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.
Dallas at Philadelphia: It's all about Dez
Of the 16 NFL games this week, 11 are intra-divisional rematches. That's no coincidence: the league has made it a point to backload the schedule with rivalries in hopes of raising the stakes, which is why Week 17 features entirely matchups of that nature.
The level of familiarity brings a different challenge for coaches and players. Will what worked in the first meeting between two teams be successful the second time around? Can earlier errors be corrected?
The Cowboys find themselves with a lot of work to do if they're to improve on a 23-point Thanksgiving loss. Their opponent that day, Philadelphia, can all but clinch the NFC East with another win Sunday night. If Dallas wants to flip the script, Tony Romo and Dez Bryant will have to be more in sync -- Bryant caught four passes for 73 yards in the Week 13 showdown.
So where to start? We begin with a look at how Dallas frequently lines up Bryant, and how the Eagles countered.
Here, Bryant is highlighted facing press coverage from Nolan Carroll, as Philadelphia showed a single-high safety. It's not a hard-and-fast rule, but Dallas does isolate Bryant as much as it can throughout the game; TE Jason Witten and WRs Cole Beasley lined up to Tony Romo's right on this play, with Bryant alone to the left.
Bryant is used to seeing multiple defenders, often in the form of safety help over the top. Philadelphia added a wrinkle on Thanksgiving, walking a safety -- in this case, Nate Allen --- up to the line and then having him drop to eliminate any underneath route from Bryant.
The Eagles used a linebacker in that Allen role on occasion, too, the aim apparently to A) force Romo onto other targets; and B) to box Bryant into deep routes, against the press coverage with safety help deep.
Of course, extra attention on Bryant should free up other Dallas receivers. Such was the case at times in Week 13, but Romo was out of sorts all afternoon, with Philadelphia's pass rush causing problems. The play we've been looking at ended with an incompletion to Witten (white arrow), who broke back toward the line only for Romo to misfire. Beasley (yellow arrow) actually had the most space had he sat down on his route in the middle of the field, rather than running directly into the double coverage on Bryant.
But those openings were there when Romo had time to find them. Case in point: this check-down to DeMarco Murray (boxed) out the backfield, which took advantage of the extremely deep drop by Philadelphia's deep safety and man-to-man coverage across the board.
Philadelphia put the clamps on the Romo-to-Bryant connection early, its cornerbacks swatting away a pair of passes (while playing extremely physical defense) on Dallas' opening drive. Between that lack of success and the relentless pressure up front, Romo actually bailed on Bryant before he needed to on more than one occasion.
The protection in front of Romo was great there, against a four-man Eagles rush. Bryant needed a couple seconds to work his way into an opening, in front of the cornerback covering him and behind the Eagles' linebacker, but he got there. By the time he did, however, Romo already had let fly on an ill-fated pass to a covered Terrance Williams (boxed).
Of course, save for a 38-yard completion to set up Dallas' first touchdown, Romo simply could not locate his deep-ball accuracy in the game. On this next shot, Romo had a window for Bryant up the sideline, yet forced his receiver to slow down for the pass. The result: an incompletion.
Earlier, Bryant worked his way open -- despite a holding penalty against Cary Williams -- for what could have been a significant gain. Romo again came up short.
When Romo and Bryant did connect on that 38-yard pass in the first quarter, they managed to do so because Philadelphia's lone deep safety, Malcolm Jenkins, broke toward the opposite side of Dallas' formation. Again, the Eagles dropped a second-level player to block Bryant from a crossing route, but there was no deep help.
Romo saw it immediately and let fly.
Another of Bryant's four catches came on an all-out blitz from the Eagles.
The main reason Philadelphia avoided that approach, for the most part: Bryant's nearly impossible to cover one-on-one if the blitz doesn't get home. This was a tough catch made to look easy on the 3rd-and-8.
Bryant's yardage total alone won't determine Sunday's rematch. That said, if Romo and Bryant can hit on a couple more shot plays and Romo can find his secondary and tertiary targets when Bryant is blanketed, the Cowboys definitely will have more of a chance than they did in Round 1.
Minnesota at Detroit: Run, Teddy, run
Detroit's pass rush took Teddy Bridgewater to school back in Week 6, dropping him for eight sacks and helping force Bridgewater into three costly interceptions. Since then, Bridgewater has progressed as a QB and the Vikings' offensive line has been at least slightly less inept, but for Minnesota to pull the upset Sunday it may need more from its rookie.
And that's more as a scrambling threat, not just necessarily as a passer.
For all of his athleticism, Bridgewater has never been much of a runner -- he prefers instead, as coaches usually hope their QBs will, to keep his eyes downfield in search of an open receiver.
That is a perfectly fine approach most times. The Lions, though, often rely on bringing four and dropping seven defenders. The scheme can help lock up an opponents' pass-catchers, but it also can leave gaps for a QB to escape if the pressure falters.
Bridgewater simply has to be more decisive Sunday than he was back on Oct. 12. Here's a play where his split-second hesitation cost him. Detroit rushed four, then LB Ashlee Palmer (No. 58) stayed in tight to cover Jerick McKinnon out of the backfield. When Palmer broke toward McKinnon, a lane opened up for Bridgewater.
He waited an extra beat, allowing Ndamukong Suh to finish his pursuit with a sack.
Another one, from the fourth quarter -- the lane to run even more obvious and wide open than in the previous example.
Bridgewater started to go, waited ... and took another sack.
Minnesota does not need (or want) Bridgewater to use his feet as option No. 1 on a play. He could take a cue instead from the likes of fellow NFC North QB Aaron Rodgers, who can threaten defenses as a runner, even if he's not busting off game-breaking plays.
Something more like this ...
That's Bridgewater taking off as soon as he gets to the height of his drop on a 3rd-and-3, then sliding after a four-yard gain. Simple and effective. Most importantly, it happened quickly -- he did not wait around for someone to come free.
More of that Sunday would help keep the Lions defense honest.
Derek Anderson's second start of 2014 will be against the same opponent that he saw in start No. 1: Tampa Bay. That outing came in Week 1, which also marked the debut of Carolina's brilliant rookie receiver, Kelvin Benjamin.
Benjamin and Anderson had a nice day in that 20-14 Carolina win: six receptions for Benjamin, totaling 92 yards and a touchdown. Anderson also left another 68 or so yards and a TD on the board, missing Benjamin on a deep ball. However, the Panthers might find in that incompletion a ticket to even more production Sunday.
The setup: Benjamin facing press-coverage at the line, with Tampa Bay then dropping into a fairly typical Cover-2 -- the deep safeties splitting the field and a row of defenders lining the field in front of them.
Benjamin had some space after clearing that initial level of coverage. He had even more when Tampa Bay safety Dashon Goldson bit on a double move. Unfortunately for Carolina, Anderson drilled the pass about 10 yards too long.
Those deep balls have been an issue all season for the Buccaneers, who have had massive issues adjusting to Lovie Smith's defensive scheme. So, a home-run ball or two should be available again for Benjamin. He scored on one in that Week 1 game, wrestling a 26-yard pass away from a Tampa Bay cornerback for the score.
The threat of those bombs also could lead Benjamin to more intermediate gains, as he picked up multiple times earlier vs. Tampa Bay.
Here, a deep route from former Panthers receiver Jason Avant pulled Goldson downfield, thereby allowing Benjamin to settle into the middle of the zone defense for a healthy gain.
This is too much room for a receiver of Benjamin's caliber and certainly is a pass Anderson is capable of making.
A QB-WR combination cannot live on deep routes up the sideline alone (no matter what Torrey Smith might tell you). Even as he was feeling out his role in the NFL, Benjamin picked out a few holes in Tampa Bay's defense with Anderson at the helm. He should be able to do it again come Sunday.