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FSM Presents: Zo Huddle – The Weekend’s Best Position Battles Reside On The Perimeter

Franchise Sports Media

 

Everyone who watches the NFL playoffs loves a good position battle. The Zo Huddle is here to tell you that the best matchups involve the air – with some of the league’s best cornerbacks and wideouts locking it up to either deny the sky or own the aerial assault contest. 

 

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Photo Credit: Cheesehead TV

Fans of press coverage, the deep zone, the fade and finally, those who love wide receivers and cornerbacks going at it, you are in for a treat during the weekend of Jan. 16-17.

This weekend’s NFL playoffs features some of the most compelling wide receiver/cornerback matchups in playoff history.

In the NFC, each WR1 has caught more than 509 passes in their careers. Over in the AFC, the primary targets have done one of the following: Win a Super Bowl, post consecutive 1,000-yard seasons or take advantage of their new scenery by posting career high marks in Orchard Park, New York.

The Zo Huddle couldn’t do this breakdown alone, though. Along with an earlier conversation with experts in cornerback and receiving play, I called on two experts from the Arena and Canadian Football League realm for this one. Everyone brought a wealth of knowledge in wide receiver and defensive back play to assist me in diving deeper into what we will anticipate on passing plays during this weekend’s divisional round action.

With expertise from Elon Paige (Arena Football League, Sacramento State alumnus, longtime WR coach) and Dante Marsh (CFL Hall of Famer, Fresno State alumnus, Junior College defensive coordinator at San Joaquin Delta), plus excerpts from a previous conversation I had with Marcus Alford (CFL, Oxnard Pacifica High assistant coach) and Evan Yabu (Thousand Oaks High School head football coach, has trained with NFL hopefuls) here are the best WR/CB battles from No. 8 to No. 1 this weekend:

 

No. 8 – Jarvis Landry (Cleveland) versus L’Jarius Sneed (Kansas City)

 

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Photo Credit: AP Photo / Seth Wenig

The fourth-rounder Sneed put together a surprisingly strong rookie campaign for the defending Super Bowl champs. In fact, the 6-foot-1, 193-pounder from Louisiana Tech was targeted 45 times according to Pro Football Focus (PFF) analytics – and surrendered just 214 passing yards. That means opposing wideouts successfully beat Sneed in gaining positive yardage at just a 21% success rate. Also, he allowed just one aerial touchdown to his side: Against Super Bowl champ and future Hall of Famer Drew Brees in the Chiefs’ road win over the New Orleans Saints.

He will be facing a big test, though, against one of the top route-runners in the league in Landry. In the stunning road win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, Cleveland managed to put Landry in the slot – creating mismatches with the Steelers linebackers. Landry fooled LB’s with a single move which gave him nearly a 3-yard separation between him and the coverage ‘backer. Landry ended his evening averaging 18.4 yards a catch.

The advantage Sneed brings in this matchup will be his safety background, where he began his collegiate career at during his Ruston (La.), days. KC could possibly line him up as an inside slot cornerback to account for Landry. Even if Cleveland motions out Landry as they did versus the Steelers, Sneed has the benefit of knowing safeties like Tyrann Mathieu can account for him. But it’s a high probability the Browns will try to test the young corner with their savvy veteran to set the tone on offense.

From the WR perspective:You actually won’t need to cover Landry as much (if you’re KC) because they got help. The secondary of the Chiefs has impressed me this year. They’ve made some strides. But that’s going to be an exciting matchup. Landry may not be the fastest guy, but he’s got some routes. You’ve got to slow him down a little bit and get hands on him and bully him a little bit. If Jarvis gets going, that can be bad especially on those play actions because Baker Mayfield loves his play actions,” Elon Paige.

From the CB perspective: “Landry has been the go-to-guy without OBJ (Odell Beckham Jr.). And he’s from LSU. Cleveland is unique because on paper, they’re a really good football team and I love their defense,Dante Marsh.

 

No. 7 – Marquise “Hollywood” Brown (Baltimore) vs. Tre’Davious White (Buffalo)

 

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Photo Credit: Getty Images

Hollywood” has had a rather up-and-down 2020 season. But he went Hollywood down in Music City last week.

Originally brought in as a deep threat, the Ravens used him on pitch plays – helping culminate in his seven-catch, 109-yard day. One key moment: At the 12:18 mark of the second quarter and from the Titan 43-yard line, he gave B-More their first big offensive play while down 10-0.

He was on a football island with Titans cornerback Adoree Jackson, hit Jackson with a single inside move to briefly freeze him up, then gained enough separation downfield to place the completed bomb near the Titans’ 12-yard line. That play was a prelude to the Ravens’ first points of the game in their 20-13 win.

White will be one of the more fundamentally-sound corners the Ravens will face – and he’ll likely be assigned to Brown for most of the night.

White knows how to rattle receivers at the line of scrimmage to throw off their releases. He’s also not one to usually get torched on third downs – proven by his PFF grade of 91.9 on third down passing plays. Plus, of the 55 times he was targeted this season, receivers caught 34 passes against him.

The last time these two teams met, Buffalo forced Lamar Jackson to throw instead of run. Jackson was held under 150 yards passing but tossed three touchdowns in the victory. Buffalo may create a similar blueprint in this game by trusting its pass defense – especially White – to counter Jackson and the Ravens.

From the WR perspective:Hollywood’s problem is his consistency. He has so much game-breaking ability; he can fly down field, he can get screens, he can do all the short stuff. But his drops will be the thing that will hurt him.  But White? That dude can play. That dude can play the CB position. He’s a technical guy, he won’t blow too many assignments, he’ll get hands on you and get physical…if that’s what he’ll do, then they’re going to try to get the play action going and give Lamar (Jackson) time to set up and hit the long ball. I’m going to give the edge to White in this one,” Paige.

 

No. 6 – Michael Thomas (Saints) vs. Carlton Davis (Buccaneers)

 

Photo Credit: ESPN

Thomas struggled with health this past season and witnessed a massive drop-off from his record-breaking 149-catch season.

However, it doesn’t mean the Saints will ignore him in the third meeting between NFC South rivals. In fact, Thomas showed why he still commands respect when he’s on the field.

What separates Thomas from most receivers is his cerebral side: He knows how to find the crevasse in zone coverage then attacks it. He found cracks in the Chicago Bears’ defensive backfield by running inside slant routes before taking the ball upfield in last week’s wildcard win.

Davis is listed as questionable with a groin injury. But he’s an emerging ball-hawk with four interceptions this past season and 18 pass break-ups – including a season-high four against Aaron Rodgers in the 38-10 romp of the NFC’s best team the Green Bay Packers. Additionally, Davis wasn’t fooled by a Thomas switch release with the wheel route in the season opener – crossing Saints tight end Jared Cook’s face to stay on top of Thomas and force the PBU. Whoever wins the inside passes battle will likely help determine the outcome.

From the WR perspective: “Mike is going to have the edge in this one. Carlton is a big, physical corner…but he has been hampered by a lingering injury. You have to be at full scale to contain Mike. He is going to get his 10-15 targets and he’s going to catch the ball. Davis will have to limit his YAC (yards after catch) and deep catches along with help from Antoine Winfield Jr. A seven-catch, 50-yard game versus Mike is a win (for Davis),” Paige.

 

No. 5 – Tyreek Hill (Chiefs) vs. Denzel Ward (Browns)

 

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Photo Credit: WIBW

Ward is coming back just in time from the COVID-19 list. Cleveland’s top CB option will be needed to help put the brakes on arguably the league’s fastest player.

These two have crossed paths before. In 2018, Hill caught four passes in the Chiefs’ 37-21 win…yet Ward helped bottle him to just 69 yards.

Since then, though, Hill has become more efficient with his breaks, executing the route tree and knowing different coverages. He’s spent time in the off-season with Keith ‘Dubb” Williams; a renowned wide receiver coach who trains NFL wideouts and once recruited a young Davante Adams to Fresno State.

Alford, who played for Ottawa and Toronto in the CFL, pointed out how single covering Hill isn’t the best of ideas. Best case scenario would be to try to bracket him with a safety over the top, yet you would still face the chance of leaving Travis Kelce or Sammy Watkins open for Patrick Mahomes.

The least Ward and the Browns can do is try to eliminate the deep ball from Hill or contain his yards after the catch. Regardless, this is a matchup that gives the edge to Kansas City.

From the WR perspective: “We’ve seen all year what happens when you put ‘Reek one-on-one: In man coverage, you can’t get it done. He’s finding ways to get open no matter what kind of coverage is done. A guy like him…he’s on the smaller side.. but he’s elevated his routes plus his ability to read zones and he’s elevated that perception so much working with coach Dubb (Keith Williams). There’s no way you can really cover him. You’re going to have to bracket him or put someone over the top. I don’t expect Ward to shadow him and if you do, you still leave somebody else by themselves (on the Chiefs). It’s kind of a lose-lose situation if you put more guys on him. If they (Cleveland) can get a pass rush, they have a shot,” Paige.

From the CB perspective: “I’m a Denzel Ward fan. But KC, you’re talking about Mahomes, ‘Reek…that’s going to be a great matchup. Since my Raiders aren’t in it, I get to be a fan and enjoy the matchups,” Marsh.

No. 4 – Mike Evans (Bucs) vs. Marshon Lattimore (Saints)

 

Photo Credit: ESPN

This clash of NFC titans at wideout and cornerback adds another chapter.

Evans is hampered by a recent knee injury, so there’s no telling how healthy he’ll be in this contest. It could mean a heavier dosage of Antonio Brown in the passing game for Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But Evans will still command a presence on the field if he suits up.

Lattimore, however, has dominated this individual battle. In fact, in the week one home win over the Bucs, Evans was held to just one reception for two yards against Lattimore. The second contest didn’t see much playmaking from Evans either, as he was left with four receptions for 64 yards.

Key stat: Of the 13 times Evans has faced the Saints, he only has one 100-yard outing against them, which was a 147-yard day in 2018. Evans averages between three to four catches against New Orleans. And since that breakout 2018 day, Evans has never gone past 86 receiving yards when going against Lattimore and the Saints.

From the WR perspective: “That’s one of my favorite matchups to watch because it’s what a WR/CB battle should look like: Two guys that are the top and All-Pros plus Pro Bowlers…and they just want to be the best. They go at it, they jaw, they shake hands afterward, but you can tell they don’t like each other. Every time they play, Marshon always finds a way to shut him down,” Paige.

 

No. 3 – Robert Woods (Rams) vs. Jaire Alexander (Packers)

 

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Photo Credit:The Athletic

It’s the Rams’ most targeted weapon on offense going against the highest graded CB according to PFF.

Here’s where Alexander is worthy of his shutdown CB label: He finished seven games this season with no one catching the ball on him. And that list includes Evans, pro bowler T.Y Hilton (Colts) and Super Bowl champ Emmanuel Sanders (Saints). 

In a separate conversation I had with Yabu, who trains alongside NFL hopefuls and worked out with Rams QB John Wolford in the past, Yabu pointed out how the Rams like motioning out Woods the most, in the effort to create potential mismatches. Woods will most likely be assigned the most motion plays for the Rams. Whether Alexander will trail Woods’ every move or relinquish to safeties Darnell Savage and Adrian Amos remains to be seen.

But these two will likely cross paths. Woods is the primary option when Los Angeles needs a first down, positive yardage or a score. Alexander is the Packers best choice to take away the best wideout. I would expect both to lock horns like Big Horn Sheep in the mountains.

From the WR perspective: “I’m going to go with Woods because of his consistency and his ability to catch the ball. He doesn’t put the ball on the ground. He’s Jared Goff’s favorite target and the guy who will get it on third downs. Alexander can ball, though, so let’s not hold him back. He can ball, he can be physical and he’s very athletic. Woods, however, is that guy because he’s so consistent,” Paige.

From the CB perspective: “It’s good to be a good matchup between the Rams and Packers. I can’t say it’ll be a mismatch either way in my opinion,” Marsh.

 

No. 2 – Stefon Diggs (Bills) vs. Marcus Peters (Ravens)

 

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Photo Credit- Buffalo News

This is the heavyweight matchup of WR vs. CB in the AFC.

Diggs has become one of the top free agent pickups of 2020 after posting career numbers, plus giving fast-rising signal-caller Josh Allen a career boost. And he was impressive in the wildcard win over Indianapolis, snatching six passes for 128 yards and one touchdown.

What makes Diggs deadly is his knack for making CB’s pay who take gambles on him. One proof is the 28 second mark of his highlight video versus the Steelers when he takes advantage of poor tackling. And who can forget the epic last second TD catch he had when he was a Minnesota Viking against the Saints?

Simply put, Diggs is one of the league’s best in YAC and when he has a gap between himself and his defender, he’ll come with a running back-like elusiveness and juke defenders.

However, Peters will be one of his biggest challengers in head-to-head competition.

Peters has developed into one of the league’s best interception machines. In 91 games played, the pride of Oakland has snatched 31 career picks – returning six for touchdowns.

Last week, Peters got tested on five targets from Titans QB Ryan Tannehill. The end saw just 29 yards allowed and one interception…which led to the group celebration on the Titans’ midfield logo.

Peters’ weakness is receivers busting double moves on him. One example is when Amari Cooper of the Dallas Cowboys beat him using the said WR foot technique earlier this season. Best believe when Diggs is lined up across from Peters, he’ll try to force Peters into gambles by executing double moves on him. Peters, though, will bring that Oakland scrapper side to the field and won’t back down from this challenge.

From the WR perspective: “The only mismatch there is the size: Marcus is a big guy. It works against him sometimes, but it also works in his favor. When he’s patient and consistent, he’s a top three CB easily. He’ll put hands on you, he’ll run with you, sometimes he does gamble and guess but a lot of great DB’s do that. I like Diggs in that one because he’s been consistent, and he’s got a QB who can get him the ball now in Josh. He can get downfield, underneath, runs every route in the route tree – that’s going to be an exciting matchup. We’ll see who comes out in that one,” Paige.

From the CB perspective: “I got to go with my high school alumni on this one (Marsh attended Peters’ prep alma mater McClymonds High in Oakland). Marcus’ game is unique in terms of what he does with what I did in my career before I got over the age of 30. What Marcus has been able to do very early on in his career – from his days at UW to the NFL – is he’s a turnover machine. He understands the route tree, the three-step read by the QB and he understands how to play. He reads so well. He’s prone to double moves, he’ll gamble but he’s a turnover machine,” Marsh.

 

No. 1 – Davante Adams (Packers) vs. Jalen Ramsey (Rams)

 

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Photo Credit: NFL

You probably should consider heating up your popcorn or ordering your pizza for this battle. This is THE heavyweight battle of dynamic wide receiver vs. lockdown CB.

Think of Randy Moss in his prime going against Charles Woodson, or a young Jerry Rice lining up against Deion Sanders. That’s the vibe looking at Adams/Ramsey.

Adams brings his basketball background and continuous improved work ethic to this battle at Lambeau. Biggest thing to watch will be how Ramsey reacts to Adams’ releases…as the Pro Bowl wideout is masterful with his wideout release points. Yabu called Adams very well-rounded and one with a strong work ethic developed from his time with coach Dubb.

Alford pointed out two strengths Ramsey brings to the 100-yard turf: His versatility and his mental game, which Alford calls second-to-none.

Ramsey has already embarrassed three dominant receivers. Diggs caught just one reception for four yards (which did end in a TD) lining up on Ramsey.  When facing DeAndre Hopkins, ‘D-Hop’ manage to catch a combined five passes for 48 yards with no TD’s – averaging just 9.6 reception yards against Ramsey. In three battles with DK Metcalf, the chiseled Seahawks receiver – who had a three-inch, 35-pound advantage on Ramsey – only caught four passes for 44 yards total.

It’s going to be a movie watching these two blockbusters going at it.

From the WR perspective: “That’s the one right there! I’m a receiver, but Ramsey is my guy. I love the dude, I love his swag and confidence, I love the way he plays. He clearly comes out and says ‘Hey, I’m shutting this guy down.’ And he does it. We saw what he did to DK last week. But ‘Tae’ is different. He’s a different type of receiver. We see his releases. Throw him the ball, he’ll go get it. That’s a 50-50 matchup. That is going to be exciting to watch,” Paige.

From the CB perspective: “He (Ramsey) has the ability and the confidence to play man-to-man coverage. Coming out of Florida State, they’ve produced the best in the business…guys like Antonio Cromartie, Prime, Samari Rolle, Corey Fuller…you have a lot of guys out of FSU over the years who are very good out of the defensive backfield. Jalen Ramsey has earned my respect. He’s a big-time player. But I’m always going to go with my Bulldogs. Davante is also a Bay Area player (grew up in East Palo Alto and attended Palo Alto High). He works his craft and works well with Dubb. He kind of surprised me because I didn’t anticipate him being this good. But he’s a good technician, he moves very swiftly and his routes are nice. I think Jalen is going to have his hands full,” Marsh.

 

Raider fans: Zo Huddle will return to the Silver and Black next week to share part three of his 12-part series breaking down each of the Raiders’ position groups. 

 

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Lorenzo J. Reyna – Franchise Sports Media

Twitter: @LJ_Reyna

 

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