The game of football is all about matchups. Each week, we will use the Xs and Os to highlight some critical showdowns on the upcoming schedule.
Pittsburgh at Baltimore
Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau lamented this week his team's distress against no-huddle offenses. The Browns were able to put such an attack to work last Sunday, thereby erasing a 27-3 Pittsburgh lead before falling 30-27.
"The problems attending [to] no-huddle are the same," LeBeau said, according to the Steelers' website. "They’re never going to change. They’re certainly not unsolvable. We have to do a better job keeping our poise more than anything, and that’s what we’re working on. We’ll definitely be better on that."
Hand in hand with Pittsburgh's Week 1 struggles (and perhaps even more concerning as the season progresses) was an inability to stop the Cleveland run game after halftime. The Browns finished with 183 yards on the ground, the bulk of that total coming on plays around the edge: counters and off-tackle calls.
Pittsburgh's front seven repeatedly failed to diagnose what was developing up front. As a result, Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell -- both seeing increased reps in place of an injured Ben Tate -- were able to turn the corner for substantial gains.
There was rarely anything complicated about what Cleveland attempted. Here, the Browns lined up in a "12" personnel package (one RB, two TEs), Crowell behind QB Brian Hoyer in a pistol set.
Crowell took the handoff moving to his right in a zone-stretch play. (A quick reminder here that "zone blocking" is exactly what it sounds like: linemen are responsible for an area, rather than a specific man.) The Browns were able to trap Jason Worilds (93) outside with a tight end, then sealed off Ryan Shazier with RT Mitchell Schwartz. Crowell's goal here is to "stretch" the run to the boundary until he sees a gap, then to plant and go. That's exactly what he does, hitting the hole between Worilds and Shazier.
These outside stretch plays are a staple of Baltimore offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak's playbook. Not only does he use a similar run often, but he loves to lean on play-action bootlegs out of this look. In his prime, Matt Schaub excelled with that call in Houston, and Kubiak will ask Joe Flacco to do the same with TE Dennis Pitta and deep threat Torrey Smith as likely targets.
A quick look at that action headed to the left side of the field, from Baltimore's Week 1 loss at Cincinnati.
The blocking generates a hole like the one Crowell saw, albeit further inside. Take note, though, of LB Emmanuel Lamar (59) staying home with his eyes locked on Flacco. That's specifically to protect against the play-action bootleg.
Usually, there is at least one receiving option cutting across the field near the line for the QB to check down to in case that linebacker or a DE is waiting. But the Steelers failed to hold their responsibilities against Hoyer last week in those instances, giving the Browns' quarterback time and space after play fakes.
Another glaring weakness for Pittsburgh's defense in Week 1 came against counter run plays from the Browns. Again on the play shown below, Worilds is walled off, this time by a pulling tight end; the Steelers' interior linemen and linebackers cannot get outside the tackle box to help; and Troy Polamalu gets picked off by a down-blocking receiver.
Pittsburgh may not see counters as much against Baltimore as it did from Cleveland, but Kubiak no doubt will file it away in case the Steelers attempt to start cheating on the zone-stretch runs.
New England at Minnesota
Tom Brady is not going to beat a defense with his feet. There are a lot of things the future Hall of Fame quarterback can do, but going all Colin Kaepernick to escape pressure is not one of them. Sure, Brady can escape the pocket for a few yards here and there or move around to adjust his passing lanes. Beyond that, he's about as far from a dual-threat QB as there is starting in the league.
So when a defense gets to Brady consistently, it can neutralize him. The Dolphins proved that again in Week 1. They sacked Brady four times, forced two fumbles and stayed in his face throughout the second half as Miami ripped off the game's final 23 points.
A trip to Minnesota this Sunday could test Brady and the Patriots' offensive front again, because the approach employed by defensive-minded Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer will not stray too dramatically from what Miami's Joe Philbin and Kevin Coyle drew up in Week 1.
One of the trouble spots for New England versus Miami came in simple recognition. We start on a Cameron Wake (91) strip-sack off the edge. Take note of where Wake is lined up: on the far left of Miami's defensive formation, next to defensive end Olivier Vernon (50); Randy Starks (94) is in a one-tech spot between the center and guard, while Jared Odrick (98) is at the three-tech.
This is 4-3 personnel adjusted into what's essentially a 3-4 scheme, with Wake and Jonathan Freeny (56) as pass-rushing linebackers. Miami then has two more linebacker patrolling the middle of the field, with a safety walked up to the line.
New England leaves Wake outside, one-on-one against tight end Michael Hoomanawanui. Predictably, Wake blows past Hoomanawanui, overpowers help from the running back and takes down Brady.
Even when the Dolphins resorted back to classic 4-3 alignment, the Patriots found themselves overmatched. Below, Miami is in an "over" front (nose tackle shaded to the open side of the formation), showing two-deep coverage out of a nickel package.
The Dolphins rush just four, yet easily get home because of a whiff by guard Jordan Devey.
On the most basic of levels, the Patriots must do a better job finding and holding their blocks so Brady has time to throw. They're going to see plenty of straight four-man fronts with seven dropping again Sunday because the Vikings have the horses on the D-line -- Brian Robison, Everson Griffen, Sharrif Floyd and Linval Joseph, with Anthony Barr pass-rushing from linebacker -- to win matchups without blitzing.
Case in point:
As with one of those Miami pictures above, this is a rather straightforward 4-3 nickel look from Minnesota. They dropped seven. They blitzed no one.
The Vikings still disrupted the pocket with pressure, forcing St. Louis QB Austin Davis to step up and reset, a process that led him into a sack. You'll notice the three Rams receivers boxed in blue there. Why? Because Davis had options. All three of those teammates had space enough for a pass attempt, either because they were open initially or because -- as with Jared Cook at the bottom of the photo -- reactions from the Vikings' secondary created space.
Brady, obviously, is a far superior QB to Davis so he may be better able to take advantage of those gaps. That is, if his line can keep him upright.
More proof of why it won't be easy:
This play results in a sack by Harrison Smith (22), a blitzing safety on Davis' blindside. Count up the players at the line: six Rams and seven Vikings. By virtue of simple math, the edge belongs with Minnesota's defense in the pass rush -- so much so that despite having four one-on-one matchups downfield, Davis did not have the requisite time to find someone.
Miami showed extra pressure like this, too. And it tended to work. Once, Brady even had Rob Gronkowski slipping out in the flat as his safety valve, against a single linebacker, and still had to float the ball out of bounds to avoid a sack.
According to Pro Football Focus, Brady ranked just 16th of all starting QBs in completion percentage last season when he was under pressure, at 46.6 percent. He took a sack 18.3 percent of the time. The Vikings will try to exploit those numbers -- and the fact that Logan Mankins is no longer guarding the interior of New England's line -- in Sunday's matchup.
Arizona at NY Giants
Suffice it to say, Todd Bowles' Arizona defense is not the one a team wants to see when it is having communication issues on offense. SI's Doug Farrar gave an in-depth breakdown last November of Bowles' genius, specifically how he utilizes an athletic linebacking corps both in coverage and in flying through A- and B-gaps at the line.
Even without Karlos Dansby and Daryl Washington, two key components in that defense last season, Bowles turned up the heat on Philip Rivers Monday with the likes of Larry Foote, Thomas Keiser and safety Tony Jefferson.
It's not only at the line where Arizona constantly mixes and matches, however.
The shot below displays a defensive alignment that Rivers saw time and again: a single-high safety, press coverage on the outside receivers and a second safety showing blitz.
One example of how Arizona adjusts play-to-play is below. As Rivers lines up to take the snap, Arizona walks a safety up toward the line, leaving that single-high look again. But at the same time, one of the cornerbacks initially showing press coverage outside backs out.
Beating the Cardinals defense requires rapid read-and-react success from the QB to the O-line to the receivers hunting for some space. The Giants rarely made it onto the same page Monday night against Detroit. Barring any sudden improvement, Bowles could dial up another gem in Week 2.