2014 NFL Divisional Playoffs: Which Flaws Can Be Exploited This Weekend?
Now that we've reached the divisional round of the NFL playoffs, we know the eight remaining teams are all very strong contenders.
That isn't to say they are without flaw.
While most of these teams lack major flaws, they can still be beat, and at this level of competition, even a tiny crack in the armor is enough to be fatally exploited and cause disaster.
This week we take a look at the best way each of the eight remaining playoff teams can be beat and how their opponents might take advantage of it.
Of course, you can assume that each team is well aware of its own faults and will do everything it can to avoid falling victim to them.
Seattle Seahawks Can Be Attacked on the Ground
We know the Seattle Seahawks can stop the pass—even when the quarterback throwing the ball is of the caliber of the New Orleans Saints’ Drew Brees.
The Seahawks secondary is opportunistic and tenacious. While Brees will have to throw the ball, the key to this game could be when the Saints and Brees don’t.
Seattle has had the most trouble on defense when a running back has been able to hammer them and the opposite team has controlled the clock.
For example, in Week 14 when they lost to the San Francisco 49ers, Frank Gore ran for 110 yards and the Niners edged the Seahawks in time of possession 32:28 to 27:32.
In Week 16, rookie Andre Ellington and veteran Rashard Mendenhall of the Arizona Cardinals combined for 127 yards, with the Cardinals controlling the clock for 37:24 versus the Seahawks’ 22:36. The Cardinals won that game—in Seattle, no less.
The Seahawks first struggled with a heavy-run attack back in Week 9, when they were obliterated in the first half of a game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
During that game, the Buccaneers had control of the ball for 19:04 in the first half with running back Mike James gaining 82 yards. The Bucs led the Seahawks 21-7 after two quarters and were well on their way to winning the game.
For a great overview of how Tampa Bay was able to succeed in running the ball—as well as some other great All-22 analysis of the Seahawks—check out Doug Farrar’s "How to Beat the Seahawks" at SI.com.
During the second half, though, Tampa Bay imploded, and while James eventually totaled 158 yards (and the Bucs gained 205 on the ground overall) the time of possession evened up as the Buccaneers had their drives die in the red zone, while their defense collapsed.
The Seahawks had the ball for 19:56 in the second half, while the Bucs only had it for 17:33.
However, even that shows how vital time of possession—and therefore, the run—is for opposing teams.
If the Saints want to win this game, it will probably not happen just because of Drew Brees' arm.
Force New Orleans Saints Quarterback Drew Brees to Make Bad Throws
This year, when the New Orleans Saints have lost, their quarterback Drew Brees has thrown a pair of interceptions.
He doesn’t do it often—just four times during the regular season. However, three of those multi-interception games were losses, and the fourth—Week 2 against Tampa Bay—was a game they barely won.
It happened last weekend against the Philadelphia Eagles as well—another close-fought game which almost went the wrong way.
In losses to the Carolina Panthers and St. Louis Rams, Brees was also under constant pressure. He was sacked six times by Carolina and four by the Rams.
The Seattle Seahawks will want to attack this two ways then.
First, they’ll want to pressure Brees as much as possible.
Last time the two teams met—a Week 13 game Seattle won—the Seahawks may not have sacked Brees a ton, but they hit him six times. That was enough to throw his accuracy off and limit him to shorter, quicker passes.
Secondly, they’ll want to play some very tight coverage on the receivers. They did that very well in Week 13, though they didn’t generate any interceptions.
However, if they can bring the pressure on Brees and play tight, physical coverage on the receivers, that should change.
And chances are, if it does, they will force some turnovers.
Colin Kaepernick Can Struggle When Pressured After His First Read
Once again, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick was able to destroy the Green Bay Packers with his legs as much as he did with his arm.
However, while Kaepernick can throw the ball—and run it—he has struggled to be consistent during the season and the Carolina Panthers were able to take advantage of that in their Week 10 victory over San Francisco.
The key to that victory—as broken down by David Neumann at Niners Nation—was to pressure Kaepernick, stymie the offense on first and second down and force Kaepernick to throw for a big play on a long third down.
This played into the defense’s hands as well as shone a spotlight on something Kaepernick has struggled with—which is quick secondary decision-making.
In Week 10, the Panthers were often able to shut down Kaepernick’s first read and pressure him before he could get to the second.
Once that happened, he was more prone to hesitate and it was easier for the defense to prevent him from making a first down.
However, one thing the Green Bay Packers struggled to do—especially in the second half—was get pressure on Kaepernick and contain him when they did.
During Week 10, the Panthers had Kaepernick under constant pressure, sacking him six times and constantly getting into the backfield.
If the Panthers can replicate that this weekend, they’ll have a good shot at keeping the Niners offense under control.
They certainly have the athletic linebackers to pursue him even if he gets outside the pocket as he did last weekend, so they can risk attacking him with multiple pass-rushers.
Long Third Downs Are the Carolina Panthers—and Cam Newton's—Achilles Heel
The best thing the San Francisco 49ers can do to win this game is to force Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton to throw longer passes on third down.
The key for them is shorter third downs, something which comes when Newton is able to move the ball on the first two downs.
Newton himself, Loop points out, is ranked No. 14 in the NFL on third-down passes which go for first downs—succeeding just 41.1 percent of the time.
While that ranking isn’t horrible, Newton is in the lower half of the starters in the NFL for that list. It’s only a few percentage points—and when Tom Brady and Matt Stafford are below you, it isn’t the end of the world—but it points to a need for the 49ers to keep those third downs long.
Force Newton to pass for seven or eight yards and you will get the ball back almost 60 percent of the time.
It’s even more critical with Steve Smith likely playing, but gimpy, due to his lingering PCL injury from a few weeks ago. Smith isn’t Newton’s only weapon—tight end Greg Olsen is having a strong season—but if he’s limited, that’s one less thing the Niners defense needs to worry about.
These are two evenly matched defenses with similar offensive outputs. If the Niners are going to tip the scales in their favor, they’ll want Newton throwing long on third down.
Keep Indianapolis Colts Quarterback Andrew Luck Under Heavy Pressure
Last week we learned that you can never count Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck out. If there were lingering doubts that he was a guy who could pull his team out of the abyss (which they had put themselves in, incidentally), last Saturday night put them to rest.
Of course, with a suspect defense, the Colts are prone to fall behind quite often, which sets Luck up for plenty of great comebacks.
So how do you stop Luck? You send pressure at him—a lot.
Recently, fellow Bleacher Report staff member and AFC East Lead Writer Erik Frenz broke down several ways the New England Patriots defense can stifle the Colts offense.
In that piece, he pointed out that the more pressure you send at Luck, the shakier he is.
That seems obvious, but as Frenz points out in the piece, teams aren’t sending extra defenders at him as much this year.
So obvious it may be, teams aren't doing it because they were more worried he would scramble or dump the pass over their blitzing linebackers than they were he would pick them apart from the pocket.
However, this weekend the Patriots should absolutely blitz him—often.
Frenz points to Pro Football Focus’ passing summary on Luck (subscription required), which shows that his quarterback rating drops drastically under pressure.
With no pressure, Luck’s QB rating is 100.2—under pressure, it drops all the way down to 63.1. When he isn’t blitzed, Luck’s rating is an 89.9. When he is blitzed? Down to 83.
Last week, the Kansas City Chiefs kept the pressure up over the course of the game, but Luck was still able to succeed in large part because the Kansas City secondary wasn’t up to the task of containing T.Y. Hilton, especially after Brandon Flowers went down in the fourth quarter with a concussion, via John Breech of CBSSports.com.
Which is why, in addition to pressuring Luck, the Patriots should have Aqib Talib on Hilton every down they can.
Talib is a physical corner and just the type of player to get into Hilton’s head a bit with some early contact. For longer routes, some safety help wouldn’t go amiss, but a lot of Hilton’s damage seems to come after the catch, so knocking him off his route would go a long way towards helping keep Luck from having his favorite weapon.
Run the Ball Down the New England Patriots' Throat
Last week, when things looked grim and the game seemed lost, the Indianapolis Colts managed to find a way to come back from a huge deficit and beat the Kansas City Chiefs.
While quarterback Andrew Luck has rightfully received a lot of the praise for this, we shouldn’t overlook Donald Brown.
Brown rushed the ball 11 times for 55 yards, most of it in the second half of the game. He ran for a very effective 5.0 yards-per-carry average and did more than his fair share in turning that game around.
What does this have to do with the coming game against the New England Patriots?
Just this: As much as Andrew Luck is a fantastic quarterback, perhaps the Colts should run Donald Brown as frequently as possible.
The Patriots are awful defending the run, ranked No. 30 against it this past season and allowing 134.1 yards per game on the ground.
It was bad even before Vince Wilfork went down in Week 4, and things have gone steadily downhill since.
While the Patriots don’t allow many rushing touchdowns (just 11 this season), you can move the ball and eat up clock. Brown, while no Adrian Peterson, is an effective runner and can move the ball both between the tackles as well as on the outside.
Brown should get the ball often this weekend and the Colts should have plenty of success moving the ball on the ground. As a bonus, Brown can be on the field on every down, since his is a solid receiver out of the backfield as well.
Tempting as it is to just have Luck air the ball out, the Colts have a much better matchup on the ground and they should attack the Patriots where they are weakest—defending the run.
As a sidenote—and I'm not alone in this—the Colts should probably keep the ball out of Trent Richardson's hands.
Denvers' Defense Lends Itself to Long, Clock-Killing Drives
While it seems overly simplistic to say “keep the ball out of Peyton Manning’s hands,” that’s how the San Diego Chargers beat the Broncos back in Week 15.
However, it’s more about taking advantage of a Denver Broncos defense ranked No. 14 in the NFL with a San Diego Chargers offense which was ranked No. 5 than it is just "keeping the ball away from Manning."
Both games between the Chargers and Broncos were tight affairs in which San Diego was able to stay in the game in part by controlling the clock.
In Week 15, the Chargers held the ball for 38:49, while the Broncos had it for just 21:11. In Week 10, a game Denver won 28-20, the Chargers still held the ball for 38:03 compared to Denver’s 21:57.
The Denver defense is vulnerable to long, sustained drives. If the Chargers don’t want to end up in a shootout—and they certainly don’t—they will want to hold onto the ball.
It’s not just about keeping Manning off the field—though that is absolutely a factor—it’s about setting the pace and tempo themselves.
They can do that against this Denver defense and keep Manning on the sidelines, where he can’t win games.
The San Diego Chargers Defense Matches Up Poorly to the Denver Broncos Offense
If the Denver Broncos want to beat the San Diego Chargers—and wash the bad taste they have from their Week 15 loss out of their collective mouths—they just needs to do what comes naturally.
The Chargers match up pretty poorly with Denver’s passing offense—a No. 29 defense against the pass versus a No. 1 passing offense.
San Diego has allowed 23 touchdowns through the air while only generating 11 interceptions and just 35 sacks.
In the Week 10 victory over the Chargers, Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning threw for 330 yards and four touchdowns with no turnovers. During their Week 15 loss to San Diego, Manning still threw for 289 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
That was during a game where the Chargers possessed the ball for 38:49. Despite losing, the Broncos were able to produce good numbers through the air in almost half the time that the Chargers took to do anything.
Simply put, the Chargers' weakness lines up perfectly to the Broncos' strength.
Yes, they beat the Cincinnati Bengals with some key turnovers, but even when imploding, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton put up 334 yards on this defense.
It not only can be done, it has been done repeatedly.
The Broncos should take the ball first if they can and come out passing early and often, piling on yards and points immediately and keeping the accelerator pressed firmly to the floor.
The Chargers will not be able to stop them through the air, which is where the Broncos move the ball best.
Andrew Garda is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association. He is also a member of the fantasy football staff at FootballGuys.com and the NFL writer at CheeseheadTV.com. You can follow him at @andrew_garda on Twitter.