Bucky Brooks
Monday December 24th, 2007

• Credit Dallas offensive coordinator Jason Garrett for incorporating more runs to Julius Jones and Marion Barber III in the opening stages against the Panthers. By running the tandem on an assortment of draws and quick-hitters, the Cowboys were able to exploit the deep drops of the Panthers' linebackers. Though Garrett didn't maintain balance in his play calling, the decision to use a balanced attack helped the Cowboys get off to a quick start. And with Terrell Owens out of the lineup due to injury, expect to see the Cowboys rely more on a balanced attack to move the ball effectively in the coming weeks.

• With Willie Parker out of the lineup, the Steelers made slight adjustments to their game plan. OC Bruce Arians called more isolations and powers between the tackles to get Najeh Davenport running downhill. And the Steelers featured more three- and four-receiver sets to help Ben Roethlisberger run an efficient, ball-control passing game featuring short underneath throws to Hines Ward, Heath Miller and Davenport. Without their most explosive weapon, the Steelers will continue to use this formula during their playoff run.

Steve Smith's big day (nine receptions for 137 yards and a touchdown) against the Cowboys should concern Brian Stewart and Wade Phillips. The Panthers receiver torched their secondary, despite having some form of double coverage directed his way for most of the game. The Cowboys secondary had played well in recent weeks after struggling as a unit during the early part of the season. But their inability to contain Smith raises questions about the unit heading into the playoffs.

• Despite the windy conditions at Soldier Field, the Green Bay Packers should be concerned about the performance of their special teams, especially with punter Josh Ryan, who dropped a snap and had two punts blocked off blown assignments. Special teams miscues are significant because they often result in immediate points for the opposing team. And the Packers' mishaps on punt coverage led to 14 points and created great field position for the Bears all day.

• The Bears took advantage of the inclement conditions to defend the Packers' passing game. With wind conditions eliminating the possibility of deep throws, the Bears blanketed the passing game with their two-deep coverage -- complemented by an assortment of blitzes (man and zone) to keep pressure on Brett Favre in the pocket. The combination of coverage and pressure allowed the Bears to shrink Favre's passing windows and hold to him to only 153 passing yards.

Derek Anderson continues to be mired in a slump. His four-interception performance is part of a four-game run that has seen him complete only 52 percent of his passes, with six touchdowns and seven interceptions. Anderson's struggles with his accuracy, timing and decision making have resulted in the Browns' failure to score more than 24 points in the past four games after averaging 30.8 in his first 10 starts of the season.

• The loss of Brandon Jacobs is significant given the Giants' red-zone struggles. The Giants rely on Jacobs to pick up the tough yards near the goal line. And his presence allows Eli Manning to complete play-action passes to Plaxico Burress and Amani Toomer. Without Jacobs, the Giants twice failed to score after penetrating inside the Bills' 10-yard line.

• The Giants have completely lost confidence in Manning. After watching Manning commit four turnovers, OC Kevin Gilbride took the game out of his signal-caller's hands by running the football 47 times. Though this strategy is understandable considering Manning's struggles (26 turnovers) taking care of the ball, the Giants cannot utilize this one-dimensional strategy to make a deep playoff run.

• The Colts' continue to bottle up Andre Johnson (eight consecutive games held under 100 receiving yards against the Colts) without using tricks or gimmicks. Using their vaunted Tampa 2 scheme, the Colts effectively neutralized Johnson by jamming him at the line, while floating their safeties (Bob Sanders and Matt Giordano) over the top. And with their underneath zone players reading Sage Rosenfels' eyes in the pocket, the Colts were able to shrink the open windows available to Johnson over the middle.

• The Jags' smashmouth offense continues to show surprising big-play production behind the explosiveness of Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew. The duo has combined for 25 explosive plays (runs or receptions over 20 yards) this season and contributed three explosive plays against the Raiders, including Taylor's 62-yard touchdown run. With the duo beginning to demand additional attention from opposing defenses, David Garrard will have more big-play opportunities in the passing game.

• The Seahawks' offensive coaches should be encouraged by Shaun Alexander's performance against a beleaguered Ravens defense. The former league MVP displayed glimpses of the quickness and cutback ability that propelled him to five consecutive 1,000-yard seasons earlier in his career. And his resurgence comes at the right time, with defenses opting to relentlessly blitz Matt Hasselbeck with more five- and six-man pressures. If Alexander can give the Seahawks the appearance of a viable running game, Mike Holmgren will be able to incorporate more play-action passes to alleviate the pressure off Hasselbeck in the pocket.

• The Patriots are beginning to use Randy Moss and Wes Welker on the same side of the field to counter the bracket coverage defenses are using to slow the dynamic duo. By pairing the tandem on a side, the Patriots are assured of getting one of their top targets single coverage through various combination routes (option-dig routes and dig/shallow cross). Though the subtle adjustment didn't result in fireworks against the Dolphins, the tweak will pay dividends in the playoffs, as teams focus on stopping the Patriots' top playmakers with various brackets.

Laurence Maroney is beginning to provide the Patriots the running threat needed to handle the exotic looks they will see in the playoffs. Not only did Maroney post his second consecutive 100-yard game, he broke off two runs of more than 50 yards and showed good toughness while running hard between the tackles. After being a minimal contributor for the early part of the season, Maroney is giving the Patriots another explosive offensive weapon.

Shaun Hill's effectiveness as the 49ers' starting quarterback is due in large part to his willingness to hit the tight end and running back underneath zone coverage. By taking the safety valve or check down, Hill stretches the defense horizontally and keeps 49ers' offense in manageable situations -- which was the key to defeating the Bucs' two-deep coverage.

Kyle Vanden Bosch dominated his matchup with D'Brickashaw Ferguson on his way to 11 tackles and three sacks. Using speed rushes off the edges, Vanden Bosch overwhelmed Ferguson with his quickness and motor while providing consistent pressure on Chad Pennington throughout the day. The Jets attempted to help Ferguson by with additional blockers, but Albert Haynesworth's dominating presence in the middle limited the Jets' protection options. When Vanden Bosch and Haynesworth are rolling, the Titans' pass rush is nearly impossible to handle.

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