Weekend Slate: Analyzing Wild-Card Matchups
Chiefs (11-5, fifth seed) at Colts (11-5, fourth seed)
Saturday, 4:35 p.m. EST, NBC
Chiefs offense vs. Colts defense
In Week 16, the Chiefs opened with a four-play, 59-yard drive capped by a 31-yard touchdown on a beautifully executed zone-lead run by Jamaal Charles, who got great blocks from fullback Anthony Sherman and center Rodney Hudson. That turned out to be the lone highlight for Andy Reid’s squad. The rest of their performance was an exhibition of ineptitude. Major concerns included limitations of Alex Smith’s arm strength, the receiving corps’ inability to separate from man coverage (including plodding “No. 1” wideout Dwayne Bowe) and repeated individual breakdowns in pass protection.
Branden Albert being back at left tackle could alleviate some of the protection woes, though Albert’s replacement, Donald Stephenson, wasn’t really the problem. That’d be rookie right tackle Eric Fisher, who is fundamentally sounder than he was early in the season but remains wildly inconsistent. It was evident two weeks ago that the first overall pick in last year’s draft can’t yet be trusted on an island against a top-flight speed-rusher such as Robert Mathis. Lately, the Colts have been aligning Mathis at nickel defensive tackle and looping him around on stunts, which hasn’t fooled any offense (including the Chiefs’). The Colts should just split the veteran in a wide-9 stance and dare the Chiefs not to double him.
Even if the Chiefs can hold up in pass protection, Smith’s arm strength and the receivers’ inability to shake man coverage (which the Colts have played increasingly well) are weaknesses that can’t be hidden without a rushing attack that’s capable of creating eight-man boxes and manageable third downs. Jamaal Charles did not get consistent touches to find his rhythm in the last matchup; it’s imperative that he does this time.
Colts offense vs. Chiefs defense
Both teams deviated from their usual modus operandi when they met two weeks ago at Arrowhead. The Colts predominantly used three-receiver personnel, with Griff Whalen, T.Y. Hilton and undrafted rookie Da’Rick Rogers. (The slippery-handed Darrius Heyward-Bey played just nine snaps.) With this finesse personnel grouping, the Colts relied less on their power running game and more on three-step drops, leaning on Luck’s increasing aptitude at the line of scrimmage. The quick-release passing game helped the offensive line settle in, paving the way for the unit’s best pass-blocking performance of the season.
The Colts used a little more of their customary play-action in the second half, having built a lead by being extremely prepared for the Chiefs’ dime package pressure concepts. Donald Brown’s 33-yard touchdown catch is a perfect illustration: he blocked for a few seconds before leaking out of the backfield opposite a crossing pattern that drew the underneath coverage to the other side. Brown went uncovered because he released just as his man-defender, safety Quintin Demps, green-dog blitzed—a staple of defensive coordinator Bob Sutton’s scheme. It was a perfectly designed play to defeat the Chiefs.
Demps typically plays farther back in the dime package, but he operated at linebacker against the Colts while Kansas City’s regular box safety, Eric Berry, shadowed tight end Coby Fleener man-to-man. Berry kept Fleener quiet, but the Chiefs may be reluctant to remove him from the dime linebacker position again, as it deprived them of a key blitzer and run-stopper. Kansas City’s other change in Week 16 was made at outside nickel corner; rookie Marcus Cooper was benched in favor of seldom-used veteran Dunta Robinson. That will probably be the case again on Saturday, though it won’t matter who plays corner if the pass rush can’t get more pressure on Luck.
Continue on for the Saints-Eagles, Chargers-Bengals, and the 49ers-Packers ...
Saints (11-5, sixth seed) at Eagles (10-6, third seed)
Saturday, 8:10 p.m. EST, NBC
Saints offense vs. Eagles defense
The Saints’ offense is less prolific on the road, particularly outdoors. But the Eagles won’t bank their game plan on Mother Nature; they’ll bank it on second-year inside linebacker Mychal Kendricks. Though an argument can be made for vastly improved corners Cary Williams, Bradley Fletcher and Brandon Boykin, Kendricks has been the most valuable player on a defense that’s held 11 of its last 12 opponents to fewer than 23 points. He is Philly’s top coverage linebacker, which would seemingly make him a key factor against a Saints offense that gets the ball to big-time weapons at tight end (Jimmy Graham) and running back (Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas) using myriad screens and seam patterns. Philly’s defensive coordinator Billy Davis, however, featured Kendricks more as a blitzer down the stretch, with fruitful results.
Davis gambled with pressure packages several times last week at Dallas. Blitzing Drew Brees, a quick and intelligent progression-reader, is precarious. But two weeks ago, the Panthers—who have a different scheme, but, in broad strokes, similar strengths and weaknesses—beat the Saints using pressure concepts that created one-on-one pass-blocking scenarios for iffy offensive tackles Terron Armstead and Zach Strief. Armstead, an unrefined third-round rookie, was better in Week 17, but he’s still the one to expose.
Eagles offense vs. Saints defense
The Saints are in the postseason because their defense, unlike last year, is adequate enough to support a high-flying offense. For much of the season, Rob Ryan’s crew was actually much better than adequate. But injuries to cornerback Jabari Greer and safety Kenny Vaccaro have left the Saints thin in the secondary, which could hinder their schematic diversity out of their base “big nickel” package. Schematic diversity may not have come into play in this matchup anyway, as Philadelphia’s fast tempo often compels defenses to play simple, straightforward coverage. That’s one reason Chip Kelly plays fast, and it’s one reason why Nick Foles has been so congruent in his reads.
Most defenses play man-to-man against the Eagles because that presents the best opportunity at disrupting the timing and spacing of Kelly’s route combinations. (Also, DeSean Jackson, Riley Cooper and Jason Avant do not shed press-jams particularly well.) The Saints have played a lot of man coverage down the stretch, with free-agent pickup Keenan Lewis blossoming into their bona fide No. 1 corner. Expect the ex-Steeler to shadow DeSean Jackson. Regardless of what happens through the air, stopping (or containing) the Eagles’ offense requires keeping tailback LeSean McCoy in check. The Saints are one of the few defenses that have the resources to do this. Defensive ends Cameron Jordan and Akiem Hicks have the strength and short-area movement skills to set the edge, and linebackers Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne can run well.
Continue on for the Chargers-Bengals and the 49ers-Packers ...
Chargers (9-7, sixth seed) at Bengals (11-5, third seed)
Sunday, 1:05 p.m. EST, CBS
Chargers offense vs. Bengals defense
The Chargers last loss came in Week 13 to the Bengals. That day, coach Mike McCoy elected to go with “12” personnel (one back, two tight ends, two receivers) almost exclusively. That’s technically a “base” personnel grouping, though it was really a three-receiver operation for all intents and purposes, as either Antonio Gates or Ladarius Green—both fluid, flexible tight ends—were split to the slot or out wide on almost every snap. The Bengals smartly played nickel against the two-tight end grouping. Despite linebackers Rey Maualuga and Vontaze Burfict biting hard to surrender a 30-yard play-action TD to Green, the defense won the battle: San Diego finished with a respectable 334 yards, but just 10 measly points.
What the Chargers failed to do was run out of the spread “12” sets. They tried, but defensive tackles Domata Peko and Brandon Thompson were outstanding against double-teams at the point of attack. In the Chargers’ ensuing four-game winning streak, running back Ryan Mathews averaged just under 27 carries and 120 yards a game. He’ll be given a chance to continue his hot streak into the postseason. His offensive line is healthier now. King Dunlap is back at left tackle, which allows first-round rookie D.J. Fluker to return to his more natural right tackle spot. Those two will have to be road graders on early downs, because the last thing they want is to face explosive ends Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap in obvious passing situations. Philip Rivers has been superb at identifying third-down blitzers before the snap, but the Bengals’ patented double A-gap nickel blitz concepts are often indecipherable until after the snap.
Bengals offense vs. Chargers defense
The Bengals average 15 more points a game at home (where they’re undefeated) than they do on the road, but that doesn’t mean they’re guaranteed to walk all over a Chargers defense that backed into the playoffs thanks to a lucky missed field goal by Kansas City’s Ryan Succop. Dalton had four interceptions last week against the Ravens—two on poorly thrown forced balls to A.J. Green. He had an interception like that in Week 13 against the Chargers, too, when he tried to hit Green on an ill-advised deep bomb against the double-team help of centerfield safety Eric Weddle. Green is worth targeting—his 53-yard touchdown last week, and his 21-yard TD against the Chargers (both came off designed inside routes originating near the seam) are just two of many testaments. But there’s a big difference between targeting Green and forcing it to him. Dalton, who’s likely to find his top receiver doubled again this week, must be more mindful.
The Chargers actually took away Green in the last meeting, but their consequently lighter front seven was unable to stop Cincy’s methodical rushing attack that was buttressed by left tackle Andrew Whitworth’s in-game shift to guard (a position change that has stuck). BenJarvus Green-Ellis had 92 yards on 20 carries and Giovani Bernard added 57 on 14. Bernard is an adept force between the tackles, but his greatest contributions come in open space—most notably, the screen game. He’ll be especially important in this capacity on Sunday, as it’s uncertain what to expect from tight ends Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert, who both missed the regular season finale due to injury.
Continue on for the 49ers-Packers ...
49ers (12-4, fifth seed) at Packers (8-7-1, fourth seed)
Sunday, 4:40 p.m. EST, FOX
49ers offense vs. Packers defense
It’s ridiculous that the NFL continues to use a playoff format so flawed that a 12-win club must go on the road to face an eight-win club (one that it already beat, no less), but that’s a discussion for a different platform. The focus here is on how the Packers can capitalize on their fortuitous home-field advantage and render a different outcome than the one they got against the Niners in Week 1 and in last year’s divisional round.
In that divisional game, Colin Kaepernick rushed for 181 yards (an NFL record for a QB) against the Packers’ double-high-safety man-coverage defense. The Packers were prepared for Kaepernick’s legs the next time they saw him, and they will be again, even with read-option enforcer Clay Matthews out with an injured thumb. His absence hurts Green Bay’s pass rush, though it won’t factor so much this weekend, given Kaepernick’s propensity to flee the pocket even without facing pressure.
Anquan Boldin devoured the Packers in Week 1, but Michael Crabtree is the guy whom defensive coordinator Dom Capers will worry most about. Crabtree’s Week 12 return gave the Niners a wideout who can actually separate from man coverage, and he’s provided Kaepernick with a more enticing go-to target. The Niners can dictate specific matchups for the pliable, smooth fifth-year receiver: if Crabtree splits out left, he’ll face Sam Shields; if he splits right, it’s Tramon Williams; in the slot, Micah Hyde. In each case, Crabtree figures to face man coverage, likely with double-teams if he goes inside.
Of course, it doesn’t matter what coverage a defense plays if it can’t stop the run. Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman, who have designed the most copious and creative power running game in football, probably salivated watching Green Bay’s front seven the last few weeks on film. Now would be a great time for defensive linemen B.J. Raji and Ryan Pickett to resurface.
Packers offense vs. 49ers defense
Even for a stingy Niners defense that’s peaking, the thought of facing Aaron Rodgers must be petrifying. Rodgers claims that two months of collarbone rehab left his arm stronger than ever heading into January. His performance at Soldier Field last Sunday backs this up. Despite two early interceptions, he showed little rust conducting Green Bay’s spread three-receiver offense. He was savvy at the line of scrimmage, decisive throwing quick slants, patient in the pocket and was borderline magical in extending plays at crucial moments, especially the 4th-and-eight game-winning touchdown to Randall Cobb (another star who returned in Week 17).
So what are the Niners to do? For one, it’s vital that they remain formidable against the run. Mike McCarthy is adamant about play-calling balance, and improvements along the front five (particularly on the left side) have only encouraged him to feed Eddie Lacy and James Starks more and more. Both running backs are serviceable downhill grinders, but neither can create his own yards. If the Niners win up front, they’ll consistently force the Packers into third-and-long.
From there, this defense must rely on its four-man pass rush, which continues to feature tackle-end stunts. The Packers tend to keep at least one, and sometimes two, extra blockers in against quality edge-rushers (first-time Pro Bowler Ahmad Brooks and soaring star Aldon Smith qualify as such), so the Niners will have a significant numbers advantage in coverage. They’ll use one of their extra bodies to double-team Jordy Nelson. With the other, they can either spy Rodgers or rove the middle of the field. Spying Rodgers would create a green-dog blitzer to help combat extended plays; roving would create an added intimidation factor in pass defense.