Tuesday, January 18, 2011

How To Score on The Bear Defense.

I like to think of some football concepts in baseball terms. First downs are analogous to getting on base (or if you prefer, not making an out). Picking up first downs gives your offense extra chances to score, and in general, the more first downs you pick up, the better your offense will be.

There is another way to generate offense in the NFL. This is the “big play” which I see as analogous to slugging. Even if you create a lot of outs in baseball, you can still be (somewhat) valuable if you hit a lot of HRs, essentially capitalizing on the chances you do have.

The Bears “Cover-2” scheme has a reputation for taking away the deep ball, but I believe as the Bears play it this is a misnomer. The Bears cover-2 scheme excels at stopping drives. The way to attack the Bears is with slugging, not with OBP.
The key to understanding the Bears cover-2 is to understand Brian Urlacher’s responsibilities. He is charged with taking away the middle of the field on passing plays, which allows the safeties behind him to get deep drops and take away most deep balls from most teams. I would also be remiss if I did not mention that Lance Briggs is one of the best LBs in the league as well, especially in pass coverage on TEs. Against conventional offenses and with proper personnel (which the Bears do possess) this defense is truly difficult to do anything against. Throw Julius Peppers into the mix as both a pass-rusher and a run-stopper and it’s easy to see why the Bears have excelled this season.

While the presence of Urlacher makes the deep ball hard to throw for most teams the Packers are not most teams. In the last game of the regular season, the Packers scored all 10 of their points off of bombs to Greg Jennings on the outside (he was tackled at the 1-yard line both times). The Jets receivers also had success with big gains, as did the Bills’ Stevie Johnson. Look for the Packers to try and get the ball deep using two formations in particular.

1. Play-Action

Perhaps the Packers biggest upgrade going into this game is the perception of James Starks. Starks hasn’t actually played that well overall (though he was a major factor against the Eagles) but he’s played well enough to warrant some attention. Moreover, the one thing the Bears defense does struggle with is power running. Brian Urlacher is great in side-to-side pursuit, but can be blown up in one-on-one matchups with fullbacks and TEs. Former Detroit Lion fullback Corey Schlesinger seemed to delight in bowling over the fast but undersized middle linebacker.

If the Packers can get off a few successful runs early (even if it is only 4-5 yards) they will be able to draw Urlacher up from the deep middle and attack the area behind him. Even if play action isn’t working the Packers have one more option.

2. The 4/5 WR set.

Teams simply do not score a lot on the Bears (including the Packers), but the teams that have put up points on them have something in common. The Jets have Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards, and Dustin Keller. The Eagles have Maclin, Jackson, Celek, and a good 3rd WR in Jason Avant. Seemingly everyone on the Patriots is a weapon.
The Bears Cover-2 becomes vulnerable when it is spread out, and faced with multiple deep threats. Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, and James Jones should be able to do damage down the field if they’re not dropping the ball. The 5-wide set wreaks havoc with the Bear defense for a few reasons:

a. It forces them out of their base and into Nickel or Dime. Briggs and Urlacher are at their best in zone coverage. If you put them in a position where they’re rushing the passer or, even better, chasing a WR, you are neutralizing one of their strengths.

b. It forces inferior DBs onto the field. The Bear secondary isn’t a strength, and the more backups you can force onto the field, the better it is for you.

c. Aaron Rodgers is at his best outside of the pocket in the 4/5 WR sets. There is typically more room for him to run should it come to that, and with only 4-5 rushers and a lot of space, he can also buy time. If you give Jordy Nelson 7 seconds he will come open against a Nickel defender.

Soldier Field injects a lot of randomness into Bear home games. The wind is often howling off the lake which makes it colder and more difficult to pass effectively. The field is famously terrible ad players routinely slip and fall. The Packers would like nothing more than a nice calm day. If weather makes it difficult to throw the deep ball, the Packers will be in big trouble.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Packers Still Can't Win A Close Game

Sadly, Aaron Rodgers record in media-defined close games (4 points or fewer) remains a terrible 2-13.

Thank God the Packers were able to absolutely destroy, dominate and humiliate the Eagles by 5. It was nice to not have to worry about the outcome of this one.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

What I Remember About Jack Morris

People who want Jack Morris in the Hall of Fame (which I'm fine with as long as you include Bert) tend to throw around the notion that "you had to be there."

I was around and sentient for most of Jack Morris's career. I remember Uecker talking about Morris as a great pitcher. I also remember the Brewers beating Morris most of the time. (This was before I knew pitcher wins were a stupid stat.)

Today I checked the stats against my memory.

Jack Morris v. The Milwaukee Brewers:

18-21 (Ha!)
4.11 ERA (Meh)
1.270 WHIP (Meh)

I wonder how much of my acquired anti-Morris sentiment is just based on the fact that against my team he wasn't very good.

Why OSU Is Favored

1. As Jon has pointed out, OSU is the only Big 10 school that consistently brings in top recruiting classes.

2. OSU and Wisconsin were (in my opinion) quite a bit better than the rest of the Big Ten this year, and Wisconsin basically played even with one of the top 3 teams in the country.

3. In criticizing the line, many are saying things like "have you watched the Big Ten bowl games?" Judging OSU off of Michigan and Northwestern is silly.

I'm not going to rush out and put money on them, of course. Tressel is 0-3 against SEC teams and I honestly haven't seen Arkansas play this year, but I don't think the line is as crazy as it sounds.

(If I was forced to bet, I'd take the SEC team and the points, however.)

Monday, January 3, 2011

Stupid Myths About College Football

Some people apparently like "The Bowl System", or as I like to call it, the "Corporate Sponsored Exhibition Game" system. You will frequently hear these people say that in the college football regular season every game is important because if you lose one game (for most teams) or two (for the rest) your season is over.

Here is a list of college football games that don't matter.

1. 99% of non-conference games.

Because of the BCS, and because there are so many bowl games, every team has a huge incentive to get enough wins to become "bowl eligible" and to not lose a game for as long as possible. This results in teams scheduling 3-4 cream-puff games every year that are basically pre-season games. They do not matter, and are boring.

2. Every game played by any team with 2+ losses. They can no longer win the title. Contrast with the NFL where even teams with 7 losses can still win the title. Who has a meaningful regular season again?

3. Every game played by 95% or so of non-AQ schools. They are eliminated before they even play a game.

4. Every bowl game that is not the BCS Championship game.

That's a lot of games right there. The fact is that most of the college football season is interesting only because it is football, and football is always kind of interesting, but the playoff system in the NFL actually serves to keep more teams alive for a longer period of time.

The Bowl system is stupid and outdated. It's a playoff system where almost everyone qualifies but almost no one can actually win. It's almost like the Caucus Race.

Congrats To The Pack

I'm very glad that I get to care about pro football for one more week.

That was a stellar defensive effort against a team that didn't lay down at all. I don't know why Lovie Smith let Jay Cutler take that pounding back there, but the Packers deserve a lot of credit for taking the Bears' best punch and responding in kind.

Why The Big Ten Sucked In Bowl Games

I think it's important to point this out because I think the reason this year is actually different than it usually is. The Big Ten used to do poorly in bowl season because too many teams played an anachronistic style and were unprepared to stop pro-style and spread offenses. I no longer think this is true across the board as many teams have (to their credit) attempted to modernize a bit. This year the Big Ten was bad because of a mix of down years for typically solid programs, and a few injuries.

1. First and foremost, Michigan is just plain bad.

2. Michigan State overachieved in winning a share of the Big Ten Title. They were close to losing several games to bad teams, and ended up in way over their heads in their bowl game. It happens sometimes.

3. Penn State had a down year, and only narrowly lost to Florida, which also had a down year.

4. Poor Northwestern lost their good QB, and played a feisty game anyway.

5. Wisconsin played a good team and barely lost. It happens.

6. Illinois and Iowa actually won their bowl games, but as lesser Big Ten schools (in terms of record) no one cares. Iowa decided to show up after playing terribly down the stretch.

A lot of individual things went wrong for the Big Ten, but I don't think there is anything systemically wrong anymore. I suspect that after Michigan gets Harbaugh they will rebound (eventually), that Penn State should develop into a stronger team, and that OSU will keep cheating their way to national prominence.

Why Wisconsin Lost The Rose Bowl

I usually don't take losses too hard. After about 30 seconds or so I'm back to normal and ready to take on the rest of the day. That said, there are two loses this year that just bugged me.

1. The Packer loss to New England.

2. The Rose Bowl.

Before I get into the Rose Bowl, I would like to say that TCU played a great game, had a great game plan, and deserves all of their wins and accolades. That Carder guy is a beast.

The reason that these two losses bug me is that I think simply making a different decision or two would have prevented the loss, or at least would have made winning much more likely. In the Rose Bowl I didn't like the game plan. I thought they ran outside too much even after it was apparent that wasn't going to work. They took too many negative plays in the passing game. I would have liked so have seen nothing but Montee Ball and John Clay running up the middle all game, but I'm not a football coach and I don't study tape, and there were probably good reasons for their game plan.

But what the hell were they thinking on their last drive?

If you are down by 8 points, you will need a minimum of 2 possessions to win the game. One of those may come in overtime, but you are going to need two. Moreover, tying the game will require a 2-point conversion, and those are good just under 50% of the time. If you do not convert the 2-point conversion, you will definitely need to get the ball back. The point is, there are a lot of good reasons to hurry up if it's late and you're down by 8. Even if you have to run the ball to move the ball, as the Badgers probably did, you should not dawdle in between plays.

Here is what you need to know about the Badgers final drive.

1. They got the ball with 7:32 left in the game.

2. They eventually scored with 2:00 left in the game and one timeout.

3. This was not the time for a 5 minute, 32 second drive.

4. John Clay had a 30-yard run on a play that started at the 7:25 mark. After this play the Badgers used their 2nd timeout, yet somehow did not snap the ball again until the 6:31 mark.

I believe that had they simply hustled more on this drive they could have saved themselves a timeout as well as another minute or two. They played this with no urgency, almost as if they were resigned to the idea of getting the TD and the two without even considering what they would do if they did not convert.

And second to this complete lack of urgency, how on earth they decided to pass on their two-point conversion attempt is still beyond me.

That game was infuriating.