The playbook on rookie QBs, stunting defenses and empty-backfield firepower
This season, Domonique Foxworth’s playbook will win you arguments on Mondays
Last week’s Hall of Fame Game marked the first NFL football of the season. It wasn’t worth watching, but it is worth celebrating. It is an indication that regular-season football is just around the corner. Which means the return of parties and tailgates with delicious food, cold drinks and fun people, as well as odd superstitions and foolish wagers. Good ol’ American fun.
Unfortunately, the return of football season also means the return of Brad. We all know a Brad: the loudmouthed, eager yet ill-informed football opinion giver. Brads are all around us, but they are most comfortable by the watercooler, in barbershops and at your kids’ sporting events. Counteracting the spread of aggressively ignorant amateur football takes hasn’t been easy — until now. In honor of the return of All 22, I am going to give you 22 advanced football insights that you can use to dominate the Brads in your life. Enjoy the first few in Volume 1. If you have questions, requests or comments, tweet me.
22. Stuntin’ on these O’s
The Monday after your team struggles to stop the run, I guarantee Brad will say one or both of the following. Either “our D-line was getting pushed off of the ball” or “we need to bring one of the safeties into the box to stop the run.”
Here is how you should reply: “Actually, I don’t think it’s time to give up on our front seven. We need to do more stunting up front, which will confuse the opposing O-line’s blocking scheme and keep the guards from climbing to our linebackers. Committing a safety to the box will weaken our deep pass coverage and make us more susceptible to big plays. If we give up a 5-, 8-, or even a 10-yard run, we live to fight another down, maybe cause a turnover or penalty, or hold them to a field goal. If they get us on a deep one, the next thing you’ll see is a WR twerkin’ in our end zone.”
When I was a kid, my mother told me, “Nothing in life is free.” It’s true in life and it is true in football. The price of run-stuffing stunts is an inhibited pass rush. Occasionally, you’ll get caught in a run stunt against a pass. Your team will have to cover longer than usual. The DBs and LBs will have to be disciplined. Especially in zone coverage.
Bonus: Early last season the New York Giants shut down Drew Brees and the explosive New Orleans Saints offense in part because the Giants ran a lot of slant stunts on early downs. Their defensive ends aligned outside of the offensive tackles in the c-gaps and slanted inside to the b-gaps, between the tackles and the guards. It surprised the Saints and spoiled their running game, freeing the Giants to use a multitude of coverages.
21. Young Quarterbacks
Maybe a rookie QB will start for your team at some point this year. If so, I’m sorry. But there is also the possibility that your team will play against a rookie quarterback. In that case, let’s eat. No matter whether your team ends up in either, neither or both of those situations this season, rookie debuts promise to be an NFL topic at some point this season.
Undoubtedly, in the week before a rookie’s first start, football fans will be predicting how well he will play. Brad will probably fall back on some jargon he’s heard over the years. “In college, he wasn’t in a pro-style offense, so he will struggle reading through his progressions.” Or, one of the most annoying lines: “He just knows how to win.” They might as well just say, “I think he is a warlock.” Which is just dumb, unless you’re trying to explain Aaron Rodgers’ Hail Marys. That is actual sorcery.
If you want to deliver the most informed take, first say, “Your scouting report is useful, but the talent of the rookie quarterback is not the determining factor of early success. For a rookie, Peyton Manning set the NFL record for most interceptions thrown in a season, 28. The support around the quarterback is far more important to first-game and season-long success. Some of the best rookie seasons for a quarterback belong to quarterbacks who aren’t destined for the Hall of Fame but found themselves in a good situation. No one is confusing Andy Dalton for Dan Marino, but as a rookie in 2011, Dalton led the Bengals to the playoffs. With Jay Gruden as his offensive coordinator, he threw for 3,398 yards, 20 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. The Red Rifle deserves credit, but remember he had the support of a 1,000-yard rusher in Cedric Benson, Pro Bowl TE Jermaine Gresham and the unguardable WR A.J. Green. Oh, and a top-10 defense.”
If they push you for another example, then you can drop the bomb: “What about Bobby Three Sticks? You may know him as Robert Griffin III, the black quarterback who won’t offend your fan base but still can’t get a job. In 2012, RG3 was Rookie of the Year and went to the Pro Bowl. With the support of arguably the best offensive mind in football in Kyle Shanahan as his offensive coordinator, 1,600-yard rusher Alfred Morris and two No. 1-caliber WRs, Santana Moss and Pierre Garcon, Griffin and Washington won the NFC East.”
20. Outta Pocket
Before Brad can counter transition to prediction and strategy mode, predict that Deshaun Watson will have the best season because of the support he will get from that great defense and collection of explosive offensive playmakers. Then, no matter which of the rookie quarterbacks — Watson, Mitchell Trubisky, or Mr. Irrelevant, Chad Kelly — gets the first opportunity to start, say this: “If I were coaching him, I would do what Eagles head coach Doug Pederson did for Carson Wentz in his first game last season. Pederson and his staff crafted a very smart and simple game plan for the team to execute. Presumably, they are well-aware of where Carson was as a pocket passer, so they got him out of the pocket often with sprint-outs and bootlegs. Those types of plays condense the field and simplify reads for the quarterback. By getting him on the edge, rather than asking him to be aware of all 11 defenders and the potential for exotic blitzes, he has a simple read of two defenders. There is also the added benefit of forcing the quarterback to make faster decisions. Even if the quarterback has yet to develop an internal clock tuned to NFL speed, he can’t miss the fast-approaching defender or sideline.”
Bonus: If your team is playing against a rookie quarterback, I would suggest blitzing from the edges to blow up sprint-outs and bootlegs. That’s contrary to popular opinion. Most coaches like to blitz up the middle against young quarterbacks. The coaches who follow that plan want the young quarterback to see and feel the pressure in his face and panic and make mistakes. It’s a reasonable approach, but if the offense does run a sprint-out or boot, those players have no impact on the play. I’d rather keep the youngster in the pocket and force him to read and pass like a big boy.
Empty refers to any offensive formation with nobody in the backfield. It is great for football discussions because it can be the answer to so many issues. Got QB troubles? Use more empty. Struggling in the red zone? Give empty a try. Can’t pick up the blitzes? Empty will fix that.
Empty can be a cure-all because it is like truth serum for the defense. Empty sets make it very difficult for defenses to disguise, especially when the running back or tight end is the widest offensive player. Defenders need to get to a position where they can execute their coverage responsibility. So when the backs in the backfield and tight end are aligned next to the tackle, the linebackers and safeties can line up in the same pre-snap location no matter the coverage.
Man-to-man, Cover 3, Cover 2, Cover 4 or a blitz can all look the same to the offense. But if you motion the running back out to where a wide receiver would normally align, then the defenders have to expose themselves. If it is man-to-man, the linebacker follows him. If it’s Cover 3 or a blitz, the safety will come down to cover the slot and the cornerback will widen to account for the running back. If it is Cover 2 or 4, the safety will stay deep, the linebacker or nickelback will widen to just inside of the slot and the cornerback will widen to cover the running back. Now your quarterback knows what he is facing and where he needs to throw the ball. And the line knows where the blitz is coming from.
But that is if the defense doesn’t audible out of the blitz altogether. Some of the more exotic and difficult blitzes to block require defensive linemen to drop into coverage on backs in the backfield or an attached tight end. The offense will have trouble finding and exploiting those mismatches, unless the offense is in empty. Then, rather than have a defensive end or tackle walk out and try to cover a skill player in space, the defense will check to a simpler play.
Red zone: If your team moves the ball well but gets constipated in the red zone, empty could help. Designing successful plays in the red zone is made more difficult because the field is condensed. With just a few yards of field left, the offense can’t credibly threaten a deep pass, so the defense has less field to cover. Empty could help because the width of the field hasn’t changed. And with all five eligible pass-catchers at the line of scrimmage, the offense can more quickly and effectively challenge/stretch the defense, which will make for bigger windows in the defense’s zones.
Note: Empty does remove some of the offense’s ability to surprise the defense. Unless Cam Newton is your quarterback, with no backs in the backfield, the defensive front doesn’t have to concern itself with stopping the run, which means the D-line can really come after the quarterback. So when in empty, most offenses run 3-step quick passes, and the DBs know that. But last season the Oakland Raiders had one of the best offensive lines in football, so they trusted the linemen to protect Derek Carr with no help in empty and ran slower-developing, deeper routes. During a Week 8 game against Tampa Bay, Carr connected with Amari Cooper for a 34-yard touchdown from the slot of an empty formation.
That brings us to the end of Volume 1. I will be back next week with more honors-level insights for you to use to dominate and impress. Feel free to tweet me with thoughts, questions and requests @Foxworth24.