Friday, December 21, 2007

Repercussions of the Eight Man Box

As a prime component of their defensive strategy against the Minnesota Vikings on Monday night, the Chicago Bears lifted a page from the playbooks of each of the Vikings' post-San Diego opponents, placing eight defensive players in the area commonly referred to as "the box" and daring the Vikings to run. The Vikings took the Bears up on that challenge and, though the team posted reasonably successful rushing totals, fell far below the rushing totals to which they and their fans have grown accustomed this season.

The lingering question is why the Vikings, despite having some success against the eight-men-in-a-box defense for the better part of the 2007 season, have suddenly found the running more difficult against two teams that have had their difficulties stopping the run this season? The answer to that question, as well as to a corollary question regarding Chicago's too-often ease of access to Vikings' quarterback Tarvaris Jackson, is one and the same.

To answer the question of how two teams can bottle up a Vikings' rushing attack that other teams, using similar tactics, found difficult to address, it is useful, first, to answer the question of how a team successfully attacks a defense that stacks eight defenders within ten yards of the line of scrimmage? The answer, of course, is that the offense must show an ability and a willingness to pass, particularly when the down and distance suggest a running play.

On Monday, as was also true against San Francisco the previous week, the Vikings simply did not evidence a strong enough passing presence to compel the opposition to withdraw defenders from the box. Clearly, the Bears were content that players such as Bobby Wade and Robert Ferguson could do little damage if they did get free in the resulting man coverage, that others such as Visanthe Shiancoe and Jim Kleinsasser posed no threat in the passing game, and that the blitzing pressure that they could put on Jackson with eight men in the box would be sufficient to rattle an inexperienced quarterback. The Bears were correct on all counts, save for slow-man Ferguson's improbably long, painful-to-watch plod down the field.

As he had done earlier in the season, Jackson made some poor decisions early in the game against the Bears and had difficulty putting air under the deep pass. That cost the Vikings some valuable separation from the Bears that resulted in a tight game which, subsequently, kept the pressure on Jackson and compelled the Vikings' coaching staff to tighten the reigns somewhat.

Because the passing game never stabilized, despite decent overall passing yards for Jackson, the Bears continued to keep their defensive players loaded in the box. That, along with the blitzes that the eight-man-front enabled, made rushing difficult for Minnesota.

The suggestion has been offered that to relieve the pressure of the blitz, the Vikings need to resort to more screen plays. The difficulty with relying on the screen play is that opposing defenses are staying home and staying locked on the Vikings' running backs, realizing that the offense runs through the Vikings' running backs and not through the quarterback. That makes screen plays difficult, at best, on most downs.

The better solution is to get the backs and receivers moving both vertically and on slant routes, relying on intermediate passes to set up the deep pass and both passes to set up screens. All of which, if executed, would compel opposing teams to drop defenders into coverage, once again making it possible for the Vikings' offensive line to create running holes.

That's the short answer to the Vikings' recent rushing predicament. But to accomplish the goal set forth above, i.e., to remove the current impediments to the Vikings' rushing attack, the Vikings need to commit themselves to being a threat both to pass and to run. And, for the Vikings, that means convincing teams that they have the ability and desire to pass in a fashion that matters to the outcome of the game--a steady diet of dump-off passes, the type easily defended by defenses that already have eight players in the box, will not do the job.

To improve the passing game, the Vikings need to give Jackson sufficient time in the pocket. Several times on Monday, Bears' players were in the Vikings backfield on the snap. Two plays, in particular, stand out, with Bears' linebacker Brian Urlacher running freely past otherwise occupied Viking center Matt Birk.

Birk has received strong criticism for the holes in the Vikings' offensive line Monday night, but is too much of a party-line player to point out that, though he might have been able to slow the Bears' defenders more than he did in certain instances, the responsibility for many of the gaping holes availed to the Bears' defenders on Monday night was Jackson.

It is the responsibility of the quarterback to check the defense and to alter the snap count and direct running backs to pick up a blitzing defender when the quarterback sees the play developing. In two instances in particular on Monday night, Jackson misread the blitz, allowing his back to leave the pocket and snapping the ball on what appeared to be the normal count. The result was a back out of position to assist in picking up the blitz and, rather than a defender guilty of encroachment, a defender lauded for jumping the count.

As Jackson gets more experience under center, he will become more adept and at picking up the hot blitz and directing his backfield on proper assignments. Until that day arrives, however, teams will continue to seize on Jackson's inexperience, creating more clear shots to Jackson. Keeping a proper balance between the passing game, including the form of the passing game, and the running game, will help alleviate this presure by affording the defense fewer blitzing opportunities and making blitzes more difficult to disguise. The rest, however, will have to come through the maturation process.

Up Next: Postgame from Bombay. Plus, can Williamson fill the need for a speedy slant receiver?

9 comments:

Cabrito said...

Your "Repercussions" post seems to be a direct response to my recent question about the inability of the Vikes' offensive line to open any holes, VG, and I thank you for your insights. From what you say, I suspect the Vikings' impressive string of successes is due to come to an end very soon. Jackson can't mature quickly enough in a two or three game span to become adept at overcoming the 49ers/Bears defensive scheme. Imagine how good our offense would be if we had someone like Brady, Manning, or (yes) McNabb behind center! Our only hope is that the defense can continue its stellar play. Consider: The defense allowed just 7 points against SF and only 3 non-turnover points against Chicago. But even with that level of defensive play, it's unlikely that the Vikings can continue to win unless the offense steps up soon. Special teams too -- they were horrible against the Bears, though Kluwe did his job fairly well.

Vikings Afficianado said...

I recently discovered this blog site and am impressed with the insight and intelligent commentary here. Such an upgrade compared to the drivel that appears routinely on a certain Minneapolis newspaper affiliated Vikings blog. Thank you, Vikes Geek, and all the bloggers on this site for elevating the level of discourse and providing actual useful posts.

Peter said...

VG, you hit the nail on the head by addressing the balance of the offense. In addition to shifting more of the passing offense to the vertical and slant routes (opening up deep passes and screens), I think a little more creativity in the running game could pay off nicely. I like the draws and delays we see occasionally, and I'll beat my dead horse again: put Taylor and Peterson on the field simultaneously! If the defense doesn't know who's getting the ball (or whether either of them will, for that matter), it will likely remain off-balance.

I've heard Pat Kirwan recommend running straight at Washington's DE Andre Carter early and often to slow down his pass rush later in the game, and I have to admit I like this plan. I think it can work well if the Vikings D can keep Minnesota from getting behind. Tarvaris will then be able to play more comfortably in the second half than he did last week against Chicago.

Execution is key, of course, but I really like Minnesota's chances on Sunday.

Bill From Arlington, VA said...

VG,

Insightful commentary as always. Another factor holding us back is TJax's tendencies to have what passes for his mechanics totally break down under pressure. The poor mechanics may account somewhat for Chili's reluctance to roll him out.

Agree with you on the playcalling as well. With Tom Landry, I've always thought first down was ideal for throwing the ball. I'm also tantalized by the thought expressed of having Taylor and AD in the same backfield. Say, fake a dive to Taylor and then pitch to AD or vice versa. And as I said before, the best way to beat a gap shooting slanting defense is to run some counterplays and traps.

We know that Gregg Williams is going to do exactly what SF and the Bears did and play LaRon Landry in a deep centerfield. But the Skins defense, due to injuries, is nowhere close to the Bears. Smoot's a liability against the run and not much better in coverage and they have a rookie starting at SS in Doughty.

If we don't turn the ball over I still think we win this game notwithstanding our abyssmal track record against Joe Gibbs going back to "The Drop" by Darrin Nelson in the '87 NFC Championship game.

Cabrito said...

I'm disappointed, VG. I expected an eloquent post analyzing the Vikings' latest monumental collapse, another epic installment in the long history of purple disappointments. You may be too depressed to bother composing your thoughts, or perhaps you're preoccupied with Christmas festivities and responsibilities. Suffice to say that the Vikings got their butts kicked on Sunday night, and that their chances of entering the playoffs are now very slim. Washington will likely beat Dallas in a game that means nothing to the Cowboys, and even if they don't, the Vikings are unlikely to beat the Broncos in Denver. Sadly, our once-idolized superstar has suddenly turned mortal, though one can't blame him entirely. It's not his fault he plays behind an offensive line that couldn't open a single -- repeat, single! -- hole up the middle or off tackle in THREE CONSECUTIVE GAMES, nor give him enough blocking to pick up three inches out of the end zone. Nor that he's guided by a coaching staff that was thoroughly outmaneuvred by Joe Gibbs and company (as Madden presciently predicted before the game). Is there a future for this group? Is TJ any kind of answer? Is the offensive line worth the money they're paid? Ah, what's the use? Merry Christmas.

Bill From Arlington, VA said...

Cabrito,

No one can run straight ahead against 9 defenders in the box and I don't care if the back is Superman and the line composed of Incredible Hulks. What's killing us plain and simple is the qb position. The Redskins were just daring us to throw as did both SF and Chicago but even when Jackson wasn't doing his patented jump-pass crap and other bad mechanics throws he was consistently throwing behind, ahead and below the receivers. How many deep slants have you seen him throw this year where the receiver is forced to go to the ground to get it thus nullifying YAC.

The goal this time of year when your team is in the hunt is to win football games not continue with some half-baked experiment. Jackson should have been pulled no later than halftime and I'd have pulled him even earlier.

But that's Chili for you. In addition to Jackson taking another step backward, Chili did as well.

I actually think the Cowboys will probably beat the Redskins on Sunday but agree it won't matter because if Jackson starts for us against Dre Bly and Champ I guarantee at least one, if not two, Denver int returns for touchdowns.

Vikes Geek said...

Cabrito,

I will have a post up soon. The loss, however, is merely disappointing rather than surprising. The only surprise was how thoroughly unprepared Minnesota appeared to be to deal with a defensive scheme that they have seen all season. It's difficult to be out-coached by a coach who has been out-coached during most of the 2007 season, but Childress essentially acknowledged that that is what happened on Sunday. As laid out in the most recent post, the Vikings' season will be determined by the team's ability to pass as well as run. At the present, the team is far too one-dimensional. VG

Apologies for the Blackberry syntax.

Cabrito said...

Well, VG, I don't disagree with anything you or Bill says. Obviously TJ is a major liability, as is the coaching staff. Perhaps I've been unfair in criticizing the offensive line so strongly, though I think they might have managed to open one decent hole in three games. To be realistic, however, there's not much that can be done to improve the line at this point, nor the coaching (unfortunately), but I don't think many of my fellow fans will disagree that we need an experienced quarterback for next year. I should also add that we MUST upgrade at the receiver position, so the QB can find an open receiver occasionally. Rice may turn out OK, but nobody else strikes any fear in the hearts of opponents. Unfortunately, very few receivers manage to make a big impression in their rookie years (Randy Moss and Marques Colston are rare exceptions -- last year's "best player in the draft" really wasn't). Therefore, if we want to upgrade immediately, we'll have to go after a veteran free agent. Are there any prospects out there? And what are your thoughts on the tight end position?

bgman said...

At WR, one veteran who should be available is Laveranues Coles. He was banged up this year and is expected to be released by the Jets for salary cap reasons.

He has eight seasons under his belt so he’s not on the downside of his career. Coles is a guy who's good for 80 catches and 1,000 yards (remember him lighting the Vikes up for 12 catches and 144 yards in a game last year?). A tough WR who can make the catch over the middle, but not really a deep threat. Kind of like a Donald Driver type WR.

I like Coles as a No. 1 go-to WR much more than Bernard Berrian, who is more a downfield guy to stretch the field. I would like to see the Vikes take a page out of the Patriots playbook and go after multiple WRs. Having Coles, Berrian, Sidney Rice and Bobby Wade would provide mismatches for opposing defenses and force them to pick their poison.

Of course that still requires a QB who can consistently hit the open receiver.

If anything, I think the Vikes proved they are a good QB and 1 or 2 quality WRs away from being a top 6 or 8 team in the NFL. Upgrading QB and WR will just make AP and the running game even better.

But you're only as good as your weakest link. If you can't make teams pay for selling out to stop the running game, then it doesn’t matter who you have running the ball.