Every Thursday, former NFL defensive back Matt Bowen brings you “The Second Level,” a breakdown of the game from multiple angles.
5 Keys to Study from the Film
As we head into the postseason, let’s prep for Wild Card Weekend with some keys—or alerts—based off the film. Here are five things I will be looking for when the games kick off on Saturday.
1. 49ers' power run schemes
I expect the 49ers to pound the ball with Frank Gore early against a Packers defensive front seven that has struggled to limit the run game.
Look for the core schemes (Power O, Counter OF, G-Lead, Lead Open, etc.) out of these two personnel groupings: Tank/22 (one wide receiver, two tight ends, two backs) and Regular/21 (two wide receivers, one tight end, two backs).
The Packers have to close the edge and attack from the linebacker position with the proper shoulder to fit up on blocks. The secondary (especially at safety) has to be quick with its run/pass keys to get downhill to the ball.
Here’s a shot of the 49ers' Power O scheme out of a Strong I alignment with Regular/21 personnel on the field. Block down, kick out the edge force and pull the backside guard to the second level. That’s a train-wreck collision at the point of attack.
2. Jimmy Graham removed as the backside “X” receiver
We know the Saints tight end will run the inside vertical seam, the wheel, etc. in Sean Payton’s offense, but keep an eye on his alignment inside of the 20-yard line. That’s when we will see Graham removed as the backside “X” receiver.
This is all about matchups versus both zone and man coverage. By removing Graham from the core of the formation to the backside, the tight end is going to draw the matchup of a cornerback or safety.
The two routes you have to play for: slant and fade.
The Eagles defensive backs should mix up their alignments (off/press), win with technique on the release and play the pocket at the point of attack. That’s the only way to limit Graham because of his size and ball skills.
Here’s an example versus the Panthers. Graham wins to the inside on the release (forces the defensive back to open his hips), creates separation and turns this into six points.
3. Andrew Luck’s ability to check/audible vs. Chiefs' Dime front
During the Week 16 matchup at Arrowhead, Donald Brown produced on the ground out of the Colts' Posse/11 personnel (three wide receivers, one tight end, one running back) versus the Chiefs' Dime sub-package.
With six defensive backs on the field, Quintin Demps drops down into the box. That creates a soft run-front for Kansas City and gives Luck the opportunity to check to the Lead Draw, Counter OF or Lead Open.
Check this out from that Week 16 game. The Colts shift the tight end into the backfield and run the Counter OF right at Demps. Pull the guard to block Demps, lead up through the hole with the tight end and force the safeties to make the tackle.
4. Chargers' Cover 2 beater in the “strike zone”
When Philip Rivers and the Chargers have the ball in the “strike zone” (20- to 35-yard line), will they come back to the vertical seam to target the Bengals' two-deep coverage?
Back in the Week 13 matchup, the Chargers ran the seam route off the inside zone run-action (with counter protection). That forced the Mike ‘backer to attack the line of scrimmage and opened up a throwing lane for Rivers to hit Ladarius Green for a touchdown.
As you can see here, the deep-half safeties are occupied by vertical concepts, and the Mike 'backer is now stuck trailing the seam route after the play action. Good spot on the field to take a shot and use the tight end position.
5. Eagles Hi-Lo Mesh (Wheel)
Rob Ryan’s defense has to prep for inside Hi-Lo concepts versus Chip Kelly’s offense. This allows the Eagles to create traffic (or picks) inside versus Cover 1 (man-free). Plus, it gives quarterback Nick Foles two-level reads inside of the numbers.
However, don’t forget about the wheel route at the running back position off the Hi-Lo action.
Here’s an example from the Week 17 Eagles-Cowboys matchup. With a reduced split (wide receiver aligned close to the core of the formation), the Eagles run Hi-Lo crossers inside and release the running back on the wheel (or rail). That forces the linebacker to fight through the traffic and recover versus the back.
This is a big-play opportunity for the Eagles if they can get LeSean McCoy vertically down the field before the free safety can overlap the throw.
5 Things to Watch for Heading Into Wild Card Weekend
Let’s talk about some matchups, schemes, etc. to watch for this weekend. Here are five at the top of the my list.
1. Vernon Davis vs. the Packers safeties
We all know what Anquan Boldin did to the Packers' zone looks back on opening weekend, plus Michael Crabtree can test this Green Bay secondary outside of the numbers.
However, I’m more focused on Davis versus the combination of Morgan Burnett and M.D. Jennings/Sean Richardson.
In the 49ers offense, Davis will run Hi-Lo combinations, the inside seam and the vertical concepts (from a wing alignment) out of Tank/22 personnel. That puts stress on the Packers safeties to match Davis, put a top on this defense and limit the tight end once the 49ers advance the ball into the red zone.
2. Chiefs' ability to create positive matchups for Jamaal Charles
The Chiefs had some success running the football in Week 16 out of their slot alignments with Regular/21 personnel on the field versus the Colts' base 3-4 front. Kick out the edge force, lead up through the hole on the inside backer and allow Charles to get to the second level to the slot side of the field.
However, I’m also interested in seeing how Andy Reid plans to get the ball to Charles in positive matchups within the passing game. Could we see the wheel concept or Charles removed from the backfield more as a receiver? And what about the screen game?
I don’t think the Chiefs have to restructure their game plan, as this is more about execution within the West Coast scheme for Reid’s offense. But creating those matchups for Charles gives Kansas City some explosive play ability versus the Colts.
3. Packers' running game vs. 49ers' Nickel sub-package
If the Packers want to get the 49ers out of their 2-Man looks, then they must run the ball with Eddie Lacy and James Starks in their three-wide receiver personnel.
I’m talking about the one-back runs (one-back power, split zone, inside zone) to attack a six- or seven-man box. That will force the 49ers to walk a safety down into the front and give Aaron Rodgers the opportunity to target single-high safety defenses.
Here’s an example of the Packers' one-back power scheme versus the Lions from earlier in the season. Kick out the defensive and pull the backside guard to block the second-level linebacker.
4. Saints' pass protection versus Eagles' defensive fronts
The Saints will have opportunities to attack the Eagles secondary because of the talent they have at the offensive skill positions, but the protection has to be there for Drew Brees against a defense that will show multiple looks/stunts along the front.
Watching the Eagles defensive tape, this unit will work to confuse the protection count and force the running backs (six-man protection) to close down interior rush lanes.
I like the matchups the Saints have with Graham, Colston, Sproles, etc. And I do think they can target the Eagles in the intermediate to deep passing game. But keep an eye on how they handle those pressure looks.
5. Keenan Allen’s production
Going back to the Week 13 game in San Diego, Allen ran the levels concept, the 9 (fade), comeback, drive route, etc. versus cornerback Adam Jones.
On the tape, the rookie’s ability to create separation at the top of the route stem stood out. A clean route runner who can sink his hips and come back to the football. Really impressive technique for a first-year player.
This is a matchup to watch outside of the numbers. Can Allen continue to produce on the intermediate route tree and move the sticks on third-down situations? That’s key for Rivers and the Chargers offense.
All-22 Rewind: Eagles Swap Boot
The swap boot inside of the plus 10-yard line is a great call versus defenses that lean on man coverage because it forces second-level defenders to play with eye discipline.
Let’s go back to the Eagles' win over the Cowboys to highlight Chip Kelly’s ability to use formation/alignment within the scheme out of two-tight end personnel.
Eagles vs. Cowboys
Personnel: Ace/12 (2WR-2TE-1RB)
Formation: Pro Split Gun
Offensive Concept: Swap Boot
Defensive Scheme: Cover 1
Using pre-snap movement, the Eagles shift wide receiver DeSean Jackson into the backfield (Pro Split Gun alignment) with Riley Cooper in a reduced split to the open (weak) side of the formation (boot alert).
At the snap, quarterback Nick Foles will ride Jackson through the mesh point and boot (or dash) to the closed side of the formation with tight end Zach Ertz on the shallow drive route, Cooper on the deep crosser and running back LeSean McCoy on the flat route.
The key with the “swap” boot is McCoy. By releasing the running back under the line of scrimmage off the play fake, the Eagles want to leak McCoy out to the closed side flat versus the Mike ‘backer in coverage.
With Ertz on the shallow drive route, the strong safety is now removed in coverage. That leaves the strong side flat vacated. And with the Mike 'backer stepping to the line of scrimmage off the initial run action to Jackson, Foles can get to the edge of the pocket to target McCoy.
Watching the swap boot play out on Sunday night, I thought it looked too easy for Foles to get outside of the pocket and dump the ball to McCoy. And that held up when I turned on the film. Even if the Mike ‘backer reads pass at the snap (High-Hat read), he still has to work through the inside traffic and match to McCoy. That’s tough when the running back is working away from leverage.
Football 101: The “Dagger” Concept vs. Cover 2
If you want to beat Cover 2, then you need to carry the “dagger” concept in your playbook. Let’s take a look at the diagram I drew up, talk about clearing the middle of the field versus two-deep and breakdown the techniques on both sides of the ball.
Personnel: Posse/11 (3WR-1TE1RB)
Formation: Doubles “Exchange” Gun Near
Offensive Concept: Dagger
Defensive Scheme: Cover 2
The “dagger” concept is a seam-dig combination designed to work the deep hole in Cover 2. Clear out the Mike ’backer and target the inside breaking route.
To the open side of the formation, this is called an “exchange” alignment (slot receiver on the ball), and it should be an automatic alert from a defensive perspective to the “dagger” concept (slot receiver is on the ball to run a clear out route).
The slot receiver (H) runs a clear out seam (or skinny post) with No. 1 (X) on the dig route (breaks between a depth of 12-15 yards).
To the closed side of the formation, No. 1 (Z) runs a 9 (fade) route with No. 2 (Y) on the shallow drive route in front of the Nickel back.
In Cover 2, the Mike ’backer (M) will open his hips to the passing strength (two-wide receiver side) and carry/match the seam (H). That allows the offense to run the Mike ‘backer up the field (while also occupying the deep-half safety). This creates a soft hole in the zone for the X receiver to break inside on the dig route.
However, we also need to focus on the Nickel back (N). As a seam-hook defender (drop between the numbers and the hash), the Nickel will sink and cushion the dig route.
You want to run the tight end underneath on the shallow drive route to set the bait for the Nickel. Force the defender to squat (or settle his feet) with a receiver in front of him. That will open up the throwing lane and allow the quarterback to target the X receiver for a positive gain.
Where does this route show up? Think of 3rd-and-7-10 situations or 3rd-and-11-plus. A smart call as it takes advantage of the base two-deep coaching points/techniques to remove the Mike ’backer in the middle of the field.
Inside the Locker Room: The Importance of Special Teams in the Playoffs
The speed of the game takes a step forward in the NFL playoffs.
With playoff checks on the line and a possible chance at a Super Bowl ring, these matchups in January will be faster than anything we have seen over the past four months of the regular season.
But don’t forget about the kicking game, the four core special teams units, that will play a major role starting this weekend.
Special teams were a big part of my career as a player, and the intensity rose in January during the playoffs. Field position is crucial, mistakes are magnified and penalties in the return game can cripple a team when it's in a win-or-go-home situation.
In the 2002 NFC Wild Card game, I was playing for the Packers at Lambeau versus Michael Vick and the Falcons. We struggled on offense and couldn’t contain Vick on the defensive side of the ball.
However, another issue was our special teams execution.
We had a punt blocked inside our own 20-yard line. A play I still think about. Scoop and score for the Falcons.
After that, the wheels came off the season in a game we should have won as a 12-4 football team playing at home in the snow.
You can’t make mistakes in the kicking game and expect to advance. That means turnovers, a penalty deep in your own territory, the inability to play disciplined football in your coverage lanes or missing tackles in the open field that lead to big returns.
So, while we sit back and watch Rodgers, Luck, Brees, McCoy, etc. this weekend in the playoffs, keep an eye on those guys on special teams.
Because they could be the difference between your team advancing to the next round or heading home for the offseason.
Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL national lead writer for Bleacher Report.