NFL Film Breakdown: How the Chicago Bears Defense Confuses QBs into Making Mistakes and Taking Sacks

The Bears defense is alive and well. Akiem Hicks is back and disrupting plays with 13 QB hits and 5 tackles for loss, Khalil Mack has 5.5 sacks on the season, Eddie Jackson is one of the best safeties in the league, and Kyle Fuller is allowing just a 51.5% completion percent. To have a truly elite defense, you need to have a secondary and front that work together. The Bears like to move their secondary players around at the snap to force quarterbacks to diagnose things on the fly and adjust in real time. It can cause them to make poor decisions or hold the ball for a half second longer to allow the Bears pass rush to get home. It sounds simple but being static can often be a death sentence for defenses. If you don’t give teams something to think about at the snap, you’re conceding that it’s going to be your guys versus theirs. Moving your pieces around gives the advantage back to the defenses and is part of the reason why Chicago has allowed just 58.7% of passes to be completed this season.

Note: If you prefer to watch a video breakdown, scroll to the bottom of this article.

https://theathletic.com/791467/2019/01/30/already-compared-to-ed-reed-how-good-can-eddie-jackson-be-paired-with-chuck-pagano/

The Bears are predominantly a one high safety team and play a lot of Cover 3 and Cover 1. They’ll often show two high safeties though because they want to force quarterbacks to process and figure out what’s going on post-snap. At the snap of the ball or leading up to the snap, they’ll rotate their safeties to change their pre-snap look. Often, this leads them to running Cover 1 Robber. Cover 1 just means that there is one high safety and man coverage everywhere else on the field. Robber is describing the action of the other safety because he is going to drop down at the snap and “rob” the middle of the field. This Robber player is free to jump any routes that flash in front of him. Cover 1 Robber can be used to prevent slants, quick hitting hooks underneath, or crossing routes. Here, the Giants are running a common play which is a chains concept where the receivers get to the first down marker and turn around for the ball. The Bears are running their Cover 1 Robber to the trips side so that they can help Roquan Smith in coverage. Smith knows that there’s a robber behind him so he can now bracket to the inside of the tight end. The corner to the top of the screen also knows he can play with outside leverage and funnel inside because the Robber will be there to pick up any crossers. The Robber frees up other players to play with more conservative leverage and funnel things inside to both the free safety over the top and the robber over the middle. Daniel Jones here is reading that Roquan smith is way inside on his tight end, so he’s determining pre-snap that’s the route that he wants. The tight end is going to turn around right at the sticks and with two safeties over the top and with leverage on the linebacker, it should be an easy completion. What Jones doesn’t see though, is Eddie Jackson dropping down to rob the route. Jackson knows the routes are coming based on down and distance and keys off of Jones’ eyes. He breaks on the route and causes the ball to pop up into the air.

You can see in this play how Cover 1 Robber looks when coming down on a crossing route. The Bears show two high before the late rotate back to centerfield by Tashaun Gipson and the Robber, Eddie Jackson, sits right in the middle of the field waiting for a an in-breaking route to rob. The Lions are running a dig route across the middle of the field and Eddie Jackson is sitting in the deep hole ready to break on it. Stafford doesn’t see it, and Jackson is able to break on it and pop the ball into the air again for an interception.

Really this robber look is just designed to cause hesitation on routes in the middle of the field, set the safety up with angles to make a play on the ball, or force the offense to make throws outside where the Bears are getting great play out of their corners Kyle Fuller and their rookie Jaylon Johnson.

For example, here the Falcons use pre-snap motion to try and diagnose what the Bears are doing. When the receiver shifts over and the corner comes with him, that’s a man coverage indicator. You pair that with two high safeties, and you expect to see 2 Man Under which gives the defense two deep players in each half of the field and man coverage underneath. So, if you’re Matt Ryan, what’s a route that you love here? The Falcons are running two crossers behind each other across the field. Based on leverage and having a shallow drag route to the top of the screen, he’s going to want to hit the first crosser because that receiver has inside leverage on the slot defender. The shallow by the tight end at the top will pull the defender to that side, and he sees the boundary side safety getting depth on the snap. What he doesn’t expect is for Eddie Jackson to again be in that Robber look coming down from the four-receiver side. Jackson comes down right in front of that crosser which is where Ryan is looking first. Ryan sees that the crosser is bracketed but by that time is feeling pressure. He has to come off the read, and throws short for an incompletion.  

Similar to Cover 1 Robber, the Bears also use jump calls against teams that like to run a lot of crossers like the Rams in Week 7. The Rams run a ton of tight formations and drag their receivers across on deep over routes in their play-action game. The Bears’ method of combatting that was to use Jump calls. A Jump call is very similar to using a Robber, but it takes a little more communication and understanding from the defense. With a Jump call, the safety is coming down on the crossing route and the corner that was initially over that route replaces them in the middle of the field instead of chasing them across. The Bears use this coverage on the single receiver side of the formation so that that corner isn’t going to be immediately threatened in their half of the field when they vacate it. For the purposes of this play, the slice behind the formation by the receiver in the slot turns this into a single receiver side to the bottom of the screen after the snap of the ball. This Jump call allows the Bears to keep the integrity of their defense and bypass traffic in the middle of the field while picking up crossers from the safety position with an angle to make the tackle or a play on the ball.

So, the Bears run a lot of the Cover 1 Robber, typically with the Robber coming from the trips side and they’ll also use those Jump calls. They’ll also invert that and show a one-high safety look and then bail out of it into Cover 2 Trap, also called Palms. Palms is popular against spread formations and two receiver sets which is what we have here against the Panthers. It’s essentially Cover 2 with match coverage principles tied into it. The corners on the outside are keying the #2 receivers on the inside. If they have an outbreaking route, they’re going to carry the #1 until they see it and then drop to jump the out route by #2. If that’s the case, the safety over the top would then pick up #1 as they go vertical. The linebackers then help to bracket any in breaking crossers like a dig or slant.

That’s what the Bears are running here. The problem that Teddy Bridgewater and the Panthers have is that Chicago is showing single high which either means Cover 1 or Cover 3. In either case, Teddy likes the matchups and leverage of his routes to the top of the screen. The #1 goes vertical, the #2 runs a wheel right behind it, and the running back runs an arrow out into the flats. In the Bears Palms coverage, the corner is going to pass off that vertical to the safety coming over the top and jump the outbreaking route from the #2. He then carries that wheel up the sideline since he is now in man coverage on that route. The slot defender is bracketing but has no in breakers, so he runs with the running back to the flats. Everything is covered. Normally, though, in a Cover 3 or in man, that initial vertical would pull the corner deep. The #2 running the wheel route would be carried by the slot defender who would normally have the flats in cover 3 and now there would be no flat defender to pick up that running back since that defender carried the wheel. In Cover 1, you’d be one-on-one with your running back on a linebacker in man. All matchups you’d probably like. So, Teddy looks that way off the snap but then sees the Bears are rotating into that Cover 2 look with two high safeties and the safety getting over the top of the vertical from #1. He knows that that side of the field is going to be covered and tries to get back over to the bottom of the screen.  By then, though, the corner has broken on the slant from Robby Anderson, Teddy has to move out of the pocket, and the Bears close in for a sack. It’s the perfect marriage of coverage and pressure and is what makes these rotates and post-snap movements so effective for defenses. One second of pause from the QB and all the sudden your pass rush can get home for a big play to put the Panthers on their own one yard line.

Here’s another example of Cover 2 at the bottom of the screen with the Bears again giving a late rotate into the two high safety look. The corner is again keying the #2 receiver for an out-breaking route and leaving any crosser or vertical route for the safety or the linebacker. The corner takes the quick out and the linebacker now brackets and gets inside of the post from the #1. Bridgewater knows the Bears like to have their robber to the trips side and the Bears had run a single high look with man coverage earlier in this game against the Panthers’ empty formations so that’s exactly what Bridgewater is looking for here.

The Bears instead rotate the middle field safety over and drop Eddie Jackson into the deep seem to the trips side. Normally, offenses will have reads versus defenses when they’re showing middle of the field open with two high safeties versus middle of the field closed versus one high safety. In this case, DJ Moore has an option route of running a dig versus 1 high or a post versus a 2-high look. You want to attack the weakness of the defense. Because of the strong rush and the late rotate, Teddy still thinks it’s a 1 high look and either man or Cover 3 so he’s expecting a dig from DJ Moore. Meanwhile, Moore is seeing the rotate by the safety and breaks for a post to exploit that vacated middle of the field – which really is wide open if Teddy throws the ball down the field. There’s absolutely nobody there. But because he doesn’t see the rotate and the rush is getting home, he throws the dig right into the linebacker who has bracketed the in-breaking route. It’s an interception that ultimately seals the game and prevents the Panthers from continuing their potential game tying drive.

The Bears are sitting at 5-2 and are right in the mix of the NFC playoff picture. Their defense is getting to the quarterback, locking down receivers, and confusing quarterbacks into holding the ball and making mistakes. With the marriage of an elite secondary and a defensive line that can cause pressure, the Bears have all the pieces to the puzzle on defense. The offense might have its ups and downs but as the old saying goes and as Bears fans are hoping is true – defense win championships.

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Kenneth Gainwell: The Swiss Army Knife

It’s quite the compliment when your coach calls you the best running back and best receiver on the team, as that’s exactly what Kenneth Gainwell was to the Memphis Tigers until he decided to opt-out of the 2020 season. While he hasn’t technically declared for the draft, it is expected that he will as his playstyle fits perfectly to what many offenses want, speed and versatility. He had over 2,000 rushing and passing yards as a redshirt freshman and was the featured guy in an offense that had current Washington Football Team running back, Antonio Gibson. The Memphis offense is designed to score points at a very high rate, but even with that, there were moments that Gainwell just made extraordinary plays.

Positives

Speed and vision

Anytime Gainwell touches the ball, he could take it to the end zone. He has elite level speed and when he hits the open field, not many can track him down. However, it is the way that he is able to create space for himself that makes him special. He has exceptional vision and sees open lanes in any direction. Memphis ran a lot of stretch plays for him, which perfectly utilized his skill set by going laterally before making one cut and heading upfield. What makes me so optimistic for his future as a running back is this skill that will be with him long after his speed starts to decline.

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Weapon in the passing game

This is where he might make his biggest impact in the NFL. He is an excellent route runner for a running back and is a mismatch against linebackers when he lines up in the backfield. However, he has a lot of Alvin Kamara in his game in the sense where he can line up split out wide or operate from the slot. When most teams see a running back split outside or in the slot, they’ll put a linebacker or safety on them. With a dynamic threat like Gainwell, you can’t do that or he’ll burn you. To make himself an even stronger asset, he is solid in picking up blitzes and displays the effort needed to keep his quarterback clean.

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Offensive versatility

Whether he was lined up in the backfield, in the slot, out wide, or at quarterback, Gainwell was a playmaker. He’s not going to be the conventional bell-cow back, but he is an offensive weapon. If you can find a way to get him between 10-15 touches a game, in a variety of ways, you’ll be able to maximize his value. I think seeing the way that the Bears use Tarik Cohen or how the Saints use Kamara is how we’ll see Gainwell used. He can’t be used in a boring or standard offense, but needs to be used as a chess piece in a high-powered offensive attack.

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Negatives

Not a traditional running back

If you’re looking for a guy to carry the ball 20+ times a game and used in 22 personnel in a power run offense, Gainwell isn’t what you want. He might be an acquired taste that has to fit a certain offensive identity, but that’s just how it works in the NFL. How a player fits in a system is important for every player, but with unique players like Gainwell it’s everything.

Running inside

Gainwell might not be too effective in short-yardage situations or running in between tackles. It’s just not really his strong suit and his body type (5-11, 195 pounds) doesn’t suggest he can take a lot of punishment. Can he be effective at times running up the gut? Yes, but it’s not something you can overly rely on.

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Conclusion

Fit is everything for a player. But if we were to rank the importance of the right fight for players in the 2021 draft class, Gainwell would be at the top. If he’s in an offense that is vanilla that won’t use him creatively, he won’t live up to his potential. I think he’s a guy you find ways to get the ball too and let him tear up opposing defenses. Think of all the teams that have very creative offenses (49ers, Rams, Chiefs, etc) and that’s exactly where you want Gainwell to go. Jet sweeps, screens, end arounds will work for him, but him on the goal line asked to get two yards up the middle might not. Put him in the right spot, and he could just be the first or second most productive running back in this group.

If you liked this post make sure to subscribe below and let us know what you think. If you feel like donating and want access to some early blog releases and exclusive breakdown content or to help us keep things running, you can visit our Patreon page here. Make sure to follow us on Instagram @weekly_spiral and twitter @weeklyspiral for updates when we post and release our podcasts. You can find the Weekly Spiral podcast on Spotify or anywhere you listen.

NFL Film Breakdown: How the Saints use Pass Game Concepts Dagger and Y-Cross to Create Chunk Plays

A lot has been made of Drew Brees’ arm strength and the New Orleans Saints, but they’re sitting at 3-2 and are right in the thick of things in the NFC South. They’re scoring 30.6 points per game, and while there is a lot of short game and possession passing in the Saints offense, they also attack the intermediate middle of the field with deep digs and crossers in the Dagger and Y-Cross concepts. These those two schemes are very similar to each other and also work to open up space underneath for Kamara on check downs. Nothing is really new under the sun for NFL teams and passing schemes. Almost every team uses some variation of the big concepts like Drive, Shallow Cross, Stick, Mesh, or Dagger, but the inventive coaches find ways to tweak them, make them look different, disguise them so defenses can’t key on them, and even combine multiple concepts into one play; and that’s what Sean Payton does a good job of.

Note: If you prefer to watch a video breakdown, scroll to the bottom of this article.

https://cbssportsradio.radio.com/articles/sean-payton-discusses-drew-brees-new-orleans-saints

First, let’s understand the Dagger concept. Dagger uses a clear out with a deep dig behind it and typically a shallow drag or someone in the flats underneath it to give a high-low read on the defense. Dagger can be incredibly effective against any coverage. Its one downfall though, is that the primary read and goal of the play – the deep dig – takes a long time to develop so it puts a big burden on the offensive line. With the deep dig to attack the middle of the field, you’ll often see it called in 2nd or 3rd and long situations where you’re more likely to see two high safeties and softer coverage. That’s exactly what we have here with a 3rd and 15 for the Saints. Here, the Packers are in match cover 4. What that means is that for all intents and purposes, the deep routes are covered in man. Match coverage uses a lot of man on demand or MOD coverage. If the receiver lined up on the corner goes vertical, the coverage turns into man. If that receiver goes inside within five yards, the corner would pass that route off to the linebacker. This also applies to the nickel corners here lined up over the #2 receivers. If their receiver goes vertical, they carry. If they go inside under five yards, they pass it off. You can see just that at the top of the screen as the tight end Jared Cook immediately goes inside and the corner passes him off the linebacker while pointing and communicating an “in” call.

The safeties meanwhile, are giving support over the top and helping to bracket routes inside and out. You can see that the safety to the bottom of the screen quickly bails to the outside to bracket the receiver to the outside while the nickel carries him from the inside. Kevin King on the other side of the field is running a lock call so no matter what, he’s man on that receiver. This frees up Adrian Amos to peak and lean to the field side and help down the middle. This is exactly what the Dagger concept can exploit. Remember, we have a clear out with a seam or a skinny post from the play-side slot receiver. This receiver needs to get inside of the safety to his side so that he pulls him in coverage. The more people he can take with him on this route, the better. On the outside, we know that in match cover 4, the corner is going to be MOD on the dig because it’s deeper than five yards. So, we’re clearing the nickel corner and play-side safety and now have a one-on-one with the corner on the outside. Meanwhile, from the backside of the play, we have that shallow drag coming across the field. We talked about that being passed off to the linebacker and that’s exactly what happens. It keeps the linebacker underneath to open the window for the deep dig behind. It all works perfectly – except for protection starts to break down and Brees can’t hang in the pocket long enough to hit the dig as it’s breaking open. What the route concept has done though, is left Kamara one-on-one in the open field against that dime corner that passed off the shallow drag. A matchup that the Saints love every day of the week. It might be a dump off and check down off of a deep play concept, but it picks up the 15 yards on 3rd and long and moves the chains because it has stressed the defense vertically and opened space underneath.

Dagger is still really effective against a single high safety look as well. The purpose of the clear out is exactly the same. His job is to hold that safety with his seam route and pull the corner with him to clear space underneath for the deep dig. The Raiders are bringing extra pressure here so the middle of the field is really open but that means the running back has to stay in to help with the blitz so there is no outlet for Brees now. He’s going to have to stand in the pocket until the dig develops or until the shallow drag pops open. What’s great about these tight splits when running Dagger is that the deep dig gets inside leverage on that cover 3 corner which makes life a lot easier on both the quarterback and the receiver. The slot corner carries the seam up to the safety, the dig has leverage on the corner outside, and Brees can throw with anticipation here because there’s no linebacker to get in the passing lane and he can see the corners back turned in the middle of the field. The safety tries to rotate down on it, but it’s too late and a nice chunk gain for the Saints.

The Saints will run Dagger a couple times a game to attack the middle of the field. The concept stays the same and is effective against whatever coverage they might see. Even if it doesn’t go to the deep dig, it still gets their playmakers in space underneath.

So that’s Dagger. What Sean Payton has started to combine it with though is the Y-Cross concept. Let’s dig into that a little bit and then we’ll see how he meshes the Dagger and Y-Cross into one to add wrinkles to the playbook and give Brees a lot of options on the play. The Y-Cross is run by a lot of teams off play-action and with tight ends but you can run it out of any personnel grouping and off pure drop back as well. Against the Lions, the Saints run it out of 11 personnel with a rocket motion to the field. The tight end, or the Y, has the Crossing route. He is working for an inside release and then across the field and an angle at which he would run out of bounds at 18-22 yards downfield. Against zone, he would settle in the first hole after the Mike linebacker and in man he would continue to run across the field. Behind the Y-Cross, you have a deep dig route similar to what we saw on Dagger. There really are a ton of areas that are possible to settle in for both the Y-Cross and that deep dig route so it can be hard to recognize since it can be run five times and have the receivers all stopping in five different spots on the field. The concept on Y-Cross it is very similar, the Y-Cross pulls defenders and vacates space for the dig coming in behind it. The main difference here is that the outside receiver is running a vertical route and there’s no shallow drag coming underneath it. The first read is always checking for that vertical from the X receiver away from the Y-Cross. The quarterback then works to the Y-Cross, and then the deep dig behind it.

Now on a pure drop back you have the same concept, with the Y-Cross which can sometimes be checked into a hard dig if the receiver is feeling man coverage. You still have the dig behind it and the vertical from the X receiver. Brees could have again had the dig but checks it down to Kamara in the flats and ends up getting good yardage. With all that flow to one side, the Saints like to leak Kamara into the flats into the backside. Again, they’re just getting their best player in space on a linebacker or corner and letting him go to work.

Now that we understand what both Dagger and Y-Cross look like we can look at what the Saints do out of trips to combine the two concepts into one play and stress the defense in multiple ways. It’s an easy install into already established plays in the offense and allows versatility for attacking coverages and creating a big play. The Chargers are in a unique defense here where they’re playing man coverage underneath with one true free safety and then two deep seem defenders that are going to sit at the sticks and help bracket players from the outside on this 3rd and 14 from the Saints. The Saints call up their Y-Cross Dagger combination concept out of trips. The #3 receiver runs the Y-Cross, the #2 receiver runs that seam clear out that we saw in Dagger, and the #1 receiver runs the deep dig behind it. On the single receiver side you have the shallow drag that you normally see in Dagger as well. So really it’s just like running a Y-Cross with the additional receiver on the Dagger side when they’re in trips. You have Dagger from the outside guys and the dig plays into the Y-Cross so you’ve managed to combine both concepts. What this does is attack that deep safety with two verticals. If he runs to the Y-Cross, he’s leaving his corner out to dry down the seam, and if he stays with the seam like he does, it puts the linebacker in trail position in an impossible position. That seam defender to the boundary at the top of the screen is supposed to sit and guard the sticks, but if there’s nobody threatening, he has to get deep and underneath the Y- Cross. That player is #44 Kyzir White who plays linebacker. Clearly not a guy that’s used to protecting a deep zone of the field. Brees knows that, and attacks that matchup. If the Y-Cross wasn’t there though, the dig portion of the concept is about to break open in the middle of the field and the shallow drag has pulled out any underneath defenders. The Seam from Dagger concept held the safety to allow the Y-Cross to get open.

The Saints have run this combo concept a couple times this year. This time, against the Lions, the Seam is the one that’s open. Brees ends up checking it down to the shallow drag to Taysom Hill but let’s take a look at the bind it puts defenses in. The Y-Cross gets the safety’s his hips turned inside and the dig helps bring down the corner. The corner to the top of the screen jumps on the dig and with the safeties hips turned the wrong way, the Seam is open and there’s a ton of space for Brees to throw to. The Y-Cross has taken 3 defenders, the Dig has taken two, and that leaves 1-on-1 matchups for the rest of the routes – the seam, shallow drag, and leak from Kamara. Brees comes down to the shallow drag who settles in the middle of the field but the shot to the seam was there and available for a big play.

The Saints are right in the thick of things and have managed to survive a stretch without their best weapon in Michael Thomas while still being right at the top of the NFC South. Things are only going to improve for that offense upon his return. Sean Payton does a good job of combining concepts and attacking defenses in multiple ways. It creates easy outlets for Drew Brees and even when they don’t work, they end up getting Kamara into the flats. So, let’s not say Drew Brees is washed and the Saints are done. They’re just fine. With the wrinkles that Sean Payton assuredly has in store, the sky is still the limit for the Saints and they can absolutely still compete for a Super Bowl.

If you liked this post make sure to subscribe below and let us know what you think. If you feel like donating and want access to some early blog releases and exclusive breakdown content or to help us keep things running, you can visit our Patreon page here. Make sure to follow us on Instagram @weekly_spiral and twitter @weeklyspiral for updates when we post and release our podcasts. You can find the Weekly Spiral podcast on Spotify or anywhere you listen.

Stock up for 2021 Draft Prospects

Stock Up

Kyle Trask

I start this list with who I believe has helped himself the most so far, and it’s Florida QB Kyle Trask. This season he’s completing 71% of his passes, with a TD/INT ratio of 14/1 and dominating SEC defenses. He’s gone from being an under the radar prospect to becoming QB4 in this class and making a strong push to be a first-round selection. He doesn’t have the strongest of arms, but he’s accurate and more cerebral in his approach this season. He’ll go through his progressions and deliver the ball quickly before the defense can get to him. I think he has to be one of the Heisman favorite (behind Trevor Lawrence and Mac Jones at the moment) but the 11/7 game against Georgia, a phenomenal defense, will be his defining game of the season as a prospect.

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Kyle Pitts

While Kyle Trask has been amazing, his life is made easier by the other Kyle, Kyle Pitts. Pitts is listed as a tight end, but acts more of a receiver and uses his 6-6 240 pound frame to his advantage. He has seven touchdowns in three games and leads the Gators in receiving yards. Now he isn’t much of a blocker and won’t be for every team because of that, but any team that wants to use him as a mismatch as a pass catcher will make him a star. At this point, he’s a mid to late first-rounder in my eyes, but his combine performance (particularly his 40 and 3 cone) will determine how high he goes.

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Shane Buechele

Buechele might play in an Air Raid system and be slightly undersized, but he might be one of the best deep-ball throwers in all of college. While he’s not a dangerous runner, he is mobile in the pocket and can make plays when things around him breakdown. I don’t think that he is a future starter in the NFL, but I think he’s worthy of a mid-round selection and has the chance to be a high-end back-up for a decade. Before the season, I saw him more as a practice squad caliber player who was questionable to be selected. Now, unless something unforeseen happens, he’s not only getting drafted but might carve out a nice role for himself.

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Patrick Jones II

All the hype coming into the season for the Pittsburgh Panthers was defensive tackle Jaylen Twyman, who ultimately decided to opt-out before the season began. Despite the loss of Twyman, the Panthers defensive line is outstanding and is lead by edge rusher Patrick Jones II. Jones II has seven sacks in six games so far, which is best in the country. He has a great motor and uses his pad level to get underneath tackles to push tackles into the lap of the quarterback. This season he also has done a better job of diversifying his pass rush moves and does an excellent job with counter moves if his go-to bull rush move doesn’t work. I think he’s a high second-round pick at this point, and if he continues to impress, he could get into the first-round in a weak edge rusher class.

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Asante Samuel Jr.

It has been a TERRIBLE season for the Florida State Seminoles (props to them for beating UNC though), but there has been one bright spot and that is junior cornerback Asante Samuel Jr. It wasn’t too long ago that his father, Asante Samuel Sr., was leading the NFL in interceptions and winning Superbowls with the New England Patriots, and it looks like his son will be next in line to make an impact of Sunday’s. Samuel Jr. already has three interceptions and two forced fumbles in four games and despite being part of a lackluster defense, he shuts down whoever he is guarding. One of the questions I had coming into the season was his ball-hawking abilities but that has been answered and then some. He might not become a lockdown corner in the NFL but has the makings of being a long-term starter, which makes him worthy of an early second-round selection.

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Zach Wilson

The man people are calling “The Mormon Manziel” has come a long way from just a season ago, where he struggled as a starter on a mediocre team. Now, he’s completing 78% of his passes and has a TD/INT ratio of 12/1 to go along with 6 rushing touchdowns. He had shoulder surgery after the 2019 season and now is throwing the ball with a lot more zip, especially on throws outside the hashes. He has all the physical tools needed to be a successful pro, but his lack of competition this year will raise questions. Also, as a true junior, he still has a year of eligibility. Meaning, would he rather be QB5 in this year and probably a second-round pick, or continue to develop and gun for QB1 in the 2022 draft? Will be interesting to see how that pans out. Either way, what a rise from this preseason where he wasn’t being discussed as a prospect at all.

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Honorable Mentioned: Mac Jones (Alabama), Jaycee Horn (South Carolina), Eric Stokes (Georgia), Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (Notre Dame)

Stock Down

Trey Lance

Trey Lance was put in a really tough spot with his only game in 2020. He would have had to play incredibly well to keep his stock where it’s at or, if he struggled, he would raise more questions than he had before. After a 15/30 2 TD 1 INT game, he surely gave the skeptics plenty of concerns moving forward. He looked rusty and not as smooth as last year and since he has no other game to show the scouts anything, he pushed his stock slightly down. Yes, he’s still going to be a top 10, probably top 5, pick but now I think the race for QB2 is Justin Field’s to lose. It was a tough situation for Lance, but hindsight is 20/20 and it says that he should have not played in NDSU’s only game this season.

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If you liked this post make sure to subscribe below and let us know what you think. If you feel like donating and want access to some early blog releases and exclusive breakdown content or to help us keep things running, you can visit our Patreon page here. Make sure to follow us on Instagram @weekly_spiral and twitter @weeklyspiral for updates when we post and release our podcasts. You can find the Weekly Spiral podcast on Spotify or anywhere you listen.

NFL Film Breakdown: How Stefanski is Using Zone and Counter to Power the Cleveland Browns Run Game

The Cleveland Browns might finally have things headed in the right direction and in large part that’s due to the run game that Stefanski has installed. The Browns rank 1st in the NFL with 942 yards rushing with an average of 188 per game. While Stefanski uses plenty of stretch zone and wide zone, his use of the counter scheme has really powered the Browns run game. With strong and athletic linemen and some very talented backs, Stefanski has helped establish a power, tough nosed, identity in the run game for the Browns. He’ll dress counter up in an infinite number of ways which helps create creases for Chubb and Hunt to attack and allows his linemen to drive block and wall off defenders on the inside. Counter is somewhat of a rarity in the NFL – at least as a bread and butter run play. Defenders are so fast and good at penetrating, they can often disrupt the play if the timing isn’t there. That’s why Stefanski is using his fullbacks, H-backs, and any other personnel he can find to make counter hit faster and more cleanly open up space.

Note: If you prefer to watch a video breakdown, scroll to the bottom of this article.

Photo by: 2019 Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

We’ll start off with their pure counter look before we dive into how Stefanski likes to add wrinkles and make his counter look slightly different from play to play. When they’re running their generic guard and tackle counter, they like to run counter strong so that they know that they’re going to typically be running at the 3-technique that is lined up on the outside shoulder of the guard which in turn, makes the down-block for the center easier because he’s now facing a 1-technique that is shaded on his backside shoulder.

In counter, the guard kicks out and the tackle is the one that wraps through and up-field. Usually if there’s an end, that’s the guy that’s left for the kickout but since the Browns here are in 12 personnel with two tight ends and the end is in a 6 technique head up with the first tight end, the guard has to be able to sift through and kick out the first outside man that appears that is trying to pinch down on the hole. That ends up being #58 at the Mike linebacker position. The guard wants to kick him up and out and then the tackle coming behind him, is meant to wrap up and through that kickout block and block the first enemy color. It can depend on the scheme and leverage of the end man on the line of scrimmage, but the tackle will usually look inside out as they wrap through.

Everyone else is down-blocking. The rest of the line trying to create a wall that prevents penetration and pursuit to the play-side. So, the two tight ends are down-blocking on a combo to the Will linebacker – meaning they’re leaving the Mike for the guard or tackle to pick up. The play-side guard and tackle are also double teaming and trying to climb but the defensive tackle here does a good job anchoring and preventing that. The center walls off, and the receiver in the tight split just tries to get in front of any backside pursuit and slow it down. Chubb does a good job of being patient here and riding his blocks up-field.

So, that’s counter at its core. A guard kick, with a blocker wrapping behind with down-blocks and double teams from the play-side. Let’s now take a look at the variations that Stefanski runs with the Browns – because there are quite a few. The simplest next variation is a guard and H-back pull. The Browns block it slightly differently on this snap than your conventional counter though. The kickout is now designed to be on the linebacker because the play-side tackle is hinging and blocking the defensive end. With no end man on the line of scrimmage to kick out, the pulling guard is now responsible for kicking out the play side linebacker. The H, who is replacing the role of the tackle, is looking inside to block the flowing backside linebacker. As a result, the counter hits a lot more vertically and tighter to the center of the field.

You can see comparatively how this is a harder block now for the center because they’re running counter weak, away from the H back. They’re doing this though because they want that open B gap on the play side. So, the play side block for the guard is much easier on their down-block on a 1 technique which helps prevent penetration. If that player was in a 3-technique, as we’ll see soon, the play would be run like a normal counter because they wouldn’t be able to down-block a potential 3 tech there and still be able to block the end. Because the guard isn’t kicking out the end, he has to know he has to be really tight to the line of scrimmage here because he can’t over run that linebacker that’s going to fill the B gap. It’s not perfect because he gets the up-field shoulder of the linebacker, but it’s effective enough to create movement and space. The H wraps around looking inside for the flowing linebacker, and Chubb again does a good job running tight to the wrap block and bursting up-field off of it.

As a comparison, you can now see that same concept run against the Bengals when they have a 3 tech to the play side. The left tackle now down blocks on the 3 technique, and the guard wraps around him. The Browns in both these cases used a jet motion – which, to be honest, they could stand to do a lot more of.

A lot of data is indicating that plays run with pre-snap motion have a higher expected point value on them than plays that don’t. Stefanski was notoriously bad with that with the Vikings last year and ran motion on only 5% of plays and it’s not much better this year. You can see though how impactful that motion is, because it forces the end man on the line of scrimmage out of the play. The guard is now able to wrap up to the linebacker, the H follows behind looking inside first, and while that player that the motion originally moved ends up making the play, it’s not until they’re already 10 yards downfield.

The Browns will also really change it up and mess with linebacker reads by pulling the play side guard instead of the backside guard and run counter with a fullback. It’s almost like a wide trap that can hit very fast with the kickout from the guard and then a more athletic pulling fullback coming across the formation to wrap through. All the staples of counter are there though. You have the down-blocks and climbs to linebackers creating a wall, you have the kickout, and you have the wrap through. Because they’re running at a 3-technique, the the fullback knows that the guard is going to kick out the end man on the line of scrimmage (EMOLS) and that the tight end is going to be able to easily climb to the linebacker based off of alignment. So, the fullback is now looking outside in and picks up the corner that’s walked down into the box. Everything works as schemed and Kareem Hunt is able to get a really nice gain off of it.

They’ll even occasionally have their fullback kick out the EMOLS and have the guard wrap through. Yet another small wrinkle to get to counter but make it look a little different.

Before going into the Browns last couple forms of counter, it’s important to look at their wide zone, because they work off of each other. Wide zone and stretch zone are essentially the same play and it’s largely semantics, but the Browns like to run them both. It gets linebackers flowing and creates cutback lanes for their running backs. They’ll run naked boots off of it and play action and it can be a super effective play for them.

This is an example of stretch zone. Really the defining characteristic for me, and the difference between this and wide zone, is the play side tackle and the size of horizontal steps by the rest of the line. If the tackle is trying to lead with and wrap his hips to seal the outside, I call it stretch. It’s a slight philosophical difference in how the play is run. You can see the tackle is working to seal the outside and allow the running back to turn the corner, which he does successfully. The rest of the linemen are taking hard horizontal steps and working to overtake and climb to linebackers to create hard flow and cutback lanes for the running back when linebackers over pursue.

The ball might not always go outside, but that’s the goal of stretch zone. They really want to create hard flow and stress the edges and are willing to be a little more vulnerable to some inside penetration to do so.

Compare this now to wide zone, where you have a similar alignment from the end man on the line of scrimmage, but now the tackle is just drive blocking him out of the way. He’s not as concerned with sealing the end and is okay with the play cutting up underneath him. The rest of the line takes slightly less aggressive horizontal steps but otherwise stay on the same tracks as the stretch zone.

The main reason I wanted to show some of their wide and stretch zone is to show how the flow works on the offensive line and what that causes in the defense. They’ll often throw in a fullback and have him lead block on their zone plays as well. He just takes the same track as if he was a running back, reading outside-in on the defensive linemen and then attacks the first linebacker to appear and acts as a lead blocker.

Now that we’ve seen how the Browns use their wide and stretch zone and even incorporate lead blocks with the fullback into it, we can go back to our counter. The Browns will run that same look with the outside zone lead, and now they’ll pull that fullback around on a counter action and wrap just like we were seeing before with the H. He takes steps forwards like he’s lead blocking, the down-blocks from the line look an awful lot like wide zone steps and reach steps, but now the guard and fullback are coming around on counter. The guard kicks out and the fullback wraps through.

This is the same concept but a great illustration of how this looks similar to wide zone and gets the linebackers out of position. Again, we have the fullback fake lead to counter wrap and the guard kicking out but take a look at all the linebackers taking a step the wrong way. Because they establish the wide zone and wide zone fullback lead, the linebackers react to it and are out of position. They get caught in traffic trying to scrape across, you have two lead blockers going the other way and there’s one poor corner who’s supposed to take on a kickout block from a guard. Not a recipe for success for the defense.

The Browns also have a guard center counter that they’ll run that can really force defenses to flow hard to the wide zone look and can also be read similarly from the running back perspective. It’s really the same concept we’ve been going over. Just now we have the play side guard and center working the counter action. Guard kicks out, center wraps through. It does make for some incredibly tough blocks on the backside though. It’s a big ask to  cut or wall off pursuing defenders so it’s been a little hit or miss for them but when it hits, it can hit big.

What’s cool is that when they don’t go for the cut blocks backside to prevent pursuit, the play can turn essentially into wide zone. If the defense over flows to the two pullers and the stretch and cutoff blocks, the running back can cutback to the backside just like we see in wide zone. Some really interesting little wrinkles and shows how the run scheme is all tying together for the Browns. The plays build off each other to look similar and keep similar concepts, they’re just designed with slight tweaks and differences.

To finish things off quickly, we’ll talk about that game winning end around to OBJ that the Browns called to beat Dallas because it works off these same concepts. It’s a gotcha play two rungs up the ladder. The Browns run wide zone, they run wide zone fullback lead, then they have the wide zone FB counter wrap play, and now here they are running the counter H-back look except the H-back is now wheeling back around and lead blocking for the end around to Odell Bekham Jr. They still pull the guard and give the Cowboys every indication it’s another one of their power looks and the linebackers buy it and get out of position. They ran it earlier in the game and got a good chunk out of it.

The Browns are grinding people out right now in the run game. Even though Nick Chubb is down for a few weeks, Cleveland just keeps on running it down people’s throats. They are pretty versatile in their game plan and will be heavy zone one week and heavy power and counter the next but the beautiful thing is that it all ties in together. Stefanski has found a way to mesh them into one identity. An identity of aggressive, powerful, and tough football. A team that can grind away your will on the ground and make things easy for Baker Mayfield and some absolute top tier weapons in Odell Bekham Jr, Jarvis Landry, and even Austin Hooper. If you can’t stop the run of the Browns, it’s going to be a long day. The Browns won’t stop running until you make them and if things continue like this, they may keep running all the way to the playoffs.

If you liked this post make sure to subscribe below and let us know what you think. If you feel like donating and want access to some early blog releases and exclusive breakdown content or to help us keep things running, you can visit our Patreon page here. Make sure to follow us on Instagram @weekly_spiral and twitter @weeklyspiral for updates when we post and release our podcasts. You can find the Weekly Spiral podcast on Spotify or anywhere you listen.

Wyatt Davis: The Buckeye Bully

If you want someone who will bring it every single play, look no further than Ohio State guard Wyatt Davis. Davis was one of the players who declared for the 2021 NFL draft after the Big Ten originally announced there would be no fall football, but now that the conference is back in, so is Davis. Davis is the anchor on a good Ohio State offensive line and despite playing guard, will be a first-round selection barring any unforeseen circumstance. When you see Justin Fields make plays for the Buckeyes, just know it starts up front with guys like Davis.

*For the GIFS, Davis is #52 and lines up at right guard*

Positives

Mauler

Davis has that mean streak that you want in your offensive linemen. He’ll bring the fight to the defense every time and makes life difficult for anyone who tries to get past him. When they run behind him, he’s usually moving his man out of the way and helping gain positive yards. His functional play strength is elite for a player at any level and he’s able to use that strength to set the tone on the offensive line, whether it be in the run or pass game.

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Ability to get to the next level

What helps make him such a scheme-versatile player is his mobility. Davis is relatively quick for a guy his size and does a great job of getting to the second level. He demonstrates this both as the pulling guard or moving vertically up the field, clearing massive lanes that any running back can run through. While I think he would be best in a power run scheme, he displays the footwork and athleticism needed to run zone.

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Pass Protection

In a pass-first league, keeping your quarterback clean is the first step towards an offense’s success. An offensive lineman can be a dominant run blocker, but chances are they won’t be a long-term starter if they are unable to hold their own in pass sets. However, a stud like Davis is downright dominant as a pass blocker and translates very well to becoming successful in the NFL because of it. Of course, there are times where he might get pushed back a bit on a bull rush, but that happens to every offensive lineman who has ever played the game. Davis does a great job of extending his arms (without holding) and keeping his body in front of defenders.

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Negatives

Balance

Now I don’t expect a 6-4, 315-pound man to be a ballerina, but I saw Davis fall down more than I would like for a player of his skill. He can develop better balance and body control the older he gets. Is this a major problem? Not really, but it is something I’m going to pay attention too.

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Positional value

Offensive guards normally aren’t high draft picks. Of course, Quentin Nelson went top five a few years ago, but for the most part, the position isn’t treated as a premium. I figure Davis to go in the top half of the first round, which means expectations will be very high. There’s little doubt that he’ll succeed, but he may not get the luxury of a slow start like most rookies.

Conclusion

Davis is honestly as good as you’ll get for a guard prospect. Sure, he may not be the best in all of football within two years like Nelson was, but it’s not crazy to expect multiple Pro Bowl selections for him. Since there’s nothing he can’t do, he makes himself very valuable to any team. I would like to see him in an offense that wants to run the ball because he can be a machine at times, clearing out enough space that an 18 wheeler could run through. If your favorite team drafts Davis this spring, don’t be disappointed you drafted a guard. Be excited you drafted an incredible talent.

If you liked this post make sure to subscribe below and let us know what you think. If you feel like donating and want access to some early blog releases and exclusive breakdown content or to help us keep things running, you can visit our Patreon page here. Make sure to follow us on Instagram @weekly_spiral and twitter @weeklyspiral for updates when we post and release our podcasts. You can find the Weekly Spiral podcast on Spotify or anywhere you listen.

NFL Film Breakdown: How Panthers OC Joe Brady’s Offense Uses Spread Concepts to Beat Defenses

Offensive Coordinator Joe Brady has said that his philosophy on offense is to force the defense to defend every blade of grass and to get his speed in space. True to his word, that’s exactly what the Panthers are doing. Carolina have some elite speed on offense with Curtis Samuel running a 4.31, Robby Anderson at 4.36, and DJ Moore running a 4.42. Pair that with a running back in Christian McCaffrey who runs a 4.49 and it’s an absolute nightmare for defensive coordinators. But how can you use that speed with a quarterback that can struggle to push the ball down the field in Teddy Bridgewater? You stretch the hell out of defenses horizontally. Joe Brady is bringing a lot of his spread concepts from LSU and New Orleans and is attacking defenses with trips and a multitude of empty formations. He has diced teams up with the Stick and Shallow Cross concepts. He’ll switch route assignments, dress things up, and force defenses into one-on-one coverage scenarios against a group of skill players that is the second fastest in the league behind only the Kansas City Chiefs. Joe Brady has said before that he’s all about putting his players in the right spot to succeed and with these concepts, he’s maximizing his teams’ speed and his quarterback’s accuracy. What’s really interesting though is his adaptations of simple concepts that are eating defenses up in these first four weeks and how his formations are adding to that defensive stress.

Note: If you prefer to watch a video breakdown, scroll to the bottom of this article.

https://www.pff.com/news/nfl-2020-team-preview-series-carolina-panthers

Let’s start out with his use of the Shallow Cross concept which is used at almost every level of football. In Carolina, though he’s got some cool little wrinkles and ways to get into the concept. Joe Brady absolutely loves to run trips to the field and put his running back into the boundary to open up space in the middle of the field. For all intents and purposes, immediately releasing your running back is really like running an empty formation. What that does is remove linebackers from the middle of the field and space out defenses. And if you’re going to be attacking horizontally and running these spread concepts it really puts the defense in a tough spot because you’re essentially flooding each zone with a route and creating one-on-one matchups across the field with receivers on linebackers.

Shallow Cross is essentially just a high low concept in the middle of the field. You have one shallow drag coming across the field and then one deep dig or dig sit at 10-12 yards coming behind it. Normally though, if you don’t release your running back, the boundary side linebacker will pick up the drag and the field side linebacker can get underneath your dig. But with the running back releasing, that automatically pulls the boundary linebacker into the flats and clears space in the middle of the field. So now that field side linebacker is left to defend a ton of space by himself. He has to pick either the shallow or the dig. Since Joe Brady is running spread, that really targets the two linebackers in the middle of the field. What Brady does that’s a small wrinkle is that he has a switch call on the shallow and the dig. Usually they’re run either opposite each other or in sequence with the shallow from the #3 receiver and then the dig from the #2 receiver. But here, Brady flips that. And what that does is give the dig leverage on the corner that is splitting the difference between the #3 and #2 and also allows time for the running back to release and pull that boundary linebacker before the drag comes in behind him. As we see here, the linebacker stays shallow, the dig is able to get inside leverage, and there’s a huge amount of space in the middle of the field to attack.

One way that Joe Brady dresses the concept up is with a short motion from the outside receiver to get them momentum headed into the shallow drag. Again, though, it’s trips to the field with the running back flaring into the boundary. You can see the boundary side outside linebacker again fly with the running back and open up space underneath. The #3 receiver has inside leverage for his dig and does a really good job of pushing vertically at the will linebacker in the middle of the field to make him turn his hips away from the shallow drag. This clears a ton of space underneath for an easy completion to Robby Anderson who then can work upfield and use the open space.

Another way to run shallow cross is by running the dig from the opposite side of the field. The same principles still apply though. The running back takes a linebacker out of the box and if he is out leveraged or is caught on a run read, it’s an easy throw to the running back. On the shallow drag side, you’ve now cleared space underneath and you can high low the remaining middle field linebacker. If he comes under the dig, you can throw the drag, if he stays to pick up the drag, there’s a window to the dig. Joe Brady is all about getting his playmakers in space and using their speed and that speed doesn’t have to kill you vertically – you can also run away from people horizontally. Shallow Cross works vs. zone and man coverage since the zones are strapped by the clear outs from the running back and the light box because of the spread formations. The Panthers then have the speed to run away from people in man.

Here’s one last illustration of the Shallow Cross concept now because the Panthers have something built in for man and for defenses taking away those crossers in the middle of the field. Carolina runs the same short motion with the same concept, but now you see the corner run with the motion in man coverage. The linebacker is now more attentive to the dig and collisions him on his way to picking up the drag underneath. But what this now does is it flows everyone to that side which opens up space backside for a quick slant from Curtis Samuel. The flow of the defense all goes to the boundary and Samuel is able to easily win his route with a quick outside stem and there’s a ton of space for him to catch the ball and get vertical with his speed.

You can see that same coverage and concept here from the Cardinals as they’re running a match coverage to the bottom of the screen but have a lock call on Robby Anderson at the top. They cover the running back and drag well and the safety is cheating down to jump the dig here because the Panthers have run it so much in the past. Where Teddy should go is the backside slant coming in behind that shallow drag. Instead, he’s lucky that the ball was tipped at the line of scrimmage because it looks like it would have been an easy interception if he managed to get the ball off to the dig route.

Joe Brady loves to use speed and horizontal spacing and a great way to attack that in true spread form is through empty formations. Spread the defense out and make them defend every blade of grass. It stresses your protection plan, but can also make any blitzes pretty vanilla unless you’re really willing to open yourself up to being beat on a big play as a defense. With quick reads like the Stick concept, that eliminates some of that issue. The Stick concept at it’s core is just someone in the flats, someone vertical, and then the stick from the #3 receiver. It widens flat defenders outside, removes vertical defenders, and leaves space in the hook flat area to be attacked. Typically you’ll see a fade on the outside, a 5 yard speed out from the #2, and the stick from #3, but Joe Brady runs it a little different. He will often use a quick hook from the #1, a slot fade from #2, and the stick from #3. He gets to the same concept, just in a different way. The Bucs here are in cover 6 – cover 4 to the field and cover 2 to the boundary. So the flat defender to the field is the outside linebacker who’s put in an impossible spot with the stick concept. Teddy reads the flat defender and as soon as he widens to the quick hitch outside, he knows he’s throwing the stick. The defense is just stretched too wide horizontally and it’s an easy completion.

While to the trips side, they usually work the stick concept a lot, to the backside they’re usually running an option route and they almost always like putting their running back out there who ends up matched up on a linebacker. All he’s doing is working up onto the linebacker and running an out or slant based on their leverage. If the defender is leveraged inside, he’ll break it off on an out. You can see here how Christian McCaffrey is working upfield while looking directly at the linebacker lined up over him. He’s reading his leverage. The linebacker walls off inside, so McCaffrey cuts flat outside and it’s an easy completion.

This time it’s a receiver, but if that defender’s hips stay square or he doesn’t wall off, the option route is going to cut inside on a slant which is just what happens here. If the DB plays patient, the receiver dictates the tempo and attacks the vacated space in the middle of the field as linebackers flow to the stick concept and are spread out due to the empty formation.

If you look back at our original stick play and check out the backside, you can see McCaffrey do the same thing as Robby Anderson and cut inside on a slant with the linebacker keeping his hips square to the line of scrimmage and not walling off the inside.

While Stick can be incredibly effective against zone, Joe Brady’s version can struggle against man since the normal out route is replaced by that quick hook from the outside receiver. So there’s nobody running away from defenders and creating space – except for that slot fade vertical from the #2. So if the Panthers see man coverage versus their stick concept, they’ll throw the slot fade. It gives the receiver more space to work with and the quick hitch outside keeps the outside corner from dropping underneath it and making a play. They don’t connect here because Bridgewater leaves the ball too far inside, but the play is there.

The Panthers have also run the Stick concept out of a Quads look. You have all the same principles, a vertical, a player in the flats, and a stick route working off the linebacker. They just get to it in a different way. With the tight Ace bunch, it pulls defenders close to the line of scrimmage and delays the defender responsible for the flats from getting out to the quick hook. In this case, the flat defender is the nickel to the outside of that tight formation. He now has three separate routes he has to digest before going to the flats and also needs to carry vertical seams to be able to help protect the safety. So, with a vertical release from the H and the two stick routes by the other receivers in the bunch, the defense has nobody to get out to the flats. That leaves maybe the Panthers’ best player Christian McCaffrey out on the perimeter with space to work with on a 3rd and short situation. It’s an easy read for the QB and a nice pickup for a first down.

The Panthers, Matt Rhule, and Joe Brady may be flying under the radar a little bit right now with the Saints and Bucs taking a lot of the headlines in the NFC South, but they’re quietly right in the thick of things in that division at 2-2 and right now they’re ranked 8th in passing yardage. Joe Brady has a diverse playbook but he loves to use spread concepts that really stress defenses and attack every blade of grass. He has meshed the use of the Panthers speed and dynamic playmakers perfectly for his style of offense. He has a quarterback that struggles to throw deep at times but is accurate underneath and he’s put some twists and variations on tried and true schemes with spread formations. Not much talk was made of the Panthers being competitors but there is no doubt in my mind that if they aren’t this season – they soon will be. Joe Brady is dissecting defenses and forcing them to cover horizontally and then chase down speedy playmakers. The Panthers are coming. They’re going to attack the whole field, use their speed on linebackers, and if defenses aren’t fast enough or athletic enough to keep up with the dynamic backs and receivers of the Panthers, they’re going to make you pay.

If you liked this post make sure to subscribe below and let us know what you think. If you feel like donating and want access to some early blog releases and exclusive breakdown content or to help us keep things running, you can visit our Patreon page here. Make sure to follow us on Instagram @weekly_spiral and twitter @weeklyspiral for updates when we post and release our podcasts. You can find the Weekly Spiral podcast on Spotify or anywhere you listen.

Sage Surratt: The Renaissance Man

In high school, Sage Surratt became his school’s all-time leading scorer in basketball, an all-state selection in football and basketball, and was the valedictorian of his class. Talk about someone who can do it all. He originally committed to Harvard to play football but decided to go to Wake Forest, figuring it would help his chances of making the NFL. His brother, Chazz Surratt, plays linebacker at UNC and both brothers figure to be top-100 picks in the 2021 draft. Wake Forest might not be known as a football powerhouse, but Surratt put up over 1500 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns in two years before deciding to opt-out of the 2020 season. A true competitor and craftsman at his position, Surratt puts himself near the top of a deep wide receiver group for the 2021 draft.

Positives

Using his size to his advantage

At 6-3, 215 pounds, Surratt is built like a basketball guard rather than a wide receiver. However, he uses his tall and lanky frame to his advantage. At his size, he can box out defensive backs and uses his long arms to get the ball. One of the more successful routes he ran was a back-shoulder throw where the defender is unable to get their arm across his body. His frame makes him an excellent possession player and he will be a favorite of his quarterbacks due to his large target area. His large frame also makes him extra valuable in the red zone, as he can be a jump ball guy who’ll highpoint the ball. Also, don’t let his slender frame fool you, he is an aggressive player. He can break a tackle and won’t back down from a physical corner if they’re in the way of him getting the ball.

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Hands

In the games I watched, I didn’t see Surratt drop any passes. It’s even more impressive since his quarterback last year, Jamie Newman, isn’t necessarily the most accurate of passers. He does a good job of catching with his hands rather than allowing the ball to get into his body. Like I mentioned earlier, he’s exceptional at high-pointing the ball and using every inch of his frame to his advantage.

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Ability to get open deep

Despite not having elite speed, Surratt can get open down the field with the best of them. He’s a good route-runner and turns 50/50 balls into 80/20 balls due to his size and body control. After running slants or comeback routes the entire game, he’ll go for the double move and leave his defender in the dust. In the NFL where offenses are focusing more on the vertical passing game, a receiver like Surratt becomes even more valuable due to his skillset and big play ability.

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Negatives

Speed/Quickness

While he may be a good athlete, Surratt is not a very fast wide receiver. In fact, he’s pretty slow. Despite this, he’s had a lot of success in college but he’s also playing in the ACC and in a spread offense. Will his lack of speed hurt him in the pros? I don’t know. I think speed is not a necessity, but it sure does help.

Beating press coverage

It’s not that Surratt isn’t physical, it’s just that he has trouble beating press coverage consistently when clearly he has the tools to be much better. It could come from a lack of functional strength, which isn’t a huge problem since he’s still young. He needs to spend these net few months building his “man body” and working on technique. I’m not overly worried about this due to his size and aggressiveness.

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Conclusion

As Surratt gets stronger, I think he’s going to be a very good player in the NFL. He may never be a true WR1, but I think he’s going to carve out a nice role for himself as a deep threat and reliable receiver on the outside. He’s scheme-versatile and he should be an immediate producer — possibly even a starter right away. Right now, I think he’s looking like a second round pick, but with a great combine I think he has the chance to solidify himself as a first round selection.

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NFL Film Breakdown: What in the World is Going on With Carson Wentz and the Eagles?

To put it bluntly, the Philadelphia Eagles are off to a terrible start. Their offensive line is in shambles with Brandon Brooks, Isaac Seumalo, and Andre Dillard all out. Alshon Jeffery still hasn’t played this year, Goedert and Maddox are both dealing with ankle injuries, Miles Sanders and their first round pick Jalen Reagor have missed time, and the worst of it all is that injuries aren’t even the biggest concern that the Eagles have. It’s Carson Wentz. Wentz has completed under 60% of his passes, thrown 6 interceptions to just 3 touchdowns, has fumbled 3 times, and is looking like a shell of what he was in 2017 when he was in the running for league MVP before tearing his ACL. Wentz isn’t alone in the blame and the whole Eagles team has been dealt a tough hand, but he is the epicenter of everything going wrong for the Eagles.

Note: If you prefer to watch a video breakdown, scroll to the bottom of this article.

PHILADELPHIA, PA – SEPTEMBER 20: Philadelphia Eagles Quarterback Carson Wentz (11) walks off the field after an interception in the second half during the game between the Los Angeles Rams and Philadelphia Eagles on September 20, 2020 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, PA. (Photo by Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

For quarterbacks, everything starts with the feet and the base and Wentz has some huge issues here. The biggest and most prominent mechanical problem is his tendency not to point his toe towards his intended target. This prevents full hip rotation and causes accuracy and power issues to one direction in particular. To his left.

To a degree, this has always been there – and we’ll get into that – but first let’s understand how this mechanical issue impacts his throwing motion, accuracy, and just how frequent it is for him right now. Through the three games in 2020 I charted Wentz’ accurate throws and, on each throw, whether he was aligning his feet and toe to that throw. Wentz has been accurate on just 50% of his throws to his left and is aligning his toe on just 41.3% of throws to his left. Compared to throwing to his right, where he has accurate throws 67.1% of the time with 78% toe alignment, it is a staggering difference in consistency, accuracy, and mechanics. This includes throwing routes that are going from his right to his left as well. Since he likes to align his feet more to the right, a huge percentage of his throws miss to the right because he doesn’t open up his hips and feet to throw to his left.

When you don’t point your toe at your target, you are closing off your ability to fully rotate your hips. You can try it at home and point your toe 45 degrees to the right and then attempt to make a throwing motion even just straight in front of yourself. Your foot is going to want to move on the ground to follow the momentum of your hips. If you keep your foot in the ground, you’ll feel tension in your knee and your core and be unable to get your hips all the way towards the direction you want to throw. If you can’t get your hips all the way around, there’s no way you’re going to be able to consistently generate the proper amount of power and accuracy from throw-to-throw. Biomechanically, it is detrimental to being able to throw. And that’s what we see almost 60% of the time from Wentz throwing to his left.

Both of Wentz’ interceptions in the Washington game were directly caused by being unable to point his toe to his left and as a result, being unable to generate the necessary power and accuracy to that direction. This left the ball inside — the direction his feet and hips end up pointing. This allows for the defender to make a play on the ball. The decision on this throw is totally fine. He reads the DB with their hips turned in zone to the inside which signals an opportunity to throw the ball to the sideline on a comeback or back shoulder and that’s exactly what he goes for. The issue is his foot is pointed directly down the center of the field. In addition to his toe pointing issue, he can also tend to over stride, which is why you’ll often see him falling away from throws. If you spread your base too wide, which you can again try at home, and now push off with your back leg, you’ll see what it feels like. You can generate some power but you’re now immediately falling backwards after your throw because you don’t have a solid base. Not good for generating power or accuracy. You want to be in a stable position when finishing your throw.

In the second interception of the Washington game he does almost the exact same thing. The defenders leverage is telling him to throw outside, but Wentz leaves his foot pointed downfield instead of more towards the sideline. You can see him off balance and falling away from the throw and the ball goes where his body is telling it to. He leaves the throw inside which gives the defender the opportunity to intercept it.

This happens again and again and again. The toe doesn’t open all the way to the left, it prevents him from being able to open his hips that way and generate power, and he routinely throws balls into the dirt, air mails them because he’s off balance due to the wide base, or misses to the right.

When you combine these things at the same time – the bad toe and the overstride —  you get throws that are both high and behind to the right. Even if the throws are to his right, he ends up struggling throwing routes that are going from right to left because he doesn’t point his toe to lead his receiver which closes off his hips and will often point at where the receiver is right now. Not where they will be.

While sometimes the ball will air mail because of a wide stance, it can also force the ball into the ground because you’re changing vertical levels as you’re throwing and you can’t get power on the ball with your hips since you’re too spread out to get full rotation.

Sometimes when you over stride and over shoot throws or can’t get enough power, you throw interceptions.

Whenever he tries to push the ball downfield or get some heat on the throw, he tends to over stride which only exacerbates the issue and makes his tight window throws inaccurate or lose velocity. You can see how incredibly wide his feet are when he’s beginning his throwing motion and how he routinely falls back and away from the throw after releasing. It’s just not good quarterback mechanics.

It may seem small but it makes a huge impact on the mechanics of throwing the ball. I cannot emphasize enough how impactful this is to throwing on a snap-to-snap basis. Wentz has some seriously great arm talent which allows him to get away with it at times and he can generate power even when he can’t get his hips around. But from a snap to snap basis, he’s just not consistent because of his feet

It happens predominantly to the left but it also crops up all over the field. It turns routine catches into difficult ones on the back hip or that are high and in the worst case scenarios, turns into turnovers and incompletions that can kill drives and change games.

Now that we’ve looked at what Wentz’ current mechanical issues are and how he’s struggling, let’s take a look back at 2017 and see how Wentz’ mechanics have changed since then and give context for what it looks like when Wentz is doing things right because when he’s on, he’s shown that he is absolutely one of the best quarterbacks in the league. I mentioned earlier that I charted Wentz’ accuracy and toe issues in the three games this season but I also charted every game of his from 2017. His accurate throws to the left jump from 50% to 66.7%, he points his toe that direction on 20% more of his throws, and was just flat out more accurate at every level and area of the field.

This is a great first example of Wentz’ better lower body mechanics in 2017. You can see that as he’s going through his progressions, his feet are coming with him through his reads. Something that just isn’t happening as consistently currently. It helps speed up his decision making and gets him into a position to throw as soon as he locates his open receiver instead of locating and then subsequently having to fix his feet to match where they are.

This is another good example of what it looks like to open your hips to the throw by pointing your toe. By opening up, he’s able to get a lot more mobility in his hips which helps him drive the ball and be more accurate despite the DB breaking on the ball and causing an incompletion.

When the toe matches the aiming point, Wentz is unbelievably more accurate. If we match the endzone view here with the sideline view, we can get a great vantage point of that. You can see as he opens his front leg and points his toe, it’s pointed directly at the outside leg of the running back coming up in pass protection. If we draw a line from that point now from the sideline view we can see the projected line on which the ball should travel. The line looks like it should intersect at about the 30 yard line a few yards from the sideline and that’s exactly where the ball ends up.

You can do this with a ton of his throws from 2017. The ball is going to want to go where your toe is pointing. When everything is aligned, Wentz has some insane accuracy. When he isn’t and he’s fighting to throw in spite of his toe, we see what we’re seeing right now in 2020.

While he was much much better in 2017, he did have some issues with his toe at that time too. It was just way less frequent. It’s always been there, he’s just been better at controlling and working to iron it out in the past.

Now that we have some context let’s quickly go back to his interception against Washington. His toe is aligned down the middle of the field and he has to fight against it to be able to throw outside to his left. You can see that he can’t bring his leg all the way through, his body isn’t in alignment like it often was in 2017, and the ball ends up inside and intercepted.

So, we know the mechanical issues have always been there to a degree, they’re just becoming more prominent now. Wentz has slowly been having less and less consistent mechanics through 2018 and 2019 where he also had issues with his back which can impact his ability to rotate his hips and have consistent mechanics. Mechanics aren’t the only issues going on in 2020 though.

Obviously, the line has its issues but that’s now manifesting in extremely light boxes for Philadelphia. Teams are routinely putting only five or six guys in the box against them. If you take away Wentz’ 74 rushing yards on 12 attempts, the Eagles have only 279 rushing yards and have attempted true runs just 67 times which puts them at 4th last in the NFL. The thing is, they’re running the ball just fine at about 4.1 yards per carry but teams just aren’t scared of them running the ball because Pederson gets away from it quickly and teams feel like they can hold up without extra men in the box and still be able to get home on pass rushes. So that means more guys in coverage, more difficult reads, and forcing Carson Wentz to make tighter window throws which he’s just not doing right now. Miles Sanders should help this as he becomes more healthy and impactful, but it’s making life tough for Wentz right now.

To keep with the theme of the offensive line and pass rush, Wentz is also guilty of not helping his offensive line. Jason Peters has not played particularly well but had his hands absolutely full with none other than Carl Lawson – and if you’re not a Bengals fan you probably haven’t even heard of the guy. He has 59 tackles in four years but has managed to get 17.5 sacks in that time. While Peters hasn’t looked great, the reason he was having trouble with Lawson, was because of Wentz’ snap count. Lawson was able to jump the snap quite frequently in their game against the Bengals and there’s no way to do this other than figuring out the QBs cadence. You can see in these clips that Lawson is moving even before Peters is. He’s not even out of his stance by the time that Lawson is on him. It doesn’t seem like much but you can see how far ahead of everyone Lawson is on his pass rush and this is because Wentz isn’t varying his snap count enough. The defensive linemen should not be moving at the exact same frame as when the ball is snapped. Unless they know the snap count. It didn’t just happen in the Bengals game either, it was happening with the Rams as well. With no fans or sound, defenses can hear the recordings of snap counts and key off of them for good get offs.

While Wentz is still doing a solid job of reading defenses and is choosing the right guy to throw to, he’s also becoming a little bit more indecisive as the season is going along. In week 1 here he did a really really good job of using his snap count to force Washington to show their blitz and coverage. He gets the corner to the bottom of the screen to bail, the linebacker to creep up and show blitz, and the safety to come down. He diagnoses this and determines it’s going to be a cover 3 buzz look with the other inside linebacker needing to flow to get to the tight end and hook area to cover the vacated area of the blitzer at the bottom of the screen which is going to open up a hole in the middle of the field. He quickly looks off to his left to widen the buzz safety coming down and comes back to the middle of the field to hit Ertz. His feet just betray him and the ball goes incomplete.

Compare that now to plays where he’s locating open receivers based on the coverage but being hesitant to throw the ball and allowing the windows to close. Here the Rams have blown a coverage and Goedert is wide open in the endzone as the Rams don’t match his route. Wentz looks, and doesn’t throw it.

Here a similar thing happens. The Bengals are running cover 2 man and matching the #3 receiver with their safeties. The outside route creates a rub for the deep out and the safety has to navigate over the top of it to be able to come down on the route. Wentz is reading it, sees it, almost throws it, and pulls his eyes off just as he gets contacted in the pocket and then scrambles downfield.

Carson Wentz and the Eagles are not playing good football right now and it’s a combination of things all turning into some very lackluster performances in the first three weeks of the season. Wentz’ mechanical issues are becoming more pronounced than ever, the offensive line is injured as are a lot of his weapons outside, and Wentz isn’t doing a good job of protecting those guys with changes in snap count cadence and by throwing with anticipation and trusting his arm and eyes. It’s not all doom and gloom though because while the mechanics are tough to rep and fix, it is very possible and he has shown he has the capability to do it. The game plan will need to be structured around his limitations right now though. Throws to his right and some RPOs that force his feet in the right direction due to the mesh with the running back might be the name of the game. The RPO game was incredibly effective with Foles on their Super Bowl run and it’s a good confidence-building scheme that will let Wentz attack short throws, align his feet, and make decisive reads. He still has that magic of being able to run around the pocket, make plays happen, and when he does line his feet up he throws maybe the best ball in the NFL. Some of his throws this year still look like vintage Wentz. Now he just has to do it more consistently. And if he does, don’t count out the Eagles because as they get more healthy and in rhythm, that confidence may quickly come back, the defense is a real problem for teams, and the NFC East is still wide open for the taking.

If you liked this post make sure to subscribe below and let us know what you think. If you feel like donating and want access to some early blog releases and exclusive breakdown content or to help us keep things running, you can visit our Patreon page here. Make sure to follow us on Instagram @weekly_spiral and twitter @weeklyspiral for updates when we post and release our podcasts. You can find the Weekly Spiral podcast on Spotify or anywhere you listen.