Calvin Johnson vs. Aqib Talib
In last season’s 23-20 overtime victory, wide receiver Calvin Johnson torched the Tampa Bay Buccaneers secondary to the tune of 10 receptions for 152 yards, effectively closing the door on Tampa’s playoff run. During that game the Bucs attempted to single cover Johnson using cornerbacks E.J. Biggers and Ronde Barber to little success. This season’s opener promises to take on a much different form, largely due to the return of a healthy Matthew Stafford, as well as the return of young Buccaneers cornerback Aqib Talib, who missed the matchup last year due to a season ending hip injury. Talib is now healthy, and despite off the field distractions, says he has been focused on his matchup with Calvin Johnson on September 11th. The Buccaneers will be returning to their successful Tampa 2 defense for the 2011 season, which means that Talib will not be asked to blanket Johnson all over the field in man-to-man coverage. This will not be the often hyped “shut down corner” versus “stud receiver” showdown that football fans typically clamor for, but rather a battle of strength and will power that will take place within the first five yards from the line of scrimmage.
The Tampa 2 defense is similar to a typical 4-3 cover 2 scheme, with the main exception being the pass coverage responsibilities of the middle, or Mike, linebacker. In this coverage, when the Mike linebacker reads pass, he must drop from 11-20 yards deep into the center of the field, or what is known as “the pipe”, thus making it a 3 deep coverage with the safeties responsible for the outer thirds of the field (visit Inside the Playbook for Matt Bowen’s complete Tampa 2 breakdown). The cornerbacks, Talib in this case, are not only charged with covering the flats, but also have the responsibility of disrupting the route of the number one receiver. This is where this matchup will get interesting, as it is imperative for Talib to be able to “funnel” Johnson’s routes towards the middle of the field, where he will have coverage help from linebackers and safeties. This is a crucial part of the scheme, due to the natural weak spot in the Tampa 2 coverage along the deep sideline behind the cornerbacks.
There are two ways in which the Buccaneers will attempt to accomplish this. The first is by positioning Talib on the outside shoulder of Johnson, off of the line of scrimmage, to block the sideline and force an inside release. The second strategy is more of a risk reward type, and involves jamming Johnson at the line of scrimmage. Playing press coverage will allow Talib to physically force Johnson to the inside within the first five yards of the route. In the past, teams have avoided pressing Johnson due to his size advantage over most NFL cornerbacks at 6’5”, and 237 lbs. Talib, however, has above average size for a corner at 6’1”, 205 pounds, and may be able to have some success being physical with Johnson at the line of scrimmage. The Lion receiver has spent part of the off season bulking up and gaining upper body strength specifically for the purpose of gaining a clean release off of the line, but it is doubtful that Talib will be intimidated, especially knowing that he will constantly have safety support over the top. If Talib is successful in this matchup, it will not only disrupt the routes of Calvin Johnson, but more importantly the timing that he has developed with quarterback Matthew Stafford. This may give the Buccaneer pass rush the extra few seconds needed to apply pressure, and be disruptive in the backfield. If Johnson is able to get off of the line of scrimmage unimpeded, he will be able to exploit the deep sideline gap in the Tampa 2 defense, and duplicate his dominating performance from week 15 last season.
Stephen Peterman vs. Gerald McCoy
Another key matchup that will have a drastic impact on the outcome of this game is the interior battle between Lions’ guard Stephen Peterman, and Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. While McCoy will be lined up against both guards equally based on the strength of the offensive formation, Peterman is more likely to struggle against the athletic defensive lineman. The much maligned right guard played most of last season with an injured foot that largely negated his ability to anchor himself, and led to an ineffective season. McCoy missed last year’s matchup with Detroit due to a season ending torn biceps injury suffered against the Washington Redskins in week 14. After a rookie season of inconsistency, and shuffling several positions, McCoy seems settled in on the Bucs defensive line as their 3-technique tackle, which means he will most often be aligned on the outside shoulder of the guard. The main role of the 3-tech tackle in Raheem Morris’ defense is to get penetration, and wreak as much havoc as possible in the backfield. Stopping penetration is an area where Peterman has struggled, both last season, and during the 2011 preseason. With right tackle Gosder Cherilus focusing on the outside pass rush of defensive end Michael Bennett, Peterman will be left in one on one battles with McCoy in pass protection. Allowing penetration in the interior of the offensive line can collapse the pocket, and keep Matthew Stafford from stepping into his throws, or stepping up to avoid the edge pass rush. If Peterman is unsuccessful by himself, Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan must find a way to slide center Dominic Raiola, or effectively use the running backs to assist in interior pass protection, if the Lions hope to keep Stafford upright.
Although he struggled previously in the Lions’ zone blocking scheme, Peterman’s strongpoint, when healthy, is his ability to run block in Linehan’s man-to-man design. If Peterman is able to get movement and progress to the linebackers at the second level, or even stalemate McCoy at the line of scrimmage, the Lions should find some success in the run game. If McCoy is able to penetrate the interior of the offensive line, Jahvid Best, as well as Stafford, could be in for a long afternoon.
Other Matchups to watch
Long time Lions left tackle Jeff Backus will be the first to see Buccaneers first round draft choice Adrian Clayborn. Although a veteran of 10 years, Backus is coming off of an abbreviated camp due to a partially torn pectoral muscle suffered during the lockout. Clayborn has caught the eye of many Buccaneers fans, as well as head coach Raheem Morris, and is poised to make a name for himself as a pass rusher. The Buccaneer faithful are hoping that he can play the role of Simeon Rice as they attempt to regain their defensive glory from the late 90’s and early 2000’s. Lions fans are simply praying that Backus remembers last season’s opener against the Chicago Bears, and how with one missed block, Julius Peppers was able to crush the dreams of many, along with Stafford’s shoulder.
The final key matchup to watch in this season’s opener will be the Lions’ tight ends, Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler, against the Buccaneer’s Tampa 2 defensive coverage scheme. While Calvin Johnson and Nate Burleson try to take advantage of holes on the outside of the field, the Lions’ tight ends will be targeting another natural gap in the center of the field. A major weakness of the Tampa 2 is the ability to cover short routes over the middle, specifically in the area that the middle linebacker vacates to drop down “the pipe”. Pettigrew and Scheffler can expose this weakness, and draw the Mike backer toward the line of scrimmage, which will open up the area directly behind him. Receiving tight ends who possess speed and athleticism, as Pettigrew and Scheffler do, can also be troublesome for this coverage scheme. Their speed can be an advantage as they release down the seam, and depending on the speed of the middle linebacker, beat him down the pipe in the center of the field. This may not only allow the tight ends themselves to be effective receiving weapons, but could also draw the coverage of the safeties towards the middle of the field, opening up the sidelines for the wide receivers.
Football is a team sport, but it is the outcome of each individual matchup that determines the success or failure on each play. These battles will go a long way in ultimately determining the outcome of this game, as will the adjustments made throughout by each coaching staff. This opener will showcase two up and coming teams, who both believe that they are poised for a breakout season, and a playoff run in 2011. While one game doesn’t define a season, it can have a dramatic impact on the outcome, and this one more than others, carries significant importance for both teams.