Tag:Andy Benoit
Posted on: November 9, 2011 10:50 pm
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Keep an Eye on: Week 10's finer analysis

Posted by Eye on Football Analyst Andy Benoit

Jets vs. Patriots

The recipe for stopping New England’s offense has been discovered: press-man coverage. The Cowboys pressed the Patriots receivers off-and-on back in Week 6. The Steelers did it all game in Week 8. So did the Giants in Week 9. New England scored 16, 17 and 20 in those three games.

Think the Jets might be ale to execute press-man coverage? (Ask the Bills receivers whose white uniforms had practically turned light green by the end of last week’s game.) When these teams met back in Week 5, Darrelle Revis shadowed Wes Welker, though not the entire game. Welker caught a few balls during the breathers away from Revis, including a 73-yarder that gave him a misleading five-catch, 124-yard stat line.

After that game teams may have realized that with Welker bottled up, the Patriots are just another methodical east-west passing team. New England’s offense has no downfield weapon to preoccupy defenses about getting burned over the top. Deion Branch is quick but not fast. Aaron Hernandez, if he regains his pre-Week 3 knee injury form, is fleet for a tight end but not someone who can blaze 40 yards outside the numbers. Ditto for Rob Gronkowski.

There is that Chad Ochocinco guy. He and Brady have not been on the same page all season (Brady actually missed an open Ocho for a would-be touchdown last week; Ocho couldn’t get mad because he owed Brady for other mistakes). The disappointing but charismatic ex-Bengal may actually be the deciding piece in this game. Someone has to step up and be a downfield threat. The last person aslow underneath offense wants to face is Rex Ryan; he knows how to use his safeties as blitzers.



Cowboys vs. Bills
The Cowboys can forget about the fragile Felix Jones becoming their next franchise running back. When Jones returns from his ankle injury (hopefully sometime before his next scheduled injury in December), he’ll be backing up DeMarco Murray. The third-round rookie from Oklahoma State is averaging 6.7 yards per carry and looks like the real deal. It was difficult to assess him after his 253-yard outbreak against St. Louis because, as Murray himself will admit, a truck could have driven through the holes Dallas’ offensive line opened up that game.


But last week Murray registered 139 yards against a quietly impressive Seattle run defense that’s allowing just 3.4 yards per carry (tied for second best in the NFL). He has a unique ability to generate downhill momentum immediately upon hitting his accelerator.

Because of this, Murray can explode to holes before linebackers can identify them or, more often, he can increase his tempo upon reaching those linebackers, which makes him extremely hard to tackle.

For the Bills (and all defenses), the key to stopping Murray will be penetration. Murray has the ability to go left and right, but he has to stop and restart in order to do so. You can’t let him go north and south.

It hurts that Buffalo’s best defensive lineman, Kyle Williams, just went on injured reserve. He was a penetration extraordinaire who would have changed the complexion of this matchup. Marcell Dareus has been impressive since relocating to nose tackle, but the Bills are now thin on the edges and may start waffling again between 3-4 and 4-3 concepts if forced to make another personnel adjustment.

Seahawks vs. Ravens
It’s a classic trap game for the Ravens. Coming off a big primetime win against their archrival, they must fly across the country for an unceremonious bout with a 2-6 team from another conference. And it’s not an awful 2-6 team, either. OK, maybe the offense is awful. Or at least as uninspiring as an Andy Reid press conference. But the defense isn’t bad.

Last week’s stumble at Dallas aside, Seattle’s defense can stop the run. The defensive line has a strong rotation of high-energy players who have the strength to win in a phone booth (end Red Bryant has been the most impressive in this sense). Middle linebacker David Hawthorne reads and pursues well enough, and outside linebackers K.J. Wright and Leroy Hill can both play with physicality on the edge.

On the back end, young safeties Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas are still learning to play with consistency (both mentally and physically). Both, however, offer some playmaking prowess versus in the box or downhill. Cornerback Brandon Browner is a bit stiff but has rare 6’3”, 221-pound-size that he’s just starting to learn to apply at the line of scrimmage. Richard Sherman has, for the most part, been able to back up his bizarre cockiness ever since injuries propelled him into the starting lineup.

Lastly, Seattle has a clear-cut Pro Bowler (their only Pro Bowler, in fact) in end Chris Clemons. He’s fast off the edge (like any quality pass-rusher) and also has a strong suppleness that makes him viable in all facets against the run.

So who will win? Check our NFL expert picks for all Week 10 games

Follow @Andy_Benoit on Twitter or contact him at Andy.Benoit-at-NFLTouchdown.com.
Posted on: November 9, 2011 7:17 pm
 

Film Room: Bengals vs. Steelers preview

Posted by Eye on Football Analyst Andy Benoit



So let’s get this straight: the Steelers, at a respectable 6-3, are in third place of the AFC North? And it’s not the soft-scheduled Browns they’re chasing, but rather, the dysfunctional Bengals?

We’re going to find out over the next two months whether the Bengals are a Cinderella story or a farce. First, let’s establish some expectations by examining what the film has revealed over the past two months.



1. The ginger rookie & Jon Gruden’s brother
There’s a growing movement to anoint Andy Dalton the Offensive Rookie of the Year instead of Cam Newton. That’s a fair. Dalton’s team is 6-2, Newton’s is 2-6. But let’s keep our perspective and remember that Dalton is NOT the physical specimen that Newton is. He doesn’t have Newton’s arm, wheels or athletic improv skills. And he’s not being asked to do the same things as Newton.

That said, Dalton has been much closer to Newton’s athletic level than anyone would have ever guessed. He has shown the arm strength to make just about every throw that first-year offensive coordinator Jay Gruden has asked of him. He’s been poised when operating from a muddied pocket, and he’s very good at releasing the ball on the move.

Gruden has done a phenomenal job playing to Dalton’s strengths. The Bengals have a balanced attack that hinges on play-action and rollouts, two concepts that slice the field for a quarterback and help define his reads (see graphic). Gruden also incorporates a lot of three-and five-step drops – another simplification tactic. As a result, the Bengals offense has not only been nearly mistake-free but also calm and consistent.

A play-action rollout simplifies things for a quarterback by essentially slicing the field in half. In this sample (against a basic two-man coverage), a fake handoff compels the defense to flow left. The only defenders who go right are the ones responsible for the two receivers running their patterns to the right.

Quarterbacking 101 teaches you to never throw across your body or back across the field. Thus, after the quarterback rolls out, he only has to read the right side of the field, which consists of nothing but his two receivers and their defensive matchups. Often, the read is simplified even more by throwing to wherever the free safety is not giving help-coverage. If a play is there, it’s easy for the quarterback to see.

If nothing’s there, the quarterback has plenty of room to throw the ball away or scramble.

2. The “sure thing” receiver & other weapons
Wideout A.J. Green has been exactly what you’d expect a No. 4 overall pick to be in Year One. He’s averaging roughly five catches, 75 yards and a little more than half a touchdown per game. He’s clearly Dalton’s go-to guy, being targeted almost automatically when facing one-on-one coverage. Green has a wide catching radius thanks to uncommon body control and a great vertical leap. He’ll climb to the top echelon of receivers once he polishes his route running (he has a bad tendency to yield ground and inside positioning on downfield patterns).

The receiving weapons around Green have been solid. Jermaine Gresham can cause matchup problems in the flats. Veteran Donald Lee has filled in well in the wake of Gresham’s hamstring injury the past two weeks. Jerome Simpson has shown why the team did not discipline him harshly after police found Costco amounts of marijuana in his home this past September. To be blunt, Simpson’s quickness is too valuable to take off the field. He’s much more reliable than Andre Caldwell.

Surprisingly, the black-and-blue ground game that figured to define Cincy’s offense has been extremely average thus far (the statistics support this, as Cincy ranks 28th with 3.7 yards per carry). Cedric Benson is a methodical, patient runner who needs steady blocking in order to thrive. He has gotten that, but not at the level he did two years ago when he averaged nearly 100 yards per game.

Left tackle Andrew Whitworth, despite a poor outing last week, has played at a Pro Bowl level, and right tackle Andre Smith has flashed astonishing power a few times. But the interior line and ancillary blockers (such as a sixth offensive lineman/fullback/tight end) have been up-and-down.

3. Defensive Overview
The Bengals have a deep, active defensive line that’s extremely potent against the run but just so-so against the pass. Tackles Geno Atkins and Pat Sims both regularly win phone booth matchups in impressive fashion, and Domata Peko almost always punishes teams who try to block him one-on-one. If he’s not penetrating, he’s stalemating in a way that allows teammates to make plays.
 
None of these inside players are dominant pass-rushers, though. And there isn’t much firepower outside. End Michael Johnson uses his athleticism in myriad ways but is not a regular presence in the backfield. Intriguing second-year pro Carlos Dunlap replaces Robert Geathers on passing downs. Dunlap, with his unusual upright style and sinewy explosiveness, is certainly capable of reaching the quarterback, but he’s also capable of disappearing for long stretches.

An impotent pass-rush can put considerable pressure on a secondary. Leon Hall is an elite cover corner who does not command a lot of safety help over the top. Using him in isolated solo coverage is a double-edge sword that has stabbed opponents slightly more than it’s stabbed the Bengals this season. Safeties Reggie Nelson and Chris Crocker are hit-or-miss in coverage but capable of playing in space or the box. They give Mike Zimmer options.

Veteran Nate Clements has done a commendable job replacing Johnathan Joseph. Clements has been especially aggressive in short, underneath coverage. Helping in this facet is the fact that linebackers Thomas Howard and Manny Lawson both move well in the flats. It’s a little surprising that Lawson, who is replaced by Brandon Johnson in nickel (Johnson is the more comfortable of the two between the tackles), hasn’t been asked to put his hand in the dirt on passing downs.

4. Something to consider
This is a sharp, fundamentally sound defense that plays well as a unit in Mike Zimmer’s fairly aggressive scheme. But it’s also a defense that has yet to be tested. Look at the Bengals’ schedule thus far. They opened against Cleveland and Denver, two teams with major problems at wide receiver.

They faced San Francisco in Week 3, a good team but a very, very basic offense. They beat Buffalo in Week 4. Buffalo has a much-improved offense, but they’re not exactly Green Bay. Or even Dallas (never mind what the stats might say). After that it was Jacksonville, Indianapolis and Seattle, three teams with a total of zero proven quarterbacks. Last week the Bengals handled a Tennessee offense that’s respectable but nothing close to dynamic (especially through the air).

You couldn’t ask to face a more banal collection of offenses. This defense is fantastic against the run, but it remains to be seen how it will respond against a rhythmic, up-tempo passing attack.  

5. Matchup with the Steelers
Pittsburgh does have an elite, formidable offense. Cincinnati’s ho-hum pass-rush is not ideal for defending Ben Roethlisberger’s late-in-the-down magic.

The Bengals at least catch a break with wideout Emmanuel Sanders being out (arthroscopic knee surgery). Sanders would have given the Steelers aerial attack third source of speed, which Zimmer’s nickel unit may not be equipped to combat. Instead, it will be either Hines Ward or Jericho Cotchery threatening to catch six-yard slants out of the slot.

On the other side, the only defense comparable to Pittsburgh’s that this Cincy offense has faced is San Francisco’s in Week 3. The Niners were physical in taking away the receivers’ quick routes. The result was eight points and a 1/10 third down success rate for the Bengals. However, Dalton’s game has expanded since then. If need be, it’s possible, though not probable, that he’ll be able to put the team on his back and open things up for the first time this season.

Unless there continues to be slews of the fortuitous field position breaks that this Bengals offense has frequently enjoyed this season, he’ll need to.

So who will win? Check our NFL expert picks for all Week 10 games

Follow @Andy_Benoit on Twitter or contact him at Andy.Benoit-at-NFLTouchdown.com.
Posted on: November 9, 2011 10:54 am
 

Film Room: 49ers vs. Giants preview

Posted by Eye on Football Analyst Andy Benoit


The NFC’s top team from the East will travel some 3,000 miles to face the top team from the West in a game that could ultimately decide the No. 2 playoff seed. Here’s a five-point look at this matchup between two overachieving clubs.



1. Old School offenses
If not for HD quality picture and the first-down line, you could fool yourself into thinking the year is 1990 when watching these two offenses line up on Sunday. Both are built around traditional rushing attacks, operating predominantly out of classic 12, 21 or 22 personnel (12 personnel = 1 back, two tight ends; 21 personnel = two backs, one tight end; you can guess what 22 personnel equals).

The difference is that the Niners this season have successfully run the ball, while the Giants have not (San Francisco ranks sixth in the NFL with 137.6 yards rushing per game; New York ranks 29th with 88.8).

Jim Harbaugh has good horses in Frank Gore and the more dynamic but less experienced Kendall Hunter, but it’s not a glistening backfield like those found in Philadelphia, Houston or Oakland. To compensate, Harbaugh has done a masterful job manufacturing rushing yards through formation variations, motion and subtle subterfuge. The Niners show opponents a lot of different looks with their running back and tight end alignments. And with mobile guards like Mike Iupati and, to an extent, Adam Snyder, they can frequently change up their movement-oriented run-blocking techniques. They have the most variegated ground game in the NFL.
 
The Giants would like to mimic this, but Ahmad Bradshaw hasn’t been healthy and Brandon Jacobs hasn’t been impactful. More encumbering has been the shakiness of the offensive line. The center position has been particularly problematic. David Baas has battled injuries and struggled with gap-shooting defensive tackles against Miami two weeks ago; when Baas has been out, Kevin Boothe has looked how you’d expect a career backup tackle to look at center. Most telling is that recently, offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride has been almost exclusively aerial in his late-game play-calls.

2. The Quarterbacks
The Giants have managed six wins despite a sputtering ground game. The reason? Eli Manning has played the best football of his career. Herein lays the difference between New York and San Francisco. Both teams have former No. 1 overall drafted quarterbacks, but only one can put the game on its quarterback’s shoulders.

Manning is seeing the field clearer than ever (fortunately for him, New York’s front line struggles have not been in pass protection). His command of the offense and sound decision-making have propagated the eruptions of tight end Jake Ballard and slot receiver Victor Cruz. Ballard is an enhanced version of Kevin Boss; Cruz, with his unique body control and sticky hands, is a more explosive – though less stable – version of Steve Smith.

Something that’s not talked about often enough is Manning’s arm strength. He’s among the small handful of quarterbacks who truly can make all the throws; and he doesn’t need to be on balance or in perfect pocket conditions to do it.

Alex Smith, on the other hand, does need perfect pocket conditions. Smith is not functional with bodies around him. When he does have room, the throw usually has to target his first or second read, as he’s never had the poise to work deep in his progressions. This is one reason the Niners have spent so much time in 12 or 21 or 22 formations. When there are only three receivers running routes, defenses are more inclined to bring an eighth defender in the box, thus allowing for more one-on-one coverage concepts outside. This makes things simpler for the quarterback.

The Giants, on the other hand, are able to split into three, and sometimes four, receiver formations for long stretches and let Manning run the show.

3. Pass-rushes
These are two of the best pure pass-rushing defenses in the NFL. Pure meaning both are willing but not compelled to blitz. When they do blitz, it’s often primarily in an effort to command isolated matchups for rushers on the edge. For these defenses, those matchups will almost always be favorable.
 
For the Giants, Osi Umenyiora augments his incredible speed by being the league’s best snap-count anticipators in obvious passing situations. Opposite him, a healthy Justin Tuck is a versatile, fundamentally sharp force, and a rising Jason Pierre-Paul has willowy power and speed that make him a potentially more explosive version of Tuck. And don’t forget that linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka is a former first-round defensive end who can turn the corner.

You already know all this, though. What you may not know is that San Francisco’s pass-rushers are not too many rungs behind New York’s. Sixth-year pro Ahmad Brooks has finally learned how to apply his startling speed and fluidity on an everydown basis (even against the run, which close observers two years ago would not have predicted).

Rookie Aldon Smith plays with Manny Pacquiao-like hand-quickness to go with natural leverage that punctuates his first-round athleticism. What’s more, most 3-4 defenses don’t bank on getting pressure from their ends. But they don’t have a weapon like Justin Smith. He wears opponents out and makes three or four splash plays a week. Opposite Smith, Ray McDonald, when healthy (he injured his hamstring in Week 8) has been equally dynamic this season.

Both defenses have the versatility to create pass-rushing mismatches through position relocation and group concepts. All of the men mentioned above are outside players who can align inside, stand up as de facto blitzing linebackers or properly set up and execute crashes and stunts with teammates.

4. The Coverage Effect
These difficult-to-block four-man pass-rushes force quarterbacks to throw under duress into seven-man coverages. As they showed at New England last week, the Giants linebackers and safeties are getting more comfortable recognizing and attacking passing lanes. It helps that their cornerbacks, though inconsistent early in the season, can play press-man coverage outside.

Corey Webster has been particularly impressive in recent weeks, often shadowing the opposing team’s top receiver. He’s well equipped to defend the lithe but inexplosive Michael Crabtree.

The Niners love to play two-man out of their nickel defense. This puts cornerbacks Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown and Chris Culliver man-to-man on the wideouts and allows the two safeties, Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson, to roam free over the top. Rogers, who starts outside but plays the slot in nickel, is having a career-year. Brown blends into the scheme in a good way. Culliver, a precocious third-round rookie, always plays with a great sense for his surroundings.

Even if Hakeem Nicks, discreetly a top-10 NFL receiver, returns from his hamstring injury this week, the Giants are going to have a tough time consistently getting wideouts open against this Niners secondary.

5. The inside linebackers
We saved the best for last: San Francisco’s inside linebackers (and just San Francisco’s – New York’s entire linebacking corps is very mediocre).

Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman form the best inside linebacking duo in football. The past few years, Willis has rightfully been regarded as the best in the business. This season, he may be the second best on his own team, as Bowman, a 2010 third-round pick, leads San Fran in tackles.

Setting these two apart is the fact that they both play all three downs. That’s incredible in this day and age of spread offenses. In nickel and dime defense, Willis and Bowman perform coverage assignments normally reserved for defensive backs. They have the speed, change-of-direction prowess and awareness to do it. Both are quick-closing tacklers, instinctive run-defenders and innate playmakers.

So who will win? Check our NFL expert picks for all Week 10 games

Follow @Andy_Benoit on Twitter or contact him at Andy.Benoit-at-NFLTouchdown.com.
Posted on: November 3, 2011 6:31 pm
Edited on: November 4, 2011 9:27 am
 

Pick-Six Podcast: NFL Week 9 Film Room

Posted by Will Brinson & Ryan Wilson

Week 9 of the NFL season is upon us and that means it's time to break down some film with Eye on Football Analyst Andy Benoit.

(You can read Andy's breakdown of Pittsburgh-Baltimore right here, as well as his breakdown of Tampa Bay-New Orleans right here.)

Andy and Will discuss whether or not the Steelers can be as effective defensively without their top linebackers, who's better between Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed, what the Giants can learn from the Steelers' win last week as they prepare for the Patriots, whether or not we should sell the Saints and buy the Buccaneers, if we're worried about Philip Rivers and the Chargers, and if the Chiefs are playing a trap game this week.

All that, plus much, much more below.

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


For more NFL news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnNFL on Twitter, subscribe to our NFL newsletter, and while you're at it, add our RSS Feed.
Posted on: November 3, 2011 10:13 am
 

Keep an Eye on: Week 9's finer points of analysis

Posted by Eye on Football Analyst Andy Benoit

Eagles vs. Bears
You could make a strong case that both of these offenses are built around their star running backs. The Eagles have football’s No. 1 offense and lead the league with 179 yards rushing per game (20 more than Oakland’s No. 2 ranked ground game). Running back LeSean McCoy is second in the NFL with 754 yards rushing. The Bears’ 16th-ranked offense would likely rank somewhere in the mid-twenties if not for Matt Forte’s 672 yards on the ground and 419 yards through the air.

These are the best two running backs in the NFC not named Adrian Peterson. (And both are significantly better receivers than Peterson.) Two years ago, neither was very good. McCoy was a callow, unpolished rookie who could not always read basic defenses. Forte was an inexplicably sluggish runner averaging just 3.9 yards per carry. So what’s changed since then?

One noticeable improvement is in both players’ lateral agility. Though not as emphasized as speed, quickness or power, lateral agility is the most important attribute for an NFL back. It’s often the difference between college runners and pro runners. In short, lateral agility is a running back’s quickness and explosiveness when going left and right. It plays a central role in how he sets up blocks and creates his own space.

Unless you’re an incredibly gifted downhill runner playing behind a decent run-blocking front (ala Darren McFadden), lateral agility is vital in the NFL, where holes close quicker than a hiccup and defenses feature 11 world class athletes, most of whom can immediately diagnose about 90 percent of the run plays they see.

McCoy has the best pure lateral agility in the league. He had it as a rookie but just recently learned to implement it with timing and purpose. He can explode left and right behind the line or at the second level. Most laterally agile running backs, including Forte, have to be on the move in order to cut sharply. McCoy can do it from a standstill (which is why Philly is so fond of draws and delayed handoffs). Forte can occasionally do it from a standstill, though with his smooth, patient running style, he’s much more effective off motion.

On Sunday, keep a count of how many of McCoy’s and Forte’s touches are impacted by their east-west prowess.



Patriots vs. Giants
The key to the Giants’ upset of the undefeated Patriots in Super Bowl XLII was the pressure the Giants pass-rush put on Tom Brady. New York’s then-defensive coordinator, Steve Spagnuolo, brilliantly had his linebackers crowd and attack the A-gaps. That did a few things.

For one, it put extra defenders directly in Tom Brady’s line of vision, which would make any quarterback subtly feel a bit hurried. That hurriedness left New England without enough time to run Randy Moss on deep routes.

Another thing it did was force the Patriot running backs to stay in and pass protect. And because there were multiple defenders crowding the A-gaps, the Patriots focused their protection help inside, which left one-on-one mismatches outside for Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora.

Some things have changed in the four years since 18-1. Spagnuolo is now in St. Louis. Moss is retired. So is Strahan. The Patriots’ high-powered passing game has become horizontal instead of vertical. But despite the changes, don’t be surprised if the Giants once again crowd and/or attack New England’s A gaps this Sunday.

Teams like the Jets, Cowboys and Steelers have shown that the best way to pressure Brady is with bodies up the middle. The goal is not always to sack him – it can be to mentally preoccupy him with what’s going on inside. When Brady’s doing that, he seems to lose a little trust in stepping into throws and sensing his protection on the edges.

The Giants had great success with A-gap blitz concepts against the Dolphins last week. Mathias Kiwanuka is a potent defensive end who happens to play linebacker. He’s natural standing up over the center in nickel defense. Lately, end Dave Tollefson, himself a good athlete, has also been used as an A-gap blitzing joker. In these instances, the Giants don’t just rush the A-gaps, they also confuse offensive linemen and set up stunts and edge-rushes for Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora.

New England’s answer to New York’s A-gap attacks will be quick passes in the flats. Wes Welker is not a bad guy to turn to for that.

Chargers vs. Packers
Green Bay can take the lipstick off the pig that is San Diego’s defense. The No. 1 ranked defense from 2010 has been decent but not necessarily impressive under new coordinator Greg Manusky in 2011. A soft schedule has made it difficult to pass full judgment. The Chargers rank sixth in yards allowed, but they’ve faced the Vikings, Dolphins, Broncos, Jets and Chiefs (twice) – all inexplosive offenses.

The Packers have the most lethal offensive attack in football. It’s not just that Aaron Rodgers has been nearly flawless, or that his top five receiving targets would all be No. 1 or 2 targets on a typical team. It’s that the Packers have perhaps the best formation variation in the league. This, with their array of weapons, strongly tests a defense’s depth, intelligence and confidence.

Currently, the Chargers are vulnerable at cornerback. Antoine Cason appeared on the verge of stardom late last year, but the ’08 first-round pick has reverted to the baffling inconsistencies that marred his first two seasons as a pro. Cason normally plays the right outside. The Packers love to create one-on-one matchups for Greg Jennings by lining him up as the X-iso receiver on the left side (across from the right cornerback) in 1x3 receiver sets. It’s a matchup Rodgers goes to virtually every time.

With four receivers on the field, Cason will have to play. Marcus Gilchrest and Quentin Jammer are the outside starters; Dante Hughes is the slot nickel. The Chargers like to blitz Hughes and will likely align him across from the receiver furthest inside on the three-receiver side. Jammer plays outside on the defensive left. That leaves either Cason or Gilchrest, a second-round rookie, to face Jennings outside on the right.

This isn’t a fantasy column, but here’s a tip: if your opponent has Greg Jennings on his or her team, remove yourself from the trash-talking email thread this week.

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 27, 2011 11:39 am
 

Keep an Eye On: Week 8's finer points of analysis

Posted by Eye on Football Analyst Andy Benoit



Giants vs. Dolphins
One of the more confounding issues with the Dolphins this season has been the decline of their pass-rush. After recording 39 sacks in 2010 (tied for 10th best in the NFL) Miami entered last week’s game against Denver with just eight. They wound up recording seven sacks in the game, but that was in part because of Tim Tebow’s inability to make quick reads or get the ball out.

The Giants’ reshuffled offensive line has been hit or miss in pass protection thus far (more “hit” than “miss”). At Arizona in Week 4, their brilliant protection practically won the game. But the next week it waffled against Seattle’s underrated D-line (Chris Clemons rather enjoyed facing left tackle Will Beatty).

The Dolphins have one of the game’s best all-around edge-rushers in Cameron Wake, the reigning AFC sack leader. His leverage and tenacity give him strength that’s much better than his size indicates. Wake has been oddly quiet in non-two minute situations this season, though he abused Denver’s somewhat lumbering right tackle, Orlando Franklin, last week.

Giants right tackle Kareem McKenzie is more polished than Franklin but has slower feet. He’ll need help. On the other side, Miami may have an under-the-radar pass-rushing talent in Jared Odrick, who somewhat resembles a thicker Jason Taylor.

Ravens vs. Cardinals
The Ravens offense owes everyone a good performance after ruining one of our 17 precious Monday night games. They should be able to get on track against a Cardinals defense that has struggled to generate a consistent pass-rush despite aggressive blitzes from new coordinator Ray Horton.

The intrigue is on the other side of the ball. Roughly two months after the trade and $20-million-plus investment in Kevin Kolb, some Cardinal fans are actually wondering if the 27-year-old quarterback should be benched. That’s the kind of ridiculous thinking that those who don’t actually contribute any skin in the game can get away with. Ken Whisenhunt knows that he’d never get another coaching job if he were to bench Kolb for John Skelton.

Kolb hasn’t been great, but he’s hardly the problem. Arizona’s “non-Fitzgerald” receivers have not been able to get open. General manager Rod Graves may deserve some heat for letting Steve Breaston get away this past offseason, though Graves’ logic was understandable at the time. Third-round rookie Andre Roberts showed intriguing potential as a speedy slasher last season.

Roberts looked like a future starter, and he cost a fraction of what Breaston would have cost. So Graves banked on him. Roberts has responded by failing to reach 40 yards receiving in every game this season. The good-looking prospect prior to Roberts, Early Doucet, has been equally ineffective.

Teams can sometimes get away with having only one quality wide receiver, but not if their offensive tackles stink. And there’s no denying that Levi Brown and Brandon Keith – two heavy-footed lumberers with inconsistent technique – stink.

So far Kolb has been awful when throwing off-balance. It’s doubtful he’ll get to be on balance much against a staunch Ravens D.

Bills vs. Redskins
Don’t pick the Redskins this week. It’s a matter of principle, if nothing else. No team should have expectations placed on it after making a change at quarterback and losing its top wide receiver, running back, tight end, left tackle and left guard in a two-week span. This will look like a preseason version of the Redskins. How will they cope?

It helps that Mike Shanahan’s system runs more fluidly with John Beck than it does with Rex Grossman. Beck is smoother reading the field and much better at play-action rollouts and bootlegs than Grossman. Accuracy is a bit of a concern, however. As for the other injuries and replacement ...

RB Tim Hightower (knee – out for season) had found his niche in this zone-run scheme, but he’ll be missed most in the passing game. Ryan Torain is a decent upright power-runner with a spring in his step, but he can’t stick pass-rushers the way Hightower could.

WR Santana Moss (hand – out 5-7 weeks) was Washington’s only creator on offense. He could generate his own space and turn an underneath catch into a 60-yard scamper. Either Niles Paul or Anthony Armstrong will replace him. Both have flashed at times, but neither is completely trustworthy. And, unlike with Moss, defenses won’t have to even ponder the possibility of double coverage.

TE Chris Cooley (finger, knee – out for season) was trending down and losing his role to Fred Davis prior to get hurting. Davis can fill Cooley’s receiving shoes. But the Redskins are now down a good in-line blocker in the run game. With Cooley and Davis, Washington had the benefit of balancing its formation with a viable pass-catching tight end on each side. This often compelled defenses to stay in basic front seven looks. New backup tight end Logan Paulsen won’t command that kind of respect.

LT Trent Williams (high ankle sprain – out 0-4 weeks) has missed most of the last two games. Pretty easy to identify the impact of his absence: backup Sean Locklear is experienced but much slower than Williams all-around.

LG Kory Lichtensteiger (knee – out for season) was one of the unheralded heroes for this team down the stretch last year and prior to going down in Week 6. Center Will Montgomery moved one spot to the left to fill Lichtensteiger’s void. Montgomery is interchangeable that way, but his replacement in the middle, Erik Cook, a seventh-round pick in ’10, was a noticeable downgrade coming off the bench. He had issues snapping the ball and was overwhelmed by defensive tackle Mike Peterson on a few plays. The Redskins can only hope those were Cook’s jitters working themselves out.

So who will win? Check our NFL expert picks for all Week 8 games

Follow @Andy_Benoit on Twitter or contact him at Andy.Benoit-at-NFLTouchdown.com.
Posted on: October 26, 2011 10:27 pm
Edited on: October 28, 2011 8:43 pm
 

Pick-6 Podcast: Previewing Pats-Steelers

Posted by Will Brinson & Ryan Wilson

Eye on Football analyst Andy Benoit joins the podcast to preview a big Week 8 matchup: Patriots-Steelers. Tom Brady has had his way with Pittsburgh's defense in recent years, and is one of the few NFL quarterbacks who seem unfazed by Dick LeBeau, zone blitzes, or Troy Polamalu's hair. But is this the game the Steelers can finally get to Brady and beat the Pats? (Answer: you have to listen to find out.)

The discussion then turns to the Colts and whether they should fire head coach Jim Caldwell (and if Jim Tressel would be a good replacement). Other topics: what's going on with Titans running back Chris Johnson, why the Chargers are struggling, if the Chiefs are for real, and who has the edge in the Eagles-Cowboys game.

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


For more NFL news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnNFL on Twitter, subscribe to our NFL newsletter, and while you're at it, add our RSS Feed.
Posted on: October 26, 2011 3:17 pm
Edited on: October 27, 2011 9:43 pm
 

Film Room: Broncos vs. Lions preview

Posted by Eye on Football Analyst Andy Benoit



It’s impossible to avoid the Tim Tebow coverage at this point. Since you’ll be hearing about the Broncos-Lions game all week, you might as well make the best of it and be familiar with the two teams. Here is a five-point rundown of the matchup, starting with a quick ode to You Know Who.



1. Tebow
The argument is no longer whether Tebow can become a more conventional quarterback; it’s whether the Broncos can win without him becoming a conventional quarterback. The elongated throwing motion probably isn’t going away. The flawed footwork may improve, but no guarantees. The arm strength will likely always be what it is: middling.

At this point, the Broncos coaching staff is limiting Tebow’s reads with simplified gameplans. That’s common with young quarterbacks. But usually young quarterbacks have more passing tools to work with. Tebow has running tools, which are hard to successfully incorporate into an NFL gameplan.

Tebow worshipers love to tout his “It Factor”. Twice now we’ve seen that “It Factor” late in the fourth quarter when the trailing Broncos have been compelled to cut loose Tebow’s inner sandlot soul. And it’s worked. So why doesn’t John Fox have Tebow play this way for all four quarters? Because he fears that if he did, the Broncos would trail by 30 late in the fourth instead of the usual 15 or 16.

Let’s look at the rest of this matchup.

2. Broncos offense
As we highlighted in last week’s Finer Points analysis, the Broncos have severe limitations at wide receiver. None of their targets are vertical threats. Eric Decker gets off press coverage well but is restricted to underneath stuff. Eddie Royal is an uninspiring slasher. Demaryius Thomas is solid and has upside, but only in a possession sense. And undrafted Matt Willis is untested.

Because of this, the Broncos are a throwback offense that operates out of traditional two-backs, one-tight end sets and abides largely by the laws of run-run-pass. That’s not a winning formula, but if the run game is working, it can at least be a “not losing” formula.

The run game has worked the past two weeks. Though Willis McGahee rushed for 103 yards against the Packers in Week 6, 125 yards against the Chargers in Week 5 and 76 yards against the Dolphins this past Sunday, he's out for for at least the next month with a broken hand. That means, Knowshon Moreno -- last year's first-round pick who is a mechanic, finesse-based back who has been relegated to third down duties -- will take over. Like McGahee, at least Moreno has the benefit of operating behind an offensive line that is well sized and, for the most part, athletic.

3. Lions defense
The Lions run defense is not nearly as bad as its ranking (28) indicates. A few missed tackles have led to big gains on the ground. Missed tackles are the type of mistakes that can quickly be corrected. The Lions have one of the deepest, most athletic defensive lines in football.

The line’s ability to win early in the down allows speedy linebackers DeAndre Levy, Justin Durant and Stephen Tulloch to play untouched and downhill – something all three are doing extremely well. Safety Louis Delmas is also outstanding at locating and quickly filling the point of attack against the run. He’ll see plenty of time in the box given Denver’s nonexistent downfield passing game.

Denver needs to forget about running outside and instead attack Detroit right up the gut. That may seem problematic given the presence of Ndamukong Suh and Corey Williams, but in the last two weeks, the Niners and Falcons, two other power-run teams, have taken a clever approach to this.

Instead of trying to stop Ndamukong Suh’s initial penetration, the Falcons, taking a page out of the 49ers’ playbook, found a way to use it against him. Right guard Garrett Reynolds let Suh get his amazing jump off the ball.



Center Todd McClure swept around to shield Suh backside, while Michael Turner carried the ball right to the spot that Suh vacated. Reynolds stepped to his right to take care of the defensive end (an easy block given the angle of the hole it was creating) and right tackle Tyson Clabo was able to immediately work up to the second level and block the linebacker (also an easy block given that the linebacker had virtually no time to diagnose and react).



The 49ers used a similar tactic the previous week (see the video here), only with different players. They let Suh get penetration and blocked him backside with motioning tight end Delanie Walker. Center Jonathan Goodwin went cleanly to the second level to block the linebacker, while right guard Adam Snyder handled the left defensive tackle that Goodwin left behind.



This concept did three things for the Falcons and 49ers:

1. Eliminated Suh from the play without costing the offense an extra blocker in a double team, and without asking the right guard to win a one-on-one matchup that few, if any, right guards could possibly win.

2. Opened a natural hole in the A-gap, which is the easiest hole for a running back to hit quickly.

3. Allowed an offensive lineman to immediately reach a linebacker without being touched (a run-blocker’s dream).

Expect the Broncos to try a similar tactic this Sunday. It will be interesting to see what adjustment the Lions will have made to combat this (it’s doubtful they’d ask Suh to NOT penetrate off the snap).

4. Lions offense
This unit has had the chinks in its armor exposed the past two weeks. At this point, Matthew Stafford and the Lions are overly dependent on Calvin Johnson. That’s fine when Jahvid Best is in the lineup. But with Best out, the Lions don’t pose much of a run threat out of shotgun (overwhelmingly their favorite formation).

They also lose Best’s outside presence on bubble screens. This allows defenses to be more aggressive near the line of scrimmage against Titus Young, Nate Burleson and tight end Brandon Pettigrew, all of whom struggled last Sunday.

This puts more pressure on Johnson. He’s an otherworldly talent, but he’s never been inspiring against intense double coverage (he was nowhere near as impactful against the Niners two weeks ago as his 113 yards suggested).

Also, as we saw against the Falcons, with the passing game’s quick-strike element suppressed, this unathletic front five gets exposed.

5. Broncos defense
The Broncos have the resources to exploit Detroit’s pass-blocking. Von Miller is the AFC’s answer to Clay Matthews. Elvis Dumervil has had a quiet season but will still a handful for Jeff Backus. And last week the safeties and linebackers timed their blitzes extremely well.

The Broncos also have the resources to keep up with Detroit’s passing attack. Champ Bailey is still a top-tier cornerback, shadowing the opposing team’s No. 1 receiver week in and week out. Bailey will need rookie free safety Quinton Carter (who has replaced Rahim Moore) to be a little more reliable in help coverage than he’s been, but with a respectable pass-rush, the Broncos shouldn’t feel too nervous about this matchup.

Nickel linebackers D.J. Williams (insane athlete) and Wesley Woodyard are both stellar pass defenders who can contain Pettigrew. The deciding factor will be whether cornerbacks Andre Goodman and Jonathan Wilhite can physically stymie Burleson and Young. Teams have targeted Wilhite, who’s been in and out of the lineup.

So who will win? Check our NFL expert picks for all Week 8 games

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