Every Monday throughout the preseason, former NFL defensive back Matt Bowen will break down five key plays from the weekend with a focus on scheme, technique and assignment.
The first weekend of the NFL preseason doesn’t give us any concrete answers on final rosters or game plans as coaching staffs treat this matchup as an extension of practice. The playbook is dramatically reduced, the starters see limited action and rookies get their first taste of NFL speed during live-game situations.
However, depth charts will begin to adjust based off the grades from the film and players will get valuable teaching tape to make corrections before the second week of the preseason kicks off.
Let’s take a look back at this past weekend using the TV tape and go into detail on five plays that stand out from a coaching/teaching perspective.
Redskins vs. Titans
Chris Johnson’s 58-yard touchdown run
Scheme: Inside Zone
Personnel: Ace (2WR-2TE-1RB)
Formation: Unit Slot
I want to start with the end zone angle to give you a view of the running back’s vision on the zone scheme.
This run starts to the open (weak) side of the formation, giving Johnson the ability to choose a running lane. With both Redskins linebackers scraping hard to the play side, Johnson can look for a cutback lane and get vertical up the field. To the closed (strong) side of the formation, Redskins outside linebacker Brian Orakpo is responsible to play contain/cutback with rookie free safety Bacarri Rambo providing “secondary” run-support if this play breaks past the second level of the defense.
Orakpo has to close the edge and squeeze the outside cutback lane. However, because the linebacker takes an angle up the field, he softens the edge and opens up the wide cutback lane for Johnson. With the tight end working up to the strong safety (and sealing the second level), Johnson has a clear running lane to the edge of the defense and can get into the open field.
Tackling from the safety position is all about your angle to the football. You want to take an inside-out angle, focus on the inside shoulder of the ball-carrier (forces carrier to cut back into the tackle) and then shorten the distance before you break down to make the play. Here, Rambo doesn’t close the initial angle (creates space between defender and ball-carrier), takes a flat stem (want to see a downhill angle to the ball) and gives Johnson the ability to control the situation.
Don’t hesitate in the open field. If you want to make the tackle, attack the ball-carrier with a clean angle and dictate the play.
Get him on the ground and live to see another play. That has to be the mentality of the safety in this situation. However, because of Rambo’s poor angle to the ball and the inability to shorten the distance to Johnson, he has to guess in the open field. That forces the safety to over-pursue to the ball and allows Johnson to cut back. This is a teaching point for Rambo as he adjusts to NFL speed.
Bills vs. Colts
Scheme: Double Post (Seam)
Personnel: Posse (3WR-1TE-1RB)
Formation: Tight Bunch Gun Near
This is a good look at the rookie quarterback’s ability to finish the two-minute drill at the end of the first half with a clean throw to the middle of the field.
With the Bills in a tight bunch (bunch close to the core of the formation), tight end Dorin Dickerson will press his route vertically up the field and stem back to the hash versus the strong safety. Quarterback EJ Manuel will read the drop of the linebacker and work the double-post route or come back to the “wheel” (quick out and up) versus the underneath “curl-to-flat” defender. To the open (weak) side of the formation, the Bills get a “Dino” route (stem to the post, break back to the corner) to hold the free safety.
I like this view of the route, as it shows Manuel’s read versus the Colts’ strong safety in his "quarters" technique. The safety is giving up too much depth in this situation (you need to shorten your depth in the red zone) and allows room for Dickerson to stem his route back to the middle of the field. With that separation—and the underneath linebacker removed—Manuel has a clear throwing lane to target Dickerson on the post/seam.
You will hear me talk about “leverage” (position of the defensive back versus the receiver) often during the season because it is one of the major issues for safeties when matched up against the tight end. Because of the size, length and strength of today’s tight ends, it is tough for a safety to drive through the up field shoulder and find the ball on inside breaking routes (post, seam, dig).
This situation is no different. Even with a downhill angle, Dickerson can shield the safety, make the catch, absorb the hit and finish the play on the touchdown throw from Manuel.
Bears vs. Panthers
Jon Bostic’s 51-yard interception return
Scheme: Cover 1 “Robber”
Personnel: Nickel (4DL-2LB-5DB)
In a 3rd-and-short situation, the Bears are playing Cover 1 or “man-free” with two “hole” players: Bostic as the underneath hole or “robber” and free safety Chris Conte in the deep middle third. The Bears’ defenders are playing base Cover 1 technique: align with an outside shade and funnel receivers to your help in the middle of the field (Bostic and Conte). With the Panthers running a “hi-lo” concept (two-level route), Bostic can take his drop, read the quarterback and break on the ball.
Check out the eyes of Bostic in the middle of the field. The rookie is reading Newton and sliding his feet to impact the route. With strong safety Major Wright in an outside leverage position versus Panthers tight end Greg Olsen, the Bears linebacker can move with Newton and step directly into the throwing lane to take away the inside angle route. This is exactly how a robber coverage should play out when you expect a short, inside breaking concept from the offense.
There is no question Newton is at fault here for forcing this ball with the linebacker sitting inside, but let’s give Bostic the credit for adjusting to make the catch and taking it back for six points. That’s a highlight play from a rookie trying to win a starting job. Remember, good things happen when you play the technique of the defense and trust what you see.
Giants vs. Steelers
Victor Cruz’s 57-yard touchdown catch
Scheme: Seam Route
Personnel: Posse (3WR-1TE-1RB)
Formation: Doubles Gun Far
Whenever you play 2-man (two-deep, man-underneath), the middle of the field can be exposed if you occupy the deep half safety and target the inside seam. Force the safety to widen off his landmark (top of the numbers), or lean outside to the No. 1 receiver, and create space inside to split the top of the defense. With the Steelers playing 2-man on third down, the Giants ran two verticals to the open (weak) side of the formation that allowed quarterback Eli Manning to target Cruz against cornerback William Gay for a big play.
In 2-man, the underneath defenders are taught to align with inside leverage and play to the bottom hip. The goal is to take away inside breaking routes with your initial leverage and “cut” under any outside breaking concept. Beyond that, you can be aggressive with the deep half safety help over the top.
That said, the straight seam route can leave the defender in a “trail position” with his back to the throw. That’s what we see here with Gay trailing Cruz and strong safety Troy Polamalu late to overlap the throw because of the threat from No. 1 on the outside vertical. Free safety Ryan Clark will break on the throw, but this isn’t his play to make.
When the quarterback has time—and an outside vertical occupies the safety—you can beat up 2-man with the seam route. And when you match up versus the Giants, you can bet on Cruz making the majority of his plays from the slot in the short-to-intermediate passing game and on the deep inside seam.
Patriots vs. Eagles
DeSean Jackson’s 47-yard touchdown catch
Scheme: 9 Route
Personnel: Posse (3WR-1TE-1RB)
Formation: Doubles Gun Far
I want to pick this route up after the release because it gives us an opportunity to talk secondary technique in a man-to-man situation.
With Jackson aligning in a “plus-split” (over three yards outside of the numbers), Talib plays with an inside shade and works to stack on top of the Eagles wide receiver in the vertical stem. If Jackson stems inside to create position, Talib can use a “closed angle” technique (head turn or baseball turn) to get back “in-phase” (on the hip) versus the receiver.
Jackson does stem this route back inside, and that forces Talib to use the “closed angle” technique, find the receiver and drive to the hip to play the 9-route. That’s veteran technique from Talib, but he can’t allow separation down the field against the speed of Jackson if he wants to finish and prevent the deep ball from quarterback Michael Vick.
Talib doesn’t have elite, top-end speed, but he can maintain that outside position (and stay on the hip) of the receiver if he plays with eye discipline throughout the route. However, check out Talib’s eyes here. You can’t look back in at the quarterback (or the ball) when matched up versus speed. This automatically allows Jackson to separate when the ball is in the air and create some cushion to go get it.
If you give Jackson the ability to eliminate the stack off the release, stem back to the inside and create separation down the field, he is going to win the matchup.
Again, think technique here with Talib. Even though he lost position when Jackson ducked inside, he still had the opportunity to drive (or close) to the hip of the receiver to stay “in-phase” if he didn’t look back for the ball. That will get you beat almost every time.
Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is the NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.