The other day I stood at the sports bookshelf in the corner of Barnes and Noble and read Gary Myers’ book “Coaching Confidential: Inside the fraternity of NFL Coaches”.
It was an all blue cover, with title font painted white across a godly sky, and below it, a play-caller. The play-call sheet in the hand of the pictured coach was indicative of such, but one knows to never judge a book by its cover. The book featured an interesting chapter on Robert Kraft and how he went through hell with Bill Parcells before meeting the antichrist Bill Belichick. While reading it, a couple of teenage boys dressed in camouflage to my right made it clear that they’re not exactly avid readers (“I ain’t gon read no books”). To my left, a young girl held open a book and spoke with her father, who was scanning the bookshelf.
Girl: Daddy, why do you watch football?
Dad: Why do you watch Dora?
Girl: Because it’s good.
Dad: Well, I watch football because it’s good too.
And all went silent, that is before she blurted out “football is borrrrrring”. I chose to ignore that wavelength. The father was right, football is good, and it was good to its fans this past weekend. Those who dislike the New England Patriots — I’m not a name-dropper, Bills fans — were particularly thrilled as the Ravens put the brakes on the Patriots’ dynamic offense and throttled them 28-13 behind the wonderful play of Joe Flacco and play-calling of Jim Caldwell.
The two men have benefited significantly from the firing of Cam Cameron. Caldwell’s not only gotten a promotion to full-time play-calling duties, but he’s working with a quarterback who’s not named Kerry Collins or Curtis Painter. And in Flacco’s case, he has a formidable offensive design that is organized around his exceptional deep ball throwing ability.
Caldwell has opened up the passing game by tailoring it to not only Flacco, as noted, but his weapons too. He’s gotten Ray Rice more involved on screen passes, and he’s done a good job of using stack and bunch sets to give veteran receivers like Anquan Boldin free releases at the line of scrimmage. One other thing that he’s done a tremendous job of is attacking the middle of the field, which Cameron rarely tried. Cameron’s idea of attacking it was to run endless Hi-Lo’s with tight end Dennis Pitta, but that’s not what Caldwell did. The latter has attacked it aggressively by throwing vertical combination routes at defenses and putting stress on safeties who are attempting to deal with multiple vertical receivers.
Whether a defensive play-call offers one deep safety or two, the deep defender has to “split the difference” between two vertical routes, meaning he has to stay in the middle of the two routes and only go to one when the ball is thrown. So what Caldwell has done is place additional stress on the deep defender by calling routes that attack horizontally in addition to vertically, as seen against the Broncos in the Divisional round and the Patriots in the Championship round.
Early in the first quarter against the Denver Broncos, Caldwell called for Double Posts to attack a single-high safety from the right side of the field.
Pitta was in the slot, and the explosive Torrey Smith was outside of him at the wide side of the field. A last second rotation by the Broncos safeties saw a two deep set turn into one deep and nickel corner Chris Harris expanded from the box out to Pitta. On the outside, veteran Champ Bailey was across from Smith, and when the ball was snapped, he allowed Smith to go inside because he (correctly) assumed he should have help. However, it never came because Harris was occupied by Pitta and the deep safety, Rahim Moore, bit on Boldin’s crossing route from the the side of the field. Touchdown Torrey Smith, 59 yards.
There was a similar result against the Patriots this past weekend.
Pitta was once again a threat from the inside, albeit from a reduced split, and outside of him was Smith. The Patriots were showing two deep safeties at varying depths, which only meant that they would be rotating one of them in some direction. The hips of safety Steve Gregory, who was closest to the line of scrimmage and facing Smith, indicated that he wouldn’t be rotating, and instead he’d have one half of an inside-out bracket coverage on Smith. In between the hashes stood inside linebacker Brandon Spikes, who’s not exactly fleet of foot but was responsible for “carrying’ Pitta” down the seam, if threatened.
When the ball was snapped, Spikes backpedaled and extended his right arm to touch Pitta, who indeed threatened the seam with a post route after initially working underneath the strong-side linebacker. While Pitta ran, Flacco stared at him, forcing Spikes to turn downfield while holding Gregory two yards inside the left hash.
Then Flacco abruptly shifted focus to his far left, locating Smith, who was running the post route . He fired the football in for a 25-yard gain just outside the left hash.
It’s these types of throws that Flacco excels at, and to Caldwell’s credit, he’s called the right plays to allow Flacco to make them. He’ll have to continue to do this in the Super Bowl, and there’s a good chance that he will try this same concept or a very similar one against the San Francisco 49ers.
The Niners rotate their safeties heavily, playing coverages like the above. Both 49ers safeties are susceptible to the big play, but Dashon Goldson, in particular, has a tendency to take narrow angles to the football and bite on the first crosser. He’s a very aggressive safety who sometimes approaches being undisciplined, which I’m sure the Ravens have already observed in their preparation.