Wild Card Weekend is upon us, and we’re about as excited as kid on Christmas morning. The NFL playoffs are so good because they feature the best football teams in the world at their most focused, most disciplined, and most exploitative. Coaching always matters in football, but at no time does the man on the sideline make more of a difference than the postseason.
Any weakness the opposing team has is taken advantage of until it can’t be any longer. Plays that teams have been saving all year come out of the bag. Everybody is going as hard as they possibly can. Truly, the best team wins.
The best way to think about these games is by asking: How can Team A be exploited and is Team B able to take advantage of that area? The team with the better answer to that question is going to win if their coach does things the right way and their team executes.
Here are four keys to each each wild card game.
Aaron Donald is going against a backup left guard
If there’s one individual matchup the Los Angeles Rams can dominate on Saturday, it’s Aaron Donald vs. Ben Garland, who will start at left guard for the Atlanta Falcons in place of an injured Andy Levitre.
Donald can line up all over the formation, but a healthy portion of his snaps come against the left guard. You can bet Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips will throw Garland into the fire against arguably the best interior pass rusher in football. According to Football Outsiders’ Donald’s 52 pressures this season are the most among interior rushers.
Donald wins with an array of moves. He can swallow up any guard in the league with a well-placed swim move, as he does to the Eagles’ Isaac Seumalo here.
He can also beat players with his hands, ripping through Andrus Peat of the New Orleans Saints on this play.
As for Garland, he’s done better than you might expect in three games. His performance against Carolina in Week 17 was particularly impressive, as he limited a pass rush anchored by Kawann Short and Mario Addison, who have combined for 63.5 pressures this season, per Football Outsiders.
He and center Alex Mack combine to pick up this stunt featuring those two pass rushers with surprising ease, as Mack passes off Short to Garland, then pivots to block Addison.
On plays like that, Mack — a Pro-Bowl center — can pick up the slack. But Garland has had his problems blocking 1-on-1.
Regardless of how well he’s played, the prospect of Donald should terrify any coaching staff — let alone one that’s sending a backup out to block him. Atlanta can try and help Garland, but Los Angeles has enough pass rushers on the edge to make them pay for doing so. The best solution here might be a healthy dose of short throws for Matt Ryan, but that won’t get the Falcons through an entire game.
Atlanta can win by doing what Kyle Shanahan would do
The Falcons have missed Shanahan all year. Steve Sarkisian, his replacement offensive coordinator, has stumbled at every turn from both a schematic and playcalling perspective. To make things even worse, the Rams’ defense was at its worst this season when teams exploited it using something directly out of Shanahan’s playbook — motion.
Shanahan himself exploited this better than anyone when Los Angeles faced his 49ers in Week 3. The Niners put 39 points on the Rams with Brian Hoyer at quarterback. (No, really. This actually happened.) From the get-go, Shanahan was using presnap motion to confuse and corral the opposing defense.
Shanahan sends tight end George Kittle across the formation and safety Maurice Alexander follows, indicating man coverage. With a single-high safety, that means Cover-1 and if the Rams are manning up on the tight end, they’re probably manning up on the running back.
All three players on the right side of the formation evacuate the area once the play starts, taking the secondary with them. Running back Matt Breida — who started the play offset left — runs into the open space and linebacker Alec Ogletree can’t catch him. The play turns into an easy pitch-and-catch for 12 yards.
Here, the Niners send Pierre Garcon across the formation and again, a defender follows, indicating man coverage. As a result, Shanahan clears the middle of the field for Trent Taylor to run a slant, sending the other receivers on vertical or out-breaking routes. Taylor gets a step on his defender (thanks in part to a rub from Kittle) and has room to run after the catch.
Other teams used motion against the Rams with success throughout the year. When the Eagles send their outside receiver on the right side into motion here, and Kayvon Webster follows, it opens up a swath of space for a screen.
Every team runs motion to some extent, but Shanahan is a master at using it. The Falcons haven’t abandoned it by any means and we’ll likely see them break it out this weekend. The question is, how often?
The Falcons struggle to defend zone runs…which the Rams love
The two worst losses Atlanta suffered this season came at home against the Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills. Both teams found success running both inside and outside zone (particularly the latter) against a Falcons front which ranks 20th in run defense DVOA, scampering for 138 and 117 yards, respectively.
Plays like this were dotted throughout both games.
The Dolphins seal the playside with staggering ease, double-teaming Brooks Reed and needing just one man to take out Joe Vellano. Jake Brendel gets to the second level to take out linebacker Deion Jones (who overplays the run anyway), and Ajayi has a gaping hole.
Buffalo runs it a bit differently than Miami, cut-blocking on the backside. However, the Bills have similar success, as Grady Jarrett, who seems to have control of his man, overplays it and allows LeSean McCoy a cutback lane.
Things weren’t much better for the Falcons against inside zone.
Todd Gurley and the Rams offensive line will be licking their chops at facing a team that struggles against zone blocking the way Atlanta does. All year long, Gurley broke chunk plays coming off outside zone.
Gurley is less explosive on inside zone, but the Rams seem to pick up five yards every time they run it.
Jarrett could pose a problem on the interior for the Rams. He’s one of the better run defenders in the league and has the potential to wreck a game. But L.A. ran all over every defensive line it faced for the last month. It’s hard to believe they won’t do the same in the postseason, especially against a team so susceptible to zone blocking.
The Rams are going to have success on play action
Sean McVay runs play action more than any coach in the NFL — 28 percent of the time, to be exact, per Football Outsiders. It’s not a bold prediction to say the Rams will have success on it either. According to Football Outsiders, they average 8.9 yards per play when doing so.
But this presents a greater challenge to Atlanta for two reasons. The first is obvious: the Falcons are probably going to struggle to defend the run. Once Todd Gurley gets hot and linebackers start cheating, running play action gets a lot easier. The second: Atlanta isn’t good at defending play action against anybody. The Falcons give up 7.9 yards per play against it, per Football Outsiders, good for 24th in the league.
Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell, Atlanta’s two best linebackers, are also both in their second seasons. Despite strong play most of the time, both can become undisciplined, especially when they see play action.
Here, Campbell gets caught cheating by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He takes only two steps toward the line of scrimmage before realizing his error, but by then, it’s too late. Tight end O.J. Howard is already passing him and has speed. Howard gets into the pocket of space Campbell vacated and makes an easy catch.
The Rams love to pick on defenders who become undisciplined in situations like that. Look at what Jared Goff does to Arizona’s Haason Reddick, another young player, when he comes off Derek Carrier here.
Jones and Campbell can also be subject to misdirection or throwback plays off boot-action. The Seahawks manage to get a big gain out of one here after both players follow the ball instead of sticking with their assignments.
McVay is no stranger to throwback passes either.
If Los Angeles can catch Jones or Campbell wrong-footed just once on Saturday, it could make all the difference.
Kansas City has a cornerback problem
Marcus Peters is a star, but depth is everything in the NFL. And, at cornerback, the Chiefs don’t have it.
Terrance Mitchell and Steven Nelson are the starters alongside Peters and it’s hard to trust either one of them. Mitchell gives up 8.8 yards per pass, according to Football Outsiders, with Nelson sitting pretty at 7.5. Both have been picked on all year and it’s unlikely this playoff game will be any different.
Just look at what happens to Nelson when the Jets force him to defend a rub route. This play is straight out of a Football Follies video tape.
Later in the same game, Jermaine Kearse turned a slant route against Nelson into a huge gainer. Nelson gives him too much space off the line of scrimmage and Kearse separates easily. After the catch, he’s aided by some poor tackling from both Nelson and safety Ron Parker. (Parker’s tackling has been a recurring issue all year.)
As for Mitchell, opponents have frequently targeted him for easy gains of eight or nine yards. Sideline comebacks and curls have been a recurring theme lately.
Complicating the matter further for the Chiefs is that their cornerbacks usually line up on the same side. In other words, Peters isn’t going to follow Tennessee’s best receiver. This would be a much bigger problem if the Titans’ leading receiver wasn’t tight end Delanie Walker, who has 807 yards to his name this season. However, Mike Mularkey and Marcus Mariota will get to pick and choose the matchups they want. It’s easy to see how this could be turned into an advantage — it’s just a matter of whether or not Tennnessee plays its cards right.
The Titans need to open up their passing game
Mularkey’s fatal flaw during his time in Nashville has been the way he designed the passing game. Quite simply, it doesn’t get the best out of Marcus Mariota.
Because of Mularkey’s exotic smashmouth philosophy, the Titans use a lot of tight formations. That works well enough in the run game, but when they throw it out of those formations, it results in a lack of spacing.
Look at how the players are aligned before the snap. The ball is on the right hash mark and everybody on that side of the formation is between the hash and the numbers. On the other side, only one player is outside the left hash. Jacksonville is made to defend just a third of the field. Moreover, only two players actually run a route, with a third, Derrick Henry, slipping out for a potential checkdown after the Jaguars’ pass rush gets by him. Jacksonville blitzes and still easily covers up those two routes.
The Titans rank 26th in passing DVOA on first down because of plays like that. Mularkey wants to sell the run, but in doing so, he can muck up the passing game.
Even when Tennessee spreads out a little, long route development often means that Mariota is standing in the pocket with no one to throw to until pressure gets to him.
Walker comes open on a post route here, but not until pressure has already gotten to Mariota. Nobody is available for him to throw to underneath. If there’s pressure, the best thing the Titans can hope for is an incomplete pass.
To be completely fair, some of the blame for this specific play does lie on the quarterback. Mariota sees Walker a half-second too late and seems to hesitate instead of throwing him open. However, few quarterbacks would be able to make that kind of play.
There have been signs of progress for Tennessee, especially in their Week 16 game against the Rams. Mularkey gave his quarterback more underneath options and Mariota took advantage.
Kansas City’s pass rush isn’t especially great — there’s not much reason to believe Mariota will need options like that on Saturday. However, designs like it do more than give the quarterback an easy out. They stretch the defense, forcing it to cover more ground.
The Titans don’t have much horizontal spacing here. They bunch three receivers on one side of the formation and two run out-breaking routes. However, one goes to the flat and the other runs roughly a 20-yard curl. That — along with a seam route from Delanie Walker on the other side of the formation to hold the safety long enough — creates easy, winnable one-on-one matchups.
Alex Smith needs to air it out
Much has been made of Smith’s newfound propensity to throw deep, and with good reason. Smith is averaging 8.0 yards per attempt this season, tied for his career high. But Captain Checkdown still comes out from time to time. Smith’s average third down throw goes just 0.7 yards ahead of the sticks, per Football Outsiders — an improvement to be sure, but still well behind players like Tom Brady and Carson Wentz.
When Kansas City lost six of seven during the middle of the season, Smith’s conservatism was a big reason why. Teams started to sit on some of the stuff Kansas City had success with early in the year — especially power reads and other option plays. As a result, Smith reverted.
As soon as the pressure comes, Smith hits his checkdown. It’s a nice throw with a defender coming at you to be sure, and it gains yardage. But look at Albert Wilson running a dig out of the slot. Wilson comes open a half-second later than Smith might like, but a window is there for a bigger gain. On 3rd-and-7, that’s a risk worth taking.
On a play like this, there’s not really an excuse. Smith has time and all of his receivers are open on curls. But instead of going to them, he goes to Kareem Hunt in the flat for virtually no gain.
Since Kansas City has turned it around, Smith has found his deep ball rhythm again. It’s not that hard to go deep a couple times per game when you have the fastest receiver on the NFL to throw to in Tyreek Hill.
Defending Hill man-to-man is next to impossible. You can play as far off as you want, but he can still outrun most everyone and at a certain point, the trade-off of giving up an easy 10-yard completion isn’t worth it. If you can jam Hill at the line, that’s your best shot, but it’s also the riskiest move to take by far. If he gets out of press coverage, there’s no chance of keeping up with him. A zone defense is the obvious solution, but that presents problems of its own, especially if Hill lines up in the slot and goes down the seam. The best antidote to Hill tends to be Smith himself, something the Chiefs must avoid on Saturday.
Stopping Kareem Hunt is possible, but the Titans can’t win without doing it
The dirty little secret to Kansas City’s run game, which ranks fifth in DVOA: it’s fallible. There were eight games this season in which the Chiefs’ rushing DVOA was average or worse. And Tennessee — which ranks seventh in run defense DVOA — is capable of making it nine.
Kansas City is primarily a zone blocking team and they run inside zone here. However, the play falls apart as soon as left guard Bryan Witzmann is forced into a one-on-one situation with Davon Godchaux. Witzmann has played 13 games this season, but that’s largely because of injuries. Center Mitch Morse is on IR, which means that left guard Zach Fulton had to slide over to center and Witzmannn had to fill in at guard. Opposing teams can take advantage of that.
Here — on outside zone — Kiko Alonso outruns Fulton before the center can get to him. With Ndamukong Suh occupying Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, Alonso slips into the B-gap for an easy tackle.
Tennessee’s strength in run defense lies primarily in its linebackers and safeties — the Titans lead the league in open field yardage and rank fifth in second-level yardage. However, Tennessee can win up front as well.
Karl Klug singlehandedly destroys this zone read. Jacksonville is blocking outside zone — Blake Bortles would have kept it if Brian Orakpo cheated on the edge — and Klug drives left tackle Josh Wells into Leonard Fournette.
Here, it’s Jurrell Casey who bests one of the top centers in the league, Maurkice Pouncey. Casey gets off his block with surprising ease, almost teleporting to Pouncey’s left as Le’Veon Bell readies himself to hit the hole.
If Casey, Klug, and co are playing at their best, they can slow down Kareem Hunt. If not, however, it’s hard to imagine the Titans staying in it for long. Kansas City has more talent than Tennessee — the Titans need to crush every matchup advantage they have to pull an upset. If they can’t get in the backfield (or, for that matter, if Hunt simply breaks all of their tackles), this could turn into a blowout.
The Bills need LeSean McCoy at his best
McCoy is currently questionable for Sunday’s game with a sprained ankle. He will reportedly be a game-time decision, but whether or not Shady is on the field doesn’t especially matter if he can’t be himself.
Without McCoy — who leads Buffalo in yards from scrimmage by over 1,000 — it’s hard to see how the Bills can move the ball against a Jaguars’ defense which leads the league in DVOA.
With him, however, Buffalo has a shot. No doubt Jacksonville will load the box, trying to dare Tyrod Taylor to throw it, if McCoy is playing. Teams have had success with that approach this season.
The New England Patriots put six defenders on the line of scrimmage with two more linebackers in the box on this first down. With a single-high safety, New England is daring Taylor to beat them in the air. He hands it off anyway and there isn’t a hole to be found. Lawrence Guy and Malcom Brown cover up their gaps, forcing McCoy to cut back off the toss. McCoy does just that and goes directly into Ricky Jean-Francois’ path, who gets off Richie Incognito’s block easily.
New England held Buffalo to just 84 yards on the ground — their lowest mark since mid-November — thanks to that approach.
The Patriots deploy the same six-man front here on first down later in the game. And again, the Bills run it outside — this time in the other direction. Khari Lee, Buffalo’s backup tight end, tries to pin Trey Flowers and fails miserably. Flowers is in complete control, moving Lee to the outside, then getting off the block as soon as McCoy tries to cut it back in.
Buffalo did see some success against a loaded box against New England, however.
The Bills motion into an unbalanced, heavy set on this 3rd-and-1, using fullback Patrick DiMarco and two extra blockers on the right side to offset New England’s numbers advantage in the box. Buffalo, normally a zone blocking team, man blocks here and it works. Saving Jordan Mills, everyone executes and a crease opens up.
The Bills’ margin for error will be significantly smaller against Jacksonville. Since adding Marcell Dareus in a midseason trade from Buffalo, the Jags’ run defense has become a strength.
Dareus isn’t the type of player who racks up tackle numbers — he has 19 in nine games with the Jaguars — but he affects the game on nearly every play. Here, he swallows up a double-team on inside zone, preventing either player from getting to the second level. As a result, linebacker Myles Jack occupies the B-gap. Even though he’s blocked, his presence forces Derrick Henry to go outside, where Calais Campbell is waiting.
Abry Jones does the bulk of the work on this play, cutting across Brandon Fusco and breaking into the backfield to take down Carlos Hyde. However, Dareus does his job as well, keeping his blocker in place and preventing him from moving to the second level to block Telvin Smith.
The notion of Buffalo trying to run the ball against this defense without McCoy at 100 percent — or without him at all — is almost laughable. The Bills’ offensive line ranks 27th in adjusted line yards. They aren’t good enough to beat Jacksonville without McCoy.
Jacksonville can shut down Buffalo’s passing game
It won’t be of much help to the Bills that Jacksonville defends the pass better than any team in the league. The Jaguars can win this area on two separate fronts. Their pass rush ranks fourth in the league in pressure rate, per Football Outsiders, the best of any playoff team.
Jacksonville shows blitz here, but brings just four. However, the four players they rush — Yannick Ngakoue, Malik Jackson, Calais Campbell and Dante Fowler from left to right — have combined for an absurd 42.5 sacks this year. Ngakoue and Campbell both get to Jimmy Garoppolo. They completely affect the throw, which ends up nowhere near Garoppolo’s intended receiver, but in the hands of Barry Church.
Additionally, Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye can paper over any receiving corps in the league. Jacksonville leads the league in defensive DVOA against No. 1 wide receivers. Ramsey, Bouye, and nickel corner Aaron Colvin all give up fewer than six yards per target.
This boot-action play is well-blocked by the Seattle Seahawks. Russell Wilson has time, but nobody is open. Jacksonville’s Cover-3 allows them to cover a deep post route fairly easily and Colvin gets in front of Doug Baldwin’s post route. Paul Richardson runs a crossing route and has a step on Jack, but Church cuts off the passing lane from underneath. Wilson is forced to throw it away.
When those two elements work in tandem, it can be downright scary.
Nobody comes open on this play until it’s too late. The right side of San Francisco’s line falls apart against the Ngakoue/Campbell duo. With no one to throw to underneath, Garoppolo has no choice but take the sack.
Tyrod Taylor has more talent than he gets credit for, but he’s still prone to play below it a little too often.
Taylor doesn’t sense the pressure here and it costs him a touchdown. If he steps up in the pocket to avoid it, he’s got Nick O’Leary in the end zone. Instead, Andre Branch affects the throw and Taylor ends up missing O’Leary.
When Taylor is at his best, he can be one of the most prolific deep-ball throwers in football. His touch on this throw to Deonte Thompson is wonderful. Taylor leads Thompson perfectly, throwing across the field with accuracy and creating yardage after the catch.
With only 6.7 yards per attempt, however, it’s clear those throws are few and far between. Against a defense as good as Jacksonville’s, it’s hard to believe Taylor completes enough of them.
Leonard Fournette is in for a big day
Dareus’ presence has been a boon to the Jaguars’ run defense, but his absence has also destroyed Buffalo in the same category. Since Week 10, the Bills rank dead last in run defense DVOA.
Buffalo gets beat on the interior with alarming consistency. On this play, Rob Gronkowski is able to pin Adolphus Washington a little too easily, catching the second-year player off-guard and helping create a hole for Dion Lewis.
Here, it’s Kyle Williams and DeAndre Coleman who fail to disrupt things in the middle. Linebacker Preston Brown is taken out with an arc block from Dwayne Allen, springing another hole for Lewis.
Jacksonville’s offensive line isn’t prolific, but Leonard Fournette doesn’t need a gaping hole. He can slip through the smallest of cracks to create chunk plays. That sort of talent is what made it justifiable to take him as high as the Jags did in the draft.
Any sort of misstep in the run game invites Fournette to beat you. And the Bills have been making a lot of them lately.
Blake Bortles is playing better, but it’s still hard to trust him
In the last couple months, Bortles has looked solid. Though he’s doubtless been helped by a great defense and run game, Bortles is turning the ball over less — a career-low 13 picks this season — and putting up a below-average but significantly improved 7.0 yards per attempt. The tape backs up the numbers as well.
Bortles wasn’t able to make throws like this in years past. He makes multiple good decisions on this play, keeping it on what looks to be an RPO (though it’s hard to be sure) and finding the open receiver, Keelan Cole. More than that, he makes a great throw, leading the receiver for a big gain.
Bortles shows good touch here as well, hitting Dede Westbrook on a fade. He makes the throw quickly enough that Earl Thomas isn’t able to get over and defend it. He also throws Westbrook open, getting him away from the underneath linebacker.
Bortles, however, shouldn’t be mistaken for anything more than competent, and carefully so at that. He closed the year with two poor performances — five interceptions in games at San Francisco and Tennessee.
This play is a throwback to 2016 for Bortles. He struggles at the slightest hint of pressure, forcing a throw off his back foot with an awkward, twisting motion designed to avoid a hit. The ball itself goes to a covered receiver with a safety over the top, who proceeds to intercept it easily.
Here, Bortles simply doesn’t see K’Wuan Williams underneath. He thinks Cole is open when Williams in the passing lane. As a result, Williams makes an impressive catch for the interception.
Buffalo isn’t an especially great defensive team, but they can throw Bortles off-kilter. The Jaguars allow a 32.3 percent pressure rate, per Football Outsiders. Getting to Bortles is far from an impossibility, but the Bills are 31st in pressure rate. Buffalo might need to blitz in order to get pressure, but if they do, it could easily result in a turnover.
New Orleans’ defense has matchup advantages across the secondary
The secondary has been the impetus for the Saints’ defensive resurgence, thanks in large part to cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore and Ken Crawley. Lattimore, the team’s first-round pick, looks like a shoo-in for Defensive Rookie of the Year. Crawley has an absurd 62 percent success rate, ranking 10th among qualified corners.
However, it’s not just those two. Everyone in the secondary looks improved. As it relates to the Carolina Panthers — the Saints’ opponent this week — New Orleans ranks sixth in pass defense DVOA against tight ends and 12th against running backs, two positional groups the Panthers depend on. When the two teams met in Week 13, the Saints held Cam Newton to just 6.78 yards per attempt, and that was with Lattimore inactive.
New Orleans initially blitzes here, but they’re still able to cut off Newton’s options. The key to this is their linebackers, Manti Te’o and Craig Robertson, neither of whom steps toward the line of scrimmage off play action. After Newton drops back, Kenny Vaccaro and A.J. Klein both come off the line of scrimmage and go into coverage. As a result, there’s no pressure on Newton, but nobody is open. He makes a mistake by drifting to his right, away from Jonathan Stewart in the flat. That throw becomes impossible as a result. The Saints’ linebackers easily cover Devin Funchess’ dig route and Crawley takes away Damiere Byrd’s out route. Newton, left without a better option, takes a coverage sack.
Crawley is the star of the show here as well. He’s all over Funchess on a go route, yet Newton goes to Funchess anyway. It’s hard to justify the decision, however, that doesn’t make Crawley’s coverage any less impressive. Funchess gets no separation at all and, despite a well-placed throw, Crawley is able to break it up.
Newton’s initial read here is to Ed Dickson on a crossing route. Before the snap, it looks like Dickson should come open because the Saints are showing Cover-3, with both outside corners facing inward and retreating after the snap. Moreover, cornerback P.J. Williams is across from Dickson, the tight end, another zone coverage indicator. However, the Saints break into Cover-1 instead, with Williams manning up on Dickson once he starts to break across the field. As a result, Newton comes off Dickson. With Christian McCaffrey blanketed by Sterling Moore, Newton goes deep to Byrd on a post route. Byrd does have separation from Crawley, however, the corner makes up that ground and breaks up the pass.
Given how well New Orleans’ secondary played just last month without its best cornerback — and the Panthers’ lack of depth at receiver — the Saints should be able to limit Carolina’s passing game again this time around.
Carolina’s offense has matchup advantages along the line of scrimmage
When the Panthers move the ball, it will be because of their advantages on the line, both in pass protection and the run game. The Saints often struggle to manufacture pressure from players other than Cam Jordan, one of the league’s best pass rushers. Carolina managed to hold him without a sack last month, giving Newton the time he needed in the passing game.
Note how right guard Trai Turnner helps out right tackle Daryl Williams in blocking Jordan here. After Trey Hendrickson stunts to the center, Tyler Larsen, Turner immediately changes direction to cut off Jordan inside. (Ryan Kalil missed this game, but should be good to go on Sunday.) With a clean pocket, Newton is able to survey the entire field and wait for McCaffrey to leak out. The Saints are in man coverage, and someone lost their assignment on McCaffrey. With all of the other routes going to the right side of the field, McCaffrey has nothing but space and goes in for an easy touchdown.
The screen game has been a major source of production for Carolina, especially as the Panthers have begun to utilize McCaffrey more often. This one goes to Funchess, but reflects Carolina’s ability to block nonetheless. Byrd and Brenton Bersin do a good job sealing the outside while Williams and Turner get to the second level and lock up the Saints’ linebackers.
The Panthers should be able to gain traction on the ground as well. Carolina averaged nearly five yards per carry last time these two teams met.
Jordan is less threatening in the run game. The Panthers manage to pin him on this play using a tight end, allowing left tackle Matt Kalil to work to the second level. Left guard Andrew Norwell does a nice job sealing off David Onyemata inside as well, giving Jonathan Stewart room on the outside. Kalil can’t finish his block, allowing A.J. Klein to take Stewart down. However, the play still goes for a solid game. (Kalil is the weak link in Carolina’s offensive line. Expect Ron Rivera to send help if he goes against Jordan in pass protection.)
If Carolina wins this game, it’s going to be by running the ball. New Orleans is 23rd in run defense DVOA and should struggle to win matchups inside. Rivera should feed McCaffrey, Stewart, and Newton early and often.
To stop the run, the Panthers need to change their approach
Carolina can win on the ground when the ball is in their hands. But that won’t matter if the Saints whip the Panthers when it’s their turn to run, as they did in Week 13.
New Orleans went for 148 yards on the ground in that game to go with the 149 they had against Carolina back in September. The Panthers simply had no answer for Mark Ingram or Alvin Kamara.
New Orleans makes Carolina look silly on this inside zone play. Kawannn Short succumbs to a double-team at the point of attack and next to him, Star Lotulelei is easily neutralized by Max Unger. Fullback Zach Line handles safety Kurt Coleman, who starts the play in the box. Right guard Larry Warford makes a highlight reel play, chipping Lotulelei then turning around to take out Luke Kuechly, one of the best linebackers in football. Warford’s effort pays off, springing open a gigantic hole for Ingram to run through. Nobody even touches the running back until he’s at the 20-yard line.
The Saints are less prolific in blocking this outside zone, but they still do a great job. Both Warford and left guard Senio Kelemete get to the second level with impressive speed to seal off the linebackers. Kelemete doesn’t finish his block, allowing Thomas Davis a chance at the tackle. However, Kamara is slippery enough to run through it and gets a nice gain.
Even here, on a relatively short gain, Carolina gets crushed at the line of scrimmage. Tight end Michael Hoomanawanui flattens Wes Horton on a down block. Warford forces Vernon Butler behind the play and Kuechly is taken away from the action by Unger. Cornerback James Bradberry is left unblocked, presumably by design, and Kamara breaks his tackle. Linebacker David Mayo manages to make a play, getting off the block of right tackle Ryan Ramczyk. That saves a potentially explosive run, but Kamara ends up with a solid gain anyway.
The irony here is that Carolina isn’t bad at run defense. On the contrary, the Panthers rank sixth in run defense DVOA. They just didn’t have an answer for the Saints. Given that New Orleans ran all over them in September as well, this problem may require Ron Rivera to change his defense’s approach. It is possible to slow down the Saints. New Orleans has been held to under 100 yards on the ground in three of their last four games. However, for Carolina to make it four of five, the Panthers can’t stick with the status quo.
Drew Brees can be slowed down if Carolina tackles well
Brees is still one of the NFL’s most reliable quarterbacks. He averaged 8.1 yards per attempt on a 72 percent completion rate, leading the league in both measures. His 1.5 percent interception rate was also Brees’ lowest since arriving in the Big Easy. He did this all while averaging just 7.1 air yards per pass, according to the NFL’s Next Gen stats, the third-lowest total in the league.
New Orleans is heavily dependent on yardage after the catch. That’s not unique to this season — it’s always been that way. However, the Saints have thrown short a little more often this year thanks to the emergence of Alvin Kamara. That’s fine and good — it’s worth taking advantage of a player as incredible as Kamara — but New Orleans’ passing game can be slowed if you tackle well.
That sounds easy — tackling is the first thing a lot of people associate with the game of football — but it isn’t. Kamara has broken an absurd 66 tackles this season and his 32.7 percent broken tackle rate leads all players with over 60 touches, per Football Outsiders. To put it succinctly, there’s no tougher player in the NFL to tackle than Alvin Kamara.
Mark Ingram can run over people as well, notching a 19.4 percent broken tackle rate of his own, per Football Outsiders.
Receivers like Michael Thomas, Ted Ginn and Brandon Coleman don’t break tackles as a habit. However, they rack up yardage after the catch thanks in large part to Brees’ ability to lead receivers and their own ability to get open.
It’s hard to prevent that by tackling well, however, the Panthers can slow down Kamara and Ingram by doing so. If they do, Carolina will be well on its way to an upset.