It's time to gear up for the playoffs with analysis from the best in the business -- Greg Cosell of NFL Films and ESPN's "NFL Matchup." Greg gives you a sense of the week's upcoming games you won't get anywhere else, based on his conversations with players and coaches past and present, and his OCD-level evaluation of coach's tape. This week, of course, we preview this weekend's four wild-card matchups ... and talk a little bit about the greatness of Ray Lewis.
A few words of wisdom from Mr. Cosell:
On Cincinnati's rapidly improving defense: "You start with Geno Atkins, because you start with individuals. Arguably the best interior defensive player in the NFL this year. Michael Johnson has had a very, very good year at defensive end this season, and the player who not a lot of people talk about, and I've liked him since he came out of Florida, is Carlos Dunlap. He's a long, athletic kid. Now, they do have the ability to rush the passer with four, but the thing that makes this defense really special, and the most overlooked unit in this weekend's wild0card games, is what defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer does. What really stand out are the schemes and the tactics. What Mike Zimmer does with pressure all starts in the A-gaps, and so many teams do that now -- they put two linebackers there, and it's Rey Maualuga, and Vontaze Burfict in their nickel -- in the A-gap. Everything starts there, for one simple reason: Pass protections must account for players in the A-gap, because they're closest to the quarterback. And the Bengals have a great way of forcing the offense to declare who the middle linebacker is in pass protection. And everything they then do comes off of that."
On Christian Ponder's importance to the Vikings' chances against Green Bay: "As great as Adrian Peterson is, at the end of the day, the Vikings are going to have to take some more shot plays on first down. They hit the 65-yarder to Jarius Wright in the fourth quarter on first-and-10, they did it with three tight ends on the field, Wright was their only wide receiver, and they got the matchup they wanted. They 'formationed' the Packers so that there was no safety over the top -- beautifully done, and Ponder made one of his better throws of the season. They're going to have to do more of that. We all know that Peterson's great, but they're going to have to do more in the pass game, and they're going to have to do it proactively. We know that they love to get Ponder on the move, and he's just going to have to make accurate throws in those proactive situations."
On what the Colts ask Andrew Luck to do: "It's funny how you're reading this a lot this week, and I'll just say this point-blank -- I've been reading a lot this week about how Andrew Luck, when you look at his numbers, he's not even close to the level of Robert Griffin II and Russell Wilson, and shouldn't even be in the conversation for Rookie of the Year. I'm just gonna say this: The people who say that know nothing about football. Andrew Luck has been asked to do so much more as far as the pass game -- this is an intermediate-to-deep pass game with three and four receiver routes, full-field reads, and three-level route combinations -- short, medium, and deep. That takes nothing away from RG3 and Russell Wilson, but that's just what Luck's been asked to do, and therefore, he's thrown more interceptions. That's just the way it goes. When you throw the ball 22-26 yards down the field, those are tougher throws."
On what Russell Wilson will have to watch out for against the Redskins: "He's still thrown the fewest passes of any 16-game starter. They've had a couple of blowouts, and that's probably played into that. I think you have to be careful with Russell Wilson. They're walking a very fine line the last few weeks -- he's been running around a lot more than he did earlier in the season. He's left some plays on the field. He missed a touchdown last week -- he ran around and threw it to Marshawn Lynch, and everybody went, 'Oooh, wow -- look at Russell Wilson!' But the design of the play was Zach Miller down the seam, he was wide open, and there was no pressure on Wilson. He missed it -- he didn't throw it. The more quarterbacks run, the more that mentality takes hold. You've got to be really careful with that stuff, and it's easy to be hypnotized by all that. The transition they've undergone in their offense -- when you increase the percentage of Pistol and option plays in your offense, the run game becomes more focused on your quarterback. The defense has to react to that."
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