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Matt Bowen's NFL Conference Championships Film Study

Matt Bowen @MattBowen41NFL National Lead WriterJanuary 15, 2015

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Throughout the playoffs, former NFL defensive back Matt Bowen will bring you his film study: a breakdown of personnel, matchups and scheme on the postseason stage.

 

Five Players to Watch on Championship Sunday

1. Devin McCourty, FS, Patriots

The Patriots free safety is underrated in conversations about the top players at the position. But his impact on this defense is crucial, given his ability to identify route concepts and break on the ball from the deep middle of the field.

Darron Cummings/Associated Press

If the Patriots lean on Cover 1 (man-free) versus Andrew Luck and the Colts, McCourty can close the post, drive downhill on inside breaking routes and play over the top of the inside vertical seam to tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen.

Bill Belichick’s defense wants to challenge receivers at the line of scrimmage and funnel the routes to the middle of the field. That’s where McCourty’s range and overall instincts at the position come into play. The free safety is key to the Patriots' limiting Luck on Sunday in Foxborough.

2. Clay Matthews, LB, Packers

The Seahawks wore down the Packers’ front seven back in Week 1 with running back Marshawn Lynch. They were much more physical at the point of attack and moved defenders on the line of scrimmage while getting to the second level to account for the linebackers.

However, since Matthews made the switch to the inside linebacker position (based on down-and-distance/game situation), this Green Bay defense has been more productive on tape.

Keep an eye on Matthews when he aligns inside versus the Seahawks' zone and power schemes. Whether that is coming downhill to fill the hole or pursuing to the ball to close the edge, the Packers linebacker can have a major impact as this defense looks to limit Lynch and the Seahawks’ run game.

3. Russell Wilson, QB, Seahawks

All four starting quarterbacks this Sunday could be on this list, but I’m looking at Wilson because of the Seahawks’ ability to use creativity in the game plan. Think of the zone-read, the triple-option (pass), boot, sprint, etc. All are opportunities for the Seahawks to get Wilson to the edge of the pocket where he can make plays.

Here’s an example from Week 1 on the triple-option with Wilson riding Lynch through the mesh point and then “optioning” the cornerback on the pass (curl). This play went for six points after the cornerback squatted versus the mesh point, and wide receiver Ricardo Lockette beat Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in the open field.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

The Seahawks can force the Packers to play with discipline versus the zone-read and test the edge-rushers on contain off the boot action. Plus, when Wilson can get to the edge of the pocket, he can extend plays. And that’s when the coverage breaks down in the secondary to productive explosive gains over the top.

4. Patriots Running Backs

Based on the Week 11 tape, expect the Patriots to lean on the running game against the Colts’ front seven, as they produced over 240 yards on the ground in the win. But which running back will the Patriots feature? And could New England completely flip the script and come out throwing the football?

In that earlier matchup versus the Colts, it was Jonas Gray who filled up the box score (37 carries, 201 yards, four touchdowns), but that doesn’t mean LeGarrette Blount, Shane Vereen or Brandon Bolden won’t see carries. The Patriots’ game plan is a mystery every week. And you never know what you are going to get.

But the should run the football early in the AFC Championship Game, one- and two-back runs that come downhill. Find out if the Colts have made the proper adjustments from that Week 11 tape.

5. T.Y. Hilton, WR, Colts

Hilton is at his best when he can create separation at the top of the route or off the release (as he did last Sunday versus Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib). This is when Hilton can use his acceleration to come out of the break and work away from the defender’s leverage.

Nov 3, 2014; East Rutherford, NJ, USA; Indianapolis Colts wide receiver T.Y. Hilton (13) stiff-arms New York Giants corner back Jayron Hosley (28) after a catch during the second quarter at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

The Colts should use more reduced formations with Hilton to generate some rub/pick situations. That would allow the receiver to run the shallow cross, option and 7 (corner) route in this offense. Just get him open and create some big-play opportunities for Luck.

The Patriots will play Cover 3 (zone defense), but when they do line up in press-man, Darrelle Revis could draw the matchup versus Hilton. Can the wide receiver produce in the slot versus Revis and win on a two-way-go (inside or outside release) to create separation? Revis played over Reggie Wayne in that Week 11 matchup, but I would put the cornerback on Hilton this Sunday to take away Luck's No. 1 option. 

 

Five Matchups to Watch on Championship Sunday

1. Eddie Lacy vs. Kam Chancellor

The Packers will continue to run the zone and power schemes with Lacy out of the two-back pistol (limits the movement for quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who's dealing with a calf injury) to create vertical running lanes out of Houston/20 personnel (3WR-2RB).

Check out this run from the divisional playoff win over Dallas with the Packers using a crack-block on the safety and fullback John Kuhn working up through the hole. This scheme is advantageous because it allows the Packers to account for the safety while forcing the cornerback to “replace” versus a lead blocker.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

If the Packers are going to produce on the ground, they have to put a hat on Chancellor. The Seattle strong safety is extremely physical, can fill downhill (with speed) and is an excellent tackler at the point of attack. He's an ideal fit for the Seahawks’ scheme as that extra defender in the box.

I’m looking for some big-time collisions in this matchup when Chancellor drops down to play the run versus Lacy.

2. Rob Gronkowski vs. LaRon Landry

Get a jam: That has to be the first priority for the Colts when they set their defensive game plan versus Gronkowski. A free release? That’s automatic production for the tight end on the seam, slant, corner, dig, etc.

If Landry draws the matchup versus Gronkowski, the safety has to use his hands on the release and slide his feet. Think technique here with the upper-body strength of Landry. Punch the chest plate, slide the feet and then use the help over the top/in the middle of the field.

Plus, when the ball moves into the red zone, use the pre-snap alignment of Gronkowski to alert specific routes. Here’s an example with Gronkowski on the back side of a 3x1 formation (called a “Dakota” alignment). 

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

Play for the slant, react to the fade. You know it’s coming based on the split and the back-side alignment. Slide inside and take away the release.

This a tough matchup for any safety in the NFL versus Gronkowski. But that’s why technique and formation recognition are so important. Give yourself a chance versus the best tight end in the game.

3. Aaron Rodgers vs. Richard Sherman

Back in Week 1, the Packers avoided Sherman and threw the ball consistently to the opposite side of the formation. That allowed the Seahawks essentially to cut the field in half, limiting the Packers offense.

Dec 21, 2014; Glendale, AZ, USA; Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman (25) celebrates his fourth quarter interception against the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Seahawks defeated the Cardinals 35-6. Mandatory Credit: Mark J
USA TODAY Sports

This Sunday, Rodgers absolutely has to challenge one of the top cornerbacks in the game. Whether that is the curl, comeback or quick fade that Rodgers puts on the back shoulder of the receiver, there will be opportunities for the Packers quarterback to work one-on-one matchups with Jordy Nelson versus Sherman.

Green Bay will use its Cover 3 beaters to attack the Seahawks secondary, but I’m also focused on the intermediate throws (break at 12-15 yards) that open up the field and allow Rodgers to test Sherman.

 

4. Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen vs. Jamie Collins

Luck is going to throw the inside option routes to the tight ends and work the vertical seam. And that should create some matchups versus Collins when the linebacker carries the tight ends up the field or plays the underneath concepts.

Take a look at Collins matching to Ravens tight end Owen Daniels on the shallow crossing route as the linebacker undercuts the break and gets a hand on the football.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

Collins can play multiple roles in Belichick’s defense, but given his skill set and athletic ability, the matchup is favorable here versus both Fleener and Allen. Take away the seam and drive on inside breaking routes to limit the production of the Colts tight ends.

5. Packers Offensive Tackles vs. Seahawks’ Edge Speed

With Rodgers’ mobility still limited, Packers offensive tackles David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga have to close the edge versus the speed of Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett and Bruce Irvin.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

These offensive tackles have to give Rodgers time for routes to develop. I’m talking about intermediate throwing windows versus Cover 3 when receivers have to clear second-level defenders to find the holes in the zone coverage.

Yes, Rodgers will have to manage the pocket versus Seattle, but if he's consistently forced to escape pressure with the injury, the Packers could be in trouble. Mike McCarthy’s team needs both Bakhtiari and Bulaga to play their best football on the edge.

 

Tape Session

Here are three schemes/concepts to focus on this Sunday when you sit down to watch the championship games.

 

Patriots’ Four-Offensive Linemen Personnel

The Patriots caused some confusion for the Ravens defense last Sunday when they brought only four offensive linemen into the game along with three wide receivers, two tight ends and one running back.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

As you can see, the running back is an ineligible player, as he is covered up by the No. 1 receiver (count outside-in) with Gronkowski off the ball to the open side of the formation. To the closed side, the Patriots aligned a tight end in the tackle position (on the ball) with two receivers off the ball.

This is a perfectly legal formation, but the Ravens are at fault for not going to an automatic “safe” check. This is usually an “Omaha” call that allows the defense to line up and play Cover 2 versus any type of personnel or formation.

Let’s see if the Patriots use this look again versus the Colts.

 

Andrew Luck, Colts’ Zone-Read

Luck is an excellent athlete who has size (6'4", 240 lbs) and speed (4.6 40-yard dash). That allows the Colts to use the zone-read based on game situation by riding the running back through the mesh point and “reading” the edge defender.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

This play was called back due to a penalty, but we can see Luck's speed as he pulls the ball off the mesh point to get past the edge defender.

Where should you look for the Colts to use the zone-read? In the red zone or anywhere between 3rd-and-2 through 3rd-and-6. That’s where the option scheme can have an impact with Luck getting the ball in the end zone or moving the sticks.

Seahawks’ Cover 3 Technique

This is a quick reminder to focus on the Seahawks cornerbacks when Pete Carroll’s defense plays Cover 3 (three-deep, four-under) because of the technique outside of the numbers.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

The cornerbacks in this defense will align in press and “pattern match” the vertical release. Think of man-coverage technique with Earl Thomas in the post and the four underneath defenders playing zone coverage (hook and curl-flat drops).

This allows the Seahawks to challenge the release and funnel the receivers to Thomas in the post while leaning on the speed of the second-level defenders underneath.

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

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