How the NFC North Title Will Be Won
The world turned upside down when the Lions hosted the Packers in Week 3. Detroit, long known as an offensive power with a D barely better than thin air, suffocated a Green Bay offense that had been among the NFL’s top five in scoring in six of the past eight seasons. The Lions won, 19-7.
Most surprising, the Lions dominated through coverage rather than their esteemed four-man pass rush. Detroit’s secondary simply lined up and defeated Green Bay’s wide receivers in man coverage. They did it primarily through a coverage known as 2-man. An analytical breakdown paints an outstanding portrait of what these two teams are all about.
In essence, the Lions got the benefits that they’d always found by playing Cover 2, only with more freedom for aggression on all three levels.
Detroit has also had success with another dual-safety coverage called man-free lurk. In this scheme one of the safeties (often Glover Quin) drops underneath, between the field numbers, while the other rotates to centerfield over the top. We won’t see this coverage employed too often on Sunday because the Packers don’t use a lot of intermediate passes based on timing in the middle of the field. The only significant benefit of man-free lurk would be that the lurker could also spy Aaron Rodgers to minimize the quarterback’s scrambling. But this means the corners would have to play standard man-to-man and not trail the receivers underneath. That’s a sizeable cost.
Very few teams line up and play the same coverage on every snap, so Green Bay can expect the occasional man-free lurk and even some zone from Detroit. But in big situations, they’ll plan for 2-man.
Which means we can expect to see a change in the Packers’ approach. Head coach Mike McCarthy still doesn’t employ many man-beater concepts like trips bunch formations, intertwined crossing routes or stack releases. But lately he has used “redistributed personnel,” with wideout Randall Cobb at running back and wideout Jarrett Boykin coming off the bench to form a four wide receiver, one tight end grouping.
The Packers recently did this against two of the league’s best man coverage defenses, New England and Buffalo. Both times it created multiple scenarios, with Cobb matched one-on-one against a linebacker. The Lions, a nickel-based defense, could keep two linebackers on the field when the Packers go four-wide. That would leave DeAndre Levy, Josh Bynes or Tahir Whitehead on Cobb. The alternative is for Detroit to bring in another safety or corner to play linebacker. In that case the Packers, who do a great job of attacking their opponent’s personnel through run/pass play calling, will feed Cobb on the ground.
Who wins when the Lions are in man coverage, especially when Cobb is in the backfield, will determine who wins the NFC North.
Smart Watching for Week 17
Bengals @ Steelers
When these teams squared off just three weeks ago, the Bengals’ defense, which continued to eschew the blitz (save for a few snaps when Pittsburgh got in field goal range), held up decently in coverage but had trouble containing running back Le’Veon Bell. The Steelers excelled at running power and counter concepts—their staples that capitalize on Bell’s patience and right guard David DeCastro’s mobility. We’ll see that again Sunday night.
We’ll also see selective deep shots, mainly to Martavis Bryant. He burned the Bengals for a 94-yard touchdown last time. The score came against right side/slot corner Leon Hall, who was temporarily playing out of position on the left side. You can’t count on 94-yard touchdowns heading into a game, so Pittsburgh’s aerial attack will (as always) hinge on Antonio Brown in the screen game and at the deep-intermediate levels.
The deep-intermediate levels is also where Cincy’s passing game should attack Pittsburgh’s D. The Steelers had no answer for A.J. Green last time. Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson smartly served a heavy dose of base slot formations, putting Green and Mohamed Sanu on the same side, with a standard line of scrimmage tight end on the other side. This distorted Pittsburgh’s matchup zone concepts out of their base 3-4 and presented opportunities for Green to work against safeties and linebackers. Jackson will do this again, but out of balanced formations, Green will be just as potent split out wide. After all, with a banged up Ike Taylor (who may or may not play), a callow Antwon Blake and a hit-or-miss William Gay, the Steelers have no answer for the superstar receiver.
Jumping Out On Film
We’ve banged this drum in other Deep Dive columns and on the podcast, but it’s worth repeating once more: the Seahawks’ defensive surge has been propagated not just by the return of a healthy Bobby Wagner and Kam Chancellor, but also by the return of Byron Maxwell. The strong, lanky corner gives Seattle a formidable boundary defender opposite Richard Sherman, which is how they compress the field and allow interior defenders like Wagner and Chancellor to play fast.
Few are talking about the Panthers’ three-game winning streak. They’ve done it largely on the strength of their running game, and because coordinator Mike Shula does a great job leveraging Cam Newton’s mobility. Shula has an array of multifaceted read-option concepts, many of them involving triple options that present the threat of a third ballcarrier (either fullback Mike Tolbert or a wide receiver, often Jerricho Cotchery, who has motioned into the backfield). This week the Panthers will present Atlanta’s defensive ends, linebackers and safeties with a lot to think about against the run. And if the Panthers simply need to line up and win via smash-mouth football, they now have a chance. Their young interior line is playing well and red-hot veteran Jonathan Stewart gives them a more sustainable between-the-tackles approach.
On last week’s show, Cardinals linebacker Larry Foote talked about the various dimensions of double A-gap blitzing. The aggressive pass rush design has a multitude of defensive benefits, and Foote pointed out one that’s often overlooked. With two linebackers (or, in Arizona’s case, a linebacker and a safety) in the ‘A’ gaps, interior blockers are forced to account for them. And so, as Foote explained, “Our defensive linemen can get a jump because they know they’re not going to get double-teamed right away.”
On this week’s show, we go in depth on all of the Week 17 action.
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Film study quick-hitters
1) After seeing Kyle Orton’s continued inconsistency with ball placement last Sunday at Oakland, there’s no doubt the Bills were (and are) a quarterback away from being a playoff-caliber team.
2) Should the Ravens miss the playoffs, it will be because of their ineffectiveness running the ball. It’s a major surprise considering their zone ground game had been a strength over the first three months of the season.
3) The Cowboys defense proved me wrong by holding the Colts to seven insignificant points. That said, we didn’t learn a whole lot about them. They stopped the Colts’ bad running game on four of the first nine plays. On Indy’s 10th snap, there was just 6:32 left in the first half and the Cowboys’ D was already protecting a 28-0 lead.
4) A big key for Kansas City on Sunday will be containing San Diego’s potent check-down passing game. The Chiefs play a lot of dime, so they’ll have the necessary speed and athleticism underneath.
5) Oakland’s biggest problem facing Denver this week won’t be Peyton Manning, but rather, Chris Harris and Aqib Talib. Both have been outstanding in man coverage, which Oakland’s wideouts really struggle against.
6) Colin Kaepernick will have to make throws on the move against a Cardinals defense that will pressure him up the middle.
7) Robert Griffin III still has miles and miles to go, but at least he’s shown more willingness to play firm in the pocket these past two weeks.
8) Don’t be surprised if J.J. Watt plays several downs at right defensive end on Sunday. Jaguars left tackle Luke Joeckel isn’t a steady pass blocker.
9) It’ll be interesting to see how often the Jets run the ball against the Dolphins. Recall their recent Monday night meeting; the Jets gained 277 yards on the ground but produced only 13 points.
10) Look for the Lions to test Clay Matthews in coverage, mainly through screens out of the backfield.
For Film Study tweets throughout the week, follow @Andy_Benoit
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