In lieu of my collection of interesting observations, let’s cover how to beat every NFL playoff team.
Instead of some insipid “playoff preview” where I just rehash what I’m going to say when I pick the games (would that actually make it a “prehash?”) I thought I’d do something a little more special by running downa “weak spot” analysis of every playoff team.
I’m not telling you who’s going to lose, but I am telling you how they will lose if they do. Read it and weep losers!
On offense, you need to account for the Broncos’ outstanding pass rush. Even though they have a good secondary, you can throw on Denver if you can give your QB time to find open receivers. It’s also crucial to hold on to the football. Denver’s defense is already one of the three best in the NFL. Helping them out by making mistakes is the kiss of death.
Things are a bit better on defense. The Broncos offense has consistently struggled when they can’t run the football, and they will definitely try as it a cornerstone of Gary Kubiak’s offense. Whichever quarterback you are facing (Manning or Osweiler), you will do yourself a large favor by getting pressure. The Broncos will make mistakes on this side of the ball if forced. Finally, focus your attention on Denver’s excellent pair of wide receivers, DeMaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, who both went over 1000 yards this season. The tight ends and running backs are not a major focus of Denver’s passing attack.
New England Patriots
Contrary to popular opinion, and understandably given the star power of both Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski, the strength of the Patriots is on defense. That’s what’s enabled them to have such an impressive record this season. That said, there are a couple of things you can exploit against New England’s stop unit. If you have speed at the running back position, you can get some big gainers running outside against the Pats. Similarly, if you have an ace wide receiver, New England does not have a great individual shutdown corner. Be mindful, however, that Bill Belichick will gameplan to take away what you do well, so your quarterback needs to have a good football IQ to avoid “traps.”
Again contrary to popular opinion, the Pats’ offense is a lot easier to deal with. First and foremost, put Tom Brady on the ground as much as possible. This should not be that hard because the Patriots’ offensive line is a shambles as is their running game. The only thing you have to account for is Brady’s remarkable ability to deliver the football quickly and in the right place. If I were playing New England, I would also double Rob Gronkowski on almost every single play. He is the one player that can kill you. Don’t let him. You also have to drum it into your defense that they MUST wrap up and tackle. Both Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola thrive on yards after catch. Finally, remember that Bill Belichick’s game plan is going to be whatever your defense is bad at stopping. No matter what New England’s trends are offensively, expect them to run plays right at your weak spot.
On offense, you have a real challenge in Cincinnati, whose defense is both very good and balanced. The Bengals have been susceptible to the run at times in the season but, again, that was earlier in the season. One thing you have to do against Cincinnati is account for their playmakers in the defensive front. Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap force quarterback mistakes, and while the Bengals’ secondary is good, their high number of interceptions is not solely explained by the talent of their defensive backs. Similarly, LB Vontaze Burfict is a bona fide playmaker. The Bengals do appear susceptible to attack by smaller, speedier receivers, so if you have one, incorporate them into your game plan.
On offense, double Tyler Eifert in the red zone, and double A.J. Green everywhere else. If A.J. McCarron is at quarterback, the Bengals have employed a much more conservative game plan – design your playbook accordingly. Also, while Geovanni Bernard will get some carries, he is much less of a threat on the ground than Jeremy Hill, but is much more of one catching out of the backfield.
On offense, make certain you account for J.J. Watt. The Texans only real strengths defensively are their ability to pressure the QB, their coverage skills against opposing tight ends, and the singular playmaking ability of Watt.
On the defensive side of the ball, things are quite a bit easier. Houston’s running game is average at best, and their top 2 running backs both averaged under 4 yards per carry. The Texans scored just 7 rushing touchdowns all season in fact. In the passing game, obviously DeAndre Hopkins is concern #1, but the good news is that the Texans lack a potent receiving weapon in either the backfield or at the tight end position. In addition, they seem intent on using Brian Hoyer instead of Brandon Weeden at quarterback which, from my point of view, is more good news. Hoyer is the very essence of a game manager, while Weeden has shown the ability to get hot and gash defenses both while with Dallas and since coming to Houston.
Kansas City Chiefs
On offense, you need to just do what you do best because Kansas City’s defense has no glaring weakness to attack. If you have an elite receiver you can probably utilize him as the Chiefs’ defensive backfield is solid top to bottom but lacks an elite shutdown corner. Throw at your own risk, however, against a team that is second in the NFL in interceptions. Similarly, even though the Chiefs are solid against the run, a good running game will help take pressure off your QB because Kansas City’s pass rush is, again, elite (top 5 in sacks in the NFL).
The good news is that you won’t need to score a whole lot to outpace Kansas City’s offense. Without Jamaal Charles, the Chiefs’ only big play player is Jeremy Maclin. Their running game can be contained as Charcandrick West is a good but hardly a great back. You will want to take away the short throw from Alex Smith, paying special attention to their above average tight end Travis Kelce. Getting pressure on Smith can help but be mindful that he can make plays on the ground to get first downs. He is not a threat, however, for big gainers.
You’ve probably heard all year that the Steelers’ defense is better than expected. This is a bit of a misnomer, since the Steelers defense was supposed to be God-awful and was instead only below average (bottom third overall). The Steelers run defense was top 10, however that is partly a function of their offense putting up significant points and causing opponents to throw more. That’s partly the reason their pass defense was 30th in the NFL, but a weak secondary is mostly to blame. Good receivers have gashed Pittsburgh this year. Two things the Steelers do well, however, are pressure the QB and force fumbles. Ball carriers must secure the ball against Pittsburgh.
The Steelers offense is quite high powered. Teams have to do whatever they can to try to limit Antonio Brown. Holding him under 150 yards is something of an accomplishment. The Steelers offense runs significantly better when there is a running game to keep pass rushers off balance. That’s because the Pittsburgh line is not the greatest at pass protection, and Ben Roethlisberger’s penchant for keeping plays alive also leads to him getting sacked more. Shutting down the run and pressuring Roethlisberger will go a long way to holding the Steelers below their averages. Finally, although the Steelers are pretty good at forcing turnovers, they also cough up the ball if forced. Winning or stalemating them in the turnover battle is achievable.
Cam Newton’s heroics aside, the strength of the Panthers’ team is their defense. They are excellent against the run, they have a shutdown corner in Josh Norman, they pressure the opposing quarterback well and they lead the league in takeaways. So how do you attack them? In games where Carolina has given up big numbers, it has mostly come through the air. Teams that spread the ball around – two receivers or a receiver and a back both getting high target numbers – seem to fare well. The most effective way to attack Carolina is to take care of the ball and not allow them short field opportunities. The Panthers have also had some trouble in return coverage. Getting a few good runbacks to set up field position will help against a defense that is stingy.
Offensively, there is basically just one player you have to contain on the Panthers and that’s Cam Newton. Single cover the Carolina receivers. Play rush-contain on Newton – don’t leave him any running lanes, not even once. Account for tight end Greg Olsen – he is far away Carolina’s best receiver. Finally, take away the Panthers running game if you can and force Newton to drop back a lot. Making the Panthers one dimensional helps your defense prevent Newton’s penchant for big plays and heroics. This is a very confident offensive team so frustrating them by making do things they don’t do as well can be a big help in stopping them.
The Cardinals defense is very balanced and very talented, putting up excellent numbers while playing a tough schedule. The one thing the Cardinals aren’t particularly good at is pressuring the QB. This is offset, however, by one of the best defensive secondaries in football. The loss of Tyron Mathieu will hurt, but it remains to be seen how much of a drop off overall that will cause. Also, you guessed it, the Cardinals are excellent at forcing turnovers, second in the NFL only to Carolina in that category. Limiting the Cardinals’ pressure on your quarterback can create opportunities in the passing game. Being able to protect with 5 leaves running backs and tight ends available as targets. The Cardinals can sometimes over-focus on your top receiver. If so, having a reliable #2 is obviously invaluable.
On offense, the Cardinals are similarly well balanced. Carson Palmer is a top 3 quarterback in the NFL this season, and he has a plethora of great targets to throw to. Arizona wide receiving corps goes three deep and David Johnson is a terrific pass catcher out of the backfield. The Cardinals offense is much better when their running game is going, so taking that away is crucial. That will allow you to get more pressure on Palmer, and he can be sacked and pressured into making mistakes with the football if you rattle him enough. As for covering the targets, pick your poison. Larry Fitzgerald remains an elite receiver and the twosome of Michael Floyd and John Brown might be the best #2-#3 combination in the league. All three of them are capable of killing a defense unable to cover them.
The Vikings have a very good defense, but they are better against the pass than the run, and in fact they are bottom third in yards per attempt. Consequently, running the ball right at them is a good way to get them off balance and control the clock. It will also help keep the Vikings above average pass rush out of your quarterback’s face. The Vikings secondary is solid, but the top receivers they’ve faced have been able to have productive days against them.
On offense, stopping Adrian Peterson is job 1. The Vikings still rely heavily on AP’s ability to break off big runs. Although Teddy Bridgewater is improved this season, he has struggled against good defenses and has taken 44 sacks. He’s also only thrown 14 touchdowns this season. Part of that is the Vikings lack of a true #1 in the receiving corps, part of it is Bridgewater’s inconsistency and part of it is inconsistent pass protection. All of it only serves to highlight how important it is to shut AP. Do that, and the Vikings have little else to counter.
LOL, if you asked me at the beginning of the year what was the best way to beat Washington I’d have said “play them.” It remains to be seen if that will hold true in the playoffs: Washington only played three teams with winning records this season and lost to all three. They also went 4-2 against the shitty NFC East. In 40 years of watching football, I don’t ever remember one division having four such bad defenses. Other than the Saints, I can’t offhand name a team with a worse defense than either the Giants or the Eagles and Dallas and Washington are not much better.
That said, the Washington pass rush, especially LB Ryan Kerrigan, needs to be accounted for. One way to do that is to run the ball like crazy against their hideously poor run defense. It’s one of the worst in the NFL. If you give your quarterback time to throw, the RacialSlurs have a mediocre secondary. Good receivers can put up a big day on them.
The Washington offense was better than most expected this year, mostly due to Kirk Cousins being better than well-below-average. I believe a big part of that was the bad schedule, but we’ll see. Washington doesn’t run the ball well, so no special adjustments should need to be made to shut it down. DeSean Jackson is still dangerous in the open field, but Jackson is not a great route runner and doesn’t merit the extra help in coverage some teams devote to him. If I have a choice between an extra pass rusher or an extra DB on Jackson, I’m going after Cousins with the rusher every time. The one player that does need to be accounted for in the Washington passing game is TE Jordan Reed, who has been magnificent this season. The guy is Gronk-like in his combination of size and athleticism and in games where Washington has run it up, Reed is frequently at the forefront of the attack. That’s the player you should double.
Green Bay Packers
The Packers myriad of struggles have been well documented. That said, the Packers defense does several things well. They have a very good pass rush and can get to opposing quarterbacks consistently. They also have a good secondary and can handle most opposing receivers. The defense has multiple playmakers and the Packers usually put up good plus-minus numbers in the turnover battle. What the Packers can’t do on defense is stop the run and cover tight ends. If your offense is a run-first, short passing attack style, you can do some real damage.
On offense, the book says to keep Aaron Rodgers in the pocket and don’t let him scramble. This has worked this year because a) The Packers running game has been very inconsistent. In games where Eddie Lacy has actually shown up, the Packers offense is much better across the board and, b) I could cover any Packers receiver and I sometimes walk with a cane. The Packers are also dealing with some injuries along the o-line, so they may struggle in pass protection. All that said, Rodgers remains one of the 3 or 4 truly elite quarterbacks in the NFL. He alone can win an NFL playoff game if he gets hot.
Rumors of the Seahawks’ defense’s demise were greatly exaggerated this season. Seattle had the #1 ranked defense in the NFL for the third year in a row. They are solid against the run and only the top running backs have been successful against them. They also have a great secondary, and while Richard Sherman isn’t quite an elite corner, only the very best receivers will be able to consistently beat him. Seattle’s pass rush is only average, however, and they can’t always get pressure rushing 4. One other thing Seattle sometimes struggles with is kick coverage. Beating them on special teams can be easier than trying to beat their defense.
On offense, the way to stop Seattle is similar to what used to work against San Francisco. First, shut down the run. The Seahawks with a good running game are in their comfort zone. You don’t want them in their comfort zone. Second, you MUST play rush-contain or spy on Russell Wilson. The Rams swept the Seahawks this season because their defensive line was actually fast enough to catch Wilson. No one else in the NFL has that luxury. Finally, take away the Seahawks best receiving weapon, and that’s Doug Baldwin. Baldwin has been criminally underrated this season. Gameplan for him like a real #1 receiver or he’ll make you pay.
*bonus nfl chatter because why not*
The usual NFL Random Thoughts following a weekend of football.
Shocking Realization of the Week
Kirk Cousins’ 74.7% completion percentage in home games this season is the highest in NFL history.
This Week’s Great But Lost
Rashad Jennings, RB (NYG): Maybe it shouldn’t count since it was against another lousy NFC East team, but Jennings carried 27 times for 170 yards and a touchdown and caught a couple of passes against the Eagles. As usual, the Giants’ defense couldn’t hold an opponent under 30.
This Week’s Sucked And Won
Mike Gillislee, RB (BUF): The rest of the Bills knocked the rival Jets out of the playoffs, but Gillislee damn near kept them in. He carried 24 times for an abysmal 28 yards, caught zero passes and even fumbled.
Well folks, that’s my analysis. As the playoff games get played and we see the teams lose let’s see if I called it right as to how.