Every Thursday, former NFL defensive back Matt Bowen brings you “The Second Level,” a breakdown of the league from multiple angles.
Five things I learned from Week 1 film
After watching the tape, here are five things that stand out from my perspective.
1. A.J. Green continues to impress
Green got on top of the Bears' Cover 2 shell for a quick score after a bust in the secondary, but I’m more focused on his ability to beat and expose man coverage after watching the film.
The Bengals receiver displayed his route-running skills and showcased elite separation speed down the field in Chicago. And when the ball is in the air, he can go get it. He is a unique talent outside of the numbers.
2. Jared Cook is a matchup weapon for the Rams
The Rams featured their tight end in multiple alignments in their win over the Cardinals. I saw Cook in the slot and outside of the numbers to run the seam, curl, 7 route (corner), option, etc.
This gives the Rams formation flexibility and allows Sam Bradford to target the tight end in favorable matchups. It was a big day for Cook, who posted 141 yards and two touchdowns.
3. Gregg Williams is back
This Titans defense played fast, they were physical versus the run, and the multiple fronts/pressure packages are back with Williams coaching again. The Titans did play some Cover 2 (four-man rush), but keep an eye on this defense’s ability to disguise pressure fronts and roll coverage in the secondary. That’s a big part of their game plan.
I played for Williams in Washington. His scheme is complex, but he will put his players in a position to produce. Let’s see if the Titans continue to play at a high level this Sunday when they travel to Houston.
4. The Packers defense struggled in their three-deep coverages
As I said in my post on Monday, I understand why the Packers leaned on some zone-based coverages against the 49ers in order to limit the read-option and to get eyes on the quarterback in their landmark drops.
However, after watching the tape, this Green Bay secondary lacked discipline in the back end and gave up a couple of explosive gains by failing to play the technique of basic zone calls (think of Cover 3 as an example). The Packers did a poor job of matching to vertical concepts and eliminating the intermediate route tree. It was a rough day for this secondary versus Colin Kaepernick, Anquan Boldin and the Niners.
5. LeSean McCoy is an ideal fit for Chip Kelly’s offense
How smooth did McCoy look on Monday night running the ball out of the Eagles' zone-read scheme? His vision, burst and cutback ability were on display in this offense and I expect it to continue.
Plus, when he gets to the second level and into the secondary, that puts a lot of pressure on defensive backs to come to balance, square their feet and roll their hips through the tackle. That’s a nightmare situation for a safety who has to cut the angle and get McCoy on the ground.
Five things to watch for in Week 2
Here are the five things I’m focused on as I look ahead to the Week 2 NFL schedule.
1. Seahawks offensive line vs. the 49ers front seven
The Seahawks struggled in Week 1 against the Panthers defensive front. It's not going to get any easier for Seattle's offensive line with the San Francisco 49ers defense coming to town.
I do think Seattle will look to move the pocket for quarterback Russell Wilson and give him options using sprint-and-dash concepts. However, if the 49ers can get home with four in their base sub-packages, that will allow the secondary to play more two-deep coverages and limit Wilson’s ability to use the vertical passing game. I know Wilson can make plays outside of the pocket, but he still needs time to set his feet and throw.
2. Tom Brady vs. Rex Ryan’s defense
Danny Amendola is likely out for Thursday night's game against the Jets, Shane Vereen is on the shelf, and Rob Gronkowski isn’t going to see the field. So, who does Brady target in crucial game situations?
In the Patriots' Week 1 win over the Bills, Brady went to Amendola twice on third down in the final drive to set up the game-winning field goal. Against the Jets? Look for Julian Edelman to see the ball often on inside breaking concepts and it could be time for rookie Kenbrell Thompkins to show his value in Week 2.
3. Jimmy Graham vs. Dashon Goldson/Mark Barron
I don’t have the Bucs game plan in front of me, but I would expect to see some one-on-one matchups with Graham and the Tampa safeties.
Remember, the Saints will move their tight end all over the field. And when they get Graham backside in a 3x1 alignment, that’s a matchup Drew Brees will look to expose in man coverage situations with slants and fades.
I view Graham as the top tight end in the league when you break down his abilities in the passing game. And I love the physicality of the Bucs' safety combo. This will be good football to watch.
4. Another start for Robert Griffin III
Look at Griffin’s return to the field in terms of a progression after offseason knee rehab. The more he plays, the more he will produce within the Redskins game plan.
I wrote about the quarterback on Wednesday and broke down his technique, reads, etc. from the Redskins' loss to the Eagles. He struggled early with his footwork, but settled down in the second half after Washington made some adjustments.
Moving ahead to Sunday, I’m curious to see how the Redskins game plan against the Packers. Will Kyle Shanahan install more boot schemes and movement passes to get RG3 out of the pocket against the Packers' pressure defense? And what about the read-option? Is it time for Griffin to carry the ball again and test the edge of defenses?
There is plenty to think about here.
5. Chargers defensive game plan vs. the Eagles
Every NFL defense has a “two-minute” game plan built into its call sheet with two or three core coverages plus a couple of pressures they can lean on (and check to) in a no-huddle situation. After watching Philadelphia's offensive tempo on Monday night, this could be the plan for the Chargers.
I would lean on Cover 4 (quarters) versus the Eagles, allowing the strong safety to play the tight end/enter the run front, and make sure I could get 11 guys to line up every snap. After that, they have to just play football.
The Chargers need to find a couple coverages/pressures they can trust and read their keys, because eye discipline is the most important thing versus Kelly’s scheme.
For my chalkboard breakdown of Kelly's offense, click on the video below.
All-22: Why is Cover 2 being exposed in the red zone?
If I were putting together a defensive game plan, Cover 2 and Cover 0 (blitz-man) would be my two lead calls in the red zone. However, after watching the tape from Week 1, NFL offenses are beating Cover 2 by creating a one-on-one matchup with the tight end versus the Mike ‘backer.
Let’s look at two examples from the tape.
Bengals vs. Bears
Personnel: Ace (2WR-2TE-1RB)
Formation: Unit Wing Gun Far
Route: Inside Seam
Defensive scheme: Cover 2
The Bears want to occupy the deep-half safety with outside 9 (fade) routes and target tight end Martellus Bennett on the inside seam. In Cover 2, those 9 routes can hold the safeties or force them to widen off their top of the numbers' landmark and open up the middle of the field, creating an inside matchup on the linebacker.
The Mike ‘backer will open his hips to the passing strength (closed side of the formation) and match/carry Bennett down the seam. As we can see here, the linebacker is in the proper position to read quarterback Jay Cutler and play the seam route.
This is where the one-on-one matchup comes into play. With the linebacker sitting inside, Cutler puts this ball on Bennett’s back shoulder—away from the defender’s leverage. With the strong safety occupied by the outside 9 route, he is late to help or overlap on the throw. Put it up and let your guy go make a play.
Giants vs. Cowboys
Personnel: Posse (3WR-1TE-1RB)
Formation: Doubles Slot Gun Far
Defensive scheme: Cover 2
The Cowboys are targeting tight end Jason Witten versus the Giants' Cover 2. Again, Dallas sends both outside receivers on the 9 routes to widen the safeties and to open the middle of the field for Witten to run the seam against the Mike ‘backer.
The Mike has to match/carry Witten down the field with his back to the ball. This is exactly what quarterback Tony Romo wants on the seam route with both safeties now removed from the middle of the field.
Just like Cutler did against the Bengals, Romo puts this ball on the back shoulder of Witten to beat the Giants for a touchdown. Bottom line: If you want to sit in Cover 2, then you better have a linebacker that can run and play the ball at the point of attack.
Football 101: Executing the Zone Blitz
This is a great example of how the Texans used zone pressure to force Philip Rivers into throwing an interception to Brian Cushing on Monday night during a crucial point of the game.
Texans vs. Chargers
Personnel: Ace (2WR-2TE-1RB)
Defensive scheme: Closed side Fire Zone
I want to focus on the blitz responsibilities first. The Texans are rushing five and dropping six (three-deep, three-under). Both cornerbacks are playing a fire zone one-third technique (match to No.1 vertical) with the free safety dropping to the deep middle-third. Underneath, the strong safety and weak-side linebacker drop to a “seam-flat” technique (match to No. 2) with Cushing playing the “middle hook" (match to No.3).
The Chargers are running the “H-post” (or “follow” route). The tight end releases on the underneath drive route (shallow crosser) with No. 2 on the inside-angle route. However, because of the edge pressure, Rivers has to get rid of the ball and locks onto the angle route. With Cushing reading through to the quarterback, he can break on the throw.
This is an excellent play by Cushing to secure the catch and finish by taking the interception back for a touchdown. This isn’t an exotic scheme and you will see it this Sunday from both the 4-3 and 3-4 fronts. But when you execute the techniques of the defense—and get pressure off the edge—it will lead to big plays.
Inside the locker room: Game-planning for divisional opponents
There is a lot of work that goes into setting an NFL game plan. From tendencies to situational breakdowns and new installations, these things can get pretty deep by game time.
But that changes when a divisional opponent shows up on the schedule.
Take the Jets-Patriots matchup on Thursday night. During a short week, the time for team meetings are cut in half, practice time is limited, and your game plan is reduced by a degree.
Does it matter?
Not when you know the personnel, the formations, the alignments, etc. That’s why divisional games are more about personnel than X’s and O’s.
As a player, you should know what the wide receiver splits are telling you or what to expect from a stack alignment on the field. Yes, these players will still watch the tape, but they are already prepared from a scheme standpoint because of their familiarity with their divisional opponent.
When I was playing for the Redskins, we knew what to expect from the Cowboys, Giants and Eagles. Sure, we threw in a couple of new pressure packages, but the game plan didn’t really change.
It was more about the matchups on the field.
We knew that Philadelphia’s Terrell Owens was going to run a slant when he was aligned on the backside of a 3x1 formation or that Dallas’ Keyshawn Johnson was going to run the out route when he was aligned at the top of the numbers.
That was understood. That was expected. And we had to stop it.
I’m sure Rex Ryan has something new to show Brady for their Thursday night showdown, but the game plan is secondary. Ryan already knows where Brady wants to go with the ball; he’s seen it for years and his players will be ready for it before they even get off the bus at Gillette Stadium.
And that’s why these divisional games are always more about the players on the field than the game plan itself.
Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is the NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.