Angst was a primary emotion for any fantasy football owners who started Brian Hartline last week. The league's leading receiver came into a game against a good St. Louis Rams secondary but, as they say, laid an egg.
His output was so poor that folks wondered if he was even playing.
Anyone who might have started him over, say, Jordy Nelson, Dez Bryant or Jeremy Maclin was understandably upset. Hartline might not have had a favorable matchup, but he had recently torched a good Arizona defense and is the Miami Dolphins' best receiver.
What was behind the big doughnut on the stat sheet? Many point to Cortland Finnegan and Co. in that defensive backfield.
Brian Hartline not only had zero catches today, he wasn't even targeted. The Rams corners can play.
— scott pianowski (@scott_pianowski) October 14, 2012
Good lord, Brian Hartline didn't even have a pass target today. Stranded on Finnegan's Island I guess.— FantasyGuru.com (@Fantasy_Guru) October 15, 2012
This is the logical conclusion to Hartline's bad day. But is it the right one? Did St. Louis cover Hartline with a navy-and-gold blanket? Charting the game with the help of All-22 film paints a different picture than perception's black-and-white rendition.
Miami spent most of the game utilizing one of two-personnel packages: 21 (two running backs, one tight end and two wide receivers) and 11 (one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers). The Rams would bring Bradley Fletcher out in their nickel package whenever Miami had the 11 package on the field, as is the case on the following play:
St. Louis was in a zone on this particular play, which was the case for them on about half the plays Miami spent with the 11 personnel package on the field. On some plays, that is because they called a zone blitz. This time, St. Louis is in a full zone.
As you can see, Fletcher is lined up about six yards off Hartline. There is no jam coming, an interesting note because the Rams rarely jammed him. For all the talk about how physical their cornerbacks play, I counted one time they actually hit him at the line: the first play of the game, and it was Quinten Mikell in coverage.
At any rate, here is what transpires after the snap:
Ryan Tannehill immediately looks left on the play, away from Hartline. This was the case for much of the game. Whether it was by design or on an audible, it seemed like the rookie was more comfortable looking to his left and over the middle last Sunday.
What this play highlights is that much of the reason for this is play-calling and preference. Hartline is clearly coming open at this point in the play. Part of the reason for this is the fact that Tannehill's first read is to his left—Jo-Lonn Dunbar is breaking toward Fasano at this point because he knows where the ball is going.
Still, had Tannehill looked back to his right at Hartline, he would have seen a big window for a big gain. Craig Dahl had retreated to the 6-yard line to ensure Hartline would not get behind him, and Fletcher handed the coverage off to Dahl with over 10 yards of space between Hartline and the safety.
Dahl was not breaking toward Hartline; he was squatting. Timed just right, this could have been a big play. Alas, the pass to Fasano was off-target, falling harmlessly to the grass.
There were seven instances where Hartline came free in the zone like this, only to have the ball thrown elsewhere. Again, much of this was by design—the Dolphins threw a lot of short passes to counteract the blitz last week—so Tannehill never really had the opportunity to look Hartline's way.
The Rams manned up on the Dolphins receivers as well, and their strategy for much of the game might surprise you.
On this play, Miami is using the 21 package:
Your eyes do not deceive you; Cortland Finnegan, one of the more physical cornerbacks in the league, is giving Hartline nine yards of cushion. You might think this was an anomaly, but it was not. Finnegan rarely lined up tight with Hartline last week, as was the case with Fletcher for much of the game as well.
Whether or not this was out of respect for Hartline's speed or simply Jeff Fisher's defensive strategy is something we may never know, but the Rams seemed content to keep Hartline in front of them throughout the game. As mentioned earlier, they rarely pressed Hartline at the line.
This was a running play to Bush for a minimal gain, but as you will see, there was an opportunity lost for Hartline.
Mikell showed blitz pre-snap and followed through. The Rams sold out to stop the run and succeeded. But what if Tannehill had decided to audible to a quick or play-action pass?
Hartline runs his route rather nonchalantly because he is completely out of the play, but he still has a ton of space in front of him.
In truth, it is much more elementary in hindsight. Mikell could have just as easily blitzed and hit Tannehill coming off play action, or the linebackers might not have bitten on a play fake. It is also likely Finnegan would have broken hard toward Hartline had the play been a pass, perhaps minimizing any gain after the catch.
Still, this would have been a great opportunity for a catch-and-run for Hartline had the play been called that way or Tannehill called an audible. It was simply not Hartline's day.
This particular kind of lost opportunity happened on three other occasions throughout the game. There were also some curl and in-routes against soft man coverage during which Hartline came open only to see the pass go elsewhere.
Was Hartline shut down by a rough-and-tumble defensive backfield? The answer is no, for the most part. There were several plays where Hartline was covered well—as is the case for every receiver in the league—but the Rams were not as good in coverage as Hartline's stat line would indicate.
Despite logging zero official targets—Tannehill did throw two passes Hartline's way, but penalties on both plays negated the targets—there were a total of 15 plays where Hartline got separation or came free against zone coverage, though a few of them were on running plays, as I have highlighted.
The fourth-year receiver was simply not the first or second read on most plays, and the Dolphins seemed keen on taking what the defense gave them. Some of the potential passes to Hartline would have been difficult throws, to be sure, but offensive strategy conspired with defensive openings to shut Hartline out for the game.
In other words, he will be just fine.