The game of football is all about matchups. Each week, we will use the Xs and Os to highlight some critical showdowns on the upcoming schedule.
Broncos at Seahawks: Can Julius Thomas find any room?
Got it? On all three the Chargers isolated Gates on one side of the field -- twice to Philip Rivers' right, once to his left -- with a trips formation on the opposite side. This served a few different purposes, not the least of which being that the Chargers were able to pull Richard Sherman away from Gates, lest the cornerback opt to come off his man and make a play. (He did just that on one of Gates' other catches, out of a different formation, dropping back nearly into the passing lane and then bringing down Gates.)
The Gates isolation also provided he and Rivers maximum room to work the boundaries. His first touchdown catch came on a fade to the back corner; the third was a deep ball over the top with safety Kam Chancellor unable to get wide enough to defend it.
The Broncos have begun to use Julius Thomas in a similar fashion even more frequently, essentially clearing one side of the field so he can find favorable matchups.
Thomas' touchdown catch in Week 2 against the Chiefs came out of a similar look, with Thomas split left isolated against safety Eric Berry. Kansas City has help in place across the middle, but Thomas has the mismatch out wide that Denver wants.
Later, the Broncos hit on a key third-down play to Thomas, using the trips-right formation that San Diego put to work on Gates' longest Week 2 touchdown.
The three receivers bunched to one side plus a releasing running back make it extremely difficult for that deep safety to lean toward Thomas too heavily. And even if he does, Thomas' height advantage on his man-to-man coverage provides Manning enough of a window to make a sideline throw comfortably.
Expect to see the Broncos free up Thomas in similar fashion Sunday against the Seahawks, especially in light of how Gates tore through the Seattle secondary.
Thomas was not given as much freedom in the Super Bowl as he has now, in part because of the presence of Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas. Decker's departure and Thomas' continued development have pushed the Broncos to change how they utilize Thomas within the offense.
The key is not negating Thomas' physical edge by running him into tight quarters. Case in point: One of Manning's Super Bowl interceptions, on which he tried to thread the needle to Thomas over the middle. Thomas (boxed in white) was pushed into the area occupied by Kam Chancellor (boxed in blue).
An easy interception, even with Thomas' height advantage on the linebacker covering him.
Pushing Sherman out of frame, as San Diego repeatedly did on its touchdown passes to Gates from those trips looks, is an important goal. But so, too, is all but eliminating the Seahawks' deep safety over the top and the "robber" they like to use underneath -- a second safety stepping into the middle of the field short.
Putting Thomas on an island with the rest of Denver's receivers opposite him, might do the trick.
Titans at Bengals: Winning at the line
In Week 1, the Titans held Kansas City to 67 yards rushing (with a giant assist from Andy Reid's pass-heavy playcalling) at about 3.9 yards per attempt. In Week 2, Dallas romped for 220 yards on the ground, with DeMarco Murray accounting for 167 yards on his own and the team averaging 5.1 yards per rush.
Sometimes, the explanation for a week-to-week variance in performance can be chalked up to scheme. Other times, though, it's as simple as players winning or losing individual battles.
For the most part, this appears to have been the case in the Titans' Week 2 letdown against the run.
Pictured below is the pre-snap setup of one of Murray's longer runs of the day. Safeties Bernard Pollard and Michael Griffin are lurking at the bottom of the frame, but in the box, it's seven defenders (in Tennessee's 3-4 scheme) against seven blockers (five linemen, a tight end and a fullback).
So what happens? Six of Tennessee's linemen/linebackers allow themselves to be blocked out of the play; the seventh, linebacker Zavier Gooden (No. 50), gets lost in the muck at the line, trapped behind a pile of players in front of Murray. Guard Ronald Leary gets to the second level to wipe out Wesley Woodyard, center Travis Frederick is alongside him in case Gooden finds his way toward the ball and Murray hits the seam for a nice gain.
Same issue later, as Murray rumbles inside the Titans' five-yard-line. Tennessee starts with its base 3-4, this time against six blockers. Dallas draws two Tennessee defenders, including outside linebacker Kamerion Wimbley, away from the mix by faking a jet sweep headed left. Murray takes the handoff moving right, then sneaks through the smallest of holes thanks to his teammates winning multiple battles at the line.
The letdowns occurred with far less frequency for Tennessee the previous week in Kansas City. Here, we see another seven-on-seven alignment up front, with Alex Smith under center and Jamaal Charles deep.
Numbers-wise, Kansas City has a blocker for every Tennessee defender in the frame.
The Titans blow the play up. How?
To have any measure of success against the Bengals' run game this weekend, the Titans are going to need those efforts again from Casey, Sammie Hill and the rest of their linemen. They are running into a Cincinnati offense that plays a physical, disciplined game in front of running backs Gio Bernard and Jeremy Hill. The Bengals found ample success against Atlanta last weekend thanks to sharp execution.
Our next shot brings us a 4-3 look from the Falcons against "12" personnel (one back, two tight ends).
Atlanta gets stalemated at the line, and those tight ends (Jermaine Gresham and Ryan Hewitt) seal off the right edge, allowing Bernard to turn upfield. Count the Falcons on screen below: there are eight. That's eight defenders all but closed off from making a play on Bernard.
Tennessee will adjust its gameplan on defense to counter what happened last week vs. Murray. But unless the Titans can generate some sort of push at the line against the Bengals' blockers, it might not matter.
Redskins at Eagles: The Darren Sproles issue
Is it impossible to cover Darren Sproles? No. It is foolish to attempt covering Darren Sproles one-on-one in space with a linebacker or defensive lineman? Probably.
Look no further than what happened Monday in Indianapolis, as the Eagles' spread offense consistently cleared room for Sproles to jitterbug his way down the field. Sproles had two receptions of 50-plus yards in a 30-27 win over the Colts. The longer of the pair, a 57-yarder, could not have been much easier for Philadelphia if there had been no defense on the field.
The Eagles set up in trips to the left of Nick Foles, with Sproles in the backfield and tight end Zach Ertz off the right end of the line. Before Foles even receives the snap, you can see a gap in the Colts' defense -- behind the linebackers and in front of the deep, single-high safety.
That's exactly where Sproles heads, with a linebacker unable (not surprisingly) to match Sproles' speed or footwork. By the time Sproles breaks toward the hash marks, he already has tons of space to make the catch and turn upfield.
Whether by handing off Sproles through zone coverage, providing safety help or preventing him from releasing out of the backfield, the Redskins have to find a way to counter Sproles on Sunday.
And they had enough issues with LeSean McCoy and Bryce Brown during a 2013 matchup against Philadelphia. Boxed below are McCoy and Ryan Kerrigan, who wound up running one-on-one up the sideline. That is outside linebacker/pass-rusher Ryan Kerrigan trying to track perhaps the league's most explosive offensive player, stride for stride, with no deep help.
Foles lofted one over Kerrigan to McCoy, who created several strides of separation. The result: a 53-yard completion.
Sproles is deadly on the 2014 Eagles because of how much attention the other offensive weapons, and the scheme itself, draw elsewhere. The Redskins' task is to corral him with far more effectiveness than the Colts did last week.