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
With Colin Kaepernick under center, this is a more dangerous San Francisco offense than the one Green Bay faced in Week 1. Kaepernick presents a more dynamic running threat than Alex Smith, and his superior arm strength presents more tight-window throwing possibilities downfield. That said, aside from an expanded zone-option run game, not a lot about San Francisco’s offense has changed schematically.
In the passing game, San Francisco creates a lot of favorable one-on-one matchups through formation wrinkles on first and second down. They change up personnel and formations too much for defenses to readily detect patterns and tendencies. It wouldn’t be a bad idea for the Packers to ease their own mental burden by playing man coverage across the board. Cornerbacks Tramon Williams, Sam Shields, and Casey Hayward should be expected to win individual matchups against Niners wideouts. Safeties Morgan Burnett and, especially, Charles Woodson, should be expected to fare just fine against tight ends Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker.
The only concern about man coverage is that it can leave wide-open lanes for a scrambling quarterback. Dom Capers would likely have to shadow Kaepernick with a linebacker or safety. Those back-level defenders would have to be prepared and disciplined against Kaepernick’s misdirection ball-handling.
Another enticing option for Capers could be to shuffle through different looks in hopes of confusing the callow Kaepernick. Whatever the Packers come up with in coverage, it’s likely to work well enough -– especially given that San Francisco doesn’t have any pass-blockers who can contain Clay Matthews. (To be fair, Joe Staley did a better job in Week 1 than the stats showed.) The real key for Green Bay is playing the type of disciplined run defense that carried them to victory last week against Minnesota. The 49ers have the most diverse run game in the NFL. They’re one of the few teams that can just line up and effectively pound the rock down after down.
It’s no secret what the Niners do defensively. They use a variety of twists and stunts to generate pressure with a four-man rush while playing stifling two-man coverage on the back end. They’re almost never susceptible to matchup problems because Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman are two inside linebackers who can dominate against the run and win in man coverage.
In Week 1, the Niners surprisingly played their dime package against Green Bay’s three-receiver sets. They wanted to get cornerback Perrish Cox matched on tight end Jermichael Finley. They were so bent on this that they even defended Randall Cobb with a linebacker (usually Bowman). Don’t expect to see these dime coverages this time around. Cobb has since evolved into Green Bay’s most dynamic weapon; the Niners will almost certainly defend him with Carlos Rogers in the slot. Finley, on the other hand, has not fully blossomed as many had expected, though he’s played much better the past month-and-a-half. The Niners will likely be comfortable with Willis on him. That’ll leave Bowman to defend running back DuJuan Harris out of the backfield (a chore Bowman has handled well all season long).
For the first time in months, the Packers have their entire receiving corps healthy. One would think Mike McCarthy would use a host of different four-receiver sets to get Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, James Jones, and Cobb (plus Finley) all on the field together. Even if the Niners went back to their dime package to defend this wide receiver quartet, the Packers could still get the über-versatile Cobb matched on a linebacker by shifting him into the backfield. And, as we saw in Week 1, if those shifts don’t draw a linebacker’s attention, they can still create problems for the defense.
|Graphics by Matt Glickman|
The problem with a four-receiver approach is that it leaves the Packers with the minimum five blockers in pass protection. McCarthy, for good reason, probably won't trust any of his linemen (save for maybe right guard Josh Sitton) to win one-on-one matchups against the likes of Aldon Smith, Justin Smith, Ray McDonald, or the feloniously underrated Ahmad Brooks. The Packers could still throw from four-wide sets with three-step timing, but for whatever reason, Aaron Rodgers and his receivers have not been as sharp in the quick-strike pass game as they were last year. Most likely, we’ll see the Packers stick with their six-man protection concepts and trust Rodgers to make plays under pressure late in the down. The six-man protection means more base personnel for Green Bay. That’s fine with McCarthy since, even against stingy run defenses like San Francisco’s, he’ll be admirably disciplined about run-pass balance in his play-calling.
Falcons fans have a right to be nervous. Of all the defenses in the NFC, none matches up better to this prolific offense than Seattle’s. Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman form the only cornerback duo capable of handling Julio Jones and Roddy White. The speed of Seattle’s linebackers is likely too much for the rumbling Michael Turner. Safety Kam Chancellor has the outstanding size to help handle Tony Gonzalez, though the veteran tight end doesn’t necessarily need to be open in order to make catches. And, last but certainly not least, Seattle’s defensive line, even without leader Chris Clemons (torn ACL), is very good with stunts and slants, which is how teams have successfully attacked Atlanta’s big-but-un-athletic front five.
But just because the Seahawks have the resources to stop the Falcons doesn’t mean they will. Let’s keep things simple and remember that the Falcons have good players. Really good players. Any of those players are capable of winning one-on-one matchups against any Seahawks defender. This truly will be a battle of execution.
Overseeing it all for Atlanta is Matt Ryan. He’s coming off the best regular season of his five-year career thanks to big strides in muddied pockets. He hasn’t had to rely on those improvements as much the past few weeks, as tackles Sam Baker and Tyson Clabo have elevated their play.
Talented as the Falcons are, the stinginess of Seattle’s defense should compel offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter to alter his approach at least a bit. All season long the Falcons have relied heavily on Jones and White winning with isolation patterns outside. Perhaps those receivers can flourish even against Seattle’s star corners. But instead of simply banking on that, Koetter may want to take a small gamble and try to create a schematic advantage by incorporating a few route combinations into the game plan.
One area where the Falcons already do something like this is in the screen game -– particularly outside. They’ve had tremendous success with Jones as both the screen target and decoy on the strong side in 3x1 sets. Koetter has been very shrewd in the way he uses screens to set up other plays later in the game. Expect to see some variation of screen passes from Atlanta on Sunday, especially in the red zone.
The key to Atlanta’s defense has been the improvement of safeties William Moore and Thomas DeCoud. They’ve sharpened their awareness and range in all facets. Another key has been the stellar nickel play of linebackers Stephen Nicholas and rising star Sean Weatherspoon. Finally, the Falcons have developed one of the more versatile front lines in football since playing defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux more on the outside and essentially replacing Ray Edwards with Kroy Biermann (a player general manager Thomas Dimitroff uncharacteristically failed to fully recognize when he gave Edwards an $11 million guaranteed contract two years ago). Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan has successfully blended all of these factors to give Atlanta one of the trickiest defenses in football.
|Graphics by Matt Glickman|
Russell Wilson is young but smart enough to handle the Falcons. It helps that Seattle’s passing game naturally simplifies things by featuring so much play-action and downfield shots. Wilson’s arm isn’t the key to this week’s game, though: his feet are. The Falcons struggled in run defense against the Redskins in Week 5 and the Panthers in Week 14. Both of those teams featured the type of read-options that Wilson and Marshawn Lynch have been running more and more effectively down the stretch.
The Seahawks aren’t totally dependent on read-option tactics. They’re more than willing to simply hand the ball to Lynch and let him find daylight behind zone blockers. And because the Falcons are a Cover-3 based team, the Seahawks may have an opportunity to manufacture golden opportunities for Lynch on the outside.
36 comments, Last at 14 Jan 2013, 12:10am by Insancipitory