Keys to success

In the Week 1 nationally televised game pitting the Broncos and the Chiefs, Denver's second-year running back Quentin Griffin was giving the game away. No, we're not talking about his goal-line fumble and certainly not the impressive 156 yards rushing and three touchdowns he accumulated in just his second NFL start. <BR><BR>

No, it was something small that could have made a huge impact on the Chiefs' chances. Something the coaches didn't see. Something that a few Broncos noticed late in the game, but no Chiefs did. Something a dozen or so fans saw from their front-row, telescopic view on TV, who then flooded the Broncos with calls the next day.

It had to do with Griffin's mouthpiece. He kept it in on running plays, but on passing downs, Griffin left it flapping in the wind. Not that it really mattered in this game. The Broncos won handily, 34-24, and the Chiefs, no doubt, missed the tip that was as big as an iceberg.

"Wow, I would have loved to have that key," Giants linebacker Kevin Lewis crowed. "Can you imagine seeing a tip like that? We would have been all over it."

Like all defensive players in the league, Lewis and his Giants D-mates look for "golden" keys or tips to gain an advantage. A light stance, for example, by a lineman, or a running back standing 6-to-7 yards behind the line of scrimmage, to anticipate if the play is going to be a run, pass, sweep, or even a screen.

"Linemen are my first key," said Lewis, now in his fifth season as a Giant. "I look through the line and then to the backs. The line will always give you the first key, but you look at the backs because they're going to tell you where the ball's going."

According to Lewis, most running backs stand exactly seven feet behind the line of scrimmage on running plays.

"He should be 7, but if it looks like he's 6-1/2 yards back, I'll think, ‘Okay, what's the guard doing? Is he light on this play?' You start factoring in on these things."

A player who is "light" is never going to describe a lineman's weight. Lewis is talking about the lightness of his stance. Most of the time, linemen in light stances are getting ready to pass block. Heavy stances often mean it's going to be a run.

"Unless, of course, it's a screen or a sweep," Lewis warned. "That's where watching film comes in. If you don't study film and know your opponent, the veteran players could be doing things that don't mean anything."

Lewis said it's difficult to play against good screen teams, like Green Bay, because their linemen do a good job of not giving away the play.

"Since I'm in the middle, I'm watching guards and centers. The Packers have a veteran line. Their guards are tough to read," Lewis said. "They know you're looking at them for keys, and they don't want to tip you off."

What about the center?

"I play next to Norman (Hand)," Lewis said with a laugh. "I don't usually see the center standing behind him. But if I see something that's going to benefit one of our guys, I'll tell them right away. I mean, look at 92 (Michael Strahan) over there. If I see it's a pass, don't you think I'm going to tell him . . . or Keith (Washington) or Fred or Osi (Umenyiora). We've got a lot of good pass rushers."

Up front, next to Hand, fellow defensive tackle Fred Robbins relies on his own tips.

"Watching film is the key," Robbins said. "It's the best way to know what a guy's going to do. You watch different things on film and get a sense of anticipation of what he's going to do. Once you see it on film and you get in a game, it's easier to recognize things."

Robbins, however, is quick to note that what you see in the film doesn't necessarily translate to what happens in the game.

"Some guys are really hard to read," said Robbins, a 6-4, 325-pound immovable force, who played his first four seasons with Minnesota. "Some try to give you dummy calls. Make you think they're going to do something else. So it takes a few series to get a sense for how they're going about the plays. You just have to be sound in the way you study and prepare. But, it's also a fine line. You've got to be disciplined."

For safety Brent Alexander, his main key is the tight end. Now in his 11th season, Alexander won't admit that he can diagnose a play like he's got ESP. But he can usually guess what it's going to be and even where it's going. Usually.

"The way the tight end lines up is the biggest thing," Alexander said. "You look at the split between him and the tackle. Sometimes on a pass play the tight end will try to get close to the line of scrimmage near the tackle, so he can get into his route quicker by shifting through the traffic unnoticed."

But Alexander also notices what the tackle is doing. If the tackle is a few inches off the line, most likely it's a pass because he getting ready to pass protect.

"On a run play, you can actually tell where the ball is going by the tight end," Alexander stated. "If the ball is being run up near him, he might have a wider split to get a better angle to block down on an end or linebacker. But also, his eyes. If he has a tough block, he may actually look where he's got to go. If it's away from him, he might be tighter near the tackle so he doesn't have to go far to get to him. So you've got to read the body language."

Body language. Doctor Joyce Brothers would be proud. Yet some defensive players don't rely on a lot of body language to determine run or pass.

"You do have to study film," cornerback Will Peterson said. "Know how far a receiver splits from the tight end or tackle, if that's who he's closest to. It helps you learn tendencies and make good decisions. But as a cornerback, you've got to think pass first. You're the last line out there. If you're thinking run before pass, then there's something wrong."

Running back Tiki Barber, now in his eighth season, understands all too well a defense's ability to read offensive tendencies.

"I try to be consistent," Barber said. "I know the defense thinks, ‘He's 7-1/2 yards off, he's running the ball. He's 6-1/2 it's a pass.' Sometimes I break the huddle and look down and count just to make sure I'm not giving (the play away)."

Ever give the play away with something obvious like your mouthpiece?

"I know Quentin Griffin did that," Barber grinned. "You know, I don't think I wore a mouthpiece when I was a rookie. I don't know if that was stupid on my part or (smart)."

That depends on what keys the defense sees, of course.


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