Man Coverage, and How Roethlisberger Keeps Beating It
There are only three games between teams with winning records this week, and no one could have predicted these matchups before the season began: Cleveland at Cincinnati (on Thursday), Kansas City at Buffalo and Miami at Detroit. The common thread between these six teams? They’ve all been stellar in coverage. The common thread there? Each has the ability to play man-to-man.
Cleveland: Mike Pettine’s scheme relies on great man coverage. Joe Haden isn’t having his best season, but he’s still able to match up with No. 1 receivers. Rookie Justin Gilbert has been a disappointment thus far in nickel, but No. 2 corner Buster Skrine has maintained the improvements he made last season. Most importantly, the safeties have flourished. Free-agent pickup Donte Whitner has provided the veteran stability needed for running Pettine’s multifaceted third-level exchange concepts, while Tashaun Gipson leads the league with six interceptions.
Cincinnati: It’s amazing how the Bengals are so viable on the back end every year. Recently they used first-round picks on cornerbacks Dre Kirkpatrick and Darqueze Dennard, neither of whom has made a meaningful contribution. But it hasn’t mattered because Cincy’s veterans—31-year-old Adam Jones, 29-year-old Leon Hall, who is coming off his second Achilles injury and 36-year-old Terence Newman (36!)—have been terrific in the coverage rotations that coordinator Paul Guenther’s disguise tactics demand. It helps that they all play in the same spots week in and week out (Jones outside on the right, Hall in the slot, and Newman outside on the left). And while this D’s foundation is based more on matchup zones, all three corners have the ability to play man (even press-man) when needed.
Kansas City: The Chiefs’ defense isn’t the same following the offseason release of cornerback Brandon Flowers (his replacement, Marcus Cooper, has been wildly up and down on the outside). An ankle injury also kept Pro Bowl safety Eric Berry out for most of the season’s first half (he returned against the Jets last Sunday). But others have stepped up, allowing coordinator Bob Sutton to stay closer than expected to his core man-based scheme. Most notable has been Husain Abdullah, who took over many of Berry’s assignments as a box safety in sub-packages, including blitzing and covering tight ends. Even with Berry back, expect Abdullah to keep playing a prominent role.
Buffalo: Quietly, the Bills are putting one of the NFL’s best secondaries out on the field. New defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz has always been a zone-based schemer, but this season he’s employed frequent man coverage principles (if we’re to include Quarters coverage, a four-man zone laced with downfield man-to-man responsibilities). That’s just simple recognition of his personnel. Outside, the physical and subtly lanky Stephon Gilmore is on the verge of becoming elite (he must stay healthy). Leodis McKelvin continues to thrive against the deep ball and use his speed for playmaking purposes. Earlier in the year, Corey Graham was sensational filling in as a starter. He’s since taken somewhat of a back seat (though lately Schwartz has played the savvy free-agent pickup at safety in certain dime packages), allowing the slot to still be filled by Nickell Robey, who has quickly blossomed into one of the league’s best at his position. Most teams use stifling man coverage as an opportunity to send extra rushers after the quarterback; the Bills often rely on it to shut down the passing game behind a four-man rush. While their pass rush is improved, it’s the play of the secondary that’s propagated many of Buffalo’s AFC-leading 28 sacks.
Miami: Defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle came over three years ago from Cincinnati and brought with him many of the 4-3 pressure principles he learned under then-Bengals D coordinator Mike Zimmer. Like the Bengals, the Dolphins use a lot of matchup zone concepts. That means many of their plays become man-to-man later in the down. Those plays have been more and more successful in recent weeks, as safety Reshad Jones, now more than a month back from his four-game suspension to start the year, has been rangy and alert, while cornerback Brent Grimes has played at an All-Pro level, especially against outside vertical routes. And Cortland Finnegan, presumed to be washed up after a disastrous 2013 season in St. Louis, has looked closer (though granted still not all the way there) to his Tennessee Titans form.
Detroit: Saving the best (or at least the most interesting) for last: the Lions, traditionally as vanilla a zone D as you’ll find, have become much more diverse in their coverages under new coordinator Teryl Austin. While still far from being a pure man-based defense, they’ve installed many more man-to-man concepts and seen improvements in individual performances across the board. Most marked is that of Darius Slay, who is rebounding from an awful rookie season. Because of his work as a man defender, Slay, even with some recent minor hiccups, has been one of the league’s most effective outside corners. Opposite him, 34-year-old Rashean Mathis, a career zone defender who came from Jacksonville, has been surprisingly stellar going mano-a-mano. And something the Lions have had a lot of success with out of man concepts is using safety Glover Quin as a robber/lurker.
Jumping out on film
Generally, when a quarterback has a two-game stretch in which he completes 75.6% of his passes and throws for 862 yards, 12 touchdowns and zero interceptions, weird things happen. Such as blown coverages, defenders falling down or screen passes that a running back catches two yards downfield and then runs another 85 to end zone. But these anomalies haven’t happened with Ben Roethlisberger. His film looks every bit as good as his numbers, and there’s a distinct reason why.
Roethlisberger has been throwing with near-perfect anticipation, not just against zone coverage (where we tend to think of anticipation passing) but also man-to-man (where the greats truly thrive). His timing and rhythm have been exquisite. Best of all, he hasn’t gotten away from being Big Ben, either. There have been a handful of remarkable play extensions and improvisations from the 11th-year veteran. But mostly there’s just been smart, fundamentally sharp quarterbacking. This didn’t use to be the case, but Roethlisberger’s game has stabilized—matured, if you will—in recent years. If it continues this way, a career that we thought might become diminished in Roethlisberger’s early- to mid-30s (just like Steve McNair, another “playmaking QB” who took a lot of hits) may flourish into his late 30s (just like Peyton Manning, perhaps the finest anticipation passer in league history).
Smart watching for Week 10
It’s become very interesting to see each week how defenses treat tight end Julius Thomas. More and more he’s being viewed as a catalyst for Denver’s offensive designs. Coordinator Adam Gase knows this and loves to dictate matchups by aligning Thomas in an outside receiver spot, even as an “X-iso” on the opposite side of trips receivers. How the Raiders treat Thomas on Sunday will largely dictate what the Broncos do with their passing designs. If Thomas is defended with safeties or especially linebackers, he’ll stay inside and be a focal point. If a cornerback covers him, he’ll be more of a decoy (except in the red zone, where his jump-ball abilities come into play). And then there’s the wild card: the possibility of the Raiders putting a cornerback on Thomas even when he’s in his natural tight end spot on the line of scrimmage. The Patriots did this last week with Brandon Browner and had a lot of success.
The Bengals have continued to flourish as a blitzing defense under new coordinator Paul Guenther, who was promoted from linebackers coach after Mike Zimmer left to be the head coach in Minnesota. Guenther, who was integral in the construction of many blitz packages under Zimmer, is every bit as aggressive (perhaps even more so) than his predecessor.
This week they’re facing a Browns team that likes to move the pocket. Expect to see the Browns move the pocket even more than normal on Thursday night. Because as the play below will show, the Bengals’ pressure packages can be difficult to drop back against.
Last week on the podcast we had Raiders rookie Khalil Mack, who, despite paltry numbers, is having one of the best rookie seasons in recent memory. I asked Mack about various aspects of his transition from the University of Buffalo to the NFL. He downplayed all of them, except for one: “The QB’s,” he said (multiple times). “They get the ball out so quickly.”
10 film study quick-hitters
1) When Peyton Manning is forced to throw off-schedule, his lack of raw arm strength can become somewhat of an issue.
2) One of many major concerns for Oakland heading into this week’s game against Denver: right tackle Menelik Watson and his still unrefined technique against Von Miller. Don’t be surprised if Khalif Barnes once again gets some of Watson’s snaps.
3) The left side of Baltimore’s O-line will not continue to struggle with stunts as much as it did against Pittsburgh last Sunday. The guys who regularly struggle with stunts are the ones who can’t move fluidly. Tackle Eugene Monroe and guard Kelechi Osemele both have light feet and loose hips. Their problems right now are in execution and recognition, which offensive line coach Juan Castillo can fix.
4) Steelers CB Cortez Allen is having an awful season and last Sunday he was demoted to No. 4 duties, which meant he didn’t play. Brice McCain and Antwon Blake performed well ahead of him, as did incumbent starter William Gay. Keep in mind, veteran Ike Taylor will soon be back from a broken arm. Allen’s playing time could vanish for the rest of the year. Amazing to think that just two months ago he signed a new five-year, $26 million contract.
5) Robert Quinn is back to being Robert Quinn.
6) The Bengals will run directly at Ahtyba Rubin on Thursday night. He’s not a good point-of-attack defender.
7) Expect RB Robert Turbin to play a bigger role for Seattle down the stretch. He and Marshawn Lynch have aligned in the backfield together multiple times in recent weeks, often setting up a read-option concept.
8) A Seahawk you might as well start learning now: Kevin Pierre-Louis. The fourth-round rookie won’t get much playing time this season but he’s shown tremendous downhill burst in the few snaps he’s played.
9) Veteran center Ryan Kalil has flashed as an out-in-front blocker. That’s especially important in an offense that throws as many running back screens as Carolina’s.
10) Rob Ryan has not been a big blitzer this season, but that could change on Sunday against a 49ers offense that has struggled against extra pressure.
For Film Study tweets throughout the week, follow @Andy_Benoit
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