1st QTR, 11:36
3rd and 2 on NE 39
TEN - 0, NEP - 0
|28 - Chris Johnson, RB||74 - Kyle Love, DT|
|11 - Jake Locker , QB||51 - Jerod Mayo, LB|
|89 - Jared Cook, TE||54 - Dont'a Hightower, LB|
|73 - Steve Hutchinson , LG|
The Titans are about to attempt a running play against the Patriots known as a "counter." The idea behind a counter is pretty simple - the offense snaps the ball, and spends the first 1-2 seconds showing a running play to one direction, then quickly reverses direction and runs to the opposite direction. The hope is that some of the defensive players will bite on the fake and overcommit to the fake side, thus leaving open running lanes for the RB on the true play side. Because of that extra step the RB has to take, the counter trades speed for deception, and is a test of how disciplined the defensive players on the other side of the ball are.
In order to create the misdirection, the RB's first move once the ball is snapped will be a step towards the fake play side. He will then quickly change direction, and meet the QB for the hand-off on his way to the play side. Counters also usually involve at least one blocker "pulling," which, for anyone who is not familiar with the term, means that a blocker (typically a guard) will turn and run laterally behind the offensive line, then turn up field through the hole where the play is ultimately designed to run through to serve as a lead blocker for the RB.
Below is a picture of the Titans formation, just before the snap, and what the most relevant moving parts will be trying to do:
Chris Johnson (RB) - that initial line you see slanting towards the defense's left right is the misdirection step that Johnson will take in order to bait the defense to flow to that side. Then, he will reverse direction and head to the hole, picking up the ball from Locker en route.
Jared Cook (TE) - In this particular rendition of the counter, the Titans use a tight end, Jared Cook, as the pulling blocker. While everyone on the offense shows the defense a play to its left, Cook is going to be the only one who immediately heads for the correct play side. This is important because Cook needs that 1-2 second head start in order to get to the hole before Johnson does. Once he arrives, Cook is going to turn upfield, and put a block on Jerod Mayo, leaving Johnson a lot of free space to run.
As you can see, timing is critical here on a counter. If Johnson's counter steps are too quick, he will get to the hole before Cook, and be without a lead blocker (or worse, collide with Cook). If Johnson's too slow, the additional forfeiture of time will likely doom the play because blocks can only be held for so long.
Steve Hutchinson (LG) & Michael Roos (LT) - These guys are responsible for Kyle Love and Chandler Jones respectively and need to neutralize them one way or another so that Johnson has a lane to run through. Hutchinson will also participate in the initial misdirection, in the hopes that Love will take himself out of the play by over-pursuing to the left.
T.1 The Deceit
This is the situation about a second after the snap. As drawn up above, Johnson has taken a couple of steps to the defense's left (1), and Locker is on his way to meet him with the ball. Meanwhile, Cook (2) has turned and begun his journey to the play side hole. Hutchinson (3) has not fired out to engage his man as is typical when run blocking, but instead has taken a step towards the fake play side in an attempt to lure Love to go with him.
Take note of where the two inside linebackers, Hightower and Mayo (4) are. If the Titans' deception is effective, we should see one or both of them begin to flow to the left. It has not happened yet, but it's still very early.
T.2 - Surprise?
A snap second later, Johnson reverses direction, revealing that the play is actually going to the defense's right (1). Locker and Johnson have met and the handoff is taking place here. Cook (2), our pulling blocker, seems to be in very good position as he is in front of Johnson and nearly arrived at the designated hole. All he has to do now is take a couple more steps, then turn upfield to engage Mayo. Assuming Cook manages to neutralize Mayo, there does appear to be a lot of room to run between Hutchinson and Roose. Maybe some good things are about to happen for the Titans/CJ2K fantasy owners?
Mmmmm perhaps, but we can also see some early signs of trouble for Tennessee. Not only has Hutchinson failed to tempt Love to slide to the left (3), but Love seems to have actually gained some ground and pushed Hutchinson into the backfield. Furthermore, the Titans' ruse has completely failed as there is no sign of any Patriots flowing to the left. This is most noticeable with Mayo* (4) who despite seeing Johnson take that step towards the opposite side of the field, stayed home, and is actually leaning towards the right, suggesting that he has already recognized where the play is going.
* foreshadowing is fun
T.3 - Rut-Roh
The seeds of trouble we saw at T.2 have grown into annoying, knee high, weeds of trouble for the Titans here at T.3. Love is now in the backfield, having overpowered Hutchinson and driven him backwards (3). This is incredibly disruptive as there is now 600 lb pile of man smack in the middle of the path that both Johnson (1) and Cook (2) were taking to the hole. As indicated by the dotted line, Cook has been forced to loop around HutchinsonLove, which will obviously delay his arrival at the hole. In this instant, Johnson is deciding if he should do the same or if he should change direction and go inside. There does appear to be some daylight inside, so (spoilers) he makes the right read and cuts it upfield.
Nice decision by Johnson and probably the only way that this play can be salvaged for the Titans, but it also forces him to expend precious time making an unplanned change of direction and to separate from his lead blocker.
T.5 - Engaged
Mayo has now diagnosed the play and pounced (1). Cook has reached Mayo, but has only managed to put a half-ass, glancing block on him. I can't really fault Cook for this as he was supposed to be able to engage Mayo head on coming up the hole, but because of HutchinsonLove has been forced to take a wide, looping arc to his destination (2). As we all remember from elementary school, the shortest distance between two points is the opposite of a wide, looping arc.
As for Johnson, he is attempting yet another change of direction to avoid the Mayo-train, but it will not be enough to escape a (mostly) unblocked Mayo.
T.6 - MAYO-NAYED (...just go with it)
It's difficult to see here because of the blurriness I know, but the amorphous blob you see inside the red circle is Mayo putting the killing blow on this play. He goes low on Johnson in order to avoid Cook, and ou can see Johnson bent over with his hand on the ground trying to stay on his feet. Mayo does not make a clean tackle, but his interference represents the final delay that Johnson is forced to endure, and it effectively ends the thread.
Cook was simply not able to get a sufficient block on Mayo because of the route he had to take to get to Mayo, and Johnson was not able to get out of the mess quickly enough because he was forced to change direction three times. Also, Jerod Mayo is a stud, so that helps too.
T.7 - Conclusion
A couple Patriots come in for the tackle, I think it was primarily Chandler Jones and Ras'I Dowling who come off their blocks to finish Johnson off. The Titans fall short of the converting the 3rd down despite only needing about two yards. On the next play, they would go for it on 4th down and hit a long pass to Nate Washington before later settling for a field goal later in the drive.
The counter play call was an interesting decision. I don't think it's an ideal play to call on 3rd and 2 as making that trade of speed for deception makes it somewhat risky. If the Patriots had called a blitz, Johnson could have been blown up for a 2 yard loss. As a veteran Madden player, I would avoid a delayed play like this on 3rd and short, and go for something more direct.
That said, assuming the Titans had decided before calling the play on 3rd down that they would go for it on 4th down if they failed to convert, the counter becomes a more attractive option. With two downs to get two yards, you can gamble a bit and go for the upside that a counter offers. If the Patriots had been less disciplined and bit on the fake, Johnson could have taken it to the house. If not, you try again on 4th, which is ultimately what they did.
Finally, what I liked about this play is that it provided an opportunity to highlight something that is not always obvious when watching a game live: the substantial effect that a defensive tackle can have on a running play by winning his battle against an offensive lineman. Kyle Love didn't make any highlights here and nobody watching cheered for him on this play, but he was the single most important reason that the play didn't work.
Such is the bittersweet existence of the unheralded defensive tackle. GOD BLESS YOU SIR, HAVE A COOKIE.
"Michael Reardon, a former Patriots Insider columnist, has recently returned to reclaim his old post. A long time Patriots fan and an amateur football player, Michael tries to bring a different perspective to coverage of the New England Patriots that puts the spotlight on some less emphasized aspects of the game of football."
[Disclaimer: Images courtesy screen shots of game replay and are copyright of their respective owners including (but not limited to) the NFL, Tennessee Titans and New England Patriots. Images used for illustration purposes only.]