CHALKBOARD: 4-verticals clearout works again

What does the Indianapolis Colts’ game-winning play at Detroit last Sunday have in common with Ray Rice’s miraculous 4th-and-29 conversion for the Baltimore Ravens in San Diego the week before?

Plenty. Read on. And excuse the rudimentary drawings I provided to our print-side graphics folks. They fully explain the plays, though….

1. COLTS’ GAME-WINNING TOUCHDOWN IN DETROIT IN WEEK 13:

CHALKBOARD

I remember a radio announcer in the 1970s complaining that all a prevent defence ever does is prevent you from winning.

Some 35 years later, there’s still a lot of truth in that statement.

In this spot last week, I showed why the extremely  loose prevent defence the San Diego Chargers employed on that 4th-and-29 against Baltimore enabled Ray Rice to scamper 30 yards on a simple dumpoff.

The Indianapolis Colts defeated the Detroit Lions last Sunday in almost the identical manner.

Here’s the situation.

The Colts trail at Detroit, 33-28, with four seconds left in the game. Indy has the ball on the left hash, 14 yards from the Detroit end zone.

The Colts come out in five-wide – with Donnie Avery and T. Y. Hilton to the left, and tight end Weslye Saunders, Reggie Wayne and LaVon Brazill to the right.

Lions coaches decide to protect the end zone all the way on this make-or-break play. Like the Chargers a week before, the Lions rush four and drop seven deep into coverage – a couple of linebackers and five defensive backs.

When Andrew Luck takes the shotgun snap, the seven Lions pass defenders all drop back into the end zone, as four Colts receivers sprint up to join them there. But Avery, aligned outside left, cuts across at the 10. No Lion is near him.

Luck bails out of the pocket early, rolls to the right, and keeps his eyes downfield. No one is open, as the four downfield receivers are blanketed by the seven pass defenders.

Luck dumps it off to Avery, hitting him in full stride. Avery instantly cuts it up.

The Lions are dead. It appears some are in man coverage, with their back to the quarterback, and thus don’t even see the dumpoff until too late.

And the Lions defenders playing a‘lanes’ zone defence of sorts – and thus facing the quarterback, watching the ball – have lost their positioning on Indy’s right side.

The fleet Avery is darting straight up that side, into an unoccupied lane. He scores before the Lions can close up that hole. Not one Lion can gets a hand on Avery.

Ball game.

If the Lions had assigned even one of the seven pass defenders to remain in front of the end zone, he’d have seen the threat Avery posed on that cut-across and picked him up.

So, Indy won 35-33, improving to 8-4 on the season. Detroit – finding another painful way to lose in a season that had contained so much hope at the outset – dropped to 4-8.

Lesson: Dropping seven pass defenders into soft coverage past the make-or-break line maybe isn’t a smart thing to do.

2. RAVENS’ 4th-and-29 CONVERSION IN SAN DIEGO IN WEEK 12:

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Let’s be clear here. What Ray Rice did on that pivotal 4th-and-29 conversion on Sunday in San Diego was nothing short of sensational.

His Baltimore Ravens head coach, John Harbaugh, called it the “greatest play I’ve ever seen or been a part of.”

A closer look at the play reveals that Rice and the Ravens got a lot of help – too much, in fact – from the Chargers. The defensive play call was defective.

Here’s the situation. Reference the X’s-and-O’s drawing above.

Baltimore trails 13-10 with 1:59 left in the fourth quarter, and has the ball 4th-and-29 at its own 37-yard line, at the right hash. To save you the math, the Ravens must advance to the Chargers’ 34, or San Diego wins.

The Ravens come out in a shotgun ‘11’ formation – with three wide receivers (two left, one right), a tight end and a running back (Rice) staggered right.

The Chargers counter with four pass rushers, dropping seven players deep into pass coverage – two linebackers and five defensive backs.

At the snap, the three Ravens wideouts and the tight end all run fly patterns, more or less equally spaced. Four verticals – exactly like the old Hail Mary play on those EA Sports’ NCAA or Madden video games.

The Chargers’ seven pass defenders all drop deep, six of them beyond the first-down mark. With those seven men covering four receivers, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco isn’t likely to find anyone open – and doesn’t.

He has a safety valve, though, in Rice, who’s waiting just behind the line of scrimmage, to the right. Flacco has no choice but to dump it off to him.

And here’s how the Chargers screw up.

If they assign just one of those seven pass defenders to cover Rice, they likely prevent him from gaining anywhere near the requisite 29 yards. A spying defender almost certainly would have tackled Rice, or slowed him down, or leveraged him into other tacklers.

Instead, Rice catches the pass, looks up and has at least 20 yards of empty green grass before him, sideline to sideline. He shoots straight up the right side.

At that, the deep Chargers defenders on that side of the field (four) all realize that the dangerously elusive, speedy and powerful running back is now a threat to get the first down.

All four sprint toward him, as does the safety on the other hash some 20 yards upfield.

Enter Rice’s brilliance. Just before he gets close to the fast-converging fivesome just across midfield, he makes a killer cut – hard to the left.

Not one of the five Chargers gets a hand on him, as a few stumble and crash.

As Rice breaks to the left side of the field he has a choice of continuing to the left sideline and turning it up there, or taking his chances by cutting upfield soonest.

Rice chooses the latter course, trusting he’ll get a block from one of his downfield wideouts on one of the two remaining defensive backs on that side, just up ahead.

He gets such a block.

Anquan Boldin creams Chargers safety Eric Weddle, and Rice dives between DBs Antoine Cason and Quentin Jammer and picks up the first down by half a yard (after a video review moved the ball back by half a yard).

Thirty-yard gain, officially. First down.

Ravens placekicker Justin Turner would kick the game-tying 38-yard field goal at the end of regulation, and another 38-yarder in overtime to lift Baltimore, 16-13.

While Ray’s heroics were as unlikely as they were super athletic, his task would have been rendered all the more improbable had the Chargers assigned someone to spy him.

That still would have left them with six men to cover the four receivers downfield.

Rice is the best playmaker the Ravens have. That he could get the ball with no defender within more than 20 yards of him on 4th-and-29 is an enormous error in judgment by San Diego’s defensive coaches.

 

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