Every Thursday, former NFL defensive back Matt Bowen brings you “The Second Level,” a breakdown of the game from multiple levels.
10 Takeaways from the Week 13 Film
After watching the tape, here are 10 plays from the Week 13 schedule that we can learn from. Technique, scheme and more from a teaching perspective.
1. Seattle’s defense took away the Saints’ Wheel/Switch Route
The Saints have attacked Cover 3 (three deep, four under) and Cover 1 (man-free) all season by occupying the free safety on the post and targeting Jimmy Graham on the wheel (called a “switch” combination) versus the underneath defender.
However, the Seahawks (a Cover 3 team) took this route away with the cornerback, Byron Maxwell. Instead of chasing the post inside (removes the cornerback from the outside one-third), Maxwell passed the route off to safety Earl Thomas and played over the top of Graham to eliminate an explosive play from Drew Brees.
2. Josh Gordon, Alshon Jeffery showed us how to high-point the ball
At any level of the game, the ability to high-point the football at the point of attack is crucial to making plays down the field. Here are a couple of examples from second-year pros Josh Gordon and Alshon Jeffery—two young receivers who are producing huge numbers this season.
This is a straight 9-route (fade) to Gordon on which the wide receiver has to adjust down the field, find the ball and climb the ladder to finish the play on an underthrown pass.
Jeffery took the ball away from Vikings cornerback Chris Cook on the deep rail/wheel route. High-point the ball, secure the catch and finish for six points.
3. Panthers continue to scheme for Newton inside the 5-yard line
In Week 13, the Panthers ran the Inverted Power Veer to pick up a score with Cam Newton versus the Dolphins. This past Sunday? The Quarterback Power out of the shotgun in the win over the Bucs.
This is no different than the base Power O scheme with the back kicking out the edge force and the backside guard pulling up through the hole to the second-level defenders. Newton could have pressed the hole here for six points, but the quarterback decided to go up and over the top for the score.
4. Lions’ goal-line play action is a nightmare to defend
How do you defend this route playing man coverage inside the plus 10-yard line? The Lions pull the backside guard, send Reggie Bush on the inside-zone run action and release receiver Jeremy Ross on a crack stem.
With the linebackers now removed versus the play action, cornerback Davon House reads a crack block on safety Morgan Burnett (because of the initial stem from Ross) and looks to use a “crack replace” technique (cornerback replaces safety in the run front). And that’s all it takes for Ross to gain separation inside to run the quick slant/seam for a touchdown.
5. Broncos’ double-post concept beat the Chiefs’ secondary twice
In Cover 4, the strong safety is responsible for No. 2 once the receiver releases past a depth of 12 yards vertically up the field. Here, the tight end occupies the safety and leaves Decker one-on-one outside versus Brandon Flowers. Tough spot for a cornerback to play a deep, inside breaking concept (from an outside leverage position) with no help on the post.
6. Bears defense continues to struggle with backside contain vs. the run game
Adrian Peterson went to work versus the Bears' eight-man fronts (Cover 1, Cover 3, Under 10) and also found room to cut back because of poor run discipline/fits from Mel Tucker’s defense.
This is a 4th-and-1 situation versus the Bears' Under 10 front (strong safety drops to open side, plays A-gap on run away). The Vikings get to the second level to wash down the safety and "Will" ‘backer, with the Bears failing to close the backside A-gap. That allows Peterson to find the running lane and get up the field for almost 20 yards.
7. Eagles' two-tight end personnel creates matchups
Chip Kelly’s offense is using more Ace/12 personnel (2WR-2TE-1RB). Think of matchups with tight ends Brent Celek and Zach Ertz versus defensive backs in coverage on inside breaking routes: the 7-cut (corner), seam, etc.
Here’s an example with Ertz on the seam/skinny post versus a deep-half defender. The rookie tight end out of Stanford stemmed this route to the corner (widened the defender) and then broke back inside. And the leverage you see here is all it takes. Create that little bit of separation and shield the defender from the ball for a touchdown.
8. Ike Taylor needed some safety help versus Torrey Smith on the deep post
When Torrey Smith is on the field (and the ball is in between the 40s), there should be an automatic alert to the vertical game. This is the “shot zone” for the offense.
So why did the Steelers give up the deep one?
Look at safety Will Allen. He has his eyes underneath on the crossing route and doesn’t play with enough depth to help on the post once Smith breaks inside. That leaves Taylor chasing the post in a matchup he isn’t going to win because of Smith’s top-tier speed. Big play for the Ravens that set up a touchdown.
9. Saints defense couldn’t stop the zone read on Monday night
The issue for the Saints? No one to play the quarterback. With the defensive end crashing inside on the dive, the linebacker has to scrape outside versus Wilson (called a “scrape exchange" technique).
However, the linebacker is late to the party and Wilson can pick up a quick 10 yards. That’s too easy.
10. The flat-7 combination off play pass is still No. 1
Every week, NFL offenses run the flat-7 (corner) combination to target Cover 2 (one of the top Cover 2 beaters) and on the goal line to take advantage of poor eye discipline for an easy six points.
The 49ers ran it on Sunday versus the Rams to pick up an explosive gain down the field out of their Tank/22 personnel (1WR-2TE-2RB). With the strong safety buried in the run front after chasing the play action, Colin Kaepernick can target Vernon Davis over the top of the underneath linebacker on the 7-route.
5 Things to Watch Heading into Week 14
Here are five things I'm focused on after checking out the Week 14 NFL schedule.
1. Chiefs' secondary
I talked up this secondary all season, but this unit has given up multiple big plays throughout the Chiefs' three-game slide. Whether that is Cover 1, 2-Man or the quarters technique we saw versus Manning and the Broncos, the Chiefs have to play better on the edges and at the safety position.
The Chiefs travel to Washington on Sunday, and that means play action with Robert Griffin III plus inside breaking routes in Kyle Shanahan’s offense. Time to start winning again outside of the numbers at the cornerback position and over the top with safeties who take clean angles to the football to impact the passing game.
2. 49ers’ ability to target Seahawks’ Cover 3
As we saw on Monday night, the Seahawks played a lot of three-deep in the secondary. That gives the 49ers opportunities to run the three-level sail or “OVS” concept (outside vertical stretch) out of their Tank/22 personnel (1WR-2TE-2RB) and four verticals with their Ace/12 personnel on the field (2WR-2TE-1RB) from a slot formation.
Those are just two Cover 3 beaters I would expect to show up in the game plan on Sunday. However, I still believe the 49ers have to reduce the formation and lean on their power run schemes early (Power O, Counter OF, Lead) to control the tempo of this football game versus the speed of the Seattle defense.
3. Eagles Cover 4 Beaters
I expect the Eagles to show their Hi-Lo concepts again this week if the Lions play a lot of man-coverage, but keep an eye on the Cover 4 beaters that Chip Kelly has already shown on tape this season to put stress on the Detroit safeties.
The pin (post, dig combo), scissors (post, corner combo) and four verticals will cater to the Eagles' two-tight end personnel. As I said above in the film breakdown, this allows Nick Foles to target both Ertz and Celek when they draw the matchup of a safety.
4. Cowboys, Tony Romo on Monday night
Given the issues the Bears are having defensively, the Cowboys should be able to move the ball. Look for Dallas to establish the run game with DeMarco Murray and set up some play-action opportunities to Jason Witten versus rookie linebacker Jon Bostic.
And that doesn’t include the matchup of Dez Bryant versus both Cover 1 and Cover 2. This is where the Cowboys can take some shots.
I know this is a road game for Dallas, but the Bears defense hasn’t shown me enough the last couple of weeks to make me think it can limit Romo and this offense on Monday night.
5. Saints' defensive game plan vs. Cam Newton
Think zone-based coverages. That would be my game plan versus Newton and the Panthers. Match to Carolina’s three-wide receiver personnel with “big” nickel (three safeties in the game) and drop back into Cover 2 or even Cover 4 to get eyes on the quarterback.
There were too many situations in which the Saints allowed Russell Wilson to break contain with defensive backs in coverage on Monday night. That can’t happen again with Newton in a game that will have a major impact on the NFC South. The Saints should run their man-coverage/blitz schemes, but I would be selective based on field position plus down and distance.
All-22 Rewind: Wilson, Seahawks Beat the Saints' Man-Pressure
During the Monday night win, the Seahawks used formation and alignment to beat man-pressure on the goal line. Let’s go back to the tape and break down Wilson’s touchdown pass to Zach Miller. A good opportunity to talk about the route concept and the poor defensive technique from the Saints.
Saints vs. Seahawks
Personnel: Posse/11 (3WR-1TE-1RB)
Formation: Doubles Slot Gun Far
Offensive Concept: Clear-Out Slant/Flat-7
Defensive Scheme: Man-Pressure
This is the ideal matchup for the Seahawks: Miller versus a linebacker in blitz-man coverage. With the tight end removed from the formation as the No. 1 receiver (count outside-in), the Seahawks can run the clear-out slant (No. 1 on slant, No. 2 on vertical stem) to create a pick situation for Miller to break inside off the ball.
And as you can see here, linebacker Ramon Humber is too deep in his initial alignment. He has to recognize the split of No. 2 and tighten down so he can work underneath the pick to drive to the hip of Miller on an inside breaking route.
Humber takes a step back in the end zone at the snap (you never want to increase your depth on the goal line) and is now in a tough spot with Miller on the one-step slant. He can’t bubble over the vertical release of No. 2. That’s an automatic touchdown given the field position. However, because of Humber’s initial depth, he is late to match the inside break and won’t be able to work through the pick.
Even if Humber had reduced his initial depth and played with a flat-foot read (read through the three-step release), this is a heck of a route to defend inside of the 5-yard line. A great call from the Seahawks and an easy read for Wilson to pick up the score on the slant route.
Football 101: “Vice” Alignment vs. Cover 2
I use a lot of defensive terminology in my writing and I understand that can be confusing at times. So let’s take a step back and look at a playbook diagram to talk about a “vice” alignment and one of the top concepts you will see from the double stack in the NFL.
Personnel: Posse/11 (3WR-1TE-1RB)
Formation: Doubles (Vice)
Offensive Concept: Flat-7/Dino
Defensive Scheme: Cover 2
The “vice” is a double-stack look that can be run from any personnel grouping. Here, I have the Z receiver on short, divide motion (motion into the core of the formation) to create the stack to the closed (strong) side with X and W/H aligned to the open (weak) side.
In the NFL, that’s a high alert for double flat-7 (corner) with No. 1 on the flat and No. 2 on the 7-cut. However, as you can see in the diagram, I am sending the X on a “dino” stem (stem to the corner, break to the post).
Why the “dino” stem?
I want to put some stress on the deep-half safety to stay square in his drop. A lot of safeties will guess in this situation and play for the 7-cut. That forces them to open their hips. Then I can sneak the X back inside to target the post.
Also, look at the "Mike" 'backer. Even if the free safety stays square and plays with depth, the Mike has to open to the passing strength (two-wide receiver side), read the quarterback and match to X the “dino” stem. That’s a tough play for the linebacker to close the door on the post.
Either way, I expect points here versus Cover 2.
Inside the Locker Room: Is Seattle the Toughest Place to Play?
After the Seahawks beat up on the Saints this Monday night, is it fair to say that CenturyLink Field in Seattle is the toughest place to play in the NFL?
I played there back in 2005 with Washington in the NFC divisional playoffs. That’s a long flight out West, plus the weather can be rough late in the season.
And it’s loud as hell.
You can’t hear the guy next to you, and it’s almost impossible to communicate throughout the course of the game because of the noise in that place.
I mean, it's nuts out there.
But is it the toughest environment I’ve ever played in?
The dome in New Orleans is no joke, and any game in Philadelphia is going to be a test (especially when the Eagles played at the Vet).
The Metrodome in Minnesota will get crazy, and the cold up in Lambeau is so bad that you can’t feel your toes by the second quarter.
I remember one game in Green Bay when panic ensued on the sideline after our punt returner couldn’t go out on the field because his gloves had melted together from the sideline heaters.
Fourth down and no returner on the field? That’s a problem.
I would also throw in Soldier Field because of the suspect turf (and the weather) and the fanbase out in Oakland. Plus, I can’t forget about Tampa back in the day with that defense or the pirate ship shooting off cannons in the end zone.
That was a ridiculous atmosphere.
What about old Texas Stadium during the Washington-Dallas game?
Play down there in September, and the only air you got was from that open hole in the roof when the field temperature went over 100 degrees.
Brutal. Just brutal.
So is Seattle the toughest place to play in today’s game? I would probably say it is.
And when you add that fanbase and the atmosphere, plus the talent of Pete Carroll’s team together, there aren’t many squads that will go in there and steal a win.
Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.