Tag:Andy Benoit
Posted on: October 26, 2011 11:01 am
 

Film Room: Steelers vs. Patriots preview

Posted by Eye on Football Analyst Andy Benoit



The Patriots are known for their offense. The Steelers are known for their defense. But the other side of the ball is just as intriguing. Here are five keys to Pittsburgh’s offense against New England’s defense.


1. Understanding the REAL Steelers
It’s amazing: we still hear so-called experts refer to the Steelers as a black-and-blue, ground-and-pound offense. Usually a phrase like “getting back to their roots” or “playing true Steeler ball” accompanies this embarrassing misnomer. The people who think of today’s Steelers as run-oriented are the same people who stopped renting movies once the video cassette tape disappeared.

They’re the same people who still worry about the cost of a cross-country phone call, or who think that the best way to make a statement is to send a letter to their local newspaper.

The Steelers are a passing team. This isn’t to say that they can’t or won’t run. In fact, their run-pass ratio is about as normal as it gets. Over the last four years, in games that Ben Roethlisberger has played, the Steelers have called a run play 43.1 percent of the time and a pass play 56.9 percent of the time. The league average is 43.6 percent run and 56.4 percent pass. When the Steelers are protecting a lead, they squeeze the air out of the ball. But when they’re trying to establish a lead, they throw.

The Steelers have put the ball in the air 84.4 percent of the time on third down. This suggests either a.) They are not running effectively (hence, they’ve faced a lot of third-and-long situations) or b.) When they need a money play, they trust their pass game more than their run game. They’re lining up like a passing team, too. So far Ben Roethlisberger has attempted 159 passes out of three-or four-receiver formations. He’s attempted just 21 passes out of two-receiver formations.

This season, the Steelers’ decision to transform into more of a downfield offense was a conscious one. In 2010 they drafted a speed-and-quickness wideout in the third round (Emmanuel Sanders) and a power runner in the fifth (Jonathan Dwyer). They did the same in 2009, drafting Mike Wallace in the third round and Frank Summers in the fifth. These moves were made after it was confirmed that ’08 first-round pick Rashard Mendenhall was an everydown back with a slight predilection for finesse over power.

But the main inspiration behind these moves was the guy under center.

2. Ben Roethlisberger
He’s often not described this way, but Roethlisberger is the most physically gifted quarterback in the AFC – if not all of pro football (it’s a whole other discussion, but strong arguments could be made for Aaron Rodgers, Cam Newton or Michael Vick).

Everyone praises Roethlisberger for having the strength to shed would-be sackers before throwing. But what’s more remarkable – and not talked about – is the quality of those throws. Roethlisberger throws off balance and under duress with unparalleled velocity and accuracy.

Very little about his game is fundamentally sound. His footwork is flawed. His balance is poor. His mechanics are okay but often irrelevant given that the majority of his drop-backs turn into sandlot improvs. The reason he’s a sandlot player is because he does not read the field well (if at all) before the snap. For most quarterbacks, this would be a crippling weakness. For Roethlisberger, it’s a strength. He actually prefers to react to a defense rather than dictate the terms.

Roethlisberger might sense a blitz presnap and, like just about any quarterback, make a few tweaks to his protection or receivers’ routes. More often, though, he’d rather just take the snap, actually see the blitz coming and make his own adjustments on the fly.

If any other quarterbacks played this way, they’d look like JaMarcus Russell (a sorry sap who actually did try to play this way). Roethlisberger has the physical talent and uncanny instincts to pull it off.

3. Defending Big Ben & Co.
The brilliance behind Roethlisberger’s unusual style is that it’s hard to gameplan against. It’s not unusual to see a defense strategically defeat the Steelers offense yet still get beat for a big play. Defensive strategies are based on disrupting the quarterback’s fundamentals and progressions. But what do you do when the quarterback does not rely on fundamentals or even progression reads?

But if it were as simple as just playing basic, fundamentally sound defense, every team would do that. Most teams, however, don’t have the resources to contain Pittsburgh’s weapons straight-up. Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown are bourgeoning inside receivers who have the quickness to separate from man-coverage and a great feel for locating the deep voids against zones (a critical attribute given the way Roethlisberger extends plays).

Outside, the lanky, long-striding Mike Wallace is the most lethal downfield threat in the game. These are wideouts who make you think twice about bringing a safety down in the box. Though the Steelers aren’t the run-first team they once were, they’re certainly capable of pounding a seven-man defensive front on the ground.

Thus, the most viable (and common) way to defend Roethlisberger & Co. is to attack their offensive line. You want to force Roethlisberger into sandlot tactics early in the down rather than let him extend the play. That way, his teammates don’t have time to execute their assignments. The limited timing naturally diminishes the threat of Wallace over the top and allows defensive backs to gamble more against Sanders and Brown.

Aiding this cause is the vulnerability of Pittsburgh’s front five. Left tackle Max Starks was out of football less than one month ago. Left guard Chris Kemoeatu has battled a knee injury and was awful in pass protection in his return last week. Right guard Ramon Foster is an undrafted backup (filling in for injured Doug Legursky) and right tackle Marcus Gilbert is an intriguing-but-still-youthful rookie.

4. How Belichick will attack
Belichick’s M.O. is to take away the opposing offense’s top two strengths. This obviously would mean preventing Roethlisberger from extending plays and eliminating Wallace’s deep routes. The Patriots did this last season in their Week 10 victory at Pittsburgh by blitzing like crazy (the Steelers had been struggling at the time with blitz pickups).

However, this season, Patriots linebackers have been poor in blitz execution. Also, the Pats have been more inclined to use a four-man pass-rush out of nickel packages.

We’ve seen Belichick do a 180-degree change in defensive gameplans from one week to the next plenty before, and anything’s possible when he’s coming off a bye. But given the way the Steeler guards struggle in pass protection, don’t be surprised if Albert Haynesworth finally gets significant playing time as a three-technique next to Vince Wilfork.

That’s a combination the Steelers simply wouldn’t be able to block. The Patriots could have their ho-hum ends play containment, which would keep Roethlisberger in the pocket facing pressure right up the middle. He’d still manage some sandlot plays, but he’d also be throwing into seven-man coverages, which could spell turnovers. The Patriots like to compensate for their vulnerable secondary by generating interceptions (last season they ranked 30th in pass yards allowed but first in interceptions).

5. Miscellaneous note
Jerod Mayo, who has been out since injuring his knee in Week 4, is far and away New England’s best linebacker. If he’s available Sunday, the Patriots would have more options for containing Roethlisberger (Mayo reads the field well and has good awareness in coverage). Not surprisingly, Belichick isn’t disclosing Mayo’s status.

So who will win? Check our NFL expert picks for all Week 8 games

Follow @Andy_Benoit on Twitter or contact him at Andy.Benoit-at-NFLTouchdown.com.
Posted on: October 19, 2011 4:21 pm
 

Keep an Eye On: Week 7's finer points of analysis

Posted by Eye on Football Analyst Andy Benoit

Saints vs. Colts
New Orleans’ two new weapons
The Saints have redefined their passing attack. It now runs through Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles. Graham has been far and away the best tight end in football this season. All onlookers could observe last season that the former Hurricanes power forward possessed considerable raw talent, but few could have predicted he’d polish it this quickly.

Graham has a natural feel for gaining positioning against pass defenders (insert obligatory “like a rebounder” comment here) and, best of all, he’s a hands-catcher who snags the ball away from his body. This makes him nearly impossible to defend, given his size and elevation abilities. Helping the cause is that the Saints align Graham all over the formation, which gives defenses fits in deciding what personnel package to use (most, including the Bucs this past week, have been going with nickel and treating Graham like a slot receiver).

Graham is Brees’s go-to guy. Sproles might be Sean Payton’s.

When the Saints are trying to dictate the tempo of a drive, they often look to get Sproles the ball underneath. The key is putting him in positions to run after the catch. This could mean screens, though often it has meant short outs and ins on spread plays where wideouts run deep to lift the coverage. Sproles has remarkable quickness and elusiveness, amplified by a rare-found ability to start and stop. He’s been much better in this offense than Reggie Bush ever was.

So how will the Colts defend the two new weapons? They’re a zone-based defense with fast linebackers. That helps against Sproles, but it does little for containing Graham. If the Saints can find ways to pass protect long enough to run vertical routes outside, that’ll prevent the Colts safeties from running under and over Graham’s routes. This would spell a fifth-straight 100-yard game for the rising star.



Dolphins vs. Broncos
Tebow’s limited resources
You couldn’t ask for more favorable conditions for a new starting young quarterback: two weeks to prepare, a game at Miami (where the weather is nice and the crowd is irrelevant) and facing a defense that, even with a beast like Cameron Wake, has for some reason completely forgotten how to rush the passer.

Trading your No. 1 receiver just days before the game might not seem favorable to a young quarterback, but that receiver was unenthused about playing with Tebow and hadn’t been getting open in Denver’s new ball-control offense anyway. Plus, he was liable to leave after the season, and his spot is ready to be filled by a now-healthy (hopefully) Demaryius Thomas.

Thomas is a possession target, whereas Brandon Lloyd was more of a vertical threat (though not a burner). The Broncos already have a litany of possession targets, such as Eric Decker, Matt Willis and, when healthy, Eddie Royal. This lack of vertical speed compresses the field and narrows throwing lanes, which isn’t good with a slow-reading young quarterback who has a long windup and prefers to improvise outside the pocket.

The Dolphins are healthy at cornerback again; with no downfield threats to worry about, don’t be surprised if this is the week they finally figure out how to reach the quarterback.

Bears vs. Buccaneers (London)
Forces up front
When playing well, these teams offer two of the faster defensive front sevens in football. The Bucs defensive ends – vastly improved Michael Bennett and explosive rookie Adrian Clayborn – feasted on the shoddy Saints tackles last week and should be licking their chops for J’Marcus Webb and Lance Louis (a guard by trade who has taken over for the overwhelmed Frank Omiyale on the right side).

Linebacker Geno Hayes played with instincts and speed against the Saints, which hasn’t always been the case this season. He’ll have a big say in whether the Bucs can contain Mr. Do It All, Matt Forte.

For Chicago, the mission will be attacking right tackle Jeremy Trueblood. Julius Peppers, bum knee and all, is a force who can matchup with Donald Penn on the left side. Same goes for underrated Israel Idonije. But over the years, when it’s rained on Trueblood, it’s poured. He’s the guy to go after.
The Bucs don’t have a backfield star like Matt Forte to build around, though Earnest Graham is a productive receiver who, as he showed last week, can add a dimension of surprising (though subtle) inside quickness and elusiveness.

Don’t be stunned if Graham becomes a bigger component in the run game even after LeGarrette Blount gets healthy. Graham, however, is facing a much greater challenge this week than he faced last week; Chicago’s linebackers are just as fast as New Orleans’ but a lot more physical.

So who will win? Check our NFL expert picks for all Week 7 games

Follow @Andy_Benoit on Twitter or contact him at Andy.Benoit-at-NFLTouchdown.com.
Posted on: October 19, 2011 3:05 pm
 

Film Room: Raiders vs. Chiefs preview

Posted by Eye on Football Analyst Andy Benoit



Imagine you get sick. You call your girlfriend to tell her that you’re sorry but you’re not going to be able to go with her to the ski resort this weekend. She says that’s no problem, she’ll just go with one of her friends. But when she scrolls through her contacts, she realizes she doesn’t have any friends nearby who are good skiers.

So, she calls to tell you to get well soon and also that she’s going to the ski resort with that guy her cousin knows from the gym. Oh, and the guy and her are moving in together after the trip but can the two of you still be friends? You can’t help but realize that if you’d never gotten sick, your girlfriend would not have started thinking about someone else.

If you can imagine this, then you can imagine how Jason Campbell is probably feeling right now. Let’s examine Jason Campbell’s Carson Palmer’s 4-2 Raiders as they head into their matchup against a Chiefs club that has won two straight coming off its bye but has been rocked by injuries and turmoil.


[Raiders vs. Chiefs PreGame]

1. The Decision
Forty-three million over four years, along with a first-and either first-or-second-round pick in exchange for a quarterback who became inconsistent after a slew of injuries and failed to manage the oversized personalities infiltrating his locker room and huddle in Cincinnati? That’s a steep price – probably too steep, in fact.

But you can understand the Raiders’ logic in going for a potential franchise quarterback. Like the skiing girlfriend, they’re attracted to strong-armed prototypes and are looking for a ring.

The Raiders knew they couldn’t get that ring with Campbell. Caretaking quarterbacks don’t cut it in today’s NFL. Campbell has always been too methodical in his reads and mechanics. He locks onto receivers, which limits what Hue Jackson can do with his gameplans. Campbell is athletic but seems to forget it whenever defenders flash in his face. In short, he has always been exactly what he’ll be when his collarbone heels: a quality backup.
That said, when a team goes all-in like the Raiders have here, they’d better be set in virtually all areas around the quarterback.

So how set are the rest of the Raiders?

2. Pass offense
It’s difficult to gauge Oakland’s passing attack because it has been tailored to hide Campbell’s limitations. But a safe assumption is that with Palmer aboard (whenever he does play), it will become downfield oriented. Darrius Heyward-Bey, Jacoby Ford and Denarius Moore might be the fastest receiving trio in the league. Also, tight end Kevin Boss is not fast, but he’s effective stretching the seams.

Still, speed isn’t everything. The Raiders wideouts all remain raw. Heyward-Bey’s elevated reception total has been partly a function of facing favorable off-coverage. His hands are improved but still not naturally soft. As for Ford, durability and route running can be hit or miss. And Moore? He has done next to nothing since his breakout game at Buffalo.

Still, we’ve seen that (when healthy) these guys can give the Raiders firepower. And because Darren McFadden and fullback Marcel Reese are such dynamic weapons out of the backfield, Hue Jackson can comfortably sacrifice an extra receiver in the formation in order to employ a sixth offensive lineman.

Doing this makes for a better play-action game (a run-oriented team throwing out of a run formation) and also ameliorates right tackle Khalif Barnes’ weakness in pass protection.

3. Run offense
McFadden has blossomed into a legitimate top-five running back. The difference between now and two years ago is he’s staying healthy and has figured out how to get to the perimeter early in the run. That’s important because being such a stiff-hipped, straight-line runner, McFadden doesn’t have the type of agility and lateral burst needed to elude defenders at the line of scrimmage or second level. But he has uncanny speed and acceleration, which, when turned on full blast, make him hard to tackle cleanly.

The Raiders blockers have helped ignite Oakland’s explosive outside run game. Rookie guard Stefan Wisniewski has good movement skills (particularly in short areas) and center Samson Satele has been getting out in front with much greater consistency.

The Raiders also spend a lot of time in six-offensive linemen sets, with the nimble Khalif Barnes serving essentially as a 325-pound blocking tight end. Factor in Michael Bush’s between-the-tackles power and you have the making of a potent, sustainable rushing attack.

4. Defense
When the Raiders don’t surrender big plays they’re tough to trade blows with for four quarters. The defensive line is enormous and athletic, particularly inside where Richard Seymour (future Hall of Famer?) and Tommy Kelly present thundering power augmented by uncommon initial quickness.
The key to creating big plays against Oakland is isolating their linebackers.

Middle linebacker Rolando McClain plays slow (both mentally and physically) and can be exploited. Aaron Curry has only been in town one week, but if his track record from Seattle means anything, he too can be exploited, mainly in space outside the numbers or when forced to cover receivers horizontally. It’s surprising that Curry was handed Quinton Groves' job right away (Groves had been up and down but was getting more comfortable).

The secondary does indeed miss Nnamdi Asomugha, but any secondary would miss Nnamdi Asomugha. Stanford Routt has been adequate on the left side, and the versatile Michael Huff is having the best season of his career. Anytime a team plays predominant man coverage (like the Raiders do), the defensive backs are vulnerable. A pass-rush can help relieve this. The Raiders have great interior rushers but could stand to use a little more speed on the edges.

5. Kansas City’s chances
The question is whether the Chiefs can find some sort of run game without Jamaal Charles. So far, the answer has been no. Don’t expect that to change Sunday; Oakland’s defensive tackles should feast on Kansas City’s struggling interior line.

In the air, teams have been attacking the Raiders defense with play action and rollouts. Matt Cassel has the mobility and arm to make throws on the move (he did so frequently against the Vikings) but that’s usually by circumstance, not design. This is a shotgun passing offense, with success hinging on whether Dwayne Bowe and Steve Breaston can separate from Stanford Routt and DeMarcus Van Dyke (or Chris Johnson or Chimdi Chekwa, should either return from their hamstring injuries).

On the other side of the ball, Tamba Hali is one of the most disruptive players in all the land. He plays with perfect leverage and physically strong quickness in all cardinal directions. The Raiders don’t have anyone who can block him. Hali can’t do it alone, though, which is why Justin Houston needs to play with more decisiveness (tough to ask of a rookie sometimes). Kansas City’s secondary misses Eric Berry but has two physical corners (Brandon Carr and Brandon Flowers) who can compensate, especially against raw wideouts.

Key matchup to watch: Darren McFadden against Derrick Johnson. Speed on speed.

So who will win? Check our NFL expert picks for all Week 7 games

Follow @Andy_Benoit on Twitter or contact him at Andy.Benoit-at-NFLTouchdown.com.
Posted on: October 19, 2011 10:12 am
 

Film Room: Jets vs. Chargers preview

Posted by Eye on Football Analyst Andy Benoit



For the first time in the Norv Turner era, the San Diego Chargers enter their sixth game of the season with a record other than 2-3. Now that the perennial power of the AFC West is finally living up to high expectations out of the gate, no one seems interested in acknowledging them.

That’s about to change. The Chargers’ matchup against the Jets is the only marquee game on an otherwise shabby Week 7 schedule. Below is a breakdown of that game and this very good San Diego team.

(Ed. Note: But first, our film-room edition of the Pick-Six Podcast. Subscribe via iTunes here.)


1. Norv Turner’s offense
Slow starts and a seemingly lax, bland personality have made Turner ripe for criticism over the years. But what no honest critic can deny is Turner has always been ahead of the offensive strategizing curve, particularly recently, as the Chargers have finished in the top five in scoring each year since he arrived.

Turner’s offense is unique. While the rest of the NFL is spreading out, the Chargers operate predominantly out of base personnel (two backs, two receivers and a tight end). Turner believes that you don’t need to align horizontally in order to attack vertically. The Chargers refer frequently to seven-step drops and dictate one-on-one matchups for their gazelle-like receivers by designing routes that go outside the numbers.

This tactic is fairly easy when Antonio Gates is in the lineup, as safeties are compelled to focus on him in the middle. When Gates is sidelined, as he’s been since Week 3, the receivers’ routes are inclined to develop more slowly, which forces the offensive line to elevate its play (blocking on a seven-step drop is not easy). San Diego’s front five has answered that challenge this season.

One-on-one matchups outside can also be commanded simply by lining up in base formations. With a line as powerful on the ground as San Diego’s, defenses are compelled to have a safety eye the running back, if not walk all the way down into the box. Otherwise, the Chargers can run with ease against a seven-man front. A preoccupied safety can’t offer viable help in coverage outside.

Long developing routes not only generate big plays (San Diego frequently finishes near the top of the league in 20-plus-yard passes), they also stretch a defense, which creates space for dumpoff passes to targets coming out of the backfield. Fullback Mike Tolbert (a surprisingly skilled receiver) and running back Ryan Mathews have combined for 48 catches this season, averaging over 10 yards per pop.

2. The personnel and matchups
The Jets don’t mind the Chargers creating one-on-one matchups for their receivers. They’re used to that, in fact, given the way Darrelle Revis shadows the opposing team’s top wideout with no safety help. Expect Revis to blanket Vincent Jackson, and expect Vincent Jackson to see few balls come his way (Revis is coming off a two-interception performance, and the Chargers had no problem going away from Jackson when he was guarded by Champ Bailey two weeks ago).

This leaves Antonio Cromartie-Malcolm Floyd as the key matchup. Cromartie is built to defend downfield routes; he’s a long-striding runner who likes to track the ball in the air, rather than rely on physical jams and proper press technique. If he can handle Floyd one-on-one, the Jets are in business. Most likely, though, he’ll need some help.

With two corners who, for the most part, can match up to San Diego’s receivers, it will be interesting to see how New York defends the running backs underneath. The Jets indiscriminately integrate their linebackers and safeties into blitzes and zone exchanges. Rex Ryan will likely utilize those blitzes and zone exchanges given that even if the Jets can’t sack Philip Rivers, they can at least disrupt and discourage his seven-step drops. Thus, Jim Leonhard, Eric Smith, Bart Scott and David Harris could all take turns blitzing the passer and spying the backs.

3. Philip Rivers
Often, systems are only as good as the quarterback running them. The Chargers have one of the game’s best in Rivers. He is a perfect fit for Turner’s offense. The seven-step drops require a strong arm and the toughness to make throws with defenders bearing down on him.

Rivers has this – all in one package, in fact.

Thanks to his shot-put throwing motion, he does not need much room in order to throw. He can push the ball downfield without having to fully step forward or, obviously, wind up. Mentally, his focus when a hit’s on the horizon is as impressive as anyone’s in the game.

4. The run game
Because Turner’s offense is built largely around manipulating the strong safety, it, more than most, thrives on run-pass balance. That’s why the Chargers traded up last season to draft Ryan Mathews in the first-round. After a disappointing, injury-filled rookie campaign, the first-rounder from Fresno State has started to blossom in recent weeks. Mathews has very fluid lateral agility, which makes him potent in space. The issue has been whether he can create his own space. Last season, he struggled to press the hole and break the line of scrimmage at full speed. That’s a sign of a runner thinking too much.

Mathews has corrected this. He seems to be reading defenses before the snap more than after the snap. As a result, he’s rushed for 98, 81 and 125 yards his last three outings. It helps that he plays with solid lead-blockers in Mike Tolbert and Jacob Hester, a mobile interior line, a capable road-grader like Marcus McNeil and arguably the game’s best left guard, Kris Dielman.

5. Other side of the ball
San Diego’s defense has been every bit as effective as the offense this season. Coordinator Greg Manusky has a very straightforward approach, often basing his tactics on the down and distance. With his corners playing so well and with this being a cohesive veteran unit, Manusky does not have to get cute in his approach.

Aside from the willowy Shaun Phillips, the Chargers don’t have a dominant pass-rusher, though Larry English and Antwan Barnes have both flashed occasionally this season. Still, Manusky is willing to blitz on third down, usually with a traditional inside linebacker who can give the Chargers a fifth pass-rusher to dictate that the speed guys face one-on-one matchups outside. The Jets’ floundering pass attack shouldn’t pose too much of a problem for the Bolts.

What might be a problem is New York’s run game. True, it has been stagnant this season. It’s starting to look like Shonn Greene’s ’09 postseason coming out party will also be the pinnacle of his career. But we’ve seen the Jets succeed before.

Physically, they have the potential to pound the rock, and the Chargers’ run defense stumbled against Willis McGahee and the Broncos two weeks ago. Starting ends Jacques Cesaire and Luis Castillo are both on the mend, and nose tackle Antonio Garay, while a quality player, has not stepped up accordingly. Hard to picture that changing against Nick Mangold.

So who will win? Check our NFL expert picks for all Week 7 games

Follow @Andy_Benoit on Twitter or contact him at Andy.Benoit-at-NFLTouchdown.com.
Posted on: October 13, 2011 11:10 pm
Edited on: October 14, 2011 9:21 am
 

Podcast: Darnell Dockett, Week 6 NFL Film Room

Posted by Will Brinson & Ryan Wilson

Arizona Cardinals defensive lineman Darnell Dockett stops by the show to talk about his work with Dick's Sporting Goods in their fight against breast cancer. He also discusses his team's tough start, his adjustment to Arizona's new defense, and Donovan McNabb's comments before the Vikings-Cards game.

CBSSports.com's Xs and Os guru Andy Benoit then joins Will Brinson to break down the Week 6 games. They also touch on the Eagles' demise, why the Cover-2 is dying, whether the Falcons can bounce back, the second-best team in the NFC (Lions or Saints?), if the Bills can stay hot against the Giants, how many points we could see in the Cowboys-Patriots game and who's on the ol' hot seat.

And that's just the first 10 minutes (kidding, kidding). Either way, football chatting starts ... now.

Just hit the play button below to listen (and did we mention that you should subscribe to the podcast via iTunes?). If you can't listen to the podcast below, download it here. And if you'd like to keep working while listening in your browser, pop that puppy out in a new tab here.


For more NFL news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnNFL on Twitter, subscribe to our NFL newsletter, and while you're at it, add our RSS Feed.
Posted on: October 5, 2011 2:37 pm
Edited on: October 6, 2011 4:52 pm
 

Film Room: Steelers vs. Titans preview

Posted by Eye on Football Analyst Andy Benoit


The Tennessee Titans are off to a 3-1 start under first-time head coach Mike Munchak. Are they for real? The Titans have had the good fortune of facing the Jaguars, Broncos and Browns this season – all teams that run a bland 4-3 and suffer from a dire lack of weapons in the passing game. The Titans did, however, defeat a Ravens team that humiliated the Steelers in Week 1.

Which brings us to the next question: how are the Steelers right now? They’re 2-2 but have looked hardly “Steeler-like”. Ben Roethlisberger (sprained foot) is expected to play Sunday, but James Harrison (fractured orbital bone) is out. How serious of a test do the Steelers pose to this minimally tested Titans club?


Here are five keys of the matchup.

Run powers struggling
1. Titans run offense
The natural assumption is that Chris Johnson held out for virtually all of training camp and has therefore been rusty early in the season. An examination of the film reveals that ... this is exactly the case.

Johnson has not shown his usual initial quickness or burst out of the backfield. He’s had a tendency to stop his feet at the first sign of trouble, which is why he’s not creating his own space. These issues were apparent even in his 101-yard performance against the Browns last week.

The fourth-year running back is not the lone culprit for Tennessee’s anemic ground game. Interior linemen Eugene Amano, Leroy Harris and Jake Scott have been inconsistent at times, and right tackle David Stewart seems to have lost a bit of the power that once backed-up his nastiness.

Also, fullback Quinn Johnson is no Ahmard Hall. Hall’s return from suspension this week will be most welcomed – he has great feel and recognition in this Titans offense.

2. Steelers run defense
It ranks 22nd and has looked downright feeble in both losses this season (Week 1 at Baltimore, Week 4 at Houston). The Ravens and Texans both feature a stretch zone rushing attack, which the Steelers have been uncharacteristically poor at defending. James Harrison, coming off back surgery, has not played with the same physicality as past years.

He’s out this game; replacement Lawrence Timmons has superb athleticism but, as a run defender, he’s better equipped for his customary inside position, where he can chase down ball-carriers in either direction. This week, Timmons will have to be an edge-setting outside ‘backer, and against arguably the game’s steadiest left tackle in Michael Roos.

There’s too much history of success to think the Steelers run defense will continue to struggle (though the film through four weeks has often supported the wide-held notion that the Steelers are getting old fast). They have the ultimate X-factor in Troy Polamalu, but the real key to turning things around is at defensive end.

The Steelers’ secret to success is that they’ve always had incredibly active ends who can create chaos in the trenches and allow the linebackers to play downhill. But those ends – Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel, who’s been out the past two weeks with a strained PCL – along with stalwart nose tackle Casey Hampton are also well into their thirties.

Creating big plays: natural vs. manufactured
3. Steelers passing offense (natural)
The Steelers are a pass-first team. It’s been that way for several years now. And it will remain that way as long as Mike Wallace is around. The third-year sensation is the most lethal big-play receiving threat in the game today. He’s DeSean Jackson only with a longer stride.

The Steelers have done an excellent job of designing their route combinations around Wallace. His lifting of the safety is often what allows Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown to get open in the 18-25-yard range. But not everything about Pittsburgh’s passing attack is done through design.

There’s a lot of natural talent driving the force. Much of the production comes from Ben Roethlisberger’s incredible ability to not only extend the play, but make accurate throws downfield off that extension (there isn’t a better off-balance, improvisational passer in all of football).

The key to stymying Big Ben’s improve is to get to him with multiple pass-rushers. It’s hard enough getting just one pass-rusher to a quarterback, but the Steelers’ offensive line is porous right now. The Texans swarmed Roethlisberger by blitzing inside, which crowded his sight lines (thus making him break down earlier than usual) and forced shaky offensive tackles Trai Essex and Marcus Gilbert to work one-on-one.

4. Titans passing offense (manufactured)
A bulk of Matt Hasselbeck’s passing yards have stemmed from big plays that were well-crafted and called against the perfect defensive look (the best of many examples: receiver Damian Williams setting a pick against Cleveland’s man coverage that left Nate Washington wide open for a 57-yard game).

These kinds of plays are fine – it’s what good coaching and preparation are all about – but they can only carry you so far. At some point, you need a threat like Mike Wallace to build around. The Titans had such a threat before Kenny Britt tore his ACL.

5. Injuries impacting outcome
If the Titans can’t find their run game, they’re in trouble. The Steelers, even without James Harrison, have a far stronger pass-rush than the Jaguars, Broncos or Browns. The Titans handled the Ravens’ potent pass-rush well in Week 2, but they were able to build their aerial attack around Britt. Britt’s replacement, Nate Washington, isn’t that type of receiver – especially against a top-tier cover corner like Ike Taylor.

Running the ball could be equally important for the Steelers. With Roethlisberger less than 100 percent and the front five hurting, Pittsburgh’s best bet might be to challenge the Titans inside. Defensive tackle Jurrell Casey has been outstanding against the run, but center Maurkice Pouncey has the technical aptitude to temper Casey’s raw power. On Pouncey’s left, guard Chris Kemoeatu is arguably the best pulling blocker in the game. The Steelers should relish opportunities to get him on finesse middle linebacker Barrett Ruud.

Of course, putting a dent in Pittsburgh’s ground game is the fact that Rashard Mendenhall left last week’s contest with a hamstring injury. Isaac Redman, the spotlight could be on you.

So who will win? Check our NFL Week 5 expert picks for all the games

Follow @Andy_Benoit on Twitter or contact him at Andy.Benoit-at-NFLTouchdown.com.
Posted on: October 5, 2011 11:17 am
Edited on: October 6, 2011 4:59 pm
 

Film Room: Panthers vs. Saints preview

Posted by Eye on Football Analyst Andy Benoit



The Saints are 3-1 but it’s the 1-3 Panthers creating most of the chatter. Or, Cam Newton creating the chatter. Through a quarter of his rookie season, the No. 1 overall pick is, in a word, sensational. But obviously not perfect. The Panthers are still dwelling in the basement of the NFC South.

Here’s a comprehensive look at Newton and his club as they head into their first divisional showdown of the season.



1. How good is he, really?
Through four games, Newton has far exceeded all expectations. Remarkably, this includes expectations about his physical talents. We knew the 6’5”, 245-pound Auburn Tiger was an athletic monster, but rarely are quarterbacks still athletic monsters once they reach the NFL. Newton has been a productive runner, both with power and speed.

He’s a poor man’s Vick when it comes to eluding tacklers and a poor man’s Roethlisberger when it comes to shedding them. That’s a rich combination considering no other quarterback truly exhibits any of these traits (save for maybe Josh Freeman shedding defenders).

Most impressive, however, is that Newton has not leaned on his athleticism. Operating almost exclusively out of shotguns, he’s been a willing and poised statuesque passer who willingly works through his progressions from the pocket. His decisions are usually capped off by a bullet either downfield, outside the numbers (he has the uncanny arm strength to stretch the field both horizontally and vertically) or, if need be, underneath.

For the most part, Newton’s decisions have been good. He has faced an aggressive blitzing defense in Arizona, a classic 3-4 press defense in Green Bay (playing without Tramon Williams, the Packers kept Charles Woodson outside and blitzed far less often than usual that game) and, most recently, a classic Cover 2 defense in Chicago. He posted a legit 370-plus yards passing against all three of them.

The proof that it’s not all daisies and roses is that Newton also threw crucial interceptions in all three games and came away with a loss. He’s still a rookie and still prone to the occasional blunder. The blunders have been far less frequent than anyone expected, but they’ve been costly nevertheless.

2. Panthers dual tight ends
We assumed that with tight ends Jeremy Shockey and Greg Olsen, Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski would craft a dink-and-dunk, run-first system. Indeed, the Panthers have kept two tight ends on the field a majority of the time, but often, at least one of them (usually Olsen) has split out, serving essentially as a No. 3 receiver.

This poses serious personnel issues for defenses. Leave your base three-linebacker unit on the field and risk getting burned through the air (Shockey and Olsen have been superb downfield route runners the first four weeks). Use your nickel personnel and you risk getting run on by a team that always has a top-10 running back on the field.

The Saints are one of the few defenses that have an answer for this: strong safety Roman Harper. He is their second best run defender (behind Jonathan Vilma) and a demon in the box. He’s versatile enough to play press man coverage (he’s not particularly good at it, but Gregg Williams feels comfortable using him sporadically in this capacity) or blitz (3.5 sacks on the season).
 
Expect the Panthers in Week 5 to continue to be pass-first with their tight ends. And expect the Saints to not simply react to this, but rather, to attack by changing up what they do with Harper throughout the game in order to get Newton thinking.

3. Running Impact
Newton is the first quarterback since Vick to pose a veritable threat as a runner (Vince Young can’t be counted as a running threat quarterback because he was such a limited passer that defenses could get away with putting nine in the box against him; not a chance that happens against Newton). Having a running threat under center does wonders for your rushing attack.

The Panthers have all the resources to pound teams on the ground – DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart are an excellent duo, center Ryan Kalil can lock defenders at both the first and second level, left tackle Jordan Gross is a Pro Bowler and right tackle Jeff Otah flashed his old power against Chicago last week. But for whatever reason, Chudzinski has not gone in that direction. Carolina is averaging 25.5 rushing attempts per game, tied for 18th in the NFL.

Chudzinski would be wise to change this. The threat that Newton poses really opens things up. We saw this on the third play of the game against Chicago last week:


4. What Newton will see from Saints D
The Saints have one of the most aggressive defenses in football – both in terms of execution and presnap disguise. That has a lot to do with the trust Gregg Williams has in his secondary. Jabari Greer is one of the best ball-man corners in the game. Patrick Robinson had a rough Week 1 at Green Bay but has come on the last few outings (he was phenomenal at Jacksonville).

Playmaker Tracy Porter was eased back into action last week – he missed two games with a calf injury – and should see more snaps Sunday. When you factor in free safety Malcom Jenkins’ range, the Saints clearly have the resources to handle a Panthers’ wide receiving corps that is underwhelming outside of Steve Smith.

Dealing with the tight ends might be an issue, but Roman Harper’s versatility could cause Newton to question that matchup at times. How will Newton react when he sees Harper leave Olsen or Shockey and blitz? The simple answer would be, “He’ll throw to Olsen or Shockey”. But if you and I can predict this, so can Gregg Williams.

The Saints are one of the best green dog blitzing defenses in the league. (A green dog blitz is when a linebacker has a running back man-to-man, sees that the running back is staying in to pass protect and so he goes after the quarterback in response.) These blitzes can be hard to recognize because they come unexpectedly and late in the action.
 
When blitzing is not involved, Carolina’s offensive line can contain a Saints pass-rush that has been hit-or-miss early this season (the return of end Will Smith certainly helps). Thus, expect Gregg Williams to go after Newton and get him guessing before the snap. Many of Williams’ blitzes come out of nickel personnel packages. The Saints used their nickel later in the game against the Texans to counter the receiving impact of Houston’s two tight ends (Owen Daniels and James Casey). Don’t be surprised if they refer to their nickel early against the Panthers’ two-tight end offense.

5. The other side of the ball
The Saints have remade their offense this season. It now runs through Darren Sproles and Jimmy Graham. Sproles has been better for the Saints than Reggie Bush ever was (much better, in fact). That could be in part because Sproles doesn’t yet draw the attention that Bush drew. But more than anything, it’s because he has lightning quick feet and an understanding for how to create and exploit spacing in both the run and pass game.

Graham is the dynamic athlete we all knew he’d be after his 2010 debut. It just so happens that the ex-power forward is developing much quicker than expected. He’s a mismatch for any linebacker, has the size to out-position defensive backs and has better hands than Robert Meachem (who is now the fourth option in this pass offense, behind Sproles, Graham and, when healthy, Marques Colston).

Panthers strong safety Charles Godfrey has been stellar in coverage this season and can compete with Graham, but the Panther linebackers (who are really missing Jon Beason) will have trouble with Sproles. Carolina’s best hope is to get pressure on Brees early in the down.

Defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy are capable of embarrassing New Orleans’ athletic but grossly unreliable tackles Jermon Bushrod and Charles Brown. But Brees knows this and is also capable of adjusting.

So who will win? Check our Week 5 NFL expert picks for all the games

Follow @Andy_Benoit on Twitter or contact him at Andy.Benoit-at-NFLTouchdown.com.
Posted on: September 28, 2011 4:17 pm
 

Pick-Six Podcast: Week 4 NFL film room preview

Posted by Will Brinson & Ryan Wilson

it's Wednesday, which means it's time for our own Andy Benoit to take a look at some matchups in an in-depth perspective. This week's matchups are Ravens-Jets (you can read it here) and Lions-Cowboys (check it out here) and they're excellent, per usual.

Andy also joins Will on the podcast to talk about whether Les Miles could make it as an NFL coach and where he might end up, whether Tony Romo deserves all the praise he's getting, what the Cowboys will do to slow down MVP candidate Matthew Stafford, whether or not Torrey Smith is a legit receiving option for the Ravens, and how the Patriots might slow down Darren McFadden.

Plus, Michael David Smith of PFT joins Ryan to talk about the fact that the Lions are undefeated when he joins the podcast. (It's true!) And, of course, all the NFL action that we had this past weekend, plus a look at Week 4.

Hit the play button below to listen (and did we mention that you should subscribe to the podcast via iTunes?). If you can't listen to the podcast below, download it here. And if you'd like to keep working while listening in your browser, pop that puppy out in a new tab here.


For more NFL news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnNFL on Twitter, subscribe to our NFL newsletter, and while you're add it, add our RSS Feed.
 
 
 
 
The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of CBS Sports or CBSSports.com