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Sunday Slate: Analyzing Week 8 Matchups

Can the Jets beat the Bengals for their first back-to-back wins? Will the Steelers make it three straight and suddenly start thinking playoffs? Can a re-energized RG3 make it two losses in a row for Peyton Manning’s Broncos?

Mike Buscher/Cal Sport Media

Mike Buscher/Cal Sport Media

Washington (2-4) @ Denver (6-1)

While Peyton Manning had his worst game of the season, Robert Griffin had his best last weekend. He looked like the RG3 of 2012. The Broncos may want to use a quarterback spy in their man coverage concepts this week. Von Miller is thought of as an edge rusher, but he’s also a phenomenal read-and-react shadow defender. Griffin is still a one-read quarterback, so a nimble mover like Miller eyeing him would not only offer reinforcement against scrambles and read-option keepers, it would also help crowd the underneath passing lanes that Washington’s play-action game tries to exploit. And when Griffin does look to go deep, Miller will have a chance to green dog blitz, which he does extremely well. (A green dog blitz is when a defender has an offensive player in man coverage and that player stays in, allowing the defender to blitz.) The Broncos have had success with this game plan before, most notably against Cam Newton and the Panthers last season in Week 10.

Jets (4-3) @ Bengals (5-2)

On paper, Antonio Cromartie is one of the few cornerbacks who matches up well with A.J. Green. Cromartie is lanky, fluid and fast—just like Ike Taylor and Aqib Talib, who both held Green to under 65 yards earlier this season. However, unlike Taylor and Talib, Cromartie is not as fundamentally sound. He can usually compensate with otherworldly athleticism, but that’s harder to do against a truly great wideout. Cromartie can also be susceptible to double moves, which no one executes better than Green (just ask Lions cornerback Chris Houston).

Steelers (2-4) @ Raiders (2-4)

If the offensive line plays like it did against Baltimore last Sunday, Pittsburgh will be back in the playoff picture before Thanksgiving. Left guard David DeCastro had arguably the best individual run-blocking performance of 2013. The rest of the line followed suit, controlling the trenches for the first time all season. The group also provided adequate pass protection, which is all Ben Roethlisberger needs.

Pittsburgh has a great opportunity to build on this success; Oakland’s defensive line can be hit or miss, particularly on the edges. Steelers offensive line coach Jack Bicknell Jr. almost certainly taught extra blitz pickup this week. The Raiders love to bring third level pass-rushers, creating blitzes that take longer to unfold but, in theory, work really well against a quarterback who holds the ball as long as Big Ben. With Kelvin Beachum at left tackle and either an underachieving Marcus Gilbert or journeyman Guy Whimper at right tackle, the Steelers will have to continue using max protection. That’s not ideal, but it’s certainly better than the “no protection” they used in September.

Falcons (2-4) @ Cardinals (3-4)

Roddy White’s and Julio Jones’s injuries aren’t the only ones hurting Atlanta’s passing game. The absence of Sam Baker (knee) has forced right tackle Lamar Holmes to play the left side and ex-Buc Jeremy Trueblood to step in on the right. Neither has quick enough feet to stay afloat in pass protection, so tight end Tony Gonzalez has had to stay in and help, leaving Matt Ryan without his best remaining target.

We’ll see how often Gonzalez stays in to protect this Sunday. The Cardinals do not have great edge rusher, even though John Abraham looked better last Thursday against the Seahawks than he has all season (he was, of course, facing backup tackles in that one, too). What the Cardinals do have are excellent blitzers in linebackers Daryl Washington and Karlos Dansby, plus nickel slot man Tyrann Mathieu.

Packers (4-2) @ Vikings (1-5)

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Greg Jennings had some fairly harsh criticism of Aaron Rodgers a few months back. He has recently expressed regret for voicing it publicly. Rodgers has downplayed the whole thing. Whether or not the hatchet is really buried, when these two encounter each other Sunday night they’ll probably experience the pangs that typically come when seeing an ex for the first time. Jennings is becoming a forgotten man in Minnesota’s anemic offense. Rodgers is currently without Randall Cobb, Jermichael Finley and possibly James Jones. Not since Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman have two people needed each other so much.

Browns (3-4) @ Chiefs (7-0)

One of the few negatives in Kansas City this year has been the play of Dwayne Bowe. After signing a five-year, $56 million contract in March, Bowe has looked spectacularly sluggish at times—not just in his release off the line or getting in and out of breaks, but even when running uncontested vertical stems. Bowe has never been a speedster, but he’s never been a plodder, either. Through the first six weeks, he recorded just 20 receptions for 229 yards. Fortunately, Week 7 brought signs of a possible turnaround. Thanks to a schematic adjustment by Kanas City, Bowe frequently aligned in the slot against Houston, often with normal slot man Dexter McCluster flanking out wide. With more room to operate, McCluster had a season-high 70 yards on four catches. Bowe also had his best game, catching five balls for 66 yards. Being in the slot puts Bowe in more immediate passing lanes for the ultra-conservative Alex Smith. It also emphasizes Bowe’s size and strength while de-emphasizing his iffy quickness. Look for the Chiefs to use Bowe in the slot more this Sunday. If nothing else, that will discourage the Browns from plastering him with top corner Joe Haden.

Cowboys (4-3) @ Lions (4-3)

Click here to read why the Lions’ offense is better than ever.

Dolphins (3-3) @ Patriots (5-2)

Last week we focused on the myriad problems that Dolphins offensive tackles Jonathan Martin and Tyson Clabo have had in pass protection. It’s only fair that we acknowledge their impressive turnaround against the Bills. Clabo might be a hard sell here, given that he was badly beaten twice inside for sacks by Mario Williams late in the fourth quarter. Take away just one of those sacks and the Dolphins probably win the game. But Clabo’s offensive line coach, Jim Turner, was correct in his remarks to reporters who gathered around Clabo’s locker afterward. “You’re talking about two plays in the whole game,” Turner said without any prompting. “The guy played a great football game today against one of the best players in the NFL.”

So did Martin, who survived when pass blocking one-on-one; on multiple occasions he also flashed his athleticism on the second level as a run-blocker. Martin can make a huge statement with a similar performance this week. He’ll face a sinewy, dynamic star-in-the-making: Patriots second-year defensive end Chandler Jones. The Dolphins may have to slide protection Martin’s way, which means Clabo will be in one-on-one battles with Rob Ninkovich, a more mundane but increasingly crafty veteran.

Bills (3-4) @ Saints (5-1)

If this game weren’t in the Superdome, and if the Saints weren’t coming off a bye, it would classify as an “upset watch.” The Bills’ secondary is finally at full force, with top safety Jairus Byrd and top corner Stephon Gilmore back in the lineup. Granted, both are still working to find their groove (Gilmore especially). But having all of his personnel gives defensive coordinator Mike Pettine seemingly endless possibilities for pressure packages. When healthy, Gilmore can play No. 1 receivers man-to-man with minimal help; Byrd is as smart as almost any centerfielder when it comes to reading quarterbacks and route combinations; ancillary corners Leodis McKelvin, Aaron Williams and Nickell Robey (an intriguing undrafted rookie who is emerging as a formidable slot nickel) have all played well in press-man. That’s the coverage that lends schematic freedom for a defense. It also happens to be the coverage that teams have had the most success with against New Orleans.

Giants (1-6) @ Eagles (3-4)

The circumstances are different than they were in Week 5, when Michael Vick and the Eagles had their way with the Giants in the first half of a 36-21 victory. Vick is coming back from a pulled hamstring, which is the last thing a run-based, improvisational quarterback needs. The Giants have more healthy pieces at their disposal in the secondary, which means corner Turk McBride won’t be there for Vick to attack on the outside. (You might recall DeSean Jackson getting by McBride in Cover 3 for 56 yards.) Vick’s mobility will dictate how this game goes. If he can move, the Eagles will use the read-option concepts that worked masterfully last time. And in the passing game, the Giants might be reluctant play man coverage (which Eagles wideouts have struggled against all season). Defensive coordinator Perry Fewell remembers the third-and-20 where Vick scrambled for 34 yards against their man-free lurk.

49ers (5-2) @ Jaguars (0-7) in London