AFC Playoffs Confidential: How to fluster Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, more

NFL Nation reporters granted anonymity to coaches, players, scouts and team personnel to break down the AFC playoffs.

While six teams have won the right to play on, 10 that play in the AFC are finished.

Those non-qualifiers played the teams that still have life. The players, coaches, personnel executives and scouts have studied the best teams, looking for ways to beat them, considering strengths and weaknesses.

After a break, they'll begin to formulate plans about how to become one of those teams next year. In the meantime, they'll be watching the playoffs like the rest of us.

ESPN.com's NFL Nation reporters sought scouting insight into the playoff field. Granting anonymity, we asked questions about the teams bidding to get to Super Bowl XLIX in Arizona.

We learned that New England cornerback Brandon Browner often tips off what coverage he's playing; that putting Peyton Manning on the move forces the throws to the outside that he's having trouble with; that Joe Flacco, perceived as immobile, actually wants to roll to his right; that Antonio Brown is great at getting open even when forced to reroute; and that interior pressure is a key to flustering Andrew Luck and Andy Dalton.

For more on those insights, and a lot more, please read on.


On the importance of keeping Tom Brady off balance:

"We try not to tip our hand, man or zone. That's an important thing. If this guy [Brady] knows what you're in, he's going to carve you up. Most guys have half-field reads. This guy gets a pre-snap on you and knows exactly where he's going with the football. If he knows what coverage you're in, you're shot because he's so accurate with it. It's so precise that there are very few negative plays that he has. He knows, ‘I'm going to Gronk [tight end Rob Gronkowski] on this with this coverage' or ‘I'm going to the two-man side' or ‘I'm going to run snag-wheel on the backside with this coverage.' He knows all of it. You really have to keep him off balance. You can show different looks. That's what you have to do."

On where the Patriots could be vulnerable in the secondary:

"I think Browner is a penalty waiting to happen, so you have to get him in man coverage with a good matchup. There are a lot of tells when he's in his alignment, what coverage he's going to be in. If he's in a true man situation, with no help on time, he already opens his hips. He's turned. He's basically telling you, because he's afraid he can't get out of his hips. If he's protected somewhat, he'll balance you up. Those are some tells you can look for.

"I think they're a little vulnerable coverage-wise on some tight ends. You might be able to get something going there. And be patient with the running game. Make ‘em come down. There should be some vulnerability on the back end if that's the case. If you can get them to play seven-man spacing, I'd run the ball until the cows come home on them. That's the way to do it. That keeps Brady off the field and eventually, I think, they'll wear down."

On the best way to exploit cornerback Darrelle Revis:

"His strongest point is he's super patient, he's super smart and he's strong. But I think the best way to beat him is probably with speed. You have to do everything as fast as possible. You have to move fast. He's still a great player, but I think that's how you beat him. If you're doing moves and not attacking his technique, it's kind of playing into his hands. He's real patient and real smart. You can do all those moves and he's really not going for it. If you attack him with speed, that's your best chance."

On limiting tight end Rob Gronkowski:

"His strength is definitely his ability to use his body. He positions himself to get open, and he does a really good job of changing his pace. He will come off [the line of scrimmage] kind of lackadaisical and then just take off. You have to play man coverage on him, because against a zone, I think he's just real savvy. He knows the holes in the defense. But, either way, man or zone is pretty much hard to do with one player. You have to always know where your help is, and if you're on an island, you have to do your best."


On Peyton Manning and playing in cold weather:

"You show your team film evidence of some of his passes that get a little wobbly in the wind and cold. You say, ‘Guys, he sometimes does this in the cold. The tighter coverage we can play, the better. If we are in tight coverage and he throws one of those wobblers, maybe we can pick it.' You have to take advantage of anything that might have been an issue in the past. He doesn't have the strongest arm, so maybe the wind affects him. So you have to really keep that coverage tight."

On the importance of making Manning throw outside the numbers:

"The old Peyton Manning would've got it anywhere. Right now, I just feel like his arm is just not as strong as what it used to be. He wants to throw inside. He doesn't want to throw outside. That's probably one of the weaknesses he has. Most outside throws you actually have to work outside of the pocket. Trying to get Peyton on the move and throwing on the move plays to his weaknesses."

On whether Denver can win a run-first game in the playoffs:

"They can pass and run very well, so, yes, I think they can. For example, San Francisco has been struggling some in the passing game this season. So defenses have loaded up to stop the run, and have had success against the pass. Well, that can't happen against Peyton Manning. So, I think they can have success with both. And that offensive line has gotten bigger, stronger and tougher this year. So they are going to run, especially with the [C.J.] Anderson kid who is big and strong. Do I think Denver can win a playoff game by rushing for 150 yards and throwing for a hundred-something yards? Yes, I do, because of all of those factors. But Manning is going to get his chunks even in a run-first game. You can load the box all you want, you can disguise schemes all you want, but he is going to get you. So, they have a very good combination going right now."

On choosing between double-teaming Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas or using more of a zone approach:

"Probably for those guys, I would say you can play like a man, Cover 2 zone. Have somebody man-to-man on them, have somebody on the line making it hard on them. Because a lot of their routes are timing routes. So if you can disrupt the timing, you can disrupt a lot of their plays."

On attacking cornerback Aqib Talib:

"You can never really figure him out because he does some unorthodox things on his own in coverage. So it's kind of hard to read the coverage when he's out there. He's a great athlete. He can jump. He can run. He's just very athletic, which makes him one of the premier corners in the league. He can be physical at times. The first time I played him, he was pretty physical compared to the second time. They played off a little more because of the deep ball."


On Pittsburgh receiver/punt returner Antonio Brown's special talents:

"He is one of the greatest athletes in the NFL because of what he does on offense and then the impact he has on special teams. His big thing is he's so elusive. When you watch him on film, it's like everyone is running in slow motion and he's a step quicker than everybody. It's almost like Antonio Brown is as fast as he wants to be. If he needs to get by a guy, he can get to that edge. With him, you hit it high [on punts] and you hope he plays a lot of downs on offense. When he's not doing much on offense, he becomes more of a risk-taker on special teams and he tries to make his plays there. You'd rather hit a ball high and short and have it be 35 yards and fair caught than hit it 60 yards and have him have a 30-yard return. That 30-yard return is going to hurt a whole lot worse. That 30-yard return, that's a punch in the face."

On the progress of Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers' offense:

"I honestly think it's guys around him. He's been good, but I don't necessarily think he made some huge jump. He's always been solid. But he has rare guys around him. People are wowed by what Antonio Brown has done. People in the building have a ton of respect for him. He's got a Larry Fitzgerald-like work ethic. Reminds me a lot of Larry. Wants to win. He takes pressure off Ben because even if a play breaks down he has an elite knack to get open on a reroute. Great at the reroute. Lethal. And [Le'Veon] Bell might be the best all-purpose back in the league. You can build an offense around him. Elite player in the passing game for his position. And his patience as a runner is off the charts."

On trying to combat Le'Veon Bell's patience:

"Give him different looks. You have to mess with his vision and everything he's doing. Make him think twice about what he's doing. Confuse the look. If you blitz a different hole, giving him a reason to hesitate, that's half the battle. Otherwise, he knows he's got you beat before he even cuts. He's waiting and waiting back there and then he bursts through. He knows he's getting a hole at some point and he's hitting it, so a few sneak attacks from the weak side can be helpful, if you can get to him."


On forcing Andrew Luck into turnovers:

"His thing is he's an aggressive quarterback and sometimes aggressive quarterbacks can kind of mess themselves up in their head. They start taking a lot of chances and you go out there and develop this routine of doing that, throwing tight balls into tight windows and stuff like that. Then when you start getting hit a lot, all that stuff adds up. You hit him, disguise, throw a bunch of different defenses at him, I think he'll [make mistakes] just like any quarterback.

"If you disguise and show two-shell [coverage], and you're playing Cover 3 and you always play Cover 2, those types of things can affect him. Maybe you're playing Cover 3 sink [linebackers play middle hook routes]. Just subtle, simple changes to a defense [can confuse him]. You throw sink in there and [Luck] is thinking Cover 3, ‘Well, I can throw the comeback. It's going to be there.' But a guy's sinking and he's sitting right there waiting on it [hook route]. It's a different disguise, but it's the same defense. [You have to do] little things like that to a guy that studies a lot. I feel like when Luck goes out there he knows every single guy. He knows the name of every guy. He knows what they do. He knows all the tendencies. That's what he takes advantage of. He's going through what he's going through but he could turn it [over] and I know he will."

On the best way to rush Luck:

"The thing with pass rushing is there's five guys blocking four, so there's always an open gap. It's usually the back-side B-gap when guys rush. When you see [a quarterback] climbing the pocket, you always see him climb toward that B-gap because the end is going to take a rush around and this guy's going to come in, so he always climbs toward it. You have to make sure you take that away so he can't climb.

"That's what you want to try to make happen, but with Luck you have to keep people in his face and not let him step up. When you watch it, you're going to see a lot of his bad throws come from [him] when he can't step into the throw. If you allow him to stay in there and step into the throw, he's going to complete them. He's going to complete 30-odd passes and now it's tough."

On why the Colts are suspect to giving up big plays on defense:

"You're on the right track with the lack of pass rush. In Dallas, they had one sack and one QB hit. Add in the fact that they will play a pretty good amount of man-to-man and that stresses a defense and leaves them exposed and susceptible to big plays like against the Cowboys."


On making quarterback Andy Dalton uncomfortable:

"If you really collapse the pocket around him and make him move his feet, he gets a little antsy. He stops looking downfield. He might try to tuck and run the ball or he might try to squeeze in a pass he shouldn't throw. I think if you get good pressure on him, you can fluster him.

"It's probably mostly a decision-making thing. He starts looking around, stops looking downfield. Defensive backs need to give him good disguises. He's the type of quarterback where he wants to know what you're in. He'll give hard counts and checks to see if you're blitzing or to see what you're running. Good disguising on the back end and getting pressure up front causes problems for him.

"He knows all the checks. He can read defenses well. You just have to disguise it and hopefully force him to make some bad throws.

"I think he can be easy to read."

On why Dalton takes chances:

"He's fearless getting the ball to his receivers. He gives his guys a shot because he'll throw it up, believing his receiver will make the play. It may be easy to do that with A.J. Green. But he has a similar trust with Mohamed Sanu."

On stopping wide receiver A.J. Green:

"Disrupting his timing can affect him. He kind of goes the other way when you do that, goes downhill. He can be easy to reroute. He's got that tall and slender frame and his hands pop up -- in other words, he's not always a clean receiver. In his upright stance, if you get into him, he pops up and struggles to get solid ground. Now, I'm poking holes in a great receiver. Don't get me wrong, he's great. But you can tell sometimes Andy has to go away from him because defenses have mixed coverages and it throws off A.J.'s rhythm and it's fairly obvious. I'm still throwing the ball to him. But you can get to him."

On cornerback and returner Adam "Pacman" Jones:

"We know when Pacman is out there he's not going to fair catch. He's just not going to fair catch a ball. I think he had a fair catch this season for the first time in nine years. You know going out he's not going to do it. Some guys, you hit it high enough, they're going to fair catch it because they play offense and they're going to secure their opportunities on offense. If it's not Pacman -- they save him sometimes for defense -- it's Brandon Tate. I don't want to say that teams relax when it's Brandon out there, but they do. Pacman has the best return average in the league, or close to it, and he doesn't call for a fair catch. [Jones ranks eighth in punt return average at 11.9 yards and has had only one fair catch this season, in Week 13 against Tampa Bay. Tate ranks 14th at 9.7 yards.] With him, you have to hit a different ball. Hit it high and short and go 4.8 or 4.9 [seconds]. If he wants to man up. … Thing is, when Brandon Tate is out there, teams figure they can air it out because it's not Pacman. Then he springs one out. You really have to watch that."

On weaknesses in the Bengals' defense:

"The passing defense -- even though it's a veteran group, you can put up big yards on them. I remember Mike Evans had his way with them. A big, physical relentless receiver can give them problems. The run defense is better than given credit for. I'd rather throw than run. Terence Newman has lost a few steps. He's still reliable but he's not the same guy. Pacman is what we call a rat-trap player, sees things others don't and goes off instincts, which can be good. You don't want to take that away from him, but on one or two of every 10 plays, he'll miss an assignment and then all of a sudden, you're off your whole scheme. When they are healthy, they are good against the run. Their defensive linemen are active and versatile."


On quarterback Joe Flacco's "secret" talent:

"Joe has a reputation for being immobile, but he's actually very good when he moves, and he can move better than Andy Dalton. He just doesn't like to use that part of his game as much. With him, it's important to not let him roll right. That's where he almost always goes and that's what he likes to do. So you have to contain him, which seems easy but isn't because his ability to move is really underrated."

On stopping running back Justin Forsett:

"Their offensive line is feeling more comfortable and Forsett is benefiting from that. He was always a steady guy -- not a star but steady. The guys up front are taking advantage. He's a shorter back but he always hits the right holes and he's a shiftier back so the quicker you get hands on him, the better. He won't run through guys. If he gets to the second level, he'll get extra yards because of his moves. You have to get to him early. The Ravens are still so good up the middle on the offensive line, so you have to mix blitzes and keep them honest because they are coming right at you. They'll get Forsett on the edge, too, but a defense must handle the inside first."

On whether the Ravens' defense has enough help outside of Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs:

"No one else out there is really a wow guy for them. It's not like it used to be there. They still have a lot of talent, and Dumervil's presence might prolong Suggs' career -- he finally has help on the other side -- but other than [Haloti] Ngata or the rookie [C.J. Mosley], there's not a ton there. And I don't think Ngata is still the same guy. He's still a freak. He clears up a ton of space for linebackers. But he probably doesn't take over a game as much. You have to scheme him to leverage him -- if he can press and separate on you, it's over. He can establish and then find the ball left or right. That's when you have trouble. Instead, you need to make him run and make him reactionary so that he can't make plays as easily."

"I will say that their secondary is, out of their whole defense, probably the weakest [part] of the defense. I don't think it matters [if you attack the secondary in the seam or the edge of the field], especially if you've got that component of the run game and the play fakes and you're really riding those play fakes out, there's holes in the secondary."

-- Compiled by NFL Nation reporters