NFL Playoffs Confidential: Blitzing Brady, grounding Gurley, negating Newton ... players, coaches tell all

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In order to get a feel for what the playoff teams do well, ESPN's NFL Nation reporters asked a number of players, coaches and team personnel for their anonymous thoughts on each team. Here's what they had to say:



On how to blitz Nick Foles: "We felt like we wanted to get pressure in his face, so we'd get up in the A and B gaps against him. That was our plan of attack, and it got him off his spot. He's the kind of guy who likes to hit his back foot, and the ball is coming out most of the time. He's fairly athletic for being a quarterback, but not on par with a guy like Carson Wentz. He can be mobile, but he's still a guy that does his damage in the pocket and a guy you want to get off his spot."

On how to stop Nelson Agholor in the slot: "With him being in the slot a lot more this year, you have to be patient against him because he has so much more room and a lot of field to use. They did that well with him, too, using a lot of the field. And you have to be aware of his make-a-play ability. Once he gets his hands on the ball, he can take it the distance. He's explosive, and the way they use him, there are a lot of different route concepts he can do. The biggest thing is to limit his yards after the catch. If he does get you, you want to make the tackle. If you miss and he gets going, it's hard to catch him."

On how to combat the Eagles' front seven: "They tackle the running back on the way to the quarterback. So they have a defensive line that will really rush up the field. If you can protect and hold them off, it will negate some of what they want to be about. I think draws and screens can help because they are rushing so hard up the field that hopefully you can slow them down or get them to chase up the field and go over their head on a screen or a draw. Stay in manageable third downs where you can get the ball out quickly so you don't have long dropbacks to where they can pin their ears back and rush. You have to use a good snap count to keep them guessing so they can't tee off and come a million miles an hour, knowing when the ball is being snapped. If you can run the ball, that helps, but I don't know many teams who can do that. You want to run the ball, but you don't want to waste plays. You want to be selective with your runs because if you're getting to second-and-10 every time on the run, you might as well scrap it."


On best ways to minimize the Adam Thielen/Stefon Diggs combo: "If you play them in tight, man coverage, you've got a chance. But if you let them get into your zones, especially Thielen, that's where you run into trouble. He's so good at finding space."

On how to contain Case Keenum: "He's efficient. He's not necessarily dangerous, but he doesn't turn it over, and that's what has made him successful. He's like a poor man's version of Alex Smith. Somehow, you have to take away his athleticism because that's his best asset. You probably won't believe this, but he'd get my vote for MVP for what he's done as the third guy in there [behind Sam Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater]. He's made himself a lot of money this season."

On how to stop Everson Griffen: "I think he's an amazing player. He actually was the top D-end I voted for [in the Pro Bowl]. I go against him twice a year. I have a lot of fun playing him. He's a great competitor. It shows on film. He not only is a very good D-end, but he plays hard, he plays to the whistle, and that's what you have to do against him. It's the only way to stop him, to not let up and keep going."


On minimizing Aaron Donald's impact: "Man, you want to be able to have a good running game. He's just an exceptional talent, one of the best defensive linemen to play this game ever. Definitely the best right now. You want to be able to run the ball effectively, get a couple bodies on him. You don't want to be in a one-on-one matchup with him throughout the game. But having an effective running game is the best way to do it because if you get behind and you're in a passing game throughout the day, it's going to be a long day for you. He's going to find a way to get to the quarterback, one way or the other. He has a little bit of everything. He's quick, strong, [has] great instincts and a variety of moves."

On the best way to slow Sean McVay's fast-break offense: "I feel like if you know your role and your assignment, then that's not going to be a problem. I don't think it was a problem for us. I think it is a problem for teams who have struggled with knowing their roles and their assignments or identifying personnel. If you're able to identify personnel, know your role and know your assignment, then you're going to be fine."

On tackling Todd Gurley: "The key to defending him is maintaining gap discipline. I think if you maintain gap discipline, then you'll do a good job against him. But I think the moment you take a peak or the moment you feel like you're going to make that play and try to make the play for yourself and your teammates, you're going to get out of your gap, and that's when he takes advantage of it. One step and he's gone."


What is the key to stopping Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram? "They're good players. They're really good players. You've gotta get your hands on them, you've gotta get them to the ground. You have to be a great tackler with them guys. ... You've just gotta be on your game. You'd better be a great tackler, a great cover player, all that with them."

Who would scare you more? Ingram and Kamara or Drew Brees? "Neither scares me. But if I had to choose, I'd say Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram because they can beat you in the pass and in the run. Part of that has to do with Brees, but what they do once they have the ball is all them."

Where is the Saints' defense vulnerable? "When we played them, they were a pretty solid group. They got after us a lot of different ways. From my vantage point, they're very talented. Their secondary has improved. They're just playing with confidence right now. They're playing well. I can't say anything bad about them."


How do you minimize Cam Newton's impact on the game? "You want to make him one-dimensional, and the one dimension you want him to be is throwing the ball," one NFC assistant coach said. "You don't want him running. When he runs, he's a complete mismatch. When he's in the pocket throwing the ball, he's not a mismatch. He's like any other quarterback in the pocket. And even then, he's not a great one. When he's on the loose, he minimizes what you can call. He just makes things hard because no one wants to tackle the big [guy]. If he just stays in the pocket, they're just an average offense. But when he starts to use his legs, whether he's scrambling or whatever he's doing, it's hell for a defense."

How has the Panthers' offense changed since the Kelvin Benjamin trade? "I don't think it's changed at all," the NFC assistant said. "They just plugged No. 17 [Devin Funchess] in. I just don't think they wanted [Benjamin] in there. I don't think things changed dramatically at all. They may have changed a little bit, but not much. If anything has changed their offense, it's featuring the running back, No. 22 [Christian McCaffrey]. That's changed it from the past."

Where does this Panthers defense rank among the best you've seen this season? "They play fast and they execute at a high level. Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis make it go. The strength is their front seven. They're a different group without Kuechly, though."

"They will hit you in the mouth. Plain and simple. I wouldn't [mess] with them."


What's different about the Falcons' offense compared to last season? "They're really trying to establish the run game with the wide zone. They have two very good running backs, powerful backs that can get downhill quick. I would say they're more predicated toward the run. Matt Ryan seemed to have a little more free range to get the passing going [last year]. Now with [Tevin] Coleman and [Devonta] Freeman, they're definitely trying to establish the run game a tad more than we've seen in years past."

How do you take Ryan out of his game? "He's not the type of guy that likes to get hit. If you can get after him early, that'll get him rattled. We know they like to run a lot of two-man routes, so there's going to be more protection. Wherever their singles are, those are the guys that have to win."

What's the best way to attack the Falcons' defense? "You have to get them off-balance. You've got to slow down those pass-rushers ... with screens, with draws, with an established running game and then hit them with the play-action. If not, you're working right into what they're game planning for. It's the same thing throughout the whole league. Pass-rushers are high paid for a reason: to sack the quarterback. If you don't stop what they do best, you're just playing right into their trap."



On how to pressure Tom Brady: "I don't think blitzing is the answer. I think he picks up blitzes well, moves side-to-side in the pocket better than anybody in the league. So the best way is to pressure up the middle. I think a lot of guys put more speed in the inside. They move the defensive ends to 3-technique, do a little speed package. They try to get that inside pressure because once he moves in there, he's deadly. It's about speed up the middle and getting him off that spot initially, because he'll reset and still throw it."

On stopping the run game led by Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead: "They just make such great adjustments. In the first half, you think you got them bottled up. But then they'll put a jet sweep on it, so it moves everybody's gap. They also try to confuse the nickel cornerback, and then everything gets confused from there. They're very good knowing if you're in man or zone coverage, knowing what gap you got. They try to manipulate that. The best way is just playing man-to-man, staying in your gap. But when you play man-to-man, it means somebody is man-to-man on Rob Gronkowski, so they'll throw that little counter pass where they fake the run and dump it to him. It seems like he's open every time."

On containing the vertical threat with speedy receivers such as Brandin Cooks, Phillip Dorsett and Chris Hogan: "Just knowing their best routes. Cooksie loves the post. When they see you in off-coverage against Cooks, they love the double moves. Dorsett loves the straight go route. If they see you in press on Dorsett, they'll throw the fade ball just because they know he's all speed. Kenny Britt is a deep threat also; they like to just throw the ball up to him, whatever team he's played on. It's just limiting them and containing them. I don't think you're going to stop all of the deep balls, but just containing them to a few a game would be good."


On what makes Antonio Brown the best receiver in NFL: "He is just crafty. Of course, he's fast, he's quick, he's got good hands. But I think what makes him good is his route running, his ability to separate. He can get in and out of his breaks really well. That makes him who he is."

On why nobody has been able to figure out how to solve Le'Veon Bell’s style: "I think it's just a combination of guys that are around him and their O-line. I think that him and his O-line have a good continuity. The O-line does a good job of staying on blocks ... and he can kind of dance back there and find the holes. There's good chemistry between them."

On how to exploit the secondary's sudden vulnerability to the big play: "They're a solid defense. Usually they pull off far and rally to the ball. I don't think they give up any more big plays than anybody else. ... They're playing without [linebacker Ryan] Shazier, and that correlates to the secondary because he tells everybody what to do and makes sure even the secondary knows what to do. Whenever you miss a guy like that, your stats are going to go down some."


On best ways to block Calais Campbell: "He works in their system really well. You have to be strong and get your hands on him. What he's going to try to do is try to get you off-balance so that he can pull you down. You have to stay balanced and be aggressive with him if you expect to have a chance. If you're leaning, he's already got you beat. You have to play with good technique and be aggressive with him."

On whether Blake Bortles is better than his win-loss record: "You see a significant difference out of him this year. It really helps that he has a very good running game that forces defenses to be honest in their schemes. And the defense leads the league in so many categories that they're capable of giving Blake a shorter field to work with. You have to give him credit: He's made some throws that you haven't seen out of him in years past. He's grown as a quarterback. The thing you see out of him this year is that he's not f---ing it up as much this year, like he has in the past. Look at what he did against a damn good Seattle defense [268 yards, two touchdowns] while being without some of [his] best receivers throughout the season."

On what makes Leonard Fournette an impact player as a rookie: "He's talented as hell. He obviously works at it. He has a great defense behind him that often helps get them leads, which means that allows the Jags to feed Fournette. He's powerful, he's fast. He has all the attributes you want in a running back. You don't expect him to be as fast as he is. You watch him on film, and you see him break away from people. He has a quick twitch. He looks like a powerful back. He has all the tools. He can catch the ball out of the backfield. He's hard as hell to bring down."


On the future of Alex Smith in the NFL: "Look, if [Mike] Glennon can get [$45 million], then [Smith] can get starter money. You can argue about whether he's a guy to win you a championship or whatever. Yeah, he's 33, but watch him run, move in the pocket, and he can start for you now and get you to the playoffs. He's done that again this year, and he's handled everything Andy [Reid] has put on his plate -- and he can help a young guy without being an a--h---. That means a lot right now because if you look at the burnout rate at quarterback, an older guy who can handle playing and helping without being a problem is big. If the Chiefs put him out there [on the trade market] -- and I think most people think they will -- he won't be out there long."

On if Andy Reid will run the ball enough to win in the postseason: "Everybody knows about 'Bad Andy' because he's going to put the ball in the air, especially in the playoffs. Look at last year [when the Chiefs had 14 rushing attempts and 34 pass attempts in an 18-16 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers]. As a defense, you know [Reid] is going to give you a lot of window dressing -- motions, formations, personnel groupings -- so you prepare. But what you really don't want is for him to pound the ball at you because they're really good at that. Use the young guy [Kareem Hunt] and play-action to [Travis] Kelce -- those are the matchups you worry about. But you know if you can make it hard for them on first down, especially early, he's going to put the ball up, and if you keep doing it, he's going to put the ball up a lot because he always does, and at least we feel like they're going away from their strength."

On how badly the Chiefs will miss Eric Berry in a playoff game: "You're going to miss that guy on the field. He makes plays everywhere. But you need a guy like that in the huddle, too, because playoffs have everybody amped up, and stupid s--- gets you beat, and everybody knows you can probably get at [cornerback Marcus] Peters. I think guys are going to try to bait him -- he already had some things on the sideline this season. [Berry] would settle things down. And if Peters gets a flag or two for that post-play stuff, that's where Berry could have helped."


On how to make Marcus Mariota one-dimensional: "Make him be a true quarterback. Mariota is such a good runner that the key is to make him use his arm. He can throw the ball, but teams have a better chance of beating him if they can keep him contained in the pocket. To do that, guys have to stay in their rush lanes. A lot of times when players rush, the easiest thing to forget is not to rush past the passer. When that happens, their lineman can push you past, and Mariota can step up and take off running."

On whether an opposing defense would rather see more of DeMarco Murray or Derrick Henry: "Derrick Henry. DeMarco Murray is more of a downhill, physical runner. Henry is a physical runner, but he's looking to bounce more than Murray. So while he's trying to hit the home run, that also lends itself to more short-yardage plays. Murray has also been in the league longer and knows more than Henry. He has more of that veteran savvy, which is what offenses are looking to use in the playoffs."

On the key to attacking the Titans' defense: "The Titans have a strong front seven, so the key is to control them. If you can get bodies on them, give the quarterback some time and get to the second level, you have a better chance of beating them. In the running game, you have to get north and south running the ball if you want to have success."


On best way to keep QB Tyrod Taylor in the pocket: "We treated him as much as a running back as a quarterback. ... He gives them a whole other run dimension when in shotgun, and the backs are offset. They have some zone schemes where it is a possibility he could keep it and run it, and they have some different options off that also. ... We really stressed rush-lane integrity because if you lose that, it's almost like he is looking to run, and you don't want to give him a reason to."

On whether LeSean McCoy is the best all-purpose back in the NFL: "A very dangerous player. The thing you have to be aware of with him is that he can turn any play into a huge play, at any time -- quick, fast, explosive. They get him the ball differently, [fitting] the way he can create plays, and it's inside and outside. The biggest thing for us was when he had the ball in his hand, everyone had to be ready because you might think you have him, and then he breaks loose and gets out of there."

On the job Sean McDermott has done in his first season as head coach: "A big difference from what we were looking at when Rex [Ryan] was the coach. It's a lot like looking at Carolina. Zone defense. On offense, try to control things with the running game. You watch them on tape, and players are getting after it, playing with a lot of passion, which reflects well on him. They play smart and don't often beat themselves."