Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Dissecting the Final Plays Against Baltimore

In the wake of the Steelers loss to the Ravens, there has been plenty of finger-pointing about who is to blame for the Steelers coming up two points short. One of the most poignant articles from the weekend came from Dejan Kovacevic at the Trib. I've gone on the record before as saying Dejan is one of the best sportswriters in the city, and the point of his article on the whole was solid, that the coaching staff needed to have a backup plan for a play for the two-point conversion after they apparently used their "two-point play" on fourth down. This is a salient point and one that has dogged the coaching staff all season. In the opener, the plan for the offense was for Kelvin Beachum to play as the "extra" blocking tight end in a heavy set. They used this on the first drive until Maurkice Pouncey was injured. This was not originally a bad plan, but the problem was that there was no Plan B if Beachum had to fill in on the offensive line. Since Beachum was the top backup at every offensive line position, it seems asinine that the team would enter the season opener with no Plan B for the blocking scheme if Beachum had to sub in at any of the 5 positions on the line.

Before you continue reading my article, take a minute and read DK's article here. I quote pieces from it, but you should read it before going forward with mine.

However, there are numerous problems with Kovacevic's article, ranging from minor details to major ones. The problems don't change the overall point of his article, but they also caused him to miss a key point of analysis - that Sanders changed his route, resulting in a less effective play on the two point try.

1. What down was it?

DK's article focuses on Ben going over to the sideline to change the play for the second and goal play, which occurred after the Ravens took a timeout after stopping Bell on first and goal. The greater point here is still true is that Ben didn't like the play and wanted to call a run. What DK further fails to address is the third down play that was a pass to Will Johnson out of the backfield that was dropped at the goal line. Was that the original play that Haley wanted on second down? DK said of the Fourth Down play:

"The third time would be the charm when Roethlisberger found Jerricho Cotchery all alone just to the right edge of the line with 1:06 remaining. 
All they needed now was the two-point try to tie. 
One problem: That was the two-point play."

2. Who was involved?

A minor point, but DK identified LeDarius Webb as the Baltimore corner involved in the hit that almost decapitated Le'Veon Bell.

"Bell's helmet was knocked off by a headfirst hit from Courtney Upshaw. Bell and another Baltimore player, Lardarius Webb, were shaken up 
... 
a reserve corner, Chykie Brown, had just stepped into the game for Webb."

While it is true that Brown was the reserve corner that had stepped into the game on 3rd down and would be on the field for the 2-point play, it was not Lardarius Webb that was injured on the Bell hit, but second corner Jimmy Smith. It's not a major detail, but the fact that Webb, Baltimore's shut down corner, was still on the field covering Antonio Brown on 4th down and the 2-point play does make a difference. According to Advanced NFL Stats' Win Probability Added index, Webb has a WPA of 0.94, the highest in the Ravens secondary and the second highest of all Ravens defenders, while Smith has a WPA of 0.52. The difference between having Webb off the field and having Smith off the field is tremendous.

3. What was the play?

This is the big one. DK cites a quote from Ben saying,
"“Same exact play,” was how Roethlisberger described what came next.
It really was. The same receivers went to the same spots, same cadence, same everything … except the result."
Except it wasn't. Let's look carefully at the tape. Here is the play on fourth and goal:


The Steelers are in a shotgun set with Dwyer beside Ben, Heath on the left side of the line, Sanders split to the left, Brown in the slot right and Cotchery wide right. DK is right that this was the identical alignment to the Two Point Play:


However, as we roll through the tape, we see a striking difference. In a sense, Ben was right that it was the same play on fourth down and on the two point try. On the right side of the formation, the receivers run a double cross with Cotchery running a slant in and Brown running a slant out.
Up front, the blocking was even the same with DeCastro pulling around to block on the left side of the line and Dwyer shooting towards the left side. This left a 2-on-1 scenario for Marcus Gilbert at right tackle.

The difference, which DK missed, was what happened on the left side of the field. And that was what made all the difference. On the fourth down play, Sanders ran a slant in to the middle of the field. The Ravens brought the house on a blitz and Sanders was able to easily get open against Brown.

However, on the Two Point play, rather than running a slant route where he is running towards the middle of the field with his numbers towards Ben and his hands out in front of his body, Sanders ran a fade route with an intended back-shoulder throw from Ben.



There are numerous problems with the back-shoulder fade at the goal line.
  1. The back-shoulder throw works great in the open field when the receiver can stop and get separation from the defensive back that has inside position by drifting slightly to the outside. The problem here is that in short-yardage, a defensive back isn't running at full speed and can make a much better adjustment on the ball and not over-run the throw as they are likely to do in the open field. 
  2. Thrown in close proximity to the goal line, it requires the receiver to not only make a difficult catch, but the sideline plays the role of an extra defender because even if the receiver makes the catch, the possibility exists that he steps out or lands out of bounds before completing the catch.
  3. When thrown to a small receiver, it is a low percentage throw because the ball is in the air for a longer time than it would be with a slant route or a route over the middle, giving the defender more time to identify the play and make a play on the ball.

As we see from the replay, two things happen here. Ravens corner Chykie Brown never turns his head to look for the ball, but solely focuses on getting in the way of Sanders. This isn't great technique from the defensive back, and Sanders could have easily exploited this.
Here is the moment when the ball is thrown. We see Sanders with his head looking back at Ben. Rather than making an inside move and attacking the ball, Sanders lets the ball come to him and tries to make a catch while his body is falling away from the spot where the ball is thrown. In fact, as these two screenshots illustrate, rather than attacking the ball, Sanders is actually backpedalling when the ball gets to him.

Sanders' momentum is carrying him away from the pass (which was perfectly placed by Ben), which makes it even harder to secure the catch.

If Sanders attacks this ball, he has a better chance of making the catch, because his momentum would be carrying him towards the ball, not away from it. Additionally, since Brown didn't even try to look back for the ball, there's a chance Sanders could have drawn a pass interference call by getting plowed over by Brown as he made an aggressive move on the ball. Sanders' passive approach to the catch actually made the catch more difficult and allowed Brown to leap in front of him and obscure his vision. If Sanders is moving towards the ball when Brown makes this leap as pictured above, Sanders easily draws the pass interference call, or is able to step inside of Brown and get his whole body in front of the ball, rather than just his hands.

What DK misses, and what seems strange, is asking why Sanders actually ran a different route than he did on fourth down. The slant route on 4th down is a much higher percentage throw, and Sanders had just beaten Brown with an inside move on 4th down. Was this a hot route that Ben and Sanders agreed upon in the huddle? Was it actually a slightly different play called by Haley? Was it an audible called at the line when Ben saw the coverage? It's unlikely that we will find out the answers to any of these questions, but the fact remains that Sanders ran a different route - a route with a much lower probability of success - on the two point play.
"Sanders admitted he didn't see it until late because Brown was in his face."
Really? The tape begs to differ. Here we see Sanders with his eyes in the backfield with the ball still in Ben's hand. At this point, Sanders had to know the ball was coming.

This picture further confirms that Sanders had a clear look at the ball coming his way:

"“The way that play's drawn up doesn't give you any time to look left or right,” he [Ben] said. “You have to get rid of the ball"
This is true. What Ben also didn't say is that the Ravens defensive strategy at the goal line should not have been much of a surprise. They ran an all-out blitz with man coverage on the outside. The heat was on Ben, there is no doubt about that. On 4th down, the Ravens brought the heat and, as we saw, there was a 2-on-1 on Gilbert on the outside. The Ravens ran the same defense on the two point try, which is consistent with their defensive philosophy. How do I know this? Because they ran the exact same defense twice against the 49ers last year at the end of the Super Bowl.

At the end of the game, the 49ers had a 4th and goal from the 5. The Ravens defense lined up in man across with safety Ed Reed drifting towards the single receiver on the left side of the screen at the snap.

The 49ers tried a similar throw for the sideline that resulted in an incompletion because the Ravens brought the house up the middle.
At the time of the throw, we see that the Ravens are in man across with Reed playing between TE Vernon Davis and WR Michael Crabtree then he takes off towards Crabtree when the ball is thrown.


This wasn't the only time the Ravens used this defensive alignment, though. Earlier in the 4th quarter, the 49ers went for a 2-point conversion to try to tie the game. The Ravens defensive alignment should look familiar here.


Man coverage across the board. Everyone else in the box.

Similarly, the Ravens brought an all-out blitz and forced a rushed throw from Kaepernick. What really jumps off the page here is that Kaepernick threw the ball to the outside, to where a back-shoulder throw would go. The WR on the left side, Randy Moss, ran a slant route towards the middle of the field AND WAS OPEN.
At the top of the screen you can see that Moss clearly has inside position on the Ravens corner. A throw to the middle of the field converts this easily.


Playing man coverage on the outside and bringing the house is a staple of the Ravens defense at the goal line. It worked for them twice against the 49ers in the Super Bowl. It didn't work on 4th down against the Steelers when the Steelers used a route combination that works very well against man coverage and gives the quarterback a high-percentage throw on a slant route. What is maddening about the Two-Point play is that the Steelers knew what coverage the Ravens would be in and they knew that a slant route would be open, yet they opted for a low-percentage throw to the outside.

I'll leave you with one final screen shot. Here is another look at the field at the moment Ben released the ball. The middle of the field is wide open, but Heath is in line blocking. The right side of the field is also wide open with Cotchery cutting towards the open field. The same pass that had just worked on the previous play would have been open again.

In conclusion, DK was right that the coaching staff lacks a Plan B. They have lacked one all season. That is a huge issue. Another equally troubling trend is that the Steelers have relied on these low-percentage throws near the goal line far too often this season. To compound this, there is evidence on film that while the route combination on the right side of the field was the same, Sanders' route on the left side was changed to a route with a much lower probability of success. Some simple research on the Ravens defensive tendencies in these situations shows that they bring the house and leave their corners in man coverage. The Steelers used a play on 4th and goal to attack this tendency, and it worked. Despite calling the "same play" on the two point conversion, Sanders' route was different and he made a poor play on the ball.

1 comment:

Dejan Kovacevic said...

Wow! That's outstanding stuff, guys, and I mean it.

I'd guess this as good a place as any to share that this column -- as with any night game -- has to be written AND filed less than an hour after the clock hits 0:00. That means no video review for me whatsoever. Still, I actually knew that was Jimmy Smith and not Webb on that play, just braincramped out. The rest of it, particularly the difference in the final two plays ... that's tough in a live setting. Even our brilliant Mark Kaboly didn't grab that until doing his Film Session the next day.

But I appreciate this, especially the polite approach you took. This is the difference I've found between football and baseball bloggers, who are constantly out to make a deadline writer look moronic.

Not that we aren't moronic at times!