- Plus, why Jacksonville would like to run it 40 times, the Falcons’ likely approach for Todd Gurley and the Rams, how the Titans will handle Travis Kelce, Dirk Koetter staying in Tampa and the Packers moving on from Dom Capers
1. No running back in the NFC playoffs is more valuable to his team than Alvin Kamara is to the Saints. And yes, that includes Todd Gurley and the Rams. Gurley has been tremendous, and the Rams certainly go out of their way to feature him. But they don’t design plays around his specific skills as regularly as the Saints do around Kamara’s. It’s mostly in the passing game, where Kamara’s 826 yards led all running backs. His already commendable route running has sharpened over his rookie season, including his feel for uncovering late against zone coverage (that’s rare to see from a running back). Besides being more dangerous with the ball, this has made Kamara better to scheme around. Much of New Orleans’ aerial attack, especially in the empty formations that Sean Payton and Drew Brees love, aims at making the defense react to Kamara. From those reactions, the Saints build mismatch-making plays for wide receivers—in particular, No. 1 receiver Michael Thomas. Kamara will be a huge factor Sunday; the Panthers often rush five and play zone with just six defenders (not the usual seven). There will be more space for Kamara underneath.
2. If Cam Newton throws like he did last Sunday against Atlanta, the Panthers will lose to New Orleans by 20. Newton’s wild inaccuracy gave Carolina’s offense no chance. Don’t be surprised if the Saints play a lot of straight zone coverage and force Newton to sustain long drives. That was their approach in Week 13.
3. Jacksonville has football’s fastest defense. With LeSean McCoy less than 100 percent, Buffalo’s only prayer is to connect on a few downfield play-action shots. On Sunday you’ll see Tyrod Taylor roll out and target tight ends Charles Clay and Nick O’Leary on deep crossing patterns. The idea is to make the speed of linebackers Telvin Smith and Myles Jack work against Jacksonville.
4. Blake Bortles was erratic in Week 16 against San Francisco, and in Week 17 he couldn’t overcome a Titans defense that stifled his receivers in man coverage. Those performances were disappointing, but not enough to make you forget Bortles’s excellence in the rest of December. Still, Jaguars coach Doug Marrone knows that Buffalo’s only chance at beating his team is through turnovers. And Bortles, throwing against safeties Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde (both have had career years), is the likeliest avenue to turnovers. Given that, and given the fact that Buffalo’s linebackers are so mediocre, Marrone will tell offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett to run the ball 40 times on Sunday.
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5. The Falcons have played a lot of man coverage over the past 18 months, but expect to see more of Dan Quinn’s Seahawks style Cover 3 zone Saturday night. The Rams, with their condensed formations and intertwined routes, are hard to play man against. By going Cover 3, the Falcons keep the action in front of them and are less vulnerable to Todd Gurley’s backfield receiving.
6. I wonder how much time Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips spent visiting with Matt LaFleur, L.A.’s offensive coordinator, this week. LaFleur was Atlanta’s QB coach from 2015-16; he knows what Matt Ryan doesn’t want to see. Any plan for defending Ryan starts with defending his top weapon, Julio Jones. With Trumaine Johnson, the Rams are one of the few teams who have a corner capable of traveling with bigger receivers like Jones. Johnson alone cannot shut down Jones, but he’ll get steady help from Phillips’ hybrid coverages.
7. It’s hard to envision the Titans going very far this month. They’re a smashmouth offense with an inconsistent ground game. Marcus Mariota is a complementary QB. He can throw from three receiver sets and spread formations in 2:00 situations, but from a down-to-down standpoint, he needs a strong rushing attack around him. Without that, you see his inconsistent timing and decision-making.
8. The Titans are a man coverage defense, and first-round rookie corner Adoree' Jackson has the wheels and ball awareness to match up deep with speed demon Tyreek Hill. But what does Tennessee do about Travis Kelce? Logan Ryan is a physical press coverage corner, but at 190 pounds he’s not thick enough to contend with the 255-pound Kelce. (Also, Ryan hasn’t matched to tight ends all year.) Safeties Johnathan Cyprien and Kevin Byard will almost certainly draw the Kelce assignment, at times simultaneously. That is, if defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau even goes man-to-man. Defenses have had more success with zone coverage against Kansas City; it’s less susceptible to the misdirection concepts that comprise Andy Reid’s offense. Expect Tennessee to sit back in a lot of eight-man zones, where Alex Smith is forced to make tight-window throws. Smith tends to hold the ball here and can get frenetic.
9. Good on the Bucs for keeping Dirk Koetter. His system, with its downfield post and dig routes, is a better fit for Jameis Winston than Jon Gruden’s system. What’s most important with a coach is having a scheme that suits his personnel. If you put players in tactical position to succeed, the nebulous things we attribute to coaching, like motivation and team chemistry, come naturally.
10. Dom Capers has had a fabulous career, but it was right for the Packers to move on from him at defensive coordinator. Capers’ high-volume, defensive back-intensive approach hasn’t panned out the last few seasons. (Injuries at cornerback have been partly to blame.) It’ll be interesting to see who Mike McCarthy hires now. Will it be a younger version of Capers, with man coverage and various blitzes at the schematic forefront? Or, is McCarthy looking at a philosophical overhaul and ready to bring in a traditional zone guy?
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