At the halfway point of the 2013 NFL preseason, starting units are beginning to see more minutes and depth charts are taking shape as summer winds down.
Looking back on the exhibition weekend, here are my notes, plus a breakdown of some X’s and O’s to give you a better understanding of the game.
Tom Brady and Danny Amendola Light Up the Buccaneers
The Patriots quarterback was efficient in his command of the offense, dictated the pace of the game at the line of scrimmage and consistently produced in the short-to-intermediate route tree coming off an injury in practice last week.
However, what really stood out on the field was the connection Brady had with Amendola.
One could gather this conclusion by simply checking out the routes from the slot (option, whip option, bubble screen) and the quick, three-step out cuts when Amendola was aligned as a No. 1 receiver. And don’t forget about the deep seam route the wide receiver caught for a touchdown versus the Buccaneers' Cover 2 defense.
Sound familiar? It should, because those are some of the same concepts we saw in the past from Wes Welker in the Patriots playbook.
D.J. Swearinger’s Hit on Dustin Keller
The season-ending knee injury to Keller is a blow to the Dolphins because of the matchups the tight end provided for quarterback Ryan Tannehill. But let’s slow down on calling it a “dirty hit” from Swearinger, because I just don’t see it, nor do I believe the rookie safety was trying to injure Keller in this situation.
Defensive backs in today’s game know what happens when you lead with the helmet or attack the shoulder/head gear of a receiver. That’s 15 yards and a FedEx envelope waiting in your locker the next week (with a notice from the league office that you’ve been fined).
To be honest, as a former NFL defensive back, I might have done the same thing on this play to avoid a penalty/fine and to get the receiver on the ground. Remember, this league can be brutal sometimes, and stuff happens.
Eddie Lacy’s Downhill Running Style
I’m not going to sit here and crown the rookie running back from Alabama after two weeks in the preseason, but I can tell you this: His downhill style will be noticed when opponents turn on the tape.
That’s a plus for a Green Bay team that needs to establish some sense of a ground game this year in order to force opposing defenses to get out of the two-deep looks that limit the vertical passing game for quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Those early runs that Lacy put on tape versus the Rams will make some defensive backs a little nervous to fill the hole this season against the Packers.
The Speed of the Cowboys Defense
I do believe the Cowboys have the personnel to produce in the Tampa 2 scheme under new coordinator Monte Kiffin, but their ability to run to the ball goes beyond X’s and O’s.
I know that sounds like high school stuff. However, watching this unit play, their overall speed is the difference compared to the 2012 season. The Cowboys defense gets multiple hats to the ball-carrier, they finish to the whistle, and the defensive line plays extremely hard.
Is it anything more than just effort and attitude? It’s really not, but this doesn’t happen everywhere at the pro level. And we should give a lot of the credit to defensive line coach Rod Marinelli, as he can really get the most out of his players.
An Opportunity for Kevin Kolb in Buffalo
EJ Manuel has looked the part of a No. 1 quarterback through two weeks in the preseason, as I’ve been impressed with the rookie from Florida State. But when you miss time in this league during a competition (as Manuel will with a knee injury), the door is going to be open for someone else to come after your job.
I don’t have a lot of confidence in Kolb, but with Manuel on the shelf, he is going to see extended reps in practice and over the final two weeks of the exhibition schedule. If Kolb produces—and can manage this offense—the opportunity is there for the veteran to take over the starting job in Buffalo.
Three Key Plays
Torrey Smith’s 77-Yard Touchdown Reception
Falcons vs. Ravens
Scheme: 3x1 Slant
Personnel: Posse (3WR-1TE-1RB)
Formation: Doubles Slot
A quick pre-snap key: 3x1 formation (regardless of personnel) is an automatic alert to the open side (or weak side) slant. That’s what the Ravens showed here off play action with counter-protection (pull guard for false run key) versus the Falcons nickel pressure.
With the second-level defenders (linebackers) stepping to the line of scrimmage, quarterback Joe Flacco was able to look backside to target Smith versus cornerback Asante Samuel on the three-step slant route.
Check out the throwing window Flacco had to the open side of the formation because of the quick play action.
With Samuel playing from an off-man position (outside leverage), Smith had a large cushion to work against. That allowed the receiver to stem the slant back to the middle of the field.
The angle to the football is the most important aspect of secondary play in the NFL, and a poor angle can get you in trouble. The job of free safety William Moore in this situation was to get Smith on the ground—that’s it.
However, because Moore took a straight, downhill angle (when he should have taken an angle that attacks the inside shoulder of the receiver), it resulted in a missed tackle.
Straight speed is what we saw from Smith once he got past the free safety, and you know Samuel wasn’t going to run him down. This was a major breakdown by the Falcons in a pressure situation that allowed the Ravens to throw a three-step slant route that went for 70-plus yards.
Mark Sanchez’s End-Zone Interception
Jaguars vs. Jets
Scheme: Levels Smash
Personnel: Ace (2WR-2TE-1RB)
Sanchez did put together a solid drive early in the ballgame versus the Jaguars that resulted in a touchdown, but this play showed us (once again) the lack of consistency that still exists with the Jets quarterback.
In a third-down situation, the Jets brought their two tight end personnel on the field, aligned in an empty set (no backs in the backfield) and ran the levels-smash concept to the closed side (or strong side) of the formation.
With the Jaguars playing Cover 2, Sanchez was looking to work the technique of the underneath defenders.
From a defensive perspective, this is what you want to see from the nickel corner. Marcus Trufant was playing the “seam-hook” technique (drop between numbers and hash) with safety help over the top.
The veteran defender had to wall off the smash route and prevent Jets tight end Kellen Winslow from crossing his face. With the Mike ‘backer squatting on the No. 3 receiver, Sanchez had the option to target Winslow or look outside to the No. 1 receiver versus the cornerback.
Because Trufant was in the proper position (and playing the technique of the defense), he was able to impact the break and stem of Winslow’s route. That allowed Trufant to finish this play and force a turnover in the end zone.
This is a throw Sanchez shouldn't have made given the game situation, as you should never force the ball and take points off the board.
Russell Wilson’s Red-Zone Touchdown Pass
Broncos vs. Seahawks
Personnel: Tank (1WR-2TE-2RB)
Formation: I Big Wing
With Tank personnel on the field, the Seahawks used “divide” motion (motion away from the strength of the formation) and ran the boot off closed-side play action.
Tight end Sean McGrath took an outside release and ran the crossing route with the open-side tight end blocking down on the force/contain before releasing to the flat. That left wide receiver Golden Tate (No. 1 to the open side) on the comeback route.
The Seahawks quarterback worked through the play fake and extended the pocket on the boot action.
Wilson had to give ground because of inside penetration and get his eyes up the field to find a target. With the linebackers attacking the play fake—and the Broncos strong safety in an outside leverage position versus the crossing route—Wilson was able to look up to McGrath working back across the field.
I wanted to show you this shot of Wilson because of the quarterback’s shoulders. Even on the run, Wilson squared his shoulders to the target on the throw.
That’s key when you are outside of the pocket and have to make a throw with velocity that also places the ball on the upfield shoulder of the receiver.
Because the strong safety is working with the protection of the end line, he was able to take a chance here and undercut the receiver at the point of attack. But this throw had some heat on it from Wilson, and McGrath finished the play for six points.
Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is the NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.