1. OUTSIDE ZONE LEAD
At the heart of it, the Tennessee Titans are an outside zone team, and they’re the best outside zone team in the league. This one play is a trunk, and from it erupt branches that are slight variations of the same key concept. They’ll run outside zone weak, they’ll run it strong with three tight ends to that side, they’ll run outside zone with a pitch to give the running back speed to hit the cutback, but of all their variations, the outside zone lead is the most brutal.
Last week in their complete and total ass kicking of the Indianapolis Colts, the Titans ran outside zone lead 12 times for 107 yards and 2 touchdowns. With David Quessenberry making his first start at left tackle, against a Colts front without DeForest Buckner, Denico Autry, and Bobby Okereke, the Titans decimated what was once a top five defense by DVOA.
Running outside zone lead to the weak side of the formation is what makes this a great play. With a tight end or two lined up on the opposite side, and the defense shifted over, the Titans are able to get four v. four on the play side and even the numbers game.
On this Henry touchdown run, the Titans have Dennis Kelly (#71) kicking out the defensive end, the ‘Ace’ between Nate Davis (#64) and Ben Jones (#60) block from the defensive tackle to the middle linebacker. The fullback Khari Blasingame (#41) leads up to the Will linebacker Zaire Franklin (#44). And the back side walls off the ‘3’ technique to the Sam linebacker Darius Leonard (#53). It all coalesces together into Derrick Henry cutting back through the second level and open field.
Arthur Smith is a madman, so of course there are diabolical variations of this play. They ran it from a split shotgun backfield. A great Duece between Quessenberry (#72) and Rodger Saffold (#76), and quick scoop between Ben Jones (#60) and Nate Davis (#64) creates an easy cutback lane for Derrick Henry.
The Titans ran the same play with a pitch. The pitch changes the angle of the run, making it more diagonal than horizontal, gets the back moving at a higher horse power, and creates more space for the cutback. By using pre-snap motion they move Khari Blasingame (#41) from a two tight end right formation into the I-formation. The motion moves Darius Leonard (#53) over the football, which gives Jones (#60) a more fortuitous angle for his second level climb. The ‘Trey’ between Dennis Kelly (#71) and Jonnu Smith (#81) kicks ass. Blasingame drives out the alley defender. Derrick Henry is untouched until he hits the open field against an eight man box. Exquisite.
They ran it on the one yard line with six offensive linemen in the game. The motion with Smith doesn’t pull the play-side alley defender. The Colts get an unblocked defender and still can’t stop it. Henry bounces the run outside the unblocked defender, and beats Leonard to the pylon since Aaron Brewer (#62) just can’t quite get his head on the outside shoulder.
31 yards was their longest run from this design. Tennessee motioned from 10 personnel to 20 personnel. By moving tight end Geoff Swaim from wide receiver to tight end, and finally to fullback, the Titans were able to block six against six. Saffold cuts the defensive tackle Taylor Stallworth (#76). Nate Davis (#64) washes Grover Stewart (#90) wide. Jones death rolls through the second level like a Nile crocodile with a luscious gazelle in his mouth. Swaim (#87) never makes his block on Leonard, but the outside zone motion and gap assignments leads to Leonard over pursuing. From there Henry is a rhinoceros tap dancing through the open field.
Despite losing Jack Conklin last offseason, Taylor Lewan to an ACL tear, and impending redzone touchdown rate regression, the Titans offense has not only picked up where they left off, it’s improved. Ryan Tannehill is the same efficient and effective play action passer. The run game still devours any front it faces, and gets even better as the game, and now, as the season goes on. Smith has expanded the outside zone into other dimensions by tweaking it as he’s needed to. And because of this, the Titans are leading the AFC South entering week 13, and are a team no one wants to play this postseason.
2. BONES IN OUR BODIES
Our skeletons are a funny thing. Rigid and white, filled with red goop keeping them alive, wrapped in skin, that most beautiful thing. Although it exists for movement and to keep us upright, preventing our sacks of skin from wallowing and rolling in the sun, it’s still our prison, manacled by calcium. Our physical activity constrained by what it can and can’t accomplish.
Unless you’re Aaron Donald. His skeleton isn’t hard and solidified. His arms are gummy worms with knives attached at the end. His torso belongs outside a used car dealership flailing through the wind in ecstasy. His legs are slinkies that spring from gap to gap. He doesn’t live within the same confines as the rest of us. He is his own thing entirely.
3. GOD’S CHOSEN LUNATIC
Joey Bosa has always been a great player. Since he was drafted third overall he’s been decimating entire fronts, moving at a bizarre angle that hovers above the ground as he tortures offensive tackles with rips, swims, bull rushes, all in a wide swath of color. Unlike his brother Nick, who is a pure jock, white sweat band wrapped to his forehead, drinking 1000Gs of brotien powder a day, and collar popped, Joey writes about cosmic demonstrations, the astral planes of love, and, of course, how the slight tilt of the torso can open up a new range of experiences.
This season has been different than previous seasons though. Bosa has made the jump from Pro Bowler and fringe All-Pro, to Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Despite playing only 46% of the snaps against Denver thanks to a concussion, subsequently losing two games because of it, and defrosting his brain against the New York Jets, that nauseating sick stew of rotten quick passing argumentation, Bosa has 7.5 sacks, 23 quarterback hits, 14 tackles for a loss, and 34 pressures. In nine and a half games he’s already almost eclipsed his 2019 production.
Last week against Buffalo he was a tortured spirit, taking out the pain of the human condition out on Daryl Williams and Dion Dawkins. Bosa had 3 sacks, 6 tackles for a loss, 5 quarterback hits, 1 fumble recovery, and 4 pressures. He was the entirety of the Chargers front.
Once upon a time, the Buffalo Bills gave Mitch Morse 4-years $44.5 million to leave Kansas City. Morse is one of the rare Kansas City interior offensive linemen to leave them and have similar success on his own. His signing was worth it for one reason, and one reason alone, it allows Buffalo to run this incredible sweep play where Morse snaps the ball, and pulls along with another guard or tackle.
On 3rd and 1 the Bills attempt this patented staple. The problem is Bosa is out on the edge, and they’re attempting to block down on him with wide receiver Gabriel Davis (#13). I could say something, but you’re intelligent and beautiful, and already know what’s about to happen.
It’s 1st and 10. Bosa (#97) is the left defensive end against Dawkins (#73). After sprinting off the ball to size up Dawkins, he attacks the tackle first with lower pad level, extends with his left arm and takes his right hand out from his pocket, holding a gun, and ripping underneath, slipping under the monstrous tackle, and into Josh Allen’s legs.
As a way to help aid their tackles, the Bills played a lot of football with Lee Smith in the game. Smith is the fattest tight end you’ll ever see. He weighs an easy 265 pounds. Gruff, pads filled with stuff, he’s a ten year veteran who exists only to block. By placing him in the backfield, and out the edge in the run game, he was able to do enough against Bosa occasionally to save the day, and keep the offense moving. As an upback on 2nd & 7, he protects the arc of the pocket, and keeps Bosa scampering around Allen, instead of into him.
This is a D.P.O.Y. sort of play, the type of thing J.J. Watt pulled off, the type of thing Aaron Donald and Myles Garrett are pulling off. As the ‘5’ technique against Dawkins, Bosa fakes the edge rush with a slight step, plants, then swims to the inside gap with his outside arm around Dawkins. The Bills are sliding their protection left though. So left guard Jon Feliciano (#76) is sliding over to help. Bosa wins so quickly, and so decisively, he’s able to split the two. All Allen can do is throw the football off his face.
Imagine running a zone read at Bosa? I couldn’t. The thought would never even cross my mind. The Bills try it. Bosa slides down the line of scrimmage to force Allen to keep. He pops off his inside foot and stays in front of Allen. This is hardwood football. Allen is a maniac and tosses the ball to stave off the tackle for a loss, which leads to an illegible player downfield penalty instead. Cyanide or electricity. We all gotta die one day.
Life isn’t meant to be lived stationary. From couch to kitchen to keyboard to bedroom. Hearts splayed open. Wide open horizons. Great tasty sun. Bosa stunts from the ‘C’ to the ‘A’ gap. Right guard Brian Winters (#66) is parallel with the sideline when he comes across. Zach Moss is in a good spot to pick up this rush. Even he, a running back, is taken aback by the speed Bosa is moving at. His shoulder whiffs entirely, feeling the great north eastern wind instead as Bosa collides into Allen.
Allen is incredible. He fumbled a hand off, but rather than just plop on it, he attempted to pick it up and keep playing. Fortitude. Resolve. An insatiable desire to be better, to do better. The problem is Bosa is an All-American Hungry Hungry Hippo player. He dives on the white marble after Allen loses the ball after losing the ball.
Buffalo has been running more outside zone lately as they try to craft any sort of run game that works aside from draw plays. Bosa is a stand up edge defender playing between the tight end and left tackle. They run outside zone right at him. He punches and plays the tight end while having the core strength to prevent the tackle from moving him off the block. His width forces the tackle to climb right away. Bosa splits the double and makes the tackle for the loss.
Of all the run stops Bosa made, this one was the most sublime. Bosa immediately reads the down block, and the center’s drop step, knowing the sweep is coming. He plants, attacks the guard in the alley right when he exits the dramshop. Despite the size difference between Feliciano and himself, he doesn’t play half of the guard. He runs through the entirety of him. Driving him backwards, and in a jolt of electricity, he wraps up the back as he fails to sneak behind the block.
Joey Bosa doesn’t rock. He isn’t a grown man. He isn’t a beast. He utilizes his body as a form of artistic expression, like the ballerina, or the nutcracker, or the hip-hop dancer. It bends and it morphs. It splits 650 pounds of flesh, it detonates big boned boulders, it rips shoulders, it pops and bounces and chases. Joey Bosa doesn’t rock. He’s beautiful.
4. PUNISHED FOR SINS
My calluses have calluses. The stains on my keyboard have stains. The disks in my back are squished and snarling. Throughout all this time typing words, and saying things, I’ve revolted and evolved from hating most things, to loving most things. Yet, in spite of this personality change brought upon my by the angelic wings of work and time and love, I absolutely hate dropping defensive linemen into coverage. Every once in a while it works. Every once in a while anything can work. For every tipped pass that creates an interception, for every fat man making a tackle for a six yard gain on third and six, there’s Brandon Dunn as the hook defender on a Derrick Henry dump off, and there’s D.J. Wonnum getting scorched by a Robbie Anderson crosser.
Teddy Bridgewater, in his failed REVENGE game, thanks to his own disastrous touchdown miss, and two missed Joey Slye field goals, motions the split right wide receiver into the backfield, and motions the split wide left receiver into a tight bunch left formation. The bunch left formation runs a curl, drag, fade combination, and the individual right wide receiver, tight end Ian Thomas, runs a vertical route. It’s third and eleven. Minnesota blitzes six. They’re trying to knock Carolina out of field goal position. The Vikings play cover three behind it, with the cornerback Jeff Gladney (#20) as the flat defender.
This leads to a one v. one match up on the vertical between Thomas and Chris Jones (#26). To protect the short middle, the Vikings have defensive end D.J. Wonnum (#98) play as the rat defender. He drops back into coverage walling off any crossing route, and safety Anthony Harris (#41) plays the janitor cleaning up any short reception.
As for the blitz, Minnesota brings each ‘A’ gap rusher, and has safety Harrison Smith (#22) loop around the center. Their left side of the line of scrimmage occupies the gap in front of them. They right side rushes over a gap. By doing so they replace Wonnum, and they spread the interior of the line of scrimmage to expand the opening.
Carolina’s offensive line is sliding left one gap over. The right side is blocking man on man. Running back Rodney Smith (#35) is picking up the first threat. In this case it’s the first ‘A’ gap rusher Eric Smith (#50). This opens the door for Harrison Smith to rush over him as a free defender.
The idea here is to not get beat deep, wall off the first crosser, and if the crosser breaks free, Harris should be able to clean up. Smith ends up occupied with the curl. Leaving Wonnum trying to distort the Robbie Anderson’s drag on his own. He’s too deep. Anderson runs underneath him. He’s open immediately. Smith is free as a rusher, but he rushes the opposite ‘A’ gap, leaving a window for Bridgewater to hit the drag. The ball is out with a window to throw through before Smith arrives. Anderson makes the catch unimpeded. Harris is stuck. Wonnum isn’t fast enough. Thomas’s vertical drives Jones into the endzone, and Thomas turns his route into a block as he tosses the cornerback out the club.
Don’t drop defensive linemen into coverage. This is what you get.
5. GAME OF THE CENTURY
I’ve learned lifetimes worth of lessons from watching Josh Allen and Justin Herbert. Through Allen I learned not to be completely occupied by if a player is good or not. Who cares if Allen couldn’t throw downfield his first two seasons. What he could do is stiff arm three defensive linemen in a row and throw the ball out the stadium. Enjoy that. Savor that. This is something no one else could do. This cantaloupe throwing athleticism has since been sculpted into a great quarterback thanks to will, hard work, and entire presidential cabinet in Buffalo working on his game. This year he hasn’t been the same maniac, but he’s been a legitimate quarterback with flashes of the insane.
Through Herbert I learned not to worry too much about what the professional football people have to say about a young quarterback’s outlook. There are so many variables. The offense, coaching staff, environment, attitude, that impede a clear understanding of the performance alone, and when you couple this with who he is as a person, something us people outside looking in will never know entering the draft, the coaching staff and professional offense he’s playing in, it’s difficult, and difficult is probably too much credit given, to know how they will play in the pros. It’s better to wait and save judgement for when young quarterbacks finally see the field.
As Buffalo has morphed from insane and reckless, into a great NFL offense, my love for Allen hasn’t faltered, but it has changed. 3 a.m. film sessions. Drunken condensed game watching. Posting absurd highlights. This has turned into staying in on Friday nights. It’s still strong and pure, but it’s not as wild.
During this evolution, I’ve been lucky to have Justin Herbert arrive in my football watching life. He provides the same lunatic plays as Allen, but has the ability to throw downfield, the arm strength to put the ball between four defenders, escape the pocket, take on brutal hits while attempting passes, all while playing in an offense with great skill players and a terrible offensive line, the perfect environment for miraculous quarterback play.
Since my eyes have been opened to Herbert, I’ve had this game on the calendar, and it didn’t disappoint. It had everything you’d ever want. Allen mishandling the snap, picking it up, then fumbling again, throwing the ball of Bosa’s face, turning a tackle for a loss into an ineligible man downfield penalty, while quick passing, beating Los Angeles with draw plays, hitting his play action passes, and completing one of the throws of the year, a 44 yard laser over a still standing stoic cornerback.
Herbert was beautiful, but Los Angeles was conservative when they shouldn’t be. Buffalo’s defense didn’t deserve the respect they gave it. They mainly attacked Buffalo short and horizontally. It wasn’t until they switched to a more vertical deep middle passing game for their offense to take off some.
And it of course ended in stupendous fashion. Down 10, facing 4th and 27, Herbert rolled left and completed a Kyle Murray Hail Mary against the same Buffalo defense. But then the Chargers didn’t spike, and then ran the football, effectively ending the game. Turds for brains.
Buffalo is going to win the AFC East. If the run game, offensive line, and defense, ever fully comes together to at least competent, paired with a great passing attack, they could be in line for the juggernauts in Kansas City. The Chargers are probably going to fire Anthony Lynn this year. The team didn’t start Herbert to begin the year. They’re 2-7 in one score games since beating Cincinnati thanks to a 7 yard missed Randy Bullock field goal. With Herbert, the top defensive and skill player talent they have, this is the best head coaching position available.
The Bills are really good this year, and they could morph into a great team this December. The Chargers have the best one-two year starting quarterback in the league, yes Herbert is better than Kyler. If the coaching improves, and they figure out their offensive line and run game just a little bit, they could not only be a playoff contender, but a Superbowl contender next season.
6. SECOND HALF ATLANTA
They did it. It’s happening again. The Atlanta Falcons are in the middle of another second half defensive renaissance. As Rivers McCown wrote about in this week’s Any Given Sunday, the Falcons’ defense has once again transmogrified from abysmal to competent on the defensive side of the ball. God bless America.
I feel great for Falcons fans, but I will miss Dan Quinn's defense and -- particularly -- their ability to hibernate for the first five weeks of every season. pic.twitter.com/rEiF67GOx5— Rivers McCown (@riversmccown) December 1, 2020
Last week they held Las Vegas’s great offense to only six points. In that game Atlanta had 5 quarterback hits, 5 sacks, and 15 pressures, churning up the usually great Vegas pass protection that was missing only Trent Brown at right tackle once again.
The Falcons allowed 32.2 points a game during their 0-5 start. Since firing Dan Quinn, Raheem Morris’s team has allowed 20 points a game and are 4-2.
Next summer, you’re going to hear the same talking points. Is the Falcons’ second half defensive resurgence going to carry over next year? Are the Falcons real? And the same thing will happen, and it will continue to happen, and it will never end.
7. KITTY KAT
Seeing fat men run around in tiger print will never not be funny to me. It’s always Halloween in Cincinnati. 315 pounds. Sweaty. Grotesque. Uncomfortable. Running around like some great grand kitty-kat. Bengals games are must watch affairs not because of Joe Burrow (RIP), Tee Higgins, or, hmmmm, I have nothing left, but because of their uniforms alone.
Typically tigers are orange with black stripes, but there are also white tigers with black stripes. These are beautiful creatures. They live in the snow I guess. I think that’s what makes them Siberian.
A few years ago, to spice up Thursday Night Football, the NFL introduced color rush games to get you to turn in, to make it more exciting. This only hurt our eyes. Leading to litter box urine colored Jacksonville, Old Navy Houston, garish Gang Green, Blue’s Clues Carolina, spearmint Seattle, and a wide assortment of other monstrosities that made you question your own sanity, and if a trip to Best Buy was needed.
The best of which, and the best jersey in the NFL, are the Bengals color rush jerseys. They combined the white Siberian tiger with the Bengal tiger. White jerseys black stripes. Orange helmet black stripes. It’s a white tiger with an orange head.
If only God was as creative as Cincinnati graphic designers.
8. ART HOUSE INDY
Quick, don’t look, who is San Francisco’s best pass rusher, and who is Jacksonville’s best pass rusher this season? No, it isn’t Dee Ford, or Arik Armstead. No, it isn’t Josh Allen. Instead it’s Kerry Hyder and Dawuane Smoot.
Hyder is a former undrafted free agent. He once had 8 sacks with Detroit in 2016. He signed a one-year $1.5 million contract with San Francisco this year. He has 7.5 sacks, 17 quarterback hits, 8 tackles for a loss, and 23 pressures. He can rush both inside and out. He’s a hard worker. His chop-rip is vicious.
Smoot was drafted by Jacksonville in 2016 in the third round of the NFL Draft. Although he had six sacks last season, he hasn’t had a complete season like this. In 2020 he has 2.5 sacks, 11 hits, 3 tackles for a loss, and 20 pressures. He’s one of the rare edge rushers who beat Laremy Tunsil both in the run and pass game, and he even got Joel Bitonio has a 4i with a wide rip.
Both players are free agents next spring. Both players are going to sign a contract in the high single digits, and maybe even the double digits, and when they do, football fans will have no idea who either is, but you do, you already know both Hyder and Smoot have been really good out of nowhere this year.
9. TRIBAL TATTOOS
One of the things I’ve been waiting for this season, is for Daniel Jones to beat defenses downfield. Jason Garrett’s vertical passing attack never materialized. It was short and choppy. Stuttering and stopping sentences. Establishing the run without Saquon Barkley.
This past month that has changed somewhat. The Giants are pushing the ball past 20 yards finally, after months of clamoring. In his last four games Jones has completed 8 of his 14 attempts over 20 yards for 301 yards and 1 touchdown.
Last week against Cincinnati he had 2 completions to Evan Engram, who ran a fade and a straight vertical from a tight alignment, and he was a beard hair away from hitting Darius Slayton on a vertical route as well. With a single deep safety, he was was able to hold it, and shoot some perfect passes deep down the field.
Unfortunately, with the NFC East race making zero sense whatsoever, Jones is out with a hamstring injury for the foreseeable future. With games against Seattle, Arizona, Cleveland, Baltimore, and Dallas, and a slightly below average offense and defense, and Jones playing better, and now being the best quarterback in the division, it seemed like the Giants were the slim favorite, but now without him, something surreal and nonsensical, has completely splintered into something even more abhorrent and grotesque.
Dallas has the easiest remaining schedule in the division with games against Baltimore, Cincinnati, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and New York (J), but they’re a game behind everyone else, utilize Andy Dalton running for his life, have an abysmal defense and offense, and love to do insane things like run a fake punt that would require the ball carrier to pick up 24 yards after turning up field to convert.
Washington has the best defense, and the offense is a placeholder. They luck their way into wins just by being accountable, and not the dumber team. The defensive line hasn’t had the expected production, but it’s claustrophobic play against them. Their outside zone game has picked up with Antonio Gibson taking over as the number one running back. The schedule is tough though. They’ll probably only be favored against Philadelphia in week 17, but even then, five wins could win the division.
The Eagles’ defensive line is the best unit in the division. Carson Wentz is atrocious though. He brings death and destruction, trying to create, when the ball should be thrown away. He’s inaccurate and erratic. He isn’t on the same page as his receivers. His offensive line has the backups who backed up the backups out there. The skill players drop too many passes. He’s like Jamies Winston without the touchdown passes. Somehow they have the worst offense by DVOA in this division. They’re the most talented team in the division, but their performance has been despicable.
Gun in my mouth, bullet about to splatter my brains, I’d have to pick Washington to win the division since Jones is hurt. They could wins week 16 and 17. The defense is really good. The run game can actually move the ball. And although it’s Alex Smith, but slower, as along as he isn’t throwing interceptions that’s good enough in this slop.
10. BIG FISHING
Against New England, J.J. Watt swatted three passes at the line of scrimmage. Two of them he probably should have caught. He just quite couldn’t hang on. On Thanksgiving Day, he read the drop, popped back, and finally devoured one again. Walking into the endzone, close your eyes, and pretend that it’s 2011 all over again. Finally, after getting some nibbles, Watt reeled a big fish into his boat again.
Montez Sweat pulled off the same play, thanks to an asinine Andy Dalton decision. Maybe he was haunted seeing Watt’s play earlier that day. Maybe there are things happening here that we don’t understand. Maybe Sweat is just an incredible athlete, my personal favorite R&B singer, and used his overwhelming athleticism to make a great play.