NFL1000: How Opponents Can Exploit Every Playoff Contender's Biggest Weakness

Doug FarrarNFL Lead ScoutDecember 6, 2017

NFL1000: How Opponents Can Exploit Every Playoff Contender's Biggest Weakness

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    No matter how great a team is, it has a weakness. And in the postseason, weakness can be exposed to great effect. When you're in a single-elimination situation in the NFL, an Achilles' heel can turn into a full-body injury quickly. 

    Matchups become more important. The margin for error is slimmer. The figurative oxygen gets thinner. And mistakes can compound mistakes. Such implosions are far from rare—remember all the 28-3 jokes the Atlanta Falcons have had to deal with since their epic faceplant in Super Bowl LI.

    In today's NFL, all you have to do is get into the tournament. There have been enough wild-card teams and No. 6 seeds that entered the postseason looking quite vulnerable only to catch fire and win it all.

    The 2017 postseason is just a month away, and here, we present the most obvious vulnerabilities of the top seven seeds in each conference. From the best teams to the franchises on the outside looking in, these are the weaknesses for opponents to exploit during the run for the Lombardi Trophy.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Pressure Ben Roethlisberger

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    This year marks Ben Roethlisberger's 14th NFL season, and while the Pittsburgh quarterback can still put up big numbers and make big plays, there's been a fundamental difference in one aspect of his play over the last few years. In his prime, Big Ben was an absolute terror when defenses pressured him, because he was strong enough and able to adjust his mechanics well enough to make accurate throws downfield with defenders hanging all over him.

    It was an impossible problem to solve, but as time has rolled on, Roethlisberger is no longer the same quarterback under pressure. It's been one of the keys to his inconsistency over the last two seasons. After Week 12, per Pro Football Focus, he was the 24th-ranked passer in quarterback rating under pressure (52.4).

    One caveat here: If you want to pressure Roethlisberger (and you should), you should also avoid blitzing him too often. Even under pressure, he'll find open windows vacated by a defense that brings extra men to the quarterback. But if you can get to him with your base defense, that may well be the best way to make the Steelers vulnerable in the postseason.

Minnesota Vikings: Force Case Keenum to Throw Deep

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    It's hard to find any weakness with the Vikings, which makes this one of the most dangerous teams in the NFL. The top seed in the NFC after Philadelphia's Sunday night loss to Seattle, Minnesota is in position to win three home playoff games on the way to the franchise's first Super Bowl championship. And it's hard to bet against the Vikings.

    This is a team with a vastly improved offensive line, a dynamic rushing attack, an amazing receiver duo in Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen and a defense that rocks offenses from front to back. And backup quarterback Case Keenum has been a revelation in the way he's taken Pat Shurmur's offense to its limits with his efficiency in and out of the pocket.

    Keenum doesn't have many weaknesses, but if you have a defense that can lock down on outside and slot receivers in the short to intermediate areas, Keenum might be inclined to throw deep, and that's not been a plus attribute for him this year. Keenum can make deep throws into easily defined openings, but he's not the kind of quarterback who will make those same throws into tight windows when pressed.

    Not that this is a major weakness, but when you're facing Minnesota these days, you have to take any advantage you can get.

New England Patriots: Challenge Malcolm Butler with Quick Receivers

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    After a rough first month of the 2017 season, the Patriots secondary has come around like you would expect under Bill Belichick. Free-agent signing Stephon Gilmore has adapted to New England's schemes, and Jonathan Jones has proved to be a tremendous asset both outside and in the slot. Super Bowl XLIX hero Malcolm Butler has also played well for the most part, but if you want to go after the Pats defensive backfield, the best way to do it is to test Butler with your quickest, best route-runner in the short to intermediate areas of the field.

    This proved to be New England's weakness in a 41-16 victory over the Denver Broncos in Week 10. Yes, it was a big win, but Denver receiver Emmanuel Sanders torched Butler with his ability to run quick, angular routes at a high speed and excellent technique. Butler struggled to match those patterns, and Sanders caught six passes for 137 yards...with Brock Osweiler as his quarterback.

    When playing the Patriots, especially in the postseason, you must understand they will take your primary weakness and use it against you as much as they possibly can. The only way to beat them is to use that same mindset to force them into errors; chances are, they won't make mistakes without your help.

Philadelphia Eagles: Wear out Their Front with Out-of-Pocket Plays

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    It's been exceedingly difficult for any opponent of the Eagles to find even one exploitable weakness—that's why Doug Pederson's team entered Sunday night's game against the Seattle Seahawks with an NFL-best 10-1 record and the top seed in the NFC. But Seattle upended Philadelphia, taking it down a peg in the conference rankings with a 24-10 win that featured Russell Wilson running wild against the Eagles' seven-man front.

    For the most part, the Philly defense, led by defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, is quite effective at keeping mobile quarterbacks in the pocket. It does this by widening its front to what becomes a five-man line with four linemen and a linebacker. It's not a base blitz look, though it can be at times—that linebacker is there to cause confusion for the quarterback, as the quarterback doesn't know who's coming after him and who's dropping into coverage.

    Wilson rendered this scheme relatively useless by taking deep drops behind the line and forcing the front defenders to chase him. When they did, he cleared the deep pocket with his elusiveness and made dynamic throws downfield. Eventually, the Eagles linemen were worn out and frustrated by the fruitless nature of chasing Wilson all over the field.

    It's not a strategy that every quarterback has the athleticism to implement, but Wilson showed how it can work, and you can expect other teams to give it a shot.

Tennessee Titans: Make Marcus Mariota Win from the Pocket

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    Marcus Mariota threw for 45 touchdowns against 19 interceptions in his first two NFL seasons, proving to be a quick thinker and a quicker mover in a Titans offense that established an "exotic smashmouth" ethos with a strong running game, a high percentage of two- and three-tight end formations and Mariota's ability to keep defenses off their games with option concepts.

    That's regressed this season. Mariota's been more of a pocket passer, the tight ends aren't as variable, running back DeMarco Murray hasn't been nearly as effective, the blocking isn't as consistent, and Mariota has struggled to stay on his base while under pressure. It's why he's thrown 10 touchdowns with 12 interceptions this season. And though Tennessee is 8-4, Mariota has been as much a liability as an asset.

    So, for anyone facing the Titans in the playoffs, the strategy is clear: Make him win from the pocket. Don't bite on any of the run-pass options Tennessee might throw at you, use pressure from the edges to bottle him up, and force inaccurate throws. It's been happening all season, and if the Titans don't do more to help Mariota in a schematic sense, this team could make a quick postseason exit.

Los Angeles Rams: Force Jared Goff into Passing Situations

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    Few teams in recent NFL history have benefited more from an offseason coaching overhaul than the Rams, who went from years of Jeff Fisher-inspired mediocrity to a complete transformation under new head coach and offensive mastermind Sean McVay and new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. Los Angeles' 9-3 record and first-place status in the NFC West are testimonies to the acumen on board.

    Most notably, McVay has turned quarterback Jared Goff from a first-year bust to a second-year wonder, giving him open receivers and easy reads on just about every down and making him far more comfortable in general. Goff's completion percentage rise from 54.6 to 62.2 and his yards per attempt increase from 5.3 to 8.1 tell the story succinctly.

    Los Angeles, however, also deploys a balanced offense in which Goff doesn't have too much on his shoulders. And when it gets running back Todd Gurley II going, it's even harder to deal with it. But here's a statistical wrinkle that should give future Rams opponents hope: When Goff throws more than 31 passes in a game, his efficiency plummets. Per ESPN.com, he's completed just 32 of 58 passes for 449 yards and three touchdowns with four interceptions on attempts 31-40 of games.

    Forcing Los Angeles off-balance and making Goff do too much is one of the few ways to shake this team.

Kansas City Chiefs: Test Their Defense

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    The Chiefs have been the most inexplicable team in the NFL this year. They started the season with a decimation of the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots and a 5-0 record with an offense—with its vertical completions, zone running and option concepts—that nobody could seem to stop.

    Then, for whatever reason, the offense simplified, quarterback Alex Smith had trouble making those same downfield throws and rookie running back Kareem Hunt didn't get as many touches. Kansas City turned a lot of that around against the New York Jets on Sunday, as Smith threw four touchdown passes, but it still lost 38-31 because the defense couldn't contain New York's surprisingly explosive passing game and power rushing attack. Now, the Chiefs are 6-6.

    There are problems all around, and no matter what happens with the offense, the defense is the hidden issue that could upend this team in the postseason. Outside of premier edge-rusher Justin Houston, Kansas City is failing to get much pressure; running backs are gashing the front; and the pass coverage has not been consistent—even cornerback Marcus Peters hasn't met expectations.

    The solution seems to be: Let the Chiefs offense do what it wants and take advantage of a defense that can't put it together.

New Orleans Saints: Match Them Run for Run

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    With a strong defense and the tremendous efforts of running backs Mark Ingram and Offensive Rookie of the Year shoo-in Alvin Kamara, the New Orleans Saints are riding high and looking like a deep playoff contender for the first time in a long time. No longer must Drew Brees throw for 5,000 yards just to get the team to a 7-9 mark while the run game stagnates and the defense falls apart.

    With all that weaponry on offense, the 9-3 Saints present a formidable challenge—not only to opposing defenses, but also to enemy offenses who may feel they must throw the ball to stand a chance. There are several problems with that. First, cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore and Ken Crawley—when healthy—form one of the best coverage units in the NFL. Second, if you're making your intention to pass obvious, it allows defensive lineman Cameron Jordan, perhaps the most underrated defensive player in the NFL, to pin his ears back and go after the quarterback. Not good.

    Finally, a pass-happy approach ignores the fact that, though the Saints defense has improved exponentially since the start of the season, the run defense is still vulnerable, ranking 27th in the league in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics and allowing 4.3 running back yards per carry. Plus, anything you can to do keep New Orleans' offense off the field is a net benefit. It's time for more teams to run on the Saints and slow their game down.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Make Them Win with Blake Bortles

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    The Jaguars have been trying to rebuild their team with equal parts scouting and sabermetrics since owner Shahid Khan bought the team in 2011. Khan put his son Tony in charge of the Moneyball side and made general manager Dave Caldwell the main man in the scouting room. There have been bumpy times through that rebuild, but with a concerted effort to match wise free-agency moves with smart draft selections, it would seem the rebuild is finally reaping rewards.

    Jacksonville has an overperforming offensive line, a powerful and consistent run game led by rookie Leonard Fournette, and a defense that is as efficient as it is intimidating. It's a franchise that has everything in place for a deep playoff run except for one thing: a consistent quarterback. And in today's NFL, that's a problem.

    Blake Bortles has struggled to play at a league-average level, and the coaching staff would rather hide him behind the things that work most of the time. It's a paradigm that can work to win a Super Bowl, but if you're going to do that with an iffy quarterback, you'd better have a defense that can match the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers or 2015 Denver Broncos as an all-time unit.

    Jacksonville has that potential, but there's little margin for error, and if the defenses playing the Jaguars can force Bortles into the mechanical and field-reading errors we've seen far too often, not even the good things this front office and coaching staff have built will be enough.

Seattle Seahawks: Attack Their Offensive Line with Complexity

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    The Seahawks have used great coaching and high-level personnel evaluation to create one of the most effective and deepest roster sets this decade, with one notable exception: the offensive line designed and led by line coach and assistant head coach Tom Cable. He has failed to bring anything near a league-average front five with theories that have included the conversion of defensive linemen and the insistence that his draft prospects play multiple positions. In Cable's world, versatility seems to be more important than excellence at one position, and given the need for continuity among offensive lines in general, it's no wonder that his theories have not been effective.

    The trade for former Houston Texans left tackle Duane Brown in late October has buttressed the pass protection because Brown is such an upgrade over Seattle's other tackles. But if there's one thing the Seahawks line has been highly vulnerable to even when the personnel is better, it's the kinds of games and stunts defensive linemen love to throw at offensive linemen who aren't in sync.

    It makes sense, really—a starting five who hasn't worked together and doesn't have an intrinsic understanding of a team's protection adjustments will struggle with the simplest end-tackle stunt; never mind something more advanced like a double twist out of a line of standup pass-rushers that creates confusion at every position.

    Of course, once you get past those linemen, you have to try to chase Russell Wilson down, but that's another matter.

Baltimore Ravens: Force Joe Flacco into Uncomfortable Situations

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    Once upon a time, Joe Flacco was one of the NFL's best deep throwers. He had a stunning arm, and his well-honed mechanics created a natural, easy velocity. Those days are gone—the Baltimore Ravens now have one of the league's most reductive passing games, and when Flacco throws deep, the results are far from consistent.

    As is the case with most quarterbacks whose primary attributes regress over time, the answer to this mystery is mechanical—Flacco struggles to use his lower body for torque and stability, leading to upper-body throws that have the ball sailing all over the place, especially when he's pressured or on the move outside the pocket. In those instances, Flacco is no longer the kind of quarterback one can trust to make a stick throw down the numbers unless he has clean pocket. Any pressure, and the mechanics get flinchy.

    Of course, when he is kept clean, Flacco can still sling the ball around the field pretty well, as he did Sunday in a 44-20 win over the Detroit Lions. Flacco completed 23 of 36 passes for 269 yards and two touchdowns, making more than one quality deep throw because, per Pro Football Focus, he was unpressured for all but seven of his dropbacks. If you're going to beat Flacco, you can't leave him to his own devices in the pocket.

Carolina Panthers: Hit Their Blind Side (and Matt Kalil) Hard

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    When the Panthers signed former Minnesota Vikings left tackle Matt Kalil to a five-year, $55 million contract with $24 million guaranteed, those who had watched Kalil play over the last few seasons were mystified. Yes, Carolina has dealt with several issues along their offensive line over the last couple of seasons, but few saw Kalil as an upgrade. Injuries and poor play defined his career in the minds of many, and this signing seemed like a desperate attempt to get something out of Kalil's raw abilities when he'd shown limited potential before.

    Though he's looked a bit better in his last couple of games, Kalil has struggled overall. Edge-rushers can eat him up with speed rushes, and he doesn't have the kind of root strength one would desire from a run-blocker—especially in the Carolina offense, which is diverse in the run game.

    The Panthers may get into the 2017 playoffs as a wild-card entrant given the New Orleans Saints' seeming lock on the NFC South, but if they do get in the tournament, they can be a dangerous opponent. One way to limit the offense's effectiveness is to exploit the weakness at left tackle, which can lead to pressures and run stops.

Los Angeles Chargers: Take on Their Run Defense

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    The Chargers started the 2017 with four straight losses, and few thought Anthony Lynn's team would turn it around and become not only a playoff contender, but also a team nobody wants to face. But that's happened. Los Angeles is 6-2 in its last eight games and seems to be trending up in all areas. Philip Rivers is playing lights out, Keenan Allen is as prolific as any receiver in the game, and the defense, led by stud cornerback Casey Hayward, has become stingy.

    Because this offense is more than capable of putting up a ton of points, the temptation is to meet like with like and start throwing the ball all over the field. There are two issues with that theory. First, the aforementioned pass defense. Second, such schematic philosophies overlook the one thing that might be Los Angeles' Achilles' heel—a run defense that ranks 28th in the league in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics and is allowing 4.7 running back yards per carry.

    In their last two games, against the Dallas Cowboys and Cleveland Browns, the Chargers allowed just 79 and 89 rushing yards, respectively. But the Cowboys ran the ball just 20 times, and the Browns just 22 times. Leading with the run takes away the threat of that pass defense, wears down the front seven and keeps Rivers off the field—a winning strategy all the way around.

Atlanta Falcons: Force the Offense to Simplify

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    When the Atlanta Falcons had the NFL's best offense in 2016, a big part of that equation was the schematic complexity designed by former offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. Running backs would flare out of the backfield to the wide side of the formation and catch passes. Quarterback Matt Ryan would run boot-action and hit wide-open receivers freed by crossing routes that were tough to cover. Shanahan understood that today's NFL is both a numbers game and a matchup game, and he played that perfectly with the estimable talent he had.

    When Shanahan moved on to become the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, replacement Steve Sarkisian implemented a far more static pre-snap series of looks, and it affected Ryan greatly. He had far fewer easy completions because his receivers weren't schemed open, and the offense suffered as a result.

    Recently, Sarkisian has opened things up a bit, and Atlanta's offense is starting to hit its stride, leading to three straight wins before the Falcons were upended by the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday. The Vikings are able to do two things with their defense—bring pressure with four defenders and press receivers to the point of resistance. When that happens, no matter how much Sarkisian expands the playbook, Ryan gets constricted in the passing game, and as good as he is, he doesn't consistently complete tight-window throws.

    Most defenses aren't as talented as Minnesota's, but the paradigm for success against this offense seems to be: pressure Ryan and disrupt the timing of his receivers.