Saturday, February 12, 2011

Risk vs. Reward: Breaking Down the Olsen TD

Remember that regular season game where Seattle went for it on 4th-and-1 with a fade pass to WR Golden Tate? The pass failed, and fans criticized the coaches for calling a low-percentage play - i.e. less likely to succeed than many other plays Seattle could have tried.

Keep that sort of risk-mentality in mind as we examine the 58-yard TD pass to Chicago TE Greg Olsen from the playoff game against Seattle.

Olsen beat SS Lawyer Milloy downfield and caught the pass behind him, so most people blame Milloy. But in trying to dig deeper into the logic of the play, I exchanged emails with Doug Farrar of Sportspress Northwest and came away with a different impression.

It's 3rd and 2 on the Chicago 42 with 12:17 in the 1st quarter. The Bears deploy a single set back, 3-WR set with strong side TE. That is, one running back (Matt Forte, #22), three wide receivers (with Earl Bennett, #80, in the slot), and a tight end (Olsen, #82) on the right. In other words, it's short yardage with five receiving threats on the field.

Without even going any deeper, this look and situation should tell you something. It's very early in the game and Chicago doesn't really need to get that fancy to gain 2 yards. There's all kinds of easy, underneath, higher-percentage passing plays Martz could call here (suggested in gray in Figure 1 below). They could take a shot downfield, sure, but why? It's a more difficult play, and if it fails, Chicago loses a drive. Going underneath makes more sense in the circumstances.

It looks like that's what Seattle is thinking. They counter with a nickel package (five defensive backs) with a two-deep zone look (two safeties deep). FS Earl Thomas (#29) stays deep and Lawyer Milloy (#36) rolls up close to the line, over Olsen. The nickelback is S Jordan Babineaux (#27). The outside receivers are in man coverage, so Seattle needs to account for the three inside threats. Who covers who?

Figure 1: Pre-snap

Now Milloy and Babineaux can't just chase their guys (#82 and #80 respectively), because they have the short play to think about. Matt Forte is a solid receiver in a Martz offense that relies heavily on throws to running backs. Chicago could also try a short screen pass or just run Forte to the sides. This divides the defense's attention between deep and short.

The ball is snapped (Figure 2 below). Seattle rushes four and drops two linebackers (Lofa Tatupu and Will Herring) into coverage, but not too deep. They might be expecting intermediate in routes, encouraging the idea that Seattle expects Chicago to attempt only a modest gain.

Babineaux hands his man off to Thomas in coverage and runs to the flat, maybe looking for a short throw to the left receiver. This puts three defenders - Babs, Lofa, and Herring - right underneath a lot of the routes that Chicago could have run. Milloy hesitates and gives Olsen an extra step on him that is quickly expanded due to his declining speed, but this actually isn't the biggest problem as the play develops, according to Doug:
Judging from the shorter zone drops, my sense is that the Bears caught the Seahawks flat-footed with Olsen's route -- no way did they expect him to hit a deep seam. The way the 'backers drop...I'm thinking the idea was to have a three-under coverage, and the Bears just went deep instead.
So with Olsen beating Milloy on an unexpected route and Bennett racing downfield uncovered, Earl Thomas is in a jam. The free safety is supposed to come over and help defend these deep guys, but Thomas can only choose one.

Figure 2.
Thomas correctly chooses the uncovered guy, leaving Olsen widest open. It takes a fairly difficult throw to hit him, but Jay Cutler pulls it off and the Bears score.

So basically, Chicago lures Seattle close with the threat of underneath plays and then stuns them with a lower-percentage deep play. Seattle's scheme here was sensible given the situation. It's a gamble that relies on execution; if Cutler doesn't make the throw, Chicago blows a drive that they could have converted easily by being more patient and Martz, ever the risk-taker, looks like an idiot. But execution wins and Chicago takes an early lead that they never surrender.

At least that's my take. I welcome being proven wrong.

We often want to find one particular person or factor to blame for a big play, and perhaps the touchdown could have been averted had Milloy been faster. But in my opinion, Seattle's biggest mistake was letting Chicago get into short-yardage to begin with. A team can be very unpredictable out of that down and distance. By being forced to defend both short and deep, Seattle's defense was stretched to the breaking point and gave the Bears early momentum. Beyond that, it was just a good play by Chicago.

That's how the game is played - risk versus reward, scheme versus talent.

Thanks again to Doug Farrar for his contributions.


  1. Nice expansion of the play. Helps having all the routes and coverages explained, the options Earl Thomas had and chose. Sounds like the Green Bay safety was not totally accurate in assigning the blame all on Thomas, more just a good play for the down and distance for the Bears (risky, but big momentum changer).

    Minor put. 82 (Olsen) is listed as 85 in figures 2 and 3.

  2. So, the question is, did Babs do as the scheme called for, or did he make a mistake taking the underneath far right?

  3. Thanks for catching that, James.

    If we're assuming that every defender had a purpose in what he was doing, then Babineaux may have been defending the flat against, run, screen, swing, or short pass to the outside receiver. Any of those would have been more predictable than the vertical play Martz went for. If we assume that Babs was freelancing, then maybe he'd made a mistake, but if we're going to assume that players are freelancing then it makes it almost impossible to examine plays anyway. :)