The Second Level: What You Need to Know Heading into NFL Week 11

Matt Bowen @MattBowen41NFL National Lead WriterNovember 14, 2013

NFL Game Rewind

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 10 Film

Here are 10 things that stood out from my perspective when I turned on the tape this week.  

1. Cam Newton made clutch throws in the fourth quarter versus 49ers

The Panthers quarterback stepped up in the fourth quarter during the win over the 49ers by throwing the out/comeback in crucial third-down situations (3rd-and-7-plus).

There is no question Steve Smith and Ted Ginn did an excellent job creating separation at the top of the stem (route break) to come back to the football, but it was Newton who delivered the throw with ideal placement.

Here’s a look at Newton throwing the out/comeback to Smith early in the fourth quarter on third down. Extend the pocket, buy time and look up the receiver. Heck of a throw to move the sticks.

NFL Game Rewind

2. Lions run defense came to play versus Bears

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A week after producing on the ground in the win over the Packers, Marc Trestman’s club had issues putting up numbers in the loss to the Lions. The Bears couldn’t get to the second level of the Lions defense, and they struggled to work the edge with the outside schemes (crack toss).

We know Nick Fairley and Ndamukong Suh can play inside, but check out the secondary support from the Lions' cornerback position when you watch the tape. Detroit closed the edge for the majority of the ballgame and made tackles in space versus Matt Forte.

3. Packers safeties need some work versus the deep ball

On all three of Nick Foles’ touchdown passes versus the Packers, the safety play for Green Bay was suspect. Depth, eyes, technique, angles, etc. The safety combo of M.D. Jennings and Morgan Burnett failed to identify routes, and the Eagles took advantage on the post and scissors concepts.

Here’s a quick look from the tape at Burnett matched up against Riley Cooper. With the wide receiver selling the inside post versus Quarters technique, Burnett bites, opens his hips and can’t recover once Cooper stems back to the 7 cut (corner route).

NFL Game Rewind

4. Rams defense created issues for Andrew Luck, Colts

Tavon Austin’s 300-plus total yards in the Rams' 38-8 win over the Colts should have been hyped up on Monday morning. That was a unique performance from the rookie. But let’s not forget about this St. Louis defense—because it looked legit on the road in Indianapolis.

The edge pressure from Robert Quinn and Chris Long was there (again), along with the ability of the second-level defenders to drive on the football in Cover 2. This unit forced Luck into three interceptions, and I even saw the secondary bait the Colts quarterback into throwing a pick inside the red zone. Good tape to watch.

5. Cowboys defense looked soft versus Saints 

I can’t get past how soft the Cowboys defense looked on tape against Darren Sproles, Mark Ingram and Pierre Thomas.

When Sean Lee went down with a hamstring, the wheels came off this front seven for Dallas. They were slow to fill their gaps and weak at the point of attack, and they allowed the Saints to run the ball downhill all night on basic schemes.

Here’s a look at Ingram’s touchdown on a Lead Closed (strong). You can’t stop the run game when you have linebackers being blocked back into the end zone.

NFL Game Rewind

6. Turnovers were an issue again for Andy Dalton 

After throwing three interceptions during the Week 9 loss to the Dolphins, the Bengals quarterback came back to add three more in Sunday’s defeat at Baltimore.

Dalton missed badly on the inside seam versus Cover 2, forced the ball into man coverage on the stick combination and also sailed a throw to A.J. Green on an inside seam/skinny post. I like this Bengals team, but six interceptions from the quarterback position in two weeks is going to cost you wins at any level of the game.

7. Jaguars' blitz execution was solid on Blackmon’s sack/strip

Will Blackmon made a great play late in the game to help secure the Jaguars' first win of the season when he blitzed off the edge and took the ball away from Titans quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick on the strip for six points.

The Jaguars were in nickel pressure (rush five, drop six), and after watching the tape, this is how a zone blitz should look up on the chalkboard. Both corners match to No. 1,  the strong safety plays No. 2, and the Mike 'backer closes to the underneath crosser. That’s good defensive football right there.

NFL Game Rewind

8. I loved the Vikings' zero-pressure to close out RG3, Washington

Minnesota played three straight snaps of zero-pressure (blitz-man with no safety help) inside the 5-yard line to send Washington home with a loss last Thursday night.

The coverage wasn’t perfect (defensive backs and linebackers lost leverage on fourth down), but when you send zero-pressure it speeds up the quarterback’s progression. Force him to unload the ball or take a helmet to the chest.

On that fourth-down call (Smash-Corner combo), Griffin had tight end Jordan Reed open on an inside slant route versus a linebacker. However, because of the weak-side B gap pressure, the quarterback had to get the ball out quickly on the failed 7 (corner) route to Santana Moss.

9. The ball has to come out quickly on the slant route versus Cover 2

We can learn something from Terrelle Pryor’s interceptions versus the Giants' Cover 2 shell. With the Raiders running the “2212” concept (2=slant, 1=flat), Pryor wants to hit Denarius Moore on the outside slant. 

However, with the Giants playing two-deep, Pryor has to account for the nickel cornerback playing the “seam-hook” technique (drop between numbers and hash). As we can see here, Terrell Thomas can read inside to the quarterback. That allows Thomas to break on the outside slant and put himself in a position to make the play when the ball doesn't come out quick enough.  

NFL Game Rewind

10. D.J. Swearinger’s interception should be on a teaching tape

I like when rookie safeties play the coached technique on the field and get their hands on the football. That’s what happened with Swearinger on Sunday versus Carson Palmer and the Cardinals on the fade route.

With the tight end in a “plus-split” (three yards or more on top of the numbers), Swearinger played off-man from an inside alignment (plus-split equals fade, comeback or inside breaking route). The rookie stayed square, got into his pedal and opened his hips once the tight end pressed his cushion. After that? Drive to the hip, find the ball and make the play.

A reminder to all rookies (and veterans) that good things happen when you lean on technique in coverage.


Five Things To Watch Heading Into Week 11

After looking at the Week 11 NFL schedule, here are five things that I'm focusing on. 


1. Alex Smith, Chiefs' ability to generate explosive plays versus Broncos

As I wrote on Thursday, the Chiefs can put together a defensive game plan to slow down Peyton Manning. However, let’s talk about Smith and the Kansas City offense under Andy Reid. This unit has to score, and that means generating some explosive plays (25-plus yards) within the game plan.

I know the Chiefs playbook and the West Coast routes that show up every week, but this is on Smith and Reid Sunday night to test the top of the Broncos secondary. Kansas City has to flip the field. You need points to beat Manning and the Broncos.

Oct 27, 2013; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith (11) throws a pass during the second half of the game against the Cleveland Browns at Arrowhead Stadium. The Chiefs won 23-17.  Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

2. 49ers offense 

I think there are plenty of individual matchups to look at in this game, but my main focus is on Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers offense.

I wouldn’t be shocked to see the 49ers lean on that power run game versus Rob Ryan’s defense, but who is going to make a play (and separate) versus man coverage when this unit wants to throw the football?

Yes, Kaepernick needs to play better football, but his receivers have to help him out by winning their matchup within the route stem. And that starts on the release outside of the numbers.

3. Colts' offensive game plan versus Gregg Williams, Titans

After watching the Colts offensive line in the loss to the Rams, is there any doubt that Williams will dial up some pressure on Thursday night? Look for the Titans to play some coverage (Cover 2), but at the core of this game plan should be the multiple blitz fronts Williams will use in passing situations.

That means five- and six-man pressure (with combination coverages in the secondary) plus underneath zone defenders dropping into throwing windows. The Titans should look to put hits on Luck early in this game.

4. Panthers' secondary play on Monday night

I’m jumping on the Panthers train like everyone else after watching their defensive front seven during the win over the 49ers. That was impressive. But can this secondary consistently match up versus Tom Brady and the Patriots if the pressure doesn’t get home?

Let’s see if the Panthers can limit Rob Gronkowski on the inside seam route, take away the underneath Hi-Lo concepts and make a play when Brady goes to work versus single-high safety defenses. Great test for this Carolina defense under the lights on the national stage.


5. The return of Percy Harvin in Seattle

Harvin’s reps should be monitored in his return to the field versus the Vikings, but that doesn’t mean we won't get an idea of how the Seahawks plan to utilize his skill set in the offense.

I’m thinking about the quick game, pre-snap movement and inside matchups that cater to his lateral ability in the open field. For more on Harvin’s return, check out the X’s and O’s I broke down on the Chalk Talk video below.


All-22 Rewind: Seattle’s “Throw-Back” Touchdown

The Seahawks pulled off the “throw-back” Sunday during their win over the Falcons. Let’s break this down and talk about how Russell Wilson was able to find Jermaine Kearse on the deep post.

Seahawks vs. Falcons

Personnel: 12 (1WR-2TE-1RB)

Formation: I Tight

Offensive Concept: Throw-Back Post

Defensive Scheme: Cover 3

NFL Game Rewind

Different than the “flea-flicker” (inside handoff, pitch back to the quarterback), the Seahawks pitch the ball to Marshawn Lynch with the running back selling the sweep and throwing the ball back to Wilson. The Seahawks pull the center away from the run action (edge protection), and Kearse sells the crack block (hard, inside stem) to set up the play. Force the Falcons to play with poor eye discipline and throw the post down the field.

NFL Game Rewind

Free safety Thomas DeCoud steps to the line of scrimmage on the run action and has to recover in the deep middle of the field once Lynch throws this ball back to Wilson. And with the cornerback trailing the play, Seattle now has a one-on-one matchup down the field with Kearse on the post. 

NFL Game Rewind

I thought DeCoud did a good job of running to Kearse's hip and matching the wide receiver on the post, but he doesn’t locate the ball in this situation. That allows Kearse to adjust to the pass and finish the play for six points.

Football 101: Defending Four Verticals in the Red Zone

Over the course of the season, I've shown multiple ways to target and expose Cover 2 in the red zone. Today, let’s take a look at how the Rams defended the Colts' four verticals concepts in the two-deep coverage and produced a turnover.

Rams vs. Colts

Personnel: 11 (3WR-1TE-1RB)

Formation: Doubles Orange Gun Near

Offensive Concept: Four Verticals

Defensive Scheme: “Red” Cover 2

NFL Game Rewind

In “Red” 2, the Rams corners are playing with a “soft squat” technique (no jam, sink/trail No. 1 on a vertical release) with the Mike ‘backer running the middle of the field and the two “seam-hook” defenders (nickel, Sam ‘backer) sinking under the inside verticals. Both safeties will drop to the top of the numbers, read the quarterback and drive downhill once Luck declares to his target.

NFL Game Rewind

We always focus on the Mike ‘backer’s drop in two-deep coverage, but check out the depth rookie linebacker Alec Ogletree gets to the closed (strong) side of the formation versus tight end Coby Fleener on the inside vertical. By adding that cushion underneath, Ogletree tightens the throwing window and forces Luck to put some air on the ball. And that’s key for the deep half safety when he makes his break on the throw.

NFL Game Rewind

Check out the break on the ball from safety Darian Stewart. That’s exactly what you want to see from the safety position in Cover 2 versus the inside vertical. Stewart breaks this pass up, and the ball drops right to linebacker Will Witherspoon for the interception.

Inside the Locker Room: The Real Issue with Defending the Hail Mary

BALTIMORE, MD - NOVEMBER 10: Wide receiver A.J. Green #18 of the Cincinnati Bengals catches a batted ball for a touchdown against the Baltimore Ravens in the fourth quarter at M&T Bank Stadium on November 10, 2013 in Baltimore, Maryland. The Baltimore Rav
Patrick Smith/Getty Images

The Ravens had an opportunity to close out the Bengals in regulation this past Sunday, but their inability to play (and defend) the Hail Mary allowed Marvin Lewis' team to extend this game.

A.J. Green standing alone in the end zone? Defenders jumping and fighting for the ball? Safety James Ihedigbo tipping the ball up in the air?

Too many issues for a defensive unit that didn’t play the proper technique versus the Hail Mary. And it could have cost the Ravens a win.

But the real problem with defending the Hail Mary goes back to Friday practice or even Saturday walk-through. This is when NFL defenses prep for the play. And it’s done at half speed.

Coaches will instruct the scout-team receivers to jog down the field and pull up around the 5-yard line, so the defense can “knock it down!” No injuries. No collisions. Only high-fives from the defense as a safety spikes the ball in the ground.

And everyone leaves the practice field happy.

So, how do you really defend this thing—at full speed?

Here’s a diagram of how we played the Hail Mary under Gregg Williams in Washington with press alignments at the line of scrimmage and designated players to spike, catch the tip and save our butts if the ball got batted into the air.

Matt Bowen

Some tips? Sure. Let’s run through a couple...

- Step on the wide receiver's toes. I’m serious. He can’t jump if you are standing on top of him.

- Don’t try to catch the ball if you are the “jumper.” I know it’s a free interception, but if you botch that catch, the ball is going up in the air. Just knock it down.

- Grab, push, pull, whatever. When is the last time you saw a pass interference call (on either side of the ball) when the quarterback throws the Hail Mary? Hold these receivers and pin their arms.

- Plaster. If you are in coverage, never leave your man. That was a major issue for the Ravens. Who had Green in coverage? Stick to your guy. 

- Make sure there is no one standing behind you as the “tipper.” That’s trouble. Deep as the deepest.

I’ve been a part of some really close calls on the Hail Mary as a defensive player because all bets are off when that ball goes in the air. Nothing is going to be called, and you might catch a fist to the throat.

But it’s no different than any other play at the point of attack. Don’t panic, and try not to be the guy who tips the ball up in the air to cost your squad a game.

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


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