Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The enigma of the Patriots' defense...

While Bill Belichick has never been given to hyperbole, a victory against the Colts would surely have brought a smile even to his perpetually morose face had the fourth quarter not made the game as tight as it did. New England’s defense is undoubtedly two things: young and talented. Yet they’re also prone to lapses of complete non-aggression on a scale that Gandhi would’ve been proud of.

The beginning of the game started fortuitously for the Patriots as an Indianapolis penalty on the kickoff ensured Peyton Manning would start at his own 11 yard line. Sure enough, the Colts started in their traditional no huddle and did a good job (initially) of keeping the yardage short, hitting Austin Collie on in-cuts and running with Donald Brown.

Problems arose for the Colts only when the 3rd down yardage became long. On a 3rd and 6 at the New England 46 yard line, Peyton encountered something that he doesn’t normally run into: pressure up the middle.

The pictures below illustrate the best of New England’s defense. In this play, Belichick went with a Nickel Defense (four linemen, two linebackers and five defensive backs). To help with the picture (which is admittedly out of focus thank you very much NFL Network on Itunes), I’ve color-coded their secondary.

In red are the two cornerbacks (Devin McCourty on the top of the screen and Kyle Arrington on the bottom) as well as safety-turned-nickel-back Patrick Chung (lined up in the slot). The linebackers (Jerod Mayo on the bottom covering Jacob Tamme and Gary Guyton in a middle zone) are highlighted yellow.

Notice how at this point in the play Peyton has received the ball and is ideally placed to survey the field, unencumbered by any pass-rush since New England elected not to bring a blitz. His first read is toward the bottom of the screen looking for either the tight end (Tamme) or wide receiver Reggie Wayne. 

Knowing that Indi needs only a short completion to get the first down, New England has five defenders in tight coverage at this point in the play (negating the quick throws Peyton loves so much). So far, New England is winning the play with their secondary.

Only a few moments have passed since the first picture but already you can see the fruitful efforts of defensive tackle Mike Wright (with the yellow dot over his head). Though unheralded, Wright is good at doing exactly what he’s accomplished in this play: destroying the pocket by simply bull-rushing his blocker.

Peyton’s ability to step into his throw is completely stunted and his feet are more perpendicular than parallel (in other words, he can’t get the required zip on his passes). This is perfect for the defense because while New England still has everyone covered at this point in the play, their short zones fail to prevent a medium route that gets between the deep coverage and the underneath coverage.

As it turned out, Peyton tried to throw to this exact route (a medium crossing route to Blair White who can be seen running on the far left of the picture.) However, since his feet weren’t properly set, he got too much loft on the throw and it sailed into the arms of Brendon Meriweather for an early interception.

Basically, New England’s secondary won the first part of the play and their pass-rush won the second part. Each unit needed to execute and they both did, because neither could succeed without the other. Had the coverage failed, Peyton would have fired underneath right after receiving the ball. Had the rush failed, he would have had too much time and found the holes in New England’s zone.

Yet New England’s defense is far too inconsistent, and especially their pass-rush goes through spells where they create no pressure at all. This is particularly disturbing when it happens even as they blitz. The priority of fixing this became all too clear at the end of the first half when Peyton drove the Colts down the field and faced a 2nd and 10 at the Patriots’ 11 yard line with seven seconds left in the half.

Notice the difference in the picture here and the picture from before. Instead of shrinking the pocket, New England defensive linemen are perfectly contained (their defensive tackles are stuck almost at the line of scrimmage). 
Peyton’s able to set his feet perfectly and step into the throw (which was a perfect fade into the corner for a touchdown to Reggie Wayne). Even though the coverage was tight (and actually Brandon Meriweather probably should have made a play on the ball) Peyton threaded the needle because, well, he’s Peyton Manning and that’s what he’s on this earth to do.

You can’t let Peyton set in the pocket. It’s as simple as that. You might be able to take away the underneath routes, but the medium and deep ones are unstoppable if he can step into his passes.

Thankfully for the Pats, they don’t play Indianapolis every week, but their defensive woes remain the main argument against them winning the Super Bowl. At some point in the playoffs, a team like the Colts (or possibly the Colts themselves) will force New England to make a stop.

That’s the underlying question with the Patriots: can they get a stop when they absolutely need it? Sure they won the game because of an interception, but can they consistently replicate it? Judging from Bill Belichick’s continual grimaces when the subject of his defense is broached, you don’t have to be a genius to see what he thinks the answer is at this point in the season. It will be interesting to see how this theme progresses because, as has often been the case in the last decade, New England’s play will have major consequences within the AFC.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The color Orange, the San Francisco Giants, and their historic shortstop...

I woke this morning to an unusual sight. Whereas normally it’s the blurry, semiconscious vision of dirty laundry sprawled lazily on my floor (perpetually in need of being picked up), I was instead startled to my senses by one definitive color which dominated the sky outside my window: orange.

The entire morning horizon glowed orange, undoubtedly a characteristic of a sky waiting for the momentary sunrise. It wasn’t a reddish-orange or a yellowish-orange, it was Halloween orange. Netherlands orange. And on this particular morning, there is no better orange, no more deliriously happy orange, than San Francisco Giant Orange.

Fresh off their triumphant return to a place in the sun (an orange one at that), Giants fans will probably wake up today pinching themselves to see if it was all a dream (that is of course if they’ve gone to bed at all).

They’re the biggest long shots to win the World Series since Chicago in 2005. What’s made the story that much better is the fact that most of their team has never experienced anything close to this kind of success.

This wasn’t the Yankees or the Phillies with a group of players who celebrate postseason success with the same tired excuse for emotion. This was Tim Lincecum, noting that back at San Francisco there would be “a lot of beer flowing, smoke in the air.” Or Brian Wilson (maybe the most aptly named San Francisco Giant ever), declaring that he was “feeling like I want to rage…right now.”

Yet one man on the Giants is the exception to this narrative. He has his own story. And it’s fascinating for the way it’s been intertwined with determining the World Series roughly every six and a half years. He is, of course, Edgar Renteria (the 2010 World Series MVP).

Obviously my own thoughts on Edgar are skewed because his one season with the Red Sox was mediocre and he was in an impossible situation (being “the guy who followed World Series-winner Orlando Cabrera”). 

Yet make no mistake, “the guy” has had a remarkable career.

Born in Barranquilla, Columbia, Renteria was signed as a teenager in 1992 by the expansion Florida Marlins. Like so many successful people in history, Renteria profited off the sheer desperation of the Marlins who had to build an entire organization from scratch and were willing to go the extra mile in finding the raw but talented shortstop.

Making his debut in 1996, he almost won Rookie of the Year as he hit .309. When the Marlins made their improbable run to a championship in 1997, Renteria was at the forefront. He began his own story with the World Series, ripping a line drive up the middle off Indians pitcher Charles Nagy in the 11th inning of Game 7 to win the Series (in other words, he was the hero).

That alone would have etched him into World Series lore forever. A kid who was only years removed from obscurity in Columbia winning the World Series is a story interesting unto itself. Yet this was only the beginning.

Renteria, like so many other great players from that Marlins team, was hurriedly shipped off to cut payroll following the Series win. He wound up in St. Louis, entrenching himself in an organization primed for success.

By 2004, he was again in the World Series with a St. Louis squad that had the most wins in baseball. Yet the Cardinals were facing the most charismatic sports team of a generation, the “Idiot” Red Sox.

They never had a chance, yet Edgar again finagled a place in history, albeit on the wrong end. His slowly hit grounder back to Red Sox closer Keith “FUCK!!” Foulke was the final out in a World Series that ended 86 years of misery for New England.

And he again turned up in a World Series this season with the Giants, clubbing what proved the decisive home run in the 7th inning of the clinching game off Texas Rangers ace Cliff Lee. The three-run shot looked like it was destined for merely an outfield gap or maybe the glove of Rangers left fielder David Murphy.

Destiny though, is something that seems to have reserved a special place for the nonchalant shortstop. The ball carried and carried until it disappeared over the medium green fence, simultaneously taking with it the hopes of the Rangers as well as any doubt about Edgar Renteria being tied inexorably with the World Series trophy.