The Second Level: What You Need to Know Heading into NFL Week 16

Matt Bowen @MattBowen41NFL National Lead WriterDecember 19, 2013

Dec 2, 2013; Seattle, WA, USA; Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman (25) celebrates during the game against the New Orleans Saints at CenturyLink Field. The Seahawks defeated the Saints 34-7. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

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

10 Takeaways from the Week 15 Film

After watching the tape, here are 10 plays we can learn from—technique, scheme and more.


1. Joe Flacco targeted Lions’ Cover 2 in a crucial game situation

Before Justin Tucker’s ridiculous 61-yard field goal to beat the Lions on Monday night, the Ravens had to advance the ball—and continue the drive—on a 3rd-and-15 situation versus Cover 2.

Here’s a look at the “sucker” concept that allowed Flacco to target Jacoby Jones on the deep, inside dig route (square-in). The Ravens clear out the "Mike" ‘backer with the inside seam, occupy the nickelback with the quick curl/option and open up a throwing lane in front of the deep-half safeties.

Great ball from Flacco and a solid finish from Jones on a route that can consistently create issues for two-deep coverage.

NFL Game Rewind


2. Eli Manning had no chance throwing the fade vs. Richard Sherman 

If you have followed me throughout the season, then you know how much I value technique in the defensive secondary. And that’s also one of the reasons I love watching film on Sherman.

With Manning trying to work the fade up the sideline to Hakeem Nicks, Sherman drove to the inside hip, got his head around and played the ball at the highest point. Go up and get it. That's clinic tape stuff right there. 

NFL Game Rewind

3. Bears set up the crack toss (again) to produce an explosive play

Throughout this season, the Bears have shown the reverse, or the jet sweep, with wide receiver Alshon Jeffery. That allows Marc Trestman’s offense to sell the wide receiver-run action and lean on the crack toss to get Matt Forte to the edge.

During the win over the Browns, the Bears put the ball in scoring position in the fourth quarter by showing the jet sweep and getting the ball out to Forte. Sell the fake, block down, pull left tackle Jermon Bushrod and widen the edge for Forte to get up the field.

NFL Game Rewind

4. Ryan Tannehill identified the best matchup on the game-winner vs. Patriots

Before Michael Thomas intercepted Tom Brady in the end zone to close out the Dolphins' win over the Patriots, quarterback Ryan Tannehill found Marcus Thigpen in a one-on-one matchup to take the lead.

With the Patriots playing man coverage, the Dolphins release tight end Charles Clay up the field on the post and run the double smash-7 to the open side of the formation. That creates room for Thigpen to run an option route versus linebacker Dont’a Hightower.

The Dolphins running back releases up the field, forces Hightower to open his hips and beats the linebacker over the top for the touchdown.

NFL Game Rewind

5. More issues for Cowboys' red-zone Cover 2 defense 

In Week 14, the Bears attacked the Cowboys' two-deep shell with the smash-7 (corner) for a score. Run off the top of the defense with the 7-cut and sit down the smash route in the hole for six points.

This past Sunday? The option-fade from the Packers. With the outside 9-route (fade) forcing the cornerback to widen/sink, James Jones can work away from the linebacker (seam-hook defender) and sit down in front of the safety for a touchdown. 

NFL Game Rewind


6. Greg Jennings exposed Eagles' pressure scheme

With the Eagles sending five-man pressure and playing a combination coverage in the secondary (2-Man and Cloud), Jennings can work versus Patrick Chung inside of the numbers.

The Vikings wide receiver releases up the field and uses a stutter/outside stem that forces Chung to widen/squat. And with Chung now in a trail position, Jennings can split the two deep-half defenders as Matt Cassel climbs the pocket to deliver this ball for a 57-yard touchdown.

NFL Game Rewind

7. John Kuhn’s second-level block opened the door on Eddie Lacy’s 60-yard run

This is a counter lead from the Packers with a full-house alignment (or inverted wishbone look) in the backfield. A quick counter step from Lacy with Kuhn leading up through the hole.

However, for this run to bust into the open field, the Packers have to account for safety Barry Church. And that’s what we see on the tape with Kuhn cutting the Cowboys safety and opening up an enormous running lane for Lacy on his way to the 60-yard gain.

NFL Game Rewind

8. Play action out of Tank personnel continues to produce for the 49ers

Here’s another example of the 49ers exposing the secondary/second-level defenders out of Tank/22 personnel (1WR-2TE-2RB) off play action. 

With the Bucs in Cover 2, San Francisco sells the one-back power (pull open-side guard). That removes the Mike 'backer and forces strong safety Mark Barron to open/run versus Vernon Davis with the free safety occupied in the open-side deep half.

Davis eats up the cushion of Barron, gains inside leverage and outruns the Bucs safety on an outstanding throw from Collin Kaepernick for a touchdown.

NFL Game Rewind

9. Chargers' Keenan Allen builds his case for Offensive Rookie of the Year 

Allen scored two touchdowns versus the Broncos last Thursday on the underneath crosser and the 7-route. And I want to take a look at the crossing scheme because I question the Broncos' decision to pass off the route.

Denver is in man coverage, but instead of driving to the upfield shoulder of Allen on the release, the open-side cornerback drops (or passes) the receiver to the linebacker playing the inside-hole drop. That allows Allen to work across the field, make the catch and expose the Broncos' tackling on the goal line for a score.

NFL Game Rewind

10. Geno Smith can’t force the ball into zone coverage

Panthers defensive back Captain Munnerlyn returned an interception for six points on a play that I think could have been avoided if Jets quarterback Geno Smith had come off his primary read.

With Munnerlyn playing inside at the nickel in Cover 2, he is going to sink under the dig route. Read the eyes, drive on the throw and make the play.

This is a situation where Smith can come off his No. 1 read and dump the ball to the flat with the cornerback sinking outside. No need to force the ball into a tight window versus zone coverage.

NFL Game Rewind


5 Things to Watch Heading into Week 16

Here are five things I’m focused on after checking out the Week 16 schedule in the NFL.


1. LeSean McCoy vs. the Bears’ run defense

PHILADELPHIA, PA - OCTOBER 27: Running back LeSean McCoy #25 of the Philadelphia Eagles runs against the New York Giants during the first quarter of a game at Lincoln Financial Field on October 27, 2013 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Vick recovered the fu
Rich Schultz/Getty Images

This Chicago defense will be tested again on Sunday night versus the Eagles and McCoy. Run/pass keys, gap control, tackling and the ability to limit the Eagles' packaged plays will be crucial against one of the league’s top running backs. 

Think of the inside-zone scheme here that caters to McCoy's vision and lateral ability in the open field. 

The Bears could get Lance Briggs back in the lineup. And that would be an upgrade for a defense that needs to play opportunistic football versus Chip Kelly’s team to give Jay Cutler and the offense field position.

2. Panthers' red-zone defense

Going back to the Saints-Panthers matchup in Week 14, Carolina leaned on basic, core schemes inside the red zone (Cover 1, Cover 2) that allowed Drew Brees to work the inside seam and find Jimmy Graham in favorable matchups.

Will the Panthers build out from those schemes this Sunday at home versus the Saints? Or do we see the same coverages that Brees can target? I’m interested to find out how Ron Rivera’s team game-plans the Saints based off that Week 14 tape.

3. Marshawn Lynch, Seahawks’ “split zone” vs. Cardinals

Earlier this season, the Seahawks attacked the Cardinals' run front with the “split zone.” Get the ball to Lynch deep in the backfield and allow the veteran to use his vision to find running lanes with the F/H-Back kicking out the edge force.

Here’s a look at the scheme on the All-22 tape. Let’s see if the Cardinals can tighten the edge, constrict the running lanes and force Lynch to work laterally to the line of scrimmage. Can’t allow the Seahawks running back to make one cut and get vertically up the field.

NFL Game Rewind

4. Steelers’ bunch/stack alignments vs. Packers defense

The majority of NFL defenses have struggled this season in both zone and man coverage versus bunch or stack alignments. Do you jam the point man, play a four-on-three, use a “banjo” technique (in and out), etc.?

That’s important for Dom Capers’ unit versus Ben Roethlisberger and this Steelers offense. Pittsburgh will lean on those stack/bunch alignments to get a free release for Antonio Brown and work underneath concepts. The Packers can’t afford to bust coverages versus this offense.

5. Ravens' vertical passing game

Nov 10, 2013; Baltimore, MD, USA; Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco (5) prepares to throw the ball against the Cincinnati Bengals at M&T Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports
Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

Look for play action out of the pistol with the ball near midfield. That has to be an automatic alert for the Patriots secondary this Sunday versus Flacco and Torrey Smith.

The Ravens love to throw the deep ball, and they will use play action to target single-high and two-deep coverages on the 9/post with Smith. New England can’t give the Ravens a free one over the top or leave its cornerbacks in one-on-one matchups without help versus Smith. 

All-22 Rewind: Sam Shields’ Interception vs. Tony Romo, Cowboys

Let’s go back to the All-22 tape and break down Romo’s interception in the fourth quarter on the Cowboys' packaged run/pass option at the line of scrimmage. 

Packers vs. Cowboys

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

Formation: Doubles Slot (Bunch)

Offensive Concept: Split Zone/Slant

Defensive Scheme: Cover 0

NFL Game Rewind

In NFL offenses, there will be a slant (or smoke) built in for the quarterback and the receiver. Even with a run called in the huddle, the quarterback can throw the quick, one-step slant if he identifies a favorable matchup on the outside.

Romo wants to throw the one-step slant here to Miles Austin with the Packers showing zero-coverage (no middle-of-the-field help). However, because of the run play called in the huddle (split zone), the Cowboys are using zone blocking up front with the H/F-Back responsible to kick out Clay Matthews on the backside. That brings immediate pressure on Romo with the linebacker coming hard off the edge.

NFL Game Rewind

The Cowboys quarterback avoids Matthews and still has time to look outside to the slant. Plus, Austin gains leverage on Shields and can stem this route back inside of the numbers. And with no help in the middle of the field, Romo can target Austin if he puts the ball on the upfield shoulder.

NFL Game Rewind

Romo leaves this throw to the inside of Austin (back shoulder). That allows Shields to recover and finish with the interception. Should Romo have run the play called in the huddle? Sure. And that’s easy for me to say now. But given the Packers' coverage scheme and Romo’s ability to avoid the edge pressure, a good throw here would have produced an explosive play.


Football 101: Cover 2 Reads at the Safety Position

With the amount of Cover 2 we see on tape, let’s simplify the reads at the safety position to give you a better understanding of how to quickly identify offensive concepts from the deep half.  

Matt Bowen

In this diagram I drew up, we are focusing on the No. 1 wide receiver (count outside-in from a defensive perspective) with a “plus two” split (two yards on top of the numbers).

As a deep-half safety, your eyes should always go to No.1 at the snap of the ball. Let the wide receiver tell you the story. Focus on the release, drop to your landmark (top of the numbers) and then get your eyes back inside to the quarterback.

Let’s run through the four releases and break this down. And, remember, every route (outside of the three-step game) breaks between a depth of 12-15 yards.

Outside release: Two routes: 9 (fade) or comeback. That’s it. From that split, the wide receiver doesn’t have enough room to run an outside breaking route, nor does he have the time to work back to the middle of the field.

Inside release: This is where the wide receiver will stem (top of the numbers) to create room for the 7 (corner) or to run the 6 (dig)/8 (post). Play top-down on the 6 and take an angle to the upfield shoulder (downhill, 45-degree angle) versus the 7.

Flat release: That’s the slant. The three-step game with the wide receiver working to beat the jam of the rolled-up corner. As a safety, drive downhill and put a helmet on him.

Straight release: This is a run. When the receiver uses a straight stem off the ball, he is blocking the cornerback. Move your eyes back inside and fill the “alley” (between the cornerback and the core of the formation) on the run. 

Remember, we often make pro football more complicated than it needs to be. And that doesn't have to be the case as a Cover 2 safety.

Inside the Locker Room: Goodbye, Candlestick Park

I loved playing at Candlestick.

It was original, a classic and had a history that I appreciated as a player during my career.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - OCTOBER 06:  A general view during the San Francisco 49ers game against the Houston Texans at Candlestick Park on October 6, 2013 in San Francisco, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

You could feel it when the bus pulled down the hill on game days. Montana, Rice, Craig, Walsh, etc.. The list goes on with that franchise.

Great players, great coaches, great football teams.

The damp grass, the cool weather, the wind off the water. As a rookie, I felt like a pro ball player coming out of that tunnel in San Francisco when I was with the Rams in the old NFC West.

That’s the kind of stuff you dream about as a kid.

I know the stadium is old, outdated and, well, kind of a dump. Let’s be honest when we look around at the new joints in the league with retractable roofs, pro-style facilities and locker rooms that are made for the NFL.

In Candlestick, the visiting locker rooms have a high school look to them. They are cramped and beat up, and the training room is as small as it gets.

Similar to the old Vet in Philadelphia or the Metrodome in Minneapolis, Candlestick isn’t a comfortable environment for visiting teams.

But I still think it’s sweet.

We all know stadiums are replaced or renovated. Even Lambeau Field (the best stadium in the NFL) has changed drastically since I played there back in the early 2000s.  

And as the 49ers prep to play the last regular-season game ever at Candlestick this Monday night before they move to their new stadium next year, I have to admit that I’m going to miss it.

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