Packers (7-7-1) at Bears (8-7), 4:25 p.m., FOX
Eddie Lacy’s ankle could decide who wins the NFC North. The rookie workhorse was dominant against the Steelers but limped off the field in the third quarter last Sunday. He figures to play this week, but at what level?
On that note, what about Aaron Rodgers? He’s back, but having missed seven weeks, Green Bay’s running game remains vital. Lacy gave the Packers crucial stability in Rodgers' absence. These days, a stable rushing attack is almost guaranteed to net at least 150 yards against the Bears’ porous front seven (or front eight, since safeties Major Wright and Chris Conte have blown more than their share of tackles and run-gap assignments). Lance Briggs’ returning from a two-month shoulder injury should alleviate some of these woes, though the 11th-year outside linebacker looked very rusty last Sunday night at Philadelphia.
Even if Briggs suddenly regains his form, he’ll still have to overcome an interior defensive line that can’t shed blocks. It’s surprising that brutish defensive tackle Stephen Paea has fallen to the back of the depth chart behind ex-Cowboy Jeremiah Ratliff and converted defensive end Corey Wootton. Ratliff and Wootton are both capable one-gap penetrators, which Chicago’s scheme prefers, but penetration often doesn’t matter if blockers can control defensive linemen upon initial contact. The Packers offensive line has lately been superb with angles and spacing in the run game—especially on the interior, where Josh Sitton, Evan Dietrich-Smith and T.J. Lang are playing with great cohesion.
Broncos (12-3) at Raiders (4-11), 4:25 p.m., CBS
Oakland’s reeling defense needs an entire offseason to regroup. (And to replace some personnel.) Before that, though, it must endure one more date with Peyton Manning. The last time these teams met, Manning baffled the Raiders by diagnosing several of their tightly disguised secondary blitzes before the snap. That’s the type of disheartening defeat a defense remembers heading into a rematch.
Bills (6-9) at Patriots (11-4), 4:25 p.m., CBS
The Patriots seem to reshuffle personnel at one or two defensive spots every December. This year is no different. After seeing scant duty as a backup for most of the season, second-round rookie Jamie Collins has become a featured linebacker in New England’s nickel package. Collins has played about half the snaps the past three weeks, mostly in coverage. He moves extremely well for a 250-pounder, but doesn’t yet have great awareness in zone. (That figures; many projected him to be a pass rusher coming out of Southern Mississippi.) Dont’a Hightower and especially Brandon Spikes have essentially been relegated to “running-down specialists.”
Buccaneers (4-11) at Saints (10-5), 4:25 p.m., CBS
The Saints’ left tackle position has gone from a concern to an obvious weakness, as rookie Terron Armstead’s NFL debut at Carolina last week made predecessor Charles Brown’s putrid performance against the Rams look halfway decent. Bad as things are on the edge, the greater concern could be between the tackles. Guards Ben Grubbs and Jahri Evans have both had stellar seasons, but these days there doesn’t seem to be a single living creature who can block Gerald McCoy. The Bucs defensive tackle has dominant initial quickness, not just in shooting gaps but in slanting from one gap to another. That is very disruptive in run-blocking designs and in pass protection, making it difficult to double team him.
49ers (11-4) at Cardinals (10-5), 4:25 p.m., FOX
In Week 6, the Cardinals centered their defensive scheme around making Colin Kaepernick mentally speed up from the start of the play. To do this, they blatantly showed pre-snap blitzes and followed through on the promise. Kaepernick, with help from a game plan that created a lot of exploitable single-coverage for tight end Vernon Davis, responded well enough and got more comfortable as the game progressed. A big helper was San Francisco’s running game, which gave the offense invaluable stability. Will that running game come through again? The Cardinals, who have the league’s top-ranked rush defense, allowed a season-high 149 yards on the ground in that contest. Aside from giving up 135 yards the next week to the Seahawks, this defense has not allowed more than 105 rushing yards in any other game.
Chiefs (11-4) at Chargers (8-7), 4:25 p.m., CBS
The Chargers have run the ball well during their three-game winning streak. Ryan Mathews has had at least 25 carries, 99 yards and one touchdown in each of those wins. Typically a quick-spread passing offense, San Diego doesn't have an imposing road-grading front five (even with brutish rookie right tackle D.J. Fluker). Given the formidability of Kansas City’s defensive front, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Mathews get carries out of three-receiver sets, so he can perhaps go up against Kansas City’s much lighter dime unit.
Rams (7-8) at Seahawks (12-3), 4:25 p.m., FOX
Four times this season, Russell Wilson has been held to under 13 completions and 150 yards passing, including last week at home against the Cardinals. That was the first time the Seahawks lost in one of Wilson’s “fantasy clunkers.” Another one of Wilson’s clunkers came against these Rams on a Monday night defensive slugfest in Week 8. The Rams will try to make it that sort of contest again. Expect over 30 carries for running back Zac Stacy for a second straight week.
Panthers (11-4) at Falcons (4-11), 1 p.m., FOX
The Panthers have flavored their once-vanilla defense with more and more blitzes down the stretch—and the results have been unmistakable. After sacking Geno Smith four times and forcing him into several hopeless incompletions in Week 15, the Panthers dialed up pressure in Week 16 to sack Drew Brees six times and intercept him twice. Four of those eight plays had a blitz element.
This more aggressive pass-rushing formula has worked for two reasons. One, the Panthers simply have a lot of good blitzers. Veteran corner Captain Munnerlyn has a great sense of timing and angles from the slot; safety Mike Mitchell is athletic in traffic; linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis have sensational downhill speed that’s amplified by a quick first step. Secondly, even if an offense picks up Carolina’s blitzers, the pressure design often dictates a one-on-one matchup for defensive lineman Greg Hardy, who has played at an All-Pro level this season, both inside and outside.
Ravens (8-7) at Bengals (10-5), 1 p.m., CBS
One of several Baltimore defenders who has stepped up over the last few weeks (the debacle against New England aside) is Jimmy Smith. The 2011 first-round pick is a natural press corner who has corrected a lot of his technical flaws in off-coverage. Two weeks ago, the 6-2 Smith was tasked with shadowing Calvin Johnson whenever Johnson lined up outside. Keenly playing to his safety help, Smith limited Johnson to six catches on 14 targets. (Johnson did have two wide-open drops.) The Ravens likely will take a similar coverage approach this week against A.J. Green. Smith did an outstanding job in Baltimore’s “2-man” scheme against Cincy in Week 10. Green finished with good numbers because he had two miraculous catches off tipped deep balls (including a Hail Mary on the final play), but the stud receiver effectively was stifled within the flow of that game.
Texans (2-13) at Titans (6-9), 1 p.m., CBS
One high-drafted rookie we haven’t covered much this season is Chance Warmack. The Year 1 grade for the Titans right guard is a C. Warmack has flashed good “lock-and-steer” ability as a man-blocker, which is important in a scheme that features a lot of pull-blocks inside. However, he’s been inconsistent in this realm, which is hard to figure given his size and natural talent. The Alabama product has also had trouble with balance and footwork as a zone run-blocker, particularly in space. And he gets beat too often in pass protection. Still, it’d be unfair to say the Titans missed on this selection, mainly because it’s much too early for any final judgments.
Jaguars (4-11) at Colts (10-5), 1 p.m., CBS
The Colts defense could be shaping into form just in time for the playoffs. After it gave up more than 30 points to the Rams, Cardinals and Bengals in Weeks 9-14, Chuck Pagano’s D has held its past two opponents—the Texans and Chiefs—to a combined 10 points. In those games the Colts have produced eight sacks, with just one coming from top speed-rusher Robert Mathis.
Jets (7-8) at Dolphins (8-7), 1 p.m., CBS
The Dolphins last week gave up seven sacks and had only 10 completions and six first downs against a Bills defense that, under coordinator Mike Pettine, uses a lot of Jets-style pressure concepts in its sub-packages. But when the Dolphins faced the Jets in Week 13, they utterly controlled the flow of the game, running 82 plays, including 35 on the ground. That prevented Joe Philbin’s club from falling behind in the down and distance, which is the best way to counter a defense’s sub-package pressure concepts. When Ryan Tannehill did drop back, the ball usually was out in under two seconds. Quick throws were available because the Jets played a lot of soft coverage behind their five-man rush, particularly cornerback Antonio Cromartie when facing Mike Wallace. The real game-changer, though, was Brian Hartline, who devoured rookie corner Dee Milliner in the first half. Hartline also beat Cromartie with a slant for a catch-and-run touchdown in the second half.
Lions (7-8) at Vikings (4-10-1), 1 p.m., FOX
This likely will be the last game in Minnesota for stalwart defensive linemen Kevin Williams and Jared Allen. Both are on the wrong side of 30 and due to hit unrestricted free agency in 2014. Letting Williams walk away makes sense; the six-time Pro Bowler gradually has made fewer impact plays over the last three years and no longer erupts every time he faces single-blocking. The Vikings already drafted Williams’ replacement, Sharif Floyd, in the first round.
Letting Allen walk away makes less sense. Yes, the Vikings also have his long-term replacement, Everson Griffen, whom they figure to re-sign after the season. But if Griffen is to become a full-time defensive end, the Vikings will need to find a new nickel defensive tackle. And never mind personnel shuffling—what about the fact that Allen will be 32 next year and is still a high-level, every-down force? Yes, Allen’s numbers have declined a bit, but his snap-to-snap impact hasn't. Few defensive ends have a better understanding of leverage and technique than the five-time Pro Bowler. The only reason to not bring back Allen would be if he commands another eight-figure annual salary. But based on the veteran defensive end market this past offseason, he won’t. If Brian Robison, who is only a year younger than Allen, warranted a new four-year, $28 million contract, why don’t the Vikings try to re-sign Allen for similar money over two or three years?
Washington (3-12) at Giants (6-9), 1 p.m., FOX
It’s been a dark year for both teams, though each has a bright spot on the outside. For Washington, it’s wideout Pierre Garcon, who last week passed Art Monk’s single-season club record with 107 receptions. The majority of those catches have come on quick slants, which the sixth-year pro executes very well. For the Giants, the bright spot is cornerback Prince Amukamara. Completely healthy for the first time in his three-year career, the former first-rounder has held up well in press-coverage and has thrived in off-man, especially downfield.
Browns (4-11) at Steelers (7-8), 1 p.m., CBS
Josh Gordon had 237 yards against the Steelers in Week 12, but 110 of them came with under five minutes left in regulation and the Browns trailing big in garbage time. If the Browns want Gordon to get more meaningful touches in this game, they should line him up on the right side. That would draw a matchup against Cortez Allen, whom the Steelers reinserted into their starting lineup a few weeks ago as the full-time left corner. (Ike Taylor, who typically follows the opposing team’s No. 1 receiver, is now the full-time right corner, as the Steelers believe week-to-week position stability will improve their secondary’s communication.) Allen has been very good against deep balls outside the numbers, which Gordon feasted on in the first matchup, but that’s partly because Allen is willing to yield a sizable buffer. The Packers last week aggressively exploited that buffer with hook routes near the sidelines. Gordon, with his 6-3, 225-pound frame, can be productive on this type of pattern.
Eagles (9-6) at Cowboys (8-7), 8:30 p.m., NBC
The Cowboys are riddled with injuries on defense, which is a big reason why they can’t stop anyone on the ground or through the air. They aren’t just playing backups at defensive tackle, inside linebacker and safety—they’re playing low-or undrafted rookies and free agents off the street. Typically, good defenses overcome—or at least temper—these circumstances by leaning more on their stars. Unfortunately, the Cowboys’ two biggest remaining stars, DeMarcus Ware and Brandon Carr, have both faltered. Ware, who missed three games and looked limited in others because of an October quad injury, hasn't shown explosive redirect movement after his quick first step. Carr has struggled in playing press-man with outside technique, which is a coverage Dallas’s base scheme hinges on.
Carr did, however, exert stingy press coverage in the Cowboys’ 17-3 whipping of the Eagles in Week 7 (a game Ware missed). But that was before Nick Foles got comfortable in Chip Kelly’s offense. Also, linebacker Sean Lee was healthy that week, which allowed the Cowboys to play nickel and still contain LeSean McCoy. It’s a much sharper Eagles offense this time around, and a much duller Cowboys defense.