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2020 NFL Playoffs Divisional Card Round Preview: Ten Things to Watch For

Ten things to pay attention to over the course of this weekend’s six playoff games.

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

1. ONLY HOPE

I’ve spent too many calories and rode my brain waves farther than they should go to try and squint together some way the Browns can hang in there against the Chiefs. I found something, but it took off trail path finding, bush whacking, and a scraped and bloody bloody to make it to the other side.

The key for Cleveland is their front four has to win this game. Although Olivier Vernon is out for the year, Adrian Clayborn is a good player in is own right. This season Clayborn, Myles Garrett, Larry Ogunjobi, and Sheldon Richardson have combined for 22.5 sacks, 41 quarterback hits, and 23 tackles for a loss.

Starting with Garrett, he’s the best edge rusher in football. Wide windmill rips, inside out moves, a brutal bullrush, he can do it all in every way imaginable. On the outside the Chiefs have the average Eric Fisher, and the tribal tattooed Mike Remmers, who has played competently in replacement of Mitchell Schwartz. Garrett has an enormous advantage against both players.

Typically Garrett rushes against left tackles. The key for him is to read Patrick Mahomes’s dropback. On shorter drops, he’ll need to use his bullrush to create instant pressure and muddy the pocket. Fisher is especially susceptible to bullrushes.

On deeper drops he’ll need to use rips and bends, and inside out moves and bends, to take advantage of the infinite dropbacks Patrick Mahomes loves to take to give him time to read the defense as the play develops—something he’s able to pull off because of the Hang Em’ High rocket launcher attached to his shoulder. These wide rushes are vital. Garrett (#95) is a master at using his Space Jam climax arms to reach out and pop the ball loose as he runs the arc.

Both of these options are crucial for Garrett to get the most out of his matchup. Because of how susceptible Fisher is to the bullrush, it will be interesting to see if the mammoth Clayborn gets reps against Fisher out wide. If Clayborn manages to keep Mahomes in the pocket, instead of looping wide around him, this is another option. The difference between Garrett and Remmers is gigantic.

The Chiefs’ biggest weakness on offense is their interior. They pick up stunts well. Austin Reiter is a plus center. Yet, they struggle to create lanes in the run game, and their individual pass protection is spotty. Both Richardson and Ogunjobi can, and have to, dominate the interior of this game, denting the pocket, moving the line of scrimmage, and distorting things for the Chiefs’ offense as much as possible.

Every incompletion is precious for a defense whose cornerbacks are M.J. Stewart, Robert Jackson, Terrance Mitchell, and Denzel Ward (yes, he’s very good), who don’t have a great option to cover Travis Kelce, let alone Demarcus Robinson. Failed downs and turnover creation need to come from their front four. It also helps when the center starts the game off by snapping the ball over the quarterback’s head.

2. BIG BLITZ COUNTRY

Last week Josh Allen carved up the Indianapolis Colts zone defense. As read in this space, as stated on the podcast, the Bills were a difficult match up for the Colts because of their spread passing game that could stretch their zone defense horizontally and vertically. Allen did exactly this, while being the entirety of their run game, in their 27-24 win over the Colts.

Turn down the lights. Play the highlights.

This week Allen is playing a lesser and entirely different defense. Unlike the Colts who occasionally blitz, the Ravens have the highest blitz rate in the league at 44.1%. This creates a defense that finished 5th in pressure rate at 25.9%. They typically play single high man with Deshone Elliot patrolling the deep middle, and Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters covering and following the opponent’s best receivers.

Their scheme has worked this season as they turned away from a cover three defense after losing Earl Thomas to interpersonal madness. The Ravens finished 10th in pass defense DVOA with a rating of 0.4% and 4th in yards per attempt at 5.6.

Baltimore hasn’t played an offense similar to Buffalo’s since they lost to Kansas City 34-20 in week three. Mahomes went 31 for 42 for 385 yards and 4 touchdowns. The Chiefs crushed Baltimore in the screen game, and camouflaged their patterns and routes, turning the intelligent Baltimore secondary’s aggression against itself. Posts became verticals up the seam. Drags became pivots. Boot legs, became screens, which became dump offs to the middle of the field.

The Ravens recent string of wins has come against terrible opponents. The last great offense they played before Tennessee last week was Cleveland in week 14, and they allowed 42 points to a passing offense that hasn’t touched the level Allen is playing at. Last week they held Tennessee to 13 points, but it was a run heavy offense whose tackles let them down, and the Titans didn’t have a wide receiver aside from A.J. Brown who could beat the Ravens’ man coverage.

Allen has played defenses like Baltimore before. Against Miami, New England, and Arizona, Allen was 112 for 163 (68.7%) for 1,397 yards, threw 11 touchdowns to 2 interceptions, averaged 8.57 yards an attempt, and Buffalo scored 31 points a game in these contests.

The Ravens are one of the best teams in the league at covering a number one wide receiver, ranking third in DVOA, and at covering a number two wide receiver. They struggle more against the supplementary pass catchers. Once you get past Peters and Humphries they can be exploited. The Bills have a top three receiver in Stefon Diggs who will get his, and they have a deep receiving corps consisting of John Brown, Gabriel Davis, Dawson Knox, Cole Beasley, Isaiah McKenzie, and their backs are good pass catchers too. Each one has a different skill set, and each one can take advantage of the space created by others.

Additionally, you don’t want to blitz Allen. He’s the most blitzed quarterback in the league, but he’s only been pressured on 20.7% of his dropbacks, the 22nd lowest rate in the league. Allen can simply outrun the blitz, get wide of the pocket and make throws on the run. The Bills have a great screen game that can take advantage of empty secondaries. And Beasley and Diggs are great short route runners, ensuring the blitz can’t get there on time.

The Ravens have to blitz to create pressure though. They’ve had problems with their front four rush all season. As deep as their front is, they haven’t created the murdersome rush they’re accustomed to from their pass rushers winning their individual matchups. It’s boom and bust blitzing Allen. Occasionally you can bury him in a sarcophagus of his own ruin. But more often than not, the Bills make teams pay for sending multiple defenders.

If the Ravens play like they have all season, this should be a game where the Bills put up 30. The only thing that can hold them back are those run-run-run-punt possessions Brian Daboll is susceptible of producing. He came up with two last week that limited Buffalo’s point total to 27. As long as they don’t fall into this punting pit, 30 should be an easy target to reach.

3. TWO HIGH

Aaron Rodgers was the best deep passer in the NFL this year. In every deep segment of the field he far and away exceeded the league average.

The Rams have the best deep pass defense in football with a DVOA of -36.8%. They also have the best defense in football this year. They led the NFL in net yards an attempt at 5.1, passing yards allowed at 3,051, and points allowed at 296.

At the heart of their defense is a two high shell with Jordan Fuller and John Johnson flying the rising hot air at the top. From their position, the Rams will roll to different coverages as they need to. Every play sees a similar look from the start, bating the offense into running the ball. It’s up to the quarterback to react quickly and make reads post snap with Aaron Donald, Leonard Floyd, Morgan Fox, Greg Gaines, and Sebastian Joseph-Day flying at his neck.

This defense clipped Russell Wilson’s wings this year, drained his mana, and turned the Seahawks vertical offense into empty flat passing. They pulled it off in every matchup this year limiting Seattle to only 18.6 points a game.

Last week Wilson was able to hit two deep passes. One came on a scramble drill where D.K. Metcalf broke up field.

The other came when Darious Williams guessed, incorrectly squatted on the flat Tyler Lockett was running, allowing Freddie Swaim to break up the sideline.

Usually their deep pass defense looked like this. Vertical routes covered, usually double covered, running deep into the woods, with Wilson having nothing but hopes and prayers and dreams to toss up to his wide receivers.

As great as the Packers’ deep passing game has been this season, it doesn’t seem like a reasonable way for them to move the ball. Instead they’ll use motion and crossing routes to try and stretch the Rams’ linebackers and run through the vacated space created by seam and post routes. Unlike the Seahawks, who needed hours to finally flood the short middle, the Packers have an intelligently designed offense that should be able to contort the Rams’ short passing defense early on, and they have the tight end play the Seahawks were missing last week.

That being said, the Rams only lost one game by more than one score this year, an 20-9 loss to the Seahawks at the end of the year. The most points they allowed in a game was 28 to Miami, thanks to four turnovers and two non-offensive Miami touchdowns. In a matchup that pits the best offense against the best defense, it’s going to be difficult for the offense to score 27 in this one.

4. TWO THROWS, RING-RING-RING

The Rams have a quarterback problem and have had one for a few seasons now. Jared Goff doesn’t lift up those around him, he doesn’t elevate the offense, he can be a cog churning in the machine, but he isn’t going to turn something into something grander and more incredible.

Last week he had to only make two throws with his thumb covered in pins and needles like a KOЯN album cover. He hit Cooper Kupp on a seam route against Jamal Adams. He hit Robert Woods on a wide open corner route off play action. That was it.

This week they are going to need to do the same. The Packers’ pass defense is underrated by the numbers. Goff has the same busted thumb. He struggles winning from the shotgun. Pressure turns his pants into fire ants.

In order for this to occur the Rams’ rushing attack has to be stellar. It didn’t get much going against Seattle last week, but a defensive touchdown, terrible fourth down defense, a fumbled punt, and a defensive massacre made up for it. The Rams are going to need more from their offense this week. This season the Rams have run 29% of their around the edges, and are one of the best teams in the NFL at running off the left edge, and are average off the right edge.

They do this by running the typical outside zone play everyone knows and love.

But their run game also stretches out to the realms usually depicted by science fiction.

The Packers have to stop their Rams run game on first down especially. Los Angeles has a run offense DVOA of 14.1% on first down, creating easier mid and late down situations for their impaired quarterback. This has been the foundation of their success since Sean McVay has taken over.

Green Bay has one great edge defender in Z’Darius Smith. He was previously playing on the interior more often to make up for Kenny Clark’s injury. Clark is back now. He’s been the torrential terrible force he was previously towards the end of the season. Moving the line of scrimmage, athleticism that affects the outside zone game, and providing juice as an interior rusher.

This is integral for the Packers. If Clark, along with Dean Lowry can continue to control the interior, it allows Smith to stay on the edge. The Packers haven’t gotten much from Preston Smith this season who lacks muscular definition in his arms, which is the nicest way you can say a player isn’t in shape, and Rashan Gary still hasn’t provided meaningful production past the high school level. If they can get something, anything from one of these two, it will go a long way to a defense that has to limit the most horizontal offense in NFL history.

The Rams will also use different fronts to defend the horizontal Rams’ offense. 5-1. 6-1. Safeties vacating the deep middle creep outside the edges. Watch for Darnel Savage this game. He has been, you know, savage, this season. Rolling him down to the robber position and into the slot is a crucial way to limit the Rams’ offense.

If the Rams pull off the upset it’s going to be because of everyone aside from Goff. If they can play a game where he needs to make two throws they’ll have a shot. To make this occur offensively, their run game is going to have to do most of the work.

5. COUNTER ACTION

The Ravens’ offense structure has changed slightly from last season. Last year the Ravens ran a gap-read offense, but they ran more power, lead, and duo, and then had Lamar Jackson read one defender and find the next page from there as he chose his own adventure.

This year Greg Roman has gotten even wilder. The foundation of their offense is now a counter motion. This means two blockers from the backside will pull to the playside. The Ravens will run counter read, a counter read pass option, and pure counter from this action. It’s worked. The Ravens have tortured the crappy defenses they have played to end the season.

It will be riveting to see how the Bills stop this motion. Last week they played almost entirely Nickle against the Colts and used slot corner Taron Johnson as their overhang. He had a great game chasing down outside run plays unblocked. Like how Desmond King was used last week, Johnson will probably be used in a similar fashion this week. Him, combined with Matt Milano, Tremaine Edmunds, Jordan Poyer, and Micah Hyde, will be tasked with chasing and tackling the Ravens’ rushing attack as they try to and break outside the boundaries of the box.

The Bills’ defense and the Ravens’ offense are both worse this year than last year. That being said, in their 2019 matchup the Bills had a defensive DVOA of -43.2% and they held the Ravens to 24 points. Josh Allen’s inability to throw the ball downfield determined their fate last season, which is one of his best skills in a span of a season. Their defense wasn’t the problem in last season’s loss.

Buffalo’s biggest dropoff from 2019 to 2020 is their tackling ability. Buffalo missed the sixth most tackles this season. Against the Colts they were able to consistently meet Jonathan Taylor at the tackle point, but missed tackles gave up extra yards as Taylor lifted his legs past diving defenders, and carried buffaloes on his back for more, turning short yardage run stops into first downs, and keeping Buffalo on the field.

This counter action, working in unison with the insane athleticism of Jackson, the balance of J.K. Dobbins, the strength of Gus Edwards, and the speed of their receivers, is the biggest detriment to a Bills AFC Championship Game appearance.

6. A FENCE IS ONLY AS STRONG AS ITS WEAKEST LINK, OR SOMETHING LIKE THAT

Tampa Bay had no problems last week pass protecting against THE FOOTBALL TEAM’S wild and youthful pass rush. In the first half, Tom Brady had plenty of time to carry out his play action fakes, reset his feet, pause, wait, wait, and then deliver deep.

This changed in the second half. They lost their starting right guard Alex Cappa, who is an actual pirate, and replaced him with Ted Larsen. This injury changed the course of the game. Washington was able to generate pressure, get to Brady, and get back into the game. Daron Payne had one of the best games of his career wrecking Larsen and turning the Tampa passing attack into a rocky shore.

The Bucs have announced Cappa will be replaced by Aaron Stimmie. No one has ever seen Stimmie play football before. No one. If Stimmie has the same problems Larsen has, that opens the door for David Onyemata, Shy Tuttle, Marcus Davenport, Sheldon Rankins, even Cam Jordan, who New Orleans likes to use on interior rushes sometimes, and Demario Davis, who is one one of the premier blitizing linebackers.

Football coaches love to say things like, “You are only as strong as your weakest link.” This language used to turn young boys into young men will be put to the test in the Divisional Round as the Bucs’ incredible pass protection tries to make up for losing one of its starters against a deep and ridiculous New Orleans front.

7. THE BOTTOM OF THE BAY

Tom Brady has turned the dial the last five weeks of the season. He’s averaging 9.73 yards an attempt, has thrown 14 touchdowns to 1 interception, and the Bucs are scoring 35.8 points a game. It took Tampa sometime to integrate Antonio Brown’s empty vessel into the offense, and get Brady on the same page as his overkill skill position group. Plus, for whatever reason, Brady’s arm only gets stronger as the season wears on. Those sideline passes that were plucked to start the year now have the zest needed to get there.

The Bucs’ offense is all about its deep passing game. Last week it was once again. Brady averaged 13.2 yards a completion in their 31-23 win, a point total that is remarkable considering the opponent they were up against.

New Orleans has had problems against deep passes. Janoris Jeinkins can’t be trusted against these routes. Marshon Lattimore has even struggled at times against pure vertical routes. They usually play only one single high safety with Marcus Williams. With the middle of the field closed, it’s going to be up for Brady to drop his balls down the sideline and into the bucket, and hit on deep dig routes cleared out by the seams covered by Williams.

Their offense is boom or bust. It’s either death defying bus jumping deep completions or waiting for the bus along with Godot incompletions. Without Ronald Jones they have zero run game. Leonard Fournette, is barbaric, but he’s blind sludge. Tampa has redzone touchdown scoring problems because of it. Their quick game has never full come together, and without a run game, it’s usually easier for them to score from 30 yards out, rather than five yards out.

New Orleans has demolished Tom in their two wins this season though. Tom completed 45 of his 74 passes for 448 yards, averaged 6.05 yards an attempt, took 6 sacks, threw 2 touchdowns to 5 interceptions, and Tampa lost 34-23 thanks to garbage time, and 38-3.

Those two games came in weeks one and nine. The Bucs have coalesced together the last five weeks of the season. The passing offense has turned into something ridiculous entering the postseason, and as December evolves into January, so does Brady’s performance.

8. LEAVE IT TO ALVIN AND EVERYONE ELSE

Drew Brees is old. His ribs are jello. His body composed of different fragments taped and glued together into some geriatric hot dog forgotten on the roller. His arm is an Red Roof Inn pancake. After four straight seasons of heartbreak, in his worst and most injured season since New Orleans’s return to continuous postseason berths, they’re trying to avenge past failures with the worst version of Brees they’ve had to play with.

Everything for New Orleans is going to come down to winning with the 52 men on their roster, and ways to create easy offense that makes up for their quarterback. Alvin Kamara is going to have to carry the brunt of his load, which he’s more than capable of against a vile and vicious run defense that has the linebacker speed to chase him down and limit his yards after contact. The Saints’ entire offensive line is healthy, have the talent to mash with this front, and have turned into one of the best outside zone blocking offensive lines in the league. In both the run and pass game, Kamara needs to be the focal point of New Orleans’s offense.

In the pass game get ready for Michael Thomas slant, dig, and option routes against man coverage and third down force feeding, Jared Cook deep heaves where he can tower over small defenders and grab cake mix off the top shelf, Emmanuel Saunders catches where you forgot he’s even on this roster; Kamara screen, angle, and wheel routes, and when all else fails, they’ll bring Taysom Hill in to throw deep passes.

One of the surprising things about the Bucs’ last week was how little they blitzed. I’d expect for them to bring more pressure, especially in the form of ‘A’ gap to the edge loops with their linebackers and safeties, to force the Saints’ tippy-toe passer into mistakes. Despite their issues at cornerback, a group that is athletic but unrefined, they’re going to have to play man coverage behind it. Brees is too smart. The old pancake can find holes in the zone and still throw with timing and precision to move his offense.

At the end of the day though, this game isn’t about Brees, those days have passed, instead it’s about the rest of the roster they have put together, which happens to be the most talented one in the league once you look past the quarterback position.

9. BAKER BAKING FROM THE GUN

Pen and paper and spreadsheets, the Browns are the typical matchup that gives the Chiefs’ problems. Once again the Chiefs have one of the worst run defenses in the NFL, and once again, it really doesn’t matter. Since the Patriots were able to hold on in the 2018 AFC Championship Game, no one has been able to end the Chiefs’ season with a brutal run game alone.

Kansas City finished 31st in run defense DVOA with a rating of 2.6%, and allowed 4.5 yards a carry. Their front office punts on the linebacker position to ensure their pass defense can compete every down and limit the opponent’s ability to keep up with their relentless all-time great passing attack.

Although that is true, the Browns have an incredible base run offense. Their outside zone game is elite along with Tennessee’s and Minnesota’s. Nick Chubb is averaging 5.6 yards a carry and had 12 touchdowns this season. Kareem Hunt is a better pass catcher, but on the ground he’s still an absolute wolverine to try and tackle. The question is if Jack Conklin and Joel Bitonio are able to play this week.

They’re going to have to score at least 30 points for this game to be competitive. Every punt is a failure. The key question for them is if they are able to keep up if they fall behind. Their run game out the shotgun is underrated. Against light boxes they have the offensive line that can bend six man fronts, and power run plays with Wyatt Teller pulling splatter defenses into a garish shade of orange and vomit.

The shotgun puts more pressure on Baker though. He’s shown the ability to win from here, and hopefully for the Browns, the Baltimore game was a career turning point. Yet, bad Baker sometimes puts a little too much baking soda in the mix. Against a devious front with Chris Jones, Frank Clark, and others, and and a defense that plays a wide variety of coverages that does an incredible job rolling and disguising what they do, Baker’s brain needs to be prepared for it. Any turnover is an absolute failure. All the pocket meandering has to go. If the Browns fall behind, Cleveland will have to drive their offense into places they don’t like to go to try and stay in this one.

10. ADAMS v. RAMSEY

The premier individual match up this weekend is Davante Adams against Jalen Ramsey. Adams is a member of the top wide receiver trio including Diggs and DeAndre Hopkins. Ramsey is the best cornerback in the league, whose physicality has pushed him up a level in Los Angeles.

This isn’t a matchup that’s as simple as one guy following the other around. The Rams primarily play cover four. Drags will lead to under calls and Ramsey splitting backwards to cover the deep vertical. The Packers love to use motion to change Adams’s presnap alignment and get him in tight alignments and in the slot so he’ll have more space for fade and deep crossing routs, and this also puts him up against slot cornerbacks who aren’t prepared for this level of competition.

When this game kicks off, the first thing I’m going to watch for is how the Rams line up to cover Adams in the slot. Will they roll a safety down to help against the deep crossers? Will a linebacker contort his body to stop the drag? Will Troy Hill stick at this spot? Will they have Ramsey follow him before the snap?

We’ll just have to wait for it to begin.

DIVISIONAL ROUND PICKS

Baltimore Ravens v. Buffalo Bills (-2)

Cleveland Browns v. Kansas City Chiefs (-10)

Los Angeles Rams v. Green Bay Packers (-6.5)

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v. New Orleans Saints (-3)

IN CASE THIS, WASN’T ENOUGH