Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Stars and Legends: The Offensive Linemen (continued)

Today we wrap up our look at the best offensive linemen to play the game, with our list of Yesterday's Legends:

The Redskins "Hogs"

The nickname “The Hogs” refers to the offensive line of the Washington Redskins in the 1980’s and early 1990’s.  The original Hogs were center Jeff Bostic, left guard Russ Grimm, right guard Mark May, left tackle George Starke and right tackle Joe Jacoby.  Tight ends Don Warren and Rick Walker were also considered part of the gang.  With a reputation for dominating at the line of scrimmage, the Hogs were instrumental in the Redskins’ victories in Super Bowls XVII (1983), XXII (1988) and XXVI (1992) under head coach Joe Gibbs.  They inspired a group of fans to form the “Hogettes,” a group of men who sit in the stands dresses in drag and wearing plastic pig noses, a tradition that continues today.  By Super Bowl XXVI, some younger players were on the line and deserve mention as “junior” Hogs:  left tackle Jim Lachey, left guard Raleigh McKenzie and right guard Mark “Stinky” Schlereth.  In August 2010, Russ Grimm was the first of the Hogs to be enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Dan Dierdorf (Tackle, St. Louis Cardinals):  Dan Dierdorf attended the University of Michigan and was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in the second round of the 1971 draft.  Dierdorf enjoyed a two-season streak of allowing no sacks in 1976 and 1977.  As a unit, the Cardinals’ O-line allowed the fewest sacks in NFC for five consecutive seasons.  One of those was the 1975 season, when they only allowed a record-setting eight sacks.  Dierdorf was selected to six Pro Bowls and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1996.

Larry Allen (Guard, Dallas Cowboys):  From Sonoma State (California), Larry Allen was drafted by the Cowboys in the second round of the 1994 draft.  Allen is regarded as one of strongest players ever to play, having recorded a bench press of nearly 700 pounds.  He was on the Cowboys’ championship team in Super Bowl XXX and was selected to 11 Pro Bowls, the most of any Cowboys offensive player.  He signed with the San Francisco 49ers for the 2007 season, but signed a contract with Dallas in 2008 so he could retire as a Cowboy.

Art Shell (Tackle, Oakland/LA Raiders):  Art Shell attended Maryland State College (a.k.a. the University of Maryland Eastern Shore) and was drafted by the Raiders in the third round of the 1968 draft.  Missing only five games out of 212, Shell was selected to eight straight Pro Bowls.  He was part of the Raiders’ championships in Super Bowls XI and XV.  After retiring, Art Shell would go on to be the head coach of the Raiders, the Kansas City Chiefs and the Atlanta Falcons; he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1989.

Anthony Munoz (Tackle, Cincinnati Bengals):  Anthony Munoz attended the University of Southern California and was drafted third overall in the 1980 draft.  He only missed 4 games in ten years and caught 4 TDs in career.  Munoz received a variety of honors in his career, including an incredible 11 straight Pro Bowls.  He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1998, the first Bengal to be enshrined.

Jackie Slater (Tackle, LA Rams):  A Jackson State alum, Jackie Slater was drafted by the Rams in the third round of the 1976 draft.  He is tied for third all-time for most seasons played in the NFL.  In 1983, the Rams’ O-line allowed a league-low 23 sacks and helped running back Eric Dickerson beat the rookie rushing record with 1,808 yards.  Selected to seven Pro Bowls in his career, Slater was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 2001.

Jonathan Ogden (Tackle, Baltimore Ravens):  Jonathan Ogden attended the University of California Los Angeles and was drafted fourth overall by the Ravens in the 1996 draft.  His career included a victory in Super Bowl XXXV and two 1-yard touchdown passes.  He was selected to an amazing 11 Pro Bowls, one for each season except his rookie year.

Two final thoughts on this look at the best offensive linemen: 

With exception of Larry Allen, everyone on our list stayed with same team throughout his career. 

Many on the players on our list were drafted by their teams in the third round of the draft or sooner.  Some were even drafted in the top five overall.  This shows that, while the offensive linemen might be invisible to the cameras and fans, those who know—the scouts, coaches and team management—realize the true value of these trench warriors.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Stars and Legends: Offensive Linemen

Today, Naptime Huddle continues its “Stars and Legends” series with a look at some of the best offensive linemen playing today.  Tomorrow we will look at the best of yesterday, including an entire line from the same team in the 1980’s.

Unlike the other positions in football, there aren’t really any statistics to objectively measure an offensive lineman’s performance.  Quarterbacks have a multitude of statistics—completions, interceptions, passing yards, among others—that can be dissected at length and even calculated to arrive at a quarterback rating.  Receivers have catches and touchdowns; running backs have yards rushed; even defenders have tackles, sacks and interceptions. 

Instead of positive stats, numbers for offensive linemen are limited to the negative—penalties against, sacks allowed.  No one keeps track of holes opened, sacks saved, or incompletions prevented.  So, how do you evaluate these monsters in the trenches?  One angle is to look at those “negatives” like a golf score: the lower the number, the better the player.  However, you also need to look at the intangibles, like longevity (the length of his career), consistency (does he play every game?) and the opinions of his peers and coaches, which take aggression, toughness, agility and overall ability into account.  This last intangible often translates into Pro Bowl selections for the best of the best.

So, with all that said, here is a list of some of the greatest in today’s game*:

Stars of Today:

Nick Mangold (Center, New York Jets):  Nick Mangold attended The Ohio State University and was selected 29th overall in the 2008 draft by the Jets.  He has been selected to the Pro Bowl in each of his three seasons in the league.  He has helped young QB Mark Sanchez adjust to the pros by allowing an average of only one sack every 10 games.

Chris Snee (Guard, New York Giants):  Chris Snee attended Boston College and was selected by the Giants in the second round of the 2004 draft.  Snee hasn’t missed a single game in the last six seasons and has only allowed nine sacks in the last four seasons.  He helped the Eli Manning defeat the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII and has earned Pro Bowl selections in the last three seasons.  Oh, and by the way, he’s the son-in-law of Giants head coach Tom Coughlin.  That last fact doesn’t make him one of the best, but it certainly doesn’t hurt his job security.

Joe Thomas (Tackle, Cleveland Browns):  Joe Thomas went to the University of Wisconsin and was drafted third overall in the 2007 draft.  He hasn’t missed a single game in his four-year career and has been selected to the Pro Bowl in each year of his young career.  He hasn’t had the luxury of playing for a playoff-contenting team, but he clearly has talent that will only grow with time.

Jahri Evans (Guard, New Orleans Saints):  Jahri Evans attended tiny Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania, and was selected by the Saints in the fourth round of the 2006 draft.  He has been selected to the Pro Bowl last two seasons and has never missed a game in his five-year career, including the Saints’ Super Bowl XLIV victory over the Indianapolis Colts.  Evans has only given up 8 sacks in first 80 starts and in 2008 he was part of a Saints offensive line that allowed only 13 sacks in 2008, a franchise record.  Evans and the rest of his O-line has also helped quarterback Drew Brees set a multitude of NFL and team records.

Kris Dielman (Guard, San Diego Chargers):  Kris Dielman went to Indiana University, where he actually played tight end and later a defensive lineman.  He was signed as an undrafted free agent by the San Diego Chargers in 2003.  He has only committed 10 penalties in the past three years, and allowed 5.5 sacks in 46 games.  He was part of the O-line for the record-breaking season of running back LaDainian Tomlinson and has been selected to four Pro Bowls (twice as a starter).

*Of course, I have to add our usual caveat:  Reasonable minds will certainly differ about who should be on this list.  In fact, that’s even more true with offensive linemen, for the same reasons stated above.  However, these are names an educated fan should know.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Some Offensive Terms!

Today’s lesson explains two terms that you may have heard without knowing what they meant.  You may have even kept a serious look on your face and continued to watch and nod knowingly.  These terms are the “play action pass” and the “draw.”  After reading the descriptions, you may wonder why these aren’t considered trick plays.  I’ll explain why they're not.

Play Action Pass

In the play action pass, the offense tries to make the defense think that they will run the ball, but they actually want to pass.  This play is set up well if the offense has been relying heavily on the run; the defense is prepared for the run and will commit to defending it. 
When the ball is snapped, the offensive linemen block as if they are trying to open a hole for the running back.  The quarterback acts like he is going to hand the ball to the running back, who runs toward the QB as if he is going to take the ball.  When the two meet, the quarterback pulls the ball back toward him and tries to hide it; he then looks for an open receiver.  The running back continues to run up toward the line of scrimmage as if he has the ball.  At the snap, the receivers get in the act, too, by blocking the cornerbacks as they would in a running play.  However, they quickly break off those blocks and run their routes and look for the quarterback's pass.

The Draw

The draw is pretty much the opposite of a play action pass.  The offensive linemen begin the play in pass protection—i.e., blocking defenders to give the quarterback time to throw instead of opening a hole for the running back.  However, as they pretend to pass protect, they also try to move the defenders in such a way as to create space for the running back.  For his part, the quarterback steps back with the ball as if he is looking for a receiver.  Instead, he hands the ball to the running back, who has been pretending to assist with the pass protection. 
To complete the misdirection, the receivers actually run their routes so that the secondary commits to covering them.  If they do commit to covering the receivers, the defensive backs won’t have time to converge on the running back before he makes a big gain.  A variation of the draw is the quarterback draw, where the quarterback pretends to look for a receiver then keeps the ball and runs down the field himself.

So, why aren’t these considered “trick” plays?  Each involves deception and misdirection:  in the play action, the offense tries to make the defense think it is running when it is actually passing; the draw makes the defense think the play is a pass when it is really a run.  However, the offense is never supposed to telegraph its intentions to the defense.  Defenses need to be prepared for a variety of options depending on the situation and the formation of the offense. 
Trick plays are those that are so rare and involve such unusual actions by the offense that the defense shouldn’t consider them likely.  Play actions and draws are relatively routine and defenses should be expected to prepare for them, especially in certain circumstances.  For example, if an offense has been relying on running plays for the entire game, a defense should eventually consider the play action pass a possibility on any play.

So, now you can watch and nod and KNOW what's going on, right?

Saturday, November 26, 2011

NFL Week 12 Games to Watch: The Main Course

I hope you’ve recovered from your turkey coma and Black Friday shopping to enjoy a weekend of leftovers and football.  There were some great games on Thanksgiving, and we have more to look forward to tomorrow and Monday.  This week’s GTWs are a divisional matchup between two teams heading in opposite directions, and a battle royale between perennial NFC leaders.

Denver Broncos (5-5) @ San Diego Chargers (4-6) (Sunday, 4:15 PM ET, CBS):  This is the tale of two teams:  one has won four of five after a change at the helm; the other has lost five in a row being led under the leadership of an 8-year veteran.  The performance of quarterback Tim Tebow has been analyzed ad nauseum this season, but no one can argue with results.  After starting an abysmal 1 and 4, the Broncos have gone 4 and 1 under Tebow’s leadership and have a .500 record at 5 and 5.  The Chargers, on the other hand, are reliving what has been a recurring theme in the past few seasons: a mediocre start to the season, leaving fans and media to wonder how so much talent can be so consistently inconsistent.  But, in years past, they have managed late season surges to make the playoffs, or at least come very close.  In 2010, they were 4 and 5 before their bye week, and ended the season 9 and 7; in 2009, they went 2 and 3 then won the last 11 game to finish 13 and 3 (only to lose in the first second round of the playoffs after their first week bye); in 2008, they were 4 and 8 at this point in the season, then fought back to finish at 8 and 8, losing again in the second round of the playoffs.  Will history repeat with another late-season surge, or will the Broncos continue to ride the Tebow wave and come crashing down on the San Diego’s postseason hopes?

New York Giants (6-4) @ New Orleans Saints (7-3) (Monday, 8:30 PM ET, ESPN):  Coming into this game on a two-game losing streak, the Giants are definitely the team with more at stake in this one.  They’ve blown their lead in the NFC East and find themselves behind the Dallas Cowboys, since the ‘Boys eked out a victory against the Miami Dolphins on Turkey Day.  Aside from divisional standings, the Giants also want to prove that the past is not prologue: in the past two seasons, collapses in the second half of the season have meant watching the playoffs from the couch at home.  The Saints, though they only have a one-game lead over the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC South, are feeling optimistic about the end of their season.  Including Monday Night’s battle, they will be playing four of their last six games at home, where they are a perfect 4 and 0 this season.  Will they enjoy dome-field advantage once again, or are they in for a letdown against a Giants team with something to prove?

I hope you enjoy the slate of games in the NFL, and don’t forget about college rivalry weekend!  I, for one, will be sequestered at home from noon to about 4:00 watching my Michigan Wolverines against the evil Ohio State Buckeyes.  GO BLUE!!!

Oh, and don’t forget to “like” us on Facebook for game day comments and news!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Gridiron Giving: the Warrick Dunn Family Foundation

You will hear many times this week and throughout the holiday season that this is a time to reflect on all the things we have to be thankful for. Every month of the year, my husband and I reflexively cringe when we check our bank account online and see the debit for our mortgage payment. In the next breath, though, we admit to be thankful that we have a mortgage to pay and that we have been able to keep through these lean times.

Thanks to the Warrick Dunn Family Foundation, this is also a monthly ritual for over one hundred single parents who might not otherwise have been able to realize the dream of home ownership.

Warrick Dunn is a retired NFL running back who played for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Atlanta Falcons. Along with his five siblings, Dunn was raised by his mother, Betty Smothers, who served the city as a police officer and worked as a security officer during her off-hours to support her family on her own as a single mother. Unfortunately, Betty's life was tragically cut short when she was shot in an armed robbery during her off-duty shift. At eighteen years old, Dunn became the head of the house and took on the responsibility of caring for his younger siblings. Smothers was never able to realize her dream of owning a home, but the outpouring of support from the Baton Rouge community enabled Dunn to realize those dreams for her.

Inspired by these experiences, Dunn established the Homes for the Holidays program in Tampa in 1997; the organization followed him to Atlanta and is now administered through the Warrick Dunn Family Foundation, which serves families in Atlanta, Tampa, Tallahassee (where he attended Florida State University) and Baton Rouge.  Last December, the Foundation achieved the incredible milestone of filling their 100th home! 

The goal of the Foundation is not just to give homes to deserving single parents, but to help those parents achieve financial independence. It achieves this mission by helping those single parents who are employed and raising their family without public assistance, but who are just not able to save the money for a down payment. The Foundation carries them that final distance by providing funds toward that down payment; with this hurdle out of the way, the family will have their own mortgage, which they will pay from their own funds.  When the family moves in to their fully furnished home, they will also receive necessities for maintaining the home—e.g., appliances, kitchen supplies, etc. This is truly a hand up, not a handout.

If you’re inspired by Warrick Dunn’s story and his Foundation, I encourage you to visit the Foundation’s website at You can see pictures of some of the recipient families, read stories of home presentations and subscribe to the Foundations e-newsletter, “The Foyer.” You can also learn about the ways you can help, like sponsoring a room for a presentation. People in Atlanta and Tampa can also participate in their annual golf tournaments and other activities.

Thank you for taking the time to learn about the Warrick Dunn Family Foundation. I hope it inspires you to find your own way of giving back, and to let any single parents in your life know how much they are appreciated for their hard work and the sacrifices they make for their families.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Week 12 Games To Watch: Thanksgiving Hors d'Oeuvres

Ok, let’s admit it.  Thanksgiving Day is a wonderful celebration of family, friends and good health.  However, it can also be a day of stress, coping with family (in-laws and own) and smoky kitchens.  For many of you, it may also have been a day to dread because starting at 1:00 PM ET, it was a day of wall-to-wall football.  Husbands mindlessly chomping on the pumpkin pie you made from scratch as they gazed at the screen, oblivious to the blood, sweat and tears you put into their dessert.

My hope, and my goal for starting this blog, is that by reading Naptime Huddle, any dread or resentment you may have felt for football—and the effect it has on your holidays—has been replaced with tolerance, understanding (intellectual and emotional) and, dare I say it, an appreciation for the game.  To further this evolution, I am pleased to announce that there are actually great games on the slate for the holiday!

Football on Thanksgiving is a long-lived American tradition, dating back to the 1920’s.  In addition to the so-called “Thanksgiving Classic” games in the NFL on Thursday, the weekend is traditionally reserved for the biggest rivalry games in college football (to name a few:  Michigan vs. Ohio State, Texas vs. Texas A&M, USC vs. UCLA, Alabama vs. Auburn). 

But, back to the pros… The Detroit Lions have played in the Thanksgiving Classic every year since 1945; the Dallas Cowboys began playing on Turkey Day in 1966, and ever since then both teams have played on the holiday each year (just never against each other).  The NFL Network began broadcasting a night game in 2006, and we’ve been getting a triple helping of football ever since.  So, loosen your belts and prepare to feast: 

1.  Green Bay Backers @ Detroit Lions (12:30 PM ET, FOX):  For the past few years, fans and media alike were asking whether another team should replace the Lions on Thanksgiving.  After all, the Lions haven’t won on Thanksgiving Day since 2003, and many of the recent games weren’t even competitive.  The Lions and the Packers have played each other in the Thanksgiving Classic numerous times, including every year in the span from 1951-1963 (as a matter of fact, that 2003 win was against the Packers).   This year is different.  This year, the Packers are undefeated and the Lions are in second place in the NFC North division with only three losses.  Will the 1972 Dolphins be popping the corks on Thanksgiving?

2.  Miami Dolphins @ Dallas Cowboys (4:15 PM ET, CBS):  With last place in the AFC East, no one is contemplating a late-season surge to carry the Dolphins into the playoffs.  However, QB Matt Moore, who replaced injured Chad Henne, has been on fire, leading the Fins to three straight wins.  Though they will be watching the playoffs from home, there is nothing a down-and-out team loves more than playing the role of spoiler.  The race in the NFC East is a dead heat between the Cowboys, who are riding their own three-game winning streak, and the New York Giants, who are in a two-game skid and play the always-tough New Orleans Saints Monday night.  Will the Cowboys continue their winning ways or will the Dolphins fin-slap them back down to earth?

3.  San Francisco 49ers @ Baltimore Ravens (8:20 PM ET, NFL Network):  This is the game I’m looking forward to the most.  As chronicled previously on NH, the 49ers have quietly earned a 9-1 record, and have a firm grip on first place in the NFC West.  However, with only one opponent with a winning record left on their schedule after this week (the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 15), if the Niners can beat the Ravens, they will give the Packers a run for their money for first place in the NFC, which would give them a first round bye in the playoffs.  The matchup to watch here will be the 49ers offense, which has been using a run-first formula, against the physical, in-the-trenches Ravens defense, which were hobbled last week without its heart and soul, star linebacker Ray Lewis (toe injury).  Both teams are known for their blue-collar, shut-up-and-get-to-work attitudes.  Both teams play to their own strengths instead of basing their game plans on their opponents’ strengths.  Both are successful.  Why are these two teams so similar?  This is the best part:  THEIR HEAD COACHES ARE BROTHERS!  That’s right… Jim (49ers) and John Harbaugh (Ravens) will each be taking an end of the wishbone for Thanksgiving dinner.  For the record, this is the first time in NFL history that head-coaching brothers will face each other.

What’s not to love?!? 

Naptime Huddle wishes you and yours a happy and blessed Thanksgiving, whether you’re sitting at the dining room table or in front of the television.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

He's Got Your Back (the Back Judge)

In the NFL, the games are officiated by a seven-man crew of officials:  the referee (the boss), line judge, head linesman, umpire, side judge, field judge and the back judge.  In prior months we have taken a close look at the jobs of the referee and umpire and the line judge and head linesman.  Today we continue our look at the men in stripes with the back judge. 

If you’ve been watching games on a regular basis, you should have noticed that you can see the referee, umpire, head linesman and line judge throughout a game.  As the officials closest to the line of scrimmage they are in the camera’s view on every play.  Because of his position on the field, the back judge is virtually invisible to the television audience and to the live audience most of the time, too.  However, he has a big role on long pass plays, especially those caught in the end zone.  So, he can go from being the least visible to the most significant official on the field in seconds.

Position:  Before the play, the back judge positions himself about 25 yards downfield from the line of scrimmage, typically toward the side of the field where the tight end is in the formation. 


1.   During the play, he watches the tight end and/or the running back that runs along that side of the field (even if they don’t have the ball).  He will be watching for illegal blocks by the tight end or back and any illegal action by the defenders, such as holding or pass interference.

2.    Between plays, the back judge watches for illegal substitutions and counts the number of players on defense.

3.    The back judge keeps track of the play clock that runs between the end of the prior play and the snap of the football for the next play; 40 seconds or 25 seconds, depending on the situation.  Stadiums all have a large play clock positioned at the ends of the field so that the quarterbacks can see them clearly.  Ideally situated on the field, the back judge keeps that time if the stadium clocks are inoperable and signals the time remaining to the quarterback.  This came into play this past Saturday in the game between the University of Michigan and the visiting Nebraska Cornhuskers.  The scoreboards at the Big House were inoperable during the game, so the back judge had to keep the play clock.  When ten seconds were left on the play clock, he would signal the quarterback by raising his hand above his head.  At the five-second mark, he would motion a countdown by swinging his arm out at shoulder height at one-second intervals (much like they do in basketball to count the seconds that the offense spends on its own end of the court).

4.    He also keeps track of the intermission between the two halves and notifies the visiting head coach when there are five minutes left in the halftime intermission.

5.    Along with rules infractions, the back judge must also rule on catches (complete or incomplete), plays at the end line (the boundary at the back of the end zone), and the illegal touching of loose balls.  This is typically when he is thrust into the spotlight on big plays.

6.   On kicks, the back judge follows the ball on a punt and rules on action in its vicinity.  He also rules on kicking infractions, such as penalties associated with a fair catch and illegal blocks on returns.

7.    Finally, along with the field judge, the back judge rules on field goal and extra point kick attempts.

Whew!  He has a lot to do for a guy in the shadows…

Friday, November 18, 2011

NFL Week 11 Games to Watch

As we approach Thanksgiving, it’s time to start thinking about the race to the postseason and which teams are in contention.  (What, did you think I was going to say that it’s time to think about the things we are thankful for?  This is something to be thankful for!)

For this reason, you’d think I’d have a hard time choosing which games to discuss this week.  I did, but not because there were too many choices.  The fact is, though many teams need to keep winning to stay alive for the postseason, the actual head-to-head battles this week are quite lacking in the excitement category.  We find two examples in the NFC East and one in the NFC West. 

In the NFC East, the Dallas Cowboys (5-4) travel to Washington, DC to face the wayward Redskins, who are circling the drain at 3 and 6.  Dallas needs the win to stay in the division race with the New York Giants (6-3), who play the lackluster Philadelphia Eagles (also 3-6).  Therefore, while these would typically be must-see games (especially the Dallas-DC bout, a classic rivalry), the action won’t give you much to write home about.

In the NFC West, the woeful Arizona Cardinals (at 3-6) will face the 2011 powerhouse San Francisco 49ers.  Again, division rivalries always make for good television, but the 49ers have all but clinched the division title and Arizona’s troubles at quarterback should only help the Niners on their quest for the postseason.

In the sea of ennui that is this week in the NFL, however, I have found one game that has big implications for the playoff and may actually provide some excitement:  the Cincinnati Bengals (6-3) at the Baltimore Ravens (also 6-3) (Sunday, 1:00 PM ET on CBS).  As I mentioned last week, Cincinnati is having a rebound year after injury troubles left the team on the outside looking in come the postseason.  Although much improved from last year with rookie QB Andy Dalton, this is only Cincinnati’s third division game this season.  They won the first against the Cleveland Browns, who are last in the division at 3-6; they lost last week to the first-place Pittsburgh Steelers in a game that was well fought. 

The Ravens, meanwhile, are coming off a shocking loss last week to the 2-7 Seattle Seahawks.  This actually isn’t the first time that the Ravens have lost to a lesser team this season:  they lost to the Tennessee Titans in Week 2 (final score: 26-13) and to the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 7 (final score: 12-7).  In those losses, QB Joe Flacco’s quarterback ratings were 51.2 and 61.0, respectively; in last week’s loss, his rating was 67.4.  So, does that mean anything?  Well, in their six wins, Flacco’s rating averaged 82.4, and that includes a head-scratching 37.4 rating in a win against the New York Jets in Week 4 (without it, he averages 91.42).  Cincinnati’s secondary will be missing cornerback Leon Hall, who is always a threat, but they have excellent depth at the position, with Nate Clements, Pacman Jones and Kelly Jennings.  So, will Flacco carry his team to a redemption win?  Will the Ravens Defense be playing angry after an embarrassing loss (and will that help or hurt)?  Or will Andy Dalton (QB rating average of 82.6, by the way) and the upstart Bengals score their first win against a tough division opponent?

One last note:  This is the last week that any teams will have a bye.  So from Week 12 on, every team will be laboring on Sunday.  Or Monday or Thursday.  Before that, though, the following teams have a bye this week:  Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, New Orleans Saints and Pittsburgh Steelers.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Defensive Formations, Part 2 of 2

And now for part two of our lesson on defensive formations…

The “Prevent” Defense

The name of this formation might be confusing because, well, isn’t it the defense’s job to “prevent” the offense from doing something, no matter what the formation?  Of course!  Here, the defense is aligned to prevent long desperation pass plays.  The offense will try some long, spectacular (if successful) play when it is behind in the score and there is very little time left in the game (say, less than a minute).  To prevent a long completion, such as the “Hail Mary” completion in the endzone, the defense will field seven or eight defensive backs (i.e., safeties and cornerbacks).  Because a team won’t have that many first-string caliber defensive backs, the eighth (or even seventh) back will likely be a wide receiver.   While there will usually be three or four linemen to pressure the quarterback, there will only be one linebacker; there may even be no linebacker at all.  In the image below, the two pairs of dots on the ends of the line of scrimmage represent the cornerbacks, who will run down the field covering the wide receivers.

 Goal Line

As the name would suggest, the Goal Line defense is used in short-yardage situations, either to prevent a touchdown or a first down.   The defense would expect to see a run from the offense in these situations, so it will usually take one or both safeties off the field and bring in additional linemen or linebackers.  Instead of spreading out over the width of the field as in a typical play, the Goal Line defense will cluster closer to the line of scrimmage, and in the middle of the field.  This is where they would expect the quarterback or running back to barrel straight ahead, through the offensive line.  In the image below, however, you will also see one cornerback lined up at each end of the line of scrimmage.  Many times the offense will use a couple of receivers at the goal line, and the defense still needs to be prepared for a pass play.

 The 2-5 defense

This 2-5 defense is actually a variation of the 3-4 defense, which we learned about yesterday.  The missing player is the nose tackle, who is replaced by a linebacker.  The linebacker lines up where the nose tackle would, but is slightly behind the line of scrimmage instead of right on it.  The 2-5 is also known as the “3-4 eagle.”

the Tampa 2 (and cover 2) defense

This is one you will hear a lot from commentators, who will say that a team runs a “Tampa 2 defense.”  The Tampa 2 is not strictly a formation but rather a scheme around which a defensive strategy is based.  Though it was originally developed in the 1970s, the scheme was popularized by former coach Tony Dungy (now a commentator with NBC), who used it with great success during his tenure as the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 1996 through 2001.  Teams typically run the Tampa 2 from a 4-3 formation—four linemen, three linebackers, 2 cornerbacks and 2 safeties.

It is actually very similar to another scheme, the “Cover 2,” which has the same basic alignment, with the safeties taking responsibility for the deep part of the field while the cornerbacks cover the routes of the wide receivers.  The Tampa 2 differs because the middle linebacker drops further back to cover short and medium-length passes in the middle of the field.  The middle linebacker is actually a critical player in this scheme because he not only has to be able to watch for passes in the middle of the field, but he also needs to be able to respond to running plays and close in on a runner as close to the line of scrimmage as possible.  Therefore, the middle linebacker will have to be very quick, a good tackler, and also intelligent.

Now, go forth and impress with your new defensive strategic mindset!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Defensive Formations, Part 1 of 2

A couple of weeks ago, we learned the basic offensive formations in football.  Today, you begin your education of how players can be arranged on the defensive side of the ball.

The 4-3 Defense

We already looked at the 4-3 defense in our discussion of defensive linebackers and linemen.  If you don’t remember, the 4-3 has four defensive linemen and three linebackers.  The remaining four players are the defensive backs in the secondary—two safeties and two cornerbacks.  This formation is effective against the run and the pass.  On passing plays, the middle linebacker will typically cover the running back, while the linebacker on the “strong” side (i.e., the side where the tight end is lined up on offense) covers the tight end and the “weak” side linebacker also covers the running back (if he isn’t blitzing).  Here is what it looks like--the defense is in blue...

The 3-4 Defense

If you understand the 4-3, the 3-4 should be easy.   Instead of four linemen, you have three and a fourth linebacker joins the other three behind the linemen.  The other difference from the 4-3 is that the linemen usually line up directly across from the offensive linemen, instead of in the “gaps” between them, as in the 4-3 (see below); the linebackers will typically attack the gaps instead. (Click here for a refresher on gaps.)

Nickel Defense

In a nickel formation, the defense uses five defensive “backs” (i.e., cornerbacks and safeties).  In other words, there are five players in the secondary; the fifth back is referred to as the “nickelback.”  The formation is called a nickel regardless of how the linemen and linebackers are situated.  Therefore, there can be many variations of the nickel—the 4-2-5, the 3-3-5, etc. (the image below is a 4-2-5). This formation is useful when the offense uses a third wide receiver.

Dime Defense

A natural progression from the nickel, the dime defense uses six defensive backs.  In case you were wondering, the sixth man is called the “dimeback.”  This is typically used in clear passing situations.

 Stay tuned to this space tomorrow for the Prevent Defense, the Goal Line Defense, the 2-5 and the “Tampa Two.”

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Heath Evans Foundation

Like the rest of the nation, I was horrified and outraged to hear about the allegations against the administration at Penn State and its coaching staff regarding its complacency toward Jerry Sandusky and the heinous acts he is accused of committing on the university’s campus.  As the mother of a toddler boy, it is easy to imagine the betrayal felt by the families and victims that could have been saved if just one person had put aside concern for image and success and done the right thing.

As easy as it is to vilify head coach Joe Paterno and the rest of the staff at Penn State, we have to admit that this situation is not an isolated one.  How many times a year do we hear about part of a community turning a blind eye to the indecent acts, or clear suffering, of others?  Remember the incident in Hartford, Connecticut three years ago when a pedestrian was struck by a hit-and-run driver and cars continued to drive past him as he lay in the street?  That may have been an extreme example, but lack of empathy for the weak and victimized is not limited to big-time football programs.

Beginning the week of Thanksgiving and continuing through the holidays, Naptime Huddle will profile several charitable organizations that have been founded by current and former NFL players who are concerned with bettering their communities.  However, I wanted to go ahead and let you know now about an organization devoted to helping the victims of child sex abuse.

Heath Evans is a retired fullback who played for the Seattle Seahawks, Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots and the New Orleans Saints, and is currently a correspondent for the NFL Network.  He and his wife are founders of the Heath Evans Foundation, which is based in Palm Beach Florida and operates in that area and in the greater New Orleans community.  Evans also makes speaking appearances in schools and other venues around the country; he has been interviewed several times on television and radio in the past week.

In addition to raising awareness of the issue of sexual abuse through speaking engagements and events, the Foundation also helps victims and families through counseling.  Through healing, the hope is that the cycle of abuse will stop with the victim and that the victim will not let him- or herself be defined by the past.  The Foundation also trains workforces on recognizing the signs of abuse and provides resources for parents and the general public.

I hope you will take a moment to check out the Foundation’s website at  Donations are always welcome, but you should also check out their Resources page, and particularly their open letter, “What Every Parent Should Know.”  Also, the Foundation’s Facebook page posts updates on Foundation events, Heath’s interviews and other developments.

Thank you for taking the time to read today’s post.  I hope it will help you process what has happened this past week.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

NFL Week 10 Games to Watch; Mid-Season Report

Welcome to Week 10 in the NFL!  You get a two-for-one special today:  the Games to Watch (GTWs) for Week 10, and my thoughts on the 2011 season, now half over.

Week 10 Games to Watch

New Orleans Saints (6-3) @ Atlanta Falcons (5-3) (Sunday, 1:00 PM ET, FOX):  After a shaky start to the season, the offensive line for the Atlanta Falcons is much improved, allowing Matt Ryan to remind Falcons fans why they fell in love with him as a rookie.  In the first five games of the season, of which the Falcons won only two, Ryan threw for 7 touchdowns and 6 interceptions, and was sacked an alarming 14 times.  The team is now on a three-game winning streak, with Ryan throwing for 5 touchdowns, 3 interceptions and only 5 sacks.  Though the Falcons’ O-line has let Ryan be hit 47 times this season (sixth in the league), sacks have gone way down in the last few games.  The New Orleans Saints defense ranks 12th in the league in sacks, at 20 for the season, tied with five other teams.  Atlanta ranks at a meager 25th in sacks, so look for both QBs to have time to look down the field.

Pittsburgh Steelers (6-2) @ Cincinnati Bengals (6-2) (Sunday, 1:00 PM ET, CBS):  As you will see below, the story of the Bengals’ season has been one of the more overlooked this season.  Their rise to the top of the AFC North division has been sneaky and quiet, though rookie QB Andy Dalton has gotten his share of attention in the media.  However, Sunday is the day the Bengals need to prove that they are worthy of their 6-2 record.  The only division opponent they have faced this season is the lowly Cleveland Browns team, who have only won three games this year.  For their part, the Steelers are coming off a stinging loss to the Baltimore Ravens last week and will be looking to bounce—no, clobber—back against the Bengals.  Though the stout Steelers defense is always a threat for QBs, the young Dalton will have a bit of break as Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley is out with a hamstring injury; linebacker James Harrison is listed as “probable” to play, but has a toe injury that may keep him out of some plays.

New York Giants (6-2) @ San Francisco 49ers (7-1) (Sunday, 4:15 PM ET, FOX):  Even though this isn’t a intra-division game, it is still critical for the standings in the NFC.  Both teams are in commanding lead in their divisions: the Giants have a two-game lead over the second-place Dallas Cowboys in the NFC East, and the 49ers are running away with the NFC West, with a 5-game lead over the Seattle Seahawks and the Arizona Cardinals.  The Niners are my other favorite story of the season (see below).  Quarterback Alex Smith has thrived under the coaching of Jim Harbaugh, having the best season of his six-year career, despite having no offseason to become familiar with the rookie head coach’s game plan.  Meanwhile, Giants QB Eli Manning has been pulling off incredible fourth-quarter performances to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in each game this season.  The question is whether it will come down to the last fifteen minutes of the game once again or if the Giants defense can let Manning and the offense maintain a lead, if they get it.  The Giants defense is ranked 19th in the league overall but a below-average 24th against the run, which has been the 49ers’ bread and butter so far this season—the Niners are 6th in rushing offense.

New England Patriots (5-3) @ New York Jets (5-3) (Sunday, 8:20 PM ET, NBC):  OK, this is the fifth time each of these teams has appeared in the NH Games-to-Watch series (see the full break-down, below), including the game between these two in Week 5, which the Pats won.  I will probably always list them among the week’s best, because the pure hatred that exists between the two squads will always provide good entertainment.  The only thing I’ll add this week is that the Jets are on an upswing in a 3-0 run and the Pats have lost two in a row.  Look to see if Tom Brady manages to find Chad Ochocino down the field after the receiver came up empty last week.

GTW Break-Down

In the interest of full disclosure, I thought I’d give you a list of all the teams with the number of times that each has been profiled in the GTW series (in case you weren’t already counting).  Here they are, in the order of frequency:

5 Mentions:

New England Patriots
New York Jets

4 Mentions:

Atlanta Falcons
Chicago Bears
Dallas Cowboys
Detroit Lions
New York Giants
Philadelphia Eagles

3 Mentions:

New Orleans Saints
San Diego Chargers
Washington Redskins

2 Mentions:

Arizona Cardinals
Baltimore Ravens
Buffalo Bills
Carolina Panthers
Cincinnati Bengals
Denver Broncos
Green Bay Packers
Kansas City Chiefs
Minnesota Vikings
Pittsburgh Steelers
Oakland Raiders
San Francisco 49ers
St. Louis Rams
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

1 Mention:

Houston Texans
Indianapolis Colts
Miami Dolphins
Tennessee Titans

[gasp] No Mentions:

Cleveland Browns
Jacksonville Jaguars
Seattle Seahawks

Just so you know, I base my GTW choices on the matchups that I think will be most compelling.  Therefore, I won’t pick a game where you can expect one team to blow the other out.  I also won’t write about a game with two terrible teams; I’m not going to suggest that you invest 3 hours in a game of field goals.

Mid-Season Report

We are now halfway through the season, with each team having played at least eight games.  In case you’re interested, here is a link to the standings by division.

Now for a couple of comments.  The big stories of the season, chronicled here on Naptime Huddle and elsewhere, have been the early collapse of the Philadelphia “Dream Team” Eagles, the impressive performances of rookie QB Cam Newton, whose Carolina Panthers have only won two games, the resurgent Detroit Lions, and the Age of Tebow that has begun in Denver.  There are also cases of collective depression developing in Indianapolis and Minnesota, brought on by the exposure of their teams’ weaknesses without effective quarterbacks.

But for me, two stories stand out for their interest, and the virtual lack of attention from the national media.  The first is the remarkable turnaround in San Francisco, where the 49ers, who finished with 6 wins and 10 losses in 2010 are already on the verge of locking up the NFC West championship.  With no significant changes to its roster from last year, the success of the 49ers can be attributed to NFL rookie head coach Jim Harbaugh, who ruffled feathers a few weeks ago with his borderline-inappropriate post-game handshake with Lions head coach Jim Schwartz.  I found an interesting article (click here) on the results of Harbaugh’s coaching in an article on Sports Illustrated’s website.  In the article, Kerry Byrne analyzes the 49ers efficiency on offense and defense based on a formula that calculates a team’s Scoreability (offensive efficiency) and Bendability (defensive efficiency).  I highly recommend reading it.  In summary, compared to the rest of the league, the 49ers require the fewest yards gained per point scored and they force their opponents to gain the most yards for each point they earn.

The other story that hasn’t gotten much attention is how the Cincinnati Bengals have quietly worked their way to a 6-2 record, which puts them in a tie for first in the AFC North.  Now, the Bengals have only faced one division opponent, the Cleveland Browns, so they still need to prove that they can win games in their always tough division.  But, last year the Bengals finished with 4 wins and 12 losses, at the very bottom of their division.  The difference?  One major difference is rookie QB Andy Dalton, who replaced disgruntled veteran QB Carson Palmer (who is currently fumbling—or, rather, intercepting—his way in the role of duct tape-QB for the Oakland Raiders).  The other difference is that Dalton and his teammates have managed to avoid injury, unlike last year when a team with Super Bowl dreams found itself literally limping through the season.  The second half of the 2011 season will be the true test of their heart and ability, with five of their last eight games against their division rivals.