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Tag:Andy Benoit
Posted on: January 29, 2012 12:54 am
 

Super Bowl XLVI Preview: Patriots O vs. Giants D

Breaking news: Brady is key to the Pats winning. (Getty Images)
Posted by Eye on Football Analyst Andy Benoit

It’s this side of the matchup that makes Super Bowl XLVI so compelling. New England’s juggernaut offense against the league’s best four-man pass-rush. Here’s the breakdown.



1. Relevance of rematch factor
What happened in Super Bowl XLII has virtually no bearing on this game. Yes, that game was decided by New York’s front four getting pressure on Tom Brady. And yes, front-four pressure will play a huge role in this Sunday’s game. But the pressure in Super Bowl XLII was schematically generated by the Giants’ inside blitzes (both feigned and real).

This approach compelled the Patriots’ help-blockers to work inside, leaving one-on-one matchups for defensive ends Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora outside. This was a brilliant strategy by Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo because it punished Brady for taking seven-step drops. Those seven-step drops were obligatory in an ’07 Patriots offense that was built around the vertical prowess of Randy Moss.

But as mentioned, that gameplan is now irrelevant, as the ’11 Patriots are built around the horizontal prowess of Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski and Wes Welker. What IS relevant is the gameplan the Giants had in Week 9 when they went into Foxboro and forced four turnovers en route to a rare Patriots home loss.

New York’s Week 9 gameplan centered around physical coverage behind a four-man pass-rush. No surprise – that’s how the Giants are built to play. What’s important is to understand HOW the Giants executed this gameplan.

Considering New York’s personnel is basically the same now as it was in Week 9 (only better), there’s no reason to think they won’t go with the same approach again. Let’s dissect that approach.

2. The four-man rush
One thing that sets the Giant’s four-man rush apart – besides an insane collection of talent – is its mismatch-creating versatility. The Giants have used 27 different front four alignments this postseason.

Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul can both slide inside and work against overmatched guards (and every NFL guard, even Pro Bowlers like Logan Mankins and Brian Waters, is overmatched against athletes like JPP and Tuck). They can align linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka anywhere up front. They have a beastly all-around force in Chris Canty (and for what it’s worth, a solid duo of rotating run-stoppers next to him in Rocky Bernard and the underrated Linval Joseph).

Most quality four-man pass-rushes have guys who are either speedy or powerful; Pierre-Paul, Tuck, Kiwanuka and, by defensive tackle standards, Canty, are all speedy AND powerful. This is what creates their versatility, and it’s also what allows the Giants front four to tee-off rushing the passer without becoming vulnerable to the run.

Expect the Giants to jumble their front four looks as much as possible. They also might walk linebackers up to the line of scrimmage just to give Brady and his linemen something to think about. As we talked about last week, the key to beating Brady is to not just get pressure on him, but to make him consciously worry about his protection.

3. New England’s response to New York’s D-line
The Patriots, like 30 other NFL teams, will have their hands full with many of the individual front line matchups against New York. For an elite left guard, Logan Mankins can be surprisingly iffy in protection sometimes. Left tackle Matt Light often rises to the occasion against top-shelf speed-rushers, but it’s a lot to ask of the 33-year-old to block Osi Umenyiora on an island. On the right side, tackle Nate Solder struggled in pass protection last week against Baltimore.

In Week 9, the Patriots were obviously concerned about one-on-one situations in the trenches. They used six or seven offensive linemen on 20 snaps. In the first half, they often kept Gronkowski and, at times even de facto wide receiver Hernandez, in to pass-block. Don’t expect them to do that as much this time around.

New England’s offense has become even more spread-oriented, which means more pass-rush nullifying three-and five-step drop passes. Because of the skill players’ versatility, the hurry-up has become the Patriots’ main offensive attack. Expect them to use frequent hurry up in order to prevent the Giants from rotating defensive linemen.

The Patriots will likely go with their two-receivers, two-tight ends, one-back personnel, and they’ll have different groups of plays already packaged for whatever personnel the Giants defense responds with. A hurry-up will keep the same defensive personnel on the field for an entire series, forcing the 270-plus-pound D-linemen to play snap after snap after snap without rest. The hope is this wears the defense down late in the series and late in the game.

It’s vital that the Patriots win the battle on first and second down. Doing so makes the hurry-up offense more vibrant and, obviously, mitigates the substantial pass-rushing advantage that New York has on third-and-long. Winning on first and second down is hard to do consistently without running the ball at least a little. This is why New England will likely go with the 12 personnel (one back, two tight ends) as opposed to their new 02 personnel package (zero backs, two tight ends, three wide receivers).

Then again, Hernandez has been a surprisingly adroit ballcarrier ... perhaps a no-running back grouping is indeed viable. Or given that they’ve had an extra week to prepare, perhaps the Patriots will debut an all new offensive wrinkle (like they did after their last bye, with the Hernandez backfield packages in the divisional round against Denver).

4. New York’s coverage
The advantage of getting pressure with four is having seven guys to crowd the field in coverage. Few back sevens are as well-equipped to defend the Patriots’ pass game as the Giants’. They have athletic pass-defending linebackers (Michael Boley and Jacquian Williams) who can play laterally. More importantly, those linebackers can exert brutish force against any receivers running shallow inside routes. Those shallow inside routes are the backbone of New England’s passing attack.

The Giants also have versatile safeties who can (maybe) hang with Gronkowski and Hernandez. Deon Grant did a fabulous job on Gronk in Week 9 (he had a great pick in underneath coverage, and overall, Gronkowski’s impact was not as pronounced as his 101 yards suggested).

Antrel Rolle doesn’t run extremely well, but he’s agile enough to compete with Hernandez. In Week 9 Hernandez had not yet blossomed into the über-versatile weapon that he is today. So, Rolle actually spent most of that contest defending Wes Welker in the slot. Rolle got beat late a few times but also made some physical plays in the first half.

Physicality is a key concept. The Giants have capable press corners in Corey Webster and Aaron Ross. Webster is an outside defender who normally shadows the opposing team’s top receiver. Because Welker so often aligns in the slot, and because Deion Branch is not worth putting your best cover guy on, expect Webster to draw a litany of different matchups out wide. Same goes for Ross, who is actually more likely than Webster to cover Welker in the slot.

The Giants played more press-man than usual against the Patriots, and with good success. In the four games in which New England’s offense struggled the most this season, Brady’s completion percentage barely topped 50 when facing safety-help man coverage.

5. New England’s response
The Patriots know that aggressive press coverage can really disrupt the timing of their routes – an especially dubious scenario given that many of their routes are synched with other routes. Expect the go-to receiver to line up off the line of scrimmage as a means of creating more initial spacing (which makes it hard for a defender to deliver a jam). This could mean Welker in the slot, Hernandez in the slot or backfield, Branch in motion, etc. Play action could also take away inside help early in the routes, which bodes well for Welker:

This is an illustration of great route combinations. “Route combinations” refers to how one receiver’s route works hand-in-hand with another receiver’s route to exploit a specific coverage. This play shows a somewhat unusual case of an offense creating throwing lanes against man coverage with space-oriented route combinations (as opposed to regular man-beaters like pick plays, bunches or double crossing patterns).

It’s second-and-five. The Patriots are in a 1 x 2 set out of 12 personnel (one back, two tight ends). Judging by the cornerbacks, the Giants are in man coverage. This is confirmed when Rob Gronkowski goes in motion and Deon Grant follows him.

The matchup Tom Brady likes is Wes Welker against safety Antrel Rolle in the slot. Welker is going to run a deep cross. This is somewhat of a tendency-breaker, as most would expect Welker to run a shallow cross on second-and-five.

The primary intent of Gronkowski’s motion is NOT to verify the coverage, it’s to balance the formation and ensure that Grant will play close to the line of scrimmage. If he’s near the line, he’ll be unable to drop off Gronkowski and jump Welker’s route over the middle.

Don’t be surprised if the Patriots have their tight ends or running backs run patterns outside the numbers while the receivers run patterns inside. This would put pressure on the linebackers and safeties to play with more speed than power and make it more difficult for corners to count on a little help over the shallow middle (which most corners need). These inside-outside crossing elements are also natural man coverage beaters, which the Patriots must rely on.

Because Brady runs like he’s wearing ski boots, defenses facing New England don’t have to commit a linebacker to shadowing the quarterback. Thus, they essentially have one extra player at their disposal. The Patriots mitigate this defensive advantage by crafting creative route design concepts:

Upon the snap, there are two key elements:

1. Welker is coming out of the slot, not off the line of scrimmage. Thus, he has about two yards between him and Rolle, which is enough to prevent Rolle from exerting a physical jam.

2. Brady fakes a handoff to Danny Woodhead. This slows the pass-rush just enough to give Welker the time needed to execute his deep cross. More importantly, it distracts linebackers Mathias Kiwanuka and Michael Boley. They might be in a man-read assignment, meaning if Woodhead goes right, the linebacker to that side (Boley) picks him up. If he goes left, then Kiwanuka picks him up. In that case, the design of the run action was outstanding because, by starting Woodhead on the left side and running him off the fake to the right flat, the attention of both linebackers is drawn. That’s what happened here, as Boley and Kiwanuka both responded to the fake by stepping forward and becoming non-factors in this play.

(Note: It’s also possible that Boley had Woodhead straight-up, with Kiwanuka serving as a free-roaming lurk defender. If that’s the case, then Kiwanuka played this exceptionally poorly.)

Being drawn forward, the linebackers are unable to sense Welker’s crossing route and unable to give Rolle any sort of help inside. Thus, Rolle is caught playing too far outside.

On the left side, Gronkowski ran a very shallow out-route while Chad Ochocinco ran his out towards the sideline. Both of these routes were designed to widen the defense and create a big open gap for Welker.

Overall, this play had a combination of four routes working together: Woodhead’s flat on the right, Gronkowski’s out and Ochocinco’s fly on the left and Welker’s deep cross down the middle. The result: an easy 25-yard completion to arguably the league’s best slot receiver.

Again, the crossing patterns are natural man-beaters. So are bunch and stack alignments, which are great for pushing a defense into off-coverage and creating space for quick-striking throws. These tactics will replace a lot of would-be run plays in New England’s up-tempo offense.

Check our NFL expert picks for all the Super Bowl

Follow @Andy_Benoit on Twitter or contact him at Andy.Benoit-at-NFLTouchdown.com.
Posted on: January 29, 2012 12:23 am
Edited on: January 30, 2012 9:13 am
 

Super Bowl XLVI Preview: Giants O vs. Patriots D

The G-Men's offensive attack is even more dangerous this time. (Getty Images)
Posted by Eye on Football Analyst Andy Benoit

The Giants offense and Patriots defense have both elevated their play this postseason. But that doesn’t mean this matchup isn’t glaringly lopsided. Here’s the breakdown.



1. Relevance of rematch factor
The Super Bowl XLII film is worthless for analyzing Super Bowl XLVI. Vince Wilfork is the only Patriots defensive player left from the ’07 roster, while the ’07 Giants offense featured possession targets Plaxico Burress and Amani Toomer at wide receiver and was built entirely around the run. What’s more, Eli Manning at the time was a 27-year-old glorified game-manager, not a 31-year-old superstar.

This year’s Week 9 matchup is almost equally irrelevant, for the simple reason that the Giants were without wide receiver Hakeem Nicks, running back Ahmad Bradshaw, fullback Henry Hynoski and center David Baas. Will Beatty was still at left tackle and David Diehl was still at left guard.

The Patriots were still using safety Devin McCourty at cornerback, Josh Barrett was playing safety, current Seahawk Phillip Adams was the nickelback and defensive end Andre Carter had not yet injured his quad.

The Giants are not the same offense without Nicks. Even so, the Patriots that day had trouble stopping the pass. With Nicks back, things might get real ugly for them.

2. The mismatch: Giants receivers vs. Patriots secondary
This matchup is what makes it hard to pick the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI.

Simply put, they don’t have one cornerback who can defend Nicks, Victor Cruz or even Mario Manningham. Starting corner Kyle Arrington matched up on Cruz with plenty of safety help last game and got torched. With Nicks healthy, Cruz slides back to the slot, where he could face Julian Edelman. That a wide receiver plays in the nickel package tells you everything about what Bill Belichick and his staff think of backup corners Nate Jones and Antwaun Molden.

On the other side, Sterling Moore will see plenty of Nicks. Moore has made great strides down the stretch, but we’re still talking about an undrafted rookie safety playing corner against an elite playmaking wideout.

Even if the Patriots commit fully to coverage and play two-man (which is man-to-man with two safeties helping over the top), they’re still vulnerable. None of their corners are great in man and none of their safeties, aside from Patrick Chung (who’s a better hitter than ball hawk) have proven themselves. True, those safeties have flourished this postseason, but that was against Denver and Baltimore, two of the worst man-beating offenses in football.

The Patriots don’t have a good enough pass-rush for their secondary to sustain man coverage anyway. Thus, expect Bill Belichick to do what he’s done most of this season: put his men in bend-but-don’t-break schemes and hope to compensate with red zone stops and turnovers.

The Giants will gladly go to work against cautious zone coverages. They’re a big-play offense – not with home runs so much as doubles and triples. Thanks to a solid pass-blocking O-line and coordinator Kevin Gilbride’s shrewd route combination designs, the Giants thrive on 15-25-yard completions, both strictly through the air or via the catch-and-run. This multidimensional potency stems from the brilliance of the quarterback.

3. Eli
We’ve trumpeted the younger Manning in virtually every Film Room post for the past two months, so admittedly, what you’re about to read is somewhat redundant. But with this being the Super Bowl, and in Peyton’s house, and amidst so much talk about both Mannings’ legacy, it’s appropriate to hammer home the point: Eli Manning is as good as any quarterback in the world right now.

His arm strength and accuracy are as good as any passer’s, which is why the Giants have so much success with the deep-outs:

New York’s money play is the deep-out. Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz and Mario Manningham run this route (known on the route tree as the seven route) as effectively as any trio in the game. All have great footwork and are hands-catchers – two important elements near the sideline. A lot of teams don’t consistently run this pattern because it requires a quarterback with incredible arm strength and timing.

His presnap and postsnap decision-making are as sharp as any player’s, his pocket mobility and improvisational abilities are as impressive as any quarterback’s and his moxie and leadership and all those other vague Tebow-like attributes are phenomenal.

This is another reason the Patriots will likely assume a conservative – if not passive – defensive approach. By being complex and aggressive, they make it about whether Manning can out-execute them. By being basic, they make it about Manning AND everyone else out-executing them. When you figure Manning is going to out-execute them anyway, it’s sensible that the Patriots would want to put the game in other skill players’ hands.

4. New York’s run game
Given what’s been written in this post thus far, it might seem the Giants would be doing the Patriots a favor by running the ball. Perhaps they would. But take a step back and understand that, all in all, the Giants offense is still built around balance. It has been ever since Tom Coughlin arrived.

Despite still having Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs, the Giants run game is nowhere near what it was last time these teams met on a Super Bowl stage. It had a late-season surge, but at Green Bay and San Francisco, it looked a lot like the 32nd ranked rushing attack it was all year.

That said this rushing attack was actually able to pound the rock inside with Jacobs in Week 9. And the Patriots have yet to see Bradshaw. Having Brandon Spikes once again healthy has done wonders for New England’s front seven; he and Jerod Mayo are both excellent downhill thumpers. But given New York’s aerial acumen, it’s doubtful the Patriots will bring run-defending safeties Patrick Chung or James Ihedigbo into the box much this game. It will be on the defensive line to continue to be stout against the run.

5. New England’s saving grace…?
There is one area where the Patriots D has a clear advantage: up front inside. Nose tackle Vince Wilfork is a behemoth top-tier star coming off an otherworldly AFC Championship performance. On Sunday he’ll have the luxury of facing banged-up and highly-disappointing center David Baas.

The Patriots played a lot of 4-3 fronts in Week 9; it might be prudent to go more 3-4 this time just to ensure that Wilfork can line up directly over Baas. Wilfork is certainly capable of beating guards Kevin Boothe or Chris Snee, and on most plays he’s going to eventually draw a double-team no matter where he aligns.

But the Patriots have next to no chance at stopping this offense if they don’t get at least a few dominant penetrations from their best player. Putting him over Baas gives him the best chance for that.

Check our NFL expert picks for all the Super Bowl

Follow @Andy_Benoit on Twitter or contact him at Andy.Benoit-at-NFLTouchdown.com.
Posted on: January 25, 2012 11:00 pm
 

Pick-6 Podcast: Predicting Peyton's next team

Is Peyton done in Indy? And if so, where where he land in 2012? (Getty Images)

By Will Brinson & Ryan Wilson

On the latest Pick-6 Podcast...

It's the second biggest storyline of the week: where will Peyton Manning play in 2012? That would've been a silly question six months ago but much less so now. The Colts have the first-overall pick in the April draft, owner Jim Irsay has cleaned house, and Manning admitted recently that he had no idea about his future. 

Assuming the Manning era is over in Indianapolis, where his NFL career began in 1998, where might he end up? You'll have to listen to find out.

Other quarterback-related topics on the show: 
  • What should the Ravens do with Joe Flacco -- extend him this offseason or let him play out the final year of his rookie deal?
  • And what about Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron -- should he stay or go?
  • With Alex Smith fresh off a 13-3 season in San Francisco, should the 49ers bring him back, and if so, for how long (they drafted Colin Kaepernick in the second round of the 2011 draft)? 
  • Which names top the list of soon-to-be free-agent wide receivers?
  • And finally, a look ahead to the storylines and matchups for Super Bowl XLVI.
All right, let's get to this...

(Did we mention that you should subscribe to the podcast via iTunes? And if you can't listen to the podcast below, download it here. And if you'd like to keep working while listening in your browser, pop that puppy out in a new tab here.)


For more NFL news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnNFL on Twitter, subscribe to our NFL newsletter, and while you're at it, add our RSS Feed.
Posted on: January 18, 2012 5:20 pm
Edited on: January 20, 2012 12:16 pm
 

Film Room: 49ers vs. Giants NFC CG preview

Can Smith and Harbaugh work some more magic Sunday? (Getty Images)
Posted by Eye on Football Analyst Andy Benoit

These teams gave us a very good game back in Week 10 from which we came away truly believing for the first time that San Francisco’s old school style might actually still work in today’s pass-happy NFL. However, not much can be drawn on from that game, as the Giants were without Ahmad Bradshaw, hadn’t yet gelled on the O-line and were still trying to figure things out in their defensive back seven.

New York is healthy now and, as you’ve undoubtedly heard a thousand times, “playing with confidence”. Confidence does not breed success, it stems from success. Simply put, the Giants are a much better football team this time around.


1. Tougher task for Alex Smith
Alex Smith’s fourth quarter heroics last week might have been career-changing, at least pertaining to his public image. But lost in the excitement was the fact that Smith and his teammates struggled somewhat to identify blitzes throughout most of the contest.

And, until the final few minutes, Smith wasn’t comfortable against heavy coverage in the red zone. He caught fire once he started recognizing the one-on-one matchups for Vernon Davis BEFORE the snap (which wasn’t hard against the Saints’ Cover 0’s). Thus, after the snap, he didn’t have to worry about making the right decision – he just had to worry about throwing a good ball.  (To his credit, he did this extremely well.)

This week, Smith will have to worry about both. Given the mediocrity of San Francisco’s offensive tackles, the Giants’ four-man rush should be able to get pressure and force the Niners to keep backs and tight ends in to block (or at least chip). When the Giants do blitz, it’s usually a zone pass-rushing concept involving a linebacker (see Michael Boley’s two sacks at Green Bay).

Thus, all game Smith will be throwing into a more crowded secondary and without quickly defined reads. Unless Joe Staley and Anthony Davis play the game of their lives, Smith will also be throwing under some duress. Post-snap decision-making from a crowded pocket has always been Smith’s greatest weakness.

As he’s done all season, Jim Harbaugh will ameliorate Smith’s deficiencies by giving him simplified quick throws off three-step drops, utilizing play-action and, perhaps, calling throws on first down (where the coverages tend to be more basic). The Niners did this with great success in Week 10. In fact, they did it was great success throughout the season; Smith’s passer rating on first down was 101.6.

But at some point, just like last week, Smith is going to have to make a big-time throw in an obvious passing situation.


After dominating the Green Bay Packers last week, the New York Giants will travel to Candlestick Park to square off against the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship. Join NFL.com's Pat Kirwan and Jason Horowitz as they break down this matchup.

2. Smith’s targets
Smith isn’t the only passing game contributor who faces a tougher challenge this week. Michael Crabtree will likely be shadowed by Corey Webster, an outstanding all-around cover corner. Because Crabtree isn’t fast enough to run away from most corners, he has to beat them with body control and agility. Often, his best routes drag over the middle. When his routes go inside, it’s easy for the Giants to give Webster help (not that he needs much).

Smith’s top target, Vernon Davis, won’t be facing Roman Harper or Malcolm Jenkins in man coverage. Instead, he’ll go against Antrel Rolle, a more athletic cover artist whom the Arizona Cardinals originally drafted in the first round as a cornerback (the Saints drafted Jenkins as a corner, as well, but after a year they admitted what had been apparent from Day One: the stiff-hipped ex-Buckeye was better suited for safety).

And unlike last week, Davis won’t have just one defender to beat, as it’s highly unlikely the Giants will play only man and have Rolle constantly defend the 250-pound tight end one-on-one.

3. Gotta make it Gorey
Expect the run-first Niners to go back to the ground this week. Frank Gore got just 13 carries against New Orleans; he needs at least 22 against New York. If Gore can pound the rock against Perry Fewell’s big nickel defense (two linebackers, two safeties and Rolle playing a utility role as a third safety/linebacker/slot corner), the Giants may decide to go back to their base 4-3.

That would make for a less athletic front seven and present a greater possibility for Davis to draw matchups against linebackers.

Let’s keep it simple and also remember that, regardless of what the defense is doing, running is San Francisco’s bread and butter. They’re built around the power run, with booming and mobile left guard Mike Iupati pulling to the right of Pro Bowl center Jonathan Goodwin and working in unison with lead-blockers Bruce Miller and Justin Peelle (or Delanie Walker if he can get healthy).

That’s the formula that got this team here. And it happens to be the formula that can keep New York’s white hot quarterback off the field.

4. Giants passing game
New York’s rushing attack is nowhere near as dreadful as it was in September, October and November, but against the league’s stingiest run defense, it still can’t be counted on. The Giants will have to ride the golden right arm of Eli Manning. He isn’t facing a porous pass defense like he did a week ago. San Francisco has three corners who can stay with New York’s frighteningly athletic wide receivers.

In the last meeting, Carlos Rogers was sensational defending the slot, making a handful of great jumps on the ball and finishing with two interceptions. Rogers is good enough to handle Victor Cruz.

What really stood out in the first divisional round game was how well the Niner defensive backs – particularly safeties Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner – tackled. Considering the DB’s penchant for forcing fumbles, the Giants may be hesitant to put Hakeem Nicks and Cruz in the catch-and-run situations that they enjoy.

5. San Fran’s defensive line
The 49ers were able to break down the Giants’ pass protection in the last meeting, but again, this Giants line has improved immensely since then.

Still, Aldon Smith, with his explosive first step and startlingly quick hands, is a nightmare matchup for David Diehl on the left side, while Kareem McKenzie will need a little help against the speed of Ahmad Brooks on the right. Then there’s Justin Smith, who makes four or five fantastic penetrative plays a game.

In addition to rushing the passer, the Niners’ front three/four is fast and athletic enough to hunt down screen passes outside the numbers. That’s assuming Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman don’t hunt them down first.

Against this dynamic front seven, the Giants won’t be able to count heavily on Ahmad Bradshaw or ancillary options like Jake Ballard and Travis Beckum. Manning and his wide receivers will have to find ways to make big plays.

So who will win? Check our NFL expert picks for all the Championship games

Follow @Andy_Benoit on Twitter or contact him at Andy.Benoit-at-NFLTouchdown.com.
Posted on: January 18, 2012 2:20 pm
Edited on: January 20, 2012 12:16 pm
 

Film Room: Patriots vs. Ravens AFC CG preview

Brady and Lewis will match wits in the AFC Championship Game. (Getty Images)
Posted by Eye on Football Analyst Andy Benoit

Tom Brady is right: the Ravens are the best team the Patriots have faced this season.

Cam Cameron’s offense poses problems for Bill Belichick’s defense, while Ray Lewis’ defense actually has a fighting chance against Brady’s offense. Here’s the breakdown.



1. Patriots formation versatility
Keep in mind, the Patriots, at least offensively, are also the best team the Ravens have faced all season. Their versatility is like nothing we’ve seen before.

Last Saturday they spent a bulk of the game in a no-huddle that featured tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez and wideouts Wes Welker, Deion Branch and Julian Edelman. Remarkably, they were able to run effectively out of this personnel grouping, as Hernandez carried the ball five times out of the backfield for 61 yards.

Those runs are almost just gravy – something the defense must now respect. The real purpose of putting Hernandez in the backfield is the same purpose as all of New England’s other alignments: to get a potent pass catcher matched up on a linebacker. Even safeties have major trouble covering Hernandez and Gronkowski.

This game will be no exception, as Baltimore’s strong safety Bernard Pollard is simply not capable of doing it, and the Ravens are unlikely to remove Ed Reed from centerfield. Brady rarely throws in the direction of starting cornerbacks. Even when he goes to Wes Welker, it’s often when Welker has drawn a matchup against a backup slot corner or non-cornerback.

Because the Patriots don’t try to confuse defenses so much as force them into bad matchups, HOW the Patriots line up to play is almost more important than how they actually play. Most of the damage is done through crafty presnap alignment. (This is one reason so many of Brady’s throws come off three-and five-step drops; the decision of where to go with the ball is made prior to the snap.)

The Patriots frequently go up-tempo to prevent defenses from having enough time to regroup or alter matchups before the snap. The only sure way to take the chess match element out of the equations and force the Patriots to win with execution is to play press-man coverage across the board. Problem is, no defense, including Baltimore’s, has enough quality cover artists to do this.


After a win over the Texans last week, Joe Flacco and the Ravens will take on Tom Brady and the Patriots at Gillette Stadium in the AFC Championship. Jason Horowitz and NFL.com's Pat Kirwan preview this game. Watch the game on CBS at 3 PM ET. 

2. Baltimore’s response
The Ravens may not have enough cover artists to play the Patriots man-to-man, but they might be the one team capable of matching wits with them. Ray Lewis is arguably the smartest front seven defender in the league, while Ed Reed is arguably the smartest back four defender. Those two are capable of recognizing New England’s subtle tendencies and getting their teammates into the proper defensive play-call.

Of course, Brady and Bill O’Brien know this and will likely inject a few tendency-breaking wrinkles into the gameplan. Of course, the Ravens know that the Patriots know that they know this, and the Patriots know that the Ravens know that they know and ... you get the idea – this has the potential to be one heck of a chess match.

Look for the Ravens to do plenty of presnap communicating and disguising at the line of scrimmage. It helps that they’re comfortable playing a plethora of different coverages. The outcome may be decided by which side can bully the other into a reactionary position. The Patriots can do that by going hurry-up; the Ravens can do it by blitzing fervidly up the middle.

3. Ravens pass-rush
To beat Tom Brady, you have to rob him of the trust he has in his pass protection. Brady – like any quarterback – does not like pressure directly in his face. And though he’s as tough in the pocket as anyone in the game, he has a tendency to get just a tad jumpy after taking a few hits from edge-rushers.

Recent playoff history shows that if a defense can create pressure and doubt, Brady will eventually start eating up the play clock worrying about protections. That makes him a significantly less dangerous player versus when he’s hurrying things up and concentrating on his receivers’ routes.

The question is, can the Ravens generate a pass-rush? If they blitz, they likely can. But one of the best kept secrets in football is that this is generally a four-man rushing defense. Because the Ravens use so many 3-4 or 2-5 fronts, their four pass-rushers come from a variety of different spots, thus creating the illusion of a blitz:

The Ravens use a lot of zone exchange concepts in their pass-rush. A zone exchange is essentially a four-man pass-rush where linebackers or safeties rush the quarterback, while a defensive lineman or another linebacker drops back into coverage. It can be confusing, often creating the illusion of a heavy blitz. The Thanksgiving night game – in which Baltimore had nine sacks – provided a good example.

Above (click image to enlarge): Upon first glance, this appears to be a blitz featuring five, possibly six pass-rushers.

Below: The Ravens use a lot of zone exchange concepts in their pass-rush. A zone exchange is essentially a four-man pass-rush where linebackers or safeties rush the quarterback, while a defensive lineman or another linebacker drops back into coverage. It can be confusing, often creating the illusion of a heavy blitz. The Thanksgiving night game – in which Baltimore had nine sacks – provided a good example.

The Ravens’ four-man rush has seemingly evaporated over the last month. It registered a quiet five sacks over the final three weeks of the regular season and then got zero pressure on T.J. Yates in the divisional round. With talents like Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata and Pernell McPhee, it’s imprudent to assume the pressure can’t suddenly return.

But worth noting is that the Patriots’ pass protection in the last month has also been as sharp as the Ravens’ pass-rush has been dull.

4. Dialing in on Ray Rice
Bill Belichick always builds his defensive gameplan around eliminating the opponents’ greatest strength. This season, no man has done a better job at eliminating Ray Rice than Cam Cameron. (Rice averaged less than 10 carries a game in Baltimore’s four losses.)

To be fair, Cameron has featured Rice most of the season, and the results thus far speak for themselves: 13 wins and Rice leading the NFL in yards from scrimmage.

But if Belichick has inside linebackers Brandon Spikes and Jerod Mayo shadow Rice, or if he brings safety Patrick Chung down in the box every play or has his linebackers sellout against the run, will Cameron have enough patience to stay with his superstar?

The Patriots run defense is coming together, while their secondary can be tempting to attack.

5. Baltimore’s passing game
It was virtually nonexistent against Houston, mainly because deep threat Torrey Smith was nullified by Johnathan Joseph. The Patriots don’t have a corner on Joseph’s level (or even in Joseph’s stratosphere).

If the Ravens want to take their deep shots with Smith, all they’ll have to do is block a mundane Patriots pass-rush (last week’s performance at Foxboro notwithstanding). Devin McCourty was serviceable as a nickel free safety against Denver, but it remains to be seen whether the struggling corner can suddenly play a new position when facing a strong-armed quarterback and polished play-action passing game.

In other matchups, tight ends Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson were quiet against Houston but should be able to work the seams against New England. Anquan Boldin will be extremely problematic for the Pats. The thought of him working outside against Kyle Arrington seems patently unfair; inside is even worse, as the Patriots don’t have a true slot corner.

So who will win? Check our NFL expert picks for all the Championship games

Follow @Andy_Benoit on Twitter or contact him at Andy.Benoit-at-NFLTouchdown.com.
Posted on: January 13, 2012 9:42 am
Edited on: January 13, 2012 9:44 am
 

Film Room: Ravens vs. Texans divisional preview


Posted by Eye on Football Analyst Andy Benoit

The Texans are hoping they can do what the Ravens did three years ago: reach the AFC Championship with a rookie quarterback. Like the ‘08 Ravens, Houston’s rookie quarterback is a complimentary piece, not the focal point.

Gary Kubiak might be offensive-minded, but his current squad is built around the run and defense. Come to think of it, so are the current Ravens ... if they play their cards right. Here’s the breakdown.


1. Baltimore’s offensive approach
With Joe Flacco turning 27 next week and entering his eighth playoff contest, the manual says this is the time for the quarterback’s coming out party. But it’d be unwise of offensive coordinator Cam Cameron to buy into that.

Cameron has been Flacco’s most boisterous supporter – and rightfully so. He and John Harbaugh have gradually loosened the quarterback’s reigns over the past three years and all but removed them this year. That approach has had its ups and downs, but through it all the Ravens have continued to win.

Flacco had a poor season statistically – his completion percentage dropped below 60 for the first time, which is why he averaged a career-low 6.7 yards per attempt – but he was also playing with more freedom/responsibility than ever. You can tell a lot about what a coaching staff thinks of its quarterback by the plays it calls.

Most fans just assume the black-and-blue Ravens have a safe, methodical passing game. In reality, much of what the Ravens do centers more around Flacco’s big arm. Instead of using Anquan Boldin primarily underneath, the Ravens often push the ball to him downfield outside the numbers. They use their tight ends down the seams and it’s not uncommon for Flacco to launch multiple bombs in a half, usually targeting rookie burner Torrey Smith.

It’s encouraging that the Ravens have opened things up, but in this case the numbers don’t lie: Baltimore’s offense is inconsistent through the air and survives primarily because of Ray Rice. The fourth-year superstar led the league with 2,068 yards from scrimmage. In Baltimore’s 12 wins, Rice rushed for an average of 100 yards on 21 carries. In their four losses, he averaged 39 yards on nine carries (and in those losses, the score was never lopsided, making Rice’s decreased touches hard to explain).

Rice is one of the league’s few runners who can consistently move the chains with power or go the distance with speed. His low center of gravity lends him superb lateral explosiveness. That’s deadly behind an effective zone-blocking line that features guards as mobile as Ben Grubbs and Marshal Yanda.

Will Joseph try to neutralize Boldin this time? (Getty Images)

2. Facing Houston’s D
If Cameron wants to win, he’ll work the offense through Rice. The Texans’ swarming front seven can be difficult to run against, but the Ravens have the game’s most effective lead-blocking fullback in Vontae Leach. He takes great angles to blocks and hits moving targets adroitly, which can help neutralize the downhill speed of linebackers DeMeco Ryans and Brian Cushing. The objective of the Ravens run game is to get the defense flowing laterally and allow Rice to cut it up inside.

Flacco won’t be irrelevant, of course. In fact, it’s not unforeseeable for Houston to bottle up the run early and for Baltimore to take to the air. Getting Anquan Boldin back from a knee injury is huge, as he’s a much tougher inside matchup than agility-based tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta.

The Ravens have the speed to beat teams downfield, but Torrey Smith is still raw and can be taken out of a game by an elite corner like Johnathan Joseph. It will be interesting to see who the Texans have their No. 1 corner defend. If it’s Smith, they theoretically eliminate Baltimore’s field-stretching prowess. But last time these teams met, Boldin was the one who caught eight balls for 133 yards. Wade Phillips may not be willing to surrender that again.

Regardless of how the secondary matches up, Flacco will have to play with poise. Even when they’re not sacking quarterbacks, the Texans pass-rushers are disruptive. Flacco was impressive keeping his eyes downfield and sliding in the pocket in the last meeting, but he’s still somewhat of a week-to-week player in this sense.

3. Test for Yates
All in all, T.J. Yates has done a commendable job keeping the ship afloat.

 Gary Kubiak did not ask a lot of the rookie in the wild card round. In response, Yates was somewhat reactive reading the field, but he capitalized when a big-play opportunity came about (Andre Johnson’s double move on Pacman Jones). He also did not turn the ball over (though it was lucky that Chris Crocker dropped a surefire pick-six in the second half).

This performance, however, came against Cincinnati’s 4-3, zone-based scheme, which was similar to what Yates saw from the Jaguars, Falcons and Titans in previous starts. Yates is yet to face a 3-4, or even a blitz-oriented defense. He’ll face both Sunday, when the Ravens show him things he’s never seen before.

4. Ravens secondary
One thing Yates has never seen before is a safety like Ed Reed. The future Hall of Famer is not just rangier than all of Yates’ previous foes, he’s much savvier. Most safeties force turnovers by baiting quarterbacks into throws on a given play. Reed will bait a quarterback throughout the game.

He’ll bite on the first route of a play in the second quarter; then in the fourth quarter, against a similar play, Reed will assume the quarterback knows not to try to fool him twice. Thus, while every other safety would play conservative and make sure not to give up that first route again, Reed will abandon that first assignment and jump the second route.

This is how he gets a lot of his interceptions. He’s a master at recognizing how offenses use certain plays to set up other plays. This is no different than a great chess player thinking four or five moves ahead.

It’s unreasonable to expect a third-string rookie quarterback to win the mental battle against Reed. Thus, the Texans might be hesitant to have Andre Johnson stretch the field too many times.

Reed isn’t the only noteworthy defensive back in purple. Lardarius Webb has had a terrific season playing outside and in the slot. Webb defends the deep ball as well as any corner, and he’s great at jumping passing lanes from over-man coverage. His versatility expands what the Ravens can do with their disguises.

5. Houston’s run game
It will be difficult for Arian Foster to get outside against the Ravens the way he did against the Bengals. Strong safety Bernard Pollard is too good as a downhill run defender and outside linebackers Terrell Suggs and Jarrett Johnson are the best in the business when it comes to setting the edge:

You’ve probably heard the term “setting the edge”. Setting the edge is when an outside run defender (in a 3-4 it’s usually an outside linebacker) entrenches himself along the line of scrimmage or in the backfield near the offensive tackle or tight end. In doing so, he forces the running back to either cut back into the teeth of the defense or run parallel to the line of scrimmage (which allows time for other defenders to chase him down).

No outside linebacking duo sets the edge better than Baltimore’s Terrell Suggs and Jarrett Johnson. This snapshot offers an extreme example of fantastic edge-setting. Suggs didn’t just stalemate Duane Brown – he drove him back four yards.
(AP)

These days, the key to running on Baltimore is, believe it or not, attacking Ray Lewis. The 36-year-old Pro Bowler is still terrific at diagnosing plays, shedding blocks and wrapping up anywhere near the hash marks, but since returning from his toe injury (perhaps too soon), Lewis’s lateral limitations have been exacerbated.

When he’s going east and west, ballcarriers have little trouble bursting by him (especially when the ballcarrier hits the hole with as much authority as Arian Foster).

To get Lewis going sideways, the Texans linemen will have to have fully beat Haloti Ngata, Terrence Cody and Cory Redding off the ball. Houston’s front line doesn’t have the strength to block any of those guys – especially Ngata, even though the 345-pound monster has looked less than 100 percent down the stretch – but as a cohesive zone unit, they can nullify them by quickly establishing favorable angles.

That’s exactly what they did against the Bengals, who can be considered a good “pretest” for a bout with the Ravens.

So who will win? Check our NFL expert picks for all Divisional Round games

Follow @Andy_Benoit on Twitter or contact him at Andy.Benoit-at-NFLTouchdown.com.
Posted on: January 12, 2012 6:32 pm
Edited on: January 13, 2012 8:43 am
 

Film Room: Packers vs. Giants divisional preview


Posted by Eye on Football Analyst Andy Benoit

We can only hope this game is as entertaining as the December 4th shootout, which Green Bay won on a brilliant last minute field goal drive.

Since that day the Packers have looked mortal and the Giants have grown white hot. Can Round II produce a different outcome? Here’s the breakdown.


1. Slowing the Pack’s aerial attack
The Giants used a diverse array of coverages against the Packers in the last meeting and actually had Aaron Rodgers a bit out of sorts early on. Still, even though he wasn’t as sharp as usual, Rodgers threw for 369 yards and four scores (not a bad “off day”).

New York’s two-deep safety zone looks gave Green Bay the most trouble, but the only way a defense can get away with playing zone against this offense a second time is if it sprinkles those zones with disguises and man concepts.

You can’t outsmart the Packers; you can only hope to out-execute them. Generally, that means winning press-man battles on the outside. That’s what Kansas City was able to do, though they have better press corners than New York and didn’t have to deal with Greg Jennings (out at the time with a knee).

The Packers do a great job creating one-on-one matchups for Greg Jennings through play design. In example A (left), Jennings ran his route against rookie Prince Amukamara to the outside, while Donald Drive ran down the seam. This combination eliminated the possibility of free safety Antrel Rolle helping the overmatched Amukamara, who was flagged for pass interference. In example B (right), Jennings aligned in the slot, away from the tight end and running back. Because Jennings was running an outside route from this alignment, there was no way a safety or linebacker could help cornerback Aaron Ross on this play.

Interesting side note: the Packers usually create one-on-one matchups for Jennings by lining him up as the X-receiver in a 1 x 3 set (in other words, Jennings all alone on the left side, three receivers on the right side). However, they did not throw a single pass to Jennings from this formation against the Giants in Week 13.


Without Jennings, a good secondary has a shot at stymieing this receiving corps (for not only are a Jennings-less Pack without their No. 1 receiver, but suddenly No. 2 receiver Jordy Nelson must face a No. 1 corner, No. 3 receiver Donald Driver must face a No. 2 corner and so on). With Jennings, a good secondary still isn’t enough; a defense needs help from up front.

Pressuring Rodgers is difficult with his speed. (Getty Images)

2. Pressuring Rodgers
It’s easy to say New York’s key is having its four-man pass-rush get to Rodgers. But that only matters if the pass-rush pressure equates to sacks.

In the last meeting, Jason Pierre-Paul absolutely owned backup left tackle Marshall Newhouse. Rodgers was under duress all afternoon. But all that meant was he ran around more before completing his throws. Rodgers is so athletic, so strong-armed and so good at keeping his eyes downfield that pass-rush pressure does not disrupt his rhythm, it merely alters it.

The Giants dominated the line of scrimmage last game and finished with just two sacks. Unless they get six or seven sacks (unlikely, especially with Green Bay getting Chad Clifton back), their pass-rush won’t be a difference-making factor.

3. Matching up to Finley
The Giants have shown a perplexing willingness to defend elite tight ends with linebacker Jacquian Williams this season. Against the Saints in Week 12, Williams at times defended Jimmy Graham while safety Antrel Rolle defended Darren Sproles.

The next week, Williams guarded Jermichael Finley while Rolle guarded ... James Starks. (Seriously?!) Finley wound up beating Williams’ in man coverage for 24 yards on the game-winning field goal drive and finished the day with six catches for 87 yards and a touchdown. (The damage would have been worse if he hadn’t dropped three balls.)

Will the Giants take this approach again, or will they go to their dime defense and treat Finley as a wide receiver (which they’ve also done at times against elite tight ends this season)? Going dime would allow Rolle to defend Finley, though it would also put vulnerable rookie Prince Amukamara on either Donald Driver or Jordy Nelson.

4. Giants offense
As you might surmise, the Packers offense has too many weapons for the Giants to defend. Hence, Eli Manning will be compelled to once again light up the scoreboard. As we’ve explored the past several weeks, Manning is razor sharp against the blitz. The belief here is that an attack-oriented defensive approach will not work against the eighth-year veteran.

But Green Bay isn’t built to play any other way – at least not out of their nickel package. Dom Capers’ scheme is predicated on creating one-on-one matchups for Clay Matthews by blitzing others and using Charles Woodson as a joker. This might yield yards, but it can also create interceptions (the Packers had 31 on the season, which was at least eight more than any other team).

Manning is a virtual lock for 300 yards, but if he can be coaxed into at least two picks, the Pack are a virtual lock to host the NFC Title game.

5. Unless…
The Giants control the game on the ground. This idea seemed absurd a few weeks ago, but lately New York’s front five has gelled and Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs have rediscovered their ability to break tackles running downhill.

The Giants spent a lot of time in base personnel last game, though primarily for passing purposes (they ran the ball just 20 times). They wanted to limit Capers’ nickel blitzes and also throw against Packers backup inside linebackers Rob Francois and D.J. Smith (who were playing for the injured Desmond Bishop and A.J. Hawk).

With the Packers back to full strength and the Giants’ passing game having significantly improved in three-receiver sets, throwing from base personnel might not be as big a factor this time round. But the ground game might be a bigger factor – especially if the Giants don’t believe the return of defensive lineman Ryan Pickett can suddenly stabilize Green Bay’s wavering run defense.

It will be fascinating to see how Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride calls the game early on.

So who will win? Check our NFL expert picks for all the Divisional Round games

Follow @Andy_Benoit on Twitter or contact him at Andy.Benoit-at-NFLTouchdown.com.
Posted on: January 11, 2012 2:40 pm
Edited on: January 11, 2012 9:40 pm
 

Film Room: Patriots vs Broncos divisional preview

Will Gronk get his Gronk on this time around? (Getty Images)
Posted by Eye on Football Analyst Andy Benoit

It was assumed the Patriots would draw a rematch in their divisional round playoff opener. However, most figured that rematch would be of their Week 8 bout with Pittsburgh, not their Week 15 bout with Denver.

Here’s the breakdown of what could turn out to be the highest-rated divisional round Saturday night game of all-time.


1. New England’s plan for Tebow
Something to keep in mind is the Steelers had a sound gameplan last week, playing man coverage and using a tepid pass-rush to ensure that Tim Tebow stayed in the pocket. What the Steelers didn’t count on was Demaryius Thomas being able to get by Ike Taylor and Tebow being able to pull the trigger on downfield throws. Those two young ’10 first-rounders both had career days.

The Patriots might bet that the two youngsters can’t do it again.

On the one hand, that’s a smart bet given that Thomas and Tebow were inconsistent all season (Tebow especially). On the other hand, it’s foolish given that cornerback Kyle Arrington – who would draw the Thomas matchup, as Thomas almost always lines up on the favorable side of the left-handed Tebow – is not half the cover artist Ike Taylor is, and given that logic says if Tebow can win against the man coverage of the league’s best pass defense, he can surely win against the man coverage of the league’s worst pass defense.

In the last meeting, the Patriots played predominant Cover 3 in the first half:

The Broncos had success throwing skinny posts to Tebow’s left against the Patriots Cover 3 defense in the last meeting. Cover 3 is what you’d guess it is: three defensive backs each responsible for a third of the field. Because there is so much field to cover, the outside defensive backs often play man-to-man concepts (as Devin McCourty is doing on the right side). Cover 3 is something defenses play when they blitz or when they want to force a quarterback to throw (it’s the default zone coverage behind an eight-defender box).

In this example, the Patriots were clearly baiting Tebow to throw. Notice there are only five rushers (which is hardly a blitz considering Denver has seven guys in pass protection – the idea was to keep Tebow from scrambling). Also notice how linebacker Dane Fletcher has his back to the quarterback and is running towards the left passing window. (Fletcher was late getting there; Tebow did a good job recognizing the coverage and getting the ball out quickly. The result was a 22-yard completion to Eric Decker.)

The Broncos used great routes for beating this anticipated coverage, but Tebow was unable to connect on some of the throws.

Still, throws against Cover 3 are easier than throws against quality press-man, as long as the pass protection holds up. Denver’s protection was tremendous last week.

If tackles Ryan Clady and Orlando Franklin (who may need some help on the right side) can keep speed-rusher Mark Anderson at bay, the Broncos will be golden. (Keeping a backup like Anderson at bay may not sound difficult, but the former Bear was actually very disruptive in the last meeting.)

2. Stop the run!
The Patriots gave up 167 yards rushing in the first quarter of the Week 15 contest. They wound up winning the game handily, but they were on the fortuitous side of a few fumbles.

Common sense says you can’t bank on having success with such porous run defense. The issue last game was outside linebacker Rob Ninkovich’s inability to set the edge and the defensive line’s inability to prevent the Bronco linemen from contacting inside linebackers. This was a problem both with New England’s 3-4 and 4-3 fronts.

Nose tackle Vince Wilfork must stand out more this time around. The Broncos will be willing at times to block him one-on-one with J.D. Walton. The second-year center has been up-and-down (in a good way) handling tough solo assignments against nose tackles down the stretch this season. He was phenomenal against Antonio Garay of the Chargers in Week 12 but had been just so-so the previous week against Sione Pouha of the Jets. In Week 15 he held his own against Wilfork, but in Week 16 he got schooled by Marcell Dareus.
 
If Walton has a strong game, the Broncos can pound the rock inside. If he struggles, Denver’s at least capable of getting to the perimeter, though they’ll miss the fervid blocking of wideout Eric Decker.

3. Defending the Patriots tight ends
Greg Cosell, executive producer of the NFL Matchup Show, did an excellent job breaking down the Week 15 film back in December. Cosell wrote that the Broncos focused their coverages on Rob Gronkowski, successfully disrupting his timing by hitting him at the line of scrimmage.

However, that left fourth-round rookie safety Quinton Carter on Aaron Hernandez. Carter, like the rest of Denver’s safeties, is not great in man coverage, which Hernandez proved by posting what were at the time his career highs in catches (nine) and yards (129).

Though still a little green as a route runner (particularly against zone), Hernandez has the movement skills of a wide receiver. The Broncos may choose to defend him with rising rookie nickel back Chris Harris. That would leave safeties and linebackers to cover Gronkowski.

Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen may figure he can get away with that as long as coverage linebackers Wesley Woodyard and D.J. Williams are once again physical with the second-year superstar.

The Patriots’ counter to this would be splitting Gronkowski into a slot receiver position (likely in a spread 2 x 2 or 3 x 2 set), where he could line up a few yards off the line and operate against an overwhelmed defender in space. Even if the Broncos decided to sacrifice their run defense by going with dime personnel against the two tight ends, they still would be overmatched.

After all, just because Jonathan Wilhite is a corner doesn’t mean he can cover Gronkowski. This is the problem New England’s offense poses, this is why the Patriots are the No. 1 seed.

4. If lightning strikes twice ...
As the tight end analysis just suggested, the Broncos are faced with a very serious matchup problem that can only be solved by their players rising up and doing things no one thought they could do. It’s improbable, but as Denver’s offense showed last week, not impossible.

So let’s say for the sake of extra analysis that the Broncos can stop Gronkowski and Hernandez with their inside pass defenders. That leaves outside corners Champ Bailey and Andre Goodman on Wes Welker and Deion Branch (who did not play in the last matchup).

If the Broncos want to avoid the matchup problems that New England’s flexible formations create (such as Welker working against a linebacker in the slot), they’ll have to play man-to-man, with Bailey assigned on Welker and Goodman on Branch. Those aren’t bad matchups for either side – it would come down to who executes better (general rule of thumb, over the course of 60 minutes, put your money on the offense).

What we’re not considering is New England’s ability to run the ball. They’re not known for that, but against nickel or dime defense, they’re capable of controlling the game the old fashioned way.

Danny Woodhead has great lateral agility. BenJarvus Green-Ellis is a steady, highly professional runner. Of course, he may lose snaps to the more dynamic Stevan Ridley, a third-round rookie who has come on as of late. The Patriots have an excellent run-blocking front five with LG Logan Mankins being a premier puller, RG Brian Waters a shrewd playside anchor, LT Matt Light a crafty angles-creator (including at the second level) and RT Nate Solder a ridiculous athlete out in front.

5. Broncos pass-rush slowing down?
Pass-rush pressure is always a prerequisite for beating Tom Brady. Lately, the Patriots have nullified it with an increased emphasis on three-and five-step drops. Brady is especially sharp at this when working out of an empty backfield.

The Broncos have not had the most fervid pass-rush the last month anyway. They sacked Brady just twice in Week 15. They got Ryan Fitzpatrick just once the next week and Kyle Orton once in the season finale. They got to Ben Roethlisberger in the wild card round but that’s a product of Roethlisberger’s style of play. Denver’s pass-rush did not control the flow of last Saturday’s game. Von Miller has had just one sack since his first game back from a thumb injury (December 11 at Minnesota) and has been less explosive playing with a cast.

So who will win? Check our NFL expert picks for all divisional-round games

Follow @Andy_Benoit on Twitter or contact him at Andy.Benoit-at-NFLTouchdown.com.
 
 
 
 
The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of CBS Sports or CBSSports.com