Wild Card Weekend featured some of the best games of the season, with all four contests being decided by one score and two of them ending in overtime. The excitement shouldn't stop in this weekend's Divisional Round, as the four top seeds take the field for the first time this postseason.
Three of the four top seeds ranked in the top five in scoring offense during the regular season -- the Baltimore Ravens (No. 1 seed in the AFC) ranked first, the San Francisco 49ers (No. 1 seed in the NFC) ranked second and the Kansas City Chiefs (No. 2 seed in the AFC) ranked fifth -- while the Green Bay Packers (No. 2 seed in the NFC) finished 15th.
That doesn't mean it's impossible to stop these units. Today, I take a look at the eight offenses playing in the Divisional Round and reveal the best way for opposing defenses to exploit them.
No. 6 Minnesota Vikings at No. 1 San Francisco 49ers
How to exploit the Minnesota Vikings: Limit Kirk Cousins to dropback pass plays.Dalvin Cook and the Vikings' sixth-ranked run game were exquisite in the regular season and equally so in Sunday's wild-card win over the New Orleans Saints. The key has been Cook's ability to dominate defenses in the outside-zone scheme and set up big play-action strikes downfield. Having played in Gary Kubiak's offense during my career, I know exactly how defenses can limit Minnesota's successful outside-zone run game. San Francisco must be creative on D and do some unconventional things to create roadblocks, like stunting the edge rusher inside for example. By limiting the ground attack, the 49ers' defense will force Cousins into sustaining drives with mainly dropback passes, which aren't his strong suit. The Green Bay Packers followed this recipe against the Vikingsin Week 16 and stymied their rivals, holding them to just seven total first downs. Granted, the Vikes were without Cook for that game. The 49ers have the defensive talent to execute whatever game plan they desire, but their bread and butter is to rush four and play straight man-to-man. If San Francisco sticks to that strategy, though, Robert Saleh's crew could soon be sitting at home next to the Saints.
How to exploit the San Francisco 49ers: Key on George Kittle and take a chance on everyone else. Two players will take defenses to the football: tight end George Kittle and fullback Kyle Juszczyk. The 49ers use a lot of smoke and mirrors and misdirection to trick defenses and often end up making big plays. Defenses take the bait and forget where Kittle is, allowing the All-Pro tight end to catch the ball and get downfield, dragging multiple haywire defenders with him. Against the rushing attack, it's important to key on where Juzszcyk is aligned pre-snap because the ball carrier will likely follow his block. Then there's Kittle's out-of-this-world blocking ability, which I regularly rave about. He is involved in every play -- earning a 95.0 offensive grade by Pro Football Focus (highest in the NFL) -- so accounting for and limiting Kittle forces Jimmy Garoppolo and everyone else to win the game. I'll take my chances with the other guys.
No. 6 Tennessee Titans at No. 1 Baltimore Ravens
How to exploit the Tennessee Titans: Involve the secondary in stopping Derrick Henry. The Titans have a traditional offense with Ryan Tannehill, Henry and an up-and-coming receiving corps that features Rookie of the Year candidate A.J. Brown. The league's leading rusher torched the Patriots' defense all game long on Wild Card Weekend, finishing with 34 carries for 182 yards and a TD. He's especially dangerous on the perimeter, as he had 156 yards on 28 attempts (5.6 yards per carry) outside the tackles in that game, per Next Gen Stats. There are no ifs, ands or buts about it: The Ravens' defense must limit Henry, who is a home-run hitter from anywhere on the field. The Ravens can do this by mixing up schemes on the defensive front -- confusing blockers -- and involving the secondary in stopping the run. Baltimore defensive coordinator Don Martindale has the personnel to double Brown on the back end and bring a cornerback off the edge or safety Earl Thomas up to the line of scrimmage. The Ravens have the liberty to be creative against a traditional offense that is easier to defend.
How to exploit the Baltimore Ravens: Play the odds on run plays. This Baltimore offense is all about chunk plays. Chunk plays on the ground. Chunk plays through the air. All of it. So for opposing defenses, it's about playing the percentages to best stop Lamar Jackson. Among players with at least 50 designed rushes, per Pro Football Focus, Jackson runs toward the field side at the highest rate in the NFL (59.3 percent of the time) and the boundary side at the lowest rate (25 percent). Knowing Jackson's tendency to run toward the field side on designed runs (zone-run plays, read options, etc.), the Titans could stall this top-ranked rushing attack by crashing the defensive end on Mark Ingram (who runs to the opposite side of Jackson) and scraping a linebacker or safety over the top to account for Lamar. It's going to be tough to stop Jackson on every play, but by playing the odds to the field side on run plays, Tennessee will have a better chance of stalling him.
No. 4 Houston Texans at No. 2 Kansas City Chiefs
How to exploit the Houston Texans: Squeeze the pocket on Deshaun Watson. Heading into Wild Card Weekend, I wrote about Houston's offensive inconsistencies and how they live and die by chunk plays. That held true against the Buffalo Bills, as the Texans' offense mounted a huge second-half comeback after an extremely stale first half. A major factor in the comeback victory was the Houdini-like play of Deshaun Watson. On second-and-6 with four minutes remaining in overtime, Matt Milano and Siran Neal seemingly wrapped up Watson for a sack but the QB miraculously spun out of their grasp and tossed the ball to running back Taiwan Jones for a 34-yard gain, ultimately setting up the game-winning field goal. The Chiefs' defensive front can limit Watson's big plays by rushing with intent to squeeze the pocket first before going for the sack. By staying in good position and in their rush lanes, the Chiefs will limit Watson's ability to escape the pocket and force him to hold the ball too long (this has been an issue in the past). This will often result in a sack, negative play or one for no gain, especially if the back end of the defense can plaster Houston's playmakers.
How to exploit the Kansas City Chiefs: Limit big plays. With Patrick Mahomes running the show, the Chiefs' offense is a threat on any down, from anywhere on the field and no matter how much time remains on the clock. The reigning MVP is so talented that he doesn't have to be consistent in his reads, and he'll often pass up the sure play underneath for the big one downfield to Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Mecole Hardman, Sammy Watkins or Demarcus Robinson. It almost isn't fair, all of these guys making impressive deep plays at one time or another with Mahomes under center. That's why the Texans' defensive backs must stay sound and disciplined in their assignments to keep everything in front of them. The key is forcing Mahomes to check down underneath then to rally and immediately tackle. It's nearly impossible to consistently hold the high-flying Chiefs down, but limiting the damage would give the Texans a chance.
No. 5 Seattle Seahawks at No. 2 Green Bay Packers
How to exploit the Seattle Seahawks: Challenge the new RB group to win the game. All season, I have watched defenses play man coverage against the Seahawks. And all season, Russell Wilson has made driving down the field look ridiculously easy. That's what the Philadelphia Eagles did Sunday, and Wilson and rookie D.K. Metcalf made them pay. Wilson, who makes deep passes look effortless, took advantage of the Cover 0 defense to hit Metcalf and seal the game. (Shoot, Metcalf could've easily had 250 yards in that game.) To make life tougher for the Seahawks' offense, defenses have to mix things up and play more coverages -- like Mike Zimmer's unit did against the Saints on Sunday. By keeping Wilson and the receivers honest, the defense will force the new backfield duo of Travis Homer and Marshawn Lynch to grind it out. Challenging Wilson and Co. to make plays against a defense that's constantly throwing different things at them is the key.
How to exploit the Green Bay Packers: Force plenty of third downs. Green Bay's passing offense has been uncharacteristically underwhelming this season. Aaron Rodgers has been inefficient at times and his unit has struggled on third down, converting just 36 percent of third-down attempts this season (23rd in the league). I believe part of the reason for this is that first-year head coach Matt LaFleur lacks creativity on third down. He has a good plan for first and second down with the run game and play action, but the third-down approach is too basic. I've seen Rodgers throw it away or take a sack if go-to target Davante Adams isn't open, forcing the Packers to punt. (I have talked about Rodgers' trust issues with his non-Adams receivers before.) Seattle's defense must limit breakout running back Aaron Jones, who had 19 total TDs this season, on first and second down, forcing LaFleur and Rodgers to continually move the chains on a down in which they've struggled in 2019.