Sunday rewind: Week 15

Let’s take a look at some of my notes from Sunday’s Week 15 action in the NFL — schemes, game plans and some X’s and O’s for this Monday morning.

Defending Favre

Something should be taken away from Carolina’s upset of Brett Favre and the Vikings Sunday night. Just as we saw two weeks ago when the Vikings went down to Arizona and were shut down, the way to defend them right now is to play Cover 2 and Cover 2-Man, if you have a front four that can get to the QB. Teams that are successful are playing coverage against the Vikings instead of bringing pressure. What this does is allow for two deep safeties to put a tent over the defense, and for the five — or six defenders underneath if you rush three — to drop to a landmark with their feet planted and their eyes on Favre. They can close off passing lanes and jump routes. And if you play 2-Man, those underneath defenders are playing trail-man technique, which allows them to break underneath any route because of the safety help over the top. Case in point: Brett’s fourth-quarter pick in the red zone to Chris Harris was your basic Cover 2 with Julius Peppers applying pressure.

Favre is very good vs. pressure teams because he can throw the slant and the fade just as well as anyone in the league. But when you can jam receivers at the line of scrimmage and funnel them to the rest of the defense with a nasty front-four rush, Favre isn’t as effective. It’s obvious that the Panthers studied the Arizona tape, and don’t be surprised to see more teams attack Minnesota like Carolina did — when that tape gets passed around this week.

Vince Young still improving

Young has improved with every start he’s made, and what I want to talk about is his red zone passing. On two TDs — his first two to WR Justin Gage — V.Y. looked like a veteran. The first, a skinny post vs. Cover 4, has to be thrown perfectly — over the strong safety, who’s turning to the receiver and away from the corner, who’s playing with outside leverage. Underthrow the ball and it’s picked. Overthrow it and it’s out of bounds. V.Y. put that ball in the basket. The second was a Smash-7 against man-free, where Young put the ball on the upfield shoulder of Gage — thrown to the leverage he had created on the corner. Two great throws.

The red zone was an issue when the Titans went to Indy a couple of weeks back — and V.Y. struggled to put points on the board. Yesterday, instead of field goals, the Titans scored touchdowns because he was effective.

The Steelers’ game plan

I was impressed by the game plan Pittsburgh put together from an offensive perspective, knowing that they were facing a Green Bay defense under Dom Capers that relies on pressure with man principles in the back end. We saw a lot of routes that are designed solely to beat man coverage: the underneath crossers, the tight end seem, the option routes, the rub routes out of the stack look and the gamut of the three-step game — the hitch, the slant, the out and the fade. Plenty of empty sets to spread the field and a TE in Heath Miller who was an issue for any Packers LB in coverage. And we saw more screen passes — both the halfback and the wide receiver screen — from Pittsburgh than usual, a classic way to attack pressure teams who get up the field fast.

But one of the main reasons the Packers allowed Ben Roethlisberger to throw for over 500 yards was that he was able to break contain on the rush, and when a QB does that, there’s no harder task in the NFL for a defensive back than to try and run with a receiver who has converted his route to get open. It leads to multiple flags — as we saw — with DBs hooking, grabbing and pulling receivers to bring them closer, and it gives Roethlisberger, who is the best QB in the league when the play breaks down, more options. Just as we saw on the game’s final play for the winning TD. Dom Capers only rushed three — I decision I question — and dropped eight, with five defenders playing underneath man. But don’t just point the finger at Packers DB Josh Bell — because Roethlisberger had an enormous amount of time to find Mike Wallace, who was his last read in the route.

Bottom line: a great game plan that was executed and never abandoned.

The Pats’ multiple looks

Last week, I wrote about how the Colts run multiple routes and multiple looks out of two basic personnel groupings: Ace (2 WR, 2 TE, 1 RB) and Zebra (3 WR, 1 TE, 1 RB). However, the Pats are the complete opposite. Early in the game, we saw a lot of empty looks with their Zebra and Kings (4 WR, 1 TE) personnel, which is what they were in when QB Tom Brady hit Randy Moss in the red zone on the Double China-Seam vs. a Buffalo blitz. But as the game wore on and Brady struggled, the Pats went to their Tank (2 TE, 2 RB, 1 WR) and Heavy (3 TE, 1 WR, 1 RB) personnel to pound the Bills and the clock with the power running game. With a lead in the third quarter, they could protect on defense against a Bills offense that just looks awful right now, and they managed to eat the clock and sustain drives by using the running game. No, it isn’t flashy and it won’t make the highlights, but this is why they’re tough to beat — because they have the ability to beat you with so many different schemes.

The Chargers’ big plays

We tend to think of the Chargers like we do Donovan McNabb and the Eagles — a big-play offense that has to rely on explosive gains to win. But that isn’t exactly right. The Chargers’ big plays are designed and calculated off their base offense. Take yesterday and Vincent Jackson’s two TD catches.

The first — a double move in the red zone. The Chargers expect the Bengals to play ma-free in the red zone from film study, and Jackson runs a post-corner from the 21-yard line, gains leverage on the corner, and the ball is put to the outside, where only he can catch it from Philip Rivers. The second — a basic 9-route -- is run out of Tank personnel, right after the Chargers ran a downhill power play out of the same personnel. San Diego runs two verticals out of a running formation, with TE Antonio Gates taking the seam route to the middle of the field — where he can occupy the free safety — and all Jackson has to do is get on top of the corner. The safety can’t get from the middle of the field over the top of the 9-rotue and the result is six points. Yes, these are big plays, but when you watch San Diego, it’s a power running team that takes deep shots when it has field position and when it feels it has set up the defense.

The Jets’ defeat

What’s surprisin g when you watch the Jets is how vastly different they are from a scheme perspective when you put their defense side by side with their offense. Rex Ryan’s unit is creative, it aligns in the 3-4, the 46, the Bear front, and on third downs it looks like it’s on the playground with the amount of exotic looks it gives an offense from a pre-snap read. The Jets attack and dictate the flow of the game to the opponent.

But on offense, they’re vanilla as they come. They run the off-tackle power game, the short-to-intermediate passing game and sprinkle in some of the vertical game off play action. I understand the game plan has to be reduced because rookie QB Mark Sanchez continues to struggle with the offense, but you won’t win games in this league scoring seven points.

More DeSean Jackson

It seems that every Sunday when you check out the box score, the Eagles’ DeSean Jackson is at the top of the list. But why? Why is this guy so good at getting open and putting up numbers? For starters, the Eagles do a great job at putting him in different alignments on the field. He will align as the “X” receiver, in the slot and occasionally as the “Z” receiver in Andy Reid’s offense to create mismatches. He can beat press coverage off the ball with his lateral quickness, and when the Eagles send him down the field, it’s often coming across the formation — where he can run away from a defender playing outside leverage. Sunday: six catches, 140 yards and one TD, an average of over 23 yards per catch.

Using the tight end

Both Ravens TE Todd Heap and Packers TE Jermichael Finley were used as offensive weapons by their respective teams in their alignment. In the Ravens’ win over Chicago, Baltimore used Heap as the “X” receiver multiple times — causing a mismatch in which he could use his size to gain leverage on a corner and run the skinny post and the slant. For the Packers, Finley not only can be used as the “X” receiver out in the field — where his alignment allowed the Packers to put Greg Jennings as the No. 3 receiver to the open side and matchup with a LB playing underneath man on his 83-yard TD catch — but also in the red zone. The Packers can align Finely to the back side of the formation, where he can match up on a safety and run the fade route.

We see this with Atlanta and San Diego all the time because of their tight end talent, and removing the tight end from the formation is done exactly for this reason — to gain an advantage in a matchup.

Quick hits

* Bears QB Jay Cutler threw three more picks Sunday and now has 25 on the year. I’m wondering if he’s even reading coverage before the snap, as his first INT came on a slant route against 2-Man. The corner had inside leverage, but Cutler threw it anyway — almost as if he was throwing to a spot on the field instead of reading the defense.

* How bad was the tackling in Kansas City? Credit is due Jerome Harrison and Josh Cribbs, but the Chiefs couldn’t get off blocks and didn’t want to tackle.

* Just as I questioned Packers Dom Capers for only rushing three on the final play of the game, the same can be said for Rex Ryan and the Jets. On fourth and goal for the Falcons, the Jets rushed three and played Cover 2 in the back end. All Atlanta TE Tony Gonzalez had to do was option off the inside zone defender and sit down across the goal line. Too easy to win a game.

* For the second straight week, the Broncos’ Knowshon Moreno averaged under three yards a carry. In Josh McDaniles' offensive system, there needs to be production in the running game. Plus, there was a JaMarcus Russell comeback win on top of it for the Raiders. Time to worry in Denver?

* Last night was the perfect example of how good the Carolina offense can be when Steve Smith is a part of the game plan. He went for 157 yards and one TD on nine receptions. Add that to an off tackle running game that always produces and you get victories.

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