Each week, Chad Pennington will break down a specific NFL defense, devise a game plan and discuss a strategy for success. This week, Pennington explains how an offense prepares to attack a dominant defense such as the Chicago Bears’. Meanwhile, on the other side of the ball, former Pro Bowl safety John Lynch examines how he would slow down Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick, who has supreme running and passing talents.
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Think Tom and Jerry, because that’s what you’re going to see when the Bears take on the Saints on Sunday — a game of cat and mouse.
That’s because you have the high-flying Saints offense, coming off a shootout loss to the Packers, against the Bears, who employ a "Tampa 2’" defense that stymied the normally potent Falcons in a 30-12 win in Week 1. Not only did Matt Ryan not throw a touchdown pass, but the Atlanta offense didn’t score an offensive touchdown for the first time since Week 1 of the 2010 season.
My assignment: Game plan against the Bears defense.
Let’s discuss the Tampa 2. That scheme is different than a normal Cover 2 defense. The biggest difference involves the middle linebacker. He is taught to drop deep into the middle of the field. The defense essentially has three "safeties" in this scheme with four underneath defenders. In a normal Cover 2 defense, the middle linebacker does not drop as deep, and there is more pressure on the two deep safeties to cover the deep parts of the field. Each safety has half of the field instead of a third of it. Because there are only four underneath defenders in the Tampa 2, these defensive players (two corners and two linebackers/nickel backs) must read the quarterback’s eyes. As the quarterback reads right, these players move right. As he reads left, they move left.
Preparation is key when a team faces a Tampa 2. Any time I faced that scheme, we’d have a specific offensive package designed to attack the coverage. We’d also emphasize the importance of first and second-down success.
First and second-down production are key for two reasons. First, Tampa 2 defenses typically use free safety coverages (one deep safety in the middle of the field) on these early downs to stop the run because they can use eight men instead of seven. Offensively, this allows you to attack one-on-one coverage, especially on the outside with your passing game. Second, early down success eliminates long yardage situations on third down. The goal of the Bears defense will be to get the Saints into long-yardage situations on second and third down.
Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli will certainly mix up his coverages on early downs because of Drew Brees and the passing game. The Bears cannot afford to be stagnant with their coverages. They’ll mix coverages with one and two safeties, man and zone.
Here’s where the cat and mouse part comes in. I’m sure both teams, especially the Saints in this case, will wait and judge Chicago’s attitude on first and second down. The Bears will definitely disguise some things; they call it "sameness." They’ll try and make every coverage look the same until the Saints snap the ball. Their goal is to prevent Brees from having a pre-snap read. When a quarterback has less information before the snap, it makes it tougher to anticipate where he should throw the ball. He then has to rely on gathering information while he drops back, which can be difficult because defensive linemen are breathing down his neck.
My guess is Brees will counter the Bears’ plan with shifts, motions and fast tempo to the line of scrimmage. If he has more time at the line, he’ll be able to gather more clues about the Bears’ defensive call. One advantage the Saints have is that the game is in New Orleans. Communication is so critical against a defense like the Bears. Without the crowd noise, the Saints will be able to communicate easier and use long snap counts to their advantage. Typically, road teams will use a silent snap count to combat crowd noise.
A Tampa 2 defense is most effective when it creates quarterback pressure with four down linemen. This pressure doesn’t give the quarterback time to allow the receivers’ routes to develop. Tampa 2 defenders read the quarterback’s eyes. If the quarterback doesn’t have time, he is unable to move the underneath defenders with his eyes. The advantage goes to the defense.
The Bears definitely got a pass rush against the Falcons, led by end Julius Peppers. They sacked Ryan five times, with Peppers getting two of those.
The Saints will have to use multiple pass protections to deal with this issue. You may not be able to stop Peppers, but you can certainly slow him down. Chip him with the running back, bang him with the tight end and sometimes tell your tackle to hang on!
Running back involvement in the passing game is key against the Tampa 2. It’s a balancing act for an offense because there may be pass protection issues. Having the running backs involved with pass routes can help control the underneath coverage. Empty formations are also effective. Spread the defense and get the ball out quick. An empty package can be an extension of your run game.
Finally, let’s talk about the run game. While Brees had a great game against the Packers, throwing for 419 yards with three TDs and no picks, he threw the ball 49 times. Yes, the score dictated some of this. However, it would certainly make the Saints’ task easier if they could run the ball. That’s obviously not easy against the Bears, but it can be done. Atlanta rushed for 110 yards, with one of those carries going for 53 yards. A couple of big plays in the run game would benefit the Saints tremendously!
Saints coach Sean Payton will not run the ball just to run the ball. He understands what his offense does most effectively, and he’ll play to those strengths. The Saints can’t be one dimensional; they have to have a mixture. A successful mixture will eliminate those long-yardage situations. For example, in the Monday night game between the ‘Fins and Pats, New England used the run game and the play-action pass to keep them out of long-yardage situations. Tom Brady did throw for 517 yards, but Danny Woodhead was effective when called upon.
Since Jerry normally outsmarted Tom, it’s going to be very interesting to see which team ends up the cat and which one the mouse.