As the NFL approaches the pivotal fourth quarter of the season, divisional front-runners have begun to take shape, with the Packers and 49ers clinching seeds in the NFC and 10 teams strongly emerging as playoff contenders following Week 13.
The NFL rulebook has shifted heavily in favor of NFL offenses and opened up passing attacks, placing a premium on cover men. Last year, the Packers were able to beat Pittsburgh not only by spreading four and five wide offensively, exposing the lack of cover men in Pittsburgh, but by having the talented defenders to match up with Mike Wallace, Hines Ward and Emmanuel Sanders.
To have success in the playoffs, teams need at least three bona fide cover men, with rangy free safeties who can line up in the slot often providing a unique advantage. A quick look at the top covermen on the 10 playoff-contending teams reveals where trouble lies.
The Ravens have received a big boost in the return game from the explosive burst of Lardarius Webb, who has emerged as the team's most trusted corner. Cary Williams has been a surprise. Jimmy Smith has been slow to come around, but the Ravens' secondary gets as much help as anyone with Ed Reed erasing on the back end, not to mention an aggressive defensive line that gives quarterbacks little time to operate.
The Texans' decision to pass on the Nnamdi Asomugha sweepstakes and add both Johnathan Joseph and Danieal Manning has proven to be a stroke of genius for GM Rick Smith, with Joseph performing as well as any offseason free-agent addition and Manning adding rare speed to the back end after years of being shuttled between cornerback and safety in Chicago, where his development was stunted. Kareem Jackson, who picked off an underthrown Matt Ryan toss Sunday while staying disciplined on an opening flea-flicker, has made big strides in his second year, and Brice McCain has played with much-improved confidence in the slot for Wade Phillips, locking down slot receivers and making plays on the ball. The Texans' secondary had been a major area of concern since Dunta Robinson injured his knee and his play slipped, and its vast improvement and newfound depth could be a key reason why Houston can stay alive despite operating with a No. 3 quarterback.
The Steelers and Patriots, on the other hand, despite their 9-3 records could have more trouble in the postseason. As the Colts showed in the second quarter Sunday with a 19-play drive, the key to beating New England is keeping their greatest weapon, Tom Brady, off the field. When Devin McCourty, Kyle Arrington and Nate Jones or Julian Edelman are on the field matched up against elite receivers, such as Pierre Garcon, the Patriots are vulnerable to being exposed downfield. An aggressive array of Dick LeBeau pressure packages, combined with a healthy Troy Polamalu, eases the job of the Steelers' secondary. Ike Taylor has been excellent matching up with receivers in man situations, but Bryant McFadden and William Gay tend to give up too many big plays when forced to carry receivers.
Champ Bailey has shown some signs of slowing down, but he's still a superb cover man at 33 years old. Fellow 33-year-old Andre' Goodman, who fell back into quarters coverage and picked off a Christian Ponder pass inside the two-minute mark that set up the Broncos' game-winning field goal, has played more disciplined under John Fox. Rookie free-agent Chris Harris has been a very pleasant surprise in short areas over the slot.
In the NFC, the emergence of Sam Shields in the second half of last season made a tremendous difference for Green Bay, and Tramon Williams was excellent. This season, Charles Woodson has been more of a liability and could leave the Packers' even more troubled after suffering a concussion attempting to low-tackle a bull-charging, shoulder-dropping Ahmad Bradshaw. Woodson's questionable status down the stretch, along with the absence of the injured Nick Collins, could present big problems for the Packers' defense in the postseason, with a big drop-off in speed and range from Collins to Charlie Peprah. Aaron Rodgers might need to continue playing nearly perfect football for the Packers to overcome their secondary issues.
In San Francisco, Carlos Rogers has turned out to be even more of a gem signing than Johnathan Joseph in Houston, playing to the level of his top-10 draft status and emerging as a legitimate shutdown corner. The emergence of rookie Chris Culliver has also greatly helped, allowing the Niners to better cover up Tarell Brown, who has shifted to playing more on the right side only, often lining up into the boundary.
The Saints, Giants and Falcons all have their share of problems. Tracy Porter plays well on big stages, but Jabari Greer has hit a wall and Patrick Robinson, a reach pick drafted out of sheer need after the Saints decided to move Malcolm Jenkins to free safety, too often looks lost and gets caught out of position thinking too much. He has been a liability that will be exposed in the playoffs.
Injuries have forced the Giants to shuffle their lineup. After Prince Amukamara was hurt early in the season, FS Antrel Rolle dropped into the slot as the third corner, which leaves the back end very suspect with the aged, slow-footed Deon Grant entering the game at safety in nickel situations. For as well as CB Corey Webster has played, Aaron Ross can be exposed by speed in transition and has struggled staying healthy.
When Brian Williams went out in the playoffs last year, Chris Owens was targeted in the slot and gave up too many big plays. The nickel position remains a central concern in Atlanta, especially with Brent Grimes needing knee surgery last week and Dunta Robinson never having regained the burst he had in Houston following knee surgery of his own. To get over the hump next season, an emphasis on durability at the cornerback position would benefit the Falcons greatly, as injuries have robbed the Falcons' depth and remain a chief concern down the stretch.
• Since Jay Cutler has gone down, the Bears have lost two in a row, and they could be without the focal point of their offense for the remainder of the season. Plus, RB Matt Forte's contentious contract situation will supply zero incentive for him to return this season from the knee injury he suffered Sunday. in a locker room that has shown its frustration with management throughout the season, especially on the heels of the contract given to WR Earl Bennett, which has been described in league circles as "overpaying for a backup."
Throw in rumblings of Mike Martz's demise, which has been more evident in the shape of the offense since the bye week, and splintered feelings from Cutler having surgery performed outside the building, and the Bears' season appears to be spiraling downhill. The Bears blocked Mike Tice from interviewing for the offensive coordinator position with the Titans in the offseason, offering a one-year contract extension, and do not have far to look to replace Martz after the season. The same way Rod Marinelli jumped into the defensive coordinator position a year ago, Tice can be expected to take over the offense, having a much better understanding of matching the scheme to the Bears' talent and proving his system works. In the short term, however, the Bears' offense is sorely lacking the two most critical pieces it needs to function (Cutler and Forte) and could struggle mightily as long as they are out.
• News trickled out late last week that the coaching staff and front office in San Diego could be completely overhauled following the season, despite how hard injuries have railed the 2011 roster. With how long Andy Reid has been stationed in Philadelphia, it's easy to forget that he hails from the West Coast. League executives would not be surprised to see Reid walk away from a troubled situation in Philly and set an anchor in the AFC West, one of the weakest divisions in football, where he quickly could make his mark.
• Jets DE Aaron Maybin quietly has resurrected his career in New York, leading the team in sacks (six) and forced fumbles (four), including a key fourth-quarter strip-sack of Rex Grossman with less than five minutes to play that set up the Jets for the go-ahead score at Washington Sunday. He showed very good take-off speed and clubbed inside past Jammal Brown to make the play. Maybin weighed less than 230 pounds as a third-year sophomore in his final game at Penn State, had a difficult time stacking weight and clearly needed to mature physically and emotionally before he was ready in the pros. Exiting college especially early, the 23-year-old Maybin, younger than many rookies in last year's draft class, might have needed more patience than the Bills gave him to develop. With the lack of pass-rushing talent on the Bills' roster, the Bills surely could use him now.