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10 Jan 2013

Film Room: AFC Divisional Round

by Andy Benoit

Baltimore at Denver

Broncos offense vs. Ravens defense

Denver's Week 15 beat-down of the Ravens carries a small asterisk given that half of the Ravens defensive starters were sidelined that week. Knowshon Moreno, who rushed for 118 yards en route to an AFC Offensive Player of the Week award, won’t have as easy a time running against a box that now includes Ray Lewis, Dannell Ellerbe and Bernard Pollard. Moreno will still have an opportunity to post good numbers, as the healthier Ravens are playing on a semi-short week after entering the Wild Card round with the benefit of a de facto Week 17 bye. It will be tough for them to contend with the effective point-of-attack double-team blocks that Denver utilizes so well inside. They’ll also have to stop the run with a seven-man box.

Peyton Manning is more than happy to run against thinner fronts, but he knows that ultimately, Denver’s offense goes how its passing game goes. Though Manning’s offense in Denver includes many more combination routes than his offense in Indy did, the Broncos still rely heavily on isolation patterns. That was the key to their attack against the Ravens in Week 15. They had a lot of success spreading the field and throwing deep comeback patterns on the outside against quarters coverage. This approach maximized the precision route running skills of Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker (one of the best all-around route runners in the game), preventing Ed Reed from being a factor over the middle.

Graphics by Matt Glickman

The key to Baltimore's defensive success against Indianapolis last week was the variety of blitzes the Ravens featured on third down. Don’t expect that this week; it's an NFL truism that the best way to combat Manning is to rush three or four and play coverage. The Ravens have been inconsistent, if not outright uninspiring, with their four-man rush this season. But lately, they’ve started to pick things up a bit, as quick-handed Paul Kruger continues to improve and a now-healthy Pernell McPhee gets more snaps on the inside. In Week 15, they were able to condense Manning’s pocket more than most defenses did this season. That's rarely enough against Manning, though. This Saturday, Baltimore’s pass rush will need to finish plays.

Ravens offense vs. Broncos defense

Baltimore’s running backs were the difference in the Wild Card round. Ray Rice changed the game with his spectacular 47-yard catch-and-run screen to set up a touchdown in the final minutes of the first half. Bernard Pierce put the game away in the second half with a handful of runs on the outside that picked up chunks of yardage. What’s been clear all season is that the Ravens offense must operate through its backs.

Circumstances prevented the Ravens from doing this last month against Denver. Joe Flacco’s ill-advised goal-line throw at the end of the first half resulted in a pick-six that put the Ravens in a 17-0 hole. Baltimore ran just three plays on each of its first five drives, and the first-half deficit prevented Rice from ever factoring into the game. (He finished with 12 carries and three unproductive catches.) The Ravens couldn’t move the ball because their offensive line couldn’t move the Broncos front. The biggest weak spot was left guard Bobbie Williams, who has since been benched in favor of left tackle Bryant McKinnie. McKinnie’s addition to the lineup has moved Michael Oher from left tackle to right tackle and sent rookie right tackle Kelechi Osemele, who had been struggling a bit in pass protection, to left guard. The Ravens say that this gives them their best offensive line combination, but if it were really that good, they would have been using it all season.

The reshuffled line looked a lot better as a run-blocking unit last week, but blocking Indy’s defensive line is nothing like blocking Denver’s rotation of immovable tackles inside and fluid athletes outside. In order for the zone ground game to work, the Ravens will have to get the usual strong performance from fullback Vonta Leach plus an unusual solid performance from finesse tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta.

In all likelihood, Rice’s most effective touches will come through the air. Even that won’t be easy, as Denver’s nickel linebackers, led by the grossly underrated Wesley Woodyard (along with the athletic rotation of D.J. Williams and Danny Trevathan) may be the best in the AFC. But it’s still critical that Rice be featured through the air, as there’s little-to-no chance of Baltimore’s wide receivers shaking free from Denver’s stifling two-man coverage. Anquan Boldin will have to step up for a second straight week, as we figure Torrey Smith will be nullified once again by Champ Bailey. Boldin is the one Ravens receiver who can make contested catches. Of course, to do that, his quarterback must be willing to make contested throws. That’s normally the rocket-armed Flacco’s greatest strength, but at times down the stretch this season (including against Denver), the fifth-year pro was too hesitant and ineffective throwing from a less-than-pristine pocket.

Houston at New England

Patriots offense vs. Texans defense

In the Monday night mugging that took place a few weeks ago in Foxboro, the Patriots opened the game in their usual two-tight end personnel (with an injured Rob Gronkowski’s spot filled by Michael Hoomanawanui ... or Hooshoryoumamma ... or Hoomawaauiueiiuennnuie ... or whatever). The Texans responded with their base 3-4 personnel. That left Aaron Hernandez matched up against linebackers, which the Patriots capitalized on when jumping out to a 28-0 lead.

It seems unlikely the Texans will play base again this time around. Not only does a healthy Gronkowski double the Patriots’ potency at tight end, but injuries to Darryl Sharpton and Tim Dobbins (Houston’s best cover linebacker) leave the Texans thin at inside linebacker. By going with his more diverse three-corner, three-safety sub-package, Wade Phillips can at least match New England’s athleticism.

If they’re on their games, safeties Glover Quin and Danieal Manning are capable of holding their own in one-on-one matchups against Gronkowski and Hernandez. The question is: can they hold up in run defense? Both are solid tacklers who can survive in the box (Quin moreso than Manning), but the Patriots have one of the best power run games in the NFL. They’d almost certainly attack Houston inside (away from J.J. Watt, if possible) and try to create scenarios for guard Logan Mankins to reach Quin at the second level. That’s a mismatch the Texans would have little chance at overcoming.

Part of what makes the Patriots so dangerous is, with Tom Brady’s magic at the line of scrimmage and a fast tempo of play, they can gouge defenses with the same concepts again and again -– especially on the ground. Stevan Ridley has given them a very productive run game, but the Patriots are arguably more dangerous with Danny Woodhead in the backfield. Not only is the fifth-year pro a terrific space-oriented runner, he’s a very dangerous receiver when split outside or coming from the backfield. No matter what package the Texans are in, the Patriots will find ways to create favorable one-on-one receiving situations for Woodhead.

Graphics by Matt Glickman

New England has used wheel routes most effectively against zone coverages, but with the right route combinations, they can easily execute it against the man-to-man that Houston prefers. The Texans are equipped to defend this; in the graphics above, the second play highlighted how Jacksonville took away the wheel route when defensive end Jeremy Mincey peeled into coverage on the running back. The Texans edge players, with their awareness and athleticism, are great at peeling. In fact, Connor Barwin might be the best peeler in the NFL.

Of course, just about everything that we’ve described so far has involved the Texans reacting to the Patriots. History tells us that the best way to beat Brady and company is to make them react to you. Don’t be surprised if Wade Phillips rolls the dice with a barrage of aggressive blitzes throughout the game. That’s something the Texans do extremely well, especially their box safeties in sub-packages.

Texans offense vs. Patriots defense

In case you missed our Wild Card preview on the Texans, the main point we drove home was that Matt Schaub’s limited arm strength and mediocre dropback passing prowess make Houston's pass game dependent on the threat of play-action. Thus, it’s critical the Texans stay ahead in the down and distance. And, as we saw in the blowout at New England, it’s critical that they keep the score close early on.

All this suggests that Houston is leaning on another big week from Arian Foster. The supple superstar has spent the past three years answering these sorts of calls, but it’s hard to fathom any running back having resounding success against a rested defense when he’s coming off a 32-carry game this late in the season. The Texans have a good zone-blocking front line, but in the last matchup against New England, it had no answer for the powerful, penetrating Vince Wilfork. Yes, last week the Texans ran effectively against Cincinnati’s equally dynamic tackles (Geno Atkins and Domata Peko), but those tackles weren’t playing in front of a linebacking trio that’s as explosive as Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, and Dont'a Hightower.

Instead of focusing so much on the run, look for Houston to attack New England’s linebackers in coverage with an array of underneath crossing patterns and screens. This week, the play-action element will be more about setting up proper angles for east-and-west misdirection than it will be about getting linebackers and safeties to bite against the run. That’s because the Patriots will likely be in man coverage, which means eyes will be on receiving targets and not the backfield.

In the last matchup, the Texans often aligned Andre Johnson inside, figuring that’s where his man-defender, Aqib Talib, would be least comfortable. (Talib generally plays outside, while Kyle Arrington plays the slot.) They’ll probably use Johnson this way again, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be easy for Schaub to find. Because he has dynamic linebackers who are also smart blitzers, Bill Belichick generally keeps two safeties back in coverage. That allows the Patriots to give help over-the-top to both sides of the field. Or, it allows them to use a lurk defender at the second level. It’s at the deeper part of the second level where Houston likes to involve Johnson. There will be a lot of occasions where Johnson isn’t open. It’s on Schaub to have the wherewithal to find ancillary targets at the shallower levels.

Follow @Andy_Benoit
e-mail andy@footballoutsiders.com

Posted by: Andy Benoit on 10 Jan 2013

30 comments, Last at 11 Jan 2013, 11:47pm by Will Allen


by Will Allen :: Thu, 01/10/2013 - 1:58pm

Unless Bryant Mckinnie has experienced a psychiatric/physiological episode which has transformed him, I would expect that, on the road, in a loud environment, against a quality speed rusher, he'll be about as effective as an 80 year old roof with a 30 year warranty. The last time he was up for that challenge was 2008.

If Eric Decker has a modicum of humility, he'll donate 25% of the proceeds of his next contract to the charity of Peyton Manning's choice, and I don't mean that as criticism of Decker in any way.

by jonnyblazin :: Thu, 01/10/2013 - 4:46pm

Bryant McKinnie was a better LT last year than Michael Oher was this year. I was anticipating the Ravens using this OL alignment all year, but couldn't understand why they didn't use it. Oher doesn't quite have the footspeed and technique to play the position, he's a much more natural "mauler" who belongs on the right side.

The only thing I can think of is that McKinnie was not in shape when the season started and was therefore in Harbaugh's "doghouse". But if he's worked his way into shape, he's better than Oher. Maybe its too much to ask of McKinnie to play effectively for an entire season, but perhaps its reasonable to expect a 4 game stretch from him.

by Hurt Bones :: Thu, 01/10/2013 - 4:56pm

Exactly. Though I heard he was also bothered by a hip flexor for a lot of the year.

by Will Allen :: Thu, 01/10/2013 - 5:02pm

Hey, maybe something has changed; all I can tell you is that he always had trouble in noisy road games against good speed rushers, and he was really, really, awful against them in 2009, and especially 2010.

(edit)Actually, by 2010, Mckinnie couldn't play anywhere against speed. He almost got Stubbleface sent to the morgue in the 2nd game against the Bears, in the University of Minnesota's stadium.

by Hurt Bones :: Thu, 01/10/2013 - 5:06pm

Can easily believe he still has trouble, but he played a good game last weekend with 1 QB pressure. Watching Michael Oher playing LT for a year, and Roseanne Barr starts to look good.

by young curmudgeon :: Thu, 01/10/2013 - 2:18pm

What is it with Benoit and names? "Hoomanawanui" isn't that difficult to sort out, if you know that it's pretty much phonetic and that you pronounce every syllable (glottal stop between the two "o's") Yes, it does have lots of letters, but that shouldn't intimidate anyone. I remember him being irritated by the spelling or pronunciation of some punter's name earlier this year. As I said then, a guy who lives in a glass house with a mailbox outside that reads "ben-oyt" or "ben-wa" or "be-oh-it" or whatever shouldn't throw stones.

by dryheat :: Thu, 01/10/2013 - 3:06pm

I think he was invoking the old TJ Houshmanzadeh fantasy football commercial. It would be silly mis-pronouncing a name in a written medium otherwise.

by JonFrum :: Thu, 01/10/2013 - 3:20pm

Let me second this comment with bad intent. I am so fucking sick of sports announcers - particularly NFL announcers - ridiculing men's names on television. And yes, it is ridicule. It's the 'that foreign-sounding name that I don't have to respect enough to bother learning. Bigots did the identical thing 100 years ago as immigrants flooded into the country. The fact that it's played behind that 'I'm such a country boy dumbass that I just can't figure it out - aw shucks' crap doesn't make it any better. You're a professional announcer, and you've had a freakin' week to prepare, Gomer - get the man's name right.

And of course, getting cute with the same 'it's not a good, normal, American name, so it's rocket science to pronounce it correctly' crap in print just compounds the crime, deliberately spelling the man's name incorrectly for a 'laff.'

I don't come to Football Outsiders for xenophobic 'humor' in any form - please take it elsewhere.

by Will Allen :: Thu, 01/10/2013 - 3:57pm

Was I a xenophobe when I used to write, on occasion, "Ben Alphabet", harboring a subconscious fear of my ancestors from Eastern Europe? Am I a self-hating Slav!!? Jumpin' Jehosophat!, I now realize that I've also purposely misspelt the last names of Scandinavian people as well, who are also my ancestors, when I've written things like "Sven Somethingson". Oops, I've now blasphemed, by using a euphemism for "Jehovah"! Well, "JEHOVAH!, JEHOVAH! JEHOVAH!"; guess you'll just have to stone me now!!!

More seriously, if you want to request that a writer endeavor to spell names correctly, fine. However, adopting the conceit that you have insight as to his emotional state, so as to allow you to accurately conclude that he is engaging in xenophobia, is a bit much.

by nat :: Thu, 01/10/2013 - 7:38pm

Dang! You said it three times. Now He's going to materialize in an FO message thread. I don't think we're ready for that.

For that matter, I'm not sure He's quite ready for that either.

by JonFrum :: Thu, 01/10/2013 - 8:52pm

Every other week during an NFL game, an announcer will pull that same 'ahhhh.... I'm glad you said his name, Joe,' crap. You watch NFL games, you know it. Its' become a cliche in NFL announcing as much as 'they have to establish a ground game.' And this guy, in his writing, is mirroring exactly that.

And this has nothing to do with 'spelling names right.' He didn't get a name wrong - as you damn well know - he deliberately played the 'let's have fun with the guy's name' game.

I'm not surprised that you come to the defense of your boy. And since I don't know you personally, I have no idea whether I should be surprised that you sell your integrity as a man so cheaply.

by Will Allen :: Thu, 01/10/2013 - 11:06pm

Yes, he deliberately attempted to be humorous regarding the spelling of the man's name. It may be poor writing, but it is not, you preening, moralistic, lackwit, prima facie evidence of xenophobia, any more than it was when I used to mess around with the spelling of the name of the Steelers' qb, or the redundancy in the names of my Swedish ancestors. The conceit of knowledge is idiotic.

Here's a clue, you pompous, yelping, gasbag; if you dislike an element of an author's writing, simply, in a manner of address that you would appreciate, if it were extended to you, inform the writer of how he might improve. Refrain from assigning moral qualities or motivation to his choice of words and letters, that you have, in your supremely idiotic overestimation of your abilities, stupidly concluded that you have adequate evidence of.

Clear enough, moron? Or was this post too polite and indirect for your intellectual capacity?

by theslothook :: Fri, 01/11/2013 - 12:02am

Jesus will, imagine if he had said something about your mother :p

by Will Allen :: Fri, 01/11/2013 - 12:21am

Eh, mom handles things herself pretty well. Saw her once peel the skin off a judge that barked up the wrong tree.

by theslothook :: Fri, 01/11/2013 - 3:15am

I wonder if thats a minnesota thing

by Guest789 :: Fri, 01/11/2013 - 3:42pm



“Treat a man as he is, and he will remain as he is. Treat a man as he could be, and he will become what he should be.”

by intel_chris (not verified) :: Fri, 01/11/2013 - 5:16pm

Will, I've read your postings enough on this site to know that you are normally a thoughtful and incisive writer with much good to say and I'm sorry that this topic of name mangling has touched such a hot-button with you. However, I must make one small point in this regard.

The original commenter who objected to the writing did not call the author a xenophobe, but referred to "xenophobic humor". "Xenophobic humor" is not a description of the user of the humor nor their mental state, but a description of the type of humor, just as "gallows humor" does not imply the person using it is actually about to be hung. It is the humor used by xenophobes to establish social superiority in their minds. Because of that use, it is generally offensive humor when used in a social context even (especially?) when used by a non-xenophobe, because that in some way excuses and accepts the use of such humor by xenophobes. This is particularly true when it is used repeatedly or in a way where it makes it seem like a common thing to do. It's like the way an ex-girlfriend of mine used to affectionately refer to me as "massa", but how I would never have used that as a joke in a public forum. That would have condoned the awful heritage that joke implies.

I apologize again if I offended you. I won't be slandered if you imply that my ancestors picked one syllable names of no more that 5 letters because those are the longest words they could spell. For all I know, that's true.

by Will Allen :: Fri, 01/11/2013 - 6:27pm

I'm afraid you are inaccurately accusing me of making a distinction without a dfference. In order for a writer to engage in xenophobic humor, the writer must adopt xenophobic intent, because xenophobia is a description of a state of mind. "Gallows" humor is a metaphor, "xenophobic" is not a metaphor. Now, if someone wished to criticize a writer, by saying the hackneyed attempt at humor, via deliberate misspelling of a name, should be avoided, in part because it may appeal to to those with a xenophobic mindest, I likely would not repond to such a statement. That isn't the same thing however, as the empirically insipid implication that the deliberate misspelling of a name, with humorous intent, is, in and of itself, xenophobic. People should endeavor to avoid making empirically insipid implications.

This really isn't a hot button issue for me. When I read the empirically weak implication, I noted examples, satirically, where such deliberate misspellings with humorous intent are plainly not xenophobic, and then somewhat mildly suggested that the empirically false implication was taking things too far. Mr. Frum then decided to engage in direct, hostile, personal, attack. I always grant those I engage with the benefit of the doubt, in terms of their social intelligence, so when people engage in such hostile invective, I assume that they do not have the socialization typical of two year olds, and thus understand that how they engage with others will likely be mirrored. I thus concluded that Mr. Frum wished to have a hostile exchange, and I do try to accomodate the desires of others, when possible. If Mr. Frum is indeed a social idiot, along with being deficient in other types of reasoning, I extend my apologies to him for assuming that this is what he desired.

by LionInAZ :: Fri, 01/11/2013 - 10:54pm

All discussions of Andy Benoit's sentiments aside, I think there's something to be said in favor of intelligent sports writers not repeating bad jokes made by common pig-brain sports types, including the 'funny non-English name' jokes.

Although one of my favorite comic lines is from Barney Miller: "It's pronounced the way it's spelled: Wojciehowicz." (Disclaimer: probably not exact quote.)

by Will Allen :: Fri, 01/11/2013 - 11:47pm

I have no strong opinion of Andy Benoit as a writer (sorry, Andy). I do think that when you write regularly for publication, you're going to have your bad moments, no matter how skilled you typically are. I also think it is eminently reasonable for commenters to point out when those bad moments occurred, and how those moments are bad. I also think that what is far more tiresome is know-it-all jackasses who presume to have meaningful insight as to the state of mind of other people, based upon miniscule evidence.

by theslothook :: Thu, 01/10/2013 - 3:24pm

Danny woodhead is the classic example of a guy who is useless to 80-90 percent of the teams in the nfl. But, pair him in a specific offense and he becomes absolutely deadly.

by dryheat :: Thu, 01/10/2013 - 3:35pm

80-90% of offenses don't use a 3rd down running back who's primary contributions are the screen/draw game?

Huh. I thought almost all of them did.

by commissionerleaf :: Thu, 01/10/2013 - 5:24pm

More accurately:

The New England Patriots are an example of a team who does something well that 80-90% of NFL teams do not, that is, execution in the screen/draw game. As a result, Danny Woodhead occasionally gets to do Bryan Westbrook impressions while Mewelde Moore does not, in Indianapolis where the offensive line couldn't block sunlight while they tie their shoes.

Better case in point, though, is Darren Sproles.

by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Thu, 01/10/2013 - 5:43pm

Sproles has been successful on two teams.

by dryheat :: Thu, 01/10/2013 - 9:26pm

Well, he wasn't nearly as good for San Diego, which I think speaks to his point. There's lots of RBs who can do Woodhead's, or Kevin Faulk's, or Sproles's job well. The difference between those guys and Leon Washington or Lorenzo Booker or Joe McKnight is that they have a quarterback who excels in the screen/draw game combined with an offensive co-ordinator who calls those plays in all situations. It's amazing to me how many NFL quartetbacks struggle at throwing screen passes. I saw some outright hideous ones last weekend.

by theslothook :: Fri, 01/11/2013 - 12:04am

Its more than that. Woodhead is an ancillary piece, admittedly a very powerful one. But, in a traditional offense that lacks the kind of playmakers and quarterback and scheme Ne does, his skills are greatly diminished. Honestly, outside of Denver, Ne, NO, GB and maybe a few others(really can't think of too many more), Woodhead is a marginal bit player. Again, this sounds like criticism, but its not. woodhead really is that good in his role.

by dryheat :: Fri, 01/11/2013 - 12:00pm

That's what we're saying. It's not that Woodhead is a less skilled player going to another team, it's that most other teams don't have the other things in place (a screen/draw-heavy offense, a mobile offensive line, a QB who excels at throwing screen passes) to take advantage of his skills. I agree that he wouldn't be very productive in New Jersey, Washington or Pittsburgh, for example, but he's not any less useful of a player because those quarterbacks don't throw screens well. He'd still be their 3rd down back and get those opportunities. The results just wouldn't be there.

by theslothook :: Fri, 01/11/2013 - 2:52pm

Well, where we disagree i think(and politely btw :P) is how to value a player like woodhead. There are some players that are niche players and some that are valuable wherever they go. Gronkowski is a great example of this. Now obviously gronks abilities are maxed in ne, but hed still be quite dangerous on most teams. That isn't the same with woodhead, who would probably be of very little value to most teams. So how do we reconcile these two players other than to just call them deadly?

I guess i tend to be a bit biased against niche players when I shouldn't, but I always prefer to defer most of their success to the people that setup the system in the first place. That means most of woodhead's production I credit to brady, gronk, the line etc. I still know woodhead is valuable and his replacement isn't anywhere near as good as he is.

by The Hypno-Toad :: Thu, 01/10/2013 - 10:25pm

led by the grossly underrated Wesley Woodyard
Yay! That line really made my day.

by RavensJimbo (not verified) :: Fri, 01/11/2013 - 10:09am

Send straight week the AFC Film Room article has shown - but not really commented upon - Ed Reed's horrible propensity for guessing on what he thinks will be an underneath route, only to leave his CB completely hung out to dry on a double move. Look at the second picture: how does a free safety whose responsibility is to stay deeper than the deepest WR find himself 5 yards behind the play? By trying to jump a route to make a highlight reel INT, instead of playing his position. When Reed plays his responsibility, he's still very effective in coverage. That's when he makes his INTs. Unfortunately, more and more, he freelances and a QB as savvy as Manning exploits him. I'm hoping he learned his lesson from the last Denver game and will provide a bit more protection for Baltimore's CBs vs. Denver's double moves.