You may not have noticed yet, because of the simply unbelievable Aaron Hernandez story, but we’ve firmly entered the deadzone of the NFL’s 12-month calendar. This is the time of the year when writers are either taking a much needed vacation or desperately trying to stretch every minor story into major breaking news. At least, that is the case for those writers who are employed by newspapers or large media companies.
Here at PSR, it’s not a media powerhouse and I am my own boss. Therefore, I don’t really have the stress of responsibility that will force me to write something that I don’t want to write about and I certainly don’t make enough money to be taking an extended vacation.
Instead, this is the time of year when I like to juxtapose my tape watching with different exercises that entertain me. This year one of those is the Mirror Images series over at Matt Waldman’s site, but the other is the one I want to write about now.
I want to find out who can put out the single strongest lineup in a specific formation in the whole league. It can be whatever formation you want on offense or defense, the only rule is that you must have 11 players and all 11 must be under contract with the same team. This can be done for either offense or defense and essentially your goal doesn’t change, but your point of view does.
On offense you want to be able to react to everything the defense does. This means having the flexibility to audible into more than two or three different plays and the talent spread through your roster to create matchup advantages where the defense is weak(er). On defense your goal is to hide that weakness and use your strength to create a blanket that puts out every fire the offense tries to light.
Maybe this sounds complex(or maybe it doesn’t), but just in case it does, I’m going to detail my defense here:
Back in Week 6, the Seattle Seahawks were able to upset the New England Patriots thanks to late touchdown passes from Russell Wilson in the fourth quarter. Wilson’s play was fantastic, but it was the defense who really stood out and not just because of Richard Sherman’s antics after the final whistle.
Early in the first quarter, the Patriots faced a second and eight on their own 37 yard line when the Seahawks came out with this formation.
Aggressive. Abrasive. Stupid. Brash. Ignorant. Irresponsible. These are all words that can accurately describe this lineup, but with the Seattle Seahawks’ defensive pieces, I prefer the word daring.
There are a few things you absolutely have to do to stop the Patriots from beating you. One is to pressure Tom Brady, normally up the middle, another is to contain Rob Gronkowski and the final one is to stop the run. However, the overall goal for most defenses is to suffocate space away from the unit. Stop Wes Welker from getting those easy yards. Don’t allow Stevan Ridley that running room when you stretch out your formation. Make Gronkowski take a hit every single time he tries to catch the ball.
Space is pivotal in football. Offenses want to create, defenses want to create the illusion that none exists. Space will always be there, there is no defense that can take that away, but how you manage it is what is important.
In this formation, it appears that the Seahawks are managing it terribly.
The front six is too tight together and imbalanced to one side of the field, while Earl Thomas is almost 20 yards deep from the line of scrimmage with the two outside cornerbacks in press coverage. On second and eight, the Patriots should be delighted to see all that space that their receivers can run into, with the potential for a deep ball against single coverage on either side.
Except the Patriots don’t even try to pass the ball on this play. They run it and it goes for just one yard.
Why would the Patriots, an offense that is better than any other in the league at taking what it’s given and attacking the frail points of a defense, not look to pass the ball on this occasion? That answer is simple. The Seahawks’ defensive backs are the best unit in the league and in this formation, they look to show off just how good they are in space.
Richard Sherman is matched up against Brandon Lloyd at the bottom of the screen, Sherman isn’t someone the offense ever wants to throw at, so the Patriots will immediately look away from that matchup despite the lack of help for Sherman. Brandon Browner isn’t as good as Sherman, but he’s not that far off and is an immediate problem when he’s lining up over a secondary receiver. Offenses wouldn’t be happy about attacking him, but they would be willing to if he didn’t have Earl Thomas giving him support.
Moving Thomas away from Browner is very difficult though. Firstly, the quarterback would need that time in the pocket, but secondly, Thomas will happily trust Richard Sherman on an island to cheat across to Browner and even if he doesn’t he has that incredible speed to make plays that most safeties can’t.
There should be a simple solution to this. You clear out the secondary with your two receivers on deep sideline routes, before attacking the middle of the field with your tight ends/slot receivers. The Patriots have a slot receiver and tight end to the same side in the above example. With the Seahawks pressed so hard to the line of scrimmage, this should be where the offense looks to attack.
However, the Seahawks have Kam Chancellor, a huge safety who can run with tight ends in space, and Marcus Trufant, a slot cornerback as good as most in the league in man coverage. Trufant is the player the offense would like to get in space to throw at, but this year Trufant won’t be on the field for Seattle. This year he will be replaced by Antoine Winfield, a hard-hitting veteran who can still cover receivers to an exceptional standard.
If you clear out space for your underneath receiver against Winfield you will be able to complete a lot of passes, but they likely won’t get you many yards. Winfield is an expert tackler who will consistently make plays on the edge or in space.
So, what are you left with? Where do you look for a clear advantage if you’re the offense?
KJ Wright and Bobby Wagner are the linebackers. Wright is outside the right shoulder of the center, number 50, while Wagner is lined up in between the center and the left guard. There is somewhat of an imbalance here, because the linebackers are cheating to the right side of the offense without a third linebacker on the field. There is a notable gap between Wagner and Kam Chancellor on the second level of the defense.
That gap is protected however, because the right defensive tackle, Jason Jones, is lined up between the left tackle and left guard, while Chris Clemons, the right defensive end, is lined up directly over the tight end. Wagner is in the perfect position to attack any runs designed to go over left guard, left tackle or between the gaps to that side of the center, while Wright is fast enough to come across to be in position also.
If the Patriots want to run to the left side of their offensive line, they will need every single block to be perfectly executed, without much time for the play to develop because of the proximity of the Seahawks’ defenders.
Instead, Brady can look to the other side of his center, where he will see three immediate defenders and three blockers. It’s still a hat on a hat situation(one blocker for every defender), but with less hats there is less the offense needs to go right to get onto the second level. Running to this side of the formation isn’t an option either way.
There may only be three defenders to that side of the field, but one of those is Brandon Mebane who is in the perfect alignment to get outside leverage on the center. He could be double-teamed by the right guard, but that would expose the offense with one blocker for the other two defenders. After snapping the ball, the center would somehow have to find a way to get outside the defensive tackle in order to have any chance of making an effective block on him. That doesn’t even consider the fact that Mebane is an good run defender.
While Mebane is a good run defender, Red Bryant is the best run defender. Bryant is the left defensive end in my formation. You simply don’t run directly at him when he has only one blocker to beat, because he is too big and too strong to move. Bryant’s presence on the edge allows the Seahawks to play the opposite side of the offensive line while being comfortable with the athleticism of their unit to get to his side of the field so long as he can hold his ground and not give up a clear running lane for the back.
Ultimately, the Patriots run a stretch play off left tackle, where Marcus Trufant is waiting as the unaccounted for sixth defender against five blockers. Trufant’s blocker would be Wes Welker, who is slightly out of shot and completely out of position, so even if Welker was there to block him, it wouldn’t be a favourable matchup for the offense.
Had the Patriots ignored the run and looked to attack the secondary, they would have been throwing at the Seahawks’ strength, while still having to deal with the pass-rushing talents of Chris Clemons, Jason Jones and Brandon Mebane on the defensive line. While Bryant gives up ground as a pass-rusher to Sebastien Vollmer, Clemons, Mebane and Jones are all more than capable of getting quick pressure on the quarterback, even against the better offensive lines in the league. That’s without even considering the pass-rushing capabilities of KJ Wright and Bobby Wagner.
So, am I right? Is this defensive setup the best in the league? Is there something you think I’ve overlooked? Would you like to propose a better defensive alignment and personnel package? Or would you like to write a piece on an offensive unit that deserves consideration for being a “Perfect Formation” in this series?
If you do, be sure to leave all comments below. If you want to submit an article for this series, you can do so to Cianfahey91@gmail.com, but only articles deemed good enough will be published so do put in the effort.
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