The Second Level: What You Need to Know Heading into NFL Week 17

Matt Bowen @MattBowen41NFL National Lead WriterDecember 26, 2013

PHILADELPHIA, PA - DECEMBER 22: Running back LeSean McCoy #25 of the Philadelphia Eagles is grabbed by safety Major Wright #21 of the Chicago Bears during the first half of a game at Lincoln Financial Field on December 22, 2013 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Eagles defeated the Bears 54-11. (Photo by Rich Schultz /Getty Images)
Rich Schultz/Getty Images

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 16 Film

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


1. Bears defense had no answer for Eagles' “split-zone” scheme

During the Eagles' 54-11 win this past Sunday night, Chip Kelly’s offense exposed the Bears defensive front on the split-zone scheme.

With zone blocking, the H/F-Back works across the formation to kick out the edge force (4-3 defensive end). LeSean McCoy can press the front side or cut this ball back (as he does here) to attack the edge.

The Bears gave up 289 yards on the ground, and they were consistently beaten on this scheme with the running back in the “dot” (aligned directly behind the center) or out of the shotgun.

NFL Game Rewind

2. The All-22 gives us a better look at Tony Romo’s game-winner vs. Redskins

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I broke down Romo’s game-winning touchdown pass to DeMarco Murray off the TV tape earlier this week, but the coaches' film has a much better look at what the quarterback saw once he stepped up in the pocket.

With the Redskins playing Cover 2 and cornerback DeAngelo Hall sinking hard to protect the end zone, Romo can pump to hold the linebacker. That allows Murray to work to the now-vacated flat before Hall can recover.

NFL Game Rewind

3. Texans defense gave up the deep one (again) in Cover 4 vs. Broncos

Throughout this season, opposing offenses have targeted the Texans’ Cover 4 scheme with the “pin” combination (post-dig) and the “dino” route (wide receiver stems to the corner, breaks back to the post). 

And that showed up again on Demaryius Thomas’ touchdown.

Off play action, Thomas runs the “dino” route (widens the cornerback on the outside stem). And with safety D.J. Swearinger late to work to No. 1 (safety looks to bracket No. 1 if no vertical threat inside from No. 2), Peyton Manning can now target Thomas on the post versus the cornerback playing from an outside leverage position.

NFL Game Rewind

4. Panthers’ zone pressure led to Thomas Davis’ interception vs. Saints

I love this interception from Davis because it is a combination of scheme, awareness and athletic ability.

Davis drops off the line of scrimmage as a “middle hook” defender (think Cover 3 here) and sinks right under the deep dig route (square-in). But how about this finish from the Panthers linebacker? Davis climbs the ladder to go get it.

Great play to get the interception off Drew Brees

NFL Game Rewind

5. Carson Palmer, Michael Floyd went after Seahawks’ zero-pressure

A couple of things to check out here on Palmer’s game-winning touchdown pass to Floyd on the straight 9-route (fade).

With the Seahawks playing Cover 0, there is no deep safety help in the middle of the field. And looking at the clean pocket Palmer has to throw from (seven-man protection), the Cardinals quarterback can take a shot to Floyd versus Byron Maxwell.

Down the field at the point of attack, I saw two guys competing. Maxwell played the pocket—and even got a hand on this ball—before Floyd finished this one for the score.

NFL Game Rewind

6. Alex Smith missed on a key red-zone opportunity vs. Colts

During the fourth quarter, Smith and the Chiefs had an opportunity to get back in this game with the ball inside of the red zone versus the Colts.

The route? Four verticals. Smart call at the plus 15–yard line. That puts stress on the free safety in Cover 1 to play the two inside verticals.

However, with Anthony Fasano matched up versus linebacker Jerrell Freeman, Smith leaves this ball short (and to the inside) instead of targeting the upfield shoulder of the tight end.

Poor throw from the Chiefs quarterback that resulted in a turnover.

NFL Game Rewind

7. Ben Roethlisberger took advantage of Packers secondary on the seam route

As a defensive back, you can’t backpedal/shuffle into the end zone. Put your heels on the goal line and flat-foot read through your run/pass keys.

That was the issue for Packers safety Sean Richardson on Roethlisberger’s touchdown pass to tight end Matt Spaeth. Instead of using a flat-foot read, Richardson increases his depth. That creates a throwing lane for Roethlisberger versus Cover 4 and allows Spaeth to gain leverage on the inside seam route.

And given the size matchup Spaeth has at the point of attack, he can pin the safety once he stems inside to finish this route for a touchdown.

NFL Game Rewind

8. Joe Flacco has to identify the “cloud” corner in Cover 2

The double stick-out is a tough route to run versus Cover 2 because the “cloud” corner doesn’t have to sink with No. 1 on a vertical concept. Instead, he can squat, read inside and jump No. 2 on an outside breaking route.

That’s what we see here with Patriots cornerback Logan Ryan versus the Ravens. Ryan has his eyes inside to Flacco, reads the outside cut from tight end Dennis Pitta and is in the proper position to drive the route.

And the result is an interception.

NFL Game Rewind

9. The goal-line “pick route” continues to show up on the tape

The one route I consistently see on the goal line versus Cover 1 and Cover 0 is the inside slant off the pick action.

Here’s another example from the Raiders-Chargers matchup. With Oakland bringing zero pressure, there is no post help. The Chargers send the slot receiver to pick the cornerback with Keenan Allen coming underneath on the inside slant route.

Until defensive backs use a “banjo” call (in and out technique), or start to jam the outside receiver from a press alignment, this combination will continue to show up on the film. 

NFL Game Rewind

10. Chiefs secondary gave Donald Brown, Colts a free one in the run game

If a run busts into the secondary, it's on the defensive backs to get the ball-carrier on the ground. It doesn’t have to look pretty. Just get the guy down and allow the defense to huddle up for the next play.

That was a problem for the Kansas City secondary on Brown’s 51-yard touchdown run. Out of a split-gun alignment, the Colts created a running lane on the Power O scheme.

But as you can see here, both Brandon Flowers and Kendrick Lewis have an opportunity (plus an angle) to make the tackle at the second level to prevent an explosive play. You can’t miss tackles in the secondary versus pro running backs.

NFL Game Rewind


5 Things to Watch Heading into Week 17

Here are five things I’m focused on after looking at the Week 17 NFL schedule.

1. Panthers' offensive game plan without Steve Smith

Oct 13, 2013; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Carolina Panthers wide receiver Ted Ginn (19) against the Minnesota Vikings at Mall of America Field at H.H.H. Metrodome. The Panthers defeated the Vikings 35-10. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports
Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sport

Quarterback Cam Newton put together a five-play, 65-yard drive to beat the Saints in Week 16 without Smith on the field. And as we look ahead to the Panthers' matchup vs. the Falcons, I’m curious to see if (or how) the injury to Smith impacts the Carolina game plan.

I would expect the Panthers to use formation/alignment to create some matchups for tight end Greg Olsen.

The run game will also be key, and don’t forget about Ted Ginn. The wide receiver should play a much larger role in the game plan with Smith on the sidelines as Carolina looks to win the NFC South. 

2. Cowboys' defensive prep

Monte Kiffin’s unit needs to spend some time on the Bears-Eagles tape from Week 16, as it should expect to see the same offensive schemes versus its 4-3 front. 

Look for the inside zone/split zone with LeSean McCoy, the bubble screen and the West Coast route concepts (hi-lo combinations) out of Ace/12 personnel (two wide receivers, two tight ends, one running back).

With the strong possibility that Tony Romo is shut down due to a back injury, this defense has to create field position and come up with some key stops versus Chip Kelly’s offense if the Cowboys want to get into the postseason dance.

3. Packers run game

The Bears' suspect run defense needs to play with much better technique/discipline versus the Packers' core schemes (one-back power, inside zone, split zone, crack toss, lead draw) if it wants to take home the NFC North title. 

With Eddie Lacy working through an ankle injury, the Bears could see more of James Starks. But the schemes won’t change versus their seven- and eight-man fronts.

Here’s a look at the Packers' (counter) lead draw that led to six points versus the Bears up at Lambeau Field. With the Bears playing Cover 2 (seven-man box) and the linebackers chasing the counter action, the Packers kick out defensive end Julius Peppers and create an enormous running lane for Starks.

NFL Game Rewind

4. Drew Brees vs. Bucs secondary 

After struggling to move the ball against the Panthers defense this past week, Drew Brees and the Saints get another opportunity to lock up a playoff spot versus the Bucs this Sunday in New Orleans.

I would focus on the Tampa secondary early in this game. Does it show two-deep looks, Cover 6 (quarter-quarter-half) or play some single-high safety defenses? That will determine how the Saints use their personnel/alignment to create matchups—especially when they move the ball across midfield.

The Saints are tough at home, but as we’ve seen all season long, nothing comes easy in this league. And the Bucs should welcome the opportunity to possibly send Sean Payton’s team home for the offseason.

5. Peyton Manning, Broncos look to wrap up the No. 1 seed

With the Patriots hosting the Bills this Sunday, the Broncos need to take care of the Raiders out in Oakland to lock up the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs.

Checking out the tape from their first meeting this season in Denver, Manning targeted Cover 2 in the red zone with the inside seam/nod route and also hit the quick, skinny post off play action.

Here’s a look at the play pass (with counter protection) versus the Raiders' Cover 2. With Eric Decker in a crack split (plus an inside release), the Broncos force the safety to attack the line of scrimmage. And that crates an easy inside throwing lane for Manning to pick up the touchdown.

NFL Game Rewind

All-22 Rewind: Lions Fail to Stop Giants on Crucial 4th Down 

The Lions defense had a chance to get off the field in overtime and give the ball back to Matthew Stafford on a 4th-and-7 situation versus the Giants. Let’s take a look at the tape and break down how Eli Manning was able to move the sticks to get the ball into scoring position on the game-winning drive.

Giants vs. Lions

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

Formation: Doubles Slot Gun Far

Offensive Concept: Levels

Defensive Scheme: Cover 2

NFL Game Rewind

The levels concept is a high-to-low read for Manning (smash-dig combination) with No. 1 on the smash route and No. 2, Jerrel Jernigan, on the intermediate dig. The Giants occupy the "Mike" 'backer (inside vertical seam drop in Cover 2) with the tight end, and Manning targets Jernigan in front of the deep-half safety.

NFL Game Rewind

In Cover 2, the dig route isn’t the safety’s play to make. That’s on the nickelback to cushion the route, take away the second-level read and force the quarterback to dump the ball underneath.

Here, Lions nickelback Don Carey does a good job of gaining depth and cushioning the dig route. However, once Manning opens his shoulders, Carey drives the underneath smash route, creating a throwing window for the Giants quarterback.

NFL Game Rewind

With the nickelback now removed, Jernigan can sit this route down and catch the ball in front of safety Louis Delmas to move the sticks. And the Giants can continue on the drive to kick the eventual game-winning field goal that eliminated the Lions from the playoff discussion.


Football 101: The Cornerback “Cat”

Using an exotic blitz scheme out of Gregg Williams’ playbook, let’s break down the cornerback cat, discuss the “Ruby” front and take a look at how you can set a trap in the secondary.

“Ruby” Weak Cat (“Gold”)

Matt Bowen

In the diagram, I have “Ruby” personnel on the field (three defensive linemen, two linebackers, six defensive backs). Before the snap, the closed-side cornerback (C) and "Sam" 'backer (S) stem to a blitz alignment to rush off the edge with the nickelback (N) and strong safety (SS) rolling to the deep half.

With the defensive end (E) and defensive tackle (T) on inside “scoop” stunts, the idea here is to create a two-on-one versus the running back (R) in protection.

Underneath, the Mike ‘backer (M) and dimeback (D) play a “vertical hook” technique (carry/trail No. 2 vertically up the field) with the free safety (FS) dropping to the closed-side flat.

In this scheme, the free safety and the open-side cornerback are playing “gold.” This allows the defense to set a trap for the quarterback and take away his blitz read.

In “gold,” both flat defenders will read inside to No. 2 (W, Y). If No. 2 breaks on an outside cut (out, flat, option), they will drop No. 1 (X,Z) to the deep-half players (widen over the top of No. 1 on the vertical release) and jump the route.

A solid blitz scheme that forces the ball to come out with a trap set on the edge to jump any throw to the flat.

However, it does have one major weakness. Can you see it? Let me know in the comments section.

Inside the Locker Room: The Importance of Film Study

It took me three years in the NFL to finally understand the tape.

I’m talking about formations, alignment and personnel. They all tell a story—on both sides of the ball—based on the opponent.

HOUSTON - AUGUST 28:  Head coach Jon Gruden of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers looks on from the sidelines during a football game against the Houston Texans Aug. 28, 2008 at Reliant Stadium in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
Bob Levey/Getty Images

When we would line up against Andy Reid’s Eagles, motion to a bunch was an automatic alert to the Hi-Lo Triple-In Flood. 

A double vice (double stack) from Jon Gruden’s Bucs? Play for the Flat-7 (corner) with a possible “dino” stem (stem to the corner, break to the post) built into the route.

And when Keyshawn Johnson aligned at the bottom of the numbers, we expected to see the out route versus the Cowboys.

Simple keys, really, that you could keep in your back pocket throughout the game to identify the scheme, route, concept, etc. 

As a defense, we watched hours of film throughout the week in our meetings, and that doesn’t count the amount of time we would study tape away from the facility on our own.

A goal for game day? Four plays. I’m talking about four plays that you should make because of the ability to identify a concept at the line of scrimmage based off the tape.

But for all the tape you watch as a player, you can’t account for new install from the opponent. That means there will be a formation or personnel grouping that didn’t show up in film study.

That’s expected with the way NFL coaches game-plan and prep throughout the week. In that situation, just read your keys, lean on technique and play ball.

The point here is that the tape is a guide—or a cheat sheet—to the test on game day.

And you won’t survive long in the NFL if you don’t learn how to study the tape and make it a part of your daily routine.

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


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