Film Room: NFC Divisional Round

Film Room: NFC Divisional Round
Film Room: NFC Divisional Round
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Andy Benoit

Green Bay at San Francisco

49ers offense vs. Packers defense

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.

Packers offense vs. 49ers defense

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.

Seattle at Atlanta

Falcons offense vs. Seahawks defense

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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.

Seahawks offense vs. Falcons defense

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.

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36 comments, Last at 13 Jan 2013, 11:10pm

#1 by widderslainte // Jan 10, 2013 - 8:33pm

I don't know, I seem to recall Julio doing alright against the Seattle corners last season...

Points: 0

#2 by Kal // Jan 10, 2013 - 9:01pm

11 completions out of 17 targets is pretty good. That was likely against Browner, however (and Sherman or Trufant were up against White). That will likely not be the case this season as Jones is the bigger threat, though I suspect it'll depend a lot on where he lines up.

And if you're using that game, well, Atlanta is in serious trouble. Seattle only rushed for 50 yards, threw two interceptions and still came within a hair of beating Atlanta. Chances are fairly slim the same script applies.

Points: 0

#3 by Insancipitory // Jan 10, 2013 - 9:43pm

I remember Tavaris Jackson almost brought the injury plauged Seahawks back to win that game. This is probably the healthiest the Seahawks team in 30 years, even with the loss of Clemons, and there's a new guy at QB.

DVOA 2011 to 2012 splits
Team .. | Pass | Run. | Pass | Run
Seahawks|+37.3 |+18.3 |-14.3 |. +0.4
Falcons | +0.4 | -9.8 | -0.6 | +15.5

If the 2012 Falcons show up expecting to play the 2011 Seahawks, the results are likely going to be hilarious, even if it's the 10am game.

Points: 0

#8 by Cover1z (not verified) // Jan 11, 2013 - 1:29am

This game isn't won or lost on overall DVOA numbers. The game turns on Seattle's defensive line pressure. Gonzo and Douglass will get their catches here and there. But if there's no pressure, Ryan will pick them apart.

Seattle can score 30 points in this game, but if their D line gets no pressure, 30 points won't be enough.

Points: 0

#9 by komakoma (not verified) // Jan 11, 2013 - 2:32am

Um, no. Seattle's secondary is the best in the league.

Points: 0

#23 by Cover1z (not verified) // Jan 11, 2013 - 1:21pm

They've got serious holes in their nickel package (Trufant v. Douglass is scary), and no secondary can win versus a QB with consistent 5 seconds of pocket time. Remember the Detroit game?

Points: 0

#10 by GK425 (not verified) // Jan 11, 2013 - 2:38am

I don't know, Seattle has established that they can hold good offenses to low point totals. New England 23, Green Bay 12, San Francisco 13 ... twice, Washington 14, Dallas 7, Carolina 12. Detroit at 28 is highest point total against the Seahawks all season, and they needed two fourth quarter touchdowns to win. 30 won't be enough for the Seahawks to win? It's been 7 weeks since a team scored 20 against them.

Points: 0

#24 by Cover1z (not verified) // Jan 11, 2013 - 1:25pm

We all respect Seattle's defense. Having looked closer at Atlanta, their offense can be great if things break correctly for them. This isn't a game where Seattle can have a bad 1st quarter and recover.

Points: 0

#4 by Perfundle // Jan 10, 2013 - 9:50pm

Sherman wasn't a starter yet and barely played, and Chancellor was injured and didn't play at all.

Points: 0

#5 by YOU ARE STUPID (not verified) // Jan 10, 2013 - 9:53pm

If you actually knew your stuff, you'd know that Sherman never played, Browner was playing his 4TH NFL GAME (He has greatly improved since then, and Chancellor was injured that game.

Congratulations, the secondary you destroyed in that game consisted of Marcus Trufant (SUCKS), Brandon Browner, Atari Bigby, Earl Thomas, and the slot CB was Roy Lewis (not on the Hawks anymore).

The only quality defender back then was Earl. The rest sucked then, and the only one to improve greatly was Browner.

Points: 0

#14 by widderslainte // Jan 11, 2013 - 8:13am

That was Jones' 4th game as well.

A lot has changed for both teams, and there's no reason that Seattle can't win this game with the changes. But in virtually every game preview I read, it talks about the Seattle CBs matching up well with White and Jones, essentially making them non-factors in the equation of who should win. Maybe Lynch and Wilson combine for 400 years rush and crush the Falcons, but I don't think ATL-WR vs SEA-CB matchup is that simple.

Points: 0

#35 by beargoggles // Jan 13, 2013 - 10:48pm

Maybe all the arrogant smug Seahawk fans who have been visiting the site the last few weeks will go away now. Good riddance.

Points: 0

#36 by Insancipitory // Jan 13, 2013 - 11:10pm

Says the guy pimping his shitty bears blog. DOOOONNT CAAAAARE.

Points: 0

#12 by Chawks1 (not verified) // Jan 11, 2013 - 7:53am

That's because it was Browners first season and he had only played a few games. And Sherman didn't even play in that game because Trufant hadn't gone down with injury. Seahawks are not the same team as they were last year...I know the Falcons aren't either, but you can't even bring up that game last year.

Points: 0

#15 by dcrockett17 (not verified) // Jan 11, 2013 - 9:37am

"I don't know, I seem to recall Julio doing alright against the Seattle corners last season..."

He did, but they weren't the same pair of corners then. Trufant started on the outside over Sherman. Browner played, but Walter Thurmond, III (now on IR) was still playing then (iirc).

Points: 0

#33 by Scott Crowder (not verified) // Jan 12, 2013 - 9:06pm

Sherman wasn't starting against Atlanta. Trufant was still starting CB and he is at the tail end of his career. Sherman, of course, is the best starting CB in the NFL. So what Julio did last year is irrelevant. Also, the Hawks don't match CB's to WR's. Sherman plays one side, Browner the other. Additionally, in last years game Chancellor was not in, Bigbee was. So again, the Falcons barely won against a much weaker secondary and TJack, not Wilson, leading the Hawks.

Points: 0

#6 by Will Allen // Jan 10, 2013 - 10:02pm

Tell me how close Justin Smith is to the normal Justin Smith, and then I'll make a prediction. If he is a shadow of his uninjured self, then I think the Niners need to score in the 30s to win, and I don't know if they can do that. The Packers defense has it's soft spots, but it isn't the New Orleans Saints' of last January.

Points: 0

#7 by evenchunkiermonkey // Jan 10, 2013 - 11:15pm

I was wondering the same thing about Smith. Maybe I'll just bite the bullet and shell out for the Carroll guide to sports injuries.

Points: 0

#11 by Aloysius Mephi… // Jan 11, 2013 - 3:16am

You know they'll be paging Dr. F. Eelgood before the game for him, but even so I don't know how you fight off a block with a torn triceps. I guess we'll find out.

Points: 0

#16 by Tyler (not verified) // Jan 11, 2013 - 10:21am

I'm not super-excited for the Niners' chances with a hurt JSmith, but you don't know if the Niners can score in the 30s?

I guess you haven't watched football this year.
(They hit 30+ 6 times this year, including against the Packers in week 1)

Points: 0

#17 by Will Allen // Jan 11, 2013 - 10:31am

Yes, Tyler, if I doubt that the Niners can score in the 30s in mid January, against a team that they scored in the 30s against in early September, and given that the Niners did manage it against some other teams, it means I haven't watched football this year. Say, you wouldn't be a mutual fund manager, would you?

Points: 0

#19 by Tyler (not verified) // Jan 11, 2013 - 12:09pm

I couldn't get this to post earlier, but your original post doubted they could go for 30+, so I pointed out they could.

I might be being too gotcha about it, but that's why I posted what I did (go Niners!).

Points: 0

#21 by Will Allen // Jan 11, 2013 - 12:20pm

I didn't write that I doubted the Niners could score in the thirties in a generic football game. I wrote that I doubted they could do so, against a particular football team, on January 12, 2013. My doubts might be misplaced, and I hope they are. However, the Packers interior d line is playing pretty well right now, even if Adrian Peterson's yardage would seem to indicate otherwise. Charles Woodsen's return stabilizes a lot of things for the Packers.

The Niners don't want to get into the sort of game they had with the Saints last January, it seems to me, which is why I hope Justin Smith can do more than I fear he will be limited to.

Points: 0

#32 by coremill // Jan 12, 2013 - 1:01am

Au contraire the Niners want to get into exactly the same game as against the Saints last year, excepting the final four minutes. With four minutes to go, the Niners had forced five turnovers and held NO to 17 points. SF would take that in a heartbeat against GB tomorrow night.

Points: 0

#13 by ScottB (not verified) // Jan 11, 2013 - 8:08am

As a Falcons fan, Here's what I like about the Seattle match-up:

Atlanta at home
Seahawks travel east 2 weeks in a row
1:00 kickoff
Seattle rookie QB (even though he now has more playoff wins than Ryan)
Seattle is the "hot team" and the trendy pick

Nothing there about who does what better, I know.
Throw out DVOA. I think Atlanta wins, but I'm probably a little biased.

(And I stopped putting much faith in DVOA a while back - past performance does not guarantee future results, etc.)

Points: 0

#18 by dmstorm22 // Jan 11, 2013 - 10:49am

The only reason I like Atlanta is that no one likes them. No one is picking them. Almost every expert that I see is picking Seattle to win. Reminds me a lot of the '09 NFC Divisional between Dallas and Minnesota, where Dallas was a really trendy pick going into Minnesota that day. I don't think the game ends in a blowout, but am afraid so many people think Atlanta is winning.

Points: 0

#20 by Perfundle // Jan 11, 2013 - 12:11pm

"Seattle is the "hot team" and the trendy pick"

"The only reason I like Atlanta is that no one likes them. No one is picking them. Almost every expert that I see is picking Seattle to win."

Two things. First, this isn't true:
The general public also has Atlanta favored.

And second, even if it were true, teams that most people pick tend to win. That's why they're favorites. The excitement that occurs whenever underdogs win only underscores that they're not common events.

Points: 0

#26 by ScottB (not verified) // Jan 11, 2013 - 1:40pm

I think a majority of experts are picking the Falcons. But the Seahawks are the trendy underdog pick. Then again, if I had to pick an underdog this weekend, they would be my pick as well. Who else really has a chance? (Outside GB/SF - who's actually the underdog there anyway?)

I watched Seattle/Washington with great interest last weekend and the Seahawks looked very beatable. I think Washington wins that one with a healthy QB - even if it's Kirk Cousins.

Points: 0

#27 by Cover1z (not verified) // Jan 11, 2013 - 1:56pm

Seattle definitely had a bad game last week. If they play a bad game this week, they will not come out on top.

Points: 0

#29 by dmstorm22 // Jan 11, 2013 - 2:19pm

CBSSportsline has 6 of their 8 picking Seattle Straight-Up. Yahoo! is 2-2.

Betting action is mostly even.

Points: 0

#31 by Perfundle // Jan 11, 2013 - 4:25pm

Yes, I saw that too. Basically, "experts" split pretty evenly, same as the other NFC game.

Points: 0

#22 by hfchen86 (not verified) // Jan 11, 2013 - 12:22pm

Watching Wilson play, I noticed a couple things. I would like to know what footballoutsiders think.

1. Wilson seems to run in the first sight of trouble. Whether it’s because of his confidence, or he panics too soon, he seems to run out of the pocket pretty soon.

2. This is most important and almost unique. Wilson almost always immediately retreats 10+ yards behind line of scrimmage. The reasons could be:
a) This gives him more space to avoid the rush;
b) accelerate before pass rush gets him.
c) it gives him a better pocket for he is not that tall.

Therefore if a pass rusher pursues him too deep, it leaves a bunch of space between the pass-rushing defenders and the coverage defenders.

While I think it is pretty smart, it also requires him to throw farther to gain the required yardage if he does throw. Moreover, defense should be able to design a scheme to handle him more effectively. Mostly I think the pass rushers shouldn't chase him too deep, i.e. controlled rush, because if Wilson does scramble, he will have to run back more towards defenders to get the meaningful yardage.

Points: 0

#25 by Hawk_homer (not verified) // Jan 11, 2013 - 1:37pm

1. This was a much bigger issue earlier in the year, when Wilson felt the slightest hint of pressure. This hasn't been as much of an issue since week 6, but it still happens. When he knows he has extra blockers, he's much more calm in the pocket, as evidenced by the final touchdown in the NE game.

2. From a theoretical perspective, another reason for his deep dropbacks exist: The further he backs up, the less obstructed his vision is on outside routes, particularly deep outside.

Points: 0

#30 by Perfundle // Jan 11, 2013 - 4:22pm

"Mostly I think the pass rushers shouldn't chase him too deep, i.e. controlled rush"

I'm not quite sure how this is accomplished. If Wilson retreats deep, you have to chase him deep to sack or pressure him. If you stop or slow down 5 yards away, Wilson can just ignore you.

Points: 0

#28 by foxlies (not verified) // Jan 11, 2013 - 2:02pm

superb.How long have you been doing this feature?Best nfl playoff analysis ive read + it has pictures too.I guess I could quibble on a point or two but thats true of any good analyst.How come ive only noticed you within the last month? Because i read less F.O. since traumatic detanierization?Or have u been doing this for years w/o me knowing.You make the espn,nfl, +98% of other 'commontators' look like what they are.Truly fine work;no hyperbole or irrelevant stats. it was kinda like finding an oasis. Would love u to look at my website nflalternative if u have time;beware very little is posted before friday at 5pm eastern as im extremely injury related in my analysis.Leave it to say coaches tricky questionables are the bane of my existence anyway thanks.....sincerely thank you

Points: 0

#34 by LionInAZ // Jan 13, 2013 - 2:57pm

Rivers McCown did a far superior job of evaluating the 49ers-Packers game, especially calling the Crabtree-Tramon Williams matchup. Perhaps someone other than Andy Benoit should handle this particular assignment. Or get rid of it completely, since it seems redundant for the playoffs.

Points: 0

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