New England at Pittsburgh
Patriots: Last week the Patriots played man-to-man across the board and doubled A.J. Green with either Logan Ryan or Eric Rowe and a safety (often Duron Harmon). No reason to think that won’t be the plan for Antonio Brown. But recall, in Week 1 last year, the Patriots matched Malcolm Butler one-on-one against Brown. They’re comfortable doing that with Butler when the receiver isn’t too physically large.
Steelers: With Ben Roethlisberger out, the running game becomes more important. The Steelers must finely execute their two staples: duo combo blocks inside and pull blocks with right guard David DeCastro on the perimeter. There’s an encouraging track record here: last year in the four games Roethlisberger missed, the Steelers averaged 29 rushes and 152.5 yards per game, a six-rush, 60-yard increase over games in which Roethlisberger played.
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Minnesota at Philadelphia
Vikings: Eric Kendricks has evolved into one of the best zone pass-defending linebackers in football. Interesting because his also-talented brother, Mychal, whose team he’ll play this week, has often struggled in this department and will likely be on the sideline when the Eagles D faces obvious passing situations.
Eagles: Right now, pass-blocking is as difficult for fifth-round rookie right tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai as spelling his name is for everyone else. The Eagles did not get going against Washington until Vaitai (mercifully) started getting chip-block help against Ryan Kerrigan. Expect regular chip blocks this Sunday.
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San Diego at Atlanta
Chargers: Players around the league keep talking about wideout Tyrell Williams. They’re impressed—almost awed, even—by his lankiness and speed. Williams could evolve into a serious weapon by season’s end, if not sooner.
Falcons: If I’m San Diego, I study Atlanta’s offensive gameplan from last week’s contest at Seattle very closely. Dan Quinn knows Seattle’s scheme and runs it in Atlanta. Everything the Falcons did last week was stuff they, presumably, wouldn’t want done to them. One of those things was playing base personnel and motioning a running back or tight end out wide past the receiver. This distorts a defense’s zone matchups. It worked marvelously against Seattle.
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Tampa Bay at San Francisco
Buccaneers: In the NFL, injuries often aren’t as damning as they may seem. Often it just means the team’s next guy up is the one who gets to produce. But that’s not true with Vincent Jackson in Tampa Bay. The Bucs have no wide receiver below him on the depth chart to replace Jackson’s size. And size matters in this deep passing attack. Mike Evans is now also much easier to double-team.
49ers: Colin Kaepernick will always have frenetic tendencies. The debate is whether he can iron them out. The skeptics have the strongest argument: If he could, he would have by now. What’s inarguable is Kaepernick can’t succeed if his pocket crumbles as much as it did against Buffalo, and if his receivers are so disjointed in their spacing and timing.
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Buffalo at Miami
Bills: Under Greg Roman, the Bills played with two running backs on 9.3 percent of their snaps. Under Anthony Lynn, they’ve gone two-back 46.6 percent of the time. Also, they’ve reduced their movement. Just over 60 percent of Roman’s running plays involved presnap motion. Just under 20 percent of Lynn’s runs have.
Dolphins: Mario Williams got called out by coordinator Vance Joseph and then benched, finishing with just 13 snaps against the Steelers. Don’t be surprised if this sticks. Not only did Andre Branch play well in Williams’s place, but Branch is simply the better player at this point. He’s long and has shown a nice combination of leverage and quickness.
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N.Y. Giants vs. Los Angeles (in London)
Giants: The Giants dominated the Ravens with disguised blitzes. The key was having the blitzers come from true linebacker or safety depth. It meant more ground for them to cover, but that’s what created the strong disguise. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is one of the most unpredictable blitz-callers in football.
Rams: Who will guard Odell Beckham Jr.? Trumaine Johnson has drawn No. 1 assignments before and done well, but he’s been battling an ankle injury and is unlikely to play. It’ll have to be a group effort out of zone coverage. The Rams have been proficient in Cover 2 much of this season. And defenses all year have felt comfortable playing two-high safeties against the Giants and their unthreatening ground game.
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Cleveland at Cincinnati
Browns: Hue Jackson likes to really scheme his offense. You’ll notice the array of formations and presnap shifts, especially early in games. It’ll be interesting to see what Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther has for a response here. You can bet Guenther spent a lot of time this week talking with the Bengals offensive coaches who worked under Jackson last year.
Bengals: One thing Jackson should (and surely does) know about Guenther is that if he aligns a defensive tackle (usually Geno Atkins) directly over the center, it’s likely some sort of zone blitz. This was true early in the year and has remained the case. The Bengals got to Tom Brady a few times here last week.
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Washington at Detroit
Washington: This is no longer strictly a zone-based defense. For the third week in a row, defensive coordinator Joe Barry employed significant snaps of man coverage. An important player here is Will Blackmon, who became the free safety after DeAngelo Hall got hurt. Blackmon has been a corner most of his life, and it showed in how he was used in nickel against Philadelphia, where he played safety, outside corner and the slot. Blackmon also matched up on tight end Zach Ertz in a Cover 0 blitz.
Lions: Ziggy Ansah is back, and not a moment too soon. He was quiet in his return last week but should round fully into form soon. Even though Kerry Hyder has been marvelous at times and has five sacks, the Lions don’t have a pure pass rushing threat when Ansah is out.
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Indianapolis at Tennessee
Colts: Expect to see more of Jack Doyle at H-back. Dwayne Allen is out with an ankle injury and wasn’t blocking particularly well out of the backfield anyway. Doyle shined last week. The Colts ran eight times for 57 yards directly behind his lead-blocking.
Titans: Few sub-package pass rushes are as difficult to prepare for as Tennessee’s. The Titans employ a litany of personnel groupings, fronts and gap-exchange blitzes. It will be a real test for a Colts O-line that’s not super sound but has been better than people think.
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New Orleans at Kansas City
Saints: Wide receivers must make plays this week. The Saints passing game focuses on attacking the seams and middle of the field. That can be difficult against a Chiefs matchup zone defense that puts its help-coverage in these areas.
Chiefs: This remains one of the best all-around screen teams in football. Don’t be surprised if you see an even wider variety than usual given how up-and-down the Saints’ safeties have been.
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Baltimore at N.Y. Jets
Ravens: A name for the back of your mind: Michael Pierce. The undrafted rookie nose tackle from Samford is squatty (in a good way) and moves well in confined areas.
Jets: The Ryan Fitzpatrick benching had to happen. But Fitz wasn’t the source of all this offense’s problems. Matt Forte and the inside ground game have been significantly less effective this month. The depth at wide receiver has been tested with Eric Decker out. And top player Brandon Marshall has had a few drops in crucial moments.
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Oakland at Jacksonville
Raiders: This is a great O-line, yes, but as we’ve mentioned in previous weeks, it’s aided by a scheme that keeps backs and tight ends in to help block and makes good use of quick-strike passes. And lately, offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave has gone a step further, putting undrafted rookie Denver Kirkland on the field as a sixth offensive lineman. Kirkland has played 43 total snaps over the last two weeks.
Jaguars: You know what you’re getting from this defense: single-high zone coverage (aka Cover 3). Defenders will need their antennas up. The Raiders have been outstanding with deep-shot play designs that specifically target a predicted coverage. They’ll have a few new designs in store, likely featuring Amari Cooper.
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Seattle at Arizona
Seahawks: At the risk of speaking too soon, the Seahawks could have a pretty good foundation along their interior O-line. Justin Britt at center and Germain Ifedi at right guard have both really flashed. But that’s flashed, not shined. They have a way to go to become consistent.
Cardinals: Quietly Marcus Cooper has been very sound at the No. 2 corner spot. That’s huge in this pressure-heavy scheme.
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Houston at Denver
Texans: What was most impressive about Brock Osweiler’s game-tying touchdown to C.J. Fiedorowicz last week was it came against the same coverage and look as Osweiler’s interception to Minnesota’s Andrew Sendejo the week before: 2-man on a seam route. That meant man defender tailgating the receiver and a safety waiting for him directly over the top. The Sendejo pick was a bad decision—there was no window on that one. The Fiedorowicz decision was a good one given the game’s situation. There was almost no window on that one, too, but Osweiler made an outstanding throw.
Broncos: Two losses are not enough to declare any sort of blueprint on this defense, but there’s one clear correlation between the Falcons and Chargers games: base personnel. Against Denver, the Falcons went with a traditional two-backs or two-tight end package, or with three tight ends, on 77 percent of their snaps. The Chargers did it on 72 percent of theirs.
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Chicago, Green Bay
Bears: On the bright side, Leonard Floyd is starting to quickly fulfill his first-round potential.
Packers: It will be interesting to see what happens with Ty Montgomery. Most likely, Knile Davis, recently traded over from Kansas City, will become the feature back next week and hold down the fort until James Starks is healthy. But Montgomery needs to keep getting regular snaps out of the backfield. He gives this offense that extra Randall Cobb-type dimension. Montgomery is not as dynamic as Cobb, but he might be a more stable down-to-down player.
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Bye Week Teams
Cowboys: According to my game-charting maestro Allan Uy, the only area where Dallas’s running game has not flourished this year is on weak-side against under fronts. (In an under front, the defensive tackle aligns between the guard and tackle on the weak side.) Highly specific, yes, but this is the type of thing coaches must study and correct.
Panthers: At least you can’t give up 450 yards passing on your bye week.
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