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Setting the Table for Thanksgiving Football

Breaking down the Bears-Lions, Eagles-Cowboys and Seahawks-49ers

Jay Cutler and Matthew Stafford. (Simon Bruty and Joe Vaughn for Sports Illustrated/The MMQB)

Sports Illustrated/The MMQB

Chicago (5-6) @ Detroit (7-4)

Bears offense vs. Lions defense

Last year Chicago had success spreading out and isolating Detroit’s Cover 3 and Cover 2 zone defenders. Now under first-year defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, the Lions are no longer strictly a zone defense—but expect to see a lot of it on Thursday. It’s hard to play man-to-man against the Bears’ trips bunch and switch release concepts (i.e. routes that crisscross off the line of scrimmage or vertically downfield).

Also, zones are a good way to keep eyes on passing lanes against Jay Cutler, whose 12 interceptions are tied with Eli Manning’s for second most in the league (Blake Bortles is first with 15). Zones also keep Matt Forte in front of speedy linebackers DeAndre Levy, Tahir Whitehead and, in nickel, Josh Bynes. That will help limit the veteran running back’s damage on his six to eight catches out of the backfield.

Lastly, something to watch in the trenches: defensive end Ziggy Ansah going against left tackle Jermon Bushrod. Ansah is as explosive as almost any 4-3 defensive lineman not named Robert Quinn, and he has long arms. Bushrod, who has been up and down this season, is quick but has short arms. He’s more aggressive in his pass-blocking technique in order to compensate for this. He’ll have to be very sharp here Thursday.

Lions offense vs. Bears defense

Don’t expect Matthew Stafford to complete less than 40% of his passes like he did last week at New England. The Bears rarely blitz and cannot rush the passer up front. This often leaves their cornerbacks exposed in zone coverage. That group will be without corner Kyle Fuller, who suffered a mild MCL sprain in the second half of last week’s game against Tampa Bay.

Given the lack of height at the other cornerback spots, plus the problems that Chicago’s safeties have had with range and recognition downfield, there should be serious concern about Calvin Johnson on deep balls. Of course, the Lions have always had this advantage. They actually function best when they get balance from the running game, but that hasn’t been there this season. Detroit ranks 30th on the ground and has rushed for triple digits only twice: the win over Green Bay in Week 3 (115 yards) and the win at Minnesota in Week 6 (100 yards).

This is a big reason why Detroit’s 7-4 record looks somewhat flimsy. They’ve lost two straight against the first-place NFC and AFC teams, and before that their three straight wins were each last-second victories (all by a combined six points).

Mark Sanchez and Tony Romo. (Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images :: Trevor Paulhus for Sports Illustrated/The MMQB)

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Philadelphia (8-3) @ Dallas (8-3)

Eagles offense vs. Cowboys defense

The Eagles stretch you horizontally and stress your perimeter defenders, and then they attack you inside with route combinations that create spacious crossing or seam patterns, often against overwhelmed linebackers or safeties. Second-round rookie wideout Jordan Matthews has become a big part of the offense because of these concepts, catching 18 balls for 322 yards and three touchdowns since Mark Sanchez took over three weeks ago.

Whether the Cowboys can handle this depends on what coverage they play and what personnel package they use. Their best bet would be man-to-man out of nickel. That would allow top corner—and maybe top defender—Orlando Scandrick to guard the inside wide receivers out of the slot. Plus, going man-to-man is the preferred way for reacting to Philly’s torrid tempo.

The problem with nickel is that it can make Scandrick a force player against the run—something offensive coaches yearn for. The Eagles, who now have a healthy offensive line, run extremely well out of three-receiver sets (i.e. versus a nickel D) and have expanded their finesse running game to include more traditional power concepts.

It’ll be on linebackers Rolando McClain and Anthony Hitchens to play with the decisiveness that they’ve shown in recent weeks. While both can flash, both are still inexperienced (McClain was out of the league last year and Hitchens is a rookie). The Eagles’ tempo could be difficult for those linebackers, and for an improving Cowboys defensive line that relies on substituting.

Cowboys offense vs. Eagles defense

The Cowboys offensive line is playing better than any NFL offensive line has played in the last 10 years. Which means that in order to combat DeMarco Murray, the Eagles must get safeties Nate Allen and Malcolm Jenkins involved in the run defense. Both have been adequate in this regard, but nothing special. It doesn’t help that they’re now operating behind a linebacking unit that is relying on youngsters Casey Matthews and Emmanuel Acho in the place of injured veteran signalcaller DeMeco Ryans.

On the 30 or so plays when Tony Romo drops back, outside linebacker Connor Barwin will be the X-factor. The sixth-year veteran already has 12.5 sacks, a career high. He’ll be rushing off the edge against the “weakest” member of Dallas’s front five, Doug Free, who is still one of the three or four best right tackles in football.

Barwin could make a real difference in coverage. He often jams and trails wide receivers off the line as part of coordinator Billy Davis’s double-team concepts. That’d be a good way to handle Dez Bryant. Barwin can also spy quarterbacks, serving as an extra zone defender to take away underneath passing lanes. And he’s excellent defending route runners coming out of the backfield, especially against wheel type concepts.

Barwin’s versatility is the sort of thing that conjures big plays for a defense. And big plays are important against a run-based offense because that’s what pushes it off-schedule and prevents it from dictating the terms of engagement.

Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick. (Rod Mar and Robert Beck for Sports Illustrated/The MMQB)

Sports Illustrated/The MMQB

Seattle (7-4) @ San Francisco (7-4)

Seahawks offense vs. 49ers defense

Seattle’s offense is not playing particularly well and just gave up seven sacks to a stingy Cardinals defense. Now they’re running into an ascending Niners D that just got back its most explosive player, Aldon Smith. Smith gives the Niners the best stunt rushing game in football, not to mention sheer speed and violent hands off the edge. And with fifth-round rookie Aaron Lynch having developed quickly with more playing time during Smith’s absence, the Niners now have a deep pass rushing rotation that will allow everyone to stay fresh (that is, if Ahmad Brooks, who benched himself two weeks ago in a dispute over playing time but got more snaps than Lynch last week, still feels like being a part of it).

So much of Seattle’s offense hinges on Russell Wilson’s mobility, but the limitations of this approach are often exposed against a fast, hard-hitting defense, which the Niners have become. Third-round rookie Chris Borland has brought aggression and speed at linebacker. And behind him is arguably the league’s best downhill attacking safety tandem in turbo charger Eric Reid and wily veteran Antoine Bethea.

In the past, the Niners have always been a man-to-man defense. But often playing with two high safeties rather than just the usual one, they weren’t quite as vulnerable to running quarterbacks like most man-to-man defenses. They’re even less vulnerable now, as their early season drop in talent compelled coordinator Vic Fangio to use more zone concepts. San Fran’s talent has improved over the past few months, and its comfort in this wider breadth of schemes is a big reason why.

Comfortable as the Niners now are in zone, we could still see a heavy dose of man-to-man, given the way Seattle’s wideouts have struggled.

49ers offense vs. Seahawks defense

The only reason the Niners aren’t clear-cut favorites heading into this game is their offense is currently sputtering, having been held to 17 points or fewer in four of its last five outings (they’re 3-2 in this stretch). Colin Kaepernick has been a little more willing to play from the pocket, but we’ve seen inconsistencies arise.

When the Niners don’t run the ball with authority, they become streaky. After posting a convincing 144 yards against New Orleans and 148 against the Giants, they mustered just 66 against Washington. Seattle’s run defense has not been as staunch as last year, and with nose tackle Brandon Mebane out, we shouldn’t expect it to be moving forward. But the return of middle linebacker Bobby Wagner helps (like most of Seattle’s D, Wagner was terrific against Arizona). If strong safety Kam Chancellor, who has battled injuries throughout the year, can build on the reemergence he showed last Sunday, this will again be a tough group. It’s rare, however, to see banged-up players thrive on short weeks.

Impressive Coaching

There will be a handful of times during Sunday night’s game when the Broncos use 3 x 2 empty sets, including on third down. Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton had a simple but clever response when seeing some of these looks against the Seahawks two weeks ago:

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Last season, the Chiefs the Chiefs played mostly coverage-focused concepts against the Broncos, without much blitzing. In the first game, Manning averaged getting the ball out in just over two seconds. In the second meeting, the Broncos did some deeper dropbacks and had excellent route combinations to exploit Kansas City’s man coverage and hybrid concepts (remember Marcus Cooper getting torched?).

Sutton feels better about his four-man rush this season and has been less inclined to blitz. Consequently, his secondary has been sounder. It will be interesting to see how much Sutton deviates from this approach, if at all. Manning has uncharacteristically struggled against the blitz as of late.

Jumping Out On Film

Cincinnati’s running game has averaged 150 yards over the last four games thanks in large part to H-back Ryan Hewitt. He’s been sensational as a lead-blocker, especially on counter runs. It helps that Cincy’s interior offensive line, namely right guard Kevin Zeitler, is effective on short-area pulls. That’s allowed Jeremy Hill and, recently, Giovani Bernard to provide a diverse rushing attack between the tackles.

Smart Watching for Week 13

Keep track of how often the Patriots blitz Aaron Rodgers. Blitzing is not something New England’s man-based D has done often in recent years, but linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins have gone after the quarterback a little more in recent weeks, and both are getting quite good at it. Rodgers is dangerous late in the down, so Bill Belichick may be inclined to rush him with an extra linebacker.

Podcast spotlight

The Buffalo snow wiped out a lot of things last week, including our interview with Jerry Hughes. We’ll try to get the defensive end at a less hectic point this season. In the meantime, we’ll spend this week breaking down the three Thanksgiving games plus the other 13 games from Week 13. Our promise to you: no empty talk about things like “making a statement,” quarterbacks having “it,” or which club might “want it more.” We’ll talk actual football.

10 film study quick-hitters

1) Washington’s only chance on offense right now is Alfred Morris. He is a runner who feasts on downhill momentum, which is why he’s so effective on tosses outside, where the ball gets in his hand early in the run.

2) Ryan Mallett is done after two games (pectoral injury). The assessment so far: he can conduct an offense, but must stabilize his accuracy. There’s a tendency for the 6-foot-6 QB’s ball to sail high (and sometimes wide).

3) Let’s hope Barkevious Mingo’s shoulder injury is impacting his performance. Otherwise, the sixth pick of the 2013 draft is on the early track to being the next Aaron Maybin.

4) San Diego’s King Dunlap is the most improved veteran left tackle in football.

5) Those of you who saw Raiders LB Sio Moore for the first time last Thursday night, just know that he makes flash plays like that every week.

6) Look for the Saints to have success throwing deep crosses against the Steelers.

7) The Bengals would be wise to give safety help over the top against Mike Evans. Cincy isn’t blitzing often these days, so they have the bodies to spare. Plus, George Iloka, at a lanky 6-foot-4, is one of the league’s few defensive backs with the size to spar with Evans.

8) Falcons LB Paul Worrilow is playing the best ball of his young career. Everything about his game has gotten faster.

9) Kelvin Benjamin has a long ways to go as a route runner. When he lines up on the left side, it’ll be fun watching him face Xavier Rhodes. The second-year corner has the strength to contest some on those possession catches.

10) Last week I said the Dolphins defense is the best in the NFL. If I were to ask all the Twitter trolls now hounding me who they think is the NFL’s best D, I’d get 12 different answers.

For Film Study tweets throughout the week, follow @Andy_Benoit

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