Chiefs at Colts, Saints at Eagles: Key battles for the Wildcard clashes

The first part of this weekend's NFL Wild Card playoff double-header features a potential shootout in the NFC.

That will be preceded by an AFC clash where the season's surprise team will hope to keep their great turnaround going for another week.

Kansas City Chiefs at Indianapolis Colts: Pass Rush is key for both teams

When the Kansas City Chiefs hosted the Indianapolis Colts two weeks ago, their offense was wrecked by a swarming pass rush. The Colts logged five sacks, and their consistent pressure forced the usually efficient Chiefs into a spate of mistakes.

The Indianapolis defense forced four fumbles and recovered three. They also snared an interception.

The key to their approach was a series of unorthodox pressure fronts with tight, man coverage behind them. A great example came late in the fourth quarter with the Chiefs just across midfield.

Colts' head coach Chuck Pagano and defensive coordinator Greg Manusky showed Chiefs' quarterback Alex Smith a double A-gap pressure look.

They put linebackers Jerrell Freeman and Josh McNary in the gaps either side of the center. At the snap, Freeman blitzed, while McNary dropped out into coverage in the middle. Defensive end Robert Mathis also bailed into coverage.

While Freeman rushed the middle, defensive back Darius Butler blitzed off the edge. The Colts played single-high coverage behind the pressure. They had receivers locked up in single coverage on the outside and underneath, with one deep safety lurking over the top.

With his receivers unable to get free, Smith couldn't escape the pressure. Freeman sacked him to force a fumble that was recovered by defensive tackle Fili Moala.

The Colts' relentless barrage of pressures led to an emphatic 23-7 road win.

To gain revenge in Indianapolis, the Chiefs must have an answer for the blitz. They must design protection schemes to identify and react to late rushers and line stunts.

Smith's receivers also have a key role to play. The likes of Dwayne Bowe and Donnie Avery have to win against single, press coverage.

As much as he will be concerned about the Colts ability to create pressure, Kansas City head coach Andy Reid will expect his defense to generate some of its own.

The unit couldn't do it in Week 16, when the Chiefs had just one sack. What the Kansas City defense really needs is for its outside pass-rushers to start dominating again.

Tamba Hali and Justin Houston have both been slowed by injuries late in the season. The Chiefs

previously stingy defense has suffered without their pressure.

But when healthy, the two are a highly destructive tandem. Hali and Houston must feel the collar of Colts' quarterback Andrew Luck early and often.

The Chiefs have gone from 2-14 to 11-5 in Reid's first year. But if they don't put Luck under serious duress, their Cinderella story will end in Indianapolis.

New Orleans Saints at Philadelphia Eagles: Philly must contain tight end Jimmy Graham

When facing Drew Brees and the fourth-ranked New Orleans Saints offense, defenses have to pick their poison. Brees simply has too many weapons and they can't all be contained.

The prime target for the Philadelphia Eagles has to be imperious tight end Jimmy Graham. The NFL's premier "joker" playmaker at his position is the Saints best way of creating favourable matchups.

He is too tall and strong for defensive backs to corral and too fast for linebackers to stay with. Graham can attack from anywhere and is Brees' go-to target.

Philadelphia defensive coordinator Bill Davis needs a plan for containing Graham. Phil Sheridan of ESPN, has suggested using 6'4", 264-pound outside linebacker Connor Barwin to jam Graham at the line, before passing him off to a safety.

That's a sound suggestion given that Barwin is a good size matchup against Graham's 6'7", 265-pound frame. But neither Barwin nor a safety can effectively counter Graham's speed.

Eliot Shorr-Parks, writing for The Star-Ledger, suggests using a more natural cover man. He believes cornerbacks Bradley Fletcher and Cary Williams can both match up with Graham.

This is reminiscent of the tactic employed by the New England Patriots back in Week 6. Head coach Bill Belichick had his best cover man, cornerback Aqib Talib, shadow Graham all over the field. The prolific pass-catcher was shut down by this scheme.

The Eagles could use either Williams, Fletcher, or even nickel corner Brandon Boykin to take Graham in initial coverage. Davis could then have athletic inside 'backer Mychal Kendricks bracket Graham underneath.

That would leave edge-rushers like Barwin and Trent Cole free to collapse the pocket around Brees.

The Eagles will know their second-ranked offense can put up points this weekend. But they won't upset the Saints unless they keep Graham quiet.

image: © hyku

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