In the NFL, teams must alter their game plans to account for the opponent’s best players. Some players cause more headaches than others, so the following looks at those who most influence the game plan.
On offense, a passer, a rusher and a receiver were selected. No blockers were highlighted, as you need strong unit play more than individual play along the offensive line.
For the defense, we went with the toughest front-seven player, with getting to the quarterback, coming at a premium, and the secondary stud known best for going off the script.
If you think this is a recap of “the best player at these positions,” then you may be partially right. However, aren’t the unique abilities only a few players possess a major reason for what makes them so elite?
The uniqueness of these five players demands a game plan that deviates from the norm.
While some quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers and Robert Griffin III possess the extra dimension of mobility, the game is still dominated by the pocket passer.
Even after four neck surgeries, defenses continue to have their hands full the most when they prepare to play a Peyton Manning offense.
In Super Bowl XLIV, the New Orleans Saints infamously devised a different defensive game plan for each quarter against Manning’s Colts.
However, for most games, teams do not have that much time to prepare for this offense, which is always among the best in football.
No matter which offensive line combination is in front of him, you cannot sack Manning, as evident by his 3.13 sack percentage, per Pro-Football-Reference.com, which is the second-best in NFL history. He just always seems to find a way to get rid of the ball within three seconds.
This comes from years of mastering an offense that is not the league’s most complex, as analyzed by Smart Football, but none run more efficiently because of the work put in by Manning and his teammates.
The pre-snap ritual Manning goes through has become legendary, as defenses try to figure out what is a legitimate audible and what is just for show. When a defense tries to do the same to Manning, he will often just go to the quick snap.
The no-huddle offense has always allowed Manning to call plays at the line, giving defenders few opportunities to catch their breath or substitute. Since so much of Manning’s offense uses the “11” formation as the base offense, his need for substitutions is not that high.
With the thin air in Denver, Manning can use the no-huddle offense to an even greater home-field advantage than what he had in Indianapolis.
Not only does Manning challenge defenses before the snap more than any other quarterback, but after the snap he’s pretty good, too.
He will spread the ball and find the open receiver. He once completed a record 143 receptions to Marvin Harrison in 2002. Two years later, he became the first quarterback ever to have three receivers with over 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns each.
With Wes Welker now in Denver, Manning will continue to spread the ball around to his deep receiving corps, attacking the slot, seams, underneath routes and still stretching the field vertically with one of the best play-action fakes in NFL history. His fakes continue to work even in the absence of a running game.
A lot was said about Manning’s arm strength last year, but he returned to form during the season on deep balls. With another year to heal from his significant neck surgeries, his arm strength should be even closer to what it once was.
Manning may be down to the final few seasons of his NFL career, but he still challenges defensive coordinators and perplexes star defenders with the same offensive system he has dominated in for years.
If you want to dominate on the ground in the NFL, you have to sustain that mindset throughout your entire offense.
After his torn ACL in 2011, Peterson returned last year and did the unthinkable: he had a career-best season with 2,097 rushing yards and averaged 6.03 yards per carry.
What was most remarkable about Peterson’s season was his ability to break long runs. He had seven runs of 50-plus yards in 2012. The Houston Texans have had seven such runs in their team’s 176-game history.
Other running backs like Jamaal Charles and Chris Johnson may be faster, but neither can break tackles in the backfield or run as physically as Peterson. Once he breaks contain, he can go the distance.
Pro Football Focus ranked Peterson second in their Elusive Rating for 2012. This looks at a running back’s success beyond help from his blockers. No one caused more missed tackles than Peterson’s 64 on running plays.
When your running back is arguably the toughest in the league to tackle, you have a major advantage at that position. The Vikings know full well to ride that advantage instead of putting the offense in Christian Ponder’s hands.
Some feel the NFL’s new “Crown Rule” will limit Peterson’s effectiveness because of how physical he runs.
This offseason, I watched every rushing attempt he had in 2011 and 2012 and found, at most, 11 plays that could count as penalties under the new rule. That is only 1.98 percent of Peterson’s rushes in that time.
The key will be in how officials interpret the rule, but it does not seem like it will prevent Peterson from continuing to dominate in spite of what his passing game produces.
The versatility of a tight end has never been more important than in today’s NFL. We see teams line up tight ends in the slot and use them as primary receivers more than ever.
That is why the toughest receiver to prepare for right now is New England’s Rob Gronkowski.
Simply put, you really can’t cover this guy adequately. At 6’6”, his catch radius is huge for quarterback Tom Brady to find against defenders not big enough to cover such a large area. Brady has always liked throwing to the tight end to begin with, but giving him Gronkowski in the 2010 draft was almost not fair.
Gronkowski has been the best red-zone target lately with 30 of his 39 touchdowns coming in that area. That includes one rush, which was really just a little lateral pass for a two-yard score against the Colts in 2011.
The fact that Gronkowski has 39 touchdowns in his first 43 games is frightening enough for any defense.
Throw in teammate Aaron Hernandez, a glorified “slot tight end,” and a slot receiver like Wes Welker or Danny Amendola, and you can’t really afford to put your best coverage defender on Gronkowski without opening up holes elsewhere on the field.
Gronkowski is also a willing blocker, which is not always easy to find with a premium pass-catching tight end. He can play on the line (though maybe no more special teams duties) and contribute to what is annually an efficient rushing attack.
The best defense against Gronkowski has been his health, which has failed him in college and multiple times at the end of the last two seasons. New England’s just not the same offense without him, and it suffered tough defeats in the playoffs without him at full strength.
Now with more surgeries this offseason, you just hope he can stay on the field this year. He is only 24, which is way too young to be hearing the phrase “back surgery” already.
Gronkowski’s potential in this offense is to be the best tight end in NFL history, but if he cannot stay healthy, then he will earn that label with the “if not for injuries” asterisk attached to it.
Though he mostly earns this distinction for last season, Houston’s J.J. Watt is an amazing player to watch and the toughest front-seven player to game-plan for today.
He dominated as a 3-4 defensive end in a way that we have not seen in recent time, if ever. He was named the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year, though, perhaps, his season earned a greater honor.
Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips coached Hall of Famer Bruce Smith in a similar role in Buffalo, and even he thinks Watt had the best season ever by a defensive lineman, according to Pro Football Talk.
Yes, his 20.5 sacks made him the third-youngest player to lead the league in that category, but just boasting about his incredible sack total would not be doing his season justice.
Watt also defended 16 passes, which helps earn him the “J.J. Swat” nickname. If he’s not getting in the backfield for a tackle, he has the athletic ability and timing to knock down the pass.
Watt’s breakout play really came in the 2011 playoffs when he returned an interception for a touchdown off Andy Dalton before halftime.
Advanced stats also loved Watt’s 2012 season. Football Outsiders credited Watt with 56 defeats—the highest total since 1996. Pro Football Focus graded him out at 101.6, which doubled up the second-best 3-4 defensive end, Muhammad Wilkerson (49.1).
Houston’s defense was in shambles before Watt was drafted in the first round in 2011, but with Phillips at defensive coordinator and some other changes, Watt has led the way in the reimaging of the team.
Against divisional-rival Indianapolis in Week 15, Watt had a monster game that showed his full range of talent. He had 3.0 sacks, six tackles for losses and forced a fumble at the one-yard line.
At 24 years old, the potential for Watt is extremely high. He has the right mindset and work ethic to remain a dominant force and not a one-year wonder.
If Watt sustains his 2012 level of play for the next few years, we will be looking at an all-time great who can go right up there with Reggie White and Deacon Jones as the best defensive linemen ever.
You may have expected a shutdown cornerback like Darrelle Revis, but teams can plan against such players by conceding the matchup and hardly (or never) throwing to that top receiver. There are enough contending teams with deep receiving corps that can get away with that strategy.
The pick is Troy Polamalu because of how often he is able to freelance on the field. Defenses are reactionary to begin with, but he goes off script more than most in Dick LeBeau’s scheme. He also makes that defense work.
Though he is 32 and has missed 22 games with injuries since 2009, in the rare moments he is healthy, Polamalu is still a factor.
Since 2009, Pittsburgh is 30-12 (.714) in the regular season when Polamalu plays, holding 29 opponents to fewer than 20 points. Without him, the Steelers are a mediocre 11-11 (.500) and struggle to generate takeaways.
Sometimes, Polamalu will guess wrong on a play, but that freedom to guess is part of what makes him such a challenge to play against.
Quarterbacks know to locate the long, flowing hair before each snap, because he can rush the quarterback, stop a run in the backfield, or cover ground quickly to make an interception.
Which other safety could time this famous play so well with the leap over the line against the Titans in 2010?
Polamalu’s highlight reel speaks for itself. Like Rob Gronkowski, he just needs to stay healthy more often for his team.
Without such players on the field, the game plan becomes much easier to develop.
Scott Kacsmar writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, NBC Sports, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive, and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.