Divisional Round Film Study: What We Learned from the All-22

And then there were eight.

Wild-card weekend gave us a half dozen games, and only one of them was in doubt when the fourth quarter rolled around. Yet we were able to learn plenty and take a few lessons from the action.

Among them is the reality that Jordan Love and C.J. Stroud are the next wave of great quarterbacks. Then there’s the burgeoning connection of Rashee Rice and Patrick Mahomes, leading the Kansas City Chiefs back into contention after a rocky ending to the regular season.

But let’s start Saturday, when Stroud and his Houston Texans smoked the Cleveland Browns thanks to a smart, young head coach and a quarterback with a golden right arm.

C.J. Stroud shows why defenses must be honest

Leading 17–14 in the second quarter, the Texans were moving the ball once again on the Browns. The play below, however, comes on second-and-20 from the Cleveland 37-yard line, and perfectly illustrates the problem facing any defense opposite of Stroud.

The Browns weren’t disguising their coverage. They were sitting in quarters with three underneath defenders, hoping to keep everything in front of them. The Texans countered with 21-personnel (2 RBs, TE). 

Screenshot from NFL+ all-22

Houston offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik had the perfect call for the coverage, with star receiver Nico Collins (No. 12) running a crosser from left to right. Meanwhile, while Stroud rolled right, tight end Dalton Schultz (No. 86) initially ran a corner route, with John Metchie III (No. 8) also leaking into the flat on that side.

For Cleveland, the entire play was headed boundary side, which told the field-side defenders to pinch across. 

Screenshot from NFL+ all-22

Here’s the problem: Schultz was actually running a double move. The veteran tight end converted from a corner route to a post, and once he cleared the face of safety Ronnie Hickman Jr. (No. 33), it was a touchdown. The Browns tried to recover, with corner Greg Newsome II (No. 0) turning to run—he was originally charged with controlling the left quarter of the field. 

Screenshot from NFL+ all-22

The lesson here? For the Baltimore Ravens this weekend, they can’t cheat over when Houston runs plays that appear designed to cut the field in half. In fact, that’s when the Texans might be at their most dangerous.

Rashee Rice, Chiefs crushed Dolphins with crossers

For much of the season, Rice was used as a short-yardage extraordinaire who could eat up yards after catch like Pac-Man seeing dots.

Toward the end of the season, that changed. And with it went the design of Kansas City’s offense.

On Saturday night in a 26–7 win over the Miami Dolphins, Rice caught eight passes for 130 yards, leading all players in both categories. He continuously beat Miami on crossing routes, something he’s done routinely over the last few months, against myriad opponents.

On this play, the Chiefs are leading 19–7 to start the fourth quarter and are looking to finish off the Dolphins. However, Kansas City was behind the sticks on second-and-16.

The Chiefs came out in a balanced look before motioning Justin Watson (No. 84) to the field side of the formation to create a 3×1 look, with tight end Travis Kelce (No. 87) isolated backside. Rice began wide left but ended up the No. 2 receiver between Mecole Hardman Jr. (No. 12) and Watson.

Miami was in quarters coverage, trying to prevent a big play to force third-and-long. Though they blitzed much of the night, the Dolphins weren’t threatening here. Lastly, note linebackers Duke Riley (No. 45) and David Long Jr. (No. 51) switching spots with Watson’s motion. Long moves to the middle, while Riley slides outside.

Screenshot from NFL+ all-22

On the snap, Mahomes was perfectly protected. Meanwhile, Kelce ran a clear-out route to occupy the far right defender, while Hardman sprinted down the seam, carrying both safeties.

All this creates a huge void for Rice, who ran a deep cross behind Long. He’s supposed to have help from a defensive back at the next level, but all three capable of providing it have bailed on deep routes. Additionally, Riley creeps up to keep tabs on running back Isiah Pacheco (No. 10).

Screenshot from NFL+ all-22

Once Rice clears Long, it’s over. The rookie made his eighth and final catch of the evening, rumbling untouched for 28 yards before going out of bounds. 

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The play set up a Pacheco touchdown run moments later, ensuring Kansas City’s sixth consecutive berth in the AFC divisional round.

If the Buffalo Bills are going to knock the Chiefs out, their zone defense must do a better job of taking away the middle against Kansas City’s passing attack.

Jordan Love tore up the Cowboys

As aforementioned, Stroud and Love arrived this weekend. On Sunday, it was Love’s turn to show why he has turned from a curiosity to a destroyer of worlds.

In a stunning 48–32 trouncing of the Dallas Cowboys, Love threw for 272 yards and three touchdowns on 13.0 yards per attempt.

On the play that broke the game open, Love was at his best in multiple ways. With Green Bay leading 14–0 late in the second quarter, the Packers had a third-and-7 at Dallas’s 20-yard line.

Green Bay came out in 11-personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3WRs), with rookie Dontayvion Wicks lined up wide right matched up against Stephon Gilmore (No. 21) in man coverage. The Cowboys also had man coverage elsewhere while threatening pressure against the empty formation.

Screenshot from NFL+ all-22

Not surprisingly, Dallas defensive coordinator Dan Quinn called for an all-out blitz, sending six rushers. Green Bay kept tight end Tucker Kraft (No. 85) in to block on the right side, but the six-man protection wasn’t enough.

Cowboys safety Markquese Bell (No. 14) came through the middle as a free rusher, putting quick pressure on Love. However, Wicks was coming open after a nasty juke at the top of his route. How nasty? Check out Gilmore in the next frame, who’s in the posture of a defensive tackle. 

Screenshot from NFL+ all-22

Once Love sees Wicks break toward the post, he cocks and fires. It was a risky throw, as Gilmore recovered enough to be underneath the route.

If the ball is underthrown with Love fading away, it’s an interception. And while leading 14–0, throwing the ball away or checking down to running back Patrick Taylor (No. 27) would have been understandable.

Screenshot from NFL+ all-22

Instead, Love’s throw was a perfect strike, extending Green Bay’s lead to 20 points.

The Packers are heavy underdogs (and rightfully so) against the San Francisco 49ers on Saturday night. But if Love plays like he did this wild-card weekend, Green Bay has a chance.

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