Every Thursday, former NFL defensive back Matt Bowen brings you “The Second Level,” a breakdown of the league from multiple angles.
Five things to watch for in Week 1
Starting with tonight’s opening game in Denver, and looking ahead to the rest of the Week 1 NFL schedule, here are five things to keep an eye on.
1. Packers defensive game plan vs. 49ers
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers and the Packers were exposed versus Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers offense last season in the divisional playoffs. Green Bay looked unprepared to defend the read-option, and the coverage calls in passing situations were suspect at best.
What will we see this Sunday at Candlestick in the Week 1 rematch?
I would look for more zone-based schemes on third downs (avoid man-under defenses), and I expect the Packers to be ready to defend the read-option. Study the tape, make the corrections and show up ready to play. No excuses with an entire offseason to prep for the 49ers.
2. Rookie quarterbacks on the big stage
Rookie quarterbacks Geno Smith and EJ Manuel both get the start this Sunday. This will be a major test as the speed and tempo of the game increases, playbooks are expanded and defenses begin to show multiple fronts at the line of scrimmage to disguise pressure/coverage.
However, if you want to see both Smith and Manuel develop quickly, then this is the right path. Give them regular-season game reps and allow them to make mistakes versus live competition. They won’t get that experience—or progress early in their careers—running the scout team in practice.
3. The return of Darrelle Revis
I’m interested to watch Revis outside of the numbers versus the Jets after going through ACL rehab this offseason. Can he explode out of his breaks when driving downhill on the out route, comeback and curl? Plus, when he is asked to open his hips and run versus the vertical passing game, can the veteran cornerback close on the football?
Revis didn’t see any game action during the preseason as the Bucs held him out in August. That was a smart move from my perspective. But that could mean Revis will need some time to work his way back into playing shape.
4. Tavon Austin's role in St. Louis
The Rams didn’t show much this preseason with the rookie from West Virginia, but that should change when they set the game plan for the Cardinals.
Austin can be a matchup weapon for quarterback Sam Bradford and the Rams because of his lateral speed in the short-to-intermediate route tree. Throw the shallow crosser, the slant, smash and work the option route to target Austin in one-on-one situations. Plus, he can create after the catch and use his skill set to produce in the open field.
Again, think of the middle-of-the-field matchups. That’s why the Rams moved up in the draft to grab Austin. Get him the ball between the numbers and let him go to work.
5. Rob Ryan's debut in New Orleans
I like the move to bring Ryan to New Orleans because of his defensive style. The Saints are going to bring pressure and put their defensive backs in a position to make plays on the ball. That leads to turnovers and prime scoring opportunities for Drew Brees and the Saints offense.
And the Saints don’t need a top-10 defense if they can take the ball away and set up Brees with a short field to work with.
However, Ryan’s unit is going to be tested in Week 1 versus quarterback Matt Ryan and the ridiculous amount of talent at the skill positions in Atlanta. That’s tough versus Julio Jones, Roddy White and tight end Tony Gonzalez. Do the Saints have enough in the secondary to match up against the Falcons in pressure situations?
That could be trouble.
Three key matchups
What are the matchups you should focus on this week? Here are five that stand out from my perspective as I look at the schedule.
1. Torrey Smith vs. Broncos secondary
Smith beat up Champ Bailey last season in the playoffs, and with the veteran cornerback out with an injury tonight, there will be vertical opportunities for Joe Flacco versus the Broncos secondary.
Two deep balls per half. That’s what I’m thinking in terms of a game plan for the Ravens and Smith. Throw the 9 (fade) and target the deep post. Smith has elite straight-line speed and the ability to flip the field. I would take a shot early tonight and come back to Smith when the ball moves into the “strike zone” (20- to 35-yard line).
As I wrote on Wednesday, the Ravens defense has a tough matchup versus Peyton Manning. That’s even more of a reason for Flacco and this Baltimore offense to look for explosive plays early out in Denver Thursday night.
2. Bears rebuilt offensive line vs. Bengals defensive front
The way I see it, the Bengals have the best defensive front in the NFL. And that could be an issue for a Bears team that is trying to find the right mix of talent up front on the offensive line.
General manager Phil Emery made major changes along the offensive line this offseason through free agency and the draft. This unit is better, but with two rookie starters—Kyle Long and Jordan Mills—going up against Cincinnati’s Geno Atkins, Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap, the Bears could have to adjust their protection schemes to create a clean pocket for quarterback Jay Cutler.
3. Cowboys Cover 2 defense vs. Victor Cruz
Under new defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, the Cowboys will play Cover 2 (or Tampa 2) in 3rd-and-7-10 situations and inside the red zone. Rush four, drop seven and force the ball underneath.
But how does that play out versus Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz when he aligns in the slot?
This is a matchup to check out Sunday night with Cruz’s ability to run the inside seam, dig (square-in), option and drive route (shallow crosser). And if the Giants can get Cruz matched up versus "Mike" ‘backer Sean Lee, they can look to target the wide receiver on third downs to move the sticks.
Scheme/Concept to watch this week
Every week I will break down a scheme (or matchup) on the All-22 tape that could have an impact on game day.
Calvin Johnson vs. Vikings Cover 2
The Vikings will show plenty of Cover 2 this Sunday in their matchup versus the Lions to limit Calvin Johnson and the vertical passing game. Reroute the receiver at the line of scrimmage and use a deep half safety over the top.
But as we can see here, the Lions move Johnson inside (and use play action) to get the matchup versus the "Mike" ’backer in Cover 2. And anytime a No. 1 receiver is aligned out of position, it is done for a reason—to get him the ball.
The Vikings "Mike" ‘backer has to open his hips to the passing strength (slot side of the formation) and carry speed down the seam. That’s a tough assignment versus the skill set of Johnson. And with the safeties dropping to their landmarks (top of the numbers), the Lions have the matchup they want on the seam route.
Both safeties will overlap this throw to the middle of the field, but you aren’t going to get the ball out versus the size and leverage of Johnson on the seam route. This is a good example of how the Lions can game plan Cover 2 in their matchup with the Vikings this Sunday.
Football 101: Overload Pressure
With the season kicking off, you will hear the term “overload pressure” used to describe defensive blitz packages. What does it mean? And how does it play out on the film?
Let’s use the All-22 tape from Dick LeBeau’s playbook in Pittsburgh to break down an example of the pressure scheme.
Steelers Zone Pressure
The Steelers are sending overload pressure to the closed (strong) side of the formation with the nickel and strong safety blitzing off the edge to create a five-man rush scheme. Rush five, drop six and play “gold” technique in the secondary with two “vertical hook” defenders (match to No. 2, No. 3).
In “gold,” the closed side cornerback will sink and read inside to No. 2 (or No. 3) with protection of the free safety over the top. If the cornerback reads an outside break, he will drop No. 1 to the safety and drive the underneath concept.
Both "vertical hook" defenders will match/carry No. 2 and No. 3 (versus the Redskins bunch formation) in this zone pressure scheme.
Look at how the Steelers match to the Flat-7 (corner) concept from the Redskins. The safety stays over the top of the 7 cut (with inside cushion from the "vertical hook" defender), and the cornerback reads the outside break of the tight end on the flat route.
And because of the pressure scheme, the Steelers have created a two-on-one versus the running back in protection—and that means the ball has to come out.
Robert Griffin III has to throw this ball off his back foot, and it sails to the flat where the cornerback is in the proper position to drive the route.
Inside the Locker Room: Defensive players taking a “dive”
Want to slow down the offensive tempo in the NFL? Then have someone take a “dive" and fake an injury so you can regroup as a defensive unit before the next snap.
Is this something new to the game? Not really.
But after Brian Urlacher’s comments this week that his former team in Chicago would designate a player on defense to fake an injury, the topic has been put back in play.
During my career, we had a “scuba” call sent in from the sidelines when a defensive coach would grab his nose for the signal.
What happened next?
A defensive player we selected (usually a defensive lineman) would fall down, grab his hamstring and roll around on the field.
Did it work? Of course it did—because the trainers weren’t in on the act.
They didn’t know it was a fake injury, so the training staff would rush onto the field to check on the player. That’s the key to making it look somewhat real while you are trying to go through defensive adjustments during the injury timeout you just created.
Will it continue this season in the NFL?
Sure it will. There is no way to regulate this defensive gimmick. And with more NFL offenses using no-huddle attacks and increasing the tempo of the game at the line of scrimmage, you should expect to see defensive players taking a dive at just the right moment in 2013.
Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is the NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.