- From Andy Benoit’s film study, key matchups and schemes to watch for in each of the weekend’s games.
All times Eastern.
Patriots (9-4) at Steelers (7-5-1) | Sunday, 4:25 p.m. | CBS
Two weeks ago the Steelers lost to a Chargers team that repeatedly isolated Pittsburgh’s zone linebackers against wide receivers. So last week at Oakland the Steelers featured more man coverage concepts. It went well except no one could guard Raiders tight end Jared Cook. Longtime Packer Morgan Burnett got the nod but struggled so much when Cook split wide on the weak side that the Steelers turned to rookie Terrell Edmunds, whom they prefer to keep as a free defender. The Patriots like to split Rob Gronkowski out on the weak side, and doubling him can be hard because James White usually aligns over there. Gronk killed the Steelers down the stretch in last year’s epic Jesse James Game, victimizing the matchup coverage of Sean Davis, who has since moved to free safety. How the Steelers handle Gronk this week will decide the outcome.
Cowboys (8-5) at Colts (7-6) | Sunday, 1 p.m. | Fox
Matt Eberflus has had a tremendous debut season as Indy’s defensive coordinator. Now he’s facing a Cowboys team he spent seven years with. Yes, Eberflus was mostly in the defensive meetings during those years, but you can bet somewhere along the way he picked up an understanding of what Dak Prescott does and does not like to see. Eberflus’s Colts play a lot of straight zone coverage behind a D-line that aligns tightly inside, making it difficult for an offense to run north and south. Lately, the Colts have also incorporated a half-dozen blitzes each game, many involving slot corner Kenny Moore. It’ll be interesting to see how the Colts attack the Cowboys offense.
Dolphins (7-6) at Vikings (6-6-1) | Sunday, 1 p.m. | CBS
New Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski is under the same pressure to run the ball as predecessor John DeFilippo. If Dolphins linebackers Kiko Alonso and Raekwon McMillan play like they did last week against New England, Stefanski will have a tough time sticking with that run game. Both linebackers have been wildly up and down but were rock-steady in their reads and gap-fits. Expect Stefanski to employ different pre-snap motions in his run designs. You want to make Alonso’s and McMillan’s eyes go to multiple places before they hit it downhill.
Packers (5-7-1) at Bears (9-4) | Sunday, 1 p.m. | Fox
Bears 2016 first-round pick Leonard Floyd has performed better in recent weeks after battling a hand injury and being one of the league’s most unimaginative pass rushers in the first half of this season. On Sunday, Floyd will have repeated one-on-one face-offs against David Bakhtiari, one of football’s best pass-blocking technicians. The question is what happens with Khalil Mack on the other side. Green Bay often blocked him one-on-one in Week 1, but recall that A) Mack wrecked that game, and B) it was Bryan Bulaga at right tackle. Bulaga missed last week’s game with a knee injury. There’s no way the Packers can let backup Jason Spriggs face Mack alone.
Eagles (6-7) at Rams (11-2) | Sunday, 8:20 p.m. | NBC
Last year taught us not to write off the Eagles just because Nick Foles is replacing Carson Wentz. But last year’s Philly offense was defined by its ground game, which was the NFL’s most schematically expansive. That hasn’t been the case this season. Even though fill-in tailback Josh Adams has looked decent, Philly’s backfield injuries have taken a toll, and the offensive line is playing with less cohesion.
Texans (9-4) at Jets (4-9) | Saturday, 4:30 p.m. | NFL Network
If Deshaun Watson isn’t more patient and poised in the pocket than he was in last week’s loss to the Colts, Houston’s season won’t last past the second week of January. Watson settled in and made some plays late in that game, and he’s had encouraging flashes as a pocket passer over his career, but those flashes in Year Two have not been as steady as you’d like.
Seahawks (8-5) at 49ers (3-10) | Sunday, 4:05 p.m. | Fox
When you’re a Cover 3-based defense like the Niners, you’re vulnerable to deep crossing routes (more specifically, “over” routes) from slot receivers, as Cover 3’s structure often leaves either a free safety or, more often, an inside linebacker to guard those deep-crossing receivers. The Seahawks got San Francisco a few times on these in Week 13. With Tyler Lockett’s speed and Russell Wilson’s deft deep-touch passing, they’ll try it again this Sunday.
Buccaneers (5-8) at Ravens (7-6) | Sunday, 1 p.m | Fox
Sticking with Lamar Jackson is the right move—he gives Baltimore’s ground game more dimensions than defenses currently know how to deal with. But the tradeoff is a significantly less-dimensional Ravens passing attack. Right now, almost all Jackson is asked to do is read in-breaking routes from spread formations. This might not be the week it catches up to Baltimore; Tampa Bay’s defense has been better under new coordinator Mark Duffner but is still not particularly complex or potent on the back end. The Ravens this Sunday can get by with another super heavy emphasis on the run, but for them to win in January, they’ll need as least a little more through the air.
Titans (7-6) at Giants (5-8) | Sunday, 1 p.m. | CBS
Here’s the bottom line on recent fantasy football hero Derrick Henry: He is a phenomenal downhill runner when he’s afforded enough initial space to generate momentum. But he doesn’t have the agility to create that space himself, which means he’s extra dependent on blocking and play designs. The best way to feed Henry is on tosses to the perimeter, where more space and time are built into the play.
Browns (5-7-1) at Broncos (6-7) | Saturday, 8:20 p.m. | NFL Network
Myles Garrett said he didn’t want the Browns to draft Bradley Chubb. They instead went with cornerback Denzel Ward, who has been outstanding but might miss this game with a concussion. The Browns still need a pass rusher to team with Garrett. Their No. 2 guy, Emmanuel Ogbah, this season has continued to be average on the inside and below average off the edge.
Lions (5-8) at Bills (4-9) | Sunday, 1 p.m. | Fox
These last few weeks are important for Lions first-round guard Frank Ragnow, who at times has shined as both a nimble and road-grading run-blocker but has been a liability in pass protection. Buffalo’s Kyle Williams might be football’s craftiest defensive tackle. He’ll exploit even Ragnow’s tiniest weaknesses (at times, illegally—Williams is great at getting away with little grabs). Ragnow must be on high alert for stunts between Williams and defensive end Jerry Hughes, especially when a Lions running back is offset to Ragnow’s side of the formation.
TIP SHEET: Everything you need to know about Week 15
Redskins (6-7) at Jaguars (4-9) | Sunday, 1 p.m. | CBS
The Jaguars are a great reminder that unless you have a Cam Newton/Lamar Jackson-level mobile QB, your running game is only as effective as the passing game you build off of it. Last year the Jags built a great passing game off their secretly mediocre ground game. This year, they haven’t.
Cardinals (3-10) at Falcons (4-9) | Sunday, 1 p.m. | Fox
Josh Rosen looked more confident and decisive early in the season, showing the precision that made him (in the eyes of some) the safest pick among this year’s five rookie QBs. But as the season has progressed, Rosen’s confidence seems to have wavered. He’s still a trigger-puller, but his timing and rhythm have been spottier. That’s to be expected with a rookie QB who is playing with a bad offensive line, spare receiving corps and offensive leadership that changed midseason. Here’s hoping Rosen can finish strong these last three weeks. He has the makeup to be a very, very solid professional QB.
Raiders (3-10) at Bengals (5-8) | Sunday, 1 p.m. | CBS
Give credit to Raiders defensive coordinator Paul Guenther. Oakland’s season has been lost for a while, and yet last week his men came out and played with as much focus and energy as we’ve seen all year in upsetting the Steelers. Guenther has utilized some of his young guys more in the second half of this season, and many have improved. Most notable would be second-round defensive tackle P.J. Hall.
Check back on Sunday for Andy Benoit’s preview of Saints-Panthers.