- From Andy Benoit’s film study, key matchups and schemes to watch for across the Sunday slate.
Packers (4-5-1) at Vikings (5-4-1) | 8:20 pm, NBC
It doesn’t get much better than watching Packers left tackle David Bakhtiari versus Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen. Though slight of frame and lacking in anchor strength, Bakhtiari handles bull rushes as soundly as any blocker. Griffen, with his natural playing leverage and keen timing off the snap, might have football’s best pure bull rush. Bakhtiari should be fine as long as Green Bay’s passing game functions on time—though with Aaron Rodgers, it’s anyone’s guess if it will. Every week there are dropbacks where Rodgers holds the ball for reasons known only to him. When these teams tied back in Week 2, the Vikings changed up their coverages steadily throughout the game. That could be a tactic to make Rodgers play hesitantly.
Steelers (7-2-1) at Broncos (4-6) | 4:25 pm, CBS
The only truly bad game Broncos cornerback stud Chris Harris has had in the last three years came on December 20, 2015, when Antonio Brown lit up the crafty corner and the rest of Denver’s secondary for 16 catches for 189 yards and two touchdowns. He bled Harris slowly, with none of the catches going for more than 23 yards. Months later I valiantly competed one-on-one against Harris. In what I realize now to be a sad effort at trash talking, I mentioned his game against Brown. He got in his stance and simply said, “I can’t wait to face Pittsburgh again.” (Then he jammed me a little harder than usual off the snap.)
Colts (5-5) at Dolphins (5-5) | 4:25 pm, CBS
No. 2 tight end Eric Ebron, with six touchdowns over his last five outings, is the talk of the town in Indianapolis. He’ll play a key role in this game, which potentially has major wild-card implications. Miami’s linebackers can be vulnerable to deep routes on play-action. Given how much Ebron and the Colts have prospered here, don’t be surprised if the Dolphins play a little less of their foundational zone and more man-to-man so that athletic safety T.J. McDonald can match up against the ascending tight end.
Cardinals (2-8) at Chargers (7-3) | 4:05 pm, Fox
The most disappointing thing about L.A.’s last-second loss at home to Denver last week was pass rushers Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa made little noise against a Broncos offensive line that was playing three new starters inside. Bosa should be better this week now that he’s had a chance to get his sea legs. And Ingram, well, he’s always been streaky. Last week can be chalked up as “one of those days,” but eyebrows will raise if these two don’t shine on Sunday against a Cardinals offensive line that lately has been deplorable securing the edges.
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Giants (3-7) at Eagles (4-6) | 1 pm, Fox
New York’s offensive line isn’t reeling quite as much as it was when these teams met back on a Thursday night in Week 6 and Philly’s D-line hounded Eli Manning, sacking him four times. Still, it’s a matchup of concern. Philly’s D-line has regressed this year, but it is worlds better than the Bucs D-line that New York faced last Sunday. One thing coach Pat Shurmur may want to consider is keeping extra bodies in to help pass-block. That’s not something the Giants have done much (presumably Manning likes having all five eligible receivers out in routes), but it’d be a way to give Odell Beckham more time to attack Philly’s depleted secondary.
Patriots (7-3) at Jets (3-7) | 1 pm, CBS
Free agent cornerback Trumaine Johnson ($72.5 million) has been a disappointment for New York. After missing Weeks 5-9 with a quad injury, Johnson returned in Week 10 and gave up a 47-yard deep fade on the game’s first play, to Bills undrafted rookie receiver Robert Foster. Look for the Patriots to go after Johnson early with Josh Gordon outside and Julian Edelman on designer zone-beating routes that derive inside.
Seahawks (5-5) at Panthers (6-4) | 1 pm, Fox
One reason Seattle’s defense has pleasantly surprised with in-season improvements is No. 2 corner Tre Flowers. After struggling with his technique against deep in-breaking routes early in the year, Flowers has mostly held up, even with offenses tailoring their game plans to attack him. He’ll have to maintain that progress against deep in-breakers on Sunday, as those are a staple of Carolina’s passing game, especially when receiver Devin Funchess is aligned outside.
Raiders (2-8) at Ravens (5-5) | 1 pm, CBS
Not that teams in the wild-card chase use regular-season games for developing players, but this would be a good week for the Ravens to get rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson more comfortable as a passer. He’ll be facing a zone-based Raiders D that has little to no chance at penetrating Baltimore’s O-line, which has quietly been excellent in pass protection.
Jaguars (3-7) at Bills (3-7) | 1 pm, CBS
Disappointing as this season has been for Jacksonville’s defense, it’s hard to imagine it not dominating a Bills O-line that’s bereft of athleticism at guard and center. Expect Calais Campbell to loop inside on stunts early and often, forcing guards Vladimir Ducasse and John Miller, as well as center Russell Bodine, to react laterally.
49ers (2-8) at Bucs (3-7) | 1 pm, Fox
Perhaps no coach is better at designing plays that isolate zone defenders in a run-pass conflict than Kyle Shanahan. He puts fullback Kyle Juszczyk on the field, adding to the run-gap responsibilities of linebackers. Then, Shanahan builds route combinations that punish the linebacker for correctly playing that run responsibility. Though the Bucs have been less predictable since Mark Duffner took over at coordinator, Shanahan will be confident in what zone coverages he’ll get from certain formations. Explosive plays could come early and often.
Browns (3-6-1) at Bengals (5-5) | 1 pm, CBS
Joe Mixon remains one of football’s most intriguing runners, thanks to his smooth, explosive lateral agility. But you’d be excused for putting Browns rookie Nick Chubb ahead of Mixon. Though not as spry, Chubb is a more disciplined, trusting and nuanced runner. He also plays faster than he looks, which is why defenders in college, and now the NFL, have consistently failed to catch him when he hits the open field.
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