The St. Louis Rams are not a good football team. They are not an average football team. They are a bad football team.
In previous weeks, we detailed plays by the Patriots and Dolphins that broke down after multiple players failed to execute properly. This week, we examine another example of how mass ineptitude turns a perfectly good play into a momentum-changing event, and completely takes a team out of the game with over 59 minutes remaining.
Last Sunday, the Rams marched into Lincoln Financial Field to face the Philadelphia Eagles. Still on their own 20-yard line after a touchback and three straight incompletions to start the game, St. Louis turned to their only reliable means of moving the ball – the punt team. Johnny Hekker, the Rams punter, trotted onto the field and put his heels on his own 6-yard line.
Hekker had a strong statistical year in 2013, ranking first in the league in net average at 44.2 yards per kick. While some might see this as evidence he had the best season among his peers, the only thing that this shows with any certainty is that Hekker had plenty of field in front of him when kicking last year. The Rams’ offense was ranked 30th in the league in total yardage, amassing only 304.8 yards per game in 2013.
In the above still, we see the Rams set up in a slight variation of a standard punt formation. Not pictured in the screen are the punt gunners on the outside of the formation. Some teams may bring the gunners in tight to the formation when backed up near their own end zone. This is known as a “punt max protect” formation, but is not utilized by the Rams here.
On the left side, they offset their “tight end” two yards back from the line of scrimmage, most likely because that they are punting from the left hash and are attempting to kick back to the other side of the field, as evidenced by the punter also being offset towards the right side of the formation. The tight end’s altered alignment creates a natural “pocket” for the punter. It also forces a defender to travel a longer path in order to get to the punter, as the blocker has inside position.
The Eagles initially line up in what appears to be a standard punt return formation, with six men on the line of scrimmage. However, prior to the snap, the two Eagles circled in red move from their original positions. One lines up on the line of scrimmage to the left side of the screen. The second heads off-screen to block the left punt gunner, and a different Eagles player comes in to replace him. This player also lines up on the line of scrimmage on the left side of the frame.
The still above shows the new formation after these changes have taken place. There are now eight Eagles on the line of scrimmage, indicating that they plan to bring pressure. Whether using a man blocking scheme or zone blocking scheme, the typical technique taught in punt protection is to block from the inside-out in order to push potential rushers away, creating a longer path and more time for the punter. Diagrammed above is what this should look like. Keep in mind that James Casey (#4, above) is unblocked by anyone on the line, allowing Chase Reynolds, the Rams personal protector (wearing jersey 34), to stay in the center of the formation and handle any potential pressure up the middle.
Responsibility for assigning protection falls on the personal protector, as he can survey the entire formation before the snap. The primary calls are whether the blocking scheme is man or zone, and which side to send the snapper ensuring all potential rushers are blocked. In this case, he calls for the long snapper to go to the right side, which is actually the correct call in order to make sure every Eagles rusher is matched up with a blocker. With eight blockers in formation and eight potential rushers, there should be no problem matching up with the proper man.
Unfortunately for St. Louis, the entire right side of their line decided to forget every single thing they had ever learned about punt protection. From the snap, we see a number of issues on the right side of the line. The first, and probably most important, is that the right guard immediately attacks the man to his left, who is also matched up with the long snapper. This means that there is now a free man coming from somewhere. That “somewhere” also happens to be right through the B-gap, as the other two men on the right side of the Rams formation block down on their targets, forcing them towards the middle of the formation. This also leaves what appears to be a free rusher coming from the outside.
Despite the failings of the right side of the line, the left side actually sets up very well. We can see the personal protector, Reynolds, starting to slide to the middle to pick up what he believes to be the only free man coming. At the same time, the other three players are beginning to work in an inside-out fashion towards their potential blocks.
As the play advances, we see that the left side of the formation has formed a perfect wall (indicated in blue), locking onto their blocks. This is textbook punt protection. Also in this viewscreen, you can see that the edge rusher from position #8 (far right) has been chipped by the Rams’ tight end, redirecting his path. While this blocker initially made the incorrect move (to his left), he recovered in time to get enough of a quick hit on the correct man, slowing his rush.
Reynolds, (the personal protector circled in blue), is preparing to engage with the unblocked Casey (#4 from second image above) . However, to the right of Reynolds, we can see the unblocked man from position #6 (Trey Burton) breaking through the line. He is a clear and present danger to the punter, making this a critical moment of decision for the Reynolds: Does he stay on his man, or does he break off to pick up the free rusher?
Chaos. Finding himself in a no-win situation, Reynolds has given up blocking his original man in an to attempt to pick up Burton, the unaccounted Eagles rusher from position #6. This leaves Casey (#4), his initial blocking assignment, completely free to the punter, which results in the kick being blocked.
The snap-to-kick time for this punt is between 1.81 and 1.95 seconds. Any punt that is off in less than 2 seconds should not be blocked if the protection team is doing its job. Thus, this fault for this block is not on the long snapper, the punter, or the personal protector. The blame falls squarely and collectively on the right side of the Rams line, which essentially executed everything wrong. The result?
Three Eagles are now in the best position to recover the blocked punt as most Rams special teamers start to head downfield in anticipation of a successful kick. The Eagles are able to easily scoop the ball and return it for a touchdown less than thirty seconds into the game.
This is why the Rams are a bad football team. It’s not because they make mistakes. Every team will fail at executing perfectly at some point in a football game. It is because they make mistakes that high school and college teams typically avoid making. It is difficult enough to succeed at those levels when plays like this occur. At the NFL level, plays like this are a major reason why the Rams are now 1-3 and expected to contend for the worst record in the league during the 2014 season.
Last week we saw the Kansas City Chiefs use misdirection to fool the Patriots’ defense and produce a huge 48-yard gain that left New England embarrassed. On Sunday night the defense got back on track and turned the tables, producing some deception and trickery of their own to bring Cincinnati’s first drive of the game to a screeching halt on our Defensive Play of the Week.
Trailing 7-0 and operating out of a no-huddle, hurry-up offense, the Bengals had marched downfield 41 yards before stalling at the Patriot 34-yard line with a false start penalty. On this 3rd and 10 play, Cincinnati breaks the huddle with quarterback Andy Dalton in the shotgun and 11 personnel. New England counters with a 4-2-5 sub package showing Cover 2, and they bring Alfonzo Dennard in as the nickel corner. In the video below, both safeties are off-screen to the left (likely at or beyond the Patriot 20-yard line) for this entire sequence:
The fun starts before the snap when the Bengals start switching player alignments in fairly amusing fashion. First, RB Giovani Bernard (#25), initially to Dalton’s left wing, exchanges places with WR Mohamed Sanu (#12), who comes from Dalton’s right in a do-si-do square dance maneuver. On the Patriots’ side of the ball, the finger-pointing and shouting begin as Dennard (#37) scrambles over from the left side of New England’s alignment to the right, mirroring Sanu.
This suggests the Pats are in man coverage, with CB Darrelle Revis (#24) still on the left opposite Bengals wideout A.J. Green (#18, camped on the line next to his right tackle) and CB Kyle Arrington (#25) on New England’s right opposite Cincinnati WR Brandon Tate, #19 (next to #84 Jermaine Gresham, the tight end on the Bengals’ strong-side left). As Dennard settles into his new spot, Arrington backs off a few yards:
Next, Patriot linebackers Jerod Mayo (#51, on the left side of New England’s hook/curl zone) and Jamie Collins (#91, to Mayo’s right) join in on the pointing, hollering, and adjusting. Dalton motions for another Cincinnati shift, sending Bernard to the left slot behind Tate in an offset stack formation. With that, Mayo begins frantically waving his right arm, sending Collins further to the right and closer to the line of scrimmage. It’s another sign that New England is in man coverage, with Collins apparently planning to stick with Bernard on any short route. Sanu remains behind the slot stack, now in a single wing to Dalton’s left, and Arrington maintains his spot in the right-side New England flat opposite Sanu:
After the snap, Dalton sees something he probably didn’t expect: NONE of the Patriot defenders in the box are sticking with their receivers in man coverage:
It turns out they were merely giving Academy Award-caliber performances as Best Actors in a Man Coverage Scheme, having instead adopted a zone defense. Tate, Bernard, and Gresham sprint forward from the left side of their formation, each running short routes intended to gain first-down yardage and not much else. The RB and TE both end up in Mayo’s zone in the Patriots’ left flat and neither are open. Tate plants himself just shy of the 24-yard line ‒ which the Bengals need to cross for the first down ‒ but Revis and Arrington are just beyond, both ready to pounce should he be targeted. Sanu comes out of the backfield and, instead of running downfield, takes a slant route toward the near sideline.
Meanwhile Green runs a little crossing route, taking a few steps forward from the right side of Cincinnati’s O-line and cutting to the left underneath his three teammates. Dalton, seemingly with no other choice, hits him for the short completion. Collins, maintaining zone coverage in the flat, is right there waiting to wrap him up below the waist and tackle him for no gain.
It would appear Dalton was expecting his receiving trio of Tate, Bernard, and Gresham to bait Dennard, Arrington (and, perhaps, Collins) deeper beyond the flat. In the event Collins had been matched up with Sanu, the latter’s slant route seems to have been designed to bring the defender toward the sideline. In both cases, man coverage by the Patriots would have freed up space in the flat for Green to cut back upfield and away from Revis after making the catch. None of this happened.
In this situation, proper positioning by New England and execution of the playbook was only part of the story. Their defenders put on quite the show, barking commands and demonstratively imploring each other to make sure each had his man ‒ and the Bengals bought it.
The big defensive stop forced Cincinnati Head Coach Marvin Lewis to decide between a short-field punt or a 52-yard field goal attempt on 4th and 10. With the Bengals already behind on the scoreboard, Lewis opted to go for the points but Mike Nugent’s kick fell short.
New England’s ability to convey a completely different look defensively than what they ultimately deployed paid major dividends here, as six plays later the Patriots once again found the end zone to take a 14-0 lead on the way to a dominant victory.
Follow Mark on Twitter @mabrowndog.
Mark Brown is the Executive Editor of Inside The Pylon, and has written about the dangers ofball watching, the finer points of strip-sacks, what it’s like to be a Jet, and what CFB you should watch, and is a proponent of using evidence to refute hot sports takes.