Every Monday, former NFL defensive back Matt Bowen breaks down the top performances from Sunday and goes inside the X’s and O’s of the game. Here are his 10 takeaways from Week 1.
Anquan Boldin Lights Up the Packers Secondary
Boldin isn’t going to create separation because of his speed. That’s never been his game. Instead, the wide receiver is going to finish at the point of attack and make plays consistently in the middle of the field.
That’s what we saw on Sunday from Boldin (13 receptions, 208 yards, one touchdown) versus the Packers. He ran the seam route, the shallow crosser, the curl, etc. Plus, I always go back to his ability to come down with the ball in traffic.
The Packers leaned on zone-based coverages in their game plan to limit the read-option. That also allowed second-level defenders to drop to a landmark with eyes on the quarterback in passing situations. However, Colin Kaepernick (412 yards passing) and Boldin were able to expose those coverage looks by working the ball inside the numbers in the 49ers' opening-day win.
Saints' Fourth-Down Stop Versus the Falcons
I loved the call from defensive coordinator Rob Ryan on the fourth-down stop to close the win in the end zone for the Saints. Let’s take a look.
This is only a three-man rush scheme from the Saints, but focus on the secondary. New Orleans is essentially playing “bracket coverage” (two-on-one) versus Matt Ryan’s prime targets: Julio Jones, Tony Gonzalez and Roddy White. It's playing physical on the release, getting a jam at the point and taking away inside breaking route schemes.
The Falcons were trying to run an inside hi-lo combination (two-level read) with Jones and Gonzalez. However, because the Saints forced some pressure with their three-man rush, rookie Kenny Vaccaro was able to get a piece of this throw and tip the ball to veteran safety Roman Harper for an interception. I expected zero pressure (blitz with no safety help) in this situation, but Ryan made the right call to limit options in the middle of the field.
Cowboys Defense Produces Five Turnovers
This is a different Dallas defense compared to what we watched in 2012. It plays fast and looks to take the ball away. That’s coaching and establishing a defensive culture that leads to turnovers.
The Cowboys will have to make some corrections off the film from the win over the Giants—no question about that after seeing Victor Cruz produce some big numbers.
But I’m more focused on the Cowboys’ ability to create turnovers. Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, Rod Marinelli and this defensive staff in Dallas have done a good job changing the way this unit plays football. The five turnovers created last night are a perfect example of a defense that finishes plays and looks to get the ball out.
Tom Brady, Danny Amendola and the Patriots' Game-Winning Drive
Let's go back to the two third-down conversions in the Patriots' final drive to set up the winning field goal with Tom Brady and Danny Amendola.
What did the Patriots run? Short, inside breaking concepts that allowed Brady to look up his wide receiver in the middle of the field—the shallow drive route (underneath crosser) plus the angle route (or “follow” route) where Amendola worked to the numbers and broke back inside.
Remember, it doesn’t have to be complicated or exotic when the Patriots wide receiver can create leverage in the middle of the field. That sells for Brady and this New England offense when Amendola can produce in crucial game situations just like we saw in the win over the Bills.
Bears Create a Matchup with Brandon Marshall
Jay Cutler and the Bears used a good mix of play-calling in the second half to create matchups during Marc Trestman’s debut win over the Bengals. Here is an example using Cutler’s game-winning touchdown pass to Brandon Marshall.
The Bears are running a smash-seven (corner) combination with Marshall aligned in the slot to the open (weak) side of the formation. With the Bengals sending five-man pressure (Will ‘backer on the edge rush), safety Reggie Nelson will roll down on Marshall in coverage. That matchup favors the Bears because of Marshall’s size and ability to create leverage on an outside-breaking route.
Because Marshall wins at the top of the route stem, he can pin Nelson inside and work to the corner. That allows Cutler to put this throw on the upfield shoulder—away from the defender’s leverage—for the score. Pressure always looks good on the chalkboard. But if you don’t get home, NFL quarterbacks will find the matchup they want.
Geno Smith and the Jets Get the Win
The Jets caught a break when Tampa linebacker Lavonte David hit Smith out of bounds to set up the winning field goal. As a defensive player, you have to show some discipline and know the game situation—can’t give up a free 15 yards there.
However, let’s talk about Smith. Did he look like a rookie on specific plays? Of course he did, and that should have been expected in his first career start. There were some panic throws early in that game.
But Smith (24-of-38, 256 yards, one touchdown, one interception) also displayed the ability to move the ball and put his team in positive situations. The rookie can build on that when he watches the tape. As I said last week, if you want a young quarterback to develop, give him game reps in the regular season. That’s how he will improve.
Reggie Bush’s Impact in Detroit
During the preseason, I broke down Bush’s role in the Lions offense when the running back was used as a target in the passing game. In the win over the Vikings, Detroit used the middle screen (or “shoot screen”) to get the ball to its running back in the open field.
The Lions are set up before the snap because of the defensive call. With the Vikings in Cover 2—and the nickel walked out over Calvin Johnson in the slot—this is a six-man box. Detroit can release the tight end to the Mike ‘backer and work Bush back into the middle of the field on the screen.
This is trouble for the Vikings. Look at the lane being created for Bush once he makes the catch. The Lions running back can square his pads, get vertical and work into the second level of the defense with blockers in front of him.
This is how you draw it up on the chalkboard: perfect execution from the Lions on the middle screen that allows Bush to split the two-deep half safeties and showcase his open-field speed for a touchdown.
Steelers' Protection Issues
With Gregg Williams back in the NFL, opposing offenses should expect pressure on game days from the Titans. That’s the focus when Williams puts the game plan together, and he will look to expose protection schemes with a variety of different fronts/blitz packages.
On Sunday, the Titans racked up five sacks versus Ben Roethlisberger and shut down this Pittsburgh offense. Plus, the Steelers lost starting center Maurkice Pouncey for the season with a knee injury.
Should there be concern already in Pittsburgh? I’m not going to write off a team after one week in the NFL. No chance. But this offense needs to make some corrections and fix its protection issues moving forward—because this tape is now out there for everyone to see.
Andy Reid’s West Coast Concepts
Andy Reid’s core schemes haven’t changed for a decade. These are the same West Coast concepts that lean on the three-step passing game and inside-breaking routes. Let’s check out an example using Alex Smith’s touchdown pass to Junior Hemingway.
There's some window dressing by Reid based on formation alignment (Slot Open), but the concepts are the same. To the closed side of the formation, the Chiefs are running the tare combination (quick out plus-flat) with the hi-lo to the open side.
Smith wanted to work the tare combination as his primary read, but he comes backside to look up Hemingway on the dig (square-in) once the receiver gains separation. That’s a route you will see all season from the Chiefs out of multiple personnel groupings and alignments.
Terrelle Pryor’s Production
I don’t want to take anything away from Andrew Luck and the Colts in their win on Sunday. The second-year QB once again displayed accuracy and ball placement in the passing game and also showcased his ability outside the pocket. He is a special talent.
However, the Raiders might have an answer at quarterback if Pryor can continue to develop with more playing time.
The Raiders opened up their playbook, showing the read-option, the boot game, movement passes, etc., and they put together a game plan that catered to Pryor’s skill set. Plus, the quarterback showed the ability to extend plays—and that allows receivers time to convert routes.
Even in a loss, that was an impressive day for Pryor in only his second pro start. I’m looking forward to watching him play next week.
Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is the NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.