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 look deeper into the game of football, learn something about the X’s and O’s that make it go, and better appreciate the games within the game. It’s called Xs and Os with the Bros because you don’t have to be a player, coach, or rocket surgeon to get something out of taking a closer look at a football play, so please enjoy the post and the discussion in the comments.
This week Rod focuses on Sheldon Brown’s game-changing fourth quarter interception, as well as an offensive formation in which Shurmurball has found some success.
Time: 4th Quarter, 7:55 left;
Score: Browns 27-17
Situation: 1st and 10 from Cincinnati 12; Browns have kicked off after a Ben Watson TD.
The Bengals have come out in “11” personnel. The formation is 2×2 right (TE to the right). Dalton is in the shotgun with a back to his left. The Browns come out in 4-2 Nickel personnel. This has been their personnel reaction to “11” so far this year. A couple notes on the pre-snap reads:
- The CBs are lined up on their men suggesting a man-to-man coverage. The safety at the top (Ward) is creeping down into the box. This should tell Dalton that he has a single deep safety (Young) and he should figure this is man-free coverage (1 deep safety and man-to-man underneath).
- Typically this coverage involves some blitz pressure and here we see Craig Robertson showing blitz in the A-gap to the center’s right (top arrow) and D’Qwell Jackson showing blitz through the opposite B-gap (between guard and tackle).
II. DROP BACK
At this point we see that Dalton has taken a 3-step drop. Robertson has bailed into a “robber” position (he’s generally playing a shallow zone looking for crossers). Dalton is looking left all the way (blue arrow). Sheldon Brown is playing a bit of a cushion and he’s cheating by watching Dalton the whole way. The pass pattern is drawn in red. He’s anticipating the route much like Cary Williams did with Weeden in Baltimore in the Week 4 matchup.
Here we see that Brown has broken over the top of the defender and beaten him to the spot where the ball was arriving. This is important. If he takes an underneath angle, he’s likely to miss the ball and the receiver has a lot of space with only Usama Young to beat (and we know how that’s likely to go). But by coming over the top, Brown can still contain the receiver to some degree even if he misses the ball. By avoiding the underneath space, he also avoids being picked by the corner in coverage on the slot receiver.
While Emmanuel Stephens’ strip sack might have Shurmur-proofed the victory, this is the play that broke the game open. The pre-snap look from the defense suggests the man-free coverage. It’s unclear if Dalton thought he was getting 3-deep zone coverage or man-free robber as he got here. That’s probably irrelevant because (facing the blitzers) he was looking to get the ball out quickly.
This play is somewhat of a microcosm of what went right for the Browns defense on Sunday. Last year, I wrote an X’s and O’s entry titled “Joe Haden: Shutdown Corner?” where I pointed out that AJ Green was on another level and that Joe’s game had to improve to keep pace with such a talented receiver. After watching four weeks of football without Joe, I knew that the Browns’ defense would be better with Haden back; the question was how much better? The answer for now is “a lot.” While Haden won’t make Usama Young and TJ Ward better tacklers or cover men, he makes a difference in how offenses approach this team and how effective the called coverages are. Last week against the Giants, there was relatively little blitzing. Maybe the difference from then to now is in the opposing QB and how much the Browns do or don’t fear him. On the other hand, it could simply be that Joe Haden allows for a more aggressive defense because of what he can do.
One thing immediately obvious with Haden back is the pass targeting. In previous weeks, the offense would go away from Brown at the less experienced Skrine and Patterson. The Browns gave up a highlight-reel play to AJ Green but I would argue that the Bengals had a hard time targeting Green. While he was targeted 11 times in this game, six of those targets came in the last quarter and change. One resulted in an interception and four were in the hurry up after the play we’ve reviewed here. That’s almost three full quarters of the Bengals primary receiver being someone OTHER than AJ Green. Since they chose to go away from Haden on a consistent basis Sunday that gives Brown a bit of an advantage as he understands that his side is hot most often. Joe Haden wasn’t perfect but he was very good on Sunday, which is encouraging in his first game back. I hate the term “shutdown corner” because I think it’s really a myth. The only corner I ever saw shut down half of the field was Deion Sanders and no one else was close to his ability. Today’s shutdown corner is a very good, if not elite, player who isn’t tested that often because he’s made a lot of interceptions. At some point that guy is a “shutdown corner” based on reputation and nothing else (see Nnamdi Asomugha). But any good offense will test him from time to time to keep the defense honest. Joe Haden isn’t a shutdown corner in my book but he’s a very good corner and that’s really all he needs to be. Dedication to film study and professionalism are what will take him to the next level.
The few times I’ve commented on Sheldon Brown it seems I’m often criticizing the Browns for not playing him at safety more, and his risk-taking can often be maddening. I also wonder why the Bengals didn’t challenge him deep more frequently last Sunday, which also would have exposed what’s so far been typically weak safety play (the Bengals first touchdown, the 55-yarder to Gresham, was inexcusable). But this all belies the fact that I really do like Brown as a player. This play wasn’t made because Sheldon is fleet of foot. This was purely a veteran reaction to the fact that Dalton needed an inside breaking route, stared down his receiver and threw to a spot. It’s probably something he’s seen a thousand times as an NFL defensive back. He made Dalton pay and blew the game wide open. Well done.
While I have often been a critic of Pat Shurmur and still find his in-game management nauseating, not to mention his post-game prickliness, I’ve noticed something the last few weeks that merits some mention.
At 7:03 in the first quarter, the Browns come out in this formation to start the possession after the Gresham TD. I call this Ace Double Wing Right Twins (Ace is the one RB, Double wing right refers to the two TEs; and twins refers to the two WRs opposite the TEs). Does anyone recognize this? Here’s a hint:
It’s the same formation out of which they scored the 61-yard TD to Gordon to go up 14-0 against the Giants in Week 5. We’ve seen this formation a couple of times before this season but last week against the Giants it resulted in some bigger plays, also including a 12-yard run for Richardson.
As you can see above, the play that resulted in the Gordon TD was interesting. The two tight ends to the right play off each other. The outside man (Cameron) runs a corner route deep. Watson runs an out. This beats multiple coverages. In zone coverage they put vertical stretch on the shallow defender and lateral stretch on the safety, causing the shallow defender to choose whether to cover the deep or shallow man. The safety then has to decide whether to cover this corner route or stay towards the middle. He can’t let this threat run free. This opens up the middle of the field for both of those routes from the left that break toward the middle. Little runs a 15-yard in and Gordon covers the deep post across the field. The Giants actually covered this with Tampa-2 defense which meant the MLB was going to cover that deep third. This play still worked against that because the Giants linebacker Chase Blackburn couldn’t drop back fast enough and stay with Gordon while the safety worked over to Cameron.
Now back to Sunday against the Bengals:
This is using variation out of the same formation to break tendencies (think “predictability”). We’ve been screaming about that here for the last year or so and this is what we’ve been looking for. In the last two weeks there are other examples:
Here is the 12-yard run for TRich in New York. You can see by my diagramming that the two TEs block ahead and the C (Mack) and LT (Thomas) pull to the left. From right to left, Schwartz gets to the second level (linebacker), Lauvao blocks down on the one DT and Pinkston the other.
And back to Cincy:
Later in the second quarter against the Bengals, the Browns use the Ace Double formation again. Run? Deep posts? Nope. Here it’s what’s called a “mesh” concept in the passing game. The outside receivers run fades to stretch the defense laterally and the inside receivers (Watson and Gordon) cross which is great against man-to-man-coverage. One of the two should have some open space to run. Unfortunately, this pass was open but Weeden threw incomplete.
Here’s a slight variation on the formation using the shotgun:
The Browns keep the two TE’s in to max protect. The flood the right side with three routes. The slot receiver runs a corner route and the outside receiver runs a hook. The RB releases to the flat. This achieves that same stress on the zone defense mentioned above. There are three levels of routes: deep, medium and shallow and they are “flooding” the right side, hence the name “Flood.”
As you can see, the variations on the theme (run vs. pass, multiple pass concepts) out of the same formation are extremely important to fielding a successful NFL offense. This isn’t to say that the Browns weren’t predictable in other formations, situations or personnel groupings, but this is a start. We also noticed a draw or two to Ogbonnaya to help make his presence in the game less predictive of the play call.
The Browns have had success out of this Ace Double Wing formation the last few weeks and I sense that if Pat Shurmur is going to have any chance to save his job with Jimmy Haslam he’s going to have to develop some go-to play/personnel/identity on offense. The formation and personnel grouping here looks like the best that he’s found so far. It also looks like we’re seeing the newer players getting comfortable with the offense and staples of the west coast offense like weakside slant routes are starting to surface. This isn’t to say that the Browns offense has arrived but for a brief moment on Sunday, the offense, defense and special teams were playing complementary football and we haven’t said that around here in a long while.
The full “Xs and Os with the Bros” archive is available here.