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Tag:Wes Welker
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 22, 2012 11:18 pm
Edited on: January 23, 2012 2:00 pm
 

Sorting the Sunday Pile: Super Bowl storylines

Posted by Will Brinson


Sorting the Sunday Pile takes all of Sunday's NFL action, figures out the winners and losers and asks the big questions. Send your complaints, questions and comments to Will Brinson on Twitter. Listen to the Championship Weekend Podcast Recap below and don't forget to
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Super Bowl Storylines

We have less than two weeks until Super Bowl XLVI is played in Indianapolis, and you need to be prepared for a slew of recurring storylines that will come forth over the next 14 days. Some are good, some are bad. Here are the biggest ones:

1. Playing in Peyton's House
No. 2 on this list will be the most talked about early on, but the biggest story of this Super Bowl is that this matchup takes place in the House of Peyton Manning. Peyton carved out a legacy as a sure-fire Hall of Fame quarterback in Indianapolis, and now the Colts quarterback is sidelined, unsure of his future in Indy, as he watches his most hated rival (Brady) battle his little brother (Eli) for a Super Bowl victory in the Colts stadium.

There's no telling how much face time Peyton will have to put in for the Colts over the next two weeks, and it could very well be minimal, but he's the city's most famous athlete (by a WIDE margin) and it's hard to imagine that he can just go underground while two guys whose lives are so closely parallel to his own prepare to do battle on his field.

2. 2007, All Over Again
Not sure if you heard or not, but the Giants beat the previously undefeated Patriots in the 2007 Super Bowl. It was a pretty good game. A lot of the people who will play in this year's game played in that game. (The Patriots are so bitter about 2007 that they were likely rooting for the Giants against the 49ers, just to get revenge.)

This will be the predominant storyline, whether you like it or not, over the next two weeks.

3. Tom Brady's Legacy
Brady is one of four quarterbacks with three Super Bowl wins. Another one moves him out of a tie with Troy Aikman (three each) and into a tie with Terry Bradshaw and his boyhood hero Joe Montana as quarterbacks with four Super Bowl wins.

There will be a discussion as to whether Brady warrants mentioning as the greatest quarterback of all-time if he wins a fourth Super Bowl. There will be plenty of chatter about how he matches up with Montana. And there will also be a discussion about what a second Super Bowl loss would mean to Brady: he could conceivably move to 3-2 in NFL championship games. That's not "bad" by any stretch of the imagination, but it's also not 4-1.

4. Is Eli Better Than Peyton?
We mentioned Peyton Manning already, but this is one that's going to get a lot of discussion: Manning's clearly established himself as a top-five NFL quarterback this season and he's putting together a ridiculous playoff résumé that is forging his overall legacy as an NFL quarterback.

In terms of raw statistical production, it's not even a contest right now, as Peyton's career numbers crush Eli's career numbers. Really, it's no contest. But Eli's also five years younger and has a shot at picking up his second Super Bowl, something Peyton doesn't have. Siblings can certainly be happy for one another when it comes to their respective success, but it's also going to be rough for both Peyton and Eli to find out how many times "Is Eli better than Peyton?" can be asked in a two-week span.

5. Brady and Eli in the Same Class
And our final quarterback comparison that will go down over the next fortnight: Brady and Eli. They'll go head-to-head for the second time in a Super Bowl over the past five years and this one has special meaning, and not just because Eli beat Brady the last time around. It's also because Eli said prior to the 2011 season that he belonged in the "same class" as Brady.

That's what any competitor should say, but Manning's spent all season long proving that he does belong on the same stage as Brady. A second Super Bowl win -- both over Tom Terrific -- would give Eli the last laugh if anyone asks him the same question before the 2012 season.

6. Bill Belichick's Best Coaching Job?
There's already a good argument that the 2011 Patriots are Bill Belichick's best coaching job in his career. That's a reasonable argument considering the Pats locked down the top seed in the AFC and made it to the Super Bowl despite continually starting Julian Edelman in their secondary.

Leading up to the Super Bowl, lots of people will point out that because of the defensive deficiencies and a number of other issues that a win cements this New England team as Belichick's finest work. They might very well be right.

7. Chad Ochocinco
The always-controversial wideout's been quiet this year and he was inactive for Sunday's AFC Championship Game after leaving the team to attend the funeral of his father. And though Chad fell in line with "The Patriot Way" this year, he's still an erstwhile celebrity, and he'll command some serious media attention over the next two weeks. Will he play? Will he make an impact? Can he play? Should he play? And so on and so forth.

8. Giants Defense
There's several different layers to New York's Big D. First of all, they're using the same formula as 2007, with a relentless pass rush. Secondly, you have to pressure Brady to stop him. Third, they run their mouths at an incredible (and awesome, if you're in the media) pace, and there's a decent chance we get a guarantee from someone (ahem, Jason Pierre-Paul and/or Antrel Rolle).

They'll be the difference-maker in this Super Bowl, because stopping Brady typically means stopping the Patriots, if you can provide enough offense to put some distance between the two.

Winners

Sterling Moore: With the Patriots already starting wideout Julian Edelman, Moore was signed off the street in September after being cut from the Raiders pratice squad. In the biggest moment of his life, he made the biggest plays, knocking the ball out of Lee Evans hands to spoil a Baltimore touchdown and then swatting a ball away from Dennis Pitta on third down to force a game-tying field goal attempt from Baltimore.

Eli Manning:
Manning became the first quarterback in NFL history to win five road playoff games on Sunday night. That's not just impressive, it's amazing: road wins aren't easy to pull off in the regular season but coming from behind and making clutch plays and winning in impossible/unlikely situations is just becoming Manning's modus operandi at this point.

Joe Flacco
: It never seemed realistic that Flacco could "win" if the Ravens lost, but he managed to silence his critics in the loss on Sunday night. There were things he could've done better, for sure, and he missed a pair of deep balls to Torrey Smith that might have given the Ravens a win. But he also put the Ravens in position to -- at worst -- send the game to overtime. Others screwed the pooch, not Flacco.

Giants Defense: Who do you want to give the award to on this side of the ball? Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora and Mathias Kiwanuka all registered at least half a sack against Alex Smith and that's precisely the reason why it's believable for the Giants to take down the Patriots in the Super Bowl one more time.

Alex Smith: Yeah, yeah, he lost. But it doesn't matter, because Smith played in horrible conditions against an insane pass rush on the biggest stage, and he played well. Sure, he didn't complete 32 passes like Eli. In fact, he only attempted 26. And only 12 of those were completions. But the dude made some plays with his legs (six rushes, 42 yards), and two of his passes were beautiful shots to Vernon Davis for scores, and Smith kept the 49ers in this game until the end.

Oh, Billy. Billy, Billy, Billy. (Getty Images)

Losers

Billy Cundiff: Can I just type "Ray Finkle" 50 times and call it a day? Cundiff's lack of range -- he was one of six from 50-plus yards in the 2011 regular season -- forced the Ravens hand on offense and then Cundiff shanked a potential game-tying field goal with mere seconds left.

Kyle Williams: It's not Williams fault that Ted Ginn missed a game that featured a ton of rain. But that doesn't mean he can go out there and muff a pair of punts to give the Giants the ball on the 49ers side of the field. Williams set the Giants up for a touchdown in regulation and a game-winning field goal in overtime.

Lee Evans: As noted above, Evans had a ball knocked out from his hands that would've been a touchdown. But it's pretty clear that he got lazy on the play -- hold onto the ball and the Ravens probably play in the Super Bowl. I'm sure his four passes caught in the regular season makes up for it though.

Ed Hochuli's Review Explanations: Four score and seven years ago, Hochuli faced the camera and began explaining why something happened in football. It took him -- literally -- a minute to explain the new playoff overtime rules, and he might've actually used 100 words to explain a false start at one point. Go back to being a gunshow.

Twitter: Aren't you guys rich enough to buy a server that doesn't crash during big NFL games?

GIF O' THE WEEK

Man, Vince Wilfork is steamed.


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Posted on: January 20, 2012 6:04 pm
 

Rex Ryan: 'Ravens are going to win this game'

Ryan likes Baltimore and Suggs. Welker's response: 'That's Rex for you.' (US PRESSWIRE/Getty Images)

By Ryan Wilson

Las Vegas and CBSSports.com's NFL experts may not give the Ravens much of a chance against the Patriots in the AFC Championship game but not everyone is sold on New England. Take unbiased observer, former Ravens defensive coordinator, and current Jets head coach Rex Ryan, who appeared on WFAN Friday to make his bold prediction.


“First off, the Ravens are going to win this game,” he told Mike Francesa. "But the truth is this. The only way you’re going to beat New England is if you have a great defense. And when you look at the teams that won – obviously Buffalo was the one exception – the Giants had a great game defensively, they were able to get pressure on the quarterback, make plays in the back end. The Ravens had beaten New England before with a dominant defense."

Seems reasonable enough, especially Ryan's implication that the Jets, who finished the season 8-8 and missed the playoffs, didn't have a great defense (they went 0-2 against the Patriots in 2011). And he alluded to that during his conversation with Francesa.

"We beat New England three times but we did it creatively … a different type of defense, (Tom Brady) wasn’t comfortable," Ryan said. "There are only a few teams…Pittsburgh, was more physical than New England. That’s why they won. So the Ravens, in my opinion, are going to take a similar approach to how the Giants played them. Meaning, they’re going to rush four guys on them, I truly think they’re going to rush four. I think Terrell Suggs might be the difference in this game. I don’t know how many guys can block Terrell Suggs. I’ve got the answer: none of them. So I think Suggs is going to be huge but they’ve got to be physical. And the Ravens’ offense does have to show up. They have to protect the football."

It's no surprise that Ryan likes Baltimore this weekend; he has ties to the organization and he's bound by rivalry to loathe New England. But he also lays out a game plan (if not wholly convincing then certainly credible) for stopping Tom Brady's high-powered offense. Ryan, after all, was the Ravens' defensive coordinator in 2007 when a not-very-good Baltimore team almost upended the undefeated Patriots. (Of course, Ryan's decision to call a timeout late in that game, when it appeared that Baltimore had stopped Brady on 4th and 1, played a non-trivial part in the outcome.)

Wide receiver Wes Welker, one of Brady's favorite targets, was asked Friday about Ryan's prognostication. "That’s Rex for you," he said according to CBSSports.com Rapid Reporter Greg Bedard. "Hopefully we can prove him wrong."

As for slowing that tenacious Ravens' defense, guard Logan Mankins suggested more no-huddle.

"I think it helps," Mankins said via Bedard. "(The Ravens) do a lot of different things, so maybe (the no-huddle) will make them not do so many different things."


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. 

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 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 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.
Posted on: January 6, 2012 11:20 pm
Edited on: January 6, 2012 11:24 pm
 

Report: Pats set to interview Josh McDaniels

McDaniels could be headed home with Brady and Belichick. (Getty Images)
By Will Brinson

Despite a miserable 2011 season as Rams offensive coordinator (St. Louis ranked 31st in yards per game and last in points per game), Josh McDaniels remains in pretty hot demand as a coach.

The former Broncos coach was actually the only Rams coach retained in a front-office purge, but St. Louis let it be known they'll release McDaniels from his contract. At this point he's a leading candidate for various openings in Kansas City, and now, he's set to interview with his old team, the Patriots.

Latest Coaching Rumors, News

That last piece of news is courtesy of NFL Network's Albert Breer, who reports that the Pats have received permission to speak with McDaniels and will talk to him over the weekend about the offensive coordinator position vacated by Bill O'Brien's departure to Penn State.

McDaniels, of course, was O'Brien's predecessor, so there's a good chance that he'll ace the interview. Under McDaniels, the Pats offense was beyond prolific, scoring 589 points and ranking first in passing yards, total yards, points, touchdowns and net yards per attempt en route to a 16-0 regular season. (You may have heard of this team.)

Tom Curran of CSN New England noted that the "relationship [is] strong" between Bill Belichick and McDaniels, so it's unlikely that any burnt bridges would negate McDaniels desire to return.

Then there's this: wide receiver Brandon Lloyd, scheduled to be a free agent, already said he wants to go wherever McDaniels goes. Since he already knows McDaniels offense, it's likely he'd be a perfect fit in New England's offense (think a filthy rich man's Deion Branch?) as well, and combined with Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, could make the Pats offense absolutely deadly.

But McDaniels is also being courted by the Chiefs; if he's offered the head-coaching job in Kansas City, it might be too difficult for him to turn down in favor of returning to New England.

Given the choice between running the Chiefs offense and running the Patriots offense, however, it's hard to imagine him going anywhere other than New England.

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Posted on: January 1, 2012 11:35 am
Edited on: January 1, 2012 12:50 pm
 

Calvin Johnson about to unlock $4.5M bonus?

Do not get in the way of Mega and his money. (Getty Images)
By Will Brinson

Incentive clauses in NFL contracts are pretty standard business. But the one that Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson could unlock on Sunday is quite the doozy, as it's worth $4.5 million.

Johnson, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter, needs to complete five of seven possible goals in order to unlock the contract. Those seven goals are: record 12 or more receiving touchdowns in a season (check), get in Pro Bowl and play (check), play in 80 percent of the Lions plays in the season and have Detroit wins 9 games (check), lead NFC in receiving TD (he currently does), lead NFC in receiving yards (he currently does), lead NFL in receiving TDs and lead NFL in receiving yards.

So to recap, Johnson has completed five of those goals (with the exception of playing in the Pro Bowl, though he'd probably get out there with one leg if it was worth $4.5 million) and currently has two more tentatively completed.


Johnson has 1,437 receiving yards on the season, putting him just 81 yards behind league leader Wes Welker and 79 yards ahead of the Giants Victor Cruz, who's second in the NFC. (He's also 129 yards behind Steve Smith for those wondering.)

Johnson's 15 touchdowns pace the NFC with only Jordy Nelson (12) and Jimmy Graham (10) also in double-digit touchdown receptions this season. (Rob Gronkowski also has 15 teeters, but he's in the AFC, clearly.)

Since we can pencil in the NFC touchdown title for Megatron, there's a very good chance he unlocks this bonus on Sunday. All he needs is to catch the same number of scores as Gronk or have Cruz stay within 80 yards of his total. In this scenario, 100 receiving yards and a touchdown likely lock down the bonus for Johnson.

And it will likely mean that the Lions will happily hand him the money and then, already heavily invested in the NFL's best wide receiver, try to get him even more during the offseason before Megatron gets to his first contract year, which should be a scary thought for NFL defensive backs.
Follow all the Week 17 action live: Inactives | Scoreboard

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Posted on: December 31, 2011 5:00 pm
 

Welker fined $10K for wearing wrong kind of hat

WelkerBy Josh Katzowitz

Wes Welker is an investor in Bonk Breaker energy bars, so forgive the Patriots receiver if he wore a hat advertising that product in postgame interviews last week after the Patriots beat the Dolphins. He’s just a man trying to drum up a little exposure for one of his products.

The NFL apparently didn’t appreciate his entrepreneurial ways.

As Welker reported on his Twitter feed, the NFL fined him ($10,000) for wearing the hat, which confused Welker, who wrote, “Thanks for warning me the other 16 weeks I wore the hat.” The official violation was for wearing an unauthorized hat during a postgame interview.

Welker, though, got off easy. At least, he, unlike Brian Urlacher, wasn't fined $100,000 for a hat violation.



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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