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Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Play, Shot-by-shot

Let's break down The Play.

Eventually, someone needs to coin a nickname for the annals that this play is sure to go down in.

I have my theory on why it worked.  We know that Flacco was not running a designed play; he checked down.  The Ravens came out in the Shotgun, 3-wide look where Pitta was standing in the left TE slot, flanked by Boldin, who did a ditty motion (back and forth) to help Flacc read the D.  Rice remained in the backfield (perfectly obscured by Flacc in this shot.).  Yes, I call him "Flacc" sometimes.  Flacc attack, baby. Ride with 5!!

The wideouts all ran basic fly patterns, while Pitta ran a loose in-and-up.  As you see, the Chargers were in a nickel, with four down linemen and two backers.  They were placing a lot of trust in the linemen to generate pressure and also demonstrated confidence in their athletic-if-not-over-the-hill linebackers.

Rice stayed in for a good four beats to help with protection and then circled to the line of scrimmage.  He was a "gimme" for the D, a concession.  Yet, perhaps they should have strategized on how to actually stop him in a long to-go situation.  As you can see here, the nearest defender was about 26 yards away from Rice when he jumped a bit to bring in the pass.  (Math wizards will understand why Gilchrist, at the bottom of the picture, is not closer.)

 How often do you see this?  An offensive player receives the ball with 26 yards between him and the downfield pursuit.  Forget about the backer Shaun Phillips trying to chase him from behind, north/south speed is why the RBs and WRs and CBs make the bucks.  The only time we see anything like this is on a punt of kickoff return, right?  Well, get this: Ray Rice averaged 53.5 yards per kick return in High School.  He was too valuable at Rutgers for them to allow him anywhere near a kick or punt.  So he has a little knowledge of how to work it.  My theory is that he worked this like a kick return.

 Now the defense, for sure taught by their well-bloodlined coach J. Pagano to hawk the ball, all took direct pursuit angles to the ball.  No one was thinking in terms of a kick return, where players run straight down the field and stay in their lane until within a predetermined radius of the ballcarrier.  Who can blame them?  The only exception was #38 Marcus Gilchrist, running the Nickel , who is denoted by the curved red arrow.  His momentum from his disciplined downfield shuffle had him swinging backwards instead of being able to diametrically change his direction.  Watch the defenders collapse down their pursuit lanes:

Do you see how they are moving along direct lines towards Rice?  No contain at all, and why should there be?  I did alter the red arrow because the camera on this Coach's Film zooms in.  I think, at this point, the Gridiron Radar in Rice's brain was finalizing its' plan of attack.

 Make a sharp cut left, once they've been suckered in, and hit the tremendous amount of open space there.  The purple zone represents almost 2/3 of the width of the field, as you can see.  Again, notice how far along the pursuit arrows the defenders are.  Straight at 'im.  Perhaps Ray had gotten a pointer from his buddy Jacoby.

 Fully collapsed to the point of contact, the defense has put itself in a dangerous position: 7 out of 11 players are squeezed into a 10-yard wide tube directly downfield from Rice.  2 out of 11 are poor pursuit and out of the play.  I counted the one who is behind Ray in the tube; he pursued but is not really a threat.  That leaves one man, CB Antoine Cason, to aggressively stop Rice.

As Rice's cut has worked perfectly and magically, taking out the first three defenders (thanks Gilchrist), an interesting and truly unsung aspect of the play begins to unfold: the precise, thunderous, quintessential block by Anquan Boldin.  While the other wideouts try to steer clear of messing the play up, Boldin reacts like a missile locked on the infrared sig as he spots S Eric Weddle moving rather quickly across the field towards Rice.  It is truly amazing how exact Q's angle was, how he and Rice were very much synched up in tactics, and how clean his block was.  I will examine that last point in my next post.  This was a clean and legal block that enabled Rice to finish the play.

Boldin wipes.  Him.  OUT.  The collision alters Rice's path, and he loses sure footing.  Notice Quentin Jammer, immediately "above" Rice in this photo, who has wisely cut across the field to stop him.  Cason is not attacking at this point, he is frozen in his boots.  Look at all of the space Boldin created with his stonewall.  Lots of  players are coached against blocking against the grain of a free runner (block downfield, not upfield), but this was teamwork at its' best.

And Ray bashes into the defenders for the first down.  I tried hard to freeze the screen right when his knees hit the ground.  It is impossible to really tell, but the ball is well over the 34 here.  Well over it.

Viola, we now have it: a masterful display of will and determination by Rice and his teammates.  Watch the video again and look at the reactions of the players on the sidelines surrounding Coach Harbaugh.  Talk about fired up!!

Thus, I say, a season is pivoted.  We're already good.  This play, this game, showed us that we are exceptional.  Too many mental hurdles--no, mountains--were overcome in getting this victory to just see it as normal.  The Ravens are special in 2012.  We'll see how special soon.

Houston, you have a problem.