What to expect in Eagles-Lions, Panthers-Cowboys and Bears-Packers

By Andy Benoit
November 25, 2015

If you’re reading this Thanksgiving Day preview, you’re likely a passionate NFL fan. Which means you already know that Thursday is going to be a struggle. Yes, it’s great to have games on a holiday. But because they’re on a holiday, you’ll be battling inherent forces working against your viewing experience. You might need to prepare the meal. You might have to strategically maneuver around the house during commercial breaks, making convivial conversation with family. Or you might need to tune out peripheral conversations and the opinionated observations of family members who never watch football except for those few spurts on Turkey Day. (One year, I wondered if my grandmother was purposely coinciding her cross-room strolls in front of the screen with the snap of the ball.)

There’s no way around these Thanksgiving obstacles. But deep down, it’s part of what we love about the holiday. Here are a few key things to keep in mind while you try to keep your focus on the TV screen.

Eagles (4-6) at Lions (3-7), 12:30 p.m., FOX

Keep an eye on…

How the Eagles deploy safeties Malcolm Jenkins, Walter Thurmond and, in their dime sub-package, Chris Maragos. Philly has the best run-stopping D-line in the NFL; there’s no chance Detroit’s sluggish front five and hesitant backs will successfully run against them. The lopsidedness here will allow the Eagles to keep extra bodies in coverage. Coordinator Billy Davis is diverse in his two-safety schemes. He’ll play Quarters (each DB taking one-fourth of the field), “2 man” (man-to-man across the board, with corners trailing the receiver while a safety helps over the top), man-free-lurk (man-to-man with a deep safety in centerfield and the other roving the mid-levels) and the occasional straight Cover 2 (the purest of zones). Given Philly’s diversity plus the need to routinely double Calvin Johnson, you may even see some hybrid coverages, with zone concepts on one side of the field and man concepts on the other. Matthew Stafford, dangerous as he can be, is not quick at defensive diagnostics. He’ll check the ball down a lot in this game. When Stafford does take chances, it will be with stick throws into tight coverage. That’s a 50/50 proposition.

On the other side…

When Philly has the ball, their pace often dictates how the opposing defense plays. The more success the Eagles have on early downs, the faster they play and the more predictable the defense becomes. Often, what the defense shows before the snap is what it plays after the snap. There isn’t time to orchestrate disguises. That’s a critical advantage for an offense that has a backup quarterback making just his second start of the season—on the road, no less. And it’s an advantage the Eagles need since none of their wide receivers have the speed and quickness to consistently get open on their own. Mark Sanchez must identify all instances when the play design wins. To have the necessary success on early downs for creating this advantage, the Eagles must execute on quick screens and especially inside zone runs, which allow DeMarco Murray to hit it downhill behind double-teams at the point of attack.

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Panthers (10-0) at Cowboys (3-7), 4:30 p.m., CBS

Keep an eye on…

Cowboys safety Byron Jones, whose versatility makes him arguably Dallas’s most important defensive player. On base downs, he plays safety. In passing situations, he can slide to the slot, to linebacker, or man-up on the perimeter. In this game, assuming corner Morris Claiborne is back healthy on the outside, Jones will probably be matched against tight end Greg Olsen, Carolina’s most diverse and dangerous receiving target. Jones matched up with Rob Gronkowski a few weeks ago and more than held his own. Olsen, with his ability to run the seams and split out as an X-iso receiver (i.e., all alone on the opposite side of a trips formation) presents similar challenges as Gronk. The other thing to consider with Jones: his speed and sturdiness in the box will be important for countering a Panthers’ running game that presents more variables from play-to-play than any in the league.

On the other side…

The return of Romo is huge, obviously, but the Cowboys won’t run the table if their ground game doesn’t perform to its capabilities. This game presents the ultimate challenge, as linebacker Luke Kuechly is by far the best in the league at identifying run designs and taking angles that beat pull- and zone-blockers. Frighteningly enough, one of the next best ’backers in this sense is Thomas Davis. A.J. Klein is sound as well. One of the few interior O-lines that’s athletic enough to spar with these guys is Dallas’s. Center Travis Frederick and right guard Zack Martin have the quickness to reach-and-seal-around good defensive tackles and fire up to the second level. At left guard, rookie La’el Collins is up-and-down but physically capable of doing the same. Whether the run is going behind or away from Collins is irrelevant; in an outside zone scheme such as Dallas’s, the guard must be able to reach the second level both on the front and back side. That’s especially true against a linebacking corps as smart and fast as Carolina’s.

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Bears (4-6) at Packers (7-3), 8:30 p.m., NBC

Keep an eye on…

Jay Cutler. That’ll be easy—he’s the quarterback. But he’s a much different quarterback under the club’s first-year coordinator Adam Gase. Recognizing that Cutler’s hit-or-miss mechanics and decision-making will never be fully refined, and tacitly acknowledging that Chicago is bereft of depth at wide receiver and saddled with a so-so offensive line, Gase has installed a conservative, ball-control system that has the Bears dinking and dunking their way to the red zone. The system features quick three-step timing passes, balls thrown to the flats, and six- or seven-man pass protections, with running backs staying in to block and tight ends chipping defensive ends before running a route. Gase will call some calculated downfield shots, though there have been fewer with Matt Forte out of the lineup (granted, this may be a coincidence). Cutler, to his immense credit, has responded marvelously, taking care of the football and, in select situations, making the unbelievable arm-strength or deep-touch throws that have teased so many coaches and fans over the years. Expect the Bears to be conservative Thursday night. Not only are the Packers one of the fastest defenses in the NFL, they’re the most versatile, both in personnel and scheme. There’s too much in their defensive playbook for the Bears to sort out on a short week. Chicago’s only option is to go simple and force Green Bay to do the same.

On the other side…

There are still concerns about Green Bay’s wide receivers against man coverage. They’re coming off a big victory against the seven-win Vikings, but one game does not override a sample of nine in which multiple wideouts struggled against the same press-coverage tactics so thoroughly. Plus, Aaron Rodgers still connected on less than 50 percent of his passes against Minnesota—an indication that Green Bay’s aerial attack remains far too randomized and dependent on sandlot plays. The Bears have been much better than expected playing a lot of straight zone defense under coordinator Vic Fangio. But don’t be surprised if they go with more man-to-man Thursday night. That’s what two other zone-heavy defenses—the Panthers and Lions—did earlier this month, and with great success. 

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