The All-22: The NFL's division leaders, and their potentially fatal flaws
Not to rain on anybody's parade during the holidays or anything, but there isn't really one dominant team in the NFL right now. That's great for the league's parity model, but the fans of every team lining up for the playoffs can find at least one weak spot to worry about on the road to the Super Bowl. Of course, even the most dominant teams can be taken down by other squads on a hot streak -- you can ask the 2007 New England Patriots about that. Still, this is a good time to look at the most obvious Achilles' heels on every current division leader. These aren't things that will absolutely stop championship runs, but they do bear watching as the playoffs get nearer and the air gets a bit thinner.
NFC East -- Philadelphia Eagles: A pass defense that is exposed when Philly's offense isn't scoring a ton
The Eagles will come into the postseason as one of the teams that nobody wants to deal with if they take the Dallas Cowboys Sunday night and win the NFC East. But when facing pass-heavy offenses, the Eagles' defense can be exploited. Defensive coordinator Billy Davis has done a good job getting his charges to play well in the front seven, but there are question marks in the secondary, to be sure. Philadelphia's pass defense has struggled in particular with route combinations that involve crossing patters, either at the line of scrimmage or downfield, and there are few better examples than Jay Cutler's 30-yard pass to tight end Martellus Bennett with 49 seconds left in the third quarter of Philly's 54-11 win last Sunday night. Yes, the result was definitely in the Eagles' favor, but this play personified a season-long issue.
The Bears had first-and-10 at the Philadelphia 31-yard line, and Bennett was lined up inside in a twins left set with Alshon Jeffery on the outside. At the snap, Bennett turned outside while Jeffery ran up the seam, taking cornerback Cary Williams up to safety Patrick Chung, while linebacker Mychal Kendricks was left to trail Bennett along the sideline with inside position. It was no contest, as Kendricks peeled off a step late and could not catch up.
NFC North -- Chicago Bears: A run defense that keeps getting shoved off the snap
Of course, one of the reasons the Bears got trucked in that game was a run defense incapable of stopping anyone on a consistent basis. Chicago has allowed 161.2 rushing yards per game, the worst average in the league, The hope was that with the recent signing of former Dallas Cowboys lineman Jay Ratliff and the return of linebacker Lance Briggs, things would turn around against an Eagles rushing attack that is powerful, diverse and ruthlessly effective.
And that went for the Bears about as you'd expect it to. LeSean McCoy ran for 133 yards and two touchdowns on 18 carries, and Bryce Brown added 115 rushing yards of his own. The most distressing thing about this formerly dominant front seven is the frequency with which it gets pushed off the line and out of position -- just clowned, in a physical sense. With 2:46 left in the first quarter, the Eagles had first-and-10 at the Chicago 26-yard line, and the Bears put eight in the box with Chris Conte playing single-high safety. Philadelphia had just seven blockers to Chicago's eight defenders, but watch what happens as the Eagles move in slide protection to the right -- before Nick Foles even hands the ball off to McCoy, the entire Bears front has been eradicated, and McCoy is free to cut to the backside. Conte comes down to make the tackle 16 yards later, perhaps because he was the only defender who wasn't blocked at all.
NFC South -- Carolina Panthers: Cam Newton's third-down performance and protection
The Panthers are one of the hottest teams in the NFL to be sure, but one thing to watch in the postseason is what happens to Cam Newton on third down. On that down this season, Newton has completed 65 passes in 105 attempts for 821 yards, five touchdowns, three interceptions... and 21 sacks. Three of Newton's four sacks against the New Orleans Saints last Sunday came on third down. There are times when the protection breaks down, and other times when Newton simply waits too long for things to open up in these situations.
The latter happened with 3:52 left in the Saints game, when the Panthers were down 13-10. The Panthers had first-and-10 at their own 33-yard line, and after Newton took the ball, he seemed blissfully oblivious to the fact that New Orleans defensive tackle Akiem Hicks was bulldozing right guard Nate Chandler into what had once been his pocket. Newton was taken down by Hicks for a seven-yard loss. Newton completed passes to tight end Greg Olsen for a total of ten yards on the next two plays, but they had to punt due to the sack. Newton was able to bring his team back on the next drive, but you can bet that postseason opponents will be looking to see how quickly he reacts to things on third down from here forward.
NFC West -- Seattle Seahawks: Guard play could stop this offense dead in its tracks
Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson has thrown 10 touchdown passes when under pressure this season, tied with Ben Roethlisberger and Drew Brees for the NFL lead. Wilson has been able to camouflage the ineffectiveness of his offensive line with his ability to extend plays, but the interior of that offensive line let the team down in last Sunday's 17-10 loss to the Arizona Cardinals. Not only was Wilson constantly harassed, but Arizona's knack for lockdown single coverage meant that Wilson couldn't rely on open receivers when he scrambled and improvised after the play had broken down.
Wilson's first of four sacks at the hands of the Cardinals allowed left guard James Carpenter to amass the rare double-play -- a sack allowed, and a declined holding penalty for good measure. Cardinals defensive lineman Calais Campbell started on Carpenter's inside shoulder, and Carpenter tackled him there. However, Campbell was not done -- he jumped up and sacked Wilson for a seven-yard loss on third-and-eight, and that was the end of that drive. Wilson was 0-for-8 under pressure in this game, which proves two things: Even the best quarterbacks under pressure have their breaking points, and Seattle's offensive line must improve quickly if any Super Bowl aspirations are to be met this season.
AFC East -- New England Patriots: The need for explosive plays in the passing game
That the Patriots have been missing out on big aerial plays in the passing game isn't exactly news this season -- one wonders just how much attrition among his receivers Tom Brady can stand, no matter how good he is. Well, here's how it's gone so far: On plays of third- or fourth-and-9 or more, Brady has completed 28 of 47 passes for 329 yards, no touchdowns, and one interception. Last season, he threw two touchdown passes in those same circumstances, and he threw three in his historic 2007 season.
The one receiver who has been consistent for Brady in passing plays beyond the screen range is Julian Edelman, who's become a preferred target on intermediate and deep seam routes. In this late second-quarter play against the Ravens last Sunday, Edelman was in the right side slot on second-and-8 from the New England 22-yard line, and he worked his way for 19 yards past linebacker Daryl Smith, who handed him off to safety Matt Elam. Like Wes Welker used to do with the Patriots, Edelman has a great ability to sit in zones and make plays happen. He has more speed than Welker, though he won't usually run past secondary defenders.
AFC North -- Cincinnati Bengals: The post-Geno Atkins defense
Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins was playing at his usual All-Pro level before he suffered a torn ACL in early November, and as one might expect. Cincinnati's defense has suffered without him. The 10-5 Bengals have clinched the AFC North, but defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer has been on point about the missed tackles that have plagued this defense in recent weeks, and he's made it clear even after wins that such mistakes are not acceptable -- they certainly won't be when the playoffs roll around.
Another issue is that Cincinnati's young defensive backs have been vulnerable to double moves, and this has been readily apparent even in the Bengals' victories. When they beat the Minnesota Vikings last Sunday, cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick was beaten more than once on double moves, including a 36-yard touchdown to receiver Jarius Wright with 10:02 left in the first quarter. Kirkpatrick didn't backpedal often at Alabama -- it's not a specific Nick Saban teaching point -- and like other recent Crimson Tide defensive backs, he's come up short against certain route concepts.
Quarterback Andy Dalton has played well of late, but he has also turned into a pumpkin in his previous two playoff appearances. If the Bengals want to get past the first round of the postseason, discipline on the defensive side of the ball will be a must ... and there are a lot of things to shore up.
AFC South -- Indianapolis Colts: Playing old-school football with an out-of-school offensive line
Like the Bengals, the Colts are a 10-5 division winner with a few problems. Their primary issue is a general inability to get things going consistently in the run game -- especially when Trent Richardson is getting the ball. First-year offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton wants to run schemes similar to those he succeeded with at Stanford, but smashmouth football doesn't work when your offensive line is undertalented, and that's precisely the issue the Colts are facing this season. Richardson has just three yards per carry, and part of the reason is because he isn't fast enough to the line to exploit the quick gaps Indy's line may open. Donald Brown, however, has the knack for doing the same, and this was clear in his 51-yard touchdown run against the Chiefs last Sunday.
With 12:55 left in the third quarter, Brown took the ball on first-and-10, and blew through Kansas City's front seven, aided by extra blockers. Brown ran behind two pulling blockers -- left guard Xavier Nixon (71) and tight end Jack Doyle (84) -- who took care of linebacker Derrick Johnson (56) and safety Quintin Demps (35). Receiver Da'Rick Rogers (16) blocked safety Eric Berry (29) on the edge, and that gave Brown the hole he needed. He could bring the acceleration that Richardson couldn't. If the Colts want to be anything more than an entertaining one-and-done in the playoffs, they'll have to keep up the creativity in their run-blocking -- not only to establish the ground game, but also to give Andrew Luck the play-action opportunities he needs to play at his best.
AFC West -- Denver Broncos: Where will the pass rush come from?
Now that outside linebacker Von Miller has been put on injured reserve, a place where end Kevin Vickerson has been since late November and end Derek Wolfe is still recovering from the seizure he suffered nearly a month ago, the Denver Broncos are a bit short when it comes to the pass rush. Veteran Shaun Phillips has been a great pickup with his 10 sacks, but the defenses playing on the same teams as Peyton Manning have always been at their best when they can pin their ears back as opposing offenses try to play catch-up with the scoring festivals Manning can generally create.
One player to watch is Malik Jackson, the grievously underrated second-year lineman from Tennessee. Jackson has alternated between left and right tackle this season, picking up five sacks, eight quarterback hits, and four quarterback hurries. He didn't pick up any sacks against the Houston Texans last Sunday (though he did pick up four run stops on five tackles, a team high), so we'll to back to his last sack against the Tennessee Titans in Week 14.
This was a great example of root strength and outstanding hand technique. Jackson overpowered center Brian Schwenke from the snap, and then nailed him with a rip move to get by. Left guard Andy Levitre tried to help with a chip, but Jackson was too fast through the gap he created, and Ryan Fitzpatrick was about to go down.