- The X’s and O’s that will decide Vikings-Lions, Chargers-Cowboys and Washington-Giants on Thursday
Minnesota at Detroit
Lions Offense vs. Vikings Defense
Detroit ran the ball surprisingly well against a stingy Vikings front when these teams met back in Week 4. Ameer Abdullah finished with 94 yards on 20 carries. That, plus a few of Matthew Stafford’s patented Holy Cow Did You See That?! throws were enough to give Detroit a 14-7 victory.
The Lions will try to establish the run again on Thursday, given that the fatigue from playing on a short week impacts the reactionary players (in this case, front-seven run defenders) more than the proactive players (run-blocking offensive linemen). But attacking the Vikings’ second-ranked run defense solely with your 28th-ranked ground game is no sort of plan. This game, like most Lions contests, will be decided through the air.
If stalwart corner Xavier Rhodes again travels with wideout Marvin Jones, it comes down to whether Detroit’s other receivers can make plays. (The frailer, more agile Jones matches up poorly against Rhodes’ physicality.) That means Golden Tate working against slot defenders Terence Newman and Mackensie Alexander (they rotate). And T.J. Jones and Kenny Golladay getting vertical against Vikings corner Trae Waynes. When they last saw Waynes, he’d been struggling against downfield routes. But in late October and on into November, the 2015 first-round corner found his footing. Also, don’t overlook tight end Eric Ebron. He’s unreliable, but remember last season in Week 9—on a third-and-3 in overtime, he beat Harrison Smith for 23 yards to extend what would be the game-winning drive.
Vikings Offense vs. Lions Defense
Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur builds clever route combinations that high-low defenders. One receiver will go deep behind a defender, the other will go shallow in front of him. The QB reads that defender’s reaction and throws accordingly. This is easy to do against a Cover 2 defense, where a cornerback stays low. The Lions employ Cover 2, but really their foundation is more Cover 4, where the outside corners and safeties each defend one quarter of the field vertically.
To stress Cover 4, you run downfield route combinations. Post routes paired with slot Go routes or corner routes can be fruitful ways to punish defenders for playing to each other’s help. Detroit’s safeties are not always as aggressive as other teams’ (that’s by design), so it’s important that the routes are run with precision, and that Case Keenum throws on time. Otherwise, the soft-coverage defenders can react to the ball. It helps that the Lions have an underwhelming pass rush. The Vikings should be comfortable with Keenum executing these plays on five-and seven-step dropbacks.
Prediction: Vikings 23, Lions 16
L.A. Chargers at Dallas
Cowboys Offense vs. Chargers Defense
Your backside edge defenders are critical against the Cowboys. They’re the men who keep Dallas’s zone-ground game in-check and handle Dak Prescott’s bootleg action. The Chargers have two of the league’s best in Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa. Ingram is particularly lethal if you don’t get a body on him early in the down. The Cowboys like to run split zone, where a tight end crosses the formation after the snap to block the defensive end, but Ingram is too laterally explosive for that to work.
That lateral explosiveness also makes him, as well as Bosa, potent on pass rushing stunts. It’s imperative the Cowboys get left tackle Tyron Smith back healthy. If they don’t, you’ll see Ingram and Bosa lining up side by side on the offense’s left on most third downs.
Chargers Offense vs. Cowboys Defense
The three most dangerous elements of Los Angeles’s offense are (in no particular order): wideout Keenan Allen on in-breaking routes, wideout Travis Benjamin on designer deep shots and running backs Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler on checkdowns and swing passes. All of these can be handled with the zone coverage that makes up Dallas’s schematic foundation, but only if the linebackers play well. That’s a tall order with Sean Lee (hamstring) still out.
The outside zone ’backer is the help against Allen’s in-breaking routes. The inside zone ‘backer is the targeted defender on most of the Benjamin deep shots. That linebacker must be on high alert for Benjamin crossing the field vertically, especially when Benjamin is aligned on the inside of a trips formation. Obviously no linebacker can run with Benjamin (few corners can), so the linebacker’s only chance is to identify the route early.
The tricky part is the linebackers who defend Allen and Benjamin are also responsible for handling Gordon and Ekeler out of the backfield. That’s difficult because Philip Rivers has such a refined understanding of when to check it down to those guys.
Prediction: Chargers 27, Cowboys 24
N.Y. Giants at Washington
New York Offense vs. Washington Defense
A defense must have a plan for tight end Evan Engram. He’s the only Giants skill player who can hurt you from anywhere in the formation. Safety D.J. Swearinger has often been Washington’s tight end matchup piece in man coverage. Swearinger has had a nice season, but he’s not quite twitchy enough to contend with a wide receiver-caliber athlete like Engram. Perhaps that’s part of the reason Washington’s foundation is zone coverage.
Often, your zone coverage is only as good as your pass rush. Washington’s has been inconsistent, and in Ben McAdoo’s scheme, Eli Manning gets the ball out quickly. That’s tough on a defense; in the very least, blitzing becomes pointless. Washington’s best pass rushers are edge men Ryan Kerrigan and Junior Galette, but with the quick-timed passing game, your interior defensive linemen become key. That’s also true against the Giants’ ground game, which is built on inside zone runs, usually from shotgun. This game could come down to the performance of Washington defensive tackles Stacy McGee, Matt Ioannidis, Ziggy Hood, Terrell McClain and Anthony Lanier.
Washington Offense vs. New York Defense
With running back Chris Thompson breaking his leg against the Saints and tight end Jordan Reed once again battling injuries for much of a season, Washington’s wide receivers must finally step up and play. The team appears to have given up on Terrelle Pryor, who is now out with an ankle injury anyway. Last year’s first-round pick, Josh Doctson, has lately seen an expanded role and must quickly develop into a No. 1 receiver—easy to say, hard to do, especially midseason, and even more especially when you’re facing cover artists like Janoris Jenkins and Eli Apple. Both corners have had disappointing seasons, but they’re still talented.
Besides playing well at outside receiver, Washington must exploit New York’s depleted linebacking corps. Thompson would have been a wonderful weapon here. With him gone, expect Jay Gruden to pound the rock with third-stringer-turned-starter Samaje Perine. In that case, the game comes down to strength on strength: Washington’s big, athletic offensive line against Damon Harrison and Olivier Vernon, as well as defensive tackles Jay Bromley and Dalvin Tomlinson, who had their best performances of 2017 last Sunday against the Chiefs.
Prediction: Washington 20, Giants 17
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