Denver at New Orleans
Broncos: No AFC offense goes three-and-out with more regularity than this one. You wonder if Gary Kubiak needs to reconsider his preference for having Trevor Siemian throw on deep dropbacks to start series.
Saints: Second-round rookie wideout Michael Thomas has shown great signs as a possession receiver. He has a thick frame and a mechanical deliberateness to his route running. At times, he plays like a five-year veteran. In the last month, he has caught 81.3 percent of the balls thrown to him.
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Kansas City at Carolina
Chiefs: Cornerback Marcus Peters has played the run with more alacrity and effectiveness this season. Good thing, too. Offenses still like to make a line of scrimmage tight end their only eligible receiver on Peters’ side of the field. By doing that they force Peters to be the defense’s primary stopper on the edge.
Panthers: Window dressing is a big part of this rushing attack. About half of Carolina’s run plays this season have involved some sort of pre-snap motion. On those runs, the Panthers are averaging 4.5 yards a carry. On the runs without pre-snap motion, they’re averaging 3.9.
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Los Angeles at N.Y. Jets
Rams: The over/under for combined QB hits, pressures and sacks for Aaron Donald this week should be 10. Donald always dominated Jets left guard James Carpenter when Carpenter was in Seattle. And right guard Brian Winters has been inconsistent mentally and physically at times this year.
Jets: Leonard Williams (you know, the Jets stud defensive lineman who doesn’t miss meetings or walkthroughs) was dominant in run defense against Miami last week. He’s explosive shedding blocks and penetrating on the backside against zone runs. Notably, many of Williams’ snaps came at nose tackle (either head up on center Mike Pouncey or shaded over Pouncey’s shoulder). If that becomes Williams’ fulltime role, then there’s still room for Sheldon Richardson on this team long-term.
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Green Bay at Tennessee
Packers: With Quinten Rollins back in the lineup and LaDarius Gunter playing better each week, Dom Capers now trusts his corners enough to call blitzes again. Capers frequently sent defensive backs off both edges against the Colts. Don’t be surprised if this week the pressure comes right up the middle against Tennessee’s athletically iffy guards, Josh Kline and Brian Schwenke (a backup filling in for the injured Quinton Spain.)
Titans: For the most part, Marcus Mariota played very well against San Diego. Unfortunately, some of his negative plays resulted in painful turnovers. The first of those, an interception by Casey Hayward, was a fascinating illustration of how film study so greatly impacts the action in pro football. Mariota was targeting Delanie Walker on the exact same wheel route that had burned the Jaguars for 47 yards the week before. Hayward was technically responsible for the outside receiver’s dig route, but recognizing the route combinations, he kept an eye on Walker and easily stepped in front of the deep throw when it arrived.
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Dallas at Pittsburgh
Cowboys: Tyron Smith is the best left tackle in football. He wasn’t on my midseason All-Pro team because he missed some time and was uncharacteristically inconsistent early in the year. But on film there isn’t a more impressive specimen at Smith’s position. He has light, springy feet, impeccable balance, arms so long he can probably tie his shoes without bending over and hands strong enough to crumble a penny arcade grip tester.
Steelers: Rookie cornerback Artie Burns got picked on (hard) by Joe Flacco last week. The lowlight came when Mike Wallace beat him on a quick slant for a 95-yard touchdown (though safety Mike Mitchell’s missed tackle was the biggest problem on that play). It wasn’t all bad for Burns, though. He showed good spatial awareness in zone coverage, and when Flacco made a boneheaded throw back across his body while falling away, Burns captured the easy interception. Moving forward, Burns’s rookie season will hinge on how well he can perform in outside man technique coverage along the perimeter.
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Atlanta at Philadelphia
Falcons: Over the last two weeks this offense has expanded its zone running game to include more “inside zone.” That means two double teams up the middle, a smashmouth approach. If this becomes a part of Atlanta’s repertoire—and so far it’s been successful—this will be one of the NFL’s two or three most difficult running games to stop.
Eagles: One problematic matchup for the Eagles: center Jason Kelce against defensive tackle Grady Jarrett. Kelce struggles against bigger men in phone booths. Jarrett’s game is built largely on quickness, but he also has terrific size.
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Minnesota at Washington
Vikings: The Lions showed the rest of the NFL a clever way to attack Mike Zimmer’s double-A-gap front last Sunday. They first time they saw the front it was third-and-7. They ran a shotgun dive to Theo Riddick. Typically that’s not the run you want against two linebackers crowding the A-gaps. But in this case, the center and the guard crisscrossed their blocks. That meant each lineman was blocking an A-gap linebacker at a downward angle, which created a natural hole right up the middle.
Washington: Somewhat quietly, Ryan Kerrigan has had a dominant season. His long-arm bull-rush might be the best in the league. New Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur has no choice but to stick with the quick-drop, chip-block and rollout passing concepts that he employed a week ago. If Shurmur calls for a straight five- or (heaven forbid) seven-step dropback, Kerrigan will destroy right tackle T.J. Clemmings.
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Houston at Jacksonville
Texans: Bill O’Brien has made the tight ends a bigger part of the offense. In fact, their tight ends have 57 catches on the season, third most in the NFL. A year ago they had 41 catches for the entire season, second fewest in the league. Tight ends are a great way to simplify things for a QB who’s struggling like Brock Osweiler has. They often draw favorable matchups inside, and just having them in the formation can help reveal the defense’s coverage.
Jaguars: Blake Bortles has struggled with his delivery and accuracy, and now he’s starting to struggle with basic field reads. His interception to Kansas City’s Ramik Wilson is an egregious example.
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Chicago at Tampa Bay
Bears: Expect Alshon Jeffery on quick slants and skinny posts this week. The Bucs Cover 3 foundation is vulnerable to that; by the rules of Cover 3, the cornerback has to play outside of the receiver, leaving those inside-breaking routes open. Bigger receivers pose more of a problem here.
Bucs: Safety is a position of concern in Tampa Bay (feels like it has been since John Lynch left). But one bright spot has been Bradley McDougald, at least in run defense. He’s a sturdy lane-filler and open-field tackler. Unfortunately, what people have noticed most with McDougald’s tackles this season is the bad one he missed on Seth Roberts’ overtime touchdown in the loss to Oakland.
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Miami at San Diego
Dolphins: Last week’s game against the Jets was a revealing one about Adam Gase. The Jets came in with the league’s No. 1 run defense, and that No. 1 run defense has stretches of dominant play in the middle of the game. Yet still, Gase stuck with Miami’s foundational outside zone rushing attack, relying on his O-line and back Jay Ajayi to outperform New York’s vaunted front line athletes. It worked; Ajayi rushed for 85 yards on 14 carries in the second half, with 55 yards coming on his final seven carries. But just the fact that Gase didn’t abandon the run midway through tells you he’s committed to being a ball control offense. The 2016 Dolphins have found their offensive identity.
Chargers: Brandon Flowers was tremendous against Tennessee. You probably saw his fourth quarter pick-six. That stemmed from pure, terrific man coverage in the slot. But almost as big was that the rest of his performance that game; Flowers was a force on the edges against the run.
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San Francisco at Arizona
49ers: It came in a losing effort, but the Niners offense last week looked sharper than it has at any point under Chip Kelly. Their 486 yards bested their previous season-high by 156. Pre-snap misdirection was a big factor.
Cardinals: Two weeks ago at Carolina, this offensive line gave the worst single-game performance of any front five in 2016. Now, coming off the bye, the line is without left tackle Jared Veldheer, who tore his right triceps and is done for the season. They’ll have to roll with John Wetzel as Carson Palmer’s blind side protector. They don’t face an imposing pass rush this week, so maybe this offensive system will stay the same. But in the bigger picture, it’s hard to envision Bruce Arians not drifting away from the downfield, five-receiver route combinations that define his passing game.
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Seattle at New England
Seahawks: This is a different defense with Michael Bennett out. There’s no versatile, dynamic veteran force controlling the trenches inside. (Frank Clark is on the rise but not there yet.) This is largely why offenses have been able to sustain drives against this Seattle lately.
Patriots: When I met with Rob Gronkowski over the offseason, he told me he thinks the last time he saw a linebacker guard him out wide in man coverage was on his 22-yard touchdown against K.J. Wright in the Super Bowl. The Seahawks have been playing a lot more man coverage this season. When they’re in man Sunday night, they’ll have two choices: defend Gronk with Wright again but have safety help over the top, or defend Gronk one-on-one with the much-smaller Earl Thomas or less experienced Kelcie McCray. My guess: They’ll choose neither and go back to playing Cover 3 on almost every down this week.
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Cincinnati at N.Y. Giants
Bengals: It makes perfect sense that defensive coordinator Paul Guenther spent his bye week watching each individual player on film and meeting with some of those guys. The Bengals mostly play straight Cover 2 or Cover 4. Which means they rely on winning through fundamental execution, not design. It’s good coaching for Guenther to spend the off-week telling players how they can improve here. (And many of them do need to improve.)
Giants: Because the Bengals are a simple zone defense, expect to see a ton of New York’s staple slant routes. That’ll get Odell Beckham Jr. and Sterling Shepard matched against linebackers inside.
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Cleveland at Baltimore
Browns: Thursday was a tough night for left tackle Joe Thomas.
Ravens: What always stands out with Terrell Suggs is how patient he is setting up his pass rush moves.
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Bye Week Teams
Bills: Perhaps no player has endured a harsher sophomore slump than cornerback Ronald Darby. Sensational in one-on-one downfield coverage a year ago, Darby has struggled horrendously against the deep ball in 2016. He finally got benched midway through the loss to Seattle, though Rex Ryan said it was because he was sick. Here’s hoping Darby feels better. And plays better.
Lions: Tight end Eric Ebron can’t run-block to save his life, but he’s becoming a much more dangerous receiver. His route repertoire is expanding and he’s lining up in more places across the formation these days.
Colts: Last week at Green Bay, Andrew Luck had some of the best third down plays you’ll see. The 20-yarder to Jack Doyle was otherworldly. It’s these sort of late-in-the-down plays that put Luck firmly in the superstar class.
Raiders: Latavius Murray had a lot of yards against Denver, but the more I study this running game on film, the more I think Jalen Richard is Oakland’s best ball-carrier. Murray is big, but he’s not physical. You rarely see him run over people or through tackles. Which means, by nature, his game is predicated on quickness and elusiveness. That’s fine, he’s productive enough, but he’s not as quick or as elusive as Richard. Not surprisingly, Richard is averaging 1.9 yards more per rush than Murray.
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