"Last team with the ball wins" is a cliche, but sometimes cliches are the best way to get across the central narrative of an important game. If you like great quarterback play, you have to watch the NFC Championship Game.
11 Oct 2012
by Andy Benoit
Championship rematches are always compelling -– especially when the losing team comes in having improved since the last battle. That’s the case with the 4-1 Niners, who now complement their stingy defense with one of the league’s top offenses. Sunday will be the third time in 11 months that the Giants have traveled cross country to face Jim Harbaugh’s club. Let’s look at what to expect.
Before we delve into schemes and personnel, we need to acknowledge something that doesn’t get talked about nearly enough: the Giants might have the best all-around coaching staff in football. A pair of Super Bowl rings have propelled Tom Coughlin into the Hall of Fame discussion, but far too often that discussion focuses on Coughlin’s discipline and motivational techniques. Nothing is more overrated that a head coach’s "motivational" skills. (The 49ers found this out with Mike Singletary.)
Coaches motivate players by putting them in position to succeed. No one ever talks about Bill Belichick’s inspiring ways. They’re too busy marveling at his genius. Coughlin should be thought of in similar terms. Yes, learning how to relate better to his players has been a boon to his career. But the Giants have found stability and developed a flair for late-season heroics because not only are they schematically advanced, but they’re as fundamentally sound as any team in football.
This is apparent on film. New York’s receivers all play with the same mechanics. They each have unique styles and attributes, but their approaches to route running and field-reading are the same across the board. That’s a sign of good day-to-day coaching. So is the way New York’s moderately-talented offensive line regularly performs masterfully as one unit. When the line does struggle, it’s usually because of individual athletic breakdowns, not mental mistakes. And on defense, how many times have we seen the Giants thrive with backup linebackers and defensive backs playing key roles? A successful "next man up" approach is always an indicator of good coaching. It’s not all on Coughlin. In fact, most of the credit here should go to his assistants.
Giants general manager Jerry Reese gets a lot of well-deserved praise for finding quality players off the street or late in the draft. But a lot of the success that these players find stems from coaching. Many of them –- Victor Cruz, Andre Brown, Chase Blackburn, and so on -– had previously spent time in New York’s system. And an unusually high number of Giants have blossomed after being incognito or disappointing early in their career. Ahmad Bradshaw, Domenik Hixon, Ramses Barden, and to a certain degree, Will Beatty. Or, defensively, Corey Webster. Coughlin’s staff develops its own players extremely well.
Eli Manning may have something to do with the fact that most of New York’s surprise stars are on offense, but even Manning himself is an example of quality coaching. The former No. 1 overall pick was average and, at times, awful early in his career. But working in the same system with offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride for his entire career, Manning has improved exponentially and become a superstar.
Coughlin won’t be the only mastermind with a great staff stalking the sidelines on Sunday. The 49ers have arguably developed the most fundamentally-sound defense in the NFL. Their players operate in a fairly basic scheme, but in dynamic fashion. The Niners defensive line executes pass-rushing stunts better than any group in the game. Their linebackers are smart and versatile. Their cornerbacks are mechanically sharp in man coverage, while their safeties consistently play with great spacing over the top. Yes, the Niners are talented. But their consistency in fundamentals shows that they’re also extremely well-coached.
San Francisco’s offensive players are fairly fine-tuned, as well. They have to be in order to play in an old-school system like Jim Harbaugh’s. No offensive coach has done more with less than Harbaugh. And no offensive coach has seen so many of his players improve.
The most obvious improvements have come from Alex Smith. In Week 1's Film Room post we highlighted some of the ways Harbaugh protects his moderately-skilled quarterback. This season, with Smith responding well to being in a familiar scheme for the first time in his career, Harbaugh has put more on his plate without asking him to bite off what he can’t chew.
Instead of having Smith make tougher throws or harder reads, Harbaugh has asked him to perform the same basic tasks, but in different schemes and concepts. The Niners have expanded the breadth of their personnel packages and formation variations, something they were undoubtedly trying to accomplish this offseason by enhancing the depth at wide receiver. Consequently, they’ve become one of the league’s most difficult offenses to prepare for. They make phenomenal use of pre-snap motions and shifts in order to create favorable one-on-one matchups. Like last year, most of their offense still operates out of base personnel. The comfort in base packages, as well as the diversity of Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman’ play-calling, has allowed this run-oriented offense to constantly be ahead in the down and distance. That’s the key.
The 49ers are averaging 6.8 yards per play on first down, second-best in the NFL, behind Carolina. They rank first in DVOA on this down (42.9%). It’s not just because they’re running well: Smith is completing 77 percent of his passes and has accumulated 639 of his 1,087 passing yards on first down. His passer rating on first downs is 137.3; on second down it’s 87.0, and third down it’s 84.2.
Throwing out of base personnel on first down is a great way to help Smith. Not only does it offers the benefit of unpredictability, but Smith gets to face base defenses, which means fewer blitzes and disguises. Additionally, it makes for more potent play-action, which is a great tactic for giving Smith defined and half-field reads.
Naturally, on first-and-10 the Niners love to attack linebackers through the air. One of their staple plays for this is the wheel route.
|Graphics by Matt Glickman|
The wheel route is simple, but can be deadly. It’s a defined throw that doesn’t require much arm strength. The starred player is a tight end or fullback matched against a linebacker. Ideally, you run this play with a play-action fake against man coverage, as that’s likely to lure the targeted linebacker out of position. That’s what happened to Rocky McIntosh on this Bruce Miller touchdown catch last year in Week 9.
|Graphics by Matt Glickman|
In this Week 2 Delanie Walker touchdown against Dallas last year, the Niners used a formation wrinkle to ensure the one-on-one matchup they wanted: they aligned their two wide receivers to the left, which meant there were no cornerbacks on the right. They also motioned Walker from the backfield to the edge of the formation. This made outside linebacker Anthony Spencer responsible for Walker. This was an inherent mismatch, as Spencer is used to rushing the passer, not playing in space. Also, the nature of the wheel route compelled Spencer to turn his body, which only exacerbated his discomfort in coverage.
|Graphics by Matt Glickman|
Two weeks ago against the Jets, San Francisco attempted the same wheel route from the 2011 Cowboys game. This time, the outside linebacker, Calvin Pace, was prepared and did a fantastic job.
|Graphics by Matt Glickman|
Perhaps recognizing that more wheel route diversity was needed, the Niners ran Vernon Davis on the pattern out of his standard tight end spot last week. Davis was matched against linebacker Arthur Moats. Normally, a defense would give a player like Moats some help against a star tight end. But outside routes, which most wheel routes are, can be nearly impossible for a man-free safety to reach. The result here was a 24-yard gain.
The way to beat San Francisco is to jump out to an early lead and run the ball. That forces their offense to be more traditionally pass-oriented. The Vikings did this in Week 3. They didn’t rely on lucky bounces or high-risk shot-plays to establish the lead; they simply lined up and ran effectively. This doesn’t happen often against Vic Fangio’s defense. With Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Justin Smith and second-year sensation Aldon Smith, Fangio is able to stop the run with simple seven-man fronts. In fact, this season, against the Packers and Lions, Fangio’s group even stopped the run with six-man fronts.
The Giants are coming off their best rushing performance in quite some time. Bradshaw looks 100 percent healthy, showing his familiar cutback ability and violence on contact. No. 2 runner Brown can also move the chains. Some shortcomings in the pass game have limited Brown’s reps a bit, but as a traditional inside ballcarrier on early downs, he’s exhibited intriguing short-area burst and patience.
Even if the Giants can somehow run the ball well, they will face third-and-long at some point on Sunday. They’ll have to out-execute San Francisco’s nickel defense. This is where players’ mechanics and technique become essential. There’s nothing tricky about what the Niners do in obvious passing situations. They rush four down linemen, possibly with some sort of stunt on the left or right side. They have Willis pick up the tight end man-to-man and Bowman spy the running back. Carlos Rogers plays man-to-man on the slot, while Chris Culliver and Tarell Brown play man-to-man outside. All three corners are aggressive in their man-under/trail techniques because they have rangy safeties Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner roaming over the top. Knowing that tight two-man is what the Niners run in nickel defense, it’s on the Giants to create and exploit mismatches against it.
Most likely, those mismatches will have to come on the outside. This year, teams have not quite challenged Brown and Culliver as much as they maybe should. Neither corner is a weak link, especially given how well they use their safety help. But neither is as suffocating as Rogers or the hard-hitting linebackers. In this particular game, it figures that at least one of the outside corners will be in true one-on-one coverage, as Rogers, like any slot corner, will need a little help against Cruz inside.
Manning is as good as anyone when it comes to throwing outside the numbers. In fact, no quarterback does so under duress better than the two-time champion. If the Giants are unable to run the ball, this contest may hinge on who Manning has available on the outside. Soaring star Hakeem Nicks is questionable. Barden, who has drastically improved his releases against press coverage, has also been banged up. So has Hixon. Thus, it’s possible that Rueben Randle will have to be a difference-maker. The second-round rookie has gotten off to a slow start, though when forced into the lineup against Cleveland last week, he caught six balls for 82 yards. The Giants helped the youngster by not calling any option routes for him. (More good coaching.) The predictability of San Francisco’s coverages makes route recognition less of an issue this week, but Randle’s timing and mechanics will still be tested in ways he’s never experienced.
Cowboys offense vs. Ravens defense
When Tony Romo throws five interceptions because his wide receivers keep finding new ways to screw up, Twitter overloads with calls for the “overrated” quarterback’s head. When Ray Lewis gets demolished by a zone-blocking run game because he and his fellow linebackers play too deep and laterally, no one says boo. That’s the benefit of being a star at a non-ball-handling position. Most people don’t notice your poor play until someone points it out.
One of the best-kept secrets in football is that the 37-year-old Lewis is rapidly running out of gas. This has been evident in his pass coverage the past year or two. Last Sunday, it was evident in his run defense. Lewis was sluggish in all facets, particularly in the first half. He struggled mightily at shedding blocks. Normally, instincts and veteran savvy hide Lewis’ declining athleticism. But against the Chiefs, for whatever reason, his instincts were off. He will likely be the guy Dallas puts the gold star on. The best thing the Ravens can do to help Lewis is dominate up front. Fortunately, Pernell McPhee and Haloti Ngata should have no trouble against Dallas’ iffy guards.
Ravens offense vs. Cowboys defense
You may recall that last season there was some murmuring about the Ravens not having any "man beaters" in their passing scheme. That conversation might be renewed this Sunday. Baltimore’s offense is not quite as heavy in isolation routes as it was a year ago, but its receivers still have a tendency to spin mud against quality press coverage. Chiefs corners Brandon Flowers and Stanford Routt stifled Baltimore on the outside last week. Cowboys corners Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne are capable of doing the same.
Bills offense vs. Cardinals defense
One of the many benefits Arizona gets from its über-aggressive blitzing is that opposing quarterbacks are playing fast. The perception of pressure before the snap and the varying angles of pressure after the snap can inherently speed up that clock inside a passer’s head. This is partly why defenses blitz the way they do; it’s not just about getting sacks. Expect the Cardinals to show plenty of blitz looks to Ryan Fitzpatrick. They may not bring extra rushers since Buffalo’s horizontally spread passing game is predicated on three-and five-step drops, but you can bet they’ll threaten with it. More so than most, Fitzpatrick is a quarterback you want to make play fast. His mechanics and footwork remain inconsistent, and when he’s out of rhythm, he tends to take imprudent risks.
Cardinals offense vs. Bills defense
We may find out this week if the Bills wasted a boatload of money in the Mario Williams deal. Any former Pro Bowler should be able to get at least two sacks working one-on-one against Cardinals offensive tackles D’Anthony Batiste and Bobby Massie. There will likely be plenty of one-on-one opportunities for Williams, as Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt seems reluctant to fully utilize chip-blocks on the outside. There’s a chance Whisenhunt will change for this game though, as with Mark Anderson out, Williams is the only true edge rusher Buffalo has. Still, recent evidence suggests it’s most likely that Whisenhunt will let his over-matched blockers play alone on an island.
Patriots offense vs. Seahawks defense
How much do the Patriots believe in their resurgent rushing attack? We’ll find out by how much they try to run in the first half against Seattle. This season, offenses have mostly come out and not even bothered challenging Seattle’s front seven. (It's really more of a front eight since either Kam Chancellor or Earl Thomas almost always drop into the box on first and second down.) Seattle has one of the best all-around defensive lines in football. Of course, that defensive line hasn’t seen an offense that runs out of the hurry-up as effectively as New England. Can gargantuan pluggers Alan Branch and Red Bryant maintain their power throughout a torrid pace of play? Can the tireless Brandon Mebane remain tireless? Hopefully we’ll get a chance to see. If we don’t, we’ll spend Monday analyzing the Patriots’ short seam passing game, as that’s the obvious alternative for attacking Seattle’s physical Cover-3 scheme.
Russell Wilson is a smart young quarterback, but he’s not ready to orchestrate a pass-heavy offense. The Seahawks know that how Marshawn Lynch goes, so goes their offense. Lynch has blossomed into an effective zone runner, in part because he’s always eager to attack inside. This in mind, the Patriots may want to consider using Vince Wilfork at a nose shade on more snaps this week. Lately the perennial Pro Bowler has primarily played the B-gaps in New England’s four-man defensive front. Putting Wilfork at the nose would compromise center Max Unger’s ability to cleanly reach the second level. Unger’s mobility has been one of the most critical elements to Seattle’s run game success this season.
Packers offense vs. Texans defense
The significance of Brian Cushing’s season-ending ACL injury has been understated. Great as J.J. Watt has been, Cushing was the one guy Houston’s front seven could least afford to lose. He was the only Texans linebacker who played in their frequently-used dime package. His speed and explosiveness lent great flexibility to what Wade Phillips could do with blitzes and disguises. New starting linebacker Tim Dobbins might –- might –- be able to fill, or at least wear, Cushing’s shoes in run defense. But no chance Dobbins can fill those shoes in pass defense. Expect to see the drop-off right away, as the Packers like to throw at the shallow intermediate levels Cushing once patrolled.
Texans offense vs. Packers defense
Last week, the Packers used Charles Woodson at outside linebacker in their base 3-4 defense. This unusual wrinkle may have been a response to Indy’s predilection for throwing short passes out of dual tight end sets on first and second down. If that’s the case, Dom Capers may be inclined to use Woodson at linebacker again Sunday night, as the Texans love to feature Owen Daniels and James Casey in the short passing game. Playing an undersized front against Houston is riskier than playing it against Indy, though. The Texans pose a serious ground threat with Arian Foster. Why isn’t Foster regarded as the consensus best back in football? He has as much fluidity and lateral agility as Ray Rice and Maurice Jones-Drew, but adds more size and power behind it. He’s also phenomenal in the pass game -- not just on screens and dumpoffs, but also on actual patterns out of the backfield.
73 comments, Last at 20 Oct 2012, 12:38am by Marco