NFL Wild Card weekend: Five things to watch

Let’s take a look at the NFL Wild Card schedule this weekend and talk personnel, matchups plus some Xs and Os. Here are five things to watch for as we get into some playoff football.

1. Tebow vs. Steelers’ pressure: The QB has struggled in his last two starts and it won’t get any easier vs. this Pittsburgh defense. Creative looks (plus new install that isn’t on tape), overload pressure schemes and pre-snap disguise in the secondary. The goal is to cause confusion vs. a QB that lacks experience reading coverages. From the perspective of the Steelers, keep Tebow inside of the pocket, force him to deliver the ball into tight windows and take some risk in man-coverage. Denver’s QB has not shown consistent accuracy with the football and struggles to connect on routes that break outside of the numbers. There should be opportunities here for the Steelers to make some plays when they bring pressure.

Jimmy Graham ICONGraham and Sproles give the Saints two "matchup players" from a game plan perspective vs. the Lions.

2. Saints' Graham and Sproles: The two “matchup” players for Drew Brees and the Saints. When you watch the Lions-Saints game tomorrow night, pay attention to New Orleans from their pre-snap alignment. Both Graham and Sproles will align in multiple positions to give Brees that one-on-one matchup he can target. You might see Graham as a backside X receiver (split end) or Sproles in the slot. And don’t forget about the Saints’ RB on the base option route out of the backfield, because I haven’t seen a LB or SS cover that concept yet. Two players that Brees can target out in the field or down in the red zone where the fade to Graham and the angle route to Sproles become high percentage throws. Detroit must come to the stadium with a game plan that can limit their production.

3. Falcons’ play action: When I break down this Atlanta offense, Michael Turner is still the focus of the game plan. However, the amount of talent QB Matt Ryan has to work with at the skill positions can provide opportunities for explosive plays down the field. And you can get there with hard play action to target this Giants’ secondary. WRs Roddy White and Julio Jones outside of the numbers and TE Tony Gonzalez (still one of the top route runners at the position) matched up against a safety in the middle of the field. Establishing the off-tackle power game (Lead, Power O, Counter OF) should be a priority for the Falcons, but can lead to some deep ball opportunities early to test the top of the New York defense.

4. Rookie QBs on the playoff stage: The offensive game plans for both the Texans and the Bengals should be similar. Lead with the run game and win on early down and distance situations to give your QB some options to work with. However, you have to get production from the QB position in the post season. In this matchup, focus on third downs and when the ball is inside of the 20-yard line. That’s where the production has to come from T.J. Yates and Andy Dalton. Move the sticks, take advantage of field position and convert on scoring opportunities. RBs Arian Foster and Cedric Benson should see plenty of touches tomorrow down in Houston, but don’t let that discount the importance of two rookie QBs on this big of a stage.

5. Game planning Calvin Johnson: Saints’ defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is a pressure-based coach, but as I talked about on Thursday, he will play some Cover 2 vs. Johnson. The Saints have to get a re-route on the Lions’ WR at the line of scrimmage, play with depth at the safety position and take away the vertical route tree. There is no question Williams will bring pressure, but when he wants to play coverage expect to see Cover 2 and also some 2-Man (2-deep, underneath trail-man) to limit the 9 (fade), deep dig and the post. Both Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper have to play top-down from their initial alignment. This may sound simple, but with Johnson we are talking about a player that can eat up a safety’s cushion in the deep half and flip the field. Technique, eyes and depth are the keys vs. the Lions’ WR.

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