- Breaking down the X’s and O’s on both sides of the ball for the four divisional round games, including the Eagles offense’s best chance of surviving, what Tennessee must do to hang around in Foxboro, why Roethlisberger can get redemption on a Jaguars offense that picked him off five times, and Drew Brees gets a much tougher test in Minnesota than he did against the Panthers
Atlanta at Philadelphia
Eagles offense vs. Falcons defense
Peter King is right: The Eagles need to run the ball 40 times in this game. The Falcons have a fast, still-rising defense, but its base 4-3 linebacking unit is undersized. You want to get blockers quickly on rookie outside ’backer Duke Riley and especially second-year middle linebacker Deion Jones. One of Philadelphia’s favorite runs is “trap,” where interior offensive linemen bypass the defensive tackle and go immediately to the linebacker. Expect to see this with LeGarrette Blount and Jay Ajayi. The Eagles must stay out of third-and-long, where Nick Foles’ lack of twitch and decisiveness could be problematic against a Falcons secondary that lately has been outstanding in on-ball coverage.
Falcons offense vs. Eagles defense
It begins with stopping Matt Ryan’s go-to man, Julio Jones. Philadelphia’s corners do not travel—Jalen Mills plays the defensive left side, Ronald Darby the right—so Atlanta can dictate matchups simply by where Jones aligns. Where the Eagles are versatile is at safety. There are often three on the field, with Rodney McLeod, Corey Graham and especially Malcolm Jenkins all capable of playing anywhere. One of them will help double-team Jones. The question is: What happens when the Falcons spread out in an empty formation? They’ve lately done this a lot when running back Tevin Coleman is in. If the focus is on Jones, linebacker Nigel Bradham might be the one who takes Coleman. These Jones and Coleman scenarios will decide the game, especially on early downs, where the Falcons should replace some of their zone running plays with passes in order to nullify an Eagles D-line that is great against the run and borderline unstoppable on third-and-long.
THE PICK: Falcons
Tennessee at New England
Patriots offense vs. Titans defense
The formula for beating New England has long been press-man coverage to disrupt receivers’ timing early in the down, plus interior pressure against Tom Brady. This formula applied more to the Wes Welker and Julian Edelman Patriots, where quick-striking horizontal routes drove the offense. Still, it’s what Tennessee will apply against these new downfield-oriented Patriots, as coordinator Dick LeBeau has turned this into a man-pressure defense. The Titans have the corners to press. Adoree' Jackson, looking to bounce back from a shaky first half against Tyreek Hill in the wild-card game, can take Brandin Cooks. Former Patriot Logan Ryan can handle anyone the Patriots put in the slot. On Rob Gronkowski will be Jonathan Cyprien if it’s a blitz (LeBeau loves stunt blitzes inside), and rookie coverage linebacker Jayon Brown, with Cyprien or Kevin Byard helping, if it’s a four-man rush. New England still has the edge (their quarterback is the G-O-A-T), but Tennessee’s style of play matches up well.
Titans offense vs. Patriots defense
The Patriots are a bend-don’t-break defense. Marcus Mariota can be inconsistent in his dropback timing and decision-making; Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia will force him to sustain drives Saturday night. Mariota’s legs can hurt you (ask the Jaguars about that after Week 17, or the Chiefs after wild-card weekend), but for a mobile QB, he doesn’t make many improvised, out-of-structure throws. It will be interesting to see if this impacts New England’s approach. Typically, they like to bring a soft rush and spy against passers who can run. Running is Tennessee’s only chance at pulling off an upset, and it must come primarily from Derrick Henry in the smashmouth ground game. Henry’s performance at Kansas City was the best of his two-year pro career. The Titans love to get in heavy formations and run “power,” with guards Quinton Spain and Josh Kline pull-blocking. The Patriots, who are aggressive with their defensive fronts, will structure the box accordingly.
THE PICK: Patriots
Jacksonville at Pittsburgh
Steelers offense vs. Jaguars defense
Did you hear that Ben Roethlisberger threw five interceptions against the Jaguars in Week 5? That probably won’t happen again, though it is a better Jaguars defense this time around. Over the season, this unit stayed healthy and carved out a distinct identity: Cover 3 zone on early downs, and either Cover 4 or, like what they did repeatedly Sunday versus Buffalo, man-free blitz on third downs. Except for some of those blitzes, we’re talking about basic, straightforward strategy, where success comes from the defense simply having more speed and athleticism than the offense. Assuming Antonio Brown returns from his calf injury, no offense has more talent than Pittsburgh’s. It will be interesting to see how Jacksonville defends Brown. All-Pro corner Jalen Ramsey is more than capable of traveling with the league’s best receiver, but there were snaps in Week 5 when Ramsey played solo coverage away from Brown and A.J. Bouye—who, compared to Ramsey, is less of a playmaker but more of a play-stopper—took Brown with dedicated safety help over the top. The Jaguars don’t often employ this tactic, but they don’t often see a receiver like Brown.
Jaguars offense vs. Steelers defense
In some respects, Blake Bortles hasn’t played the 2017 Steelers yet. In Week 5, Doug Marrone and offensive coordinator Nathanial Hackett had the QB drop back only 17 times, and not at all down the stretch as Jacksonville ran the ball on its final 18 snaps. Those runs wore down Pittsburgh’s dynamic front seven, which is considerably less dynamic with linebacker Ryan Shazier gone. It’s now on the athletic, powerful front line of Javon Hargrave, Stephon Tuitt and All-Pro Cameron Heyward to make plays in the backfield. That’s what will force Jacksonville to lean on its up-and-down QB. Pittsburgh’s scheme aims for backfield stops; those D-linemen often change gap assignments after the snap to beat blocking design. (When it works, it’s great. When it doesn’t, your safeties must turn house-call runs into 12-yard stops.) With all the double teams that Jacksonville’s ground game features, gap-exchange run defense might be tough to pull off. But one thing to keep in mind: Jacksonville’s O-line is not as imposing as you’d expect from the league’s No. 1 rushing attack. It’s a decent group, but one devoid of road-graders.
THE PICK: Steelers
New Orleans at Minnesota
Vikings offense vs. Saints defense
These are different teams than those that met back in Week 1. In that Monday night game, Sam Bradford threw for 346 yards and Dalvin Cook rushed for 127. It’s now a Case Keenum-led offense, but Minnesota’s approach is still the same. Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur attacks your man coverage with pre-snap motion and switch releases off the snap, and your zone coverage with multi-receiver route combinations downfield. He gave Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen fits in Week 1, and he’ll probably be another team’s head coach next season because he did it to other defensive coordinators throughout the year. Keenum has trusted Shurmur’s calls and been decisive as a dropback passer. And when the plays haven’t worked, he has been a creative improvised playmaker. The Saints can diversify their coverages; they must do that to try and make Keenum uneven.
Saints offense vs. Vikings defense
Drew Brees was otherworldly against a Panthers defense that played a lot of six-man zone coverages. At Minnesota, he’ll see traditional seven-man matchup zone coverages—and from a unit with a shutdown corner (Xavier Rhodes) and the league’s most dynamic safety tandem (Harrison Smith and Andrew Sendejo). That secondary makes this the NFL’s best defense; the pass-only offense that New Orleans relied on against Carolina won’t be enough. We can’t expect Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram to rush for 140 yards against a stingy Vikings front, but there at least needs to be balance from the ground game, as well as from Sean Payton’s well-crafted backfield screen game. Brees wont’ have the same voids to target as he did in the Wild Card round.
THE PICK: Vikings
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