Every week, after the coaches film is released by the NFL, we will take a look at a particular subject in detail. This week, we put Brandon Weeden’s interceptions under closer examination, and hopefully he doesn’t wonder what clown did this. Last year, Weeden started off week one with four interceptions against the Eagles. This year, he came out and threw three interceptions in the first twenty minutes of the game.
From the television footage, you might just conclude that he put a deep one up for grabs, and then got victimized by two interceptions off of his receiver’s hands. Let’s dig deeper, though, to see who was really at fault for all of the interceptions.
INTERCEPTION #1 (11:21 remaining, 1st quarter, 3rd and 8 at Miami 40)
Facing a third and long outside of a field goal opportunity, the Browns went with trips right (Jordan Cameron, Davone Bess,and Greg Little) and Travis Benjamin alone to the left. Chris Ogbonnaya ws the single back in on third down.
Miami countered with a single high safety, brought extra pressure with a blitzing linebacker (Dannell Ellerbe), and went man across. There was an extra linebacker in the middle. He may have had man responsibility if the back released, but on this play helped pick up tight end Jordan Cameron as he came across the middle.
As we will see in the end zone view (below), the first, and most costly, error belongs to Ogbonnaya. Rather than describe it for you, though, I’ll trust that you can see this one for yourself, with the following three photos.
Ellerbe, without breaking stride, moved around the block of Joe Thomas on Olivier Vernon, using those two as a natural screen so that he is only grazed with a fingertip on the shoulder by Ogbonnaya and has a free run at full speed at Weeden.
With that single event, a play that was otherwise well blocked and set up for a first down turned into trouble. Weeden is forced to get rid of it early and under pressure, and with it being third down just outside of field goal range, taking a shot is a low likelihood of success but is still decent risk vs. just taking a sack and punting into a short field.
From the above end zone view, you might notice that Davone Bess is throttling down and beginning to pivot back to the right. The sideline snapshot at the moment of decision, as Weeden has to unload the ball under pressure, shows a passing lane to Bess short, with Cameron pulling two defenders with him. It’s easy to say in looking at it in slow motion that he should have come underneath to Bess (circled below), but the pressure arriving on his left makes that a tough one. Checking down to Bess here would have given the Browns a chance at a first if Bess can win his matchup, and likely a five to six yard gain to either try a field goal or go for it on fourth down.
For other reasons, though, this was going to be unlikely. Weeden was looking at Benjamin, but based on how this play unfolded, I believe the target was Little on the right side. Weeden was unable to get there yet. The expanded view shows just how costly the Ogbonnaya missed block attempt was. In the above shot, Little is still running vertical. He delayed his release a little later than Benjamin, so he is five yards behind, likely because Benjamin is drawing the safety so that the dig route opens up.
Here is the shot a half second later. Ogbonnaya does not even have to get a great block, just slow Ellerbe down enough to buy a half second. Little has broken across the field, with the corner trailing. No other defender would have been in a position to prevent the completion for the first down.
INTERCEPTION #2 (3rd and 2 at own 27, end of first quarter)
The second interception comes on another third down, this time with Weeden trying to hit Greg Little on a drag route. The ball hits off Little’s hands and falls to the cornerback, Dimitri Patterson. It was originally ruled incomplete, but was reversed to an interception on review.
The play started with Little stacked behind Benjamin on the right, and Bess in motion from the left, positioned outside Cameron. Cameron and Benjamin released vertically, while Little and Bess run drag routes, with Bess crossing under Little. The back, Ogbonnaya, releases to the left, drawing two defenders.
The initial problem, again, is pressure. This time it is both rush ends for the Dolphins collapsing the tackles and meeting up for a party right where Weeden finishes his drop. He has to get rid of it right before getting sandwiched. He goes to Little. The throw under pressure is a little high, Little doesn’t handle it cleanly, and the man defender is right next to Little and snags it. (the picture at the top of this post is the moment when Little leaps and the ball hits off his hands)
Here is a snapshot of the play as the pressure begins to arrive and Weeden has hit the back of his drop. Everyone is pictured here except the deep safety, who is at the 47 yard line. That’s Little crossing from right to left, with Patterson right with him. Bess, meanwhile, is open because his man defender got caught in traffic, first with the linebackers chasing Ogbonnaya, then with Cameron’s route.
Little is covered, and might not have even picked up the first down. Bess was more open, but again, Weeden was under pressure and had to react.
INTERCEPTION #3 (8:18 of 2nd quarter, 1st and 10, at Miami 27
The final interception was, in my opinion, the biggest error by Weeden. He threw short to Jordan Cameron and it bounced off his hands high in the air and was picked off by a diving Patterson, again. The announcers initially put it on Cameron (“it’s a little behind him, but you’ve got to make the catch”). The throw was high and behind, and Solomon Wilcots did later note this on replay. It was so behind that Cameron got only his left fingertip on it, and could not get his other hand back.
Let’s look at a sideline shot of the play. Cleveland actually got a pretty good play against the defense on first down. The receivers were both aligned to the left, Cameron was on the right, along with another tight end who stayed in to block. The play started as a fake draw to Richardson. With an extra blocker staying in, against a four man rush, this one was protected. The Dolphins end up with three deep zone defenders (with no one coming to his side, the cornerback to Weeden’s right is dropping and at the 14. It’s five Dolphins and two Browns deep, four Dolphins and six Browns plus Weeden up front, and in the middle, you have Trent Richardson and Jordan Cameron with one on one matchups.
You can see that Weeden has a clean pocket to throw, and this photo is from right after he releases the pass. Patterson is starting to cheat back, probably knowing he has safety help, and reacts to the pass being thrown. He ends up being right place at right time on the deflection that carries downfield, but he made some of that by turning to find the ball early.
Meanwhile, Cameron is covered. Weeden still might get a few yards if he delivers a good pass. He does not. Trent Richardson cutting out to the right looks like a missed opportunity on this play, matched up on a linebacker with a five yard cushion, and the cornerback 13 yards downfield.
OVERALL SYNOPSIS: We know that interceptions can have a high degree of randomness to them, bad bounces, tips, and the like. Weeden’s interceptions demonstrate some of that. If Patterson doesn’t corral two tips, we are not talking about the interceptions. A closer look also reveals that it was more than just Weeden and tipped passes. The first two had protection breakdowns that forced Weeden to throw earlier than he wanted, the first resulting in a jump ball attempt, the second a high short throw under pressure. The last two were the result of throwing to a man being covered tightly, and an inaccurate pass, when there was another option (Bess, Richardson). Pressure creates bad decisions, but those are the subtle things that the top quarterbacks do that go unnoticed, when we focus on only deep touchdowns. Step up, relieve pressure for an extra .3 seconds, and flip it to the guy coming open more often than the one blanketed in man.