It might as well be rivalry week in the NFL, with Steelers-Ravens, Cowboys-Eagles and Jets-Patriots on the docket. Oh, and some ex-Colt returns to Indy
Let’s go past the obvious storylines and take a deeper dive into every Sunday game in Week 7:
(All times Eastern; click on teams for more information on the matchup)
Stevan Ridley is out of the doghouse, off the injured last and back atop New England’s backfield rotation. It shouldn’t be much of a rotation moving forward; Ridley, with his short area agility and quickness, plus his corner-turning speed, is clearly New England’s best running back. That was obvious in the win over New Orleans, where he amassed 96 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries.
We might not see Ridley much on the ground this week. Though the Patriots have a very good run-blocking front five (Logan Mankins, the fulcrum of most of their man-blocking designs, has been far and away the best guard in football this season), Josh McDaniels and Bill Belichick know the Jets’ interior front five is next to impossible to run against. Muhammad Wilkerson can wreck plays from anywhere. First-round rookie Sheldon Richardson is getting better by the week. Like Wilkerson, he amplifies his country strength with terrific suddenness off the snap. Lining up alongside these two is undrafted second-year pro Damon Harrison, who has been dynamic enough to supplant a very good starting nose tackle in Kenrick Ellis. Then factor in the speed of inside linebackers David Harris and Demario Davis. Suddenly, smoke screens, quick slants and other run-game proxies seem like a no-brainer. Expect the Patriots to spend a lot of time in spread sets Sunday.
On the other side of the ball, expect the Jets to attack hard inside, both on the ground and through the air. New England’s interior run defense has dropped dramatically since losing Vince Wilfork. Now it is minus top linebacker Jerod Mayo (IR, pectoral surgery). Brandon Spikes has seen more playing time since Wilfork went down. Spikes brings much-needed physicality between the tackles. In fact, he’s vicious enough to make up for Mayo’s absence in run defense. What Spikes doesn’t have is Mayo’s speed and fluidity in space, which hinders him against the pass.
The question is whether the Jets can exploit this. Kellen Winslow’s suspension leaves them thin at tight end (Jeff Cumberland is still learning the game’s nuances; Konrad Reuland doesn’t have enough athleticism). Santonio Holmes’s injury leaves the Jets banal at wide receiver (Stephen Hill can run deep routes but little else; Jeremy Kerley can run flat routes but little else). Geno Smith is not a good multi-read passer at this point, so whatever the Jets design will hinge on receivers winning individual matchups. That’s tough.
It’s officially fair to ask: why did the Bucs trade for Darrelle Revis? After playing zone coverage almost exclusively in their first four games, the Bucs last week went up against an Eagles offense that had floundered against the press-man coverage of the Chiefs, Broncos and even, at times, Giants. The Bucs, however, stuck with their Cover 2 and 3 zones. Revis is a fine zone corner, but he must be frustrated. There have been cases where it’s looked like he’s been beat but, really, it was just the principles of the scheme getting beat.
The Lions seem for real, but their offense was not very sharp against a solid Browns defense last Sunday. Matthew Stafford struggled to pinpoint his ball placement on moving targets in the first half. Calvin Johnson, less than 100 percent, played only half the snaps and was culpable for a few incompletions on challenging passes he normally hauls in with relative ease. Wideouts Ryan Broyles and Kris Durham also failed to snag some difficult but makeable catches. In the running game, take out Reggie Bush’s well-blocked 39-yard scamper and Detroit mustered less than three yards per carry. So why is this encouraging for the Lions? Because through all these hiccups, they were still able to do just enough to win. They stuck with the ground game, which, mundane as it was, at least kept their third downs manageable. And Stafford never got impatient. The Lions would not have scrapped out this sort of road victory in past years.
Teams have been eager to attack Buffalo deep this season. Miami signed Mike Wallace precisely to do just that. However, the weak pass-blocking of offensive tackles Jonathan Martin and Tyson Clabo might prevent the Fins from stretching the field this Sunday. New Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine has been very creative and aggressive with his pressure concepts; he’ll undoubtedly use interior pressure threats to create one-on-one scenarios on the edges. Pettine does not have an elite pass rusher to scheme around, but he has a decent enough bull-rusher in Mario Williams. Though Clabo is the lesser athlete up front, look for Pettine to try to get Williams matched on Martin. The second-year lineman has been painfully vulnerable against power moves.
Let’s wait and see how Nick Foles does this Sunday before declaring him the man for the job. Foles was impressive off the bench in Week 5, but that was against an iffy Giants defense that spent the week preparing for the totally different style of Michael Vick. Foles was even more impressive in Week 6, but that was against a zone-based Bucs defense. The Cowboys’ scheme is zone-based ... on the inside. Outside (where a lot of Chip Kelly’s route combinations emanate), Monte Kiffin has used press-man concepts with talented corners Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne and, in the base 4-3, Orlando Scandrick. Philly’s wide receivers, particularly Riley Cooper, cannot consistently get off press coverage. Which means Foles will not have the benefit this week of seeing consistently synchronized routes when dropping back.
It’s time to put Julius Peppers on a milk carton. Not only does the Pro Bowl veteran have meager numbers (one sack, eight tackles), he has not drawn as many double teams or been as disruptive with penetration or run-anchoring this first month and a half. When you watch Bears film, it’s easy to forget Peppers is even out there.
Two weeks in a row, the Rams have gone back to basics with a run-oriented game plan that puts less pressure on Sam Bradford and his receivers. Will they stick with that against a Carolina linebacking corps that might be the fastest in football? Will they even have the ball enough to try? The lopsided score at Houston last week masked the continued atrociousness of St. Louis’s defense against the run. This D could not get off the field against Arian Foster’s outside running. Carolina has a different style of rushing attack than Houston—it features more man-blocking and misdirection concepts—but so far, every style has been successful against a St. Louis defense that’s allowing an NFC-high 130 yards per game on the ground.
Jacksonville’s secondary played well enough to win at Denver. Unfortunately, Jacksonville’s pass rush disappeared after the first quarter. No secondary can hold up in Cover 2 behind an anemic rush. Personnel-wise, San Diego has the type of front five that pass rushes come back to life against. But Mike McCoy and Philip Rivers know this, which is why they’ve featured so much quick-timing passes. That approach has allowed the Chargers to survive the losses of starting wideouts Malcolm Floyd and Danario Alexander. Both are mismatch creators, but primarily downfield and on the outside. This passing game leans more on underneath routes, which remaining wideouts Vincent Brown, Eddie Royal and burgeoning rookie Keenan Allen can all run.
The absence of Aldon Smith has certainly taken some of the bite out of San Francisco’s patented four-man rush. In recent weeks, however, Smith’s replacement, third-round rookie Corey Lemonier, has offered glimmers of hope. Lemonier plays upright but still flashes ability to transition from speed to power. He had a huge sack-safety against the Cardinals last week and was disruptive enough to warrant chip-block attention at other times. Of course, he was working against undrafted left tackle Bradley Sowell, who was making just his second career start. We’ll see how disruptive Lemonier can be this week going up against a steady technician like ninth-year vet Michael Roos.
The loss of Randall Cobb hurts bad—and it will show this week. Cleveland’s secondary is rapidly ascending. Joe Haden, though not quite as sharp the past two games, is an elite shutdown corner. He matches up well to Jordy Nelson. Athletic No. 2 corner Buster Skrine might be the league’s most improved player. After struggling last season and early this season, he is getting more and more comfortable, and has regularly shown off his superb closing quickness. Skrine will be a challenge for James Jones (who is battling a knee injury and might not even play). No. 3 corner Christopher Owens is coming off arguably his best game as a Brown, but he might not have to do much against undrafted second-year wideout Jarrett Boykins, who last week showed a marked knack for beating himself. Boykin must tighten up his timing on underneath routes against off-coverage. Otherwise, Aaron Rodgers will lose trust in him like he did in the second half at Baltimore.
Arrowhead is the last place an offense goes to get back on track. The undrafted Case Keenum will have a challenge, to say the least. If Keenum’s pocket crumbles (which it will against a Chiefs defense that had 10 sacks a week ago), Keenum must have the poise to look for his check down early. The Chiefs love to blitz faster defensive backs from deeper levels, which is where a young quarterback can really be fooled.
This rivalry should produce another epic defensive struggle Sunday, not so much because both defenses have been sound, but because neither offense can run the ball or pass protect. The Ravens ground game has been a particularly tough watch the past two weeks.
After taking in all your criticism on Twitter, I still think Andrew Luck is the second best quarterback in football this year. Just because Luck plays in a power-run-oriented offense doesn’t mean he’s on a short leash. In fact, it’s almost the opposite. Luck is asked to make very tough, multi-progression reads and throws week in and week out. He makes them extremely well.