Don’t worry, because you won’t have to choose Sunday. The Falcons and Giants will bring the bombs. The Broncos will make your high school coach smile with some option plays. And the Steelers will do what the Steelers do. Sunday’s wild-card matchups provide something for everyone, and so do the following signature play diagrams.
For those who crave even more inside analysis, check out these detailed breakdowns of the matchups.
Last season, the Falcons were one playmaker from a truly dangerous offense. Roddy White is one of the league’s best receivers, but with pokey Michael Jenkins lined up on the other side of the field, it was too easy for opponents to double-cover White or roll the safeties in his direction.
That’s why the Falcons traded a warehouse full of draft picks to move up and select Julio Jones. Jones has been an excellent deep threat in his own right, catching 54 passes for 959 yards, but he also has opened opportunities for White and the other Falcons playmakers. Jones and White allow Atlanta to stretch the defense vertically, making it possible for Matt Ryan to get the most from his arm strength and deep accuracy.
The route combination on the right side makes excellent use of the speed of White, Jones (11), and third wideout Harry Douglass (83). Jones’ go-route immediately threatens not just his cornerback, but the deep safety. White crosses in front of Douglass, who runs a corner route. Douglass’ route also keeps the deep safety on the offensive right side of the field, while Youboty gets caught in congestion when White and Douglass cross. White has a full two steps on Youboty as he crosses behind the linebackers, and the safety is too late to be of much help. It is an easy 21-yard gain.
What about the blitz? Tony Gonzalez (88) chips the defensive end before running a crossing route, making life easier for left tackle Will Svitek, one of the weak links on the Falcons line. Running back Jason Snelling also stays in to block, picking up the crossing action of the Jaguars’ stunt. Atlanta will have to use blocking schemes like this frequently Sunday, with Gonzo or another tight end slowing Jason Pierre-Paul down so Ryan does not get flattened. But the speed of the Falcons receivers also helps the pass protection: White and the others get deep into the secondary in a hurry, so Ryan does not need to wait long in the pocket for this play to develop.
New York Giants
Where would the Giants be without Victor Cruz? That’s easy: They would be watching the Cowboys face the Falcons on Sunday. Cruz more-than-adequately filled Steve Smith’s old role as the slot receiver in Kevin Gilbride’s offense. Gilbride schemes to get Cruz matched against nickel defenders and safeties over the middle of the field. When Eli Manning sees that kind of mismatch, he is willing to wait the extra second for Cruz to flash open before pulling the trigger, even if it means scrambling for his life.
The Giants use a seven-man protection scheme to stop the Cowboys blitz. The offensive line fans to the left while both Travis Beckum (47) and Ahmad Bradshaw (44) provide extra blocking on the right side, where DeMarcus Ware roams. Despite the extra blockers, a linebacker turns the corner on left tackle David Diehl, who has gotten too old and slow to handle faster defenders. Manning appears to be in big trouble. Receivers Hakeem Nicks (88) and Mario Manningham (82) were both jammed at the line, so they are slow to get into their pass routes. Two zone defenders clog the passing lane to Cruz, making it dangerous for Manning to throw to his favorite target.
Manning has a surprising ability to slip away from danger, ane he reads coverages well enough to know where the weaknesses are. Cruz slips into a seam between the Cowboys' zone defenders and slows down a bit to give Manning a clear target. Manning spots him and fires. The 20-yard reception comes on the heels of a 44-yard catch by Cruz, also from the slot, and sets up a field goal that puts the game out of reach.
The Falcons hope to have star cornerback Brent Grimes back, and while Grimes is usually more comfortable in outside coverage, his presence should allow fellow cornerback Dunta Robinson to move around the formation and find Cruz’s hiding places. If the Falcons try to cover Cruz with a nickel back or safety, they will learn what the Cowboys and Jets already know: it doesn’t work.
Now that Tebowmania has calmed a bit, we can stop raving about his intangibles and focus soberly on what he provides as a quarterback. As a passer, Tebow has a lot of work to do, and he is not going to get it done in the next few days. As a runner, Tebow is enough of a threat to give the Broncos an option-style ball control attack that can keep games close enough to turn on one or two big plays.
The figure at the left shows the Broncos on second-and-long early in the first quarter against the Bills. For the Broncos, second-and-long is a running situation: they are in a spread formation, but only so they can thin out the defense and create more running room. The zone-read option, a staple of college offenses, has become a bread-and-butter play for the Broncos.
Tebow (15) takes the shotgun snap and leans forward to hand off to Willis McGahee (23). The time when Tebow and McGahee are in the process of exchanging the football is called the “mesh,” and Tebow uses this time to observe the behavior of defender Chris Kelsay (90). If Kelsay crashes inside to stop the running back, Tebow can pull the ball away and run a sweep. On this play, Kelsay stays to the outside in anticipation of a Tebow keeper. So McGahee takes the handoff, but Tebow still feigns the sweep. The fake works perfectly, as Kelsay is so focused on Tebow that McGahee runs right past him and ends up with a 24 yard gain.
Note the blocking scheme. Two Broncos linemen execute combo blocks, double teaming defenders on the line before the right guard slips out to nail the middle linebacker. No one blocks Kelsay. That is the beauty of a read-choice option: the fake replaces a blocker, essentially giving the Broncos an extra lineman on running plays. While every defender has seen this play hundreds of times at the prep and college level, the Broncos have much more practice at running it than NFL opponents have at stopping it.
These option plays are no substitute for a functional passing game, and they may have limited effect against the Steelers defensive line, which was built to fend off double-teams while linebackers and safeties crash through any and all gaps. The option plays do allow Tebow to play to his strengths and let the Broncos play field-position football, the type of game that the Steelers have traditionally mastered. Just who is playing into whose hands remains to be seen.
You are probably expecting some wild-and-crazy Steelers blitz for our final diagram, with linebackers and Polamalus flying all over the place. There is only one problem: you don’t want to blitz Tebow that often. Send too many rushers, and you are begging him to break a tackle, escape danger, and either run for glory or find a receiver who got open in all the confusion. Opponents such as the Bills had success against the Broncos by rushing three or four defenders while showing odd looks in coverage. The Steelers can also play that style of defense, and they got some extra practice at it in Week 17, when agile-but-inaccurate Seneca Wallace was the Browns quarterback.
At the snap, only four Steelers defenders rush the passer. One of them, Ziggy Hood (96), is a rusher in name only. He really occupies a zone behind the center and guards, making sure the middle of the field is clogged with big guys and defending a scramble up the gut. The other Steelers lineman, Brett Keisel (99), drops with a linebacker into what are called the “hitch” zones. They are supposed to stop any short passes to running backs or crossing receivers, but stopping any Wallace scrambles is also high on their agenda.
The Browns are playing it safe: with a weak receiving corps and a backup quarterback, their best bet to gain five yards is to dump the ball to Peyton Hillis (40) and hope he can break a tackle in the flat. Against a conventional blitz, the Hillis pass might work. But Keisel reads the play, as does Ike Taylor (24), who knows he has deep safety support. Taylor lets the receivers clear through his zone and focuses on Wallace and Hillis. He breaks on Hillis before Wallace is finished throwing, and he helps Keisel clean up the tackle. The Browns lose three yards, and nearly lose the football: Hillis fumbles, but the ball rolls out of bounds.
Taylor and Keisel are veteran role players in a scheme that has not changed for years. In fact, just about every Steelers starter has years of experience in his role, and for every Polamalu or James Harrison, there is a Keisel or Taylor who understands that his job is to clean up after plays and limit some of the consequences that come from relying on the blitz. The Broncos want to threaten with Tebow, work the edges with their backs and receivers, and cause breakdowns. The Steelers need smart play calls — and smart play — like this to keep it from happening.
Mike Tanier writes for NBCSports.com and Rotoworld.com and is a senior writer forFootball Outsiders.
PFT: Defensive end finally finds a new team in San Diego — and for a honey of a deal that would be worth a max of $13.35 million.
PFT: Jets RB Mike Goodson was charged with five gun and drug counts Friday morning, after New Jersey State Police found the car he was riding in parked in the middle of Route 80 in Denville, N.J.
2013 SNF Schedule
Check out the 2013 Sunday Night Football schedule.
Video: Football from NBC Sports
Chudzinski: 'Too early' to name a QB
Following Thursday's OTA, Browns coach Rob Chudzinski speaks to the media about his team’s brewing quarterback controversy. He feels the competition will aid in each QB’s progression as a passer, but he isn’t ready to name a starter for Week 1.
Check out some of the NFL cheerleaders from across the league.