Up until Sunday, I had to have been a glutton for punishment. What other explanation could there be? Having been one of Rex Grossman’s staunchest supporters for the past year, my optimism finally broke, as I watched, horrified, as Grossman fired into obvious bracket coverage, right after my Beloved Bears had just recently fallen behind by 10. Hello, blowout. And this weekend, hello Brian Griese. With all the Rex-bashing that is going on in both Chicago and national media, I do not intend to pile on. Rather, while watching Rex, and clearly seeing his imperfections for the first time (I know I’m behind on that one, but give me some credit, I’m a fan in denial, after all), it made me think of our own imperfections that we exude within EA’s new passing system.
Just like Mr. Grossman, we flounder in the pocket, and can’t see the field past our first read. Despite all of the physical talent in the world, we make bad decisions. In this two-part series, I will do my damnedest to dissect and correct this problem for all us. Who knows? Maybe even Rex himself will take note.
How We Got Here
From Tecmo Bowl, up until Current (last) Gen Madden titles, the passing game has always been over-simplified.
We could look at the X’s and O’s in the play-calling screen, pick a receiver, and then proceed to throw to that receiver after the snap. There was consistent success and minimal punishment for this passing M.O, especially with Madden titles of the past five years.
We became so used to the same animations and money plays, that passing became instinctive, and required minimal cerebral activity.
Welcome to 2007, and Madden NFL 08. For the first time, the term “football simulation” is a legitimate description of EA’s NFL offering. Madden 06 was deemed “the year of the quarterback” with the introduction of the vision cone. While 06 may have been the year of the virtual quarterback, this season’s game is the year of the armchair quarterback.
No longer can we expect that perfect play to pan out on the field, the way that it does on paper. Read and react is the name of the game. So forget your instincts. It’s time to become students of the game, and here are a few pointers to get you started.
You Must Un-Learn, What You Have Learned
Don’t get your hopes up, I am not some Yoda of Madden. If that’s what you’re seeking, I’d advise talking to the programmers at EA. I’m just your typical avid football gamer, with some time on my hands, and some patience to conquer my own shortcomings.
So, first things first. Forget everything that past seasons’ titles have taught you about passing. There are no money plays. There is no absolute, primary receiver. The passing game is a living, breathing animal. And that animal is volatile, and unpredictable.
To tame it, you must first understand it. And that means, you have some work to do. That’s right, I said work. Don’t expect to skate through to the Super Bowl without a little elbow grease.
The key is looking at the game objectively. Try to look at is as a completely new game, and that you are starting a new learning curve. All of those stubborn instincts from past Madden titles are guaranteed to l lose you games this year. Play the game with a more active train of thought, and allow those new instincts to set in.
Soon enough, your thumbs and brain will be hardwired together once again, and you will once more be the Zen Master of the digital gridiron.
This is the first obstacle you must conquer when revamping your passing attack.
Despite the robust playbook that Madden typically provides, the structure of past games has directed us to running a dozen or so different plays per game, with a high concentration on 3 or 4 favorites.
These 3 or 4 money plays have typically been a collection of deep corner routes, hitches, and slants/quick-outs. When in a must-convert situation, the solution has always been to dial up a money play.
Sadly for casual gamers, these days are over. We need to now channel our inner Norm Chow, and be a little more creative with our play calling. Your old favorites will still be there, but they will play out much differently. DB’s and LB’s (and God forbid, D-Linemen in the zone blitz) are noticeably much more astute and reading your tendencies, and blanketing your go-to receivers.
An extremely basic rule of thumb is as follows: Do NOT call the same passing play twice within an offensive possession. In fact, try to go two possessions without a repeat if at all possible. Not only will get you more familiar your preferred playbook, but also thwart the AI from keying on your tendencies, and preventing the dreaded “Smart” defensive weapon from reading your play exactly. (And, in case you cared, diverse play-calling is also more realistic when simulating the NFL.)
Another basic rule is this: Lean toward passing plays that attack multiple areas of the field. Those all-streaks, all-slants, and all-curls plays are very predictable, and don’t give you a lot of positive options if the routes are covered. Look for plays that will give you options both up top and underneath.
It’s very rare that a defense won’t give you a single option, and the more varied your options are, the more likely you are to find it. Keep a close eye on offensive packages as well. Moving one of your weapon WR’s in the slot, or flip-flopping your WR’s to exploit a weaker corner or safety can prove extremely effective. I will touch more on match-ups in next week’s discussion of coverages.
Audibles will also play a big part in your play-calling prowess. I highly recommend setting your audibles to plays from a same (or at least similar) formation(s). Especially when facing a human opponent. Same-formation audibles will be certain to keep them guessing. (Before you ask, I personally prefer a single-back set that includes a tight end somewhere therein. It gives me multiple pass and run options, but to each his/her own, I suppose).
The bottom line is this – keep your opponent guessing. Try to mask your tendencies, by having a host of them. A multi-faceted attack is much more likely to lead to successful drives.
Reading and Beating the Blitz
No one’s asking you to be Peyton Manning and call twelve audibles before the snap. Hell, Ron Turner doesn’t ask Rex to do that. But, it would be nice if both Rex, and the collective rest of us, learned to recognize some subtle aspects of the defense, and react accordingly.
Here we go…
The Read - Blitz: The blitz will be your easiest read in Madden 08. CPU players tend to cheat up on toward the line of scrimmage, giving away their angry intentions They may move immediately move into a gap, our sneak up slowly as the snap approaches. It may take a few games to fully recognize, but once you see it, it will be engrained into your subconscious forever.
Sounds almost religious, doesn’t it?
The Adjustment(s): Hot Routes, Check-Downs, Throw-Aways, and Sacks (Yes, I said sacks).
In the past (and present for the casual football gamer) Hot Routes have been a way to audible any play into a Hail Mary, and attempt to even the score in one swift motion. But let’s be realistic; how often does this really happen?
The correct answer, is simply, rarely. In the pure football simulation age, Hot Routes offer us a strategic method to counter this blitz. An easy way to understand the effective use of hot routes, is to simply send a receiver to the space that a blitzing defender is leaving behind.
Here are a few examples:
1.) Blitzing Outside LB – Leaves behind space in the flat. A quick route, such as curl, out or even “straight down” route (fly route with a quick drop and immediate throw for approximately 5-7 yards) may be appropriate.
2.) Blitzing Inside LB - Leaves the short middle of the field open. Slants or in-routes will capitalize.
3.) Blitzing Safety - Depending on the formation, a blitzing safety will lead a deep third, or deep half of the field vulnerable. Streak or fade routes are the correct call here. Take it too the house, and high step, if you must.
4.) Blitzing Corner - Leaves the far outside flats vulnerable. A quick out or “straight-down” route should result in a solid game.
These are over simplified examples, and not guaranteed methods of success (as the overall defensive play called will impact where other defenders will move), but should give you a basic idea of the principle.
Checking down is also a key to beating the blitz. Not every throw can go down field. There is not always the opening, or the time to make a throw into the defensive secondary.
Therefore, always be aware of a quick dump-off option before the snap, especially if you read blitz. A quick dump to a RB, FB, or TE can save you from a sack or worse, a turnover. While the big-play minded players might think checking down is a cop-out, believe me, you will see a much higher percentage of sustained drives against both CPU and human opponents by exercising this option.
Throw-Aways are almost the last ditch effort. If no receiver becomes open immediately, and there is no solid check-down option, take a few steps outside the pocket and chuck the rock into row 25. It’s hard pill to swallow, but 2nd and 10 beats 2nd and 18 in my book any day.
Finally (although this is not an adjustment), a good QB knows when to take a sack. This is the aforementioned last-ditch effort. Losing yards is always preferable to making a forced throw into coverage, and seeing a DB high step into your endzone 60 yards later. This will be your hardest lesson to grasp the new-look passing game, but it may also be the most important.
All in All
The first step in “De-Rexing” your passing attack, is to beef up your play-calling arsenal, and learning how to beat the blitz. With these two steps mastered, you are well on your way on your migration for “Bad Rex” to “Good Rex.”
But the treacherous journey isn’t over yet. Next week, we will complete our metamorphisis, by looking at zone and man coverages. Until the next time.....just avoid that bracket coverage.......