Lance Zierlein

The Smash Mouth

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Neutralizing Watt

Saturday, November 16, 2013


Trent Richardson looks dead in the water, and you cannot tell me that the Indianapolis Colts aren’t starting to freak out behind closed doors about giving away a first-round pick for him. The Colts like to run power and that would seem to fit the running style of Richardson, but they are going about it wrong.

The Colts offensive line is very average from a talent standpoint and when they run their power plays, there simply aren’t getting large enough creases for Richardson to burst through. Richardson is a straight-ahead back who likes to punish and who has some “grinder” qualities to him. He simply doesn’t make people miss very often.

Here is what I would like to see the Colts do (especially since I have Richardson molding on two fantasy teams): How about running some toss plays or outside zone plays for Richardson in an effort to force him outside. While he doesn’t have much wiggle, he does have good straight-line speed for a power back and the Colts might get better results if they forced him to the perimeters.

Running the football is about maximizing your strengths and minimizing your weaknesses. It’s about game planning. Today, we are going to look at how Tampa and New Orleans may change their game planning, and we’ll look back at how the Arizona Cardinals came up with a game plan to neutralize J.J. Watt.

Editor's Note: Rotoworld's partner FanDuel is hosting a one-week $50,000 Fantasy Football league for Week 11. It's $10 to join and first prize is $7,000. Starts Sunday at 1pm ET. Here's the link.

Moving the Sticks

* The New Orleans Saints straight-up mauled the Dallas Cowboys in Week 10 and I had two takeaways from that game. My first thought after watching the coaches tape was “Damn! Bruce Carter (Cowboys LB) is getting rolled by Jed Collins (Saints FB) every time they meet in the hole on iso blocks”. My second takeaway was that the Saints guards are starting to get into a groove and we might see Sean Payton start leaning on the running game a little more as the season progresses.

* Looking for a reason that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers running game picked up suddenly despite Doug Martin’s injury? One thing I can point to is the insertion of LG Jamon Meredith into the lineup. Meredith plays with a stronger base than Gabe Carimi and with Meredith at guard, the Bucs don’t have to move center Jeremy Zuttah and play Ted Larsen at center, which was a weaker combination than with Meredith now in the lineup.

* Speaking of the Tampa running game, if you are wondering how it will work out now that Mike James is out, here are some things to consider. When Brian Leonard took over at running back, he was much more effective out of a single-back look than with backup FB Erik Lorig in the game. My guess is that the Bucs will want to utilize Leonard as a FB in front of Bobby Rainey as that combination gives their offense a little more explosiveness.

* The Pittsburgh Steelers have been shuffling their tackles around for the better part of the year and they are utilizing Mike Adams as a tight end now in some of their packages. At some point, the Steelers have to lock in on a full-time starter at right tackle so they can get some continuity going. Unfortunately, from what I’ve seen out of Adams, Guy Whimper, Marcus Gilbert and Kelvin Beachum, I’m not sure that they have a solid, full-time starter at the tackle position between the four of them.

* The most consistently effective running plays going today in the NFL are inside zone plays. Almost every NFL team has some inside and outside zone plays built into their running games, but the inside zones are the plays that I see blocked most effectively on a regular basis.

Inside Arizona’s game plan to slow J.J. Watt

When my dad came out of retirement to go work with Cardinals offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin and head coach Bruce Arians, one of the first things that came to mind was, “uh-oh….. he’s got J.J. Watt on the schedule.”

Watt put together what many football experts are calling the greatest season ever by a defensive lineman in 2012. Watt is chiseled from stone and combines optimal size with upper-echelon explosiveness off the snap and rare quickness for the position. Watt is a “tackles for loss” machine thanks to his ability to shoot gaps and swim guards who try and single block him. Despite not putting together the same statistical year we saw from him in 2012, he’s still playing at an elite level.

Across the way, the Arizona Cardinals had former UFL offensive lineman Paul Fanaika playing the right guard spot and veteran right tackle Eric Winston, who has always been known more for his ability in the zone scheme on the move than for his power. So how in the world did the Cardinals expect to have any level of success (or even diminished failure) against Watt?

It’s all about the game plan, baby.

The Cardinals were coming off of a bye week so they installed their running game on Monday of last week. That may seem early to you, but usually game plans are installed by Tuesdays in most NFL offices with maybe a few changes made during the week. I host a sports talk show in Houston and since my parents moved outside of the Austin area for retirement, I had my dad come on my radio show to talk about the Texans' line play each week to give my listeners rare insight into what was taking place on the field.

He watched Watt throughout the 2011 season and for chunks of the 2012 season, so he knew all about Watt and how unblockable he was. When the Cardinals created their game plan, their first rule of thumb was simple:

Arizona’s Rule 1 for Watt: Never leave J.J. Watt single blocked unless absolutely necessary. That sounds simple, but it is very difficult for an offense to double team a player for large parts of the game because it can drastically alter your offense. The other problem is that defensive coordinators can throw blitzes and stunts your way to free up the double-teamed player. Arizona stuck with their game plan.

Watt usually lines up on the strong side of the offensive line, so what the Cardinals did was base-block Watt with Eric Winston and then have their tight end come down to smash Watt a split-second later with the double team. Just like a boxer using body blows or a MMA fighter using low leg kicks, the Cardinals tried to wear Watt down throughout the game with that strategy. On the first run of the game, Watt was single-blocked and the Cardinals ran away from him and he made the tackle for a gain of just one which brings us to the next rule.

Arizona’s Rule 2 for Watt: Don't run away from #99, run at him.

I’m from Houston so we don’t have to worry about icy roads in the winter very often, but I remember how puzzled I was the first time I heard that you should “steer into the skid”. The idea of heading into trouble doesn’t seem to make much sense, but sometimes it is the best way.

Teams frequently run away from Watt and it ends up allowing Watt to take advantage of his quickness as he frequently beats offensive linemen across their face and ends up giving them no angle to block him. And he pursues the play headed to the weak-side (usually left).

According to STATS ICE, the Texans have been giving up 21.8% of their per-game rushing yardage over right guard and right tackle where Watt is frequently stationed. The Arizona Cardinals gained 38.1% of their rushing yards over right guard and right tackle, which shows how serious they were about not running away from him. In fact, only three of the Cardinals total rushes were headed left against the Texans, while they generally average double that number in the other games they’ve played this year.

Arizona’s Rule 3 for Watt: Don’t fire off at him… just engage him.

If you are going to run at J.J. Watt, you have to move him out of the way, right? I mean, you can’t just devise a plan that involves running at him without trying to push him out of the way so the Cardinals were going to have to fire off the snap and hope that they were strong enough to get some push. Right?

Wrong.

The Cardinals decided during their running game installation and game planning phase that the best course of action for J.J. Watt was to have guys like Winston NOT fire off the ball at Watt and instead simply try to keep Watt engaged long enough for that double team to come smashing down on top of him.

I’ve seen guard after guard and tackle after tackle make the same mistake of trying to fire out on Watt, only to have him swim their attempts and get a free running shot at the tailback. The Cardinals decided to trust their game plan and scheme rather than ask offensive linemen to match power and speed with Watt, and they saw results.

* Data provided by STATS ICE

Quality Rush% for Cardinals
Season Total: 44.6%
vs. Houston: 51.7%

Stuff% for Cardinals run game

Season Total: 17.8%
vs. Houston: 17.2%

Rush Yards Per Game (excluding Texans game)

Season Total: 93.1
vs. Houston: 97

Rushes Per Game (excluding Texans game)

Season Total: 23
vs. Houston: 29



Lance Zierlein is sports talk show host on KMBE 790 AM in Houston, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @lancezierlein.
Email :Lance Zierlein



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