Cover-Two: How to fix struggling squads
The season may be all but over in Jacksonville and Tampa Bay, but other struggling teams still have hope. In Audibles’ latest Cover-Two, Chris Burke and Doug Farrar outline how several teams on the wrong side of .500 can right the ship.
Editor’s Note: This post has been updated to reflect the report that the Falcons’ Julio Jones may miss the rest of the season.
Burke: Stop trying to be the Steelers of old. Few teams in the league can match Pittsburgh when it comes to having an obvious identity of the field. Unfortunately for the Steelers, those methods are no longer getting the job done.
The offensive line has major issues (even with Levi Brown’s arrival) and the aging, salary cap-depleted defense has yet to generate a turnover this season. Rather than continue to spread the offense with Ben Roethlisberger and rely on attacking defenders to change momentum, Pittsburgh has to consider its alternatives. Maybe more fullback usage or six-man lines on offense; maybe less blitzing and more stay-at-home defense. It won’t be fun adjusting on the fly, but the current plan is not working.
Farrar: Use passing concepts that got the Steelers to their last three Super Bowls. Under offensive coordinators Ken Whisenhunt and Bruce Arians, the Steelers buttressed a half-decent run game and compensated for some truly abysmal offensive lines by throwing all kinds of trips and bunch formations at enemy defenses. Such concepts helped receivers get open more quickly, and gave Ben Roethlisberger more options than the simple slip screens and vertical routes that seem to overpopulate Todd Haley’s playbook. Put simply: When you don’t have elite offensive talent, you’d better scheme your way around it.
Burke: Simplify everything. I know it would pain the Giants to look to the Jets for inspiration, but New York’s AFC team provided Monday night the blueprint its NFC counterpart could use to stabilize things. Coming off a Week 4 loss in which Geno Smith couldn’t stop turning the football over, the Jets relied on their run game and quick, danger-free passes to beat the Falcons. The Jets even rolled out a few plays from their old wildcat package, with decent success.
The Giants need to get Eli Manning into a similar groove, via whatever ways possible. If that means sticking with the run for a full game, regardless of the outcome, or scaling back the passing attack to screens, slants and quick outs, so be it.
Farrar: Let both lines get in a groove. Atypically for a Tom Coughlin team, the Giants are struggling with fundamentals on both sides of the ball, and that starts with the lines. So, the best thing for Coughlin and his coaches to do might be to get more formation-diverse. They have the worst offensive line in football, so using skill position players in different blocking schemes and implementing short passes to get Eli Manning in some sort of groove could help. On defense, the Giants could overcome injury and attrition concerns by using more creative blitz looks against the run and pass. This team’s season is over for all intents and purposes, and that puts a new challenge on Coughlin — keep the interest up, see who develops and try to coach his way out of the mess.
Burke: Make a quarterback switch. The Texans likely will spend next offseason trying to upgrade at QB. Right now, though, they really need to give T.J. Yates a shot over Matt Schaub — at least in a small window. Sitting and watching for even a week or two would give Schaub a chance to clear his head, plus the Texans might be able to use a QB change for some emotion. Houston simply cannot continue to run Schaub out there given how he’s playing.
Farrar: Turn to page two of the playbook. Over the last three weeks, players from the Baltimore Ravens, Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers have said outright that they were able to take advantage of a super-predictable Texans offense by jumping easy and obvious routes, adding to Matt Schaub’s alarming pick-six total. And when teams have a bead on your playbook, you’re finished as an offensive concern. Schaub has made some howling mistakes this season, but this issue is all on head coach Gary Kubiak.
Chris Burke: Find a pass rush. Osi Umenyiora provided some QB pressure in spurts on Monday. Overall, though, the Falcons did little to rattle Geno Smith — especially in the first half and on the Jets’ game-winning drive. Even with all their issues along the offensive line, the Falcons keep finding ways to score. That may be more difficult with Julio Jones joining Roddy White and Steven Jackson on the injury report. Either way, the defense needs to start pulling its weight.
Doug Farrar: Develop better offensive balance. In the Falcons’ last two losses — against the New England Patriots and New York Jets — the entire country was able to see an offense affected greatly by the lack of balance between the run and pass. That’s been a trend in Atlanta for the last couple of seasons, but it’s starting to affect Matt Ryan. Ryan is an above-average quarterback who struggles when things break down, and things are breaking down all around him. Julio Jones may be out for the rest of the season with a foot injury, Roddy White has been hobbling through ankle and hamstring issues all season and defenders are mugging Tony Gonzalez right out of the NFL, which leaves Ryan with a bunch of wheel routes and the occasional shot play when things get desperate. You can tell when Ryan starts to force things, and it generally happens in the red zone. This team needs to diversify its offense — start with involving running back Jacquizz Rodgers in different ways — before the season heads down the drain. Losing Jones is obviously a real killer.
Burke: Turn Cam Newton loose. The Carolina offense is far more dangerous when Newton gets turned loose, as opposed to being chased all over the backfield on passing plays. The Panthers used a more QB-heavy rushing attack in their Week 3 win over New York, then played it pretty vanilla in a 22-6 loss in Arizona. The talent on this team is built for a free-wheeling, create-on-the-fly offense.
Farrar: More play-action for Cam Newton. This one’s pretty simple. Per Pro Football Focus, Newton is 23-of-31 for 273 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions when he runs play action. When he doesn’t, Newton is 50-of-96 for 612 yards, four touchdowns and five picks. The Panthers spent a lot of money on their running backs a couple years back, and why they don’t use them as potential threats in the passing game — even when they’re not targets — remains a mystery.