Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Monday Night Football: single-wing versus no-huddle

By Gregg Easterbrook

Ever wonder what would happen if a single-wing team from the 1950s met a high-tech no-huddle team of 2009? What would happen is Indianapolis 27, Miami 23.

There cannot be a greater contrast in styles than what happened on "Monday Night Football." Miami played much of the contest with no quarterback on the field, rushed 49 times for 239 yards, kept the Indianapolis offense on the bench, tired out the Indianapolis defense with an incredible 45:07-to-14:53 edge in time of possession, yet lost. The incredible time-of-possession edge allowed Miami, despite a run-oriented game plan, to pass 10 times more than Indianapolis did; the Dolphins had the ball so long, they led in every statistical category save points. Indianapolis played the entire contest in hurry-up mode, called offensive plays at the line of scrimmage, ran the ball a mere 11 times, pressured the Miami defense with lightning strikes, and prevailed. Not by much, though, obviously. The Colts benefited from good luck on several big plays -- luck is a greater factor in sports than generally recognized -- plus Ted Ginn Jr. of the Marine Mammals had both hands on the ball in the end zone with 22 seconds remaining for what could have been Miami's winning play. (It was no easy catch, though.)

So 1950s-style single-wing football almost came out on top. Because Miami rushed so well, all the Dolphins needed was for Lucky Charms receivers to drop a couple of Peyton Manning throws, and Miami might have cruised to victory over an exhausted Indianapolis defense. But Manning's throws weren't dropped, nor were any blocks missed in an extremely efficient offensive line performance. Single-wing style, Miami's longest gain from scrimmage was 21 yards. Indianapolis had gains of 24, 48, 49 and 80 yards. This is a reason time of possession can be a deceptive stat: A team that scores really fast has poor time of possession, but don't you want to score really fast? Even though it wasn't on the field much, by the fourth quarter the Dolphins' defense looked tired, at least mentally, from the relentless Colts pace. In the fourth quarter, the Dolphins' defense folded, allowing the Colts to go 79 yards for a touchdown in 3:17 and 80 yards for a touchdown in a mere 32 seconds, as Miami's coaches panicked and started calling blitzes, which only made matters worse. The no-huddle offense doesn't exhaust a defense when it's not working. But when the quarterback has a 133.9 rating on the night, as Manning did, the no-huddle spooks defenders.

Peyton Manning is praised so much, I hesitate to stack another accolade on the pile. But egads, this gentleman is good. Nobody throws as accurately off the back foot -- the ability to throw accurately while your body is moving backward enables a quarterback to frustrate a pass rush. Nobody throws precise sideline routes as well as Peyton, and right-on-the-sideline is the hardest point for the secondary to defend. Obviously, Manning excels at calling plays at the line of scrimmage. Miami tried to confuse him by showing one front, then backing out of it after he made his call, then returning to the original front. He didn't fall for it. Except for on two snaps, Manning's read of what Miami was about to do was right -- and on the game-winning throw to Pierre Garcon, he read the Dolphins' defense perfectly.

Setting single-wing versus no-huddle aside, the rest of the contest came down to calls, coaching and individual performances. What were the Dolphins doing in a standard 3-4-4, rather than a nickel or a dime package, against a team that always splits out three receivers and often sends the tight end downfield? On tight end Dallas Clark's two huge gainers, of 80 and 49 yards, he was covered by a linebacker -- both times by an inside linebacker (once by Channing Crowder, once by Akin Ayodele) -- because Miami didn't have a nickel package on the field. A defensive game plan in which football's best pass-catching tight end is covered deep by an inside linebacker is a strange game plan.

Why when Miami got the ball trailing 27-23 with 3:13 remaining did the Dolphins run a play, let the clock go down to 2:26, and then burn a timeout? With six seconds left, Miami was on the Indianapolis 30-yard line -- add back the 25 wasted seconds and maybe Miami wins. Why did Miami's defense bite hard on a play-fake on the game's first snap? Coming into Monday night, the Colts had rushed for 32, 64 and 71 yards in their last three games. They're clearly having trouble running the ball. So don't fall for their play-fakes unless they prove they can run! Yet not only did the Miami front seven bite on Manning's play-fake on the first snap, so did safety Yeremiah Bell. Watch the tape -- as Clark cuts down the center of the field and Manning's pass arcs toward him, Bell is running forward toward the Indianapolis line of scrimmage to stop a run. Bell goes right past Clark, totally ignoring him, while a throw that would end up as an 80-yard touchdown is in the air. That's how hard he bit on the play-fake. Bell was also the last defender on Garcon's winning touchdown, and failed to make the play. Let's put the sports-talk world's campaign for a Pro Bowl slot for Bell on hold, please.

Indianapolis' winning play was a study in tactics and performance. Second-and-10 on the Miami 48 with 3:29 remaining. The Dolphins show a seven-man front against the Colts' three-wide formation, with only one safety, Bell, deep. Manning goes into his chicken dance, calling assignments at the line. Immediately the Dolphins back off into a 3-4-4. But Manning wasn't fooled and kept the play the same -- and sure enough, Miami jumped back into the seven-man front. That front meant that in the double-receiver set to the right, there was a cornerback on Garcon, safety Gibril Wilson on the slot man, and safety Bell was the sole deep defender. Manning's call was a hitch screen to Garcon. Not just a hitch, a hitch screen -- the offensive line deliberately let the pass rush in. Miami big-blitzed, just as Manning hoped. Don't throw me into that blitz patch! When will the league catch on that Peyton Manning wants to be blitzed? The hitch action enabled Manning to release the ball very quickly, before any blitz could reach him. Six blitzers meant Miami had five players to cover four receivers; the four were each singled, with Bell the only one on the last line of defense. Garcon catches the hitch with two defensive backs nearby. But remember, it's a hitch screen, offensive linemen are coming! Undrafted and future Hall of Fame center Jeff Saturday, long a TMQ favorite, hustles downfield and blocks the cornerback near Garcon. Guard Mike Pollak hustles 20 yards downfield and hits Bell. Garcon spun, and was gone. When you put eight guys up on the line and blitz six, you better get to the quarterback or make the first tackle, because one broken tackle means a game-winning 48-yard completion.



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