Week 8 Recap: Big Ben Torches the Colts

Ben Roethlisberger threw for 522 yards and 6 touchdowns on Sunday against the Colts, who entered the game as one of the best defenses statistically in the NFL. The Steelers offense entered as an inconsistent unit looking to get on track. So what did they do differently?

Roethlisberger The Quarterback:
For his entire career, Roethlisberger has been known for his ability to improvise. And yes, he did do that on a play or two against the Colts. Yet Big Ben was so successful on Sunday because of his ability to play from the pocket. His mechanics were sound. He was extremely accurate. He was calm in the pocket and he threw with anticipation. Roethlisberger looked off safeties and worked through his progressions play after play. This was the best game of Roethlisberger’s career, and it was because of his ability to play the position the way it’s supposed to be played.

Clean Pocket:

Look At All of That Room for Big Ben - Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

Look at all of that room for Big Ben – Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

Not to take anything away from Big Ben, but this might as well have been a 7-on-7 practice for the Steelers offense. The Colts’ pass rush was nonexistent. The Steelers’ offensive line certainly played well, but the Colts were unable to generate anything with a four-man rush. With Robert Mathis out for the season, this will continue to be an issue for the Colts. Indy eventually realized that they couldn’t generate any pressure and brought more blitzes as the game went on. These pressures still did not hit home, and it left their secondary exposed.

Secondary Struggles:
Colts cornerback Vontae Davis was injured on Pittsburgh’s second drive, and this definitely hurt Indy’s ability to cover. They played lots of man coverage, the same type of coverage that completely shut down the Bengals a week earlier. However, cornerback Greg Toler struggled to stay with Antonio Brown on Sunday in Pittsburgh, and rookie wide receiver Martavis Bryant made his real introduction to the league. Bryant is 6’4” with very good quickness, and he proved to be a handful no matter who was covering him. Bryant finished with 5 receptions for 83 yards and 2 touchdowns.

Nothing to Hide:
Again, there is no need to try and take anything away from Ben Roethlisberger’s unbelievable performance on Sunday. But the Colts didn’t help matters by the fact that they didn’t disguise their coverages. One needs to look no further than two weeks ago against the Browns to see how Roethlisberger struggles to spot late-moving coverages. The Browns disguised 2-man (man coverage underneath with two deep safeties) several times by moving after the snap, and this created indecision on Big Ben’s part. He was a step behind the defense and did not play well as a result. The Colts seldom did anything of this sort on Sunday.

Final Thoughts:
It obviously will be extremely difficult for Roethlisberger to duplicate his performance from Sunday. However, maybe this game will propel Pittsburgh’s offense forward for the remainder of the season. On the other hand, maybe this was just a perfect matchup for Big Ben and the offense. Either way, the Steelers are 5-3 and in the mix for first place in the AFC North.

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Why is Seattle’s Offense Struggling?

We’re not sure what the Seahawks’ locker room is like. We’ve never been in there. We don’t hang out with the players. We’re not in their meetings. So we have no idea whether or not Russell Wilson is a good leader. Here’s the dirty little secret; no one outside of that locker room knows either. The only thing we can tell you is what the All-22 tape tells us. And right now, the tape is telling us loud and clear why Seattle’s offense is struggling.

The first thing that stands out is that the Seahawks are trying to spread it out and put the ball in the hands of Russell Wilson as much as possible. Wilson is a talented player, but this offense should be based around pounding the ball with Marshawn Lynch. Marshawn is a physical runner with deceptive quickness. Aside from his ability to eat up yards, Lynch wears on defenses and helps set up play-action. When he is heavily involved in the game, he forces the defense to honor the run, which helps make Wilson twice as dangerous through the air and on the ground.

Russell Wilson is not a precision quarterback. As talented as he is, he misses lots of passes from the pocket because he doesn’t always see them. Wilson doesn’t always work through his reads from the pocket. He often flees before he has to, and this leads to potential big plays in the passing game being left on the field. Furthermore, his footwork in the pocket is erratic. It isn’t terrible, but it’s bad enough that it prevents him from fitting throws into tight windows from the pocket on a regular basis. He certainly missed a few passes against the Panthers that could have broken the game wide open on Sunday.

Quarterbacks need to be able to make tough throws into tight windows in the NFL. They need to be able to succeed from the pocket on a regular basis. Russell Wilson has not shown the ability to do this consistently. As a result, the offense has been hit or miss when the game plan has been centered around him. This is one big reason why the offense should operate through its most consistent element – the running game.

To Wilson’s defense, Seattle’s passing attack doesn’t really challenge defenses vertically. It’s based more on spread concepts and deception via play-action and misdirection. It actually challenges defenses more horizontally. Because there is no deep threat, and because Seattle doesn’t consistently attack the intermediate levels in the passing game, defenses don’t have as much ground to cover. Additionally, Seattle’s route concepts are limited and predictable. All of this adds up to a unit that explodes for points one week and then can’t get a thing going the next.

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Week 7 Recap: Cowboys Offense Doing It All

The Cowboys are 6-1, and in case you were wondering, that record is not a fluke. The win over Seattle in Week 6 certainly opened everyone’s eyes. However, their consistent play week in and week out is the biggest indicator that they are without question among the NFC’s best.

Pass Protection:
The Cowboys have one of the best, if not the best, offensive lines in the NFL. Tony Romo was barely breathed on against the Giants on Sunday. The two sacks New York did get were somewhat fluky. On the first sack, the Cowboys used play-action, and Romo pumped, lost control of the ball, and wasn’t brought to the ground until 5-6 seconds after the snap. The second sack was also not due to quick pressure. Defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul got around left tackle Tyron Smith, and when Romo’s initial read wasn’t there, he moved backwards into Pierre-Paul for the sack. Aside from these two plays, Romo was not under constant duress at all in this game, and he was able to take advantage as a result.

Romo Playing Well:
Tony Romo isn’t making mistakes. He’s getting the ball to the right receiver, throwing with accuracy, and keeping the offense on schedule. Against the Giants, he made several plays late in the down. The defense had won with their coverage, but because he had time to throw, and because he still has the ability to improvise, he was able to use his movement to create voids in coverage downfield. He also made one heck of a throw on his final touchdown, a seem route to tight end Gavin Escobar. On this touchdown, the play-action sucked the linebackers up, Romo held the safety to the left (Dez Bryant’s side), and then threw a perfect ball back to the right to Escobar.

The Running Game:
The offensive line is moving people. They’re getting good individual efforts and good double-teams. They’re re-establishing the line of scrimmage and creating lanes with good blocking angles. Running back DeMarco Murray has played to the scheme of the running game as well. He hasn’t been trying to do too much.

Dallas loves to used outside zone runs, and on these plays, Murray has pressed the edge, which gets defenders moving and sets up his blockers. His vision has been very good, and after he gets the defense flowing, he uses one cut and then goes. Murray has been very efficient as a runner this season. Between his performance and that of the offensive line, the running game is allowing Dallas to control the game and move the ball. It’s also making the Cowboys’ play-action twice as dangerous.

Dez Dominating:
Dez Bryant is nearly impossible to cover one-on-one, and Giants cornerback Prince Amukamara found that out the hard way on Sunday. When the Giants played man coverage, Amukamara followed Bryant. However, he couldn’t handle Bryant’s power or speed. When Amukamara pressed him, Dez used his strength to throw the smaller corner aside. On one 24-yard reception in the 4th quarter, Amukamara, having been physically handled earlier in the game, went out of his way to try and jam Bryant. He wanted to get a little extra muscle into this jam to be able to handle the stronger receiver. This time, however, Bryant used his agility to sidestep him. Amukamara whiffed, and Bryant was on top of him instantly. Romo delivered a great ball, and this play led to the Cowboys’ 4th touchdown of the day.

Final Thoughts:
The Cowboys are on a roll right now. They’re protecting, running, throwing and catching at a level as high as any team in the league. They’re a legitimate contender in the NFC. If they continue to stick with the run and play with balance on offense like they have through the last 6 games, they’ll definitely be in the mix at the end of the year.

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Week 6 Recap: Bengals Defense Struggles Again

Before their game against the Patriots, the Bengals had arguably the best defense in the league. Then, they allowed 80 points in a seven day/2-game span, leaving plenty of questions about a unit that was previously the most reliable aspect of the team.

Linebacker Concerns:
Bengals linebackers have had success because of their aggressiveness in attacking the line of scrimmage versus the run. However, this is also their weakness. They are too aggressive, often over-pursuing to get to ball carriers and abandoning their gap responsibilities. They often bite too hard on play-action, and this has killed them in the passing game. Emmanuel Lamur, #59, has looked especially lost in coverage. Tom Brady and Cam Newton took advantage of this in the last two games.

Big Personnel On Offense:
In Week 5, the Patriots used an up-tempo approach as well as big personnel in unconventional alignments. This kept Cincinnati linebackers on the field and caused confusion in their assignments. The Panthers didn’t take the same up-tempo approach, but they did use lots of 2 and 3-tight end sets to keep linebackers on the field. They then took advantage of their over aggressiveness in the passing game.

More Struggles vs the Run:
The Patriots racked up 220 rushing yards in Week 5 against the Bengals with a power running game that blew Cincinnati off the ball. The Panthers didn’t quite have that same type of success. Their effectiveness in the running game came via Cam Newton. The Panthers used him on the usual zone reads, but they also ran him on quarterback powers with success. Again, Bengals linebackers didn’t maintain gap integrity, which created lots of open running lanes. Newton took advantage to the tune of 107 rushing yards.

Blitzes Not Hitting Home:
Against the Patriots, the Bengals weren’t able to blitz like they normally do because of New England’s approach. Against the Panthers, on the other hand, the Bengals were able to bring the house frequently, including their staple double-A-gap blitzes. The pressure rarely got to Newton, though. This left the Bengals’ linebackers and secondary vulnerable, and this has been one of the biggest issues with Cincinnati’s defense. Their linebackers and secondary aren’t great in coverage. They rely on their D-line and blitzes to get pressure, which forces quick, ill-advised throws. When the pressure doesn’t get there, they become exposed.

Final Thoughts:
Heading into their bye week at 3-0 the Bengals looked like they would run away with the AFC North. Now, all four teams in the division look like legitimate contenders, and there is still plenty of time left in the season. Cincinnati needs to figure out how to fix their once dominant defense if they want to have any chance of even reaching the playoffs.

Posted in AFC East, AFC North, Carolina Panthers, Cincinnati Bengals, New England Patriots, NFC South | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Week 5 Recap: Broncos Offense Steamrolls Cardinals

The Broncos racked up 568 yards against one of the best defenses in the league on Sunday. Denver has lots of talent on offense, but their gameplan against Arizona played a significant role in their 41-point performance.

The Cardinals are known for their man coverage on defense. They have one of the NFL’s premiere corners in Patrick Peterson as well as a bevy of talent around him in their defensive backfield. They don’t shy away from any offense, choosing to play man regardless of the competition.

We know this, everyone in the NFL knows this, and the Broncos certainly knew it. Their offensive gameplan focused on beating this coverage. The Broncos used several short crossing routes where receivers rubbed (or picked) defenders, or at very least created traffic that defensive backs had to wade through in order to chase their assigned receiver across the field. Denver used several other man-beating concepts, such as bunching their receivers together and having their routes crisscross at the snap to create more traffic for defenders. Furthermore, they used formations and route concepts that enabled Manning to take advantage of particularly advantageous one-on-one matchups, such as Julius Thomas on a safety, Demaryius Thomas on Antonio Cromartie, and Wes Welker in the slot on cornerback Jerraud Powers with room to maneuver from sideline to sideline.

Accounting for Pressure:
The Cardinals defense is among the most aggressive blitzing units in the league. They use intricate schemes and aren’t afraid to bring the house to get to the quarterback. The Broncos anticipated this pressure. They almost exclusively used 3 wide receiver sets and spread the defense out. This was a departure from Denver’s offensive approach through their first 3 games.

Spreading the defense out prevents it from being able to disguise blitzes well. Defenders have to align over or near the receivers they’re responsible for. If they are actually blitzing, their alignment away from their receiver will allow the quarterback to recognize the pressure more easily. If they align over their receiver and try to blitz from far away, they won’t get to the quarterback in time. Denver’s approach allowed Peyton Manning to quickly recognize and react to Arizona’s pressure schemes. It also prevented the Cardinals from blitzing as frequently.

The staple of Arizona’s blitz schemes is double-A-gap pressure. This means the Cardinals blitz, or at least show blitz, in the two gaps on either side of the center. This type of pressure can confuse blocking assignments or provide immediate pressure up the middle on the quarterback. The Broncos addressed this in many ways, one of which was to align their running back right behind the center. Using this unconventional alignment, the Broncos were able to clearly define which blocker was responsible for which defender. Also, with the running back starting the play near the line of scrimmage, the blitz pressure was blocked several yards away from Manning instead of right next to him. Even when not aligned in this unique formation, Broncos running backs kept Manning clean all day by making sure to attack blitzers near the line of scrimmage instead of waiting for them to get near him.

Final Thoughts:
The Broncos’ scheme on Sunday was well conceived, but don’t forget about the talent they have. Demaryius Thomas is quicker and more explosive than Antonio Cromartie, who struggled to keep up with him all day. Julius Thomas is bigger than any safety covering him, and he has great athleticism. Oh yeah, Peyton Manning, despite his Chad Pennington-like arm strength, is still the most accurate passer in the league and by far the best anticipator. Ultimately, the Broncos combined their talent, gameplan, and execution to dominate a very good Cardinals defense.

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