It’s a battle of the NFL’s best linebacking duos when the Panthers and 49ers meet in San Francisco. Plus, Broncos-Chargers, Lions-Bears, Cowboys-Saints and the Eagles paying a visit to the Aaron Rodgers-less Packers
Going past the obvious storylines and taking a deeper dive into every Sunday game in Week 10.
All times Eastern; click on teams for more on the matchup.
Now we’ll find out just how good Eddie Lacy really is. The second-round rookie has rushed for 545 yards over the past five games, toting the rock at least 22 times in each contest. In four of those contests, Lacy often had the luxury of facing just seven, or even six, men in the box, as defenses felt compelled to keep two safeties back deep against Aaron Rodgers. Pardon the exaggeration, but judging by Mike McCarthy’s conservative play-calling with Seneca Wallace last Monday night, the Eagles might not feel compelled to keep even one safety back deep. Lacy, a natural downhill power back with surprising effectiveness out of shotgun, will have to create a lot of his own yards for the first time as a pro.
Trent Richardson and his O-line had better get on track in this one. The Rams defense reverted back to its early season form last week, surrendering 198 yards on Tennessee’s 35 carries. It’s almost remarkable how much St. Louis’ uber-athletic front four struggles to shed run blocks. They’re not the only ones; James Laurinaitis has been poor in this capacity, and so has rookie Alec Ogletree (whose awareness is way too hit or miss at this point). It was evident last Sunday night that Andrew Luck is not comfortable with his receiving corps sans Reggie Wayne. While Luck is acclimating to the new circumstances, it’s imperative that the Colts, who have done all they can to become a viable power-running team, actually become a viable power-running team.
It took a bye week for the Jaguars to finally spend a Sunday not losing. Hopefully the time off can invigorate a defense that, despite boasting two capable interior gap pluggers in Roy Miller and Sen’Derrick Marks, is allowing a league-worst (by far) 161.8 yards per game on the ground. The Titans are coming off their best rushing performance of 2013. Thanks largely to the domineering play of guard Andy Levitre and tackle Michael Roos, Chris Johnson amassed 108 yards rushing before contact last Sunday. That alone would have been his season high. The gossamer Johnson managed to add another 42 after being touched, which helped carry an offense that still has to often hide its developing young quarterback, Jake Locker.
You know your season has not gone well when the sight of Doug Legursky on the opposing sideline threatens to inflict pangs of sorrow in your passionate home fans. Legursky, a utility inside lineman, started 21 games over four years for the Steelers but was not retained this past offseason.
Even though the Steelers’ woes have not derived from the guard position (Ramon Foster has been adequate; David DeCastro has shown improvement), their cursed O-line could have really used Legursky’s versatility and experience off the bench. Instead, it’s the Bills who are enjoying the 27-year-old’s services. Legursky, who didn't enter the lineup until Week 6, helped keep their front five stable while backup quarterback Thad Lewis filled in. Now, he gets to protect starter EJ Manuel for the first time.
Ask the defensive coordinators in this game whether the linebacker position really is in decline. The Raiders were hamstrung by their pathetic second-level play last season (Rolando McClain’s putrid output would have been funny if it weren’t so sad). Their new group this season—Nick Roach, Kevin Burnett and rookie Sio Moore, who shares time with veteran Kaluka Maiava—is very average but at least allows defensive play-caller Jason Tarver to use most of Dennis Allen’s scheme.
As for the Giants, coordinator Perry Fewell arrived in 2010, right after Antonio Pierce’s career expired, and has been mixing and matching various linebacking units ever since . He might have finally found a fulcrum in Jon Beason, who, since being dealt from Carolina, has shown the burst and instincts that made him the brightest young 'backer in football prior to a four-year string of injuries. Beason has been stout in the base 4-3 and, more importantly, heady in nickel.
Last time the Falcons hosted the Seahawks, they were facing elimination. Atlanta sort of is this time, too, though in a far less compelling way. A rash of offensive injuries has made this a lost season in Atlanta. But the Falcons need only look at their opponent this Sunday to see that not everything can be blamed on health problems.
The Seahawks have had injuries of their own on offense—top wideouts Percy Harvin and Sidney Rice, left tackle Russell Okung, right tackle Breno Giacomini—but their defense has picked up the slack, thanks largely to an exceptional secondary. The Falcons were supposed to have an upper-tier secondary, too. But while rookie corners Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford have been decent, safeties Thomas DeCoud and William Moore have retracted the steps forward they took in pass defense last season. With no potent pass rush to mask the safeties’ tribulations, Atlanta’s three-deep, four-under zone coverages have had more voids exploited.
Geno Atkins is irreplaceable, but that doesn’t mean Cincy’s defense is done. Second-year backup defensive tackle Devon Still was drafted in the second round for a reason. Well, two reasons actually: his startling talent but also his equally startling down-to-down inconsistency. With an increased workload, Still has the chance to flash as an impact player, though recent history says he’ll wind up taking a backseat to sixth-year veteran Wallace Gilberry, who has been very good this season playing defensive end, and switching to tackle in nickel. Gilberry, whom the Bengals like to use on stunts, deserves a shot at filling Atkins’ spot as the base three-technique. Also in the mix is second-round rookie Margus Hunt, though his technique is still very unpolished.
When these teams met in Week 3, Detroit used a ton of plus-split formations, meaning the wide receivers aligned outside the numbers, almost near the sidelines. This widened Chicago’s nickel zones, creating a soft, six-man box up front. Reggie Bush, one of the best space-oriented backs in football, had a field day, rushing for 139 yards on 18 carries.
There’s no reason to think Detroit won’t spread out again. For one, the Lions already do it regularly, as Matthew Stafford is very comfortable throwing from widened formations. For two, the defense that Bush shredded in Week 3 is now without veteran linebackers Lance Briggs and D.J. Williams. Fill-ins Jon Bostic and Khaseem Greene have both looked like the rookies that they are. There has not been great support from the back end, either, as safeties Chris Conte and Major Wright have failed on too many run-gap assignments this season. Look for Bush to get 20-25 touches Sunday.
A leading reason these are two of the NFL’s best defenses is both have one of the two best nickel linebacking duos in the league: Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman for San Francisco, and Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis for Carolina. All four players can chase down the ball in space and slip or shed blocks quickly. More importantly, all four can cover. Willis is great against tight ends in man-to-man; Bowman consistently blankets running backs. Kuechly and Davis, on the other hand, are generally zone defenders in Carolina’s scheme. With quick recognition and burst, they can get downhill in a hurry and come from greater distances to corral check-down receivers. They can also get more depth in their underneath coverage drops, which shrinks a quarterback’s throwing windows.
In two starts, Case Keenum has been stellar if not specular in the first half, only to get tripped up after the defense expands its blitz concepts in the second half. Keenum must break this trend Sunday. Since linebacker Daryl Washington returned from suspension, the Cardinals have been the best blitzing team in the NFL.
Peyton Manning should be giddy at the line of scrimmage Sunday. Whatever matchup he eyes will be favorable to Denver. None of San Diego’s cornerbacks—Shareece Wright, Johnny Patrick or Derek Cox, who was benched midway through the loss at Washington last week—can defend Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker or Wes Welker. And though the Chargers contained rising tight end Jordan Reed last week, it’s unlikely any of their safeties can handle the soaring Julius Thomas (gimpy ankle aside). One would think Eric Weddle might be able to combat Thomas, but on the opening drive at Washington, Weddle was beat in man coverage three times on third-and-medium.
NBC might as well slide its main camera over and show more of the defensive backfield prior to the snap Sunday night. This will cut out some of the offensive backfield, but there won’t be anything to see anyway. The Saints and Cowboys use empty backfield sets more than any offenses in football. Tony Romo and Drew Brees love the clearer passing lanes that spread formations present. Both quarterbacks can play in the less-protected empty sets because they have good pocket mobility and a natural sense for pressure. The question is whether defensive coordinators Monte Kiffin and Rob Ryan will attack the empties with a tactic called BTF: “blitz to the formation.” When a BTF defense sees an empty set, a linebacker immediately blitzes because there is no one in the backfield to pick him up. Kiffin has had success with selective linebacker blitz calls this season. Ryan does not actually blitz as much as people think, though in recent weeks the Saints safeties have destroyed offenses with pressure from the slot.
Head over to Page 2 for a breakdown of the Monday night game, Dolphins-Buccaneers.
Dolphins offense vs. Buccaneers defense
The morning shows and nightly news programs want you to be fascinated by the off-field behavior of Miami’s offensive line. Our focus is on the field. Jonathan Martin’s absence removes valuable athleticism from the run-blocking equation. In pass protection, Martin was having problems with bull-rushers, which was one reason the Fins traded for Bryant McKinnie and moved Martin to the right side. Previously benched right tackle Tyson Clabo, who has started all but one game, also has trouble with bull-rushers, though he had no major issues in the win over Cincinnati on Halloween night.
As for Richie Incognito, he was playing well in the run game, which makes his absence critical given that offensive coordinator Mike Sherman is trying to establish more of a run-based system. Replacement Nate Garner has starting experience but also a tendency to get beat immediately off the snap. He certainly does not have Incognito’s raw strength.
Over the past month, running back Lamar Miller has exhibited newfound agility, plus the speed to turn the corner. Unlike in his 2012 rookie season, Miller can manufacture his own yards if and when the blocking breaks down.
Run blocks tend to break down against Tampa Bay’s front seven. These defensive tackles, specifically Gerald McCoy, are fantastic on called line slants, where they attack gaps at unusual angles to disorient run-blocking structures. They need only create a little congestion; weakside linebacker Lavonte David can hunt down the ball from there.
Passing-wise, the Bucs will try to add onto Ryan Tannehill’s league-leading 35 sacks with a variety of designer blitzes involving David and fellow linebacker Mason Foster. Defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan could increase the blitz frequency now that there seems to be some confidence that Darrelle Revis’s surgically repaired knee can withstand the quick cutting that’s demanded in playing press-man coverage. When the Bucs do play man-to-man, they should put Revis on Brian Hartline, who is a more diverse route runner and surer-handed receiver than Mike Wallace.
Buccaneers offense vs. Dolphins defense
Bucs sixth-round rookie Mike James has run the ball well the past two weeks, showing good quickness to and through the hole. Against Seattle, James also finally showed hints of the strength needed to hold up at the point of contact. Sturdiness in traffic is mandatory in a Bucs ground game that often features a lead-blocking fullback (Erik Lorig) and downhill power-blocking concepts inside.
Even if James plays well, there will still be third-and-long situations for Mike Glennon to convert. The Dolphins front line, with tackles Paul Soliai and Randy Starks, plus bourgeoning second-year end Olivier Vernon, is tough to run against. Glennon is more than capable of moving the chains on third down. He has a strong arm, the size and mechanics to stand firm in the pocket and just enough mobility to buy time when need be.