At its heart, the NFL is still a simple game of blocking and tackling, but scratch the surface and you reveal a complex world of Xs and Os that keeps coaches up at night trying to gain that elusive winning edge. That edge can be manufactured by coaches and their game plan, with better schemes, play-calling and execution than the opposition, but nothing can break a game open faster than a player the opposition can't match up against.
As the NFL becomes ever more specialized, with players suited to narrowly defined roles on defense—pass-rush specialists, two-down run stuffers, nickel corners etc.—a player on offense that can transcend these specialties causes a massive problem.
These players have become the Holy Grail of personnel and scouting departments. Find one, and your offense takes on another dimension, with things opening up that wouldn’t be there otherwise. If you can force defenses to adjust to try and contain a player they can’t deal with in their regular play, you gain that elusive cutting edge.
I'm going to look at six such matchup nightmares.
Jimmy Graham represents a new breed of super athlete at the tight end position. He follows in the footsteps of Antonio Gates as a basketball star turned gridiron weapon, and in just his second season in the NFL, he posted 1,310 receiving yards, the second-best single-season mark ever by a tight end. That total is topped only by Rob Gronkowski, also last year, as the Patriots fed him the ball late in their final game to ensure he finished ahead of Graham and secured the all-time record.
At 6'6" and 260 lbs., Graham is too big and strong for most defensive backs to be able to cope with. He can win jump balls against players that have a six-inch height disadvantage and has a fantastic ability to shield players away from the ball using his body. He has the speed to get deep into the secondary, and the Saints are happy lining him up in the slot or out wide, forcing teams to try and cover him with defensive backs.
Linebackers, the players that might stand a chance of coping with Graham's size and strength, are rarely close to athletic and fast enough to live with him. Even the quickest linebackers are still dealing with a player with far superior ball skills and the kind of catch radius that makes him almost impossible to cover.
Some players in this list are matchup problems because they can play multiple positions and force defenses to choose how they defend them. Graham is a matchup problem because he is simply too good an athlete for teams to cope with. The only way to defend a guy that big and that fast is to have one of your own, and most teams don't have that luxury.
One of the reasons the Saints have such an unstoppable offense is because they can field more than one of these game-changing matchup problems at the same time. If a defense keys in on stopping Jimmy Graham, the Saints can use that to channel the ball to Darren Sproles. If a team somehow works out how to shut them both down, they can air it out to Marques Colston or pound it up the middle with the rest of their running backs.
Darren Sproles is a matchup problem not because of his size, speed and elusiveness, but because of his hands and the space that allows him to get into. He may only have had 87 carries last season, but he almost matched that with 86 receptions. The Saints could line Sproles up in the backfield in I-formation and run him up the middle, or they could line him up split wide of the formation and treat him like a wide receiver. That puts a tremendous amount of stress on a defense that has to account for how to defend him in the huddle before they have seen how he will line up.
When you factor in his work as a kick and punt returner last season, Sproles averaged 10.7 yards every time he touched the football, which is the kind of production any team would kill for. Sproles straddles positions in that he can be a factor in both the run and pass game, and that forces teams to choose how they are going to match up with him. Whereas Jimmy Graham is simply a better athlete than the guys trying to cover him, Sproles puts defenses under pressure because he can do more than one thing in that offense.
Like his teammate, Sproles is too quick and fast for most linebackers, but can run inside if a defense chooses to try and match up with him by going to sub-packages, bringing in extra defensive backs.
Though the Vikings may have stumbled their way to a three-win record, they have some talent on the roster and one of the game's toughest matchup nightmares. Percy Harvin was an x-factor as a player in Florida, and the Vikings have been slow in catching up to that since they drafted him, but last season, they finally started to get a little creative with how they deployed the former Florida Gator.
Harvin has a combination of the traits of both Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles. He is one of the most explosive athletes in the league, with a 40 time in the 4.4 region but a 10-yard split at the combine of 1.47. Ten-yard splits aren't exactly as well-known as 40 times, but anything under 1.5 seconds is firmly into blistering territory. This allows the Vikings to send him deep from the wide out position, but also to fire him bubble screen passes and let him burst up field for yardage. It also means that they can line him up in the backfield and run laterally across the field, or even send him up the middle and rely on that burst to clear the hole in the line where slower runners might not make it.
Harvin is tough to match up against because he is both a better athlete than most players, and he can line up in multiple positions on offense, giving a defense a real headache when deciding how to try and deal with him. The Vikings may have been more creative in 2011 with how they used Harvin, but a combination of injuries and coaching decisions ensured that he still saw less of the field than he needs to.
Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier spent most of his week at the Senior Bowl being told by opposing coaches how much they feared Harvin for good reason.
There isn't a more interesting matchup nightmare than Wes Welker, not because of his play, but because he was once seen as totally nonviable as a receiver due to some of the traits that now make him so tough to stop. At just 5'9", 185 lbs., Welker is a small receiver, and without elite speed to stretch a defense, he wasn't seen as somebody that could really help an offense. He went undrafted in 2004 before catching on with the Chargers initially, and later, the Miami Dolphins.
The Dolphins used him primarily on special teams, but they started to use him as their third receiver, in the slot. He seemed to have his biggest games against the Patriots, and they ended up trading for him in 2007. From that point on, Welker has been an unstoppable force, registering 554 catches in his five seasons in New England, more than any other player in football. Welker has been arguably the most important offensive weapon for the Patriots (other than Tom Brady), and is the player that moves the chains for them and keeps the drive alive.
The reason he is so difficult to stop is his quickness and ability to run double moves in his underneath routes. He has the quickness to run a multitude of double moves on short underneath patterns that can shake defenders and open up space for Tom Brady to fit the ball in. He is too quick for linebackers to cover him, too polished in his routes for defensive backs and he is too good at reading the soft spot in zones for teams to just try and defend him with zone coverage.
If there is a way to stop Wes Welker conventionally, I haven't yet seen it, meaning if a team determines they are going to take him away, they have to go firmly off the game plan, opening things up for other players in that offense to have success.
Welker may not be 6'2", 200 lbs. and run a 4.3 40, but he seems to have managed pretty well in spite of that.
It's no coincidence that two of the league's most unstoppable offenses feature more than one matchup nightmare each. The Saints are joined by the New England Patriots in each fielding more than one. Aaron Hernandez joins Wes Welker as a real problem for opposing defenses to match up against, but for slightly different reasons.
Welker is able to get open consistently in his role as a slot receiver, but Hernandez is another player that is able to transcend multiple positions and force teams into a decision pre-snap in how they are going to treat him. He is the closest thing in today's NFL to just fielding an athlete and working out how to make best use of him later.
While most all-around tight ends are able to create problems because they can be played both as a receiver and as an in-line blocker in the run game, Hernandez is a bit different. Initially, that is exactly what the Patriots tried to do with him, but his blocking was sufficiently poor in-line that teams just gave up treating him as a tight end and started sending in the nickel package whenever he was on the field, covering him with a defensive back at all times.
The Patriots then decided that while they couldn't make teams pay for that by running the ball and using him to block, they could simply line Hernandez up in the backfield and hand him the football, catching defenses out in nickel formations against a strong rushing attack.
Hernandez has the ball skills and the athleticism to be an excellent receiving weapon, but also to run the ball and make players miss when he carries the rock. The Patriots are able to use his unique blend of skills to force opposing defenses into a bad situation however they try and match up with him.
Calvin Johnson is the final matchup nightmare I'm going to look at and also the most obvious problem for a defense. There is nothing strategic or subtle about the issues Johnson poses to defenders; he is simply too big, too fast and too strong to defend, regardless of the defender.
At 6'5", 236 lbs. and with a 40 time under 4.4 seconds, Johnson has legitimate speed and the kind of size usually associated with tight ends, not speed wide outs. Most cornerbacks are six feet tall at best, and even teams like the Seahawks that favor unusually tall corners are giving up an inch or two in height and a significant amount of weight. As if that disadvantage wasn't enough, the Lions top receiving weapon has great hands and the vertical leap to go up and win any jump ball.
When he was in college, the Georgia Tech game plan was very much "when in doubt, heave it up for Calvin," and he proved them right most of the time. Last season was his first year in the NFL where Matthew Stafford started to do some of that, and he responded with career highs in receptions (96), yards (1,681) and touchdowns (16), and that isn't counting the 12-reception, 211-yard, two-touchdown game he had in the playoffs.
There isn't a player in the NFL that can match up with Calvin Johnson physically, and so the best a defense can hope to do is to be in the area and make the catch a contested one, slowing him down even if they can't hope to stop him.