The All-22: How the underdogs can win conference championship games
It's understandable that the Indianapolis Colts and Green Bay Packers are roughly touchdown-sized underdogs for their conference championship meetings with the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks, respectively. Both championship games are rematches of regular-season games the Pats and Seahawks won handily, and to spring an upset and reach the Super Bowl, this weekend's road teams will have to pull out all the stops. Based on tape study and discussions with players and coaches, here's how both teams can pull it off.
Green Bay Packers at Seattle Seahawks
1. Use formation diversity to gain an advantage.
The Seahawks' season-opening 36-16 win over the Packers at CenturyLink Field started a brief period of malaise that affected Green Bay through the season's first few weeks. In their first three games, the Packers deployed "11" personnel -- one running back, one tight end and three receivers -- on 76.6 percent of their plays, well above the 51.4 percent NFL average. With that lack of formation diversity, Aaron Rodgers was not at his best, with a 4.9 touchdown percentage, a 6.9 yards per attempt average and a 232.3 yards per game average, all career-low rates.
Around the same time Rodgers famously told fans to "R-E-L-A-X," head coach Mike McCarthy also loosened his grip on the playbook, and Green Bay went back to its preferred method of beating opponents with deadly efficiency and a full array of formations. Obviously, that worked for Rodgers, given the MVP-caliber totals he put up. He finished the regular season with a 6.5 touchdown percentage, 8.4 yards per attempt and 273.8 yards per game -- right in line with his career numbers, and one of his best seasons when you consider that he was playing from behind statistically.
In Week 1, Rodgers had little chance in this first-quarter sack, and the relatively vanilla route concepts didn't help much. The Seahawks are a heavy Cover-1/Cover-3 team, but within those seeming simplicities, they do a lot of different stuff around the defensive line. On this play, outside linebacker O'Brien Schofield spied Rodgers in the A-gap, not as much to counter his scrambling ability as to make him uncomfortable when he wanted to step up in the pocket and reclaim his reads.
Note that Rodgers' receivers aren't doing anything to gain separation -- this is a straight three-vertical concept, and against Seattle's cornerbacks, that's not a good thing.
Now, fast-forward to Week 13 and this 45-yard pass to rookie Davante Adams late in the first quarter against the Patriots. Green Bay lined up in a double twins formation with Eddie Lacy in the backfield in an offset pistol formation. At the snap, Lacy and Jordy Nelson run a dual-slant route concept, which causes both inside linebackers to cheat up, and forces one-on-one man coverage on the offensive left side -- Darrelle Revis on Randall Cobb inside, and Logan Ryan on Adams outside. Cobb ran a quick intermediate out-and-up, which kept Revis from helping on Adams, and all that was left was for Adams to outrun Ryan on the boundary.
The Seahawks talked a lot about Cobb in the backfield this week, and while he's dangerous from there, where he really flummoxes defenses is as a slot receiver. He's the most prolific player in the league at that position, with 75 slot catches on 106 targets for 1,067 yards and 12 touchdowns. Cobb is especially lethal in the slot when the Packers go with 3x1 sets, as he did on this 12-yard touchdown pass against the Lions in Week 17. Cobb is the middle slot receiver in this formation, and he just blows cornerback Cassius Vaughan up on an angle route -- few receivers have this kind of cut ability in short areas, and Cobb knows how take full advantage. Jeremy Lane, Seattle's primary slot cornerback, will have to be on high alert.
2. Don't panic if Aaron Rodgers has trouble getting out of the pocket.
The calf injury that Rodgers suffered in that Week 17 win over the Lions had Packers fans concerned, because Rodgers has always been so effective when he moves outside the pocket. In the last five seasons, it's tough to think of a better thrower on the run. After an iffy first half against Dallas in the divisional round, Rodgers was able to recover, throwing three touchdown passes against a defense that was stretched thin from a personnel perspective. The general perception is that the Seahawks will pose a far greater challenge to Rodgers if he can't move around.
But according to Pro Football Focus' metrics, Rodgers hasn't relied on throwing outside the pocket as much as we may imagine. In a standard drop-back this season, he's completed 330 passes in 481 attempts for 4,121 yards (2,150 after the catch), 30 touchdowns, four picks and a 112.3 quarterback rating. On designed rollouts and scrambles to throw, he completed 35 of 74 passes for 576 yards (163 after the catch), six touchdowns, one pick and a 107.9 rating.
So, yes, he's dangerous either way, but Rodgers' real attribute is the subtle level of effective pocket movement he displays on a regular basis. Nowhere was this more evident than in Green Bay's 26-21 divisional round win over the Cowboys, and the splash touchdown to tight end Richard Rodgers with 9:10 left in the game was a classic example of the distinction between mobility and pocket movement. With Cobb in the backfield and the left side of the pocket collapsing, Rodgers moved to his left and threw an absolutely gorgeous pass that threaded two Cowboys defenders and hit his target for the score.
Here's the end zone view of that play, which shows Rodgers' elusiveness more clearly.
On Wednesday, Rodgers downplayed the idea that it's harder to play when he can't get outside the pocket at his usual speed.
"It’s not real difficult," he said. "I didn’t really move a lot in college. I had a great offensive line at Cal and a lot of drop-backs, a lot of half-rolls and stuff, so it wasn’t like I was making a lot of plays outside of the pocket. A lot of times, I didn’t have to do a whole lot because of the protection. It’s just a matter of playing within your limits with the injury and I’ve been pretty smart about it. I haven’t really caused a whole lot of extra damage to it [the calf], and hopefully it just keeps getting better until Sunday."
Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman concurred -- a limited Rodgers is still a dangerous Rodgers.
"Doesn't take away much," Sherman said. "That was evident the last game. In the last game, he put that zip on the ball. He has quick wrist release anyway. He doesn't always have to drive through his throws to get them where he wants them. I think a few plays that aren't there, he's not able to just take them and get the 10 yards and first down like he usually does when he's healthy.
"I think you saw that last week. There were a few opportunities he could have probably run for the first down, and he instead threw the ball and still made a play out of it. I think it takes a little bit of his mobility, but he's still just as tough a ball player to play against."
3. Test Richard Sherman the right way.
On Wednesday, Sherman said that his Week 1 performance against the Packers was "a 12 on a scale from 1-to-10" on his personal frustration meter, which is understandable -- Rodgers didn't target him once. Sherman also said that he had to resist the urge to run out of his coverage responsibilities, while his bookend, cornerback Byron Maxwell, was very busy on the other side with Jordy Nelson, allowing nine receptions on 11 targets for 79 yards. Maxwell also came up with an interception on a pass intended for Nelson, and the Packers have said that in the rematch, the strategy will be a little more expansive.
"I’m not worried about that," Nelson remarked Wednesday, when asked about potential matchups with Sherman. "I think the way the game plays out will play out. I think with our no-huddle, a lot of it will be based off of the first formation because then we stay in our no-huddle and we move down the field. If we get matched up, yeah, obviously it would be a great challenge and a great opportunity, but I’m not going to go out of my way to go over there or anything. We’re just going to run our offense and do what we need to do to win the game."
If the Packers do target Sherman, they'll have to be careful -- there was a multi-week stretch in the second half of the season in which he allowed a preposterous 0.0 quarterback rating, and he's allowed 33 catches and one touchdown all season on 70 targets. Since Week 9, he's allowed a 21.7 opponent quarterback rating (Indianapolis' Vontae Davis is second in that same time period with a 41.0 rating allowed), and you throw any deep route in his area at your peril.
However, there are ways to get the best of Sherman, and the Chargers showed a couple of them off in their Week 2 win over Seattle. In that game, Sherman was targeted five times, allowing four catches for 54 yards, with 27 yards coming after the catch. And "after the catch" is the key phrase there. On this throw from Philip Rivers to Keenan Allen with 13:38 left in the first half, Allen ran what looked like a deep route, and Sherman did what he usually does -- he locked down with inside position. But Allen faked Sherman out with a quick curl, and Sherman was slow to recover. That got the Chargers 14 yards downfield, to the Seattle six-yard line.
Here, with 5:35 left in the third quarter, Eddie Royal lined up on the outside to the right as the isolated receiver, but he moved inside pre-snap and then ran a brilliant drag route/pick play to get open under Sherman's coverage. The result? A 16-yard gain.
Sherman does many things extremely well, but there are times when he has trouble changing direction with speed receivers who can make quick cuts and recover to catch timing passes. As much as Cobb has been a stud in the slot, one wonders what would happen if Cobb was outside on Sherman's side, using his skills to do those things. Both Sherman and head coach Pete Carroll said after the San Diego game that mistakes were made that have since been corrected -- something that could be said about Seattle's defense in general in the first few games of the season. That said, the Packers would do well to test those perceived weaknesses.
4. Use Clay Matthews as the defensive X-Factor.
After their Week 9 bye, the Packers made an interesting adjustment on defense, moving Clay Matthews, normally a pass-rushing outside linebacker, to the inside of their 3-4 base defense on a far higher percentage of plays. Matthews had occasionally moved inside before, but this became a regular feature in Dom Capers' defense over the second half of the 2014 season. The difference against the run was clear: Per ESPN Stats & Info, Green Bay allowed 1,228 rushing yards and nine touchdowns in the first eight games and 691 rushing yards over the second half of the season. Matthews played 115 snaps at inside linebacker in that stretch, and as Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin told me Wednesday, he's been a force multiplier at that position. In fact, Baldwin credited Matthews in part with the uptick in Green Bay's offensive rushing attack.
"A lot of people look at that and say that doesn't really have an effect. But I think it does. If you look at rushing yards, it's cut in half. That eliminates the first downs that opposing offenses are capable of getting. Him specifically, he's such an athletic guy, a linebacker, big body in that box, he's capable of doing a lot of things and stopping the run.
"And so, if he stops the run on the opposing offense and they don't have the ball as often, and then his offense gets the ball more often and they get more chances to run the ball, more opportunities to get first downs, it's directly affecting a lot of things that I don't think people really notice or can appreciate. So his effect in the middle has a lot to do with their success as a whole. [We're] anxious for that challenge."
Matthews, who's been a great cover guy on the outside for years, is also someone you want to watch out for in the middle of the field when you decide to run a slant -- something that Baldwin, who tends to run a lot of slants, has certainly observed.
"When you're running across the middle, you want to know where that guy's at," Baldwin said. "Like I said, it's another opportunity for us, another challenge that we look forward to because we know how talented he is. So when we get our opportunity, we're going to try to do the best we can."
This stop of running back Brandon Bolden against the Patriots is a great example of how Matthews has adapted to his new role -- he fills the gap, bounces off the blocker, and ends the play for a one-yard loss.
Matthews can also blow up a screen from the weakside inside position, as he shows here against the Lions in Week 17. You don't find many linebackers who can stay step-for-step with Reggie Bush in the open field.
Both teams have come a long way since their Week 1 matchup, but the Packers should feel confident that they can at least make it a game at CenturyLink Field, Seattle's brilliant defense and underrated offense notwithstanding.
Indianapolis Colts at New England Patriots
1. Watch for Belichick trickery.
The big story out of the Patriots' 35-31 win over the Ravens last Saturday was the Eligible Receiver Derby Bill Belichick played against Baltimore's defense in the third quarter. Down 28-14 with 9:33 left in the third quarter, the Pats went with a weird formation -- tight end Michael Hoomanawanui at left tackle and running back Shane Vereen as an ineligible receiver in the right slot. At the snap, Hoomanawanui ran up the left seam, while Vereen backed off into the backfield. Baltimore's defense was torn between wondering what Vereen was doing and covering Rob Gronkowski, who was on the right side of the formation, opposite Hoomanawanui. Tom Brady hit Hoomanawanui for a 16-yard gain while linebacker C.J. Mosley was late to the party. Ravens head coach John Harbaugh was not amused.
Harbaugh was even less amused five plays later, when Vereen was officially declared ineligible before the play, and Hoomanawanui was wide open for another big gain in a similar formation -- 14 yards this time.
The idea here was to create confusion with Hoomanawanui as an eligible tackle and Vereen as an ineligible receiver in a receiver's spot -- you can see in both instances that the Ravens were moving defenders over to Vereen's area. After the game, Harbaugh said that he was less displeased with the formation creativity and more annoyed that his team didn't have time to discern what was happening, and sub their players out accordingly.
"We wanted an opportunity to be able to ID who the eligible players were, because what they were doing was they would announce the eligible player and then time was taken and they would go over and snap the ball before we even had the chance to figure out who was lined up where, and that was the deception part of it. And that was where it was clearly deception," Harbaugh recalled.
"So the officials told me after that they’d give us the opportunity to do that, which they probably should have done during that series but they didn’t really understand what was happening. That’s why I had to go and take the penalty, to get their attention so that they would understand what was going on because they didn’t understand what was going on. And they said that that was the right thing, that they’d give us the chance to ID the eligible receivers so we could actually get them covered. That’s why guys were open, because we didn’t ID where the eligible receivers were at. So, that’s the nature of that particular thing they were doing, and that’s what made it so difficult."
All Brady would say after the game was that the Ravens should check the rule book, and that it was the Patriots who knew what was going on. Belichick said on Monday that it's not uncommon at all.
"That happens all the time. You come in on the punt team, ineligible guys report as eligible. They line up as guards and tackles on the punt team, the center up to the center’s numbers aren’t eligible players that report ineligible. Then they cover punts. We’ve seen it on offense. We’ve seen it – particularly you see it a lot on special teams in the punting team. Not so much on the field goals because you have your linemen protecting there. I would say it happens in every game on the punt team. You’re allowed to do that. We did it. I don’t really understand what the question is. If you have a question about the rules, you just talk to the NFL rules people and let them tell you about it."
As has been pointed out (very well on this week's episode of the NFL Films program NFL Turning Point), this tactic has been tried at least two other times this season, by the Lions against the Vikings in Week 6, and by Alabama against LSU on Nov. 8. The basic idea is to confuse the defense with who's eligible and where, hopefully leading to coverage mismatches, especially if and when that defense is caught short from a personnel perspective. Given Belichick's longtime friendship with Nick Saban, we can assume that there may have been a conversation there. The NFL said that the Patriots did nothing untoward, and with that as the case, full marks to Belichick for gaming a special teams tactic and using it to his advantage. Colts head coach Chuck Pagano checked with the league this week to clarify what the officials are looking for in those cases.
By the way, the Colts have their own record of eligibility trickeration, and they showed that off against the Pats in Week 11 with this touchdown pass from Luck to tackle Anthony Castanzo. So, you just never know which team might turn to the little-used pages of its playbook.
New England also turned heads last week with receiver Julian Edelman's 51-yard touchdown pass to Danny Amendola, which tied the game with 4:28 left in the third quarter. The Patriots took advantage of Baltimore's blitz to the offensive left side and created a huge opening on that side. Cute. But even if that hadn't been the call and Edelman had just been motioning to the left-side bunch formation, the Patriots had a 3-to-2 advantage on that side, so something bad was probably going to happen on Baltimore's side, especially if safety Darian Stewart still blitzed and safety Will Hill was still late to replace him in coverage.
Defenses have rules based on formations and numbers, and the Patriots know how to set those rules on edge. Belichick said after the game that the Pats ran this same concept against the Colts in 2001, with David Patten throwing to Troy Brown.
"We were lucky they were in a sub-blitz, so they blitzed off the slot," Belichick said. "That certainly helped the play out, gave us a little more time. [Rashaan] Melvin came up, the corner came up, Rob [Gronkowski] was able to block it and give Julian a little bit more time to throw the ball. Danny made the catch and outran the safety. It was well-executed and I think we caught the right defense."
Not that the Colts will see the same things -- Belichick is known, above all, to switch things around -- but they'd best be prepared for any manner of subterfuge.
2. Use play action, whether the run game is working or not.
One of the more interesting schematic stories in Indy's Week 11 loss to New England was that Andrew Luck had a pretty good day without running play action to any degree. Luck finished his day with 23 completions in 39 attempts for 303 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, but it's worth wondering how he would have done with play action involved. With the Patriots looking to shut T.Y. Hilton down, Luck made tight end Coby Fleener his primary target, and Fleener finished his day with seven catches for 145 yards, bringing in passes from everywhere in the formation -- inline to out wide as the iso receiver.
Perhaps the Colts didn't feel that play action would work given their anemic run game (they ran 16 times for 19 yards), but play action can work with any threat of the run, and Luck is proof -- this season, he's completed 92 passes in 148 attempts for 1,257 yards, 13 touchdowns and one interception when he uses play action. No quarterback has thrown for more play action touchdowns this season, and of the remaining playoff quarterbacks, only Aaron Rodgers has a higher passer rating (116.0) in play action than Luck's 115.7.
It makes sense that the Colts would be able to use play action well -- they operate from run formations a lot even when they intend to pass, they roll with a lot of two-tight end sets, giving Luck more hot reads, and Indy's line (which has improved of late with some personnel changes) does a lot of run-action, which means that they run-block on passing plays to throw defenses off-guard. This touchdown pass to tight end Dwayne Allen in Indy's 20-13 Week 5 win over the Ravens shows how it's done. With 10:40 left in the third quarter, Fleener runs to the opposite side, flushing coverage that way, Allen gets a big opening on a right-to-left drag route, and Mosley is late to the party.
Here's the overhead view.
Remember that dual-drag concept the Packers ran against the Patriots to bring their linebackers up? Add play action to that concept, and the Colts could have something that takes their passing game to another level when they need it most.
3. Shore up the run defense.
Yes, this is a crushingly obvious statement, given that little-known running back Jonas Gray killed the Colts' defense to the tune of four touchdowns and 201 yards on 37 carries. Belichick's game plans against the Colts have been different than the usual; as Grantland's Bill Barnwell pointed out in his own preview, the Pats have run the ball nearly 56 percent of the time against Indy in their last three blowout wins over the Colt and run the ball about 41 percent of the time against the rest of the league in the last three seasons. In their last two games against the Colts -- Week 11's win and last year's divisional-round thrashing -- the Patriots have enjoyed four-touchdown performances from running backs Belichick deemed disposable. LeGarrette Blount did it in last year's playoffs, and he's back with the team after spending a few months with the Steelers.
Should the Pats go back to that well? You can imagine that they'll certainly try, though you could expect that the Colts' run defense will be better in this rematch. The Indianapolis linebackers are playing better, and end Arthur Jones will be a factor as he was not in Week 11, when he was injured. Look for young defenders Bjoern Werner and Jonathan Newsome to make an impact as well -- both have been better against the run than they were earlier in the season. If the Colts can keep the run threat at bay, they'll then have to deal with another issue. Not only can Tom Brady beat you with conventional drop-backs and shotgun formations; he can also run play action well. If he does it on Sunday, however, that could be to the Colts' advantage. In that Week 11 game, Brady threw the ball 12 times out of play action and completed four passes for 44 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. And that brings us to another advantage the Colts have: Their pass defense is playing at an insanely great level right now.
4. Trust your ability to cover deep.
Strong safety Mike Adams came away with both picks of Tom Brady in the teams' first meeting this year, but the real story was the discipline with which the Colts played against two different play action concepts. The first interception came with 3:09 left in the first quarter and the Pats looking like they're going to run a zone slide. The idea was to get Brian Tyms open deep downfield as the right-side iso receiver, but safety Sergio Brown and cornerback Greg Toler didn't bite -- they tracked Tyms downfield, and Brown came over from a two-deep look to haul in a Brady throw that misfired due to pressure from outside linebacker Erik Walden.
On the second interception, the Patriots added sixth offensive lineman Cameron Fleming, who saw the field at an incredible rate -- New England went 6OL on 38 plays against the Colts. Brady tried to okie-doke Indy's defense with that concept, but again, the Colts weren't biting. Nose tackle Montori Hughes did a great job splitting the gaps in slide protection, and this time it was his pressure that caused Brady's errant throw. Gronkowski was the obvious target down the sideline, but the Colts bracketed him, and Adams came up with the ball.
We're not even talking about Indy's cornerbacks, but we should. Vontae Davis has vaulted into the discussion of the NFL's best pass defenders, and he played out of his mind against the Broncos in the divisional round, allowing five receptions on 11 targets for 21 yards. Yes, the Colts have faced Andy Dalton and an Andy Dalton-like version of Peyton Manning in the playoffs so far, but Davis, Toler and Darius Butler have combined to form the best secondary in the playoffs from an opponent passer rating perspective -- Davis has allowed a 51.0 rating, Toler 48.4 and Butler 54.2.
Can the Colts actually pull off this upset? It's possible, but they'll have to get ahead in a hurry. If the Patriots gain a foothold on the scoreboard, they can turn to their rushing attack, and comebacks (something Luck has done very well) don't often happen at Gillette Stadium. If Indy can't flip the script, it could be another blowout for the Pats, and another Super Bowl appearance for Belichick.