Thursday, July 29, 2010
Offenses cashing in with inside targets
By John Clayton ESPN.com
For the next two weeks, I'm going to hit the slots.
No, I'm not heading to a casino with a bag full of coins. As part of my three-week training camp tour, I'm going to pay particular attention to how the slot receivers are evolving in this pass-happy league.
Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and so many of today's elite quarterbacks changed the NFL from a league of running and defense into a passing game. These quarterbacks mastered the shotgun and the no-huddle. With those tools, they mastered the fourth-quarter comeback, making it harder for teams with good running games and defenses to win.
Out of this passing fancy comes the development of the slot receiver. The slot was once a haven for receivers who were declining in speed but were good at running routes. Brandon Stokley mastered the position for Manning. Bobby Engram became Matt Hasselbeck's go-to receiver out of the slot.
One of the hottest trends in this scorching hot summer is the talent resources now going into the slot. Wes Welker might have taken the New England Patriots' slot to new levels for Brady, but more teams seem to be investing in the slot position as a result.
The 49ers are considering 2009 first-round pick Michael Crabtree for their slot. The move should be an instant hit. Crabtree drove defenses crazy at Texas Tech because no one could matchup to his size and strength. If Ted Ginn Jr. could stretch the field as the split end, Crabtree could have a bigger area to work inside the numbers.
Dallas' Miles Austin set himself up for a big payday after the season by catching 81 passes for 1,320 yards last season. He'll eventually cash that check as a slot receiver. Dez Bryant might not carry Roy Williams' shoulder pads, but he plans to carry a good portion of Tony Romo's offense as an outside receiver. That frees Austin to work the slot.
Following last season's success that Minnesota's Percy Harvin had working out of the slot, teams are copying the formula by drafting fast, quick receivers to work the slot and take advantage of their yards-after-the-catch ability. The Panthers used a third-round choice on Armanti Edwards, a former Appalachian State quarterback who has wowed coaches as a slot receiver in organized team activities. The Kansas City Chiefs are opening camp with second-round choice Dexter McCluster working the slot. He has the ability to run after the catch.
The increased talent base for the slot receiver is only a natural reaction to the increased use of spread offenses in the NFL. A lot of people don't realize Patriots coach Bill Belichick, a mastermind for defensive schemes, traded for Welker and let him use some of the Texas Tech slot routes that got him into the NFL as a prospect.
Manning is the master of the three-receiver set. Last year, he led the league with 438 attempts and 301 completions when three receivers were on the field. Though he lost Anthony Gonzalez for the season with a knee injury, Manning was able to rush the development of then-rookie Austin Collie. With Gonzalez back this summer, Manning has two slot options to spread through the 16-game schedule.
"The slot receiver gets more speed on the field for an offense," Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer said last month. "You're taking out a fullback, who is 260 pounds, and you're putting in Anquan Boldin or T.J. Houshmandzadeh or a player with more speed and athleticism. You're getting more passes as opposed to running from the I-formation and just running downhill.'"
Don't underestimate the Bengals' decision to sign Terrell Owens as a response to the three-receiver, slot-receiver trend. The Bengals became a pure running team as the season developed last year. Though they won the AFC North, scoring and offensive production faded as the season progressed.
Andre Caldwell did an adequate job working the slot in place of the departed Houshmandzadeh last season, but he faded down the stretch. The Bengals might have drafted the ideal long-term slot guy in Jordan Shipley, but the team felt a need to plunk down $2 million for Owens. Does that put Antonio Bryant in the slot?
These are the many questions that will need answers this summer.
Palmer, more than anyone else, realizes the value of having a good slot receiver and the value of three- and four-receiver sets. The Bengals are in a division filled with blitzing 3-4 defenses. Defensive coaches know the best way to disrupt a quarterback is making him guess where the blitzes are coming. The 3-4 gives a defensive coordinator more unpredictability with those blitzes.
What offenses discovered in 2009 was that three-receiver sets create strategic problems for 3-4 defenses.
"A lot of teams can't make up their minds what to do against three-receiver sets," Palmer said last month. "Do they stay in 3-4 and have a defensive end or linebacker drop back to help cover the slot receiver or do they bring in a nickel cornerback to match up the speed?"
Expect a strategic tug of war this season to see which side wins out -- the 3-4 defense or the three-receiver set.
"I do think adding that third receiver has made this game more pass-happy," Palmer said. "You know a team is only going to pay two corners, not three, so you put that third receiver out there to see how they match up. The fullback position has just vanished, so it's hard for a defense to put seven big guys on the field against those passing sets."
Defenses might counter with a nickel (cornerback), but those nickels are going against slots who are being paid big dollars.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.