Every Monday, former NFL defensive back Matt Bowen takes you inside the X’s and O’s of the game. Here are his five key plays from the Week 16 Sunday NFL schedule.
Cam Newton’s Game-Winner vs. Saints' Zero-Pressure
Down 13-10 to the Saints late in the fourth quarter, Newton put together a five-play, 65-yard drive that ended with a game-winning touchdown pass to wide receiver Domenik Hixon on the out cut versus zero-coverage.
Let’s break down the Saints' pressure look and talk about Newton’s ability to step up in the pocket and the defensive technique at the top of the route stem.
Saints vs. Panthers
Personnel: Posse/11 (3WR-1TE-1RB)
Formation: Doubles Slot Gun Far
Offensive Concept: Smash-Divide/Out
Defensive Scheme: Cover 0
The Saints are sending safety pressure on the edge (Malcolm Jenkins, Roman Harper) and playing zero-technique in the secondary (off-man alignment, inside shade) with no safety help to the post.
To the closed (strong) side of the formation, the Panthers are running the smash-divide concept (smash-7-seam) with Hixon aligned as the open (weak) side X receiver. The Panthers wideout will take an inside stem on the release to the bottom of the numbers (create room for an outside breaking route) and go to work on cornerback Corey White.
Newton does an excellent job of stepping up in the pocket to eliminate the angle from Jenkins off the edge. That allows the quarterback to target Hixon on the out cut versus a defensive back playing from an inside leverage position.
However, check out the poor eye discipline of White. In zero-coverage, defensive backs are taught to take away inside breaking routes by alignment and react to outside cuts (out, corner, etc.), but you can’t put your eyes on the quarterback. That allows Hixon to separate and forces White to step in the bucket (open hips, step behind) on his transition to the out.
With the Saints cornerback now in a trail position—and unable to recover versus an outside breaking route—Newton looks up Hixon and delivers the game-winning pass to beat New Orleans. Great execution in a critical game situation to clinch a playoff spot for Carolina.
Peyton Manning Throws Touchdown Pass No. 51 to Break Tom Brady’s Record
The Broncos quarterback broke Brady’s single-season touchdown mark when he found Julius Thomas on the 9 (route) versus man coverage during the 37-13 win over the Texans.
Let’s take a look at this play and talk about Manning’s ability to identify matchups versus single-high safety defenses.
Broncos vs. Texans
Personnel: Ace/12 (2WR-2TE-1RB)
Formation: Empty “Dakota”
Offensive Concept: 999
Defensive Scheme: Cover 1 Pressure
With the Broncos aligned in an empty set, the Texans can’t disguise their man-coverage scheme. And when you show Manning a single high safety in your pre-snap alignment, he is going to find the exact matchup he wants to exploit.
Because Thomas is removed as the backside X receiver (“Dakota”), Manning can identify the matchup versus linebacker Darryl Sharpton playing from an off/inside alignment.
At the snap, the veteran quarterback holds the free safety in the middle of the field and then targets Thomas versus Sharpton. Even with the linebacker on top of the route (and using the sideline as his help), Manning is going to put this ball in a position where Thomas can go get it.
Ball placement—we talk about it all the time, and this is just another example from Manning on the fade route. This ball is thrown to Thomas' upfield shoulder (away from the defender’s leverage) and Sharpton has no chance to impact the play. That’s classic Manning on a record-breaking toss.
Tony Romo, Cowboys Beat the Redskins on 4th Down
After a negative run on 3rd-and-goal (where the Redskins blew up the left side of the Cowboys' defensive line), Romo had to make a play on fourth down to stay in the NFC East discussion. The answer? A checkdown to DeMarco Murray after the quarterback extended the play to get the win at FedEx Field.
Cowboys vs. Redskins
Personnel: Posse/11 (3WR-1TE-1RB)
Formation: Doubles Slot Gun Far
Offensive Concept: 4 Verticals
Defensive Scheme: “Red” Cover 2
In “Red” 2, the defense is going to sink hard to protect the end zone. Think of a three-deep shell (Mike ‘backer playing the middle third) with the cornerbacks sinking outside to create a five-across look in the end zone.
Force the checkdown, make the tackle, win the game.
However, with the Redskins lacking rush discipline, Romo can buy some time here, step up in the pocket and allow Murray to slide to the open-side flat.
Because Romo can step up and pump to hold the linebacker (seam-flat defender), the secondary has to plaster to coverage (scramble drill). That forces cornerback DeAngelo Hall to sink deep into the end zone and leave the open-side flat vacated for Murray.
Hall recovers and drives downhill on the throw to Murray. However, because he increased his depth, the hit/contact at the goal line isn’t going to keep the Cowboys running back out of the end zone. And that’s how a simple checkdown can win a game when the structure of the rush/coverage fails.
Patriots Use Personnel/Alignment to Produce in the Red Zone
Since the injury to Rob Gronkowski, one of the top questions surrounding the Patriots was their ability to game-plan/execute in the red zone. Who would get the ball? How would they create matchups? And what route combinations would produce points?
Here’s an example of how the Patriots used personnel/alignment to generate a positive matchup with Shane Vereen on the flat-7 combination for touchdown during their 41-7 win over the Ravens.
Patriots vs. Ravens
Personnel: Regular/21 (2WR-1TE-2RB)
Offensive Concept: Flat-7 (corner)
Defensive Scheme: Cover 1
With the Ravens playing Cover 1 (single high safety, underneath linebacker dropping to the inside hole), the Patriots motion Vereen to essentially create a stack look with fullback James Develin removed from the core of the formation.
The route? A flat-7 (corner) to get Vereen matched up versus linebacker Jameel McClain. At the snap, Develin takes a slight inside stem on the 7 cut to “pick” the linebacker with Vereen working to the flat.
As you can see here, McClain can’t bubble over the top of the traffic (can’t match to the flat route in time). Instead, he has work under the pick to try and create an angle to the route. However, once Vereen breaks to the flat, this is an easy read for Brady.
McClain can’t recover, given the field position and the inside pick. That leads to six points for the Patriots. And it’s a reminder of how New England can game-plan inside of the red zone based on personnel and the pre-snap alignment.
Nick Foles, Eagles Window-Dress the Boot Concept
The Eagles posted over 500 yards of total offense as they beat up the Bears 54-11 on Sunday night in Philadelphia. The Bears defense couldn’t stop the split zone, they struggled to match up in the secondary, and Chip Kelly's playbook exposed them inside the red zone.
Here’s a look at the Eagles' first touchdown off the boot action, a scheme that has shown up multiple times on the tape this season, with some window dressing added to disguise the route.
Bears vs. Eagles
Personnel: Heavy/13 (1WR-3TE-1RB)
Formation: Doubles Tight (Vice) Gun Near
Offensive Concept: Flat-7/Hi-Lo
Defensive Scheme: Cover 2
The Eagles are running a basic boot off the inside zone run action. However, they bring Heavy personnel on the field and align wide receiver Riley Cooper in a wing set (three-point stance). A double vice look dressed up versus Cover 2 to run the flat-7 to the closed side with a Hi-Lo combination working back across the field.
The Hi-Lo is an intermediate dig-shallow drive combination, with Cooper (Lo) on the underneath crosser. The Bears lose contain to the closed side versus Foles, Mike ‘backer Jon Bostic bites on the run action, and Cooper stems the crossing route over the top of the second-level defenders.
With Bostic now removed (linebacker has to match the crosser) and strong safety Major Wright playing the closed-side 7 cut, free safety Chris Conte has to chase and drive top-down on Cooper. The Eagles receiver finds a soft hole in the zone, and Foles delivers this ball for six points.
Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.