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.
Indianapolis at Cleveland: Measuring Vontae Davis' impact
The Colts are crossing their fingers that CB Vontae Davis will be ready for Week 14 after suffering a concussion last week. Davis has solidified his stock as one of the league's top cornerbacks, and a matchup with Cleveland's Josh Gordon potentially awaits.
Last week, Washington had next to no success when it looked Davis' way in the passing game -- the offense was relegated to underneath routes or avoiding Davis' side of the field altogether. Here are a few examples of the latter:
The Redskins sent three possible targets out on the play above, all to Colt McCoy's right. Davis (highlighted) was a bystander, with nothing left to do but drop in case Washington hit a play deep and over the middle.
On a later passing play, McCoy rolled to his throwing side -- again away from Davis -- and Washington stacked all three receivers in one half of the field.
The benefit of calls like these for the offense is obvious: they make Davis a non-factor. The counter-argument is that Davis' mere presence takes on as much of a role as it would if Washington had thrown his direction. By chopping the field in half to limit Davis' impact, Washington severely limited what it could do with route combinations.
A second option, if teams really are that wary of Davis, is to use his coverage almost like a decoy. Take this next play, for example.
When Davis is matched up one-on-one with a receiver, his pre-snap alignment of choice is press coverage at the line. Shifting the WR that Davis is responsible for off the line and then cutting him across the field can allow an offense to better spread its offensive weapons out, while at the same time minimizing Davis.
Here, Davis -- who usually stays put to an offense's left rather than mirroring a specific recevier -- was lined up against Pierre Garcon. Before the snap, Garcon motioned into a stack formation with Andre Roberts, so Davis backed off his coverage.
Garcon then cut across the field on an underneath route as Roberts released directly at Davis, without even really looking for the ball. The two main reads for McCoy were Garcon (arrow across the middle) and RB Roy Helu, releasing out of the backfield to the area just vacated by Davis.
New England used an almost identical approach to free up RB Shane Vereen on a long reception during a game earlier this season. Highlighted below are Davis and WR Julian Edelman, with Davis showing press-man coverage.
As the Redskins did with Garcon, the Patriots motioned Edelman in tighter to the line of scrimmage, stacking him behind a teammate. Davis fell back.
The play developed just as that McCoy-to-Garcon attempt -- Davis wound up having to cover Brandon LaFell, the receiver in front of Edelman at the snap; Edelman pulled across the middle of the field on a crossing pattern; and Vereen released out of the backfield to where everyone had been.
This time, the Colts botched their assignments, leaving Vereen open.
If Davis cannot go on Sunday, the Browns figure to test the player or players replacing him. When Davis exited Indianapolis' win over Washington, McCoy answered by repeatedly taking deep shots against Davis' fill-in, Josh Gordy. One resulted in a DeSean Jackson touchdown.
Should Davis suit up, look for Cleveland to employ some of the tactics used by Washington and New England. The Browns already love to run Gordon across the middle on short routes, as his fellow receivers push the defense back. That's what happened on this completion, as Gordon snuck behind an Atlanta linebacker.
It was at work on the play below, too, with the only difference between that completion and the McCoy-Garcon attempt touched on earlier being that Cleveland RB Terrance West stayed in to block. There was room to Brian Hoyer's left where West could have released, had the Browns asked him to do so.
Cleveland trusts Gordon to win battles downfield, no matter which cornerbacks he finds covering him. However, Hoyer's limitations and the potential defense from Davis could push the Browns into more of those short looks, targeted opposite Davis' side of the field.
So expect to see plenty of short routes from Gordon and possibly a few swing passes to the Cleveland backs, if Davis gives it a go.
San Francisco at Oakland: Where are the 49ers' big plays?
In San Francisco's Thanskgiving night loss to Seattle, QB Colin Kaepernick attempted 10 passes thrown deeper than 10 yards from scrimmage. He completed zero. This has become something of a recurring theme for the 49ers' passing attack, one that has struggled at times to stretch the field vertically, for these three reasons:
1. Kaepernick has been inconsistent from the pocket this season, which is nothing all that new.
2. Vernon Davis is in the midst of his worst NFL season, statistically. In the past, the athletic tight end was Kaepernick's favorite target downfield, as he tested defenses up the seam.
3. San Francisco's other receivers have a hard time generating separation off the line. Seattle is a unique defense when it comes to those battles, because of how aggressive its secondary is up front. But the 49ers did not respond well to the challenge, forcing any Kaepernick deep ball into tight coverage.
The Seahawks have the luxury of pairing Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor at safety, so even when receivers do free up some space, it often vanishes in a hurry. But the 49ers not only failed to find open pockets, their receivers were slow off the line.
As a result, when Kaepernick set to throw, he did not find much there.
The Seahawks jumped offside on this next play, so Kaepernick had a free shot downfield. He tried to take it via a tightly covered Michael Crabtree along the sideline (white circle). For one of the few times in recent weeks, Davis actually made his way open deep -- a split-second after this screen grab, Davis was beyond the second level and had inside position on Seattle's safety.
By then, Kaepernick had let the football fly.
When San Francisco's pass-catchers work their way open, they frequently do so by looking inside and then breaking back to the corner. Anquan Boldin caught a touchdown pass on just such a pattern vs. Washington, a couple of plays after Kaepernick overthrew a comparable chance to Michael Crabtree.
This week's trip to Oakland will give San Francisco a nice matchup for its faltering passing game. If the 49ers plan to turn their 7-5 record into a playoff spot, they need to start finding more success downfield.
Pittsburgh at Cincinnati: The Steelers' nonexistent pass rush
Pittsburgh's pass defense has been a middle-of-the-road unit this season. Last Sunday, Drew Brees picked it apart for 257 yards and five touchdowns in a New Orleans win. So, what's gone wrong?
Well, several things, including injuries and the overall disappointing play of some key defenders.
First and foremost on the list of issues, though, is the Steelers' inability to generate a pass rush. Through 12 weeks of the 2014 season, Dick LeBeau's defense has just 21 sacks, on pace to finish behind an underwhelming total of 34 a year ago. LeBeau has never shied away from dialing up a blitz, and he certainly has tried to complement his under-talented front by bringing extra bodies this year.
Unfortunately for the Steelers, when those blitzes barely even register on a quarterback's radar, there are going to be problems downfield.
Here we look at one of several big plays from Drew Brees to Kenny Stills in Week 13. The Steelers rushed five on this play, doing little more than forcing Brees to slide a step to his left before throwing. Stills was able to get behind the coverage, and Pittsburgh's deep safety stepped up on Marques Colston's route.
Rushing three or four hasn't worked. We just saw a five-man rush fail. How about six?
Even pressed up against his own goal line, Brees has time to scan the field, set and throw. The result was another big gain to Stills.
Brees dropped to pass on 28 occasions Sunday. Pro Football Focus had the Steelers pressuring him on just a quarter of those attempts, with one sack. Count that as great news for Andy Dalton, who can be a wreck in the face of pressure ... but who has A.J. Green as one of the top big-play options in football when there is time to throw.