I’m not a X’s & O’s guy, but most reading this already know that. I do statistical analysis and watch a lot of games to pick up on trends and how certain teams/players perform on the field.
What I think I have is a common sense approach to how the game should be played. Part of my educational background is studying how to limit motions to improve efficiency for various processes. Leaving a team’s best receiver wide open is probably a terrible decision no matter if the defense that was specifically called was done correctly to the coaches’ wishes. Now this is a rant that literally just popped in my head so this may get branched out into a legitimate article later, but for now, just bear with me.
In preparation for the AFC Championship between Denver and New England, I have been pointing out how limited the New England passing game is without any tight end threat or even a real vertical threat at this point. It’s basically all Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola (Austin Collie when they need a breather) running short routes, often from the slot, and yet no one has really found a way to shut it down yet. Shane Vereen can catch passes out of the backfield, but he’s not Marshall Faulk. New England has mostly worked on the running game lately, but the passing game will be crucial for the remainder of the postseason and it has to be these same receivers.
So when coaches who get paid millions of dollars like Chuck Pagano, John Fox and Jack Del Rio sit down to prepare for this Rob Gronkowski-less offense, how can they not see the same things I see from my home? I’m not going to get into the statistics for the increase in short passes, but we know most teams throw shorter more often today. Yards per completion are down as the spread/shotgun offense is used more. Yet we still see defenses play this archaic style of trying not to get beat deep, even when the very best vertical passing games will be lucky to hit 30 passes more than 20 yards down the field in a given season.
Tom Brady, for example, is 14/58 on passes thrown 21+ yards this season. Is that really something to fear? That’s in line with his previous seasons too. You can even leave a guy open and there’s a decent shot he will miss him, like he missed Amendola against the Saints this season. With the way offenses are setting records for points and yardage these days, giving up a quick strike is hardly the burden it used to be. But alas, I’m ranting again and need to get to what I saw in Saturday night’s game against Indianapolis.
Edelman caught 105 passes this year. He’s clearly Brady’s No. 1 target, so the Colts naturally should counter with putting their best starting cornerback Vontae Davis on him. That’s smart. But look what happens on this play early in the first quarter. It was 2nd-and-9 with Brady in the shotgun so there’s no reason not to expect a pass. You can see Davis lined up on Edelman at the snap:
Here’s what I would have done on the play as a defensive coordinator (and yes, I only have Paint and not Photoshop):
I shadow Edelman with Davis so he would pick him up on the crossing route. I let my linebacker, who has no chance with Edelman here, come up to prevent the running back having open space in the left flat. There, those two players are taken care of with the proper matchup for their skill talent and you can see the right side is matched up well already too.
What did the Colts do?
Davis took a few leisurely steps backwards and ended up covering nothing on the play because Brady’s pass was already out and easily caught by Edelman, who had a lot of open field to run after the catch and turn it into a 25-yard gain.
How can any coach justify Davis’ defensive assignment on that play? It’s not like Brady’s going to pull it down and run and make Davis the last line of defense. That’s not Kaepernick out there. Is RB Brandon freakin’ Bolden out of the backfield worthy of Davis’ coverage? You mean to tell me your best corner isn’t better off covering the guy with 105 catches? Is Darrelle Revis, under Rex Ryan at least, really the only cornerback capable of covering a guy all over the field? Even that performance was probably overblown.
Say what you want about the late Al Davis, but that concept of playing tight, bump-and-run man-to-man coverage makes the most logical sense. Throw off all these timing routes with the contact you’re allowed to have within five yards. Why are coaches leaving a team’s favorite receiver wide open or letting him breeze past linebackers that have no hope of covering him? Yeah, you can mix it up with man and zone, but what value does leaving Davis where he was on that play have for the defense? What in the hell is he going to limit there that a linebacker can’t?
It’s hard to play defense now, but a lot of that is self-inflicted when guys, by instruction or not, are letting receivers go and watching action they have no shot of doing anything about.
If you think I’m freaking out over one play, consider what happened in the second quarter. This time Davis did stick with Edelman out of the slot, but Edelman just beat him on the catch after a play-action pass. Still, the defense was there to limit this to a 12-yard gain instead of a 25-yard gain like the earlier crosser. You can see the defense in great position to wrap Edelman up at the 40:
Well, Edelman broke tackles and gained 15 more yards to turn it into a 27-yard gain. So it’s poor defense either way, but it’s a hell of a lot better to live with the designed coverage on that play than the free release and easy 25 yards on the first play.
Then again, for a coach who thought punting on 4th-and-1 in the fourth quarter down 43-22 was the right call, is it even a stretch he would think having Davis spy the running back would be better than following the guy most likely to get the ball?