NFL1000: Previewing 2017 NFL Conference Championship Games
Welcome to Bleacher Report's NFL1000 playoff preview, a weekly series where we'll use the power of the 17-man NFL1000 scouting department to bring you fresh insights into the league each weekend.
Here, we'll take a closer look at the biggest matchup in each conference championship game and analyze how the two teams fared when pitted against each other earlier in the season.
The NFL1000 team is composed of:
Doug Farrar: Lead scout
Cian Fahey: Quarterbacks
John Middlekauff: Running backs/fullbacks
Marcus Mosher: Wide receivers/tight ends
Mark Schofield: Wide receivers/tight ends
Duke Manyweather: Offensive tackles
Ethan Young: Offensive guards/centers
Joe Goodberry: AFC defensive ends
Justis Mosqueda: NFC defensive ends
Charles McDonald: Defensive tackles
Zach Kruse: 3-4 outside linebackers
Derrik Klassen: 4-3 outside linebackers
Jerod Brown: Inside linebackers
Kyle Posey: Cornerbacks
Ian Wharton: Cornerbacks
Mark Bullock: Safeties
Chuck Zodda: Special teams
Falcons Pass Rush May Be a Problem vs. Green Bay
Written by NFL1000 Defensive End Scout Justis Mosqueda
No player has had more total touchdowns and fewer turnovers than 2016 Aaron Rodgers in the regular season other than 2011 Aaron Rodgers, who won MVP. One major reason? His bookends play at a high level.
According to NFL1000's grading system, left tackle David Bakhtiari was the league's fourth-best blindside tackle, while Bryan Bulaga was the second-ranked right tackle. It's no surprise the Packers often use five men in pass protection, giving Rodgers as many targets as blockers while he scrambles around to buy time.
The way Green Bay is blocking up front isn't too different from when Johnny Manziel was running around at Texas A&M with Jake Matthews, a first-round tackle who now plays with the Falcons, and Luke Joeckel, the second overall pick in the 2013 draft, shutting down edge pressure for him. Even at a nuanced position like offensive tackle, it's hard to beat pure talent, especially with a mobile quarterback.
Last week, the Cowboys gave themselves an advantage by sending a slot blitz. A blitzing cornerback or overhang defender was a better athlete than Rodgers, as opposed to the 250-plus-pound defensive linemen who are usually tasked with bringing him down.
It worked, as Nathan Jahnke of Pro Football Focus noted that his yards per attempt dropped almost six full yards when he was blitzed against the Cowboys. Dallas plays a two-high safety defense under coordinator Rod Marinelli, one of the architects of the Tampa 2 defense.
The Falcons are different in that aspect. Head coach Dan Quinn comes from the Seahawks coaching tree, featuring a love of Cover 3 looks out of a single-high safety defense. With only one high safety, it's hard to disguise a safety blitz well without giving up huge leverage to wideouts.
Single-high and Cover 3-heavy schemes are built for a line-up-and-play approach, which doesn't help Atlanta if it wants to exploit the slot blitz. For the most part, it's going to be the Falcons' four horses against Green Bay's five pass protectors this game.
That's concerning, as the team has only used five pass-rushers on the edge for significant reps this season. Two, Derrick Shelby and Adrian Clayborn, are on injured reserve.
Vic Beasley, who led the NFL in sacks, is the big name on this Falcons defensive line, but only having Brooks Reed, the 39th-ranked 4-3 defensive end in the NFL1000 project, and Dwight Freeney, a soon-to-be 37-year-old who is already playing on a limited basis, is concerning should the Packers wear on the Atlanta defense in a shootout.
Unless the Falcons change up what they want to execute from an X's-and-O's standpoint, expect to wonder "Where's Beasley?" this week as protection slides his way.
Can Green Bay Slow Down the Red-Hot Falcons Offense?
Written by NFL1000 Safety Scout Mark Bullock
With the investment the Packers made in their secondary, they're one of the few teams that have enough defensive backs with the talent to help them cover the plethora of Falcons receiving options.
One of the keys for the Packers will be the health of safety Morgan Burnett. He's the starting strong safety in base packages, but the Falcons often like to use multiple personnel to find the best matchup. In nickel and dime sub-packages, Burnett shifts down to linebacker while rookie safety Kentrell Brice comes in to give them better defenders in coverage.
If Burnett is healthy, he can fill that linebacker role, giving the Packers someone who can match up against tight ends and running backs in coverage while still being a strong run defender should the Falcons look to spread out the defense and run.
Burnett only played a handful of snaps last week before leaving the game injured and hasn't practiced as of Wednesday. Should he miss the game, the Packers will be without a key cog of those sub-package defenses, which will leave them vulnerable against the run.
The Packers will run plenty of trap coverages, designed to look like one coverage but that actually bait the quarterback into a bad throw. These can create turnover opportunities that are invaluable, especially in close playoff games. However, when these two teams matched up in Week 8, Matt Ryan wasn't fooled and only had seven incomplete passes in 35 attempts, none of which were intercepted.
As efficient as Ryan was, though, he only threw for 288 yards at 8.2 yards per catch, a full yard under his average for the season. That suggests the Packers did have some success in at least forcing Ryan to play more conservatively.
The downside to running trap coverages is that it requires everyone to be on the same page, reading the routes the same way. If run well, it can create turnovers, but if just one player reads a route differently from another, it can lead to a huge coverage bust. The Packers have had a few of those this season, which can happen any time there are a number of younger players starting in the secondary.
There is one tendency the Packers have in coverage that has been picked on many times this season. In 2nd-and-medium or 2nd-and-long situations, they tend to play either quarters coverage or a form of Cover 6.
In quarters coverage, the deep section of the field is divided into four quarters, with a defender assigned to each zone, usually two cornerbacks and the two safeties. Cover 6 is somewhat similar but has a few differences. Instead of four defenders deep, the Packers only have three. One defender will take a deep half of the field, leaving the other two defenders to split the other half.
These two coverages have been beaten time and again by Packers opponents this season, and it's normally the exact same route combination too. The opposition will have an inside receiver, either a tight end or a slot receiver, charge up to the safety inside before breaking inside on a dig route or outside on an out route. The safety will bite down on that inside receiver, vacating a big hole in the deep middle of the field.
That leaves the outside receiver one-on-one with the corner, who has to play outside leverage because of his zone assignment. All that outside receiver has to do is attack the corner to widen him before cutting inside on a post route into the space vacated by the safety.
The Giants did just that on Tavarres King's 41-yard touchdown in the NFC Wild Card Game. Washington hit Pierre Garcon on a 70-yard touchdown pass back in Week 11, which is incidentally the last time the Packers lost.
Even back in Week 8, when the Falcons beat the Packers, Atlanta hit Taylor Gabriel on this same concept against the same coverage for a 47-yard touchdown. It would be surprising if the Falcons don't test the Packers to see if they've overcome this problem.
What Can We Take Away from the Previous Green Bay-Atlanta Matchup?
Written by NFL1000 Lead Scout Doug Farrar
If the NFC Championship Game lives up to the Week 8 game, we're in for another shootout. The Falcons beat the Packers 33-32 on a last-second Matt Ryan touchdown pass to Mohamed Sanu, and both quarterbacks had great games—no surprise there.
Ryan completed 28 of 35 passes for 288 yards, three touchdowns and no picks, while Aaron Rodgers completed 28 of 38 passes for 246 yards, four touchdowns and no picks. Similar stat lines, and Ryan and Rodgers did their thing with similar concepts.
Both the Falcons and Packers have issues with spacing and timing in the short-to-intermediate areas of their defenses, and both offenses exploited this weakness to perfection. You saw a lot of route combinations, option routes and picks/rubs in short areas, especially in the red zone, and that should be expected again on both sides.
Where the Packers might have an edge is that since then, head coach Mike McCarthy has done a lot to expand the route tree. McCarthy does have a tendency to be reductive in his playbook, but as Rodgers has been on a historic tear in the second half of the season, there's been a lot more of those crossing routes, spacing concepts and deep options than before.
Of course, the disadvantage for Rodgers and the Packers is health-related. Jordy Nelson is trying to get back on the field for this game, but broken ribs are unpredictable. The thought is that Davante Adams will likely play despite an ankle injury, and Geronimo Allison should play despite a hamstring injury. That's a lot to put on any quarterback, but the way Rodgers is playing, it's tough to count him out.
As great as Rodgers has been in the second half of the season, Ryan has been lights-out all year, and he's coming into this game with the full array of weapons on display.
We all know how great Julio Jones is, but it was Sanu who caught that game-winner, and he led all Falcons receivers against the Packers with nine catches for 84 yards. Taylor Gabriel has become a deep threat of renown, and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan loves to flare his running backs out wide to confuse defenses.
That could be a problem for Green Bay's defense, just as it was in the first game. Shanahan is great at sleight of hand in the pre-snap phase of the play, and from a formation- and scheme-diversity perspective, Atlanta would have the edge even if all Packers receivers were healthy.
The Packers could add to their options with the running game, but that's been questionable all season. In fact, Rodgers led all rushers in Week 8 with 60 yards.
Keeping Ryan off the field could be their best bet. Tight end Jared Cook was out of the previous game with an ankle injury, and he's been a great target for Rodgers down the stretch. More than ever, and to combat an offense that's just as hot as his right now, Rodgers will have to think outside the box to pull off a formidable upset.
Can the Steelers Offensive Line Match Up Against the Patriots Front 7?
Written by NFL1000 Lead Scout Doug Farrar
When we talk about the great patience from Le'Veon Bell, we're talking about his ability to hold his explosion out of the gate before gaps open up. Bell's vision and acceleration make him special in this regard, and his power after contact is the icing on the cake. But it wouldn't work as well as it has this season without the guys blocking for him—and right now, the Pittsburgh front five is run-blocking as well as any unit you'll see.
According to Football Outsiders' metrics, the Steelers are rushing for a league-leading 6.18 yards per carry around left end, and that can be attributed to left tackle Alejandro Villanueva and left guard Ramon Foster as much as Bell.
Villanueva is a mobile, agile blocker who has allowed just one sack in the second half of the season, according to Pro Football Focus, and Foster is a huge leverage monster who obliterates the tackles in front of him.
Center Maurkice Pouncey is a well-known asset, and right tackle Marcus Gilbert has upped his game this year, but the most intimidating and technically sound member of Pittsburgh's line resides at the right guard position.
David DeCastro is as much a shot-caller on that line as Pouncey is, though it's generally assumed that centers take care of calls and adjustments exclusively. Pouncey can do that well, but DeCastro is at a different level when it comes to adjustment and alignment. He's the rock star, but make no mistake: This line, led by coach Mike Munchak, doesn't have a weakness in the run game.
That presents a serious challenge for any defensive front, but the Patriots are more than up for it. Over the last couple of years, through both the draft and free agency, Bill Belichick and his staff have rebranded this line, and now, it's as formidable as it has ever been in the Belichick era.
Of special note is tackle Trey Flowers, who can also line up at end in hybrid fronts and has exceptional burst through blocks for his 6'2", 265-pound frame. Pouncey and Pittsburgh's guards had better get out of their stances quickly when Flowers is out there, or he'll blow right past them.
Defensive tackle Malcom Brown has all the run-stopping power and ability to take on double-teams you'd expect from someone weighing 320 pounds, but he's also laterally quick and can move from one blocker's shoulder to another in the blink of an eye and then move quickly through to the quarterback.
Ends Chris Long and Jabaal Sheard are quite good at stopping the run as well, and when the ends run line stunts with linebacker Dont'a Hightower (who's also really good at run-blitzing from line or linebacker), the Patriots can take advantage of any gap.
Last time these two teams met, it was October, Bell was limited to 81 yards on 21 carries, and the Patriots won 27-16. However, Pittsburgh's line was not playing with as much aggression and efficiency as it is now. This will be a key matchup that helps decide who will represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.
How Can the Steelers Slow Down Tom Brady?
Written by NFL1000 Cornerback Scout Ian Wharton
The previous matchup between the Patriots and Steelers featured a much different New England team from the one currently constructed because of the loss of tight end Rob Gronkowski. The Steelers took away over-the-top passing in favor of underneath throws, which fits their usual bend-don't-break approach, and the result was positive for their cornerbacks, who were only targeted a combined four times in man coverage.
The Steelers have since become more aggressive with their young cornerbacks, specifically rookie Artie Burns, and that bodes well against New England. Without Gronkowski, Tom Brady must be more aggressive going outside of the numbers. He's capable of that, but the Steelers should have confidence in their ability to defend that as well.
Brady and the Patriots offense haven't pushed the ball downfield much this year and rely much more on executing routes underneath. This wouldn't be good for Pittsburgh if it relied on off-man and zone coverages as often as it did in the first half of the season, but the latter part of the year has seen an increase in aggressive alignments as its secondary matured.
While James Harrison and Alvin Dupree are playing well off the edges, it's imperative Stephon Tuitt provides some interior rush. Brady maneuvers around the pocket better than anyone else, but interior pressure makes him nervous.
By playing press-man or even press-bail techniques with their cornerbacks and giving Brady happy feet in the pocket, the Steelers can create turnover opportunities and make the Patriots rely on LeGarrette Blount more than they'd like.
It's important the order go that way and the Patriots aren't able to be as successful with Blount as they were last time these teams met. When Blount set the tone early that game, the Steelers were in a bad position, as Brady had too much time to throw and pick apart the soft zones they provided.
This game can go much differently because of the personnel differences that favor the Steelers.
What Can We Take Away from the Previous Pittsburgh-New England Matchup?
Written by NFL1000 Lead Scout Doug Farrar
When the Patriots and Steelers last met Oct. 23, things were a bit different for both teams. Ben Roethlisberger was on the bench with a torn meniscus, replaced by Landry Jones. The Patriots had Rob Gronkowski, who they don't anymore—Gronk was put on the shelf for the rest of the season with a back injury in early December.
Big Ben is back in the fold, though it's uncertain just what version will show up in the AFC championship—over the last two months, he's been as uneven as at any point in his career.
Though the Steelers haven't lost a game since Week 10, Roethlisberger is benefiting greatly from the efforts of running back Le'Veon Bell, an offensive line that has improved drastically in the second half of the season and a defense that has turned things around with the healthy return of Ryan Shazier.
Roethlisberger has thrown eight touchdowns and nine interceptions since the start of December, and the Steelers can ill afford another bad game from their field general.
If things hold true to the last game, the defense will be tested. While New England's defense limited Bell to 81 yards on 21 carries, Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount had a field day, rushing for 127 yards on 24 carries with two touchdowns.
Losing Gronkowski obviously will not help this offense, but the Patriots are adaptable above all, and Pittsburgh hasn't eradicated all of its run-defense issues. Expect a good dose of Blount and Dion Lewis in this game. Blount is the force multiplier, but Lewis is the do-it-all guy—he scored three touchdowns in the Patriots' divisional win over the Texans with a run, a reception and a kick return.
Without Gronkowski, it's been up to Julian Edelman to be Brady's main target, and he leads all Pats receivers by far in the second half of the season with 65 catches on 102 targets for 885 yards and two touchdowns. Malcolm Mitchell and Chris Hogan provide some big-play potential, but this is Edelman's show now.
Jones didn't have a bad game against the Pats, completing 29 of 47 passes for 281 yards, a touchdown and an interception. Given his recent travails, it's not clear that Roethlisberger will do much better.
This is especially worrisome for the Steelers side because New England's defense is quietly one of the better units in the league. In the secondary, cornerbacks Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan and safety Devin McCourty are more than willing to make Roethlisberger pay for his mistakes.
In addition, while Pittsburgh's offensive line has shown a lot in recent weeks, Bell will have a hard time against New England's front seven. Dont'a Hightower is an outstanding run blitzer, and the inside-line combination of Trey Flowers and Malcom Brown can be a nightmare for opposing blockers.
If Big Ben can't right the ship, it's easy to estimate another Patriots trip to the Super Bowl.