Philadelphia at N.Y. Giants
Eagles: Losing Josh Huff hurts (the third-year receiver was released following an arrest for gun and drug charges earlier this week). Huff was significant in the misdirection and screen concepts that comprise much of Doug Pederson’s offense.
Giants: Left tackle Ereck Flowers has a bad tendency to drop his helmet and lunge in pass protection. Nobody can block this way. Connor Barwin is not an electrifying edge rusher, but he’s a smart eighth-year veteran. If there’s a pattern to what propagates Flowers’ mechanical breakdowns—do they occur in certain situations? Against certain defensive fronts? Certain pass rush moves?—Barwin will have spotted it on film.
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Pittsburgh at Baltimore
Steelers: Defensive coordinator Keith Butler has not blitzed much this season, and that could continue this week. Butler tends to blitz against teams with go-to wide receivers. With Steve Smith potentially out, the Ravens don’t have one. Still, you can bet Joe Flacco spent extra time preparing for blitzes just in case. In the first Steelers-Ravens game last season, Butler fooled Flacco with trap coverages behind edge blitzes out of Cover 2.
Ravens: Prior to their bye week, John Harbaugh shared with the public what he told second-year wide receiver Breshad Perriman (who, given that he missed all of 2015, is sort of still a rookie): “You have all this talent, and there is a lot to learn, but I just want to speed the curve up.” Indeed, Perriman’s play has looked slow at times on film. That’s often an indication of a player’s mental gears churning too much.
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Dallas at Cleveland
Cowboys: We think of this defense as a classic 4-3, with straight four-man pass rushes that feature a pair of three-techniques and defensive ends up front. But on nearly half of their third downs against the Eagles last week, the Cowboys used some form of nose tackle alignment. They generally rushed only three or four out of these looks, but those nose alignments can significantly influence blocking assignments.
Browns: They don’t have great edge players; perhaps we’ll see Jamie Collins get snaps here. Whoever plays, he’ll have to be patient against Dak Prescott. Prescott will keep the ball on read-options, plus the Cowboys use him on rollouts. Both tactics punish defensive ends who aggressively attack inside.
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Jacksonville at Kansas City
Jaguars: With Greg Olson out as offensive coordinator and QB coach Nathaniel Hackett in, it will be interesting to see how Allen Hurns is used. Last season Hurns lined up predominantly outside, though he was more proficient playing from the slot (especially if he was one of only two receivers on his side of the formation). This season, Olson used Hurns very predominantly in the slot. And, befuddlingly, Hurns mostly disappeared. Where does Hackett think Hurns fits best?
Chiefs: Andy Reid is one of the three or four best play designers in football. Last week, the main beneficiary of that was tight end Travis Kelce, who won on a number of designer routes that beat the Colts’ man and zone coverages.
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N.Y. Jets at Miami
Jets: The Dolphins, coming off a bye, were tremendous with defensive line slants against Buffalo two weeks ago. The Jets must be ready for that. Slanting your defensive linemen forces guards to redirect athletically. Left guard James Carpenter, a north-south mauler, can’t do that. Right guard Brian Winters at times has had trouble sustaining blocks. Making him block from weird angles would likely magnify this.
Dolphins: Their outside zone game has been rolling. But a lot of teams are hesitant to run outside zone against New York’s destructive defensive line and No. 1 ranked run defense. If the ground game isn’t working early, Adam Gase might abandon it.
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Carolina at Los Angeles
Panthers: Welcome back, Carolina’s rushing attack. Against the Cardinals we saw more of the staple two-back, gap-scheme rushing concepts, with pull blockers and misdirection looks that changes angles and make defenders pause. Cam Newton’s mobility—or often, the threat of his mobility—is what makes this go.
Rams: First down is when the Rams get creative offensively. That’s when the defense is most predictable. Tavon Austin is usually involved. The Panthers, to counter this kind of thing, like to blitz defensive backs off the edge. A fun chess match awaits.
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Detroit at Minnesota
Lions: This is not a good enough receiving corps for Detroit’s passing game to be consistent down the stretch. Marvin Jones isn’t adroit enough against press coverage to be a true No. 1. Anquan Boldin can’t run anymore. And Golden Tate is really a gadget player.
Vikings: You have to wonder if Norv Turner and Mike Zimmer would have noticed the philosophical differences between them if the Vikings weren’t reeling at offensive tackle.
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New Orleans at San Francisco
Saints: Linebacker has been a problematic position. Stephone Anthony seemingly is not as beloved by defensive coordinator Dennis Allen as he was by Rob Ryan. His snap counts are down to 15 percent. Last year, he was at 93 percent. Veteran James Laurinaitis has been benched in favor of Nate Stupar, who at times has shown excellent play recognition and, at other times, not so much. The most—in fact, only—consistent linebacker has been ex-Brown Craig Robertson.
49ers: If the Niners had traded Torrey Smith to the Eagles (as rumored), neither team’s offense would have changed. Smith is fast but stiff, which is why his route tree has no branches and his output as a deep threat comes and goes.
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Indianapolis at Green Bay
Colts: Entering last week’s game at Indy, Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith was averaging over 10 yards an attempt to the “left middle” part of the field and under 7.5 yards an attempt everywhere else. You wonder if the Colts recognized this. Because when their corner on the offense’s left side, Vontae Davis, went out, he was replaced by Rashaan Melvin. But Melvin played the other side, allowing No. 2 corner Patrick Robinson to fill Davis’ duties. It seemed the Colts wanted their best corner playing on the offense’s left side. This was all but confirmed late in the first half when Robinson went out for a bit and was replaced by undrafted rookie Matthias Farley (who struggled, by the way). Farley didn’t assume Robinson’s duties on the offense’s left side. Instead, slot man Darius Butler did, leaving Farley to play the right side, just like Melvin did. The best corner on the field always played to the offense’s left and the weakest always played to the right. The question is: was this because of how Colts coaches felt about the Chiefs’ passing game? Or did it have something to do with the construction of their own defensive scheme?
Packers: We saw a few man-beater route combinations from this offense early in the game against Atlanta, when Aaron Rodgers & Co. were rolling. But in the second half, the Falcons played man-to-man on virtually every snap and the Packers went back to their usual spread iso routes. Not surprisingly, the offense operated less smoothly, averaging 3.9 yards per play after posting 7.1 in the first half.
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Tennessee at San Diego
Titans: This brutish rushing attack is getting better each week. When DeMarco Murray is your running back, you have to call specific runs that get him rolling downhill and toward the perimeter. That highlights Murray’s natural power and negates his lack of twitch and agility. The Titans seem to be gaining a better understanding of this.
Chargers: Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram are two fluid, flexible athletes who possess explosive lateral movement skills. The Chargers’ pass rushing concepts out of amoeba fronts should become more sophisticated as the season progresses.
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Denver at Oakland
Broncos: C.J. Anderson is a stout runner with a nice jump cut, but the Broncos can survive with Devontae Booker in his place. This rushing attack as much as anything is about the blocking structures, which often feature fullback Andy Janovich.
Raiders: Something they had success with last season against the Broncos, as well as last week against the Bucs, were inside linebacker blitzes behind a nose tackle. The common denominator with the Broncos and Bucs is their pass protection rules call for the running backs to step up inside and take blitzing linebackers. Jack Del Rio and Ken Norton Jr. have figured out ways to exploit this.
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Buffalo at Seattle
Bills: Tyrod Taylor has left open receivers on the field all season. His two-yard scramble last week against New England was a great snapshot of the problem. On that play, Walt Powell was wide open on a dig in a three-receiver route combination. Taylor never saw him, though, because his eyes were affixed on the other side of the field. The bad part is this was the X-iso side, meaning there was only one receiver over there. And it was evident at the snap that the coverage had taken away that receiver. Still, Taylor kept his eyes over there, never looking at the trips route combination (the play’s main design).
Seahawks: What always stands out is how well these defensive backs tackle. That includes corners DeShawn Shead and especially Richard Sherman.
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Atlanta at Tampa Bay
Falcons: It wasn’t just last night that Atlanta ran a little less zone outside and a little more inside. That was the case last week, too.
Bucs: The Falcons had no trouble exploiting Tampa Bay's Cover 3 zones Thursday night. Slants and seam passes were major issues for the Bucs’ D.
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Bye Week Teams
Patriots: It’s doubtful Bill Belichick would have dealt Jamie Collins if sixth-round rookie inside linebacker Elandon Roberts didn’t look like such a stud. Roberts plays fast and sound against the run. The question is whether he can do it against the pass.
Bengals: Second-year pro and first-year starter Cedric Ogbuehi has struggled and now rotates with soon-to-be 33-year-old Eric Winston at right tackle. Ogbuehi’s biggest problem: anchoring against bull-rushers.
Texans: They gave a great defensive performance against Detroit last week. Their plan was to mess with Matthew Stafford’s vision. To do this, they aggressively disguised their coverages and ran pass rush stunts right up the middle.
Washington: Wide receivers DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon have taken a back seat this season. Both are averaging less than five catches and 55 yards a game. That’s just the nature of Washington’s offense. It is very matchup-driven, and matchups are most malleable inside, not on the perimeter. That’s why Jordan Reed and slot man Jamison Crowder are Washington’s two most prolific pass-catchers right now.
Cardinals: There’s nothing to say except that against Carolina their offensive line had the worst game, mentally and physically, of any front five in the NFL this season. Everyone except center A.Q. Shipley stood out numerous times for the wrong reasons.
Bears: This will be a much better defense in the second half of the season. The secondary is young and improving. So is the pass rush.
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