The game of football is all about matchups. Each week, we will use the Xs and Os to highlight some critical showdowns on the upcoming schedule.
St. Louis at Kansas City: On Austin Davis
Brett Favre delivered some high praise for fellow Southern Miss product and current St. Louis Rams starting quarterback Austin Davis: "Not to sound off my rocker, but he can be the next Tom Brady or Kurt Warner."
Both Brady and Warner took now-famous paths to NFL stardom -- Brady was a sixth-round pick of the Patriots, while Warner went undrafted and toiled in Arena Football before getting his shot.
Davis slid out of the draft entirely, too, back in 2012. He finally threw his first regular-season pass in Week 1 this season, replacing an injured Shaun Hill (who was replacing an injured Sam Bradford). Since then, Davis has made five starts, posting a 66-percent completion rate, nine touchdowns and four interceptions. Last Sunday, he hit on a whopping 85.7 percent of his attempts in an upset of Seattle.
Promising numbers? Absolutely. But a lot of his success right now has as much to do with St. Louis' game plan as it does with Davis' play.
In the Week 7 win, for example, just one of Davis' 21 pass attempts traveled farther than 20 yards. Most everything else was either a short route meant to give Davis an easy read or a check-down.
One way the Rams kept things easy for Davis against Seattle's secondary was by taking advantage of their spacing. Here we see TE Jared Cook running a go route, and in the process essentially picking Richard Sherman. The action allows Kenny Britt to loop around Cook to find space.
By the time Sherman circumnavigates Cook's route, Britt has enough room to break toward the sideline for an easy completion. This was Davis' first read on the play and it developed quickly, thus equaling a low-stress throw.
Another example came later, with St. Louis already up 21-3. Davis did not throw an incompletion until the third quarter (he finished 18-of-21), and by that time the Rams enjoyed a substantial lead. Even more so than before, the goal was to prevent Davis from pushing the envelope downfield against Sherman, Earl Thomas and others.
Instead, the Rams ran receivers deep but left Davis multiple options underneath.
The above pictured play unfolded with both of the Rams behind Davis clearing the line of scrimmage by about a step, then turning back toward the quarterback.
Seattle's defense dropped to guard against the deep ball, allowing Davis to make a throw that had no danger of being picked off.
The ceiling for such plays is limited ... but so is the floor. Barring a fumble or a batted ball at the line that turns into an unlucky interception, about the worst thing that could have occurred on the majority of Davis' throws was an incompletion. Even a sack was more or less off the table because of how quickly he snapped off the ball.
And it also set a bit of a slow trap on Seattle. Usually, we think of the deep ball opening up the defense, thus leaving some gaps closer to the line. St. Louis flipped the script, repeatedly pounding those short passes until the Seahawks began to creep up.
Davis then hit three of his longest passes of the game -- 19, 13 and 30 yards -- on a critical late drive to help seal the win.
Check out Seattle's defense here on the first play of that drive:
That's a four-man rush with three more defenders guarding short yardage and another, No. 31 Kam Chancellor, with his eyes back toward Davis as a receiver runs by him. That receiver was Brian Quick, who then settled into the middle of the field for a 19-yard gain.
Later, on a 3rd-and-6 near midfield, Seattle went to a Cover-1 man-to-man look, making sure someone was responsible for both Cook and the RB out of the backfield.
Davis opted to stretch the field, as Chris Givens beat his man off the line.
Quick's catch was the Rams' biggest gain of the day through the air:
So, how can Kansas City counter Davis' dink-and-dunk approach?
Well, one answer is to ... not. In other words, just allow Davis to throw three-yard routes all afternoon, counting on the run defense or an occasional miscue to push the Rams into third-and-medium/long situations.
Another key: pressure, as always. Below, a play from the Rams' loss to the 49ers in which San Francisco brought an extra man off the edge. Doing so forced St. Louis to keep Mason in as a pass-blocker, obviously eliminating him as Davis' outlet. Better yet for the 49ers, Davis was run over and allowed a sack.
There's also the possibility that Davis simply will decline any deep opportunities to keep attacking short. Precisely that situation unfolded here, as Davis fired an incompletion on a short crossing route (white box) when a receiver downfield had tons of room in the middle.
It stands to reason that Davis eventually will have to stretch the field a bit. Even if the close-to-the-vest approach worked for one game, it does not have a high rate of success -- it's the "game manager" stigma.
But allowing Davis to take what was there last Sunday paid off for St. Louis and should raise Davis' confidence moving forward. How will the Chiefs respond?
Detroit vs. Atlanta: Pressuring Matt Ryan
Front and center on the Lions' No. 2-ranked scoring defense (down from No. 1 headed into Week 7) is a pass rush that comes after opposing quarterbacks in waves. Detroit, who's tied for third in the league with 21, engineered a comeback against the Saints behind their ability to collapse the pocket.
First-year defensive coordinator Teryl Austin has been aggressive employing his linebackers as blitzers this year -- a tough enough assignment for offensive lines facing Detroit, since guys like Ndamukong Suh and Ziggy Ansah have commanded so much attention. Austin has doubled down, too, constantly shifting the Lions' front in hopes of confusing the opposition.
New Orleans saw this firsthand in Week 7, as on this play:
Detroit was in an extremely spread 4-3 front here, with Suh lined up between right guard Jahri Evans (93) and right tackle Zach Streif (64). Up the middle, linebacker Tahir Whitehead shows blitz.
New Orleans' empty backfield provided something of a safety net here -- Brees did not immediately have an option to check into a run up the gut, where Whitehead might have been overwhelmed.
Instead, Brees stuck with the pass. Whitehead dropped into coverage but his presence pre-snap froze the interior of the line briefly. Which in turn allowed the Lions' ends to bend the edge and pressure Brees into an incompletion.
New play, new look. This time, the Lions overloaded the line to Brees' right -- that's Ansah directly over top of TE Josh Hill (89), with a pair of DTs next to him. George Johnson is all by his lonesome to Brees' blindside. Detroit then stunted Suh into the middle of the field, as often happens from looks like this one, and Brees again felt pressure.
One more, with LB Ashlee Palmer (58) showing blitz just to the right of DE Daryl Tapp. Palmer froze LT Terron Armstead at the snap, as Tapp slanted down toward the ball. Whitehead then filled the B-gap between Tapp and Palmer, coming untouched as a blitzer.
Meanwhile, Palmer flared out to cover Mark Ingram -- Brees' safety valve. Another incompletion.
All of the Lions' mix and matching could pose a significant problem for a banged-up Atlanta front that has struggled all year. Matt Ryan's linemen have lost enough one-on-one battles to cause him headaches, but they've also been victimized repeatedly by communication issues.
The pressure seen here should have been simple enough to pick up, with Baltimore's Pernell McPhee standing up pre-snap and then attempting to shoot the gap between LT Jake Matthews and guard Justin Blalock.
Matthews allowed McPhee to beat him to the inside, where Blalock should have been able to help. Instead, he offered assistance to center James Stone, then failed to get back in time.
As for the communication issues ...
Take this blitz by the Giants, which brought Jameel McClain (53) after Ryan. A blitzing linebacker should not require two linemen, least of all when such an approach leaves a guy like Jason Pierre-Paul unblocked.
If the Falcons cannot get all of their blocking assignments cleared up on a play-to-play basis Sunday, the Lions' defensive line could feast.
Houston at Tennessee: Reintroducing Zach Mettenberger
Quick refresher course on Mettenberger, who is expected to make his first career NFL start on Sunday. The 6-foot-5, 244-pounder out of LSU was the Titans' sixth-round pick back in May. He's also just about 10 months removed from an ACL injury. What can Titans (and Texans) fans expect in Week 8?
Let's begin here: Mettenberger has a gun of an arm. Sometimes that can work to his disadvantage -- as with other strong-armed quarterbacks, the desire to rip a pass can overwhelm the proper reads -- but when he has time to set and throw, he'll get the ball where he wants it. And that often will include down the field, as on this absolute gem of a deep ball from LSU's game with Alabama last season.
Also at the top of Mettenberger's scouting report is his toughness. Not only did he come back in incredible time from that ACL injury, Mettenberger is not afraid to take a hit, either as he scrambles (with decent-to-below average speed) or standing in the pocket. To wit:
One of the spots where Mettenberger had clear room for improvement was in his decision-making, particularly when faced with a little heat in the pocket. As already mentioned, he can allow his "gunslinger" approach to take over, causing him to force passes when he should be looking for another, less risky option. His mechanics also come and go when he does not have a clean pocket, something that can be a killer for NFL quarterbacks.
Back during the preseason Mettenberger completed 47-of-68 passes (69.1 percent) over four games, with two touchdowns and two interceptions. One of those picks, thrown against the Saints, highlighted the type of head-scratching moment an untested rookie like Mettenberger might provide when thrown into the fire. The main read was a rather slow developing corner route to the sideline. Mettenberger did nothing of note to disguise where he was going, locking onto the intended receiver as soon as he began his drop.
By the time he let go of the ball, there were three Saints defenders in the area of his pass, including safety Vinnie Sunseri who dropped back for an easy interception.
Tennessee probably will shorten up the playbook and limit Mettenberger's risks on Sunday, similar to what St. Louis did last week with Davis. Still, count on the Titans to give Mettenberger a few shots to turn it loose -- his arm strength combined with big receivers like Justin Hunter will give Tennessee a chance to hit on a home run or two.
The goal will be to strike a balance between finding those big plays and preventing Mettenberger from having to do too much. There's definitely NFL-caliber talent in Mettenberger. Can he play a smart enough game to show it?