I think it’s time to do a Hobbjective Analysis on a group that has always been overlooked: linemen. I’m guilty of it myself; line play is very complicated and nuanced and I will be the first to admit that I don’t know very much about it; if you want to see what sort of technicians and athletes these guys truly are, I highly recommend you check out the “Word of Muth” column over at Football Outsiders (one of my favorite columns by the way). Nevertheless, I personally think that while Aaron Rodgers throwing 6 touchdowns probably was a big factor as to why the Packers were able to clobber the Houston Texans, I think the defensive line deserves even more credit than Rodgers in winning the game for the Packers.
The Situation: It’s 11:44 in the second quarter with the Packers taking the early lead in with a 14-0 advantage. Early in the game the Texans had curiously attempted to get their offense started with a pass-heavy strategy but ended up with quarterback Matt Schaub running for his life. By the time the second quarter rolls around, it appears as if the Texans have abandoned this idea and go back to their bread and butter strategy of getting good down and distance situations with All-Pro RB Arian Foster, and setting up the play action pass with QB Matt Schaub and All-Pro WR Andre Johnson.
The formation: The Texans come out in a 2-1-2 formation (2WR-1TE-2RB) with WR Johnson aligned out wide to the left and WR Kevin Walter aligned in the slot to the right. TE Owen Daniels lines up inline along side the right tackle while RB Foster is 7 yards directly behind QB Schaub with FB James Casey forming a offset I formation. The Packers respond with their base 3-4 alignment. The Packers come out with their standard linebacking core of ROLB Clay Matthews, ILB AJ Hawk, ILB DJ Smith and LOLB Erik Walden. With NT BJ Raji out of the game due to an injury sustained versus the Colts, DE Ryan Pickett takes his place and lines up as the 0-technique (to the open side shoulder of the center), while DE CJ Wilson aligns to the right of Pickett and plays the 4-technique (between the guard and tackle), while DE Jerel Worthy aligns to Pickett’s left and plays the 3-technique (directly infront of the guard; I admit it’s rather hard to judge the defensive line’s alignment due to the camera angle, traditionally the NT plays the 0 technique while the DEs play the 5 technique). I’ve excluded labeling the secondary as their are extraneous in this play, especially with SS Charles Woodson outside the box.
At the snap: WR Walter rounds back to perform a fake handoff with QB Schaub, who has already handed off the ball to RB Foster. The play is one of the Texans favorite running plays, the stretch play. The Packers have obviously been expecting to see a lot of stretch plays and play this one perfectly. Take note that OLB Walden, DE Wilson and NT Pickett (who are the three defenders on the play side) haven’t gotten any penetration but are keeping in stride with the offensive linemen. DE Worthy, who is the furthest defensive linemen to the play has already started breaking clear of his defender while OLB Matthews begins to chase Foster and eliminate any cut back opportunities Foster may see. Both ILB Smith and ILB Hawk appear to be a step behind, probably because they had to wait for the offense to declare the play and also because they’re probably making sure that QB Schaub doesn’t hand the ball off to WR Walter for an end around (In the picture it appears as if ILB Hawk is peaking into the backfield).
Run defense: Since the Packers defensive line has stayed in stride with the Texans offensive line, RB Foster doesn’t have a clear cut hole and decides to either bounce it outside or go between the left tackle and tight end. Either way, DE CJ Wilson waits until the moment that RB Foster picks a hole before disengaging his blocker to make the tackle and is followed quickly by DE Worthy who has already broken free of his blocker and in pursuit. Perhaps even better than the defensive line making such a fantastic play, notice the 3rd player who is close to RB Foster, that’s right it’s none other than CB Sam Shields (ok that’s a little in jest)! While he doesn’t make the tackle (as DE Wilson beats him to it), the fact that he’s actually trying (and has a chance to tackle RB Foster should both DE Wilson and DE Worthy miss) is a great sign that he’s finally getting the hang of the whole tackling thing (again I don’t blame him as this is his 3rd or 4th year of tackling experience)
Conclusion: The stretch play is a running play designed for very patient running backs, which Arian Foster definitely is (see his two 1 yard touchdowns). As the offensive line isn’t actively trying to make a hole for the running back to go through, the running back must patient and wait for his blocks to develop before deciding on a hole. While Foster might not be the fastest running back, he is very fluid in his movement and understands his offensive line and where holes in the defensive line should occur.
From a defensive perspective, the defensive linemen must be disciplined and maintain gap control because a defensive linemen who disengages from his blocker too early (or even worse gets man handeld by a offensive linemen) is likely to make a hole for the running back, and essentially fall into the trap of the stretch play. Like I mentioned before, the Packers defensive line plays this one stunningly, not only do they stay with their gaps but they break off at the last possible second to take down Foster.
Ironically, it was BJ Raji who once said that it’s very rare for defensive linemen in the Packers 3-4 defensive scheme to be given the “Jet”, or in other words be given the go ahead to rush the passer/running back. More often than not the defensive line is trying to occupy blockers and let the outside linebackers get behind the line of scrimmage to make the big play. This play, however, is all about the defensive line and what it did was force the Texans to become one dimensional and play almost exclusively in the air for the rest of the game, which then allows the Packers to pin their ears back and pressure Matt Schaub, who responded by throwing 2 interceptions. Arian Foster ended the game with a paltry 17 attempts for 29 yards, good enough for a 1.7 yards/attempt, which is Chris Johnson bad.——————
Thomas Hobbes is a staff writer for Jersey Al’s AllGreenBayPackers.com.