The game of football is all about matchups. Each week, we will use the Xs and Os to highlight some critical showdowns upcoming this week.
New England at Indianapolis: The value of versatility
Two of the better all-around running backs will square of Sunday night: New England's Shane Vereen and Indianapolis' Ahmad Bradshaw. Between them, they have 65 catches this season, as well as nearly 800 combined yards rushing.
The Colts tend to be more conventional with Bradshaw, aligning him either behind or alongside Andrew Luck in the backfield. New England varies Vereen's patterns more frequently, as was the case the last time the Patriots were in action, back in Week 9 versus Denver.
Below, shots from three consecutive plays, featuring three different roles for Vereen. On the first, he was in a single-back setup with Tom Brady under center.
One snap later, Vereen split out wide to the left and was the main target for Brady on a quick curl route.
Then, the Patriots moved Vereen to the opposite sideline. They utilized a very spread out trips look to Brady's right on that snap.
The ever-changing formations makes it impossible for an opposing team to assign one specific defender to Vereen; defenses can at least attempt such an approach with Bradshaw when he lines up exclusively in the backfield. So on these three plays, Vereen worked against a linebacker and both Denver safeties.
Later, on a fourth-down completion to Vereen, the Patriots' running back motioned in from the far right sideline to a stacked formation behind Rob Gronkowski. As Gronkowski ran his defender upfield, Vereen slipped back out to the sideline for an easy completion.
That is the inverse of one of New England's favorite ways to utilize Vereen: by throwing behind his route to open space.
What I mean there is that the Patriots -- as many teams will with their running backs/check-down options -- ask Vereen to drag a linebacker or safety away from the primary read, so Brady can hit the vacated space left behind.
Case in point:
Denver might have botched the coverage on that play, but nonetheless -- Vereen slipped out of the backfield, pulling a linebacker toward him, and Gronkowski then jumped into the middle for an easy completion.
Bradshaw had a similar play in Week 9 versus the Giants, where his route opened a sit-down slant route for Reggie Wayne.
Again, there's nothing groundbreaking in these play calls. Still, the receiving abilities of Bradshaw and Vereen force defenses to account for them no matter where they line up. That's not necessarily the case for less reliable pass-catchers out of the backfield or RBs who don't see as many passes. Bradshaw's teammate, Trent Richardson, is a perfect example.
And when defenses fail to find weapons like Bradshaw and Vereen, their QBs don't hesitate getting the ball to them.
Bradshaw picked up about 20 on that play, clearing the line as the Giants brought a blitz. There simply was not anyone available to pick him up.
Of course, New England also keeps Vereen in the backfield plenty, as a blocker, receiver and runner. He's arguably most dangerous from there because it is harder for a defense to decipher his role than when he lines up in a WR position.
However, it's in that blocker role that Bradshaw and Vereen may do their best work.
Here, despite being slowed by a play-fake, Vereen still had the wherewithal to save Brady from a huge shot. Vereen not only picked up the blitzer who had come free, he managed to stalemate him at the point of contact.
When healthy, Bradshaw has been about as effective as they come in this role. Few backs are consistently as adept as finding their blocking assignments, cutting through the traffic and making their pick-ups.
Bradshaw's edge block on Mathias Kiwanuka below, which freed Luck up for a TD pass to Coby Fleener, displays some of his prowess.
The quarterbacks will be in the spotlight Sunday night, yet the game may be decided by the complementary pieces around them. Bradshaw and Vereen are critical cogs in their respective offenses, both offering a multitude of skills on the field.
San Francisco at New York Giants: Chris Borland's impact
The 49ers will be without LB Patrick Willis for the remainder of the season, just as they have been for the past several weeks. In his stead, rookie Chris Borland has emerged as a standout defender -- he racked up 17 tackles in San Francisco's Week 10 overtime victory at New Orleans.
How is he getting the job done?
Well, the easiest explanation is that he plays about as aggressive a game as you'll see from the linebacker position. While slightly undersized compared to a prototypical inside linebacker, Borland always has made up for any height/weight deficiencies by closing on the football with an incredible velocity.
This is near-perfect execution from an ILB, attacking a lead blocker, then getting off that block to make a tackle:
Another look at the menace with which Borland hits his assigned hole:
That level of physical play alone is not enough to get the job done, but Borland combines it with exceptional work ethic and a clear ability to find the ball carrier. Given all of those traits, the tackles should continue to come in bunches, perhaps even more so now with Aldon Smith back to help him off the edge.
There are flaws teams have been able to exploit from time to time, though. Namely, in using Borland's downhill style against him.
The Saints picked up a nice gain on the ground with RB Mark Ingram by doing just that. Borland's circled here ...
New Orleans allowed him to bust through the line, then sealed him off with left guard Ben Grubbs. This essentially is how offenses pull off trap blocks on defensive linemen at the point of attack -- letting the defender get himself upfield, then preventing him from working back into the play.
New Orleans also found Borland's desire to go make a tackle helpful on a play-action pass pattern in Sunday's game. QB Drew Brees faked a handoff to his left, pulling the 49ers defense in that direction as TE Ben Watson slipped back to the open side of the field.
Borland did a decent job sticking at home on the play-action, only to take a few steps toward Brees in hopes of a sack afterward. Watson ran right past him for a catch. (Safety Antoine Bethea may have been as much at fault here -- it's hard to know who was responsible for Watson without having the exact call.)
Count on teams, including the Giants on Sunday, to test Borland's read-and-react reflexes in hopes of keeping him off-balance. Because when he knows where the football is headed, San Francisco's linebacker will run over anyone in his way to get to it.
Oakland at San Diego: Can the Raiders slow Philip Rivers?
Our brief third stop takes us to an AFC West rematch. A few weeks back, the Raiders nearly pulled off a stunning upset of Philip Rivers' Chargers, doing just enough against the San Diego offense to take a 28-21 lead into the fourth quarter.
Rivers did throw three touchdown passes in that game, so the Raiders' approach was far from flawless. They still came up with a few key stops.
How they did it was in line with one of the main ways Miami frustrated Rivers during a 37-0 Week 9 rout.
While Rivers has shown time and again that he can stretch the field vertically, the Chargers offense is predicated on quick passes and getting the football into the hands of their playmakers. The Dolphins managed to take those short targets away on a repeated basis, then doubled down on their success by collapsing the pocket around Rivers.
There was nobody available there as Rivers reached the top of his dropback. So, he attempted to reset and run through his second, third and fourth options. Only the Dolphins crumpled San Diego's line off the edges, forcing Rivers to step up and eventually take off.
Oakland did not exclusively play press-coverage or show single-high safety looks in its earlier meeting with San Diego. It did have success when those were the approaches, however.
Same talking points on this play: tight coverage at the line coupled with a deteriorating pocket, mainly to Rivers' throwing side.
For Oakland to have any hope at win No. 1, it has to figure out a way to shatter Rivers' comfort level. The Dolphins provided something of a blueprint for how to do so.