This week, I will be drawing up signature plays for each of the eight teams participating in the first round of the playoffs. This article covers Saturday's games. It's your chance to brush up on the X's and O's, and to get a closer look at an offense you may not have paid much attention to during the season.
Let's start with two rookie quarterbacks why rely on play-action to make up for their lack of experience. We'll then move on to some vintage Drew Brees deep passing, and the type of defense the Lions will use to stop him. (Or at least try.)
For those who crave even more inside analysis, check out these detailed breakdowns of the matchups.
As impressive as T.J. Yates has been this season, he is still a rookie, and his role in the Texans offense is carefully scripted. Gary Kubiak's offense is full of simple reads that are designed to take advantage of his team's rushing attack, limiting Yates' decision making while forcing defenders to worry about the run first and treat pass coverage as a side job.
At the snap, Yates, Casey, the running back, and the entire line veer to the left. This is heavy run action, and the Titans' defensive front and linebackers follow the offense. If this were a running play, the Texans would use their cut blocking tactics to chop down defenders as they moved laterally. But this is a play-action pass; Casey reverses field and leaks into the right flat, and Yates turns to flip a short pass to him before the unblocked linebacker delivers a blow. With the linebackers out of position, Casey has room for a 15-yard gain.
Casey has extra running room because the wide receivers take the lid off the defense, running deep routes that clear the cornerbacks and deep safety out of the action. Kubiak likes to throw deep off play action, particularly on first down. Instead of playing duck-and-cover with Yates in the game, Kubiak has created a simple sequence of runs, deep passes, and play-action rollouts like these that keeps the chains moving and the defense honest. Little wrinkles, like Casey's motion, make it hard for the defense to load up to stop the run.
The Bengals also use play-action and clever wrinkles to make life easier for their quarterback. Thanks to the league's most impressive rookie receiver, the Bengals are also not shy about throwing deep.
Another rookie quarterback, another 1st-and-10 rollout pass! You should not be surprised. Plays like these are the best way to let young quarterbacks use their arms and athleticism to pick up big chunks of yardage on early downs. For the Bengals, that means finding ways to allow Andy Dalton to throw to A.J. Green against single coverage, or at least out-of-position double coverage. Coordinator Jay Gruden will go out of his way to make a bomb to Green look like a running play before the snap, even if it means using a sixth offensive lineman in place of a tight end.
Green runs a "flag" route, faking a move to the corner before turning and running to the post. Joseph loses a step during this double move. The safety is briefly drawn in by the fake handoff. The Bengals use both Roland and the fullback as blockers, and the handoff action slows the pass rush, giving Green time to run the deep route and Dalton a clean throwing lane.
Dalton under-throws his pass to Green, giving the defense a chance to converge. No matter, Joseph is too late to arrive, and the safety has no chance to beat Green to a jump ball. The play nets 36 yards and sets up a field goal. The Green jump pass is the Bengals' greatest weapon, and the best way to stop it is to pressure Dalton -- not easy to do when there are extra blockers on the field.
To hammer a point home: the Texans and Bengals plays shown above are both one-read passes. The Yates-Casey play is designed to set up the easy flat pass, and Dalton only has one other receiver in the pattern. The weakness of using a rookie quarterback is that the passing game becomes programmed, so defenders do not have to worry about second options or check-down receivers. That favors the defense, and it creates the likelihood of a low-scoring game, just like the 20-19 Texans win over the Bengals in December.
The Lions will not have the luxury of predictability when they face the Saints.
New Orleans Saints
Let's get the rookies out of the way and have some fun with Drew Brees. The Saints' offense is designed to use their stellar personnel in unexpected ways. Coach Sean Payton creates formations and route combinations that isolate backs, tight ends, and receivers against defenders who have no chance of covering them. The emergence of Jimmy Graham has given Payton even more mismatch possibilities. Graham is deadly as a pass target, but he can be just as dangerous as a decoy for a team that can overwhelm any opponent with skill position talent.
In a normal offense, fast receivers run deep clearing routes to make space for slower tight ends underneath. Fast tight ends often gallop up the seam to create space, but the effect is often limited. When Graham runs the seam, he takes Grant and Phillips with him. Devery Henderson (19), meanwhile, runs a deep crossing route. The Saints sell the play-action well on this play (making Meacham chip block the defensive end is an inspired touch), and when Brees finally looks to Henderson, he sees an ugly sight for Giants fans -- faked-out linebackers desperately trying to drop into their zones against one of the fastest receivers in the league.
Besides the Graham seamer wrinkle, there is another key difference between this play and the last two passes. Brees has multiple options on this play, and he helps Henderson get open by focusing on Graham until he is ready to throw. Grant and Phillips are both experienced, and they know that a seamer often comes in combination with a crossing route. With Brees staring down Graham, however, they have no choice to keep chasing the tight end. Running back Mark Ingram is also wide open in the flat, and don't think for a second that Brees does not know it. But the pass to Henderson yields a 21-yard gain and sets up a touchdown.
One final thought about this play: it gives Brees multiple passing targets, yet it still provides six-man protection, with a fullback available to block defenders up the middle (if you count Meacham's chip, there are seven pass protectors). Protection is always an issue against the Lions, as we will see in our final play, but players like Graham allow Brees to have the best of both worlds.
The Lions have so much depth and talent on their front four that they rarely have to blitz to apply pass pressure. Instead, Jim Schwartz and his staff can concentrate on using four-man fronts to create confusion and disrupt protection schemes while protecting his linebackers and defensive backs in coverage. When facing pass rushers like Cliff Avril, Ndamukong Suh, and Kyle Vanden Bosch, every tiny wrinkle can cause a huge headache for the offense.
At the snap, Fairley and Hill run a stunt. Fairley slices to his right to draw a double team while Hill loops behind him. The stunt keeps the right guard from turning to help with Avril, and it compensates for the obvious weakness of this formation -- had the Packers run the ball through the huge gap between Fairley and Avril, Hill could close the hole. With three defenders to their left, the Packers assign a running back to chip Vanden Bosch. That leaves Avril alone in space against a much slower right tackle, a major mismatch that leads to a sack and a fumble.
While their linemen stunt, the Lions' linebackers and secondary are in man coverage against the dangerous Packers receiving corps. That's typically a bad idea, but because the Lions do not have to blitz, they can spare two defenders to occupy zones. The deep safety has little impact on this play, but linebacker Stephen Tulloch (55) has an important task: he takes away the threat of a short pass to tight end Jermichael Finley, allowing the safety assigned to Finley to play deep. Tulloch and the safety provide insurance against big plays while the front four goes on a seek-and-destroy mission.
This is truly a signature Lions play because it ended with Fairley using the post-fumble confusion as an excuse to grab Aaron Rodgers and fling him to the turf. Fairley was filling in for Suh, who was already kicked out of the game. Extracurricular activities are part of the reality of facing the Lions; you want to keep those defensive lineman away from your quarterback until well after the whistle.
The Saints will be able to complete some passes against the Lions, but a few sacks - and a lot of intimidation - can go a long way in a game that could turn into a shootout.
Mike Tanier writes for NBCSports.com and Rotoworld.com and is a senior writer forFootball Outsiders.