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?
17 Jan 2013
by Andy Benoit
Now that all the silly talk about Matt Ryan’s poise in the postseason has (hopefully) been put to rest, everyone can (hopefully) look at the Falcons with an analytical eye. Their success against Seattle derived predominantly from their success on the ground. That was impressive; not many teams have run the ball down Seattle’s throat this year. The question is: can Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers recreate the magic against an even stingier Niners run defense? Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter will certainly give it a whirl, but he shouldn’t count on it.
Koetter can count on his passing attack though. For most of the game last week, Ryan was marvelous in going through his progressions against coverage-based schemes and tremendous in quickly recognizing favorable matchups against the blitz. Seattle’s stifling corners challenged Roddy White and Julio Jones in ways neither receiver is accustomed to, but both ultimately made plays. This week, they’re facing less dynamic corners in Tarell Brown, Carlos Rogers, and Chris Culliver, but they’re also facing corners who have the benefit of two safeties over the top. (Seattle played just one safety deep most of the game.)
One of the biggest keys to Atlanta’s Divisional Round win was Tony Gonzalez, who had six critical receptions for 51 yards and a touchdown. Gonzalez will have trouble getting open against the more athletic Patrick Willis. But, as the Seahawks found out, the 36-year-old ex-power forward doesn’t need to be open in order to make catches.
The most intriguing part of this matchup will take place in the trenches when Ryan drops back. The Falcons try to protect their somewhat-lumbering offensive line with a lot of five-step timing in the passing game. But lately, that line has been superb in all facets of pass protection, and strong blitz pickups from Jacquizz Rodgers have also helped augment more time for Ryan and his smart pocket awareness. Koetter may be comfortable trying more seven-step plays. This week, the twists and stunts from Aldon Smith, Ahmad Brooks, and company present the Falcons offensive line with its toughest test yet. If they pass that test, the Falcons will reach the Super Bowl.
In the Divisional Round Film Room post, we highlighted how the Packers would likely play man-coverage against the Niners and leave a spy on Colin Kaepernick. Sure enough, they played the man coverage. But for reasons unknown, they did not spy the burgeoning star quarterback. Most of Kaepernick’s 181 rushing yards came from scrambles on passing plays. It’s highly unlikely he’ll find those types of running lanes again this week, for not only do the Falcons play zone coverage a vast majority of the time, they also use a lot of spy tactics, usually with Kroy Biermann.
Kaepernick’s rushing damage will have to come from read-options. As we covered last week, the Falcons have struggled at times against read-option teams. However, they were fantastic in read-option defense against Seattle. (Though it should be noted that Russell Wilson did not once keep the ball.)
Of course, when facing San Francisco, the read-option is by no means the only concern. Frank Gore, along with a monstrous front five and an assortment of crafty fullbacks and tight ends, gives the Niners arguably the best base rushing attack in football. For Atlanta, a versatile defensive line, fast and physical linebackers, and punishing downhill safeties make for a sturdy run defense. What makes this matchup particularly enticing is, unlike most run-game battles, it’s not just a matter of execution and strength; it’s also a matter of schematic design. The Niners have more run-game wrinkles than the Falcons can prepare for, but it’d be wise for defensive coordinator Mike Nolan to spend time getting his players prepared for backside blocks on trap plays and for frontside pull-blocks on power runs.
Nolan also needs to get his guys prepared for trips formations. In the second half last week, the Seahawks destroyed the Falcons with deep-intermediate crossing patterns out of 3x1 sets. That was a great approach against the three-deep, four-under zone coverages Atlanta favors. Much of Seattle’s damage was done with two-tight end personnel. The Niners are even more potent in that sense, as Vernon Davis is a major threat in the seams while Delanie Walker can get open not just inside, but also on isolation routes outside.
The Niners do a tremendous job of creating favorable one-on-one matchups for receivers through formation alignment. In addition to diversifying their tight-end alignments, don’t be surprised if we see a lot of Michael Crabtree and Randy Moss on the same side of the field in an effort to get corners Asante Samuel and Dunta Robinson on one side of the formation. That could distort and weaken Atlanta’s zones. It could also limit coverage disguises and post-snap rotations, thus simplifying the looks even more for Kaepernick.
Most of Atlanta’s schematic high points this season have involved coverage disguises. This week, Nolan may want to invest more of his disguises in blitzes. The Seahawks would not have come back if the Falcons had been able to get consistent pressure on Wilson. (Granted, there were instances where the Falcons got rushers in clean and Wilson still beat them with his feet.) This season, the Falcons have had some trouble generating pressure from a four-man rush. That won’t suddenly change now, especially given John Abraham’s ankle injury, but it’s still important to create pressure on Kaepernick. A viable option would be to use an overload concept that attacks San Francisco’s improving-but-still-unrefined right tackle, Anthony Davis.
|Graphics by Matt Glickman|
When these teams met in Week 3, the Patriots did most of their damage with a speedy no-huddle that caught the Ravens off-guard. Schematically, there were two key elements that stood out: Lardarius Webb’s ability as a slot corner (he matched up on Wes Welker and, with his blitzing prowess, gave the Ravens more wrinkles in their pressure concepts), and the attention Baltimore paid to Rob Gronkowski.
Obviously, neither of these elements factor in this time around, as Webb and Gronkowski are both out. Webb’s replacement, Corey Graham, has done a stellar job filling in the slot. In Gronkowski’s place is Michael Hoomanawanui (no cheap spelling joke this week), but Aaron Hernandez, who did not play in that Week 3 matchup, will soak up most of the targets. For the Ravens, it’s not as simple as just shifting the double-team concepts they applied to Gronkowski over to Hernandez. The two are totally different tight ends. So different, in fact, that Hernandez really shouldn’t be considered a tight end. Last week against Houston, he frequently lined up at outside wide receiver, slot receiver, and running back.
Because the Texans played so much man coverage, the Patriots used Hernandez’s versatility to manipulate field spacing and throwing lanes. They often split him and running back Shane Vereen wide in order to drag Houston’s best tacklers away from the middle of the field, leaving Welker more room to operate against corners Brandon Harris and Kareem Jackson. (They also split those two wide to exploit glaring one-on-one mismatches against Houston’s overwhelmed linebackers.)
The Ravens have a different defensive approach. They play a lot of matchup zone concepts. The zone element means New England’s formation flexibility will be more about creating personnel matchup problems than exploiting existing matchup problems. The guys New England wants to attack in coverage are linebackers Ray Lewis and Dannell Ellerbe, as well as strong safety Bernard Pollard. Expect to see Hernandez and whatever scatback New England features (either Vereen or Danny Woodhead) stay closer to the formation, with a lot of primary routes coming out of the backfield. Late motion inside from the slot receiver could also be a familiar, effective tactic.
|Graphics by Matt Glickman|
Ellerbe, who is a better player since that last meeting, has blossomed into Baltimore’s x-factor. He’s improved his recognition in all facets, which has amplified his already-solid speed. He’s also gotten sharper in coverage (especially zone), though he’s still not refined enough to handle elite targets like Hernandez or Welker. Because of that, expect the Ravens to use Ellerbe proactively by blitzing him more often, as opposed to reactively by relying on him in coverage. As we saw in Week 3, Ellerbe is a very dynamic blitzer.
|Graphics by Matt Glickman|
Ellerbe had another sack in the fourth quarter, but that was a product of a protection breakdown by the Patriots. However, a little later he had a blitz on another third-and-long to force a critical incompletion.
|Graphics by Matt Glickman|
Teams that have upset the Patriots in recent years have generated pass-rush pressure on Tom Brady. However, in those years, Brady couldn’t lean so heavily on his ground game. This brings us back to the Patriots’ rapid no-huddle. It’s the main force behind their ground game’s success –- especially in scoring position. A more-prepared Ravens defense might be able to respond to it schematically this time around, but what about physically? This is an older, banged-up defense that’s on the road for a second straight week and is coming off an exhausting double-overtime thriller. Will they have the stamina to handle New England’s tempo and high volume of plays?
Yes, ultimately the Ravens offense hung 31 points on a Broncos defense that ranked fifth in DVOA coming into the divisional round. But take away the once-in-a-lifetime touchdown to Jacoby Jones (which was more a product of bad defense by Rahim Moore) and the story of that game would have been the adjustments Denver made defensively to stop Baltimore’s passing attack in the second half.
Before the Jones touchdown, the Ravens had netted just 36 yards passing in the second half. That was because the Broncos went to more two-high coverages, which prompted the Ravens to run the ball more. Ray Rice, with 13 hard-fought carries coming mostly against a seven-man box, produced 87 yards in the third and fourth quarters. But the Ravens mustered just seven points on their first five second-half possessions. Yes, the run game lent balance to the Ravens offense and helped keep Peyton Manning off the field, but if the run game had been featured like that in the first half, the Ravens probably wouldn’t have been in the game late. They needed to hit on big pass plays.
This isn’t to take anything away from the Ravens offense. They deserved to win last Saturday. Joe Flacco made several absolutely brilliant strong-armed throws; Torrey Smith made two enormous plays that resulted in 14 points; the offensive line did a tremendous job taking away Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil with heavy pass-protection concepts. We emphasize the negative in Baltimore’s second-half performance because it will factor heavily in Bill Belichick defensive game plan.
Denver was able to essentially contain Baltimore’s ground game with just seven box defenders. The Patriots have a ferocious front seven. It’s allowed Belichick (and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia) to predominantly use two-deep safety concepts throughout the season. However, that front seven did not do well against Baltimore in Week 3. For whatever reason, New England’s linebackers were reactionary and undisciplined that night. The question is: how spooked is Belichick by that Week 3 film? Does he believe his linebackers just had a bad night? Or does he believe the Ravens run game is capable of ruining his team’s season? (Belichick surely remembers the 2009 Wild Card Weekend, when the Ravens went into Foxboro and rushed for 234 yards on 52 attempts.)
Belichick must decide whether to stick with his usual two-deep coverage concepts or bring a safety into the box. As much as Rice factors in, the decision may ultimately hinge on how much he fears Smith. Recall that back in Week 3, Smith, hours after learning that his younger brother had died, torched the Patriots for 127 yards and two touchdowns. But that was against a soft zone-based secondary that had not yet acquired Aqib Talib or discovered Alfonzo Dennard. This is now a potent man-coverage secondary.
Smith made a few great plays against Champ Bailey last week, but they were somewhat aberrational. On the first touchdown, Bailey was actually in tight zone technique. The play happened because the Ravens, uncharacteristically, had a great route combination that defeated the single-high inside safety that Bailey was partly relying on for help.
|Graphics by Matt Glickman|
On the second touchdown, Bailey had great positioning, but Smith made a superhuman adjustment on the ball. That’s more of a freak play, not something you build game plans around. There were a few instances where Smith got a step on Bailey but didn’t make the catch, but Smith’s two touchdowns were really his only catches of consequence. It’s not like he owned the game. Of course, part of what took him away in the second half was Denver rolling more safety help to his side...
Again, does Belichick believe Smith is suddenly adroit at beating press coverage? (Smith has struggled against press his entire career.) Or does he trust that the long-armed Talib can take him away one-on-one? The one-on-one would allow the Patriots to keep the rangy Devin McCourty alone over the top and use the underrated Steve Gregory in the box or underneath. That is where those safeties are at their best.
The guess here is that Belichick will go two-deep early on to discourage the Ravens from trying to jump out early with big plays downfield. But that’s just a guess.
21 comments, Last at 16 Apr 2013, 4:47am by Pedro Emmer