The Second Level: What You Need to Know Heading into NFL Championship Sunday

Matt Bowen @MattBowen41NFL National Lead WriterJanuary 16, 2014

FOXBORO, MA - NOVEMBER 24:  Quarterback Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots looks to pass against the Denver Broncos during a game at Gillette Stadium on November 24, 2013 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

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

5 Keys to Study from the Film

1. Patriots, 49ers run game (Power O scheme)

During the divisional playoffs, we saw the Patriots and 49ers lean on the Power O scheme (fullback kick out, backside guard pull) out of both Regular/21 (2WR-1TE-2RB) and Tank/22 (1WR-2TE-2RB).

Here’s a look at the Patriots' Power O scheme versus the Colts' 3-4 front out of 22 personnel.

NFL Game Rewind

New England doubles-down inside (chip to the second level), kicks out the safety on the edge and pulls the backside guard to account for the linebacker scraping over the top. That creates an inside running lane (and an explosive play) for LeGarrette Blount.

Now, let’s check out the 49ers' Power O out of 22 personnel (big wing alignment) with an extra offensive lineman in the game versus the Panthers' 4-3 front.

NFL Game Rewind

The 49ers block down on the defensive end, chip up to linebacker Luke Kuechly, kick out the safety and pull the backside guard to fit up on Thomas Davis to open a hole for Frank Gore. That allows the running back to get vertically up the field. 

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2. Julius Thomas removed from the core of the formation

The Broncos are going to adjust the pre-snap alignments of Thomas to create matchups versus both zone and man coverage in the intermediate passing game for Peyton Manning.

Going back to the Broncos' win over the Chargers this past Sunday, Thomas aligned as the No. 1 wide receiver to the closed (strong) side of the formation and as the backside X in a “Dakota” alignment (tight end removed on the backside of a 3x1 formation) to get a matchup versus a safety/cornerback.

Let’s start with the matchup versus Chargers safety Eric Weddle in Cover 1. 

NFL Game Rewind

Vertical release up the field for Thomas where the tight end can initiate contact at the top of the stem and create separation versus the safety. That allows Manning to target the tight end and deliver the ball before he comes out of his break on the intermediate curl.

Here’s the third-down conversion late in the game that closed out the win for the Broncos versus Cover 3 Buzz.

NFL Game Rewind

Curl-flat concept. That’s as basic as it gets versus Cover 3. With the running back widening the underneath linebacker on the flat route, Thomas can box out the cornerback and come back downhill to get the football.

3. 49ers “chalkboard” concepts vs. Seahawks Cover 3

The Seahawks will press their corners in Cover 3, use the free safety help of Earl Thomas in the middle of the field and play the underneath defenders with speed/technique to buzz to the flat or drive on any inside throw. And the execution is top tier with this unit. 

The goal for Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers is to run Cover 3 beaters. Think of three-level concepts, four verticals, slant-flat, curl-flat, etc—"chalkboard” routes that are designed to beat the three-deep shell.

In the Week 14 matchup, Kaepernick found Anquan Boldin on the deep curl versus Cover 3 using play action.

NFL Game Rewind

With Kam Chancellor buzzing under Boldin (and widening versus the flat), Davis runs the 7 cut (corner route) to force cornerback Byron Maxwell to sink outside. That opens up a throwing lane for Kaepernick to target Boldin on the deep curl route.

4. Julian Edelman/Danny Amendola: Pre-snap splits

The Broncos have to alert the pre-snap splits of both Edelman and Amendola on Sunday for inside Hi-Lo concepts. This could be from a stack alignment inside of the numbers, a reduced split to the backside or pre-snap motion/movement to the core of the formation.

During the Patriots' win over the Colts, Tom Brady found Edelman on the inside Hi-Lo concept out of Regular/21 personnel with a "Pony" backfield set (two tailbacks in the game). 

NFL Game Rewind

Look at the pre-snap split of Edelman. This is a reduced split to the open side of the formation and an automatic alert to the shallow drive route (underneath crosser). The Patriots clear out the closed side of the field (post/wheel) and occupy the inside linebacker with the tight end. That creates a quick read for Brady and an open field for Edelman to work with.

5. Russell Wilson/Seahawks Boot Game

Can the Seahawks get Wilson outside of the pocket on the boot/dash off play action to create an opportunity down the field?

In their previous meeting versus the 49ers, the quarterback found tight end Luke Willson on the deep crossing route off play action.

NFL Game Rewind

This plays out like a swap boot with the Seahawks bringing the tight end off the ball under the line of scrimmage to secure the open side of the formation. That gives Wilson time to sell the play action to Marshawn Lynch and set up in the pocket.

With the Seahawks clearing out the cornerback—and the open-side safety dropping down versus the run action—Wilson can target the tight end on the deep crossing route.

5 Things to Watch Heading into Championship Weekend

1. Patriots red zone/third-down game plan vs. Wes Welker

DENVER, CO - JANUARY 12:   Wes Welker #83 of the Denver Broncos scores a second quarter touchdown against the defense of  Darrell Stuckey #25 of the San Diego Chargers during the AFC Divisional Playoff Game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on Januar
Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

With Welker in the slot, the Patriots should expect the option, shallow drive, inside seam and the quick flat/pick route. And I’m curious to see how Bill Belichick game plans the wide receiver in third-down/deep red-zone (plus 10-yard line) situations. 

The Patriots could use some bracket looks, a “swipe” technique (linebacker buzzing underneath outside breaking routes) or play a “triangle” call (three-on-two) when Welker aligns in a stack. Plenty of options from a game-plan perspective to try to take away Welker in crucial situations on Sunday.

2. Secondary run support

During the divisional playoffs, there were too many runs that advanced through the second level (and into the open field) because of poor tackling/angles in the secondary.

Think of a corner in a crack-replace technique, a free safety coming downhill from the middle of the field or a strong safety playing the cutback. These are basic run fits from a secondary perspective that will be tested on Sunday with Blount, Gore, Lynch, etc. 

Let’s find out which secondaries can play with a flat-foot read, attack downhill and create a positive angle to the football to make a solid tackle.

3. Kaepernick/Wilson: Red-zone read-option

If the 49ers and Seahawks are going to run the read-option, I would look for the scheme to show up inside of the red zone based off the tape from the playoffs. Here’s a quick look at the option schemes.

NFL Game Rewind

In a Slot Open formation (trips to the open side of the field), Wilson reads the cornerback through the mesh point (packaged play with bubble screen) and gives it to Lynch on the inside zone. With the cornerback widening, Lynch can get up the field and beat the free safety for six points.

NFL Game Rewind

Using an arc block to work up to the linebacker, Kaepernick can read the path of the edge defender (up the field) and give it to Gore on the inside zone. And with the safety late to fill in the alley, Gore can run through contact for a touchdown.


4. Broncos secondary vs. Brady

Given the knee injury to Chris Harris, how will the Broncos use their personnel in the secondary to match up versus Brady and the Patriots offense?

Quentin Jammer replaced Harris on Sunday versus the Chargers, but rookie Keenan Allen exposed the veteran in the fourth quarter. Do the Broncos stick with Jammer against the Patriots or possibly bump Champ Bailey outside? And who plays the nickel when New England brings their three wide receiver personnel on the field?

This is something to keep an eye on, as it could impact how the Patriots game plan for Denver this Sunday because of the matchups they can create in the passing game.

5. Kam Chancellor’s impact vs. 49ers

Sep 15, 2013; Seattle, WA, USA; Seattle Seahawks strong safety Kam Chancellor (31) tackles San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis (85) during the 1st half at CenturyLink Field. Seattle defeated San Francisco 29-3. Mandatory Credit: Steven Bisig-USA TO
Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

Chancellor's ability to read the quarterback/break on the ball as an underneath zone defender is key in the Seahawks' Cover 3 scheme. Plus, the safety can match up in man coverage versus Vernon Davis.

But I still go back to his skill set as an eighth defender in the box where he can support the edge, play through cutback lanes and showcase his ability to tackle with technique. That’s crucial versus the 49ers' running game when Chancellor drops down into the front. 

All-22 Rewind: Patriots’ Pressure Produces a Turnover vs. Manning

During the Patriots' Week 12 win over the Broncos, Logan Ryan intercepted Manning on an inside slant route (sight adjust) to Eric Decker. Let’s go back to the All-22 tape, break down the pressure scheme and focus on Ryan’s technique in a press alignment.

Broncos vs. Patriots

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

Formation: Doubles Gun Far

Offensive Concept: Four Verticals/Sight Adjust

Defensive Scheme: Cover 1 Nickel Pressure

NFL Game Rewind

Base Cover 1 pressure here from the Patriots with the nickel blitzing off the open-side edge, the free safety rolling down over the slot and the cornerbacks playing from a press alignment.

With the Broncos using the inside play action, the nickel has a free run at Manning. And that will force the ball to come out on the sight adjust (three-step blitz read) from the Broncos quarterback. 

NFL Game Rewind

Look at the jam/re-route from Ryan on the release from Decker. The Patriots cornerback keeps his feet/base square, gets into the chest of the receiver and doesn’t allow Decker to cross his face. This gives Ryan inside position and the ability to take away the slant with the nickel providing edge pressure.

NFL Game Rewind

This is the ideal combination of pressure and coverage. Manning has to unload this ball to avoid a sack/hit, and Ryan is in a position to take away the slant. The Patriots cornerback steps in front of this pass and finishes the play. Technique wins—again.

Football 101: Inside “A” Gap Zone Pressure

Using the playbook diagram, let’s talk about sending “A” gap zone pressure out of Ruby personnel. An opportunity to rush five, drop six and attack the interior gaps of the offensive line with second-level defenders.

Ruby Gut Fire Zone

Matt Bowen/Bleacher Report

I’ve talked about Ruby personnel (3DL-2LB-6DB) before when we looked at a weak-side cornerback cat (cornerback blitz).

Here, we are going to attack the interior A gaps (and bring the free safety) to eliminate the quarterback’s ability to step up in the pocket with the protection of a three-deep, three-under zone shell in the back end.

The Blitz

The free safety (FS) stems to a blitz alignment with the Mike ‘backer (M) and Dime back (D) rushing to the open/closed-side A gaps. Along the defensive line, the closed-side end drops at the snap with the open-side end and tackle on “scoop” techniques to rush with contain responsibilities.

In this pressure, the free safety will “rush to daylight.” That means he blitzes from depth and will pick a hole based on the protection. There is no designated rush lane. Find a path to the quarterback. 

The Coverage

Three-deep, three-under with both cornerbacks playing a fire zone outside-third technique (match to No. 1 vertical) and the strong safety playing the deep middle of the field.

Underneath, both the closed-side end (E) and the nickel (N) play the seam-flat technique (match to No. 2) with the Sam ‘backer (S) dropping to the middle hook (match to No. 3).

Matching the blitz to offensive personnel

IRVING, TX - JANUARY 1:  Quarterback Drew Bledsoe #11 of the Dallas Cowboys drops back to pass against the St. Louis Rams on January 1, 2006 at Texas Stadium in Irving, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

This is an old Gregg Williams blitz scheme from Washington that we installed versus Drew Bledsoe and the Cowboys.

Why? Because we wanted to move Bledsoe off the spot in the pocket.

When Bledsoe had time to set his feet, he could sling the ball down the field. A huge arm to target Keyshawn Johnson and Terry Glenn in the vertical passing game.

We wanted to attack the inside A gaps to put pressure in his face and take away his ability to step up, reset his feet and test the top of our secondary. Plus, we knew Bledsoe wasn’t a threat to break contain and run the football.

This is a solid zone-pressure scheme that can produce a free runner to the quarterback inside. 

Inside the Locker Room: Who Wants to Compete at the Senior Bowl?  

Next week, I will travel down to Mobile, Ala., with the rest of the Bleacher Report team to start evaluating some of the top draft prospects in the country.

And whether you are in Mobile or watching the practice sessions on TV, my one recommendation is to focus on one-on-one drills at all three levels.

Nov 16, 2013; Champaign, IL, USA;  Ohio State Buckeyes running back Carlos Hyde (34) runs for a touchdown during the second quarter against the Illinois Fighting Illini at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bradley Leeb-USA TODAY Sports
Bradley Leeb-USA TODAY Sports

That’s where you can begin to study technique, footwork, speed, lateral ability, etc. Plus, you can also find out who wants to compete against top-tier talent in full pads.

These draft prospects won't be perfect, but I want to see who can bounce back after getting beat in one-on-one drills, adjust their technique and go win the next rep.

As we get closer to the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis, I will get more in-depth on the stress these prospects will be under to test in front of the entire NFL in the 40-yard dash, three-cone drill, etc.

But the all-star game circuit is another opportunity, or another part of the interview process, for these prospects on the field.

And the scouts, coaches, general managers, etc. are all watching to see who can compete, play with technique and perform in a stressful environment.

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