Football strategy can be incredibly complicated. But it can also be very simple. Sometimes, defense is just a matter of giving players one-on-one matchups they can handle, and trusting them to handle those matchups.
The Giants' defense found itself in a difficult position late in the game against the Cowboys. New York led by five points with 3:22 to play, but the Cowboys had all three of their timeouts left and their full complement of skill-position weapons. After three quick completions to Jason Witten, the Cowboys were past midfield, and safety Antrel Rolle hobbled off the field with an injury after a deep pass. The Cowboys were in striking distance with plenty of time on the clock.
Now, whenever a team storms down the field on a late drive, fans scream about the "&^%$ PREVENT DEFENSE!" Fans aren't alone; the guys in the press box often shake their head about the "prevent defense," and talk show personalities on radio and television decry this plague on our great nation. The "prevent defense" is a semi-legendary creation, like King Arthur or Robin Hood: It exists, but not in the way most people think.
Defensive coordinators do not drop nine defenders into deep zones with a five-point lead and instruct them to "bend, but don't break." Just about any defensive coordinator faced with the situation Perry Fewell and the Giants faced would've handled it about the same way he did: tight man coverage (to make receivers work for every catch), at least one deep safety (to prevent disaster) and a limited pass rush with minimal blitzing (the benefits of the blitz are offset by the big play risk).
In fact, that is exactly how the Giants defended the Cowboys in that final drive, on play after play. Let's start at the Cowboys' 22-yard line, and look at the defensive strategy on each play of the final drive. "Tight man coverage" means that the defensive backs line up directly across the line of scrimmage from wide receivers, with little or no cushion:
First Play: Tight man coverage, a four-man rush. (Result: Illegal contact penalty against the Giants.)
Second Play: Tight man coverage, a five-man rush because running back Felix Jones stays in to block. (Result: Witten beats safety Stevie Brown for a 10-yard gain.)
Third Play: Tight man coverage, a four-man rush. (Result: Witten beats linebacker Michael Boley on an out-route to the sideline for nine yards.)
Fourth Play: Tight man coverage, a four man rush. (Result: Witten beats Michael Coe on a crossing route for nine yards.)
See a trend? The Giants did not have an answer for Witten on short routes, with three different defenders getting beaten for completions. On the other hand, the Cowboys were not picking up big chunks of yardage. The Giants kept two safeties deep, with the safety on Witten's side (usually Brown) acting as a "bracket" defender on Romo's favorite target. If Witten tried to run deep routes, the safety would almost certainly run with him.
Fifth Play: Tight man coverage, a four-man rush. (Result: incomplete bomb on the left sideline to Dez Bryant. Rolle gets hurt.)
Sixth Play: Tight man coverage, a four-man rush. (Result: A sack is negated by a defensive holding penalty by Jayron Hosley on Miles Austin.)
Coe covered Witten well on the last two plays. Tyler Sash replaced Rolle at safety, but the Giants kept Coe on Witten rather than shuffling safeties around. The Cowboys began using a "trips" formation, with three receivers on the right side, to make it hard for the Giants to cover Witten with anyone but Coe or a linebacker.
Seventh Play: Tight man coverage, a four-man rush. (Result: Tony Romo scrambles and completes a pass to Austin for 12 yards. Hosley lost track of Austin while moving to tackle Romo.)
Eighth Play: Tight man coverage, a four-man rush. (Result: Witten beats Coe on an out-route for a nine-yard gain. Déjà vu.)
Giants fans may have been screaming for their team to blitz at this point in the drive. In fact, they did on the next play, with at least three extra defenders crashing the line of scrimmage. But Tom Coughlin called timeout just before the snap. His second thoughts turned out to be correct.
Ninth Play: Tight man coverage, a four-man rush. (Result: Witten beats Boley on yet another out-route, but the ball is beyond his reach. It is now third-and-one.)
10th Play: Tight man coverage, a four-man rush. (Result: Kevin Ogletree cannot outrun Prince Amukamara on a bomb up the right sideline. A contact flag is picked up, as both receiver and defender were jostling.)
Finally, we get a glimpse at why coordinators use this vanilla strategy so often in critical situations (though this drive has been an example of Mega Vanilla). The Cowboys have had to execute, execute, execute down the field, with Romo throwing into tight windows and the offensive line holding off an excellent front four. They had a great deal of success, but after two incomplete passes, it is suddenly fourth-and-one.
11th Play: The final play of the drive gets its own diagram. Let's look at a few subtleties in the figure. First, note how Justin Tuck (91) and the other defensive tackle (Chris Canty, not numbered) are both lined up between the center and a guard. It is fourth-and-one, after all, and the Giants must be wary of a quarterback sneak. Also, notice that there is no defender head-up on Witten (82). The plan is to bracket Witten with a linebacker (Boley, not numbered) and Stevie Brown (27). This play is similar in design, offensively and defensively, to many of the 10 plays that came before it.
Romo has three receivers running short routes to pick up the first down. Not surprisingly, Witten is one of them, and he is running a variation on the out-route he ran many times on this drive. By now, the Giants are waiting for it, and when Romo looks Witten's way, he has no chance of completing a pass, because Boley undercut the route and Brown is glued to the tight end.
Romo has bigger problems. Osi Umenyiora (72), who applied pressure during the scramble earlier in the drive, has once again broken free. When Romo tries to roll away from him, Tuck also eludes his defender. The four-man rush that did not seem to provide enough pressure early in the drive (though it did generate a scramble and a sack negated by a penalty) is making noise when needed most.
One defender who does not join the Romo chase is Jason Pierre-Paul (90). After getting stymied on his first move on this play, JPP drops back to clog any potential passing lanes to Jones or Austin. This is great situational football; the Giants do not need a third lineman chasing Romo, but they do need an extra body guarding the first down line.
So Romo, with two defenders on his tail and no one open, launches a desperate pass to Witten on the sideline. Brown intercepts it, but an incomplete pass would have the same effect on fourth down in the final minutes. The Giants prevented a comeback, and they did it without the "prevent."
A few minutes later, the Giants were forced to start all over again. This time, the Cowboys were out of timeouts with less than a minute left, so the dynamic changed. The Giants began mixing in zone coverage and giving receivers a cushion. On some plays, like Bryant's near touchdown, they kept three safeties deep. The Bryant touchdown looked at first glance like "prevent" defense at its worst, but it was really a demonstration of how a defense should operate with only the end zone to defend and seconds left on the clock. Romo and Bryant executed beautifully on a deep pass, but the way to avoid the outstretched arms of Brown and Coe was to put the ball so deep in the end zone that Bryant could not stay in bounds. And of course, the Cowboys were down to desperate heaves because they did not score on the previous drive, when they had time, timeouts, and better field position.
The Cowboys' final drives against the Giants were great examples of core football tactics. The Giants dared the Cowboys to beat them in one-on-one matchups. Thanks to Witten, the Cowboys came close. But the Giants kept winning matchups against wide receivers, and they slowly started winning matchups between the linemen. Forced to be nearly perfect on play after play, the Cowboys' offense eventually fell short. Most offenses would. That is why defenses play that way.
Play to Win
Sunday marked the 10th anniversary of Herm Edwards' famous "You Play to Win the Game" press conference rant. Edwards, incensed at a question from Judy Battista of the New York Times about whether his Jets might give up on a lost season in 2002 (they were 2-5 at the time), launched into one of the great emotional sermons of NFL history, one that has been turned into an Auto-Tune rap and a beer commercial, among other artistic media. Often parodied, sometimes solemnly recited as gospel, Edwards' diatribe stands as a pillar of football philosophy, an affirmation of the obvious that serves as both a stern message about commitment to players and a celebration of the purity of competition for its own sake for fans.
But many teams proved on Sunday that there are other reasons to play the game besides winning:
You Play to Roll the Dice: Three players in three different games fumbled in the course of a few minutes at about 2:15 p.m. In each case, the ball tumbled forward like dice from the hands of one of the wise guys in "A Bronx Tale." Ryan Mathews of the Chargers, Rashad Jennings of the Jaguars and Cam Newton of the Panthers all ended runs by bowling the football down an imaginary alley. Mathews and Jennings' fumbles ended drives (a promising one for the Jaguars), but Newton fumbled into the end zone, where teammate Louis Murphy pounced on it for a touchdown. It was a change of luck for the Panthers, but not for Newton, who got to watch his teammates celebrate despite him, not with him.
Sadly, Newton's day only got worse, as his pick-6 gave the Bears a 20-19 lead in a game the Panthers had previously led 19-6. (The Bears won 23-22). Steve Smith slipped on Newton's interception, and the Panthers defense again proved incapable of stopping a late-game drive after the offense retook the lead, but putting blame where it belongs is just not the Panthers way.
You Play to Lose Your Job: If the Dolphins 30-9 win over the Jets was the Hot Sauce Bowl (it really wasn't), then the Browns' 7-6 victory over the Chargers was the Chill Pill Bowl, or the Listless Olympics, or just an extended dare directed at each team's front office by their beleaguered coaching staffs.
The signature series for the Browns came after the team recovered the Mathews fumble mentioned a moment ago. Trent Richardson, who scored the game's only touchdown, ran for six yards on first down. The Browns then attempted some double-reverse razzle-dazzle, but Josh Cribbs fumbled a pitch, sending both teams sprinting down the field as if they were chasing the last package of D-batteries in all of Cape May County. The Browns recovered, and on third-and-24 they ran … a draw play for no gain. That's the way to get on Jimmy Haslam's good side!
While the Browns kept things close with their Richardson-or-catastrophe offense, the Chargers executed three drives in the middle of the first half that netted a total of five yards. A less futile Chargers drive ended in a field goal when Philip Rivers completed a pass to right tackle Jeromey Clary for a loss of eight on third down. (The pass was deflected by a Browns lineman. The Cleveland line did a fine job applying pressure for the whole game.) The Chargers reached field-goal range again in the third quarter, but that drive stalled with the most half-hearted end around in history: Robert Meachem took a handoff on a sweep, saw some defenders in his path, and tiptoed out of bounds with a shrug for a loss of six.
The game ended when the Chargers reached the Browns' 44-yard line late in the game and launched four straight hopeless incomplete passes, with Rivers looking confused on some of the throws and tight end Dante Rosario dropping one of the ones that did arrive on target. The Browns' late-game defensive stop was like the remedial version of the Giants' stand against the Cowboys. New York needed an 11-man defensive effort to force the Cowboys drive to end with balls bouncing off Witten's fingertips and defenders posting up receivers in the end zone. The Browns just covered their receivers adequately and watched the football sail in weird directions.
Neither Norv Turner nor Pat Shurmur is really trying to get fired, of course. This is just what they do on a weekly basis. There was nothing unusual on the Chargers website at press time, perhaps because the PR department has decided to take its own advice.
You Play to Keep Kids Safe While Trick or Treating: The Steelers want you to know that Halloween costumes can be very hard for motorists to see. Wrap your children in bright yellow horizontal strips of reflective tape so they can pretend to be Yellow Stripe Batman, Yellow Stripe Barbie, Yellow Stripe Harry Potter, some sort of mutant yellow jacket, or, sadly, Ben Roethlisberger. For extra safety, pin some of those paper numbers that they use for 5K runs on their backs so you can spot them easily in a crowd.
Also, the Redskins' receivers would like to remind you to drop candy off at the local police station to be examined. Washington's receivers did a lot of dropping on Sunday. Robert Griffin finished 16-of-34 for 177 yards and one touchdown, but he should have been about 26-of-34 for 275 yards, and the Steelers' 27-12 win might well have been a Redskins victory if the Redskins could hold onto the ball. But perhaps the Steelers' uniforms made them dizzy.
You Play to Be a Mystery Receiver: As mentioned earlier, Jeromey Clary added a new wrinkle to the Chargers' offense by catching a deflected pass. But he was not this week's only mystery receiver. Offensive lineman Guy Whimper caught a one-yard touchdown for the Jaguars. Whimper is an interesting case, because he is one of the worst blocking offensive linemen in the NFL, but may be the best receiving offensive lineman in the league. He caught a 17-yard pass in 2010 on the legendary Whimper Waggle, which is both a rollout play and a rejected Sesame Street character name. Think of Whimper as a middle reliever with a 6.45 ERA but home run power, or a power forward who can also bowl.
There appeared to be one other mystery receiver in the early games when this nugget came across the stat feed: "M. Moore complete to M. Moore for 37 yards." Matt Moore replaced injured quarterback Ryan Tannehill for the Dolphins (Tannehill suffered a quad injury that did not look too terrible) and played well against the Jets. But a 39-yard pass to himself? Was it a Steve Young play, with a defender batting the ball back to Moore, only to watch him take off on a scramble for the ages? Or did Moore find a way to throw a bomb to himself? High trajectory on the pass, a healthy sprint up the sideline … c'mon, you know Russell Wilson could do it.
Alas, Matt Moore's 37-yard pass was to Marlon Moore, a plain old receiver. It was quite a pass, but nothing like a self-pass. Luckily, other ridiculous things happened in Jets-Dolphins.
You Play to Protect Your Punter: Apparently, there is a reason teams have not used backup quarterbacks as punt protectors for the past 90 years or so of football history, despite the trick-play potential. Shockingly, there is a reason why veteran special teamers are given the role, which they sometimes hold onto for years (see the career of Fred McAfee for illustration).
The punt protector must first read the punt rush and call any necessary blocking adjustments. He must then be an alert last line of defense willing to do anything, including flagrantly holding a punt rusher, to prevent a block. I was in the Eagles' press box on Sunday when two retired Eagles linebackers who also contributed on special teams held forth on this very subject.
The old linebackers were talking punt protection because they just watched the highlight of Tim Tebow misreading a Dolphins stunt and allowing Jimmy Wilson to race through the middle of the line and block a Robert Malone punt for a touchdown. So while Tebow has picked up a handful of first downs on fake punts (most of them short plunges where the Jets could have simply gone for it), there are consequences for turning the punt protector position into a Jets fashion statement. Who knew?
The Dolphins used the play to spark a rout, but Antonio Cromartie did get to hit Reggie Bush out of bounds and call him a "punk," so who really has the last laugh?
Oh yeah, the Dolphins.
The Jets could really use a dose of Herm Logic these days. You play to win the game, guys.
Wind is the great neutralizer of the tailgate party. Freezing temperatures can be borne happily with the help of hot sandwiches and cold beer. Snow turns frostbite into a festive bonding experience. Rain is a bummer, but the well-prepared tailgater comes equipped with a tent the size of an army mess hall. But you cannot eat food that has blown onto your best friend's Keith Byars jersey.
Pregame winds were not dangerous in South Philadelphia, but they were persistent, a steady gale of about 25 mph uninterrupted by tall buildings or trees on the paved parking prairies that surround the Philadelphia sports complex. Many tailgaters stayed home, but others were out and taking the "tailgate" concept very literally: They huddled under the hatches of their vehicles, reluctant to venture far from shelter in weather that could turn sausage and peppers on a torpedo roll into an actual torpedo.
The only thing Philadelphians are more fanatical about than sports is the weather. Give Philly a slim chance of a two-inch dusting of snow, and supermarkets become medieval battlegrounds. Snow forecasts in Philly are now calculated down to the 10th of an inch for added dramatic impact: Weather Obsession knows nothing of significant digits. (The amount of tree cover in your community has a greater effect on snowfall impact than a difference of 0.1 or 0.2 inches, but you had better buy eleven gallons of milk anyway.)
Given a bona fide weather emergency, it was shocking to see Philadelphians venture from their homes at all, the streets usually ceded to the bug-eyed, unshaven doom prophets who haunt hardware stores in search of D-batteries, plus a few last-second liquor store raiders.
Yet the tailgaters were out, as were others. A fellow in a knit cap held up an "I need tickets" sign at the off ramp of Interstate 76. No, friend, you need bottled water and candles. It's one thing to venture to a bad-weather game when you already have tickets, but another to go to one in search of tickets. I imagined the guy trying to make a curbside transaction, with one stiff karmic gust scattering both the tickets and the 20s through the neighborhood. His cardboard sign was rather kite like, and I half expected to see him blow Mary Poppins-style into the stadium at halftime, or perhaps see him parasailing up Broad Street in search of some high-velocity scalper.
There are a handful of noisy taverns near the stadium, one of which features an open-air outdoor bar that is very popular before September games. On Sunday morning, a forlorn waitress stood sentry duty behind the bar wearing the weather-inappropriate uniform of sports-pub waitresses everywhere: plunging neckline, tight jeans, facial expression of faraway regret as the wind knifed through her. If you tried to drink a Captain and cola on Broad Street on Sunday, you would find the ice cubes huddled in the leeward corner of the glass, a tiny Spanish Armada unable to navigate and ready to be picked apart by the British fleet.
The opposite of Weather Obsession in Philadelphia is the Weather Denial. The skeptics have heard the Chicken Little klaxons of "Storm of the Century" one too many times and are now convinced that, no matter how many red bands of carnage the National Weather Service throws over its satellite image, any Delaware Valley storm is guaranteed to fizzle into a light sprinkle or flurries. Some go so far as to hypothesize an inverse relationship between storm expectations and storm size, leading to dangerously contrary behavior, like wandering around off ramps begging for an opportunity to stand in the driving rain and watch the home team lose by two touchdowns.
The best evidence of weather denial could be found right across the street from Lincoln Financial Field, where someone parked a truck full of precariously stacked wooden pallets in a prime location near an entrance. The truck appeared to be the property of the Philadelphia Flyers, so it wasn't going anywhere any time soon. Two huge parties of tailgaters reveled beneath tents in the spaces on the leaning side of the Pallets of Pisa. It takes a small leap of faith to enjoy an outdoor hoagie and beer while Megastormensteinzilla bears down on your region. It takes an even greater leap to do so in the shadow of a giant, ready-to-topple Jenga tower.
When it came to hurricane optimism, the handlers of Challenger, the American bald eagle who flew into Lincoln Financial Field, took the cake. Poor Challenger dutifully, uncertainly swooped and circled during the National Anthem, looking like a bird who would be happy to get back in his cage and enjoy a nice plate of stunned field mice as soon as his shift ended. No Eagle worked as hard as Challenger on Sunday; let's hope he has spent October earning double scale for appearances in political advertisements.
Hurricane Sandy held her fury on Sunday, causing some high winds and heavy downpours but no cataclysm; let us hope that she remains in a forgiving mood. The rains in Philadelphia even let up for an hour or two after the final gun. After the game, the pallet truck was still there, its payload intact. The barmaid was gone, but a few cigarette smokers sat on tables outside the pub. Ticket guy was long gone (for his sake, let's hope he came up empty), but two late tailgaters enjoyed a game of Frisbee in the parking lot adjacent to the baseball stadium Bank Park. They took turns waiting for lulls in the wind, then knifing short tosses into target canisters in defiance of the approaching storm.
And then, a gust stirred up, and the canisters started sliding across the parking lot.
It was time to go home.