Broncos (9-2) at Chiefs (9-2), 4:25 p.m., CBS
By now you’ve probably heard that Peyton Manning got rid of the ball in an average 2.17 seconds on his 40 pass attempts against the Chiefs two weeks ago. Aside from when he tried to recover a fumble, the banged-up 37-year-old didn’t touch the ground once in that game. So what will Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton do this time around? He didn’t blitz in that first matchup, which makes sense. If the ball is coming out almost right away, a blitzer amounts to a wasted defender. No defender can reach a shotgun passer in two seconds.
But just because defenders can’t get to Manning doesn’t mean they shouldn’t threaten to try. Instead of lining up in static pre-snap looks again, Sutton should use amorphous fronts with A-gap blitz looks. The Chiefs wouldn’t have to actually bring the pressure. In fact, they could drop into an eight- or nine-man coverage on every snap. But using hard-to-read blitz-oriented fronts before the snap would compel the Broncos to adjust their protections and initially account for the possibility of a blitz. The A gaps, which are between the center and guards, are the only pass-rushing lanes where unblocked defenders can reach the quarterback in under two seconds.
There are other benefits to these pre-snap blitz looks. If Manning’s ball is coming out in roughly two seconds, he’s usually targeting short, underneath passing lanes—especially on inside throws. Kansas City’s would-be blitzers can drop into those passing lanes. Besides breaking up passes, this could force Manning to hold onto the ball longer or, at the very least, compel him to throw more to the outside, where Kansas City’s press corners would be playing with more aggression.
Lastly, defenders crowding the A gaps could discourage Manning from audibling to the shotgun handoffs that have sprung Knowshon Moreno for big gains. The Chiefs would then be facing a less dimensional Broncos offense.
Bengals (7-4) at Chargers (5-6), 4:25 p.m., CBS
Two Bengals playing great defense this month are cornerback Terence Newman and inside linebacker Vincent Rey. Newman, who is very comfortable with the “quarters” coverage concepts that are common in Mike Zimmer’s scheme, has been terrific downfield and along the boundary. Rey has played with outstanding all-around “football speed,” exemplified by his acceleration in run pursuit, fluidity coverage, explosiveness in blitzing and closing quickness on tackles. Don’t be surprised if he keeps the starting job even when the injured Rey Maualuga comes back; at the very least he should keep the all-important No. 2 nickel linebacker job.
Rams (5-6) at 49ers (7-4), 4:05 p.m., FOX
In the first 55 minutes of these teams’ Week 4 meeting, the Rams, who were manhandled at home that night, did not register a single run longer than four yards. You might think coach Jeff Fisher and coordinator Brian Schottenheimer would have responded by opening the offense and putting a greater emphasis on passing. Instead, they scaled back their finesse personnel packages and installed more two-tight end and two-back sets, committing to a basic power-run identity. For the most part, the change has worked. Since that loss to the Niners, the Rams have gone 4-3 and seen their rushing yards per game jump from 47.3 to 151.8. Aside from a 200-yard output versus Seattle, most of their success has come against middle-of-the-road run defenses. This Sunday will be a “prove it” game for rookie Zac Stacy and St. Louis’s other running backs. NaVorro Bowman, Patrick Willis and a staunch defensive line make San Francisco’s front seven one of football’s most difficult to run against.
Falcons (2-9) at Bills (4-7), 4:05 p.m., FOX
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A player to watch: Bills rookie wideout Marquise Goodwin. The 5-9, 180-pound third-rounder from Texas had the fastest 40-yard dash time at the Combine in April year. (He posted a 4.27; the next fastest time, 4.34, was hit by three players). Goodwin’s track speed has transferred to the NFL field. The best example came two weeks ago against the Jets, when he surprised Antonio Cromartie with acceleration on the backend of his fly route, creating separation for a 43-yard touchdown. When the Bills get near midfield, the Falcons must be on high alert for a play-action deep shot to the young receiver.
Titans (5-6) at Colts (7-4), 1 p.m., CBS
Just like in Week 11, the Colts enter their showdown with the Titans fresh off a blowout loss to an unfamiliar NFC West opponent. Last time, thanks to a string of Tennessee mistakes, Indy overcame an early deficit and found itself protecting a three-point lead on a mid-fourth quarter drive. That’s when offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton called on the power-run game that everyone had heard so much about but hadn’t actually seen yet. With tailback Donald Brown starting the series in place of Trent Richardson, Indy ran the ball on 10 of 11 plays, mostly behind two tight ends and six O-linemen. Brown capped the nearly five-minute drive with a coffin-nailing 11-yard touchdown.
While they won’t use such extreme running personnel throughout this week’s game, the Colts will try to establish a power-run foundation (assuming they don’t fall two touchdowns behind in the first quarter for a fifth straight week). This offense pretty much has to play ground-and-pound; Andrew Luck is still not comfortable enough with his dwindled receiving corps to drop back and throw 50 times.
Bears (6-5) at Vikings (2-8-1), 1 p.m., FOX
Speaking of ground-and-pound, how much damage will Adrian Peterson do to the injury-ravaged Bears? Against a mostly healthy Bears D last year, Peterson rushed for 108 yards on 18 carries in Week 12 and 154 yards on 31 carries in Week 14. Now he’s facing a defense that is without veteran middle backer D.J. Williams, alpha dog Lance Briggs, top gap-shooter Henry Melton, top gap-plugger Stephen Paea (presumably) and top cornerback Charles Tillman. Tillman’s absence is an overlooked blow to the run defense. In a zone-based scheme like Chicago’s, the corners are often considered primary force defenders in the farthest outside rushing lanes. Tillman’s dependability in this realm enabled Chicago’s defensive ends to be more aggressive attacking upfield.
Jaguars (2-9) at Browns (4-7), 1 p.m., CBS
Even though Cleveland scored only 11 points on Josh Gordon’s 237-yard day against Pittsburgh, this offense is—without question—at its best when centered around the 6-3, 225-pound wideout. Similarly, Jacksonville’s defense is at its best when centered around press-corner Dwayne Gratz. The third-round rookie is by no means a star, but his physicality is the difference between the Jaguars having an assertive, fast-flying defense versus a passive, read-and-react defense.
It may seem logical for Gratz to shadow Gordon, but at this point Gratz is strictly a left boundary corner. If the Browns want to get Gordon matched up on No. 2 corner Alan Ball (who has lately played with good physicality himself), they just have to split Gordon out wide to their left. A better idea might be to align Gordon in the slot, or to send him in motion.
Dolphins (5-6) at Jets (5-6), 1 p.m., CBS
Rex Ryan made the right choice in sticking with Geno Smith as his starter. It’s a decision that needs to stand for the remainder of the season. Smith is not going to get on track by riding the bench. Instead of turning to an ill-equipped backup, the Jets must trust that offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg can help Smith start seeing the field with clarity.
Mornhinweg must keep building defined reads into the passing game. “Defined reads” are essentially either/or decisions for the quarterback. They come from tactics like rollouts (which slice the field in half and give the quarterback a natural run-pass option), play-action (another field-slicer, plus an easy avenue for throwing to check-downs) and deep passes that use combo routes to get a specific receiver open. The Jets did all of these things against the Ravens last week, but only begrudgingly. Their main approach was to hide Smith behind wildcat runs and read-option handoffs. No surprise it didn’t work; this offense isn’t talented enough to execute consistently. And Smith, along with his struggling pass blockers, isn’t equipped to consistently succeed on the inevitable 3rd-and-long situations that are a byproduct of a run-heavy game plan. Mornhinweg must call more defined-read passes this Sunday, and he must call them on first down.
Cardinals (7-4) at Eagles (6-5), 1 p.m., FOX
Everyone talks about Chip Kelly’s creative offense. What about Bruce Arians’ scheme? Philosophically, Arians’ system has the same objective as Kelly’s: to create favorable one-on-one matchups for receivers in open space. The difference is how they go about it. Kelly uses spread formations and short drop-backs, attacking defenses horizontally. Arians uses tight formations and longer drops, attacking vertically. Both are big on pre-snap motion, diverse personnel location and intertwined route combinations. And both have had fine results with their respective systems.
Buccaneers (3-8) at Panthers (8-3), 1 p.m., FOX
Greg Schiano likes to take chances on first down. We see this in offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan’s deep-shot play calls, and in defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan’s blitz usage. Will Schiano stay aggressive on first down in his rematch against Cam Newton and the Panthers? The Bucs blitzed Newton on 17 of his 39 drop-backs in Week 8. They got two sacks from it, but Newton also completed 10 of 14 passes for 83 yards and a touchdown. The main inspiration for blitzing on first down is to ultimately create 3rd-and-long situations. That’s when the strong-armed but mechanically inconsistent Newton would presumably make mistakes. According to Football Outsiders, however, Newton ranks fourth among NFL quarterbacks in converting 3rd-and-10 (or longer) this season. He’s been sacked just once on 33 drop-backs and has thrown only one interception. You obviously still want to get Newton (and every QB) in 3rd-and-long, but Schiano and Sheridan must carefully consider just how worthwhile it is to risk blitzing on first down.
Patriots (8-3) at Texans (2-9), 1 p.m., CBS
It’s strange to think that these Texans (nine straight losses!) pretty much have the same defensive personnel that they had against the Patriots in last season’s Divisional Round. Of course, Houston did look like a 2-9 team in that game, giving up 344 passing yards and three touchdowns to Tom Brady. A lot of Brady’s yards came out of spread sets in the no-huddle. The Patriots knew the Texans would play their default two-deep, man-to-man coverage against the no-huddle. The added a wrinkle by splitting tailback Shane Vereen out wide, where he could run routes against an isolated linebacker. Vereen has skills similar to a wide receiver; no Texans linebacker had (or has obtained) cornerback skills.
There’s no reason to think New England will do anything different this time around. In each of his first two games since coming back from the wrist injury that kept him out for two months, Vereen has caught eight balls for at least 60 yards on 11 targets.
Giants (4-7) at Washington (3-8), 8:30 p.m., NBC
Will the Giants do anything special to defend the read-option? They didn’t against Terrelle Pryor’s Raiders a few weeks ago, though that may have been because Pryor was battling a bum knee. But the Giants also didn’t do anything special against the read-option in their two meetings with Washington last season. RG3 gashed them for 89 yards on nine carries in the first matchup, and 72 yards on five carries in the second (granted, not all of those runs were read-options). Griffin hasn’t run the read-option nearly as much this season, but that might change Sunday night given all the evidence suggesting that New York won’t deliberately try to take it away.
Go to Page 2 for a preview of Monday's game between the NFC's best offense (Saints) and defense (Seahawks) ...
Saints (9-2) at Seahawks (10-1), 8:40 p.m. ET, ESPN
Saints offense vs. Seahawks defense
It’s the NFC’s best offense against the NFC’s best defense. The Saints will make it a chess match early on, likely using 15 different formations or personnel packages on their first 15 scripted plays. Coach Sean Payton and Drew Brees scheme variety early in the game to intellectually bombard the opponent—and to get a feel for how the defense plans to attack different concepts.
Seattle should expect to see a lot of unbalanced formations during those first 15 plays, with all of New Orleans’ wide receivers aligned to one side of the formation and all the tight ends and running backs aligned to the other. Payton and Brees will want to see whether Seattle’s cornerbacks follow the wide receivers or stay in their usual defensive spots on the left and right sides of the field. Generally, Seattle’s corners stay on their usual sides of the field. But with Brandon Browner out (groin) and Walter Thurmond suspended, Richard Sherman could be moved around in an effort to deter the Saints from dictating matchups against young backups-turned-starters Byron Maxwell and Jeremy Lane. Maxwell and Lane have played well in sub-packages or in temporary starting roles, but neither has gone 60 minutes against a field general like Brees. The question is, if Sherman moves around, who will he guard: Marques Colston or Jimmy Graham?
Seahawks offense vs. Saints defense
Even playing limited snaps and barely touching the ball, wideout Percy Harvin jumped out on film in his Seahawks debut two weeks ago. He showed the effortless acceleration and athletic fluidity that inspired the Vikings to give up a first-round pick for him five years ago, and the Seahawks to recently do the same. Harvin, who will see more playing time in this game, is expected to bring a dynamic horizontal dimension to Seattle’s read-option concepts and run-disguised passing game, though the Week 11 film suggests he’ll also be used as a vertical weapon, particularly down the seams.
Now would be as good a time as any for Seattle to feature Harvin. Jabari Greer’s season-ending leg injury could prove deflating for this soaring Saints defense. To replace Greer, slot corner Corey White moved outside but doesn’t seem to have brought his confidence with him. Playing corner inside now will be safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Kenny Vaccaro, which isn’t new. But it’s a necessity instead of a a luxury. Overall, this is a less reliable Saints secondary, which could mean a less dimensional Rob Ryan scheme.