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How lack of game prep affected Raiders run defense vs Packers

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A detailed look at how the lack of game preparation may have affected the defensive playing speed particularly in their rush defense.

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The Preseason Week 2 game in Green Bay was disappointing on a number of levels. The passing game was out of sorts, the running attack was stuffed repeatedly, and the game itself just had a strange feel to it.

One major aspect that was certainly notable was the first team rush defense. In the first drive, the Raiders 1st team defense surrendered a 14-play, 74 yard touchdown drive where the Green Bay running back Eddie Lacy chewed up 45 yards on 9 carries, a 5.0 avg.

And while it is a special kind of disheartening to see a defense get dominated on the ground like this, there is a reason to stay calm and keep from panicking.

It's common wisdom that the early preseason games have little-to-no game preparation; ie., the team does not create a specific game plan targeted towards the specific skills of the opponent. We'll take a look at how that may have impacted the run defense.

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Experience, "Chunking", and Play Speed

In 1975 at the University of Waterloo, a sports expertise researcher named Janet Starkes was trying to determine what separated the elite athletes from the average athletes. Her first instinct--which mirrors what most people would think--was that elite athletes had elite native reaction times; in other words, elite athletes had the natural ability to react more quickly than "normal" athletes. But in her research, she found no statistically significant difference between the reaction times of elite athletes and normal individuals.

Repeat : The reaction times of elite athletes is about the same as the reaction time of people (not necessarily athletes) in the general population.

It's a disappointing result, but it is a very important one. Superficially, it certainly APPEARS that professional athletes like baseball players, basketball players, football players, volleyball players, tennis players, etc. all have an amazing ability to react.

This result forced Janet Starkes to look for some other ability that allowed athletes to perform as they do.

What she ended up with is recognition and recall. To measure this, she invented a new test that is now known as "The Occlusion Test".

This is a quote from David Epstein's fantastic book The Sports Gene :

She gathered thousands of photographs of women's volleyball games and made slides of pictures where the volleyball was in the frame and others where the ball had just left the frame. In many photos, the orientation and action of players' bodies were nearly identical regardless of whether the ball was in the frame, since little had changed in the instant when the ball had just exited the picture.

Starkes then connected a scope to a slide projector and asked competitive volleyball players to look at the slides for a fraction of a second and decide whether the ball was or was not in the frame that had just flashed before their eyes. The brief glance was too quick for the viewer actually to see the ball, so the idea was to determine whether players were seeing the entire court and the body language of players in a different way from the average person that allowed them to figure out whether the ball was present.

The results of the first occlusion tests astounded Starkes. Unlike in the results of reaction time tests, the difference between top volleyball players and novices was enormous. For the elite players, a fraction of a second glance was all they needed to determine whether the ball was present. And the better the player, the more quickly she could extract pertinent information from each slide.

This was a major breakthru and has motivated substantial additional research, including work by Bruce Abernathy.

... elite athletes need less time and less visual information to know what will happen in the future, and, without knowing it, they zero in on critical visual information, just like expert chess players. Elite athletes chunk information about bodies and player arrangements ...

Top tennis players, Abernethy found, could discern from the minuscule pre-serve shifts of an opponent's torso whether a shot was going to their forehand or backhand, whereas average players had to wait to see the motion of the racket, costing invaluable response time.

This is the basis of an entire field of study called Sports Expertise Research, though it mostly functions to explain what differentiates elite athletes from ordinary ones, but not how to develop and grow into an elite athlete.

The main takeaway for OUR purposes here is in the importance of two things :

  • Experience
  • Preparation

First, recall that innate reaction time--the actual ability to respond on first impulse--is generally the same for all people.

Second, the difference in real-life reaction time--what we see on the field--is a result of the amount of visual information that the player needs to receive in order to fully determine what is occuring on the field. The great ones--those players that seem to react nearly immediately to a play and get to the key place before the opposition--have parsed, analyzed, and concluded the play design from less information than "slower reacting" players.

This is the research that underlies such cliches like "The game is slowing down for him", "he's playing faster now", "he's thinking less and reacting more", etc. etc.

Experience is a huge factor; that's the basis of all the recall he has. "Instincts" that have grown over time. The more experience, the quicker his reaction to the play.

Preparation is another huge factor because it is the active reinforcement of the most likely occurences for this game. Watching game film is an exercise in improving a player's "chunking" ability. The on-field game prep simulates the situations that he is most likely to encounter.

We would naturally expect that players, particularly young players (less experience), who have had little game specific preparation would play slower than otherwise.

And in this past game against Green Bay, there was some evidence to this. We could see at times where some players were a step or two slow to react or who were looking for some indicator (a "read") to give them a clue to what the play is.

In this post, we'll take a look at some examples of the effects of no (or little) game preparation.

***

Some Play Details

Here are a few plays from that first drive that show how player reaction has been affected by game prep.

First, recall how the game began.

On the very first play of the game, QB Brett Hundley fakes the handoff and runs a Naked Bootleg (Waggle) to the fulback in the flat.

Now look at this shot of the play :

Bruce Irvin, Karl Joseph, Ben Heeney, Malcolm Smith are near or beyond the far hash mark, fully compromised, while Hundley and Ripkowski are rolling out the opposite way.

The next play, the Packers sucker Khalil Mack by running the same play to the opposite side.

But this time, Karl Joseph is on top of the play and closes on the FB.

These two passing plays were important because they established the waggle in the minds of each of the defenders. The goal is to force the backside defenders to honor the waggle action which slows them down from attacking the running play.

The defenders are not prepared for this. They haven't practiced against it and haven't had specific reads drilled into them. So on each play, they have to look and then react. The younger the player, the less experience he has to fall back on, and the slower he'll play.

Play #4 : 1-10-OAK 41 (13:40) E.Lacy left end to OAK 37 for 4 yards (J.Ellis).

And here are the details with still images :

See Heeney and Smith (and Joseph) trying to get lined up correctly.

Malcolm Smith is still trying to get to his position when the ball is snapped.

Malcolm Smith is just getting to where his initial position should be as Eddie Lacy is getting the handoff in the opposite direction. It's less than a 2-second delay, but that's like an eternity.   He's effectively being dropped into the middle of  an  ongoing play and he's going to have to hustle to get involved in the play.

It's way too late, though. The backside lineman is easily able to get downfield and pick off Malcolm Smith and make sure he's not part of the play.

This leaves Ben Heeney with a difficult run-fit. Typically Smith and Heeney would both be at the point of attack, each taking a run gap, but now Heeney has to slow down and try to protect both of them by himself.

Fortunately, the frontline defenders (Irvin, Autry, Ellis) have clogged up the running lanes and forced the cutback into the mass of humanity.  The results is a 4 yard gain.

If Smith were there, there's a chance that the  4 yard gain could have been reduced further.

Play #5 : 2-6-OAK 37 (13:00) E.Lacy left end to OAK 33 for 4 yards (K.Joseph, J.Ellis).

And here are the details with still images :

On the snap, Heeney is trying to assess and diagnose the play. The Packers' backside tackle and guard give him a false read; they open up a running lane as if it's a lead play, but the FB is taking off to the other side.

Heeney keeps eyes on this gap and chops his feet until he's sure (a) there's no windback/counter run, (b) there's no QB Keeper.

Eddie Lacy gets the hand off and Heeney takes off after him. His recognition is a little late, which costs him a couple of steps, perhaps more depending on how aggressive he is and how quickly he would have recognized the play. (Obviously, extreme aggression would leave him vulnerable to play action.)

When Eddie Lacy turns the play downfield ($1 to Sean Smith for the Cloud Force play), Heeney is still givign chase.

Two steps would have put Heeney right at the gap and would have given him a chance to meet Lacy IN the hole.

Play #7 : 1-10-OAK 27 (11:44) (No Huddle) E.Lacy left end to OAK 22 for 5 yards (S.Smith).

And here are the details with still images :

On the snap, Heeney immediately reads run and reacts to it. Sean Smith is focused on his assignment, the WR going down inside to crack on DJ Hayden.

Whoops! On the hand off, Heeney hits the brakes and backs up.

Packers have the Tight End releasing to the backside (just as in the first two plays of the series) and so Heeney and Irvin are alert for the QB keeper.

Sean Smith is locked in on the receiver.

As Lacy approaches the line, Smith feels or sees some false indicator that the WR may be breaking downfield and so he reacts down inside.

Also notice down inside Karl Joseph shoots the inside gap, but gets cracked hard by the WR #84 and taken to the ground.

Sean Smith is well out of position for this play as Lacy rounds the edge. If Smith is playing the Force (Cloud Force), then Mack can move laterally and avoid getting taken down on the play (which probably should have been called a hold, regardless).

Sean Smith ends up making the tackle downfield after a 5 yard gain. A quicker read on this play and he's up closer to the line of scrimmage, possibly before Lacy gets a head of steam.

Finale

There were certainly many things that went wrong with the run defense. It wasn't JUST the lack of game prep that allowed for so many yards surrendered, but what is noticeable is that there was definitely some effect.

(On a side note, on film study, many of the problems of the run defense appear to be matters that can be easily and directly corrected.)

What Ken Norton Jr wants from his defense is for them to play FAST. A defense with 250-pound linebackers that are a step slow can work but it requires the big linebackers to fight thru blockers. The primary weapon of 230-pound linebackers is speed and they can affect plays by beating the blockers to the point of attack or by avoiding them in open space.

This type of on-field reaction can take otherwise fast players and turn them into slow one. Just a couple of steps can make a huge difference in getting blocked or in affecting the play by getting into a proper position.

With specifically prepared game plans and practices that are focused on that, the defense's ability to recognize plays, to communicate and coordinate correctly, and to execute properly in response to the most common plays should all be substantially improved.

Now, there's no guarantee that game prep would have shown these precise plays or that the players would have actually made the very quick correct assessment. There's always that risk.

But these plays and others from the game give indication that the defense was playing a bit slow while on the opposite side, the veteran Packers' group was playing very fast.

An encouraging aspect of the game is that the run defense improved during the course of the first half. Part of that is that the Packers' rotated in 2nd team players, but another important factor was that the Raiders' defenders were getting more comfortable with what they were seeing and reacting to.

The 3rd pre-season game should have much more targeted game preparation and so we should expect to see the players, particularly the 2nd level defenders, playing much faster. Look to see defenders getting to the point of attack to meet the runners and for linebackers to be filling in the run gaps.