In Sunday’s marquee game, Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks and Deshaun Watson of the Houston Texans (whose season has just come to a sudden end) combined for 8 pass plays of over 30 yards. A couple of them where short passes that broke. But the great majority were vertical shots intended to challenge the respective secondaries. It was the kind of game that’s being played more and more these days, as the NFL is beginning its latest shift forward to the past. The era of the long pass play is returning.
A Quick History of the NFL
Coming out of its rugby roots, the early years of the NFL were run dominated. In 1940, for example, Washington’s slinging Sammy Baugh led the NFL in passing with 1367 yards over an 11-game season – an average of 124.3 yards per game. That year there were 4,136 rushing attempts to only 2,254 attempted passes.
Beginning with Sid Luckman in the mid-1940s, the game began to undergo a revolution. At some point, someone figured out that if my receiver is faster than your defensive back, then all I need is a quarterback who can throw the ball down the field and there would be little that your defense could do about it.
There are some who consider the 1950s and the first half of the 1960s to be football’s golden age. It was the era of Luckman and Otto Graham. Of Norm Van Brocklin, Daryle Lamonica and Bobby Lane. Of Johnny Unitas and Joe Namath. For the first time, football had truly embraced the pass. It would never look back.
By the mid-sixties, defenses were beginning to tinker with a new concept called the “zone defense.” The idea was that instead of having my defensive back try to run with a receiver faster than him, I would have my defensive backs positioned relatively evenly across the field, so that wherever this receiver ended up, I would have a defender there waiting for him. This was a concept that would mostly rule defensive football for almost 50 years.
In the 80’s offenses adjusted. Instead of trying to beat the zone defenses with vertical passes, the NFL passing game became increasingly horizontal, as offenses sought to stretch out those zones and widen the naturally occurring seams. The meme became the West Coast offense – the staple of the San Francisco 49ers of the Bill Walsh – Joe Montana era.
And that is pretty much where football has been for about 25 years or so.
All of a sudden, as football enters the second decade of this new century, we are beginning to see elite athletes emerging as the new wave of cornerbacks. Gradually defenses have learned that they don’t necessarily have to let a speed receiver lift the cover off of their zone. Not if they could find themselves a shut-down corner – some elite defender that could run with even the fastest receivers wherever they went on the field.
And now, suddenly, everyone is looking for the next Richard Sherman.
But this cornerback mostly forces your defensive scheme back to a man-to-man concept. This is especially true since most of the league’s better offenses are equipped with several receivers who are vertical threats.
Once the dominant defensive alignment in football, the famous Tampa Two (a brand of zone defense that featured two safeties that had deep responsibility for the two sidelines, while a linebacker dropped back into the deep middle) is now rarely seen. The NFL’s new predominant defense is the single high safety with man coverage across the field. This was the defense that Denver relied on to muffle the Kansas City passing attack last Monday night.
And, as football makes this adjustment, it invites the vertical passing game back into the equation. Not only because it creates the one-on-one matchups, but also because the man coverage focus has compromised the ability of many teams to be effective in zone coverage. I would guess that probably as many big passing plays last week came against poorly executed zone coverages as against man coverage matchups.
Pittsburgh and Detroit
As in Seattle, Pittsburgh and Detroit got together last Sunday in a game that showcased the best and the worst of the vertical passing game. Pittsburgh won, 20-15 (gamebook) in a game that featured 9 combined pass plays over 30 yards.
In this particular game, there was only scoring drive in which more than half of the yardage did not come from one single play. Pittsburgh opened the scoring kicking a field goal after a 59-yard drive. A vertical pass from Ben Roethlisberger to JuJu Smith-Schuster for 41 yards set that up.
And so it went. A 33-yard pass to Jones early in the second set up another Detroit field goal (after a 39 yard drive) and a 6-3 Lion’s lead. Forty of the Steelers seventy-five yard answering drive came on a deep jump ball from Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown. The Steelers scored the game’s first touchdown after that play, and took a 10-6 lead. The Lions quickly answered with another field goal, moving 42 yards to get into range (with 25 of those coming on a strike from Stafford to T.J. Jones). Now it was a 10-9 Steeler lead. The Lions would take a 12-10 lead into the half when they moved 63 yards in 43 seconds to kick a field goal with 13 seconds left. Again, T.J. Jones caught the deep ball (34 yards) to set up the kick.
In the second half, Pittsburgh went back on top 13-12 kicking a field goal after a short punt set them up at about mid-field. Again, though, the 28-yards scoring drive featured an 18-yard pass from Ben to JuJu.
At the end of the third quarter, the Steelers would score the final touchdown of the day on a 98-yard “drive.” This “drive” was one running play that gained 3 yards. One holding penalty that gave back 2 of the yards. One incomplete pass. And one 97-yard touchdown strike (again to JuJu). Smith-Schuster finished his afternoon with 193 yards on 7 catches.
Finally – as the third quarter lapsed into the fourth – the Lions put together an actual scoring drive. They marched 74 yards in 10 plays. It cost them 5:07 of playing time, though, and the payoff was only their fifth field goal of the game.
Lots of Yards, But . . .
The two teams combined for 874 yards – 728 of them through the air. They finished with just 2 touchdowns. In comparison, the West Coast offense is designed for sustaining offense. Over the last two decades, pass completion percentages in the high sixties were not uncommon. In this game, Roethlisberger completed 54.9% (17 of 31) of his passes, and Stafford completed 60% (27 of 45). The vertical game is less consistent.
More so than the West Coast offense, the vertical passing game needs the balance of a strong running game to help convert the passing yards into touchdowns. The Steelers were held to just 75 rushing yards. The Lions – who never did get into the end zone – ran for just 71 yards. They were 0-for-5 in the red zone, and 0-for-3 in goal-to-go situations.
For Detroit, now, the running game issue is beginning to fester. Averaging just 82.1 yards per game, the Lions’ running game ranks twenty-eighth in football. They have suffered agonizing losses to Atlanta (26-30 during which they ran for only 71 yards), Carolina (24-27, during which the running game contributed 50 yards), New Orleans (35-52, while running for 66 yards), and now Pittsburgh. In all of these games, the missing running attack was a notable contributor to the defeat.
Meanwhile in New England
The defending champion Patriots also had more trouble scoring touchdowns than they had anticipated. They scored one, kicking four field goals in their 21-13 win over the Los Angeles Chargers (gamebook).
The one enduring virtue of the zone defense is that – when well executed – it can inhibit the vertical game. That was the focus of the Chargers in their contest against New England, as they forced the explosive Patriot offense to crawl. Tom Brady completed none of his throws of more than twenty yards, and was only 1-for-6 when throwing more than 15 yards downfield.
Alas, the Patriots are comfortable enough in the horizontal game that they were able to take advantage of the Charger’s deep coverages. Tom finished his night completing 68.1% of his tosses (32 for 47), albeit for only 10.41 yards per completion. Running backs Rex Burkhead and James White combined to catch 12 of the 13 passes tossed their way for 153 yards. Although they only averaged 3.0 yards per rush, the patient Patriots ran the ball 32 times, on their way to controlling the clock for 36:59 of the game.
Sometimes offensive success is less a matter of points than it is of controlling the game.
Again, on the Protests
In case you’ve not yet seen it, here is my link to my National Anthem protest post – since this thing is still in the news.