PRO PS WELCOME TO THE NFL – Divisional Sunday

Posted: January 14, 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

Jacksonville Jaguars

Coaches

As I said last week, the Jaguars management has done a nice job of keeping a lot of the Gus Bradley regime and talent heading into this year. Bradley was doing a good job, but ownership felt it needed a change. So far it has worked.

Doug Marrone has Bradley’s protege at DC and his own guy at OC. They run a power heavy ProPS with a running QB on O and an aggressive mix on D. The O struggled in some nasty weather last week, but the forecast, while cold, won’t be as windy this week. That being said, the Steelers will be a much greater task than the Bills. Especially being at home with revenge on their mind.

Offense

There’s spread pass and there’s spread run. Jacksonville is a spread run team. QB Blake Bortles running ability sets up inside power runs by Leonard Fournette, then downfield passes to a talented WR crew. Against the Bills in bad weather they weren’t able to get to that last phase, but in the 2nd Half Bortles used his legs well to open up some inside power. They scored just enough to win.

This week will be different. The Steelers have more talent on Defense than the Bills and arguably better schemes. They will pressure Bortles in the pass game, while keeping a spy on his scrambling. If Jacksonville cannot spread the field with QB Options and quick spread passes, then the inside power game will not work and the offense will implode quickly in a notoriously hostile Heinz Field.

Bortles has gotten undue criticism for his passing ability – there are different ways to get the job done – but this could get ugly. I wish him luck.

Defense

Everyone talks about the Jaguars Defense. Todd Wash, the DC, really mixes his “Pete Carroll” base defense with a lot of different zone blitz/coverage variety. Especially on passing downs. He does have a tendency to get conservative with the lead. Last week versus the Bills late they were in a static Cover 4 / 4 man rush look for just about every play. They may not have to worry about having the lead versus Pittsburgh, but if they do and they get conservative, Big Ben will eat them up.

The CBs are fantastic in Jalen Ramsey, AJ Bouye and Aaron Colvin, but the Safeties can be burned. Big Ben is great on the blitz reads and even better versus conservative zone cover shells. Like any QB, he can be burned by a great mix of blitz/coverage and this is what happened the last time.

A lot of teams were caught off guard this year by Wash’s aggression as the standard “Pete Carroll” defense usually doesn’t usually mix that much. But they can be burned on power runs once a team’s had success spreading them out. Especially if MLB Paul Posluszny(PSU) is still hurt. This is what Pittsburgh will be trying to do. Assuming Jacksonville will shut down the Steelers again would be a mistake.

 

Pittsburgh Steelers

Coaches

The most consistent franchise of the 40 years. Now with their third HC in that time, Mike Tomlin. He is a smart coach who has continued the great tradition in Pittsburgh. Even though he’s a defense guy, the Steelers Offense over his tenure has been better than ever in it’s history. The talent is there, but OCs like Bruce Arians and Todd Haley deserve much more credit than they are given.

Surprisingly, Tomlin’s issues have been more with the Defense. As the pass spread then power spread entered the NFL, all defenses have struggled to keep up schematically. This year the Defense is finally playing an aggressive power spread mix I think Tomlin was looking for all along.

The only issue I still have with Tomlin is his penchent to reverse to his conservative fear when the game is on the line. He shuts down Haley, Ben and the Offense and will get too conservative as well on Defense. If he can keep the Steelers aggressive, ALL THE TIME, then they have a real shot at the Super Bowl this year.

Offense

Haley’s whole concept is very “space” oriented – unusual for an NFL coordinator. He uses Ben to spread pass the field open horizontally + vertically to open up space for the running game. LeVeon Bell might be the best “space” RB in the league.

What Haley did with Bell versus the Patriots was simple brilliance. He spread pass to open up the middle. Powered with heavy zone runs up the gut. Then powered outside with sweeps and stretch plays. All the time taking shots downfield to keep the field lengthened.  Very few win the battle over NE OC Josh McDaniels, but that day Haley may have done just that.

Whether Antonio Brown plays much or not the Steelers should do better this time around with Jacksonville’s defense. As I said above, many teams were surprised by DC Wash’s Aggressive Mix throughout the year. Pittsburgh will be prepared this time. Sure, Jacksonville will change things up a bit, but Big Ben and this offense are much better synched right now than the beginning of the year. WRs Martavis Bryant and JuJu Schuster have come on. Ben will find the holes in the zone and burn the blitzes.

More than anything the team needs to remain cool when an if they make turnovers. Jacksonville feeds on this negativity. Keep the ball moving, the field spread and the play calling mixed. Bell will get his yards as will WRs on reverses. Ben will also make the big plays to combat any turnovers. Eventually the Steelers can break down this young inexperienced defense if they keep their cool. Especially being at home. This won’t be easy for the Jaguars.

One last note – USE ANTONIO BROWN AS A DECOY. Why risk further injury? Give him a quick pass or two to start. Run other WRs on reverse or jet sweep plays. Then start using Brown as a decoy in both the run and pass game. Play the space – not personnel. Then later in the game, if needed, destroy Jacksonville with the Brown Matchup. My thoughts anyway.

Defense

Tomlin let go of the great Dick LeBeau 2 years ago and now it seems there was a method to the madness. The Steelers Defense is mixing coverages, blitzes and sets in a way I’ve never seen from them before. Some of it is innovative. Tomlin and DC Keith Butler can rush anywhere from 2 to 7 men at anytime and play a mix of man and zone behind it.

Jacksonville will want spread the field with short passes and Bortles option runs to open up the power for Fournette, then the deep pass for their talented WRs. They may get a shot or two deep against the Steelers DBs, but overall this strategy will prove difficult.  Bortles was extremely nervous early in the game versus Buffalo and that was AT HOME! This is in Pittsburgh. If Bortles can’t open up the space on the field, Pittsburgh won’t let them run. They whole scheme will breakdown for Jacksonville.

The Jacksonville Defense may keep them in the game, but I can’t see them getting many points on Pittsburgh at Heinz Field on a cold day.

 

New Orleans Saints

Coaches

Sean Payton has added the power spread this year to his brilliant west coast schemes. It has been a marriage in heaven for Drew Brees, who’s ball handling and ability to use space+tempo has been superb. On Defense they also have finally incorporated a nice aggressive mix to Dennis Allen’s standard 4-3. The great personnel moves over the last couple of years have  completed the picture. The Saints are for real and they proved it last week as I said they would.

The problem now is injuries. DT Tony McDaniel and top talent G Andrew Peat were injured last week, adding to a very long list that includes DT Nick Fairley, TE Coby Fleener, DE Hauoli Kikaha, LB AJ Klein, DE Alex Okafor, OT Zach Streif and S Kenny Vaccaro – all major contributors.  The Oline can’t handle any more injuries and the Defense is already thin. Payton’s schemes and remaining talent can get to the Super Bowl, but it won’t be easy.

Offense

As I noted last week, Payton will pass or run from any formation to any spot on the field with any player at any time in the game. All the while breaking tendency with a brilliant mix of misdirection, play-action, tempo huddle and great play calling. The only chink in the Payton armor is a penchant to get a bit conservative with the lead, but even that’s been better this year.

Minnesota’s Defense is good, but so was Carolina’s. After the long bomb TD to Ted Ginn loosened up Carolina’s pressure some, the Saints were able to move the ball consistently for most of the game. While Carolina’s DL + LB personnel is close to Minnesota in terms of talent, their DBs are not. New Orleans has a tougher task this week.

The experience of Brees and Payton will find ways to get Alvin Karmara more involved and continue to open up the field for the power runs of Mark Ingram.  Brees can make the big play under pressure in a hostile environment. Will this be enough to compensate for a depleted defense?

Defense

DC Dennis Allen has done a great job this year, but now the Saints Defense is hurting for bodies. Carolina was able to move the ball against them. Especially at the end when the Saints appeared tired. This could happen again with the Vikings who have a nice mix of power + spread.

Cam Newton played well last week, but the Saints were able to keep him out of the endzone until they tired late. They lost another lineman during the game so they will wear down again. But at least early on, I think they can be competitive and hopefully make some big plays with their aggressive mix.

The big missing piece is SS Kenny Vaccaro. He was the vet in the secondary. The young Von Bell (another OSU alum) simply doesn’t provide the same presence. He was burned more than once late in the game, but the Saints got away with it. Bell then provided the game clinching sack on a great blitz call by Allen on 4th down.

They are on the road this week with an inexperienced and injured defense. Allen will need to call the game of his life, create big plays and set the offense up for some more Payton and Brees brilliance.

 

Minnesota Vikings

Coaches

Mike Zimmer, the former Cowboy and Bengal DC, has done a great job in his first head coaching stint. Of course he has atop notch Defense, but surprisingly has the offense clicking as well with a new OC this year plus a backup QB, new RB and changes on the Oline. Needless to say, all the changes have worked out far better than expected.

Offense

The OC is Pat Shurmer, the son of innovative DC Fritz Shurmer. Pat is a pure West Coast Pass attack guy, but was under Chip Kelly in Philly learning the Power Spread, then with Minnesota last year learning Norv Turner’s new Pro PS, which was a work in progress. Turner left Minnesota midseason last year amongst some turmoil. The transition has been surprisingly smooth.

Shurmer has put together a really nice ProPS system using the mobility and quick release+decision making of Case Keenum, who played under the Sumlin PSAR (Power Spread Air Raid) system with the Houston Cougars. He knows how to spread the ball around both with the run and the pass.

Like Drew Brees(who played in an early spread system at Purdue), Keenum has great ball handling skills and feet to cover for his lack of height – previously a pre-requisite for a pro QB. He has some decent talent at both WR and RB and on OLine that jelled with rookie Pat Elflein’s(OSU) insertion at Center early in the year.

Minnesota will have nerves early, but should be able to move the ball at some point in the game and get some points. The telling time will be late in the game as the Saints depleted defense may be tiring if Minnesota was able to control the ball with their pass spread/power run mix. That will give Minnesota a chance for a winning drive in front of the home crowd.

Defense

Zimmer inherited some good talent from former HC Leslie Frazier who was a defense guy, but Zimmer has also drafted really well and picked up some key free agent acquisitions along the way. A fast DLine led by pass rushing ends Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunger will pressure Brees. A great LB duo that can play run and pass in Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr. A big, mobile DT to plug the power runs in Linval Joseph and a great group of DBs led by CB Xavier Rhodes.

There are no weaknesses on this Viking Defense. They can leave their regular starters on the field versus different formations and personnel groupings, because most of their guys are both big and fast – as good at defending the power as the spread. This well help immensely with the Saints great PS Variety(see above)  on Offense.

Unlike the Saints, the Vikings have not been injured much this year and are at home. The Sean Payton and Drew Brees will be hard to stop, but the Vikings could definitely make the big plays needed to win. They could also give up a lot of chunk plays -especially early – due to inexperience, which we have seen teams struggle with the whole playoffs.

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 had the Jaguars and Titans as inexperienced teams. This time they were 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.

The experience factor showed up again yesterday. Philadelphia looked like a nervous wreck in the beginning of the game. The fans seemed even more nervous than the players! Thanks once again to Doug Pederson’s aggressive schemes, they were able to survive. The Titans weren’t so lucky. They made a multitude of mistakes after jumping out to a 7-0 lead. They couldn’t keep pace with a Pats Offense that was more in synch last night than I’ve seen from them in two years.

Today I think I want to stick with the teams with the experience edge across the board. I switched to the Eagles at the last second and proved to be right, but it was close. I could easily swich to the Vikings in another toss up game with the Saints, but as I explain below this is a different scenario. As for Pittsburgh, we may see the same sort of dominance we saw from NE after a slow start. The experience edge for both of these teams is enormous.

But don’t bet on any it! Even the Steeler game, which should be a gimmie. The football landscape is too unpredictable right now. It’s a PS MESS!

Picks

Jacksonville at Pittsburgh

Everyone keeps talking about the first time these two teams played. Fans make a big mistake in not changing with time. The beginning of the year was a completely different time for the Steelers than right now. This is why athletes and coaches always shun the question of what happened in the past. They are here and now. The past can be used as a learning tool, but there’s never a direct spacial correlation between then and now – it’s always time sensitive.

In many ways. Jacksonville’s schedule worked out fortuitously thru the entire year. Their timing was impeccable. Four big wins versus Indianapolis and Houston – both without their star QBs! Big wins versus Baltimore and Pittsburgh who both started slow out of the blocks. That’s 6 wins! That’s the difference between playoffs or sitting at home.

Another important “Time” factor is DC Todd Wash’s Defensive mix. He caught many teams off guard this year. Watching film is not the same as playing against it. The Steelers will have a lot of time spent this week on how to handle his tricky aggressive scheme. Again, very different circumstance than at the start of the year.

I have Pittsburgh winning this game. Probably in a blowout. Maybe a close 1st Half. I know Jacksonville’s D is good, but so is the Steeler’s O and they will be ready this time. I can’t see the Jacksonville O scoring much against the Steeler D.

New Orleans  at Minnesota

The key will be the big plays and as I always say – the aggressive coach under pressure. For New Orleans will Michael Thomas and Ginn – both OSU Alums – be able to break free? Will Alvin Kamara get more involved in the offense again? For the Vikings will Case Keenum be able to spread the ball effectively and open up running lanes for Latavius Murray and Jerrick McKinnon? Will they be able to eat the clock, keep away from turnovers and keep the Saints Offense off the field?

I do think this could become a grudge match with the Vikings milking the clock while their Defense controls the Saints. But as I said above, I will stick with experience this time. The Saints don’t have a ton of experience across the board, but their coach and qb do. The defense will probably give up some drives. They may tire late as well, but if they can keep the Vikings out of the endzone, for the most part, then the Saints will have their shots on offense.

This is yet another toss up that I feel like switching at the last second as I did yesterday in the Eagle game. But I won’t this time. I’ll stick with the Saints experience. Even in light of all their injuries. I think it’s close, but the Vikings make some mistakes late and can’t pull it out. Though as with the Eagles, the Vikings are at home and that will definitely help. Close call, maybe a dumb call on my part, but I’ll stick with the experience factor this time and pick the Saints.

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