-- Heading into wild-card weekend, the Miami Dolphins?( 10), Detroit Lions?( 8)?and New York Giants?( 4.5) are all listed as sizable underdogs. So, how do they pull off the upsets and move on to the divisional round? Let's take the perspective of a coach today and break down three keys for each club.
How the Dolphins can upset the Steelers
1. Take Antonio Brown out of the game with scheme
Why it's important: This is a tough decision for the Dolphins. Do they game plan specifically to limit Brown or Le'Veon Bell? Yeah, I know it's extremely risky to roll coverage to Brown and leave the run front a little light versus an enormous talent like Bell. But with the Steelers you have to pick your poison, and I'd rather take my chances with Bell than run the risk of getting lit up by Brown. Those deep balls? They cost you games (and jobs) in the NFL.
How you do it: Earlier this season, I wrote a story on how to double top wide receivers, but it's more than just assigning two guys to Brown in this matchup. The Dolphins can play any form of cloud coverage (cornerback jam, safety over the top) from a two-deep or three-deep look. There are also creative ways for them to bracket or "cut" when Brown reduces his split/bumps inside.
The idea here is to not give Brown a free release, while also limiting his electric ability to separate across the field. Above all, it keeps the Dolphins out of static, single-high looks that scream to? Ben Roethlisberger?to target Brown in a one-on-one matchup.
Here's the thing that goes beyond scheme with this game plan: Make someone else beat you. I don't care if Eli Rogers catches the ball. I don't. If he beats my guy, then I move on to the next play. But allowing Brown to rip apart my secondary in an elimination game? No thanks.
2. Lean on? Jay Ajayi
Why it's important: Back in Week 6, during the Dolphins' 30-15 win over the Steelers, Ajayi ran wild on the Pittsburgh defense. He produced 204 yards on 25 carries (8.16 yards per carry) to go along with two scores. That type of production, along with a game plan dedicated to running the football, will keep backup quarterback Matt Moore out of adverse situations and allow the Dolphins to manipulate the Steelers' front and coverages.
How you do it: Since that Week 6 matchup, the Steelers' defense has improved, giving up an average of just 99.3 yards rushing per game (10th overall). It's a much tougher unit on tape. Plus, the issues the Steelers had versus Ajayi are correctable. From the inability to properly defend power schemes and the poor linebacker/defensive back play against the zone running game (leverage, tackling), Pittsburgh can see the corrections they need to make on film.
However, from the perspective of the Dolphins, they need to run the rock. And from what I have seen with Ajayi, his best fit is in the zone schemes. He can bounce the ball, hit the inside lane or bend the rock back to expose overpursuit from the second-level defenders. Ajayi has the right combination of quickness, vision and burst to get through the second level.
More important, running the football is going to free up some space for Moore to work in the intermediate passing game. I would run the ball early, attempt to gain control of the tempo, and use that to manipulate the Steelers' safeties.
Do I think Ajayi is going to tear up this Steelers defense again? Nope. But he should see at least 20 carries in this game if the Dolphins are going to keep Roethlisberger?off the field and open up the passing game for Moore.
3. A quick, efficient passing attack with Moore
Why it's important:?Moore needs to get the ball out of his hand quickly. Target receivers on short-to-intermediate cuts -- routes that can expose some of these zone coverages the Steelers like to play. That allows my quarterback to feed the rock to both Jarvis Landry and DeVante Parker,?with opportunities to produce after the catch.
How you do it: Throwing the quick game doesn't preclude Moore from taking a calculated shot over the top to Kenny Stills or Landry/Parker when he sees a favorable matchup. Ball between the 40s? Go ahead and test the Steelers. We all understand that.
However, if Pittsburgh wants to play two-deep or three-deep zone coverage, then I'm putting together a game plan that keeps Moore out of situations where he has to sling the ball into tight windows. And there are multiple ways to do that.
Think about the inside seam versus three-deep, throwing the dig routes versus Cover 2, "spacing" concepts, etc. There are so many zone beaters the Dolphins can use Sunday. And they don't need to be all three- or five-step drops. Mix in play-action, use the RPO schemes (run-pass options) with Moore and target those windows or space on the field.
Why Landry and Parker? They are physical, tough receivers who can take a hit, break tackles and produce after the catch. In my opinion, those are the two players I want to get the ball to in the passing game versus the Steelers. Just get it out and move the sticks.
How the Lions can upset the Seahawks
1.Target Eric Ebron on seam routes
Why it's important: Without Earl Thomas on the field for the Seahawks, there is an opening here, an opportunity to target the inside seam versus three-deep coverage. Remember, Thomas is the best free safety in the game when looking at his range, ball skills, physicality and high-level football IQ. He's truly a unique talent. And he's also the gatekeeper to the seam and the post in Seattle's Cover 3 scheme. If Matthew Stafford wants to challenge the structure of the Seahawks' defense, he must target Ebron inside of the numbers to create explosive plays.
How you do it: The way I see it, Ebron is my top threat to stretch the seam versus the Seahawks. With his combination of size (6-foot-4, 253) and speed, I want to get him down the seam as much as possible from 2x2 and 3x1 alignments. And the idea here is to target the natural window just past the underneath defenders. That allows Stafford to split the top of the secondary (cornerback and free safety) on a pretty high-percentage throw given the quick release and arm strength of the Lions quarterback.
So, how are we going to do this? From 2x2 alignments, I'm going to run Cover 3 beaters that target the seam. And we want to occupy the cornerback to keep him out of the mix. That means running four verticals or the smash-seam concept (outside hitch will hold the corner). In a 3x1 alignment, I'm going to put Ebron in the slot and run him right down the numbers. That's a prime window for Stafford to hit in the "999" concept (four verticals from a 3x1 alignment).
Now, a lot of this is going to fall on Stafford. Even with Thomas out of the game, Stafford has to manipulate or move that free safety over the top with his eyes. But you have to trust that your QB can do that on this stage, given the potential for a few chunk plays without Thomas in the lineup.
2. Bring 'safe' blitzes versus? Russell Wilson
Why it's important: The Lions need to attack Seattle's offensive front while playing zone behind the blitz to protect versus Wilson. This allows the Lions to expose the flaws in the Seahawks' protection schemes with defenders dropping into coverage. Get eyes on the QB and stay out of man-pressure situations that lead to trouble when Wilson breaks contain and pulls the ball down to run.
How you do it: Defensive end Ezekiel Ansah has to be a warrior Saturday night. And if I'm his coach, I'm going to remind him of that every time I see him. I know he has been banged up this season and the sack numbers haven't been there. But he needs to take over on money downs versus the Seahawks' offensive line. We've got to have it to rush four and play coverage.
However, I also want to bring some "safe" pressure versus Wilson to protect against his dynamic skill set. You can't just play man pressure on Wilson. For starters, he's too talented in the pocket. That's where he can create magic and find escape doors to get out of trouble. He does that while you are stuck playing man? Good luck sticking to those receivers and trying to react to Wilson if he pulls the ball down to run.
So, we are going to play smart football under the lights in Seattle with zone pressure and some "trap" coverages on the outside. That allows us to rush five, get some hits on the QB and put a tent over the top of the secondary while telling the corners to lie in the weeds.
The idea is to jump the outside breaks, match inside and get eyes on Wilson. If he wants to scramble, then we have defenders in a position to drive to the quarterback and tackle in the open field. Limit the damage and move on to the next play.
3. Stick with the split-zone run scheme on offense
Why it's important: Over the past two games, Lions running back Zach Zenner has rushed for 136 yards and three touchdowns on 32 carries (4.25 yards per carry). And the top scheme I'm seeing on film? It's the split zone. A downhill run (with Zenner) that complements the Lions' West Coast passing concepts and also leads to play-action opportunities.
How you do it: The split zone (also called the "zone whack") meshes zone blocking (lineman zone-step to the play side) with a tight end or H-back coming back across the ball to kick out the edge defender. This creates a natural cutback lane as the offense is essentially trapping that backside end or outside linebacker.
Against Seattle, that's going to be the defensive end. Maybe it's Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril or Frank Clark. Athletic, explosive defenders who come off the ball with speed. How do you eliminate that? Force them up the field and then "trap" them.
Plus, given the speed at the second level for the Seahawks with linebackers K.J. Wright, Bobby Wagner and safety Kam Chancellor, the split zone plays out as a counter flow scheme. Again, that's how you defeat speed. Watch those linebackers read and run to the play side, while Zenner makes one quick cut to get downhill off the trap -- away from the defenders.
Now, Zenner doesn't have a top-tier skill set at the position in terms of lateral quicks or long speed, but I like his game. He hits the hole hard and the vision he's showing in this scheme is an ideal fit for the blocking.?
The main thing here is to get those linebackers and strong safety moving so Zenner can cut the ball back and push through the lane. And, as I mentioned above, this will create some play-action opportunities with Stafford to throw the backside slant or get the ball out quickly off boot action. Target the scheme/speed here of the Seahawks to generate positive opportunities in both the running and passing games off the split-zone look. That's the ticket.
How the Giants can upset the Packers
1. Force the Packers secondary out of two-deep coverage
Why it's important: If Eli Manning wants to get the ball down the field to Odell Beckham Jr. versus a very banged-up cornerback group in Green Bay, then the Giants have to get the Packers out of Cover 2 shells. Manning needs those single-high looks to expose the matchups outside with Beckham and Sterling Shepard. This is a game where the Giants have the matchup advantage at the wide receiver position.
How you do it: I expect the Packers to dare the Giants to run the ball while sitting back in Cover 2 or 2-Man. Yes, that's going to create a soft run front (six- or seven-man box), but given the injuries at corner, why would the Packers line up one-on-one outside?
Remember the Giants' matchup versus the Eagles in Week 16? Philly played a bunch of two-deep to limit Beckham's ability down the field. The one time they got caught in a single-high look? Yeah, Manning hit Beckham down the sideline on a fade route.
However, the Giants can force the Packers out of those two-deep shells, and take advantage of a light run front, when they run the ball out of their 3-WR personnel. The Giants have really struggled on the ground this season averaging only 88.3 yards per game (29th in the NFL). But after watching the tape of Paul Perkins in Week 17 versus the Redskins, there could be some opportunity here. Perkins rushed for 102 yards on 21 carries (4.9 yards per carry) and Rashad Jennings added another 52 yards on the ground, along with a touchdown, in the Giants' win.
Perkins has the footwork and sudden change-of-direction talent to make defenders miss in the hole. And he has shown he can handle a high-volume workload. Plus, he doesn't need another 100-yard day. Nah. This is more about attacking those light run fronts to force the Packers out of two-deep.
If the Giants are able to have any success on the ground, Green Bay will have no choice but to walk a safety down into the box. Which leaves Beckham and Shepard in one-on-one situations where they can use their ability at the line to separate immediately.
If the Giants can't get Green Bay out of those two-deep shells, the vertical passing game will be limited and it'll be tough to keep up with Aaron Rodgers & Co. They have to find a way to run the ball.
2. Send the house at Aaron Rodgers in the red zone
Why it's important: Rodgers has been absolutely ridiculous in the red zone during the Packers' six-game wining streak, throwing 10 touchdowns with no picks. Rodgers' ability to extend plays, along with the chemistry he has with his receivers, allows him to force coverages to break down. You can't give him time. He will eat you up inside of the 20-yard line.
How you do it: There are plenty of ways to defend the red zone. Some coordinators like to play two-deep, quarters, etc. But that's not enough versus Rodgers. He is going to find a way to beat a four- or three-man rush and then your secondary is stuck. Plaster to wide receivers? Sounds good, but Jordy Nelson, Davante Adams and Randall Cobb are going to get open as the coverage scheme starts to crumble.
That's why I am sending the house versus Rodgers. Force him to unload the ball and rely on the secondary in New York to challenge these Packers wide receivers.
I can do that with Janoris Jenkins, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Landon Collins and Eli Apple. This is a physical group, a secondary that is going to compete at the line of scrimmage and drive on the ball.
Send six, send seven and and put your DBs in a position to take away inside cuts (you play an inside shade in zero-man). I understand there are risks here given Rodgers' lightning-quick release and elite ball placement in the red zone, but I'm not going to hang my guys out to dry when Rodgers gets outside of the pocket or steps up in an open rush lane.
Ask the Lions how that worked out last Sunday night. Rodgers moved in the pocket, escaped out the backdoor, bought more time and eventually found Geronimo Allison for a TD. I can promise you this: We won't give him 10 seconds to throw inside the 20.?
Let's get aggressive, let's be physical and let's go get this guy. Trust your defensive backs to win.
3. Allow Janoris Jenkins to shadow Jordy Nelson
Why it's important: The Packers are going to move Nelson around a bunch. Look for Nelson to play inside in the slot in 2x2 sets and as the No. 3 receiver (count outside-in) when Green Bay goes to a 3x1 alignment. This allows the Packers to use Nelson as a weapon inside of the numbers on crossing routes and vertical seams. The Giants need to match that with the talent of Jenkins.
How it works: When a cornerback shadows or "travels," he goes everywhere with his assigned receiver -- outside, inside, left, right, in a stack/bunch, etc. It doesn't matter. If Nelson goes into the crowd to get a hot dog, then Jenkins better grab one too.?And Jenkins has to skill set to play well in that capacity against Nelson. All we have to do is go back to the Cowboys-Giants tape from Week 14 to watch Jenkins lock down Dez Bryant. He was aggressive at the line of scrimmage, and he closed on the ball with speed. That's how you challenge routes. And Jenkins followed Bryant into the slot.
Watching the Packers down the stretch, it's clear Nelson has the burst back in his knee. His speed is jumping off the tape, and the Packers have done a really good job at varying his alignments to get him open. But I'm going to challenge this guy with my top cover corner. If he beats us, then so be it. But at least he'll have to earn it against our No. 1 guy.