by Andy Benoit
1. What will Denver do?
When you think of Peyton Manning, you probably have visions of him either hawking a product or gyrating at the line of scrimmage. His greatness in the latter has spawned his ubiquity in the former. We’ll focus on the latter. Manning seems to have one general (though flexible) rule in his audibles: if the defense shows a single high safety, check to a pass. If they show two high safeties, check to a run. Manning did this for the better part of 14 years in Indy. He’s now done it for four weeks in Denver.
The question is: this Sunday, will Manning be willing to check to a pass against a two-deep safety look? Unlike Denver’s first four opponents, New England doesn’t consistently drop a safety into the box to stop the run. Not prior to the snap, anyway. With clogger Vince Wilfork, a pair of fierce downhill strikers in Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes, and improvement setting the edge with Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich, the Patriots believe they can stop the run with a seven-man -– and sometimes six-man –- front. So far, with the exception of Week 3 at Baltimore, they’ve been right.
The Broncos have a solid rushing attack. Willis McGahee is a methodical, consistent grinder who makes great use of interior double-team blocks. Now-healthy early third-round rookie Ronnie Hillman has shown good short area quickness and burst, expanding Denver’s already-effective shotgun ground game.
For argument's sake, let’s say the Broncos will be unable to run against New England. It’s actually easy to imagine this when you think about declining center Dan Koppen (who’s now starting after J.D. Walton’s ankle injury) and subpar right guard Manny Ramirez wrestling with Wilfork. It's also easy to imagine New England’s white-hot offense jumping out to a double-digit lead against a Broncos team that fell into early holes against the Falcons and Texans. All non-Broncos fans should root for this, as the Manning-Belichick chess match is much more interesting in the air.
2. Aerial chess match
Lately, some Boston media members have questioned the Patriots’ coverage schemes. In analyzing this, what first must be understood is that the Patriots don’t have great defensive backs. Devin McCourty is gifted, but inconsistent. Kyle Arrington makes interceptions but can be abused in man coverage. The third corner spot is a revolving door. All of New England’s safeties are instinctive, rangy, or hard-hitting ... but none are all three of those things. Deprived of the resources to consistently line up and shutdown opponents, Belichick has to either play it safe or rely on deception and disguise.
We tend to equate "deception and disguise" with complexity. Usually that’s valid –- especially with Belichick. Manning learned early in his career that the future Hall of Fame coach is a master at mixing hybrid coverages. But in recent years, without stars like Ty Law, Asante Samuel, or Rodney Harrison around, Belichick has had to scale back his coverage varieties and simplify his disguises. The "back to basics" approach has made for a bland secondary, but it has allowed that secondary to get by with fringe special-teamers and even wide receivers in the lineup.
New England’s secondary personnel has been stabilized this season, but Belichick is still keeping things relatively basic. The Patriots have played a ton of traditional Cover-2. When they have disguised coverages, it’s often been out of a two-high zone look. That’s somewhat unusual, as generally defensive disguises derive from more man-oriented concepts (like quarters coverage).
New England’s disguises are often subtle and short-lived. They generally involve the corners shifting just a few yards out of an off-coverage look or a safety rotating in just one half of the field. Belichick’s hope is that the small disguises can make a quarterback pause for the first few breaths of a play. That pause diminishes the weaknesses of New England’s defensive backs, and also gives the pass rush more time to get pressure.
A great example of a simple coverage disguise came in the first half against Buffalo:
|Graphics by Matt Glickman|
The Patriots broke the momentum of Buffalo’s first series by rotating from a Cover-2 to a Cover-3 (i.e. a zone with a single high safety) after the snap. The lower safety simply dropped down to become a fourth underneath defender. This is a standard, common coverage tactic in the NFL, and one the Patriots do regularly. The post-snap shift gave Ryan Fitzpatrick pause, ultimately forcing him to abandon the play and scramble.
3. Attacking New England through the air
The problem with simplified coverage disguises is they’re easy to exploit once identified. It took Fitzpatrick nearly an entire half to recognize that New England’s disguises were often just tiny bells and whistles. It will take Manning however long the first snap lasts. When the tiny bells and whistles are figured out, the corners pay for their soft cushions and the safeties are prone to manipulation. This suddenly becomes a secondary that’s either caught in a coverage it’s not capable of consistently playing (like man-to-man across the board) or, more often, it’s a secondary that’s revealed to be in a vanilla two-deep zone. At this point, the Patriots, who rarely blitz, become almost utterly dependent on their somewhat-pedestrian four-man pass rush.
The way to attack a two-deep zone is with a 3x1 receiver set: this is a staple formation in Denver’s offense. In a 3x1 (or a 3x2), the safeties get stretched horizontally, which opens up the seam. For New England, this strands slot corner Arrington in space or gets linebackers Mayo and Spikes matched up on a tight end. Mayo is a decent pass defender, though mostly in underneath zones. His comfort level drops when he has to take his eyes off the quarterback. Spikes is a greater liability: he doesn’t have the speed or open-field agility to cover consistently.
Manning utilizes the seams as effectively as any passer in the NFL. He has two versatile interior weapons in tight ends Joel Dreessen and Jacob Tamme. He also has a shrewd veteran wideout in Brandon Stokley. Manning might also have a dynamic backfield receiving weapon in Hillman. We don’t know yet for sure, as we’ve only seen Hillman catch passes in the flats or on checkdowns thus far. It may behoove the Broncos to send the third-round rookie out on genuine pass routes between the numbers this Sunday. As the Bills showed, this can put a greater stress on New England’s linebackers in coverage.
|Graphics by Matt Glickman|
Correctly guessing that the Patriots would be in a two-high zone coverage, the Bills used a 3x2 set that commanded a favorable matchup for tight end Scott Chandler against linebacker Spikes. Spikes was a bit preoccupied with the threat of C.J. Spiller coming out of the backfield and appeared to be unsure of his coverage responsibilities. His expected help over the top wasn’t there because the Bills used simple formation tactics to widen the safeties. They did this by aligning three receivers to the left (which forced one safety to drift that way outside) and having the receiver down below run his route towards the sideline (which forced the other safety to drift outside).
On the strong side in 3x1 or 3x2 sets, the Broncos also make great use of picks and rubs to open up receivers underneath. This is something all offenses do against man-to-man, but Denver can do it against zone. They use interior seam routes to lift the safeties and put the underneath linebackers in disadvantageous positions for picking up crossing routes that come off the picks.
4. Patriots offense vs. Broncos defense
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The Broncos were dominant with their man-free coverages and third-level blitzes last week. That was mostly because, with Darrius Heyward-Bey out, the Raiders may be the most enticing passing offense in the league to play against. Don’t expect John Fox and Jack Del Rio to use this aggressive strategy again this Sunday. Not only does New England’s passing attack have infinitely more weapons than Oakland’s, it also has quicker routes. Third-level blitzes can work against a slow-developing vertical passing game; they can’t work against a fast-developing horizontal passing game like New England’s.
A new feature to New England’s passing attack this season is play-action from under center. Last year, the passing game was virtually all shotgun for Brady. This year, with a renewed commitment to the run, New England is doing more with condensed formations. The formations and well-executed run-action fakes alone make for a viable play-action game, though it doesn’t hurt that the Patriots are also moving the ball proficiently on the ground. Even without Logan Mankins last week, the Patriots front five continued to provide outstanding power blocks for second-year running back Stevan Ridley and undrafted rookie Brandon Bolden. Both are disciplined downhill runners. Ridley has good change-of-direction quickness in confined areas and Bolden, though less dynamic, plays with a good center of gravity.
With middle linebacker Joe Mays back from suspension, the Broncos should have a solid run defense. This defense has won the ground battle in three of its four outings this season. Worth noting, however, is that the one outing it didn’t win was two weeks ago against Houston. The Texans are the only offense the Broncos have faced that effectively intertwines its run and pass games. The Patriots will be the second such offense.
5. Tom Brady
So much of the Brady-Manning discussion has been predicated on accolades and statistics. What about how these guys play? What truly makes them special? Most people know about Manning’s strengths: football IQ, pocket poise, accuracy, and ... football IQ again. Surprisingly, we don’t hear much about Brady’s strengths. Unless you count "being a winner" and having "it" –- which aren’t strengths, but rather, mere descriptors used by analysts who don’t actually analyze.
Brady’s "it" is his incredible ability to gather his mechanics while making throws from a congested pocket. True, he doesn’t like to be hit. Most quarterbacks don’t. But instead of avoiding hits by ducking or running, Brady avoids them by stepping up in the pocket or sidestepping the rush. In performing these pocket motions, Brady does a better job at keeping his eyes downfield and reclaiming his readiness to throw than anyone in the game. He’s incredibly quick in his fundamentals. It’s subtle-but-significant traits like this that turn sixth-round picks into Hall of Famers.
Bears offense vs. Jaguars defense
After a loss at Green Bay earlier this season, Jay Cutler was asked why he wasn’t able to get the ball to Brandon Marshall more. "Two man," he answered. (In true Cutler fashion, "two man" was literally his entire answer.) Cutler’s offensive coordinator, Mike Tice, observed the ease with which Green Bay eliminated his top outside weapon. A press-man defender underneath and safety over the top was all it took.
Facing a Cowboys team last Monday night that’s big on man coverage, Tice made the adjustment of using Marshall more inside. Just about all of Marshall’s seven receptions came with him in the slot or off some sort of interior motion. It's a great tactic; not only does the absence of a sideline make it harder and more expensive to double-team an inside receiver, but the nature of most defensive alignments requires that a linebacker or strong safety be part of those double teams. No linebacker or strong safety is equipped to guard Marshall. Will Tice employ this tactic if the Jaguars play their traditional two-deep zones on Sunday? The Jaguars corners played well in man coverage at Cincinnati last week. (The catches A.J. Green had were just spectacular plays by a budding star.) That said, the Jags are primarily a zone team and they’ll probably want to use a comfortable scheme against a Bears offense that has more firepower than Cincinnati. Tice must not let Jacksonville’s plainness coax him away from creative designs for his top receiver.
Jaguars offense vs. Bears defense
A realistic over/under on total Blaine Gabbert sacks this game would be seven. The Bears have a fervid pass rush, highlighted by the multiplicity of Julius Peppers’ alignments. The 11th-year star regularly lines up in all four different positions, seeking specific matchups he wants to exploit. Choosing a matchup along Jacksonville’s line will feel like trying to choose an item off a Cheesecake Factory menu. There’s left tackle Eugene Monroe, who hasn’t shown the improved raw power that many hoped for this season. There’s left guard Eben Britton, whom Marvin Lewis should have given a game ball to for his work in the first half of Cincinnati’s win last week. Britton could lose his starting job to undrafted rookie Mike Brewster this week. Another enticing opponent for Peppers is right tackle Cameron Bradfield, who simply hasn’t shown the necessary foot speed to pass block at an NFL level.
Eagles offense vs. Steelers defense
Andy Reid ran the ball in the second half against New York and got a victory. Will he stay grounded against a tough (and rested) Steelers defense? It’s a defense that actually struggled against quality zone-running teams all last season -– especially on off-tackle runs, which are LeSean McCoy’s forte.
More important is whether Reid will keep Michael Vick in the pocket again this week. It might seem like a good idea to put Vick in motion, but on the move, Vick seems to subconsciously stop being a quarterback. His field-reading and mechanics suffer, and there’s a cumulative mental effect that leads to Vick playing too frenetically in his standard dropbacks. Running McCoy and calling five-step timing passes that help keep Vick regimented in his dropbacks is Philly’s best chance at avoiding third-and-long. That’s vital, as third-and-long is where the Steelers unleash the type of blitzes that their former secondary coach, Ray Horton, beat Vick and the Eagles with two weeks ago.
Steelers offense vs. Eagles defense
There will be some great individual matchups in the passing game to watch this Sunday. Nnamdi Asomugha is having a very stellar season in man coverage. He’s one of the few corners in the league with the lankiness to match up to Mike Wallace. Asomugha may not draw that assignment, though, as Philly tends to put Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie on the opponent’s best deep threat. Rodgers-Cromartie has actually been a better all-around man-to-man defender than Asomugha this year, so it might make more sense to put him on Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh’s best all-around wide receiver. There’s another compelling matchup inside: Mychal Kendricks on Heath Miller. The rookie linebacker was rock-solid in coverage the first quarter of the season. Don’t be surprised if Juan Castillo entrusts him to line up across from the soft-handed tight end who has assumed a bigger downfield role in Todd Haley’s offense.
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Bills offense vs. 49ers defense
Buffalo got C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson back in the lineup last week, but they still struggled to run against New England’s stingy front seven. Expect those struggles to continue in Week 5. It’s still too early to make dramatic declarations, but the 49ers may have an even better run defense than a year ago. Which, if true, means they have far-and-away the best run defense in football. The difference is Aldon Smith, who played only in nickel packages most of last season. Since joining the base 3-4, Smith has emerged as one of the best edge-setters in the league. Many figured it’d take the youngster more time to learn the mechanics of playing on first and second down. We probably shouldn’t be surprised by Smith’s success; violent hands and strong thighs aren’t attributes that help only in pass rushing.
49ers offense vs. Bills defense
Two weeks ago, the Bills stymied the Browns’ run game en route to victory. Last week, they got destroyed by the Patriots’ run game en route to defeat. Which Bills should we expect this week? The group from two weeks ago ... theoretically. New England ran primarily against Buffalo’s sub packages, exploiting backup safety Bryan Scott’s lack of physical power in the box. San Francisco’s rushing attack is better than New England’s, but it takes place out of base and heavy personnel. Thus, Buffalo can respond by using more linebackers and tightening their spacing in the box. This doesn’t mean the Bills will shine. San Francisco may not have a high-drafted young workhorse like Trent Richardson to dial in on, but they have great depth and feature the best-designed rushing concepts in football.
Vikings offense vs. Titans defense
The nicest thing we could say about Minnesota’s offense at Detroit last week was that it didn’t do anything to lose the game. Adrian Peterson looked sharp and explosive, but he had to fight for every yard. Christian Ponder was relegated to defined reads and rarely pulled the trigger downfield against a Lions team that plays a lot of base Cover-2. Expect more of this conservative play-calling in Week 5. The Titans, amazingly, play an even blander base Cover-2 than the Lions. Their safeties regularly align 15-18 yards off the ball. One of those safeties will probably creep into the box on first and second down (the Peterson factor), making the Cover 2 a Cover 3. Those will be good opportunities for the Vikings to take some downfield shots outside with Jerome Simpson. They actually did this three times last week, all on simple, low-risk reads for Ponder. Those three shots, all against rookie corner Bill Bentley, produced two defensive pass interference penalties and a long completion. Tennessee’s corners pose a tougher challenge, but getting Simpson more involved is a worthy goal for Minnesota. With Percy Harvin being primarily a slashing gadget player, Simpson is the closest thing this offense has to a vertical presence.
Titans offense vs. Vikings defense
Kendall Wright, Damian Williams, Nate Washington, and Kenny Britt (if he plays) had better be prepared to take a hit. (No pun intended with Britt). One of the key ingredients to Minnesota’s surprising 3-1 start has been the physicality of their secondary. It’s not the most talented group, but its members, sitting back in zone stances, are regularly in position to wind up and unload on receivers in space. And unload they have. Safety Jamarca Sanford and rookie nickel corner Josh Robinson, in particular, have stood out. And, of course, veteran Antoine Winfield, though not big enough to be a thumper, has long been one of the craftiest, quickest tacklers in the game.
Giants offense vs. Browns defense
Eli Manning doesn’t get enough credit for his toughness. No quarterback is better at throwing the ball before taking a shot. It’s amazing how often announcers fail to highlight Manning’s greatness here. Four or five times a game, Manning will see an oncoming rusher (usually a blitzer), quickly gather himself and, falling away, uncork a perfect strike just as the defender implants his facemask between his numbers. For whatever reason, the catch is usually what Giants viewers find most spectacular on these plays. Every passer in the league should study Manning under duress. Not only does he have a perfect sense for timing, he has a perfect sense for protecting himself. This Sunday, if the Browns can get pressure (big if), watch the way Manning contorts his body to lessen the blows he takes. It’s artistic.
Browns offense vs. Giants defense
This is the week Cleveland’s offensive tackles need to step up. Since getting abused by Jason Babin in the season opener, rookie Mitchell Schwartz has gradually improved on the right side. Those improvements will be tested by the cagey Justin Tuck, who might have the largest collection of exterior and interior phone-booth moves in the NFL. On the left side, Joe Thomas has been surprisingly shaky in a few games. Given that he’s a five-time Pro Bowler, we know the talent is there to play better. But Thomas needs to right his ship, as Jason Pierre-Paul is someone who can capitalize on poor blocking.