— Let's explain the bread-and-butter plays that helped each team reach the postseason. All plays are taken from game tape of the 2010 season.
It's broken down by Saturday's game and Sunday's games.
New Orleans Saints
No NFL team has as many playmakers in the passing game as the Saints, and Sean Payton excels at finding ways to get all of his receivers, tight ends, and backs involved. Combine Payton’s schemes with Drew Brees’ ability to read coverage, fool defenders and deliver pinpoint passes, and the Saints remain one of the toughest teams in the league to defend.
Figure 1 shows the Saints in a 1st-and-10 situation while protecting a third-quarter lead. The Saints don't typically run out the clock, so they attack the defense with an empty backfield and four wide receivers. Note that the Saints’ two possession receivers, Marques Colston (12) and Lance Moore (16) are stacked on the left side, while speedsters Devery Henderson (19) and Robert Meacham (17) are spread out on the right side. The defense has no choice but to play its secondary deep: Brees does not have to worry about a blitz with the defense back on its heels, though he has an extra blocker at the line (his tight end) just in case.
While Colston and Moore run decoy routes to occupy defenders on the left, Henderson and Meacham run a variation on the “double posts” route combination. Both receivers release straight up the field, then slant inside on deep patterns. The goal of the combination is to force the deep safety to commit to one receiver, allowing Brees (9) to throw to the other receiver. Brees helps the cause by “looking off” his defender: the red line in the diagram shows Brees staring down Henderson and the deep safety. The safety has no choice but to cover Henderson. As a result, he is in no position to help the cornerback assigned to Meacham. Brees also was able to read a Cover-3 zone defense at the snap, so he knew that one of the cornerbacks to Meacham’s side would not pursue the receivers deep. Both Meacham and Henderson are too fast for most cornerbacks to cover without safety help, and Brees’ pass is right on the money.
Payton moves his receivers all over the formation, making it hard for defenders to assign double coverage or set up jams on the line. Often, receivers are stacked in tight formations, like Moore and Colston are on this play, allowing them to crisscross and “rub” (a football-legal way of saying “moving pick”) defenders. Other times, burners like Meacham are aligned in the slot, while slower targets like Jeremy Shockey are split wide, causing further confusion. Even the league’s best defenses have difficulty compensating. The Seahawks will have to hold on for dear life.
It’s hard to select one signature play for the Seahawks; they do so many things poorly. They have no go-to guy on offense and little big-play capability. Matt Hasselbeck has been described as a “point guard” this year, distributing the ball to a bunch of unknown players so they can create in the open field. In keeping with the basketball metaphor, their signature play looks as much like a screen along the three-point arc as anything you see on the football field.
Figure 2 shows the Seahawks facing 2nd-and-10 early in a game. They initially line up with two receivers tight to each side of the line of scrimmage, but one of those receivers is fullback Michael Robinson, who goes in motion before the snap. The wiggly line shows where Robinson ends up: as a blocker in an offset I-formation. The defense is thinking inside run; notice that two defenders are lined up right over the center.
Marshawn Lynch (26) takes the handoff and starts to run inside. This is a designed cutback play: Robinson blocks an outside linebacker while tackle Russell Okung (76) climbs out to block an inside linebacker, which would ideally create a hole for Lynch. With so many defenders crammed between the tackles, Lynch has little room to run. Luckily, he has another option: he bounces to the outside, where Mike Williams (17) has sealed off the cornerback with a tough block. Once Lynch reaches the outside, the defense is in trouble, and Lynch gains 39 yards before a safety brings him down.
Plays like these make the best use of the Seahawks’ available personnel. Lynch is a powerful inside runner who also has some start-stop ability, allowing him to surprise defenders with sudden cuts. Williams is a king-sized receiver who finally figured out how to block. And Robinson is one of the NFL’s most interesting square pegs: a college quarterback who reinvented himself as a fullback, special teams ace, and sometime Wildcat quarterback. He’s one of the league’s most tenacious blockers, and he much faster than the average fullback, making him a great open-space thumper.
The Saints have an aggressive defense, and their defenders will sometimes miss tackles or get out-of-position while trying to make big plays. If they over-pursue or go for too many knockout hits, the Seahawks can surprise them with Hasselbeck’s point-guard routine or the physical backfield. It’s a long shot, but it’s the best the Seahawks have.
New York Jets
Rex Ryan is one of the league’s most aggressive blitzers. Other coaches, like Dom Capers of the Packers, may be more creative about designing intricate blitzes with complex coverage behind them, but no one sends the whole locker room after the quarterback quite like Ryan. Ryan can get away with six and seven-defender blitzes because the Jets secondary excels in man coverage. If the safeties don’t have to play deep, they are free to do something more fun, like sack the quarterback.
Figure 3 shows the Jets’ opponent facing 3rd-and-12. It’s an obvious blitz situation, so Ryan puts his best pass rushers on the field. His defensive line consists of Trevor Pryce (93), Calvin Pace (97), and Jason Taylor (99): two outside linebackers and a veteran sack specialist. Linebacker David Harris (52) also crowds the line of scrimmage. Ryan sends six defenders on this blitz: the four I just mentioned, plus safeties Eric Smith (33) and James Ihedigbo (44).
Just because a blitz looks like a jail break doesn’t mean that it isn’t precisely planned. Both Pryce and Pace run stunts: after attacking the blockers directly in front of them, each loops to his right. Taylor takes a wide approach to the quarterback, while Harris plunges through a gap to eat up the blocking back. Taylor and Harris create a lot of space on the left side of the offensive line, while Pryce and Pace pull their blockers out of position by stunting. All of the commotion on the offensive left allows Brown and Ihedigbo to charge in from the right with only one blocker to stop them. Ihedigbo gets the sack on this play, but two other Jets defenders were just a half-step behind him.
The blue double lines in the diagram show why Ryan can send two defensive backs on a blitz without worry. All Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis covers one wide receiver, a nickel cornerback covers an inside receiver, and a deep safety handles the tight end. On 3rd-and-long, Ryan can trust these defenders to play deep and not allow a first down. The only defender who gets safety support is cornerback Antonio Cromartie (31), a gambler who likes to jump routes in search of interceptions. Ryan can attack the quarterback from all angles and still give Cromartie some deep support in case he gambles and loses. Few coaches have this luxury.
With Revis covering Reggie Wayne, the other Jets defenders will have no trouble playing man coverage against the Colts’ depleted receiving corps. That means Ryan can use his full complement of blitzes. Peyton Manning is a hard quarterback to sack because he releases the ball so quickly, but if the Jets can force Manning out of his rhythm, they can force the Colts into the kind of low-scoring game Ryan prefers.
The Colts' offense has not changed much in the last decade. They line up with one running back and three receivers on most plays, often work from the shotgun, and use a no-huddle offense to give Peyton Manning an opportunity to call plays at the line. The Colts may only use a handful of formations, but they can run dozens of route combinations from each of them. As young receivers like Blair White have grown more comfortable with the Colts system, they have established the timing and precision needed to make the Colts’ deceptively complex system work.
Figure 4 shows the Colts working without a huddle on 2nd-and-10. The hurry-up offense and vanilla formation make it hard for the opponent to call an elaborate blitz or coverage scheme, which makes it easy for Manning to read the defense. As the diagram shows, both safeties are very deep, wary of the speed of Reggie Wayne (87) and Pierre Garcon (85). When Wayne and Garcon run deep fly routes, they take the safeties out of the equation, creating plenty of open space in the middle of the field.
The Colts are running mirror routes here: the receivers on the left are doing nearly the same thing as those on the right. The mirror concept allows Manning to quickly switch from right to left if defenders start rolling to one direction. Both tight end Jacob Tamme (84) and slot receiver White (15) pretend to run out-routes, cutting toward the sidelines before quickly turning upfield on skinny post routes. The Colts run a lot of out-routes with their inside receivers, so it is only natural that the defender covering White bites hard on his fake. White gets inside the defender, and because the safeties are so deep, there’s a wide throwing lane for Manning.
Think of the Colts’ bland formations as a poker face: coordinators and defenders cannot base their plans on any formation-related tendencies, because the Colts don’t have any. Next week, White may run an out route on this play instead of just faking it. Or, he might run a wheel route, suddenly turning and racing up the sidelines. And Manning might just look off White and throw to Tamme, or the running back, or Wayne if the safety falls asleep. The only reason this scheme did not work in midseason was because the Colts lacked healthy, experienced receivers. They are still short handed, but White, Garcon, and Tamme are rapidly growing into their roles.
The Jets do not want to be forced into predictable coverage schemes, but the Colts often leave opponents no choice. How Rex Ryan counteracts “ordinary” plays like this will determine whether the Jets can keep the game low-scoring enough to produce a win.
Figure 3 shows the Packers facing an opponent on second and long. The Packers only deploy two defensive linemen on this play, with Matthews (52) and another linebacker on the line of scrimmage as de-facto defensive ends. Woodson (21) appears to be covering the slot receiver, but there is evidence that he will blitz: a safety is behind him, ready to cover the receiver while Woodson attacks the quarterback.
At the snap, both defensive linemen slant hard to their right. Woodson, meanwhile, takes a very wide approach to the quarterback from his left. Woodson and the linemen are creating space for Matthews, who takes a hard inside move. With Woodson drawing the right tackle far to the outside and the rest of the offensive line sliding to their left, Matthews gets to face off against a right guard with lots of open field around them. No 320-pound guard is a match for Matthews with space to maneuver, and Matthews easily wrenches away from his blocker for a nine-yard sack.
In a blitz package like this, every defender has his role. If someone decides to freelance (for example, if Woodson decides to knife inside to get to the quarterback), he could lead blockers right to Matthews, upsetting the spacing and timing of the play. Capers is a master of both blitz design and teaching, and the veterans on the Packers defense rarely stray from the script. Capers’ sacks are even Vick-proof: the Packers sacked Michael Vick three times in just over a half in the season opener, and Capers now has the luxury of a week to prepare for Vick, not Kevin Kolb.
Michael Vick’s running ability creates a variety of problems for defenses. One often overlooked effect of Vick’s scrambling: he takes away the opponent’s ability to play man coverage. When cornerbacks and safeties are covering receivers man-to-man, their backs are usually to the quarterback, making it impossible for them to stop a scrambling quarterback before he is already down the field. Zone defenders face the quarterback, making it easier for them to contain a runner like Vick. Unfortunately, the Eagles receivers excel at beating zone coverage by running deep routes against overmatched safeties.
Figure 4 shows the Eagles in a two-tight end set on first-and-10. At the snap, Vick (7) pivots to his right and fakes a handoff to sweeping running back LeSean McCoy (25). Vick then rolls to his left. The Eagles blockers slant to their right, as if blocking for McCoy, but tight end Brett Celek (87) runs a shallow crossing route, as if looking for a short pass from Vick. Meanwhile, the receivers run deep, with DeSean Jackson (10) streaking down field on a deep post route.
The defense is playing a Cover-2 zone, and both the fake handoff and the Vick rollout create a lot of stress. The linebackers are stretched across the field, one trying to readjust after chasing McCoy, one trying to contain both Vick and Celek. Worse yet, both cornerbacks are locked into their underneath zones. The cornerback covering Jackson froze when Vick faked a handoff to McCoy, meaning that he was unable to jam Jackson on the line and slow him down. No one is in any position to rush Vick, who has plenty of time to wait for Jackson to cut in front of the safety and outrun him. Vick’s throw is perfect, and the Eagles get yet another lightning-strike touchdown.
The Packers like to prevent plays like this by sending blitzers off the edge, keeping Vick from rolling to an open launch point. The problem with tricky blitzes like those is that they leave the deep zones undermanned, giving Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, and others too much room to roam. And if you keep blitzing from the outside, Vick will respond by running right up the middle. The Eagles' offense provides no easy answers.
Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs are one of the NFL’s most run-oriented teams, with Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones splitting 475 carries almost equally between them. Just because a team likes to run doesn’t mean that its offense consists of heavy-duty plunges up the middle. The Chiefs use lateral motion and misdirection to stretch defenses and create cutback lanes for Charles and Jones, allowing the backs to break into the open field for big gains.
Figure 1 shows the Chiefs near midfield in the third quarter of a close game. The Chiefs are in a two-tight end alignment, with both Leonard Pope (45) and Tony Moeaki (89) on the right side of the formation. When two tight ends line up on the right side, the opposing defense must prepare for a run to that side. The tight ends essentially create two new “gaps” that must be defended: the spaces to Moeaki’s right and left. As shown, the defensive line has shifted over so there is a lineman close to Pope, and the linebackers have also slid over to the offensive right. That’s great news for the Chiefs, who plan to run to their left.
At the snap, most of the Chiefs linemen block to their right, Matt Cassel (7) pivots right, and Charles (25) takes a counter-step to the right. The Chiefs even leave the linebacker on the left edge of their formation temporarily unblocked. Of course, the defense flows along the line of scrimmage with the blockers, following the direction of the play. The only player not involved in student-body-right is Moeaki, who crosses against the flow of traffic to execute a kick-out block on the outside linebacker. Moeaki’s block, coupled with a double-team by the left tackle and guard on one of the defensive linemen, creates a huge cutback lane for Charles. As if the defense was not in enough trouble, the left guard peels off the double–team and takes on another linebacker, while slot receiver Terrance Copper blocks a downfield safety, giving Charles plenty of open field to run through.
The Chiefs constantly use two-tight end formations to stretch defenses horizontally and use the defenders’ own aggressiveness against them. The Ravens defense is at its best when opponents abandon the run, allowing the pass rushers to tee off and Ed Reed to cherry pick interceptions. The Chiefs will keep attacking the edges of the Ravens defense with cutback runs, even if they are playing catch-up.
The Ravens' offense often looks like it has been locked in a time capsule since 1974. The Ravens run, run, and run some more, all to set up the long Joe Flacco bombs that provide most of their points. Because opponents know the bomb is coming, it’s hard for the Ravens to disguise their intentions. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron uses a variety of wrinkles to keep defenders guessing, including a tactic from the leather helmet days: the unbalanced line.
As Figure 2 shows, the Ravens sometimes line up with two tackles on the same side of the formation and tight end Todd Heap (86) aligned next to the guard. This unbalanced line is great for power runs to the left side but isn’t suited for pass protection: Heap isn't the blocker you want stopping a 300-pound defender just a few strides from your quarterback. Fullback Le’Ron McClain (33) is lined up as an H-back on the left side: another indicator of a power run. At the snap, Flacco play-fakes to Ray Rice (27), and the left guard pulls to his right, apparently to lead-block for Rice. Between the formation, the pulling guard, and the fake handoff, the defense is completely sucked in: this play first looked like an off-tackle run left, then a counter play to the right, but it’s really a deep pass.
Note that there are only two receivers running real pass routes: Anquan Boldin (81) on a deep out route to the left, and Derrick Mason (85) on a go route to the right. With seven blockers protecting him, Flacco has plenty of time to wait for his receivers to get open. Mason is one of the most experienced receivers in the NFL: he lacks size and speed, but he uses shifty release moves to get inside his defender. There’s a deep safety, but he froze during the play fake, and Flacco puts plenty of mustard on his throw.
The Ravens have not been able to complete many of these deep passes in recent weeks: opponents are keeping extra safeties deep and daring the Ravens to win with running and short passes. If the Ravens hope to advance in the playoffs, Cameron must devise new wrinkles to draw the Chiefs close to the line of scrimmage.