PRO PS WELCOME TO THE NFL – Divisional Saturday

Posted: January 13, 2018 in All Things Power Spread

Now that Power Spread has found its way into the NFL, I will be taking a look at the NFL Playoffs from a PS Perspective 

TEAMS

Atlanta Falcons

Coaches

Last week I detailed the effects of Atlanta changing both their offensive and defensive coordinators for this year. In the Wild Card game Atlanta’s defense continued their top level play the second half of the year. The Offense still had it’s struggles but put together a nice drive late to essentially put the game out of reach. The Rams inexperience played a large part in the win. The Eagles are also inexperienced, but not to the extent of the Rams. It won’t be easy pickings for Atlanta this week but they will definitely have the experience edge again.

Offense

As it has most of the season, Atlanta’s offense struggled early. The Rams actually moved the ball a little better in the first quarter. Atlanta’s 3-0 lead was due to a muffed punt deep in Rams territory. The Rams also muffed a kickoff deep in there territory early in the 2nd Quarter leading to the games first Touchdown and a 13-0 lead by the Falcons.

Steve Sarkisian as always showed aggressive variety in his schemes, but the play calling was actually more aggressive as well -especially late in the game- making me think that head coach Dan Quinn is loosening his leash on Sarkisian for the playoffs. Quinn is a defensive coach who wants a time consuming heavy power run game. In today’s football this only works consistently when space on the field is “opened” from a mix of spread concepts. Thus Power Spread. This aggressive play calling had a lot to do with the Falcons keeping pressure on the inexperienced Rams and sealing the deal late.

Besides Quinn, the other issue for the Falcon’s Offense has been QB Matt Ryan’s struggles in Sarkisian’s scheme. Ryan continues to lock in too long on personnel+design rather than quickly finding the space either with the pass or using his legs. That being said there continues to be small improvements. By the end of the game Sarkisian seemed to go back to his West Coast BYU roots a bit and use quick route designs and screens to make it easier for Ryan.

Sarkisian also used misdirection brilliantly on the last drive. First on the big screen play to Mohammed Sanu. Then on the play action TD pass to Julio Jones that effectively sealed the game. Everything looked to be power left, while Jones snuck out in the right flat. Even on that play, Ryan’s ball handling was too slow for this scheme. He needed a quick fake then get rid of the ball. His set up took long, Jones was now covered, but Ryan improvised a last second touch pass that landed in Jones lap. Ryan struggles in space/time concepts, but pulled it out with his great touch. This play was representative of the whole game as Sarkisian creatively found ways to free Julio Jones, but Ryan struggled to get in synch.

The Oline is blocking well now in the run game though they still struggle with fast aggressive pressure against the pass. The Eagles will be every bit as aggressive and fast as the Rams. Probably more so. But like the Rams, and many of today’s fast but undersized defenses, the Eagles can be bullied with power sets. Atlanta will need to continue to try and spread the field with Ryan to set up a pounding run game, which will in turn set up the great play-action/misdirection schemes of Sarkisian.

Defense

Quinn not only let his Offense fly a little more aggressively this game, he also mixed the blitz and zone cover schemes more than usual on Defense. That definitely contributed to the Rams young QB, Jared Goff, struggling early. With games on the line, many times in the past Quinn will go straight 4 Man Rush / Cover 1 Man Under and get burned as he did late in last year’s Super Bowl. This game he actually kept a bit more aggressive mix.

Because of all the man coverage the Falcons run, they are very susceptible to a mobile QB. Teams that play man a lot, means that players are following a receiver all over the field and have their back to their QB during the play. Thus a running Quarterback can exploit this by taking off down the field before the coverage knows he’s on the run. Goff is not a runner and neither is the current Eagle QB, so this will favor Atlanta’s scheme once again.

The one place the Eagles could hurt the Falcons is with the heavy power run game with their big RB. The Falcons are fast, but small. The Rams didn’t mix this in enough early. Partly because of Goff’s nerves and struggle with the Falcon new defensive mix. In hindsight (always 20/20), the Rams should have forced the Falcon’s hand more with big aggressive power sets in addition to the spread schemes. The Eagles have a powerful Oline and RB that could exploit the Falcons as long as they can keep the field spread with their pass game.

Philadelphia Eagles

Coaches

What an amazing job by Doug Pederson, protege of Andy Reid. The difference between Pederson and Reid is that Pederson seems to know how to keep it simple and aggressive – ALL THE TIME. Even when the Eagles brilliant DC Jim Schwartz gets a little too passive and one dimensional, Pederson makes sure to remind him that this team is first and foremost about Aggression. All NFL coaches talk about Aggression. Few consistently do it. Pederson and his staff top of the list!

Pederson should have gotten Coach of the Year last year for the incredibly quick turn around of the Eagles from the Chip Kelly mess. He may get it this year.

Offense

OC Frank Reich, the former back up QB great of the Buffalo Bills, has synched with Pederson brilliantly for 2 years. Much of the Carson Wentz success is due to these two coaches. They have brought Wentz along very slowly, adding in just enough new concepts every step of the way. Wentz could barely read defenses his first year. Now he’s like a Pre-Snap Pro, though he still struggles with some post snap reads. Most importantly, Reich and Pederson made sure to let Wentz do what he does best – Improvise. They set up all kinds of simple RunPassOptions(RPOs) for him while encouraging him to get out of the pocket if initial reads weren’t available. Wentz has taken to it brilliantly becoming a sort of new style quintessential PRO PS QB.

Unfortunately Wentz is out for the year. The art of the “slide” may be something to work on next with this big guy, who was starting to get a little too loose with his running. Wentz is almost like a big man’s Doug Flutie. Tall bodies are usually an easier target for big hits. That’s thoughts for the future. For the present there’s Nick Foles.

Foles does not have Wentz’ running or improv skills, but actually makes quicker decisions + better reads in the spread pass game. He also may have a quicker release. For sure he has more big game experience. All of these attributes will help counteract the great charisma that Wentz had not only with his team, but with the fans of Philadelphia.

The recent struggles on Offense should not be overplayed. The Eagles had a letdown after basically being in charge of the NFC all year. Their Defense let down first, then the offense. The terrible weather didn’t help either, but more than anything it was emotional, mental and somewhat physical. It wasn’t just Foles. It was bad blocking, running and dropped passes as well.

The Foles led offense actually looked good against the Rams and Giants. Expect to see that offense, not the one you saw the last two games.  The line will block better. The great set of RBs and WRs will play better as well. Foles started to try to hard when the team broke down. Looking for downfield throws instead of just using the space. I believe Foles will get back to making much better decisions in the passing game as all the personnel picks it up.

The big problem for this playoff game is the Matchup. The Falcons speed and DScheme is actually a good match versus non mobile QBs. Unfortunately for the Eagles they could use Wentz’s running and improv skills for this matchup. The good news is that Foles is better as a pure pocket passer in a spread pass offense. He should be able to spread the field some, which will open up the Falcons smaller speed players to heavy power sets and big back attacks by LeGarrette Blount and Jay Ajayi. If this starts to happen, Pederson will eat Atlanta alive. When Atlanta’s D gives up some yards, their players tend to overreact – especially if Quinn gets conservative on the schemes- leaving them vulnerable to screens, play-action and misdirection.

The other positive for the Eagles Offense is Fole’s experience. For all the Wentz love by not only the fans in Philly, but by the whole NFL, he is susceptible to big turnovers. We didn’t see it much this year. Partially because of Pederson’s brilliant schemes + teaching. Partially because of Wentz’ maturity. But we have seen big mistakes from Wentz before. This is natural for a QB who’s strength is to improvise. Now we will never know, but it just could be that Foles “safer” approach may actually help the inexperienced Eagles in their first playoff game in a couple of years. As long as the bad matchup doesn’t get the Eagles first.

Defense

Schwartz’s defense has been great for 2 years. He is a Jeff Fisher protege. Fisher at one time was a very aggressive Defensive coach. He came from the Buddy Ryan line of aggression. While Fisher went more passive as he got older, Schwartz seems to have gone the other way. I think in his year out of football he studied some of what Buddy’s son Rex was doing with his brother Rob in Buffalo. Schwartz still stick’s to 4-3 with man coverage a lot, but he mixes more than ever before – both in blitz and coverage – while still keeping it simple enough for his players to fly to the ball.

This Defense really only had one bad game all year. They also showed good depth the last game of the year. They picked up speedy LB Dannell Ellerbe which helps offset the loss earlier in the year of Darrin Hicks. Many of the backups that played versus the Cowboys did well against the 1st string of Dallas. This defense will not only be very good in these playoffs, it can also withstand injuries. Something that cannot be said about the Offense, which has questionable depth everywhere except at RB.

Tennessee Titans

Coaches

What a comeback last week by the Titans. Helped of course by Andy Reid once again going conservative in the playoffs. The Chiefs started out aggressive, but shut it down in the 2nd Half both on O and D. Still, Tennessee’s Mike Mularkey and his staff deserve a lot of credit. The Offense in particular for Tennessee went to more Spread sets in the 2nd Half and picked up the Tempo as well. They have a bunch of exciting young talent that can really catch fire, WHEN they are set free with solid PS schemes.

Offense

A little conservative early in the game last week. This is typical Mularkey. He likes creative plays and sometimes overthinks it, but other times stays too obvious. He will show power and run power or show pass and throw. He will take a great dual threat QB in Marcus Mariota and keep him tight in the pocket every passing play. In the 2nd Half, Mularkey mixed up formations, schemes and calls. He let Mariota improvise a bit more and really spread the field to set up the runs of Mariota along with the power attack of talented Alabama alum Chris Henry.

Offensive Variety enables Mariota to drop into the pocket and hit quick passes all over the field. IF Mularkey doesn’t mix aggressively in this manner, then Mariota’s a sitting duck in the pocket. Reading defenses is not his strength. The Defense needs to be guessing and on its heels due to Aggressive Variety from the OScheme. THEN AND ONLY THEN is Mariota effective and at times remarkable.

Defense

Dick LeBeau will always have a place in PS Defense History as the man who brought the Aggressive Mix to Football. There were great thinkers before him. Clark Shaughnessy, Joe Collier, Bill Arnsparger to name a few. Joe Lee Dunn was off the charts as early as the 1980s experimenting with anything from 9 man blitzes to 10 man zone drops. But it was LeBeau, along with Dom Capers, who really cemented the idea of “Zone Blitz” to produce Aggressive Flexible Variety for a Defense to combat any sort of Offense.

All that being said, LeBeau still struggles to stop a well oiled Power Spread Offense. Lucky for him he doesn’t have to face Power Spread in it’s pure form as he would if he were a college coach. Still, the Pro PS schemes today are good enough, especially with a great passing QB at the helm or a dual threat athlete running the Offense. In the case of New England, LeBeau will be trying to slow down one of the most successful passing QBs in the history of the game.

Tennessee is not without talent on Defense, but it’s not enough. Nor are they experienced enough to handle Tom Brady for a whole game. LeBeau will have a solid gameplan. I actually wonder if he will account for Brady’s legs? Few teams do and Brady always burns these teams at just the right time with a long first down run.

In the end it’s probably in NE’s hands. LeBeau’s Titan Defense will have their moments, but how many for how long will depend on how well the Pats Offense is playing. If they are not on the same page – especially Brady and OC Josh McDaniels – then the Titans will take advantage with big plays. Big plays that could be the spark they need to energize and play out of their minds with nothing to lose and everything to gain!

New England Patriots

Coaches

Not much needs to be said here. Great Head Coach and two great coordinators. They had a lot of injuries and changeover throughout the roster this year, but they use the free agent market better than any other team. They picked up a bunch of great players before the year began and throughout the whole season. They are primed for another Super Bowl run.

Offense

Brady is Brady. Belichick is Belichick. The Pats are the Pats. But Josh McDaniels is Josh McDaniels. This year there seems to be somewhat of a disconnect between the three when it comes to the Pats Offense. In fact, I noticed it going back to last year. Many times the Offense was not on the same page and Brady had a lot of bad moments before the one great moment everyone remembers in the 4th Quarter of the Super Bowl.

A lot of what I’ve studied with the Pats Offense this year leads me to believe that McDaniels is trying to incorporate more “spread” concepts into the NFL with Brady and NE. Bill Belichick was really the first NFL coach to bring the “spread” idea from college to the NFL in the early 00s when he met with Urban Meyer. McDaniels was supposedly by his side during this time and saw the benefits of the Spread before many others. Belichick created a passing spread scheme based on the Erhardt/Perkins Power Pass schemes of the 80s. Former NE OC Charlie Weiss had a big hand in combining these schemes along with some of his Run & Shoot background into a great pro spread system. This is when Brady took off as a great passing QB and the NE Offense never looked back.

McDaniels actually tried to run Power Spread with Tim Tebow (Meyer’s former Florida QB) in 2009 while at Denver. There was some early success, but it was a little too much too soon. Power Spread eventually made it’s way into the NFL to stay and now I think McDaniels is trying to teach a different type of concept to Brady. Instead of focusing on Personnel Matchups and Route Designs be it Option Routes or Planned Routes, I think McDaniel is trying to get Brady to find the Space in Tempo. In other words – continue to get the ball out of his hands quick, but instead of all the pre-reads and matchups, get it to any player who’s in open space. Quickly. Anywhere on the field.

This may sound simple and easy, but it is not. Especially for long time NFL QBs who have different thought patterns that have produced long term success.  I believe McDaniels spread concepts will one day be the norm in the NFL, but for now there seems to be tension between QB and Coordinator and possibly the Head Coach as well. This isn’t good.

I could be wrong about all of this, but even if I am there is no doubt that NE’s Offense is not always on the same page. It happens more than it should. The way it is now, NE could win another Super Bowl in a month’s time, but the seeds for disaster are there. The margins in football today are slimmer than ever. The only team with a ridiculous talent disparity in all of football is Alabama. No one in the NFL owns that type of disparity in the NFL Even New England.

Defense

New England had some major changes in personnel to start the year due to injury and free agency. Luckily they kept their two talented Coordinators and obviously their Head Coach. After a slow start on Defense, due to even more injuries, NE has played well.

At the start of the year I noticed a lot of zone coverage mix, but not much pressure up front or man coverage. Maybe this was due to all the injuries and new personnel, but I also think DC Mike Patricia tends to overthink his schemes a bit. Sometimes keeping it simple is the best policy. I felt that we would soon see more man coverage, more simple zone schemes (Cover 1,3,or 5 out of a Cover 2) and more blitz pressure. Sure enough we did and the Pats defense played well on D the rest of the year.

They will mix, bring pressure and make life hard for Mariota. He will need his very best improv skills on this day. He will also need his coach to keep up aggressive variety and not be intimidated by NE and it’s crowd. There needs to be plenty of spread sets mixed with some power sets. Breaking tendency and mixing from both. Most importantly, designed runs for Mariota. Belichick will put a spy on him in passing downs, so the place to use his legs and open up space is the running downs. Read Options, play action, rollouts, speed options – even line him up at wr and get it to him on a reverse or pass.

USE MARIOTA’S ATHLETICISM.

His first playoff experience will be invaluable, but like his Defense, he will need some help from NE. Good Luck.

PROGNOSTICATION

PS Mess + Playoff Inexperience

DON’T BET ON THESE GAMES! Totally unpredictable this year. A PS Mess. Again, a lot will come down to who can stay aggressive. Especially with the game on the line.

In addition, there are a number of new teams in these NFL playoffs. Inexperience certainly hurt the Rams, Tennessee early and both the Bills and Jaguars. The only experienced teams last week were Atlanta and Carolina. One won, the other came close. The team to which Carolina lost, the Saints, had valuable experience at the key positions of Head Coach and Quarterback.

This week we again will have the Jaguars and Titans as inexperienced teams. This time they will be joined by the Eagles and Vikings. The Patriots and Steelers are hardcore mainstays of the playoffs. The Pats for the last 20 years. The Steelers arguably the last 40! They would also be the two favorites to win the Super Bowl at this stage.

Of the four inexperienced teams, the one with the best shot to win is the Eagles. They have some experience on their roster. Their backup QB is actually more experienced than the injured starter. There’s also decent experience on their coaching staff. The Vikings aren’t far behind for the same reasons. The Jags and Titans are probably in trouble.

Is there any chance that inexperience trumps experience? Yes. Especially in the case of the Saints and Falcons. Both of these teams should actually be the favorites on the road, but if the Eagles and Vikings stay aggressive in their schemes the whole game – even under pressure – then they have the skill and confidence to win. Again, I go with the Eagles over the Vikings because of Pederson’s ability to stay aggressive and the players he has this year to do it.

Out of the 2 least experienced teams I give the nod to the Titans. I love their energy right now. Dick LeBeau is still an aggressive top notch DC and Head Coach Mike Mularkey has his moments of great scheme/play calling. IF Mularkey stays aggressive on Offense and New England’s struggles at all with their Offense, then Tennessee could pull off the upset of the century.

But don’t bet on it! Or any of these games for that matter. Even the Steeler game, which should be a gimmie. The football landscape is too unpredictable right now.

Picks

Atlanta at Philadelphia

The plan on offense for both teams is very similar.

Spread pass to open space  >  power runs to control the game >  play-action/misdirection to put it away.

It would seem that Matt Ryan has a better shot at step 1 than Nick Foles, but I’m not sure. Ryan did seem a bit more comfortable in Sarkisian’s scheme at the end of last game than he has most of the year. Will Sarkisian keep the tweaks he made last week? Will the Eagles top DScheme with Schwartz foil these plans?

For sure Nick Foles is better synched with his offensive coaches than Ryan. Yes, I know, it didn’t look like it the last 2 games but that had to do with a big letdown by the whole team. Probably would have happened even with Wentz healthy. Don’t expect such lethargy now that it’s playoff time in Philly.

It will be cold (20s), but sunny. As long as there’s no bad wind, I do expect to see some offense from both teams. I also expect a lot of good defense as well. This could easily come down to the wire. Atlanta has the experience, but Philly has the aggression led by Pederson. Aggression can trump inexperience.

In the middle of the season, I really thought that the Eagles were going to get the #1 playoff spot, but lose a heartbreaker in their first playoff game due to inexperience – especially at QB. Now with a more experienced QB I’m not sure. I love Sarkisian’s OScheme, but Ryan doesn’t so much. I’m not sure Quinn does either. I’m afraid Atlanta’s offense could backfire in a tight game against an aggressive D. More than that, Quinn can get conservative on Defense in big situations. If he does, then Foles may have the chance he needs….and take it!

If Atlanta plays aggressive from beginning to end on both O and D, then they could run away with the game. Their blitz mix could destroy the immobile Foles. If they synch on O, then Sarkisian’s schemes could completely fool an over aggressive Eagles Defense. The game could get out of hand quick and leave the Philly fans screaming that it was all because of the Wentz injury and the Pederson coaching. 🙂

Neither is true of course, but one thing is for sure – the Eagles cannot afford injuries on Offense. The OLine or QB especially. The line is thin and Nate Sudfeld, who actually has qualities of both Wentz & Foles, is too young and unproven.

This is an absolute Toss Up to me (where have we heard that before – oh last week). I know I said Atlanta could kill them – they could – but I also think Atlanta’s victory over the Rams is overrated as is the Wentzless Eagles’ performance to end the regular season. The Rams really didn’t play well. The Eagles just let down with an almost meaningless end to a great year.

The Eagles were never just about Wentz and they aren’t now. More than anything their success is about Doug Pederson and his staff. The schemes, teaching and personnel moves.

In the end, I sort of like that the Eagles had a letdown. Rarely do teams play perfect all year. Get it out of your system before the playoffs start. If the Eagles were perfect all regular season I would be more nervous. Look at the 2016 Cowboys. Flying into the playoffs, then having a week off to break momentum. They fought hard to come back in their playoff game, but lost a heartbreaker. I thought the Eagles were headed for the same fate. I’m not so sure now. The Wentz injury could actually be a blessing in disguise. At least for this game.

I am going to make a bold move and change my pick. Instead of Atlanta in a close one I will go with the Eagles in a close one.  A big defensive play and the offense plays well enough. Toss up game that the Falcons could roll, but I will take after Pederson and make an aggressive pick. Eagles in a close one.  The Eagle Fans will be going bonkers, but then there’s another game to play next week.  🙂

Tennessee at New England

Experience, scheme, talent. On paper this looks like a blowout. My criticism of the scheme issues above for NE are minor compared to the fact that McDaniels and Patricia are two of the best coordinators in the NFL. Belichick is a legend for good reason. The 3 of them together are incomparable. Oh yeah – it’s in New England.

So what chance does Tennessee have? They are riding high right now. Reminds me of Georgia in College Football, who played way beyond expectations at the end of the year. Momentum is real. So is energy and Tennessee has it like no other team except maybe the Saints at the moment. IF the Patriots struggle with anything at all for any length of time, it could open the door for the Titans.

The issues on Offense between Brady and McDaniels may just suddenly disappear this weekend. Maybe only to reappear the following week. Or maybe not at all. Will they be on the same page? Who knows. But if they are, then I don’t see any chance for Tennessee. If they are not, then LeBeau can hold the offense down enough for Mariota and company to score some points and win this game.

I have to go with NE. Either in a blowout or close game. Probably something in between where they win solidly at the end. But….do not be surprised at something crazy happening. I won’t be. Tennessee can do this, but they will need help. In my opinion, they have a better shot than Jacksonville will have at Pittsburgh the following day.

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