Tag:Jermon Bushrod
Posted on: January 11, 2012 3:15 pm
Edited on: January 12, 2012 11:49 am
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Film Room: 49ers vs. Saints divisional preview


Posted by Eye on Football Analyst Andy Benoit

The league’s No. 2 scoring offense meets the No. 2 scoring defense at Candlestick on Saturday.

Neither side has faced this tall of an order this season. Here’s the breakdown.


1. Niners inside ‘backers on Saints stars
NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis are the reason San Francisco had the league’s best all-around defense in 2011. Both are smart, supremely athletic and adept in traffic and space. Thus, both can play run or pass at the highest of levels, which is why neither comes off the field much.

All season long, defenses have tried to figure out not just how to stop Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles, but how to simply line up against them. Do you use safeties on Graham and linebackers on Sproles? Vice Versa? Do you go with cornerbacks for both and risk getting run on?

The Niners might be the first team that doesn’t have to worry about personnel packages against these two, as they may put one First Team All-Pro linebacker on Graham and the other First Team All-Pro linebacker on Sproles. Whether the Niners can win those matchups is another discussion, but defensive coordinator Vic Fangio is extremely fortunate to be able to even consider it.

Instead of having his players focus on new strategies, he can have them focus on execution.

2. Handling the rest of New Orleans’ passing attack
The 49ers generally play zone out of their base defense and man when they go nickel or dime. Because Graham is like a third wide receiver, the Saints can stay predominantly in their base personnel if they’re more comfortable facing zone coverage. That should be the case Saturday, as San Fran’s cornerbacking trio of Tarell Brown and Chris Culliver outside and Carlos Rogers inside has been tremendous in man-to-man.

Those three are capable of matching up with Devery Henderson, Robert Meachem and Marques Colston – especially if safeties Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson are providing help as free roamers over the top.

Whitner is somewhat limited in coverage (his success tends to come when linebackers are blitzing, which defines the routes quickly and makes them easier to jump). Goldson, on the other hand, is very rangy.

Both players must be careful not to overreact to the subtle fakes and body language of Drew Brees. No quarterback manipulates deep safeties better than the new single season passing yards record holder.

Pressuring Brees is critical to stopping New Orleans. (Getty Images)

3. Pressuring Brees
San Francisco is willing to blitz but often doesn’t have to, thanks to the speed of edge-rushers Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks. Smith works extremely well with All-Pro defensive end/tackle Justin Smith on the left side when it comes to twists and stunts. That’s something the Saints left offensive line has struggled with over the years.

This season, however, athletic left tackle Jermon Bushrod has finally polished his pass-blocking mechanics and perennial Pro Bowl guard Carl Nicks has ironed out the kinks he had in lateral pass-blocking movement. Nicks is also great at picking up Bushrod’s slack as a help-blocker.

The real key will be whether the right side of the Saints’ line can keep Brees clean. This Saints started clicking after their loss to the Rams, when Sean Payton tweaked the protections to give his tackles help with chip blocks from backs and tight ends. That’s the only way the Saints could survive the slow feet of right tackle Zach Strief.

If Ahmad Brooks draws even one true solo matchup against Strief on third-and-long, it means something has gone terribly wrong. (Or, it means the Niners will have gambled with an overload pass-rush on that side, which is plausible given that Bowman and Willis are both excellent blitzers.)

4. Niners run game against Saints D
The Niners make no bones about it: they’re going to win with Frank Gore, not Alex Smith. They’re a power-run offense – literally. Most of their offense derives from power plays, with left guard Mike Iupati pulling and fullback Bruce Miller or H-back Delanie Walker lead-blocking. The Saints have the personnel to stop this.

Former Niners tackle Aubrayo Franklin is a clogger inside and, when he shows up, veteran Shaun Rogers is a destroyer off the bench behind the generally incognito Sedrick Ellis. Also, defensive ends Will Smith and Cameron Jordan might not have dazzling sack numbers (Jordan, this year’s first round pick, recorded all of one), but both are superb at crashing inside or sliding down the line of scrimmage.

At the second level, Jonathan Vilma is regarded as the star (and rightfully so – he calls the signals and patrols sideline-to-sideline), but strong safety Roman Harper might be the deciding character on Saturday. Harper’s presence is what makes the Saints’ front seven so fast.

That will be especially important when backup running back Kendall Hunter, an underrated tempo-changer with better quickness and burst than Frank Gore, is in the game.

5. Niners big pass plays vs. Saints secondary
Jim Harbaugh is masterful at installing simple wrinkles in his offense each week that take advantage of the opponent’s greatest weakness. This week that means building a few downfield shot-plays into the passing game.

The Saints led the league in 40-plus-yard pass plays allowed during the regular season. The Niners know that if they keep extra blockers in for pass protection help (which their O-line needs, especially at tackle, where Joe Staley is very average on the left side and Anthony Davis, despite getting an embarrassingly nonsensical All-Pro vote, is very inconsistent on the right side), the Saints, with their green-dog heavy blitz packages, will bring the house:

In case you missed it, in last Saturday night’s broadcast, Cris Collinsworth did a great job explaining a green dog blitz. A green-dog blitz is when a defender in man coverage rushes the quarterback after he sees that his man has stayed in to block. Thanks to the speed and aggression of their linebackers, the Saints green-dog blitz as effectively as any team in football.

Thus, there are one-on-one matchups to be had downfield. Though San Francisco’s offense has been Gingrich-level conservative this season, downfield shots off play-action, particularly when the ball’s just inside midfield, have actually been a consistent element in their gameplans.

The Niners have to intentionally design their big plays because, other than maybe tight end Vernon Davis, they don’t have anyone who can conjure them naturally.

Michael Crabtree has great body control but “inexplosive” speed. Kyle Williams is quick out of the slot but not over the top. Ted Ginn has playmaking POTENTIAL but isn’t consistent enough to be considered an actual PLAYMAKER.

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 4, 2012 4:15 pm
 

Film Room: Saints vs. Lions wild-card preview

Posted by Eye on Football Analyst Andy Benoit


This wild card contest, featuring the NFL’s No. 1 and No. 5 offenses, might play out more like a college bowl game, with a back-and-forth barrage of points and yards. Unlike a bowl game, however, we can be sure that the barrage is a product of great quarterbacking and not mistakes from shaky underclassmen defenders.

Oh, also, unlike a bowl game, the outcome actually matters in the bigger picture, as the winner will still be in contention for a title.


1. Any hope of stopping the Saints’ offense?
Not really. The Lions gave up 31 points and 438 yards when these teams squared off in Week 13. They were without starting corner Chris Houston and starting free safety Louis Delmas that night, but attributing the loss to those players’ absence would be like attributing The Simpsons early-2000s popularity dip to the death of Maude Flanders.

The last team to slow Sean Payton’s offensive juggernaut was – believe it or not – St. Louis. They did it with a feisty four-man rush, press-man coverage outside and zone coverage inside. But that was 10 weeks ago – before Saints left tackle Jermon Bushrod found his groove in pass protection (the first-time Pro Bowler has improved tremendously after being a major pass-blocking liability his first 4 ½ years).

Of course, the Lions will still have an effective pass-rush even if Bushrod can contain the relentless Kyle Vanden Bosch. And they have linebackers and safeties who have the speed to be rangy in coverage. And their corners, while primarily off-coverage zone defenders, have actually been impressive at times in man-to-man on third down this season.

But in the end, this is still a vanilla Cover 2 defense that would be nothing more than a house of straw if it got away from its foundation against Drew Brees. Not that Brees and the Saints can’t exploit Cover 2:

Something the Saints do as well as any team in football is create favorable matchups for wide receivers by aligning them in tight splits. This is easy to do against a Cover 2 defense like Detroit’s. In this shot, Devery Henderson is aligned tight, and Marques Colston (New Orleans’ top slot weapon) is even tighter. Because Cover 2 defenses always keep their outside corners on opposite sides of the field, the nature of this offensive alignment dictates that either Colston or Henderson can run an inside route against a linebacker or safety. In this case, we show you the option for Colston.

2. A crazy idea…
The Lions should do what all Cover 2 teams essentially do: commit to bend-but-don’t-break defense. Only in this case, they actually can break – as long as they bend a lot first. The Saints thrive on fast tempo and big plays – especially at home. If they have the ball, they’re going to score.

The Lions should try to make those scores come after 10 or 12 plays, rather than four or five. Coaxing an offense into long drives may sound insane, but think about: The more plays the Saints run, the more chances there are for a freak turnover. Also, the more chances for a red zone stop. Most important, long drives eat clock and shorten the game. That could keep the contest artificially close down the stretch.

Of course, this extreme bend-but-don’t-break idea is based on Detroit’s offense being able to dominate New Orleans’ defense ... which didn’t happen in Week 13.

3. Recapping the last meeting
A lot of Matthew Stafford’s 408 yards passing in the last meeting were empty, as the Saints held the Lions to just 17 points. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams took an uncharacteristically cautious approach, often rushing only three or four and focusing on double-and triple-team tactics against Calvin Johnson.

Williams often had his best corner, Jabari Greer, shadow Megatron, with plenty of help over the top and inside. Because Johnson devours man coverage, the Saints stayed mostly in zone (though they did match up man-to-man a bit when Detroit went to base personnel).

This formula held Johnson to 69 yards on six catches, though the numbers would have been much different if Stafford hadn’t underthrown him on what would have been a 53-yard touchdown in the third quarter. The rest of the Lions receiving targets took advantage of their opportunities against the Johnson-intensive coverage.

TE Tony Scheffler had 41 yards receiving; RB Kevin Smith had 46; Nate Burleson posted 93 (though his performance was overshadowed by three offensive pass interference flags); second-round rookie Titus Young had 90 yards (though he too overshadowed his performance with mistakes – mainly a boneheaded personal foul after the whistle).

In the end, though, it was the lack of big plays from Johnson that stood out.

4. Forecasting this meeting
Gregg Williams may go conservative again. His defense aims to create turnovers and chaos through fervid six-man blitzes, but that aggression is part of the reason the Saints’ yielded a league-high 14 passes of 40-plus yards this season. Against a top-notch aerial attacks like Detroit’s, a high-risk/high-reward approach is unlikely to go in your favor.

But Williams also knows that when Detroit has struggled, it’s been due to Stafford’s waffling accuracy and decision-making. Those issues calmed down considerably over the season’s final month, but there’s no telling how the 23-year-old might respond under the pressure of dueling with Brees in Detroit’s first playoff game since 1999. Williams will want to find out.

Stafford isn’t the easiest quarterback to blitz, though. He has a strong arm, quick release and the willingness to make stick throws with defenders racing at him. The Lions don’t have elite pass-blockers, but because they operate almost exclusively out of the shotgun, Stafford can be tough for defenders to reach.

Williams might find a happy-medium by playing coverage but giving his back seven defenders extra freedom in moving around and disguising their looks before the snap. That would get Stafford’s mental gears grinding. The Lions don’t like motile defensive presnap looks – that’s why they rarely use presnap motion themselves.

5. The X-factors
Figure Williams is going to do all he can to make someone other than Calvin Johnson beat him. The guys who must step up are tight ends Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler.

They both give the Lions formation versatility from base personnel by lining up along the front line, in the slot or split out wide. This is often done to create mismatches for, but on Saturday it will create mismatches for THEM.

If the Saints blitz, the tight ends are logical quick-strike outlets. If the Saints play coverage, one of the tight ends will draw a favorable matchup against strong safety Roman Harper (who got destroyed in coverage at Seattle in last year’s wild card).

So who will win? Check our NFL expert picks for all wild-card games

Follow @Andy_Benoit on Twitter or contact him at Andy.Benoit-at-NFLTouchdown.com.
Posted on: November 23, 2011 6:18 pm
 

Film Room: Giants vs. Saints preview

Posted by Eye on Football Analyst Andy Benoit



With a December Monday Night schedule that could make viewers implode from boredom, we at least get to say goodbye to November with a compelling, playoff-implicating NFC matchup. This warrants a classic five-part breakdown.


Saints offense vs. Giants defense
1. Giants pass-rush vs. Saints pass protection
This is a glaring mismatch. New Orleans has the worst pass-blocking offensive tackle tandem in football in Jermon Bushrod (left side) and Zach Strief (right side). Bushrod is slow and has awful technique. Strief is just slow. The sack numbers do not reflect this because Drew Brees is a magician when it comes to getting rid of the ball quickly and moving in and out of the pocket.

Brees, like most star quarterbacks, gets rid of the ball thanks to shrewd presnap reads. But where he’s really elite is in going through his reads. Brees can scan three or four different receivers on a simple five-step drop. He recognizes and anticipates receiver-defender relationships as fast as any passer in the game.

Because so much of what Brees does is based on quick timing and rhythm, it’s not necessarily wise to blitz him. Instead, the objective is to force him to exhaust his progressions. It’s 50-50 that the pass protection can hold up long enough for him to do this (if Brees were a typical quarterback, it’d be more like 25-75). The Rams did this in their Week 8 upset of the Saints.

The Giants’ defensive ends are several grades better than the Rams’. They’ll pressure Brees with four rushers.

2. Saints WR’s vs. Giants secondary
In Week 8, the Rams thrived with physical press coverage aided by safety help. The Giants secondary delivered terrific press coverage in their win at New England a few weeks ago. It wouldn’t be surprising to see more of that Monday night. The Saints have four quality wide receivers: Marques Colston, Robert Meachem, Devery Henderson and Lance Moore.

With a matchup nightmare like tight end like Jimmy Graham, most of the Saints’ formations involve only three of those wideouts. But whatever the pieces, they can -- and do -- align in all different spots on the field.

This is one reason it’s enticing to play press-man against them. Instead of trying to figure out the litany of formations and route possibilities, a defensive coordinator can put a safety or two over the top and tell his cornerbacks to just jam the hell out of whoever they line up against.

But when defenses can mix in zone coverages, they obviously give themselves more options. With rookie Prince Amukamara now healthy, the Giants might be one of the few secondaries in the league versatile enough to do this against the Saints.

With Corey Webster shadowing DeSean Jackson most of last Sunday night (Webster has shadowed the opposing No. 1 receiver regularly this season), Amukamara and Aaron Ross played inside and outside across from him. Both men played man and zone principles.

The Giants also have a multipronged tool in safety Antrel Rolle. He’s rangy in space and, as a former cornerback, adept at playing all coverages as the nickel slot defender.

3. Saints’ savvy run-pass tactic
Don’t be surprised if the Saints frequently throw out of running formations Monday night. Jimmy Graham is extremely effective running routes from a traditional tight end stance, and fullback Jed Collins is capable of catching passes in the flats. We think of the Saints as a spread offense, but Brees is averaging about 10 pass attempts per game out of two-back formations, and 10 of his 23 touchdown passes have come from such sets.

The run formation approach gains potency because the Giants starting linebackers struggle in coverage. Those struggles manifest drastically if Michael Boley (hamstring) is still out. Boley’s replacement, Mark Herzlich, was fantastic against the run last Sunday, but he was badly exposed when dropping back in coverage.

The linebacking issues are significant enough that the Giants may even be compelled to play their 4-2-5 nickel defense against the Saints base offense (they’d be treating Graham as a wide receiver). In that case, Sean Payton would have his array of running backs pound the rock behind monstrous All-World guards Carl Nicks and Jahri Evans.

The run formations could also aid New Orleans’ proficient play-action game (Brees was 17/19 for 212 yards and two touchdowns off play-action fakes against the Falcons in Week 10). It’s a myth that you need to establish the run in order to set up play-action.

In reality, defenders are trained to react to movement; play-action will work if the fake and the offensive linemen’s initial movements are executed well, regardless of how a team has been running the ball. That said, those fakes and movements are obviously more believable when the offense is lined up in a run formation.

Giants offense vs. Saints defense
4. Giants run game woes
The Giants will not advance deep in the playoffs if their run game does not get going. A typical Brandon Jacobs run these days involves the 265-pounder stumbling a yard behind the line of scrimmage, bumping into his own blocker, fighting for a yard-and-a-half and then pissing off every player around him by bumping into body after body as he tries to prove his manhood by ferociously picking himself up off the ground before other players can unpile, all the while barking emphatically about ... what, exactly?

How lucky are the defenders that this isn’t four years ago, when Jacobs was actually productive?

The Giants need a healthy Ahmad Bradshaw in the worst of ways. Of course, the rock-firm scatback’s presence would only present a greater opportunity for a rejuvenated run game -- not the assurance of one. Bradshaw was averaging just 4.0 yards per carry before his foot injury -- 0.7 yards below his career average.

New York’s problems start up front. And they may not be solved this week. Center David Baas has struggled with lateral run-blocking in tight spaces. Saints defensive tackle Aubrayo Franklin is not an ideal opponent to face when trying to correct this. Thirty-one-year-old left guard David Diehl is showing signs of decline. This week could be tough, as the Saints defensive ends are excellent in run defense, particularly when crashing inside.

If the Giants offensive line can somehow break even in this matchup, New York’s fullbacks and tight ends will likely have opportunities to work against a Saints linebacking corps that’s without leader Jonathan Vilma (out since the start of the month with a knee). The Saints would almost need to commit eight to the box at that point. Roman Harper might be the best pure in-box safety in the NFL, but if the Giants can compel him to focus heavily on the run, they’ll impeded his blitzes, which are one of the Saints’ best weapons in pass defense (see item 5).

5. Saints blitzes
A big reason Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams blitzes so much is he knows his down four linemen cannot consistently collapse the pocket on their own. Don’t expect that to change much Sunday night (even though the Giants offensive tackles struggled mightily against the Eagles).

The difference between Williams’ D and other blitzing defenses is that Williams’ D blitzes hard. His blitzes often involve six pass-rushers instead of just five. And because one of those six rushers is usually a defensive back (Harper is phenomenal in this facet, as his 6.5 sacks on the season attest), and because nickel linebacker Jonathan Casillas has crazy speed and acceleration downhill, New Orleans’ blitzes are exceptionally fast.

Expect Victor Cruz and Jake Ballard to be big factors Monday night; as slot targets they’ll be Eli Manning’s hot reads against these blitzes.

So who will win? Check our NFL expert picks for all Week 12 games

Follow @Andy_Benoit on Twitter or contact him at Andy.Benoit-at-NFLTouchdown.com.
Posted on: November 2, 2011 12:59 pm
Edited on: November 4, 2011 9:35 am
 

Film Room: Saints vs. Buccaneers preview

Posted by Eye on Football Analyst Andy Benoit



Back in Week 6, the Bucs beat the Saints 26-20 to move into first place in the NFC South. They enter the Week 9 rematch coming off a bye and once again playing New Orleans for the division lead. The Saints are coming off a surprising loss at St. Louis in which they didn’t fail to show up, but rather, simply got outplayed.

An analyst loves nothing more than to break down a matchup involving two teams that recently played each other. The previous film notes are fresh and applicable. Let’s look forward by glimpsing back.


1. Blitzing Freeman
Gregg Williams is the most aggressive blitzing coordinator in the league. It’s not just that he blitzes frequently, it’s that he blitzes with six pass-rushers (as opposed to five). And they’re fast defenders. The Saints’ nickel defense offers a lot of speed. Strong safety Roman Harper essentially serves as a swift linebacker.

Actual linebacker Jonathan Casillas is a lightning bolt when going downhill. He wouldn’t thrive as a traditional read-and-react run-defending linebacker, but as a read-and-attack blitzer, he’s fervid. Something that stood out in the Week 6 game was that when free safety Malcolm Jenkins dropped into the box, he almost always blitzed. He too does so with speed.

The Bucs offensive line did a phenomenal job at picking up New Orleans’ blitzes in the last meeting. However, the nature of those plays left Josh Freeman with minimal room to step into throws. This revealed that a lot of Freeman’s throwing power comes from his lower body (this could be why he’s a more dynamic passer outside the pocket on the run). Big as Freeman is, his ball floats a bit when he has to rely solely on his arm.

2. Saints coverages
Knowing what they know about Freeman’s arm, it will be interesting to see what coverages the Saints design to allow their corners to jump routes behind the blitzes. A floating ball is an interception opportunity. Tracy Porter is particularly good at route-jumping from his off-coverage techniques in the slot.

The Saints should feel confident in Jabari Greer’s and Patrick Robinson’s abilities to stay with Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn in man coverage outside (neither wideout is particularly quick or fast). If the outside is handled with no help coverage, Porter will have more freedom to take chances from the inside.

Of course, if WE know this, then so do the Bucs. Look for them to design a few routes that could take advantage of Porter’s aggression. The fourth-year corner has been somewhat vulnerable against downfield patterns this season.

3. Running Backs
Earnest Graham started for the injured LeGarrette Blount in Week 6 and wound up rushing for 109 yards on 17 carries. It was plain to see that Graham, with his decent quickness and tempo-changing ability, gave the Bucs’ rushing attack more dimension than it has with the lumbering, bulldozing Blount. And because Graham was a good pass-blocker and receiver, the Bucs could camouflage their run/pass play-calls with him on the field. With Blount, it’s a safe bet that the play is either a between-the-tackles handoff or a basic three/five-step pass.

Blount is healthy now. It would have been interesting to see if some of his spotlight shifted over to Graham this week. We’ll never know; Graham tore his Achilles in London two weeks ago. Tampa’s No. 2 running back is now Kregg Lumpkin. And Tampa’s running game is now one dimensional.

The Saints are also dinged up at running back. Rookie Mark Ingram missed last week’s contest with a bruised heel. Veteran replacement Pierre Thomas played in his stead. Thomas’ screen pass receiving prowess gave the offense a little more dimension, but his lack of phone booth power became a problem when the Rams swarming front seven congested the lanes against New Orleans’ pull blocks.

Style-wise, the Bucs’ front seven is similar to St. Louis’ and, while not great against the run, it’s capable of invoking similar disruption.



4. Facing the Saints offense
Any team that plays the Saints this season should closely study what the Rams did last week. It was simple, really. The Rams started the game with high blitz frequency but backed off after it quickly became apparent that New Orleans’ offensive tackles could not block the defensive ends.

With pressure coming out of a four-man rush, Rams corners played tight press coverage against the Saints receivers, which took away the quick routes that Drew Brees and this offense love. On the inside, the linebackers defended the underneath lanes and the safeties jumped lanes from over the top (that’s traditional two-deep coverage). This mix of man and zone principles requires physical strength at cornerback and speed at linebacker and safety.

The Bucs have the personnel to mimic this gameplan. Rookie defensive end Adrian Clayborn, who has a terrific combination of speed and power for trench play, destroyed left tackle Jermon Bushrod in Week 6. To be blunt, Bushrod gets destroyed often. He’s probably the worst pass-blocking left tackle in the league.

Right tackle Charles Brown had been equally as shaky. He improved his mechanics over the past few weeks but still got abused by a surprisingly explosive and always-fundamentally sound Chris Long last week. It’s a moot point now as he just landed on injured reserve (hip). The unspectacular but experienced Zach Strief is back from injury and once again starting. He’ll be facing Bucs end Michael Bennett, who is not beast but is having a career-year. It’s a matchup that favors the Bucs.

As far as the coverage goes, Tampa has drifted from its Cover 2 tradition and gone to more of a man-based scheme. Their corners are hit-or-miss jammers at the line of scrimmage but all better athletes than those the Rams put on the field. The Bucs linebackers have enough speed to perform in underneath coverage, but the same is not true of the safeties.

A lot of people think Tanard Jackson is an “oh wow!” success story because he picked off a pass in each of his first two games back from suspension. But those picks came off fortuitously tipped balls. On a down-to-down basis, Jackson has shown limited range in coverage.

5. Defending Jimmy Graham
This is always the $64,000 question for defensive coordinators. In their last meeting, the Bucs treated Graham as a wide receiver and defended him with Ronde Barber. This posed a major size differential that the Saints took advantage of (Graham finished with seven catches for 124 yards).

But don’t be surprised if Tampa uses the same tactic again. It fits well into the rest of their defensive scheme. And you can play nickel against the Saints’ base personnel because the Saints don’t have a dominant ground game right now. Tampa’s nickelback, Barber, is an excellent run-defender anyway. Besides, the more overall speed the Bucs have on the field, the better.

After all, they also have to deal with Darren Sproles.

So who will win? Check our NFL expert picks for all Week 9 games

Follow @Andy_Benoit on Twitter or contact him at Andy.Benoit-at-NFLTouchdown.com.
Posted on: October 5, 2011 11:17 am
Edited on: October 6, 2011 4:59 pm
 

Film Room: Panthers vs. Saints preview

Posted by Eye on Football Analyst Andy Benoit



The Saints are 3-1 but it’s the 1-3 Panthers creating most of the chatter. Or, Cam Newton creating the chatter. Through a quarter of his rookie season, the No. 1 overall pick is, in a word, sensational. But obviously not perfect. The Panthers are still dwelling in the basement of the NFC South.

Here’s a comprehensive look at Newton and his club as they head into their first divisional showdown of the season.



1. How good is he, really?
Through four games, Newton has far exceeded all expectations. Remarkably, this includes expectations about his physical talents. We knew the 6’5”, 245-pound Auburn Tiger was an athletic monster, but rarely are quarterbacks still athletic monsters once they reach the NFL. Newton has been a productive runner, both with power and speed.

He’s a poor man’s Vick when it comes to eluding tacklers and a poor man’s Roethlisberger when it comes to shedding them. That’s a rich combination considering no other quarterback truly exhibits any of these traits (save for maybe Josh Freeman shedding defenders).

Most impressive, however, is that Newton has not leaned on his athleticism. Operating almost exclusively out of shotguns, he’s been a willing and poised statuesque passer who willingly works through his progressions from the pocket. His decisions are usually capped off by a bullet either downfield, outside the numbers (he has the uncanny arm strength to stretch the field both horizontally and vertically) or, if need be, underneath.

For the most part, Newton’s decisions have been good. He has faced an aggressive blitzing defense in Arizona, a classic 3-4 press defense in Green Bay (playing without Tramon Williams, the Packers kept Charles Woodson outside and blitzed far less often than usual that game) and, most recently, a classic Cover 2 defense in Chicago. He posted a legit 370-plus yards passing against all three of them.

The proof that it’s not all daisies and roses is that Newton also threw crucial interceptions in all three games and came away with a loss. He’s still a rookie and still prone to the occasional blunder. The blunders have been far less frequent than anyone expected, but they’ve been costly nevertheless.

2. Panthers dual tight ends
We assumed that with tight ends Jeremy Shockey and Greg Olsen, Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski would craft a dink-and-dunk, run-first system. Indeed, the Panthers have kept two tight ends on the field a majority of the time, but often, at least one of them (usually Olsen) has split out, serving essentially as a No. 3 receiver.

This poses serious personnel issues for defenses. Leave your base three-linebacker unit on the field and risk getting burned through the air (Shockey and Olsen have been superb downfield route runners the first four weeks). Use your nickel personnel and you risk getting run on by a team that always has a top-10 running back on the field.

The Saints are one of the few defenses that have an answer for this: strong safety Roman Harper. He is their second best run defender (behind Jonathan Vilma) and a demon in the box. He’s versatile enough to play press man coverage (he’s not particularly good at it, but Gregg Williams feels comfortable using him sporadically in this capacity) or blitz (3.5 sacks on the season).
 
Expect the Panthers in Week 5 to continue to be pass-first with their tight ends. And expect the Saints to not simply react to this, but rather, to attack by changing up what they do with Harper throughout the game in order to get Newton thinking.

3. Running Impact
Newton is the first quarterback since Vick to pose a veritable threat as a runner (Vince Young can’t be counted as a running threat quarterback because he was such a limited passer that defenses could get away with putting nine in the box against him; not a chance that happens against Newton). Having a running threat under center does wonders for your rushing attack.

The Panthers have all the resources to pound teams on the ground – DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart are an excellent duo, center Ryan Kalil can lock defenders at both the first and second level, left tackle Jordan Gross is a Pro Bowler and right tackle Jeff Otah flashed his old power against Chicago last week. But for whatever reason, Chudzinski has not gone in that direction. Carolina is averaging 25.5 rushing attempts per game, tied for 18th in the NFL.

Chudzinski would be wise to change this. The threat that Newton poses really opens things up. We saw this on the third play of the game against Chicago last week:


4. What Newton will see from Saints D
The Saints have one of the most aggressive defenses in football – both in terms of execution and presnap disguise. That has a lot to do with the trust Gregg Williams has in his secondary. Jabari Greer is one of the best ball-man corners in the game. Patrick Robinson had a rough Week 1 at Green Bay but has come on the last few outings (he was phenomenal at Jacksonville).

Playmaker Tracy Porter was eased back into action last week – he missed two games with a calf injury – and should see more snaps Sunday. When you factor in free safety Malcom Jenkins’ range, the Saints clearly have the resources to handle a Panthers’ wide receiving corps that is underwhelming outside of Steve Smith.

Dealing with the tight ends might be an issue, but Roman Harper’s versatility could cause Newton to question that matchup at times. How will Newton react when he sees Harper leave Olsen or Shockey and blitz? The simple answer would be, “He’ll throw to Olsen or Shockey”. But if you and I can predict this, so can Gregg Williams.

The Saints are one of the best green dog blitzing defenses in the league. (A green dog blitz is when a linebacker has a running back man-to-man, sees that the running back is staying in to pass protect and so he goes after the quarterback in response.) These blitzes can be hard to recognize because they come unexpectedly and late in the action.
 
When blitzing is not involved, Carolina’s offensive line can contain a Saints pass-rush that has been hit-or-miss early this season (the return of end Will Smith certainly helps). Thus, expect Gregg Williams to go after Newton and get him guessing before the snap. Many of Williams’ blitzes come out of nickel personnel packages. The Saints used their nickel later in the game against the Texans to counter the receiving impact of Houston’s two tight ends (Owen Daniels and James Casey). Don’t be surprised if they refer to their nickel early against the Panthers’ two-tight end offense.

5. The other side of the ball
The Saints have remade their offense this season. It now runs through Darren Sproles and Jimmy Graham. Sproles has been better for the Saints than Reggie Bush ever was (much better, in fact). That could be in part because Sproles doesn’t yet draw the attention that Bush drew. But more than anything, it’s because he has lightning quick feet and an understanding for how to create and exploit spacing in both the run and pass game.

Graham is the dynamic athlete we all knew he’d be after his 2010 debut. It just so happens that the ex-power forward is developing much quicker than expected. He’s a mismatch for any linebacker, has the size to out-position defensive backs and has better hands than Robert Meachem (who is now the fourth option in this pass offense, behind Sproles, Graham and, when healthy, Marques Colston).

Panthers strong safety Charles Godfrey has been stellar in coverage this season and can compete with Graham, but the Panther linebackers (who are really missing Jon Beason) will have trouble with Sproles. Carolina’s best hope is to get pressure on Brees early in the down.

Defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy are capable of embarrassing New Orleans’ athletic but grossly unreliable tackles Jermon Bushrod and Charles Brown. But Brees knows this and is also capable of adjusting.

So who will win? Check our Week 5 NFL expert picks for all the games

Follow @Andy_Benoit on Twitter or contact him at Andy.Benoit-at-NFLTouchdown.com.
Posted on: November 25, 2010 10:12 am
 

Making the best of the Thanksgiving games

Posted by Andy Benoit

If the NFL were to implement the Thanksgiving game tradition today, no way would the league give the Lions and Cowboys the home game each year. Television has become too significant in today’s NFL – nationally-televised games are gold for clubs. But, tradition is tradition, and there’s some 40 years of it behind Detroit and Dallas playing on America’s favorite Thursday.

The NFL aimed to appease the other 30 teams by implementing a third Thanksgiving game, but unfortunately, it’s on NFL Network, which means most fans don’t get to see it. Thanksgiving tends to be held at an older relative’s house; without any official statistics to cite, we’ll assume that the older someone is, the less likely it is they have a satellite dish. Most people, of course, get their NFL Network via satellite dish.

Anyway, this year, we have three excellent teams playing on Thanksgiving (Patriots, Saints, Jets). Unfortunately, none of them play each other. It’s possible – maybe even probable – that all three games will be blowouts. This will be especially painful for you the viewer because you’ll probably already be watching these games with family members who don’t know jack about football. Thus, you’ll have boring football buttressed by boring conversation.

So what can you do to ameliorate a potentially-frustrating situation? Try dialing in on a matchup within the matchup and just focusing on the pure art form behind it. Here is a compelling matchup within the matchup for each game:

Patriots @ Lions

Ndamukong Suh against interior Patriots O-line

Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins has been fantastic since joining the team midseason after a prolonged contract dispute. Mankins is not a pure mauler, but he delivers one of the better hand punches in football. Suh, of course, IS a pure mauler. The No. 2 overall pick is on his way to the Pro Bowl, which is rare for a rookie defensive tackle. Center Dan Koppen is one of the better help-blockers in the NFL. Koppen’s double-teaming prowess will be needed against the behemoth rookie. (Worth noting: the Patriots will be without starting RG Stephen Neal in this game.)

Saints @ Cowboys

DeMarcus Ware vs. Jermon Bushrod
D. Revis (US Presswire)
Ware’s domination of Bushrod last season is what propelled Dallas to a December upset of the then-undefeated Saints. You might think the Saints will not allow Bushrod to go one-on-one against the superstar pass-rusher. However, Sean Payton could be willing to take that gamble if he decides to go with four wide receivers and spread the Cowboys out (which he likely will).

Bengals @ Jets

Darrelle Revis vs. Who?

Last year, Revis shutdown Chad Ochocinco in back-to-back weeks (Week 17 and the Wild Card round). Ochocinco has been drawing constant double coverage this season, but many believe that Terrell Owens has emerged as Cincy’s top wideout. The Jets will tell you which receiver they most fear by how they choose to use Revis. Don’t think Ochocinco and Owens won’t take note of which guy is paid the ultimate respect. Whoever draws the Revis matchup will almost certainly be held to under four catches (the guess here is it will be Owens, as the Jets could then implement some of the double-team concepts that have hindered Ochocinco this season).

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Posted on: August 10, 2010 2:30 pm
Edited on: August 10, 2010 6:01 pm
 

Chargers should pay V-Jackson; not McNeill

Posted by Josh Katzowitz

An interesting study by Pro Football Focus to determine, once and for all, if the Chargers should pay WR Vincent Jackson and LT Marcus McNeill what they’re demanding or if they should let them sit out most of the season and not let them collect their paychecks.

According to PFF, Jackson ranks as the fourth-best WR of 2009. But it’s more than that. He makes life easier for No. 2 WR Malcom Floyd, and without Jackson in the lineup to take away the pressure of the opponent’s No. 1 CB, it’s a legitimate question of whether Floyd will be as effective if he’s the No. 1 target of that team’s secondary.

And then, even if Floyd is OK as the No. 1 WR, it’s the domino effect. Can a player like Legedu Naanee be helped by Floyd in the same way Floyd was helped by Jackson? Either way, the consensus here is that the Chargers should pay Jackson, even though he’s facing a three-game suspension.

The same cannot be said for McNeill. Although McNeill is a Pro Bowler, PFF writes he’s not a good run-blocker and, actually, he’s not a great pass-protector either. Plus, the LT position as a whole might be more undervalued this year, because the Super Bowl champion Saints feature a LT in Jermon Bushrod who’s not exactly spectacular.

More from PFF:

What’s more, (McNeill) has struggled against the top pass-rushers. Dallas’ dynamic duo of DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer had four pressures from 34 pass plays despite McNeill getting tight end help on a third of those plays. And if he opts to play rather than hold out, he’ll be relieved that injured Broncos pass rusher Elvis Dumervil won’t be lined up against him — McNeill lost the battle of “Doom” both times in 2009.

We’d advise the Chargers look at how the Super Bowl champions managed to move on without their similarly overrated franchise left tackle (Jammal Brown). The circumstances may be different, but injury forced the Saints to put blindside protection in the hands of their QB — and the end results were a shiny Vince Lombardi trophy, an increase in draft picks and a lot of money saved.


Not that any of this will change GM A.J. Smith’s mind – Smith has said he’s moved on without Jackson and McNeill – but it must be comforting for him to know that more than one person agrees that he shouldn’t give in to McNeill’s demands.

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Posted on: June 19, 2010 4:36 pm
 

Analyzing the Jammal Brown to the Redskins trade

The Saints have traded left tackle Jammal Brown to the Redskins. Brown was unhappy with his restricted free agent offer in New Orleans and wanted a long-term deal. The Saints were realizing that they’d just won a Super Bowl without the powerful two-time Pro Bowler (Brown missed virtually all of 2009 with a hip and hernia injury).

What’s fascinating is that the Redskins spent the No. 4 overall pick in the draft on Trent Williams. So do they plan to use Brown on the right side? Brown has the skill set to be a dominant right tackle, but you wonder how receptive he’d be to the switch given that he’s looking to make premium left tackle money.

FOX Sport’s Jay Glazer reports that in exchange for Brown, the Saints are receiving a conditional draft pick. Brown’s immediate replacement will be Jermon Bushrod, though second-round rookie Charles Brown will certainly get a close look at some point.

--Andy Benoit

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The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of CBS Sports or CBSSports.com