For an NFL player, there's nothing like playing in the playoffs. The excitement and pressure associated with competing for a championship will encourage guys to spend extra time in the film room preparing for opponents. While coaches focus on the big picture and defending the entire offense, individual defenders concentrate on winning their isolated battles within the game.
As a young defensive back with the Green Bay Packers, I remember one of my DB coaches (Bob Valesente) encouraging me to keep a notebook on every wide receiver that I faced in a game. In addition, he challenged me to make a personal game plan for every receiver that I could possibly face on game day. Although my role with the Packers was limited to special teams duty during those years, I made this notebook work part of my routine as I matured as a player. Later in my career, I was fortunate enough to be around a pair Pro Bowl corners -- James Hasty (with the Kansas City Chiefs) and Eric Allen (Oakland Raiders) -- who utilized similar approaches to prepare for their weekly assignments.
With the Divisional Round on the horizon and several receivers expected to play key roles for their respective teams, I thought I would share my thoughts on how I would prepare for these playmakers, based on film study and research. Here's a look at how I'd defend the most dangerous pass catcher(s) on each remaining playoff team:
Seattle Seahawks: Doug Baldwin and Jimmy Graham
The Seahawks' passing game is rarely cited as one of the top aerial attacks in the NFL, but defensive coordinators certainly have to worry about the team's top receiving threats. Baldwin and Graham are dynamic playmakers with unique abilities that make them difficult to defend, particularly from the slot.
Baldwin checks in at 5-foot-10 and 192 pounds, but the sixth-year man plays much bigger than his listed size, as evidenced by his 2016 numbers: 94 catches for 1,128 yards and seven touchdowns. He is a crafty route runner with terrific stop-start quickness and exceptional ball skills. In the Seahawks' spread offense, Baldwin primarily works out of the slot to take advantage of nickel cornerbacks and linebackers between the hashes. According to Next Gen Stats, he aligns in the slot on 74 percent of Seattle's offensive snaps and totaled the second-most receptions by a WR in the slot with 63 (Jarvis Landry led the NFL with 65). Considering Baldwin averages 10.5 yards per catch (63 receptions for 662 yards) on slot receptions, the Falcons need to be aware of his whereabouts in critical moments as the Seahawks' designated chain mover. More importantly, the nickel corner needs to play with outside leverage on Baldwin in man coverage, to funnel the slick receiver into a linebacker or safety sitting between the hashes as a "lurk" defender.
Graham re-emerged as a Pro Bowl-caliber playmaker during his second season with the 'Hawks. He finished second on the team in receptions (65) this season, but was arguably Seattle's top vertical threat, averaging 14.2 yards per catch and posting 10 receptions of 20-plus yards. Graham ranked fourth among tight ends in air yards per target with 10.1 (Greg Olsen led the NFL with 11.5). Obviously, Russell Wilson likes to target his big-bodied tight end on downfield throws, so the Falcons' safeties need to lean in his direction to keep him from getting behind the defense. In addition, Atlanta's linebackers might want to consider jamming Graham at the line of scrimmage to restrict his free access early in routes.
"Graham wants to play basketball on the grass and post up your defenders," an AFC defensive backs coach told me. "You need to put your hands on him and make it a physical contest in space."
Atlanta Falcons: Julio Jones
The 6-3, 220-pounder is arguably the top wide receiver in the game due to his rare combination of size, speed and athleticism on the perimeter. Jones has the ability to take the top off the defense as a vertical threat, but he also exhibits crafty route-running and RAC (run after catch) skills. He is unquestionably Matt Ryan's No. 1 option in the passing game.
Studying the All-22 Coaches Film and Next Gen Stats, the Ryan-Jones deep-ball combination must be contained if you hope to have any chance of slowing down the Falcons. Ryan not only led the NFL with a 135.4 passer rating on deep passes (attempts of 20-plus air yards) by completing 32 of 64 attempts for 1,138 yards and a 10:0 touchdown-to-interception ratio, but he compiled a 97.2 passer rating when targeting Jones on bombs. Despite their numbers on deep balls dipping a bit from 2015 (when Ryan posted a 103.0 passer rating on deep throws to Jones), the efficiency this season (12 of 31 for 401 yards and a score) should prompt defenders to expect a few deep shots to the Falcons' WR1 over the course of the game. Considering Jones is averaging 14.4 air yards per target this season, Seahawks defenders must be prepared to play "top down" coverage on the Pro Bowler to prevent him from delivering a game-changing play.
Houston Texans: DeAndre Hopkins
The Texans' WR1 has lived in purgatory for most of the season, with the team breaking in a new quarterback who failed to take advantage of Hopkins' skills as a downfield threat. Despite lacking elite speed or explosiveness, Hopkins has a knack for making big plays on 50-50 balls along the boundary. As a former high school basketball star, he excels at high-pointing the ball with defenders in close proximity, particularly on deep throws.
In 2015, Texans quarterbacks compiled a 97.9 passer rating and scored five touchdowns on deep passes (20-plus air yards) to Hopkins. He totaled 432 receiving yards on deep throws and consistently torched opponents as a WR1. Those numbers declined dramatically with Brock Osweiler primarily at the helm.
This season, Texans quarterbacks only generated a 53.6 passer rating on deep throws to Hopkins. With the one-time Pro Bowler only amassing 132 receiving yards on deep balls, it is easy to see why his total yardage has significantly declined from last year to this season (1,521 receiving yards to 954 yards).
After studying the All-22 Coaches Film, I would expect New England to squat on Hopkins' routes and dare Osweiler to take shots down the field. The Texans' shaky quarterback is most comfortable throwing inside the numbers at intermediate range (curls/digs and bench routes) and reluctant to take shots along the boundary. With the Pats prone to playing Cover 1-Lurk -- with a safety or linebacker sitting in the middle of the field -- or traditional split-safety coverage (Cover 2 or Cover 4), Hopkins could have plenty of one-on-one opportunities as they dare Osweiler to make "big boy" throws to the sidelines.
New England Patriots: Julian Edelman and Martellus Bennett
The loss of Rob Gronkowski was expected to derail the Patriots' offense, but this juggernaut continues to roll with Tom Brady finding new targets to lean on in the passing game. Edelman and Bennett have emerged as options 1A and 1B on the perimeter. Edelman, in particular, has thrived since Gronkowski's season-ending injury. The slippery route runner with cat-like quickness and sticky hands leads all wide receivers in receptions from the slot since Week 11 (30). Granted, he finished the season with the third-most slot receptions (61), but he nearly matched his slot production from Weeks 1-10 (31) over the last seven games.
Based on that production alone, the Texans must find a way to erase Edelman on critical downs. Brady trusts the 5-10 wideout in key situations and he will undoubtedly target Edelman on a short crosser or option route when he needs to move the chains. Edelman has accounted for 41.2 percent of Brady's intended air yardage since Week 11 (up from 26.2 percent from Weeks 5 through 10). The Texans can counter by being aware of Edelman's whereabouts on critical downs and using their customary blanket coverage to limit his explosive plays. Although they are unlikely to limit his total touches, the Texans can minimize his impact by gang-tackling at the reception point.
"They will kill you with option routes to Edelman," an AFC defensive coordinator told me. "He will work against your leverage and get into an open spot. You can't stop him from getting catches, but you need to hit him and limit what he does after the catch."
I had to mention Bennett as a possible option due to his presence over the middle of the field. Contrary to popular opinion, the big-bodied tight end does his damage near the line of scrimmage instead of working intermediate and deep areas of the passing tree. Bennett ranked among the top five tight ends in lowest air yards per target since Brady's return. He averaged 6.7 air yards per target, yet creates 3.9 yards of separation at the target -- which is significant space on a short route.
To defend a big, physical tight end, Houston's linebackers need to "hug" Bennett at the line of scrimmage and execute a "pull" maneuver when he attempts to push off at the break. The veteran pass catcher lacks the burst to run away from the defense, but he excels at box-out plays in the red zone.
Green Bay Packers: Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and Davante Adams
Rodgers and Nelson combined for the fourth-highest passer rating on deep pass attempts (100.2, compared to the NFL average of 80.0). Nelson also has accounted for 33.7 percent of the Rodgers' intended air yards as the focal point of the Packers' passing game. Interestingly, Nelson has become a bigger factor in the offense by shifting from his wide alignment to a slot position on occasion. He logged 25 percent of his offensive snaps in the slot, which is a drastic departure from his deployment in previous seasons. With Nelson scoring six touchdowns and averaging 10.4 yards when in the slot, he forces defenses to be aware of his whereabouts at all times.
Of course, his whereabouts on Sunday could be: on the sideline. Nelson, who injured his ribs on Wild Card Weekend, appears highly questionable for Sunday. If Nelson plays, the Cowboys can use their traditional "Tampa 2" with No. 87 on the outside and Cover 1-Free when he aligns in the slot. If the nickel can sit on his outside shoulder and force Nelson toward the "cutter" (hole defender), the Cowboys can keep a double-team on the Packers' WR1 at all times. Even if Nelson doesn't play, Rodgers still has enticing options to target.
Adams has shown the football world he can be an explosive WR2. The third-year pro nearly posted a 1,000-yard season -- and notched 12 touchdowns -- as a catch-and-run specialist on the perimeter. He excels at running the slant and fade routes against one-on-one coverage on the outside. Studying the Next Gen Stats, I saw that he aligned out wide on 80 percent of the offensive snaps and enjoyed tremendous success, averaging 15.2 yards per catch (55 receptions for 839 yards) and scoring 10 touchdowns with a 63.2 percent completion rate. Those numbers tell me that Adams is getting the ball on throws outside the numbers on isolation routes. Thus, the Cowboys need to pay close attention to him, particularly if Nelson is out. A double team isn't necessary, but the safeties and underneath defenders need to be aware of his favorite routes when the Packers break the huddle. If the Cowboys tackle and limit the "YAC" (yards after catch), they can slow down the hottest offense in the league in the NFC Divisional Round.
Cobb deserves a mention despite his pedestrian numbers for most of the year as a slot receiver (an overall total of 60 catches for 610 yards and four TDs during the regular season). He has been a difference maker for the Packers in the past, and he just provided a three-touchdown performance against the New York Giants on Wild Card Weekend. Cobb operates primarily from the slot (75 percent of the time), where he can use his speed, quickness and wiggle to move the chains on quick-rhythm throws. The Cowboys don't need to adjust much to account for Cobb's skills, but they have to plaster him when Rodgers extends the play.
"The Packers live on improvisational plays," the AFC defensive backs coach said. "Your defensive backs need to be disciplined with their eyes and stay with their assignments when No. 12 runs around."
Dallas Cowboys: Dez Bryant
Despite seeing his numbers and impact decline since 2014 -- partially due to poor health -- Bryant remains a dangerous WR1 in the Cowboys' passing game. He is a big, physical pass catcher with a rugged game and outstanding ball skills. Bryant excels at running slants, digs and back-shoulder fades, where he can use his size and strength to overpower defenders at the catch point. Based on a quick look at Next Gen Stats, the veteran playmaker must win wrestling matches to be effective in the passing game. Bryant ranks behind only Panthers WR Kelvin Benjamin in lowest separation at the target (1.9 yards) among wide receivers with 50-plus targets. Although he has totaled 50 receptions and eight touchdowns despite the sticky coverage, it is hard to consistently win battles against feisty defenders strictly on strength and power.
Studying the All-22 Coaches Film, I noticed that Bryant primarily aligns on the outside as an "X" receiver (split end). According to Next Gen Stats, he lined up out wide on 82 percent of the Cowboys' offensive snaps. Bryant's stationary alignment makes it easy for the Packers to roll coverage in his direction via Cover 2 or "quarter-quarter-half" coverage. By aligning a defender directly in front of Bryant with a safety floating over the top, the Packers can essentially neutralize Dallas' top wideout and force Dak Prescott to lean on the other playmakers on the perimeter.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Antonio Brown
The Steelers' WR1 is the scariest playmaker in football, an electric catch-and-run artist on the perimeter. He can take a bubble screen to the house from any distance or slice through a defense on a perfectly timed slant route delivered inside the numbers. As a Pro Bowl-level punt returner with exceptional running skills, Brown is at his best when he gets the ball on the move -- but he is also a threat to deliver a home run at any time on a vertical play. As a duo, Brown and Ben Roethlisberger rank first in highest passer rating on deep passes (123.6). They combined for eight deep-pass touchdowns -- also tops in the league.
Studying the All-22 footage, I noticed that the Steelers don't use a lot of tricks to get their star receiver open. He primarily aligns on the outside and rarely ventures into the slot. According to Next Gen Stats, Brown aligned wide on 88.0 percent of Pittsburgh's offensive snaps, amassing 89 receptions for 1,131 yards and 10 scores on those plays. He led all NFL WRs in most receptions when lined up wide for the second straight season (Brown totaled a whopping 114 receptions on the outside a year ago) and finished just behind Odell Beckham Jr. in receiving yards (1,167) from a wide alignment. With that kind of production in mind, the Chiefs would be wise to roll coverage to Brown's side. By "clouding" or playing Cover 2 over top of No. 84, Kansas City could nullify his deep routes and force Roethlisberger to look elsewhere in the passing game.
"You have to take away the deep ball to Brown," the AFC defensive coordinator said. "If Ben sees Brown in a one-on-one, he is going to take a shot. You can't let that happen."
Although Brown certainly will get his touches on an assortment of "dink and dunk" passes and screens, it's easier for the defense to rally to the ball on short routes.
Kansas City Chiefs: Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce
In recent years, the Chiefs' offense wasn't typically viewed as an explosive unit, but Hill and Kelce have given Andy Reid some major juice in the passing game. Each player is regarded as a legitimate home-run threat, and K.C. hasn't been shy about showcasing both players' skills on the perimeter.
Hill has emerged as the team's most explosive weapon on the field. He has scored 12 total touchdowns (six TD catches, three TD runs, two punt returns and one kickoff return) as a multi-purpose playmaker on the perimeter. He has speed to burn, and the Chiefs make a concerted effort to get him the ball on screens, jet sweeps and go routes to take advantage of his explosiveness.
Looking at the All-22 tape, it is easy to get distracted by Kansas City's creative deployment of the speedy playmaker. He will align anywhere in the formation (Hill logged 52 percent of his offensive snaps out wide and 40 percent from the slot), but he is most dangerous as a pass catcher when he aligns in the slot. Hill led the NFL in average separation at the target from the slot (4.0 yards), which means nickel corners and linebackers had a tough time staying with him on crossers or quick outs. With that in mind, the Steelers might want to consider using bracket coverage on Hill when he is positioned in the slot on passing downs.
While that is certainly a good idea, the presence of Kelce in the lineup might force the Steelers to reconsider their plans. The ultra-athletic tight end plays like a wide receiver for the Chiefs, with "space" positioning (wide or in the slot) on 56 percent of his offensive snaps. He finished the season with the second-most targets for a tight end when lined up wide (only Greg Olsen had more than Kelce's 41 targets) and led the league with an average of 16.3 yards per catch on those passes.
Kelce poses a unique problem for defensive coordinators attempting to craft a plan to slow him down. He is too big for defensive backs and too athletic for linebackers, as evidenced by his ridiculous production from wide (31 catches for 505 yards and two touchdowns) and slot (39 receptions for 416 yards and two scores) alignments. The Steelers must treat Kelce like a wide receiver and harass him at the line to disrupt his routes. Sure, he will likely overpower smaller defensive backs on occasion, but he is too good to allow free access down the field.