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The Second Level: Looking Ahead to NFL Preseason Week 3

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The Second Level: Looking Ahead to NFL Preseason Week 3

Every Thursday, former NFL defensive back Matt Bowen will bring you "The Second Level," a breakdown of the league from multiple angles.

 

Six Things That Stand out Heading into Preseason Week 3

Game-Planning Against Chip Kelly and the Eagles

Chip Kelly’s offense through the first two weeks of the exhibition schedule has been the talk of the NFL, as the scheme is unique in its approach, design and execution. The idea is to play fast and put stress on the defense.

Last week, Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller gave us an inside look at what Kelly and the Eagles are doing offensively when he broke down the multiple reads at the quarterback position.

But as I’ve said before, NFL clubs don’t game-plan in early August.

That changes to a degree heading into the third exhibition game, as NFL coaching staffs are attempting to simulate a regular-season game week. Practices are scripted based on opponent film, scout teams work against the No. 1 units, and reduced game plans are handed out.

With the starters scheduled to see extended minutes (most teams will play the first team into the second half), this should be the best brand of NFL football you will watch this summer before the real thing begins next month.

I’m curious to see how the Jacksonville Jaguars' game plan fares against Kelly’s offense Saturday night. Even with a playbook that will still lean on core coverages and pressure packages, we can get a feel for how opposing defenses will counter the Eagles.

And if the Jags produce even a limited amount of success versus quarterback Michael Vick and Philadelphia's No. 1 offense, that tape is going to be in high demand heading into the regular season.

 

Tyrann Mathieu’s Ability as a Nickel Defender

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Tyrann Mathieu has been impressive as a slot defender in Arizona.

The rookie from LSU got the start at free safety in the Arizona Cardinals' second preseason game versus the Dallas Cowboys, but I’m more focused on his role as a nickel corner.

Mathieu displayed patience with his footwork and maintained his leverage throughout the route stem. He looked comfortable playing inside, and I didn’t see any panic in his game. Once the Cardinals get into their regular-season game plans, Mathieu can make an impact from that inside alignment in pressure situations.

 

The Seahawks Secondary vs. Aaron Rodgers

The Packers will be without Jordy Nelson and perhaps Randall Cobb, per NFL.com's Dan Hanzus, this Friday night, but I still want to check out the Seahawks secondary versus Aaron Rodgers.

This will be a good opportunity to get a quick lesson in press-man coverage from corners Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner. Studying their alignment, hand placement and mirror technique (mirroring the release of the receiver) will provide you with all you need to know.

In the middle of the field, check out free safety Earl Thomas. His range and ball skills make him one of the top safeties in the game, and he will certainly get some work against Rodgers. I don't talk about matchups often in the preseason, but this is one I want to watch. 

 

Defending Tavon Austin in the Slot

How did the Packers defend the rookie on a fourth-down situation last weekend? They used a “slice” call (or a bracket look) to create a two-on-one versus Tavon Austin. This allows the defense to use the safety as an inside defender to take away the quick option route back to the middle of the field. It’s smart.

It’s also something the Rams should expect to see more of when the regular season starts. Austin’s athletic skill set can create mismatches in the middle of the field, and defenses will have to take away inside breaking routes in crucial down-and-distance situations if they want to stop him.

 

Carson Palmer’s Impact in Arizona

The backside dig (square-in), deep curl and comeback are three basic intermediate routes we see in every NFL playbook. Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald can run those route schemes all day long when he has a quarterback who will deliver the ball on time and to the upfield shoulder.

And that is what I look at when breaking down Carson Palmer’s potential impact with the Cardinals.

The veteran isn’t a top-tier quarterback any longer, but he is still an upgrade to the Arizona offense because he can throw the intermediate route tree and test the top of the defense with his arm. That sells when you have the talent of Fitzgerald outside the numbers.

 

Roster Cuts Are Coming

Players have a pretty good idea of who is going to get cut after this weekend. Depth charts, reps in practice and the number of snaps over the first two weeks of the preseason already tell the story.

Because of that, I don’t think we will see many surprises on the first cut-down day. However, there are still spots up for grabs on the final 53-man rosters, and time is running out for guys on the bubble.

This weekend’s games will provide a big stage for players who haven't yet earned roster spots. These guys better make a play or two, or their spots could be in serious jeopardy.

 

Football 101 Lesson of the Week: The Zone Blitz

How does a zone blitz (or fire zone) play out at the NFL level? Let’s examine some blitz concepts on the chalkboard and take a look at some All-22 tape to break down the techniques of the pressure schemes.

 

Closed-Side (Strong-Side) Zone Blitz

Let’s start with a zone blitz to the closed (or strong) side of the formation out of base 4-3 defensive personnel.

When it's run from an “Under” front (with the nose shaded to the closed side of the formation), this is called “Smash” (S + M = "Sam" and "Mike"). Send the left defensive end on the “long scoop” technique (work to closed-side A-gap) with both the "Sam" (contain rush) and "Mike" (B-gap rush) adding to the blitz front, and this creates a five-man rush scheme.

In the back end, the defense is in a three-deep look with both cornerbacks playing a “fire-zone one-third technique” (carry No. 1 vertical) and the free safety playing the deep middle third of the field. Underneath, the left defensive end drops at the snap, and the strong safety plays a “bronco” (or seam-flat) technique (match to No. 2) with the "Will" linebacker dropping to the “middle hook” (match to No. 3).

 

Open-Side (Weak-Side) Zone Blitz

Here, we flip the pressure to the open (weak) side of the formation and align in an “Over” front (with the nose shaded to the open side of the formation).

Again, we want to create a five-man rush and play the same three-deep, three-under zone defense in the secondary.

Before the snap, the "Will" linebacker and the free safety will stem to a blitz alignment, with the right defensive end using the “long scoop” to the open-side A-gap. This allows the "Will" linebacker to rush with contain principles and the free safety to target the open-side B-gap on his blitz path.

With both the "Mike" linebacker and the right defensive end dropping to the seam-flat, the "Sam" linebacker slides into the “middle hook” to match No. 3.

 

All-22 Look at the Zone Blitz

Below is an example from the 2012 season of the Chicago Bears' open-side zone blitz versus the Detroit Lions.

With nickel personnel on the field, the Bears blitzed free safety Chris Conte and "Mike" linebacker Brian Urlacher to the open side. The nickel corner, "Will" linebacker and left defensive end dropped into underneath zones.

We can get a good look at the blitz from the end-zone angle. Here, the Bears send the defensive tackle on the “scoop” technique and keep right defensive end Julius Peppers on a contain rush. That creates a two-on-one versus the running back in protection and gives Conte a free run at quarterback Matthew Stafford.

This sideline angle during the play shows how a zone blitz can work almost like a “matchup zone.” The cornerbacks will carry the No. 1 receivers, while both “bronco” defenders (nickel corner, defensive end) match to No. 2. That leaves the "Will" linebacker (playing the “middle hook”) to match up to the running back (No. 3) releasing late from the backfield.

 

Base Schemes vs. Complex Schemes

The two zone pressures I drew on the chalkboard are installed early in the offseason. They aren’t exotic, and the pre-snap disguise can be limited because of the scheme. But they can be productive schemes if you play the technique of the defense.

As we begin to roll into the regular season, I will break down some of the more creative zone pressures that show up with coaches like Dick LeBeau, Rex Ryan and Gregg Williams.

 

Inside the Locker Room: The Issue with the NFL Fine System

I don’t agree with the $21,000 fine handed down by the league office to Bears rookie Jon Bostic after his hit last Thursday night versus the Chargers.

Was it violent? Sure. But I don’t see anything here other than a hard tackle with the linebacker wrapping his arms on contact.

Here’s a look at the hit:

Was it a clean hit? I think so. But regardless of my opinion, I do believe this points to a larger issue that will show up throughout this season at the point of contact.

Defensive players are aware of the fine system. It was a topic of discussion in the locker room back when I played, and it is even more prevalent now because of the league’s stance on safety, helmet-to-helmet contact and the prevention of head injuries.

The “strike zone” for defensive players is shrinking every season, and the Bostic hit is just another example. Where do you place your helmet? Can you control the angle on contact? What if a ball-carrier closes his eyes and ducks his head?

Some of these hits just can't be prevented, and in a game that is all about speed, there is going to be contact above the shoulders. The league has to understand that.

The logical solution from the player’s perspective? Drop your helmet and target the legs (or knees) of ball-carriers. That’s a legal and "clean” hit by NFL rules, but we know it can lead to horrific lower-body injuries.

Just look at D.J. Swearinger’s hit on Dustin Keller last week. I don’t believe the rookie safety was attempting to end Keller's season, but that’s exactly what happened, and more situations like this will arise.

Are blown-out knees and busted legs really much better than concussions?

We will find out if the NFL continues to fine defensive players for hits that are just part of the game.

 

 

Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is the NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. 

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