Every Thursday, former NFL defensive back Matt Bowen brings you his film study: a breakdown of the league from multiple angles.
Here are 10 thoughts from a scheme and matchup perspective as we look ahead to the Week 1 schedule in the NFL.
1. Kam Chancellor’s Impact in Seahawks Single-High Schemes
When breaking down the Seahawks technique and personnel in their single-high safety defenses, it’s easy to focus on Richard Sherman at the cornerback position and the ability of free safety Earl Thomas in the deep middle of the field.
However, let’s not forget about the impact Kam Chancellor brings as an underneath defender in Cover 3 (middle-hook/curl-flat) or as a “rover” in Cover 1.
Here’s a look at Chancellor as the middle-hook defender in 3 “Buzz” (safety slides inside to the middle-hook zone) with both cornerbacks matching the vertical releases (outside leverage/funnel).
Chancellor can increase/shorten his depth based on the sticks, take away the underneath crossing routes and fit up versus the run game to utilize his physicality at the line of scrimmage.
In Cover 1 “Rover,” Chancellor drops down to the inside hole. This allows the cornerbacks to funnel shallow crossing routes to their underneath help.
This is an example of how this scheme plays out with Chancellor driving on the Hi-Lo combination versus the Broncos in the Super Bowl.
With the Seahawks playing man coverage from an outside leverage position (Thomas in the post), Chancellor rolls down at the snap and baits Peyton Manning into targeting Demaryius Thomas on the underneath crossing route.
This allows Chancellor to drive on the ball and finish with a violent, clean hit versus the Broncos wide receiver.
Looking ahead to the Thursday night matchup versus Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, let’s focus on Chancellor’s ability to impact the short-to-intermediate route tree as an underneath defender.
That's where the Seahawks strong safety can take away the Hi-Lo combinations, stick out and cushion the inside vertical seam while also showing up in the run front versus Eddie Lacy and the Packers' one-back schemes.
2. Matching Up With Jimmy Graham
How will the Falcons defense scheme against Graham and his ability to win one-on-one matchups inside?
Do you play Quarters (Cover 4), some combination-man (Cover 7) or sit back in two-deep (Cover 2, 2-Man) to limit Graham when he is aligned as the No. 2 (slot) or the No. 3 (count outside-in) to the strong side of the formation?
Along with his ability to win as the backside “X” in the 3x1 “Dakota” formation (slant/fade), Graham can run the entire route tree when he aligns inside of the numbers.
As you can see here, the tight end can press the top of the defense on the seam and 7 cut (corner route), work away from leverage on inside breaking routes (dig, slant, shallow drive, deep over) or put stress on underneath defenders to carry the wheel route up the field.
Given that the Saints added rookie wide receiver Brandin Cooks via the draft, this is a tough offense to prep for because of the multiple weapons Drew Brees has to work with at the skill positions.
And Graham could create the most stress for the Falcons coaching staff as they put this game plan together.
3. Broncos Personnel Adjustments Without Wes Welker
With Welker out the next four weeks due to a suspension, per ESPN's Adam Schefter, the Broncos and Peyton Manning will have to adjust on the offensive side of the ball.
I expect Denver to utilize both Andre Caldwell and rookie Cody Latimer in its Posse/11 personnel (3WR-1TE-1RB), while we could also see more Ace/12 personnel (2WR-2TE-1RB) to create 2x2 and 3x1 spread formations with an extra tight end in the game.
Remember, Manning wants to work the inside seam (Four verticals, 999 route) versus Cover 2, 2-Man and Cover 3 to expose the intermediate throwing lane in the middle of the field.
Here’s an example of that from the 2013 season (999 route) with Welker aligned as the No. 2 to the closed (strong) side of the formation versus the Colts.
With the Colts playing “trail-man” technique (inside leverage, low to the hip), Julius Thomas holds the safety over the top by stemming his route to the near hash. That allows Manning to target Welker on the seam route for an explosive gain.
The playbook isn’t going to change in Denver without Welker on the field. However, given the multiple coverage schemes that Indianapolis will throw at Manning (as they did in 2013), the ability to target the seam is key for the Broncos offense.
4. LeSean McCoy vs. Jaguars Defense
The Jaguars upgraded their defensive front seven this offseason under Gus Bradley, but can they limit LeSean McCoy and the Eagles run game on Sunday?
With an athletic offensive line, zone schemes (inside zone, split zone, stretch) and packaged plays, Chip Kelly’s team can create cutback lanes or attack the edge of the formation to give McCoy room to accelerate up the field.
Here’s an example of the Buck Sweep out of the gun with the Eagles using a “tackle over” look to create numbers at the point of attack while pulling both the guard and center to account for the linebackers scrapping over the top to the play side.
McCoy is excellent when he can use his lateral skill set and burst to push the ball to the second level. That creates negative situations for safeties that have to break down and tackle in space.
Let’s see if the additions the Jaguars made up front (Red Bryant, Chris Clemons) can help slow down this offense.
5. Rex Ryan’s Pressure Schemes vs. Rookie Derek Carr
The Jets are thin right now at the cornerback position, but with a rookie making his first pro start, why wouldn’t Ryan bring pressure to force Carr into making quick decisions with the ball?
New York has shown some zero-man this preseason, and we know that is a major part of Ryan’s blitz packages because of the film from 2013.
Check out this example of the Jets playing Cover 0 (no safety help) versus the Patriots last year.
On Sunday, the Jets can align their cornerbacks in a press alignment, force the ball to come out hot and challenge the rookie quarterback to make plays when he has to account for free rushers versus zero-man.
That's how you dictate the flow of the game from a defensive perspective.
6. Patriots “Pick” Routes in the Red Zone
When the Patriots move the ball into the deep red zone versus the Dolphins, keep an eye on how they create “pick” situations based on formation and pre-snap movement with running back Shane Vereen.
Check out this example versus the Ravens with Regular/21 personnel on the field (2WR-1TE-2RB) and the fullback removed to the open side of the formation.
Using pre-snap motion, the Patriots run the flat-7 combination with the fullback taking a hard, inside release to create a “pick” for Shane Vereen that allows the running back to buzz to the flat.
If tight end Rob Gronkowski is active this Sunday, the Patriots could show more Ace/12 personnel in these game situations, but don’t ignore how New England uses its pre-snap alignments to window dress obvious pick plays.
7. Lovie Smith’s Game Plan
The Bucs defensive playbook under Smith is much deeper than the Cover 2 scheme (two-deep, five-under) that we consistently associate with the new Tampa head coach.
However, given the production we have seen from Gerald McCoy this preseason, and the Bucs’ ability to rush with their front four, I wouldn’t be surprised if Smith leans on his Cover 2 defense versus Cam Newton and the Panthers.
Look for the Bucs to play that two-deep shell in 3rd-and-7-plus situations where the "Mike" ‘backer can run the inside seam with "Will" ‘backer Lavonte David in a position to break downhill versus the checkdown.
This Bucs defense played extremely fast on the preseason tape that I watched, and it has forced turnovers with the first unit on the field because of its ability to run to the ball.
And anytime you match up versus a quarterback who can extend plays or move the sticks with his feet on third downs, you want seven guys getting to landmark drops with their eyes up the field.
8. Keenan Allen’s Production vs. Patrick Peterson, Antonio Cromartie
The second-year wide receiver is a fluid route-runner with the ability to beat press-man because of his lateral movement on the release. This allows Allen to stack on top of the cornerback, create some separation and finish strong at the point of attack.
Here’s an example from the Chargers matchup in 2013 versus the Broncos, with Allen aligned in the slot.
Look at the footwork on the release that forces the cornerback to open the gate (open the hips) and trail versus the 9 (fade) route, with Allen finishing in the end zone for six points.
However, on Monday night, Allen will be tested against the Cardinals talent at the cornerback position.
Both Peterson and Cromartie will mix their looks/techniques (press, taxi, bail) and challenge Allen on the release while driving to the hip throughout the stem on the deep curl, comeback, levels concept, slant, etc.
In terms of matchups, I want to see Allen versus Peterson in prime time. That’s great football to open the season.
9. Cowboys Defensive Front Seven vs. 49ers Run Game
The Cowboys defense was gashed at times this preseason, and it’s not going to get any easier when it matches up to Jim Harbaugh’s club on Sunday when looking at the power-running game.
Defensive tackle Henry Melton should be back after missing time in the preseason, but do the Cowboys have enough talent at the linebacker position to fit up the run game and play with gap discipline versus 49ers backs Frank Gore and rookie Carlos Hyde?
As I’ve talked about before, the 49ers aren’t shy about lining up in Tank/22 personnel (1WR-2TE-2RB) and running base power schemes (Power O, Counter OF, G-Lead, Lead Open, Wham) to move the ball.
This is the wham scheme from last year’s matchup versus the Rams with the tight end on short motion to “trap” the nose guard.
The 49ers use a fold technique to kick out the defensive end, wham the nose and lead up on the Mike ‘backer to produce an explosive play on the ground.
These aren’t complex schemes, but until the Cowboys show they can handle the power game up front, I would expect Harbaugh to continue running the football in early down-and-distance situations.
10. T.Y. Hilton vs. Broncos secondary
During the preseason—and in 2013—the Colts utilized T.Y. Hilton on the shallow drive route to beat Cover 1, Cover 3 and pressure because of the receiver’s ability to work away from leverage or find soft holes to expose zone defenses.
This is an example from the Colts wild-card win over the Chiefs, with Hilton aligned inside at the slot versus Cover 1.
In this situation, the defensive back is playing off Hilton with a soft cushion. This allows Hilton to run the shallow drive route (with a free release), while tight end Coby Fleener creates inside traffic (think Hi-Lo combination).
This gives quarterback Andrew Luck an easy read underneath to get the ball to Hilton in space.
In the matchup this Sunday against the Broncos, look for Hilton to run this route from a 2x2 alignment or as the backside “X” in a 3x1 look with a reduced split (tight to the core of the formation) to win versus a variety of coverages/schemes in the Colts no-huddle offense.
5 Players to Watch in Week 1
1. Julius Peppers, OLB, Packers
I had the opportunity to watch Peppers back in training camp. The free-agent addition to the Packers defense looks leaner and still showcases that rare athletic ability rushing the passer or dropping into coverage.
On Thursday night, I want to see if the Packers limit the amount of snaps for the veteran and how he is utilized within Dom Capers’ sub-packages as a rush 'backer/defensive end.
The Packers defense is a faster unit with Peppers on the field, and I’m anxious to find out what type of impact he can have from a scheme/production standpoint versus the champs in Seattle.
2. Cody Latimer, WR, Broncos
With Welker out, the rookie should get an opportunity versus the Colts to showcase his playmaking ability after the catch.
Latimer has 4.4 stopwatch speed, but I see him more as a short-to-intermediate route-runner who can win on the slant, the shallow drive, smash-7 combination and the dig route to expose defenses in the open field.
And that’s an ideal fit for this Denver playbook.
Let’s see how the Broncos utilize Latimer in their Posse/11 personnel (slot, outside of the numbers), and if the rookie responds when given the chance to produce for Manning.
3. Travis Kelce, TE, Chiefs
Kelce flashed on the tape throughout the preseason because of his size (6’5”, 255 pounds) and 4.65 speed after the catch to challenge defenses in the middle of the field.
The second-year tight end can be a productive player in Andy Reid’s West Coast system (inside breaking routes) as an on-the-line “Y” or removed from the core.
Similar to a Rob Gronkowski in terms of size/speed, this is where Kelce can win matchups by creating leverage back to the ball versus a safety in coverage.
On Sunday versus the Titans, I would look for the core West Coast concepts (seam, stick-out, dig, etc.) that put Kelce in a position to make plays for quarterback Alex Smith.
4. Joe Flacco, QB, Ravens
Now that Gary Kubiak is calling the plays in Baltimore, I’m anxious to see Flacco run the offense with a regular-season game plan to work with.
This system under Kubiak should cater to tight end Dennis Pitta, and the addition of Steve Smith gives Flacco a tough, physical receiver who can run the intermediate route tree to complement the deep-ball speed of Torrey Smith.
I like this opportunity for Flacco to work with Kubiak, and we get to see this new Ravens system up close versus a good Bengals defense on Sunday.
5. Lamarr Houston, DE, Bears
The Bears upgraded their defensive line through free agency with Houston, Jared Allen and Willie Young after this unit struggled to pressure the quarterback or limit the run game in 2013.
With Houston, the Bears have a versatile talent who can play as a base 4-3 defensive end while sliding down inside to the defensive tackle position in the nickel sub-package.
Given that the Bears still have questions at both the linebacker and safety positions, Houston and this defensive front must be tougher versus the run game while showing the ability to get off the field on third downs against EJ Manuel and the Bills on Sunday.
Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.
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