Every week, Doug Farrar and Chris Burke break down key plays from the previous week, and examine concepts you may see more often down the road.
Back to the Future: The (not so) new Reggie Bush
In 2012, the Detroit Lions set an NFL record with 740 pass attempts. They lined up in the shotgun formation on 71 percent of their offensive plays, also an NFL record, as far as we can tell. The 2007 New England Patriots were the first NFL team to run more than half their plays out of shotgun, and that trend has increased over time, but what the Lions did last year was extreme, even in that sphere.
In an effort to regain some sense of balance, the Lions signed running back Reggie Bush to a four-year, $16 million contract in March, and Bush started earning every bit of that deal in Week 1, becoming the third back in franchise history to gain at least 90 rushing yards and 100 receiving yards in the same game. The other two? Barry Sanders and Billy Sims. Bush is about as different stylistically from Sanders and Sims as he possibly could be. But in the Lions' new offense, he has extreme value, and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan has smartly asked Bush to do many of the things that have marked the best parts of his up-and-down NFL career.
In the New Orleans Saints' Super Bowl season of 2009, one of Sean Payton's primary offensive concepts was to attack base defenses with Bush in the backfield. Not as a runner, but in the passing game. Bush would be a receiver from the backfield, or motion to the slot pre-snap. The idea was simple -- force nickel coverage over time, and take a linebacker off the field, by getting one of those linebackers to think, "Oh, [bleep] -- I can't cover this guy." And in Bush's case, that linebacker was usually right. Even with the new trend of lighter, faster, half-field defenders at the linebacker position, Bush creates impressive advantages in the passing game because he's able to present linebackers with impossible problems.
In their 34-24 Week 1 win over the Minnesota Vikings, the Lions presented those same kinds of issues. Bush caught four passes for 101 yards, including a 77-yard touchdown. We'll get to that touchdown pass in a second, but I found Bush's first catch of the day to be equally interesting.
13:33 left in the first quarter -- Bush moves out from the backfield to the slot, and linebacker Chad Greenway moves to cover.
The Lions run a 3X1 set to keep the defense spread out, and Bush stays at the line. He catches a quick screen from Matthew Stafford, and takes off upfield. Center Dominic Raiola checks his man at the line and heads upfield to block Greenway (52) out of the play, Bush trucks through the lane for a 13-yard gain.
Raiola's upfield block is a key part of the play, and the Lions are already implementing their offensive linemen as second-level blockers in some interesting ways. This also mirrors how Bush was used in New Orleans -- right guard Jahri Evans was especially adept at getting to the second and even third level (cornerback/safety depth) to take out potential tacklers.
On Bush's long touchdown (below), he had two escorts from the line, and Greenway was once again his huckleberry. This time, the Vikings had cornerback Josh Robinson in the left slot covering Calvin Johnson, but that still left Greenway reading Bush in nickel coverage.
5:58 left in the third quarter -- After the ball is snapped, Bush takes a few side-steps to the right, and Greenway drops back into shallow coverage.
Tight end Brandon Pettigrew (far left) announces his presence with authority, and the Lions have a 3X3 downfield blocking matchup before Bush even gets there. He bides his time by lapping Greenway before taking it to the house.
So, the notion that Bush made something out of nothing over and over is a disservice to a group of blockers who bought into their new teammate as a bonafide offensive weapon. Head coach Jim Schwartz talked about this after the game.
"He did make something out of nothing a few times," Schwartz said. "I thought there were some big holes also. I thought Pettigrew blocked very well in this game. Particularly some of the behind-the-ball stuff that we do with him. The way the coverage was. Particularly early in the game. Later in the game, they got out of their two-deep coverage and they started pressing the line more because they were having problems stopping the run and that’s been something we have struggled to do against those guys for a long time. We haven’t been able to get them out of their two-deep coverage. Having to make them pay for playing late in the box, Reggie was able to do. I think it was combination of all things. The effect that the passing game had on the schemes that they're playing, the blocking of our tight ends, the blocking of our offensive line and the running of our running backs. I think all of it played a factor.”
Bush is a player that can help any offense as long as the guy running that offense knows how to use him. It's already clear that in setting him up as the team's most effective offensive chip not named Calvin Johnson, the Lions' coaching staff has done what all good staffs do -- use a specific player's skill set to attack defenses in the best possible ways.
Better protection means more consistency for Jay Cutler
It could be argued that until the Chicago Bears hired Marc Trestman in January, Jay Cutler hadn't had an offensive coach with a clue about quarterback protection since Mike Shanahan selected him in the first round of the 2006 draft for the Denver Broncos. From 2009 through '12 with the Bears, Cutler has had Ron Turner, Mike Martz and Mike Tice calling plays for him. Turner managed to combine offensive inflexibility with protection weaknesses in some very "unique" ways, Martz has always sacrificed quarterback safety at the altar of formation diversity and Tice didn't even install line protections in the preseason. When the Bears hired Trestman, a former CFL head coach and NFL quarterback guru, one had a sense that things were going to be different. Chicago brought in free-agent tackle Jermon Bushrod and selected Oregon lineman Kyle Long in the first round of the 2013 draft, and Trestman installed a timing-and-rhythm passing game to give Cutler more options and more time in the pocket to consider them.
In Chicago's 24-21 season-opening win over the Cincinnati Bengals, Cutler reaped the benefits of Trestman's ideology, and looked like a different quarterback. As detailed when we went under the hood with Cutler's tape in our "Fixing the QBs" series, Cutler has perhaps the most admirable arm talent in the NFL, but he's mechanically inconsistent at best, and his rogue tendencies are amplified by protection issues. As we did with the Lions, let's look at one early play, and how it set things up for a key score later in the game.
Cutler hit Brandon Marshall on an 18-yard pass with 11:08 left in the first quarter, which got the Bears down to the Bengals' 12-yard line. It was a pretty stick throw into tight coverage, which Cutler is more than capable of making, but what really blew me away on this play was the protection.
This looks to be a 6-on-6 matchup, as the Bengals send a dual A-gap blitz look, and running back Matt Forte is available to block from the backfield. But linebacker Vontaze Burfict and safety Taylor Mays drop into flat coverages at the snap.
Rookie right tackle Jordan Mills and Kyle Long double-team the three-tech tackle, left guard Matt Slauson covers Michael Johnson (93, left), and RB Matt Forte crosses the formation to make a forceful block on Carlos Dunlap (red square). Cutler has a totally clean pocket, and LT Jermon Bushrod is available to pick up any blindside pressure.
Because he had a clean pocket, Cutler could throw with anticipation to a receiver he trusted, and Marshall grabbed the ball with great timing, past a converging Burfict.
“I just wanted him to feel like we can get through the first quarter with this young line," Trestman said of Cutler after the game. "Whatever happens, at least we know what we’ve got. They blitzed us, they got some edges on us. I thought our five guys did a very good job today protecting him. He [Cutler] had to stand-in on two or three occasion waiting on Brandon to come open on a fade route to the outside. They bumped him, but Brandon fought through it. Jay had to sit in and wait on it two or three times."
And that's another important point when discussing the value of protection -- quarterbacks must adjust their timing to deal with receivers that are re-routed by tight man coverage. Cutler was able to do so against the Bengals. He wasn't sacked at all, and he endured just four quarterback hits. By the fourth quarter, his confidence had increased, and that led to the touchdown pass to Marshall.
8:06 left in the game, at the Bengals' 19-yard line -- Cincinnati brings James Harrison on a blitz, but the inside protection again allows Bushrod (yellow box) to await edge pressure.
Cutler doesn't just have textbook protection -- he also has a throwing lane a mile wide. He drives the ball with tight mechanics ...
... and Brandon Marshall grabs the game-winning touchdown.
“They brought James off the edge," Cutler said of that play. "The line did a good job picking him up. They doubled [tight end] Martellus [Bennett] going down the middle, flipped it back and jumped [receiver] Alshon [Jeffery]. Marshall was one-on-one in the corner, which you love to throw. I put one up for him. Wish I could have thrown it sooner so he might not have had to take that hit, but he did good job of catching it, clutching it.”
On the play before the Marshall touchdown, Trestman showed his confidence in his line by calling a run play on fourth-and-inches from the Cincinnati 27-yard line. Running back Matt Forte careened around the right side of the formation for an eight-yard gain, and it seemed that the transformation of Chicago's offensive line was complete.
“That’s what Trestman’s about," Cutler said. "He’s going to roll the dice. He believes in us on offense. The way those two guys were playing up front, really all five of those guys, we could’ve called pretty much anything we wanted. It’s hard in the NFL to burn out the clock in the last four or five minutes running the ball and that’s what we did ... the guys did a heck of a job firing off the ball and making sure we got two, three, four or five yards a clip during that four-minute drill.”
Indeed. The Bears held the ball for the last 6:38 minutes of the game and 12:21 in the fourth quarter, which must have seemed miraculous to those used to the Turner/Martz/Tice days. Extending drives with confident players? Amazing what a little protection will do ...