Establish the Fun: Cowboys and Niners turn up the heat, Falcons open up the pistol –

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Welcome back to Establish the Fun, where fun is being established at critically high levels. We’re headed into week five of the NFL season and we’re at maximum fun levels.

This week, we’re pushing that fun into OVERDRIVE as we look at a few more teams with a few good schemes that I think are really fun.

Because football is fun, and I like establishing that! You should too!

We’re starting off our fantastic fun voyage in the Lone Star State, with a defense that is playing out of its’ mind.

Cowboys defense lassoes opponents

For a majority of 2021 I thought that the Cowboys defense was very fluke-ish. They led the NFL in takeaways and explosive plays, but gave up a lot of yards and touchdowns on top of that. I thought defensive coordinator Dan Quinn wasn’t as versatile in his playcalling as he should be, with an NFL that’s changing how defenses are called.

Well, the 2022 Cowboys defense has flipped that entirely on its’ head. Through the first four games of the season, the Cowboys are fifth in total defensive DVOA and eighth in total EPA/play allowed. The Cowboys are doing this on the backs of a dominant defensive line, because as we all know, the trenches is where the real fun happens.

Quinn and the Cowboys made Carson Wentz’s life a living hell last Sunday, and the way that they’re able to use Micah Parsons as a legitimate queen on the chessboard is the key to unlocking the entire defensive front.

What the Cowboys like doing (and is a trend we’ll see with another team later) is getting into five man fronts via pre-snap alignment or blitzing. The Athletic’s Diante Lee calls it “build-a-bear” front, because that’s essentially what you’re doing. Quinn is building a bear front (5 DL, with 2 DT’s in a 3-tech over the outside shoulder of the guards), then manipulating the offense into going for man protection, where he has the guys to win in either situation. This leads to a sack here for the Cowboys where the DT gets through free. Easy money.

On this pressured incompletion, the Cowboys line up three people to one side, and two to the other side. MLB Leighton Vander Esch is walked up over the center, but Washington slides their protection to the three men to their right. Vander Esch and LB Anthony Barr run a cross dog blitz, where one LB attacks the blocker across from the other LB, essentially a stunt. This frees up Barr because the RB has man protection. The right side is sliding to the 3 men, and the RB, LT and LG are in man protection. This is a good example of playing with protection rules to free up your guys to harass the QB.

Through four games this season, the Cowboys lead the NFL in passing dropbacks in Cover 2, which is really interesting because in the same time period last year, their Cover 2 snaps were almost cut in half. Cover 2 and Tampa 2 work really well in the modern NFL because it keeps two safeties high and limits explosive plays for the offense, but the middle of the field is normally a struggle, because your linebacker is matching up with a slot receiver running over the middle.

Where Quinn gets creative is with changing who the “middle run” player is. This is the guy that has to carry any inside route vertical. Think of Derrick Brooks or Brian Urlacher. Instead of those guys, Quinn has safety Israel Mukuamu running there, a more athletic player who might be more comfortable in that role than Vander Esch.

Quinn has done a great job of changing the picture on defenses, which is how Wentz was intercepted near the end of the game last Sunday.

Above all else, the Cowboys have gotten improved play not only from their stars, but from the non-star players on their defense. Among all safeties this year, Donovan Wilson is seventh in the league in Total Points Saved, a metric that distributes credit to everyone on the defense for a play. Wilson has been critical on the back end, but also in stopping the run, where the Cowboys defense is weakest.

The Cowboys take on a struggling Rams offense on Sunday, and if Dallas wants to leave with a win, the defense that’s been playing like one of the best in the league has to pitch another classic on Sunday.

Controlled Aggression: The 49ers defense

Before I talk about the best defense in the league through four games, I wanna describe the difference between two types of blitzes that coordinators at all levels of the sport use: simulated pressures vs creepers.

A simulated pressure shows pressure pre-snap. The Cowboys’ sack on Carson Wentz clipped earlier? That’s a simulated pressure. A creeper doesn’t show pressure pre-snap, usually coming from depth.

49ers defensive coordinator Demeco Ryans and the Niners crushed the Rams offense in their Monday night win. Rams QB Matt Stafford was sacked seven times and pressured on 20 of his 56 dropbacks, a 36% pressure rate per Sports Info Solutions(SIS).

How Ryans did this was through a creative use of simulated pressures to confuse the interior of the Rams offensive line. Per SIS, Fred Warner rushed the passer on five snaps on Monday, more than he previously has this season combined. Adding him on as an extra blitzer would force the Rams into five man protections, where every linemen has a man to block.

Demeco Ryans made sure that wasn’t going to happen. The Rams offensive line was stuck in the strongest of Genjutsu’s, and the Niners’ simulated pressures were the main cause. Take this one for example. The Niners line up DT Arik Armstead, DT Kevin Givens and DE Nick Bosa on one side. This is called a Big On Same Side (BOSS) front, we’ll come back to this later. Samson Ebukam and Fred Warner are lined up on the other side. Because of the BOSS front, the Rams man block across the board, with TE Tyler Higbee chipping Ebukam.

The Niners crash Givens and Armstead to the outside, essentially running a long twist with Bosa crashing through the A gap. What really makes this work, however, is the stunt between Warner and Ebukam. This prevents the guard on the other side from seeing Bosa come flying through the A gap. Masterful work by Demeco Ryans.

Another simulated pressure, another stunt from hell. Niners go BOSS again, but this time Arik Armstead crosses both his guard, the center and the opposite guard’s face to the C gap, and Ebukam goes from outside the tackle to the B gap. Fred Warner crosses into the opposite B gap and Charles Omenihu goes through the A gap. Just a dirty, dirty pressure that ends in a sack.

On top of that, the Niners got their DBs involved. Deommodore Lenoir got a sack on Monday with a pressure that only one Rams player saw. Fred Warner lines up in the center’s right A gap, which makes the Rams OL slide their protection that way. This is important because Lenoir is blitzing from the opposite side of the protection. However, Warner drops into coverage on the snap, essentially wasting a blocker due to his presence.

So the Rams OL is sliding to their right, Lenoir is coming from the left. Higbee chips Nick Bosa and then tries to get some of Lenoir, but he doesn’t get enough. What really sets this play off is the twist on the opposite side. Bosa and Omenihu run a TEX stunt, occupying the eyes of the guard and tackle, and Lenoir gets home. Beautiful stuff really.

Through four games, the Niners have the top defense in DVOA and are the only team in the top five of overall DVOA to be in the top five of both passing and rushing defense DVOA. They’re playing at an insanely high level right now, and I fear for any team that comes into their path.

(/checks schedule)

Oh NO.

Falcons embrace the power of the pistol

Before I begin, allow me to say this: I LOVE the pistol formation. My formative years as a football fan consist of watching Colin Kaepernick run through the Mountain West in the pistol and every time I create a playbook in any football game, I’m using the pistol as my foundation.

The benefit of the pistol offense is how fast the running back can get downhill, while also getting the play action concepts and downfield passing that would normally come from the gun. It has foundations in the single wing and option offense; some modern service academies run the pistol now to get the same option principles, but out of the gun.

Defenses have to honor the downhill run game as much as they do the passing game in pistol, because if they don’t, offenses can get downhill and run the ball down your throat.

Which is exactly what the Falcons did against the Browns.

The Falcons ran for 202 yards in their 23-20 victory over Cleveland on Sunday. They averaged 5.8 yards per attempt, and 5.6 yards per carry out of the pistol formation. On the entire season, Atlanta leads the NFL in rushing attempts out of the pistol, and is third in EPA/attempt, with the only two teams above it running the pistol on two and three rushing attempts.

The pistol helped the Falcons backs get downhill and see cutback lanes earlier, putting stress on the Browns defense. Here, Atlanta motions TE Parker Hesse from out wide into the backfield as an H-back. The Falcons run outside zone (they run outside zone on 30% of their pistol snaps), and watch how easy it is for RB Caleb Huntley to get downhill and find the cutback lane.

Look at the angles being in the pistol and running outside zone from this spot creates.

On this play, the Falcons run mid zone away from the motioned TE side, and watch how the motion creates angles for the linemen and the backs to get vertical in the run game.

For a team that isn’t as individually talented along the offensive line as Atlanta, creating creases and advantages through formation and motion helps massively. The Falcons ability to run out of pistol could be the necessary change for the Falcons to truly be able to run the ball, something coach Arthur Smith has wanted to do.

If only they could show the same creativity in the passing game…spoken as someone who drafted Kyle Pitts in fantasy football.

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