Playoffs-Wildcard Round NFL Preview
The Five Major Story Lines
The Best Matchups to Watch in Each Game
1) Griff Whalen vs. the Chiefs cornerbacks
- Teams with great defensive lines like the Rams, Panthers, and Jets have whipped the Saints offensive line this season; that has been the root of their road issues. The Eagles front seven is loaded with talent, and has really come on strong lately. Can they follow the blueprint to slow down Drew Brees and company?
- The Chiefs certainly trump the Colts in all-around talent. They have a well-rounded group of starters on both sides of the ball. However, it all comes back to the quarterback, where the Colts have a sizable advantage. The quarterback is king in today’s NFL; will it provide the Colts with a trump card?
- The 49ers have the Packers’ number. Both of their most recent meetings seem to validate that theory. When perusing the rosters of both teams, the 49ers clearly have the advantage on the defensive side of the ball. Aaron Rodgers lifts this entire team, but will he do enough to mask their many deficiencies?
- The Chargers fell ass-backwards into the playoffs. It was destiny that the sixth seed in the AFC would be obtained by a mediocre squad; it was San Diego who earned that “distinction”. The question now is can San Diego get hot, go on the road and defeat a Bengals team that has been unbeatable at home?
- It feels like most all of the recent Super Bowl champions were amongst the participants in each year’s Wildcard round. Momentum has seemingly played a big factor in the Ravens, Giants, and Packers run to the Lombardi trophy in the past few seasons. So, will we be watching the 2013 season’s Super Bowl champion this Wildcard Weekend?
The Best Matchups to Watch in Each Game
1) Griff Whalen vs. the Chiefs cornerbacks
- The Colts offense toiled for months after Reggie Wayne’s season ending injury. However, that side of the ball, and the entire team really, has raised its level of play to close out the season on a pretty high note. One of the keys to the offense’s recent revival has been the emergence of a few young receivers. Da’Rick Rodgers and LaVon Brazil have made some big plays, but their contributions have not been the biggest asset; that honor belongs to Griff Whalen. A former college teammate of Andrew Luck, Whalen’s presence in the slot has made life much easier on the second year quarterback. When the Chiefs and the Colts met in week sixteen, Griff Whalen was not shown nearly the respect he should have been by the Chiefs defensive assignments:
- This play from the fourth quarter perfectly demonstrates Whalen’s value to the Colts, and how the Chiefs misjudged that. The Chiefs outside cornerbacks are in press man-coverage with their receivers, but you will notice that the nickel corner, Dunta Robinson is playing off Whalen in the slot. Robinson gives away his coverage by keeping his eyes squarely keyed on the quarterback. Once the ball is snapped, he drops into zone coverage, providing Griff Whalen with a ridiculous cushion for his flat route:
- Whalen runs the type of option route here that makes slot receivers so crucial to offenses. When he comes inside, Whalen correctly reads how much open space he has outside. He responds by breaking the route to the sideline. Dunta Robinson (highlighted in red) was the defender nearest to Whalen at the snap, but is now way out of position to make a stop. In tandem with a linebacker, Robinson must work upfield to try to rectify the situation:
- Whalen once again shows his value to the Colts and Andrew Luck once the defenders arrive. He is able to break away from the tackle attempts by Robinson and Derrick Johnson, and take the pass for a first down. His emergence in this offense has truly been a godsend for Indianapolis.
- Now that the Chiefs have experienced first hand how Griff Whalen is used in this offense perhaps they will be better prepared to defend him. Whalen has taken up the role of the reliable “move the sticks” receiver in the Colts passing game. In order for the Chiefs to take away Luck’s new reliable safety blanket, look for them their corners to jam Whalen at the line, or defend him man-to-man.
- Offensive line play is not the sexiest aspect of football. Thus, the public tends to overlook players without the first-round pedigree or big names. Evan Mathis is one of the most criminally underrated players in football, despite the fact he is far and away the best player at his position. His own team, the Eagles, know how dominant he is. Chip Kelly has made great use of Mathis’ talents this season and his run blocking is a huge catalyst for their ground game:
- Evan Mathis is a master at getting to the second level of the defense. On this play against the Cowboys it is his block that springs LeSean McCoy into the secondary. Mathis flies off the line at the snap and immediately locks up with the linebacker, Bruce Carter. With Mathis already gone, the center Jason Kelce is able to clear out the defensive tackle. The result is a massive running lane for McCoy to bounce in to:
- McCoy is a deadly runner in the open field, and running behind Mathis, he more often than not is granted with such situations. Mathis and Kelce’s blocks create a hole you could drive a truck through. A Cowboys safety is forced to meet McCoy one-on-one in the middle of the field; a matchup the running back seldom loses. Mathis’ quick second level block permits the Eagles star running back to gash the Cowboys defense for a 20-yard gain.
- The Saints have seen their defense achieve a pretty nice turnaround in 2013. Cameron Jordan’s stellar play from the 3-4 end position is a big reason why. When Rob Ryan examines the tape of the Eagles offense, he will surely take note of the excellent play of Evan Mathis. Ryan would be wise to assign his best player, Jordan, to line up over Mathis and see which star burns brighter.
- It is no secret Andy Dalton is the football world’s pariah with the Bengals. Throughout his career, but more so than ever this season, Dalton has clearly been the weakest link on a very strong team. Most are quick to criticize the young quarterback’s lack of arm strength, and while a concern, it is far from his biggest issue. Dalton’s miscues are more a result of less-than-stellar fundamentals. His third interception in Cincinnati’s win over Baltimore provide a few examples:
- This play is classic “bad Andy Dalton”. As he goes through his entire drop, Dalton persistently stares down his first read. Dalton’s eyes never leave A.J. Green and it is painfully obvious where he wants to go with the football. Green is a star player, but his quarterback’s constant staring him down has caused problems for this offense for years now. Dalton’s inability, or unwillingness, to get off his first read gets him into trouble here. In the time Dalton wasted locked on to Green, Baltimore’s pass rush has been able to get into the pocket, exposing another Dalton flaw. Under pressure, he struggles to throw from an awkward platform, and the ball consequently sails on him:
- He really has no business throwing this pass, and Andy Dalton pays the price. The football sails over A.J. Green’s head and a Ravens defender is able to snare it for an interception. When you watch the tape of the Bengals offense, you frequently see that Dalton’s propensity to stare down his primary read causes him to miss the open man. On this play, he would have been wise to dump the ball off to the crossing receiver (highlighted circle) for a safe completion.
- The Bengals were very lucky to comfortably beat the Ravens in week seventeen, despite Andy Dalton’s three interceptions. The team should hope it does not need to be so fortunate when they face the Chargers this weekend. The Bengals escaped week seventeen, because Joe Flacco seemed intent on outdueling Dalton in a contest of futility. The Chargers quarterback, Phillip Rivers, has been incredibly efficient this season. He will not grant the Bengals a reprieve for any poor play from their own signal caller.
- The Packers have already seen this horror story play out before their eyes. In last year’s playoffs, the Packers were gashed by the 49ers, and took most of the blows off the read option formation. What should frighten coordinator Dom Capers and his coaching staff to death is that this year’s defense has actually been much worse than its 2012 counterpart. The Packers lack of gap integrity and discipline was on full display last week against Matt Forte:
- Marc Trestman and the Bears dial up a little bit of deception in order to get their running back into the open field. Alshon Jeffery (yellow arrow, off screen) has been running end-arounds all season for the Bears, and the Packers clearly know that. Mike Neal (#96) crashes down hard on the fake end-around to Jeffery. He is completely taken out of this play. Jay Cutler actually hands the ball off to Matt Forte who runs the counter to the left side of the field. The Packers defenders over pursue and completely bite on the misdirection in the backfield. There are no defenders in the gap between the right tackle and right guard, which allows the offensive line to seal the edge with ease:
- With Daniel frozen by the fake to Jeffery, and the rest of the front seven sealed off to the weak side, Matt Forte makes a cut to the right side of his line. The alley presented to Forte is enormous; you just do not see holes this big in the NFL very often. Forte runs about twenty yards down the field before even being touched by a Packers defender.
- When the Packers face off against the 49ers, they should be prepared to see more of this brand of play calling. The 49ers have been a much more simplistic running game than they were last season, but the temptation to gash the Packers again should be too much to resist for Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman. The misdirection and deception the 49ers can throw at the Packers with Colin Kaepernick at the helm is much greater than what the Bears provided. The Packers must stay at home and be disciplined in their gaps or the Niners could run away with this game, regardless of what Aaron Rodgers brings to the table.
My meaningless picks that you don’t care about: