Former NFL defensive back Matt Bowen previews the start of the 2014 regular season with a focus on scheme and personnel in the film room.
Here are 10 things to watch for this season when you turn on the tape: a quick breakdown in coverages, concepts and personnel from an X’s and O’s perspective.
1. Seahawks Cover 3 Defense
Seattle leans on its Cover 3 shell (three-deep, four-under), but the focus here has to be on personnel and the technique utilized outside of the numbers at the cornerback position.
With a front four that can get home—and free safety Earl Thomas closing the middle of the field—the Seahawks can gain depth with their underneath defenders (curl-flat, middle hook) while allowing their corners (Richard Sherman, Byron Maxwell) to jam and funnel receivers from an outside leverage position (match vertical releases with man technique).
This isn’t complex football. However, with the amount of speed the Seahawks have at all three levels of the field, this Cover 3 scheme caters specifically to the talent in Pete Carroll’s defense.
2. Explosive Run Plays vs. Nickel Fronts
I’ve been talking about the nickel run game for the last couple of weeks because I believe we will see more offenses attacking two-deep shells (Cover 2, 2-Man) out of Posse/11 (3WR-1TE-1RB), Jet/10 (4WR-1RB) and Houston/20 (3WR-2RB) personnel groupings.
Here’s an example from the ’13 film with Reggie Bush on the inside zone scheme versus the Bears' nickel sub-package.
With a “light” box (six-/seven-man front) to work against, offenses can run the inside zone, one-back power, split zone, etc., to take advantage of the numbers at the line of scrimmage.
If opposing defenses want to sit in Cover 2 to limit the vertical passing game, then run the ball out of one-back looks and force the safeties to fill the alley or make a tackle in space.
3. Packaged Plays
Packaged plays (multiple reads within the scheme) were a topic of discussion in 2013, and I expect to see even more this season to put stress of defensive run/pass keys.
As you can see from the All-22 tape, the Bears offense can run the inside zone, pull the ball on the quarterback keep, throw the bubble screen, hit the tight end seam or come back to the X receiver on the slant.
A read scheme we see every week from Chip Kelly’s offense in Philadelphia, these packaged plays are tough to prepare for from a defensive perspective as they challenge second-level defenders to play with solid eye discipline.
4. “Big Nickel”
The Saints showcased their “big nickel” sub-package last season (three safeties in the game), and I’m curious if more defenses use this personnel in 2014.
This is a pressure package from the Saints last season with “big nickel” on the field versus the Bears at Soldier Field.
Rob Ryan’s defense walks two safeties down to the open side of the formation (with a three-deep shell over the top) and sends pressure to produce a sack versus Jay Cutler.
This type of sub-package allows secondaries to play more matchups, in my opinion (tight end), disguise their looks and support the inside alley versus the run game while also sending pressure from a variety of alignments.
5. TE Seam vs. “Red” Cover 2
Cover 2 (or “Red 2”) inside of the red zone would be at the top of my call sheet as a defensive coordinator in the NFL. Put a tent on the top of the defense (protect the end zone) and force the ball to go underneath.
However, with the athletic ability at the tight end position, the inside seam creates a tough matchup for the “Mike” ‘backer when he has to run the middle of the field.
As a defense, you know the seam route is coming. But with both safeties usually occupied by outside verticals (forcing them to overlap the seam on the throw), this matchup allows the quarterback to put the ball away from the linebacker’s leverage.
Expect this to continue in 2014 versus Cover 2 defenses.
6. 49ers Power Run Game, Tank/22 Personnel
I love watching 49ers tape because they are old school when it comes to the power run game. Think of Power O, Counter OF, G-Lead, Lead Open and the Wham.
And they will run the ball out of Tank/22 personnel (1WR-2TE-2RB) to find out if opposing defenses can match up at the point of attack.
Here’s a look at the Power O (fullback kick-out, guard pull) from the divisional playoffs versus the Panthers.
The 49ers kick out the edge support, lead up onto the second level with the backside guard and gash on the top defenses in the NFL.
If you want to learn more about the power running game, check out the 49ers tape this season. It is downhill, physical football at its best.
7. Defensive Schemes vs. Peyton Manning, Broncos
Without the talent Seattle has in the secondary, opposing defenses won’t be able to copy the Seahawks game plan (Cover 3, 3 Buzz, Cover 1, 1 Robber) versus the Broncos.
But will we see more two-deep (Jaguars game plan in ’13) or some combination coverages like 2 “Buster” that the Colts showed last year?
In 2 “Buster,” one side of the field plays zone (Cover 2) with the other side in “trail” man (2-Man). This allows the defense to protect over the top while taking away the Levels concepts and Hi-Lo looks in the Broncos offensive system.
The point here is to mix up coverages versus Manning. And I’m curious to find out what defenses lead with after an offseason to study the Broncos offense.
8. More “Dakota” Formations
I use the term “Dakota” when talking about a 3x1 formation (Doubles Slot) with the tight end removed as the backside X receiver.
This allows the offense to generate specific matchups inside of the red zone (slant and fade) versus man coverage while also working the backside dig or “dino” (corner post) out in the field.
Here’s an example from 2013 with the Eagles' Zach Ertz as the backside X (Posse/11 personnel) running the “dino” stem for six points.
Remember, tight ends in today’s game give offensive coordinators formation flexibility when they set their game plans. And using the “Dakota” alignment puts the defense in an adverse position to match up with a corner or safety versus a tight end removed from the core of the formation.
9. “Trap” Coverages
Cover 2 “trap” (or “gold”) is a technique often associated with pressure that allows defenses to jump outside breaking routes with a “squat” corner reading inside.
This is from the Chargers-Bengals Wild Card Game this past season, with San Diego setting a “trap” for quarterback Andy Dalton.
In this technique, the cornerback reads inside to No. 2. If that slot receiver breaks on an outside cut, the cornerback then drops No. 1 (vertical) to safety over the top and jumps the option route.
And with pressure, as we see here, the defense can use inside “vertical hook” defenders to protect versus the seam or dig.
Keep an eye out for this technique during the season, because I saw it often in 2013 with cornerbacks in a position to bait the quarterback into throwing outside breaking cuts to the slot receiver.
10. “Switch” Verticals
With two receivers aligned in a tight split close together, the No. 1 receiver takes a hard inside release and stems vertically to the middle of the field to occupy the free safety.
This creates a natural “pick” situation versus Cover 1 for the slot receiver to release outside on the wheel/rail (defensive back has to bubble over pick).
And when working versus Cover 3, this allows the slot receiver to gain a free release (avoiding the re-route) against the curl-flat defender.
Here’s an example with the Bears' Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery on the “switch” release versus the Vikings Cover 3.
In Cover 3, the curl-flat defender has to run with the wheel. This puts Jeffery in a position to stack on top of the curl-flat defender down the field.
And even with the cornerback dropping Marshall to the free safety, Jeffery makes a ridiculous grab to finish this play for six points.
A common concept the Saints run with Jimmy Graham aligned as the No. 2 receiver inside, the “switch” vertical (post-wheel) is a combination you should look for this season.
Five “Sophomores” Primed for a Breakout Season in 2014
1. Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Vikings
With Norv Turner calling the plays this season in Minnesota, there is no question Patterson will be utilized within the entire route tree.
Patterson showcased his speed and open-field ability in the return game as a rookie, but look for Turner to create opportunities for the second-year wide receiver to run the intermediate passing game while also testing the top of the defense on the fade, deep 7 cut and the post.
The University of Tennessee product has the type of explosive play ability that will put some pressure on the secondary when opposing defenses load the front to limit Adrian Peterson and the Vikings run game.
2. Kenny Vaccaro, SS, Saints
Vaccaro’s versatility is the ideal fit for Rob Ryan’s scheme in New Orleans. Look at the coverage skills in the slot/over a tight end, the run support when he drops down into the box or the pressure he can bring off the edge in sub-packages.
When paired with free agent Jairus Byrd, the Saints have two safeties that give Ryan the flexibility to get creative in the game plan with pressure, two-deep, combination man, etc.
Watch how Vaccaro is utilized early this season, because I expect Ryan to align him all over the field to maximize his skill set.
3. Andre Ellington, RB, Cardinals
Ellington should produce this season as the No. 1 back in Arizona because of his combination of speed and vision in the run game, along with his skill set catching the ball out of the backfield as a receiver.
Watch for the cutback ability from Ellington to find running lanes and the burst he displays once he gets to the second level of the defense.
In today’s game, you want backs that can produce explosive plays and win in the open field. That’s what I see from Ellington in Bruce Arians’ offense.
4. Marcus Cooper, CB, Chiefs
Cooper was targeted often as a rookie and gave up some plays over the top versus veteran talent.
However, looking at Cooper’s size (6’2”), length and transition skills (plant and drive), the cornerback has the ability to play from a press alignment or drive on the ball from an off-man look.
Cooper’s technique at the point of attack has to improve in his second season, but he is a fit for the Chiefs' man-coverage schemes (Cover 1, 2-Man) when he can match up outside of the numbers.
I expect a developmental jump here from Cooper in 2014.
5. Jamie Collins, LB, Patriots
Collins has the athletic ability and size (6’3”, 250 lbs) to play multiple roles for the Patriots in 2014 given his versatility at the linebacker position in Bill Belichick’s defense.
The linebacker can run the inside seam versus a tight end, drop into a coverage as an underneath zone defender and make plays off the ball at the second level because of his fluid movement skills.
I would describe Collins as a “hybrid” fit on the Patriots defense, and that will allow Belichick to utilize his talent as a three-down player this season.
Five Rookies to Watch Early in 2014
Jadeveon Clowney, OLB, Texans
It’s easy to drop the No. 1 overall pick on this list, but look at the plays Clowney made that jumped off the tape during the preseason.
His transition to the outside linebacker position in the 30 front will take some time, but I’m more focused on his ability to disrupt the line of scrimmage with his speed off the ball and the power he displays on contact.
Early in the season, Clowney’s impact should come in the Texans sub-packages when he lines up with veteran J.J. Watt. He was drafted No. 1 to rush the passer and collapse the pocket on the edge.
Brandin Cooks, WR, Saints
Cooks has an electric skill set at the wide receiver position. Think of the top-end speed, the lateral change-of-direction ability and the ball skills at the point of attack to make plays in traffic.
In Sean Payton’s offense, Cooks can align in multiple spots to run the quick game or get down the field to press the safeties in the deep half.
The Saints are loaded on offense, and Cooks gives quarterback Drew Brees another target that can make plays after the catch when he has room to work with.
Look for solid numbers from the rookie this season.
Carlos Hyde, RB, 49ers
Frank Gore is the No. 1 back in San Francisco, but don’t forget about the touches Hyde will get on Sundays.
The Ohio State product is a downhill back with power and size (6’0”, 230 lbs) who can win between the tackles while also showing the vision and patience to let blocks develop on the edge.
And within a system that leans on the power run game (as we talked about above), Hyde should produce for Jim Harbaugh's offense as a secondary option behind Gore.
Calvin Pryor, SS, Jets
In Rex Ryan’s defense, Pryor can be that downhill safety in the Jets system that makes plays as an eighth defender in the box.
The first-round pick is very physical when dropping down in the run front, and he can get off the numbers in Cover 2 to play the fade route or the deep 15-yard dig.
Plus, the Jets can utilize the rookie in blitz schemes. This is where Ryan can cater to Pryor’s talent in the box to get production out of the safety when he adds to the blitz front.
Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Panthers
I questioned the Panthers' pick of Benjamin in the first round of the draft because I didn’t see the Florida State product making a quick transition at the wide receiver position.
However, I’ve been impressed watching the rookie during the preseason versus press man.
Benjamin has shown the ability to win on the release, stack throughout the stem and use his size (6’5”, 240 lbs) to create leverage at the break point down the field.
The game will change once the regular season starts, but Benjamin has shown the ability to make plays and go get the football. That’s a major plus for Cam Newton and the Panthers.
Three Playbooks to Study
Lovie Smith, Bucs
Lovie Smith is going to play Cover 2 (Tampa 2), Cover 1, Under 10 (weak-side man rotation), Cover 3 and use a combination of zone/man pressure in both the 40 front and in the defensive sub-packages.
But the story here for the Bucs is the personnel on all three levels of the defense—starting with defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and “Will” ‘backer Lavonte David. Those are key spots within this scheme, and both players bring Pro Bowl talent to the stadium.
Given how Lovie teaches from a technique and discipline standpoint on the field, this should be a fast, aggressive defense down in Tampa that forces turnovers this season.
Josh McDaniels, Patriots
The Patriots will once again be multiple in terms of their personnel groupings this season under McDaniels, but will this offense show more Ace/12 personnel (2WR-2TE-1RB) with the addition of tight end Tim Wright after the Logan Mankins trade?
Once Rob Gronkowski is cleared to play, Tom Brady will have two tight ends to work the inside seam, the 7-route in the red zone and the deep dig that converts in the middle of the field.
I see a balanced offensive system this year for the Patriots with Posse/11, Regular/21 (2WR-1TE-2RB) and Heavy/13 (1WR-1RB-3TE) in addition to the matchups they can create inside of the numbers with two tight ends on the field.
Gregg Williams, Rams
Gregg Williams utilizes multiple packages and personnel groupings in his game plan to create positive matchups while also bringing exotic pressure to dictate the flow of the game from a defensive perspective.
Here’s a look at one of Williams' Cover 7 pressures when he was down in Tennessee last season.
However, with the amount of talent the Rams have along the defensive line in Robert Quinn, Chris Long, Michael Brockers and rookie Aaron Donald, could the Rams play more coverage (Cover 2) this season?
With the loss of quarterback Sam Bradford to an ACL injury, there will be an enormous amount of pressure on the Rams defense this season. And I think Williams’ unit will respond with a physical brand of football that alters the way opposing offenses game-plan.
Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.