Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
29 Nov 2012
by Andy Benoit
First-year head coach Greg Schiano’s young Tampa Bay Buccaneers have won four of their last five and are very much in the NFC Wild Card picture. Known best nationally for their perpetual television blackouts, the Bucs find themselves in a rare spotlight this week as they face Peyton Manning’s always-televised Broncos on the road. Those Broncos might just be the best team in football. Before we examine why, let’s take a closer look at the little-known club from central Florida.
After a month of growing pains, the Bucs have blossomed into the run-oriented offense that Schiano envisioned. First-round rookie Doug Martin has been the catalyst. Blessed with tremendous short-area burst, an ability to accelerate anywhere on the field, and surprising lateral agility both in traffic and space, the compact 223-pounder has averaged 115 rushing yards per game since October. Martin’s numbers have been inflated by several well-earned big gains (including touchdowns of 45, 67, and 70 yards at Oakland), but he’s also proven to be a grinder who can move the chains consistently. When you factor in Martin’s adept receiving out of the backfield, it’s easy to see why the lumbering LeGarrette Blount has become less than an afterthought in Tampa Bay’s offense.
Most of Martin’s success has come out of two-back sets with fullback Erik Lorig, who has made great strides after an up-and-down 2011 season. Lorig’s lead-blocking took on added significance when $31 million left guard Carl Nicks was lost for the season in late October. Center Jeremy Zuttah slid over to replace Nicks and has sprung several big plays with superb on-the-move second-level run blocks. Zuttah, however, doesn’t have ideal phone-booth strength. That’s a theme with this line, at least on the left side. Tackle Donald Penn, despite being close to the actual size of a Mini Cooper, is a finesse blocker with poor base power. Same goes for center Ted Larsen.
A potent two-back rushing attack has brought stability to Tampa Bay’s offense. That’s huge, as Josh Freeman remains one of the more inconsistent quarterbacks in football. That isn’t to say Freeman is bad, though he was last year as he struggled with coverage recognition and timing in the pocket. This season, however, Freeman is seeing things clearer and, consequently, making more of the spectacular strong-armed highlight throws that had onlookers salivating earlier in his career. His game-tying touchdown to Vincent Jackson against Carolina may have been the best strike in the NFL this season. Almost as impressive was Freeman’s touchdown to Jackson the previous week against San Diego.
Amazing as the athletic 6-foot-6, 228-pound Freeman can be, his precision accuracy is too often hit-or-miss. He also has a tendency to get overly methodical in his pocket mechanics. Freeman has failed to recognize wide open receivers downfield a little too often. The subtle sloppiness in some of his passes can get masked by his top two receivers, Jackson and Mike Williams, as both are big-bodied targets capable of making spectacular adjustments to balls in flight. Schiano and offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan seem to recognize this; they don’t call a lot of timing-based three-step passes for Freeman. Most of the Bucs aerial game consists of screens, bombs near and outside the numbers, or crossing patterns at the deep-intermediate level.
It’s somewhat remarkable that the Bucs defense has survived given that lone pass-rushing threat Adrian Clayborn was lost for the season in Week 3 and that its top corner, Aqib Talib, played only four games before getting traded to New England. Defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan will have to overcome more personnel shortages, as starting outside linebacker Quincy Black remains out with a neck injury and big free-agent acquisition Eric Wright, the team's other starting cornerback on opening day, just became the latest player suspended four games for Adderall.
Black’s absence isn’t a big deal, as he was not a major contributor in the sub-packages. His replacement, Adam Hayward, isn’t quite as fast, but he’s a little more comfortable playing in congestion. Hayward is joining a run defense that has gone from 30th in rushing DVOA in 2011 to second this season. A lot of the credit goes to second-round rookie Lavonte David, whose quickness and short-area agility has ignited a once-lethargic linebacking corps. David is getting smarter, and thus faster, by the week.
Speed-based linebackers are never productive strictly by themselves, though. (Especially when they play in a 4-3.) David has the luxury of regularly being clean from blockers thanks to Gerald McCoy and Roy Miller. Neither defensive tackle is a monster, though McCoy has monstrous abilities, but both have superb initial quickness and lateral run-stuffing technique. They do a great job of attacking the trenches at angles, making it hard for interior linemen to reach the second level. Lanky defensive end Michael Bennett, who is more of a finesse player, also attacks well with inside angles.
Tampa Bay’s defensive over achievement can only go so far, though. The loss of Wright leaves the secondary alarmingly thin. Undrafted rookie Leonard Johnson has been a pleasant surprise since seeing his first major action three weeks ago, but he’s still primarily a man-coverage corner, and isn't quite used to other concepts at the pro level. No quarterback is better at exploiting guys in Johnson’s position than Peyton Manning. The only reason Manning might not attack Johnson this Sunday is he’ll be too busy attacking E.J. Biggers, an up-and-down fourth-year pro who has struggled at times in man coverage.
Most defenses play Manning conservatively, rushing only four (and sometimes even three). As we saw in the second half of the Buccaneers-Raiders game, the Bucs simply aren’t talented enough to play a traditional four-rush scheme. Even with a healthy Da'Quan Bowers getting nickel and dime reps at defensive end and tackle, this front line doesn’t have enough firepower. With Ronde Barber playing de facto linebacker in sub-packages (where he’s been solid if not spectacular, especially between the numbers), the Bucs are awfully inexperienced in the back end of their pass defense. Safeties Ahmad Black and Mark Barron have a combined 26 career games to their names, while outside corners Johnson and LeQuan Lewis (who was bad against Atlanta) have 17.
The Broncos will have little trouble lighting up the Buccaneers defense. Even though they dug up scantly-used Knowshon Moreno to sub for injured veteran Willis McGahee, they should still be able to run the ball, thanks to Manning’s brilliance as a play-adjuster at the line. (Moreno, though, must be more decisive downhill than he was against Kansas City.).
It’s hard to pinpoint a single player in the league more valuable than Manning. Not only has he masterfully blended his fine-tuned system with offensive coordinator Mike McCoy’s, he’s also quickly identified and maximized the strengths of every receiver he works with. It’s fun to see on film all the little things Manning does to make the game easy for his teammates. It’s no accident that every Broncos player has adapted so well to the new system and seems to be improving by the week.
Laudable as Denver’s offense has been, it’s the defense that has this team looking like Super Bowl favorites in the AFC. It’s almost fruitless trying to analyze this scheme, as John Fox and Jack Del Rio have sprinkled it with so many different flavors. Instead, let’s highlight the long list of players who have elevated their games.
Von Miller, OLB/DE -– The second-year superstar’s dominant edge-rushing has overshadowed his even more impressive versatility. This season, Miller has thrived as a stand-up A-gap blitzer, quarterback spy, and traditional strong side edge-setter.
Champ Bailey, CB –- The other superstar on this unit. At 34, Bailey remains agile as ever, shadowing the opposing team’s No. 1 receiver, often with little safety help. He’s also still sturdy against the run.
Tony Carter, CB -– John Fox wasn’t blowing hot air when he called Carter the best pure cover guy he’s ever coached. How a player with this kind of short-area flexibility and change-of-direction prowess has flown under the radar since being undrafted in 2009 is a mystery.
Wesley Woodyard, LB –- The special teamer-turned-nickel-linebacker-turned-starter has had a Pro Bowl-caliber campaign filling in for the suspended D.J. Williams. Woodyard’s quickness in space lends great flexibility to this front seven, as he can chase down ballcarriers outside the numbers and perform any task in underneath coverage.
D.J. Williams, LB -– He’s back now, playing mostly in nickel. Two weeks ago in his debut, he looked every bit like the well-rested, über-explosive ninth-year veteran that he is. Last week he was quieter. Still, expect him to thrive down the stretch.
Robert Ayers, DE -– Everyone touts Elvis Dumervil, but over the past three or four weeks, Ayers has been Denver’s best all-around defensive end (if we’re calling Miller a linebacker). The long-armed fourth-year pro plays with great leverage and body control, which allows him to consistently shed blocks off the second and third steps in his rush.
These aren’t Denver’s only praiseworthy players defensively. Until last week, the entire front line had been practically immovable against the run, while the safeties and nickelback Chris Harris have been tremendous in man coverage. But all of the guys listed above have performed at Pro Bowl levels the past several weeks.
The Bucs and Broncos have both benefitted from good playing-calling this season. Below are a few examples of the Bucs playing to their strengths on offense and the Broncos playing to their strengths on defense.
|Graphics by Matt Glickman|
Seahawks offense vs. Bears defense
Marshawn Lynch will need all of his tenacity to reach his per game average of 95 yards rushing in this one. Don’t expect the Bears to struggle with the Seahawks’ zone blocking scheme the way they struggled with the Texans. Asides from mobile center Max Unger and fluid yet powerful left tackle Russell Okung, Seattle’s offensive line is considerably less athletic than Houston’s. That’s particularly true on the right side, with mudders Paul McQuistan at guard and Breno Giacomini at tackle. The way for a defense to wreck a zone-blocking scheme is to penetrate on the front side. Chicago’s athletic front four should have little trouble doing that Sunday.
Bears offense vs. Seahawks defense
Cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner are both facing four-game suspensions, but they’ll be available for this contest. That’s huge, as it means Pete Carroll can maintain the single-high, four-underneath coverage concepts that have given Seattle the second-best DVOA against the pass this year. It will be interesting to see how Chicago attempts to move the ball through the air. Last week they went with a lot of quick-hitting interior routes against Minnesota’s zones, but those were zones with two deep safeties. Seattle’s zone windows are much smaller, as rangy strong safety Kam Chancellor plays predominantly in the box. Don’t be surprised if the Bears use a lot of max protection. That’s something else they did against the Vikings, even against a four-man rush. When he’s on, Jay Cutler is fantastic at buying time, which he’ll have to do if there are only two receivers running routes against a seven-man coverage. Why max protection could work again this week is a.) it minimizes Chicago’s considerable pass-blocking issues and b.) it forces the grab-happy, penalty-prone Sherman and Browner to sustain coverage longer.
Dolphins offense vs. Patriots defense
The reason the Dolphins will ultimately fall short of the postseason is that they have a paucity of vertical weapons in the passing game. The only receiver defenses must worry about downfield is Brian Hartline, and his north-and-south explosiveness isn’t too far above-average. This makes the Dolphins too easy for two-deep cover teams (like the Patriots) to defend. Exacerbating matters is that left tackle Jake Long has not been his usual self in pass protection this season. In fact, if rookie defensive end Chandler Jones returns from an ankle injury this week, the Dolphins may have to consider giving Long a little help in passing situations.
Patriots offense vs. Dolphins defense
It will be interesting to see how defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle utilizes inside linebackers Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett. Those two are the key to stopping the Patriots not just on the ground but through the air. Both are athletic enough to compete with tight end Aaron Hernandez between the numbers, though they’ll need a little safety help if he gets too far downfield. And both have just enough short-area lateral agility to get a hand on Wes Welker and Julian Edelman should those wideouts run crossing patterns through Miami’s shallow zones. That said, with New England’s limited verticality in the passing game, Coyle may feel comfortable using his safeties more in shallow coverage, freeing up Dansby and Burnett to blitz inside -- that's a strategy that many coaches believe is the best way to rattle Tom Brady. Neither linebacker is physical in traffic, but both (and especially Dansby) are speedy pass rushers.
49ers offense vs. Rams defense
Before we start thinking "Montana ... Young ... KAEPERNICK!!!!" we should all remember the Tommy Maddox/Derek Anderson factor. When a backup quarterback breaks into a starting role midseason, defenses are often a step behind him because most of what they’ve seen on film from their opponents involves a different quarterback. In other words: it takes a few games for new quarterbacks to get figured out. This is especially true when the new quarterback is mobile enough to extend the action and make plays when things break down.
That said, it’s hard not to get excited about Colin Kaepernick. Not only is he uncommonly athletic and blessed with a strong arm, but he’s also shown hints of an ability to make downfield-progression reads and precision-accuracy passes even under duress. Those are traits that predecessor Alex Smith has never brought to the table.
Rams offense vs. 49ers defense
So much attention is paid to Aldon Smith, Justin Smith and San Francisco's sensational inside linebackers. But what about the safeties? Down after down, Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner patrol the back end of this fervid man-defense, showing top-notch range not just going east and west, but also north and south. There isn’t a faster, more violent back end duo than this. A big reason the Niners can play so much man-to-man and trust their inside linebackers to cover tight ends one-on-one downfield is they know Whitner and Goldson can usually get upfield fast enough to nullify any mistakes made in front of them. Will defensive coordinator Vic Fangio keep these two in their traditional two-deep looks? The Rams don’t begin to have enough talent at wide receiver to warrant safety help over the top on both sides of the field. It might be tempting for Fangio to break custom and use one of his safeties as a disguising rover. (Don’t count on it, but still...)
Vikings offense vs. Packers defense
When you’re as banged up as the Packers are on defense, it’s all the more important to attack your opponent’s weakness. The Vikings offense has a very obvious weakness: right guard. Brandon Fusco has really struggled in that spot. Last Sunday, the Bears designed a series of different twists and stunts specifically to attack the 2011 sixth-round pick. Fusco spent most of the second half riding the pine, as Geoff Schwartz, who was originally supposed to fill this position, took the majority of snaps. Fusco’s play has been worsening by the week. He doesn’t have enough natural strength to consistently sustain blocks without perfect fundamentals. When asked this week about his young player, head coach Leslie Frazier was refreshingly candid, saying "It’s more (his) footwork and sometimes getting top heavy. (He’s) leaning a little bit too much one way or the other. And he’s just losing some of his fundamentals as an offensive guard. There are some things that technically he’ll get off on at times. And then it creates problems for our offense."
Packers offense vs. Vikings defense
The Packers offense has an obvious weakness of its own: offensive tackle. Marshall Newhouse and T.J. Lang have both drowned when not given the life preserver of chip-blocks in pass protection. As Cris Collinsworth illustrated in several replays Sunday night, the Packers can’t slide their protections to both sides. Mike McCarthy needs to figure something out, as his team’s remaining five games are all against predominantly two-deep zone defenses that can create pressure with a straight four-man rush. McCarthy has committed to heavy protection against quality four-man rushes before, but the results haven’t been very good. Generally, that approach requires a Brandon Marshall-type possession target who can move the chains by posting up defenders. The Packers don’t have this ... even though they thought they did in Jermichael Finley.
Steelers offense vs. Ravens defense
There’s really no point in analyzing this game until we know Ben Roethlisberger’s status. For the sake of filling this paragraph, we’ll assume Roethlisberger will be out again. In that case, the biggest "other injury" for Pittsburgh on offense is not wideout Antonio Brown, but left guard Willie Colon. When a knee injury kept him out of last week’s contest at Cleveland, the Steelers ran for just 49 yards on 20 carries. With mudders like Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman handling most of the load, Pittsburgh’s run game is generally confined between the tackles, making Colon’s power and mobility vital to the offense.
Ravens offense vs. Steelers defense
Two things the Ravens offense must adjust after being held to 200 yards and six points by the Steelers two weeks ago are their use of the tight end inside and their route combinations on the outside. The tight end part is easy; Dennis Pitta, their primary source of flexibility in the passing game, is healthy now after sitting out most of the Week 11 contest due to injury. He must be on the field to occupy the safeties and prevent supremely-athletic inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons from freely roaming sideline to sideline as an underneath zone defender. As far as the outside goes, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron needs to align Torrey Smith in more tight bunches to create better spacing for the speedster early in his routes. It was clear two weeks ago that Smith doesn’t have the refined route-running prowess or firmness in his change-of-direction to separate from corner Ike Taylor.
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