In a sport that can feel wholly trapped in small sample size theater, reaching the midseason point of the NFL season is a significant mark in identifying which preseason narratives are borne from data while taking stock of the unexpected storylines that have cropped up.
Each week, we will examine the data and film to find the best and worst of the NFL action on both sides of the ball. This week we will focus on two particular positive trends on offense in Week 9 — one of which deserves to be bumped up to a love designation.
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Like: Bursting the Bubble, and Borrowing in the AFC South (featuring the Colts’ Run Game)
Indianapolis Colts | Week 9
|Rushing Grade||78.8 (1st)|
|Rushing EPA/Play||0.297 (2nd)|
|Yards Per Carry||8.7 (1st)|
|Rushing Success Rate||36% (T-8th)|
The coaching industry has an awkward public-facing relationship with crediting the play-callers who inspire their decision-making on game day, but the tape (almost) never lies.
If one team recognizes and exploits a schematic weakness against a common opponent, bet the house that it will come up again in the near future.
The Indianapolis Colts, in preparation for last Thursday’s game against the woeful New York Jets, had to have come across the same clips I did when their divisional rival Tennessee Titans played in East Rutherford around a month ago. The Titans were able to generate explosive runs on outside zone by getting into three-by-one sets and running away from the three-receiver side of the formation because of the way New York sets its front and safety rotation.
In the run game, there’s an idea of attacking the “bubble,” and that has nothing to do with attaching an RPO to your run call. In most four-down fronts, there’s a space between a guard and tackle that isn’t occupied by a defensive lineman. It's usually a second-level defender, be it a linebacker or safety rolling down.
In single back offenses, going against single-high safety defenses has a particular kind of cheat sheet in how it should be attacked in the run and pass game. One-high safety defense can function fine against the spread, but it’s not necessarily built for trips. There are major spacing issues and vertical stresses that linebackers have to cover for.
Structurally, the weak side safety should roll down, which would cover the bubble and allow the linebackers to push over to where all the receivers are. However, that defender is also a “force” player who wants to turn the ball back inside to his help, a task that is difficult to do while being responsible for fitting a gap.
If the ball is run into the bubble, the linebacker flows back toward the bubble and the safety plays force from outside-in, but that introduces a new issue: There’s nowhere, spatially, for the safety to fit the run. He’s outside of the “count,” meaning offensive linemen aren’t going to extend their blocking rules out to someone they know they can’t get to. The linebacker who is flowing, though, is the key player in the count, and if a good OL roots him out, there are clear cutback lanes to take for running backs.
Jonathan Taylor and Nyheim Hines took full advantage of this against a Jets defense with a bottom-three PFF run-defense grade going into the game. It wasn’t just impressive that the team finished with 260 yards on 30 carries, it was impressive that 75%(!) of the yardage came before contact. That’s made possible by scheming up areas of stress for a defense and poking the bubble until it bursts.
On the longest untouched rush of the night, Indianapolis threw some eye candy at the weak safety as well with jet motion. That motion removed the force defender from the run fit, and once the seals were made with the dominant blocks up front, Taylor came shot out of a cannon.
Love: Distributing Coverage Against Bunches (featuring the Denver Broncos)
Broncos Third-Down Pass Defense | 2021
|Man Coverage Snaps||Man Coverage Grade||Zone Coverage Snaps||Zone Coverage Grade|
|3rd & Short (1-2)||16||37.1||6||52.8|
|3rd & Medium (3-5)||16||29.8||5||54.8|
|3rd & Long (6-9)||20||77.1||5||68.0|
|3rd & Extra Long (10+)||9||47.1||16||59.3|
However, one thing that has been true of Vic Fangio for years on end is his affinity for playing man coverage on conversion downs, and who could be mad at that? There’s nobility in playing to deny easy throws and/or sending an extra pass rusher after the quarterback, but Denver hadn’t reaped many of the benefits of Fangio’s schematic brilliance this season.
On Sunday, there was finally a bit of regression in third-down coverage luck/performance for Denver, which won eight of the 13 opportunities to get off of the field. Some of that may have been luck, with inopportune drops from Dallas’ receivers.
There was a schematic element to the performance that caught my eye and showed Fangio’s understanding of what the Cowboys wanted to attack in the passing game.
If an offense is playing a defense like Fangio’s, where you can reliably expect man coverage, the play calls on must-convert downs will be some form of a “beater” concept designed to attack a defensive call where it is weak. Against Cover 1, offenses want to get into stacks and bunches and release receivers in the same direction before the routes break. These two things work in concert, because the tight alignments set up picks and rubs, allowing you to create confusion against switching defenses when more than one player is releasing outside or in.
Man teams have to have a bunch adjustment prepared for these routes, and there are plenty of ways to go about playing a bunch in man. On Sunday, the Denver defense played what’s called “Lock and Level.”
Lock and Level is exactly what it implies: Each defender will keep the receiver he’s assigned in man coverage, everywhere he goes. The three defenders over the bunch will get on different levels of depth to avoid the rubs, and there’s one safety or linebacker rolling into the low hole to rob any crosser.
The Cowboys were trying to force a switch on the clip above, but Denver doesn’t oblige. Had the linebacker switched with the corner, the slot fade would be wide open, and that leaves a box defender one-on-one against a top WR in the NFL — neither being ideal. The players break fast on the throw and deny the first-down conversion.
There are also zone coverage bunch adjustments, and Fangio’s defense executed them just as well. This is out of the Cover-6 handbook, playing halves to the short side of the field and quarters to the wide side. Against another bunch, the Broncos are playing what looks like a call I know as “Bingo.” This is an adjusting Quarters call that distributes the routes according to how the No. 1 receiver releases.
If the WR on the outside of the bunch goes underneath, the coverage defenders will “box” with two deep players and two underneath ones. If the outside receiver stays No. 1, the defense will check into a softer zone where the CB can get help as he needs from the safety.
This is an excellent call in the red zone because of the constraint on vertical spacing to take the top off. Second, it does a much better job of eliminating in breaking routes than only playing man. In the second clip, you can see the linebacker wall off a couple of receivers, which buys the safety enough time to drive down on one of the crossers.
I’m skeptical that anything is fixed for the Broncos, but if they can get back to covering at that kind of caliber again, this defense will drag the team right back into a sneaky team in contention to make the playoffs.