Madden NFL 18

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Madden NFL 18 has a questionable weak box logic that results in frequent and multiple pancake blocks.

Madden players might not be ready to throw a championship parade down main street, but maybe they should start planning one.  In an EA Blog dealing with Madden Mechanics: Blocking introducing changes for Madden NFL 18, developers addressed a long used controversial tactic of defending run heavy formations with pass defense personnel packages a "running vs weak box."   With an Madden NFL 18 Title Patch fans of competitive game play brought some sense to a poor decision to appease players that play Madden for fun. 

For years Madden players have debated the merits of using tactics that are rarely, if ever, used in the National Football League.  One of those controversial practices was defending run plays with heavy personnel sets like 2TE 2RB 1WR with Nickel, Dime, or Quarter defensive personnel packages. 

In theory, a heavy run set should overwhelm and flatten any defense that defends with five or more defensive backs.    MaddenUniversity will concede that, on paper, a double tight end offensive set running downhill has a definite advantage against a defense with a bunch of small defenders.  Given that every offensive player assigned to block gets a hat on his assigned man, the offense should approach a double digit rushing average, dominate time of possession, and tire out defenders.  But football games aren't won with theory, they are won with execution of a plan and in Madden's virtual reality, those theoretical assertions don't always happen as expected. 

First, the defensive backs in Madden actually have a quickness advantage that some players don't always factor into their offensive plan.  What these smaller players lack in size and strength, they make up for in speed and agility.  In the open field, defensive backs have the advantage when tackling is concerned.  In order for the offensive players to use their size advantage, they have to be able to make contact with the smaller defender.   Players are difficult to block from a distance.

Which brings us to the second flaw missing from weak box argument, positioning.  Many pass defense personnel sets place defenders across the line of scrimmage in alignments that disrupt run blocking from tight formations.  In a typical I-Form Tight formation versus a base aligned Dime Normal the would-be linebackers are lined up on the line of scrimmage, but outside the tackle box.  Any run play with a offensive tackle assigned to block a defensive back in the slot forces a reach type block that disrupt the blocking scheme.  Should the tackle ignore the defensive back and head up-field, the defensive back at the flanks can easily flatten down the line of scrimmage and chase the runner down from behind. 

The third flaw in the weak box theory is that it ignores how personnel and position affect the timing of the run blocking.  Many of the heavy run sets are designed to open holes against heavy defensive sets where blocks occur near the line of scrimmage.  When the defense counters with smaller defenders and places them in space, the blocks don't occur where and when the offense expects.  If follows that the holes made by these blocks don't appear where and when they should.  The ball carrier must adjust to pick up much desired yards.

Offensive players can't assume their personnel alone will create they advantage they believe they have.  Madden offenses regain any lost advantage in personnel, position, and tempo with a few slight adjustments to they way they execute, depending on the run play.  Staying close behind lead blocks on Iso, Dive, and Zone runs pivots the advantage away from the defense.  Resisting the urge to run to daylight is another way to maintain the advantage of big blockers.  Power and Toss runs can sometimes work, but only when the running back allows the kickout block to setup. 

Overall, patience is the best policy whenever there is a run against a defense that is decidedly quicker than the offense.  But most Madden players aren't patient.  With a little analysis, Madden players can easily figure out where their plan falls short.  But most Madden players aren't analytical.  It takes a little more than some strategic tinkering to punish opponents that defend the run with multiple defensive backs.  But most Madden players aren't strategists. 

Madden players will complain incessantly for years though.  The complaints about the effectiveness of defending heavy run sets with pass defenders have persisted since Madden went online in 2002.  After 15 years, those complaints made an impact and caused developers at EA to add a penalty for players defending runs with some regard for personnel.  Here's a quote from EA's official website regarding the change:

Running the ball vs. a weak box. In Madden 18, we’ve expanded our logic around defenses stopping the run when using sub defenses such as dime, dollar and quarter. If the offense is in a run formation and running a hard-ball, downhill run play against a defense with very few defenders or a lot of defensive backs in the tackle box, the defense will have a very hard time stopping the running play. In many cases a lot of the defenders will end up getting pancaked. This also applies to the “Pass Commit” adjustment vs. a running formation and when dropping defensive linemen into coverage against a running formation.

- Madden Mechanics: Blocking

It wasn't pretty.  Madden players, including those that requested relief, railed against the change.  While the pancake blocks that resulted created a definite deterrent to playing Quarters defenses against the run, the drawbacks were strategically and aesthetically inauthentic.  In extreme cases, up to five defenders were pancaked simultaneously with an identical animation. 

At the beginning of the Madden year, the Gun Monster formation best illustrated the flaw in the weak box penalty idea.  The formation split the offensive tackles outside the numbers.  Defensive tackles, in turn, also split to align over them automatically.   The remaining defenders inside the hashes now qualified for the "weak box" penalty.  The Inside Zone, the sole run play from Gun Monster, had the potential to terrorize Madden players as offenses pancaked their way down the field. 

Fortunately, the initial Madden NFL 18 title update on September 6, 2017 fixed the Gun Inside Zone play, but the pancake penalty remained virtually unnoticed until the Madden NFL 18: Title Update on October 9, 2017 which addressed the Gun Monster pancake issue specifically.  An unintended side effect; however, caused defensive formations that shouldn't have been effected, like the 46 Normal, to be highly susceptible to the pancake penalty. 

Players discovered how artificial the pancake penalty made the gameplay feel in the run game.  It wasn't long before the outcry started.  Madden players couldn't help but notice their offensive lines mowing down defensive linemen right off the line of scrimmage.  Message boards lit up with activity and posts titled "Excessive pancakes since recent patch" like this one from Operation Sports marked a reversal, as many Operation Sports (and other sites) member complaints triggered the weak box logic being included in Madden NFL 18 in the first place. 

EA developers once again reacted with a patch.  The Madden NFL 18 Title Update from February 28, 2018 addressed the weak box logic to ensure that Human vs CPU games were not adversely effected.  Apparently, the pancake penalties were so prevalent that this patch came with a special "Developer's Note" to clarify the purpose the weak box penalty was originally intended to serve:

Developer Note: The Weak Box exploit manager was introduced this year to encourage players to better match the offensive personnel on the field when trying to defend the run, especially heavy run sets with eight or more run blockers inside the tackle box. Due to a lot of valuable feedback from our players, we discovered the AI could get hit by this inadvertently which was never the intent of the exploit manager. The new logic will prevent it from occurring when playing AI opponents moving forward.

- EA Sports Madden Website

According to the information available in the title update notes, games against the AI no longer suffer weak box pancake penalties.  Human vs Human games, however, could still be victimized in online and offline head-to-head game modes like Madden Ultimate Team, Connected Franchise Manager, Ultimate League, and The Madden Championship Series that EA continuously markets and earns revenue from micro-transactions.  If players facing AI opponents at home with nothing on the line were upset about the weak box logic, imagine how players will take it when stakes are much higher. 

In conclusion, EA made an unwise decision to build the weak box logic.  It has been a black eye on Madden NFL 18 since the initial release in what would otherwise be a much better title.  Madden players would be better served by a pancake penalty effective against user controlled players at the most, but ideally, no pancake penalty at all.   Instead, EA developers should place emphasis on teaching and tutorials with emphasis on teaching the elements of personnel, position, and tempo that blend to create the outcomes we see in Madden games - the good, the bad, and the ugly. 

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