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?
08 Nov 2012
by Andy Benoit
We’re not often treated to a matchup between two one-loss teams this late in the season. Stylistically, this is about as good as it gets. Both teams are experienced and fine-tuned in their distinct, contrasting offensive and defensive systems. And neither team has faced an opponent this season that’s similar to the one they’ll see Sunday night. Let’s break it down.
You know what you’re getting with Houston: base personnel packages, zone-blocking on the ground, and play-action through the air. They’ll roll the pocket, use lots of misdirection crossing patterns, and involve their backs and tight ends in the screen game.
With Chicago, you might think you know what you’re getting: Lovie Smith’s classic Tampa-2 zones, right? Maybe not. This season, and especially in recent weeks, Smith has deviated strongly from his standard two-deep approach. Lately, his Bears have been predominantly a single-high safety team, generally playing a Cover-3 out of that look. Against mobile quarterbacks, the Bears make no bones about playing single-high by aggressively crowding the box with eight defenders. Against pocket passers, they’re more inclined to disguise coverages, usually rotating from a Cover-2 to a 3-over, 4-under zone after the snap. Conceptually, a lot of the individual responsibilities for Bears defenders have stayed the same. The defensive line is still a four-man unit predicated on penetration; the linebackers are still usually zone players; the cornerbacks still must focus on physicality early in the down. The main difference schematically is that safeties Major Wright and Chris Conte must play with more speed and versatility. They've been up to the task so far. And with more post-snap shifts, this entire veteran unit is less predictable. Consequently, everyone is looser and making more big plays.
Expect the Bears to eschew disguises and just align in a single-high set behind an eight-man box Sunday night. Yes, that will leave a lot of one-on-one looks for Andre Johnson. But with Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman (who will likely draw the Johnson matchup, provided he isn't missing the game for the birth of his child) playing so well, the Bears should feel comfortable defending the All-Pro mano-y-mano outside and cheating a deep safety over for reinforcement inside. This would leave solo coverage on Kevin Walter, but that’s not a problem.
The Bears did fine with undisguised single-high coverage against Steve Smith and the Panthers two weeks ago. In that matchup, they played eight in the box to keep Cam Newton’s running in check. This week, they have Arian Foster to worry about. But facing the best running back in the AFC won’t be Lovie Smith’s only inspiration for bringing an extra safety down: an eight-man box also crowds the underneath passing lanes, which is a great way to combat the misdirection crossing patterns that define Houston’s play-actions and rollouts. What’s more, with an eight-man box, it will be easier for the Bears to get a safety on Houston’s tight ends, as opposed to a linebacker. (Though this isn’t a major concern, as Lance Briggs is one of the best pass-defending outside linebackers in the league anyway.)
An eight-man box does not inherently promise the Bears will stop Foster and Ben Tate (if he plays), though. They will still have to get a strong performance from the defensive line. The way to stop a quality zone-running game is to set the edge and penetrate on the front side. So far, only Green Bay has done this effectively against Houston. The Bears have the personnel to do it: Julius Peppers can be a tremendous edge-setter when need be, so don’t be surprised if the Texans balance their line with dual tight ends and run away from him. Penetration-wise, defensive tackle Stephen Paea’s raw strength makes him capable, but the real gem inside is fourth-year pro Henry Melton, who is having a Pro-Bowl-caliber season. We’ll get to see a great battle when Melton aligns on the defensive right side. He'll square off with solid veteran left guard Wade Smith and center Chris Myers, who has great quickness and the mechanics to play beyond his physical strength in a phone booth.
Chicago’s biggest challenge might simply be fighting the urge to play too fast. Zone defenses are typically fast-flowing; perhaps none is faster than this one. The Texans love to make defenses pay for flowing fast. One thing they do extremely well –- and this is a play we’re seeing more and more across the NFL –- is the bootleg throwback to the tight end. Here are two examples of touchdowns they’ve scored off this play.
|Graphics by Matt Glickman|
This 39-yard touchdown to tight end Owen Daniels came off a staple of Houston's offense: designed boot-action to the left. Daniels dragged his route back to the right. With the action developing slowly and two deep crossing patterns coming back behind him, linebacker Nigel Bradham abandoned his man coverage responsibilities on Daniels. Bradham may have thought (erroneously, judging by body language after the fact) that one of Buffalo’s other two linebackers was supposed to pick up Daniels’ cross. Whatever he thought, the play created the confusion Houston wanted.
|Graphics by Matt Glickman|
This was Week 5 against the Jets. Houston went with a bootleg out of a two-tight end, two-back set. One of those tight ends, Daniels, was split tight to the formation on the wide side of the field. The Texans love to throw crossing patterns and out routes off boot-action to the wide side of the field. The Jets played to that tendency. In this case, though, instead of running a deep out, Daniels ran an out-and-up. That actually stretched the defense vertically, leaving Johnson, the underneath crossing target, wide open. Unfortunately for the Jets, Johnson wasn’t nearly as open as Daniels. His pattern had gotten the safety completely turned around.
Hopefully by now we’ve dispelled the myth that Wade Phillips runs a 3-4 scheme. It’s really a 5-2, one-gap scheme. Another myth -– or, more accurately, mis-perception –- is that Phillips is a blood-and-guts blitzer. On third downs, the veteran defensive coordinator can get aggressive. But a lot of the time, and more so this year than usual it seems, the Texans play straightforward, execution-based defense. After being a single-high zone team with a lot of hybrid coverages last season, they’ve incorporated more straight man-to-man in 2012.
It’d make sense for Phillips to stress an iffy Bears offensive line that, in recent years, has struggled with blitz assignment pickup. But they’ve also struggled with basic individual matchups. J’Marcus Webb and Gabe Carimi aren’t the most athletic offensive tackles, and no one has ever marveled at the lateral agility or footwork of guards Chilo Rachal and Lance Louis. Don’t be shocked if we see Phillips continue to play a lot of straight coverage. He has every reason to believe his defense can generate pressure with a four-man rush.
To prevent the Texans from dictating the tone in the trenches, Bears offensive coordinator Mike Tice may want to throw the ball out of condensed, run-oriented formations. If he spreads out, he’ll be inviting the Texans to go with a widened four-man line, where they’re superb at executing stunts.
|Graphics by Matt Glickman|
The Texans are incredibly potent when they align ends J.J. Watt and Antonio Smith inside on a four-man pass-rushing defensive front. When Watt and Smith split into double three-technique positions like what you see here, it’s usually to set up some sort of stunt. In this case, it was a wide stunt to sweep Watt around to the far right side.
|Graphics by Matt Glickman|
Chicago’s tight ends aren’t dynamic enough to separate from the suffocating man coverage of Houston’s safeties -- both starters are former cornerbacks. It might make more sense for the Bears to go max-protect and see if they can coax the Texans into bringing extra pass-rushers. Perhaps that seems counter-intuitive for protecting Jay Cutler, but a big concern is whether the Bears receivers can even separate against man coverage. A few of their receivers, Earl Bennett especially, struggled a bit in the first half with this against Tennessee. Sending fewer players out on routes would allow for extra blockers and at least open more of the field, theoretically giving receivers more time and space to operate.
It might depend on how the Texans choose to cover Brandon Marshall. We know No. 1 corner Johnathan Joseph will be on him. But how often will Joseph have safety help? With Marshall not being a burner, and with most of his damage this season coming near the numbers, the best way to double-team him is usually with underneath defenders. For most defenses, this involves outside linebackers. But for Houston, with their frequent dime packages, it would likely involve five-tool safety Glover Quin.
If Quin is prominently featured in the box, look for Chicago to do what Green Bay did a few weeks ago and run the ball. The Packers went to three-receiver sets to do this. The Bears are comfortable in that formation, though unlike the Packers, they have a running back worth prioritizing in the passing game. Tice may want to stay in base personnel in order to keep inside linebackers Bradie James and Tim Dobbins on the field, where they might be forced to defend Matt Forte through the air.
A prominent pass-catching role for Forte early in the game would likely incite Phillips to bring additional pass-rushing pressure. Two weeks ago the Texans faced a similarly-lethal receiving back in Baltimore’s Ray Rice. Instead of trying to cover Rice, Phillips used pre-snap overload pressure concepts that compelled him to stay in and block. When Rice chose to leak out of the backfield anyway, the Texans were in position to be physical with him through peel-blitz tactics .
|Graphics by Matt Glickman|
This was Week 7 against the Ravens. With nose tackle Shaun Cody shaded far enough to his left to occupy the center, Baltimore was left with just two offensive linemen on their right side. The Texans overloaded with three pass rushers to that side. This increased the likelihood that Rice would stay in and block.
|Graphics by Matt Glickman|
When Rice wound up releasing out of the backfield, the Texans used a peel concept. Outside linebacker Connor Barwin simply abandoned his pass-rush and picked up Rice. Barwin was in perfect position to do so. This is a tactic the Texans do frequently and quite well. It requires physical, athletic outside linebackers and ends -– something this defense has in abundance.
Forte’s contributions in the passing game are critical, but his top priority is running the ball. Tying this all back to the Marshall factor, the Packers shut down the star receiver in Week 3 by playing a cornerback in trail position and a safety over the top (i.e. two-man). Houston is capable of playing this coverage -– Joseph is outstanding as a tailgater. But with help over the top, they’d be keeping a safety further from the run front. When the Packers did this, they didn’t have to worry about Forte, because he was out with a bum ankle. Do the Brian Cushing-less Texans believe they can be that cavalier towards Chicago’s run game?
Giants offense vs. Bengals defense
The numbers say Cincinnati has one of the best pass-rushes in football. The film says it’s no better than "above-average." In its purest form, it’s fairly inconsistent. The Bengals rely heavily on overload and third-level blitz calls from aggressive coordinator Mike Zimmer. Their only source of regular pressure along the front four comes from the best one-gap defensive tackle in football, Geno Atkins. The rest of that group, including athletic bender Carlos Dunlap, has been hit-or-miss in 2012. Expect them to be "miss" on Sunday. The Giants line has been the soundest all-around pass-blocking unit in football this season. Their interior linemen, in particular, have been fantastic with assignment pickups and pass-offs.
Bengals offense vs. Giants defense
This season, cornerback Corey Webster has generally followed around the opposing team’s top receiver. That doesn’t mean Webster has been a true No. 1 corner, though. He’s had several mental coverage breakdowns and has been picked on with vertical routes. You have to wonder if Webster, who has shadowed opposing No. 1 receivers the past few years now, would still have these duties if No. 2 corner Prince Amukamara was playing better. Webster will be challenged by plenty of vertical routes this week; the only consistent element of Cincinnati’s offense this season has been A.J. Green stretching the field. Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden has done a good job limiting the impact of safety help against the second-year star by keeping him in downfield patterns with outside releases. New York’s best defender on Sunday may very well be the sideline.
Chargers offense vs. Buccaneers defense
The Bucs aren’t built to play with a lead. They don’t have a good enough four-man pass rush to make soft coverage work. We saw that in the second half at Oakland. But what we also saw is a Bucs defense that could be on the rise -– in the back seven, anyway. Rookie weakside linebacker Lavonte David is getting better by the week. Because the Bucs run a lot of stacked linebacker fronts, David is often aligned near the middle of the field, which makes him essentially a harder-to-block Mike linebacker. The Bucs defensive line may not be able to rush the passer, but it’s very good at occupying interior blockers with short area lateral movement off the snap. That keeps David clean, which has accelerated the development of his diagnostic skills while maximizing the benefit of his downhill speed. The Chargers love to get Ryan Mathews outside early in the game. That could prove difficult this Sunday.
Another rookie Buc to keep an eye on is undrafted Leonard Johnson. In his debut as the outside nickel corner at Oakland, he was terrific in downfield man-coverage concepts. He’ll have to repeat those efforts this week, as the Chargers have one of the most vertical passing games in football. Those efforts must also include more cohesive teamwork with fellow rookie Mark Barron, whom the Chargers will undoubtedly target with play-action when they see quarters coverage. Last week Johnson and Barron struggled at times with downfield-assignment recognition in that coverage.
Buccaneers offense vs. Chargers defense
Doug Martin is the real deal. After a somewhat sluggish start, the compactly-built rookie has started to understand the angles and timing of his run-blocks better --especially his lead-blocks, which have been delivered proficiently by improving fullback Erik Lorig. Martin is relying on the short-area lateral burst and acceleration that got him drafted late in the first round. The next step for him will be moving the chains consistently for two halves. He was hot in the first half at Minnesota, but cold in the second. At Oakland, he was up-and-down in the first half and, obviously, combustible in the second. These hot-cold stretches are as much a function of Tampa Bay’s run-blocking chemistry as anything.
Consistency is key this week as the Chargers won’t be as prone to giving up big plays as the Raiders (or even the Vikings) were. The Chargers have a disciplined front seven and, unlike those previous two teams, safeties who always take great angles when approaching the box.
Ravens offense vs. Raiders defense
The Browns kept Ray Rice in check by winning just enough in their phone booth battles on the front side of Baltimore’s zone runs last week. The Raiders, with brawny defensive ends Matt Shaughnessy and Lamarr Houston, as well as Pro Bowl-caliber veteran tackles Richard Seymour and Tommy Kelly, should be able to do the same. But that in and of itself won’t be enough. The Browns also got good downhill flow from their linebackers in the second half. When the Raiders linebackers flow downhill, it tends to go slowly and to the wrong spots. Rolando McClain and Miles Burris both had costly failures in run-gap execution last week. McClain, in particular, can be a major liability when caught playing east-and-west. Exacerbating Oakland’s inconsistencies in the front seven is the secondary’s tendency to botch open-field tackles, both at the point of attack and in pursuit angles. They’ll pay if they repeat their mistakes this week, as there may not be a better open-field runner in football than Rice.
Raiders offense vs. Ravens defense
Even when he’s not snagging interceptions, Ed Reed is still a factor. He made a handful of phenomenal individual pass defense plays against the Browns last week. The Ravens used a lot of quarters coverages, which carries man-to-man type responsibilities but, unlike most man-coverage assignments, also allows for freelancing. It’s a great coverage for someone like Reed. At 34, his downhill range remains as good as anyone’s in the game. This week he faces familiar former Bengals quarterback, Carson Palmer, who seems to throw about four or five high-risk, head-scratching balls each game. Expect the Ravens to use more quarters coverage and trust that their secondary can not only stop Oakland’s limited aerial weapons corps, but also bait them into a few costly mistakes.
Dolphins offense vs. Titans defense
The wins haven’t been there, but over the last two weeks, there’s been a marked improvement in Tennessee’s defense. Seriously. After ranking near the bottom of the league in most major statistical categories over the first half of the season, coordinator Jerry Gray realized that his ultra-bland two-deep zone scheme wasn’t working. (Most schemes don’t when the pass-rush is inconsistent and the back-seven defenders make a habit of missing tackles.) So, Gray has changed things up, going with more single-high coverages (both man and zone) and using a variety of hybrid coverages. There have been some growing pains -– like safety Michael Griffin getting caught out of position on a critical overtime third down in the loss to Indianapolis -– but at least the Titans aren’t playing from a reactionary position snap after snap. A lot of Tennessee’s coverage changes have come in the form of post-snap rotations. That’d be a viable tactic against Ryan Tannehill this week. The erudite rookie has been very good diagnosing coverages before the snap. If he is to be fooled, it’d likely be during the play, where at times he has shown a slight tendency to be methodical.
Titans offense vs. Dolphins defense
Time to check in on Chris Johnson. His numbers have been better in recent weeks, but some of his issues that hurt Tennessee early in the season are still prevalent. Obviously, there were the fumbles last week against Chicago, but more regularly, Johnson’s finesse style puts limits on Tennessee’s offense. He’s doing it less than he did early in the year, but Johnson still leaves too many yards on the field. Negative runs off fruitless backfield dances have been costlier because, with Matt Hasselbeck under center, the Titans struggle when they can't stay on schedule. Additionally, even with a meaty front line and well-sized fullback Quinn Johnson, the Titans have no "attitude" plays anymore: they don’t take advantage when they get favorable power mismatches in the trenches. With Johnson always looking for space and daylight, defensive backs facing Tennessee have become far too relevant against the run. This week should be particularly challenging, as the Dolphins front four is hard to move and their linebackers are very good in pursuit outside the numbers.
Patriots offense vs. Bills defense
Last time these teams met, the Bills played dime personnel throughout the game, even when the Patriots were in base packages. The Patriots responded by running the ball right at the lighter front, specifically in the direction of box safety Bryan Scott, who has basically been serving as a 219-pound middle linebacker. With gaping holes to run through, Stevan Ridley racked up 106 yards and undrafted rookie Brandon Bolden accumulated 137. Bolden has been battling a knee injury lately, so his carries could once again go to Shane Vereen, who has shown good patience and awareness along with the speed to get outside. The Bills obviously played dime to keep Tom Brady and the passing game in check. Brady wound up completing a bunch of short-but-effective throws over the middle. If the Bills don’t change game plans this week, you know what the Patriots will do. If the Bills do change things up, expect the Pats to stress their linebackers with twisted route combinations involving Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
Bills offense vs. Patriots defense
In Week 4, we spotlighted the matchup between rookies Chandler Jones and Cordy Glenn on the offensive left side. Consider this spotlight No. 2. The willowy Jones continues to be impressive in all facets, showing rare lateral athletic acumen for a player of his size. The massive Glenn is back from an ankle injury that kept him out three weeks. He was stellar, if not spectacular, in all facets at Houston last week.
12 comments, Last at 09 Nov 2012, 3:49pm by Marko