A look back at New England's worst games this year shows which matchups will be critical in Super Bowl XLIX.
22 Oct 2008
by Doug Farrar
Chad Clifton vs. Dwight Freeney
Green Bay Packers 34 at Indianapolis Colts 14
If you're not a Packers fan and you're aware of Green Bay left tackle Chad Clifton, it's probably from one event: the blindside hit put on him by Warren Sapp in a Buccaneers-Packers game in November of 2002. Clifton was lost for the season with a pelvic injury, while Sapp and then-Packers coach Mike Sherman famously jawed at one another after the game, with Sherman calling Sapp a "chicken(bleep)" and Sapp exhorting Sherman to "put on a jersey." Perhaps you've also heard of Clifton's success against 2007 sack champion Jared Allen, no matter whether Allen lined up for the Chiefs then or the Vikings now. The nine-year veteran made the Pro Bowl for the first time after the 2007 season, and he's become one of the more highly-regarded tackles in the game.
How good is Clifton? One of the best tests for any left tackle is the elite speed rusher, so Clifton's matchup against Dwight Freeney of the Colts seemed optimal for Cover-3 focus.
In November of 2007, the Colts were forced to place Freeney on injured reserve with a foot injury suffered during one of his patented spin moves. Freeney had to have Lisfranc surgery, though he recovered in time for the 2008 season. Through the Colts' first four games of this year, Freeney had three sacks and two forced fumbles, looking very much like the player who averaged 12.5 sacks and 5.5 forced fumbles in his first four seasons. Freeney's productivity tailed off a bit when he suffered a leg injury in Week 5 against the Texans, though he certainly looked fast enough against Green Bay.
Since Freeney is known for getting washed out easily enough on run plays, it made sense to focus on the one-on-ones in passing situations only. What surprised me was how often Clifton took the challenge without any blocking help, and how successful he was.
Green Bay's first pass play came with 1:55 gone in the first quarter, with the Packers at their own 38 on third-and-6. At the snap, Freeney tried a spin move inside, but bounced off Clifton, who had perfect position, and got nowhere. Aaron Rodgers completed an 11-yard pass to tight end Donald Lee for a first down.
Three plays later, Green Bay had another third-and-long from the Colts' 35. Freeney shot off left end like a missile, but the Packers were ready for him. Not only were they lined up in shotgun with an offset-I and running back Brandon Jackson in the backfield, but Lee motioned right to left presnap. As Rodgers took the ball, Lee stayed home in the left slot to chip before going out on a short cross. Past Lee, Jackson chipped Freeney as well. Freeney got past Jackson only to deal with Clifton and his excellent hand technique. As Freeney spun a back into Clifton just a bit early, he was taken to the ground by contact with guard Daryn Colledge. Rodgers stepped up in the lane and threw an incomplete pass to Lee. A holding call on cornerback Tim Jennings gave Green Bay a first down at the Indianapolis 30.
Four straight running plays later, the Packers went shotgun, five wide, trips right, empty backfield, and the Colts responded with a twist on the right side of the line. Tackle Keyunta Dawson was doubled inside by Clifton and Colledge, while Freeney had to go all the way around the scrum to try and get to Rodgers before he got off a pass eight yards downfield to Jordy Nelson. Of course, with Freeney's speed, he still almost got there and nearly deflected Rodgers' pass. His quickness, especially in making the turn around right tackle, was something to behold. I don't know if there's another defensive end with Freeney's sheer motor in a situation like that.
The next play featured another empty backfield for the Packers, and the Colts went to a three-man front. Freeney got caught up with the double-team of Clifton and Colledge, and Jennings atoned for the holding call by breaking up a Rodgers pass to Ruvell Martin. The Packers had to kick a field goal from the Indianapolis 13. Coverage over pressure was the goal here with the Colts only bringing three, but you got to see the respect Freeney has earned in this league with that double-team.
The Packers started their next drive at their own 20 with 4:06 left in the first quarter. Another quick pass, this time to Greg Jennings, and Rodgers was confident enough in Clifton's ability to stand in the pocket to the left side as Clifton fanned Freeney out of the play, using Freeney's own speed against him.
Ryan Grant headed up the middle for seven yards in the next play. Then the Packers motioned into an inverted wishbone on second-and-3 from their own 41, but Clifton didn't need any help. Once again, he took Freeney out of the play. Tim Jennings got flagged for pass interference on Greg Jennings 25 yards downfield, and the Packers had first-and-10 at the Indy 34.
The Packers kept driving, down to the Colts' 23 with a first-and-10. They went shotgun, three wide, and Clifton made his most impressive pass-blocking move of the day, taking inside position as Freeney tried making a half-circle around Rodgers to disengage and get to the quarterback. Clifton wasn't having it, and this was where Clifton's speed -- the kind of speed that can shut out a player of Jared Allen's caliber -- became apparent. On the next play, tackle Darrell Reid was flagged for a neutral zone infraction, which was symptomatic of the Colts' defensive frustration.
On their first pass play of the second quarter, it became clear that the Packers didn't believe they had to double Freeney anymore, even on longer throws. From his own 11, Rodgers hit Donald Driver over the middle for a 24-yard gain, and Clifton again kept Freeney at bay, basically laughing off a cosmetic spin move at the end. Against a quick-strike team like the Packers, you're better off making either speed or power your game plan -- this offense gets the ball in the air too quickly for exotic inside moves. But even on longer plays, where Rodgers has to wait for his receiver to cross to the middle, Clifton was able to handle Freeney with ease.
Clifton's extremely good at picking up speed-rushing ends from an angle, as he did to Freeney with 8:20 left in the first half. Freeney tried to drive inside at the snap, but Clifton proved to be far too powerful, and his technique too good, for that to happen. By the end of the first half, Clifton was starting to exert physical pressure on Freeney, forcing him lower to the ground and taking away whatever leverage he had.
Clifton was going to have some advantages coming into this game - the Colts didn't blitz a lot, which meant that he wouldn't have to deal with Freeney's speed and someone else's power at the same time. Still, his ability to take that speed and consistently push it out of the way really impressed me. He also displayed the ability to drive-block when facing end Josh Thomas on certain plays. Clifton is a classic grinder -- he's missed only one game since returning in 2003 from the Sapp injury -- and he's playing as well as any team can ask of its premier offensive lineman. Freeney displayed good speed and agility; he was simply defeated by an opponent playing at a very high level.
Nate Clements vs. Plaxico Burress
San Francisco 49ers 17 at New York Giants 29
Early in this game, Nate Clements and Plaxico Burress were a bit like two hyperactive kids in the back seat of the car on a long trip. It was only a matter of time before the refs threatened to turn the car around. With the Giants already up 7-0 and starting another drive from their own 27 with 4:17 left in the first quarter, Clements was the first one fingered with the kind of "Who, me?" call that always seems to happen to the last man standing. On second-and-10, Brandon Jacobs rumbled forward for 3 yards, and fullback Madison Hedgecock pushed Clements into the play after Jacobs was down. This led Clements to get back up and push Hedgecock, who put on the best flop performance this side of Manu Ginobli. Unnecessary roughness on Clements, and the ball was moved from the 30 to the 45.
On the next play, Jacobs pushed the pile forward for a yard. 49ers defensive end Ray McDonald was not satisfied with this yardage total, offering up a defensive offside penalty and giving the Giants first-and 10 at the 50-yard line.
Impressed by McDonald's penalty, Clements knew he had to up the ante. On the next play, Burress was split wide with Clements dropping about seven yards back from an initial press look. Burress took off at the snap, with Clements keeping stride and safety Mark Roman looking for UFOs and whistling a merry tune in Burress' general vicinity. There was a bit of uncalled contact from the 30-yard line, but Clements made it official at the 19 when he made more obvious contact with Burress' right arm. What on earth was Roman doing? He started to anticipate what I can only guess was more of a post pattern, but turned his head around and got completely lost.
Having been gifted with 51 penalty yards on that drive, the Giants found it relatively easy to score again when Jacobs went over for a 2-yard touchdown on the first play of the second quarter.
The Giants got the ball again with 11:25 left in the half after a San Francisco touchdown closed to gap to 14-10. Now, it was Plax's turn to shine.
On third-and-10 from the San Francisco 43 and 7:29 left in the half, the Giants lined up shotgun with four receivers and Derrick Ward in the backfield. Burress was wide right, and Clements started the contact at about the 37. There was mutual contact, but I didn't see an obvious pushoff, or anything that would constitute interference. What you had was two players who had been playing physically doing so again, and an official deciding that either there was contact outside the five-yard area by Burress alone (which there wasn't), or that Burress pushed off enough to gain advantage (which it doesn't look like he did). Bad call there, with added humor value -- it's always funny to hear Troy Aikman clam up in the booth when the subject of receivers pushing off comes up.
After a 7-yard screen to Ward left the Giants with fourth-and-13 from the San Francisco 46, the Giants brought out their punting unit. Burress, obviously thinking that if he's going to be punished, he might as well do something wrong, was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct (either barking at a referee or ripping his helmet off, there wasn't a view) and headed for the sideline. Burress and Tom Coughlin had a few words, and Burress sat down.
It was nice of Plaxico to give back all that real estate -- the Giants got as far as the San Francisco 39 before being driven back to their own 39 for a fourth-and-28 punt -- but probably unnecessary. The Giants won the game, the 49ers fired Mike Nolan soon after, and the two teams combined for a total of 29 penalties (four either declined or offsetting) and 229 penalty yards. Walt Anderson's crew had averaged 13 total penalties per game in the five contests they had previously officiated this season -- you'd have to imagine they were all putting in for extra pay after this one.
St. Louis' Defense vs. Brad Johnson
St. Louis Rams 34 at Dallas Cowboys 14
Word out of Dallas is that -- Brett Favre pep talk notwithstanding -- Tony Romo will not be available to play this Sunday against Tampa Bay just as he wasn't against St. Louis. The Pinkie that Roared is still a problem, which leaves Brad Johnson as the starter. Against the Rams, Johnson completed 50 percent of his passes and threw three picks for a passing DYAR of -110 (double yoi!). St. Louis is reportedly in the midst of a mini-rebirth, facilitated by a coaching change from Scott Linehan to Jim Haslett. They've won two in a row (both under Haslett) for the first time since mid-November of last year. The question was, did this upset rest more on Johnson's performance, or a Rams defense finding inspiration under new management? And if the latter is the case, where was this inspiration when Haslett was the defensive coordinator?
We got our first clue on Dallas' first drive when Johnson tried a sideline throw to Terrell Owens. Owens was covered by safety Corey Chavous, but that wasn't the problem. The problem was that Johnson threw it high, and any jump by Owens was going to land the receiver out of bounds. Johnson did hook up with Owens in the seam on the next play for a 19-yard gain on third-and-7, but there wasn't much to write home about after that. There was a 10-yard pass to Patrick Crayton on that scoring drive, but Marion Barber was the main man with five straight rushing attempts.
The Cowboys fell apart on their second drive, starting with a long throw to Owens along the right sideline. Not only was Owens hemmed in by one defender who had inside position, but another defender was closing in. Johnson's pass went out of bounds. A blown shotgun snap two plays later left Dallas with fourth-and-24 at their own 8.
And so it went. Johnson threw his first pick on the next drive, as nose tackle Cliff Ryan bulled forward and deflected a short pass intended for Jason Witten. Linebacker Will Witherspoon made the diving catch. Down 21-7 at the end of the first quarter, Johnson was forced to throw more and more, which put the Cowboys at a disadvantage. Johnson overthrew Owens again over the middle on Dallas' first drive of the second half. His longer throws had decent arc, but not too much gas behind them; it's not good when a cornerback can adjust position perfectly on Roy Williams as he's waiting for the ball to come down, as Ron Bartell did halfway through the second quarter. Any speed advantage was negated, and the pass was incomplete.
On Dallas' final drive of the first half, Johnson threw incomplete twice to set up third-and-10, only to be bailed out by Jason Witten on a little underneath route. He followed that up with a short worm-burner to Witten and an overthrow to a double-covered Crayton. A two-yard dump-off to Witten forced another punt, and the result was academic at this point. The Rams were up 24-7, they knew they didn't have to over-defend the long ball as they might have had to with Romo, and they could focus on Barber and the possession throws. The real "matchup" here may have been Brad Johnson versus his own offense -- Johnson couldn't have done much more to help St. Louis' defense without putting on a Rams jersey.
Can Johnson get his touch and timing together this week? The Cowboys had better hope so. Tampa Bay provides a far more difficult test on defense, and at 4-3 in a tough division, Dallas is starting to run out of wiggle room.
15 comments, Last at 23 Oct 2008, 10:09am by azibuck