Former NFL defensive back Matt Bowen breaks down some of the top trends, discusses personnel and focuses on scheme from the first half of the 2014 season.
J.J. Watt Continues to Dominate the League
If you want to study pro-level technique and effort, then turn on any Texans game from the first half of the season and just focus on Watt.
We all know that Watt is talented. He’s an impact player—a defensive end who opponents have to specifically game-plan for every Sunday because of his ability to make plays from a variety of alignments along the Texans’ defensive front.
Size, speed and power. That’s Watt.
But don’t forget about the counter moves at the point of attack, the ability to set up offensive linemen and the high-level effort that allows Watt to get home to the quarterback or penetrate the line of scrimmage versus the run game.
Here’s an example with Watt aligned over Titans offensive guard Chance Warmack versus the base inside-zone running scheme.
Watt sets up Warmack with a quick inside step and uses the swim move to take advantage of the guard’s forward balance while making this play behind the line of scrimmage.
This is exactly what Watt does every game. He exposes poor technique and whips offensive linemen who aren’t prepared to play ball. And there is no question he is the clear front-runner for Defensive Player of the Year at the midway point of the 2014 season.
Rookie Wide Receivers Make an Early Impact
Making the transition from the college game to the NFL is extremely hard for wide receivers, especially given the demands put on route running plus the ability to separate and beat true press coverage versus legit, veteran talent in the secondary.
That’s why I’m always cautious about the hype surrounding these rooks when they take the field in September.
There are no more soft-zone looks from college defensive coordinators versus spread offenses or average talent at the cornerback position that allowed these receivers to consistently produce numbers in the SEC, Pac-12, ACC, Big 12, Big 10, etc.
However, this rookie class at the wide receiver position has exceeded my expectations at the midway point because of its quick development and playmaking skill sets.
Check out the tape on Sammy Watkins, Kelvin Benjamin, John Brown, Martavis Bryant, Brandin Cooks, Mike Evans or the recent production from Giants rookie Odell Beckham Jr. after experiencing an injury earlier in the season.
These guys are winning one-on-one matchups, creating separation at the top of the route stem and producing explosive plays versus quality talent outside of the numbers.
This is the best rookie class of receivers I’ve seen for some time. And these guys are just getting started. Look for more big plays during the second half of the season as they continue to develop.
Gronk Is Back
Earlier in the season, I did a tape study on Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce and compared his skill set to Rob Gronkowski at the tight end position when looking at size, the ability to create leverage in one-on-one matchups and the production after the catch.
In that piece, I mentioned that Gronkowski wasn’t fully recovered from a knee injury suffered in 2013. And the tape supported that when studying his movements.
However, I think we can all agree that Gronkowski is back after his recent run of production, as he is once again the top matchup weapon for Tom Brady and the Patriots.
Gronkowski is beating up on safeties and linebackers, running through the jam at the line of scrimmage and generating leverage at the break point to use his size/frame to make plays in the passing game.
Take a look at Gronkowski matched up versus Bears safety Chris Conte on a basic inside-breaking route.
Gronkowski pushes through the jam, wins to the inside and beats Conte on the dig route (square-in) before tossing Ryan Mundy out of the way after the catch.
That’s grown-man strength in the open field.
If you want to limit Brady and the Patriots offense right now, you better find a safety who can check Gronkowski in coverage. Good luck.
Bucs Defense Has Been Shockingly Bad
A long time ago in St. Louis, I sat in the defensive meeting room as a player while Lovie Smith installed the Tampa 2 system.
This isn’t a complex system, with your standard 4-3 fronts and core coverages in the secondary (Cover 1, 2, 3) plus some zone and man pressures. But the system works if the guys on the field play with the proper technique and discipline.
And that’s the real issue for the Bucs this season under Lovie.
It’s too easy to point the finger at the chalkboard and blame the scheme when the tape shows guys on the field playing with poor eye discipline, missing run fits and allowing opposing quarterbacks to gash the secondary while the front four fails to win one-on-one matchups.
Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David are stars. There is no doubt about that. But where is the production from the rest of this defense under Lovie?
In this defense, you should know as a player which routes to prep for, and there shouldn’t be questions on how to defend the run game in a one-gap system.
Mark Barron has already been traded away, Dashon Goldson has struggled, and free agents Michael Johnson and Alterraun Verner haven’t played up to their new contracts.
Don’t tell me the system doesn’t work. That’s a lazy excuse. This is on the players. And it’s going to take some time for Lovie to find the proper personnel.
Man, I was wrong about this defense back in August when I picked it to be one of the top units in the NFL.
Yankee Route: The Deep Shot in Everyone’s Playbook
Every season, there is a route concept that catches fire in the NFL and finds its way into offensive playbooks across the league.
This year, it’s the “Yankee” route.
It's a deep, two-man concept off play action (two receivers in the route) that allows the quarterback to sit in the pocket behind max protection while the route develops down the field.
The “Yankee” route is a deep post-crossing route combination that puts an enormous amount of stress on the top of the secondary to play with discipline (and depth) while avoiding the underneath bait.
Here’s an example of the “Yankee” route in the Saints game plan from their win over the Packers.
With the Packers in a single-high safety defense (Cover 3), the free safety, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, “jumps” the underneath crossing route. That opens up the middle of the field and puts the cornerback matching to the post in a tough spot.
Given that the cornerback is playing from an outside leverage position (coached technique) with the free safety vacating the deep middle of the field, Drew Brees can target the post before the cornerback replaces over the top.
When should opposing defenses expect this route to show up? Look for the ball in between the 40s (shot zone) with the wide receivers in tight or reduced splits.
That’s an automatic alert for a route that continues to pop upon the film every Sunday versus multiple coverage schemes.
Antoine Bethea Is the Best Safety in the NFL
When I study safeties on the tape, I look for “complete” players at the position: guys who have the range to play in the post, the coverage skill set to align over a tight end (or slot receiver) and the aggressive, downhill style that impacts the run game.
That’s what I see on the tape from Bethea. And I have no problem calling him the best safety in the game at this point of the season.
Bethea takes the proper angles to fit into the run front, he’s a consistent tackler, plus he has the hip flexibility to open/close to the ball as a middle-of-the-field or deep-half defender.
Check out this example from the 49ers' win over the Eagles in a crucial game situation versus the zone scheme.
That’s how you read a run/pass key and get downhill to “fill the alley” as a safety when you need a stop to win a football game.
I look for consistency at the safety position. Forget the occasional “splash” plays that cover up poor eye discipline and busts in the secondary. You can have that stuff.
I want a safety who plays with the proper depth, identifies route concepts, challenges receivers and uses his pads to clean up running backs.
And that’s what I’m seeing from Bethea.
Cover 0: The Pressure Look Every Defense Loves
In the deep red zone, I’m a big fan of playing Cover 0 (or zero-pressure), as it forces quarterbacks to panic and get the ball out quickly with defensive backs challenging receivers in both press and off-man alignments.
Forget Cover 1 (man-free), as the free safety ends up covering turf in the middle of the field without impacting the play. Stick with zero pressure and bring the blitz.
However, based on the tape, defensive coordinators are dialing up zero pressure all over the field. This isn’t just a red-zone defense anymore as coordinators are sending six-, seven- and even eight-man pressure with no safety help in the middle of the field.
Go get the quarterback and coach up the defensive backs to flat-foot read (no backpedal) from an off-man position.
Here is the zero-pressure look from the Redskins' win over the Cowboys last Monday night that knocked Tony Romo out of the ballgame.
Why more zero pressure? It takes away the standard 12-15 yard break point in the intermediate passing and forces receivers to convert to “hot reads” with defensive backs in a position to drive downhill on the slant, hitch, quick out, etc.
I love the aggressive style I’m seeing on tape from around the league, but there is one negative to sending all this heat: If you miss a tackle in a zero blitz, it’s time to strike up the band and play the fight song.
Antonio Brown Has Claim to Top Spot at Wide Receiver Position
A couple of weeks ago, I broke down the tape on Packers wide receiver Jordy Nelson and called him one of the top five players at the position.
But in that discussion, I failed to put Brown in the mix with Nelson, Demaryius Thomas, Dez Bryant, A.J. Green and Calvin Johnson. That’s poor on my part after going back and studying more tape on the Steelers wide receiver.
Brown is one of the best pure route-runners in the NFL (along with the Chargers’ Keenan Allen). That’s obvious when you study his ability to win on the release, press a cornerback up the field and burst out of his cuts at the break point.
That allows Brown to consistently separate from a defender’s leverage point or test the top of the defense.
Plus, we have to talk about his open-field ability after the catch. This is where Brown eliminates angles from the secondary while utilizing his ridiculous change-of-direction quickness to make defenders miss.
So, is Brown in the mix as one of the best players at the position this season? To be honest, he might be at the top of the list after watching the tape.
Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.