Big Blue Breakdown: The 'Pulling Stunts' Edition

I have to say it up front, because I'm completely biased, so any chance of objectivity in this article just went out the window.  But I have to say it.  I just have to make this point abundantly clear before I begin:

I.  HATE.  STUNTING.

Now, stunting isn't bad for all defensive lines.  For some NASCAR packages, it works great.  Some defenses can pull it off.  It works as a part of their pass rush package.

Not the Colts, though.

For those still on the waiting list for Football 101, defensive line stunting refers to the ways in which defensive linemen attempt to slip or beat blocks by switching roles, crossing or looping.  A defensive end, for instance, will take an inside rush while a defensive tackle will loop outside of that defense end and take an outside rush.  The goal is to confuse blockers, to make a less-agile guard have to account for a more-athletic defensive end.

I understand why the Colts stunt.  They have to mix things up.  If their only plan was "rush Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis upfield every play", then opposing offensive lines could just skip film study that week and spend the day at the spa.  As it is, John Teerlinck operates one of the simplest defensive lines in the league anyway, so he has to mix things up, and a fairly standard way of doing that is incorporating stunts into your defensive line playcalls.

Unfortunately for the Colts, though, it just doesn't really work.  In fact, it takes away from their strength.  It sends light, pass-rushing defensive ends crashing down against big uglies inside and loops slower, less-athletic defensive tackles around for an edge rush which rarely -- if ever -- pressures the quarterback.  Maybe if the Colts had a defensive end that could generate a better interior rush, it would work.  But neither Freeney nor Mathis is built for that, so they usually just get caught up inside, and God help the secondary if the sole hope for a pass rush is coming from Eric Foster, Keyunta Dawson or Antonio Johnson taking the scenic route to the passer.

In this week's B^3, we'll take a look at some stunting examples from last Thursday's game against the Tennessee Titans.  And hopefully you will see why I hate stunting.

Let me first start with a video clip that has nothing to do with stunting, but everything to do with what I see as the Colts' logic behind routinely visiting stunts.  I'm not a big Family Guy fan by any means, but this clip really seems to encapsulate the stunting mentality:

 

If it didn't work last year, or the year before, why should we expect anything different this year?  Again, I understand the need to mix things up every now and then.  I'm just not sure this is how the Colts should approach the problem, as with their line especially, it really takes away from their strengths and puts them in a position to be less effective across the board.

Here are a couple stunts from last Thursday's game:

1.  3rd-and-2 from TEN 19 with 8:52 remaining in Q2

Here's a downline look at the trenches.  The Colts' defensive line features Freeney, Mathis, A. Johnson and Dan Muir:

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Also close to the line-of-scrimmage are Jacob Lacey and Justin Tryon, visible in this frame, as well as Tyjuan Hagler, who is not visible in this frame.  Their proximity to the line is going to be less about press technique and more about run contain, as I'll show later. 

Moving on, a look at the initial snap:

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Titans obviously show a run look, with Chris Johnson in the backfield and fullback Ahmard Hall lined up as well.  The Colts are going to read run all the way on the play-action fake by Kerry Collins, which is less a tribute to Collins' play-fake ability as it is evidence that the Colts, like every other opponent Tennessee has faced, honor CJ2K first and foremost.

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This is a frame captured at the snap, and of primary interest to us throughout this sequence will be Muir, circled in yellow.  As you can see, he absolutely explodes off the snap here.  He actually might even be a little early (whoops.)  No one else seems to have moved yet and I can't really tell where the ball is in the exchange between Collins and center Eugene Amano.

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Muir is going to be the only defensive linemen looping on this play, which seems a bit awkward.  He's attempting to loop around the defensive right side, as shown above.  As he does, the RDE (Freeney) and RDT (A. Johnson) are going to give a fairly straightforward inside/straight-ahead rush.  No stunting for them.  It's going to seem weird having three players essentially crashing the defensive right, but the goal of this stunt is to confuse the Titans' defensive line.  Muir is key to doing so.  And theoretically, Mathis should be the beneficiary.

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As these defensive line theatrics are progressing, the Colts are showing run contain all the way here.  Note Collins still dropping back as if to hand the ball off to C. Johnson.  Circled in red are the Colt defenders eying C. Johnson all the way: Hagler, Gary Brackett, Philip Wheeler and Tryon counterclockwise from the bottom.

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This frame shows the point at which Collins has pulled the ball away from C. Johnson and tipped off pass to the defense, thus initiating the coverage drops of the players circled in red, who now (correctly) read pass.  Circled in orange is the traffic jam at the top of the screen, where Muir is still attempting to slingshot outside of A. Johnson and Freeney, who are both stoned by the Titans' interior line.

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As Muir (yellow) continues his loop, Mathis (pink) appear to have a bead on Collins.  So I'll give the stunt call this: it confused the Titans' offensive line.  Blockers were so worried about Muir attacking hard and then disengaging and pulling around outside that they disregarded Mathis and gave him a path to the pocket.  The concentration of the Titans' offensive line is clearly along the defensive right, where Freeney and A. Johnson (orange) continue to be stonewalled.

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Unfortunately for the Colts, C. Johnson sees Mathis (pink) coming and cuts him, closing that rush lane and preventing him from reaching Collins.  Once C. Johnson makes this block, it's not as if any other rushers are going to threaten the Titans' QB.  Muir (yellow) hasn't even come close to rounding the edge yet, Freeney and A. Johnson (orange) are still stymied inside and Collins is about at the depth of his dropback.

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With no real pressure on him, Collins has plenty of time to survey the field.  Someone is going to be open, it's just a matter of who gives first in coverage.  That person, it turns out, is Hagler (tan.)  You can see Hall slipping behind Hagler, who slips in coverage as he realizes the fullback has ducked behind him.  Hagler has already lost his footing in this frame, having failed to jam Hall and allowing his man to get behind him on the out.

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And that's all Hall (green) needs to make an easy first-down catch with Hagler (tan) surfing turf.  Notice the pass rush, or lack thereof, in this frame though.  C. Johnson cut Mathis early and then recovered to re-engage him on a straight-up block and Mathis never came close to beating the 190-pound back on the play.  The Colts' defensive right side is hopeless.  Collins could have completed both today's crossword and sudoku puzzles back there in the pocket. 

The result of the play is an easy 10-yard completion to Hall.  Am I blaming the outcome on the stunt?  Not really.  If Hagler doesn't blow coverage, maybe Mathis has a chance to beat C. Johnson and get to Collins.  It's definitely drawn up as a play for Mathis to make; he just doesn't make it.  Credit C. Johnson with a great block, but should C. Johnson really beat Mathis that badly one-on-one? 

Again, the stunt isn't entirely to blame for the first down, and if Mathis beats the block, it's actually a good call.  But as he doesn't, the Colts essentially field one rusher on this play.  He doesn't do his job.  Maybe on paper, this is a great playcall.  Coaches have a matchup they think they will win.  But we have to go by execution here.  As Mathis doesn't finish the rush, the rush is not executed.  No pressure on Collins combined with a coverage slip by Hagler equals an easy first-down on third-and-2.

2. 2nd-and-10 from IND 30 with 1:45 remaining in Q2

Here's how they line up:

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Shotgun look by Collins and the Titans.  They go three-wide here, with C. Johnson in the backfield next to Collins.  Colts are going to go fairly vanilla here in terms of coverage.  They do, however, stunt.  And they stunt their entire line.

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Here is the initial snap, and you see all four defensive linemen immediately taking a hard rush to the Titans' offensive line.  They don't show the stunt early.

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At this point, though, the defensive tackles set and begin to pull off so that they can loop outside and generate an edge rush.  The defensive ends take an inside angle and attempt to bully their way into the backfield.

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And here is what ends up happening, quite a busy depiction I know.  We'll start from the bottom, the defensive left side of the line.  Mathis (yellow) is going to rush hard inside.  Foster (pink) is going to loop outside of Mathis and come off the left edge.  Dawson (orange) is going to do the same on the opposite side and attempt to come off the edge over top of Freeney (red) who, similar to Mathis, is pushing hard inside.

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Again, let's consider the philosophy here.  Collins has a shotgun drop with only four rushers and everyone else dropping off into coverage.  They are sending a 265-pound defensive tackle and a 255-pound defensive tweener outside on edge rushes and crashing a 245-pound pass rush specialist and a 268-pound rusher inside.  Already, given this knowledge, Mathis is taken out of the play.  There is no way he generates any kind of inside rush at 245 pounds and there is no way the Titans' defense forgets he's there.  Similarly, Freeney isn't a particularly great inside rusher, so your two real options here are Foster (pink) and Dawson (orange.)

I don't mean to be harsh on these guys.  Each has his place.  I don't think Foster is quite as good as most others seem to think and Dawson is on the field at DT entirely too much for my liking, but each guy has contributed this season and neither is a worthless player.  But I don't really understand the philosophy here.  Neither Dawson nor Foster is fast enough to loop outside of Freeney and Mathis fast enough to have any great chance at making a play.  Neither Freeney nor Mathis is strong enough to bulldoze their way through the interior of the Titans' line.  This, to me, just wastes two great pass rushers and replaces them with two mediocre-at-best rushers.

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Again, look at where Foster (pink) and Dawson (orange) are at the depth of Collins' drop.  Nowhere close.  Does anyone really think they're going to round the corner and just happen upon the Titans' QB?  SPOILER: They don't.

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As Collins begins to survey the field, his receivers (green) begin breaking off into their routes.  Thankfully, the Colts have excellent coverage on the play and don't give Collins any kind of early option whatsoever.  I would hope this is the case, as they dropped seven into coverage.

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(Apologize for the overlap frame effect on the next few frames.  You see that happen occasionally on here because I'm too lazy to go back and clean it up.)

We can see the Colts' two best pressure options here.  Foster (pink) still has a chance to get outside on his edge rush and force Collins to step up.  Freeney (red) actually rushes well inside here -- I suppose it's not a total surprise, but I would never refer to him as an interior rusher -- and will at least be the closest man to Collins on this play, though no one lays a finger on the Titans' passer.

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Freeney disappears in this frame as a Titan blocker takes him to the ground (he ends up at Collins' feet, which to be fair does force Collins to throw the ball, but doesn't really lend itself to a stellar pass rush.)  Foster (pink) has difficulty rounding the edge.  And look at Mathis (yellow.)  I mean, like I said, 245-pound defense ends don't crash inside.  They just don't.  I don't even blame Mathis for this play.  The playcall takes him out of it, as he never had a chance from the start.

It's curious, to me, that the Colts essentially invest $90 million in DEs (between Freeney and Mathis) and then draw up plays like these that completely neutralize both guys.  You'd think you want both of these guys on an edge rush in this scenario.  And while I understand the need to mix things up, I'm just not sure you do that by sending them inside.  In fact, I'm sure that's what you shouldn't do!

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Again, Mathis (yellow) is getting shoved further and further away from the QB, actually back toward the line of scrimmage.  C. Johnson is wide open in Herpty-Derp Land as a dump-off option.  Collins easily delivers this pass to CJ2K, without a single Colt defender laying a finger on him, and then we get to watch the Keystone Cops attempt to tackle C. Johnson.  But that's another story.

3.  2nd-and-11 from IND 19 with 9:51 remaining in Q4

Our initial look:

Colts1_medium

Collins lines up under center for the Titans.  Colts continue going vanilla here.  The biggest difference, re-watching this game, between the defense's first and second half was pressure.  The Colts didn't generate much -- if any -- in the second half.  Coyer really dialed up some vanilla looks and calls, part of which I understand results from having guys like Tryon, Lacey and Cornelius Brown out there in coverage.  As much as I want to sit here and tell you all that I really am not a fan of Coyer, even I can admit that he's more than a bit handcuffed by these defensive injuries.  I mean, in this game, the Colts featured two rookies at linebacker, a starting corner in his first year with the team, an UDFA nickel back and, worse than all of those things combined, Aaron Francisco.  So I'll cut Coyer a little slack in his soft coverage.  A little.

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The Colts are going to cross their defensive tackles here.  The defensive ends (Freeney and Mathis) maintain their standard edge rush.  But Foster (yellow) is going to shoot over top of Fili Moala (red), who slants down inside and crashes where Foster used to be.

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Here's a more comprehensive diagram.  We already discussed Foster and Moala's assignments on the play.  Mathis (pink) and Freeney (gray) do what they always do.  If the Colts have to stunt, I prefer it this way.  Now, Collins is still going to get a pass off and this play ultimately will not be a tremendous success for the Colts, but at least Freeney and Mathis are doing what they do best.  It's much more sensible than crashing them down inside where they have little-to-no chance of making a play. 

To be brutally honest, the Colts just do not have the talent at defensive tackle to stunt well.  I've maintained all year long that the Colts do not have much, if any, talent at defensive tackle.  I know some folks object.  I'm not going to go look up any stats to support or dismiss that claim - I'm sure there are arguments out there for each side.  I'm just telling you what I see out there, and I don't see a whole lot.  Muir's play this year has regressed from last year.  A. Johnson has been injured for the better part of the year, but appears to be the best anchor option (yet curiously does not start.)  Moala...I don't know why Colts fans think Moala is good.  Compared to his lack of any contribution last year, yes, he's good.  But on NFL defensive tackle terms, Moala is not a good tackle and re-watching this game really reinforced that fact.  He gets handled by a single blocker far too often, has no real arsenal of moves to speak of and does not generate much interior pressure.  Yes, he is still young and has room to grow, but Colts fans, please get this in your heads right now: Fili Moala is not very good, and certainly not as good as you inexplicably think he is.

That leaves Dawson and Foster.  Dawson has surprised me this year with better play than he's shown in the last few years.  The Colts are using him as in a "Raheem Brock" type, underweight interior rusher role, and it sometimes works.  He's still an absolute liability against the run and markedly slower than Freeney and Mathis, but he hasn't been terrible.  Coyer, for some odd reason, loves to drop Dawson off the line into coverage and leave a three-man rush at times and this never works -- Dawson is not good in coverage, and a three-man rush does nothing -- but I won't hold that against Dawson, it's just bad defensive playcalling.  Foster is the best rush option out of any of the defensive tackles, as evidenced by his sack totals, but a number of his sacks have been on clean-up duty.  He still gets bullied against the run and rarely pushes the pocket back. 

The Colts still desperately need that three-technique tackle who can play both the run and pass well.  It's been a cursed position for them for some time.  They had Corey Simon back in 2005, but then he developed polyarthritis (allegedly) and was soon after bounced from the roster.  Then the Colts traded for Booger McFarland back in 2006, and it took him until the postseason to get his technique down and play both run and pass well, but when he did nobody could run on the Colts and QBs were constantly pressured.  McFarland blew out his knee in the world's stupidest training camp drill the next offseason and effectively ended his NFL career.  Then the Colts looked to have Ed Johnson for a while, an UDFA DT who came out of nowhere with some brief inspired play, but then we all know what happened to Ed the Magic Johnson.  And of course when the Colts drafted Moala, the Colts thought they had that guy who could both rush the passer and stuff the run, but so far have not received much consistency, or playmaking ability, out of the former Trojan.

It's a difficult position to find, and the Colts seem to be cursed at that spot for whatever reason.  But if the Colts ever really want to execute these kinds of stunts, or generally apply pressure up the middle without blitzing extra defenders, they're going to have to find that guy.

Moving on with the play, though...

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Look where the defensive tackles are at the depth of Collins' dropback.  Yeah, they've only moved a yard or two off the line-of-scrimmage.  Freeney and Mathis are bringing a hard edge rush here, but all Collins has to do is step up in the pocket to get rid of this ball.  It's not like the defensive tackles are going to be in his face or anything.  Moala is getting pushed backwards and Foster has rounded his stunt into...nothing.

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Here's the frame where Collins cocks his arm back and begins to deliver the football.  Look where Moala (red) and Foster (yellow) are.  That's just not going to do it.  That is a terrible interior rush.  Collins doesn't step up in the pocket, but he could if he wanted to because there is almost a five yard window between where he is throwing the ball and where the defensive tackles are occupied.  The play ends in a seven-yard completion to his tight end, Craig Stevens.

I realize these were only three plays, but they're indicative of a body, of a trend.  Again, server space is a concern, so I'm not aiming to bog this site down with 90 pictures when I can get the point across in about 20.  Stunting, while maybe sexy on paper, just does not work often enough to justify itself, even if it does keep the offensive line on their toes.

Now, as I said to begin this article, I'm biased.  I hate stunting.  I hate the idea of my multimillion dollar pass rushers being reduced to blocking sleds on the inside as my below-average defensive tackles loop around the outside and hope to generate an edge rush.  Occasionally, stunting opens up a pass rush lane for a guy like Mathis (as we saw in the first play) but not often enough, and even when it does as we saw, it doesn't guarantee a sack.

I like my chances with Freeney and Mathis rushing on the outside.  I don't like them crashing down inside.  I don't like the Colts' defensive tackles in general.  This team has taken a step back against the run this year, and they're a large reason why.  The Colts' offseason priority should still be offseason line, but the defensive trenches could use some serious reinforcement as well.  Indianapolis is currently giving up the fourth-most rushing yards per game (141.1) and are allowing the league's second-highest yards per carry average (4.8, Washington is no. 1 with 4.9 ypc allowed on the year.)  Those are terrible numbers.  Add in the fact that the Colts are tied for 18th in the NFL in sacks (25 on the year) and are similarly average in turnovers-forced, and you can see it hasn't exactly been a banner year for the defensive line.  Or the defense in general.

Fact is: this defensive line struggles enough to stop the run and rush the passer.  Stunts often only make it worse.  I hate stunting, and this season hasn't changed that mindset one bit.  Yet the Colts appear committed to stunting.

As Stewie perhaps said best: "it wasn't right the first time you said it, why the hell would it be right the next 10 times?"

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