by Andy Benoit
In a week loaded with unbelievably enticing match-ups, we’ll spotlight the most classic: Steelers-Cowboys.
1. State of the Steelers defense
The Steelers defense has had no trouble stopping teams in 2012. In terms of raw yardage, they rank first against the pass and fifth against the run. So why are they 11th in defensive DVOA? The problem is that they rank 22nd in total sacks and have fewer takeaways than all but three teams. A declining pass rush is the main reason behind that. 34-year-old James Harrison hasn’t been completely healthy and, right now, is no longer a fearsome every-down force. LaMarr Woodley has missed the last two games with hamstring problems. His backup, Jason Worilds, has improved his strength and awareness in traffic, but he only makes noise in spurts. San Diego’s street free agent right tackle Reggie Wells practically silenced Worilds last Sunday.
There’s still hope that Pittsburgh’s pass rush can come back from the dead. Brett Keisel, Larry Foote, and Lawrence Timmons are so good with their angles and mechanics on blitzes and stunts that Harrison and Woodley don’t necessarily have to be 100 percent in order to excel. They’ll face plenty of one-on-one blocking down the stretch. Having Troy Polamalu slithering near the line of scrimmage again also helps.
When he’s back deep, Polamalu lends a great element of disguise to Pittsburgh’s coverages. However, with star corner Ike Taylor out, the Steelers are relying on a bevy of youngsters. That may prevent their veteran strong safety from freelancing as much. The young corners don't leave the secondary hamstrung, however. Keenan Lewis has been very solid in his first year as a starter; Cortez Allen has been adequate both inside and out even though quarterbacks have picked on him a bit since Taylor went down. The only major concern is in the nickel. With Taylor out, gifted-but-green second-year pro Curtis Brown is operating on the outside. Brown appeared to lose his confidence last week after Danario Alexander burned him for a touchdown on a double-move. He wound up riding the bench in the second half.
Brown is in a position to learn quickly from his rough outing; what stands out on Pittsburgh’s film is that this secondary is extremely well-coached. These defensive backs do a great job knowing when and how to match up to receivers in zone coverage. They’re also capable of mixing and matching coverages.
2. Cowboys schematic approach
Tony Romo has played fairly well as of late, but throughout the season he hasn’t worked through his progressions quickly enough and has also suffered from impatience in the pocket. The latter issue stems partly from Romo’s frenetic nature, but also partly from the cumulative effect of enduring so many breakdowns by his pass protectors this season.
As long as Doug Free is at right tackle, Romo won’t fully trust his protection. Free has been awful, not just with penalties but against all forms of pass rushers, and he's done particularly poorly against bull rushes. Whether it’s Woodley or Worilds he’s facing, there’s a mismatch on the right side that Dallas must worry about on every down.
The Cowboys' line as a whole has had some issues with misdirection pass-rush concepts like twists and stunts -– things the Steelers, led by Keisel, do remarkably well. But the bigger concern in the passing game is whether Romo can diagnose what Pittsburgh presents to him. Even with the Steelers’ iffy cornerbacking depth, expect the Cowboys to simplify things by using a lot of base personnel. That will keep the Steelers from using the sub-packages that hold most of Dick LeBeau’s blitzes and disguised coverages. At the very least, staying in base personnel will keep fullback Lawrence Vickers on the field, which will make for a more sustainable ground game. That’s vital for staying ahead in the down and distance. And, as San Diego showed last week, staying ahead in the down and distance is a way to beat the Steelers.
This isn’t to say the Cowboys will play conservatively. The idea of base personnel is simply to create more basic defensive looks. The Cowboys don’t want Romo -– and especially his top receiver, Dez Bryant (if he plays through a finger injury) -– playing chess against LeBeau. The more basic things stay, the more this game becomes about one-on-one matchups. That’s what the Cowboys want.
3. The matchups
With Taylor out, the Steelers have no one who can physically go 12 rounds with Dez Bryant. The third-year star has 35 catches for 525 yards and seven touchdowns over Dallas’ last five games. The Cowboys have done a nice job helping Bryant by running him on more isolation routes outside, where his focus can be on beating his man instead of reading coverages. A lot of Pittsburgh’s coverages feature matchup-zone concepts, which can make their defensive looks hard to decipher. Miles Austin can be trusted to make on-the-fly coverage reads, but Bryant can’t. Presumably, neither can intriguing-but-callow No. 3 receiver, Dwayne Harris.
If the primary receivers are aligned outside, the Steelers will have to decide how often to buzz their safeties underneath those passing lanes. Ryan Clark and Polamalu are both tremendous in this capacity, but the buzzes are a coverage that A) could strand the corners one-on-one over the top (which we saw when the Ravens attacked Cortez Allen two weeks ago) or B) put extra stress on inside linebackers Foote and Timmons to defend Jason Witten over the middle. Athletically, that’s an okay matchup for the Steelers; both linebackers could probably best Witten in a foot race or agility test. But, mechanically, it’s doubtful either linebacker has the pass-defending dexterity to contain the All-Pro tight end. There’s a reason Witten has over 700 catches to his name.
4. Steelers offense vs. Cowboys defense
The ongoing injury problems of nose tackle Jay Ratliff and the absence of his rising (and now fallen) backup Josh Brent leaves the Cowboys’ interior run defense vulnerable up front. Obviously, the season-ending injuries of inside linebackers Sean Lee and Bruce Carter only exacerbate that vulnerability. However, it’s no sure bet that the Steelers can take advantage of this. For various reasons, their power run game has been inconsistent over the past month. Now they’re trying to get by with their best road-grading blocker, Willie Colon, out of the lineup.
Last week against the Chargers, a lopsided score prevented the Steelers from sticking with their ground attack. The Chargers dictated the aerial action by getting pressure on Ben Roethlisberger. They generated that pressure with a mixture of committed underneath coverages and various well-timed blitz calls. Roethlisberger often responded by hastily going into sandlot mode. (He’s great in sandlot, but not if he’s constantly going to that mode before the plays have a chance to fully develop.)
Because of Rob Ryan’s reputation, many assume the Cowboys have a complex blitzing 3-4 defense. They don’t. With press corners Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne outside, Ryan has kept the Cowboys in mostly coverage-based schemes this season. On third-and-long, it’s not uncommon for the Cowboys to rush three and drop eight. This has especially been the case when they’ve faced teams with mobile quarterbacks, like the Redskins, Panthers, and Seahawks. Roethlisberger doesn’t have the wheels of Robert Griffin, Cam Newton, or Russell Wilson, but he does have an unparalleled ability to extend plays. Often, that has the same consequence as a quarterback scrambling. Expect the Cowboys to keep plenty of bodies in coverage.
5. Applying pressure
One reason Ryan doesn’t blitz often is that with DeMarcus Ware and the respectable Anthony Spencer on the other side, he doesn’t have to. Ryan makes a concerted effort to construct defensive fronts that keep Ware on the weak side of the formation, where it’s very difficult for the offense to give him extra attention. That doesn’t just give Ware a chance to flourish, it gives his teammates a chance, too.
|Graphics by Matt Glickman|
Even if Ryan wanted to blitz Roethlisberger this Sunday, he might get a call from his brother warning against it. Recall what Roethlisberger did to the Jets in Week 2.
|Graphics by Matt Glickman|
This isn’t to say that it’s never a good idea to blitz Roethlisberger. In fact, in some cases, it can be a great idea -– especially in the red zone. The Redskins found this out in Week 8.
|Graphics by Matt Glickman|
|Graphics by Matt Glickman|
So the film concludes that it’s not good to blitz Roethlisberger. Except sometimes when it is. How’s that for clarity? Every defensive coordinator who faces the Steelers grapples with this kind of ambiguity. Unlike the elite quarterbacks who are mostly pocket passers, Roethlisberger’s playing style is not tightly regimented. His improvisational, almost randomized nature can throw a lot of wrenches into a defense’s strategy.
What’s clear is that, like with any quarterback, it’s important that a defense generate pressure on Big Ben. But when you blitz to generate that pressure, you leave more space downfield. Roethlisberger and his receivers are phenomenal at capitalizing on that space. Defenses with no star pass rushers (like the Jets or the Brian Orakpo-less Redskins) have to assume that risk. The Cowboys don’t; they eliminated that risk by purchasing a seven-year, $79 million insurance policy named DeMarcus Ware.
Texans offense vs. Colts defense
Few could have imagined that the Colts defense would battle injuries in the secondary, get only seven tackles and two sacks from Dwight Freeney through Week 14, and still have a 9-4 record. Freeney has been better than his numbers indicate, but he hasn’t had close to the consistent impact that led to seven Pro Bowls in his first 10 years. Don’t expect him to make much noise against Duane Brown, who is arguably this season’s most effective all-around left tackle in football.
No matter what Freeney does the rest of the way, Indy’s defense should only get better now that cornerback Vontae Davis is back from a knee problem kept him out for most of October and November. The former Dolphin has the change-of-direction prowess to handle any receiver in man assignments. (Though he always plays only the defensive right side and isn’t asked to shadow opposing No. 1 receivers.) He also has the quick closing speed to thrive in zone coverage. What’s more, Davis has been an excellent tackler the past two weeks -– and not just downfield, but near the line of scrimmage. He’ll be of great service against Houston’s zone stretch runs.
Colts offense vs. Texans defense
Every team that plays Houston has to worry about the mismatch presented by J.J. Watt. The Colts are no exception, and right tackle has been an iffy area for them in 2012. Starter Winston Justice has a tendency to play too tall and get uprooted in pass protection. He also struggles to redirect against shiftier opponents. Earlier in the season, Justice did a commendable job surviving this. Lately, though, his weaknesses have started to surface as Indy’s downfield offense had expanded. Various injuries have also taken their toll: when Justice has had to sit out, replacements Jeff Linkenbach and A.Q. Shipley have been even more vulnerable.
Regardless of who is blocking Watt, the Colts will have to offset the mismatch through play-calling. The high volume of rolled pockets and play-action concepts in Bruce Arians’ system leaves them equipped to do this. So do the high volume of tight end and wide receiver screens. Expect the Colts to use these quick-strike tactics with regularity Sunday; the less they ask of their offensive line, the better.
Bears offense vs. Packers defense
The eventual returns of Charles Woodson and Clay Matthews aren’t the only reason Green Bay’s defense is on the rise. Cornerback Tramon Williams seems to have fully regained his 2010 form after a shoulder injury hampered him last season. Williams, the Packers’ best pure cover artist, often shadows the opposing team’s top receiver.
Williams was solid, if not spectacular, working one-on-one against Calvin Johnson last Sunday night. That shouldn’t surprise the Bears. When they faced Green Bay in Week 2, Williams, with consistent safety help over the top, had as many interceptions as Brandon Marshall had catches (two). Jay Cutler was frustrated by the tight double coverage that Marshall faced. The Packers could afford the extra bodies back deep because the Bears were unable to block Matthews. If Matthews is starting and healthy, there’s no reason to think anything will change.
Packers offense vs. Bears defense
Even though Brian Urlacher had recently been showing signs of decline, his absence is a huge blow to Chicago’s defense. Urlacher has great awareness and vertical range in pass defense. Against the run, he’s stout as a gap-filler and able to diagnose outside designs early. If nothing else, he takes on blockers extremely well. We were reminded of this on the game’s first play at Minnesota last week when fill-in middle linebacker Nick Roach, who is three inches shorter and about 25 pounds lighter than Urlacher, got stoned at the point of attack. That helped spring Adrian Peterson for his first of many long gains on the afternoon. The Packers don’t have Peterson, but they do have a right guard, Josh Sitton, who is pretty adept at landing second-level blocks.
Broncos offense vs. Ravens defense
Something that stands out on film is the continued improvement of Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker as route runners. Their growth undoubtedly stems from playing with a quarterback who doesn’t just constantly put them in perfect positions, but also puts the balls he throws them in perfect positions. The innate trust that blossoms from this has made Thomas and Decker more confident in disguising their routes and executing the "tells" that they give Peyton Manning in their breaks. Decker, especially, is very good in his redirections. The Ravens, remarkably, have managed to overcome their injuries at cornerback. Veteran Cary Williams has been physical on the left side while newcomer Corey Graham has been a major overachiever filling in for injured Jimmy Smith on the left. Nevertheless, it will be very difficult for these guys to consistently win in isolation coverage on Sunday -– particularly with Baltimore’s pass-rush being so anemic.
Ravens offense vs. Broncos defense
What’s been prevalent in Denver -– the receivers’ ability to beat man coverage –- has been noticeably absent in Baltimore. One could argue that if Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones were better against man coverage, Cam Cameron might still be coordinating this offense. Of course, one could also argue that if Cameron had done a better job with route combinations and bunch formation calls, the issues against man coverage wouldn’t be as problematic. Cameron didn’t do a lot schematically to make life easier on Joe Flacco. New offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell should be able to fix this. He’s never been a play-caller at the NFL level, but it doesn’t take any experience to know that in order to throw on Denver, you have to intertwine some routes. The Broncos have one of football’s best man-to-man outside tandems in Champ Bailey and Tony Carter. Plus, Chris Harris is one of the few nickelbacks capable of hanging with Anquan Boldin one-on-one in the slot.
Giants offense vs. Falcons defense
Eli Manning made his first NFL start on November 21, 2004 against the Falcons. He was tightly managed with conservative play calls that afternoon. Late in the third quarter, we found out why. On a second-and-5, Manning dropped back to throw and, likely having decided in the huddle where to go with the ball, threw a laser right into the chest of Falcons defensive lineman Brady Smith, who was dropping back in a zone blitz. It was the exact type of throw that rookies are baited into.
Manning rarely falls for such defensive artifice these days, but that doesn’t mean he won’t still see Falcons defensive linemen in coverage. Defensive end Kroy Biermann has been arguably the most versatile player in football this season. Besides playing the run and pass from his natural edge position, Biermann has frequently lined up as a joker on third down. From that position, he’s a threat to rush the quarterback, spy as an underneath lurker, or drop back to free safety in the same way that a middle linebacker drops back in Tampa-2 coverage. Biermann isn’t necessarily a playmaker from all these spots, but he lends an ever-changing face to Mike Nolan’s defense. That’s been a critical facet of Atlanta’s updated scheme in 2012.
Falcons offense vs. Giants defense
Where has the Giants pass rush gone? Jason Pierre-Paul hasn’t recorded a sack in over a month. The only time you'll hear Justin Tuck's name is in Subway commercials. And even with Chris Canty back in the lineup, the Giants have gotten little penetration from the inside. The only pass-rusher who has stood out is Osi Umenyiora. The 31-year-old still has elite quickness and an innate ability to anticipate snap counts.
New York’s NASCAR front four needs to come alive against an under-athletic but well-schooled Atlanta line. If Matt Ryan has time to perform seven-step (and even five-step) drops, he’ll be looking for either Julio Jones or Roddy White downfield and outside. Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter does a great job crafting one-on-one scenarios for those guys through various formation wrinkles. Giants cornerbacks Prince Amukamara and Corey Webster have been shaky in solo coverage near the sidelines this year. Amukamara tends to allow too much spacing in front of him while Webster tends to misjudge his safety help and let receivers get behind him.
49ers offense vs. Patriots defense
As we highlighted in the Monday Night Film Room piece last week, the Patriots have one of the most physical front sevens in football. They certainly showed it Monday night against Houston. Vince Wilfork sets an unmatched tone with penetration while all three linebackers are outstanding downhill gap-shooters. These Patriots will be challenged by a Niners offense that executes power run-blocks better than any in football. Left guard Mike Iupati is an outstanding puller. Center Jonathan Goodwin and right guard Alex Boone don’t move with great nimbleness but they use their combined 625-ish pounds of mass well. What sets the Niners apart is how they masterfully incorporate fullbacks, tight ends,and H-backs into their man-blocking concepts. Those ancillary blockers don’t just come at defenders with physicality; they come at defenders from unexpected and favorable angles. That’s what Jim Harbaugh is setting up with all the presnap motion and variety of condensed formations in his offense.
Patriots offense vs. 49ers defense
This Sunday, for the first time all year, Tom Brady and company will face a defense that is equipped to handle their up-tempo no-huddle. Most defenses struggle against it because it compromises their substitution patterns in nickel and dime. That, in turn, compromises the defensive play-calling in nickel and dime. The Niners won’t have these problems. Inside linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis can both cover, Justin Smith and his fellow defensive linemen have the stamina of oxen, and the Niners play the same personnel in just about all of their sub-packages. What’s more, they often play the same two-deep man-to-man scheme out of those packages. Thus, the Patriots find themselves in an execution-based game rather than a fast-paced chess match. It’s possible, maybe even probable, that New England’s lack of downfield weapons in the passing game will finally be fully exposed.