Notes from NFL Divisional Round Games

…with a focus on divisional rounds games.

I want Jermaine Kearse on my team, and if I were a GM, I’d be paying attention to what the Seahawks do with RFA Doug Baldwin and UFA Golden Tate. If Seattle keeps both Baldwin and Tate, I’d make a call to them asking what they’d want for Kearse. He’s a terrific route runner with solid hands, but what I love about Kearse is his run blocking. It’s something I’ve noticed all season in his limited snaps but it really shined against the Saints.

The Saints were extremely effective out of 22 personnel (2 running backs, 2 tight ends) against the Seahawks. Yards gained on plays out of this personnel grouping in the 1st half: 4, 4, 12, 0, 13, 17, 5, 1, 0.  The Saints were 2 for 2 when passing out of this grouping for 13 yards and 6 yards. In the 2nd half, outside of the 5-yard line, the Saints only used 22 personnel twice, for rushes of 1 yard and 9 yards. New Orleans mostly used a balanced-I formation and were not successful when they went heavy to one side or the other. They went heavy right on 3 plays that netted 0, 1, and 0 yards. This is something that the Seahawks should be aware of as the 49ers will use this grouping a good amount and have personnel better suited to this style than the Saints do. Seattle should do some serious work to clean up their defense of this personnel and formation this week.

The 49ers may be the most complete team in the playoffs right now. The offense and defense are both playing at very high levels, as opposed to the Seahawks whose defense has been fantastic but the offense has been middling of late. The addition of Michael Crabtree has given Colin Kaepernick the exact type of receiver he needs to succeed. The one trait that I’ve dinged Kaepernick for – and one that gets him into a lot of trouble at times – is his lack of efficiency through his progressions. He’ll sometimes freeze up when his first option is taken away. Because of this, he needs a receiver who can win immediately off the line of scrimmage like Crabtree does. It gives him a consistent option as a 1st read. When Crabtree doesn’t win, the 49ers have a definitive 2nd option in Anquan Boldin (short) or Vernon Davis (usually on a deep route). If these 2 options are taken away, that’s when Kaepernick begins to move and use his feet and scan the field while on the move. The combination of this personnel setup and play calling is the perfect mixture for Kaepernick to succeed. Kap is a good quarterback with tremendous physical abilities that are enhanced by the team around him, but he can also enhance the players around him as well. It all adds up to a great combination that is incredibly hard to defend.

It’s sad to know that Glenn Dorsey wasted years of his career under Romeo Crennel in Kansas City. The difference in his film last year vs. this year is Exhibit A through F of how much coaching and the correct scheme matters. As one scout recently said to me, the biggest mistake that front offices make is signing a free agent based on previous film and then asking him to do something different in your scheme. The 49ers did the positive reversal of that idea. They took Dorsey knowing that he was misused in KC and put him in a scheme better fit to his punishing presence up front. They’ve allowed him to attack and to squeeze the gaps inside. He’ll sometimes end up one on one against a guard, which is pretty much a guard’s worst nightmare. Dorsey’s success up front is one of the biggest reasons for Ahmad Brooks’ emergence as one of the best linebackers in the game this year. He’s getting more favorable opportunities than he has had in the past. Seattle will again have their hands full with this front seven. In fact, this will be a matchup of the 2 best front sevens in the NFL in my opinion.

LeGarrette Blount has always been a talented back.  He has a terrific size and speed combo and he’s incredibly light on his feet for his size. He’s one of the most intimidating players I’ve ever seen in football pads. He’s not actually a “punishing” runner as he often doesn’t “deliver the blow” at the end of runs. His power comes from his size and balance that leads to tacklers hitting him and just falling off. He can’t be tackled via arm tackles and it usually takes more than one defender to bring him down. The best way to tackle Blount is to go low, which is why you see him hurdle so many would-be tacklers. What impressed me most from the game against Indianapolis is how well he pressed the hole and then cut back into the gap. He’s best when he’s able to get some steam and flow and the Patriots scheme and offensive line did a good job of allowing him to do that. Something that should be noted is that Blount has never been a good short-yardage back in the NFL. This might be important in a crucial situation this weekend against Denver.

Patriots’ rookie linebacker Jamie Collins has been a solid player all season but many people may just have discovered him this weekend when he flashed against the Colts. It was clearly Collins’ best game of his career. He was a combine standout because of his speed and athleticism. He is explosive in so many ways and has the speed and flexibility to cover in space. His playing time increased when Jerod Mayo went down with an injury and Collins appeared to progress in every game he played, culminating in his 6 tackle, 1 sack, 1 interception, and 1 pass defensed showing against the Colts.  He still has some work to do in instinctively sifting through trash to stuff the run, but this kid is going to be very good for a very long time.

Bill Belichick’s gameplans are completely exclusive from week to week. What he planned last week against Andrew Luck and the Colts would usually have very little significance to how he’ll defend Peyton Manning and the Broncos this week. With that said, these are similar offenses where the offense runs through a terrific quarterback. The difference is that Peyton is currently playing on another level and has more weapons than Luck does. The Patriots were more about crowding specific areas of the field (middle of the field early on) than defending any one particular weapon. They felt that bluffing pressure and dropping into a base cover 2 or Tampa 2 would keep Luck dumping off and keep him from hitting TY Hilton over the top. It worked except for a couple of plays where Luck had to escape pressure and make a freelance throw. The Patriots were perfectly fine with letting their front get the pressure and then playing forward to the ball against the run or on dump-offs. This gave the Colts’ running backs space to run and my guess is that Belichick was perfectly alright with that. Then when it came time for Luck to have to throw, Belichick’s defense took away the anticipation throws that Luck likes to make by pressing his receivers and playing more 2-man under. Luck has never been afraid to force a throw or 2 and the Patriot defense preyed on that tendency to the tune of 4 interceptions. This same thinking should carry over to the Broncos this week but the defense will be facing a better QB and better personnel and the results could look very different.

The presumed weakness of the Broncos offense is supposed to be it’s offensive line. I think that’s just a perceived weakness based on the talent at all the other positions. This offensive line has played terrifically of late, and disposed of the Chargers’ front seven consistently and with relative ease last week. Knowshon Moreno didn’t seem to have the same power and juice he normally does but Montee Ball made up for it. Moreno is a tough runner inside and provides a great option in pass blocking on 3rd down, but Ball is the more talented back with the ball in his hands. The Broncos used the two well in unison last week against the Chargers, but the real credit goes to the offensive line who is becoming a strength of this offense and allowing any RB lined up behind them to be successful.

The Broncos defense hasn’t been great all season, and losing Chris Harris, Jr. is a devastating blow. At this point, Champ Bailey is a downgrade from Harris. Harris is terrific in the slot and on the outside and can move all over the formation. Digging into the depth of the Denver defense is a tough prospect. The more plays that Michael Huff plays this weekend, the better for the Patriots and Tom Brady.

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