Weekend Notes: Week 15 matchups to watch

Here are some weekend notes to think about and some game plan ideas for Saturday night’s matchup in New Orleans between the Cowboys and the 13-0 Saints.

The Saints pressure

What would you do if you were New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams tonight in New Orleans in terms of pressure? Do you use multiple blitz packages or do you use a wide variety of man coverages with extra defenders dropping into passing lanes like we saw back in the Monday night game against the Patriots?

Last week, the Saints gave up some big plays to the Falcons that were directly caused by playing poor technique in their pressure schemes. Remember the TD catch that Michael Jenkins had? The Saints sent a double corner “cat,” with both cornerbacks coming off the edge—and that usually leads to a sack or a pass that is thrown too early in the route. But, Jenkins gained inside leverage on safety Darren Sharper—who had come over the top of the wide receiver in the scheme—and the result was a huge play down the field for six.

I can’t see Williams completely avoiding his pressure schemes based off of one play, but I do think he will be more cautious against a Dallas offense that has more playmakers than Atlanta. Look for some pressure on early down and distances and then expect Williams to rush four and play some Cover 2 — and some man-to-man robber coverage — in the backend on third downs. I do think the Saints can get pressure on Tony Romo with their four-man rush, and Williams will be satisfied with a catch and tackle short of the chains.

Peyton vs. Garrard

The Colts-Jags game on Thursday night came down to two drives. One for Peyton Manning that resulted in a game-winning touchdown, and one for David Garrard that resulted in a game-ending interception. In both cases, each QB was faced with the most basic of defenses that didn’t feature pressure or something exotic that was drawn up in the week’s installation meeting.

Manning hit Reggie Wayne for a 65-yard TD pass against a vanilla Cover 2 scheme. The Colts ran two verticals at safety Reggie Nelson who stayed on his landmark — the top of the numbers — too long and didn’t have the depth or the proper angle to break on the throw down the sideline to Wayne. All Manning had to do was give a pump to the inside vertical to make Nelson look like a fish. Too easy for the league’s best QB.

Garrard, who had sailed passes before the interception, once again threw a pass high when the Colts were playing a basic Cover 3, which we see at the high school level — a defense that is installed on the first day on mini-camp. The Jags ran two vertical seams, just like the Colts, and Garrard — reading Cover 3 — tried to stick the inside vertical by throwing the ball over the strong safety who carries No. 2 to a depth of about 12 yards. Instead, cornerback Jacob Lacey was just playing his technique — splitting the two verticals in his zone — and drove on the football for the pick. No different than the drills NFL DBs do at the beginning of each practice.

Two QBs facing basic schemes, and Manning delivered as usual.

The Packers protection schemes

During the Packers five-game winning streak since the loss at Tampa, the offensive line hasn’t been taking as much heat because the number of sacks is down. Eleven sacks over the last five games, compared with 37 over the first eight games — an awful number to post. But, even with the improved offensive line play, I expect Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau to try and create pressure schemes that allows for free runners to QB Aaron Rodgers tomorrow.

One of the reasons that the Steelers are going in a complete opposite direction as a team right now with five straight losses is the alarming inability for this defense to make plays. However, to correct that, or to try and engineer plays as a defense, look for LeBeau to send multiple blitzes that consist of overloading one side of the offensive line — and plenty of pre-snap disguise. What this does is confuse the count for the Packers and forces the running back who stays in for protection to slide to the proper side of the blitz. I fully expect the Packers to be tested — especially on third down situations — where Green Bay will have to call some max-protection routes or lean heavily on the 3-step game, which can be dicey when going against a zone pressure team like Pittsburgh.

A big test for Rodgers and his protection on the road.

Ray Rice — again

If I am the Ravens, I pay close attention to the Packers offensive game plan from their win over Chicago at Soldier Field last week and rely heavily on Ray Rice and the ground game. The Bears are playing more eight-man fronts than in the past, but they allowed themselves to be exposed by the cut back game. When this happens, defenders are over pursuing to the football and the backside contain is running over the top of blockers — leaving wide open lanes for the running back to plant and cut back across the center, which is ideal for the style of Rice. With the weather an obvious issue for tomorrow (the game has already been pushed ahead to the afternoon), why wouldn’t the Ravens, who are fighting for the No. 6 seed in the AFC, ride Rice against a defense that isn’t sound in their gap control and cut back lanes?

Carson vs. the Bolts

Yesterday in our Rumor Nation here at the NFP, we questioned what the issue is with Bengals QB Carson Palmer. He has franchise talent, and although he has publicly stated that his elbow injury is not a concern, we have our doubts.

I understand that the Bengals are a different team than in the past. They have won games this season by running the football with Cedric Benson and playing nasty defense up front under Mike Zimmer. But to get through San Diego tomorrow, and to make a run in the postseason, they will need more production from Palmer. As of now, the Bengals rank 23rd in the league, averaging just over 189 passing yards a game. And statistically, Palmer is having a below average year for his standards with a QB rating of 84.8. Yes, we are speculating that there is an injury concern for Palmer, but if he is going to step up and be that franchise QB we think he is, now is the time to do it. And to beat San Diego, he is going to have to outplay Philip Rivers.

Ricky vs. Chris Johnson

If you have a chance to watch Miami play at Tennessee tomorrow, don’t miss this opportunity to watch two of the league’s best running backs in a game that has huge meaning in the AFC wild-card race. Miami has become a more conventional offense since the injury to Ronnie Brown, and although a lot of that has to do with the time of year — and the idea that gimmicks and exotic formations aren’t going to get you a playoff spot — Williams is more than capable of being a feature back for an offense that has taken on the identity of a down hill power running team. Ricky can carry the ball 20-plus times a game and has t he stamina to break tackles in the fourth quarter. I think he is playing the best football of his career.

On the other side is Chris Johnson, who will miss out on an opportunity to win the ’09 MVP award because, well, he isn’t a quarterback. But he is the best football player in the NFL right now. He is becoming more patient in his second year as a pro, and when a guy who has around 4.2 speed can set up blocks and become a one-cut runner, we see the big plays every Sunday.

Don’t miss this game.

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