THE SNAP OF THE BALL SETS OFF A TIMER—AND A SERIES OF BATTLES ...
... TO BUY A SPLIT SECOND FOR THE Q UARTERBACK OR STEAL IT FROM HIM ...
... AND WITHIN THREE SECONDS, A PLAY IS WON OR LOST. TICK. TICK. TICK.
It's a warm summer morning at 49ers training camp in Santa Clara, Calif., and the team is running seven-on-seven drills, with no defensive linemen. Behind the offense sits a scoreboard clock set at five seconds—the same five-second timer that San Francisco has used in most organized team practices over the past year. When the ball is snapped, the countdown begins: :05 ... :04 ... :03... . At :02, a horn blows. The clock keeps running. At :00, the horn blows again.
The purpose? The Niners want their quarterback, Alex Smith, to get rid of the ball before the first horn—that is, in less than three seconds. And they want him to know that after five seconds, the play is effectively over.
Smith takes a snap and looks through his progression of receivers. :04 ... :03... . He cocks his arm and prepares to throw ... :02. RRRRRRRNNNNNT! "Get rid of it!" offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye yells.
Three snaps later: Smith scans the field. His receivers are covered.
Smith throws the ball away at :01. "Get rid of it!" Raye yells.
For the sixth straight summer Smith, the No. 1 pick in the 2005 draft, is trying to win the Niners' quarterback job. All summer he's been hearing two things in his sleep. That damn horn, drilling into his head over and over that in the NFL a passer must release the ball in three seconds or he'll get creamed. And Raye's not-so-soothing directive that emphasizes the message. "It's to the point now that I say it to myself," Smith says. "It's ingrained in me. In today's football it has to be."
Today's football is not merely a chess match. (Four coaches and two players, unprompted, called it that in interviews for this story.) It's speed chess. Every move by an offensive strategist prompts a countermove by the defense, one side trying to buy time, the other trying to hurry it. Pitted against an ever-increasing number of three- and four-receiver sets, the defense decries the rules changes that have produced the most efficient passing attacks in the NFL's 90-year history. It responds less with brute force than with deception. The middle linebacker positions himself outside the right end; both safeties sprint to the line, showing blitz; defensive backs flood the gaps in the O-line just before the snap. Or waves of defenders shuffle and switch spots on the field seemingly at random. "Smart movements," says Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, "designed to get me to have no idea what they're going to be doing at the snap of the ball. Much smarter than they used to be."
As defenses sow more confusion, they also bring more pressure, forcing quarterbacks to reduce their traditional seven-step drops to five steps or three. From the moment a quarterback gets the ball to the instant he releases, the elapsed time is, on average, 2.4 seconds. A team attempts 33 passes per game. In the course of a game, that's 80 seconds of roiling action and high-pressure decision-making, during which man-to-man battles that can determine success or failure are taking place all across the field. Edge rusher versus left tackle. Blocking back versus blitzing safety. Game-breaking receiver versus shutdown corner. Processing it all is the quarterback, who must sense where the pressure is coming from as he drops back (tick ...), run through his series of targets (tick ... tick ...) and release the ball before he's crushed (tick ... tick ... tick).
The Colts are paying Manning $15.8 million this year to win those 80 seconds. The Bears will pay free-agent pass rusher Julius Peppers (page 58) $20 million this season to win those 80 seconds. The Ravens traded for a receiver, Anquan Boldin, and are paying him more than they're giving running backs Ray Rice, Willis McGahee and LeRon McClain combined—to win those 80 seconds. The Raiders are paying cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha $15.1 million, more than all but two starting quarterbacks, to win those 80 seconds. Jets cornerback Darelle Revis argues for quarterback-type money, too, because he wins those 80 seconds.
Check out the first draft choices of the Giants and the Saints, two of the past three Super Bowl winners, since 2004. New York has gone quarterback, cornerback, pass rusher, corner, safety, wide receiver, pass rusher. The Saints: pass rusher, offensive tackle, running back (though an edge player, Reggie Bush), wide receiver, defensive tackle, cornerback, cornerback. Of those 14 picks, 13 play instrumental roles in spurring or stopping the passing game.
The running game is not quite ancient history, but it's yesterday's football. The four leading rushers last year played for teams that went a combined 25--29. The teams with the four highest-rated passers were 40--15. "We all grew up with the mantra that you've got to run the ball and stop the run to win," says Baltimore coach John Harbaugh. "When I coached in Philadelphia a few years ago, [the late defensive coordinator] Jim Johnson used to say, 'Come on, they can't beat you with the run. But they can always beat you with the pass. Screw the run!' That was eight, nine years ago. He was ahead of his time."
Back to Niners camp. San Francisco has given up 150 sacks over the past three seasons. Smith's arm isn't strong enough to make the deep sideline throws under pressure that Brett Favre or Jay Cutler can make. Those two facts have convinced Raye that Smith must beat the D to the punch—throw fast or die. Defenses are sending pressure from odd looks; Raye's gambit in the chess match is to make Smith so quick with his decisions and his throws that the only rushers who can get to him are those who come in unblocked. A quick-release spread attack that relies on efficiency rather than arm strength is Smith's best chance to succeed.
In Week 2 of the preseason San Francisco faced the Vikings, who led the NFL in sacks last year. Smith, with Raye's commandment—Get rid of it!—running through his head, was playing the game in fast motion. He took his snaps, went through his reads decisively and was pressured into rolling out only once in 13 attempts. All but one of those 13 throws got out in 2.8 seconds or less. (The rollout took 3.6 seconds.) Smith completed nine of 13 throws without a sack and led a crisp 70-yard touchdown drive against Minnesota's first-unit defense on the game's first possession. On that series Smith connected with five different receivers; none of his passes traveled more than 13 yards past the line of scrimmage. "I felt my reads were quick all night," Smith said. "You can see the kind of rhythm we can get into when we're quick with the decisions."
That kind of efficiency is playing out leaguewide. Passing accuracy has risen steadily in the last decade and climbed above 60% for the first time in NFL history in 2007 (page 56). The number of 4,000-yard passers is skyrocketing—from three in 2000 to 10 last season. Offenses have spread the field, defenses are rushing to adjust, and offenses are adjusting to those adjustments.
Over the past decade the Steelers have been in the top 10 in total defense every year; four times they've led the league. Still, coordinator Dick LeBeau, who's been with the team since 2004, changes a significant portion of his playbook each season. "Twenty percent of what people will see of us this year they've never seen before," says LeBeau. "If you don't change something every year, with everyone studying you, you'll lose."
Because offenses have only split seconds to deliver, they have turned to low-risk, short-passing games. Why did Favre, at 40, have his most accurate (68.4%) and efficient (107.2 passer rating) season ever? Why did he throw just seven interceptions when he'd never had fewer than 13 in his 17 previous years as a starter? Because he released the ball quickly, and because he had so many open targets that he knew if he checked down to an outlet receiver on second down, he'd find Vikings receivers Percy Harvin or Sidney Rice open downfield on third. "Maybe it's wisdom late in his career," says Minnesota coach Brad Childress, "but he was perfect week after week in taking what was there."
The teams that beat Favre were the ones that best disguised their intentions. At Carolina in Week 15, the Panthers thought they'd have an edge if they could match cat-quick defensive end Everette Brown, a part-time player, against mammoth Vikings left tackle Bryant McKinnie, who normally would be across from Julius Peppers. On a third-down play during Minnesota's first possession, Carolina flipped Peppers to the left side and moved Brown across from McKinnie. The Panthers also walked two linebackers down to the line, forcing the Vikings to devote blockers to the 'backers at the snap, whether they were coming or not. Minnesota helped on Peppers with an extra blocker, and Brown got McKinnie one-on-one. He speed-rushed McKinnie and sacked Favre. "That got 'em thinking," says Panthers coach John Fox, "and then they didn't play as fast as usual." Favre was sacked three more times that day and failed to throw a touchdown pass in a 26--7 loss.
When the Vikings analyzed the Saints on video before the NFC Championship Game, Minnesota's coaches rarely saw New Orleans free safety Darren Sharper blitzing and never saw him rush through the A gap—the space on either side of the center. So what happened in the title game? Sharper blitzed four times through the A gap, sacking Favre once with a rib-crunching hit that shook the last row of the Superdome. "We were determined to hit him over and over and make him feel it," Sharper said, and everyone in the New Orleans locker room believed that the physical impact of those disguised blitzes played a role in Favre's foolish final throw, the interception that was vital to the Saints' victory.
In chess, it helps to know your opponents. Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was confident that the Vikings wouldn't have seen Sharper on an A gap blitz because he had debriefed the veteran safety on Minnesota's scouting tendencies when Sharper signed with the Saints from the Vikings before the '09 season. Williams learned that Minnesota's coaches weren't likely to go back and watch every snap of New Orleans's defense from the regular season. (A source confirmed that the Vikes watched video from eight Saints games.) Williams hadn't sent Sharper through the A gap since September, and if the Vikes hadn't seen that, it was all the more reason to send him, often, in the biggest game of the year.
Of course, if Favre had released the ball before the hit, then Sharper would have been out of the picture, and the Vikes' speedy wideouts would be running single-covered up the field. "A play like that is upsetting to a quarterback," Fox says, "especially to one who prides himself in being able to see it coming, make changes and pick it up. If the Vikings have prepared for 20 different blitzes in practice all week, the defense has the hammer with the one they haven't seen. It's not just the offense that can be creative now."
"I like guys who play with no safety net," says Jets coach Rex Ryan. "To play like that you've got to have guts. Some guys will play, say, fire zones, dropping linemen or linebackers back as landmarks. I never have thought of those things as risky. But you rush guys through that [A] gap without help, and you make the play, that's a killer. It happens too fast for a quarterback to react. But you better be able to cover if you're doing that."
Two last points about those newfangled assaults up the gut. First, there's a premium on backs who selflessly pick up blitzes—San Francisco's Frank Gore, for one. "He's the best I've seen since Marcus Allen," says Jimmy Raye of Gore, a 1,000-yard rusher in each of his last four seasons. "We don't have to sub for him on third down because we're not worried about him picking up a blitzing 'backer or the rush end." And second, some teams now drop their centers behind the line of scrimmage and use them like sweepers—Baltimore's Matt Birk, for instance, who will step back against rush-heavy defenses, looking for an end or linebacker to clean up.
The offense wins its share of the battles. In 2007 the Eagles were preparing to face the Giants with a green left tackle, Winston Justice, filling in for the injured Tra Thomas. Philadelphia coach Andy Reid fretted that the scheme that week didn't provide enough leftside help against New York's quick edge rushers. Reid asked his offensive staffers if they were confident Justice would be able to hold up, especially in single blocking sets against the rangy, athletic Osi Umenyiora. The assistants told him they'd get it blocked up. "I signed off on it," Reid recalled this summer. "I'm the coach, so it's on me."
New York sacked Donovan McNabb 12 times, tying the NFL single-game record. Not only did the Giants attack Justice—Umenyiora had six sacks—but they also often lined up two rushers over the A gaps and got pressure from the inside. Reid was steamed.
Before their second game with the Giants that season, the Eagles made changes, most important, narrowing their offensive formation. Instead of splitting their receivers wide on most downs, they brought them closer to the tackles and tight end, almost as slot receivers. And Philly assigned all of its potential receivers—backs, tight ends, wideouts—to chip-blocking duty. A chip can be a quick half-block on a defensive player, a nudge with an outstretched hand or an elbow to the side on the way out in the route. Anything to throw a pass rusher off his preferred path and buy the quarterback a precious tick or two.
"From the first snap of that second game," says Giants defensive lineman Justin Tuck, "all we saw was seven-man protection, with wide receivers chipping. That's not something you see much of at all. And the best guy, by far, was [wideout] Jason Avant—the most annoying person I've ever run into on a football field. He did something on almost every snap to knock one of us off our rush."
The Giants got to McNabb three times in that second game in 2007—not great protection, but a huge improvement. Since then Reid has kept up the chippiness. In five games over next two seasons, including a playoff matchup, Philly allowed just three more sacks, total, and went 4--1. Tuck, who had two of the dozen sacks in that '07 game, has not had one against the Eagles since.
When told this summer that he was the most annoying person in Justin Tuck's world, Avant smiled. He's a journeyman who's had 103 catches in four seasons in Philadelphia. "I pride myself on being a complete receiver," Avant says. "And that's part of my job. In our society, for some reason, people think they should get paid more for just doing their job. That's part of my job. I don't expect a bunch of credit for it."
What makes the task tougher is that Avant and the other receivers are asked to chip on the rushers—and still run their regular routes, on time. "We don't think it's impossible to do because our route system is not that difficult," says Avant. "And for the quarterback it's huge. It allows him to buy the time he needs to make the play."
"Ninety-nine percent of the time," says Tuck, "after an end is chipped his play's over. Might as well save yourself for the next rush."
Checkmate, Eagles? Not so fast. Tuck says he worked this off-season on hand and arm movements designed to better fend off the chips. He wouldn't give specifics—he'd like to win some of those battles with the pesky Avant when they meet on Nov. 21.
Two-receiver sets used to be the rule in the NFL. Now they're the exception. In 2009, according to a study by FootballOutsiders.com, three or more wide receivers lined up on 49.2% of offensive snaps; there were two wideouts on 38.6%. That disparity explains why Ryan would prefer having a shutdown corner to an elite pass rusher. "There's a saying I like: You can get beat fastest in the NFL by your quarterback and your cornerback," Ryan says. "I've rushed with a lot of different guys over the years and been successful. But if I can play man coverage with my corners, it allows me to do a lot more up front."
With the all-world Revis on the roster, the Jets might not have been expected to stockpile corners in the off-season. But in March, New York traded for the Chargers' Antonio Cromartie, a former top coverman, and in April it spent its top draft choice on Boise State corner Kyle Wilson.
"No team can play good defense today without three good corners," says former Raiders and Bucs coach Jon Gruden.
"Four," says Tennessee's Jeff Fisher, the league's longest-tenured coach. "I want four corners. You sell yourself short if you stop at three."
The week after Broncos wideout Brandon Marshall set the NFL record for receptions in a game, with 21 at Indianapolis last season, Denver visited Oakland. Asomugha was isolated on Marshall on all the Raiders' man coverages in that game, about 40 snaps, and he held the Denver receiver to zero receptions. On the dozen or so snaps in which the Raiders went zone, the Broncos shifted Marshall away from Asomugha's area, and Marshall had seven catches for 73 yards and a touchdown.
Many around the league were dumbfounded in 2009 when the Raiders gave Asomugha a three-year contract worth $45.3 million. And through the summer, those same people wailed that the Jets should stand firm against Revis's demand to be paid even more than Asomugha. But in today's game those two deserve it. If there are a dozen quarterbacks capable of lighting up a great defense on any given Sunday, and only two truly great corners out there who can free up coordinators to get really creative, it's not foolish to pay those cornerbacks like quarterbacks.
As for the future, expect the offense's edge to increase. "If you watch the game today," Baltimore's Harbaugh says, "you notice that if there's a collision—a receiver running into a cover man—it's the job of the corner to get out of the way. The call's going to go against the defensive player. So we're coaching the corners now, 'Don't touch the receiver going downfield.'"
Don't touch the receiver?
"Right," he said. "Run the route, play the ball, don't hand-check. That's the only chance we have to not put the game in the hands of the officials. When I see pass interference called now, it's not just about the way the game is played. It's about the way it's officiated."
Not only that, but the spread is, well, spreading. "We've started doing it," says Asomugha. "I don't remember us doing it last year."
In a preseason game on Aug. 28 in Oakland, Asomugha faced another team of spread converts, Smith's 49ers. A year ago San Francisco was more of a classic two-back, two-receiver team in the image of its conservative, Ditka-disciple coach, Mike Singletary. But the combination of better weapons outside—blossoming second-year receiver Michael Crabtree and free-agent speedster Ted Ginn Jr.—and a smart quarterback getting comfortable with his decision-making convinced the coaching staff that the spread was the right scheme. If you can protect your quarterback (using a good blocker like Gore in the backfield), if you can trust him to release the ball quickly and if you have good targets for him to hit downfield, it just makes sense to have a third wideout on the field rather than a fullback.
Smith played the first half of San Francisco's 28--24 win, following a game plan similar to one he'd have in the regular season. The 49ers steered clear of Asomugha, throwing at him only once in 30 minutes; Asomugha was called for holding Ginn on that play. "The game plan's totally different against a guy like Nnamdi," Smith said afterward. "Why throw to his side?" Advantage, Raiders.
Overall, though, for the second straight week Smith satisfied Raye's Get rid of it! exhortation. He wasn't Drew Brees—nine of 15, 113 yards, one TD—but he once again avoided getting sacked or intercepted. Smith left at halftime with a 17--14 lead. Advantage, Niners.
"We've evolved," said Smith. "We can play three wides, get guys in space, throw it all over the field, and we think we can win playing that way." Precision football as a way to beat the clock. Your move, defense.
ON YOUR MARK
Thanks to the proliferation of spread offenses, quarterbacks are finding their targets more accurately, more efficiently and more quickly. Leaguewide, completion percentage and passer rating have been climbing over the past 10 seasons, while teams' average sack totals have dropped by more than five.
'01 SALARY (RANK)
'09 SALARY (RANK)
SMITH HEARS THAT HORN IN HIS SLEEP, DRILLING INTO HIS HEAD THAT A PASSER MUST GET RID OF THE BALL QUICKLY OR GET CREAMED.
AS OFFENSES SPREAD THE FIELD, DEFENSES RUSH TO ADJUST. "IF YOU DON'T CHANGE EVERY YE AR," SAYS LEBEAU, "YOU LOSE."
"YOU CAN'T PLAY GOOD DEFENSE WITHOUT THREE CORNERS," SAYS GRUDEN. "FOUR," SAYS FISHER.
Photograph by ROBERT BECK
CONTROLLED CHAOS By the time Chargers QB Philip Rivers has taken his drop of three or five steps—forget seven—the pocket is collapsing because of pass rushers like Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware (left).
Photograph by JIM MCISAAC/GETTY IMAGES
ARMS RACE The Falcons' Matt Ryan is one of the league's best at reading the defense and releasing the ball before the likes of Giants end Osi Umenyiora (right) can disrupt his precision attack.
Photograph by PETER READ MILLER
ONWARD AND UPWARD The pressure on Denver's Andre Goodman (21) and his fellow cornerbacks has never been greater—and the value of a game-breaking receiver like the Lions' Calvin Johnson never higher.
MANO A MANO As the edge rush gets more dangerous, stock in premier left tackles like the Browns' Joe Thomas (73) has soared.
JAMES LANG/US PRESSWIRE
INDYFENSIBLE The Colts' offense, with sure-handed targets like tight end Dallas Clark finding space and Peyton Manning orchestrating, typifies the modern attack.
DECEPTION GAME The Saints love to bring Sharper from his free safety spot up to the line to give the quarterback pause—and, at times, to deliver a hit on a blitz.
FRANK TALK For the Niners' Smith (11) to survive the speed game, it helps to have a top blocking back like Gore (21) there for blitz pickup.
CONNECTIVITY In the past three years Aaron Rodgers and his QB brethren have been more accurate than ever.
KYLE TERADA/US PRESSWIRE
CASH CROP The supply of elite shutdown corners like Asomugha is small—driving up their price.