I’m going to tell you that this is a standard group nowadays. You don’t really have the luxury of carrying special teamers who don’t play as backups or even starters in some capacity. If your team has injuries, one of these guys may have to spend more time practicing on offense or defense which is why you see the quality of special teams decline as injuries mount (they’re pressing guys off of the practice squad into kick coverage). In this case, we see Auston English who just got activated due to Marcus Benard’s injury on the coverage team.

II. Run downfield

The announcers always say that guys need to “stay in their lanes” and while this is true to some degree, it’s not always that simple and it’s not always what the coaches have told them to do. Before I go on, let’s look at who they’re up against.

The kickoff return team will be broken down into two groups: the front line and the wedge group. The front line acts like an offensive line and in many cases they’re even called by those positions. This group will have a backup TE, a FB and perhaps even a backup offensive lineman as those guys tend to be your best blockers. They make sure it isn’t an onside kick. They then run 20 yards back and then turn around. They each have a blocking assignment. If they see the name on the back of the guy’s jersey, they’re not supposed to block him. Some teams will have five guys up front. In this instance, the Raiders used six. Later in the game, they used seven (possibly thinking we had an onside kick called). If these six guys are successful, then only four guys remain unblocked. The wedge used to be more than two guys but now only two guys are allowed to join together to form the wedge for the returner to run behind. The goal is to pierce the coverage unit and create a seam. The other two “wedge” guys aren’t allowed to join up with them but there’s nothing stopping them from helping to block an area to create the alley.

For the coverage team, they have four responsibilities:

1. Be at full speed at the kick
2. Evade the front line
3. Attack the wedge
4. Make the tackle

The simplest way to actually cover a kick is to have the coverage team run downfield in their “lanes” which are basically five-yard areas that they are responsible for. The R1 and L1 guys typically are “wedge busters”. These are guys like your “must have a screw loose rookie” who will run downfield and slam into the wedge. The outermost guys (L5, R5) many times WILL NOT stay in their lanes. Their job is to get down the field as fast as possible and go straight for the ball. This makes many teams vulnerable to returns up the sideline, which is why R4 and L4 typically have contain responsibilities. That leaves L2 &3 and R2&3 to make the bulk of the tackles.

In this photo, we can’t really see if guys are crossing on the way downfield but we can see that Mike Adams (L5) has crossed over two other teammates to cover an area more toward the hashmarks. That is hopefully by design. It’s also possible that Adams figured that was the fastest way to the ball carrier. That tells me that they are really worried about Ford’s ability. The wedge has sealed the left side and Ford is going right. Notice Stephens (highlighted) on the ground. In football, that’s never good. At this point, I would offer that the front line has done a very good job blocking the Browns so that #22 doesn’t even have anyone to block. Adams is caught a bit flat footed and flails at Ford as he runs past.

III. The Burst

Once Ford makes this cut, Marecic has taken himself out of the play. English is easily outpaced. Notice we didn’t mention the kicker? Well, that’s because the returner’s responsibility is to beat him. I won’t fault Phil on this one. Ford is simply a superior athlete with exceptional speed. Dockery gets blocked (legally) and Skrine is the R4 or R5 who’s run all the way across the field and Ford gets past him even though initially it looked as though he had the angle.

Analysis: I won’t argue that the Browns had the wrong types of players on the field because they didn’t. I will say that the Browns’ lack of team speed and agility is clearly evident. It’s perhaps a bit unfair to gripe that they couldn’t catch a guy like Ford but the returner’s identity is a bit irrelevant. A good returner who’s gotten downfield with only the kicker to beat is generally in the end zone the majority of the time. I also won’t suggest that the X’s and O’s of this were inappropriate. They simply didn’t make the play. You could lay some blame on Mike Adams for completely whiffing but Brown, Stephens and Marecic all took themselves out of the play as well.

If we look at the kickoff after Dawson’s FG in the fourth quarter we see a return that almost goes the distance, right up the middle.

If not for the gunner (Dockery) closing early to make the play at the 34 yard line, that was another TD just barely avoided.

I think the problem here is primarily one of speed although some guys like Brad Seeley, Mike Westhoff and Bobby April are more creative at getting their coverage guys in position to make plays. At this point, you simply aren’t going to increase the athleticism on the roster appreciably. It’s probably going to need some tweaking of the coverage unit (crossing lanes, etc). This also underscores the philosophy of constantly turning over the bottom of the roster (a la Bill Parcells) because that’s where your special teams players come from. Perhaps Josh Cribbs’ offer to concentrate on specials isn’t such a bad idea?

Which is all for this edition. Here’s hoping there’s something more inspiring to take a closer look at next time around.

—————

I found this piece by Michael David Smith especially useful and a good basis for analysis here.

  • Anonymous

    The Cheddar Bay thread won’t be up until tomorrow so any Thursday night action goes here.

    • Anonymous

      Damn. I think that means you’re taking extra time to roast me.

      • Anonymous

        i, for one, am disappointed not to see your picks today because law of averages says your essaypick this week is lock of the year.

        • Anonymous

          There is no law of averages, there’s just everybody getting exactly what he deserves. http://images.cheezburger.com/completestore/2010/11/1/4d5322db-4ba5-4052-85ac-b2836c2819fc.jpg

          • Anonymous

            If only you could have remembered that with your Texas pick last week.  

          • Anonymous

            OH COME ON.

          • Anonymous

            Back to back kickoff return TD’s in the Texas game last week.
            It was a classic “lanes” issue on the Kickoff Return against Texas.
            The outside guy went flying to the ball, the next guy went inside with him and the guy moving out to contain late over ran the play toward the goal line and then got tied up in an easy block.   
            The coverage looked like Texas forgot that the return guy could go left, the entire left side was open.

          • Anonymous

            Well good thing rod is around now so that won’t happen again.

          • Anonymous

            Yes Frownie, you are correct sir.
            I forgot to thank Rod.
            Nice job Rod, I think that I may have even understood some of it.
            Well…. maybe

          • Anonymous

            Haha, I dont think its a reach to assume you were using “law of averages” in your argument against Okie St last week, thats all I was saying.  

          • Anonymous

            i liked where The Prohibitive Favorite’s head was at on the Texas play last wek.  but okst is so money… that was the problem he overlooked.

            it really begs the question brosef posed last week: why not play stanford, wiscy, okst, oregon, lsu, boise, and bama… all the BCS playaz who are actively trolling for votes… until proven otherwise? it sure feels like those coaches know the lines and are playing to beat the line.

            eg, i want to play washington very much… one of the last remaining sleepers, imo.  but they have standford this week.  and when stanford has luck still in the game at the end of the 4th qtr and racked up 20 pts in the 4th qtr in to cover with a 44-14 win at wazzu last week… who would dare bet against them?  

          • Anonymous

            Right. I was just busting Frowns balls a bit there.  He was of course, exactly correct; it cant stand.  His timing (at least as it relates to the collective top ten) just happened to be off.   But it will happen, and likely this week or next at the latest.  But, the “sharps” arent getting back all the money theyvelost betting against them for the last four weeks, all in one week.  And in the meantime, a bunch of “squares” like me have mad a bunch of cash.  

          • Anonymous

            play washington.  and i dare.  how are they a “sleeper” at 5-1?  and they are easily the best team this stanford d has faced.  and they are hungrier than stanford.  and stanford doesn’t have jerky harbaugh making sure his team gets the *20.5* – yes that’s a 3 touchdown – cover.  i mean luck will win for sure for sure.  but not by 3 td’s.  come on.  

          • Anonymous

            Perhaps I did need a bit of a come down off my high-handed style, jousting with the gods and what not. I think you will see a much chastened Bupalos this week.

          • Anonymous

            LOL the third-person self-reference is a hell of a start for this new much chastened bup.

  • Anonymous

    great analysis per usual sir!  as you show, there were several breakdowns in each of those big returns for OAK.  but as previously stated, i wonder if we can just chalk it up to a bad day at the office on the road in the black hole with al davis’ spirit in the air or if this is the type of execution we’re going to expect on returns for the remainder of the season?  

    as previously discussed, at this point i still feel it was an aberration.   while of course you can’t take a mulligan in the NFL or in statistics, let alone 2 mulligans, but let’s just hope that their “team speed and agility” heretofor is similar to the “team speed and agility” they demonstrated in the 13 other kicks that were returned this season where they only allowed an average of 20.9 per return, which matches the 5th best unit in the NFL the 0-5 Rams.  (in the 2 kicks detailed their average was 69 per return).

    another suggestion is maybe with the new rules we should just go get a stronger kicker for kickoffs.  i love Phil but  ONLY 5 of our 21 kickoffs have been touchbacks (1 unfortunately went out of bounds..) 

  • Anonymous

    cheddar essay:

    ***at arizona -4 ucla
    ucla rated bad pass defense (95th), zona rated 4th in pass offense.  zona has lost to @okst, stan, ore, @usc, and @orst.  oregon state loss seems like a problem,,,, but zona had 4 TOs in that game which is an anomaly… they’d only had 3 TOs in the whole year before the orst game.  plus i don’t think you really want to bet against ron weasley, do you?  or maybe you forgot his total domination in wizard’s chess in chamber?  how he destroyed that one horcrux hallows?  right, i thought so. 
    will re-post this along with others tomorrow.

    • Anonymous

      Man oh man, do I want a piece of that action.

      Put me down for Arizona -4, and I’ll see you all at the cribbage match. This one’s for Ronny the Bear.

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HPVhmZodaLA

      • Anonymous

        I AM A BEAUTIFUL ANIMAL. I AM A DESTROYER OF WORLDS. I AM HARRY FUCKING POTTER.

    • http://cinema-talk.com/ Jake Savage

      Jim, not going to watch the Leafs-Broons tonight?

      • Anonymous

        sad to say i passed on brunos tix tonite due to salt.  …missed a good one, eh?

      • Anonymous

        sad to say i passed on brunos tix tonite due to salt.  …missed a good one, eh?

    • http://www.redright88.com Titus Pullo

      What the hey, you sold me.

      I’m in for Arizona -4 over UCLA

    • Anonymous

      …and in looking for ways to talk myself into playing the early game too, i’ve uncovered some evidence indicating JK Rowlings was modeling Slytherin House after none other than the university of alabama at birmingham.  no doubt her publishers forced her to replace the Blazer with a snake out of copyright considerations.
      at UAB +16 UCF.

  • Anonymous

    I thought it at the time and think so here too– Isn’t Phil a bit far down the field? Given his angle coming back he’s obviously been down around the 35 or 36. And yeah, it’s pretty amazing that Ford is going to be able to basically run the hypotenuse before Phil can run the base, although he looks at this point like he’s still kind of playing for a cutback.

  • Anonymous

    Will take Arizona -4.

    The rest to follow….

    • Anonymous

      LEMMINGS.

      • Anonymous

        “Wait, stop guys.  I think there may be a ledge up there.  
        Stop pushing!”

  • http://twitter.com/CapitalGG Gavin Gould

    Gonna drop this here because I don’t know that I’ll be back tomorrow to post. 

    Cheddar Bay Week 7:

    Keep chopping wood.  3-2 and a money pick every week is good enough.  Just keep chopping wood, here we go…

    1) Wake Forest -3 @ Duke (Wake is for real.  Good teams win games they are supposed to win.)
    2) Oklahoma St. -7 @ Missouri (OSU is gonna keep it rolling until Bedlam)
    3) Stanford -20.5 v. Washington (Riding Luck till the wheels fall off)
    4) Nebraska -25 @ Minnesota (I would love to see Memphis v. Minnesota, prove once and for all who the worst is.)
    5) Ravens -7.5 @ Jaguars (Bad teams lose to good teams, home or road… big)

    1 week ago, Illinois was 6-0 and  a 4 point favorite over Ohio St.  Ohio St. is not a terrible team having an excellent defense and good running game.  Conditions were sub-optimal for passing but unfortunately for the Illini defense that is what they do best and Ohio St. does worst.  Illinois should be able to get ahead of Purdue early forcing Purdue to pass. This plays directly into the hands of Whitney Merciless who might murder both Boilermaker QBs.  Add the fact that Purdue’s defensive stats are padded against some bad team (SEMoSt?) and against their best opponent (Notre Dame!) got blown off the field.  Don’t see Purdue keeping this within a touchdown.  I’m taking Illinois to bounce back this week at Purdue and giving 4.5 points.

  • clay

    Just a quick one to get down:

    UAB (+16) / UCF

  • Anonymous

    picking up on the josh cribbs thread:  i always felt his superlative return skills had the unfortunate result of overshadowing his BEAST presence on coverage.

    the guy is a football player* in the classic sense.  you could put him at OLB, SS, CB, WR, RB.. QB(!) and he’ll improve that position.  i dont care about working on arm slot, understanding press-2 coverage, 7-yd out routes.. youre a better team when cribbs is on the field.  the other players feed off it.  coaches over-think this.  the guy is effing jim thorpe.  put him on the field.

    i want to take this opportunity to suggest that if we find ourselves at 2-9 or something this year, let’s put cribbs’ athletic and competitive and team-focused football essence under center and see where that takes us.

    *this applies to tim tebow also.  dont try to understand it; embrace it, and put him on the field.  you’ll win.  dont try to understand.

    • clay

      Way to get down on UAB. That was my second most egregious line of the week. That will make me 12-1 last 3 weeks. Ride this horse…

      • Anonymous

        shhhh… quiet rookie, not yet… almost, but not yet.

        and yes, you cant pick better than you have in last two weeks (attached is just beautiful)… and get less points.  moreover, you get style points for picking ulm (30 point cover?), ballu (20 point cover?), mizzou (30 point cover?), utep (40 point cover?).. you just had to get cute with wake, dintcha?  do note: vatech is on my kryponite list.  beware.  i lose with them playing them either side.

        suffice it to say, i was glad to see you backing up my UAB play.  and… ok, it looks safe to post this now.

        • Anonymous

          You dog.  Putting pressure on  with your early jump. 

          • Anonymous

            three things:
            1. consistently overthinking early good picks; lock em in and think less;
            2. bull at self for extending empathy to bup on browns pick.  christ, raiders were almost my essaypick;
            3. my essay on drunk tulane fans waking up with hangovers and sportsbook tickets showing they bet on tulane as a favorite was much better than the usu one.  if there’s a choice, go with the organically better essay.

            so hey!  good start and that’s awesome…. still didnt catch CLTIL tho.  and still have four picks to anguish over.

          • Anonymous

            three things:
            1. consistently overthinking early good picks; lock em in and think less;
            2. bull at self for extending empathy to bup on browns pick.  christ, raiders were almost my essaypick;
            3. my essay on drunk tulane fans waking up with hangovers and sportsbook tickets showing they bet on tulane as a favorite was much better than the usu one.  if there’s a choice, go with the organically better essay.

            so hey!  good start and that’s awesome…. still didnt catch CLTIL tho.  and still have four picks to anguish over.

        • clay

          yes, WF screwed me.  UTEP was actually my #1 and i talked myself out of it (the conversations in my head are rediculous).  Feelin swell on this weeks picks though.  Trying to get under the double lobster.  Would i get a special hue for that?

          • Anonymous

            AB-SO-FUCKING-LUTELY.

            plus the blingee potential is off the charts.
            but again.. speak not of these things young jedi.

            ps, you and me both on the UTEP… holy god what a lay-up that was.  in retrospect.

    • Anonymous

      it super doesn’t apply to tim tebow, who’s proven zero exactly nothing in the pros thus far. 

      but cribbs is a real brown, for sure.  

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