by Andy Benoit
Click here for the NFC Wild Card Film Room. Come back Friday for FO's stat-based Wild Card previews.
Cincinnati at Houston
Bengals offense vs. Texans defense
The Texans are one of the NFL’s few teams with a cornerback capable of matching up to A.J. Green. Johnathan Joseph is arguably the best pure deep ball cover artist in the game. In the Wild Card matchup against Cincinnati last year, he gave up four insignificant catches early on to Green before basically shutting him out over the final 40 minutes. Last year, Cincinnati's No. 2 receiver, Jerome Simpson, was just respectable enough to discourage Houston from committing unyielding safety help against Green. This year, the Bengals have tried a host of flawed youngsters at No. 2 receiver, and have yet to find a viable option. Marvin Jones has actually shown gradual improvement since Mohamed Sanu’s Week 12 injury, but the fifth-round rookie still doesn’t show consistent quickness in his breaks, and he’s not immune to the occasional bad drop. The Texans, who have played man-to-man the majority of the stretch run, should feel plenty comfortable putting Kareem Jackson on Jones with minimal help.
Of course, just because the Texans will have the resources for double-teaming Green doesn’t mean they’ll be able to.
|Graphics by Matt Glickman|
If the Bengals go spread this Saturday, they’ll have to deal with Houston’s potent dime sub-package. Having safeties like Glover Quin and Danieal Manning –- solid box players who can also cover man-to-man –- makes the Texans extremely versatile in dime. This season, they’ve had success blitzing Quin from the slot both against the run and pass. Andy Dalton is smart enough in the pre-snap phase to diagnose these blitzes. But, aside from Green, he doesn’t have any receivers who can consistently beat Houston’s man coverage. Even inconsistent tight end Jermaine Gresham against the safeties is an iffy proposition.
Ideally, Cincinnati would like to get BenJarvus Green-Ellis and their run game going. This would keep the Texans in their more vanilla base personnel package, giving the Bengals an opportunity to dictate matchups. That’s something offensive coordinator Jay Gruden does extremely well through simple formation variations and pre-snap motion.
|Graphics by Matt Glickman|
It’d be a travesty not to mention J.J. Watt somewhere in this preview. The Texans always align him with outside linebacker Brooks Reed on the strong side of the formation, which means he’ll often be matched against right guard Kevin Zeitler and right tackle Andre Smith. Both of those former first-round picks have shown enough playside run-blocking prowess to maybe –- maybe -– spar with Watt on early downs. But both linemen will have a little trouble with Watt’s initial quickness in passing situations.
Two weeks ago, the Bengals found themselves stuck in passing situations for four quarters, as Green-Ellis and the ground game simply got nothing going against an explosive Steelers front seven. If that happens again and the Bengals are forced to go three-wide and rely on Dalton’s arm, the key player will be Andrew Hawkins. The diminutive second-year slot receiver would likely be working against green, up-and-down slot corner Brandon Harris. Almost all of Hawkins’ routes involve three-step timing, which the Bengals could use to nullify Houston’s pass rush and get Dalton in rhythm. That’s the last big question in this matchup: how will Dalton play? He’s made some spectacular throws in big moments the past few weeks, but he’s also been choppy in his reads, leaving a lot of plays on the field.
Texans offense vs. Bengals defense
What’s wrong with Houston’s offense? That’s not rhetorical. What’s wrong is Arian Foster and the ground game haven’t been focal points the past two weeks. Matt Schaub and his receivers have struggled on early downs. That’s a problem because the Texans aren’t equipped to play from behind in the down and distance. They are dependent on deception and design. Schaub, with his below-average arm strength, needs the advantage of play-action and rolled pockets in order to succeed. Receiving targets like Kevin Walter, Owen Daniels, and Garrett Graham need to run slow-developing misdirection routes in order to get separation. Andre Johnson is the only Texans receiver consistently capable of just lining up and beating the man (or in his case, men) across from him.
Gary Kubiak must have the discipline to stick with Foster and the ground game even if domineering defensive tackles Domata Peko and Geno Atkins prevent Houston’s zone line from getting consistent movement. The way to beat the Bengals is to make linebackers Rey Maualuga and Vontaze Burfict pay for their speed and aggression. Even if the running lanes aren’t there, the Texans can still will their way to third-and-six. That’s a down and distance that keeps most of Kubiak’s playbook available.
Another way to view the importance of Houston staying ahead in the down and distance is this: both of these teams thrive on making their opponent react to them. The Texans make defenses reactive through deceptive play-action and zone concepts; the Bengals make offenses reactive by diversifying their pre-snap looks and aggressively blitzing different second-and third-level defenders. In third-and-long, the Bengals have been very dangerous crowding the "A" gaps with linebackers and walking a safety (usually the much-improved Reggie Nelson) to the line of scrimmage. Whichever team wins on first and second down will almost certainly win this game.
Indianapolis at Baltimore
Colts offense vs. Ravens defense
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The youthful Colts will be thoroughly prepared for this one. Chuck Pagano coached this Ravens defense for four years and Bruce Arians coached against it for eight in Pittsburgh. Baltimore's defense, in terms of players on the field, is as close to healthy as it’s been since early in the season. But just because Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata, and Bernard Pollard are on the field doesn’t mean they’ll be fully effective. Indianapolis should spend a significant portion of the early game figuring out which players are furthest from 100 percent.
Expect Lewis to be the guy Indy targets early. At 37, his masterful football IQ is no longer enough to compensate for deteriorating change-of-direction athleticism. The Colts should try to isolate Lewis in space. A way to do that is with tight ends in play-action. Second-round rookie Coby Fleener was expected to become Andrew Luck’s go-to interior target, but third-rounder Dwayne Allen has become the preferred option. Allen can operate out of the backfield, off motion, or out of a standard spot along the line of scrimmage. He changes direction well within the design of the play (i.e. getting into routes off chip blocks or cutting back on misdirection patterns). Most impressive is that, as he’s become more comfortable with the pro game, Allen has shown more athleticism. In him, the Colts have the next Heath Miller.
That said, as the season has worn on, tight ends have become somewhat less important in Indy’s pass game. The main reason Luck’s completion percentage tapered off down the stretch is that he was more inclined to attack vertically with wide receivers. Most of Indy’s downfield designs involve speedster Donnie Avery, though lately third-round rookie burner T.Y. Hilton has emerged as the big-play extraordinaire.
|Graphics by Matt Glickman|
As long as the Colts feel that their offensive line can hold up against what’s been a surprisingly lackluster Ravens four-man pass rush, expect them to call plenty of shot plays downfield. The above graphic pertained to a shot-play against Cover-3. Pagano and Arians know that against Ed Reed & company, they’ll have to draw up route combinations that beat quarters coverage.
To break down the coverage that Baltimore loves most, let’s go back to a graphic that ran before the Week 15 Giants-Ravens game.
|Graphics by Matt Glickman|
Ravens offense vs. Colts defense
Which Colts defense will show up? The one that allowed 352 yards rushing to Jamaal Charles and the Chiefs in Week 16? Or the one that held Arian Foster and the Texans to 102 yards in Week 17? The Ravens, like both of those teams, are primarily a zone-running club. And, like both of those teams, they have one of the AFC’s three Pro Bowl running backs in Ray Rice.
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The biggest difference between Weeks 16 and 17 for the Colts was the play of the front seven. Against Kansas City, inside linebacker Pat Angerer struggled to get off blocks and maneuver through trash. More problematic was the way outside linebacker Robert Mathis -– who, despite weighing less than some wide receivers, plays the strong side –- got suffocated by blockers at the point of attack. Backup Jerry Hughes was also very bad at times. Also, with starting nose tackle Antonio Johnson and end Cory Redding both out with injuries, Indy’s rotation of backup defensive linemen looked, well, like backup defensive linemen.
Against the Texans, a switch got flipped. Angerer looked better, in part because the rotating backup linemen suddenly figured out how to penetrate. Mathis was not just adequate setting the edge, but impressive. The Colts must not allow themselves to be comfortable with this performance, though. Style-wise, Baltimore’s ground game, with lead-blocking extraordinaire Vonta Leach, is less like Houston’s and a little more like Kansas City’s.
A critical key for defending against zone-running teams is that cornerbacks be force players outside. Indy’s Vontae Davis is one of the best in the league at this. He plays with downhill discipline, attacking blockers and ballcarriers low and quickly. This is not a game for the Ravens to inexplicably drift away from Rice and lean on Joe Flacco; their wideouts have continued to struggle with isolation routes against man coverage. Ever since Davis got healthy, Indy’s secondary has been solid across the board in man concepts.