The Second Level: What You Need to Know Heading into NFL Week 9

Matt Bowen @MattBowen41NFL National Lead WriterOctober 31, 2013

Every Thursday, former NFL defensive back Matt Bowen brings you “The Second Level,” a breakdown of the league from multiple angles.

10 Things I Learned from the Week 8 NFL Film

Here are 10 things that stand out after watching the tape this week. 

1. Defenses can’t sit in seven-man fronts vs. Eddie Lacy, Packers

In the past, opposing defenses would play a lot of Cover 2 and 2-Man (seven-man fronts) versus Aaron Rodgers and the Packers to limit the vertical game and take away the inside seams.

However, the production of Lacy and the Packers' ground game creates a soft run box to attack. It showed up on Sunday night versus the Vikings. Here is a look at Lacy getting up the field on the lead draw against a two-deep look. That forces the two safeties to make tackles in the open field.

2. Seahawks' zero-blitz was the right call on fourth down

I love the call from the Seahawks to go after Kellen Clemens and the Rams to close out the win on the goal line Monday night. With the Rams rolling their posse personnel on the field (three wide receivers, one tight end, one running back) and shifting to an empty alignment, the Seahawks sent zero pressure (no safety help in the middle of the field).

Brandon Browner stacked on top of the slot receiver and eliminated the angle to the 7 cut (corner route). That’s a smart call when you have the league’s best secondary. Force the ball to come out—and play coverage.

3. Jimmy Graham scored two touchdowns on base route concepts

NFL play-callers don’t have to be overly creative when they put their guys in a position to win matchups based on the coverage tendencies of a defense.

Check out Graham’s second touchdown on the “tare” combination (fade plus stick out) versus quarters coverage. The No. 1 receiver clears out the cornerback on the fade, with Graham and Darren Sproles working the stick route underneath. Graham sits this route down between the two linebackers, makes the catch and beats the safety on one of the most common route concepts in the NFL.


4. Free safeties need to clean up their angles to the ball

I’m seeing some really poor angles to the ball from the deep middle of the field on the tape. Take Calvin Johnson’s explosive play off the slant route versus Dallas, Jordy Nelson’s touchdown against the Vikings' zone blitz or Frank Gore on the inside zone in the matchup with the Jaguars.

In all three situations, the free safety failed to take a clean angle to the ball, break down and make the tackle. Be a football player here and get the ball-carrier on the ground. That’s not good enough.

5. Cowboys defense has to fix its Cover 2 issues

Calvin Johnson beat up every coverage the Cowboys threw at him on Sunday, as the receiver posted 329 yards against Monte Kiffin’s defense. However, Dallas gave Johnson some free passes in its two-deep coverage.

Here’s an example on the slant route to Johnson on the goal line. With a hard inside release, cornerback Brandon Carr has to squeeze the slant and get some help from the linebacker. But that’s not what we see on the tape. Look at the open hole in the zone. An easy read for Matthew Stafford.


6. The Bucs need to work on their goal-line coverage

Cam Newton made a heck of a play versus the Bucs off goal-line play action when the quarterback gave ground, avoided the rush and found tight end Greg Olsen for the touchdown. But can someone tell me the coverage/scheme Tampa was playing?

This looked like a pickup game down at the park with second-level defenders sticking their eyes in the backfield and no pattern match on the route. I don’t know if this is goal-line man or goal-line zone. That’s poor.


7. Broncos caught Washington in a “cut” call on the screen pass

On Knowshon Moreno’s touchdown catch off the screen action, Washington got caught in 2-Man with a backside “cut” call (free safety drives inside release versus a reduced wide receiver split). That leaves the open-side cornerback as the only defender to play the screen with the safety now removed.

8. Jets rookie Dee Milliner has to clean up his technique

Milliner struggled in coverage versus the Bengals because of poor technique. The rookie didn’t use his hands to impact the release in press coverage (carried his hands too low), and he consistently “opened the gate” (open the hips) on the initial stem of the wide receiver. That immediately put Milliner in a trail position and created separation for the receiver.

I’m not surprised that Rex Ryan sat the rookie down, and it's going to take some time for the former Alabama product to develop his technique at the pro level. That’s an issue I see often with young defensive backs.

9. Devin McCourty’s break vs. the 9-route is a good teaching tool 

Before the Patriots free safety tipped the ball back in play to Marquice Cole for the interception versus the Dolphins, he had to get over the top of Mike Wallace on the 9-route. Look at the break here from McCourty. He is coming out of his pedal (and driving to Wallace) before the ball is even out of Ryan Tannehill’s hands. That’s awesome.

A good example of how alignment (McCourty shifted his pre-snap alignment to the near hash over Wallace) and the ability to read the quarterback (Tannehill never came off his primary target) can lead to a solid break, angle and finish to the ball.


10. Robert Quinn’s speed off the ball is ridiculous

Watching the tape of Quinn from Monday night, two things stand out: speed and hand placement. Quinn explodes off the ball and can run the corner, and his ability to use his hands (violently) at the point of attack is impressive. Those are skills that lead to production as an edge-rusher.


5 Things to Watch Heading into Week 9

Here are five things I'm focused on after checking out the Week 9 NFL schedule. 

1. Ryan Tannehill, Dolphins on the Thursday night stage

/Getty Images

I had no problem talking up Tannehill earlier in the season after the Dolphins' 3-0 start because the tape doesn’t lie. He was playing at a high level, finding his primary reads and making stick throws outside of the numbers.

But his overall play has regressed. Tannehill is having issues identifying pressure, managing the pocket and delivering the football on time. This can’t continue on Thursday night if the Dolphins want to pick up a win versus a Bengals defense that will generate pressure and drive on the ball in the secondary.


2. The Colts offense without Reggie Wayne

I’m interested to see if the Colts and Andrew Luck make any adjustments to their game plan with the loss of Reggie Wayne to an ACL injury. This puts a lot of stress on T.Y. Hilton and especially Darrius Heyward-Bey to elevate their play.

Wayne played a crucial role for the Colts offense, and his ability to run the intermediate route tree will be tough to replace. Let’s see how this plays out for Indianapolis.

3. Bears' defensive game plan vs. Packers

The Bears haven’t been productive rushing the passer this season, and an already weak front seven heads to Lambeau Field on Monday night without injured Pro Bowl linebacker Lance Briggs.

This is a tough matchup for Chicago because of the numbers the Packers are putting up on the ground. Does that mean more eight-man fronts (Cover 1, Cover 3, Under 10) with zone pressure and some Cover 2 on third downs? Could be a big night for Aaron Rodgers, Lacy and the Green Bay offense.

4. Dez Bryant vs. the Vikings secondary 

I haven’t been impressed with the Vikings secondary all season, and the safety play in Minnesota is average at best without Harrison Smith in the lineup. That will create multiple opportunities for Bryant to stretch the field versus Cover 2 and work underneath on inside breaking concepts when the Vikings show Cover 1.

Bryant is a No. 1 receiver, and you have to get those guys the ball. Part of the deal. Mix up his pre-snap alignments and put him in positive matchups that lead to production.

5. The Ravens need a win

Where is the Ravens' overall offensive execution and the production on the ground? With a divisional game versus the Browns on the schedule this week, the Ravens should know the matchups they want to attack. That's why these divisional games are more about personnel than scheme. 

The Browns can play defense. I know that. So do you. But for the Ravens to get back in the mix, this offense has to produce. That starts with basic execution from Joe Flacco, Ray Rice and the offensive front within the core schemes.

Oct 20, 2013; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice (27) rushes the football past Pittsburgh Steelers free safety Ryan Clark (25)  during the second quarter at Heinz Field. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

All-22 Rewind: Matthew Stafford’s Throw vs. Cowboys Cover 2

Before Stafford connected with Johnson on the seam route to set up the quarterback sneak for the win over the Cowboys, he targeted Kris Durham on the deep 9-route vs. Cover 2. Let’s break this play down and discuss why Durham was able to beat the deep-half safety.

Cowboys vs. Lions

Personnel: Posse (3WR-1TE-1RB)

Formation: Empty

Offensive Concept: Verticals

Defensive Scheme: “Green” 2

“Green 2” is similar to base Cover 2 (or Tampa 2) with the safeties increasing their depth (15 to 18 yards at the snap) and the corners playing with a “soft squat” technique (no jam, sink/trail No. 1)—the right call for a two-minute situation versus the Lions. However, the secondary still has to play the technique of the defense (and read the quarterback). 

The Lions are running three verticals with Durham to the open (weak) side of the formation and Johnson to the closed (strong) side. Dallas has to play over the top of the vertical concepts and force the ball to the checkdown routes underneath. The flat route won’t get you beat here.

In two-deep coverage , the landmark drop for safeties is on the top of the numbers. That’s an issue for safety Jakar Hamilton. Instead of getting to his landmark, the young safety cheats inside. There is no reason to move inside with only one vertical threat. That’s trouble, as it opens up a deep throwing window for Stafford to target Durham with the cornerback trailing underneath.

Hamilton can’t get over the top of the 9-route (because of his initial alignment), and Stafford delivers a perfect throw to flip the field. I know the Cowboys are beat up at safety, but if you’re in the game, you are expected to play the technique of the defense. Hamilton will learn from this mistake, but this play put the Cowboys in an adverse situation. And it all started with a poor landmark drop from the safety.


Football 101: Quarterback Power Sweep

Every time I put on the 49ers tape, I find something in the run game that grabs my attention. This past week in London, it was the quarterback power sweep. Let’s check it out.

49ers vs. Jaguars

Personnel: Tank-Plus (1WR-2RB-2TE)

Formation: Doubles Slot (Bunch) Gun Near

Offensive Concept: QB Power Sweep

Defensive Scheme: Cover 1

I’m calling this “Tank-plus” from the 49ers because of the extra offensive lineman in the game (takes the place of the second tight end). With crack-toss blocking, the 49ers pick up an extra lead block (Frank Gore) because of the quarterback sweep. San Francisco will block down on the edge, pull the closed-side tackle and get to the edge of the defense.

Instead of closing the edge and attacking the blockers, the cornerback retreats and creates an angle for tackle Joe Staley to widen the defense. That allows Gore to turn up the field to look for the scraping linebacker over the top.

We can all draw up schemes on the chalkboard, but execution is what separates the 49ers in the run game. Staley kicks out the corner, and Gore cuts down the linebacker to create a nice running lane for Colin Kaepernick. The 49ers quarterback outruns the angle from the free safety, and Jim Harbaugh’s club puts six points on the board. That's old-school.

Inside the Locker Room: Why NFL Sidelines Can Turn into a Circus Act

We all saw the situation that went down on the Cowboys sideline late in the game with Dez Bryant during the loss to the Lions.

It became a hot topic, and everyone wanted to weigh in with their opinions on Bryant—both good and bad.

Oct 27, 2013; Detroit, MI, USA; Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant (88) makes a catch in the end zone for a touchdown while being defended by Detroit Lions strong safety Glover Quin (27) and cornerback Darius Slay (30) during the second quarter at Fo

But I’ve seen worse—much worse—during my career.

The sidelines during an NFL game can resemble fourth-grade recess. Or a circus. Or a kid's birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese's.

Remember, these games are hard to win. Because of that, everyone is on edge—both players and coaches.

And sometimes, stuff happens.

Coaches bark at players—and players bark back.

I’ve seen players go after coaches. That can get nasty (and escalate) quickly on the sideline. Someone has to step in, try to clear the air and get the focus back on the darn game.

Everyone who plays, or coaches, at this level is competitive—to a fault. When things go south and the game plan doesn’t exactly work the way it should have, emotions begin to spill over.

Oftentimes, it goes unnoticed by the cameras. Just another day at work, really. Maybe it’s a player calling out one of his teammates or coaches questioning each other. Whatever. It all is a part of the NFL game on Sundays.

And every player has been in a situation where he has lost his cool during a game. 

Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. 


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