I shouldn't have done it, but I doggone gone and done it. I put my Hazmat suit on and went back and watched the film from last Sunday's night game. However, I only watched the first half because the second was about as much fun as eating a jar of peanut butter without having anything to wash it down with. There was no way to put a GATA! together since the offense had to play under a special set of circumstances. There was no unity or cohesion. It was just a mess of Gary listening to Rick in the headset stuttering,"Ugh...yeah, that's fine with me." So what I did was reach into a bag of dog biscuits and grabbed a handful of interesting plays from Sunday's night game to go over. I'll touch on how J.J. Watt and Brian Cushing are a synchronized quarterback killing machine from the future where only cyborgs play football, a perfect screen pass, and we'll end it on a horrific note by looking at the first two of Matt Schaub's interceptions.
The Bash Bros.
Among the clutter of an offense wasting away aimlessly in the sands of time and a quarterback who is mentally beaten like a fourteen year old who loves to steal, drink, and smoke in an episode of Scared Straight, there's still a top ten defense to pay attention to. Cushing and Watt (even if the stats aren't as gaudy as last year) are the best defensive lineman/linebacker combo in the league. It's not just the fact that they are denizens of the back field and own the box score. They actually play off each other. The best coaching decision made this season hasn't been keeping Schaub at quarterback, having Arian Foster and Ben Tate split carries or using the tight ends to attack the middle of the field. Instead, it has been the way Wade Phillips has used Watt and Cushing together to terrorize offenses like a horde of ants on a fallen pushpop.
*Red=Houston's assignments. Yellow=San Francisco's assignments*
1st Qtr., 2:59 Remaining, 2nd and 7. Result: Frank Gore -2 Yard Run
I'll truthfully admit that I've watched the defense sparingly this year, but that changed this week. Compared to the offense, the defense played underneath the usual circumstances this week and I was able to learn immensely more about Wade's defense. In this first play, we get to see the base formation of Houston's 3-4 and how Phillips has used Cushing and Watt together.
First, let's go over a few rules about the alignment of a 3-4 defense. On the strong side of the formation, we get a "1" (Earl Mitchell), a defensive end playing a "4i" or "5" technique, and on the backside the defensive end lines up as a "3". The defensive ends will play on either the right or left side and shift their technique based on where the strong side of the offense is. So on this play, Watt is playing the "4i" (inside shade of the tackle) and Jared Crick is playing outside the guard as a "3" directly in the B gap. The linebackers then have their own gap to cover. Brooks Reed and Whitney Mercilus have contain, which means they set the edge and make sure no one gets outside of them. The inside linebacker's gap varies depending on the offense's formation and which gap the defensive lineman is attacking. On this play, Joe Mays has the A gap since Mitchell is responsible for the other A. Cushing and Watt are slanting inside; Watt is responsible for the B and Cushing is for the C. When you hear Phil Simms croon, "The defense has done a great job staying in their gaps," this is what the blonde haired demon means.
Watt is slanting to the B gap, Cushing to the C gap, and Reed is containing the outside to make sure no one gets around him. On the other side of the football, the 49ers are running their coveted trap play. The LG is pulling to kick out Crick (#93), the RG is blocking down on Mitchell, and the RT is showing pass and heading up to the second level to block Joe Mays. The key to stopping this play is penetration. If the defense is able to swarm into the back field and disrupt the puller and the timing of the play, the running back stands no chance.
See how Crick is running up the field? He's running right into the pulling guard and is about to see stars and little birdies. What made him run up field was the excellent job by the tackle. He showed like he was pass blocking to get Crick running up the field and then let him go by like a matador waving his red flag. Once Crick passes by, he heads for the second level. Where the play falters is with the center and right tackle. When Watt slants inside, the double team isn't able to get hip to hip and have a cohesive push. As a result, they aren't able to get any movement and Watt stalemates the block and stays right where he's at. The tight end, Vernon Davis, is caught off guard by Cushing's slant and watches as he storms into the backfield.
Now we get a mess of a play. Everything that went well play-side was thrown into a slobbering dumpster fire. The problem is that Cushing and Watt penetrated up the field. Rght when Frank Gore is handed the ball, he's met by Cushing. On this play, Watt takes the double team and Cushing reaps the benefits.
San Francisco ends up with their running back on the bottom of a Reed/Cushing/Watt dog pile. Here's the same play from a different view:
1st Qtr., 4:19 Remaining, 3rd and 5. Result: Pass Complete to Vernon Davis for 11 Yards.
Now let's look at how Phillips uses Cushing and Watt in a passing situation. This time the base defense is a little different since they are using an under shift. If you recall from the pictures above, Watt should be a "3", Mitchell should be a "1" on the left side of the center and Antonio Smith should be a "4i" or "5". Phillips is using an under front, where the defensive line uses strong side principles on the weakside. Consequently, the linebackers shift over to the right to cover up the gaps left uncovered because of the shift. Mercilus is really a defensive end, Mays is more of an outside linebacker, Cushing is hovering in the middle of the field, and Reed is playing over the right tackle.
Now that the boring principles of the 3-4 defense are over with, we can look at the actual stunt Phillips uses. Cushing stood in the middle of the field to not tip his cards and let the offensive line read what he was doing. Right before the snap, Cushing moves over a few paces to the left, blitzes up the B gap and Watt comes around his blitz into the A gap.
The 49ers must have had some sort of miscommunication on this play. It seems like Gore was supposed to, and was going to, pick up Reed off the edge. This would have left the right tackle to block Cushing and the guard to block Watt. Instead, the tackle blocks Reed, the guard blocks Cushing, and Gore is stuck having to stuff a full speed J.J. Watt speeding towards him. It was a great call by Phillips using the blitz to the side where the running back is blocking. If they ran it the other side, we would have seen three offensive linemen pick up the blitz, which is exactly what an offense wants.
Frank Gore is one of the best running backs in the league at pass blocking and usually punishes linebackers trying to get to the quarterback. The tides quickly change when his 5'9", 217 pound frame has to block the 6'5", 290 pound Watt. Watt throws Gore aside like a toddler trying to play with a Great Dane and now has a wide open path to Colin Kaepernick.
Kap is just barely able to get the ball off on a pick play the 49ers successfully ran against the Texans multiple times. Despite the first down, Watt hits Kap harder than I've ever seen him hit since the 49ers have been given the spotlight on primetime TV. Phillips must have it rough as a defensive coordinator who gets to to draw up blitz packages like this. I bet he dreams of how to use Cushing and Watt on game day after he puts his jammies on and kisses Bum goodnight.
Before we move on from Watt, I want to show you a play that epitomizes every Watt highlight you'll ever see.
2nd Qtr., 11:39 Remaining, 1st and 10. Result: Frank Gore -4 Yd Run.
Here the 49ers are running a trap variation to the left. The left tackle will block down on the "3" technique and the guard will pull around him to lead the play through the B gap. Watt is playing a five on the opposite side and has no business making a play here.
When the ball is snapped, Watt is going one on one with the 6'5", 323 pound Anthony Davis. Watt locks up with Davis, but he has his eyes on the ball carrier the entire time. He knows where the play is going and keeps forcing the block towards the play.
Note that he moved outside the center of Davis's body and is attacking only half of him. Then he rips inside to knock his hands off of him.
Stupid NBC camera.
All Davis can do is wrap around Watt's ankles and hope he doesn't get called for a penalty. Watt still makes the tackle in the backfield.
It's amazing to see a player who the offense is purposefully running away from make plays when he shouldn't.
The Highlight of the Offense
When watching the offense, there was not much to see. It was a mess of three yard rushes, punts, incomplete passes and six yard completions. The only commendable drive they had was in the first quarter, where they moved the ball 10 plays for 28 yards (hurt themselves with penalties). I sat scratching my head wondering how they didn't score any points. Then it hit me. Randy Bullock missed the field goal, of course. The offense was able to run the ball well, Schaub could attack the middle of the field at times, but other than that it was mostly guuuaaahhhhh. The best play I saw during the entire game was one of the most well drawn screen plays I have ever laid my swirling brown eyes on.
1st Qtr., :18 remaining, 1st and 10. Result: 12 Yard Completion to Owen Daniels.
This play is a screen off the play-action pass that everyone team in the NFL seems to have figured out by now. At first it looks like they are running a zone play to the strong side of the formation. Everyone from Chris Myers on has taken a zone step and is tricking the defense into thinking it's a run play. The right side will make contact, take a step or two, sit and keep the defense in front of them. On the back side, Owen Daniels has just come from playing out wide to motioning back to his tight end position. He'll be the one catching the screen. Here he is faking pass protection to trick the defensive end into coming up the field. Duane Brown and Wade Smith are doubling the defensive tackle to continue the zone run illusion.
This may look messy, but all I did was draw where the defensive players' eyes were looking and which offensive lineman will be leaving the play to lead block. The screen play is all about timing. The offensive linemen must take off to lead block at the exact moment the ball is leaving the quarterback's hand. What they do is make contact, count 1... 2... 3, then shed their blocks and take off. The quarterback, receiver, and offensive linemen all have the same countdown and release at the same time. It's more of a competitive dance routine than a football play.
Myers has already shed his block and is starting to head to the left side of the field to lead the way. Schaub is looking to the right the entire time like he's running the usual play-action pass play. On the other side, Brown and Daniels have just released their blocks and are heading to the open field. All three--Myers, Brown, and Daniels--leave the scene of the crime at the exact same time.
The coolest part of this image is the linebacker who recognizes the screen and Duane Brown knows that he knows what's going on. He now found his man like The Waterboy when the kicker finds the player who's about to piss his pants in fear before kicking onside. It's also worth mentioning how off balance the defensive linemen are once the offensive linemen shed them and begin to head up field.
Daniels now gets to attack a vacant space that resembles the rolling hills of Ohio's countryside. Brown is already making his move to cut down the linebacker who picked up on what Houston was doing, and Myers should be heading at the angle I drew. The last thing to notice is how they designed the receivers to run opposite from the screen to take the defensive backs out of the play. This screen is a successful fake within a fake, the pinnacle of football trickery.
Here we can see big bad Duane Brown cut down the linebacker with the edge of his axe. The pass protection only suffered a little in his absence, yet this is where Duane Brown was really missed. I've never seen an offensive lineman play as great in space as he does, whether it's pulling on a dart play or leading the way on a screen. The only problem about this play was Myers taking a flatter angle instead of pursuing up the field. He takes the incorrect yellow arrow route rather than following the red dirt road (red arrow).
Schaub and the Interceptions.
I still can't believe that last pick-six actually happened. It seems like more of a fantasy I'll wake up from some day than reality. However, when you break the play down frame by frame and put it in your Viewmaster, you can see the faulty decision making come to life right before your eyes.
1st Qtr., 13:37 Remaining, 3rd and 6. Result: Intercepted by Tramaine Brock.
Right before the snap, Schaub puts Keshawn Martin in motion from the left to the right side of the field to change the formation from slot left to slot right. Pay attention to this small detail because this one of the central reasons why this interception occurred. One of the most interesting things to learn while watching the coach's film is how offenses use motion to see what the type of coverage the defense is playing and how motion can give the receiver an extra yard or so of space. However, motioning can put the offense at a disadvantage as well. I first discussed Houston's motion problems in Week One when they ruined a 4th and 1 play by motioning the defense over into the play. This time is no different.
On this play, the defense is playing man to man on every receiver on the field, The Niners have both their safeties cover the deep halves of the field. The offense is using one of the worst route combos I've ever seen. Both Keshawn Martin and Andre Johnson are both running out routes towards the sideline. There's no change in depth, one is not running a deeper out compared to the other, and they are each doing the exact same thing. Whether it's a miscommunication or not I don't know, but it sure is horrendous.
Here the play is developing. We can see Schaub is looking only one way and the routes Martin and Johnson are running. The other poor design flaw is Houston kept both of their backs in to block in case the 49ers brought a big blitz. Instead, they both sat back in coverage. I really dislike any play that keeps two running backs in to pass block, unless the defense has been consistently bringing six or seven the entire game. The Texans decided to do this on the first pass play of the game and it would have been more helpful for Schaub to have some type of check down like Daniels running a drag up the middle or Foster taking off into the flat rather than having two players hanging out in the backfield.
The ball has just left Schaub's hand and we can already see Brock starting to make his break on the football. He was covering Martin, but since Johnson and him were playing so close to each other and running the same route, he was able to run two yards to his right and make the interception. Schaub stared down Johnson from the snap and Brock simply read his eyes like one of those things filled with words snuggled between two covers. If the timing was better and Schaub waited a second for Martin to finish his break, he would've known nobody was open or thrown it to Martin instead. There was no pressure. Schaub simply found the first guy kind of open and clunked it to him.
....And we are off to the races.
The other interception Schaub threw was nearly another pick-six nd it suffered from the same poor play-calling and decision-making.
2nd Qtr., 7:08 Remaining, 1st and 10. Result: Intercepted by Tramaine Brock.
It's first down this time. Schaub is trying to get the ball to Andre Johnson, who is going to run a curl route with his man playing seven yards off of him.
On the snap, the corner doesn't move. He simply hunker downs and waits to react to what Johnson does.
The corner waits for Johnson to make his move and when he sees his shoulders turn inside, he makes his break on the ball. Add Schaub's lack of arm strength to the corner sitting on the route and we have another Schaub interception. The ball simply takes too long to get to Andre Johnson and the corner is able to go from one step to five yards while the ball is in the air. If the football made it to its destination a half second sooner or so, it would have been batted down or completed. It's funny to see this problem happen to an established NFL quarterback since this is the type of throw "analysts" love to point to when evaluating quarterback prospects during draft time. Additionally, Houston needs to run some type of pump and go in the near future to take advantage of corners jumping Houston's routes and to try to end the stagnancy.
This season, we have seen either age or some type of undisclosed injury creep up on Schaub and lead to his arm dying on him. Both of these two interceptions were the result of his arm strength and poor play design. The blood isn't only on Schaub's or Kubiak's hands. They both have been jiggling around in it this season.