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CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist

After Further Review: Disrupting receivers key to dealing with air elite


You have Drew Brees breaking Dan Marino's single-season record for yards passing. You have Tom Brady just 190 yards behind him and you have Aaron Rodgers with 45 touchdown passes.

How do you stop these guys? Or at least slow them down?

"You have to beat up their receivers," one NFC personnel director said. "These quarterbacks are too good now. They will eat you alive if you play zone against them and let their receivers find the open spots. They are too smart. You have to mug their outside players, not let them get into their routes as easy as they can against zone."

Those three quarterbacks are arguably the three favorites going into the NFL playoffs next week. The Packers are the top seed in the NFL and the Patriots are expected to join them in the AFC, with the Saints likely a third-seed that is playing as well as any team right now.

They are the top three passing teams in the NFL. The Saints are first, followed by the Patriots and then the Packers. The quarterback play for all three has been sensational, but there have been games where each has struggled.

For Brees and the Saints, it came in a loss to the Rams. For Rodgers, it came two weeks ago against the Chiefs in the Packers' only loss. Brady's lowest output in terms of yards came against the Steelers, but his second lowest came against the Chiefs.

Kansas City is a team with two good, physical corners who can play man-press coverage and knock your receivers off their routes. They did that to the Packers and to the Patriots in Week 11.

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The Rams physically beat up the Saints when they played them, sacking Brees six times. That took him out of his groove.

"Hitting all of them is key," one NFC coach said. "But you have to make it tough for their receivers. They are so good at hitting them on the run. They are so accurate that if you just let the receivers go where they want, they will kill you."

The Falcons played a lot of zone against the Saints on Monday and Brees ate them alive. He did what he wanted when he wanted to do it, throwing four touchdown passes on the night.

On several big plays, Saints receivers got wide open because the Falcons got lost in zone coverage.

A week after Rodgers struggled against the Chiefs' man coverage, he threw five touchdown passes against the Bears -- primarily a Cover-2 zone team.

"Soft-zone defense may seem like a way to slow those three down, but all it does it allow free release for their receivers," one NFC personnel director said. "Why not take your chances beating them up? Make the quarterback pull the ball down when the receiver can't get into the route."

The Patriots lack deep speed, which shows up when teams press their receivers, including Wes Welker. The Packers didn't have Greg Jennings against the Chiefs, and they had trouble beating the man coverage. The Saints have a little more speed outside in Robert Meachem and Devery Henderson, but the book on both is that they can have problems with press-man coverage.

So how do you stop the big-three passing offenses? You don't. But the best option is to mug the receivers. That might lead to some big plays -- a few penalties here and there -- but it also could lead to some turnovers and to the disruption of the passing game's timing.

Either way, it won't be easy but at least beating up the receivers gives a defense a fighting chance.

Film Study: 10 things I saw from the tape

1. So what happened to Denver quarterback Tim Tebow last week against Buffalo? In watching the tape, Tebow went back to some of his bad habits. He held the ball. He sailed the ball. And he wasn't patient in the pocket, feeling phantom pressure again. Tebow had a wide-open Eric Decker down the left sideline early in the game. He would've been able to make a big play, but his lack of arm strength was exposed in a painful incomplete pass. He did come back and make a nice throw to Daniel Fells for a touchdown, but it was downhill after that. He threw high much of the game and into coverage. The interception return for a touchdown by Bills safety Jairus Byrd was a rookie-type mistake. He thought Decker was open down the seam, but he never saw Byrd. Bad read. The second interception for a touchdown came when he was hit while holding the ball too long. The final pick of the game was his throwing to a blanketed receiver in the end zone. It was not a good game for Tebow. It showed his flaws as a passer. Once the Broncos got down by more than 10, they were done. That's why Tebow has to be used the way Denver is in that spread-option offense.

2. I'm still not sure if the Ravens are good enough on the corner, but Lardarius Webb is playing well. He picked off Seneca Wallace pass last week against the Browns. Wallace threw late to the right sideline and Webb jumped in front of receiver Mohamed Massaquoi for a diving interception. It was a back-foot throw by Wallace, but Webb made a great play. Webb needs to be able to take away the other team's top receiver come playoff time. He has been a good player all year long, but he needs to keep it up in the playoffs. Rookie corner Jimmy Smith is playing better on the other side and had a nice game against Cleveland. If those two continue to improve, the Ravens defense could be special in the postseason.

3. It's amazing how much better the Raiders offense looks when Denarius Moore is in the lineup. The rookie from Tennessee gives Carson Palmer another speed option down the field. Moore missed three games with an ankle injury and Oakland's offense struggled in that stretch. He played two weeks ago against Detroit, but started for the first time since Nov. 20 last week against Kansas City. Moore had four catches for 94 yards, including a 61-yard catch -- blowing by safety Langford in zone coverage -- for a touchdown. It's hard to get on top of a safety in two-deep zone, but Moore's speed allowed him to do just that. It's scary to think what the Raiders offense could have been with Moore, Darius Heyward-Bey and Jacoby Ford (he's missed the past six games) all on the field this season, catching passes from Palmer. It's something Raiders fans have to be excited about heading into next season

4. The Seahawks have something special in their secondary. In fact, I'd say it's the best young foursome in the entire league. Both safeties, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, are on their way to the Pro Bowl. Some say Chancellor, the strong safety, has played better. I beg to differ. Thomas is a rangy player who can also tackle. But it's the corners who are the biggest surprise. Brandon Browner has really come on after a slow start, and Richard Sherman might be one of the better man-cover players over the last eight games. Sherman and Browner are both big players who can mug opposing receivers. The 49ers had just six catches by receivers last week in their victory over Seattle. A lot of that was because of great man coverage by the two corners. Those four players give the Seahawks a great base to build around for next season.

5. The Giants have the speed and players up front to create problems for opposing quarterbacks. Jason Pierre-Paul is on his way to the Pro Bowl and is coming off an impressive game against the Jets. But Justin Tuck is also starting to play better. That does not bode well for the Cowboys this week. Dallas had trouble last week with Philadelphia's Jason Babin and Trent Cole. Left tackle Doug Free has really struggled the past month. He must play better if the Cowboys are to keep Tony Romo upright.

6. One of the more improved players in the second half is Bengals tight end Jermaine Gresham. The early word on him last season and early this season was that Gresham didn't always go to the right spot, missing assignments and hurting the passing game. But it's clear he's become more comfortable with Jay Gruden's offense over the past two months. Gresham caught a touchdown pass last week against the Cardinals and did so making a smart adjustment. He ran and out and up, but the linebacker had him blanketed so Gresham turned back out as quarterback Andy Dalton was flushed left outside the pocket. Dalton saw him make the move, quickly threw to him for a 12-yard touchdown pass. On the next series, Dalton threw a tight-end screen to Gresham. He turned it into a 12-yard gain by making two tacklers miss and carrying two more past the first-down marker. He had five catches for 56 yards but you can see Dalton's confidence growing in him each week. Gresham needs to come up big this week against the Ravens in the middle of the field.

7. When the Falcons went into free agency over the summer, they did so with an eye on Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson. But when Carolina re-signed him to a huge deal, Atlanta turned to Ray Edwards. They probably wish they hadn't. He has been a major disappointment. Edwards is a grinder, a guy who plays hard but isn't that edge rusher the Falcons hoped he could be. When they signed Edwards, they hoped he could be a 10-sack player. That's dreaming. He has 3 1/2. Edwards is solid against the run, but when you play Brees and Cam Newton, he has to be more of a pass rusher. Backup Kroy Biermann actually might be a better pass rusher, even though he gets by with more of an effort game. The Falcons have John Abraham, and he's still a good pass rusher, but they need more. In fact, their entire defensive line has been a major disappointment this season.

8. There were a lot of people doubting Bills running back C.J. Spiller. Was he a first-round bust? The Bills actually moved him to receiver earlier this year because Fred Jackson was playing so well. But when Jackson got hurt, Spiller moved to running back and has done a nice job. He had his first career 100-yard game last week against Denver and the thing that stood out was his blazing speed. That was the book on Spiller coming out of Clemson, but he hadn't played to that speed with the Bills. Last week, on the Bills' fourth play from scrimmage, he took a handoff, burst through a hole on the left side and ran away from defenders for a 38-yard gain. Later, he took a swing pass on the right side and gained 11 yards. Spiller ran for 111 yards, averaging 6.9 per carry. Spiller also lined up wide right and caught an inside screen for 16-yard gain showing off his speed again. Each and every week, you can see Spiller's confidence growing. When Jackson returns next season, the Bills might have a dilemma on their hands.

9. I know the Ravens beat the Browns last week, but they won't beat many teams by completing two passes to their receivers. Two. Both of those were caught by Torrey Smith, one was a 29-yard crossing route. That means the Ravens didn't hit one pass down the field against Cleveland. With Anquan Boldin out with a knee injury, Lee Evans started opposite Smith and didn't catch a pass on the four occasions he was targeted. Joe Flacco missed an open throw to Smith in the third quarter, a pass he has to hit. Sheldon Brown also picked off Flacco on a ball he tried to force to Evans, who was blanketed by Brown. The Ravens can run the ball. They can throw it to the tight ends, but if they are going to be a Super Bowl team they have to do more down the field. It seems to show up more and more lately.

10. Where is the talent on San Diego's defense? Aside from safety Eric Weddle, who is a keeper on the unit that lined up last week against the Lions? Quentin Jammer, who had played decently at corner, had a horrible day. Nose tackle Antonio Garay, who had a breakout season in 2010, has been a huge disappointment this season. The pass rushers don't scare anybody. The Chargers are 23rd in scoring defense, and the reason is talent. There isn't an abundance of it on that side of the ball. That falls on the head of general manager A.J. Smith. There are no real playmakers on defense == aside from Weddle == and that's a big reason why Matt Stafford carved them to shreds last week.

Hot Tub

1. Lions quarterback Matt Stafford -- He looked so sure of himself against the Chargers, throwing for 379 yards and four touchdowns.

2. Jets corner Darrelle Revis -- He had a big day locking down Giants receivers and batting down passes.

3. Redskins running back Evan Royster -- I liked this kid coming out of Penn State and he ran for over 100 against the Vikings last week.

4. Bills outside linebacker Chris Kelsay -- He had a sack and made several good stops against the run. That's been missing from the Bills.

5. Bengals right tackle Andre Smith -- He was overpowering against the Cardinals, pushing guys around in the run game and doing a great job in pass protection.

Cold Tub

1. Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez -- In the team's biggest game, he came up small against the Giants.

2. Falcons middle linebacker Curtis Lofton -- He spent the Saints game getting blocked, which is why they ran the ball the way they did.

3. Chiefs quarterback Kyle Orton -- He made some really bad throws against the Raiders, including a horrible end-zone pick by Matt Giordano.

4. Falcons corner Dunta Robinson -- He got lost in coverage several times against the Saints. Do the Falcons have buyer's remorse?

5. Bengals running back Cedric Benson -- He lost two fumbles in the fourth quarter against Arizona and almost cost his team the game.

Three Pro Bowl snubs

1. Redskins linebacker London Fletcher -- He leads the NFL in tackles and has really been good the past month.

2. Giants receiver Victor Cruz -- He wasn't on the fan ballot, which shows the flaw in the system.

3. Raiders safety Tyvon Branch -- Forget Troy Polamalu, this kid outplayed him all season long.

Three reputation Pro Bowl picks

1. Jets tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson -- He certainly hasn't played to that level this season.

2. Patriots guard Logan Mankins -- He was the second-best guard on his team to Brian Waters and had a lot of penalties.

3. Packers nose tackle B.J. Raji -- People remember him as a force in last year's postseason. The tape this season says otherwise.

Three who will be there next year

1. Panthers quarterback Cam Newton -- Is there any doubt about that, even in the quarterback-heavy NFC?

2. Cowboys tackle Tyron Smith -- He will move to the left side next season and be a perennial Pro Bowl left tackle.

3. Bears defensive tackle Henry Melton -- He bulked up this season and was a force inside. Too bad nobody notice.

Tweets at me

1. From @xPAYDIRTx Have you ever touched a football?

2. From @TrendKillemAll Thanks for not disappointing with your Brees article. I can always count on you to produce complete garbage, you NY hack.

3. From @Jamesmcgowan3 keep trolling

Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.

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