Showing posts with label NFL. Show all posts
Showing posts with label NFL. Show all posts

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Linebackers: An Assembly Guide

The linebacker was created with a single purpose: play a support role for the defensive line, much like a safety provides protect for a cornerback. Of course, as with anything, the position developed into much more than that.

Didja know Ray Lewis was pretty good?

The most important thing to remember when thinking linebacker is assignment, assignment, assignment. Much like a safety, they need to be quite versatile. Even in schemes that ask just specific tasks from their linebackers, versatility is a linebacker's best friend.

Historically, linebacker has been a position where, based on scheme, they can be vital stars of the defense or simple role players. Because their assignments can be so diverse in most defensive schemes, you will often find offensive lines adjusting their protection schemes based on what they percieve from the linebackers. A good LB corps can conceal their true intentions by masking it with something that percieves an entirely different assignment. While it sounds simple, it's no easy task, and requires some smart play from all three (or four) backers.

Defensive fronts also play a big part in how linebackers are used and what assignments are given to each one. The basic two base fronts, the 4-3 and 3-4, are more deeply explained in the Football Schemes guide.
Skill sets

Linebackers have a wide variety of skills that all types of linebackers have to varying degrees. While they can get by being really good at only 1 or 2 of these, the best linebackers are athletic enough to do it all with success.
  • Speed. Not entirely vital, but a speedy linebacker -- or at least a linebacker with some burst to their initial movements -- can be great for nullifying off-tackle runs and or blitzing.
  • Tackling. Linebackers need to be able to solo tackle, preventing larger gains.
  • Covering. This goes for both zone and man assignments, though zone assignments at this position are more likely. They need to be able to locate the ball and contain their man or zone with authority. A linebacker good in coverage will be able to eliminate a majority of the easier over-the-middle catches with a good separating hit or simply by blocking the throwing lane.
  • Jamming. Particularly the outside backers and especially the weak-side backer, a linebacker needs to be able to (occasionally) move into the slot and jam the receiver long enough to disrupt the timing or force the receiver into the corners zone.
  • Recognition. As with most of the defensive positions, recognition can be vital. It can be the difference between -5 yards and a gain of 20 yards. A linebacker with good field awareness and recognition skills can put an end to a play before it even begins.
  • Block-shedding. They need to be able to shed the occasional blocker to make plays,which is hard when you are usually outweighed by a good amount. However, playing with smart leverage and hand movement/placement can shed any tight end or make it possible to shed a guard off you who has made it to the second level. This can become vital in run stopping situations against tough offensive lines.
  • Pass-rushing. Being able to shed a blocker sometimes isn't enough. Sometimes you need a linebacker to bring the heat and get behind the offensive line. This requires not only good leverage, strength and hand movement, but the genuine athleticism required to spin, swim, club and bull past offensive linemen.
While most linebackers only shine in one or two of these areas, they will still sometimes become stars. It depends on the scheme and what they will be asked to do; if a scheme requires the middle linebacker either to play a mid-field zone or to blitz in most of the plays, a speedy linebacker with some pass rush ability could become a star in that role. In a different scheme, if that middle linebacker is required to play a man up role on the running back and stuff the run, a speedy guy with good tackling skills and recognition will become the star.

4-3 Outside Linebackers

Outside linebackers in a 4-3 front are referred to as Will (for the weak, or non-tight end side) and Sam (for the strong, or tight end side).

Their roles will vary from defense to defense, but the genuine premise behind it is covering the area between the hash and the cornerback with run and coverage support based on their assignment for that play call.

While many defenses nowadays ask the same things of their outside linebackers (though not always the same assignments on the same playcall), there is a consensus view of the accepted strengths/weaknesses/roles of each. Some teams still use this formula, but as with everything else in the modern NFL, it's become much more diverse.

Sam linebackers are generally the bigger, stronger backers, better able to shed the block of a tight end. They line up over the tight end most of the time, and often times they are asked to jam and cover the end in passing situations. They usually get help from the strong safety in those cases

Will linebackers are generally the faster, more athletic linebackers. They are often called into zone coverage assignments and asked to cover or jam slot receivers in certain situations. They often cover the running back that attacks his side of the field first in man coverage, while covering the weak flat or hook/curl areas in zone coverage assignments.

4-3 Middle Linebackers

Middle linebackers in a 4-3 front are referred to as the Mike linebacker. They are usually responsible for receiving the defensive signals and relaying them to the rest of the unit. You could say they are the "quarterback of the defense."

Again, the roles they play vary from defense to defense. Generally, the Mike backer is assigned to protect the area between the hash marks and shut down the running back.

Depending on the scheme, they may simply be assigned to a particular gap, as would the outside linebackers. But the more popular use of a Mike linebacker is in pure run support from sideline to sideline, supporting both the defensive line and outside linebackers. Mid-field zones are also quite popular in passing situations. For all this, they are usually the most well-rounded and versatile linebacker on the field with the best ability to bring down a ball carrier 1 on 1.

Dealing with interior linemen from the offensive getting to the second level becomes a big problem with some middle linebacker, and it's become more and more of a neccessity for the Mike to be able to shed even the best blockers at times. A guy like Ray Lewis, as talented as he is, struggles at this aspect of the game and requires a large defensive front to ensure his freedom of movement.

3-4 Outside backers

Since the 3-4 is a scheme designed to conceal the fourth rusher, the outside linebackers in a 3-4 are often very pass-rush capable linebackers who possess the athleticism to be effective in zone and run coverages. This is quite a demanding position; not many pure linebackers are capable of being both a pass rusher and a run stuffer.

The weakside 3-4 backer is the one with the better pass rush ability. Playing opposite the tight end, they rely on the weakside defensive end to hinder the offensive tackle's ability to block them on the rush. They need to be quite athletic, speedy and capable of beating tackles to the edge to disrupt the quarterback. Outside of a pass rush assignment, they are generally responsible for covering the running back coming out of the backfield.

DeMarcus Ware is among the NFL's best, combining pass-rushing skills with run-stopping abilities.

The strongside 3-4 backer is the one with the more well rounded skill set. They must be able to rush the passer successfully, but will also be required to play coverage against the tight end and support the run coverage. They will usually pass the coverage of a running back coming out of the backfield to the strongside inside linebacker.

Because 3-4 outside linebacker requires such pass rush talents while remaining strong against the run, college defensive ends in 4-3 schemes are often drafted in an attempt to convert them to a 3-4 outside linebacker. They usually have pass rush ability, and -- having played on a defensive line -- they are already instinctively concerned about stopping the run. In the case of pure speed rushers like Dwight Freeney, these guys do not project to this position because they are usually not as stout against the run as a bigger pass rusher with a blend of power and speed rushing skills.

3-4 Inside Linebackers

Responsible for playing the role of Mike, Will and Sam, the inside linebackers must be strong in shedding blockers, playing the run, and covering the middle of the field in zone. Occasionally, depending on play call, the weakside inside linebackers will be required to play the role of Mike while the strongside backer plays in pass coverage, and vice versa. They need to be pretty versatile for those reasons.

The strongside inside backer is responsible for the tight endl, sharing many of the duties of a 4-3 Sam backer while splitting the duties of the Mike backer with the weakside linebacker.

The weakside inside linebacker will occasionally be responsible for maintaining a strong mid-field zone and has many of the duties that Will in a 4-3 would. He, too, splits the duties of the Mike backer with the other inside linebacker.

Summarizing it all

Linebackers are the safeties of the front 7. Depending on the scheme, they will have many different roles in a defense, but it all revolves around supporting the efforts of the down linemen and, occasionally, reinforcing the actions of the secondary. They need to be pure football players, capable of doing whatever is asked of them while maintaining a strong skill set, one that reflects what their team's scheme requires from the position.

While some defenses will require their linebackers to take a passive "wait and see" role and hold their ground, breaking big plays before they happen and giving up ground in small bits, others will ask their backers to be aggressive and attack plays with blitzes and proactive run coverage. Each of those schemes and every one in between require different forms of effort from each linebacker. You always need the right backer for the job.

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Thursday, July 10, 2008

Leave Brett Alone!

After seeing all these bullies pick on Brett Favre (here, here, here, and here), I decided to channel my inner Chris Crocker and tell you all to leave Brett alone! I'm not a Favre fan , so this might be as hard as replacing him.
[Ron P. Crimson, wearing green and yellow face paint, hiding beneath a bed sheet.]

How dare anyone out there make fun of Brett after all he has been through! He was questioned prior to the season, but came within a game of the Super Bowl. Then he had an interception and lost it all. He felt like he couldn't do that all again and had to retire. And now he is doubting himself and his decision, going through a hard time!

All you bloggers care about is readers and making money off of him. He's a human!

What you don't realize is that Brett is giving you all these readers, and all you do is write or photoshop a bunch of crap about him. He hasn't not played football in three decades!

Brett said he had an itch to play more for a reason. Because all you bloggers want is more, more, more, more, more!

Leave him alone! You are lucky he even played for you jerks! Leave Brett alone, please!

[I futilely attempt to stifle my tears.]

Someone out there talked about professionalism and said if Brett was a true professional, he wouldn't have sent text messages to the Packers no matter what. Speaking of professionalism, when is it professional to publicly bash someone who is going through a hard time? Leave Brett alone, please.

[The tears begin to flow.]

Leave Brett Favre alone right now! I mean it! Anyone that has a problem with him, you deal with me, because he is confused right now!

[And more crying.]

Leave him alone.

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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Safeties: Their Skills, Duties, and Differences

The importance of the safety position to defenses varies across the NFL, depending upon scheme and defensive preference. But for the most part, the general idea behind the safety is to be the last line of defense for your team, preventing plays from going the distance. As always, there's much more to it than that.

Bob Sanders is among the NFL's best all-around safeties.

The basic concept behind the position of safety is to stand your ground and close in for a tackle when you need to. You are to prevent a long play at all costs and to play a support role to the rest of the defense.

Safety has historically been one of the more interchangeable positions in the NFL. In other words, some quicker linebackers can play safety, some corners are better at safety, some safeties can play linebacker or corner, and vice versa. It's because of the varied skill sets a safety can have, and depending on assignments the defensive scheme will ask of him, may or may not need.

Safeties line up anywhere from 10 to 20 yards behind the line, sometimes even deeper, and in some cases, "in the box" of the front seven to play a run support role or to bring a blitz. Because of this, quarterbacks tend to be taught to locate the safeties and try to identify their assignments based on where they line up and how far back. It can be a big tip off, or it can be a big bluff from the defense that causes a negative play by the offense.

The skills set

Safeties can and will use all different types of skills. A safety needs to be able to play to the coach's assignment for them, and depending on that scheme, they will need to do different things well. But I will pinpoint and explain several key skills for any safety.
  • Tackling skills. A safety needs to be able to wrap up and bring down ball carriers without any hesitation. As the last line of defense, this is the most important requisite for any safety. Because safeties generally have a full running start and are sometimes the surest tacklers on a defense, some of the hardest hitters in the NFL's history have played safety.
  • Coverage skills. From zone coverages to man coverages, a safety must have some form of coverage ability in all aspects of coverage. If they cannot cover they will be exposed time and time again if assigned to any form of coverage role -- which 3 times out of 5 they will be.
  • Recognition skills. Like a cornerback, one of the most important asset any safety can have is the ability to read, recognize and react to what is going on in front of them. Being in position and knowing where the best position for you to be in is a big part of playing safety, and a lot of that comes with recognition and general on-field smarts.
Assignments

Many schemes assign safeties to many tasks that revolve around the same concept: being the final line of defense. But there are schemes where the safety is asked to do more, and sometimes that safety's skills are such that a coach will ask different things of a safety that more resemble duties of another position, such as play closer to the line and support the run, or man up on a slot receiver or a receiver coming out of the backfield. There are even "ball hawk" safeties, assigned to do nothing but roam the defensive backfield and swarm the ball carrier as quickly (and as ferociously) as possible. It all depends on the defensive scheme and the skills of the safety.

Some of the general assignments are:
  • Cover 2 Zone coverage: The general premise of a Cover 2 Zone is playing two safeties deep in zone coverage. One safety will cover one side (half) of the defensive backfield while the other will cover the remaining half. The idea is to restrict any pass to the shallower areas of the field or have the receiver face two defenders when trying to make the catch.
  • 1 Deep coverages: Utilizing the better coverage safety, teams will place said safety deep and in center field while using the other safety in a man assignment, shallow zone or a "free roam" or "ball hawk" assignment closer to the LOS. This ensures that at least one safety will always be deep for assistance against any long throws while keeping the better hitter of the two safeties closer to the line where can make an impact -- literally.
  • Man coverages: While not very common, some safeties are asked to move up and cover a receiver one on one in man coverage. They can also be assigned to a tight end or running back. Assigning them to a running back is usually more common than any of the others because, even if the offense runs, there is already a good tackler designated to follow the running back.
  • Shallow zone/Run support: By playing a safety in a shallower zone, closer to the center of the field, teams can keep him near the area of the play and increase the defenses' chances of stopping a run early. This is usually used in conjunction with a cover 1 assignment by the other safety.
  • Free-roam: A bit pop-warner and old school for this new age NFL, there are still safeties that strive at playing this assignment and schemes out there that still assign this. This assignment asks the safety to simply wreak havoc any way possible. They need to read the offense and play to their recognition skills, and put themselves in the best position to make a play of any kind based on the offensive play call. Free-roaming is usually used in conjunction with a cover 1 assignment from the other safety.
Troy Polamalu's various skills can confuse offenses.

Safeties always have certain duties to keep in mind that they have to maintain at all times often regardless of their assignment for that play.
  • Maintain a last line of defense. Don't let anything past you or your team is giving up six.
  • Break up middle-field catches with a hard hit. Most of the time the safety will not get there before the catch is made, but as it's being made, with barely enough time to stop it, as it happens. Timed just right, you can separate a receiver from his catch or be a force no receiver wants to challenge in the middle of the field while extending for the catch (and thus exposing their midsection to some serious pain infliction by the safety).
  • Support the cornerbacks in coverage. If a corner is getting beaten or struggling to cover on a particular play, it is the duty of the safety to roll their assignment in that direction and provide an extra coverage blanket against that receiver.
  • Support run coverage. If the front seven is beaten by a running back, a safety is the final hope to prevent a score. They cannot be caught out of position and need to make the play.
Strong and free safeties

While free and strong safeties are generally interchangeable, there are widely accepted differences between the "mold" of safety who plays each position.

Strong safeties are typically the larger safety, capable of hitting hard and playing all the assignments closer to the LOS to perfection -- playing more physical in both coverage and run support. They tend to line up closer to the line as well, and are often the slower of the two safeties.

While the misconception is that they are called "strong" safeties because they play the physical role of a safety, they are actually called strong safeties because they play on the "strong side" of the defense, the side the Tight end usually lines up on.

Free safeties are typically the smaller of the two safeties. They are often better in the coverage aspects of playing safety, and thus line up a bit deeper. However, the "free roam" assignments began as a free safety duty, which is most likely the reason it earned it's "free" pre-fix. Generally speaking, they are never actually free, especially in this age of zone coverages.

It all depends on scheme. For example, a team might ask their free safety to play a shallow zone and support the run while the strong safety plays manned-up on the tight end during one play, then on the very next play have the free safety play a deep zone while the strong safety blitzes. However, another team may stick to specific "free" or "strong" assignments, preferring to keep their free safety in coverage and their strong safety closer to the line.

More teams actually utilize their safeties in the same roles nowadays than teams that use them specifically in "free" or "strong" roles, and the pre-fixes have actually become more of a title of which side of the field they line up on rather than what duties they are assigned to. But again, it all really depends on the scheme and preference of the coach.

Summing it all up

Safety is often referred to as the easiest job on a football team. Success at the position is typically intelligence driven rather than just speed and athleticism. As long as a safety is playing the way the coach asks within his assignments and schemes, he will be always be there as his defense's last line of defense.

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Monday, June 23, 2008

Steven Jackson Brutalized in Colon-Cleansing Procedure

Too often, money hungry NFL players are just full of shit when it comes to their contract demands. That's what I always say. St. Louis Rams running back Steve Jackson isn't demanding more guaranteed money or anything like that. Still, his girlfriend suggested he get his system cleaned out.

Jackson and his girlfriend, Supriya Harris, decided to have a colonic, a colon-cleansing procedure. Michael Silver of Yahoo! Sports has the lowdown:

"My hands were covered in sweat, and the (colon therapist) lady comes in and starts talking my ear off. There's this thin hose-type-thing that you put up there that shoots water into you and sucks everything out, but I had trouble getting it in, and then it kept coming out. The lady had to come back six different times and put it back in there. It was brutal."

Interjected Harris: "When we got done and he walked out to the waiting room, I said, 'Steven, are you OK?' He said, 'I don't want to talk about it.' I swear to God, he looked like a kid who'd been in there with R Kelly."

Jackson laughed at the memory and shook his head in mock disbelief. "I can't believe we're talking about this," he said. "But I will say this: Once you get it all out of you, your body feels great. You get a boost of energy, and you feel like you can accomplish anything."
To put this in perspective, Johnny Knoxville had a colonic on Jackass. I can only imagine how unpleasant this experience was.

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Sports Figures Living With Unfortunate Same Names

Athletes work hard to build their reputations, their names. Throughout his career, Pacman Jones has done nothing but destroy his. As such, it's no surprise that, with a change of scenery, Pacman is trying to rebrand himself as a new man. That man is Adam Jones (Mr. Jones to you youngsters who, for your sake, better not be looking up to him).

Adam Jones is a talented man on the fast-track to success. To his teammates, he is a humble kid that hasn't let the hype get to him. Of course, this description doesn't fit Pacman (except when his people are trying to show he is a good guy, a victim of circumstances). But, it does fit Baltimore Orioles outfielder Adam Jones, who is in the unfortunate position of sharing names with a should-be felon (and having a really bad picture).

Considering the number of professional athletes, there's bound to be a few that have the same name. Some may be mistaken for a criminal. Others find it hard the escape the shadow of the name. But which athletes or sports figures are in the most undesirable positions?

Howard Webb (engineer) vs. Howard Webb (soccer referee who upset a nation)
I'm not an expert on soccer. This is what I gather of the situation. The referee called a late-game penalty against Poland. The penalty allowed Austria to tie the score at 1-1. The tie basically eliminated Poland from Euro 2008 contention. As you can imagine, the Polish people were angry. Both Webbs received death threats. Yeah, that wouldn't be good.

Ervin Johnson vs. Earvin "Magic" Johnson
I remember Ervin "Not Magic" Johnson as the Bucks backup center in NBA Live. I moved him to point guard, thinking he was the NBA great. I was disappointed (as was, I'm sure, Ervin when he was mistaken for Earvin).

Don't call me Magic! I'm one upset backup center, Rik!

Steven Jackson vs. Stephen Jackson
Steven Jackson, when healthy, is an elite NFL running back. Stephen Jackson -- between cold-cocks, gun fights, and general lawlessness -- is an exceptional offensive and defensive wing. It would be interesting to see what the average sports fan thinks when he hears the name Stephen Jackson: thug or fantasy football savior (when healthy)?

Just a quick side note: Stephen Jackson might not be that bad after all!

Evan Longoria vs. Notable Basketball Wife
Tampa Bay Rays third baseman Evan Longoria is one of baseball's bright young stars. Still, whenever I hear his name, I think of a certain housewife. I can't be the only one.

Jason "Jay" Williams vs. Jayson Williams vs. Jason Williams
In 2002, Jayson Williams, a former NBA player, was accused of killing his limo driver while he "played" with his shotgun. He then (allegedly) attempted to orchestrate a cover up. While these stories were in the headlines, Duke guard Jason Williams was working on making the jump from All-American to NBA superstar. He felt he needed to change his name to eliminate any connection to the other's crime. Jay Williams was born, never to be confused with Jayson or that White Chocolate guy (and I don't know which one is worse). How did that turn out?

Baseball Adam Jones vs. Adam Jones
When I google my name, I wouldn't want this stuff coming up.

Eddie Johnson vs. "Fast Eddie" Johnson
In August of 2006, "Fast Eddie" Johnson, a two-time NBA All-Star in the 1980s, was arrested for raping an 8-year-old girl. Of course, the Associated Press printed the picture of Good Eddie Johnson, the former NBA player turned Phoenix Suns commentator, with the article. Good Eddie said the mistake led to the worst day of his life. His friends, family, and colleagues thought he was a child rapist, and in my expert opinion, that would suck. Though the AP eventually fixed their mistake, Good Eddie believes the damage is irreparable.

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Tuesday, June 17, 2008

A Dummies Guide to Cornerbacks

Today's installment of the Football FAQ is a look at corner backs. Arguably the most important asset for a defense, a good corner is hard to find. The rules work against them and there is quite a lot of knowledge of the offense required to play well.

The general concept of the cornerback is to, as I was taught when I was little, "legally interfere with the catch." They do this by playing different coverages and playing to their assignment. But there is so much more to it.

Asante Samuel may be one of the NFL's best cornerbacks.

Making a good corner

Cornerbacks generally are the quickest and most athletic players on the team. This is for a reason. They need to be able to chase speedy receivers, keep up with them, and be able to correct themselves quickly when beaten on a double move or a misjudgment on the route.

They need to be able to be athletic enough to get in front of a receiver before the ball gets to him; that means agility and recovery speed, not just pure straight line speed. Not to mention, they must jump high enough to compete for the football.

Even if a cornerback has all those skills athletically, they still need to be able to tackle in the open field, or at least slow down the carrier enough for someone else to clean up.

And of course, you need to be very smart and alert. Corners must locate the ball while reading and reacting--to the point of being proactive--to everything that the quarterback and wide receivers do. This takes amazing work ethic and willingness to study every aspect of the opposing team, looking for anything that will tip you off on what is going to happen and how to stop it.

Basic skill set

There are some basic techniques and skill sets that corners need to possess. In this case, many of the techniques are skills in themselves.
  1. Backpedaling: The basic technique all corners need to be good at. This keeps the play in front of you while still being able to keep an eye on your man or any receiver entering your zone.
  2. Shedding blockers: Corners need to do this, too, and especially if you expect to stop some speedy outside runners. Luckily, it's mostly receivers they will need to beat off a block.
  3. Physicality: Nowadays, the rules are against the cornerbacks. They only have five yards in which to interfere with a receiver in any way (in high school and even to some extent in college, you are allowed to keep an arm, hip or back against a receiver, but cannot grab or push). This makes it much harder to to keep track of the receiver when beaten, and thus it's becoming a bigger necessity to be as physical as possible within the five yards. This disrupts the route's timing and flow. Physical play when going for the ball without interrupting the receiver is also a big plus.
  4. Man up bumping: A separate skill from purely being physical at the line. This is the ability to force a receiver, from the bump, to go outside or inside and completely adjust their route. Only the real best of the best (with physicality) can do it this well.
  5. Tackling: A corner who can't tackle is a huge liability, especially against the short passing game in which he may get beat for lots of 2 or 3 yarders that turn into first downs on a failure to wrap up.
  6. Sudden explosiveness: The ability to make quick adjustments and "burst" into the play. Explosiveness is necessary for getting in front of a receiver before the ball does without impeding the intended target, blitzing, making up for a misjudgment of the route, or recovering from a lost step to stop the receiver when he slows just enough to make the catch.
  7. Speed: Plain and simple, they need to be able to run with at least the worst-of-the-best of them.
Reading and reacting

It's preached to corners from the high school to pro levels by any defensive coach: watch everything. Maintain focus on the play. Be aware of what the quarterback and receiver are doing. React to what you see as quick as you can.

It sounds simple. At the pro level though, with all the confusing variables the offense will throw at a defense, it becomes extremely difficult. Luckily enough (or maybe not so, depending on the work ethic of the corner), at the pro level, there is plenty of time for film study with school studies done. But the same goes for the offense, who will be tipped off about your coverage by anything you do as well. So reading and reacting, again, becomes even more crucial and difficult.

Cornerbacks need to react to everything the quarterback does without biting on any form of misdirection play--be it a counter, a draw, play action or pump fake--while still keeping tabs on anything the reciever is doing to get an idea of where they are doing with their route, when to break on it, or deciding keep the play in front of them instead of breaking on the route. Some coaches preach different aspects of this for their defense, preferring their corners play aggressive and break early, while some demand their corners never break and always keep the play in front of them (usually zone defenses).

Aggressive and conservative corners

Depending on the coaches preference, the cornerback will either play aggressive, meaning break on the route (jumping it for a play) or conservatively, meaning keep the play in front of you at all times to prevent a bigger play.

Usually corners who play conservatively and play well are the cornerbacks with great adjustment and make-up speed, with that good burst for ensuring the big play doesn't get started. Reacting--again, to the point of almost being proactive--with smart decisions is key. A great example of this is Ronde Barber.

Corners who play aggressively and play well generally are the guys with size and physicality to their game, able to out-muscle at the line and disrupt plays early enough to put themselves in a better position to make a catch than the receiver is. However, they still need to maintain some strong form of a short burst and good general speed for keeping track of and biting on any read they make as soon as they make it. A great example of this is Al Harris.

Then there are the cornerbacks who do both pretty well, and often are allowed to play freely and read, react and be conservative or aggressive based on what they see. You generally need to be a very well rounded cornerback (in terms of skill sets and "immeasurables") to do this. A good example of this style of play is Marcus Trufant.

Champ Bailey plays the ball as well as any corner in the NFL.

Zone and man coverages

As with conservative and aggressive styles of reading and reacting, a cornerback has to be able to play to the defensive preference of the coach in terms of coverage scheme. As was the case with zone-blocking and man-blocking, all teams use both, but tend to favor one of the other. The difference is, man and zone coverages can be combined each play, with, for instance, the slot and X-receiver being manned, while the other cornerbacks are playing zone coverages.

As a result, cornerbacks need to be able to do both. Still, some corners tend to fit the mold of one type of coverage corner over the other, and play that coverage better.

Zone-coverage is when the corners cover a portion of the field. This area is assigned by the play, and can be nearly anywhere on the field depending on the play design. It is intended to confuse the offense, forcing the quarterback to find an open area and sometimes delay his throw until his target hits an open area of the field, or "hole in the zone."

There will always be a gap or hole in the coverage with zone assignments, it's just a matter of finding them and having the right route to hit them, which in turn gives the time advantage to the pass rush. Receivers and offenses can counter this with option routes and post-snap route adjustments that the quarterback and receiver must both read and make in sync--a difficult task.

Cornerbacks that "project" to zone defenses are physical in their style of play and are very good at reading and reacting to the point of proactivity. They don't need to have as much speed so much as a short length burst, and again, I can't stress enough the need to be extremely quick with reactions to play zone well. Asante Samuel is a good example of this type of player.

Man-coverage is when a cornerback is assigned to "shadow" a particular receiver (or in some cases, tight end) and cover them the length of the play in a one-on-one matchup of abilities. One wrong step, one wrong read or one slow step, and the receiver could very well be beating you for six. The positive is just the opposite: good steps, good reads and fast feet can prevent you from having to defend one pass or make one tackle all game. This is the true sign of a great corner.

But as the saying goes, no one stays covered forever. Eventually, especially with the rules favoring the receiver, a quarterback is bound to find a target sometimes. The same as with "holes in the zone", it depends if the breakdown happens before the pass rush gets there. If you haven't caught on, a good pass rush is a corner's best friend.

Cornerbacks who are great in man coverage generally are the faster of the cornerbacks, with great back peddling and the knowledge to combine aggressive and conservative play and use it to their advantage. A great example of this is (homerism or not, it's true!) Terence Newman.

Slot corners

Covering the slot is a tricky ordeal. Some teams prefer, as with their starters, a good man or zone corner for the position. A good slot corner generally is a well-rounded corner, able to do both at any given time, and they need to be able to play the run working in that position.

Other than that, there really is no difference between a slot corner and a starter except where they play in the defense. And none of that truly is a difference at all.

Summarized

While it comes down to scheme and preference, cornerbacks, especially the good ones, need to be able to do it all. Any lack of ability can get exploited by a good offense, and often if you have one really good corner, it can force more efforts to the other side of the field, making that corner look worse than he is.

It's an important and unique position. The best corners often don't get noticed for a while because they are quiet in terms of playmaking, keeping quarterbacks throwing the other way. The worst corners can make a play at any time if they study enough film and slowly become effective for a defense, even as a fourth man on the depth chart.

As with many positions, knowledge for the game can triumph over ability.

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Friday, June 13, 2008

Canadian Senator Attempts to Ban NFL Games

When the Buffalo Bills announced their plans to play eight games in Toronto, many longtime fans worried the beginning to the end was underway for their hometown franchise. I guess, we all just assumed the Canadians would welcome a real football team. Who knew they didn't want the Bills or the NFL?

If Canadian Senator Larry Campbell has his way, the Bills won't even step foot in his great land. Campbell drafted a bill that would effectively ban the NFL from playing regular season games in Canada.

The actual language is "no person owning or operating a football team within a foreign league shall require or permit that team to play football in Canada" and "no person shall play football within Canada as a player on a football team within a foreign league."

Why would Campbell want to ban the NFL from his country? Well, he wants you to remember a few things: Canadian football has existed longer than American football, the Grey Cup has symbolized Canadian "football supremacy", and the CFL "contributes to the bonds of nationhood across Canada."

Additionally, Campbell says the Toronto Argonauts would be unable to compete against the Bills for fans in the region, which would then destroy the Canadian game. Campbell and his like-minded Canadians will fight the americanization one of the last remaining Canadian institutions.

In other Campbell news, his implementation of the Downtown Eastside skid row doesn't sit well with some Canadians.

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Thursday, June 12, 2008

All You Need to Know About Offensive Linemen

Offensive linemen have one of the roughest and toughest jobs in the NFL. They are responsible for helping the offense produce yards and points by protecting the quarterback from the rush and creating open gaps for the running back. Still, they receive little recognition. Hopefully, with this guide, that will change.

Games are won and lost in the trenches.


The Offensive Line

Many fail to realize is the skill, technique and knowledge that goes into this position. Even more fail to realize that pass protection and run blocking are different skills and require different skill sets. Often, these skills are determining factors when deciding to place that newly acquired offensive lineman at tackle or guard.

As a tackle, your primary objective will be maintaining speed rushers, even on run plays, so you need to be better at pass protection. Guards, lined up inside, are expected to deal with the bigger run stopping forces, and thus, often need to be better at run blocking.

Doing any blocking is easier said then done. The defense is always scheming to take advantage of the offensive line and to confuse them with different fronts or blitz schemes in an attempt to conceal the blitzer. As a result, is up to the quarterback or the center to call out the blocking assignment adjustments if they feel any are neccessary. They need to sync up and be sure of their assignments if they are to have any form of success blocking.

This is a different position altogether in explaining how skill sets work within the position because all players need the same skills, if even at varying degrees. Footwork, balance, leverage and smarts are the main prerequisites for an offensive lineman.

Working within the scheme

The most important concept for any offensive lineman is to work within their scheme. This cannot be stressed enough by any coach to their player. All play designs begin and end with determining which blocking assignments are given to each offensive lineman.

Obviously, it would take all day to explain how every blocking scheme works. And, to be quite honest, some of the professional blocking schemes are beyond my expertise as a high school coach.

Zone-blocking schemes (ZBS)

Zone blocking is a type of scheme used by coaches to have their offensive lineman block opposing players. In this scheme the offensive lineman block an area of the field, or zone, as opposed to a particular man as seen in the Man Blocking Scheme (MBS).

The ZBS requires a different type of player than the MBS. A lot of fans just think "light" players when it comes to ZBS, but that’s not necessarily the case. You need linemen who are "light on their feet", and have better balance than average linemen. You still need the mass and muscle that is a requirement of the position to begin with.

Now it is important to remember that all teams use a combination of both schemes, but generally favor one or the other. Teams use ZBS in an effort to help neutralize stunts, slants, and blitzes without having to identify and/or adjust first. It can eliminate 30-50% or sometimes even more of the adjustments that need to be made or called pre-snap. However, in the run game it can be used to create larger gaps in one area at the sacrifice of a bit of protection elsewhere on the line. More on that later.

The ZBS, when used for running, is when two or three offensive linemen work in tandem as opposed to each offensive lineman having a specific, predetermined man to block. The key is for two linemen to come off in unison and attack a single defensive lineman to the play side. Then, as the play progresses, one of them leaves and moves to the second level to block a linebacker. The key is for the linemen to have chemistry so they can decide who and when one of them will leave to block the linebacker.

This it will create a "crease" for the running back, but often times leaves one defensive lineman opposite the play side free to get into the backfield. That is why ZBS schemes often run counters. They attempt to draw the defense away from the play side first to allow the runner to "cut-back" and run into the crease. That is why teams like Denver rely on one-cut runners with a really strong cut back ability.

The movements

Now the linemen must do 4 key things for this to work.
  1. They must stay hip to hip with each other. Without enough repetitions together, you will probably see offensive lineman tripping over each other. This, interestingly, is why offensive linemen in this scheme rank among the highest in high ankle sprain injuries.
  2. They need to keep their shoulders square to the line. This keeps their arms within reach of making a play and help conceal any potential foot movement, as well as help explode into their block.
  3. Most importantly, both linemen have to keep their eyes on the linebacker. They must know where he is at all times and be aware of his assignment based on his first few movements.
  4. Finally, they must communicate with each other and know who is going to take over the defensive lineman and who is going to move to the second level.
The main zone blocking plays are the inside zone and the outside zone, also called the stretch play. The outside zone calls for the defensive end to be double teamed by the guard and the tackle. They decide who breaks off and blocks the linebacker. (This usually depends on the defensive end). If he tries to edge rush, the guard moves to the second level. If he spins inside, then the tackle moves to block the linebacker. On the inside zone, the defensive tackle is double-teamed (especially prevalent in cases of going against a 3-4). The center and the guard have to make the double team and the decision to move on to the second level.

Now, for the individual linemen, there are two basic techniques for the linemen when running a ZBS: Zone Block Right and Zone Block Left. As the names indicate, Zone Block Right is for plays and the double teams to be run to the right of the center. Zone Block Left is just the opposite. Then you put this together and run Inside Left and Inside Right, or Outside Left and Outside Right.

Basic Steps in ZBS

As for the actual footwork there are four basic steps, depending on what side of the play you’re on and where your zone is.
  1. The Drive Block is when the offensive lineman fires straight out and drives the man in front of him back. This is used if you are on the front side of the play (the play is on your side, such as a left tackle or left guard on a Zone Block Left) and your zone is directly in front of you.
  2. The Turn Step is where you take your play side foot and step about six inches at a 45-degree angle away from your body and to the play side. The second step is a long forward step with your backside foot putting you at an angle to the play. This is used if you are on the front side of the play and your zone is not directly in front of you. Generally, this is used by the second man on the double team.
  3. The Scoop step is where the blocker takes a short step laterally, away from the play, to block the back side blocker. This is used if you are on the back side of the play and the zone is not directly in front of you. This is generally where the cut block is used to cut off backside pursuit.
  4. The Bucket Step is a short backwards step to the outside where the foot lands at a 45 degree angle to the outside putting an offensive lineman on a 45 degree track up field. It is basically a backwards turn step. This is used if you are on the back side of the play and the zone is directly in front of you. Unlike the Scoop Step, these players generally don’t use the cut block. Instead, they continue on an angle looking to block the player who shows on the next level in the event that the defender beats him to the inside.
Pass protection gets trickier. But this is where Zone blocking and man blocking scheme begin to get very similar, utilizing more foot-to-foot protection until the point of impact, in which the linemen separate to work their player away from the quarterback. In pass protection, even with an MBS, it becomes more of a zone protection, maintaining protection over your area of the field.

Man-blocking

Now that you understand the concepts of Zone-blocking schemes and how the linemen must work within them, the concepts behind man-blocking schemes are relatively easier to understand. Man-blocking often relies on more play-specific assignments per player and is heavily determined by the adjustments that are made pre-snap.

For instance, it's possible for the left tackle and the left guard to have completely different assignments, such as the guard "pulling to the outside" (moving to the outside to make a block on the end or backer) while the tackle is then assigned to the defensive tackle left free by the pulling guard. Every offensive lineman is assigned to a defender in an MBS, but their assignments for that block will always vary and is predetermined by the play and any adjustments that were made.

Summarized

With offensive lineman, it all comes down to playing with leverage and within your scheme. It is the most scheme-determined position on the offense, relying heavily on the players to do what is mapped out for them. While some offensive lineman are devastating players, it's quite possible to have average talent on the offensive line but still have one of the best in the game if they play within their scheme, work well together and don't make any mental errors.

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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Making of Wide Receivers

In today's NFL, wide receivers play an important role in most offenses. They make big catches, move the chains, and open the field up. It doesn't hurt if they can block, too. What goes into the making of wide receivers? We will examine the "measurables" and 'immeasurables", the various types of wide receivers, and how they fit into an offensive scheme.

"Measurables" versus "Immeasurables"

Most wide receivers nowadays are rated coming out of college based on how well they performed in the 40-yard dash and the vertical jump at the NFL Combine. It's possible for under performing receivers to be propelled into the first round simply because they ran a 4.35 in the 40 and measured out at 6' 3". As of late, this formula has resulted in many first round busts with later round receivers exhibiting the talent that should have had them in round one.

In my opinion, you really have to look at certain skills and immeasurables to determine how good a wide receiver is or will be--not just their speed, height, or vertical. There are several factors I personally look at, but a lot of it is about preference and the type of reciever a team is looking for.

The Key Immeasureables

Any style of wide receiver needs a few skills to will make them into a better player. For the most part, these are not physical attributes. Instead, they focus on the mental aspects of the position.

  • General field awareness. The ability to know where you are on the field--where the defenders, the goal line, and the sidelines are--and knowing when the ball should be coming to you if you are the quarterback's target.
  • Good route running. The ability to keep track of your feet and to be in position to make the catch. This usually comes with experience, but all wide receivers need to be able to run a crisp, well-timed route. Creating separation to overcome good coverage or a lack of speed is a calling card of a good route runner.
  • Route Adjustments. The ability to make adjustments during the play. In more diverse offenses, the wide receiver may need to make adjustments to their route based on the coverage before the quarterback gets hit.
  • Catching adjustments. The ability to locate the football and adjust your body to make the catch, even if it means exposing yourself to a hit.
  • Catching ability. - Pretty self-explanatory. Whether you call it "good hands", "catching ability" or even Madden's "spectacular catcher", it goes without saying that this is one of the single most unmeasurable features a wide receiver must have.
  • Blocking. You still need to be able to block as a receiver, especially if your team plans on running outside the tackles at any point in the game.
The Styles

As with every position, there are different styles of play that vary from receiver to receiver. Some earn titles for their style of play like "possession receiver" or "deep threat", but as always, such a term can be quite vague. Labels like "number one target" or "slot receiver" become even more vague when you consider the amount of variable skill sets a guy could have as that number one target or slot guy. I'm going to do my best to break down these titles, explain what skill sets are generally associated with them, and analyze how they fit into offensive schemes.

Possession Receivers

A possession receiver is a pretty vague description, but personally, I call these types of receivers the "pure receivers." Some may be big, tough targets who make all the tough grabs for first downs, taking the big hit from the coverage and hanging onto the football. Other possession receivers strive at getting yards-after-catch (YAC) by using their toughness or elusiveness in space.

Some kinds of possession receivers even combine both of those styles of possession receiving (able to take the big hit over the middle for a first down and able to slip a tackler or two for a big gain). Receivers of this style are often referred to as YAC specialists for their ability to generate yards after catch when given the ball in a shallower area of the field.

A common misconception about possession receivers is that they aren't fast runners. That is not always true. For example, one of more physical possession threats was Keyshawn Johnson, and he lacked ideal wide receivers speed. There are also other cases (T.O. comes to mind) in which the possession receiver does have speed, though it might not be equivalent to a game-breaking speed/deep threat.

The main factors and skills that are associated with possession receivers are that they are typically a taller, bigger target without world-class speed, play physical, possess amazing "hands", and adjust well to the pass. They also need to be willing to extend their body and risk taking a hard hit.

If your team has a receiver who fits that description, he is probably used in a role where he runs a lot of routes 5 to 15 yards deep and works the middle areas of the field more often.

Keyshawn Johnson is the prototype when it comes to possession receivers.


Deep threats

Deep threats are usually titles given to receivers who thrive at running the deep routes. While they vary in effectiveness based on what skill sets and immeasurables they have, they generally have one common skill: speed.

Deep threats generally need to be well-versed at looking the football into their hands from over their shoulders. Foot control is required for difficult sideline catches.

The main concept behind a deep threat receiver is to have a target to always throw deep to, thus lifting the coverage away from the shallower areas of the field. This opens up the field for the quarterback to make shorter passes.

That being said, it is pointless to have any player be nothing more than a decoy every down. Many offenses rely on a progression based system and post-snap adjustments by the quarterback. If the safety bites up or the corner gets beat (anything that would favor the deep match up), the deep threat must make the catch; hands and catching ability are also needed. (Without the hands, you have Troy Williamson, and he isn't particularly good.) In the the situation that a deep threat lacks the ideal catching ability, they must make up for it in "decoy-potential" and game-breaking speed.

There are deep threats who excel at catching. These deep threats are good enough at their job that they become the top receiver for their team. However, I prefer to call this type "speed threats." To me, "deep threat" implies they only work deep, while a "speed threat" implies that it's a receiver whose speed is a major threat to all areas of the field.

Speed threats can make great YAC specialists because of their explosive ability when given the football in space. If they can make a catch in stride or are great at the "run-turn-catch-turn-run" transition and can do it without losing much forward momentum, they can often speed right through a seam to the end zone. However, this usually only applies to speed threats or deep threats that have some of the immeasurable abilities of a possession receiver: the willingness to make the tough catches where they could be subject to a big hit.

Randy Moss is the NFL's best deep threat.

Number 1 Targets

Guys like Marvin Harrison--who can do the job of a possession receiver but are also a legitimate threat with speed and deep ability--are considered "number 1 targets." The majority of this title is nothing but fanfare. Teams have been successful for decades using recievers who only strive in one area of receiving while just mix and matching them to the proper role in their offense. They may use spread offensive sets to feature more recievers and substitute players for specific play calls or down and distances.

Slot receivers

Slot receivers are the guys who work well from the third wide receivers spot, which is the position between the offensive tackle (or tight end) and the outer most recievers.

These guys vary in skill sets depending on scheme, team, and preference. In some cases, the slot receiver is the pure speed threat, capable of lifting coverages and able to break a game open with one catch. Some teams prefer a possession receiver or YAC specialist in the slot, giving another big possession threat for the quarterback in the 3rd down situations where you might go to a 3 wide receivers set.

As always, it's all about the scheme--and in some cases, all about the players available when a coach tailors his offense to them.

Putting it into a system

A wide receiver usually is not the tell-tale sign of what an offense schemes to do or of what system they try to run. Many offenses, since the dawn of the forward pass, simply utilize a good possession target (even if it's a tight end) and a good speed threat or deep threat opposite them; they may have tremendous success.

It all comes down to the routes they are asked to run within the system. Most coaches will adjust the play calling to reflect the routes their receivers are best at. This is actually one of the easiest positions to adjust your scheme to fit the personnel (as long as your not like Bill Parcells who refuses to adjust for whatever old-fashioned reason).

Typically, most schemes nowadays make perfect use of whatever type of receivers they have or obtain. It's rare you come across a team searching for just one or two styles. Instead, a diversity in receiving styles helps to variate am offense in an affordable manner.

Summarizing it all

The speed threats have been hot commodities lately, but measurables are often times misleading. However, this trend towards the measurements is dying. Slowly (but surely), it's converting back to the classic possession-types preference, with selections like Jordy Nelson (not saying he's slow or can't go deep, just saying, he fits the bill of a "pure receiver") being made before some of the more exciting speedsters available is a testament to this. The best speed receivers and the best deep threats are the receivers who can combine at least some of the possession receiver's abilities into their own game.

Possession receivers generally are the more pure of receivers, able to make the tough catches a routine part of their job. While many of them may not be as exciting as Steve Smith--a real speedster who outruns the entire defense with the ball in his hand--their role in an offenses is just as important.

It more or less breaks down to if the receiver is physical enough for working in the middle regularly or breaking tackles in shallow routes; or if they are quick enough to run the deeper routes without allowing the rush to get to the quarterback.

As always, there are plenty of players with mixed-skill sets who break and even shatter any barrier that a tag like "deep threat" or "possession receiver" usually brings.

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Monday, June 9, 2008

Cedric Benson Released by Bears Following Second DUI

Cedric Benson was drafted in 2005 to be a franchise-changing running back. He had me, ignoring his draft-day tears, believing in the hype. He had me defending him after his lackluster play and his first DUI charge. Of course, he had head coach Lovie Smith and general manager Jerry Angelo doing the same--and I'm guessing here--on a larger scale. All of these issues came to a head Monday following Benson's second DUI arrest in a month.

How would Smith and Angelo handle the situation? They stopped defending him. On Monday, the Bears placed Cedric Benson on waivers, effectively cutting ties with their distractions.

In a statement to the media, Angelo announced the move.

"Cedric displayed a pattern of behavior we will not tolerate. As I said this past weekend, you have to protect your job. Everyone in this organization is held accountable for their actions. When individual priorities overshadow team goals, we suffer the consequences as a team. Those who fail to understand the importance of 'team' will not play for the Chicago Bears."
Maybe things would have been different if Benson had produced on the field. Instead, Benson rushed for only 1,593 yards in three seasons. When the Bears organization gift-wrapped the starting job for Benson by trading Thomas Jones, Benson responded with a season which only confirmed suspicions: he was a bust.

Now, the Bears are left with rookie running back Matt Forte, drafted in the second round out of Tulane, and longtime backup "Chicago-Adrian" Peterson battling it out for the starting position. Hey, Minnesota, that sounds like some yards, doesn't it?

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A How to Guide to Running Backs

The running back is one of the most glamorous positions on the football field, playing an integral role in both the passing and running attack. A well-rounded running back is a requirement for success on any level. What skill sets are required for a strong runner? How do running backs fit into different systems? Here are the answers.

Running backs have different requirements based on their scheme.

As with just about every position, there are many ways to play running back based on the skills of the player, the blocking schemes and the offensive system.

Obviously, running backs have different requirements based on their system. For starters, some variations of offenses require a running back to make one cut and run upfield without dilly-dallying behind the line. This tends to require good vision to find the hole immediately, and some of the more intelligent runners make this look easy. Guys like Steven Jackson, Clinton Portis and Willis McGahee are perfect examples of guys who stick with and have success with the "one cut and run down field" form of running.

Meanwhile, other systems, like in Indianapolis, require the running back to run out of "stretch" plays. These types of running plays create several potential lane openings as the entire offensive line block in a diagonal path. Ideally, this leaves several gaps and a potential outside cut open to the runner. A stretch play requires the runner to have perfect control over their feet: knowing when to put on the juice, when to cut upfield, whether to cut back the other way, or to sprint diagonally toward the sideline if nothing is happening. It's a skill set not many have: that perfect balance and foot control.

These are just two different types of requirements for a runner depending on scheme. There are so many that listing them would be futile.

Tomlinson combines speed and power, making him lethal.

Power runners


When envisioning a power runner, most would think of skill sets similar to Cowboys running back Marion Barber. However, there are many kinds of power running backs, each with different sets of abilities used in a variety of ways. The term power running back is actually quite vague and leaves a lot of gray areas.

If you were referring to a running back as a power runner of any kind, there are a few features generally associated with a "power running back." They are:
  • Extreme leg drive. Able to push piles and constantly push forward despite being impacted of wrapped up. Jamal Lewis is one of the best at this.
  • Gets a low pad level. Able to drop their shoulders and bend their knees lower than the average tackler, giving them enough leverage to explode into and thus trample over a would be tackler. An exciting move even when it fails. Marion Barber is amazing at this.
  • Hard to bring down. Able to keep their momentum moving forward using every ounce of their will power. Larry Johnson is top notch at this.
  • Stiff arming. Able to extend their arm with enough force to throw a tackler off balance. Just being able to do it often isn't enough, it's about placement and timing as well. Laurence Maroney is excellent at doing this.
Evasive runners

To offset the power runners, there are also running back considered "evasive runners". These running backs avoid contact with quick, agile movements. Depending on scheme and depth at the position, as well as judgment on how tough the evasive runner is, they are as backups. Often times, they are used in the perceived "scat back" or "third-down back" role, which I will explain later. But like power runners, the term elusive runner is also quite vague.

Skill sets usually associated with elusive running backs are:
  • Speed. While speed is generally overrated (specifically 40 times) at the position, it is also associated with an elusive runner. However, there are cases where speedy runners don't necessarily have any other feature associated with an elusive RB.
  • Hip swivel. The ability to play with your upper body basically as free as a bobblehead's big head bouncing around and swaying from side to side. This makes an elusive runner hard to grab a hold of, especially when they have a speed advantage. Brian Westbrook is arguably the best at this.
  • Good change of direction. The ability to instantly change direction with quick foot work and a good plant of the opposite leg. A runner good at this makes cut back running look easy, and often makes entire defenses look foolish. Devin Hester, though not a running back, has this skill at the top of his arsenal.
  • General evasiveness. The innate, natural ability and instincts of a slippery runner. Be it by juking, spinning, cutting back or even leap frogging a low padded tackler. Some of the features here can be shared by both a power and elusive runner, but it's generally associated with the elusive types. LaDainian Tomlinson is probably the most naturally evasive runners with the best tackle slipping instincts.
Necessary skills for all running backs

There are features that both types of running backs share or need to have to even be successful:
  • Vision. The ability to see or find a hole and know exactly when to hit it. Often times, poor vision runners will cut to the outside often because they are failing to find the crease, often resulting in tackles for loss or no gain.
  • Field awareness. Knowing where you are on the field at all times, knowing where the boundary and the first down marker are, sensing the goal line and defenders. Knowing when to dive forward, run out of bounds or when to give up on the run and settle for what you've gotten.
  • Pass protection/blitz pick-up. The ability to follow the rush and support the protection of the quarterback. If even for an extra split second, it helps more so than if there were nothing else impeding the rushers progress toward the quarterback.
  • Receiving ability. This is more of a luxury, but in many offenses it's vital that the running back is able to catch and turn upfield. They not only need to be able to catch and hold onto the football, but run the routes in the right timing for the quarterback to make the proper throw to the runner.
And as always, there are variations to how good one back is at any one skill. There are also running backs with skill sets from both types of runners, and not surprisingly, it's often those runners who are the more flashy numbers producers and highlight-reelers.

The luxury-backs

Everyone understands what a starting RB is, but there are what I call luxury-backs. Luxury-backs are the types of runners who play in the roles of a third-down running back or scat back.

The idea of a third-down back is to change the pace and style of the runner in an attempt to catch the defense off their guard. They usually come in on third down because, generally speaking, they have more speed than the starter, can catch out of the backfield better, making them more of a threat for that down and distance. They might also be a better pass protector.

The idea behind a "scat back" (I hate the term, I'm calling them "weapon backs" from here on) is to use a good athlete in several areas of the field rather than just as a running back. Generally, they are better outside runners and a big threat for home run touchdowns. They usually can be found lining up in a receiver position and are a weapon in the passing game as much as they are the run game. They are always quite versatile and have impacts in more than the rushing game.

The concept is to basically supplement the pure running ability of a more natural running back with a runner who is a threat to do more than run the ball. There is no coming out in a dime package on 3rd and long with a guy like that on the field.

A luxury-back's offensive role varies from team to team. For the most part, they all share traits of an elusive back and, as I've said, can generally be found coming in on 3rd down and playing positions other than the lead RB role. Though there are cases, like Brian Westbrook, of a weapon-back that does indeed also play the lead role.

Brian Westbrook is the exception and a major offensive weapon.

In conclusion, the running back position if full of variety. From catching the ball to avoid the tackler to picking up pass-rusher, the running back has many responsibilities on the football field. No wonder they are such a barometer of success.

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Saturday, June 7, 2008

Jeff Garcia Frustrated with Contract, Mentions Retirement

Considering Jon Gruden's penchant for quarterbacks, a long-term stay as starting quarterback is unlikely in Tampa Bay. The future of Jeff Garcia, the Buccaneers' current starter, may also be in question.

Garcia, during a Wednesday interview on Sirius Satellite Radio, reveled that he is frustrated with the treatment he has received from the Buccaneers. Retirement is a possibility if he does not receive a new contract.

Coming off of a Pro-Bowl season, Garcia feels “taken advantage of” in terms of his contract. Prior to last season, he signed a two-year contract with the Buccaneers after a successful run with the Eagles in place of injured quarterback Donovan McNabb. Now in the last year of his contract, Garcia is set to make $2 million, an amount far below his Pro-Bowl counterparts.

“That’s a frustration,” Garcia said. “If it doesn’t work itself out, if a contract is not presented as far as a renewal to finish my career, then I will seriously think about what my alternate options may be. And it may come to not playing football anymore. I feel like when you mistreat people there comes a time when it doesn’t matter how much you are paid, it’s going to lead to some drastic decisions.

“I do believe that if I step away and let a contract to be a problem, an issue, a distraction, then I’m not going to grow within the system the way I need to grow,” Garcia said. “So I just battle through it. There are days I’m not as excited to be there, I’ll be honest.”

Does Garcia deserve a raise? He played at a very high level last season. Quarterbacking under Gruden isn't the easiest of things. All things considered, he probably does. We will see if anything gets done before the season starts.

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Thursday, June 5, 2008

An Idiot's Guide to Quarterbacks

With all the comparisons and debates out there about the better quarterback and the most effective at various aspects of the position, I decided I'd make a guide to the variations of quarterback play, how they fit certain systems, why it's futile to compare them, and to give a coach's insight as to the "whys."

Small hands are a big red flag with quarterbacks.

Not in any way. You don't need big hands to throw the ball or to hold on to it. The same people that were criticizing Culpepper for small hands coming out of college were the same people trying to figure out how to stop him from constantly scoring on them. If your hands are big enough to grip the ball, they are big enough to play quarterback.

A big arm is a must at the pro level.

Another false ideology. There are many intangibles that go into a successful pro quarterback, but a big strong arm is not one of them. Sure, it helps and can be quite a luxury. However, there have been plenty of pro quarterbacks, even Hall of Fame inductees, who do not have and never had a big arm. Throwing 70 yards while on your knee is not something you'll ever need to do in the NFL. In fact, it's extremely rare you'll ever have to sling it 50 yards in the air while on two feet. On average, the longest deep throws go about 30-40 yards before hitting the receiver.

This guy is good.

The Wonderlic shows how good a
quarterback will be.

Nope. It's just a way for teams to get somewhat of a gauge on how quick a quarterback can make decisions. Like a wide receiver and their 40 times, it doesn't measure their ability to simply play their position. It's not like a quarterback stands behind his line and has to repeatedly answer questions in a timely fashion. He has to make his reads, which comes down to how well he knows his system and football.

Mobile quarterbacks are more than scrambling quarterbacks.

Most mobile quarterback aren't the running quarterbacks who cross the L.O.S. and gain yards. Some of the more mobile quarterbacks are mobile enough to escape the pressure when it's getting on them and use that mobility to buy some extra time for their receiver to get open. Mobile and "able to gain lots of yards on the ground" are different abilities. In order to gain yards on the ground, you need some level of escapability from tacklers, not just the ability to scramble around. There are quarterbacks with both attributes (able to escape from the pocket and buy time and able to escape tacklers for lots of forward progress), but they still are two different skills.

Most mobile quarterbacks also use that mobility to run towards the line, but not beyond it. Such motions will draw corners and safeties out of position to stop the quarterback from gaining yards, enabling the quarterback to fire a completion to one of the receivers who are now open.

Pocket Passers

A pocket passer, in the sense of it, is a quarterback of any arm strength, accuracy or intangible skill set who prefers to make his throws from within the pocket provided by the offensive line.

The true test of a pocket passer is their willingness to throw the ball knowing they will take a whooping for it. Many quarterbacks, even good ones like Brady or Peyton Manning, are willing to throw and take the hit, but begin to struggle as this goes on during the game. It's the reason why they run the types of offenses that they do: ones that focus on quick releases, quick decision making, and precise (no-option) route running. Some quarterbacks, however, are not phased by this aspect, but struggle in other areas. Again, no quarterback is perfect--all skill sets have a downside and all quarterbacks have faults.

While pocket passers generally share the same basic skill sets (like sensing the rush rather than seeing the rush which would cause them to divert their eyes from their targets), there are many varieties of pocket passer. The term "pocket passer" is in no way a way to describe what a quarterback can do, but rather simply how they go about doing it.

What makes good quarterbacks good?

There are several factors to take in when judging how well a quarterback will do at the pro level. Many of them are better at one intangible than the other, and few do everything to perfection, which creates many types of quarterbacking styles.
  • Accuracy is the most important. It's not just pure accuracy, but instead, it's being able to place the ball where only the receiver can make a play. You have to be able to anticipate the route and know the system to do this effectively.
  • Decision making with a defender bearing down on the quarterback is a plus. This is an amazing feature that some quarterbacks who are really good still lack. This is why quarterbacks like Tom Brady, who lack this feature and can be rattled after being hit around, are used in systems which keep a quarterback releasing the ball in a timely manner with many timed patterns and few option routes. A guy like Carson Palmer, for comparison's sake, who is capable of taking hits and not loosing his accuracy or touch, can play in systems that utilize option routes, progressions and fewer designated-receiver plays. As with everything else, it comes down to the quarterback's skill set matching what he needs to do in that system.
  • Basic decision making is a factor. How consistently can they deviate from the design of the play to make a play? Some quarterbacks throw many more interceptions because they are too risky of a decision maker rather than a poor decision maker. It still comes down to how well they see the field and anticipate the defense. If you have a quarterback who struggles with good decision making, you obviously want to ask him to make fewer decisions--thus use more short patterns, timed patterns and designated receiver plays. If you have a risky decision maker known for coming up big, you obviously want to keep him in a scheme that limits his decision making, but doesn't restrict him from taking some risks and making the big plays.
  • Pre-snap and post-snap adjustments are beneficial. I'm not just talking about pointing out blitzers and calling audibles at the line. I'm talking about being able to see what the defense is doing before they do it and anticipating it for your throw. It's not an exact science, and as with all quarterback traits, some do it better, some do it worse, and some can't do it at all. It all comes down to how that quarterback will be relied on to do this in his system. If your quarterback is no good at this, you don't want to scheme your offense around post-snap route adjustments. Instead, you stick with more conventional methods.
Quarterbacking is much more than arm strength.

System
quarterbacks are quarterbacks who wouldn't play well in any other system.

No quarterback would play well in every system. Every quarterback has different skill sets and are better at some abilities than others. Again, it's about tailoring your scheme to the player in an effort to maximize what he can do best and to minimize the exposure of his faults as a quarterback. You don't see Peyton Manning being asked to run roll outs or throw to lots of streak routes for a reason.

Which is all of course, why any argument of Quarterback A is better than Quarterback B is basically futile. You can say Quarterback A is better at this, or Quarterback B is better at that, but as for who's better as a quarterback, it comes down to what system they are playing in, what they are asked to do and how well their skill sets fit the role they'd be asked to fill as a quarterback.

No two quarterbacks are exactly a like. Some may play similarly and have similar qualities, but no two of them have the same skill set or would be as effective in the same scheme as the other. Comparing them is like comparing an apple to an orange. They are both a fruit (quarterback in this case) but that is where the similarities end.

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Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Football Schemes For Dummies

When it comes to offensive and defensive schemes, there are many misconceptions about what they mean to a team and the players playing within them. For all you football dummies out there, or football fans looking for more of a coach's insight, here are the most common.

Offensive misconceptions
Many people overlook the fact that quarterbacks of any kind are typically a "system quarterback".

Many coaches bring their system with them wherever they go and look for quarterbacks that fit the mold of their system. For instance, you wouldn't catch Peyton Manning running a June Jones Run 'N' Gun scheme where he could be exposed as an immobile statue while waiting for the deep routes to develop. But you will--and do--catch him in a more classic offensive scheme utilizing 2 short routes, a deep route and a first down route. This maximizes the usefulness of his quick release and keeps him from getting abused in the pocket.

As a head coach or offensive coordinator, you either find the right quarterback for your system, adjust your system, or create a new one for a quarterback who you confident in scheming around. If you think calling a quarterback a system quarterback is a knock on their abilities, you have a lot to learn about football.

West Coast offenses are not always heavily lopsided on the pass end of the run-pass ratio.

This is a huge misconception. Many people associate West Coast offenses with a scheme like Andy Reid's in Philadelphia, where the passing routes are very diverse and the variations of routes are the main aspect of the offense. However, West Coast offenses have many variations. There have been several which were very run oriented. Denver's version under Shannahan is the most prominent of the run-oriented West Coast offenses. There are two key factors that make an offense a West Coast offense.

First and foremost, scripted plays are a major part of the offense. In other words, passing plays which are intended to get the ball to a specific target at a specific time regardless of coverage. These are passes usually attack the shallow areas of the field, allowing the receiver to gain yards after catch. Many screens, short crossing patterns, digs, flares and wheel routes are perfect examples of routes and plays which highlight a West Coast offense. A good West Coast offense can successfully predetermine their first 10 to 15 plays of the game without having to adjust the game plan.

The other main factor is the widened use of option routes. These routes are designed to go one of two or sometimes three receivers based on the defensive coverage.

And always remember: there are many variations of this system. In reality, the term "West Coast offense" is overused as a description. No two teams use the same form of it anymore.

There is a two tight end offense

This is completely false. There are two tight end sets, but not offensive schemes. However, there are many variations of two tight end sets, the most common of which is the Single back formation. As you might have guessed the Single back formation utilizes just one running back. The trend was hot for a year or two but has died out some with the lack of success many running backs have without a lead blocker. Now, most teams motion one of the tight ends to the backfield to block, thus nearly entirely defeating the purpose of a Single back formation.

Spread offenses use 4 wide receivers in their base offensive set.

The misconception of the spread offense was caused by Madden video games and is not entirely true. A spread offense is a scheme which relies on using more than the basic two wide receivers sets more often than using the two wide receivers sets in an effort to spread the defense out and maximize running lane potential. This enables the quarterback to have an easier time pointing out blitzers, recognizing coverages, and getting a better feel for the defense. Usually, it's done with three wides--just enough to pull a linebacker out of the box or to draw more nickel defenses. (Against the nickel defense, the creation of a large running lane may be more valiable than forcing a linebacker into coverage).

This does not mean using 4 wide receivers on every play. In fact, doing so would be a nice way to get your quarterback injured. It would also prevent you from running effectively with any consistency. Fewer blockers means it's harder to find lanes, resulting in more runs to the outside.

Defensive misconceptions
There's the 3-4 and the 4-3. That's it.

If your speaking about front 7 alignments, then yeah, nowadays, that's about all there is. But simply being a 3-4 or a 4-3 base front doesn't explain what kind of scheme you run. Each front has many, many variations on how they are run, called, designed and played.

The main differences are in aggressiveness and coverages. Some 4-3 schemes, like the now infamous "Tampa 2", rely on tough man stopping power up front, passive zone coverages, occasional aggressive blitzing from the linebackers, and strong from safeties over the top in a cover 2 assignment. While an offense--like say, the New York Giants, who also run a 4-3--are much more aggressive. They rely on pass rushing and push from the linemen and emphasize tenacity and speed from the linebackers to stop the run. They keep a safety closer to the line to help support those linebackers.

The 3-4 scheme is more aggressive.

Generally, the 3-4 was designed with the intention of disguising where the fourth rusher is coming from. The 4-3 has four down linemen, so you'll usually see 4 men rushing unless there is a blitz, in which case, there would be five rushers. In the 3-4, with 3 down linemen, the fourth rusher is not considered a blitzer. So when an offense knows there will be a fourth rusher, because there almost always is, it has to figure out which one of the four linebackers will rush. This causes confusion on every down. It's not so much extra aggressive as much as it is more complex for the offensive line and quarterback to work against.

The fifth rusher would be considered a blitzer. There are 4-3 schemes which send fifth rushers more often than you'll see some 3-4 schemes do. A perfect example of this is the Patriots. They run a 3-4, so many are quick to comment on the aggressive nature of their defense. Completely wrong. They run a more relaxed 3-4, which is actually quite similar to a"Cover 2"/"Tampa 2" defense with a 3-4 front. Thus all those "bend but don't break mentality" comments from analysts during New England's last SB run (prior to losing to NY). Relax, stay put in your area of the field, make a play when you can. No chasing, leaving your post and being the cause for a huge cutback run. Give them only what they can get; nothing more. Bend but don't break.

Whereas Wade Phillips' version of the 3-4 front utilizes a fifth rusher almost every other down. They use a 3-4 formation in Dallas, and he asks his players to aggressively swarm the ball and leave their post in an effort to make an earlier tackle at the price of risking, as I said above, a huge cutback lane for a touchdown.

Aggressive is not necessarily better or more effective. Aggressive is a preference by some coaches. Same with passiveness. It is not anymore effective than an aggressive defense. It's simply just a preference.

3-4 needs huge guys up front.

Not entirely true; what you need is muscle mass. Defensive ends must be quick enough to stay in an offensive tackle's face and strong enough to keep them off the outside linebacker. You do not need to be huge to do that. You just need to be strong enough, mentally as well as physically, to do it. Defensive tackles (nose tackles in a 3-4) must be powerful enough to neutralize the center and delay a guard from reaching the linebacker's level and blocking him.

Again, you don't need to be huge. In fact, you want those guys to be pretty nimble, not just powerful. Speed rush ends and push generating defensive tackles fail in the 3-4 because their athleticism doesn't stretch to their pure strength, not there size. There is no such thing as an undersized defensive lineman, just a defensive lineman not strong enough to do the job needed of them in a 3-4 front.

A combination of size and quickness is ideal for the 3-4.

Cover 2 is a scheme the Bucs and Colts run.

Wrong. Very wrong. Cover 2 is a type of defensive play call that has existed for decades now, which utilizes two deep safeties in zone coverage. There are many ways of using it, with all sorts of zone assignments or man coverages in front of the safeties. But bottom line: a Cover 2 is a play, not a scheme.

What the Buccaneers and Colts run (among some other teams) is referred to as the "Tampa 2", as opposed to the cover 2. That is referred to as a scheme and not a play, because the entire scheme of the defense is to utilize many different variations of Cover 2 play calling (man to man on one side with zones on the other, zones across the board, man across the board, etc.) while always maintaining their two deep safeties in Cover 2.

That's pretty much all the average guy needs to know about offensive and defensive schemes. If you've read this and learned something, excellent. If you've read this and knew it all already, even better. But if I've been able to prevent ignorance like "Player A is too undersized for the 3-4" or "Player B is just a system QB and not really a good QB", then this was well worth typing.

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About the Undrafted Free Agent

Ron Crimson was the only player on the high school roster to not get in a game. He couldn't argue with the decision, because he sucked. Needless to say, yet stated anyway, when he entered the NBA draft following his sophomore season in college, he went undrafted. Now, Ron Crimson is the Undrafted Free Agent.

Contact the Undrafted Free Agent

Interested in informing the Undrafted Free Agent of his mistakes, advertisement opportunities, or a scoop on the latest sports scandal? (You can guess which is more likely.) Well, email him at undraftedfreeagent [at] gmail.com.

Look at This!

There's nothing here; I just needed to fill some space. Space eater! Space eater! Space eater! Space eater! Space eater! Space eater! Space eater! Space eater! Space eater! I also needed to balance it out a bit.

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