Sunday Slate: Analyzing Week 12 Matchups
Going past the obvious storylines and taking a deeper dive into every Sunday game in Week 12.
All times Eastern; click on teams for more on the matchup.
DeMarcus Ware is expected to play, but how healthy is he really? Ware played in Dallas’s last game two weeks ago, but was noticeably bothered by the injured quad that had sidelined him the previous three weeks. At least now he’s coming off a bye.
A bye might have been what reignited the other dinged superstar defensive end in this game. Coming off summer back surgery, Jason Pierre-Paul was a shell of his usual self in the first half of this season. But following the Giants’ Week 9 break, he showed flashes of dominance against the Raiders and prolonged stretches of dominance against the Packers. It wasn’t just his game-changing pick-six against Green Bay, it was his raw power and lateral burst in run defense, plus his speed and flexibility in rushing the passer inside and outside.
JPP isn’t the only Giant who is starting to wake up. Justin Tuck also had his two best performances of the season following the bye, rediscovering his quickness and second gear. For the first time all season, the Giants have a viable four-man pass rush. Their back seven has been bolstered by the addition of linebacker Jon Beason and the return of hard-hitting safety Will Hill. A home win this week could have people describing the once 0-6 Giants as the NFC East favorites—and it wouldn’t be ridiculous.
What is Bill Belichick to do? He prefers to play 2-man coverage concepts, meaning man-to-man across the board with either both safeties up top or with one roving underneath. However, Belichick just watched Peyton Manning hang 27 points on the Chiefs’ man-based defense that he knows is better than his own. Belichick doesn’t have a speed-sacker like Tamba Hali or Justin Houston (though Chandler Jones is developing into a nice agile pass rusher), and he’s currently without No. 2 corner Alfonzo Dennard, as well as strong safety Steve Gregory. Gregory’s absence really hurts this week because he is New England’s best underneath route identifier. Presumably, he could recognize Denver’s staple intermediate route designs much better than third-round rookie replacement Duron Harmon.
The Raiders ask their safeties to cover a lot of ground on post-snap rotations. This Sunday, they’re going up against a Titans offense that asks its receivers to cover a lot of ground on multi-level crossing patterns. Defenders have had trouble staying with Kendall Wright and Delanie Walker on these patterns.
Will the Raiders simplify things by going with the Cover 2 zones that they’ve played with more frequency over the past few weeks? If they do, their defenders will have a much better chance at seeing the crossing patterns develop. Titans receivers would be forced to throttle down their routes in shallow voids, making it more difficult for them to run after the catch. But Cover 2 might not present the Raiders with as many big-play opportunities against this style of offense. Big-play opportunities are why Dennis Allen and defensive coordinator Jason Tarver use coverage rotations in the first place.
If Allen and Tarver gamble, they’ll use coverage rotations they think can put their safeties on paths that naturally cut off the crossing routes. Or, they’ll rotate their linebackers instead of their safeties, since most of the crossing routes occur less than 10 yards from the line of scrimmage. Titans gunslinger Ryan Fitzpatrick can probably recognize these ploys, but history suggests he might not have the discipline to refrain from throwing at them anyway.
A few times each game, the Colts design a deep shot for T.Y. Hilton, their second-year wideout who has four catches of 40-plus yards this season (tied for seventh most in the NFL). If Indy can sustain its pass protection against Arizona’s Fire-X blitzes—a crisscrossing interior pass-rush tactic at which linebacker Daryl Washington excels—Andrew Luck should get chances to target Hilton deep against single coverage. In such instances, Hilton will probably find himself up against cornerback Patrick Peterson, who has handled several true No. 1 receivers this season but hasn’t seen many speedsters of Hilton’s caliber. Peterson has unyielding faith in his recovery speed, preferring to tailgate receivers on deep routes. This will give Luck opportunities over the top, but he absolutely must avoid putting too much air under the ball.
The ugliness of the Week 9 loss at New England has distracted fans from noticing that the Steelers are 4-2 since coming off their bye. This offense is looking much better, having just scored a season-high 37 points on the strength of Ben Roethlisberger’s uncanny knack for extending plays. Though extended plays have a randomized nature, the Steelers planned—or were at least prepared—for it last Sunday. They used a heavy dose of “max protection,” at times having a three-blocker advantage against Detroit’s four-man pass rush. Of course, that left a seven-on-three disadvantage for the receivers. The only chance this passing game had was for Roethlisberger to extend plays.
Offensive coordinator Todd Haley will continue to use heavy pass protection concepts, as a makeshift O-line leaves him little choice. Conceptually, it won’t always be as easy as it was against the Lions. Defenses that play a 3-4 and blitz—the Browns, for one—can nullify extra blocking help by creating assignment confusion for the O-line. Two common defensive tactics are overloaded pre-snap blitz looks and zone blitz exchanges that bring unexpected pass rushers from the weak side (think slot corner blitz, for example). Pittsburgh has struggled all season with blitz pickups. Simply adding more bodies in the protections doesn’t guarantee it will change.
The event we all want to see—Calvin Johnson on Revis Island—probably won’t happen. The Bucs have continued to be a predominantly zone-based defense. Revis might line up across from Johnson all game, but he won’t play much man-to-man. Disappointing as that might be, we can take (some) solace in watching an intriguing matchup in the box: Lavonte David, one of the fastest all-around linebackers in football, against the duo of Reggie Bush and his surprisingly versatile, light-footed backup, Joique Bell. It will be fun watching both running backs try to turn the corner against Tampa Bay’s stud second-year defender.
This game is a blessing for the Texans. First, they have a great chance at snapping their eight-game losing streak. Second, maybe after seeing the Jaguars up close and in person, disgruntled superstar Andre Johnson will decide that things really aren’t so bad in Houston.
Don’t be surprised if the Packers open up things for quarterback Scott Tolzien. The box score shows Tolzien threw three interceptions against the Giants last week. The film, however, shows he played very well. Tolzien’s first interception was a savvy play by linebacker Jon Beason. The second was a freakish play by Jason Pierre-Paul. The third was a careless throw made out of desperation. On the majority of his other attempts, Tolzien showed excellent ball placement and a sense of anticipation. He kept his eyes downfield while moving within a messy pocket. A few times he even showed the ability to diagnose coverage rotations and go to his backside reads.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy has reason to be confident in the undrafted third-year journeyman. The question will be whether Tolzien gets any help from his ground game. He didn’t last week, as Eddie Lacy couldn’t elude unblocked defenders against an eight-man box. Also, Tolzien needs better pass protection, particularly from right tackle Marshall Newhouse, who was a major liability down the stretch last week.
Last season, Antonio Gates embarrassed Eric Berry when Kanas City played man coverage. Berry has since shown marked improvement in this realm. Will that continue in a rematch with an eight-time Pro Bowl tight end who knows all the tricks?
Coach Jeff Fisher should have offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer watch the Rams' Week 9 dismantling of the Colts every morning before coming into work. That game illustrates the best of what the St. Louis offense can be. In it, Schottenheimer finally started using Tavon Austin the way you’d expect the first-round rookie to be used. The best example was the play design on Austin’s 81-yard touchdown. He motioned down to a trips bunch as the ball was snapped, a move that put his defender in a traffic jam while enabling Austin to release cleanly and begin his route already on the move. It was simple yet virtually impossible to defend.
The Rams will have to go about creating these opportunities differently this week, because the Bears (unlike the man-heavy Colts) play a lot of zone coverages. But the opportunities can certainly be there, especially in 3 x 1 sets (an increasingly popular formation that features three receivers spread to one side and one receiver to the other). If Austin aligns wide with two receivers inside of him, he’ll likely be up against Zackary Bowman, a stiff backup corner who has taken the injured Charles Tillman’s spot in nickel. If Austin aligns in the closest inside spot, he’ll probably get matched against resoundingly average linebacker James Anderson or Anderson’s callow sidekick, Jon Bostic.
The Dolphins must take advantage of Panthers right guard Nate Chandler. The recently converted defensive tackle has held up OK since a litany of injuries forced him into service two weeks ago, but he is unquestionably the weakest link on an offense that has gotten hotter and hotter since discovering its run-pass balance. Chandler has a tendency to play too tall—something the Patriots exploited late in the game last Monday night by sliding top pass rusher Chandler Jones to the nickel defensive tackle. The Dolphins don’t have to move players to exploit Chandler. Defensive tackles Jared Odrick and Randy Starks have terrific power, athletic suddenness and change-of-direction prowess in confined areas. They should be able to capitalize on whatever fundamental flaws Chandler is hiding. It’s up to Dolphins defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle to use pre-snap shifts and interior linebacker blitz looks to prevent the Panthers from sliding help Chandler’s way.
Ed Reed’s returning to Baltimore might not have as much pizzazz this time around, but Reed will have more chances to make impact plays now that he’s back in the same system that he spent most of his Hall of Fame career in. His role in this particular system might be slightly different, though. In his Jets debut last week, Reed aligned in the box more than he’s done in the past. That might have just been what Rex Ryan and defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman thought was the best approach against a Bills offense that has a mobile at quarterback and a good screen game.
We’ll learn more about Reed’s role this Sunday. Though Ray Rice is coming off his first robust performance of 2013, the Jets, with their fierce front seven, won’t often bring a safety down in the box to stop the run. Instead, they’ll be on alert for the play-action deep shots that Joe Flacco loves to take. Presumably, Reed was brought in to help combat exactly those types of plays.
If Reed does drop down to the box, the Ravens should expect some sort of blitz or zone exchange (when a different combination of four players rushes the passer). There are two players the Jets will look to specifically target in pass protection: Rice, who has continued to struggle mentally and physically with blitz pickup, and backup left guard A.Q. Shipley, who was eaten alive by Cincinnati’s blitzes two weeks ago.
Head over to Page 2 for a breakdown of Monday night’s game between San Francisco and Washington ...
San Francisco’s offense vs. Washington’s defense
Colin Kaepernick is the West Coast version of Robert Griffin III. He has sensational athleticism and raw talent, but uncultivated quarterbacking skills. Quarterbacks like this regularly get exposed in their second year. And yet people are baffled to see Kaepernick floundering. But what else can be expected when defenses force someone with no pocket poise to stay in the pocket? Kaepernick is a half-field reader who doesn’t yet know how to respond when his first progression is covered. If he doesn’t have room to run, the play is going to get ugly.
Exacerbating matters is that Kaepernick’s first progression has almost always been covered this season. Last season, the Niners made great use of man-beater route designs to create defined reads for the quarterback (pick routes, wheel routes, deep play-action, etc.). Those concepts, for whatever reason, haven’t completely vanished but have faded from this offense. None of San Francisco’s wideouts are capable of creating their own separation. Perhaps that will change when Michael Crabtree (Achilles) returns, but that won’t be in time for this game.
San Francisco has the most diverse power run scheme in the NFL, but even though the stats are similar to last year (156 rushing yards per game in 2012; 141 in 2013) it doesn’t seem as unstoppable like it once did (especially this week with left guard Mike Iupati out).
Washington nose tackle Barry Cofield and end Stephen Bowen are destructive run defenders. Behind them, London Fletcher is slowing down but can still usually get from point A to point B. Fletcher’s sidekick, Perry Riley, has blossomed into a fine hunter. Coordinator Jim Haslett knows his secondary is nothing special, but assuming DeAngelo Hall isn’t baited into 5,000 penalties against Anquan Boldin, Haslett should be comfortable going man-to-man on the back end and having safety Reed Doughty be an extra body in the box. With the running lanes bound to be constricted at least part of the time, Kaepernick will have to conjure some big plays in the passing game. Yes, from the pocket.
Washington’s offense vs. San Francisco’s defense
While Kaepernick’s recent struggles have occupied most of the spotlight, RG3 has continued to be an uneven pocket passer as well. He was frenetic in last week’s loss at Philadelphia, failing to consistently read coverages smoothly. This included the pre-snap phase, such as the 3rd-and-one interception to Brandon Boykin, when Griffin didn’t recognize that a quick slant to Pierre Garcon would be wide open.
Philadelphia’s underneath defenders consistently took away Washington’s short play-action routes. San Francisco linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman both have quick-twitch reaction skills and multidirectional speed; as long as they’re patient early in their reads, they should be able to account for the run and still retreat smoothly after identifying pass.
The Niners are predominantly a man-based team, though coordinator Vic Fangio has employed increasingly more zone concepts in recent weeks. Will he continue this trend in order to keep eyes on Griffin? Or, will he stick with man-to-man and have his guys be physical in order to disrupt the timing of Washington’s routes? That can be a great response to the prominent crossing patterns in Washington’s system, but it’s not without risk. If a man-defender fails to disrupt a crossing receiver’s timing, that man defender is liable to be get burned.
Fangio’s coverage tactics might be determined by how things go on the ground. Griffin and tailback Alfred Morris offer a superb perimeter run game behind Washington’s stretch zone-blocking. If they move the ball effectively on first and second down, the Niners will be compelled to play man-to-man on 3rd-and-short.