One of the fascinating aspects of playoff football is the chess match between play-callers. The subtle adjustments and tactics by coordinators often determine games, and those moves are particularly pivotal in rematches.
In the wild-card game between the Packers and Eagles, the war of wits between Green Bay defensive coordinator Dom Capers and Philadelphia coach Andy Reid is shaping up to be must-see television.
Do you take Rodgers or Vick? What about Green Bay’s receivers vs. Philly’s? Steve Wyche breaks down each position to see who will come out on top in the wild-card matchup. More …
Capers employs an exotic 3-4 scheme that terrorizes opponents with a series of overload and gut blitzes. The constant pressure forces quarterbacks into negative plays (sacks and turnovers) and throws a blanket over opposing offenses. As a result, the Packers ranked fifth in total defense (309.1 yards per game) and allowed the second-fewest points (15 points per game).
Reid collaborates with coordinator Marty Mornhinweg to direct the league’s most explosive offense. The duo features a modified version of the West coast offense, which includes more vertical routes and screens than some of the adaptations of the scheme used throughout the league. With one of the fastest offenses, the Eagles have blended deception into their scheme to create big-play opportunities in the passing game. The results have been spectacular as the team led the league in completions over 40 yards (15) and had the third-highest scoring offense (27.4 points per game).
Looking back at their Week 1 meeting, Capers used a series of exotic four-man rushes out of a 3-4 with some form of two-deep coverage behind it. The Packers’ corners extensively pressed the Eagles’ receivers on the outside to disrupt the timing of the routes, and the constant presence of two-deep safeties eliminated deep balls to DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin. With the Eagles’ most explosive weapons neutralized, the varied four-man rush confused Kevin Kolb and forced him into a series of errant throws and miscues.
Clay Matthews played a major role in the four-man rush, routinely defeating blockers off the edge and going up the gut on stunts. He single-handedly harassed Kolb out of the pocket and the relentless pressure eventually forced the QB to the sideline.
Michael Vick took over for Kolb, but the Packers didn’t adjust their game plan despite his mobility and athleticism. They continued to pressure primarily with four rushers and occasionally mixed in a five-man attack using Charles Woodson off the edge from his nickel back position. The premise of playing coverage instead of pressure was sensible considering Vick’s struggles as a pocket passer during his time in Atlanta, but he was very effective working the underneath areas of the zone on quick-rhythm passes. He also avoided throwing the ball into traffic and showed a willingness to work the ball down the field using high-percentage passes.
Vick still relied on his athleticism to get out of jams. He frequently rolled away from free rushers, and his ability to get to the perimeter was problematic for the Packers. Although they finished with six sacks (Vick was sacked three times), Vick recorded a 100-yard rushing game on only 11 attempts. More importantly, he sparked an offense that seemingly lacked juice prior to his insertion.
With Vick at the helm, the Eagles won five of his first six starts, as he tossed 10 touchdowns with no interceptions during that span. He also added five rushing touchdowns and re-established his reputation as the league’s most dynamic playmaker. As a true dual threat quarterback, Vick made the Eagles nearly impossible to stop and defensive coordinators were forced to scramble for a solution.
While it didn’t appear that there was a remedy for the new-and-improved Vick, his last six games revealed some strategies that appeared to give him problems.
Opponents started to use a series of pressures from sub-packages (nickel or dime personnel) that disrupted the timing and flow of the passing game. The extra defensive backs provided a better opportunity to neutralize Vick’s speed and explosiveness. With more safeties and corners on the field, opponents were more effective confining him to the pocket and the extensive use of nickel and dime personnel made it difficult for him to identify potential rushers from the second level. Unable to consistently anticipate or diagnose the blitz, Vick has struggled sliding protection to the correct side. The free rushers have repeatedly harassed him in the pocket. Consequently, he turned the ball over nine times in his last six games and took 16 sacks in those contests.
In studying tapes of the Eagles’ recent games, the blitzes that have worked best have involved a defensive back attacking from the slot off the left-hand side. By rushing Vick from his strong side, defenses are forcing him to flee the pocket to the right, which makes it difficult for him to throw on the run. To bolster the effectiveness of the blitz, opponents have disguised a double A-gap blitz prior to the snap to force the Eagles to squeeze their protection. By positioning linebackers in the center-guard gaps on each side of the center, foes are making the Eagles account for pressure up the middle, which shortens the corner for the blitzing defensive back off the slot and frequently leads to an unobstructed path to the quarterback. The Vikings and Giants had tremendous success utilizing this approach, and the Packers will certainly copy the tactic to generate pressure.
Woodson has the speed and athleticism to harass Vick off the edge. He is quick enough to run him down from the backside, which could lead to a strip or forced fumble. Capers is very aggressive with his blitz packages and will test Vick’s courage, toughness and decision-making by consistently dialing up pressure.
However, the decision to blitz Vick comes with risks. The Eagles will craft a strategy that will attempt to take advantage of the Packers’ aggressiveness. In looking at the strengths of Philadelphia’s personnel and its play-calling tendencies, there are a few tactics that could appear. One of the biggest strategies that could alleviate some of the pressure on Vick is getting the ball to LeSean McCoy on draws and screens. He is a dynamic runner in space and his ability to make defenders miss leads to big plays. He had some success in the first meeting, but didn’t receive enough touches early to truly impact the game. However, he should be a major focal point in the rematch and early success could set the table for the rest of the offense.
Brent Celek should also enjoy a bigger role. He only tallied two receptions in the first meeting, but the Packers’ combination of blitz and two-deep coverage will make him the primary target on several routes. The tight end is an effective weapon against pressure because it gives the quarterback a quick option to pinpoint before the rush can get home. Celek also has the speed and athleticism to get into open seams against two-deep coverage. He is nifty enough to elude physical linebackers at the line and the middle dropper will have a tough time staying with him down the field. If the Packers opt to sit back in soft zone coverage to limit big plays on the outside, Celek could get six to eight targets as an underneath option.
The Eagles are also likely to make some tweaks to their playbook. One of the adjustments that Reid and Mornhinweg will explore is the extensive use of bunch formations. By aligning two or more receivers in close proximity, the Eagles can force the Packers’ corners to loosen up in coverage, which will allow Jackson and Maclin to avoid confrontations at the line. The use of crossing routes out of these cluster-type formations will also alter the drops of the underneath defenders on zone blitzes, thus giving Vick high-percentage targets against man or zone pressures. With the natural rubs that occur when crossers are used from bunch formations, the Eagles could spring Jackson or Maclin loose for a big gain on a quick catch and run.
Reid will also create a play for Vick to take a deep shot within the first 15 snaps to see if they can catch the Packers off guard. Typically, those deep throws occur off a misdirection run fake, which lures linebackers and safeties close to the line of scrimmage and allows one of the speedy receivers to get one-on-one coverage. Philadelphia also wants to score quickly to put its defense in a position to play with a lead, so look for a quick strike in the opening minutes.
While the amount of talent on the field will be on full display, the winner of this intriguing matchup will ultimately be decided by the play-caller who can outwit the competition.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.