Every Thursday, former NFL defensive back Matt Bowen brings you “The Second Level,” a breakdown of the league from multiple angles.
As we head into the NFL Divisional Playoffs, let’s prep for the weekend with some keys—or alerts—based off the film. Here are five things to look for when the games kick off on Saturday.
Five Keys to Study from the Film
1. Saints' wheel/switch concept vs. Seahawks Cover 3
How will the Saints and Drew Brees test the Seahawks Cover 3 looks? Think of the inside seam (four verticals), three-level concepts (sail route) and the wheel route to target Jimmy Graham off the switch release.
Here’s a look at Graham on the wheel versus the Jets. As we can see, the wide receiver occupies the cornerback and the deep middle-of-the-field safety. That creates a one-on-one matchup versus a safety/linebacker playing the curl-flat drop (who has to carry the wheel in Cover 3).
Now, check out the same route—versus the same coverage—in Seattle in Week 13. Instead of playing to the upfield shoulder (and funneling the receiver to free safety Earl Thomas), Byron Maxwell drops the post and drives downhill on Graham to impact the route.
Let’s see if the Saints adjust by running this concept to the field (instead of the boundary) to create more space and give Brees an opportunity to produce an explosive play against the NFL’s top secondary in Seattle.
2. Chargers' defensive pre-snap looks
I was impressed with the Chargers' defensive game plan from their Week 16 win over the Broncos because of the multiple fronts/coverage they put on tape.
The Chargers played Cover 3, Cover 6, 2 Trap, 1 Robber, etc. Plus, they showed the ability to disguise their pressure concepts with safety Eric Weddle aligning all over the field.
Check out this alignment from San Diego. It shows overload pressure to the closed (strong) side of the formation and sends the nickel off the open-side slot. This is only a four-man rush (drop 7), but with the two underneath defenders buzzing hard to the flat (and a three-deep shell in the back end), the Chargers can play the short-to-intermediate route tree in the Broncos playbook.
3. T.Y. Hilton in a slot alignment
What are you going to see from Hilton in the slot? Look for the 7 (corner) route, slant, option and the shallow drive concept (underneath crosser).
Here’s an example of the shallow drive route from the Wild Card Game against the Chiefs. The Colts sit down Coby Fleener on the inside curl (which plays out like a Hi-Lo concept) and run off the closed-side cornerback. With Dunta Robinson playing from an off-man alignment and giving up a large cushion on the release, he can’t recover versus the speed of Hilton.
Let’s see if the Patriots tighten down the cushion versus Hilton in the slot and challenge these inside breaking concepts to limit the wide receiver’s production.
4. Shane Vereen, Patriots' red-zone “pick” routes
In the deep red zone (plus-10-yard line), look for Tom Brady and the Patriots to create “pick” situations for Vereen in the flat.
What’s the alert? Keep an eye on the pre-snap motion/movement that removes Vereen from the core of the formation to a stack/bunch alignment. This allows the Patriots to send him to the flat, paired with an inside release to create traffic in man coverage.
Here’s a view of the pick route versus the Bills, with Vereen motioning to the open side of the formation. The Patriots release the slot receiver on an inside stem, create traffic and eliminate the linebacker’s ability to match to the flat route.
5. Panthers' outside breaking routes
Go back to the fourth quarter during the Panthers' win over the 49ers in Week 10 and study the pre-snap splits/releases of Steve Smith and Ted Ginn. That will tell you what to play for outside of the numbers.
With a “plus-split” (plus three yards on top of the numbers) and a vertical release, you should expect the comeback. With a “plus-split” and a hard, inside release to the bottom of the numbers (to create room to the sideline), that means the out route is coming.
This is Ginn at the top of the stem (plus-split, vertical release) on the comeback. Push the cornerback up the field, force him to open the hips and break downhill back to the football.
Cam Newton delivers a big-time throw here with the ball on the opposite hash to move the sticks on an outside breaking route.
Five Things to Watch for Heading into the Divisional Playoffs
1. Michael Crabtree’s impact versus the Panthers
Crabtree didn’t play during the Week 10 loss to the Panthers, and I’m interested to see what type of impact he can have as a top target for Colin Kaepernick this Sunday in Carolina.
I was impressed with Crabtree’s film from the win over the Packers. He ran the fade, the smash, 7 (corner), whip route, etc. versus both press and off-man looks while producing 125 yards on eight receptions.
He was strong at the point of attack, gained leverage on inside breaking routes and also showed the ability to find the ball on the back-shoulder throw up the sideline.
In “gold,” the cornerback will drop the outside vertical to the safety (think Cover 2 technique over the top) and squat in the flat. That allows the cornerback to read inside to No. 2 (slot) and jump the out cut.
With Welker back on the field for the Broncos, the inside option route (or quick flat) has to be accounted for. Can the Chargers dial up this technique and steal one in a third-down situation while also bringing pressure?
I already talked about the Chargers' defensive looks above, but this is another example of how coordinator John Pagano can scheme/game-plan to take away Manning’s top underneath targets.
3. Saints’ ability to make defensive corrections
The tape from the Saints' Monday night loss in Seattle should be a good teaching tool for Rob Ryan’s defense this week in their game prep.
The Saints made multiple assignment/technique busts in that loss to the Seahawks. Think poor execution here over scheme. That’s what I saw on the film versus the boot, zone read and inside of the red zone.
Here’s a look at the zone read from that matchup. With the defensive end crashing on the dive and the linebacker stepping inside, there is no one to scrape to Russell Wilson. That’s a free 10 yards and a first down.
Let’s see if the Saints can make the corrections off the tape and play a better brand of defensive football this Saturday afternoon.
4. Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis versus 49ers' power run game
If you want to see top-tier linebacker play, then turn on some Panthers tape from this season and take a look at both Kuechly and Davis. They are downhill players who can also pursue laterally to the line of scrimmage versus the run game.
That’s crucial when you line up opposite Jim Harbaugh’s offense and the two-back power schemes (Power O, Counter OF, etc.). Plus, don’t forget about the linebackers’ ability to play through cut-back lanes and scrape over the top to defend any run from Frank Gore that bounces to the edge.
Along with 49ers inside 'backers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, this is some of the best talent you will see at the position in the NFL. And that’s what we should expect on the playoff stage.
5. Colts' "2-Buster" coverage versus Tom Brady
"2-Buster" is a combination coverage. Think of splitting the field in half with zone (Cover 2) to one side and man (2-Man) to the other.
The Colts rolled out this scheme in their win over the Broncos earlier in the season. They were able to generate edge pressure with Robert Mathis and play coverage in the back end.
Why run this versus Brady and the Patriots? It allows the Colts to take away route combinations (smash-7, smash-seam, Hi-Lo) with safety help over the top while also playing aggressively underneath in trail-man technique versus Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, etc.
Here’s a look at how 2-Buster plays out with the Colts showing Cover 2 to the closed side (smash-7) and 2-Man to the open side (verticals).
All-22 Rewind: Colts' Red Zone Cover 4 Beater
Let’s go back to the Colts' win over the Chiefs in the AFC Wild Card matchup and break down the smash-divide concept versus Cover 4 in the red zone. It's a good opportunity to focus on the route, coverage scheme and primary read for quarterback Andrew Luck.
Chiefs vs. Colts
Personnel: Posse/11 (3WR-1TE-1RB)
Formation: Doubles Slot “Orange” Gun Far
Offensive Concept: Smash-Divide Route
Defensive Scheme: Cover 4
To the closed (strong) side of the formation, the Colts are running the smash-divide concept with No. 1 on the smash, No. 2 (T.Y. Hilton) running the 7 (corner) route and No. 3 (Fleener) working up the field on the seam. To the open (weak) side, the Colts show the slant (3x1 formation equals an automatic alert to backside slant).
In Quarters technique, the closed-side cornerback sinks and maintains outside leverage versus Hilton on the 7 cut, with strong safety Kendrick Lewis splitting No. 2/No. 3 on his initial alignment. Underneath, the "Mike" linebacker drops to the middle hook with the curl-flat defender buzzing to the smash route.
The Chiefs' Mike 'backer gains some depth and cushions Fleener on the seam route; however, check out Lewis. Instead of splitting No. 2/No. 3—and staying square in his pedal—the Kansas City safety puts his eyes on Hilton (plays out as a bracket look with strong safety/cornerback).
That allows Fleener to stem this route up the hash before free safety Eric Berry can overlap the throw from the open side of the formation.
With Lewis leaning to Hilton and keeping an inside position to play for a possible post or “dino” stem (break to the corner, work back to the post), Luck drops this ball over the top of the Mike 'backer in the middle of the field to split the safeties for six points.
Football 101: Cover 7/Combination Man
In my film breakdowns, I use the term “combination man” often when talking about bracket coverage, inside double-teams or man-under technique to take away a certain receiver on the field.
Today, let’s use the playbook diagram of Cover 7 to highlight the “slice” call that gives the secondary an opportunity to game-plan a receiver based on a down-and-distance situation.
Cover 7: Slice/Fist
In Cover 7, the secondary has the option of using multiple calls. Here are a few examples:
Slice: Double (or bracket) the slot receiver
Boston: Double (or bracket) the running back
Fist: 2-Man technique
Thumbs: 2-Man with cornerback in deep half, safety in trail-man
Swipe: 2-Man with vertical hook defenders (match to No. 1, No. 2 underneath)
Solo: Man coverage with no help over the top
In the diagram I drew up, I have the defense playing a “slice” call to the open side of the formation versus the slot receiver (W) with nickel personnel (five defensive backs) on the field.
The nickelback (N) plays with an outside shade, while the free safety (FS) drops down at the snap to take away a possible inside breaking concept.
Think of using the “slice” call versus Broncos wide receiver Wes Welker in a 3rd-and-2-6 situation to limit the option route. This allows the defense to bracket the receiver with the nickel showing outside leverage on a route that breaks back to the middle of the field (free safety will jump the inside cut).
To the closed (strong) side of the formation, I have the strong safety (SS) dropping to the deep half (top of the numbers landmark) in a "fist" call (2-Man) with both the "Sam" 'backer (S) and the cornerback (C) in trail-man technique. This allows the cornerback to use his help over the top and sit hard to the inside hip while also protecting the Sam 'backer, who is aligned over the tight end.
The one weakness? Check out the cornerback to the open side of the formation. He is in a “solo” call. No different than playing in a zero pressure (blitz with no safety help), the cornerback aligns with an inside shade and uses the sideline as his help.
However, whenever you take away a specific player on the field with a bracket or double-team, you have to be prepared to win some one-on-one matchups.
So, how do you beat the “slice” call in the slot? Let me know in the comments section.
Inside the Locker Room: Eye Discipline at the Top of the Route Stem
Once the offseason hits, I will go more into detail on specific defensive techniques using the All-22 film, chalkboard diagrams, etc.
However, after watching the 49ers vs. Packers tape, I couldn’t help but notice the lack of eye discipline versus basic underneath concepts.
At every level of the game, the top of the route stem (receiver break) is where separation occurs in man coverage. And in the majority of those situations, eye discipline is the reason.
Instead of driving to the upfield shoulder of the receiver, the natural reaction of defensive backs is to stick their eyes on the quarterback before they are in a position to make a play on the ball.
Here’s an example with Packers safety Morgan Burnett versus 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree on a “whip” route (stem inside, plant, pivot back to the flat).
By looking back in at Colin Kaepernick, Burnett loses the receiver and allows Crabtree to work away from his leverage to the flat. This also forces Burnett to take a poor angle to the ball once he gets his eyes back to the receiver.
And the result is a missed tackle in the open field—all because of the lack of eye discipline from the defensive back.
So, when you sit down to watch the NFL games this weekend, focus on those defensive backs at the top of the route stem in Cover 1. Do they have their eyes in the right place?
Because if they don’t, that’s a completion at the NFL level.
Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.