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To Catch a Copycat: Part One

Coordinators copy, borrow and just plain steal good ideas.   It's part of the game.  You're watching game tape and you see a team beat an upcoming opponent with a personnel package or play, it only makes sense to add it to your game plan.

The bigger trick is fooling a divisional rival, whose coaches have spent good chunks of their off-seasons scrutinizing your game plans and personnel.  These staffs could probably step into your meeting rooms on a Tuesday and teach your scheme to your players.  

In situations where staffs have been entrenched for years, the search for wrinkles intensifies, as does the need for self scouting.  If you have a tendency or tendencies to your game plans, and your personnel can't overwhelm your opponents, your plans will fail.   That seemed to be the case with the Eagles and the Cowboys last year.  The two teams fought an even 20-16 contest in November, but the re-matches swung decisively in Dallas' favor.  Keith Brooking boasted after Dallas' playoff win that Philly's offense had become predictable to him and to his defensive mates.

That said, the Eagles staff showed the copycat skills that hurt the Cowboys from time to time, and illustrate how familiar coaches try to adapt in order to get that small edge which can tip a game in their team's favor.

The prototype

The Cowboys staff vs. Eagles staff story begins in Denver.  In the week four contest, Broncos coach Josh McDaniels unveiled a weakside trap against the Cowboys.  He would put his offense in a two tight end overload, with his tight end and H-back next to each other on the same side of the line.  McDaniels sat QB Kyle Orton in the shotgun, with RB Knowshon Moreno flanked to the tight end side:            

                                          26                                                43

                                                    51                 56

      21                    94      99                 90            96        93                                     41

      WR                          LT     LG      C      RG    RT    TE                       
                                                                                             H-B                            WR


                                                        QB        RB


At the snap, the weakside OT and OG, in this case the left tackle and left guard, would double-team end Igor Olshansky, with the objective of pushing him inside.  After the blockers had started sliding Olshanky inside, the LT would scape off and go looking for the inside linebacker (Keith Brooking here) to seal him inside. 

In the backfield, Orton would take the shotgun snap and hand the ball to Moreno, who would take a step towards right tackle, giving the initial impression that this is a power run off-tackle. 

At the same time, the H-back is running laterally, behind the line of scrimmage, to trap block Demarcus Ware on the weakside edge.  This block is critical to the play because Moreno, after starting right, could cut back to the left side and follow the H-back to the edge.  If the H-back kicked Ware wide, Moreno would run in the diagonal lane created between Ware and Olshanky.  If Ware crashed down the line of scrimmage, to seal Olshansky's gap, the H-back would try to hook him inside and Moreno would bounce the play wide.  If executed properly, Moreno would be set free into the Dallas secondary.

And Denver ran it superbly.  Ware respected Orton's play-action fake option and played pass every time the run was called.  (Tight ends frequently run boot-legs under the line, to get into the flats without being chucked by linebackers.)  Ware raced upfield in every instance and the H-back simply blocked him wide.  Moreno gained between 8 and 14 yards each of the four times McDaniel called this play.

Denver's brain trust had found a way to attack the perimeter of a 3-4 in a very effective way.  The counter-trap play used Ware's aggressiveness against him.  This is the type of play other staffs were sure to see and emulate against the Cowboys.  Three weeks later, the Seahawks tried it, but the Cowboys coaching staff had used their time to familiarize their team with the play and how to counter it.  Here, Ware stayed on the line, maintained his contain and beat his blocker. 

Problem solved, right?  Not quite.  The Eagles were next on the schedule and they had a complementary play worked out  which restored the counter-trap's original effectieness.

In Part Two:  Do You Follow the Back or the Quarterback?

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