Any playoff loss is crushing.
The New Orleans Saints would have had an especially tough time accepting defeat Sunday given how many opportunities the offense left on the field.
Coaches spend so much time crafting plays to beat specific defenses that it’s hard to stomach when the designs work but the execution fails. For much of Sunday, Saints head coach Sean Payton might have felt like he’d ruptured his spleen.
Payton dialed up a possible touchdown on the first play, but it turned into an interception.
The Saints sent Alvin Kamara wide left to join Michael Thomas on the weak side of an empty formation, and ran Kamara and Thomas vertical. Knowing those two would draw free safety Chandon Sullivan’s attention, Payton sent Ted Ginn Jr. on a post from the other slot, covered only by undrafted rookie Cre’Von LeBlanc. The speedster got behind LeBlanc, but Drew Brees — under slight pressure — left the throw well short, and LeBlanc made a terrific leaping grab.
The third quarter brought deja vu. Midway through the frame, Payton called a pin/anchor concept off play-action, with Thomas running a sit route toward Sullivan and Swiss Army knife Taysom Hill running a post from the other side. Sullivan bit hard downhill on Thomas, and Hill — coming from a condensed formation — easily ran away from Avonte Maddox, who had to maintain outside leverage. Brees’ throw was well short again, this time despite a pristine pocket, and Maddox broke up a would-be 46-yard touchdown.
It got worse the next play.
Payton put Hill at quarterback and split Brees wide left in an empty set. The Saints’ tendency with Hill at QB is to run, and Payton knew Sullivan would be responsible for Hill if he ran. At the snap, Sullivan dropped down from center field, and Kamara — from the inside slot of trips — zipped uncovered up the seam, hauling in a perfect throw for a touchdown. But this was also not to be, as Andrus Peat was called for holding Haloti Ngata.
Luckily for the Saints, they were able to overcome the missed chances. Brees — who also fumbled a snap on another deep design off play-action — atoned by carving up the Eagles’ zones with in-breaking intermediate routes to Thomas. Likewise, New Orleans executed two of Payton’s short-yardage designs perfectly in critical moments.
On fourth-and-goal from the 2 in the second quarter, Payton had Thomas motion from wide left toward the formation for an apparent quick screen behind two blockers (often called a shield slant), an increasingly popular short-yardage tactic around the NFL. But it was actually a fake-screen-and-go, with Brees pump-faking, Thomas going back outside and Keith Kirkwood releasing to the corner after faking a block. All three sold it well, and Kirkwood came open easily for the TD.
Midway through the third, Payton kept what would become an 18-play drive alive with a crafty pick play. He had tight end Josh Hill align to Brees’ left in shotgun before motioning to the right wing just before the snap. With a head start on man-coverage mark Malcolm Jenkins, Hill ran to the flat as Kirkwood’s route rubbed Jenkins, creating an easy third-and-3 conversion.
The Saints ultimately survived despite wasting some of Payton’s best designs, a credit to their resiliency and overall firepower.
Like a great basketball scorer, Brees has gone cold from deep but is compensating by getting to the rim and the charity stripe. Still, he might need to hit a few 3-balls against the Rams next week.
—Stubbornness dooms Bradley, Chargers
The Los Angeles Chargers didn’t beat themselves Sunday — the suggestion is unfair to the New England Patriots — but they sure helped.
In our Week 16 film study, we worried that coordinator Gus Bradley’s static Cover-3 scheme would come back to bite the Bolts in the postseason. In our divisional-round preview, we wondered if Bradley would change up against Tom Brady, especially given Brady’s recent struggles against blitzes.
Other than some occasional third-down wrinkles, Bradley stuck to the same predictable Cover-3 on early downs Sunday. The result was an utter disaster, as the Patriots marched to five straight touchdowns while barely ever reaching third down — they faced just three third downs total on the latter four TD drives.
Brady and coordinator Josh McDaniels are wizards at opening zone windows. They happily picked L.A. apart, probing at soft spots with checkdowns to running backs and springing wide-open crossers by using hard play-action to suck up and misdirect second-level defenders.
Brady can make those throws in his sleep, and do it quickly enough to foil any pressure. It’s tough enough for edge rushers to turn the corner on Gillette Stadium’s slick turf, but it was downright impossible for Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram with Brady knowing exactly where to go on every play.
Bradley and the Chargers should have known better.
Dan Quinn and the Atlanta Falcons — who run the same Cover-3 scheme, albeit with more diverse calls mixed in — knew they couldn’t just play zone in Super Bowl LI against Brady, and their man coverage hounded him for three quarters. The zone-heavy Pittsburgh Steelers took years of punishment before finally conceding they had to change up against Brady. (Ironically, they haven’t had another shot at him in the playoffs since.)
Heck, the Patriots’ own defensive game plan on Sunday — Bill Belichick’s normally simple scheme morphed into Baltimore-style amoeba fronts with myriad disguises to stress Philip Rivers — illustrated their own hesitance to giving a cerebral quarterback predictable looks.
Had the Chargers thought similarly, they had the talent to challenge the Patriots. Casey Hayward, Desmond King, Derwin James and Adrian Phillips are versatile matchup pieces who can handle down-after-down man coverage. The injury-bitten linebacking corps would be vulnerable, but safety depth could have compensated. Given more time to get home, Bosa and Ingram might have harassed Brady.
Instead, Bradley didn’t even have adjustments prepared for when the plan (predictably) flopped. With Rivers and L.A.’s run defense struggling, it might not have mattered anyway, but the approach never really gave the Chargers a chance.
-How L.A. squashed Dallas’ run game
The Los Angeles Rams knew their normal run defense wouldn’t be enough to stop Ezekiel Elliott and the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday.
L.A. allowed 5.07 yards per carry during the regular season, dead last in the NFL. It wasn’t a huge worry much of the year, as the Rams stormed out to big leads and either forced teams to abandon the run or waste time doing it.
But knowing a big day from Elliott would be Dallas’ easiest path to victory, Wade Phillips compensated for his unit’s biggest weakness with an excellent plan.
The first step was using heavy personnel, even when the Cowboys’ offense went lighter. On early downs, Phillips kept his base 3-4 on the field against three-WR sets, and even a snap against four-wide. The aggressive approach — which inherently leaves a linebacker or safety on a wideout, usually in the slot — is one Phillips has used selectively against run-heavy opponents in recent years. The most notable example was the Denver Broncos’ Super Bowl 50 victory against the Carolina Panthers, when Phillips deployed 3-4 with three cornerbacks and one safety.
Phillips then put his three interior linemen — nose Ndamukong Suth and tackles Aaron Donald and Michael Brockers — in a “Bear” front (aligned over both guards and the center), preventing double-teams and making it difficult for linemen to climb to the second level. Knowing he’d face single blocking, Suh shot gaps aggressively and gave center Joe Looney issues (including on a fourth-and-1 stop), while linebackers Mark Barron and especially Cory Littleton stayed clean and flowed freely to contain Elliott. The NFL’s rushing leader got free on occasion — like a dazzling 15-yard run on a cutback late in the first half — but he rarely had lanes to reach the open field.
Dallas did exploit the aggressive plan at times, including on its two longest completions of the game. The Cowboys’ first touchdown came safety Lamarcus Joyner in man coverage in the slot on Amari Cooper, who spun Joyner around and ran away from him on a crosser for a 29-yard score. Cooper also came wide open on a crosser from the slot midway through the third quarter. Though Dak Prescott didn’t see him, Cooper drew the eyes of Marcus Peters, who busted his deep-third zone and allowed a 44-yard gain to Michael Gallup after Prescott improvised.
But the Cowboys didn’t punish the Rams enough, even as Phillips stuck with the tactic despite Aqib Talib missing much of the third quarter. Prescott repeatedly declined to exploit healthy cushions under L.A.’s zones, and Dallas barely even tried Cooper in the slot aside from the two aforementioned plays. More often it was Cole Beasley (hobbled by an ankle injury), with Cooper outside against Peters or Talib.
Phillips also fooled Prescott a few times with slight wrinkles, like blitzing an inside linebacker and dropping and outside ‘backer, which produced free rushers or forced Dallas to keep Elliott in to block. Prescott threw a would-be interception that was dropped by OLB Samson Ebukam after he dropped as Dante Fowler Jr. rushed from the other side.
With Prescott unable to make them pay repeatedly, the Rams enjoyed a numbers advantage against the run virtually all game. When Dallas used multiple backs or tight ends, Los Angeles simply brought more bodies into the box. In passing situations, Phillips trotted his nickel package out. The Cowboys could have adjusted d— whether by putting Cooper in the slot more often or perhaps going hurry-up to take advantage of the Rams’ substitution patterns — but they never did.
All told, Dallas ran 22 times for just 50 yards (2.3 average), only their second game below 3.2 yards per carry all year. The Rams’ offensive control — 36:13 time of possession, including 20:12 before halftime — surely helped, but it was easily the run defense’s best performance of the season.
Great strengths are what get teams into the postseason, but major weaknesses usually knock them out. Phillips deserves tremendous credit for concealing his unit’s Achilles heel against one of the NFL’s most suited teams to exploit it.
-How K.C.’s D surprised against Indy
Before the Rams concealed their poor run defense through scheme, the Kansas City Chiefs did so with brilliance in other areas against the Indianapolis Colts.
Like the Rams, the Chiefs’ run defense (4.97 yards per carry allowed) was horrid in the regular season but likewise protected by huge leads. Facing a mauling front five in the snow seemed ominous, but K.C. followed its regular-season formula to obscure the weakness yet again.
The Chiefs didn’t exactly plug run lanes. They shot two gaps early for tackles for loss — exploiting right guard Mark Glowsinki, the line’s clear liability — on plays that were otherwise well blocked. Dee Ford declined to honor two zone-read fakes to make unblocked tackles, and squatty-but-quick rookie nose tackle Derrick Nnadi flashed. (K.C. actually sat Chris Jones for Nnadi on early downs in nickel, presumably because of Jones’ lack of run-defense discipline. Jones played just 31 snaps — a season-low, excluding his Week 5 ejection.)
With an Eric Ebron drop and sharp coverage from K.C. early, Indianapolis opened with a spree of three-and-outs.
The Chiefs’ pass-rusher-rich defense is built to defend leads, making it a perfect complement to the offense. Not only does Kansas City’s attack rack up points, but it usually does it early, with Andy Reid’s scripted plays tearing defenses limb from limb. Patrick Mahomes & Co. obliged Saturday, racking up 17 quick points, and game script quickly favored the Chiefs, like it has almost all year.
Staked to a three-score advantage, Kansas City’s run defense became essentially moot. Indy ultimately proved very efficient on the ground — 14 carries for 87 yards (6.2 average), with six runs gaining at least 6 yards and a 14-yard run wiped out by a weak holding call — but it was irrelevant.
Where the Chiefs’ defense really shined was in the secondary, as the group (literally) covered for a slow-starting pass rush, quite the opposite of the tendency for most of the season. K.C.’s DBs were much more disciplined than Houston’s were last week in matchup zones, sniffing out Frank Reich’s early-down shot plays off play-action and preventing Andrew Luck from firing deep. The Chiefs also played right up to (or barely past) the line of being too physical against the Colts’ receivers, clinging to their hip pockets and daring referees to make ticky-tack calls.
Given more time to get home and a wealth of obvious passing situations, the rush eventually woke up. Justin Houston cleaned up a coverage sack and exploited Glowinski inside for another. Ford gave right tackle Braden Smith trouble to the inside a few times before getting around the edge for a strip-sack.
Even so, it was far from the rush’s best performance. Jones got his hands up for three batted passes but rarely actually got near Luck. Left tackle Anthony Castonzo and left guard Quenton Nelson were rock solid, and Luck had plenty of time on several dropbacks.
That makes the performance of the Chiefs’ secondary — playing without Eric Berry — all the more impressive. Despite Kansas City’s offense going scoreless on its first five drives after halftime, the Colts never came close to making it a one-possession game, as the Chiefs allowed just two plays over 20 yards and none over 30.
Another such performance next Sunday would likely mean a Super Bowl LIII appearance.
—David DeChant, Field Level Media