A Bears-Saints NFC throwdown highlights Sunday’s action; plus, can the Packers counter Reggie Bush, and does Dallas have enough in the secondary to handle the Broncos’ attack?
Let’s go past the obvious storylines and take a deeper dive into every Sunday game in Week 5:
(All times Eastern; click on teams for more information on the matchup)
In Weeks 1, 2 and 3, Jay Cutler played with the newfound discipline that Marc Trestman’s system demands. In Week 4 at Detroit, Cutler regressed a bit, throwing three interceptions and inviting a Ndamukong Suh sack-fumble that Nick Fairley returned for a back-breaking touchdown.
On the fumble, Cutler’s internal alarm clock should have sounded, but he insisted on waiting for Brandon Marshall to shake Chris Houston’s underneath press (Marshall never did). As for the interceptions, the first was rifled into a three-defender crowd over the middle. The second was an okay decision—a downfield lob to Marshall against man coverage—but underthrown. The third was badly overthrown after Cutler fled the pocket (something he’s grown used to doing as a Bear). He reset on that throw but changed his mind at the last split second about where to go with it. That made the ball sail.
This week the Bears face a Rob Ryan defense that, with three safeties and two downhill linebackers in its base package, has the speed to swarm. One might assume Cutler needs to be extra cautious. But while the Saints have 10 takeaways this season—fifth most in the NFC—their scheme is not tailored to forcing turnovers. Ryan can be multiple with pre-snap looks, but after the snap he uses a lot of man coverage concepts. Turnovers generally come out of zone, where defenders can have one eye on the ball instead of two eyes on their man.
This isn’t to say the Saints won’t try to take the ball from Cutler. If they can get him playing fast, they’ll likely get him playing undisciplined. But the point is, Cutler won’t be facing a defense that’s trying to trick him into turnovers. He’ll be playing a defense that’s trying to rush him into sloppiness.
A lot of plaudits have been heaped on Aqib Talib this week, and justifiably so. But the willowy man-to-man grinder is not the only Patriot corner who is playing well. Second-year pro Alfonzo Dennard has been stellar, if not spectacular, in bump-and-run on the outside. That has allowed Kyle Arrington to operate full-time in the slot, where he’s significantly more effective. Both corners benefit from frequently playing with two safeties behind them.
The question for Sunday is, will both corners be on the field when tight ends Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert are out there together? The Bengals use their flexible two-tight end, two-receiver package about fifty percent of the time. From it, they can spread out and throw, bunch up and run and do everything in between. When Arrington and Dennard are both in, top downhill run defender Brandon Spikes usually is not. Bill Belichick has lived with that this season, but now that Vince Wilfork is gone (Achilles), more girth might be needed at the linebacker level. If Belichick goes with a three-backer base against the two tight end sets, you can bet Bengals offensive Jay Gruden will eagerly take to the air.
Against Chicago last week, Detroit’s formations featured a lot of double-plus splits, meaning wide receivers aligned outside the numbers. It was ingenious because it stretched Chicago’s zone defense, creating more space for each defender to cover. That created a soft box for Reggie Bush, who, next to LeSean McCoy, has been the best space-eating runner in the league this season. The Bears augmented the soft box by recommitting to the Cover 2 looks they’ve recently been drifting away from. (This was due to the Calvin Johnson factor.)
The Lions will spread out again this Sunday. For one, that’s a staple of Scott Linehan’s offense. For two, spreading out will inhibit the Packers from blitzing their corners, which they’ve done a lot this season. But don’t expect the Packers to sit back in two-high safety looks and hope that their disruptive three-man front can somehow clog all five of Bush’s immediate running lanes. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers should use interior safety blitzes to discourage those runs, blur Matthew Stafford’s reads and forcing Detroit’s fairly unathletic offensive line to adjusts in pass protection on the fly. He’ll have to trust that cornerback Sam Shields can stalemate Calvin Johnson outside just like he did A.J. Green two weeks ago. The rest of Green Bay’s corners are terrific in man-to-man and should have no trouble in spreads against Detroit’s ancillary wideouts.
These are two of the best defenses in football right now. Here’s why.
The Colts aggressively attacked Jacksonville’s watered-down secondary deep last Sunday, relying on play-action and seven-step drops. Their offensive line—which, aside from ascending left tackle Anthony Castonzo, is short on athleticism—held up well enough. Andrew Luck made the line look good by extending plays from the pocket, to allow downfield receivers to work open late. This week, Indianapolis is facing a Seattle defense that runs a scheme similar to Jacksonville’s, only with vastly superior players. Will offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton craft a more conservative game plan? Or, will he ask his men to pass a much harder version of last week’s test?
Linebacker Dannell Ellerbe stepped up and played a big part in Baltimore’s Super Bowl run last year. That ultimately punched his ticket out of town, as the 27-year-old was simply too expensive for the cap-strapped Ravens to re-sign. The Dolphins gave Ellerbe a five-year, $35 million contract. How have things worked out for all parties so far? Not bad. Ellerbe has been a solid every-down player, delivering the versatility that the Dolphins’ hybrid front-seven schemes demand. For the Ravens, 10-year veteran Daryl Smith has shown surprising speed and fluidity and a not-so-surprising high football IQ. His sidekick, Josh Bynes, has been a forceful A-gap blitzer, particularly in the red zone. That’s where Ellerbe was most valuable.
Justin Blackmon is set to return from his four-game suspension, and not a minute too soon. His replacement, rookie Ace Sanders, has been utterly ineffective. So have Jacksonville’s other receivers, for that matter. Blackmon is not a burner or a polished-enough route runner to fully ignite this offense, but he at least presents an opportunity at a spark. First-year offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch would be wise to use him in pre-snap motion to help him create separation early in the route.
Anyone who has watched Giants film the last two weeks has wondered whether Chris Snee is healthy. The right guard’s lateral mobility and initial quickness have disappeared. Sure enough, Newsday’s Tom Rock reported this week that Snee may need season-ending hip surgery. That might be for the best, as the four-time Pro Bowler has been an uncharacteristically glaring liability at times. But this still doesn’t bode well for the front five’s collective outlook. Backups Justin Pugh and Jim Cordle have already struggled mightily filling in for injured veterans David Diehl and David Baas.
DeAngelo Williams has looked like the DeAngelo Williams who rushed for 2,632 yards over 2008 and ’09. He’s rediscovered his trademark shiftiness and acceleration, averaging 97 rushing yards per game. It helps that offensive coordinator Mike Shula has committed to more traditional runs from under center, as opposed to the shotgun trickery that predecessor Rob Chudzinski sporadically relied on. Twenty-seven percent of Williams’ carries have come from shotgun. Last year under Chudzinski, it was 38 percent. Some of Williams’ under-center carries, however, have come with Carolina just protecting a lead. Facing a Cardinals defense that held Doug Martin to 45 yards on 27 attempts last week, Williams may find out just how committed his new coordinator really is to a traditional ground game.
Monte Kiffin has used his patented Cover 2 scheme less than 20 percent of the time this season, relying instead on more man-type concepts with his corners. Given Peyton Manning’s familiarity with Cover 2—as Peter King pointed out in this week’s MMQB, Manning faced it every day in practice as a Colt—Kiffin has reason to keep shying away from the scheme.
But does Kiffin have faith that his corners can match up to Denver’s wideouts? Orlando Scandrick might be quick and physical enough to spar with Wes Welker. Brandon Carr has the size and innate sense of timing to challenge Demaryius Thomas or Eric Decker outside. But what about Morris Claiborne on the other side? The 2012 first-rounder has battled various injuries this season, showing none of the fluidity needed for one-on-one press coverage. Whoever Claiborne defends will be Manning’s go-to target.
It might be unknown until 90 minutes before kickoff whether Patrick Willis can play in this one. The seventh-year star has a groin injury that’s kept him out the last game and a half. The cautious, maybe even wise, decision for the Niners would be to keep Willis out. The Texans, a nonconference opponent, have a passing game predicated on making second-level defenders change directions laterally on a dime. Owen Daniels, whom Willis would cover a majority of the time, is one of the better direction-changing horizontal route runners in football. Willis being on the field at less than 100 percent would be inviting trouble.
Dwight Freeney’s season-ending quad injury is a major blow to a Chargers defense that is iffy at cornerback and now suddenly deprived of pass-rushers. Freeney’s stats this season—two tackles, 0.5 sacks—are about as misleading as stats get. The 12th-year veteran has shown his usual speed-to-power transitioning prowess in rushing the passer from both sides. This would have been a particularly fun game for him, as the Raiders are still treading water with backup tackles Khalif Barnes and Tony Pashos in the starting lineup. Pashos is particularly susceptible to pass rush moves that redirect inside.
Think the NFL is a quarterback’s league? Greg Bedard says a run-pass balance is critical to success this season, in his Weekend Notes.