The Second Level: What You Need to Know Heading into NFL Week 15

Matt Bowen NFL National Lead WriterDecember 12, 2013

PHILADELPHIA, PA - DECEMBER 08:  LeSean McCoy #25 of the Philadelphia Eagles carries the ball in the third quarter against the Detroit Lions on December 8, 2013 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Elsa/Getty Images

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


10 Takeaways from the Week 14 Film

After watching the tape, here are 10 plays we can learn from—technique, scheme and more from a teaching perspective.


1. LeSean McCoy's production continues within the zone scheme

The Eagles will use a variety of concepts/schemes within Chip Kelly’s game plan, but the majority of McCoy’s production comes off the base inside zone that allows the running back to pick a hole, square his pads and get vertically up the field to the second level.

Here’s a look at what McCoy saw on his first touchdown run versus the Lions. With the center and tackle working up to second-level blocks, McCoy can press the edge to the open (weak) side of the formation or get downhill. An ideal scheme for his skill set and vision.

NFL Game Rewind


2. Josh Gordon burned the Patriots' Cover 0 pressure

I have no issue with the Patriots sending zero pressure versus the Browns, but the technique on the outside has to be clean if you want to prevent a big play.

On the backside of a three-by-one formation, defensive backs have to be alert for the slant or fade. Here, Aqib Talib opens at the snap versus Gordon (instead of using his hands to jam and mirror) and gives up the inside release. That can’t happen in Cover 0 (align with an inside shade, force an outside release).

As we can see, there is no help versus the slant in zero pressure. The result is a Browns touchdown.


3. Washington was exposed in the kicking game versus the Chiefs

With all the time I spend on offense and defense, it’s easy to forget about special teams when we break down the tape. However, after watching how poorly Washington covered versus the Chiefs, we need to take a look at one of the two touchdowns it gave up on Sunday.

This is nothing more than man blocking with a two-man wedge. But with the lack of lane discipline (and technique at the point of attack), Washington allows the Chiefs to open up an enormous running lane for Quintin Demps on the return. And the kicker isn't going to make this play in the snow. That’s too easy.

NFL Game Rewind


4. Bears defense came up with enough stops to slow down Tony Romo, Cowboys

This defense under Mel Tucker still has major issues when we look at its inability to stop the run. However, in the Monday night win over the Cowboys, the Bears did provide some key stops. That allowed Josh McCown and the offense to gain extra possessions (plus points).

Here's a look at the zone blitz Tucker dialed up on a third-down situation early in the second quarter. The Bears show double-A-gap pressure, roll the safeties and rush five. With the center sliding the protection to the closed (strong) side of the formation, linebacker James Anderson beats the running back to pick up the sack.

NFL Game Rewind


5. Joe Staley made a key block on Frank Gore's 51-yard run

I broke down Gore’s fourth-quarter run in the win over the Seahawks on Monday using the TV tape. But after going back to the All-22 film, we have to take a look at Staley’s block versus Red Bryant.

This is a G-Lead from the 49ers with the front-side guard kicking out the force and the fullback leading up on the linebacker. However, look at Staley here. He buries Bryant on the down block and washes the defensive end down the line of scrimmage to open up the edge for Gore.

NFL Game Rewind


6. Broncos' execution on the post route should be on teaching tape

During the Broncos' win over the Titans, Peyton Manning and Eric Decker executed the post-corner-post (multiple breaking route) versus a single-high safety defense almost to perfection.

Check out Decker as he stems to the corner (forcing Alterraun Verner to widen) before breaking back to the post. Manning looks up the receiver and delivers this ball before Decker is even out of his break to split the cornerback and free safety for six points.

NFL Game Rewind


7. Vikings should have closed out the game in Cover 2 versus Ravens

The Vikings were in a position to defend Marlon Brown on Joe Flacco's game-winning touchdown pass in their Cover 2 shell. However, the technique from "Mike" 'backer Audie Cole has to be discussed.

Cole has to carry/match the inside vertical seam in Cover 2. But why does the linebacker square up to the quarterback? Instead of carrying the receiver to the post (playing to the inside hip), Cole decided to use an “open-angle” technique (open back to the quarterback). That transition gave Brown enough separation to stem this route to the end line.

NFL Game Rewind


8. Speed "through the hole" is the story on Bobby Rainey's touchdown run

I wanted to show Rainey's touchdown run versus the Bills right before he makes his cut to get up the field.

This is a split-zone scheme with the wide receiver working backside to pick up the edge force (cornerback runs/travels in man coverage). With a defender filling to the open-side C-gap, Rainey is going to cut this run back to the closed-side A-gap.

Linebacker Kiko Alonso should make this play scraping over the top. However, Rainey displays a burst up the field (through the hole) to beat the angle of the linebacker and takes this one 80 yards for a score.

NFL Game Rewind


9. Single-high safety defenses inside the 10-yard line are suspect

Cover 0, Cover 2 and Cover 4. That’s all I would play inside of the plus 10-yard line if we are talking about core schemes. Why would I avoid Cover 1 or any single-high safety defense? Because the free safety doesn’t impact enough routes.

Here’s a shot of Drew Brees' touchdown pass to Jimmy Graham. Tough matchup for Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly to pick up the underneath crossing route. However, look at the free safety. He is six yards deep in the end zone covering empty turf. No need to protect the post given the field position.

NFL Game Rewind


10. Route recognition, footwork led to Rashad Johnson's interception versus Rams

The Cardinals safety intercepted Kellen Clemens on Sunday versus the levels concept (No. 1 on the smash route, No. 2 on the dig) because he was able to identify the route and showcase patience in his footwork.

Johnson didn't increase his depth or backpedal out with speed (something we see often from young safeties). Instead, he put himself in a position to drive the route and beat the wide receiver to the spot. I loved this finish on the ball.

NFL Game Rewind


5 Things to Watch Heading into the Week 15 Schedule

Here are five things I’m focused on after checking out the Week 15 NFL schedule. 


1. Josh Gordon and Alshon Jeffery

CLEVELAND, OH - NOVEMBER 24: Wide receiver Josh Gordon #12 of the Cleveland Browns completes a pass for a first down while under pressure from cornerback Ike Taylor #24 of the Pittsburgh Steelers during the second half at FirstEnergy Stadium on November 2
Jason Miller/Getty Images

The second-year pros continue to light up the NFL, and we get to see both of them on the field this Sunday in Cleveland for the Bears-Browns matchup.

I broke down the tape on Gordon last week. We should look for the receiver to run the deep dig versus the Bears' Cover 2, along with the 9-route and the underneath crossers versus Cover 1. He is strong, physical and can produce after the catch with his speed/open-field ability.

With Jeffery, think inside breaking routes (curl, dig, drive, slant) in Marc Trestman’s playbook. The South Carolina product can create separation at the top of the stem in the intermediate route tree and get down the field in the vertical passing game, and his catch radius is ridiculous at the point of attack.


2. Patriots' red-zone game plan without Rob Gronkowski

Without Gronkowski, the Patriots do lose a matchup player—especially inside the 20-yard line. So how do they adjust to the tight end’s injury?

I would have to believe the Patriots will run the same concepts with mixed personnel groupings. Think Posse/11 here (three wide receivers, one tight end, one running back) and Regular/21 (two wide receivers, one tight end, two running backs) where they can still run the smash-seam concept. Plus, look for running back Shane Vereen in combination routes (flat-7, option-9, option-7, etc.) to give Tom Brady an underneath target versus both zone and man looks.

New England has always used multiple personnel groupings within its game plan, and that won’t change because of an injury.


3. Kirk Cousins gets the start for Washington

LANDOVER, MD - DECEMBER 08: Quarterback Kirk Cousins #12 of the Washington Redskins throws a pass against the Kansas City Chiefs during the second half of the Chiefs 45-10 win at FedExField on December 8, 2013 in Landover, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Ge
Rob Carr/Getty Images

Regardless of the drama that exists in Washington, this is a great opportunity for Cousins to play some ball over the next three weeks as Mike Shanahan’s team finishes out the schedule.

Cousins can continue to build his value in the NFL at the quarterback position and take advantage of the game reps to showcase his skill set. Regular-season game film sells, so let’s find out what Cousins can do now that Shanahan has given him the keys to the offense for the rest of the season.


4. Cowboys defense

I have no problem with the Cowboys' defensive scheme, and I honestly think that’s an excuse for a lack of quality play. The Cowboys were beat in the run game versus the Bears and gave up plays in both single-high and two-deep looks.

After watching the tape, this unit under Monte Kiffin lacks technique and doesn't take advantage of opportunities. I know the Cowboys have injuries at key spots, but that doesn't give them a pass to play with poor technique, miss tackles and give up the deep ball when they are in a position to impact the route.

Let’s see if they play better football this Sunday at home versus the Packers in a game they need to stay in the NFC East race with the Eagles.


5. Dennis Pitta's role in the game plan versus the Lions 

BALTIMORE, MD - DECEMBER 08: Tight end Dennis Pitta #88 of the Baltimore Ravens celebrates with teammate quarterback Joe Flacco #5 after scoring a touchdown in the fourth quarter against the Minnesota Vikings at M&T Bank Stadium on December 8, 2013 in Bal
Patrick Smith/Getty Images

After Pitta made his return to the field this past Sunday versus the Vikings, I’m interested to see how the Ravens expand his role within the game plan Monday night in Detroit. The tight end is an upgrade to the Ravens lineup, and he does give them formation flexibility.

The Lions will play some Cover 1 and Cover 4. That will allow quarterback Joe Flacco to target Pitta versus a safety on the inside seam and also find the one-on-one matchup when the tight end is aligned as a receiver removed from the core of the formation.


All-22 rewind: Saints Beat the Panthers' Cover 2 in the Red Zone

Let's go back to the tape and break down Drew Brees' touchdown pass to Marques Colston from the Saints' Sunday night win over the Panthers.

Panthers vs. Saints

Personnel: Posse/11 (3WR-1TE-1RB)

Formation: Slot Open Gun Far

Offensive Concept: Verticals

Defensive Scheme: Cover 2

NFL Game Rewind

With the Saints pulling the open-side guard and showing the run action out of the gun (one-back power), Brees can force Mike 'backer Luke Kuechly to step to the line of scrimmage. Sell the run fake and remove the linebacker to open up the inside vertical seam with Colston aligned as the No. 3 receiver.

NFL Game Rewind

Kuechly has to carry/match Colston on the inside seam route, but because of the play-action, the linebacker now has to recover and trail versus the wide receiver. And with the free safety occupied by the two verticals to the open side of the formation, Brees can target the vacated zone in the middle of the field.

NFL Game Rewind

Brees drops this ball over the top of Kuechly, and Colston splits the safeties. While both safeties will overlap any throw to the middle of the field, this is the Mike 'backer's play to make. However, by pulling the open-side guard (and selling the run fake), the Saints found a way to expose the two-deep coverage inside of the red zone.


Football 101: Cover 4 "Box" vs. Bunch Alignment

NFL offenses are running more bunch sets this season to create traffic versus Cover 1 and to gain a free release versus zone schemes. So how do you defend it as a Cover 4 defense? Let’s break down the "box" call.

Personnel: Posse/11 (3WR-1TE-1RB)

Formation: Doubles Slot Gun Far (Bunch)

Offensive Concept: Spot Route

Defensive Scheme: Cover 4 (“Box”)

Matt Bowen

The "box" is a four-on-three zone call designed to eliminate the bunch look from the offense.  With two defenders underneath and two defensive backs to play the top of the concept, you can pass off routes.

Here, I have the "box" call drawn up with nickel personnel on the field (five defensive backs) versus the "spot" combination (corner-curl-flat). 

Underneath, the nickel (N) will take the first "out," with the Mike 'backer (M) playing the first "in." At the top of the box, the cornerback (C) matches to the second "out," with the strong safety (SS) playing the second "in."

As you can see on the playbook diagram, the nickel matches to the flat route, the cornerback takes the 7-cut and the Mike 'backer drives to the curl/smash. That leaves the strong safety in a position to help on a possible double move (corner-post) from the Z receiver or to jump the inside curl/smash.

How do you beat the "box" call? Run a three-level concept, such as the "sail" route (9-7-flat combo). That will remove the cornerback on the 9-route (fade) and force the strong safety to chase the 7-route (corner) from an inside leverage position.


Inside the Locker Room: "Playing for Jobs"

Over the final three weeks of the regular season, you will hear the term "playing for jobs" when we talk about the teams that are just riding out the schedule before the offseason begins.

Is it true?

Well, kind of, if we are talking about unproven guys. That means rookies, players called up from the practice squad or guys that don’t have a ton of tape to showcase their abilities at the pro level.

Dec 5, 2013; Jacksonville, FL, USA; Houston Texans quarterback Case Keenum (7) throws a pass in the first quarter against the Jacksonville Jaguars at EverBank Field. Mandatory Credit: Phil Sears-USA TODAY Sports
Phil Sears-USA TODAY Sports

For the majority of veterans, they have a good idea of what the upcoming offseason will bring. They've been through the drill of a tough year and understand that changes (or cuts) will come.

Play on a bad team, and the front office looks to make the necessary upgrades to avoid sitting at home the next postseason.

And you could play one of the positions that needs to be "upgraded."

That’s life in the pros.

But for those unproven players, this is a time to put something on tape. It's an opportunity, really, to show the general manager, head coach, position coach, etc. that the arrow is pointing up.

Give the team a reason to buy into your skill set. Or give it a reason to believe you can be coached (and developed) into a starting-caliber player in the NFL.

Heck, give the team a reason to include you in the plans for the next year when it starts its offseason prep and begins to scout for the draft.

So if you are one of those young guys about to see more playing time before the gear is turned in to end the season, take advantage of it—because everyone is watching.

Go make some plays.


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