Tuesday, January 18, 2011
Epicenter of Humanity: Martz vs. Capers
By Kevin Seifert
It's pretty safe to expect the unexpected on Sunday from Mike Martz, left, and Dom Capers.
As division rivals, the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears have matched up twice a season since 1925. Such familiarity generates a certain level of confidence that neither team could surprise the other in Sunday's NFC Championship Game. Just Monday, in fact, Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk told reporters there are "no secrets" between the rivals.
"They're not going to do anything new," Hawk said. "We're probably not going to do anything new. It's going to be football. It's going to be up to the guys on the field, I think. I think coaches can sit back and sometimes try to complicate things and come up with new schemes and crazy situations, but when it comes down to it, it's the guys on the field that are playing the game. And for us we know each other so well that it's fun."
Will that really be the case? This game features two of the most creative coordinators in the NFL. I heard Hawk's quote and wondered if he wasn't feeding into the cliché in the name of gamesmanship. With a Super Bowl berth on the line, do we really think that Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz and Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers will simply let 'em play?
The smart money says no way, a sentiment Bears center Olin Kreutz expressed in the moments after last Sunday's 35-24 divisional playoff victory over the Seattle Seahawks.
"With the coaches that are going against each other, Coach Martz and Coach Capers, there will be some new stuff out there," Kreutz said. "So we'll be ready."
We won't bother guessing what Martz and Capers might have up their sleeves for Sunday. But as they finalize game plans in anticipation of their first practice Wednesday, it's worth examining what both coordinators have done thus far. With a big assist from ESPN researchers Jason Starrett and Matt Willis, we'll start with Martz.
As the first chart shows, the Bears spent most of their first season under Martz in a classic three-receiver set, using their tight ends as fullbacks when needed. Most interesting to me, however, is what Martz did after each of the Bears' two bye weeks this season.
Well-known for his pass-happy philosophy, Martz called fewer than 20 running plays in five of the Bears' first seven games. But over their final nine games after the Oct. 31 bye, the Bears averaged nearly 29 rushing plays in each contest. That re-balance was unprecedented for a Martz offense, but it was the formula necessary to settle down the Bears' offensive line and reduce the reliance on quarterback Jay Cutler's unpredictable arm.
More recently, Martz had an extra week to prepare for the playoffs and made some adjustments that were noticeable enough to make you wonder if they were designed to catch Capers' attention. First, the Bears targeted tight end Greg Olsen on a team-high nine passes, more than double the average number of passes they threw his way in the regular season. (He caught three for 113 yards, including a 58-yard touchdown in the first quarter.)
Second, Martz more than doubled his use of the shotgun formation after employing it a total of 66 times during the regular season. (A total of 40 NFL quarterbacks threw more passes out of the shotgun than Cutler this season.) And on top of that, Cutler ran three times out of that formation -- including a quarterback draw that resulted in a 9-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.
Third, Martz called three Wildcat plays after using a total of seven during the regular season. On one, tailback Matt Forte threw a pass from the pocket. It was intercepted, but its timing -- the Bears were ahead 28-3 in the fourth quarter -- suggested Martz was eager to get it on film for Capers and the Packers to see.
You might not be overwhelmed by a few extra passes to the tight end or a couple of shotgun formations or even a single pass out of the Wildcat. But I'm guessing that those three developments straightened Capers' back a bit. If nothing else, they were a reminder that Martz is both capable of and willing to insert new ideas even in a playoff atmosphere. In the case of Forte's pass, it will force Packers defenders to respect its possibility when and if the Bears line up in the Wildcat on Sunday.
"When you play a team like [the Bears], you may not feel that you have to put in as much studying because you feel you know that team," Packers cornerback Tramon Williams said. "But you don't take that approach. You have to go back in, pay attention to more details and kind of go into [the] Chicago Bears locker room and see if can you understand [it] ... like they understand it."
Truth be told, the Bears should worry just as much about new -- or at least unpredictable -- wrinkles from Capers. The Packers are technically known as a 3-4 scheme, but as the charts show, they used a nickel set on almost three-fourths of their defensive snaps this season -- by far the most in the NFL. That alignment typically includes two defensive linemen and four linebackers, although Capers has shuffled that arrangement enough that Martz shouldn't feel too comfortable.
He has used two, three and four defensive linemen on the field together at one time or another. He has a package known as "Psycho," which features only one defensive lineman. He has another that includes five linebackers and one safety, known as "Big Okie." Meanwhile, linebacker Clay Matthews has rotated his pre-snap positioning from the right to left to the center of the line throughout the season, forcing opponents to search for him before each play.
And to be sure, Capers' preference for the nickel isn't all about coverage. He has blitzed at least one defensive back on 21.8 percent of regular-season dropbacks and 24.7 percent of playoff dropbacks this year. Those figures are the sixth- and second-highest in the NFL, respectively. In Saturday's 48-21 victory over the Atlanta Falcons, all five of the Packers' sacks came when they had at least five defensive backs on the field.
What will Capers and Martz come up with Sunday? I have no idea. And that's pretty much the point.