The Cowboys are off to a great start, but they're not as deep as the Packers, who have reeled off four straight wins by dominating in different ways. Plus, a smart look at something the Jets are actually doing right and more film-study notes
From a micro standpoint, it makes sense to have the Cowboys atop the power rankings. They’ve won six straight by imposing their run-oriented approach on some very good opponents. From a macro standpoint, however, Dallas is not the NFC’s best team; Green Bay is.
The Packers are deeper than the Cowboys (and the rest of the NFC) and can beat opponents in more ways. This will become more apparent as the season progresses, though we’ve already seen recent signs. Against the Vikings in Week 5, the Packers subbed some of their three-receiver base concepts for a more traditional two-back/two-tight end approach. Their offensive line then dominated a Vikings defense that was compelled to be more vanilla, as Eddie Lacy shook out of his season-long slump to rush for 105 yards on 13 carries.
Lacy isn’t even Green Bay’s most dynamic running back. That would be James Starks, who played 38 snaps (one fewer than Lacy) the following week against Miami, when the Packers went back to more of their three-receiver sets. Aaron Rodgers conjured magic down the stretch against an underrated Dolphins defense, looking for the first time in a year and a half like the most physically gifted quarterback in football. No one throws a greater variety of darts from a greater variety of platforms than Rodgers. Blowing out the Panthers last Sunday, Rodgers became the only player other than Tom Brady in 2007 to throw for at least three touchdowns and zero interceptions in four-straight outings.
On the receiving end of that magic is a wideout group that’s finally started winning one-on-one matchups. That’s a must in Mike McCarthy’s new-age, West Coast-style offense, where the Packers often use plus-split formations—receivers aligned outside of the field numbers—that create added space for opponents to defend. Mostly on the strength of this approach, Jordy Nelson has an NFC-leading 712 yards, Randall Cobb has settled in as a full-time slot weapon and leads all wideouts with eight touchdowns, while second-round rookie Davante Adams is on the verge of becoming the league’s scariest No. 3 (and maybe Green Bay’s toughest man-to-man cover).
The only possible concern on offense is the front line, though all indications are that it will continue to get better at the two most important spots: left tackle (David Bakhtiari is no longer a liability in pass protection) and center (Corey Linsley is a rookie learning on the fly). But this line played a near-perfect game—at least in pass protection—against a respectable Panthers front last Sunday.
Where the Packers separate themselves from Dallas and every other team is on defense. At some point this season, a lack of raw edge-rushing prowess will become a problem for Dallas’s makeshift, mostly zone-based defense. On the flip side, the Packers are two-deep in edge rushers; Mike Neal and Nick Perry have combined for five sacks backing up Julius Peppers and Clay Matthews. Peppers, 34, has been hit-or-miss, but that’s not terrible if he’s part of a rotation. Matthews has just 1.5 sacks, a number that should jump dramatically at some point. He has still shown his usual pliability and burst, not just off the edge but also as an A-gap blitzer.
Which brings us to Green Bay’s top selling point: the potential for schematic diversity. Expect coordinator Dom Capers to employ Matthews in more fashions moving forward. Expect that for everyone, in fact. Granted, the loss of B.J. Raji hurt the Packers’ front because he was the stabilizer in alternating between 3-4 and 4-3 concepts, and for keeping the run defense afloat when Capers went to his beloved 2-4-5 nickel package. The run defense has been suspect with Raji out, though Letroy Guion, who started slowly, has flashed more each week as Capers continues to use a wide array of fronts.
Capers can afford to be creative because he has what every schemer covets: a secondary rich in man-to-man defenders. Corners Sam Shields, Tramon Williams, Davon House and Casey Hayward are all upper-tier man-to-man artists who, aside from Shields (an elite boundary corner), can play inside and outside. Capers has had good man corners before, but he had to account for weaknesses at safety. The arrival of first-round rookie Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, an explosive downhill attacker, has changed that.
The Packers, winners of four straight, are just finding their rhythm. A primetime road victory in the Superdome is hard to come by, even against a struggling Saints team. But regardless of what happens Sunday, this team is the best equipped in the NFC to sustain success for the rest of this season and through the playoffs.
Jumping out on film
An elite run defender whom nobody talks about: Dolphins defensive lineman Jared Odrick. The 2010 first-round pick has sneaky power packed into a 300-pound frame that’s tall and uniquely flexible in traffic. Odrick has the movement skills to penetrate, plus the strength and mechanical savvy to clog holes or stalemate against double teams. He’s the best run defender on a Dolphins front line that, when at its best, might be the toughest in football.
Smart watching for Week 8
Last season the Cardinals went into Philadelphia and held the Eagles to 307 total yards and 24 points. That’s not super impressive, but the way they did it was.
The Cardinals have a high volume defense built on a consortium of interior blitz concepts (both presnap and postsnap, disguised and faked). It’s doubtful they know how to play any other way. And, against the Eagles, they did not. Todd Bowles ran his usual stuff.
The brilliance of Chip Kelly’s system is that it forces teams to play that other way: more simplified. Because of the rapid tempo, it’s difficult for defenses to choreograph blitzes and disguises. Most are forced to plainly line up and just go.
The Cardinals did not do anything different in their preparation for the Eagles last year, other than have their practice squad operate at Philly’s torrid pace. This year’s defensive personnel is different, but Bowles’s approach and results have been the same. Expect Arizona to challenge Philly with its usual A-gap blitz concepts.
Something else to consider for this game: both of these offenses have running games built on reaching the perimeter. That’s LeSean McCoy’s style and it’s increasingly apparent that it’s also second-year pro Andre Ellington’s style. McCoy and Ellington are arguably the league’s two most dangerous outside runners. Whichever team is most successful in this capacity Sunday will be the one that comes away 6-1.
Jets offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg has installed more of the “man-beater” route concepts that the Jets weren’t using often enough early in the year. Man-beaters are exactly what they sound like: routes designed to beat man-to-man coverage. They’re particularly important for teams bereft of wideouts who can consistently get themselves open (like the Jets).
Not surprisingly, with more man-beaters, the Jets’ passing game, though still very rough around the edges, has been markedly more competitive in recent weeks. Even with the dynamic Percy Harvin coming aboard, Mornhinweg will need to keep employing man-beater routes. Here are two examples:
Available Thursday on The MMQB, we talk Rodgers-Brees, Roethlisberger-Luck (who will have the most impressive career when all is said and done?), the struggling Seahawks and Panthers as well as all the rest of the Week 8 matchups.
10 film study quick-hitters
1. In addition to shaky offensive line play, the Saints have taken a step back this season because Drew Brees’s arm strength is in decline. Brees’s deep ball has become inconsistent.
2. Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith deserves Pro Bowl consideration. Improved awareness and technique have given the 2011 first-rounder change-of-direction prowess that physics typically doesn’t allow for an angular 6-2, 205-pounder.
3. A slow-footed, injury-ravaged offensive line is preventing the Falcons from running their system these days.
4. Another problem for the Falcons: their once-lethal wide receiver screen game has been ineffective as of late. That has nothing to do with the O-line.
5. Von Miller, coming off knee surgery, wasn’t himself early in the year. Now he is. And just like that, he’s supplanted Willie Young as the NFL’s sack leader.
6. Teddy Bridgewater came out on fire against the Falcons in Week 4 because Norv Turner was able to call only defined-read passes for him. Since then, circumstances have forced Bridgewater into more field-reading scenarios, and he’s struggled like the rookie that he is.
7. The Cowboys took away the Giants’ interior running game last Sunday, and look for them to do the same to Washington. In an earlier matchup on Sunday, look for the Bears to attack inside against a Patriots defense that’s clearly missing Jerod Mayo.
8. Is there an offense more dependent on two players than the Steelers are on Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell?
9. Typically Washington matches up well to Romo and the Cowboys because its defense can stop the run and disguise coverages. Not this week, though. Injuries leave the run defense thin and inexperience in the secondary limits what Jim Haslett can do with his coverages.
10. Very interested to see who Aqib Talib follows around Thursday night. Keenan Allen is San Diego’s most dangerous receiver but Talib’s lankiness matches up better to Malcom Floyd, who has come on as of late.
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