- Breaking down some of the key X’s and O’s for the NFL’s Divisional Playoff Weekend
1. Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler is known for slot blitzing, but he’s also a proponent of rushing three and dropping eight into coverage. This would be a great way to contain Blake Bortles’s scrambling and force the struggling QB to make decisions late into the down. The Steelers have a presnap tell here: If T.J. Watt is standing up over the center or guard, an eight-man coverage is on the way.
2. Each week the Steelers will employ stretches of “22” personnel—two backs and two tight ends. It’s a run-heavy formation with just one wide receiver. The Steelers should consider taking a play-action deep shot to that wide receiver on Sunday. Against “22,” the Jaguars move safety Tashaun Gipson to cornerback and either Jalen Ramsey or A.J. Bouye (depending on the look) to free safety. Ramsey and Bouye are both top-tier corners, but their experience in centerfield is limited. Todd Haley and Ben Roethlisberger should see how they handle play-action.
3. When the Saints visited the Vikings in Week 1, New Orleans split receivers on both sides of the formation out wide, past the field numbers, 22 times. Those 22 plays produced 163 yards. Look for the Saints to line up wide on Sunday against Minnesota’s zone defense.
4. The Vikings don’t blitz nearly as often as you might guess, but they’re highly efficient when they do. Given what Drew Brees did to the Panthers on Sunday, you can bet Mike Zimmer was extra meticulous in his blitz planning this week, especially blitzes involving zone coverage.
5. One overlooked aspect of Brees’s greatness is his ability to throw when he’s moving. He does this in the pocket as well as anyone, but he’s also effective outside the pocket when moving to his right. Brees certainly isn’t a mobile quarterback in the traditional sense, but opponents worry about his legs as a passer almost as much as they’d worry about, say, Marcus Mariota’s legs as a runner.
6. In the second half at Kansas City, the Titans changed that game by going with three wide receivers. The Chiefs simply couldn’t stop them. It’ll be interesting to see what Mike Mularkey does Saturday night with this normally base-personnel-driven offense. Mariota is probably more comfortable in three-receiver sets, but New England’s nickel run defense is much better than Kansas City’s.
7. New England’s offense will go through Rob Gronkowski. The Titans had trouble with Travis Kelce, particularly in man coverage where the Chiefs used pre-snap motion to dictate mismatches for him. Gronkowski is a different animal; it’ll have to be a linebacker plus safety Jonathan Cyprien or Kevin Byard on him. Gronkowski’s touches will depend on the nature of those double teams. Is it help coverage over the top? Just one guy jamming Gronk off the snap, or full-fledged dedicated two-on-one coverage? If too much defensive attention is paid to Gronk, Tom Brady will go elsewhere with the ball. That doesn’t mean the offense isn’t still going through Gronk, though. Expect him to align all over the formation Saturday night.
8. Philadelphia has the NFL’s most schematically expansive running game, and some of those interior run designs could be problematic for Atlanta’s undersized linebacking corps. Will Dan Quinn employ 3-4 structures against this offense? That might sound ludicrous with Quinn known for running one of football’s purer 4-3 schemes, but the Falcons quietly slid into 3-4 nickel fronts a few times last week against the Rams and had success. A 3-4 front is one way to ensure that All-Pro center Jason Kelce doesn’t easily get out in space on Philly’s outside runs.
9. Cornerback Robert Alford’s elevated play was a big part of Atlanta’s Super Bowl run last year, and he has stepped up again down the stretch this season. Philly’s aerial success will have to come inside; wide receivers Torrey Smith and Alshon Jeffery do not match up well against Alford and Desmond Trufant outside.
10. Falcons right guard Wes Schweitzer has played better in recent weeks than he did in September, October and November, where he was clearly the O-line’s weak link. On the left side, backup Ben Garland has been surprisingly stellar filling in for the injured Andy Levitre. But that said, these two are still on the wrong end of a glaring mismatch against the Eagles. Fletcher Cox and Timmy Jernigan have been the most dynamic defensive tackle pairing in the league this year, and in passing situations, Brandon Graham, who often slides inside from his defensive end spot, has some of the best quickness and body control that Schweitzer and Garland will ever see.
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