Shanahan: NFL defenses no longer dealing with option anxiety
The Washington Redskins knew this was coming, and they did as much as possible to prepare for it. No, not more furor over the team's name, but the fact that NFL defenses would find new ways to mitigate their high-octane combination of option plays, play-action and designed runs from quarterback Robert Griffin III. In his rookie season, Griffin set the league alight in an offense perfectly tailored to his strengths. But now, things are problematic in the nation's capital. Griffin's numbers have been down across the board -- from 7.05 to 6.36 in net yards per attempt, from 5.1% to 3.6% in touchdown rate, and from seventh to 18th in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted per-play efficiency metrics.
San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick has undergone a similar crash into reality, though his performances against the Green Bay Packers in Week 1 and the St. Louis Rams on Thursday night seem to indicate that all is not lost. And Seattle's Russell Wilson has had issues connecting with his receivers this season.
On Friday, Washington offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said that it's pretty clear -- defenses have adjusted to what they've seen, and the burden is now on those designing offenses to alter their attacks.
“You knew any time you get the attention that we did, that San Francisco did, Seattle did last year, when you have something that was that successful, guys are too smart. They’re gonna work all offseason, find a way to stop it. I think when that happens, you’ve got to get better at the other stuff. I think we do have some other stuff. I think we are getting better at it. We did some of the stuff last year, too. But the thing about last year was, a lot of people weren’t ready for it at all. So it was easy at times.
“Now it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t work. It’s just not as -- you’re not shocking people like you were last year. And when teams are completely committed to stopping something, I don’t care what it is, they’re gonna stop it. And you’ve got to do other stuff and make them worry about other stuff before you want to come back to that and attack it.”
Defenses are adapting in different ways. You will see teams spying Griffin and other mobile quarterbacks who throw with consistency from different parts of the formation. The implementation of "scrape-exchange" techniques, in which ends and linebackers are tasked more specifically to deal with particular aspects of the option schemes, has made a difference as well. Moreover, defenses are looking to stay in their lanes and wait for offenses to show their hand, leaving offenses with less of an effect when they show multiple mesh points.
"[There are] certain ways you knew they’d stop it -- just go get the quarterback, not allow him to run, make him hand it off every time, overload the defense, put everybody over there, take a safety out of the middle of the field and bring him down so you’re outnumbered," Shanahan continued. "There’s not too many options. Those are all the obvious options that do stop it.
“When teams do that, it leaves holes other places. And when you have holes other places, how automatic are you at executing those plays that attack that? I don’t think we have been in all those areas. I think we’ve been a little hit or miss. We’ve just got to continue to be better cleaning all that up.”
That's not to say that new wrinkles aren't working -- Chip Kelly has confounded defenses with certain new looks this season, and running back LeSean McCoy has been incredibly productive as a result. But any coach of coordinator thinking that they were going to get by with the same old same old would be in for a rude awakening.
"There is a little bit of an emphasis of coming after the quarterback," Seattle head coach Pete Carroll told me on Friday. "I think you saw that right from Week 1 -- the Packers went after the 49ers pretty good. They were making a statement that they were trying to hit him before he could get going. With the effort that everybody made in the offseason, everybody's tuned in better. But it's just subtle differences -- it's not much of a difference. It just seems that defensive ends and outside linebackers are not sitting on the quarterbacks as much as they did before. There hasn't been enough yet to know if there's really a trend change, but I've noticed that so far."
Coverage plays a part as well. For Griffin and Kaepernick especially, seeing defenses clamp down on first-read receivers, and forcing them to go through their progressions in the pocket, will limit what can be done when the option template says to go for what you know.
“I’m not going to get into the strategic part of it, but really, across the board, the execution needs to be better and I think we can do that," 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman said on Tuesday, two days after Kaepernick was limited to 13 completions in 27 attempts for 150 yards, no touchdowns, and one interception against the Colts in a 27-7 loss. "We have the capacity to do that. We have the means to do it. It’s something that it’s not just one little thing. But, and every play is a little bit different. And we’ve all seen him pull it down and have a big scramble. And all the circumstances, the rush lanes, the defense, are they just winging it up the field? Are they staying disciplined? Is there a rush lane? All those different little things.”
Kaepernick has proven able to take care of those different little things when the impetus is not to run -- or, more specifically, when San Francisco's run game leaves things open for him as a pure quarterback. And in the end, no matter how athletic the new wave of quarterbacks may be, they will all be defined by their abilities to operate from the pocket in key situations. The new wrinkles notwithstanding, defenses will continue to grade on a sharp curve, bringing the inevitabilities of quarterback success back to the forefront. That's what the new kids will be left with once the schematic shock has worn off.