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Here's something from Thursday night that I did like. I thought the zone coverages looked good for the most part. Yes, it is preseason. Yes, it's against backups, but there are small details going on here that look improved over what I saw early last season. This is one I should probably be doing as a video because it's going to get confusing, but whatever. As most of you know, the base coverage we play in Atlanta is Cover-3. The thing I think that may escape some is that Cover-3 as it's played at higher levels is not a static coverage. It morphs based on the formation and deployment of the receivers. This is the part where young guys can struggle because they have to read and change assignments on the fly. You stay with your guy too long, someone else comes wide open. You pick a guy up too early and you're toast over the top. That's a lot of what was going on early last season. Let me throw up this example from the second Miami drive: 3rd and 8. Miami is on Atlanta's 18. Here is the offensive concept. This is a solid call against a Cover-3. Two routes attacking the seams with an out route at the sticks and a flat route to the same side. And it's out of a trips formation. Trips formations eat up Cover-3. Now in order to answer a Trips formation, you have to "PUSH" the coverage to the three receiver side by "matching" the routes. Matching routes essentially will turn zone coverage into man. So, this standard Cover-3 is going to look a lot different in a minute. In order to totally illustrate what I am talking about I'm going to teach you to look at a formation from a defender's POV. When an offense lines up in front of you, after the strength of the formation is called every defender in the back 7 counts the number of receivers to his side. There are generally going to always be 2 eligible receivers on each side. They may wind up being a TE, or a running back, or even an extra linemen, but they are counted as receivers. The #1 receiver is the receiver lined up to the outermost part of the formation. So, take a look at this picture... to the top of the picture, the receiver at the top of the screen is #1, next is #2, then #3... To the bottom we start all over again. We've got a tight end aligned snug. He's going to be counted as #1 to that side. The running back is #2. Got all that so far? Each defender, by alignment is responsible for a particular number... BUT that responsibility will change based on the routes. Okay, now this is where things get complex, and this is where guys struggle with picking things up and why you see wide open receivers when it's not working. Each defender is responsible for reading the deployment of a particular receiver. I've tagged them with numbers to keep up. To the top of the screen, the corner playing deep has the easiest job. He just reads the #1 receiver to his side and drops deep. #33 running to the flat -- he has to read on the fly. He is aligned on the #2 receiver. But his assignment is the flat. He instantly passed off his man and has to pick up the #3 receiver running the flat. #41 to that side is playing the hook assignment at 10 yards. His first read is the #3 receiver. But #3 is running to the flat -- THAT IS NO LONGER HIS MAN -- so his eyes instantly go to #2 who is running right at him vertical. ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ To the bottom of this screen we have Duke Riley #42. He's the other flat defender. But because we are in match coverage, he does not go to the flat at the snap. That would be considered a spot drop. Spot drops can wind up with defenders covering grass. We are in a match coverage. So he has to read both receivers on that side. #1 to his side releases vertical and #2 the running back is coming right behind him. These are the routes that usually kill zones. So Duke has to be patient enough to not over-react to #1 and leave #2 wide open. The cornerback to that side #30 is reading #1 the whole way. I am almost totally certain that if you have read this far that you are just about totally confused. Well good. Just imagine being one of these guys down there trying to execute this stuff. Luckily, the picture becomes a little more clear as the routes unfold. Because everything has now essentially turned into man coverage. At the top, the corner is matching #1 on a vertical. #33 the flat defender has #2 running to the flat. By the way, before the play started, #2 was #3. Remember? That's what I mean about assignments changing on the fly. #88 for the Dolphins was aligned as the #3 receiver before the snap, but because he ran the flat route, he is now considered #2 and matched by the flat defender. #41 has (his new) #3 running vertial into the seam. ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ To the bottom of the picture: #42 Duke Riley is yelling the ALERT passing off #1 to the cornerback and he is preparing to pick up the back out of the backfield, #2. Everyone is plastered. The play is dead. That's why the quarterback is escaping even though he's still got time. Now to the bottom, it looked like Duke slightly over-ran a step and the back got inside him. It's not a blown coverage but that's something he's gonna have to clean up. He can get away with that on 3rd and 8, but not 3rd and 5. ^^^^^^^^^^^ Also, the other hook defender was never threatened so he's free to help out the corner and bracket the #1 receiver to that side. This picture is just about ideal. This is just about how you want 3rd and 8 to look if you're running zone. By now the T/E stunt the Falcons ran is working and the line is coming through. Quarterback looks to the sideline to try to get his receiver coming back to him. This is what zone coverage looks like when you've got athleticism on defense. There really isn't a throw there that'll convert. #41 shows good awareness guarding the sticks. He'll let the receiver run back to the ball all he wants. And all the quarterback can do it make a desperation throw.
Early on in the season there was a lot of frustration -- some of it understandable -- as to why the Falcons defense was having trouble and what it would take to get better. The answer was simple... TIME. There was never anything structurally wrong with the scheme or the players. It was all just a matter of these young guys getting the reps together, communicating and getting comfortable to trust what they were seeing. The last one is a big one, because no matter how much practice you get, how much film study, how well you are coached, you have to trust what you are seeing in actual live action. When you do that, you can start to anticipate, and all of a sudden those annoying little underneath throws that offense steal an easy 7, 8, 9 yards... suddenly those are gone. Here is a perfect example of what I am talking about. I want to look at two plays; one each from the first and second Panther game to illustrate my point. October 2 , 4th Qtr. - Derrick Anderson is in the game after Cam got his head knocked off. Now instead of looking at the entire play, I want to focus on two players here: Olsen for the Panthers, and Neal for the Falcons. By this point, everyone knows what we run so there's no need to draw a Cover-3 for the umpteenth time. You know where everyone is supposed to be. Falcons are in their standard 3 deep. The Panthers have a good call against it on 2nd and 9. They have hooks called to the two inside receivers... one of them being Olsen. Alford drops to his deep 1/3, Weatherspoon drops to the flat, Neal has eyes on the quarterback as the Buzz defender. Anderson wastes no time. He sees where he wants to go immediately. As soon as the flat defender ('Spoon) clears, there's an open hole right there for Olsen to sit down in. Not a terrible play by the Falcons, but you can see where Neal is in relation to the receiver when he makes the catch. This game is won or lost in split seconds. And this just wasn't going to get it. This is where the improvement had to come. December 24th, 2nd Qtr., 1st and 10 Similar concept. The Panthers are trying to attack with that hook, this time to the #2 receiver, Ginn. Ginn pushes up the field. Cam sees it immediately. Ball is about halfway to the target. Do you notice any difference between October and now? For anyone who isn't clear the difference, here it is again... OCTOBER: DECEMBER: October: Neal as the Buzz drops to a depth of about 13 yards. Ball caught in space easily. He rallies to make the tackle. DECEMBER: 1st and 10. Neal drops to a depth right around the sticks. This time he almost arrives with the ball. 5 yard gain. This is what I have been talking about when I say they are starting to play the zones better. This is what I meant when I said the improvement was there irregardless of the competition It's not sexy, or glamarous, and probably goes unnoticed by most, but it's clear as day. Keanu reacted, recognized that route and shot his guns before the ball was even out of Cam's hand. In October, he dropped, saw it... WAITED for the ball, then made his move. The space, even underneath, is starting to be constricted by the learning curve this defense is starting to come through. This is what the coaches are looking for. Split seconds... this game is played in split seconds and even a tenth of a second improvement in reaction time can mean the difference between a 9 yard gain and a 5 yard gain. Hope you all had a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.. but not too happy. Ya'll try not to get in too much trouble. I wanna be able to enjoy the playoff run with all by Falcon brothers.