Breaking down the Cardinals-Panthers, Ravens-Steelers, Bengals-Colts and Lions-Cowboys matchups

By Andy Benoit
December 31, 2014

John Biever and Simon Bruty/Sports Illustrated/The MMQB


Arizona Cardinals @ Carolina Panthers

Panthers’ offense vs. Cardinals’ defense

The Panthers now get to be the sole victims of the obligatory NFC South jokes, but a four-game winning streak entering the playoffs is nothing to laugh at. In five outings since their Week 12 bye, the Panthers have averaged 195 yards a game on the ground—the most in the NFL. Cam Newton is responsible for about 20% of those yards despite missing one of those outings.

Newton’s legs are the crux of offensive coordinator Mike Shula’s system, which features a litany of read-option and triple-option concepts. Such tactics create a multidimensional rushing attack that forces the defense to account for three potential ball carriers and four different points of attack. Jonathan Stewart, with surprising short area lateral agility despite weighing 235 pounds, has given the Panthers a sustainable ground game. Also helping the cause is an O-line that’s greatly improved inside, especially at left guard, where undrafted rookie Andrew Norwell has discovered his mobility.

The Cardinals were tremendous at stopping the run early in the season, ranking third at the midway point even though they didn’t have Darnell Dockett and Darryl Washington in the lineup. But in the second half, they’ve given up 138 rushing yards per game (seventh most in the league), including 267 to Seattle in Week 16 and 206 to San Francisco in Week 17. Those happen to be the two teams most similar to the Carolina. Besides having mobile quarterbacks, Seattle and San Fran have an expanded “base personnel” offense, with the ability to sustain drives out of two-back or two-tight end sets, just like Carolina.

This could pose problems for the Cardinals. Much-ballyhooed defensive coordinator Todd Bowles has played a six-DB dime package on a majority of snaps this year. Facing a powerful base personnel running game will force the Cardinals to use their base package, in which they’re much less dynamic.

Cardinals’ offense vs. Panthers’ defense

Let’s assume Drew Stanton (knee injury) is under center. If so, Bruce Arians will have the full playbook at his disposal, and his trips bunch packages and intermediate passing concepts will be paramount. The trips bunch packages set up many of the ball control portions of an offense that’s rushing attack has ranked near the bottom of the league throughout the season and is without top playmaker Andre Ellington. The intermediate passing concepts will be the primary methods of attack against Carolina’s staple single-high zones, such as Cover 3.

It’s on Stanton to capitalize here. He’s been decisive as a drop-back passer, but also inconsistent. When he’s decisive on a misread, he’s liable to throw into traffic (we saw this on two interceptions against Detroit and on three near-interceptions against Kansas City, when he threw into the heart of man-lurk coverage).

Stanton can’t make these mistakes against a Panthers defense that, while less potent than a year ago, has been improving down the stretch, particularly on the back end, where fifth-round rookie Bene Benwikere and 2012 fifth-rounder Josh Norman have stabilized a cornerback position that had been the team’s Achilles’ heel. Recent history says that if the Cardinals fall behind, they won’t come back.

Cardinals-Panthers | Ravens-Steelers | Bengals-Colts | Lions-Cowboys

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Baltimore Ravens @ Pittsburgh Steelers

Steelers’ offense vs. Ravens’ defense

When these teams met in Week 9, Ben Roethlisberger was under siege early on, at one point taking three straight sacks in a first half that also saw the Steelers open with a trio of three-and-outs. But Big Ben sharpened in the second half, showing that he’s not only the AFC’s best downfield touch-passer while on the move, but also a significantly more refined pocket passer. Roethlisberger finished that game with six touchdowns.

Now the Steelers come in with an even more refined passing game. Antonio Brown is still the league’s most difficult one-on-one route runner to defend, and youngsters Markus Wheaton and Martavis Bryant are even more comfortable in a Todd Haley system that does a great job incorporating deep shots in its quick screen and “counter run” foundation.

The Ravens, meanwhile, have one of the league’s thinnest secondaries. It’s sturdier now than it was in Week 9, which was Baltimore’s first game without No. 1 corner Jimmy Smith (now on IR with a bad foot). But the Ravens are still forced to moonlight safety Matt Elam at slot corner and they’ve vacillated at every other position save for Will Hill’s safety spot. Expect Antonio Brown to line up in the slot early and often in this game.

The question is whether Pittsburgh’s passing attack can carry the load in the event that a hyperextended knee keeps running back Le’Veon Bell out of action. The Ravens—and specifically rookie linebacker C.J. Mosley—have already learned the hard way that Bell is an integral part of Pittsburgh’s aerial assault. If the passing game gets the kind of protection that Mike Munchak’s soaring offensive line has provided as of late, Bell’s absence won’t be ruinous in this contest.

Ravens’ offense vs. Steelers’ defense

Thanks in large part to the renaissance of James Harrison, the Steelers’ pass rush exploded in Week 9, giving the Ravens trouble with stunts and zone blitzes (one leading to a Jason Worilds interception). Left guard Kelechi Osemele and tackle Eugene Monroe (who sat out Week 17 with an ankle injury) were particularly strained here.

The Ravens should have this cleaned up come Saturday night, and it’s unlikely the Steelers will erupt like this again. While the front seven has been better than a year ago, it’s still an inconsistent group. And the absence of Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel (triceps injury) diminishes many of the stunt concepts that haunted Osemele and Monroe.

Expect Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak to also nullify the Steelers’ pass rush with more moving pocket concepts and play-action. This is the heart of Kubiak’s scheme, and something that the cannon-armed Joe Flacco is mobile enough to conduct. In this case, however, it’s vital that Baltimore get its zone running game back on track. It posted 129 yards last week against Cleveland’s subpar run D, but in the two previous games it averaged only 63 yards. The best way to attack the Steelers’ sixth-ranked run defense is to get the front seven playing laterally. That’s done through stretch handoffs, which can also set up the crossfield play-action concepts that naturally defeat many of Pittsburgh’s matchup zone coverages.

Cardinals-Panthers | Ravens-Steelers | Bengals-Colts | Lions-Cowboys

John Grieshop/Getty Images John Grieshop/Getty Images

Cincinnati Bengals @ Indianapolis Colts

Colts’ offense vs. Bengals’ defense

Don’t let Indy’s Week 7 stomping of Cincy distort the picture heading into this one. In that October matchup, which the Colts won 27-0, the Bengals were without linebackers Rey Maualuga and Emmanuel Lamur, and a banged-up Vontaze Burfict was in and out of action all afternoon. Consequently, defensive coordinator Paul Guenther felt compelled to eschew his club’s patented zone blitz and double A-gap tactics in favor of a more coverage-based approach. It didn’t help that top corner and leading slot man Leon Hall left before halftime with a back strain.

Despite all the adversity, the Bengals played Andrew Luck and the Colts tough—at least on this side of the ball. They generated some pressure with stunts along their four-man front and toggled between man and zone coverages that baited Luck into several misfires.

Since that game, with Burfict out for good, the Bengals have stuck with their coverage-based approach, which they’re substantially more comfortable in now than they were back in October. Hall has played well, as has the rest of the secondary. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Guenther continues to rush only four and keep extra bodies in coverage to help facilitate disguises. It’s on Cincy’s exhaustingly inconsistent four-man rush to generate pressure on Luck; coverage disguises are only enacted early in the down and Luck is great late in the down. If pressure doesn’t get home, the Bengals won’t win.

Bengals’ offense vs. Colts’ defense

The Colts likely had a hand in convincing offensive coordinator Hue Jackson to make the Bengals a more run-based offense down the stretch. You might recall that in Week 7, Indy, through a litany of third-and-long blitzes, forced Cincinnati into eight consecutive three-and-outs.

A.J. Green was out with a toe injury that game, but the wideout’s return to health hasn’t been enough to convince Jackson to lean heavily on Andy Dalton. Jackson has turned the fourth-year quarterback into a complementary player. Running backs Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard, plus surprise stud H-back Ryan Hewitt (an undrafted rookie from Stanford) now carry the offense.

This will remain Jackson’s approach throughout the postseason (however long it lasts for the Bengals). Even with an improved front line and a decent edge-setter in Bjoern Werner, the Colts have a run defense worth attacking, especially when you consider how good Indy’s secondary is in man coverage when Vontae Davis is healthy. By running the ball, Jackson also takes advantage of his O-line’s size while avoiding the consequences of the group’s iffy athleticism, which shows up against blitz-happy 3-4 defenses such as Indy’s.

In today’s NFL, of course, teams don’t win strictly by running the ball; Dalton will still have to make plays. To do so, they’ll put A.J. Green in the slot or to the right side, because either option prevents Davis from defending him (the Colts don’t move their corners around; Davis plays against the offense’s left side and the much-improved Greg Toler plays the right). When Green is aligned inside, the Colts must be on high alert for deep shots, especially play-action out of base personnel.

Cardinals-Panthers | Ravens-Steelers | Bengals-Colts | Lions-Cowboys

Carlos M. Saavedra and Winslow Townson/Sports Illustrated/The MMQB Carlos M. Saavedra and Winslow Townson/Sports Illustrated/The MMQB

Detroit Lions @ Dallas Cowboys

Cowboys’ offense vs. Lions’ defense

Give credit to Cowboys offensive coordinator Scott Linehan (passing game) and Bill Callahan (running game, plus O-line) for a masterful job working together this season. What could have been a very uncomfortable situation—two coordinators?!?—has instead been a positive, as the pass-happy Linehan has made the ground game Dallas’s foundation, while Callahan, a venerated professor of blocking, has turned a talented but young Cowboys front five into the NFL’s finest (and probably this decade’s finest). The formula has worked great: DeMarco Murray rushed for a franchise-record 1,845 yards; Tony Romo, aided by great protection but also the stability that comes from staying ahead in the down-and-distance, had the best season of his career; and Dez Bryant remained a force, leading the league with 16 touchdown receptions.

Now comes the test: whether this formula can hold up in the postseason against the league’s No. 1 ranked run defense. Coaches have a tendency to revert back to their familiar foundations in critical games. Linehan must have the discipline to stick with the run. The Lions, though ranked No. 1, looked vulnerable against the Packers’ rushing attack last week. A big reason why: defensive coordinator Teryl Austin’s very understandable decision to keep two safeties back against Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay’s three-receiver passing attack.

It’d make sense for the Cowboys to put No. 3 receiver Cole Beasley on the field for at least 60% of the snaps and force Detroit to spread out and stop Murray with a less crowded box. This, along with a screen game that will aim to punish linebackers DeAndre Levy and Tahir Whitehead for their speed, will decide whether the Cowboys get their second playoff win in 18 years.

Lions’ offense vs. Cowboys’ defense

When these teams met in Week 8 last season, Calvin Johnson had 329 yards on 14 receptions, most of them coming on simple in-breaking routes against the Cowboys’ Cover 3 base scheme. Though less talented, it’s a better Cowboys defense this time around, as coordinator Rod Marinelli has diversified the 4-3 scheme a bit. (Dallas’s ball-controlling offense has also allowed this group to stay on the sideline and play with a lead.)

The best example: Dallas’s win over Indianapolis. The Colts never got a chance to exploit the Cowboys’ Cover 3 because they were down 28-0 halfway through the second quarter, when they lined up for just their 10th snap of the game.

Thanks to a slew of late fourth-quarter comebacks, few have noticed that this Lions offense has struggled somewhat to find its identity under first-year coordinator Joe Lombardi. The identity Lombardi wants is that of a balanced team that beats you with catch-and-runs and intermediate passes around the middle of the field. If the Lions can avoid an early deficit, they’ll be able to play that way (especially given how effective running back Joique Bell has been of late). If they fall behind and have to rely on big plays from the rifle-armed Matthew Stafford, they won’t be able to exploit any weaknesses that are surely lying beneath the Cowboys’ surface.

Cardinals-Panthers | Ravens-Steelers | Bengals-Colts | Lions-Cowboys

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