Bucky Brooks
Monday December 31st, 2007

• The Giants effectively used an assortment of five-man zone dogs to get consistent pressure on Tom Brady in the pocket. Using a mixture of three-and four-man fronts, the Giants often overloaded a side to free up an interior rusher. And Steve Spagnuolo made the zone blitz more effective by featuring a soft two-deep shell behind the pressure. By opting to use two-deep coverage instead of the standard three-deep zone often used with zone blitzes, the Giants were able to take away the Patriots' sight adjustment (slant) while limiting deep ball opportunities to Randy Moss and Donte Stallworth on blitz beaters.

But credit the Patriots for adjusting to the scheme by calling more bubble screens to Wes Welker. By throwing quickly to Welker on an assortment of quick hitters, the Patriots took advantage of the space available in the cracks of the zone (two-deep zone blitzes feature a corner sitting outside with the slot covered by a dropping defensive end or linebacker) and got their return man the ball in the open field with multiple blockers leading the way.

• Despite the loss, the Giants' offense should enter the playoffs full of confidence buoyed by Eli Manning's strong performance against the Patriots' complex defense. Not only did Manning show good touch, accuracy and timing on his throws, he played with poise and confidence than he had displayed in over a month. With Brandon Jacobs running well and Plaxico Burress dominating on the perimeter, the Giants' offense has enough weapons to put up points on any defense when Manning is on his game.

Josh Cribbs' 76-yard touchdown was the result of the 49ers' inexplicable decision to kick the ball between the hashes. By kicking the ball down the middle of the field, the 49ers gave Cribbs too much space to set up his return. And that added room allowed Cribbs to easily maneuver past the first wave of 49ers' tacklers. Most special teams coaches preach keeping the ball out of the middle of the field due to the danger of allowing a two-way go, so it is very surprising to see Andy Lee place the ball between the hashes when kicking to the Browns' Pro Bowl returner.

• While the Browns are the only team with a 1,000-yard rusher and two 1,000-yard receivers this season, the key to their success has been the surprising play of their offensive line. Since giving up six sacks in the opening game of the season, the Browns' front five (Joe Thomas, Eric Steinbach, Hank Fraley, Ryan Tucker and Kevin Shaffer) have only allowed 13 since the debut and their ability to move defenders off the ball in the running game has rejuvenated Jamal Lewis' once-sagging career.

Brady Quinn looked comfortable in his debut. After misfiring on his first couple of passes, Quinn settled down by connecting on three consecutive throws during the Browns' two-minute drill. Though Quinn suffered from two drops in the end zone (Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslow II), his poise and decision making was fairly solid for a rookie appearing in his first game.

• With most teams playing backups and young guys during the final week of the season, it was not surprising to see four kick return touchdowns on Sunday. Led by the Texans' Andre' Davis back-to-back scores, return teams exploited the youth and inexperience manning coverage units as teams rested key players. With Devin Hester and Cribbs also adding return scores, the NFL set a new record for kick returns with 41.

Kyle Orton is continuing to make a strong case for the Bears' starting quarterback job next season with his solid play down the stretch. Orton's performance (12/27 for 190 yards with two touchdowns and one interception) caps off a month that has seen him complete over 53 percent of his passes and lead the Bears to two victories in three starts. Though Orton statistically doesn't strike standout as a franchise QB, his career record of 13-6 (.680 winning pct.) should be enough to earn him serious consideration for the job.

• After spending the majority of the season adjusting to Bob Babich's more aggressive approach, the Bears' defense has hit its stride in the last month by returning to some of the basic principles used a season ago. Rather than relying solely on the five-man pressures to generate a consistent pass rush, the Bears have returned to the bluff and drop tactics that made their two-deep scheme difficult to attack in the past. And the change has resulted in the Bears forcing 10 turnovers over the last month of the season.

• The Bears' offensive line up has shown more explosiveness since Ron Turner tweaked his line to include more of their young players. Adrian Peterson has given the Bears the running threat that they missed for most of the season. And the additions of Garrett Wolfe, Devin Hester and Greg Olsen to their three-receiver sets has resulted in more explosive plays from an offense that had struggled to score points for most of the season.

• The Redskins' defense has been on fire the past three weeks since adopting a more aggressive approach. Relying on more blitz-man coverage than the two-deep scheme employed earlier in the season, the Redskins have forced seven turnovers in the past three games. Gregg Williams turned to the soft scheme last season due to numerous injuries in the secondary, but the improved play of Fred Smoot and Shawn Springs have given Williams the confidence to return to the high pressure scheme he has used during his first two seasons as the Redskins' defensive coordinator.

• The Cowboys' offense continues to struggle without Terrell Owens in the lineup. Owens demands double coverage which opens up the field for Jason Witten and Patrick Crayton in the passing game, while also creating running room for Marion Barber III and Julius Jones. But Owens' absence has allowed defenses to use bracket coverage on Witten and mix in more eight-man fronts to slow down the running game. And the change in coverage will continue to keep Tony Romo mired in his recent slump (51 completion percentage with one touchdown and five interceptions in past three games). If Owens is unable to play in the divisional round, the Cowboys' offense will have a tough time mustering enough plays to advance to the championship game.

• After struggling for most of the game as a pocket passer, Tarvaris Jackson engineered the Vikings' furious comeback by relying on his athleticism to make plays. Using a series of unexpected scrambles and predetermined QB runs, Jackson generated enough plays with his feet to open up the field in the passing game. Expect Brad Childress to build on Jackson's late-game heroics by incorporating more movement passes into their offensive package next season.

Troy Smith quietly put together his second solid performance as the Ravens' starting quarterback against the Steelers. Smith completed 16 of 27 passes for 171 yards with one touchdown and his poise and decision making skills were impressive for rookie. Smith avoided the big mistake and consistently kept the offense in manageable situations by taking the high percentage throw underneath coverage. And the efficient play from the rookie helped the Ravens' put together one of their best offensive performances.

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