In what is likely the best opening week of college football we've seen in years, we're treated to a series of neutral-site, out-of-conference matchups that could have a resounding impact on the entire college football season.
06 Dec 2012
by Andy Benoit
Just like last week’s Film Room feature, Football America is plenty familiar with the home team in this game. So, before we dive into specifics on this match-up, let’s break down the Miami Dolphins.
Ryan Tannehill has been better on film than on paper. His pocket presence is developing well as the season progresses, and he has enough arm strength to take deep shots, as well as the ability to make tough throws on the move. Occasionally, when he gets outside, he’ll succumb to Favreian recklessness: throws back across his body or into coverage aren't unheard of. Most of the time, though, Tannehill plays with discipline and a football IQ that is much further-developed than anticipated. This includes pre-snap reads and adjustments at the line of scrimmage. Overall, he’s a work in progress, but the progress has been there.
The problem for Tannehill is the limited resources around him. Brian Hartline has underrated speed and body control, but he’s far from a No. 1 receiver. Davone Bess is one of the few players in professional sports who is both quick and slow. When afforded the natural buffer from lining up in the slot, Bess has the ability to separate from defenders early in the route. But with limited size and speed, he’s confined to variations of underneath crossing patterns. The same can be said for most of the Miami offense.
Because of the shortcomings at wide receiver, offensive coordinator Mike Sherman keeps the Dolphins primarily in base sets. Miami’s downfield shots have to be manufactured with deception. That’s why versatile H-back Charles Clay is, in a lot of ways, the offense’s most important weapon. (We'll get to him in a bit.)
One might think, given his history, that Reggie Bush would be Miami’s primary source of versatility. However, the seventh-year pro is averaging just two receptions per game while getting roughly 14 carries. With the Dolphins featuring fullback Jorvorskie Lane in most formations and often utilizing tight end Anthony Fasano as a pure blocker on the edge, most of Bush's runs have been of the traditional between-the-tackles variety. (Why the Dolphins insist on having Fasano block defensive ends one-on-one so often is a question better left for Sherman.) Bush has improved his patience and toughness to prosper in this role. And, as the Seahawks found out two weeks ago, Bush still has the lateral agility to bounce outside. But, unlike in his Saints days, he is no longer dependent on finding space to move the chains. If anything, Daniel Thomas is Miami’s finesse back. Thomas weighs about 30 pounds more than the 203-pound Bush, but he’s at his most comfortable running out of the shotgun.
The group tasked with blocking for Tannehill and these backs suffered a major blow last week when left tackle Jake Long tore his triceps. Yes, Long had been having a below-average season -– not just by his standards but by general left tackle standards -- and pass protection had become a major problem for the former No. 1 overall pick. Still, he was the man the Dolphins could least afford to lose, as their only full-time tackle off the bench is lean second-year pro Will Yeatman. Instead of trying their luck with the untested Yeatman, the Dolphins will kick rookie right tackle Jonathan Martin to the left side and fill his place with backup guard Nate Garner. Martin has run hot-and-cold as a pass-blocker this season, but brings good athleticism to the ground game. In limited action, Garner has consistently gotten destroyed off the ball inside, and not necessarily by elite opponents. He did, however, survive okay at right tackle against New England -- though he benefited from lucky angles and chip-block help on several occasions. The only indisputable bright spot on Miami’s line has been Mike Pouncey. Like his brother, the second-year center has outstanding mobility and naturally-smooth mechanics.
Miami has one of the better run defenses in the NFL thanks to a stingy front four that can win individual match-ups in phone booths. Paul Soliai is the catalyst. Like any good nose tackle, he has the raw strength and lateral prowess to hold ground against interior double teams. He’s unique in that he’s also capable of penetrating gaps. That’s important because defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle likes to alternate between 3-4 and 4-3 concepts. Perhaps more impressive than Soliai this season has been Randy Starks, one of the most disruptive one-on-one run-stuffers in the NFL. On the edges, Jared Odrick is tough to run at, and Cameron Wake, who has great chase speed, is even tougher.
A trench-clogging defensive line allows linebackers Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett to play in space, which both finesse players need in order to thrive. Because the Dolphins so often play with five defensive backs, the third member of Miami’s second-level run defense is not strongside linebacker Koa Misi, but safety Reshad Jones. Jones has gotten better as the season has progressed, especially near the line of scrimmage.
On the back end, the Dolphins tend to play straight man-to-man coverage against teams with limited receiving corps. Against stronger opponents, they’ll rely more on disguises, especially with front seven blitz looks that require some variation of hybrid coverages. Even with their respectable pass rush, it’s surprising they’ve been able to survive with this approach. Besides lanky corner Sean Smith, who is much better than he was in 2011 but still struggles against comeback routes, the Dolphins don’t have any solid cover artists. Nolan Carroll, starting for the injured Richard Marshall, can be particularly vulnerable at times.
Don’t expect San Francisco to take to the air just because Miami has an upper-echelon run defense. Miami's run defense has shone brightest against zone-blocking teams. But as the Titans showed in Week 11, teams that load the backfield with extra bodies and run downhill behind man-power blocking pose a different challenge to this group.
That said, the Niners can’t expect to win this game strictly on the ground. Colin Kaepernick should prepare to beat man-to-man defense -– especially if the Niners go to three-receiver sets. (They don’t prefer to do that, but have been more willing to do so since changing quarterbacks.) Two weeks ago, the Dolphins used man-free lurk coverage against another mobile NFC West quarterback, Seattle’s Russell Wilson.
|Graphics by Matt Glickman|
Not a lot has changed with San Francisco philosophically over the course of this season. They still aim to run the ball and use as many different base formations as possible on offense. Defensively, their front seven is the best in football, while their back four stifles opponents with man-to-man on the outside and two safeties over the top. They don’t have to blitz a whole lot because their linebackers and defensive ends are tremendous with teamwork-oriented pass-rushes such as stunts and twists.
One thing that has changed, of course, is the quarterback position. With Kaepernick under center, Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman have been a little more liberal in their aerial play-calling. Kaepernick is coming off a rough outing at St. Louis in which he missed a few downfield throws and committed some critical mistakes late. But the loss at St. Louis was more about good Rams defense than bad 49ers offense. The Rams front seven confused and out-executed the Niners offensive line while the secondary consistently took away throwing lanes with fantastic zone coverage.
It’s not debatable that Kaepernick presents a higher ceiling for the Niners’ offense than Alex Smith. And that is not necessarily dependent on changing the play calls that Smith ran.
|Graphics by Matt Glickman|
Something the Niners do better than any offense in football is manufacturing downfield passes out of run sets. They love to take shots on first downs around midfield, particularly out of closed formations (i.e. two receivers to one side and a line-of-scrimmage tight end to the other).
This is how teams with limited passing games have to play. Enter the Dolphins. They have no major threats at wide receiver. Tight end Fasano has decent hands and good feet, he’ll never be confused for Vernon Davis. But what the Dolphins do have is a hybrid fullback/tight end in Clay who can create very specific match-up problems against base defenses.
|Graphics by Matt Glickman|
Vikings offense vs. Bears defense
None of the numerous injuries on Chicago’s defense are as big as the injury that’s plagued the Vikings offense the past three weeks: Wideout Percy Harvin’s ankle. Harvin’s outlook for this Sunday remains bleak, and his absence leaves the Vikings deprived of a genuine playmaker in the passing game. Jerome Simpson, who was never accused of being overly polished with the Bengals, hasn’t been reliable on the outside. Veteran Michael Jenkins no longer runs well enough to be on an NFL field. Rookie Jarius Wright is callow and used as little more than an underneath move player. Tight end Kyle Rudolph has great size and soft hands but isn’t quite dynamic enough to be a matchup problem down-after-down -– especially against a Bears defense that has good cover guys at linebacker and safety. Factor all this together, add in Christian Ponder’s inconsistent mechanics and decision-making, and you have an offense that simply can’t score regularly. Even with Adrian Peterson having an illustrious season. The Bears have struggled a bit the past few weeks, but even without Brian Urlacher, they should be able to get on track in this one.
Bears offense vs. Vikings defense
The past two weeks, the Vikings have faced two sub-par, injury-riddled offensive lines in Chicago and Green Bay. They’ve generated consistent pressure against those lines, but managed a total of just two sacks. Credit the quarterback mobility (not just eluding rushers, but maintaining a throwing threat in the process) of Jay Cutler and Aaron Rodgers. The Vikings get a second crack at Cutler this week. They may want to consider drifting from their two-deep zones and putting some sort of spy on the quarterback. That would limit Cutler’s running options outside the pocket, possibly flushing him back into the pressure. Moreover, a spy defender could help clog Cutler’s favorite passing lanes. Most of Chicago’s aerial damage in the last match-up came underneath and between the numbers.
Cowboys offense vs. Bengals defense
The Cowboys look like a completely different offense with DeMarco Murray back in the lineup. Even at less than 100 percent, Murray gives the ground game a jolt of short-area burst and power on the perimeter. He’s comfortable behind lead-blocker Lawrence Vickers and running the shotgun draws that Dallas uses a handful of times each game. With Tony Romo constantly struggling to work through his progressions swiftly and losing more faith in his protection each week, the Cowboys need balance from their run game in order to thrive. Yardage will be tough to come by this week, as Domata Peko and Geno Atkins (who has been by far the best 4-3 defensive tackle in football this season) can shut down the interior, allowing speedy linebackers Vontaze Burfict and Rey Maualuga to run free. The way to beat those loosely disciplined linebackers is to make them guess wrong: The Cowboys would be wise to incorporate misdirection concepts into their ground game this week.
Bengals offense vs. Cowboys defense
The loss of rising (but still raw) wideout Mohamed Sanu leaves Cincy in familiar territory: short on downfield weapons in the passing game. A good coverage-oriented defense like Dallas should be able to exploit that. This isn’t to say the Bengals are overmatched. Running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who compensates for mediocre explosiveness with patience, vision, and downhill tenacity, has consistently converted mistakes by linebackers into big gains the past several weeks. The Cowboys are thin at that position with Sean Lee and Bruce Carter both on IR. Replacements Dan Connor and Ernie Sims have done an admirable job, but Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden should be eager to test them with different looks. Those different looks serve a dual purpose, as the Bengals like to design plays for A.J. Green out of run formations. Dallas’s secondary must be on high alert whenever Green aligns tight to the formation.
Chargers offense vs. Steelers defense
Pittsburgh is about the last place you want to play when you're trying to get your staggering offense back on track. That’s especially true when your offense isn’t trustworthy on the ground: Norv Turner called just six runs in San Diego’s first 36 plays last week. With Troy Polamalu back at rover and speedy Lawrence Timmons in the middle next to the wily Larry Foote, Pittsburgh has ideal resources for taking away the screens that San Diego likes to call. The only concern for Pittsburgh is the fire-X blitzes that Dick LeBeau loves. Offensive coordinators love to run screens against those blitzes, and from a play-calling standpoint, Turner is as good of an in-game chess player as there is in the league. When LeBeau dials up the inside cross blitzes this week, he may want to take the extra precaution of having Polamalu spy the running back.
Steelers offense vs. Chargers defense
Something that didn’t get enough attention last week was center Maurkice Pouncey filling the injured Willie Colon’s spot at left guard. That allowed backup Doug Legursky to play the uncovered center spot, where his sub-par phone booth strength is less of an issue against most defensive fronts. At center, Legursky is able to rely more on his solid mobility and short-area quickness. Give credit to Steelers offensive line coach Sean Kugler for this change. Not many teams are able to relocate their All-Pro blocker just so their top backup can be more comfortable. Though the Steelers believe Pouncey can be an elite guard, he’ll likely slide back to center this week, as Colon is expected to return to the lineup.
Ravens offense vs. Redskins defense
For yet another year, the Ravens offense is searching for an identity late in the season. They seem eager to become a pass-first team, but uncreative route designs and the inability of wide receivers Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones to consistently beat man coverage has kept a lid on the aerial game. (Joe Flacco hasn’t been very sharp, either.) Consequently, Ray Rice has been too much of an afterthought. The Ravens threw on nine of their first eleven offensive snaps at Pittsburgh last week, even though most of their success against the Steelers in recent years has stemmed from Rice and their zone run game. With Pittsburgh controlling the clock, Rice wound up getting just 12 touches on the afternoon, as he shared carries with Bernard Pierce and was stifled by double teams in the underneath passing game.
You’d think Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron would balance things out this Sunday, but this season, Washington’s defense has been sounder against the run than the pass. Still, Cameron shouldn’t give in to temptation. Washington’s secondary has gotten better with its mixed coverages in recent weeks, and Jim Haslett has done a good job compensating for an anemic pass rush with aggressive pre-snap disguises. If those disguises gave Eli Manning pause Monday night, imagine what they can do to an up-and-down Flacco.
Redskins offense vs. Ravens defense
Rookie running back Alfred Morris has buttered his bread with outside runs this season, mainly with off-tackle tosses and sweeps from read-options. The Redskins block these plays extremely well with zone concepts that suit their mobile front five. This is the exact type of rushing attack that has given Baltimore trouble this season. A lot of pressure is on speedy-but-unintuitive linebackers Jameel McClain and Dannell Ellerbe to play disciplined, assignment-based football. The loss of Terrell Suggs couldn’t have come at a worse time, as his veteran awareness and edge-setting strength were critical on the outside.
Giants offense vs. Saints defense
Why didn’t the Falcons stick with their run game against the Saints last Thursday night? They were killing the Saints with simple iso-lead weak runs inside, but they got away from the ground after the first quarter. You can bet the Giants won’t let the Saints off so easy. Even with the back half of his one-two backfield punch, Andre Brown, out with a broken leg, offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride has stayed balanced in his play-calling. Ahmad Bradshaw has rewarded Gilbride, showing new-found patience and vision between the tackles. A lot of observers are anticipating an elevated role for rookie David Wilson down the stretch. Don’t be surprised if Bradshaw winds up just hauling a heavier load.
Saints offense vs. Giants defense
When these teams met on Monday Night Football last year, the Giants came out with what they’d likely acknowledge was a questionable game plan. Worried about the speed of Darren Sproles, they matched a safety on the electrifying back and left a linebacker to cover Jimmy Graham one-on-one. The problems weren’t specifically in those matchups, but rather in the execution of those matchups, as the Saints burned them with crafty formations and route combinations. Don’t be surprised if the Giants take another stab at this game plan on Sunday. They’ve traditionally liked to defend quicker receiving backs (like Sproles, or Danny Woodhead in last season's Super Bowl) with a safety out of their big nickel package. Plus, with right tackle Zach Strief absolutely floundering at times in pass protection, Graham has had to chip block more this season. That has pushed him down the pecking order in Drew Brees’s progressions.
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