The Second Level: What You Need to Know Heading into NFL Week 7
Every Thursday, former NFL defensive back Matt Bowen brings you “The Second Level,” a breakdown of the league from multiple angles.
10 Things I Learned from the Week 6 Film
Here are 10 things that stood out from my perspective when watching tape this week.
1. Chiefs Defense Continues to Impress
Kansas City had a solid blitz package to attack the Raiders offensive line. Think of overload blitzes and secondary pressure that can confuse basic protection schemes up front along the offensive line. Ten sacks? That’s a ridiculous number.
But let’s not forget about the ability of the Chiefs secondary, because there weren’t many opportunities (or throwing windows) for Terrelle Pryor on Sunday. This unit can play off-man, press and drive to the upfield shoulder of receivers. And I’m seeing it every week on the tape.
2. Nick Foles Is Playing Like the No. 1 in Philadelphia
Foles isn’t going to threaten opposing defenses with the zone read in Chip Kelly’s offense like we see with Michael Vick, but the key is his ability to be accurate with the football and prevent turnovers.
In the win over the Bucs, Foles took advantage of some matchups versus both zone and man schemes while delivering the ball on time. Here is an example from the All-22 tape of Foles’ touchdown pass to DeSean Jackson. A Cover 2 (or Cover 6) beater with the strong safety occupied by the tight end. Get the matchup versus the free safety and make the throw.
3. Aqib Talib Won with Technique Versus Jimmy Graham
In one-on-one matchups, technique wins over talent. The veteran cornerback challenged Graham at the line of scrimmage from a press alignment, used his hands to disrupt the release and slid his feet to gain inside leverage versus the slant, dig, etc. Smart move by Bill Belichick to match up his No. 1 cornerback versus the league’s top tight end.
4. Bears Edge-Rushers Aren’t Showing Up on Third Downs
The Bears are struggling to play coverage on third downs (Cover 2, Cover 3) because of their inability to generate a rush off the edge. Julius Peppers was a non-factor versus the Giants, and second-year pro Shea McClellin continues to show his lack of development at the point of attack.
Eli Manning had time to navigate the pocket and allow his receivers to convert routes versus zone looks. Find a hole, sit down and move the sticks. That was too easy. And it could force the Bears to lean on nickel pressure schemes moving forward.
5. The Read-Option Will Create More Opportunities for Robert Griffin III
RG3 looked much more explosive on the tape versus the Cowboys, and that will allow Washington to get back to the read-option looks that lead to play-action opportunities for the quarterback.
When Washington can align in the pistol and use the inside zone with Alfred Morris (or get RG3 to the edge), it forces second-level defenders to attack the line of scrimmage. That opens up the middle of the field for Griffin to throw the slant, skinny post and backside dig route. Set it up with the option, and then expose the defense on the pass.
6. Leverage Is the Key with Chargers Wide Receiver Keenan Allen
The rookie wide receiver played at a high level on Monday night because of his ability to use his size/length to create leverage versus defensive backs. Think of the dig route, post or the underneath smash (five-yard square-in).
Win on the release, gain separation at the top of the stem and work back inside to stack on the corner. Allen plays much faster on tape compared to his times back at his pro day, and it showed in the win over the Colts.
7. Reggie Bush on the Middle Screen Is a Nightmare to Defend
The running back gives Detroit a lot of options from a play-calling perspective, but I’m looking at the screen game when the Lions target the middle of the field. In the win over the Browns, Bush aligned in the slot out of an empty formation to run the middle screen for a touchdown.
Spread the field, run off the top of the defense and get the ball to Bush with blockers out in front. That’s tough on any secondary.
8. Antonio Cromartie Gave the Steelers a Free One
The Jets cornerback can get lazy with his technique, and that showed up when he gave up the deep one to Pittsburgh’s Emmanuel Sanders. With the Jets playing Cover 0 (blitz-man, no safety help), Cromartie overplayed an outside stem from Sanders on the release, stuck his eyes in the backfield and lost leverage on the route.
9. Cam Newton, Panthers Caught the Vikings with a Cover 3 Beater
The Vikings were beaten over the top by Brandon LaFell because they failed to play the technique of Cover 3 (three deep, four under). With the Panthers running a “switch” route (No. 1 on post, No. 2 on wheel), both the cornerback and free safety will be occupied by the deep post. That leaves the curl-to-flat defender to match/carry LaFell on the wheel.
However, as you can see below, the Vikings released LaFell down the field and were beaten on a route they should have handled playing Cover 3.
10. Texans Defense Didn't Play with Eye Discipline on the Goal Line
In the loss to the Rams, the Houston defense was beaten twice inside the 5-yard line with play action that created easy targets for quarterback Sam Bradford. In both situations, (flat-corner combination, tight end crosser), the second level of the Texans defense failed to read its run/pass keys and got stuck with its eyes in the backfield.
5 Things to Watch Heading into Week 7
After looking at the Week 7 NFL schedule, here are five things I’m focused on.
1. The Return of Von Miller
I don’t know if we will see a major impact from Miller on Sunday night versus the Colts in his first game back from suspension. That depends on his conditioning level and how many snaps he gets.
However, it will be interesting to find out if the Colts have to adjust their protection schemes to account for his edge speed. If Miller can get home early (and win one-on-one matchups), the Broncos can lean on coverage versus Andrew Luck in third-down situations.
2. Josh Freeman Gets the Start for the Vikings
This is a great opportunity for Freeman on Monday night to take control of the quarterback position for the Vikings. I would expect Minnesota to lean on the run game early with Adrian Peterson, but there will be specific game situations in which Freeman can showcase his ability to make key throws and control the offense.
And working against a Giants defense that has struggled to generate pressure, Freeman should have some chances to target the secondary.
3. Packers Offensive Game Plan
With the injuries the Packers have at the wide receiver position, head coach Mike McCarthy will have to adjust his personnel groupings. As I wrote on Wednesday, that could mean more two-tight end sets and a game plan that features rookie running back Eddie Lacy against the Browns.
Green Bay can still spread the field and create matchups for quarterback Aaron Rodgers with its current personnel, but the game plan could look different than what we are used to seeing with the Packers.
4. Richard Sherman vs. Larry Fitzgerald
I know Fitzgerald is dealing with a hamstring injury, but this is still must-see TV from my perspective with two of the top players at their respective positions. If you want to check out this matchup, then focus on the initial release at the line of scrimmage when Sherman plays press-man.
That’s where the majority of these battles outside the numbers are decided. Who can win on the release and control the opponent throughout the route stem? We will find out Thursday night.
5. Bears Rookie Linebacker Jon Bostic vs. RG3
I like Bostic because of the run-and-hit ability he displayed in the preseason. But this is a tough matchup for the rookie in his first NFL start because of the read-option and the misdirection schemes in the Washington offense.
Bostic has to be solid with his run/pass keys, show discipline in his gap fits versus the read-option and get depth in his zone drops to take away Griffin’s targets in the middle of the field.
All-22 Rewind: Alec Ogletree’s Pick-Six vs. Texans
Let’s go back to the Rams-Texans matchup and break down Ogletree’s interception in the red zone out of the Cover 2 shell.
Rams vs. Texans
Personnel: Posse (3WR-1TE-1RB)
Offensive Concept: Y-Stick
Defensive Scheme: Cover 2
The Texans are running a Cover 2 beater to create a hole between the closed-side (strong-side) cornerback and the Sam ‘backer (Ogletree). The No. 1 receiver takes a hard outside release to widen the cornerback, with the tight end working away from the initial leverage of Ogletree as an underneath seam-hook defender. This should allow T.J. Yates to target the tight end on the stick route in front of the deep-half safety.
This plays out like a “bracket” coverage on the tight end because of the strong safety’s initial read of No. 1. When defenses play Cover 2 in the red zone, the cornerback will match to No. 1 on an outside release. That allows the safety to get his eyes back to the quarterback and drive downhill. And with the protection of the safety in the alley, Ogletree can read through the break of the tight end and jump this out cut.
This ball from Yates is on the back shoulder of the tight end, but I still love the read from the rookie linebacker. Ogletree came out of his break with speed, took an angle that put him in a position to make the play and then finished in the end zone for six points.
Football 101: Beating Cover 4 in the Red Zone
How do you beat Cover 4 in the red zone? Set some bait for the strong safety and target the cornerback. Using the film from the Colts-Chargers matchup, let’s take a look at Philip Rivers' touchdown pass to Keenan Allen.
Colts vs. Chargers
Personnel: Ace (2WR-2TE-1RB)
Formation: Unit Wing
Offensive Concept: Sail
Defensive Scheme: Cover 4
The Sail route is a three-level concept (post-corner-flat) that puts stress on the strong safety in Cover 4 to play the proper technique/responsibility of the huddle call. Here, the Chargers set some bait for the strong safety with tight end Antonio Gates on the intermediate out route, with Rivers targeting Allen on the post.
In Cover 4, the strong safety will match to No. 2 once the receiver carries his route past a depth of 12 yards. If there is no vertical threat, the strong safety will look to No. 1 and run underneath the post. In this situation, Gates breaks his route at a depth of eight yards. The strong safety should immediately look outside to help on No. 1. However, he settles his feet, gets stuck on Gates and is late to react to the post.
Allen gains position on the break back to the post. That allows the receiver to go to work on the cornerback, who is stuck in an outside leverage position with no help to the inside. A classic Cover 4 beater on Monday night.
Inside the Locker Room: The Real Issue with Thursday Night Football
Thursday night games in the NFL lack execution, are played at a slower pace and the tackling is average at best.
But despite the watered-down game plans and dull tempo, the real issue is the lack of recovery time for these players on a short week.
Leading up to Week 1, I broke down the game-week prep for NFL players. From the playbook install to the lifting schedules, every player has a strict routine that he follows to get ready for Sundays and to maintain his body for 16 weeks.
That changes with a Thursday night game.
Think of the treatment time these guys miss in the training room or the lifting schedule that is cut in half. And that doesn’t include the average rest time players get early in the week to recover and attend to injuries before practice starts up again on Wednesday.
At this point of the NFL season, every player is dealing with some discomfort on his body. Knees, shoulders, bumps and bruises.
And for many, just getting to Sunday is a challenge.
That means more treatment (sometimes up to three training-room sessions a day) and pain injections on Sunday morning. Anything you can do to get through the three-plus hours on game day.
And then you start over again on Monday morning. It’s a cycle that players get settled into, and they rely on their own personal routines to survive.
As a fan, I’m going to watch the games every Thursday night. More football is more football. And I understand the money at play here from the perspective of the league office.
But as a former player (one who didn’t have to line up for these Thursday night games), I do understand why some current players would speak out against these short weeks.
They’re tired. They’re sore. They’re beat-up.
And the proof is in the lack of quality play on the field.
Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.
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