Thursday, September 18, 2008

Anatomy of a Goalline Pass

When it works, it's a thing of beauty. And when it doesn't, it has sent many posters on NDNation into a Tourette's style stream-of-consciousness profanity streak. I speak of course, of the play-action pass used frequently by the Notre Dame Fighting Irish inside the five-yard line.

It's not a big secret where this play comes from - turn on the TV during Sundays and you'll notice that practically every NFL team has it in the playbook and uses it, some teams quite liberally, in the red zone. The reason for that is when properly executed it has a great success rate because the defense gets sucked into an as-expected run, leaving at most one or two men covering as many as three receivers.

Against Michigan, the Irish called the play from the 1-yard line on 2nd and Goal midway through the second quarter. To place it in context, here was the Irish drive up to that point:
1st and 10 at ND 13Armando Allen Jr rush for 2 yards to the NDame 15.

2nd and 8 at ND 15Jimmy Clausen pass complete to Golden Tate for 60 yards to the Mich 25 for a 1ST down.

1st and 10 at MICH 25Jimmy Clausen pass complete to Michael Floyd for 9 yards to the Mich 16.

2nd and 1 at MICH 16James Aldridge rush for 7 yards to the Mich 9 for a 1ST down.

1st and Goal at MICH 9James Aldridge rush for 8 yards to the Mich 1.

Three runs and two quick passes, one a screen and the other a slant that both receivers turn into longer gains, extra long in Tate's case. Here's what the Irish break out with on 2nd and Goal:

Three tight ends - Yeatman to the left, Rudolph on the right. Luke Schmidt motions from left to right, along with fullback Asaph Schwapp and Robert Hughes. From the get-go it looks like a run formation, and the Wolverines counter with 9 men crowding the line of scrimmage.

At the snap the Irish get a good push on Michigan's six-man front, but linebacker John Thompson is steaming through untouched, as is #90 Tim Jamison from the top of the screen. Both Schmidt and Yeatman immediately break into a pass pattern, while #9 Kyle Rudolph holds briefly as it he's going to block before breaking across the middle opposite of Yeatman.

Here's where you can see how the play was set up to work and the one reason it does not. Everybody on the Michigan defense, especially #49 Thompson, who's simply put his head down to ram into Hughes, and #8 Jonas Mouton, trying to move past Yeatman towards the pile, is thinking it's a run. There's one exception and it's what ultimately dooms the play - Tim Jamison is going for Jimmy Clausen the whole way, and #55 Eric Olson doesn't pick him up. This may be a product of how Olson is supposed to be blocking on the play - he's waiting to pick up #45 Obi Ezeh (obscured in this view but charging through the middle on a beeline for Hughes).

From the wider view, you can see that the play is basically over because Jamison, as a seasoned fifth-year veteran end should, hasn't fallen for the play fake, surely a combination of knowing his assignment and studying tape of Notre Dame's tendency in the red zone. But you can see from this view where the play was going - suck in the linebackers to the run and open the middle of the endzone for two crossing tight ends, which is precisely what happens. Mouton is left alone responsible for two receivers taking him to directly opposite corners. He chooses to trail Rudolph but is already a step behind and wouldn't have a chance on a strong throw. Meanwhile, Yeatman is wide open. Having an extra split second to plant his feet gives Clausen all the time he needs to lay one in for either man, though he appears set on Rudolph from the outset. Instead, Jamison's rush forces Clausen into an off-balance pop fly. Cornerback Donovan Warren - playing "center field" in the back of the end zone and also a step behind Rudolph - is able to come over the top for the pick because of the extra hang-time, but he a) cannot land with a foot in bounds, and b) gets flagged for pass interference as he shoves off Rudolph to gain positioning. Given a first down inside the one, Notre Dame finishes off the drive with a run to Robert Hughes.

So, good call or bad call to go play-action pass on second down? If you remember your West Wing, you'll recall an episode when White House Chief of Staff Leo McGarry proudly declares that the US Missile Defense test has just met "9 of the 10 criteria for a successful test"...the 10th criterion being the part where the system actualy, you know, takes out the weapon. Similarly, a lot of things work as scripted on this play, but the simple heads-up work by a defensive veteran wipes it all out. There seems to be an argument over whether Michigan saw and anticipated this play coming, but upon further review they didn't show the Irish anything special defensively and Clausen had the open men he wanted.

The deeper question: why throw on second-and-goal from the one, especially since you just demonstrated on the very next play that, unlike a year ago, the Irish can in fact put the ball in from short yardage behind an improved offensive line? Why take the risk of an interception or sack, both which very nearly happened on this play? I'm not sure it can be boiled down to Weis and Haywood simply have an inbred allergy to the running game. I think Haywood realized that coming to a second-and-1 after two solid runs by James Aldridge, Michigan would be guessing run or at least susceptible to a play-fake, making this pass (in his mind) a higher probability of scoring a touchdown than a run on second down. The Irish then beat 10 of the 11 Michigan defenders, but in order for it to work they needed Clausen to either figure out a way to step out of Jamison's rush - something he's still learning to do - or rifle one to Yeatman in the face of the blitz. Neither happens, but the Irish catch a break and live to score another play.

Personally I saw no reason not to keep the ball on the ground here, but I can see the thinking that led to this play at this moment in the game. It just didn't work out. Late in the 4th quarter with the game sealed, the Irish tried this play again on 4th down, only with Michael Floyd & Duval Kamara split wide. That was they play Irish fans will remember Quinn-to-Samardzija executing multiple times through 2005 and 2006. Floyd outjumped the Michigan defender but couldn't corral the ball in wet conditions, dropping it into the lap of Stevie Brown as he lay on the turf.

So is there too much cutesy jump-ball throwing for the Irish at the goal line? I'd say it's tough to point out these two plays as evidence of that, but they could merely be added to the pile of goalline passes we saw (some which worked, many which did not) from a year ago. Two games in is not the definitive data set on where the Irish are in the redzone, but considering that of 5 red zone TDs three were by air and two on the ground (with two others by air from outside the 20), you get the feeling the Irish will again trend more towards the pass in these situations. Then again, maybe not.


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