Let’s look at the four divisional playoff games this weekend and break down what we believe will be the best matchup in each game — players and game plans to keep on eye on as we get ready for the best weekend in the NFL.
Arizona at New Orleans
Kurt Warner vs. Darren Sharper
Warner was in a rhythm last week against the Packers, and when he can throw out of the gun or let go of the ball on the fifth step of his drop, he’s almost unstoppable with the various route combinations in Ken Whisenhunt’s game plan in Arizona. But expect Gregg Williams, the Saints defensive coordinator, to have a solid game plan of his own when the Cards align in their stack-and-bunch looks to beat man coverage. And this is where Sharper will come in. Sharper didn’t make many plays the second half of the Saints’ season, but for New Orleans to advance and avoid a shootout with Warner — which could send them home early — Sharper will need to make plays on the football. Look for Williams to run plenty of combo man coverages, with Sharper playing the top of what I like to call the “triangle” vs. the stack looks (which is a 3-on-2 scheme) and the “box” vs. the bunch looks (which is a 4-on-3 scheme). He will be responsible for any route over the top, but more important, he will be able to drive down on any inside breaking route and “cut” the receiver. After the Saints watched the tape from the Cardinals win and saw what they did against the Packers secondary, they’ll have to come up with a plan for their man schemes — and allowing Sharper to play on the top side of their schemes will give him the ability to jump routes and take away the inside passing game of Warner and the Cards.
Baltimore at Indianapolis
Manning vs. the Ravens 2-Man scheme
The Ravens have played a lot of 2-Man coverage this season — especially on third downs. The idea behind this is simple: The underneath defenders play what’s called a “trail man” technique. They sit heavy with inside leverage, force an outside release and run on the back hip of the receivers — because they have safety help over the top. It allows their two deep safeties to drive down on any deep inside breaking routes and to protect the underneath defenders on any routes down the field. But just like any defense, it has a weakness — and it’s in the middle of the field. If Peyton Manning and the Colts start to see an increase in 2-Man from the Ravens on Saturday night, look for them to use TE Dallas Clark and their wide receivers on vertical seam routes down the middle of the field, splitting the safeties and taking advantage of the defense. Yes, the Ravens are a pressure team, but they’ll play their share of coverage on third-and-long situations. 2-Man will be one of their lead calls in this situation, and it will be up to Manning to use his pre-snap reads to identify this coverage and take advantage of it.
Dallas at Minnesota
DeMarcus Ware vs. Bryant McKinnie
Two losses that stick out in the regular season for the Vikings were their performances against Arizona and Carolina — two teams that were able to get pressure on Brett Favre with their defensive front and play coverage in the back end. Although Dallas is a pressure team on first and second downs, it can shift its focus to playing coverage and dropping seven defenders into the secondary if Ware can produce against McKinnie when the Cowboys bring in their sub packages (nickel, dime). Arizona was able to rush four, and we know what the Panthers and defensive end Julius Peppers were able to do, especially against McKinnie. I have no doubts that Favre and his wide receivers can make plays against the Dallas secondary if he gets time to step up and slide out of the pocket — where he’s at his best. But just as we saw last week in the Eagles game, Dallas can get production when it goes to a four-man line on third downs. It will be the matchup to watch on Sunday because it could determine the result. If McKinnie can handle Ware, Favre can light up the secondary.
N.Y. Jets at San Diego
TE Antonio Gates vs. FS Jim Leonhard
We know that Jets CB Darrelle Revis is going to match up with San Diego WR Vincent Jackson. It’s the matchup I want to watch because I think Jackson does have the size and big-play ability to catch some balls on the league’s best cover corner. However, I still see Jets FS Jim Leonhard playing a big role in man coverage vs. Gates when New York sends pressure — which will be in high demand on Sunday. Leonhard has the feet and the fluid movement of a nickel corner, and although he doesn’t match up in size with Gates, he will have the ability to run with him and close on the TE when he comes out of his breaks. Play action will be a key — as it always is in coach Norv Turner’s scheme — and Leonhard will have to trust his run-pass reads. If Revis can take Jackson off the field, Gates’ production will be even more crucial to the big-play ability of the Chargers. Leonhard will have to use his athletic ability to run with Gates and to keep proper leverage to avoid being boxed out by Gates when uses his body to shield Leonhard from the ball. Tough matchup for the Jets safety, but one I believe he can win.
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To read about the lack of production from Braylon Edwards in the Jets’ offense, check out this article from Bleacher Report.