NFL Wild Card Weekend: B/R's NFL 1000 Preview

NFL1000 ScoutsFeatured ColumnistJanuary 6, 2017

GREEN BAY, WI - OCTOBER 09:  Aaron Rodgers #12 of the Green Bay Packers speaks with Eli Manning #10 of the New York Giants following a game at Lambeau Field on October 9, 2016 in Green Bay, Wisconsin.  The Packers defeated the Giants 23-16.  (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Welcome to Bleacher Report's NFL1000 Playoff Preview, a weekly series where we'll use the power of the 16-man NFL1000 scouting department to bring you fresh insights into the league and explain some of the more interesting matchups coming up each weekend of the playoffs.

Let's start with a dissection of the Giants defense squaring off against Aaron Rodgers and a red-hot Green Bay offense.

Aaron Rodgers vs. New York Giants Defense

Rodgers Can Only Be Stopped By His Own Receivers

Written by Cian Fahey

DETROIT, MI - JANUARY 01: Aaron Rodgers #12 of the Green Bay Packers celebrates a win over the Detroit Lions at Ford Field on January 1, 2017 in Detroit, Michigan. Green Bay defeated Detroit 31-24. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)
Leon Halip/Getty Images

Aaron Rodgers poses a question that can't be answered.

No matter what quarterback you face as a defensive coordinator, your goal is to put him in situations where he isn't comfortable. For most quarterbacks, that means getting pressure.

If you have a four-man pass rush that can get home, you unleash it. If you don't have a four-man rush, you rely on blitzes and disguised coverages. When the opposing quarterback offers a rushing threat, you don't unleash your front four or use aggressive blitzes; you rush contain (all four players move as one toward the quarterback) so he isn't given a running lane to escape through. You bet that the rushing quarterback is a more deficient passer so he can't take advantage of the lack of pass rush that comes with rushing contain.

When facing Rodgers, do you blitz him? No, he'll recognize it instantly and get the ball out. Do you aggressively send your front four after him in the pocket? No, he'll step through the pocket and extend the play into the flat or scramble downfield. Do you rush contain and give him time in the pocket? No, he'll hold the ball for as long as he needs to, setting and resetting his feet and only leaving the pocket if he has to.

There isn't an answer that sets you up to stop Rodgers. So what can Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo do?

When the Giants and Packers faced off in the regular season, Spagnuolo played lots of man coverage—with two safeties in deep zones—and didn't blitz. Domonique Foxworth of The Undefeated broke that game down:

His numbers weren't impressive, but he improvised well at important moments in the game. ... The Giants hardly blitzed at all. Instead, they dedicated more defenders to pass coverage.

In passing situations, the Giants ran a lot of 2-man, which means their two safeties were playing deep halves, allowing the other defenders to play tight man-to-man coverage underneath. Occasionally, the safeties would double the slot receivers on both sides, rather than play deep halves. For the most part, these coverages were effective at thwarting the initial play. But Rodgers is at his best when he is forced to improvise.

It's hard to put too much emphasis on that game when looking forward to this Sunday because that was by far Rodgers' worst game of the season. You could argue that the Giants forced him into such a poor display, but the performance was more about Rodgers missing throws that he consistently makes.

Like Foxworth noted, Rodgers still made enough plays to help his team win the game—including a perfect throw on a touchdown pass to Davante Adams.

Credit: NFL Game Pass

Midway through the second quarter, Rodgers came out with three receivers and a tight end. He had two eligible receivers on each side of his offensive line with the in-line tight end to the narrower side of the field. The Giants showed an aggressive look before the snap, with linebackers pressing the line of scrimmage and the left-sided safety in the box. A single high safety with cornerbacks in press coverage suggested a Cover 1 blitz. With a single high safety and one safety in the box, Cover 3 was the other likely play call.

The Giants were trying to make Rodgers hesitate and disguise their coverage. He understood the pre-snap alignment of the defense and then recognized what it was trying to do, as it tipped the play just before the snap.

Credit: NFL Game Pass

The Giants safeties moved too early. They rotated because the slot cornerback from the wide side of the field was blitzing. Even though he was blitzing, it was still just a four-man rush as the linebackers who had threatened to blitz all dropped into coverage. None of that mattered to Rodgers because he knew where he was going with the ball as soon as he saw the box safety drift backward and the deep safety square off to the slot receiver.

Credit: NFL Game Pass

At the snap, Rodgers looked to his right side. The rotating safeties meant that he knew he'd have single coverage on that side of the field. Unless the cornerback had bailed off the line of scrimmage at the snap, he also knew he had the perfect route to beat the cornerback in press to that side of the field. With precision and velocity, Rodgers drops the ball over the cornerback and into the waiting arms of Adams. The receiver is able to extend the play into the end zone for what became a crucial touchdown.

Despite the failure of this attempt at disguising the coverage, Spagnuolo's best route to success is calling plays like this one. He needs to keep Rodgers off balance, mixing up his play calls and not being scared of throwing in unexpected play designs in different situations, such as heavy blitzes on 1st-and-10 and disguised three-man rushes in obvious passing situations. Spagnuolo has to be willing to escape conventional wisdom and throw things at Rodgers that he doesn't expect to see. If you line up in Cover 2 man all game or give him the same looks over and over again, you are relying on your defense to win on every level just to make Rodgers look human.

Rodgers will stress the defense in every possible way and do so on every snap. If you give him time, he will take it all before extending the play so his receivers have forever to get open. If you force the ball out, it will come out accurately and on time. Spagnuolo's defense needs to execute his plays perfectly, both before and after the snap, but most of all, Spagnuolo needs Rodgers to have an off game.

In truth, if both the defense and Rodgers play to their potential, the only players who can prevent the Packers from putting up big points will be the Packers receivers.

How Can the Giants Limit Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Offense?

Written by Ian Wharton

Giants cornerback Janoris Jenkins
Giants cornerback Janoris JenkinsDylan Buell/Getty Images

This is the question that has surely kept Spagnuolo awake at night throughout the week. Rodgers has been fantastic this season, and in the second half of the year, his playmakers finally picked up some of the slack. This caused his statistics to surge despite his level of play remaining high for the vast majority of the season.

Flashing back to Week 5, when these two teams played, Rodgers arguably had his worst game of the year, yet the Packers still won despite two turnovers from the MVP candidate. The Giants didn't do anything out of the ordinary. They've been conservative and consistent with their defensive approach all year, where the majority of their passing defense features Cover 2 man looks. It's been incredibly effective because of their immense talent along the front four of their defensive line and excellent secondary.

Few teams are as dangerous as the Giants thanks to their offseason splurge on defensive talent. Rushing four linemen and dropping seven defenders offers Spagnuolo the ability to deploy his ultimate defensive weapon: Landon Collins. The safety broke out this season, as he was allowed to act as a "rover" and track the ball across the field.

But it won't be as simple for the Giants to just play man coverage with two high safeties this game. The Packers are also a much different unit right now, as Ty Montgomery has emerged as a legitimate running back, Jordy Nelson has been unstoppable as his health has improved, and Davante Adams has suddenly remembered how to catch touchdown passes. For perspective, Randall Cobb and Eddie Lacy were the top-producing playmakers for the Packers in Week 5.

New York must manufacture specific matchups to limit the Packers' potent passing attack. Rodgers is as good as any quarterback in history at dissecting defenses pre-snap. He'll also carve up defenses that blitz extra defenders, in part because of his offensive line but also because of an uncanny ability to extend plays and make vertical throws.

The Giants' best personnel is their nickel formation, when their cornerback trio is on the field at the same time. Janoris Jenkins, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Eli Apple have been spectacular this year and have been a lockdown unit over the last eight games.

I've tracked each player over that time frame, and offenses have been struggling when targeting Rodgers-Cromartie and Jenkins especially. In man coverage, Jenkins has allowed just 11 of 34 targets to be completed for two touchdowns, with one interception. We credited him with just four "blown" coverages, compared to being in either "shutdown" or proper position to challenge the catch on 20 other targets.

LANDOVER, MD - JANUARY 01: Cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie #41 of the New York Giants celebrates with teammate outside linebacker Mark Herzlich #94 after intercepting the ball against the Washington Redskins in the fourth quarter at FedExField on J
Rob Carr/Getty Images

Rodgers-Cromartie has been even better, limiting offenses to eight of 30 targets to be completed, with four first downs allowed. He's also grabbed four interceptions and batted down two passes in that time frame. These two must shadow the Packers duo of Nelson and Adams, leaving the rookie Apple to guard Cobb, assuming the receiver plays despite being listed as questionable.

Spagnuolo has sparsely matched coverage patterns to track receivers, but this is the best time to use the strategy. Apple has been good for a rookie but is a bad matchup, especially against Nelson's nuanced style. Even Adams is a hard draw, as Adams can shake cornerbacks at the apex of his route effectively, and Apple has been less aggressive on routes as he gets more comfortable with NFL speed. Theoretically, Rodgers will read Apple's positioning first to see if that's the most advantageous matchup.

If Spagnuolo goes too conservative and simply relies on his base defense to line up and play, Rodgers may look toward his tight ends to capitalize on Jared Cook's athleticism against the Giants linebackers and even Collins. A potential answer for the Giants if the Packers start to feature Cook would be to use either Apple or cornerback Trevin Wade against him. Green Bay has no issue isolating Cook as an outside receiver—opposite three-receiver sets—and attacking the mismatch that Cook creates, but the Giants have a potentially sound answer there as well.

It won't be easy to slow or stop Rodgers, but the Giants have the pass rush to make it possible. The Giants must win in the trenches first, and then secondary adjustments will ensure they have the best strategy possible.

                 

Scouting with Schofield: Packers vs. Giants

Written by Mark Schofield

The weekend slate of games ends on Sunday afternoon with perhaps the marquee matchup, as the Giants travel to Wisconsin to take on the Packers. Aaron Rodgers and company finished the season strong, running the table with six straight wins that culminated with a victory over the Detroit Lions in the final game of the year, securing a division title. The Giants finished 11-5, two games behind the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC East but good enough for the top wild-card slot in the conference.

When the Giants have the football, look no further than Odell Beckham Jr. The talented wide receiver is a focal point of the New York offense, and it loves to get the ball in his hands quickly on slant routes. While the Giants often use a slant/flat concept to his side of the field to accomplish this goal, a player of Beckham's ability sometimes can just rely on his athleticism to get open.

When the Packers have the football, secondaries need to be ready to defend longer into plays than perhaps any other time all year. Rodgers and the Packers excel in the scramble drill, and any time defenders need to be responsible in coverage for four seconds or more, things can break down in the secondary.

     

Detroit Lions Offense vs. Seattle Pass Rush

How the Lions Can Game-Plan to Avoid Seahawks Pass Rush

Written by Ethan Young

DETROIT, MI - SEPTEMBER 18: Taylor Decker #68 of the Detroit Lions defends during an NFL game against the Tennessee Titans at Ford Field on September 18, 2016 in Detroit, Michigan. Titans defeated the Lions 16-15. (Photo by Dave Reginek/Getty Images)
Dave Reginek/Getty Images

The Lions offensive line has looked like an ascending unit at times this year. Rookie Taylor Decker is a building block at left tackle, and as Larry Warford has gotten healthier this year, his top-level play strength has returned, which has been a big factor in the ground game. This week, the Lions offensive line has a huge matchup with a Seattle Seahawks front led by Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril and Frank Clark. The Seahawks have one of the most interesting and deepest defensive line units in the league, and they put pressure on opposing fronts with diverse fronts and a lot of sub-packages. 

A key in this matchup? Health. Lions starting center Travis Swanson has missed multiple games, and the Lions offense has tapered off in his absence. Not only that, but starting right tackle Riley Reiff missed Week 17 as well, and his health is a major question mark this week. Swanson is out, while Reiff is questionable

Regardless of who suits up, the Lions will have their hands full in pass protection. The Seahawks deploy a ton of NASCAR looks and flex impressive personnel in these packages. On top of that, ever since Earl Thomas went down, Seahawks defensive coordinator Kris Richard has responded by sending more five- and six-man blitzes. These looks are a lot different from some of the Seahawks defenses we have seen in the past.

Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

If neither Swanson nor Reiff can go, the Lions will likely turn to Graham Glasgow at center and Cornelius Lucas at right tackle. Both have struggled recently, especially in pass protection. Glasgow is a rookie, but he has had a good number of snaps at left guard this year in rotation with Laken Tomlinson and even fellow rookie Joe Dahl.

The Ferris wheel at left guard for the Lions has been interesting to say the least, and nobody has been able to hold the job. With Swanson out, it won't matter, as both Tomlinson and Glasgow will be out there. Tomlinson and Glasgow waste steps in their footwork, and neither is quick enough to overcome that even against base personnel. On passing downs, this duo can't be expected to hold the left-side A-gap against the likes of Frank Clark and Michael Bennett, with Richard sending Bobby Wagner in to shoot gaps to boot.

How can the Lions counter this onslaught if they are still banged up? They need to turn on the Super Bowl XLIX tape and follow the Patriots' mold of featuring the quick passing game. Slants, drags, bubble screens, shallow crosses and quick out routes will need to be their best friends. Luckily, the Lions have the personnel to pull that off. Golden Tate is one of the best receivers in the league at creating extra yards after the catch, and in this revenge game of sorts, the Lions should target him short of the sticks often and ask him to create.

If Reiff sits, Eric Ebron will likely be asked to chip on a lot of his routes and may not be featured heavily as a first or second progression. That's where Anquan Boldin comes in. Like Tate, Boldin is familiar with the Seahawks from his time in the NFC West, and the Lions will need to heavily feature his blend of physicality and route running in a chain-moving capacity if they want to keep Matthew Stafford upright.

               

How the Seahawks Can Disrupt Matthew Stafford

Written by Justis Mosqueda

GLENDALE, AZ - OCTOBER 23:  Defensive end Michael Bennett #72 of the Seattle Seahawks high fives Cliff Avril #56 after a defensive stop against the Arizona Cardinals during the second half of the NFL game at the University of Phoenix Stadium on October 23
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

When you think of the Seahawks' defensive identity, you have to think about head coach Pete Carroll's Cover 3-heavy scheme. When you tune in to the Seattle-Detroit game this Saturday, you're going to hear about it pregame in the studio and during the game with graphics to back it.

Carroll's scheme hasn't been particularly innovative, other than current Atlanta Falcons head coach Dan Quinn and former Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley spreading the 4-3 under front to other franchises after graduating as Carroll's defensive coordinator.

For the most part, it's a fairly simple scheme: You send four pass-rushers, who have to be better than a team's five to seven players in pass protection; you send three defensive backs into a deep coverage, and they have to cover anything sideline-to-sideline while the ball is in the air; and the other four defenders are allowed to float in the mid-range and time a quarterback's ball by reading his eyes.

That's all fine and dandy when you have a lockdown cornerback like Richard Sherman, a center fielder like Earl Thomas and Seattle's pass-rushing unit, but not everyone has the horses to run that defense, as Jaguars fans learned during Bradley's 14-48 run in Northern Florida.

The Seahawks' pass rush is so good, in fact, that the team didn't even re-sign Bruce Irvin, its 2012 first-round pick, who signed a $37 million contract with the Oakland Raiders this offseason and is basically the only complement that All-Pro Khalil Mack has on that side of the ball.

With that being said, the Seahawks don't miss him, either. Their top pure pass-rusher, Cliff Avril, is coming off the best season of his career with an 11.5-sack total, good enough to earn him his first Pro Bowl nod. Frank Clark, a second-year player who is coming off the bench when Michael Bennett is healthy, ranks tied for 15th in the NFL with 10 sacks.

Bennett, who missed five games, still made the Pro Bowl this season after recording five sacks. He is the poster boy of the hybrid tackle-end position, where a base end kicks inside to defensive tackle on long and/or late downs for 4-3 teams.

Knowing these facts, you'd assume that the best approach for Seattle would be to let its pass-rushers loose and sit in Cover 3 drops, right? That would be fair if everyone were healthy, but after losing Thomas at safety against the Carolina Panthers in a 40-7 win, the Seahawks, particularly their defense, are on a bit of a cold streak.

In their first game without Thomas since he was drafted in 2010, Seattle was blown out 38-10 by the Green Bay Packers. They responded with a win the next week against the Los Angeles Rams, who on a short week fired head coach Jeff Fisher heading into Thursday Night Football.

The bounce back didn't last long, though, as they didn't flash much of their extended rest the next week when they lost 34-31 at home to the Arizona Cardinals, who scored just six points against them in a tie earlier in the season. Finally, in Week 17, they struggled to put away a 25-23 win against the 2-14 San Francisco 49ers, who only beat the in-division Rams in 2016.

If recent weeks have shown anything about the Seahawks, it's that they have to be more multiple, particularly on third down. Their pieces in the secondary can't hold up after years of shuffling players out in free agency and the Thomas injury.

Luckily, Seattle started to look more multiple up front with its third-down pressure packages last week.

The Seahawks' pressure packages historically have been built around throwing four defensive ends on the field, including Bennett as a defensive tackle, and taking the 300-pounders out of the equation. In the third-down play above from the San Francisco game, Carroll's defense clouded the line of scrimmage with the pass-rushing bodies of Bennett, Avril, Clark and Cassius Marsh. But instead of dropping into a zone defense, they sent an extra body and played what you'd call a "man free" or Cover 1 look.

This gave them an extra body when pass rushing and still left a safety over the top. You can beat man coverage, but if there's a high hanging safety, a defense isn't going to give up many deep passes, and Seattle's gap-shooters, not its back end, are the strength of the team at the moment.

The talent in Seattle used to be more important than creativity, but that's not so anymore. So while a five-man rush out of Cover 1 coverage may work once against the Detroit Lions this week, the Seahawks will have to constantly confuse Matthew Stafford.

One way they can do that is by playing how they have in the past, giving them a four-man rush out of a zone defense with Bennett playing defensive tackle. No stunts, just their four against the Lions' five. That mentality could give Stafford and offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter a false sense of security later on in games when disguising blitzes, or ruin their plans when a zone defender reads the eyes of Stafford on a predetermined, quick pass.

The last option the defensive line has up front is something that is fairly rare. Most teams usually don't have four quality pass-rushers, so they can't get creative with complex stunts on a four-man rush. For example, Marsh, the team's fourth rusher in terms of snaps, talent and importance, could start for many teams.

Sometimes, the Seahawks will go for broke on their pass rush by leaning on them to get home through various stunts out of the same formation. They are known to line up one defensive end on one offensive tackle while lining up three others on the same side to one shade of the center, guard and tackle.

Unlike the other previously highlighted plays, though, Seattle doesn't send an extra man or just shoot players through their respective gaps. Rather, they criss-cross. That takes time, but it also keeps offensive linemen guessing, and visibly thinking on the field is the worst thing an offensive lineman can do.

A guard will be sitting back, wondering if Bennett, a Pro Bowler, Avril, a Pro Bowler, or Clark, one of the best young pass-rushers in the league, is coming through the gap he's responsible to protect. He's doing this all while also having to slow down the man on him to either direction on the stunt. That all happens in about a second.

When you look at Football Outsiders' DVOA metric, the Lions have the worst defense in the league in terms of efficiency. When you see how Detroit has won this season, with only one victory by more than a single touchdown, you realize that they have to win shootouts to come out on top.

In shootouts, nothing is more important than third-down defense, as it can lead to drive-killing sacks, which in a back-and-forth game might as well put points on the board. It doesn't help that Detroit's left tackle, Riley Reiff, was listed in practice with a hip injury this week after missing the Green Bay game in Week 17, and its center, Travis Swanson, who has missed the last four weeks, is out.

Throwing this much talent and new tendencies at a hobbled offensive line, which is on an 0-3 run, just might be enough to put a nail in the coffin of the wild-card Lions.


Scouting with Schofield: Seahawks vs. Lions

Written by Mark Schofield

MIAMI GARDENS, FL - JANUARY 1: Jay Ajayi #23 of the Miami Dolphins runs from the attempted tackle by Rob Ninkovich #50 of the New England Patriots on January 1, 2017 at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida. The Patriots defeated the Dolphins 35-14.
Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

Saturday night provides a clash between the Seahawks, the champions of the NFC West, and the Lions, the No. 6 seed in the conference. Seattle earned its division title with a 10-5-1 record, due in large part to the play of quarterback Russell Wilson. The Lions were poised to wrestle away the NFC North from the Green Bay Packers but saw those hopes dashed with a loss at home in the final game of the season, and now they must travel to the Pacific Northwest.

The tight ends might be the players to watch. The Lions rely on Eric Ebron in the passing game, and he turned in the best season of his career despite missing three contests. Look for Detroit to get him involved on out routes, setting the table for deeper plays down the field. When the Seahawks have the football, they like to get Jimmy Graham the ball in the seams and in the vertical game, often trying to get the big tight end isolated on smaller cornerbacks and safeties.

Matchup: Jay Ajayi vs Steelers Run Defense

Written by Doug Farrar

ORCHARD PARK, NY - DECEMBER 24:  Jay Ajayi #23 of the Miami Dolphins gestures following his touchdown run against the Buffalo Bills during the first quarter at New Era Field on December 24, 2016 in Orchard Park, New York. The Miami Dolphins defeated the B
Rich Barnes/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Steelers have seen their defense improve in the second half of the season, finishing 12th against the pass and 11th against the run in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics. It's one of the primary reasons the team is enjoying a seven-game winning streak and is coming into the playoffs with as much momentum as any entrant.

To beat the Miami Dolphins in the Wild Card Round, this Steelers defense will have to address the problems created by running back Jay Ajayi, the second-year man from Boise State who has blown up with 1,272 yards and eight touchdowns on just 260 carries after a fairly nondescript rookie campaign. Ajayi has become one of the best backs in the league in a short time, and it's because he can do just about everything well. With Miami's quarterback situation in flux—Ryan Tannehill will be out again this weekend, per Armando Salguero of the Miami Heraldit will be up to Ajayi to pull off the upset at Heinz Field if that's to happen.

According to Pro Football Focus' advanced metrics, Ajayi forced the most missed tackles on running plays among all NFL backs this season with 58. He had the most yards after contact per carry with 3.46. He finished fifth with 15 runs of 15 yards or more and had 451 yards on those carries. And in the Dolphins' 30-15 October win over Pittsburgh, he torched the Steelers with 204 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries. Yes, Pittsburgh's defense is more on point now than it was then, but what's to stop Ajayi from doing that all over again, keeping the Steelers offense off the field and winning the battle of great backs against Le'Veon Bell?

Defensive coordinator Keith Butler and his staff and players now have that issue to solve.

"What is on video is that the last time we saw these guys, they flat-out got after us," head coach Mike Tomlin said this week. "Their running was significant in terms of how the game unfolded. We weren't able to tackle their runners. Their offensive line won the line of scrimmage and won it consistently, whether it was interior runs or perimeter runs. We are not going to pretend like Jay Ajayi's 200-yard day was a lightning strike. No, it was very real."

The primary adjustments the Steelers have made of late are two: They're playing more zone coverage, allowing their front-seven players to stay in their run lanes, and they're moving linebacker Ryan Shazier around in the scheme. Shazier is a very quick force tackler and a dynamic (though occasionally wild) coverage player, but it would behoove Tomlin and Butler to have Shazier spy Ajayi wherever he goes at the expense of schematic versatility. Shazier has blitzed off the edge and done a ton of curl/flat drop coverage in zone blitzes, but the Steelers will need his ability to crash through rushing lanes if they're going to slow Ajayi down.

Because here's another advantage the Steelers have this time around: Shazier is playing. He was out in the Week 6 game with a knee injury.

Ajayi constantly tested and beat the Steelers to the outside of the formation, often with excellent second-level blocking. It was the first time all season that all five of Miami's projected offensive linemen started together in 2016and it showed. But Ajayi was the real star, with his combination of patience to the hole and burst through it. And if a gap wasn't visible, Ajayi was more than happy to bounce outside and torch everyone who tried to tackle him.

These two plays show just how much Ajayi had Pittsburgh's defense wrapped around his finger:

The first, a 20-yard run early in the third quarter, shows how quickly Ajayi bounces outside and how well he uses his speed to bend the edge against defenders chasing him. Tight end Dion Sims (80) blocks linebacker Jarvis Jones (95) inside, while lineman Jermon Bushrod (74) pulls and blocks at the second level. That's all Ajayi needs to shoot upfield; his efforts were nearly doubled by the 15-yard unnecessary roughness call levied against safety Mike Mitchell for contacting Ajayi out of bounds. A ticky-tacky call to be sure, but there was nothing fluky about Ajayi's performance.

Later in the third quarter, Ajayi reeled off a 33-yard run. Here, the blocking is perfect, especially Bushrod's seal block of linebacker Arthur Moats. Ajayi hits the gap with perfect timing and he's off to the races, juking Mitchell along the way. Had Sims blocked James Harrison on the other side of the play, Harrison might not have been able to make the superhuman effort involved in catching up to Ajayi for the tackle, cleaning up the play with Mitchell at the end.

Tomlin was right when he said that Ajayi's performance was real. And if the Steelers don't use their defenders correctly to stop him (especially Shazier), there could be another dose of reality awaiting them.

Scouting with Schofield: Dolphins vs. Steelers

Written by Mark Schofield

Sunday kicks off with the Dolphins making the trip north to take on the AFC North champion Steelers. Miami weathered the loss of Tannehill and finished with a 10-6 record. Meanwhile, the Steelers secured their berth in the postseason with a thrilling victory over the Baltimore Ravens on Christmas night and finished the year 11-5.

Starting with the Dolphins, we're going to look at some of their underneath passing concepts.

Head coach Adam Gase likes to try to attack underneath against either man or zone coverages, giving his quarterback a quick, easy throw and relying on his receivers to create after the catch. Using schemes such as the mesh concept or the shallow cross, the Dolphins have enjoyed a great deal of success this season in the passing game.

On the other side of the field, we all know how dangerous Antonio Brown can be, and the Steelers love to get him the football either attacking down the field or using the quick screen game. But a defense needs to be smart when facing screens, as Pittsburgh loves to bait a defense toward the line of scrimmage and then take a shot deep.

Scouting with Schofield: Raiders vs. Texans

Written by Mark Schofield

This game features the matchup NFL executives have been dreaming about: Connor Cook vs. Brock Osweiler. While that might not exactly be true, the meeting between the Raiders and Texans is an intriguing matchup between two talented rosters facing questions at the quarterback spot. Rookie Connor Cook will get the nod for the Raiders, while Osweiler is back under center for Houston.

When the Raiders have the football, look for them to try to get Amari Cooper involved in the passing game. The second-year player from Alabama saw his numbers dip over the back half of the season, but he is a talented route-runner and a threat every time he attacks the secondary. He is dangerous on the corner route, and that pattern has set the Raiders up with some big plays on or off that design.

On the flip side, the Texans use a trio of tight ends, Ryan Griffin, C.J. Fiedorowicz and rookie Stephen Anderson, as well as slot wide receiver Keith Mumphery, to attack the middle of the field. That opens up the sidelines and vertical passing game for rookie Will Fuller V and the dangerous DeAndre Hopkins, ideally in one-on-one situations.

All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

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