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.
Vontaze Burfict may return to the Cincinnati lineup this week, which is terrific news for a linebacking corps that was a flock without its shepherd in New England last Sunday night. Patriots tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Tim Wright combined for 185 yards receiving and two touchdowns against the Burfict-less Bengals.
Cincinnati's issues were many in second-level coverage during the 43-17 loss. On the Gronkowski touchdown, for example, two linebackers cheated toward Shane Vereen out of the backfield; Gronkowski was allowed a free release into the middle of the field, resulting in an easy pitch-and-catch.
Much the same on Wright's touchdown. There, linebacker Emmanuel Lamar (No. 59) loses Wright and gets stuck in no man's land, while Rey Maualuga cannot close the resulting gap in time.
Pass. Catch. Touchdown.
Burfict alone likely would not -- and will not -- solve all of the problems Cincinnati's defense displayed against New England. But he is a three-down linebacker capable of handling a wide variety of responsibilities in coverage, on top of leading the league in tackles last season and blitzing successfully at least once or twice a game.
We go back to Week 1 for our first piece of evidence. Burfict (red circle) shifted out to line up against slot tight end Dennis Pitta. After the snap, Burfict funneled Pitta into zone-coverage help, then slammed down on running back Justin Forsett after a short grab.
In the shot below you should be able to just make out Maualuga (No. 58) and the top of Pitta's helmet -- there was no room for Joe Flacco to hit his tight end. So he checked down to Forsett, a decision which Burfict had read before it occurred.
That read-and-react skill, combined with Burfict's overall speed, means he can match up with tight ends and running backs or even provide underneath help against wide receivers. If Burfict is on the field this weekend, he may be asked frequently to help contain tight end Greg Olsen, who leads the Panthers with 27 catches and four touchdowns.
The last time we saw Burfict before he suffered a concussion was against the Falcons in Week 2. One of his best plays that Sunday came in forcing a Matt Ryan interception by blanketing tight end Levine Toilolo.
This time, Burfict showed blitz before again sliding to his right to cover the slot. He stuck right with Toilolo on the play -- as opposed to how he handled the Pitta/Forsett combo above.
The Burfict coverage resulted in what was, quite frankly, a horrendous decision from Matt Ryan. Burfict had inside position on Toilolo when Ryan released the football, so this play was doomed from the outset. Burfict had more than enough speed to turn and run with the Falcons tight end and beat him to the spot when he cut back toward Ryan.
The Panthers will test Burfict and the rest of Cincinnati's linebackers by utilizing Olsen from a number of different spots. One of Olsen's catches against Chicago last week came after he lined up next to Cam Newton in the backfield, then released.
The delayed route allowed Olsen to slip into the flat uncovered, with the nearest Bears defender a good 15 yards away.
Olsen later scored the game-winning touchdown out of an adjusted goal-line set -- three tight ends and Newton in the shotgun. Olsen was the lone tight end off the left side of the line, but a zone-read fake by Newton left him with just overmatched safety Danny McCray to stop a potential touchdown.
One way the Bengals' line can help their linebackers and safeties handle Olsen that the Bears could not accomplish? Create some contact at the line.
Linebacker Christian Jones (red X) had edge responsibilities on the zone-read, in case Newton pulled the football and ran to his left. But Jones had a chance to chip Olsen while holding his ground and instead allowed the tight end a free release. With D.J. Williams (No. 58) biting on the play-action, Olsen had all sorts of room to maneuver.
How the Bengals choose to defend Olsen will dictate a lot of what Newton can attempt in the passing game. Without Burfict's presence, the Panthers' tight end could be in line for a Gronkowski-style showing.
Bears at Falcons: Remember me?
Bears fans are awfully familiar with Atlanta receiver Devin Hester, but Hester has taken on a different role than he had late in his Chicago career. Since joining the Falcons, he has become a viable weapon as a receiver with 14 catches for 212 yards and a touchdown plus a rushing touchdown so far.
As one might expect given Hester's electrifying speed and limited size, Atlanta has taken advantage of him out of the slot on several occasions. Pictured below is one such example from the Falcons' Week 1 win over the Saints, in which Hester ran an in-route, while three other receivers cleared out deep.
The goal here is the usual one when it comes to Hester's offensive value: Find a way to get him into space.
Another play in which Hester lined up in the slot led to a catch off a wheel route.
His rushing touchdown came on an end-around against the Buccaneers, with a fake handoff up the middle holding the Tampa Bay defense and allowing Hester to turn the corner untouched.
Of note, though, is that the Falcons have not played Hester exclusively in the slot. They have split him out wide in the X and Y receiver roles, either on his own to one side of the field or with another receiver in the slot next to him.
The usual plan when Hester is away from the slot is to throw deep. Quarterback Matt Ryan just missed connecting with Hester on a double move from that alignment in Week 4.
The attention paid to Hester, along with a nice pump-fake by Ryan, actually left Roddy White streaking toward the end zone with no safety help for the CB covering him. Ryan went Hester's way instead for an incompletion, but you can get a sense for how the play opened up Minnesota's defense.
Ryan and Hester connected on almost an identical route against New Orleans, with Hester making a grab along the sideline against Patrick Robinson.
The 2014 version of Devin Hester will not look like the model Bears fans came to know over his final years in Chicago. He is an important, versatile piece of Atlanta's passing offense.
Speaking of versatility, the Dolphins' game plan figures to test the Packers with the use of packaged plays on Sunday. New Miami offensive coordinator Bill Lazor brought a few of these calls with him from Philadelphia, where they are staples of the Chip Kelly playbook. More and more teams have taken to using them.
In essence, a packaged play gives a quarterback both a run and pass read on the same design -- almost an extended triple option. When Miami executes these calls well, they play right into what quarterback Ryan Tannehill can do as a decently mobile quarterback who is better when he is allowed to make simple throws.
To give you a better idea of the packaged-play design, here's one of the calls from Miami's Week 4 win over Oakland. The combination is a zone-read hand-off up the middle and a wide receiver screen out wide. In addition to getting the ball to either the back or receiver, Tannehill also has the option to pull and run.
Oakland's edge rusher to Tannehill's left is circled below. Usually (though not always), this is the key for a zone-read -- if the edge guy collapses, the quarterback pulls and runs; if he stays home, the running back gets the hand-off. There are myriad variations on that approach, but in its simplest form the zone-read relies on that DE/OLB action.
Here, he crashed for Oakland, as did one of the Raiders' cornerbacks when Tannehill looked as if he might run. And this is step two on the packaged play read. When that cornerback came down, the Dolphins wound up with a personnel advantage wide -- two receivers and one defender. So Tannehill threw (technically, lateraled) the football to Jarvis Landry.
The full play:
The Dom Capers-led defense in Green Bay has been susceptible to misdirection plays in recent seasons, so these packaged plays could be just the ticket for Miami to get its offense moving on Sunday.
Better yet for the Dolphins, Knowshon Moreno is expected back in the lineup, adding another dangerous threat for the Packers to account for on any given snap.
As the Raiders defense illustrates, when one defender misreads this type of play, it has a knack for snowballing into larger problems. Green Bay's mission is to prevent those breakdowns.