Gary Kubiak and the Art of Misdirection

Sometimes bad performance in one job can lead to an undeserved reputation. Of course, that didn’t stop the Denver Broncos from bringing Gary Kubiak aboard Sunday as their new head coach. Dave Archibald discusses how Kubiak can still draw up impressive game plans using deception and play action, with the Divisional Round game versus the New England Patriots a prime example.

Fans and pundits frequently criticized Gary Kubiak for his performance as a head coach of the Houston Texans, where he finished 61-64 overall while making the playoffs just twice in eight seasons. In Saturday’s playoff game against the New England Patriots, however, he reminded the football world that he’s still a great offensive mind.

Kubiak, who the Broncos reportedly hired Sunday on a four-year deal to their top coaching post, faced the Patriots last weekend as Baltimore’s offensive coordinator. The 53-year-old brought his trademark zone blocking scheme to the Ravens and watched them improve from 3.1 yards per carry (last in the NFL) to 4.5 yards per carry (seventh-best). Kubiak saves much of his best work for the passing game, however, and he kept New England’s pass defense off-balance with some clever looks. Kubiak loves to deceive defenses keyed in on his zone running looks and make them pay for over-committing to the ground game. His misdirection plays were largely effective Saturday.

Aikens and Pains

Just five plays into the game, the Ravens marched into the Patriots red zone and were looking for the kill. Baltimore rolled out a 20 personnel package (two running backs, three wide receivers), which the Patriots countered with a three-safety nickel set. Three safeties (sometimes called a “big nickel”) gives a little more thump against the run game than a traditional nickel, but less coverage ability, because one of the safeties has to match up against a wide receiver. In this case, strong safety Patrick Chung (#23) draws slot receiver Kamar Aiken (#11). Kubiak’s plan is to use space and movement to isolate Chung and Aiken and exploit this mismatch:

Kamar-Aiken-19-yard-touchdown-markup

The play starts with great run action to the left, with the offensive line and running backs all flowing like this is a typical zone run play. The Patriots defenders follow the run action. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco (#5) keeps the ball, however, and bootlegs back toward the right, away from the flow of the defense. Outside wide receiver Steve Smith, Sr. (#89) runs upfield along the sideline, drawing cornerback Darrelle Revis (#24) with him and opening up the right side. Underneath, Aiken runs a “whip route,” cutting in initially and then reversing direction to cut outside.

The sudden change of direction makes the whip a demanding route for a defensive back to cover, and Chung gets beaten so badly that he’s too far behind to make the tackle after Aiken catches the perfectly placed pass. Aiken bursts into the end zone for an early Baltimore lead.

Flacco finished 8 of 10 for 74 yards and a touchdown on play-action in the game, as the Ravens used it to great effect. Kubiak is a master of combining the deception of play action with spacing and movement to exploit advantageous matchups.

Whips and (Moving) Chains

Kubiak went to the whip route again in the third quarter, but from a different look:

Michael-Campanaro-16-yard-whip-route

The Ravens show a bunch formation right, with three receivers clustered close together: rookie Michael Campanaro (#15) in the inside slot; tight end Owen Daniels (#81) just outside of him; and Smith just offscreen to the right. Flacco lines up in the shotgun and fakes a handoff, with the offensive line flowing left again to sell the run action. Daniels and Smith both cross to the left to clear out the right side, and Campanaro also starts left before whipping back right. His route is extremely shallow – behind the line of scrimmage in fact – but he catches the ball with so much green space in front of him that he scampers for 16 yards.

The Ravens went to this bunch look quite a bit, and Flacco was 8 of 11 passing from this formation for 80 yards, plus two drawn penalties. Later, though, as Bill Belichick described in his weekly video breakdown, the Patriots managed to make some adjustments: Baltimore hit a deep cross to Torrey Smith from the bunch look early in the game, but when they tried the same play in the second half, free safety Devin McCourty recognized the play, jumped on the cross, and intercepted the pass.

A Reversal of Fortunes

In the above two plays, deception helped open holes, creating big, easy gains for Baltimore. The problem with plays based on deception is what happens when the defense isn’t fooled. That was the case on a 3rd-and-1 call late in the second quarter:

Michael-Campanaro-0-yard-reverse

 

The Ravens use the bunch formation again, this time on the offensive left side, motioning Daniels into the inside slot late. The Ravens show run action toward the bunch side, but hand the ball off to Campanaro, zipping in the opposite direction. This is a run play, not a pass, but it follows the same principle as the pass plays above: get the defense moving in one direction, and then send the ball the other way.

Rob Ninkovich (#50), Vince Wilfork (#75), and Dont’a Hightower (#54) – the Patriots responsible for backside contain – stay disciplined and don’t bite on the play action. Ninkovich and Wilfork get penetration and leave nowhere for Campanaro to go. He cuts upfield but Ninkovich and Sealver Siliga (#96) haul him down for no gain. Given that the Ravens only needed one yard and all of their first-half carries had gained at least two, it’s easy to second-guess running a trick play rather than the zone stretch that had been effective all game.

Deceit of Your Pants

When Kubiak’s offenses are clicking, they make defenses look stupid, catching defenders out of position and in bad matchups and making offensive production look easy. When his offenses are ineffective, they look too clever by half and overly dependent on trickery. On Saturday the Ravens offense was working and kept New England’s defense off-balance most of the game. Even for a talented, well-coached defense like the Patriots, facing a Kubiak offense is a major test, one the New England defenders are glad to be done with.

Follow Dave on Twitter @davearchie.

Dave Archibald knows pass defense, specifically how coverage, the pass rush, excellent cornerbacks, versatile safeties and in-game adjustments can make a big difference.

All video and images courtesy NFL.com and NFL Game Rewind.

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