Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Play Breakdown: Dissecting A Disaster

In the second installment of the play breakdown series, we're going to look at the play that likely cost us the 2006 Arkansas game. And no, I'm not breaking down a Leigh Tiffin kick, I'm looking at John Parker Wilson's fumble that was returned for a touchdown by Randy Kelly. At that juncture, we had the ball in Arkansas territory, leading 10-9, and the Arkansas offense was completely shut down. Even after the fumble return for a touchdown, the Hogs gained less than 75 yards of total offense the rest of the day (including overtime), and Mustain threw two more interceptions. Obviously it was a game-changing play for us, and arguably a career-changing play for Coach Mike Shula, so it warrants closer inspection.

The situation is 3rd and 12, Alabama football at the Arkansas 48. We need the Arkansas 36 for a first down. At the moment, we lead Arkansas in a close contest, 10-9, with 4:21 remaining in the third quarter.

Alabama comes out in a four wide receiver set. There are trips receivers to the right (Caddell, Brown, and Oakley, respectively), with D.J. Hall to the offensive left. Tim Castille is lined up six yards behind the line of scrimmage as the lone back.

Arkansas counters with a 3-3-5, but it's far from vanilla.

The following is a small diagram of how the Hogs and the Tide line up pre-snap. Right click the image and open the link in a new window to see the full size.

As you can see, the Hogs aren't in a vanilla formation. It's a 3-3-5, true enough, but one linebacker is lined up with the left tackle (24), and another is outside of the left tackle. Moreover, safety Randy Kelly (9), is slowly creeping up into the box. Oddly enough, the Hogs have two linebackers and two defensive backs on the near side of the field, where the Alabama offense only has one receiver (22, Hall). On the other hand, on the far side of the field, Alabama has trips receivers, but the Hogs have only three defenders on that side of the field (one of which is a safety who is so deep he can barely be seen on the film), and the inside receiver in the trips formation isn't even covered up.

Obviously, the Hogs have something up their sleeves. But what?

It looks like Arkansas is planning a blitz, but from where? Given safety Randy Kelly (9) is creeping into the box, the Hogs could pressure the quarterback with at least seven defenders.
One linebacker is lined up inches away from Alabama right guard B.J. Stabler (61), and the other two linebackers are roughly one yard away from the line of scrimmage.

The coverage appears to be man, but what about Matt Caddell (11)? No one is covering him, so are Wilson and company to assume that the deep safety (about 15 yards away from the line of scrimmage) is in man coverage against him? That doesn't seem right.

You have to give the Hogs credit where it is due. This is a nice formation that their defensive coordinator Reggie Herring has come up with, and it's disguising things quite nicely. It's hard to get a grasp on exactly what they are going to do.

But alas, the play clock is ticking down. Antoine Caldwell (59) snaps the ball to Wilson, and the play begins.

The following is a small diagram of the play itself. Right click the image and open the link up in a new window to see the full size version.

True enough, the Hogs have a blitz coming. The defensive line rushes, as does Sam Olajabutu (24), and Randy Kelly (9), who is coming on a safety blitz. At bottom, it's a basic thing: six blockers on five rushers. But it's still quite confusing because we had no idea exactly where it was coming from.

The question of Matt Caddell is answered quickly. He was uncovered, but it was actually man coverage. The linebacker lined up directly over B.J. Stabler (61), was in man coverage against Caddell, and quickly retreated from the line to cover Caddell. Yes, that creates a major mis-match (linebackers generally can't cover receivers), but the linebacker does have help over the top from the deep safety, and if things work out as planned with the blitz, he won't have to cover very long anyway.

Unfortunately though, there seems to be no audible in anticipation of the blitz. Despite the pre-snap read indicating a blitz is coming, even if we don't know where, Wilson takes a seven-step drop. Instead of switching to a three or five step drop to release the ball quickly, we apparently stick with our guns.

Once he drops back, Wilson first looks to his left, in the direction of D.J. Hall (22). But nothing is there for Hall. He runs a vertical route upfield, and, well, that's about all he can do. The Arkansas linebacker dropped into a soft zone coverage in the area, and the idea behind that was likely to prevent Hall from catching any quick curls, slants, or in routes as Wilson attempts to get rid of the ball quickly. It's a good call from the Hogs, and it works to perfection. The linebacker precludes Hall from running anything to the inside, and the sideline prevents him from running an effective out route. So, he does all he can (by design or not, perhaps it was an option route), he runs downfield, perhaps on a go route (you can't really tell by the game film).

As for the three receivers in the trips formation...

Will Oakley is the outside receiver, and he runs about a three-yard curl route. I would think that was an option route on Oakley's part with him reading a blitz (it'd be pretty dumb to call a three-yard curl route against press coverage on third and long), but it's not effective at all. Though it's a short curl, it makes for a very long throw for Wilson. In order to get the ball to Oakley, a pass would have to travel about twenty yards, and the proximity of the Arkansas cornerback would yield an easy pass break-up, or worse, an interception. If Oakley indeed chose the three-yard curl route, it was a very poor decision. It creates an impossible throw for Wilson. Oakley should have done something to come back to his quarterback and made for a shorter throw.

Matt Caddell is the inside receiver (I think, it looks like him, but I can't specifically see the number), and he is uncovered. At the snap, Caddell runs straight upfield. The Arkansas linebacker comes over to cover him, and Caddell's vertical route keeps him covered. Considering the safety is in front of him and the linebacker is right by him, it's essentially impossible for Wilson to drop the ball in between the two defenders. Perhaps he can get open if the play has a long time to develop, but here it obviously doesn't. The ideal thing would have been for Caddell to break off his route and cut across the middle on a crossing route. With the Arkansas linebacker going in the opposite direction to get to the area where Caddell is (remember, he was lined up nose-to-nose with right guard B.J. Stabler), Caddell could have cut to the inside and caused the Hog linebacker to likely fall flat on his face trying to quickly reverse field. Caddell would have been wide open, Wilson could have thrown an easy five-yard pass, with Caddell having a huge chance for a big play. A worse-case scenario probably has that completion going for nine or ten yards, but alas, Caddell continues upfield and remains blanketed.

Keith Brown (81) is the middle receiver, and he runs a quick slant over the middle. The cornerback covering him plays him close in press coverage, but nevertheless, Brown gets his job done. He is open, and a good throw from Wilson will likely yield a few yards, though not likely a first down. But Wilson doesn't throw the ball to Brown. He continues to look at Hall (22), though he is well covered, and by the time he actually gets around to looking at Brown (81) he is in major trouble.

Now let's look at the blocking up front.

Arkansas' star defensive end Jamaal Anderson (92) lines up over Chris Capps (72). At the snap, it becomes evident that Chris Capps is left on his own, with no help whatsoever, as was too often the case in 2006. Anderson -- as he almost always does -- uses his athleticism to rush hard to the outside, trying to beat Capps off the edge. And Capps does well, using good footwork to position himself in front of Anderson. Just when Anderson seems like he may be able to get past Capps, he suddenly cuts back inside, likely due to Wilson stepping up in the pocket. But in doing so, the play ends before Anderson can pressure the quarterback.

The Arkansas defensive tackle (DT) ferociously attacks the gap between Antoine Caldwell (59) and B.J. Stabler (61). But Caldwell is not regarded as one of the best centers in the country for nothing. He essentially puts on a blocking clinic, and stands up the Arkansas defensive tackle. The back-up Arkansas defensive tackle who was sitting on the bench got about as close to Wilson as did the starter on this play. B.J. Stabler technically "helps" Caldwell to a degree, but not really. He mainly just stands there while Caldwell and Capps take care of the two pass rushers on their side of the line.

The left side is where it gets interesting. Arkansas rushes three players: defensive end Antwain Robinson (97), linebacker Sam Olajabutu (24), and safety Randy Kelly (6). The Crimson Tide has three blockers: left tackle Andre Smith (71), left guard Justin Britt (50), and running back Tim Castille (19).

Unfortunately, it doesn't go well for the Crimson Tide.

Sam Olajabutu (24) rushes hard to the outside, where he is met with a hard block from Tim Castille (19). All in all, it's a nice block from Castille, and he effectively neutralizes the talented Arkansas linebacker. It's reasons like this as to why he is in the game on passing situations.

Randy Kelly (6) begin to creep up closer to the line, and as soon as the ball is snapped, he takes off full speed, looking for John Parker Wilson. But it doesn't really work. He has to run about ten yards to even get remotely near Wilson, and Justin Britt (50) does a very good job of picking him up once he enters the pocket. With a solid block, Britt neutralizes the talented Arkansas safety.

Antwain Robinson (97), however, is the one that ends it for the Tide. Andre Smith (71) nearly took his head off earlier in the game, but the time has come for Robinson to exact his revenge on Big Andre. Obviously, Andre is expecting a speed rush to the outside by Robinson, but that doesn't happen. Instead, Robinson rushes hard to the inside, and it takes Andre by surprise. Though he fights hard, Andre simply can't catch up with Robinson enough to force him out of the play, and Robinson is successful in getting to Wilson.

By this point, the play is over. Wilson should have taken the easy throw to Keith Brown (81) on the slant, but he locked onto Hall too long and by the time he saw Brown it was too late. Essentially, Arkansas has won this play. Their three rushers (97, 6, and 24) have gotten the job done against the left side of our offensive line. Neither Kelly (6) or Olajabutu (24) can get to Wilson, but they have collapsed the pocket, and with Robinson (97) beating Andre Smith, Wilson -- though he steps forward in the pocket looking for room, which is indicated in the diagram by the red line and circle -- is just trapped with nowhere to go. He doesn't have his feet set, and he really can't throw the football. Again, Arkansas has won this play, it's time for Wilson to cover up the football, take the sack, and send the punting unit onto the field.

But the youthful Wilson foolishly refuses to relent. Instead he chooses to fight to the death, and the death comes quickly. At the last second, he tries to get off a quick throw -- the only person he could have had the arm strength to get the ball to throwing in that awkward position would be Keith Brown (81) on the crossing route, but honestly the Arkansas linebacker in zone coverage would have probably snagged that ball -- but he is doomed. Before his arm begins to go forward, Antwain Robinson (97) hits him and the ball pops loose. It's a fumble. An alert Randy Kelly scoops up the ball and races to the end zone. No Alabama player has a chance of bringing him down, Arkansas touchdown.

Arkansas 17, Alabama 10.

The Hogs, with an impotent offense on the sideline and Alabama having the ball in their territory, have somehow created the eventual overtime causing touchdown.

1 comment:

Win said...

An excellent break down. Sounds like it can be chalked up to inexperience at QB that caused the bad play although John Parker had a great game generally. Fair or not, that one play probably did doom Shula's career at UA and probably saved Nutt's job (lot of pregame discussion about Nutt being done if he lost that game). If John Parker had just dumped the ball off, history would be far different.