Just like wing sauces and craft beers, not all defensive concepts are created equal. Some, like the Tampa 2, are designed to generate opportunities for turnovers by suffocating receivers with zone coverage. The Dick LeBeau 3-4’s zone blitz and Mike Nolan’s "Amoeba" packages are designed to create confusion for blockers along the offensive line by disguising pressure packages. Defensive line slants and linebacker blitzes found in the Wade Phillips' 5-2 are useful for dialing up pressure from all directions in passing situations. Every defensive coordinator in the NFL uses concepts like these either as a pillar for their entire scheme or to augment their own unique style. How these defensive concepts interact with opposing offenses, and the execution of the personnel within them, is what creates the very foundation of football. At the center of every play are a million variables ranging from the obvious, like seams between zones, to the subtle, like noticing a linebacker’s alignment telegraphing a certain blitz package.
If a center misses on calling protections, suddenly the quarterback does not have the time to hit his receiver in stride for a long touchdown. Without that touchdown, the team loses the game and is eliminated from playoff contention. By not going to the playoffs, that team will never have an opportunity to put together one of the many improbable low-seed Super Bowl runs of recent years, and some other organization will get to hoist the Lombardi Trophy, throw a parade, and pay their quarterback enough money to buy a lifetime supply of Gummy Bears. Every action by every singly player during every single single snap is but a paragraph in the never ending story of football. Even in preseason, the ink is just as permanent, and some players like Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder might be running out of space on the page faster than others.
Ponder came in to last Friday’s game as a man on a mission. As a third year quarterback staring at a sea of young studs in front of him like Cam Newton, Andrew Luck, and Robert Griffin III, Ponder is in the dreaded "make it or break it" year for NFL quarterbacks. If the 12th overall pick of the 2011 NFL Draft cannot deliver at least an encouraging performance this season to live up to his selection, Leslie Frazier may turn to the services of one of the several promising quarterback prospects expected to headline the 2014 draft class. For Ponder, there is no other option – lead this extraordinarily talented team deep in to the playoffs, or play second fiddle to someone who can. Unfortunately for the Vikings signal caller, his first two snaps of the 2013 season did not go as planned. Seconds into his opening series, Shiloh Keo picked off a tipped pass over the middle and ended Ponder’s night almost before it began. In my curiosity to see just what went wrong (or right, in the case of the Texans), I took a deeper look at this play from every angle NFL Preseason Live would give me.
Here is a pre-snap image before Ponder threw his interception. What I found most interesting is that the Texans are in their base 5-2 against a three receiver package from Minnesota, which is very unusual for Wade Phillips. Most, if not all of the time against three receiver sets, the Texans will come out in their 4-1-6 dime package with three safeties. For some reason, that is not the case here. I am not sure if it was miscommunication on the sidelines or intentional, but I thought it was worth pointing out.
The following diagram is what I believe Christian Ponder was reading pre-snap. Based on the alignment of the corners and how far off the line of scrimmage they were playing, it was a fair bet the Texans were playing deep zones, and since defenses rarely if ever bust out Cover 4 on 1st and 10, there is a pretty high chance of the deep safety rolling to center field while the strong safety takes on the slot receiver in man-to-man coverage. On the line, I am sure that Ponder was expecting both outside linebackers to rush the edge while the Mo linebacker, Joe Mays (orange circle), picked up the halfback in coverage. Darryl Sharpton (orange box), the Mike linebacker, would then be left in man coverage on stud tight end Kyle Rudolph. With the Mo backer running to the flat, both corners deep and the free safety rolling to the middle, that leaves the middle of the field wide open for a slant and easy first down.
It is a sound read against a defense that loves to rush five on every down, but what Ponder failed to recognize is that Wade Phillips loves to deploy his outside linebackers, especially Brooks Reed, in coverage against running backs using what is known as the "peel technique". In the peel technique, one or both outside 'backers will be keying on the running back (or fullback, or both) while rushing the passer. If they see the back break off in to a route to their side of the field, the linebacker will then "peel" off his rush and shadow the running back to the flat in coverage. This is Phillips’ favorite way to rush five or more defenders while still having a way to cover running backs as the hot receiver out of the back field and without sacrificing his inside linebackers’ blitzing ability.
Here is the actual defensive call that Wade Phillips employed on this snap. Earl Mitchell and Jared Crick slanted to the left while Tim Jamison and Justin Tuggle slanted to the right, effectively parting the sea for Sharpton to blitz right up the middle untouched. Reed took one step up field and peeled off his rush in coverage. Both Mays and Danieal Manning played zone over the middle of the field to cover any quick passes in the face of the blitz. Beyond guessing the wrong coverage from the inside linebackers, Ponder also failed to act on the fact that even if his initial read on the slant to Simpson was incorrect, he still likely had a wide open Jarius Wright on the back side far enough under Kareem Jackson’s zone to make it a high percentage throw. For a quarterback who has developed a bad habit of rushing reads and locking in on covered wide receivers, he made two critical errors that should be deeply concerning to anyone hoping Ponder can improve his game going into 2013.
Let’s break down this play frame by frame, shall we? The main weakness of a Cover 3 is the hook-out or hook-curl combo pattern. Similar to a "smash" concept against a Cover 2, this pattern essentially overloads the zones to one side of the formation while taking advantage of the cornerback being too deep to really affect the pass. While the wide receiver curls at or outside the numbers underneath the corner, a tight end or running back will run a slant, hitch, or run any kind of short route over the middle to hold the linebackers in place and give the wide receiver enough space to make the catch outside. What this means for this particular defensive package is that the most reliable way to attack it is with a curl route to the outside. Curls of course take longer to develop than quicker in-breaking routes like slants, and the longer a route takes to develop the more time a quarterback has to hold on to the ball. Knowing this, Phillips integrates crafty blitz packages into the front seven to go along with Cover 3 on the back end in an effort to give his biggest playmakers the best possible chance at a sack or pressure.
The package on this particular play calls for Earl Mitchell, the Texans' nose tackle, to cross the face of the center, John Sullivan, and force a double team away from a blitzing Darryl Sharpton. If he cannot get Sullivan, who I consider one of the five best centers in the entire league, to turn away from Sharpton, there is a good chance of Sullivan passing off Mitchell to the right guard and picking up the blitz before it can do any damage. Mitchell’s first move has to be fast and deadly enough not only to disengage from Sullivan, but to spook him just enough to get him to completely ignore Sharpton racing towards the A gap. Mitchell, much to my (pleasant) surprise, immediately clubs Sullivan’s jam off the snap with his left hand and quickly side-steps across his face. Brooks Reed (circled in yellow) can also be seen here peeling towards the running back while Mays and Manning settle in to their zones.
Here is a better angle of Mitchell’s great hand usage and surprising quickness. He breaks into the opposite A gap and forces a double team with the right guard, just as he should be doing on every single snap. The more dangerous Mitchell becomes in single blocking, the more opportunities everyone else along the defensive front will get to make a play.
A fraction of a second later, Kyle Rudolph (circled in yellow) sees Sharpton’s blitz and recognizes himself as the hot receiver. He immediately stops his route and turns for an easy dump-off pass, only to see Ponder staring down his first read, Jerome Simpson, from the get go. Despite Brooks Reed and Joe Mays being right in front of him, Ponder is still waiting for Simpson to break in on the slant, completely oblivious to Sharpton barreling down through the parted offensive line.
One thing I really did not like about Joe Mays here is that he widened way too far in his drop. It seemed to me like he almost expected a curl against Cover 3 and widened to make a play on the ball (pink) instead of dropping more vertically to the middle of the field and playing short in-breaking routes like he is supposed to (yellow). If he stayed with the right drop in the first place, he not only would have been in position to put a hit on Kyle Rudolph (circled in red) if Christian Ponder dumped it off hot, but he also would have had a great shot at intercepting Ponder’s pass to Simpson underneath the three deep zones. I will attribute this to an eagerness to show what he is made of to his new team in preseason. When the lights on come on for real in the regular season, that kind of overzealousness can lead to a lot of giant plays for the opposing team.
Mays can be seen here out of position to play the ball on route to Simpson, which ironically almost let Ponder get away with his poor read after all. Had Mays stayed home and Ponder delivered the pass anyway, I very well might be writing this article about Mays’ interception and not Shiloh Keo’s. Circled in yellow is Jerome Simpson, who despite his best efforts, cannot get to the ball that is thrown just a few inches too far in front of him. As luck would have it for Keo, that ball would be tipped and float lazily into his waiting hands for a gift of an interception. For the sake of emphasis, Rudolph can be seen still wide open in the middle of the field.
Add up all the pieces, and you get something like this:
A perfect move from a nose tackle on a great center. An inaccurate (and forced) throw to an X receiver. A missed hot read in the face of an undetected blitz. A dropping linebacker who almost missed his assignment. A wide open Z receiver that never gets so much as a glance. These are the misunderstood and unseen moments that make up every paragraph in the story of football. I will admit that this is about as small a sample size as you can possibly get this early into the season, but if Christian Ponder wants his own personal chapter to continue much longer, he needs to become a better writer - the sooner, the better.