- From Andy Benoit’s film study, key matchups and schemes to watch for across Sunday’s slate.
All times Eastern.
Rams at Bears | 8:20 pm, NBC
If these teams play like they did last week, Chicago will win—especially on the “Rams O vs. Bears D” side of the matchup (which, by the way, might be the NFL’s best offense against the NFL’s best defense). Yes, the Rams won at Detroit last week, but it was a choppy performance, with many of their designer downfield shot plays coming up short. The Bears lost at the Giants … and were probably sick watching the film and seeing how dominant they were at times in that game. Chicago’s defensive foundation is two-deep matchup zone coverage, which happens to be what the Lions employed when stymieing so many of L.A.’s deep shots. Rams blockers also had some uneven snaps against Detroit’s underwhelming defensive line. “Uneven” snaps against Chicago’s D-line will result in disaster.
Eagles at Cowboys | 4:25 pm, Fox
What happens when a talented young defense like Dallas’s runs a simple, execution-based scheme under a good coaching staff? That defense plays faster as the season progresses. It’s not just Leighton Vander Esch flying to the ball; this secondary and front four have become highly active. Now this defense faces a speed-deprived Eagles offense that it’s seen before.
Ravens at Chiefs | 1 pm, CBS
Terrell Suggs has the edge-rushing pedigree of a Hall of Famer, but some of his greatest contributions in pass defense have been in jamming tight ends and backs off the line of scrimmage. Expect Suggs to do that on Sunday whenever Travis Kelce lines up tight to the formation. Or when the Chiefs go to the spread empty formations that Patrick Mahomes loves. In those sets, Tyreek Hill almost always aligns in the “inside slot” on the three-receiver side. Suggs typically plays on the weak side, but don’t be surprised if against empty formations he moves to the strong side and lines up wider than usual so that he can run his fist into Hill’s chest off the snap.
Colts at Texans | 1 pm, CBS
Colts right guard Mark Glowinski has had a surprisingly stellar season, but the former Seahawks backup struggled with lateral movement in last week’s loss at Jacksonville. Jadeveon Clowney loves to line up in a two-point stance and blitz the opponent’s weakest guard. Glowinski is a much riper target than surging Indy rookie left guard Quenton Nelson.
Panthers at Browns | 1 pm, Fox
Assistant coach firings in December are uncommon, especially on a playoff-contending team, but Ron Rivera felt urgent adjustments were needed on defense. He dismissed D-line coach Brady Hoke and cornerbacks coach Jeff Imamura. The plan appears to be for defensive coordinator Eric Washington to focus more on the front seven, which would presumably put Rivera’s hands on the secondary. Rivera must start with rookie corner Donte Jackson, who has had one of the more up-and-down seasons in recent memory. An offense can never be quite sure about what it’s going to get from Carolina’s perimeter pass defense matchupwise because sometimes James Bradberry travels with the opponent’s biggest receiver and sometimes he doesn’t. The Browns will employ a variety of formations early on to quickly piece together where Bradberry (and thus, where Jackson) is playing and then take deep shots on Jackson’s side of the field.
Saints at Buccaneers | 1 pm, Fox
The Bucs defense that the Saints will see this Sunday is different from the one they typically see twice a year. Under new defensive coordinator Mark Duffner, the Bucs have been more matchup-oriented in their coverages. Greater schematic aggression was needed, and the results have been more positive than negative. Typically when the Bucs have gone matchup, the Saints have spread into empty formations and gone after whichever unfortunate linebacker is on Alvin Kamara. But Duffner has also scrapped some of Tampa Bay’s nickel packages for dime packages, which means one fewer linebacker and one more safety (Andrew Adams). Against dime, Kamara will almost certainly face defensive backs instead of linebackers this time.
Patriots at Dolphins | 1 pm, CBS
Give Patriots left guard Joe Thuney a lot of credit—he’s cleaned up many of his pass rushing problems from down the stretch last season. One of the likely reasons New England drafted Georgia tackle Isaiah Wynn in the first round is that Wynn’s projected ability to slide inside would provide options for moving on from Thuney, whose rookie contract expires after 2019. But with Wynn missing this season with a torn Achilles and Thuney playing better, it might not go that way.
Bengals at Chargers | 4:05 pm, CBS
This is a bad matchup for the Bengals. They play a lot of two-deep zone coverage, which veteran quarterbacks can manipulate through formation wrinkles and line-of-scrimmage adjustments. Think back to what Drew Brees did to this unit a few weeks ago. Philip Rivers is as shrewd at the line of scrimmage as anyone, and he has a lot of athletic plus-sized receivers to target downfield. Look for those targets to come inside the field numbers, against Cincy’s safeties.
Steelers at Raiders | 4:25 pm, Fox
It’s been a lot of quick-strike throws from the Steelers lately, which has uncovered more of their expansive wide receiver screen game. But this has come against the Broncos and Chargers—two defenses that have potent edge rushers. The Raiders’ edge rushers aren’t much better than you or me. If Ben Roethlisberger wants to drop back deep and push the ball downfield, he can.
Broncos at 49ers | 4:05 pm, CBS
Not to get overly specific, but when the ball is on the left hashmark, look for the Broncos to put all their receivers to the right and only a line-of-scrimmage tight end to the left. That will force cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon into a primary run-stopping role on the left side. Witherspoon is not always a fervid tackler. This tactic only works on the left, though. If you close the formation with a tight end like this to the right, Richard Sherman becomes the primary outside run defender. Sherman remains one of football’s better tackling corners.
Lions at Cardinals | 4:25 pm, Fox
Robert Nkemdiche is nowhere near Aaron Donald’s orbit, but like Donald, Nkemdiche’s greatest trait is his initial quickness off the snap. To put it mildly, Lions guards Frank Ragnow and Kenny Wiggins must be better at dealing with a defensive tackle’s initial quickness this week than they were last week.
Falcons at Packers | 1 pm, Fox
Who will the Packers put on Julio Jones? Jaire Alexander is their best corner, but he tends to match up better to quicker wideouts (in this game, that would mean Calvin Ridley). Would defensive coordinator Mike Pettine trust second-round rookie Josh Jackson with the job? Jackson has the physicality. In fact, he’s gotten snaps at box safety and linebacker this year. Then again, that’s also partly because he might not be a pure NFL cover corner.
Giants at Redskins | 1 pm, Fox
A tip of the cap and 2018 farewell to Landon Collins, who last week down the stretch in a meaningless game against Chicago played through a shoulder injury that has since landed him on Injured Reserve. Making the gutsiness even more admirable is that Collins is in a contract year. It’s been a disappointing season for New York’s defense, but not for the fourth-year safety. This year Collins continued to match up to quality tight ends in solo man coverage, and he often made plays in run defense. He hasn’t been quite as electric or consistent as in his All-Pro 2016 campaign, but Giants GM Dave Gettleman would have to be off his rocker to not re-sign Collins at least for 2019. Meanwhile, the Giants will be making due with yet another undrafted rookie on D—Sean Chandler. Washington’s passing game predominantly features tight ends and backs, i.e. players a strong safety normally guards.
Jets at Bills | 1 pm, CBS
Among the many disappointments with New York’s offense in 2018 has been Robby Anderson, who has not emerged as the true No. 1 receiver he showed signs of being last season. This isn’t necessarily Anderson’s fault; the Jets have not done much to feature Anderson in their aerial designs. That’s partly because the Jets never carved out a full-fledged passing game identity.
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