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?
10 Jan 2013
by Andy Benoit
Denver's Week 15 beat-down of the Ravens carries a small asterisk given that half of the Ravens defensive starters were sidelined that week. Knowshon Moreno, who rushed for 118 yards en route to an AFC Offensive Player of the Week award, won’t have as easy a time running against a box that now includes Ray Lewis, Dannell Ellerbe and Bernard Pollard. Moreno will still have an opportunity to post good numbers, as the healthier Ravens are playing on a semi-short week after entering the Wild Card round with the benefit of a de facto Week 17 bye. It will be tough for them to contend with the effective point-of-attack double-team blocks that Denver utilizes so well inside. They’ll also have to stop the run with a seven-man box.
Peyton Manning is more than happy to run against thinner fronts, but he knows that ultimately, Denver’s offense goes how its passing game goes. Though Manning’s offense in Denver includes many more combination routes than his offense in Indy did, the Broncos still rely heavily on isolation patterns. That was the key to their attack against the Ravens in Week 15. They had a lot of success spreading the field and throwing deep comeback patterns on the outside against quarters coverage. This approach maximized the precision route running skills of Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker (one of the best all-around route runners in the game), preventing Ed Reed from being a factor over the middle.
|Graphics by Matt Glickman|
The key to Baltimore's defensive success against Indianapolis last week was the variety of blitzes the Ravens featured on third down. Don’t expect that this week; it's an NFL truism that the best way to combat Manning is to rush three or four and play coverage. The Ravens have been inconsistent, if not outright uninspiring, with their four-man rush this season. But lately, they’ve started to pick things up a bit, as quick-handed Paul Kruger continues to improve and a now-healthy Pernell McPhee gets more snaps on the inside. In Week 15, they were able to condense Manning’s pocket more than most defenses did this season. That's rarely enough against Manning, though. This Saturday, Baltimore’s pass rush will need to finish plays.
Baltimore’s running backs were the difference in the Wild Card round. Ray Rice changed the game with his spectacular 47-yard catch-and-run screen to set up a touchdown in the final minutes of the first half. Bernard Pierce put the game away in the second half with a handful of runs on the outside that picked up chunks of yardage. What’s been clear all season is that the Ravens offense must operate through its backs.
Circumstances prevented the Ravens from doing this last month against Denver. Joe Flacco’s ill-advised goal-line throw at the end of the first half resulted in a pick-six that put the Ravens in a 17-0 hole. Baltimore ran just three plays on each of its first five drives, and the first-half deficit prevented Rice from ever factoring into the game. (He finished with 12 carries and three unproductive catches.) The Ravens couldn’t move the ball because their offensive line couldn’t move the Broncos front. The biggest weak spot was left guard Bobbie Williams, who has since been benched in favor of left tackle Bryant McKinnie. McKinnie’s addition to the lineup has moved Michael Oher from left tackle to right tackle and sent rookie right tackle Kelechi Osemele, who had been struggling a bit in pass protection, to left guard. The Ravens say that this gives them their best offensive line combination, but if it were really that good, they would have been using it all season.
The reshuffled line looked a lot better as a run-blocking unit last week, but blocking Indy’s defensive line is nothing like blocking Denver’s rotation of immovable tackles inside and fluid athletes outside. In order for the zone ground game to work, the Ravens will have to get the usual strong performance from fullback Vonta Leach plus an unusual solid performance from finesse tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta.
In all likelihood, Rice’s most effective touches will come through the air. Even that won’t be easy, as Denver’s nickel linebackers, led by the grossly underrated Wesley Woodyard (along with the athletic rotation of D.J. Williams and Danny Trevathan) may be the best in the AFC. But it’s still critical that Rice be featured through the air, as there’s little-to-no chance of Baltimore’s wide receivers shaking free from Denver’s stifling two-man coverage. Anquan Boldin will have to step up for a second straight week, as we figure Torrey Smith will be nullified once again by Champ Bailey. Boldin is the one Ravens receiver who can make contested catches. Of course, to do that, his quarterback must be willing to make contested throws. That’s normally the rocket-armed Flacco’s greatest strength, but at times down the stretch this season (including against Denver), the fifth-year pro was too hesitant and ineffective throwing from a less-than-pristine pocket.
In the Monday night mugging that took place a few weeks ago in Foxboro, the Patriots opened the game in their usual two-tight end personnel (with an injured Rob Gronkowski’s spot filled by Michael Hoomanawanui ... or Hooshoryoumamma ... or Hoomawaauiueiiuennnuie ... or whatever). The Texans responded with their base 3-4 personnel. That left Aaron Hernandez matched up against linebackers, which the Patriots capitalized on when jumping out to a 28-0 lead.
It seems unlikely the Texans will play base again this time around. Not only does a healthy Gronkowski double the Patriots’ potency at tight end, but injuries to Darryl Sharpton and Tim Dobbins (Houston’s best cover linebacker) leave the Texans thin at inside linebacker. By going with his more diverse three-corner, three-safety sub-package, Wade Phillips can at least match New England’s athleticism.
If they’re on their games, safeties Glover Quin and Danieal Manning are capable of holding their own in one-on-one matchups against Gronkowski and Hernandez. The question is: can they hold up in run defense? Both are solid tacklers who can survive in the box (Quin moreso than Manning), but the Patriots have one of the best power run games in the NFL. They’d almost certainly attack Houston inside (away from J.J. Watt, if possible) and try to create scenarios for guard Logan Mankins to reach Quin at the second level. That’s a mismatch the Texans would have little chance at overcoming.
Part of what makes the Patriots so dangerous is, with Tom Brady’s magic at the line of scrimmage and a fast tempo of play, they can gouge defenses with the same concepts again and again -– especially on the ground. Stevan Ridley has given them a very productive run game, but the Patriots are arguably more dangerous with Danny Woodhead in the backfield. Not only is the fifth-year pro a terrific space-oriented runner, he’s a very dangerous receiver when split outside or coming from the backfield. No matter what package the Texans are in, the Patriots will find ways to create favorable one-on-one receiving situations for Woodhead.
|Graphics by Matt Glickman|
New England has used wheel routes most effectively against zone coverages, but with the right route combinations, they can easily execute it against the man-to-man that Houston prefers. The Texans are equipped to defend this; in the graphics above, the second play highlighted how Jacksonville took away the wheel route when defensive end Jeremy Mincey peeled into coverage on the running back. The Texans edge players, with their awareness and athleticism, are great at peeling. In fact, Connor Barwin might be the best peeler in the NFL.
Of course, just about everything that we’ve described so far has involved the Texans reacting to the Patriots. History tells us that the best way to beat Brady and company is to make them react to you. Don’t be surprised if Wade Phillips rolls the dice with a barrage of aggressive blitzes throughout the game. That’s something the Texans do extremely well, especially their box safeties in sub-packages.
In case you missed our Wild Card preview on the Texans, the main point we drove home was that Matt Schaub’s limited arm strength and mediocre dropback passing prowess make Houston's pass game dependent on the threat of play-action. Thus, it’s critical the Texans stay ahead in the down and distance. And, as we saw in the blowout at New England, it’s critical that they keep the score close early on.
All this suggests that Houston is leaning on another big week from Arian Foster. The supple superstar has spent the past three years answering these sorts of calls, but it’s hard to fathom any running back having resounding success against a rested defense when he’s coming off a 32-carry game this late in the season. The Texans have a good zone-blocking front line, but in the last matchup against New England, it had no answer for the powerful, penetrating Vince Wilfork. Yes, last week the Texans ran effectively against Cincinnati’s equally dynamic tackles (Geno Atkins and Domata Peko), but those tackles weren’t playing in front of a linebacking trio that’s as explosive as Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, and Dont'a Hightower.
Instead of focusing so much on the run, look for Houston to attack New England’s linebackers in coverage with an array of underneath crossing patterns and screens. This week, the play-action element will be more about setting up proper angles for east-and-west misdirection than it will be about getting linebackers and safeties to bite against the run. That’s because the Patriots will likely be in man coverage, which means eyes will be on receiving targets and not the backfield.
In the last matchup, the Texans often aligned Andre Johnson inside, figuring that’s where his man-defender, Aqib Talib, would be least comfortable. (Talib generally plays outside, while Kyle Arrington plays the slot.) They’ll probably use Johnson this way again, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be easy for Schaub to find. Because he has dynamic linebackers who are also smart blitzers, Bill Belichick generally keeps two safeties back in coverage. That allows the Patriots to give help over-the-top to both sides of the field. Or, it allows them to use a lurk defender at the second level. It’s at the deeper part of the second level where Houston likes to involve Johnson. There will be a lot of occasions where Johnson isn’t open. It’s on Schaub to have the wherewithal to find ancillary targets at the shallower levels.
30 comments, Last at 11 Jan 2013, 11:47pm by Will Allen