Sunday rewind: Week 14

The National Football Post’s Matt Bowen breaks down some of Sunday’s key Week 14 action from a scheme and game-plan perspective.

Philly in the red zone

There were plenty of big plays Sunday night in the Eagles’ win over the Giants at the Meadowlands that we can discuss from a scheme perspective. But I want to focus on Philly in the red zone because this has been an issue all season long — and last night the Eagles broke their own tendencies and used Michael Vick as a creative weapon to put points on the board.

On the first score of the game, the Eagles showed a formation — with receivers aligned to the boundary and FB Leonard Weaver aligned offset to the formation that signaled a sprint-out pass. We know this by watching the Eagles all season, and the Giants know it because of their film study. But Andy Reid installed the TE delay to Brent Celek for this exact reason — it breaks tendencies that are handed out in the weekly scouting report on this Eagles team. You see this formation and you see the receivers release to the route (which is a flat-7 combo) along with Donovan McNabb and a partial rollout, and you jump the sprint out — because that’s what you prepare for as a defense against the Eagles. But Celek shows a pass protection set, then releases on the delay.

That, along with the use of Vick in creative ways, stood out to me in the Eagles’ win more so than the deep ball to DeSean Jackson, because scoring TDs in the red zone will enable Philly to make a playoff run — and relying on the big play won’t.

Indy’s offense — uncovered

One thing about the Colts is that we always expect results from their multiple formation looks. But when you examine this offense more closely, it’s pretty ordinary from a personnel standpoint — only that the Colts know how to disguise how they use their passing schemes. Indy runs its every-down offense out of only two personnel groupings: Ace (2TE, 2 WR, 1 RB) and Zebra (3 WR, 1 TE, 1 RB). But what separates them from a game plan perspective is how they use that personnel. They will align in empty, in a four-wide look with the TE acting as No. 2 strong and in various bunch formations.

For example, Manning’s first of four TD passes went to WR Austin Collie on what looked like an exotic route out of a 3-man bunch. But when you watch the play again, the Colts ran a version of the China-Dig route (short five-yard in-route coming behind a 12-yard dig or square in-route). It’s a route that every team in the NFL runs in the red zone. Just as we talk about defenses and how they disguise coverage before the snap, Indy disguises its routes by using the personnel you expect in a variety of alignments.

Grant’s cutback ability

At Soldier Field, I thought Packers RB Ryan Grant played his best game of the season, and it wasn’t all about the numbers he posted in the box score (20-137-2 TDs). From my perspective, Grant saw a big increase in production because he saw the field better than he has all season. We often talk about running backs and their vision, and that was the case yesterday with Grant. On his 62-yard TD run, the Packers ran what looks like the Counter OF (fullback leads to the open or weak side), because of the backfield action. Once Grant took the handoff, he planted and cut back strong to compensate for the Bears’ front seven over-pursuing to the football. And it continued, as Grant used the cutback as one of his main weapons, which usually leads to production against a Tampa 2 defense such as Chicago — where the linebackers are taught to run over the top of blocks to stop any running plays that press the edge of the defense.

Vilma shows up — again

For the second straight week, Saints MLB Jonathan Vilma made big plays in the fourth quarter to help New Orleans win. Vilma made the pick late in the fourth quarter in Atlanta by running with the vertical seam in the Saints’ Cover 2 defense, and the play he made on fourth down against Chris Redman and the Falcons allows this team to wake up at a perfect 13-0.

The Falcons ran the Angle Route with RB Jason Snelling aligned to a bunch formation to the strong side. Atlanta did this to cause confusion and because they it knows Gregg Williams’ defense will play man coverage in these situations. But Vilma played his technique perfectly, sitting hard to the inside on the angle route (stem to the flat and break back to the middle of the field). By not chasing Snelling to the flat or being distracted to three separate releases out of the bunch, Vilma made the tackle short of the chains. A perfect example of how technique always wins in football.

Marshall’s record-setting day

Twenty-one receptions in a ballgame is serious business at any level of football, but to do it against a Colts defense that I’ve seen a lot from in recent weeks is something to talk about. But what was Marshall doing that was so effective?

The Colts played a mix of Cover 1, Cover 3 and their core Cover 2. When Broncos QB Kyle Orton and Marshall read Cover 1 or Cover 3 in their pre-snap reads (free safety in the middle of the field) they ran the 3-step game: the hitch, the fade, the out and the slant. And when they read a two-deep look (safeties on or near the numbers) they ran the Fade Stop (thrown in between the corner and the safety at a depth of 15 yards) or the slant because of Marshall’s ability to beat any rolled-up corner at the line of scrimmage. It looked easy, and from a scheme perspective it sounds easy, but only a player with the physical strength and speed of Marshall could have done it, because he could win any one-on-one matchup the Colts threw at him — and he took advantage of the schemes they presented.

Patriots’ secondary woes continue

I understand that the Pats beat the Panthers in Foxborough, but their secondary is still giving up big plays after two straight weeks of poor production against the Saints and the Dolphins. Sunday, Panthers QB Matt Moore hit Steve Smith on a 41-yard TD pass that was a direct reflection of poor fundamentals by free safety Brandon Meriweather.

The Pats were playing Cover 1 with the football in between the 40s — where you have to know coming out of the huddle as a defensive player that a deep ball is coming — and Meriweather didn’t read his keys, forcing him to come toward the line of scrimmage and leaving the corner with no middle of the field help. Yes, the corner will take some of the blame for getting beat deep, but all he was doing was playing the coverage — running with Smith with an outside leverage position. The corner is expecting safety help, but when the ball is thrown to the middle of the field with a corner playing that leverage against Smith, there’s no question what the result will be.

Another example of how technique and fundamentals are routinely beating the New England secondary. That won’t fly in January.

Dallas on the goal line

When the Cowboys’ offense gets into the meeting room today to watch their second-quarter goal-line series that resulted in no points, they’ll be sick because not only did they fail to produce in that situation, but their choice of a fourth-down play call will come into question.

I can understand running Marion Barber three straight times on the goal line, and I think we would all do the same if we were in that position, but those three plays were your typical Iso Runs on the goal line — where Barber follows the fullback in a straight downhill power play. But on fourth down, the Cowboys decided to line up Barber at the fullback position — and that creates an obvious situation for the defense. Any defensive player in this league knows that when a key offensive weapon — such as a feature back like Barber — aligns out of position, he’s doing it for a reason. And that reason is to get the football. Receivers do it all the time, often moving inside to the slot to get the ball in certain schemes. Not only was this a pure giveaway for the Chargers defense, but it also led to Barber running a dive play with no lead blocker.

I thought the Cowboys’ game plan of using their basic runs -- the Power O, the Lead Open and the Lead Draw Open -- was the right way to attack the Chargers, but then why get away from that on the goal line at a crucial point of the game on fourth down?

The Skins’ Fred Davis

I got to see a lot of Redskins TE Fred Davis against the Raiders, and I really like him as a receiver. He can beat a linebacker off the line of scrimmage in the vertical game, and he has the speed to run the 7-route when he’s matched up against a safety — and that’s a huge plus for any offense. Looking forward to next season, Davis could be a major plus for the ‘Skins when they use TE Chris Cooley as an H-back or movement TE off the ball, and put Davis as their down TE or TE on the ball. Lots of options between those two.

The good and the bad of Cutler

Bears QB Jay Cutler was up and down, throwing two TDs and two INTs. Let’s look at the plays.

The good…

Cutler’s two TD passes. On the first, a Pro Bowl throw to WR Johnny Knox against the Packers’ Cover 2 man scheme in the red zone, Cutler put the ball on Knox’s upfield shoulder, away from corner Tramon Williams — who was playing a trail-man technique — and because the throw is placed so perfectly, the safety cannot make a play on the ball coming off the numbers. The second of Cutler’s TD passes, to WR Devin Armoshashodu, was a classic example of throwing the fade stop vs. man coverage. Packers corner Charles Woodson had excellent coverage, but the ball was thrown short — at the goal line — behind the receiver where only he could make a play on the ball. Two big-time throws.

And the bad…

The first pick Cutler threw to Woodson was shocking to me for two reasons. First, Cutler threw the ball out of a flat-footed stance, and the ball was thrown short. And second, Woodson was playing a technique called “bail-man,” where the corner aligns in the press position and bails out at the snap of the football with his back to the sideline and his eyes on the quarterback. Why you would throw a fade against that coverage is questionable at best, and even Woodson looked surprised when Cutler released the football. On Cutler’s second pick, by safety Nick Collins, the Packers ran a “corner-cat,” which is your basic corner blitz where the safety floats over the top of the receiver — giving up the 3-step game — but reacts to anything deep. Cutler threw the ball knowing that Collins was sitting over the top of the receiver — and all he had to do was break downhill on the ball. Too easy for a safety at this level.

More Chris Johnson

I know we talk a lot about the Titans’ Chris Johnson — who should at least be in the MVP discussion — but what I noticed yesterday was his patience when he had the ball in his hands. Often, when young players with abnormal speed like Johnson play in the NFL, their tragic flaw is just that — speed. They always want to get to the edge of the defense and try to outrun everyone. But yesterday was an example of Johnson being patient with the football on his first TD of the game, a 39-yard run, and his second TD, a 66-yard screen pass. Johnson looked like he was almost gliding down the field and never panicked with the ball in his hands. He followed his blocks and picked his own running lanes.

This guy is going to be on teaching tapes this offseason.

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