Posted January 16, 2014

The All-22: Keys to victory in the conference championships

Denver Broncos, New England Patriots, NFL Playoffs, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, The All-22
(Matt Slocum/AP)

LeGarrette Blount could be the key to a Patriots Super Bowl berth … and eventual victory. (Matt Slocum/AP)

And then there were four. On Sunday, the Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers, Denver Broncos and New England Patriots will find out who will have the honor of playing in Super Bowl XLVIII. Key performances are more important than ever, and schemes must be as tight as they’ve ever been. With that in mind, here’s one thing each team must accomplish if it wants to punch a ticket to MetLife Stadium on Feb. 2.

Seattle Seahawks: Stay in your lanes against Frank Gore.

Though the Seattle Seahawks have had a number of great defenses over the last few seasons, running back Frank Gore has been a thorn in the franchise’s side for a good, long time — and Seattle’s current status as the league’s best defense based on metrics both typical and advanced doesn’t make much of a difference when it comes to the nine-year veteran. Gore has run for more yards (1,364) against the Seahawks than against any other team, and his 16 games against Seattle is bested only by his 17 games against the Arizona Cardinals.

In 2013, however, his two games against the Seahawks produced wildly divergent results. He rushed for just 16 yards on nine carries in San Francisco’s 29-3 loss in Seattle on Sept. 15, and turned that around with 110 yards on 17 carries in the Candlestick Park rematch on Dec. 8. Gore’s most important run in San Francisco’s 19-17 win came with 4:21 left in the game. The 49ers had first-and-10 at their own 31-yard line, and Gore flared out and cut back inside for a 51-yard run. That put the ball at the Seattle 18-yard line, and set up Phil Dawson’s 22-yard game-winning field goal with 31 seconds left.

Though the 49ers blocked the play with their usual mix of power and fundamental awareness, the gain would not have been as long as it was had the Seahawks avoided an over-aggressive approach — especially in the defensive backfield, where just about everybody missed an opportunity to make a play.

“We just overran it, just overran the tackle,” Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll said after the game. “A number of guys had a chance. [Safety] Kam [Chancellor] had a real shot at it, just floated over the top of the run. [Safety] Earl [Thomas] had a shot at it as it came back underneath and it got back all the way to Sherm [cornerback Richard Sherman]. Sherm got nicked by a blocker and just didn’t get off of it cleanly and he took off and hit it. We were going this way and he was going that way. So they blocked it well up front, but we had plenty of shots to keep it to being an eight- to nine-yard gain.”

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Coming into the NFC Championship game, Carroll has talked a lot about gap fundamentals, because he knows that without them, it will be nearly impossible to beat a 49ers team that has not lost a game since late November.

“Frank Gore had a great run the last time we played,” Carroll said Monday. “They were running the ball okay in that game, they were competitive and all of that, and then they busted one that changed the game. It was a great job by them and unfortunately we didn’t get it down — it put them in field goal range and the game was at hand there and the clock became the issue. He did it again the other day, he busted one again [against the Carolina Panthers in the divisional round]. He’s really capable, he’s a fantastic runner, he’s got great sense, and he’s got as good a sense in the line of scrimmage as anybody that’s playing in the game. If you make a mistake, he takes advantage of it, and he certainly did that against us.”

San Francisco 49ers: Keep Ahmad Brooks after the quarterback.

When the 49ers are in their 3-4 base defense and certain sub-packages, there’s little doubt that they put the NFL’s best linebacker quartet on the field. Outside linebacker Aldon Smith is the noted pass-rusher, while inside linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman patrol the middle  with an unmatched combination of physical prowess and football acumen. Bowman, in particular, has played at a Defensive Player of the Year level through most of the season.

The hidden asset among San Francisco’s linebackers, however, is Ahmad Brooks, the eight-year veteran who tied Smith for the team lead in sacks this season with 8.5. Brooks added two more sacks in the 49ers’ wild-card win over the Green Bay Packers, and 2.5 more in the team’s divisional victory over the Carolina Panthers. Thus, one sure and simple truth — though Brooks may be relatively underrated among that linebacker group in the public eye, he’s anything but in the NFL’s film rooms.

“He’s not underrated around here,” Pete Carroll told me Wednesday about Brooks and San Francisco’s linebacker group overall. “He’s had a great season. He’s been aggressive and tough and playmaking all year long. It’s a very, very good group. It’s the highlight group of their defense that just jumps out at you. Inside guys are terrific, and both outside guys cause problems in numerous ways. So that is a focal point for us, for sure.”

Carroll also said that despite Brooks’ recent statistical uptick, the 49ers aren’t using him in any different ways — it’s just that everything is just kicking in at the right time.

“No, they’ve pretty much used him perfectly for a long time. They’ve used them in their base packages and their nickel packages and they move them around a little bit.  But he’s just been tearing it up as their whole defense has.”

Sacks aside, Brooks’ most important play of the postseason was a run stuff on fourth down, because it prevented a Panthers touchdown at the start of the second quarter that could have turned the momentum of San Francisco’s eventual 23-10 result. Carolina had fourth-and-goal from the 49ers’ one-yard line, and it was up to Brooks to kill quarterback Cam Newton’s attempt at a touchdown.

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“The un-scouted part of the whole situation was the defense itself,” Harbaugh said. “We went from a 6-2 defense on the goal line … That’s been our defense on the goal line. For the years we’ve been here, we’ve never shown a 5-3 look. By taking Ahmad and moving him into the center to create the 5-3 … was un-scouted. We had not shown that, and I thought it was a great move by [defensive coordinator] Vic Fangio. We talked about it during the week. This is something that would be very difficult for the opposition if we get in that position, and Vic said, ‘Well, I hope we’re not in that position.’ Sure enough, we were in that position two times, and that planning, that preparation by our players, especially by Vic Fangio and the defensive coaches, was profound.”

The 49ers will need to be just as profound against Seattle’s inside run game, and Brooks is more than able to expound.

New England Patriots: Engage in Blount-force trauma.

When the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos last met, it was Tom Brady’s team that came away with a 34-31 overtime win. And that version was truly Brady’s team — New England’s passing game was front of mind as the Pats had to overcome a 24-0 Denver halftime lead to get back in the game in the first place. Brady completed 34 of 50 passes for 344 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions for his most important performance of the season. But that was when everything was rolling through the air, and Brady had Rob Gronkowski as a primary receiver.

Adaptability is the order of the day for Bill Belichick’s team, though. And when Gronkowski was lost for the season due to a torn ACL, a reset was in order. To get to the AFC Championship game against these very same Broncos, New England had to beat the Indianapolis Colts in the divisional round. This they did, by a 43-22 margin, but Brady was a bit player. He completed just 13 of 25 passes for 198 yards and no touchdowns, and left the scoring — not to mention the primary means of production — to running back LeGarrette Blount. The same man who carried the ball exactly two times in the Denver game was the main man behind the drive to the rematch, with 166 yards and four touchdowns on 24 carries.

“Once I get into the open field, they’re going to have to chase me,” Blount said after the game. “And if they catch me, they do. And if they don’t, they don’t. They usually don’t.”

Blount, traded by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in April 2013 for running back/track star Jeff Demps and a seventh-round pick after he fell out of favor with former head coach Greg Schiano, has found a new lease on life in Foxboro — he’s the latest of a new group of Pats who seem to find their best selves when they hit the door. And because he’s done so, Blount makes the Patriots dangerous in ways this team hasn’t been since it was winning Super Bowls a decade ago. Some who have played and beaten New England in those most important games in recent years are convinced that Blount can be the next Corey Dillon, who gained 1,635 yards for the Pats in 2004 — the first year after the Cincinnati Bengals decided they were tired of the headaches Dillon brought with his talent. That was the last season in which Belichick’s team took home the Lombardi Trophy.

“People always ask me, what’s the difference between today’s Patriots and when we faced them in 2007, when they had the most explosive offense until this year’s Denver Broncos,” former New York Giants linebacker Antonio Pierce told ESPN’s Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic on Wednesday. “They had no running game. We didn’t fear their running game. We dared them to try to run the football on us. But you imagine Tom Brady with a 245-, 250-pound back running downhill? That’s dangerous. You give that kind of quarterback a two-way option … when they had the most success in [Brady's] career as a Patriot — I’m talking about winning championships — it was all about the running game. You remember Corey Dillon. That big back, that factor where when he drops into play-action and throws the ball over the top … now, you’re saying, ‘Wow — how difficult is this? What do we do?”

The Colts’ problem wasn’t play-action, though — their problem was how to stop a back as big as Blount, who can pick up serious speed when he gets a head of steam. The Pats had supreme confidence in Blount’s ability to shred Indy’s defense, and there was one run concept that really killed the Colts — Blount as the single back with a two-tight end set, and a pulling left guard (Logan Mankins) to seal the right edge. This was good for an eight-yard gain with 4:58 left in the first half, when Blount blew through the right side of the Colts’ defense.

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Belichick went back to the well with 12:55 left in the game, and Blount put the game away with a 79-yard touchdown run. This time, the hole Blount had to run through was simply ridiculous, and a perfect indicator of how well New England’s offensive line is set up to accentuate his newfound status as a force multiplier.

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“That’s why we go with LG, make it easy there,” Belichick said Wednesday. “LeGarrette has given us good football all year long, he really has. Certainly he’s had some outstanding games recently, but he’s been a solid player for us all the way through. I think everybody has a lot of confidence in him. He’s done a good job in the passing game. He’s caught a couple check-downs, screen passes and stuff like that. He’s run the ball well. He has a great skill set: good vision, good size, good quickness, good speed, he’s a hard guy to tackle. I think he’s been solid; he’s been a solid player for us all year long.”

In Belichick-ese, “solid player” is a supreme compliment. It’s one that Blount has earned with no question, and it’s one that the Broncos’ defense could soon echo with regret.

Denver Broncos: Find a way to replace an indispensable slot machine.

Then again, the Patriots may want to investigate the possibilities of the slot receiver position in this Denver rematch in ways they may not have against the Colts. Because a Broncos defense that has managed to overcome a lot of injuries will unquestionably be in trouble without cornerback Chris Harris, who was lost for the rest of the postseason with a torn ACL in the third quarter of Denver’s 24-17 divisional win over the San Diego Chargers. When Harris left the game, Denver was up 17-0 and had everything in hand, which is a testament to Harris’ value — and that value had been evident all season. Especially in the slot, Harris has been one of the NFL’s best pass defenders over the last two seasons — and when the Broncos had to sub in veteran Quentin Jammer, the game tape got a lot uglier.

Jammer was directly responsible for two big plays from quarterback Philip Rivers to rookie receiver Keenan Allen — a 49-yard completion with 7:38 left in the game, and the 16-yard touchdown detailed below. On this play, San Diego had third-and-4 with Allen in the slot, and Jammer unfortunately proved that he could not mirror Harris’ knack for that role. On this play, Allen simply outran Jammer, who was reduced to the role of bystander.

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Jammer’s look said all that needed to be said… until the game was over.

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“I think we made some mental errors,” Jammer recalled. “I know me, myself, I made mental errors that led to three big plays. I sat on a route on fourth-and-3. I overthought everything. Me being a veteran player, there’s fourth-and-3, going against the wind, I’m thinking a curl, something just to get the first down and keep the chains moving [and I] let the guy run right by me. [Chargers receiver] Eddie Royal on third-and-6, I’m thinking one thing and he runs a completely different route. There’s a lot that we can clean up, and there’s a lot that I need to clean up.”

The Broncos have subscribed to the “next man up” philosophy, signing former Patriots defensive back Marquice Cole to try to provide some insight into New England’s ability to exploit slot mismatches.

“When you have people like Peyton [Manning], I’m pretty sure he knows more about the defense than even I would,” Cole said Wednesday. “Same thing with  Tom [Brady]. What could I say to Peyton Manning, you know? What, ‘They’re going to be in Cover-1, they’re going to be in Cover-2, they’re going to be in Cover.’ It is what it is. He is going to do his scouting, which I’m pretty sure he’s been doing before I even signed here, so there isn’t much I can do to help out.”

Whoever’s in charge of that aspect of Denver’s defense, they’ll have to keep an especially sharp eye on Julian Edelman, who caught 54 passes on 73 targets for 503 targets and six touchdowns from the slot this season. Against the Colts, Edelman, Danny Amendola and Kenbrell Thompkins combined for five catches in nine targets for 117 yards in various slot roles, and you can expect those numbers to get a bump in the championship round.

37 comments
PaulMaggard
PaulMaggard

funny he says that Gore busted one yet shows pictures of the plays and shows Richard Sherman being held also 2 other guys being held and not a ref saw it and yet you say they got gashed the only one they got gashed by was the ref's 

Danodin
Danodin

Both games are going to be incredible this year! The Broncos will have all they can handle getting Blount and Brady off the field and only Manning's brilliance will squeak them through this: 30-28


I think the Seahawks will show that they are a more complete team than the Niners this year, but I also think the Niners will keep the game interesting by being aggressive in the red zone and scoring three touchdowns. Going against their trend of kicking many field goals this year. Seahwaks 24-21. Seahawks will score an early touchdown.

GrogChe
GrogChe

I love it, suddenly the loss of Gronk is a non-factor and we'll forget about losing Cromartie in the first half against NE.  Bailey will be back better than ever, and according to Denver players is getting back into the groove playing well in the last few games.  The remaining backs will have an opportunity to practice and prepare for this game vs. being thrown in unexpectedly in the middle of the game.  Finally, having home field--feel rest assured that their will be pressure on Brady.

Voiceover310
Voiceover310

Everyone keeps talking about the Pats running game, Blount this & that. He had some good games but if anyone thinks that the Denver D is going to let him run all over them, that's just plain crazy. Patriots will be forced to throw the ball more during the AFC title game and they don't have the kind of weapons they used to. Amendola is good but he isn't a game changer. I expect to see a very low scoring game being decided by 6 points or less. 

JohnnyNacho
JohnnyNacho

The lengthy drives on both sides in the AFC will be something to see.  Brady and their running attack eating the clock vs Manning and the passing attack against Belichick.  Most games come down to turnovers and I expect this game to be much of the same.  Can the Pats get Manning to throw a couple picks?  Possibly a special teams mishap?  Game time temp will be unseasonably warm in Denver....around 55-60 degrees. 

ElvisHitler
ElvisHitler

meh, these games will both be routs. 49ers vs Denver in the SB.

PhillyPenn
PhillyPenn

Excellent, excellent article.  Farrar is one of the bext X's and O's writers out there.  

anon76
anon76

Nice article.  So to sum up, for the Pats, Seahawks, and 49ers, the key is to keep doing what they do well, while the key for the Broncos is to start panicking.  Got it.

scoutxx
scoutxx

If the only weak spot of Denver's D they can think of to write about is the loss of Chris Harris Jr (who, despite the narrative, has never been Denver's "best CB"), then this game will be a blow out. Denver has four CB's capable of blanketing Brady's receivers. 


The only way NE wins… Actually, I can't imagine a way where NE wins this game. I won't say it's impossible because… well… Brady… but a Pats win is highly unlikely. 

macman64
macman64

@PaulMaggard Yeah. If the refs had called every game right this year for Seattle, they wouldn't have given up any rushing yards at all.

gyffesme
gyffesme

@PhillyPennYep. When he did the first of these for Yahoo, I wrote him expressing my surprised delight that the Shutdown Corner writer -- usually more of a goof tone than a thoughtful analytic one -- was so capable an analyst. His reply was pleasant and indicated this was his original forte and he hoped to return to more writing like it; looks like he has, to Yahoo's loss and our gain.

M as in Mancy
M as in Mancy

@scoutxx Do you even watch the games? Denver's secondary has 1 competent, healthy safety (Adams) and 1 competent, healthy CB (Rogers-Cromartie). Everyone else is either dinged up (Bailey, Moore) or unreliable (Jammer, Webster, Bolden, Huff, Moore, Carter). 

Look at the advanced metrics (Pro Football Focus)  for Harris compared to other CBs, not just on Denver's roster but around the league. Then add in his value in run defense. The guy is one or two more good seasons from building an All-Pro reputation...if his knee hadn't exploded.

Vegas favors Denver for a reason, but don't think NE won't make them earn every point.

drmoze
drmoze

@scoutxx Really? Same way they held the Chargers down in the second half last week? And NE has serious ground and air options, as noted above. At the very least it'll be a strain on the Denver D. Could be worse if Belichick/Brady prepare a game plan to capitalize on any weaknesses....

Voiceover310
Voiceover310

@BradPitt @ElvisHitler He can't afford weed, he's been huffing paint thinner all season. Every week he gets on one and spews his blowout predictions. NONE of which have happened. He went on and on about how many points the Niners would smash on the Packers, calling people morons,homer's,etc etc. He didn't post after any of the games so he wouldn't have to eat a bunch of crow. Elvis has permanently LEFT THE BUILDING if you know what I mean. 

scoutxx
scoutxx

@M as in Mancy @scoutxx Ihenacho is a fantastic safety, although he's also a rookie. DRC, Bailey, Carter, and Jammer are more than capable of shutting down NE's scrub receivers. Harris is great, but it's not like he's another Von Miller. The drop off in talent between him and the others is not as great as the media created narrative would have you believe. 


I agree that NE will be tough because of Brady and Billy B, but I can't imagine this game will be as tough as SD, who was the only team this year to really challenge Denver.

GrogChe
GrogChe

@M as in Mancy@scoutxx  Have we forgotten Cromartie (Denver's best CB) left the game before halftime, and Bailey didn't even play in the first game?  There is more than enough to offset the loss of Harris--oh, and did I forget to mention that guy Gronk isn't playing this time around.  Last I checked NE has only two healthy wide receivers.

anon76
anon76

@drmoze


Denver has a top 10 defense in terms of difficulty of moving the ball against them.  I'm sure the Patriots offense will still be able to score, but it won't be a serious mismatch.

The Broncos Offense vs. the Patriot defense on the other hand, that is a total mismatch.  The Pats' lack of pass rush vs. the best passing-blocking o line in the league will make it extremely difficult for the Pats secondary to hang with all of Denver's receiving threats, while the depleted rush defense of the Pats has shown no ability to stop a run game of the Broncos' caliber.

M as in Mancy
M as in Mancy

@scoutxx I goofed. I realized you meant Tony Carter. I like his tenacity, but the coaches deem him to be unreliable. He is sketchy tackling, has poor to mediocre ball skills which leads to panic penalties, and doesn't always play smart situational football. 

A good situational player, but not trusted on a stage like this. (But we have no choice...)

M as in Mancy
M as in Mancy

@scoutxx @M as in Mancy I like Ihenacho, I really do. But he's been dinged up throughout the season and it limits him. Also as a first year starter, he is still raw at understanding the offense's intentions based on their formations or personnel. It shows in how often he's caught out of position. 

DRC is $$$. Bailey is one of the best WHEN HEALTHY. If "Carter" refers to Quinton Carter, he hasn't played this year because of injury as well as a casino fraud investigation. And at his peak Jammer was only a solid CB. He hasn't been there in years. We have serious depth issues, and spread O's will only expose it more.

NE's "scrub receiver's" don't scare the Broncos. Tom Brady and Belichick are the heads of the snake and it's never smart to count them out.

M as in Mancy
M as in Mancy

@anon76 @UnishowponyWherebeef Anon, I agree. Denver's run D is pretty decent and doesn't get as much credit as I think they deserve. That being said, SD's blueprint to win in week 15 was executed perfectly. We didn't lose because of a ton of mistakes, we lost because both lines of scrimmage were dominated. Don't think for a second that Brady and Belichick won't emphasize this.

M as in Mancy
M as in Mancy

@MMoney0021 @anon76 @drmoze MMoney, you are right about NE's defense. Ninko and Jones are having great seasons. And Collins is looking like the Adalius Thomas jack-of-all-trades X factor. The front 7 guys are stepping up big time.

And out of all the injuries, NE's secondary is pretty healthy. Talib is dinged, but he's still a hell of a player. 

This isn't going to be the track meet that people expect.

M as in Mancy
M as in Mancy

@GrogChe @UnishowponyWherebeef @anon76 I agree that Denver's mistakes left points on the field, but there are just as many turning point plays that SD didn't make. They easily could have scored over 30...

Coulda, shoulda, wouldas don't count. 

anon76
anon76

@UnishowponyWherebeef @anon76 


The Broncos offense is very prolific, but rarely jumps out to an early lead.  Most of their big scoring games came from drives in the 3rd & 4th quarter, up until then opposing teams could rush to their hearts content.  In fact, the teams that the Broncos played this season averaged  27.2 rushing attempts per game.  Broncos opponents' averaged 26.3 rushes per game- basically teams ran against the Broncos as often as they ran against everyone else.  The difference was that against the Broncos the teams averaged 3.9 yards per carry, while on the season they were averaging 4.3 yards per carry.  That's why people say that the Broncos have a good run D.  Still don't believe me?  Look at more advanced metrics like Football Outsiders' grades for rush D (Broncos rank 9th and 3rd, respectively).

scoutxx
scoutxx

@anon76 @drmoze  You've got to figure that NE's beat up D won't be able to stop Denver's O, and they'll most likely score every time they have the ball. That will take away NE's run game early and make Brady and his sore shoulder and scrub receivers the focus of Denver's beat up D. Since Denver's scrub backs are better than NE's scrub receivers, I don't see the outcome of this game being too much in doubt… And as long as Seattle takes SF out of the mix, Denver should waltz through the SB and come out with a fairly easy win against the Hawks. 


Unless they make dumb mistakes, which they've done a lot this season. 

scoutxx
scoutxx

@UnishowponyWherebeef @anon76  "what happened to Denver's offense in the 2nd half vs San Diego?"


Chris Harris went out and Rivers picked apart his backup that hadn't taken any reps during the week.


It's the same thing that happened in the NE/Den game during the regular season. DRC went out and was replaced by a rookie and Brady was able to take advantage of him. Once Denver made adjustments, Denver once again shut Brady down. NE only won that game because of a mistake on special teams allowed for a short field goal. Had DRC not gone down, that game would've been a blowout in NE. 


Even if Denver's stats are based on big leads and teams playing from behind, what makes you think NE's defense can stop, or even slow down Denver? NE will be just like every other team?


Another point about San Diego… They are the only team Denver has faced this year that was able to slow them down without having to rely on Denver mistakes.


NE can win this game, but only if Denver comes out flat or makes mistakes. If they show up and play their A game, there is nothing Brady and the Pats can do to stop them. 

MMoney0021
MMoney0021

@anon76 @drmoze Our defense is not a total mismatch...not even close actually.  We have a deep secondary of guys that can actually play man vs many of these receivers.  And a lack of a pass rush?  Ninkovich and Chandler Jones have combined for 19.5 sacks and I am not even mentioning our newly found X Factor in Collins who can both rush the passer and cover tight ends due to his size and speed.  

GrogChe
GrogChe

@UnishowponyWherebeef@anon76 @UnishowponyWherebeef@anon76Four plays--Welker dropped pass (TD), Decker dropped pass (TD), Decker tripping over his own feet (TD), Decker handing the ball back to SD on onside kick.  Minus the mistakes, Denver is in the 40 plus point range.  For Denver, this game comes down to one thing--MINIMIZE THE MISTAKES!

UnishowponyWherebeef
UnishowponyWherebeef

@anon76 Denver's defensive statistics have to be interpreted relative to the actual game situations.


Denver's offense is very prolific and often jumps out to a large lead. Teams abandon the running game. Denver can then concentrate on the passing game - keeping the safety deeper. 


Think Patriots 2007 when they were 16-0 and had a top rated defense. 


So how does Denver's defense rank during the 1st half vs 2nd half?


And what happened to Denver's offense in the 2nd half vs San Diego?


Those issues need to be resolved.