As I started looking through game tapes from last weekend, I found several interesting twists to game plans around the league. I have been impressed by what Jim Haslett has been able to accomplish in two short weeks in St. Louis with just a few basic adjustments. And defenses seem to be catching up with the high-flying offenses that have been putting big points up on the board.
Here's just some of what I'm seeing:
Haslett breathes life into Rams
Scott Linehan had gotten sour in St. Louis. His replacement Jim Haslett is not only a guy who brings some NFL head coaching experience to the table, but he has experience bringing together a team in turmoil. Haslett -- the 2000 NFL Coach of the Year -- helped lead the Saints through a tumultuous 2005 season that was devastated by Hurricane Katrina and her aftermath. He was the perfect guy to stabilize a team that was emotionally out of whack.
He did that by making life simple for the players. He just made it about winning. Defensive tackle Cliff Ryan told me that one of the first things Haslett did was to walk into the defensive meeting room and take down all the stat sheets and goal sheets for the defense. Stats don't matter in the Rams' world anymore; just going out and trying to win games does. He also reinstated Marc Bulger as the QB and went to offensive coordinator Al Saunders and put an emphasis on running the ball, in any and all situations. The two even came up with a tackle-over alignment where LT Adam Goldberg moves to the right side of the formation, to create more run opportunities.
St. Louis has won its last two games, beating two strong NFC East teams in Dallas and Washington, and they did it without LT Orlando Pace. They did it with effort and hustle. Haslett has a tremendous passer in Bulger, if he can protect him, and one of the game's best RBs in Steven Jackson. Bulger and Jackson will keep the Rams in games if they are healthy. But Jackson is already nursing a leg injury, and this is a team that has deficiencies in the secondary and on the O-line, particularly with interior pressure. That will limit what they can do against good teams. Still, Haslett has a clause in his contract that says he gets the job full-time if he wins six games, and the Rams will face four more teams with losing records. Watch to see how the team responds.
Defending the Wildcat
I had a conversation with Bill Cowher a couple of weeks ago about the best way to defend the Dolphins' "Wildcat" offense. What we talked about was a plan that included blitzing Ronnie Brown. Last week, the Baltimore Ravens did a great job against the Dolphins, limiting Brown to 27 rushing yards and holding him without a score for the first time in weeks.
When I had the chance to talk to Ravens coach John Harbaugh this week, he deflected all the praise toward his linebackers coach, Greg Mattison, who used to coach for Florida in the college ranks and had experience defending against Arkansas and some other SEC teams that run a similar offensive package. Harbaugh explained that they don't fear the pass in that situation, so they play man coverage with the corners and fill the interior gaps. The key is for the outside defenders, either the ends or the OLBs, to play contain and force Brown back inside where he will be wrapped up by those defenders filling the interior gaps. It looks like a blitz, and basically dares Brown to throw the ball instead of running out on the edges.
Carolina vs. the long ball
The Panthers were able to effectively shut down New Orleans' explosive passing game in their NFC South battle with the Saints on Sunday, leading to what became a blowout victory at home. Why were they able to do it? Well, they are good in the secondary and were able to play something NFL coaches call quarters coverage with four defenders each defending a quarter of the field in deep coverage.
If a defense shows Saints QB Drew Brees "under" coverage, then the receivers' routes can be converted to vertical routes. If the defense shows quarter coverage, then the routes convert to shorter possession routes. Athletically, Carolina corners Ken Lucas and Chris Gamble matchup very well on the Saints' perimeter receivers, which forced Brees to check down to his interior targets like TE Jeremy Shockey, who led the team with five catches. This allowed the DBs to rally up to the ball and tackle, which is something Carolina does well on defense. The Saints are built to outscore their opponents, and they struggle to do that when they are forced to dink and dunk their way down the field.
The way to beat that kind of coverage is to flood a quarter of the field with a deep crossing route running behind a 10-12 stop route, which is what Carolina can expect this week when they face the Arizona Cardinals, who run a similar passing attack to that of the Saints. Cards WR Steve Breaston has great speed and will run the deep cross behind Larry Fitzgerald's stop route. This is called playing over-under on the corner.
The key to this type of strategy is protection, and that's where the Cardinals have to be concerned this week. The deep cross takes a long time to play out, and LT Mike Gandy faces off with DE Julius Peppers, who has been playing very well. Gandy will need help, and he will get it from RB Edgerrin James, who is a very good blocker. But the Panthers move Peppers all over the place, so it will be important for James to locate Peppers and get into position to pick up the protection. If given time, QB Kurt Warner could have a big day. If Peppers is able to get pressure, it will be a long day for the Cardinals.