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3 & Out: The value of playing the right way, and other notes from an interesting Week 2

The “3 & Out” column is something I did regularly when I wrote exclusively about the Steelers in our pre-FFSN existence. I’m reviving it here for the NFL page. In it, I’ll focus on three things from Sunday’s games that caught my attention, with a fun fact at the end to take us out. Hope everyone enjoys.

The Play-Callers Club

Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan are two of the best play-callers in football, so I glued myself to the television set for the Rams-49ers game. It did not disappoint.

The thing that makes both coaches so interesting, from a play-calling perspective, is the way they tweak their core schemes to create new looks. Take this red zone run from the Rams, which came late in the 2nd quarter and gave L.A. a 17-10 lead. It was a simple split-zone play where the line blocked to the right and the H-back, aligned to the right of quarterback Matthew Stafford, crossed the formation to block the left edge. The play is called split-zone because it provides a divided read for the linebackers — offensive line moving in one direction, H-back moving in another — and if done effectively can freeze the backers as they try to process where the ball is headed.

Normally, split zone is run from some sort of compressed formation so the H-back can get to the back side in time to kick the edge before he can squeeze down and take away the cutback lane for the running back. Here, though, McVay aligns the Rams in a 2×2 spread set, which loosens up the defense. It’s 3rd-and-1 at the 4-yard line, but San Francisco is playing with just six defenders in the box. Typically, in this situation you’d see a mountain of bodies stacked tightly from tackle to tackle. But the formation forces the Niners to align wider, which opens up the run lanes inside. The motion from the H happens too quickly for San Francisco to make an adjustment, and with six to block six, the Rams win the play and score a touchdown:

Shanahan is brilliant at designing plays, too, but the thing I like best about him is how he uses using shifts and motions to create a numbers advantage at the point of attack. On one play on Sunday, he used Deebo Samuel, his do-everything wide receiver, in the same H-back role as we saw McVay employ above. Samuel came in motion from the strong side of a 3×1 formation to kick the weak side edge defender on an inside zone run to Christian McCaffrey. Then, on the ensuing series, Shanahan used the same motion to slip Samuel into the flat on a bootleg pass. I didn’t study the film, but I’m guessing he dialed up the bootleg because Los Angeles either failed to rotate with the motion, leaving the flat wide open, or their edge defender squeezed hard to take on Samuel’s kickout block, making him vulnerable to the boot. Both Shanahan and McVay are excellent at shifting and motioning to realign a defense and then exploiting the movement. And both create complexity in their offenses by using a host of formations and pre-snap movement in order to run the same basic plays again and again.

Sometimes, the smoke and mirrors aren’t necessary. Take this touchdown from the 49ers, where Shanahan aligned in a bunch set and simply had quarterback Brock Purdy flip the ball to the perimeter to Samuel. L.A. aligned with a soft corner, giving the Niners the bubble, and this was an easy way to get Samuel out in space. The play isn’t even blocked particularly well, yet Samuel makes the Rams looks foolish trying to tackle him as he uses a combination of shiftiness and power to reach the end zone:

The really interesting element of this play is on the back side, where McCaffrey is faking toss sweep action and receiver Brandon Aiyuk (11) is mimicking a perimeter screen. I don’t know whether those concepts were active or if they were simply designed to slow the defensive pursuit of Samuel. But one thing is certain — both Shanahan and McVay make defenses police the entire width of the field on nearly every play. And when a defense doesn’t, they make them pay for it.

If there was a club for play-callers, like an elite fraternity to which only the best were admitted, these two would be the first in among the current crop of NFL coaches. I learn something new every time I watch the Rams and 49ers, which makes their games a treat for a football nerd like me.

Playing the game the right way

My favorite play from Sunday’s games was one that won’t make any of the highlight shows, but it underscores the importance of playing the game the right way.

With Dallas pinned back at their own 3-yard line near the end of the 1st quarter in their game against the Jets, quarterback Dak Prescott completed a slant pass to Cee Dee Lamb. Lamb caught the ball around the 18-yard line, split the corner and linebacker and sprinted up-field. For a moment it looked like he might take the ball to the house, but the safety came over around the 30-yard line to slow him up. As Lamb fought for extra yardage, one of the pursuing linebackers punched the ball out. There were several New York defenders in the area, and the Jets should have come up with the ball. But Dallas center Tyler Biadasz, who started the play in pass protection around the goal line, did what line coaches often urge their players to do. He chased the play. Biadasz was there to recover the football and save the drive. Twelve plays later, it culminated in a field goal that gave the Cowboys a 10-0 lead in route to a 30-10 victory.

A week ago, Biadasz did the same thing in Dallas’s game against the Giants, preserving a drive that ended in a touchdown. Sunday’s play wasn’t an anomaly for Biadasz. It’s just the way he plays the game.

99% of the time, chasing the play is a fruitless task. That’s why players often refuse to do it. The likelihood of effecting a play far down the field is slim, and most don’t want to waste the energy. But you never know what can happen — whether it’s a fumble, a runner in need of a final key block or simply hustling down to pick the ball-carrier off the ground after a tackle — which is why coaches implore them to make the effort. Biadasz did so on Sunday, and he was rewarded for it. So too were the Cowboys, who have been one of the league’s most impressive teams these first two weeks. If they continue to execute well on offense, swarm to the ball on defense and demonstrate the type of team-first mentality Biadasz did on Sunday, they will be a championship contender in the NFC.

Will the Patriots sack Mac?

Mac Jones is struggling in New England. Granted, he’s playing for his third offensive coordinator in three years, which is far from ideal. First it was Josh McDaniels. Last season it was Matt Patricia, a defensive coach who had never called plays on offense before. This year it’s Bill O’Brien. Those are three different voices with different styles and systems. No doubt it’s been hard on Jones to continually reacclimate.

Watching him play against Miami on Sunday night, though, I couldn’t help think he’d regressed from this time a year ago. Jones is still an accurate passer on short and intermediate routes, and he seems to play best when he can get the ball out of his hand quickly. He was solid in the final eight minutes of the game, when he ran the hurry-up offense against a soft Miami defense protecting a 24-10 lead. But he couldn’t push the ball down the field, averaging just 5.5 yards per pass on 42 attempts. When he couldn’t find a receiver immediately, he held it too long, resulting in four sacks. His downfield throws were often inaccurate. Jones missed his receivers on post routes on several occasions, and he threw a costly interception deep in Dolphins’ territory in a one-score game early in the 4th quarter. It was on a nine-route that missed badly inside and looked intended more for the corner in coverage than the receiver.

Jones’s limited mobility can hinder his ability to extend plays, too, and he often seems to throw off-platform, with his feet set awkwardly or his body not squared up towards its target. Whether that’s a footwork problem or a product of the pressure he’s received from the two very good defenses he’s faced (Philadelphia and Miami) is hard to know. But the Patriots need to get Jones right if they have any chance of competing for a playoff spot.

The problem for New England is this: if not Jones, who, then? They cut backup Bailey Zappe only to resign him before the opener. Zappe played well in limited duty last season as a rookie, and some thought he’d push Jones for the starting job this summer. He remains an option, but the fact the Patriots cut him isn’t exactly an endorsement of their faith in him. Behind Zappe they have Matt Corral, who unfortunately seems to be struggling with issues larger than football these days. Beyond Zappe and Corral is the waiver wire, where the talent pool is shallow. Unless New England is willing to give Zappe a shot, it seems they’ve hitched their horse to Jones for the foreseeable future. Which means they’ll have to fix him, fast, before this season gets away from them.

And Out…

The Patriots are now 0-2 for the first time since the 2001 season. The Bengals, meanwhile, have now started 0-2 for the fourth time in five years. They’ve rallied to make the playoffs the last two seasons and are certainly talented enough to do it again this year. But the AFC is deep, and the climb back from 0-3 would be daunting. Cincinnati hosts the Rams next Monday night in what may be considered (hyperbole alert!) a “must-win” contest…

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