by Andy Benoit
With all the attention this week going to the NFC East teams (as usual), we’re going to go against the grain and spotlight two surprising, lesser-known NFC playoff contenders: the 5-3 Vikings and 4-4 Seahawks. With these clubs being under the radar, a classic unit-versus-unit analysis is the best way to break down this Week 9 match-up.
1. On the ground: Vikings offense vs. Seahawks defense
Adrian Peterson, nine months removed from major knee surgery, is still the best pure runner in football -– especially between the tackles. He has gotten stronger by the week, showing his familiar violence on contact, stop/start control, and the type of explosive lateral burst that a 220-pounder shouldn’t be allowed to have. Peterson has also shown more of the patience and discipline that were once absent from his game. He still has, and will always have, a somewhat over-eager nature, but the Vikings accommodate it well by using a lot of H-back and dual-tight end run-blocking concepts as opposed to making Peterson wait for a fullback to clear out holes.
This season Peterson has benefited from better blocking than in past years, thanks in large part to the addition of rookie left tackle Matt Kalil. The No. 3 overall pick has rare body control that allows him to maintain coordinated power at the second level. Another thing that separates this line from its predecessors is improved strength from center John Sullivan.
Of course, an improved offensive line does not mean a great offensive line. Peterson still has to create a lot of his own yards. That will be the case Sunday, as Seattle has one of the stingiest run-stuffing front fours in football. Brandon Mebane struggled against San Francisco in primetime two weeks ago but has been a force in all his other appearances. His ability to maintain leverage going east and west has allowed massive ex-Cardinal Alan Branch to morph into more of a one-gap tackle.
It has also allowed rookie middle linebacker Bobby Wagner to stay clean at the second level. The second-round pick has terrific multi-directional speed, which is becoming more evident each week as he diagnoses play designs more swiftly than he did the last week.
2. In the air: Vikings offense vs. Seahawks defense
In Week 5 against Carolina, wanting more speed for underneath coverage and helping to contain the mobile Cam Newton, the Seahawks had Wagner replace veteran Leroy Hill at nickel linebacker. Splendid results made that change permanent, and since then Wagner’s range has taken some of the coverage pressure off safety Kam Chancellor. Chancellor is still a big piece of Seattle’s coverage schemes –- mostly in how the team disguises underneath rotations and defends tight ends. He isn’t a great one-on-one cover artist in space (Aaron Hernandez exposed this in Week 6), but he’s a physical, versatile force who gives Seattle a unique dimension between the numbers.
This Sunday, Chancellor will spend most of his time in the box, as the Vikings, even in their passing game, operate predominantly out of base personnel. People lately have been saying that defenses are figuring out Christian Ponder. The reality is that defenses could figure out Ponder right away. The Vikings have never tried to build much mystery in their second-year quarterback. Their passing game features very basic route combinations and a host of simplified, defined reads. A lot of it involves some sort of rolling pocket or bootlegs. This allows the athletic Ponder to play on the move (where he’s most comfortable) and also only worry about reading half the field. There’s nothing tricky about it.
As Ponder matures and the potential he flashes as an anticipation passer evolves into a steadier foundation, Vikings offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave will likely expand the system and start trying to confuse defenses. But for now, the Vikings are about out-executing defenses. The reason Ponder’s play has tailed off the past two or three weeks is that he simply hasn’t executed well. He’s failed to see the field clearly a few times (particularly with deep-intermediate zone-beating routes) and spurts of sloppy mechanics have led to some accuracy woes.
All of Ponder’s problems are very fixable, though this could be a tough week for the fixes to pay off. The Vikings don’t have a dynamic enough receiving corps to defeat Seahawks corners Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner. Few offenses do. Sherman and Browner form the biggest, most physical outside tandem in football. Their ability to mix off-coverage with press technique and trail technique in man-to-man enables the Seahawks to shutdown most passing attacks with just a single high centerfielder. (Though it helps that Earl Thomas, the fastest free safety in the NFL, is that centerfielder.) Minnesota’s receiving corps has been a little better than expected, with Percy Harvin expanding on his unmatched diversity. Without Harvin’s plays out of the backfield or catch-and-run prowess on screens, this would be a bottom-five offense. Unexpectedly, Harvin has also made great strides as a traditional route runner. Nevertheless, he’s not quite a true No. 1 yet, which is what he’d need to be in order to compensate for the mediocrity of Jerome Simpson, Michael Jenkins and Devin Aromashodu.
The best way to exploit single-high coverage like Seattle’s is to throw downfield. Problem is, it’s tough to find time for that, as most defenses blitz out of single-high looks. The Seahawks blitz a little, though usually they’re able to generate pressure with some variation of a four-man rush. Rookie Bruce Irvin has been fantastic in both speed and power on the outside. Lately, Pete Carroll has involved the first-round pick on a multitude of stunts. That’s a great tactic when you also have a swift inside gap-shooter like Jason Jones and a sinewy force like Chris Clemons. The Vikings offensive line has been stellar in 2012, but it will have trouble this Sunday holding up in obvious passing situations, especially if Seattle’s stunts target unrefined pass-blocking right tackle Phil Loadholt.
3. On the ground: Seahawks offense vs. Vikings defense
Despite how his laborious, all-out running style looks, Marshawn Lynch has adequate breakaway speed. Most of the time, however, the league’s second-leading rusher (behind Peterson) is fighting for tough yards behind a hot-and-cold zone-blocking line. Lynch gives the Seahawks a sustainable ground game, which, with a rookie quarterback, is what their offense is built on. A lot of his runs come with fullback Michael Robinson in the backfield. Traditional plays like iso-lead weak (shown below) are staples of Seattle’s run game.
|Graphics by Matt Glickman|
The Vikings no longer have the vociferous run defense that the Williams Wall and E.J. Henderson once gave them, but with high-octane ends like Jared Allen and Brian Robison, perennial Pro Bowler Kevin Williams at defensive tackle, the vastly underrated Chad Greenway, and one of the league’s best run-stopping corners (outside or in the slot) in Antoine Winfield, this is still an imposing run defense. However, as the Bucs showed in the first half last Thursday night, it’s no longer an always impenetrable run defense.
4. In the air: Seahawks offense vs. Vikings defense
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When a lopsided score made the Buccaneers run game more predictable last Thursday, the Vikings front seven bogged down, holding Doug Martin to 26 yards on 15 carries in the second half. Expect the Vikings defense this Sunday to look more like that group from the second half, as they shouldn’t feel tremendously threatened by Seattle’s passing game. It’s a passing game that’s controlled, if not a little primitive. Like Ponder, Russell Wilson is often tightly managed with simplified, mobility-oriented play-calling.
Seattle and Minnesota both have passing games that are predicated on their run games. Hence the high volume of play-action and safe throws out of base personnel. What differentiates the two is that Seattle does more in the way of shot-plays. Wilson doesn’t have elite arm strength –- we’ve seen this in the way he consistently struggles to get zip on precision throws at the deep-intermediate level –- but he has an outstanding feel for trajectory and ball-placement deep downfield. That has made him one of the best long-ball heavers in the league, which offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell likes to take advantage of on first down. Wilson’s ability to buy time on rollouts, along with the natural uniformity of Seattle’s zone-blocking and the threat of Lynch and outside speed provided by Sidney Rice and Doug Baldwin, have made downfield shots off play-action a staple of Seattle’s offense.
Expect to see several examples of this Sunday, even if Baldwin sits a second straight week with an ankle injury. Downfield shots tend to be more tempting against zone-based defenses like Minnesota’s. (Presumably this is because with back-level zone defenders able to see the action in front of them, fakes are more necessary and, potentially, more potent.) The deep safeties aren’t the only players Seattle’s run fakes will try to manipulate. As the Redskins showed in Week 6, Minnesota’s linebackers can be over-reactive to play-action by mobile quarterbacks. The Seahawks could look to get their pass game going this way with quick-hitting, second-level possession throws.
5. The tight ends
Longtime Tampa-2 advocate Leslie Frazier has diversified his coverages a little more this season. The increase in single-high looks (both in man and zone) is due mainly to a greater willingness to blitz, particularly in critical passing situations. We’ll see if Frazier continues to show this kind of trust in his secondary now that starting cornerback Chris Cook is on injured reserve with a broken wrist.
Overall, the Vikings still play a majority of snaps in their two-deep base shell -– and we’ll likely see them stick with this Sunday. They’re a hard-hitting unit in this familiar read-and-react scheme. But, like any Tampa-2 unit, when their four-man pass-rush doesn’t get immediate pressure, they have windows of vulnerability downfield. Allen and Robison have done a good job of making sure this hasn't happened very often this season.
The Tampa-2 window most people think about is the outside one behind the corner and in front of the safety. But there’s another window: down the seam. That window requires more touch and less arm strength from the quarterback, making it ideal for Wilson. The nature of Tampa-2 essentially forces a man-coverage matchup between an inside linebacker and a tight end. Attacking Minnesota’s linebackers in that window seems like a natural approach for a Seahawks offense that has had success with tight ends down the seams this season. Below are breakdowns of two examples.
|Graphics by Matt Glickman|
In Week 2, the Seahawks scored a 22-yard touchdown by surprising the Cowboys with a throw out of a trips tight end right. This personnel package forced the Cowboys to stay in base defense. On this second-and-7 play, the Seahawks aligned in a clear run set. But instead, Wilson dropped back from under center -- one of the rare occurrences where he’s done so without it being play-action.
|Graphics by Matt Glickman|
Cowboys outside linebacker Anthony Spencer was completely fooled by the formation. He was responsible for tight end Anthony McCoy in man coverage. Linebacker Dan Connor was closer to McCoy after the snap, but that’s only because Spencer was beaten so badly off the line; Connor’s job was to buzz underneath. This is an example of the Seahawks making things easier on their rookie quarterback –- and that rookie quarterback playing with poise. By having three vertical routes all stemming away from one another, Wilson got a clear picture of the man-coverage matchups. By executing the routes out of a run formation, those man-coverage matchups involved an outside linebacker who isn’t accustomed to running with receiving targets downfield.
|Graphics by Matt Glickman|
This was a single-high look from the Patriots. Wilson read man coverage and knew that linebacker Brandon Spikes (a great downhill thumper but limited pass defender) would be matched up one-on-one against tight end Zach Miller. Spikes defended Miller’s outside stem and double-move extremely well, using his safety help and angling underneath. But Wilson lofted a perfect ball through a small window.
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Giants offense vs. Steelers defense
This game presents one of the best individual matchups we’ll see all season: Steelers corner Ike Taylor against Giants receiver Victor Cruz. Taylor is one of the few bonafide cover artists who can play man-to-man outside and in the slot. He’s lanky and, as his propensity for penalties suggests, physical. His man-coverage aptitude is a big reason why Pittsburgh has given up the fewest passing yards in football despite the absence of Troy Polamalu and the decline of their pass rush: Pittsburgh has just 12 sacks on the season, tied for the fifth-fewest in the league. Style-wise, Taylor won’t face a more challenging opponent than Cruz. Not only is Cruz explosive off the snap (especially when aligned inside, where he can’t be jammed), he’s extremely slippery late in the down. No wideout has better late-route wiggle than Cruz. And no corner applies better late-route physicality than Taylor.
Steelers offense vs. Giants defense
Much has been made about Ben Roethlisberger’s opinion of Todd Haley and his offense. The film and numbers don’t lie: with more quick-drop timing and short passes on early downs, Haley’s offense has assuaged the beating that Roethlisberger normally takes. Not only do shorter passes naturally get the ball out of Roethlisberger’s hands sooner, but they mask a lot of the protection breakdowns that often seem to mar Pittsburgh’s offensive line. In his career, Roethlisberger has been sacked once every 10.5 drop-backs. This season, he’s being sacked once every 20.6 drop-backs. We’ll see if those numbers hold up Sunday against New York’s NASCAR front four.
Cardinals offense vs. Packers defense
When inside linebacker D.J. Smith was lost for the season, we assumed veteran A.J. Hawk would take his place in the dime sub-package. Instead, it’s been Brad Jones, a scantly used fourth-year pro who transitioned from outside to inside linebacker this past offseason. Jones has been extremely impressive in his two starts, not just in dime –- which the Packers didn’t use much last week against the Jaguars and might be reluctant to use until Charles Woodson gets back –- but also in base and nickel. As expected, Jones has better athleticism than any of Green Bay’s other inside linebackers. Unexpectedly, he’s applied that athleticism to solid inside fundamentals and technique, showing an ability to read and react between the tackles and shed blocks. Jones is just one more example of how the Packers cultivate remarkable linebacking depth year in and year out.
Packers offense vs. Cardinals defense
A two-sack performance on Monday Night Football let the secret out: Arizona’s Daryl Washington has supplanted Pittsburgh’s Lawrence Timmons as the best inside blitzing linebacker in football. The explosive and speedy third-year pro has eight sacks on the season -– third most in the NFL. Athleticism is not Washington’s only ingredient for pressure. Over the past two years, he’s shown impeccable pre-snap timing in all of Ray Horton’s blitz designs. So has his sidekick, Paris Lenon, who deserves some of the credit for Washington’s success. Lenon is generally the first attacker in Arizona’s fire-x blitzes, which means he eats up the blockers to clear Washington’s path. Like Washington, Lenon –- whom coaches say is one of the smartest players they’ve encountered -– is also superb in the pre-snap phase.
Expect the Packers to play a conservative brand of offense this week. With Greg Jennings out and Jordy Nelson still battling hamstring problems, the wide receiver depth is depleted. Considering that Green Bay’s offensive line shows a concerning lack of raw strength in run-blocking, it makes sense for Mike McCarthy to have his players operate out of multi-tight end formations like they did against Jacksonville. That will condense the passing game and give help to Alex Green and his blockers. It will also help keep the Cardinals out of the sub-packages they love to blitz from. If Washington and Lenon still bring heat, the Packers can align their tight ends in inverted wishbone backfields in order to provide additional protection for Aaron Rodgers inside.
Lions offense vs. Jaguars defense
Over the past few weeks, Jacksonville’s defense has been a little better than the team’s record indicates. Two weeks ago, the Jags went man-to-man and gave the Raiders all they could handle, generating pressure up front with a variety of stunts. Last week, with mostly backups filling the secondary, they were able to contain Green Bay’s shorthanded passing game with disciplined Cover-2 concepts.
Expect to see that zone approach again this week. It’s one thing to play the Raiders receivers man-to-man; it’s another to defend Calvin Johnson and company that way. As we’ve noted a few times this year, Detroit has struggled a bit against two-deep coverage. That’s gradually starting to change. Matthew Stafford had perhaps his best game of the season last week against Seattle, though he predominantly faced Cover-3 zones in that one. At some point, the Lions are going to find their rhythm against two-deep shells. Nevertheless, Cover-2 is Jacksonville’s forte. This week, it gives them the best chance to win. That doesn’t mean they will win. Their defensive line still struggles to win one-on-one pass-rushing match-ups, and it’s now facing a Lions offensive line that’s clicking in pass protection. Jacksonville’s front four created a respectable but ultimately underwhelming amount of pressure against a sub-par Packers line last week. They will have to raise their game dramatically this week.
Jaguars offense vs. Lions defense
Maybe there’s hope for Justin Blackmon after all. Through the first month-and-a-half of the season, it was apparent that the No. 5 overall pick was not fully prepared for the NFL stage. (Remember, he held out for the early part of training camp.) Blackmon struggled to quickly identify coverages and show refinement as a route runner, but more concerning was the lack of quickness and agility he showed in his breaks. Last week, those concerns began to abate, as Blackmon caught four important balls for 67 yards. Obviously, a four-catch performance does not constitute a coming-out party, but the Jaguars seem to be getting a better understanding of how best to use Blackmon for now. He needs misdirection crossing patterns that emphasize momentum-based route running as opposed to stop/start coordination. Blackmon seems to be responding. There’s still a long ways to go for the rookie, but he has an opportunity to build on his success this week, as the Lions back seven is wracked with injuries and has always been a bit vulnerable to misdirection passing concepts.
Falcons offense vs. Cowboys defense
Dirk Koetter is just getting started. Did you see how the Falcons scored their first two touchdowns at Philly last week? The first was a 15-yarder to an undrafted second-year receiver named Drew Davis, who was playing for an injured Harry Douglas. The second was a three-yard inside screen to backup running back Jason Snelling. Do opponents now have to worry about the star-studded Falcons also having spectacular depth? Not really. They do have to worry about over-reacting to budding star Julio Jones, though. Jones was the key decoy on each of those two touchdowns. On the first, he appeared ready to receive a wide receiver screen, but when three defensive backs responded to that motion, Matt Ryan simply found a wide open Davis over the top.
On the second touchdown, Atlanta faked a pitch to Jones out of the backfield and every defender bit. Koetter has enjoyed splendid results with White and Jones in the backfield this season. Don’t be surprised if he employs this tactic multiple times Sunday night. The Cowboys love to play press coverage, but you obviously can’t press-cover a player who is coming out of the backfield. By aligning Jones or White there, the Falcons can force the Cowboys to go zone, or try to defend a star wideout with bracketing linebackers and safeties, or ask a corner to play man-to-man inside without being able to touch the receiver (something Morris Claiborne, in particular, struggled with a few weeks ago at Carolina).
Cowboys offense vs. Falcons defense
The Cowboys should list Dez Bryant as their starting quarterback just because it might give moronic fans and columnists a chance to accidentally blame the team’s woes on the right person for once. This season, Bryant has made an art form out of running the wrong route. And he’s become a master at atoning for offensive mistakes with even flashier special teams mistakes. Maybe a prime time game analyzed live by wide receiver-turned-color commentating genius Cris Collinsworth can help America see that Tony Romo isn’t just throwing random interceptions each week. Then again, earlier this year, Bryant’s pick-six-spawning route-running blunder against the Bears was broken down thoroughly on Monday Night Football by Jon Gruden, but that didn’t stop people from criticizing Romo. And Bryant’s interception-creating route-running gaffe against the Giants was broken down by another sharp analyst, Troy Aikman, in front of a national Sunday afternoon audience. And still Romo was viewed as the goat.
True, Bryant has not been targeted on all of Romo’s interceptions. And true, Bryant does have uncanny talent, and he has made some spectacular plays this season. But the point here is that the Cowboys receivers have taken as much off the table as they’ve put on it so far this year. Bryant has been the worst culprit. It’s evident in the way Romo, Jason Garrett, and respected veteran receiver coach Jimmy Robinson interact with Bryant on the sideline that there’s a lot of basic stuff the young wideout simply isn’t understanding. This is much closer to the heartbeat of Dallas’ problems than anything else. It may get worse before it gets better, as the Falcons safeties do a tremendous job with disguising and shifting their coverages before and after the snap. The Cowboys may want to consider not calling any sight adjustment routes for Bryant in this one.