2010-2011 NFL Playoffs: Team-By-Team Breakdown (Team Weaknesses)
So, the 2010 Regular Season has concluded and teams are who we thought they were. We know there is no dominant team in the NFL. Sure, a couple have dominant records, but even they have glaring holes that can be exploited, especially in the playoffs, where matchups are even MORE key than they are in regular season meetings. Keep in mind that what one team does against another does not necessarily translate to what it can or cannot do versus another.
But you knew that already.
Let’s get to it.
AMERICAN FOOTBALL CONFERENCE
Baltimore Ravens (12-4).
The Ravens always seem to land the 5 seed each year. You win 12 games, which is excellent on paper, and you expect to have favorable seedings in the playoffs; whether it is a BYE or a home playoff game.
The Ravens’ reward for winning 12 (but each of their losses were poor or awful in timing with regards to the tiebreakers)? Going on the road for each of their playoff games, unless the New York Jets somehow make it to the AFC Championship game along with the Ravens. The Ravens draw the Kansas City Chiefs in the NFL’s Wild Card Playoff Weekend.
HOW THE RAVENS CAN BE BEATEN
You must take advantage of the interior of the Ravens’ defense. MLB Ray Lewis has lost a step and it shows, especially in coverage. There are many plays that can be had, by a team that is patient enough and efficient in their play-calling. Whether it be run plays up the gut or passes to the Tight End or Wide Receivers dragging underneath the back seven, the Ravens do have soft spots in their defense.
The Chiefs run the football better than any team in the NFL, and they show no signs of letting up on their run-first philosophy, especially given that they are not necessarily deep at WR, behind Dwayne Bowe.
The Ravens’ secondary is equally susceptible to teams with efficient passing games, as they do not get as much pressure on the quarterback as they have in the past decade or so of Ravens Defense Incarnations. Besides Free Safety Ed Reed, the secondary is not much above average in coverage, nor are they particularly adept in run defense.
Noting that the Chiefs lead the NFL in rushing, this is going to be a key for the Chiefs and their game plan versus the Ravens this weekend. Keep an eye out for this.
Offensively, the Ravens are nearly unstoppable when they run first and pass off their running game. They have three very good receivers in Anquan Boldin, Derrick Mason and Touraj Houshmandzadeh. Along with Tight End Todd Heap, the Ravens have weapons, but forcing QB Joe Flacco to pass more than the Ravens would like is one of the best ways to get the Ravens off the field. The Chiefs will bring pressure from OLB Tamba Hali and MLB Derrick Johnson at every viable opportunity. Defensive Coordinator Romeo Crennel knows the Ravens very well from facing them as the former head coach of the Cleveland Browns and Defensive Coordinator of the New England Patriots.
Do not be surprised if the Ravens lose this game as a result.
Indianapolis Colts (10-6).
The Colts are a house of fire right now. They won their final four games, as they knew they needed to — finishing the season on a roll offensively and defensively. Everyone who knows even a slight bit about the Colts know their main holes are in the same facet of the game on both sides of the ball.
Rushing the ball.
Defending the rushing attack.
HOW THE COLTS CAN BE BEATEN
The Colts have perennially been in the bottom five teams in the NFL in rushing since allowing RB Edgerrin James to walk as a free agent following the 2005 season. Likewise, the Colts have struggled against the run almost parallel to that same time period.
Teams know what they need to do in order to beat the Colts in this regard, but executing it in the playoffs hasn’t always worked. The New York Jets, who the Colts face in the Wild Card Playoff, know this first-hand. And for a half, in the 2010 AFC Championship Game, it worked. However, turnovers doomed the Jets in the 2nd half of that game. Look for the Jets to attempt to shore up their scheme with regards to running the ball about 60% of the time or more against the Colts’ defense that is getting healthy as the playoffs begin. The more effectively the Jets run the football, the more clock they run and the fewer minutes the Jets’ defense has to contend with the inevitable 40-45 pass attempts from Dr. Peyton Manning.
The Jets do not blitz as much as they did in 2009, so they will be looking to stuff the Colts’ rushing attack and playing a lot of nickel and dime packages and switching up their looks in order to confound Manning as well as keep the Colts’ running game under four yards per carry.
Kansas City Chiefs (10-6).
The Chiefs feature an excellent rushing attack, and they have a host of guys who get in on it, most notably, RB Jamaal Charles.
HOW THE CHIEFS CAN BE BEATEN
However, you have a few advantages working for you if you are able to stack the box with an eighth man for run support as well as short coverage (for Baltimore, this will be FS Ed Reed in a multitude of scenarios). QB Matt Cassel has enjoyed a fine 2010 season, thanks to WR Dwayne Bowe’s coming into his own after Week 4 of the regular season. However, Cassel tends to lock in on Bowe and the Chiefs do not feature consistently viable weapons at WR or TE.
Defensively, the Chiefs are very aggressive, as they do manage to get a good deal of pressure on the QB and are able to swarm to the ball at each level with a bevy of young 1st and 2nd round studs accumulated over the past 1-4 years. As always, the best way to counterattack a youthful, overpursuing/overaggressive defense is to hit them with misdirection plays and effective play action. If the Ravens are able to get their running game untracked early, be on lookout for them to hit the Chiefs with a good deal of play action looks while the Chiefs are on defense.
New England Patriots (14-2).
You might suggest that the Patriots are every bit as “impossible” to beat as their 14-2 record, with the two wins seemingly fluky in their fans’ minds — appears to be, but they have multiple holes that the teams who managed to beat them were able to exploit.
HOW THE PATRIOTS CAN BE BEATEN
Quite simply, you must disrupt Tom Brady’s timing in the passing game. Easier said than done. Brady is very accurate and loves to “dink and dunk” teams into submission. What are checkdowns for other teams are the Patriots’ bread and butter plays. They appear to be indefensible, as the routes are just beyond the line of scrimmage and underneath the coverage of the defense before it can knock away or intercept a pass.
However, the Patriots have a lot of youth on both sides of the ball. You must be physical and be willing to bump and run with the smallish WRs that the Patriots employ. Most of what the Patriots run is timing-based and a good chuck at the line throws everything off. Again, easier said than done, they can go to a 5 WR spread set many times per game and that allows for man to man coverage. A missed bump or tackle can lead to big plays, which is oftentimes how the Patriots get their big plays.
The Patriots’ rushing game leaves a lot to be desired, but when it is effective is because defenses tend to keep on their underneath passing game to WR Wes Welker and RB Danny Woodhead in the flats. Focusing on those receivers’ routes opens alleys off both tackles for RB BenJarvis Green-Ellis to run.
The Patriots will have a counter plan for whatever a team attempts to run against them, and they adjust on the fly. What makes the Patriots appear invincible is they adjust more quickly and smartly than any other team in football, seemingly always a step or two ahead of the opposing team in every facet. It will require a total team effort to beat them, but disrupting Brady’s timing with his receivers and manning the gaps for any running lanes is vital.
Defensively, like all young defenses, the Patriots are athletic, fast and aggressive. The book is written on how to handle such teams. But more so with the Patriots, as they are very opportunistic in 2010. There are plays to be made off over-pursuit, but being careful with passes and not fumbling can be very fruitful for an opposing offense. The Patriots still pulled up the rear of the NFL in rush and pass defense at the end of the regular season for a reason.
New York Jets (11-5)
The Jets have a better record in 2010 than in 2009, but admittedly played better for most of the 2009 season. The difference in an 11-5 record and a 9-7 record is the bounce of a football one way or the other.
HOW THE JETS CAN BE BEATEN
The book the Jets is stymie their running game and force QB Mark Sanchez to pass more frequently, throwing their run/pass ratio out of wack. The Jets generally prefer to run the ball more than pass, as a means of alleviating pressure on Sanchez to consistently be forced to make plays in the passing game.
Defensively, the Jets are missing two major starters who are on Injured Reserve (hereafter referred to as “IR”, for the casual NFL fan), NT Kris Jenkins and SS Jim Leonhard. Leonhard is no superstar, but he was the defensive coordinator on the field for the Jets and it shows in his absense.
Teams learned how to neutralize CB Darrelle Revis without totally shifting their passing attack to CB Antonio Cromartie’s side of the field: they consistently run a Tight End and/or a Wide Receiver at Revis, forcing him to play coverage (usually underneath) along with the safety (which the Jets will even admit was almost always there in 2009, allowing for Revis to be Sam Madison/Pat Surtain-esque in his press coverage) over the top to communicate with Revis so that there isn’t blown coverage with there effectively being man or man-take coverage on the outside with multiple WRs flowing to Revis’ side.
Cromartie has not been as good as advertised and quite frankly, teams know they can rush to the edge and pass deep on the Jets’ below-average safeties. The Colts will be looking to do so in the Wild Card matchup.
Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4).
The Steelers were 12-4 with cause in 2010. They can be extremely tough to beat when they commit to the running game behind RB Rashard Mendenhall, who is a bruiser, and stick with it. Especially with a lead, because their defense is almost always far and away the best versus the running game year in and year out. Their pass defense has taken a few steps back, which is one of the reasons they’ve lost every one of the games they lost this year.
HOW THE STEELERS CAN BE BEATEN
The Steelers can be pass-happy at times, and defending them — that’s exactly what you want.
Another reason being the pass-happiness of the offense at times, usually culminating with shortened drives, turnovers, sacks and other miscues that enable the other team to garner more possessions and time of possession over the Steeler defense. If a team is able to get QB Ben Roethlisberger to pass the ball 35 times or more, with the way he holds onto the ball always looking for a home run play, the Steelers are much more vulnerable. When they rush the ball effectively and play action out of it, and THEN Roethlisberger is able to hold the ball and make plays, the Steelers are almost impossible to beat.
2010-2011 NFL Playoffs: Team-By-Team Breakdown (Team Weaknesses)
NATIONAL FOOTBALL CONFERENCE
Atlanta Falcons (13-3).
The Falcons feature the best record in the NFC. And none of their losses were anything to hang their heads about. However, they are an excellent example of how a break or nine goes your way and you’re a 13-3 team instead of an 8-8 team. In other words, they are probably the most beatable team in the NFC, including the homebound Seahawks.
HOW THE FALCONS CAN BE BEATEN
They rely heavily on RB Michael Turner and WR Roddy White. TE Tony Gonzalez has opened things up for the passing game a great deal for QB Matt Ryan, however, the Falcons don’t get much from their other WRs, especially Michael Jenkins and that style of offense can be easily neutralized come playoffs.
The Falcons, regardless of who wins on Wild Card Weekend, will be playing a defense with a young linebacker who can cover Gonzalez as well as a ballhawking CB who can battle White on the outside. That’s pretty much the way to stifle the Falcons’ offense: run with Gonzalez and get physical with Roddy White, provided you have the personnel to do so. The Packers definitely do and so do the Saints.
Attacking their defense is a bit more complex, because they have a lot of opportunistic playmakers such as DE John Abraham, LB Steven Nicholas and CB Brent Grimes. You cannot be careless with the football with these guys who utilize speed as an advantage. Naturally, the blind side of the QB must be blocked when it comes to Abraham on 3rd down passing plays, Nicholas can run sideline to sideline (so therefore use your tight end up the seam and make him trail) and Grimes, while physical and speedy, is smallish. A good running game directed to his side can be effective.
Abraham has gotten better versus the run since he left the Jets, but his tendency to crash down inside at times causes him to give up the edge in contain and an adept offensive coordinator will call counter plays and off tackle runs featuring kick out blocks and stretch play runs to take advantage of this.
Chicago Bears (11-5).
The Bears surprisingly rebounded from early season foibles and managed to win the NFC North and 11 games. They have not completely addressed the issues that plagued them when they surrendered 10 sacks vs. the New York Giants in Week 4, and any team lining up to play them will keep that in mind. Despite a nice run over their final 10 games, the Bears had a couple of disturbing losses that reminded them that they have not fully addressed what caused them to lose early on.
HOW THE BEARS CAN BE BEATEN
Pressure QB Jay Cutler. The Bears have a tendency to abandon their running game, which is pretty decent with RB Matt Forte. Cutler is arrogant when it comes to his arm strength and ability to make throws that almost no one can. When he pulls off such throws, that belief only increases, leading to ill-advised throws that terminate in interceptions. And that’s when he isn’t holding the ball for eight and nine seconds at a time, something that caused him to get sacked over 50 times this season.
The Bears’ running game isn’t explosive, but it cannot be ignored. They chip away bit by bit and if Forte gets daylight, he CAN break one, so going all out blitzing Cutler is not advisable, especially if the back side contain is not there.
Defensively, the Bears play the most inflexible of defenses of any team in the NFL. They feature a base Cover 2 (sometimes referred to as the “Tampa 2”, where almost all of its proponents learned the scheme), rarely stunt, rarely blitz, rarely insert nickel and dime packages with defensive backs and just play straight up in their respective zones. Their goal is to keep everything in front of them, individually and collectively.
The result, as most people may have learned years ago when teams were trying to solve what the Tampa Bay Buccaneers did to teams under Tony Dungy was to attack the underneath when the linebackers vacated the middle of the field as well as hit the seams and corners in the triangles behind the linebackers and cornerbacks and in front of the safeties.
A classic way to defeat that scheme is the pass that Green Bay Packers’ QB Aaron Rodgers executed in Week 17 to score the only touchdown of the game vs. the Bears.
Of course such a throw requires a QB with the arm strength of Rodgers, which, of course either of the teams that will most likely face the Bears in the Divisional Playoff features a QB who can indeed do so, take note.
Green Bay Packers (10-6).
The Packers got hot and won the games they needed to in order to make the playoffs. They’re as dangerous as any team in the entire playoff hunt. However, like everyone else, they have weaknesses.
HOW THE PACKERS CAN BE BEATEN
Rodgers has a lot of the same flaws that Jay Cutler features. Strong arm, but too confident in his ability to make “all the throws”, leading to tipped balls and interceptions. He has done a great job valuing the ball since his return from a concussion near the end of the regular season.
The Packers do not run the ball for much yardage, but they do commit to it enough that you must play them honestly as a defense. Brandon Jackson is not going to ever be mistaken for Ahman Green in his prime, nor will John Kuhn for Mike Alstott, but they move the chains and always fall forward in short yardage. For Rodgers, that’s about all he needs. However, the real way to stifle the Packers is to attack their WRs at the line of scrimmage. The Packers feature seemingly a half dozen WRs that can all run end to end of the field. This requires adept tackling and effective and timely blitzing, forcing Rodgers to check down or make throws sooner than he would like. It can be done, and has been several times in 2010.
The Packers have a secondary full of ball hawks and an energetic linebacking corps. They do not beat themselves, but CB Charles Woodson’s hips are wooden at this point and while he is excellent in press coverage as well as stepping into the box as an eighth or ninth defender versus the run, he is susceptible to double moves by WRs. He was burned by Giants’ WR Hakeem Nicks on such a move for a long TD in Week 16.
CB Tramon Williams is every bit as good as Woodson, but is somewhat unknown by non-Packers and those who do not watch film. He can run with anyone and is as physical as Woodson. The former Brandon Jacobs high school teammate is just as vulnerable to said double moves as well. You must run the ball directly at LB Clay Matthews and the middle of the Packers’ defense. They are too fast off the edge and with their CBs in run support to consistently run outside. But they have proven to be only average when teams run up the middle against them, particularly neutralizing Clay Matthews.
Facing the Philadelphia Eagles, everything changes, because the Packers had no solution for QB Michael Vick and their hope is that they are catching him coming off a nagging leg injury entering their playoff matchup.
New Orleans Saints (11-5).
Saints weren’t as fortunate with the takeaway margin in 2010, but they were probably more well-rounded in 2010 than in 2009. Despite missing several starters for long stretches, they still finished a respectable 11-5.
However, teams figured out the Saints’ offense to large extent and the Saints, to their credit, adjusted pretty quickly when teams had briefly taken away what the Saints were initially trying to do in games in 2010.
HOW THE SAINTS CAN BE BEATEN
Pressure Drew Brees. Aside from Eli Manning’s otherworldly number of tipped ball INTs (although Brees himself has the most tipped passes in the NFL since he entered the league 10 seasons ago), Brees has more INTs than anyone in the NFL. Teams drop linebackers into coverage to negate the Saints’ crossing patterns, pressuring Brees offsets his timing with his WRs and he also makes throws he normally would not make — as does any other QB in that situation.
The Saints have had a M*A*S*H* unit at RB this year, from Pierre Thomas to Reggie Bush to Chris Ivory all missing games at times this year. They still managed to run the ball effectively. But one way to reduce the Saints’ time of possession and possession total is to make them one-dimensional. Sean Payton loves to light up the skies and Drew Brees never met a pass he didn’t like. Just off sheer numbers odds (40+ passes in a game) and 7 or 8 guys in coverage, Brees is bound to throw an INT or two.
You cannot stack the box versus the Saints’ running game, because they have too many receiving weapons to play man coverage across the field.
As previously stated, their defense isn’t nearly as opportunistic as 2009, as they had an unreal 47 takeaways. The number itself was galling because so many of the takeaways appeared to be fortunate breaks rather than actual results of plays made (by comparison, the Giants had 39 takeaways in 2010, leading the NFL, but almost all were strip-sacks, INTs and nearly 20 fumble recoveries off strip-sacks). That in and of itself shows that despite CB Malcolm Jenkins and CB Tracy Porter’s play, they can be had in the air. And neither is a particularly good run defender as such young ages. The Saints are rather smallish at LB and running the ball directly at them with ISOs, traps and flowing strong side off tackle tends to work very well against them.
The Seahawks know this, but they do not have the personnel to do so. However, the Falcons and Bears do.
Philadelphia Eagles (10-6).
The Eagles are glad they didn’t have an injury to Michael Vick a week sooner, because as it turned out, they needed their once in a century comeback versus the Giants in Week 15 in order to make the playoffs. Had they lost that game, they’d be watching the playoffs from home. After losing their final two games and amassing several key injuries, requiring starters’ rest and failing to secure a BYE to further rest those players, you have to wonder about their psyche and collective health entering their playoff matchup with a hot Green Bay Packer team.
HOW THE EAGLES CAN BE BEATEN
The Giants authored the prologue, body and closing on the book of how to stop the Eagles. Since then, teams have copied it to varying degrees of success.
1. Hit Vick (legally) early and often.
2. Chuck Desean Jackson as much as the rules allow before the 5 yards and force him inside to the safety and linebacker help. The more he gets hit hard, the more he alligator-arms pass receptions and eventually quits on his routes.
3. Contain Vick between the defensive ends and force his runs inside to linebacker and safety help.
4. Take away Vick’s naked bootlegs and sprint outs to his left, forcing him right where he cannot make throws across his body as easily.
5. Keep LeSean McCoy in front of you.
Sounds simple (and the Giants made it appear so for the better part of both their matchups, but ran out of gas, even though they have just as much speed defensively as the Eagles do offensively) but everyone in the Eagles’ offense has blazing speed, so it requires personnel and shift adjustments for the teams that do not have the speed (Bears don’t, but they managed to contain Vick and the Eagles’ offensive onslaught enough to hold on for a victory).
The Eagles are severely depleted defensively. They may have lost one too many players at this point, with CB Asante Samuel not being 100%, Nate Allen is out, brittle MLB Stewart Bradley is out (although Brandon Graham has been “a guy” since taking over for Bradley). They over pursue against the run and their young (and now less talented) secondary, which was already vulnerable to big plays, is even more vulnerable with a Packer team coming to town. Rodgers will go after Coleman, Patterson and even Samuel all game just as he did the Giants’ secondary in Week 16.
Seattle Seahawks (7-9).
Embarrassing that they are in the playoffs. But they did what they needed to in order to get here, so now it’s 0-0 across the board and INDEED anything can happen.
HOW THE SEAHAWKS CAN BE BEATEN
Pick a way. The Seabags are inherently flawed. They were admittedly rebuilding entering 2010 and were fortunate to catch the NFC West in an all-time worst situation.
The Seahawks defended the run well for a while during the season, but they have yielded 200+ yard rushing games left and right at times this year.
In each of the 9 games they’ve lost, they’ve lost by at least two touchdowns, several times yielding 35+ points and losing by more than 21 points.
Their QB play has been horrid for most of the year.
They do not run the ball well (32nd — Last — in the NFL).
Their defense, while talented, spends far too much time on the field to be effective against any team. Especially not the Saints.
But again, anything is possible.