Analysis: Pack secondary a key in SB XLV


Analysis: Pack secondary a key in SB XLV

Feb. 1, 2011NFL PAGE Ray Didinger
Comcast SportsNet

We were watching tape of a Green Bay-Chicago game and NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger hit the stop button.

Look at that, Brian said. Where do you throw the ball? There is nothing there.

The Bears had five receivers in the pattern and all five were covered. Not just covered, but blanketed.

If youre Jay Cutler, where do you go with the ball? Brian asked. Whats he supposed to do?

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Brian kept stopping the tape and pointing out the same thing. Green Bay had everything shut down. Offensive coordinators talk about finding windows to fit the ball through. There were no windows. There wasnt even a keyhole. The Packers took it all away.

We watched a lot of tape this season but we didnt see any secondary play as well as the Packers. Linebacker Clay Matthews got quite a few sacks because the pass coverage was forcing quarterbacks to hold the ball.

In the game we were watching, the final game of the regular season, Cutler threw 13 balls to Devin Hester and Johnny Knox. He completed only one. The Packers defense took the two wide receivers totally out of the game and won it, 10-3.

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That will be a major factor in Sundays Super Bowl. The Steelers have changed from a running team to more of a passing team -- they threw the ball 55 percent of the time in Ben Roethlisbergers 12 starts this season -- but the Packers have the personnel to match up with the Pittsburgh receivers.

The Steelers have a lot of weapons with speedy Mike Wallace, veteran Hines Ward, tight end Heath Miller and talented young receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown. Most teams dont have enough quality defenders to cover all those guys, but the Packers do.

What makes the Green Bay pass defense so good?

Two things: speed and scheme.

The Packers have the NFLs fastest deep seven -- that is, linebacker corps and secondary. The Pittsburgh linebackers and the Green Bay linebackers have similar speed and range, but the Packers are faster in the secondary, which gives them the edge overall.
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That speed ties directly into the scheme because it allows defensive coordinator Dom Capers to play aggressively. He has cornerbacks Tramon Williams and Sam Shields in press coverage, almost a bump-and-run, underneath. They get on top of the receivers, jam them at the line then run with them stride for stride. It is rare to have two corners who can do that.

The swift development of Shields, a rookie, was one of the biggest factors in Green Bays defensive improvement. When Shields, the nickel back, proved he could cover like a true corner, it allowed Capers to use Charles Woodson, last years Defensive Player of the Year, as a combination cornerback, safety and blitzer. It added yet another dimension to the defense.

Toss in safeties Nick Collins and Charlie Peprah and linebackers A.J. Hawk, Desmond Bishop and Erik Walden and it easy to see why Capers is willing to play the entire game in a nickel defense. Sometimes he will line up with only two defensive linemen. He puts a lot of pressure on his linebackers, but they are so smart and so disciplined they make it work.

On a typical play, Williams and Shields lock up their receivers and cover them step for step. The inside linebackers, Hawk and Bishop, drop into the middle zones while Collins and Peprah take away the deep stuff. Woodson may cover a receiver or come on a blitz. A defensive lineman may drop off to cover the flat area as B.J. Raji did in the NFC title game when he intercepted a Cutler pass and returned it for a touchdown.

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Roethlisberger is a very resourceful quarterback who excels at making things happen when the original design of a play breaks down, but even he will have a devil of a time working the ball down the field against this defense.

The Packers were second (to the Steelers) in scoring defense, sacks and interceptions in the regular season. They held six opponents to seven points or less, quite a feat in a year when touchdowns were scored at a record pace.

In the post-season, the Green Bay defense has been excellent, recording 10 sacks and six interceptions in wins over Philadelphia, Atlanta and Chicago. In each of those games, it was a clutch interception that either ended the contest or turned the tide.

The more guys you have with speed and explosion, the better chance you have of getting the ball turned over, Capers said. It has been one of our strengths, taking the ball away.

It is one of the main reasons the Packers are in the Super Bowl and it is one of the things they need to do Sunday if they hope to bring the Lombardi Trophy home to Green Bay.

Montana, Clark scheduled to address crowd at Levi's Stadium


Montana, Clark scheduled to address crowd at Levi's Stadium

SANTA CLARA -- Dwight Clark and Joe Montana are scheduled to address the crowd Sunday at Levi’s Stadium at halftime of the 49ers’ game against the Dallas Cowboys.

It should be an emotional day, as 36 members from the team that defeated Dallas in the NFC Championship Game and went on to the franchise’s first Super Bowl title are expected to attend.

Montana is scheduled to be surrounded by his former teammates and speak from the field at halftime. Clark is likely to be situated in a suite, where he is expected to make some remarks. Clark, 60, announced in March he was diagnosed with ALS.

Former 49ers offensive lineman Randy Cross, appearing on the 49ers Insider Podcast, said he is looking forward to seeing so many of his teammates from the squad that served as a springboard for five Super Bowl titles under the ownership of Hall of Famer Eddie DeBartolo.

“I can’t wait to see (Clark),” Cross said. “I can’t wait to see Eddie. I can’t wait to see Joe. There is a core group of guys I’ve gotten to see a few times a year since we all went our separate ways. There are guys I’ll get a chance to see, in some cases, (for the first time) since almost around the time we parted ways in the early-‘80s.”

The NFC Championship Game on Jan. 10, 1982, is best-remembered for “The Catch” – Clark’s leaping, finger-tip grab of a Montana pass for a 6-yard touchdown with 51 seconds remaining.

The 49ers defeated the Cowboys 28-27 at Candlestick Park. Coach Bill Walsh’s team went on to defeat the Cincinnati Bengals, 26-21, in Super Bowl XVI.

“For those of us who played on the Niners charity basketball team with both Joe and Dwight, and knowing their hoop skills and the way they could jump, we weren’t terribly surprised at: A, how high he threw it; and, B, how high Dwight got,” said Cross, who was blocking from his right guard position near the sideline and had an unobstructed view of the play.

“If Dwight got his fingers on it, it was going to be a catch. That was the thing about D.C., you won’t find too many instances in which he had a ball on him or near him that he dropped. There wasn’t much doubt.”

Steph Curry the most game-altering player to ever step foot on a court

Steph Curry the most game-altering player to ever step foot on a court

Programming note: Warriors-Rockets coverage starts tonight at 6:30pm on NBC Sports Bay Area, and continues immediately after the final buzzer.

OAKLAND -- As the curtain is raised on a new NBA season, the conventional wisdom is the league consists of four distinct tiers, only one of which has a single member. That would be the Warriors, alone at the top and projected to lock up the No. 1 postseason seed several weeks before the season ends.

The reigning champions boast a collaborative work environment, a diverse and creative co aching staff and, conceivably, the most dangerous roster in NBA history. The Warriors are to the NBA what Tesla is to the electric car market and, moreover, they have the benefit of having Stephen Curry at the wheel.

And it’s quite a benefit when you have the most game-altering player, regardless of position, ever to set foot on a court.

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The Rockets, who come into Oracle Arena to open the season Tuesday night, make no attempt to hide their aspirations. They want to push the Warriors in hopes of knocking them over. Warriors coach Steve Kerr concedes that his system is based largely on principles created by former Warriors coach Don Nelson and advanced by Mike D’Antoni, now the coach in Houston.

The Rockets, however, do not have a Curry. Neither did the Knicks or the Suns, D’Antoni’s previous NBA teams. The closest he ever came was in Phoenix, with Steve Nash running the point.

“Steph is like Nash on steroids,” Kerr says. “He’s faster and quicker and he’s shooting from 35 feet instead of 25 feet.”

Curry’s presence is not the only reason the Warriors have been able to separate themselves. It’s also a product of being the only team with four legitimate All-Stars, each of whom is uniquely superior. No one combines movement and catch-and-shoot excellence as well as Klay Thompson. No one affects a game in more ways, at both ends, as well as Draymond Green. No one even begin to approximate the gifts Kevin Durant or Curry. Can you imagine a Warriors opponent rummaging through its roster trying to form a scout team?

And while Durant may be the toughest matchup in the NBA -- and the better bet for league MVP -- it’s Curry who flavors the essence of the Warriors.

“Everything we do revolves around Steph,” Kerr says. "If you want to say who affects the game the most offensively, Steph’s the best player in the NBA.”

Kerr has been around the NBA for 30 years, been teammates with Michael Jordan and Tim Duncan and an opponent of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. Curry is indeed a different beast, a transformative figure in a toned but hardly imposing 6-foot-3, 190-pound physique.

The Curry Effect has been generated by the devastating power of 1,545 3-pointers in five seasons, and the way they rain despair down upon the faces of opponents. He frightens defenses in such a way it opens up scoring avenues for his teammates.

David West has been playing basketball for 25 years, the last 18 in the NBA and in high-level Division I at Xavier. He has been an opponent and teammate of Curry. He has played with and against greats, from the primes of Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson and LeBron James, but can’t even begin to summon a fair comparison to Curry -- all because of the 3-ball.

“It’s become such a psychological weapon,” West says. “Having been on other teams and knowing how a coach will try to prepare, you can tell. A coach wants to protect the rim and guard the 3-point line. And it’s an absolute nightmare, because you’re giving up layups. You’re basically going against what you’ve been trained to do. You’re giving up layups and paint points, because these (3-pointers) are too deflating. These are too defeating. These are too damaging to the psyche.”

For an example, go no further than the comments of Clippers coach Doc Rivers after his team took a 144-98 lashing last Jan. 28.

"At halftime, I asked the guys what's hurting us, and they said 'the 3'," Rivers said after the game at Oracle. "And I said 'You’ve got to be kidding me. We're even. We were 8-for-13 and they were 8-for-13.

“It's amazing the mental thing when they make a 3. They needed Curry to make a halfcourt shot to tie us (in first-half 3-pointers). They had 46 points in the paint. The paint is what killed us tonight. Their drives, their cuts, their layups, and our guys are still thinking about the 3-point shots. That didn't hurt us. It did later, but in the first half it was all the layups."

Yet it was Curry’s triples -- including a 51-footer to close the half -- that tortured the Clippers. It’s all they could think about.

It’s all the Spurs can think about, too, because San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich demands his team guard the arc. The minute Curry gets free and hits one from deep, Pop is out of his seat calling w timeout, knowing that one often leads to two and then three.

“This is something we’ve never seen,” West says. “There have been great shooters. But nobody has ever inflicted the type of psychological damage that he does.

“They’re knockout shots.”

Curry’s 3-point shooting has spawned a legion of wannabes, pale imitators firing from 25, 30 and 35 feet. As much as Wilt Chamberlain, and then Michael Jordan, did for the dunk, Curry’s influence has been far greater because shooting the deep ball seems so much more realistic thank soaring for a dunk. The belief is that one can practice toward being a great shooter, whereas dunking generally requires superior athleticism.

So, now, you see 3-pointers coming off the fingers of players from all five positions. Even such centers as DeMarcus Cousins and Karl-Anthony Towns won’t hesitate to float out beyond the arc and let it fly. Lurking beneath it all is the Curry Effect.

No team in the NBA averaged fewer than Minnesota’s 21 3-pointers per game, while D’Antoni’s Rockets launched a league-high 40.3 per game. Contrast that to 10 years ago, before Curry entered the league. The 76ers took the fewest treys, 10.0 per game, while Nelson’s “We Believe” Warriors and D’Antoni’s Suns tied for most attempts with 24.0.

Now, straight out of a D’Antoni fantasy, here come the Rockets, not only shooting a high volume of triples but spacing the floor -- as Curry does -- by setting up from well beyond the line.

“They’re saying, ‘All right, we ‘re going to space the floor to three feet beyond the 3-point line, because that’s even harder to guard.’ I never thought I’d see that,” Kerr says. “But Steph has played a role in that. So guys are actually practicing deeper shots. So there’s no question he’s making an enormous impact on the game and he’s changing the game.”

There is little doubt that rules changes, particularly on defense, also have had an effect on the direction of the game. Hand-checking is illegal but many teams are willing to employ variations of a zone defense.

Yet Curry continues to wage an assault on the record book. His 402 triples in 2015-16 were more than 116 better than the previous league record, his own at 286, set a year earlier. Curry owns four of the top five single-season bests, with the other belonging to Thompson.

Curry is 10th on the all-time list, with 1,971 3-pointers and it’s conceivable he could climb into the top five before his 30th birthday in March. Of the nine players currently ahead of him, four are retired and the five active players are all at least 36 years old.

So, yes, he’s changing the game. And Popovich, not a huge fan of the 3-pointer, doesn’t want to see any more changes. With Curry crushing triples during the 2015-16 season, the Spurs coach responded to those musing about a possible 4-point line.

Popovich wondered, well, why not a 5-point line before he answered his own question.

“The problem is, Steph would probably kill us.”