I don't think the New England Patriots are super-talented on offense, but they have Tom Brady and they scheme very well. Because of that, they can move the ball. But they’re not a great offense. And the key when you play Brady is you have to commit to pressuring him.
Look back to Week 5 when Cincinnati played them – the Bengals committed to pressuring Brady early. You have to hit him. The Bengals knew that. You might not sack him, but you have to hit him and get him out of his comfort zone. Cincinnati won that game 13-6.
But here's the problem: Brady is so good at deciphering the pass rush and beating it, most teams don't commit to it or they try it early, but back off after Brady beats them a couple times. Then Brady gets comfortable and gets in a rhythm.
That's the dilemma the Colts will face this Saturday when they play at New England.
Cornerback Greg Toler is out for the Colts, so they might be down to Josh Gordy, who has been with three teams in four years and hasn't started a game all season. So it will depend how comfortable coach Chuck Pagano is sending extra pressure at Brady with some weak spots in the secondary. And keep in mind, Indianapolis doesn't have a great individual pass rusher other than Robert Mathis.
But it is possible to get to Brady. Brady has his lowest third-down quarterback rating since 2005, and part of the reason is he has been sacked 20 times on third down, the most of his career. Teams have gotten to him. It's not all him, it’s the offensive line and the protection, maybe it’s the young receivers not understanding what Brady wants them to understand – there are many factors. But it’s the reason you have to commit to the pass rush against New England.
It’s easy for me to say all this. I’m not getting fired if I screw up and Brady ends up beating the extra pass rush for big plays. But I think that’s the approach a team, including the Colts this week, have to take against New England.
Seahawks vs. Saints
In the first meeting between these teams, the Seahawks' recognition of New Orleans' passing game based on personnel, formation and receiver distribution gave them a sense of what the route combinations were going to be. They had a really good feel for it and as a result, they took away New Orleans' shot plays. That was a key, key factor in Seattle's 34-7 win in early December.
Adjustments are made for any rematch, but you’re not going to change your core route concepts. What you try to do is get to them differently. You muddy the recognition elements with different formations or motions, so maybe the defense doesn’t see it and you can get to the big play. I can’t tell you what specifically what the Saints will do, but coach Sean Payton will tweak some things.
The other factor here is that Drew Brees isn’t playing his best football right now. It’s hard to know exactly why, like a pitcher in baseball when a guy starts 6-0 and pitching well and all of a sudden he gets rocked for the next four games. Usually the reasons are not that complex. The pitcher might be leaving too many balls out over the plate. Brees isn’t throwing the ball with the same velocity and accuracy as he was early in the season. If you get pressure on him and he has to throw as he’s moving, that can affect him. He under-threw Darren Sproles on a play last week in which Sproles was wide open against Eagles linebacker Connor Barwin. The Eagles got pressure on Brees and he had to throw as he was moving, and he’s not that kind of thrower. That’s what you try to do with Brees.
Last week, New Orleans went to their running game. They ran 28 times out of two- or three-tight end formations, and rushed for 139 yards on those plays. The Saints went with a multiple-tight end set every play during their game-winning drive against the Eagles. If the weather is bad in Seattle (and the forecast says it will be raining with strong winds) it’ll be hard to pass the ball, and you might see more of the Saints' approach from last week again.
Panthers vs. 49ers
One reason the Panthers were so successful in the first meeting, a 10-9 win at San Francisco, is they got the 49ers in third-and-long situations.
San Francisco was 2-of-13 on third down, and that was a big factor in the game. More importantly, nine of those third downs were 7 yards or more. You can play zone coverage when down and distance is that long. If it’s third-and-3 you can’t play zone. And being able to play zone gets more eyes on 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who showed again last week against Green Bay how dangerous he is when he runs the ball. And when Kaepernick does run the Panthers still have linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, as well as safety Mike Mitchell– they can all run. That helps Carolina. Kaepernick’s legs weren’t a factor in the first matchup. How the Panthers keep Kaepernick under control will be important on Sunday, too.
This won't be a 35-28 game (although I don't think it'll be 10-9 again, either). I think each team will try to orchestrate some shot plays down the field. And if they get someone open, the quarterback will have to hit them. Because you won’t get many opportunities against these defenses. The quarterbacks who hits those rare opportunities might win the game.
Broncos vs. Chargers
In the first meeting between the teams, Peyton Manning killed the Chargers' blitz. By the second meeting, the Chargers' blitz concepts had expanded and they had success against Manning, and won the rematch.
That’s what the Chargers are hoping to do in Sunday's playoff game. They want their blitzes to break down the protection maybe just two or three times, to confuse Manning and perhaps those plays become turnovers. That happened in Week 15, when pressure on Manning led to an interception by Thomas Keiser that ended Denver's hopes (and San Diego ended up using the exact same blitz concept from that play against Cincinnati on Andy Dalton's interception near the end of the third quarter last weekend).
The Chargers are the only team to hold the Broncos under 400 yards this season, and they did it both times. Everybody made a big deal about the Chargers holding the ball about 38 minutes against the Broncos in Week 15 – they also did that in the Week 10 game. But the Chargers lost that one so it wasn't seen as a big deal. They'll try to control the clock again on Sunday, of course.
One thing to keep in mind is Wes Welker didn’t play against San Diego in Week 15 and the Broncos' passing game was limited as a result. His presence is a big factor. Everyone knows what Welker does for Denver on third down, but Denver also uses Welker to run vertical routes from the slot, and that's a important part of the offense. They don’t do that a ton but when Manning sees something, Welker can still run down the seam. You might not see it for weeks, then they'll do it two times in one game for 30 yards each time. It's hard to know when they might do that, but it's another thing for a defense to defend against Denver's offense.
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NFL analyst and NFL Films senior producer Greg Cosell watches as much NFL game film as anyone. Throughout the season, Cosell will join Shutdown Corner to share his observations on the teams, schemes and personnel from around the league.