• Based on his film study, Andy Benoit breaks down the NFL weekend.
By Andy Benoit
December 20, 2018

All times Eastern.

Steelers (8-5-1) at Saints (12-2) | Sunday, 4:25 p.m. | CBS

The Saints have ridden their surging defense down the stretch. What every defense must decide when facing Pittsburgh is how to handle stud receivers Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster. New Orleans traded for Eli Apple precisely for this sort of situation. The coaching staff desperately wants the ex-Giant to be an aggressive press corner. The guess here is the Saints will help Apple do this on Sunday by sending safety help his way. Getting steady double-team help would suggest Apple guards Brown, with quasi-shutdown corner Marshon Lattimore battling Smith-Schuster on his own.

Chiefs (11-3) at Seahawks (8-6) | Sunday, 8:20 p.m. | NBC

The question a defense must answer against a bona fide superstar quarterback like Patrick Mahomes is whether to tailor its approach specifically for the QB or commit more to its usual profile in hopes of having more comfortable defenders. A changeup for the Seahawks could mean man coverage, which they have played less this year after going with it heavily in 2017. If you play man, you’d want to spy Mahomes with someone who has the speed and poise to respond when he breaks the pocket (Bobby Wagner?). Committing to their identity would mean a lot of Cover 3 zone for the Seahawks. That’d make them predictable against an offense that has perhaps more Cover 3-beating plays than any team. But predictability might be an acceptable tradeoff for Pete Carroll and defensive coordinator Ken Norton if they believe it will allow their men to play faster.

Ravens (8-6) at Chargers (11-3) | Saturday, 8:20 p.m. | NFLN

The best part of this game will be before the snap when L.A. has the ball. Philip Rivers does more at the line of scrimmage than any other NFL QB. Across from him, the Ravens disguise as much as any defense, and the man calling their signals is safety Eric Weddle, who for nine years as a San Diego Charger practiced against Rivers daily. How that battle goes could determine a game that carries huge playoff implications for several teams.

Redskins (7-7) at Titans (8-6) | Saturday, 4:30 p.m. | NFLN

It’s critical that Washington’s defensive line get penetration. Not only have linebackers Mason Foster and Zach Brown (who is gradually losing his role to the more athletic sixth-round rookie Shaun Dion Hamilton) fallen off in run defense in the second half of this season, but Titans running back Derrick Henry has caught fire, rushing for 408 yards over his last two games. Henry is like a freight train that looks slow until it approaches you. When he’s afforded enough initial space to build momentum, he’s tough to tackle. But if a defensive line can compromise that space by penetrating, Henry is harmless.

WATCH: Albert Breer breaks down Redskins-Titans.

Buccaneers (5-9) at Cowboys (8-6) | Sunday, 1:00 p.m. | Fox

Last week the Cowboys faced what had been a mostly vanilla zone-based Colts defense that all of a sudden became an aggressive blitzing defense. That Colts D, which shut out the Cowboys, was led by coordinator Matt Eberflus, who coached opposite Dak Prescott in Dallas for two years. Eberflus may have reasoned that Prescott is a different quarterback when forced to react quickly. The Bucs are another zone-based defense, but since promoting Mark Duffner to coordinator, like the Colts they’ve incorporated more schematic changeups down the stretch. Most of those changeups have involved man coverage. Given what the Colts put on film against Prescott, the Cowboys should be prepared to see man-free blitzes from the Bucs on Sunday.

Texans (10-4) at Eagles (7-7) | Sunday, 1:00 p.m. | CBS

Philadelphia’s defensive line is coming alive. Long-armed technician Michael Bennett is showing the explosiveness that made him dominant in Seattle; Brandon Graham remains a swift, low-to-the-ground force rushing inside or outside; and Fletcher Cox has maybe the best combination of sheer strength and athleticism of any defensive tackle in the league. Quietly, Houston’s offensive line has gone from being one of the league’s worst to being, at the very least, respectable. The Eagles present a telling test for that line.

Vikings (7-6-1) at Lions (5-9) | Sunday, 1:00 p.m. | Fox

We’ll find out if new Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski has rejuvenated the ground game as much as 40 carries and 220 yards last week against Miami suggest. The Dolphins have one of football’s most inconsistent run defenses. The Lions have an enormous front seven that, now led by Damon Harrison, has allowed 79 yards rushing a game over its last six outings. The guess here: Mike Zimmer will have to swallow hard and let Stefanski dial up passes.

Giants (5-9) at Colts (8-6) | Sunday, 1:00 p.m. | CBS

We mentioned in the Cowboys-Bucs blurb that Indy unleashed an array of blitzes last Sunday, most notably fire zones, which primarily present three-deep, three-under coverage behind a five-man rush. Often involved in that rush was slot corner Kenny Moore. This would be a great week for coordinator Matt Eberflus to build on that approach; the Giants last week scored zero against a Titans defense that often rushed a defensive back. In doing so, the Titans usually showed blitz only to play a fully staffed zone, with a DB blitzing but a D-lineman dropping back. The Colts will do the opposite: They’ll show straight zone coverage and from it bring pressure.

Jaguars (4-10) at Dolphins (7-7) | Sunday, 1:00 p.m. | CBS

Miami’s offense has become very dependent on big plays. The short and intermediate passing game that defined this team in Adam Gase’s 2016 debut season has been ancillary in 2018. The Jaguars are a talented but predictable D, with a secondary that, at times, has grossly underachieved. Can the Dolphins gouge it once or twice?

Bills (5-9) at Patriots (9-5) | Sunday, 1:00 p.m. | CBS

There’ lots to talk about with New England (like what happens with Josh Gordon gone?), but we have several more weeks to discuss this team. The 2018 Bills, on the other hand, are a week-and-a-half away from disappearing, so let’s get this out now: Linebacker Matt Milano, who broke his leg in Week 14, was having a tremendous season. But last Sunday, his replacement, 35-year-old Swiss army knife Lorenzo Alexander, was even better. Alexander, who has been mostly a defensive end/joker since head coach Sean McDermott arrived last year, played with tremendous vision and recognition from the stack linebacker position. That’s important when facing a Patriots offense that puts fullback James Develin on the field for more than one-third of its snaps.

Bears (10-4) at 49ers (4-10) | Sunday, 4:05 p.m. | Fox

Mitchell Trubisky is a timing-and-rhythm thrower with strong second-reaction ability. In other words, he can hurt you when his first read is open, and when it’s not, you need only worry about him running around and making an improvised play. San Francisco’s linebackers Fred Warner and Elijah Lee are critical in this equation. Last week Niners defensive coordinator Robert Saleh put them in a lot of double-A-gap fronts and then brought different seven-man rushes out of it. If those go well, this game comes down to whether Warner and Lee can stymie Trubisky’s scrambling.

Rams (11-3) at Cardinals (3-11) | Sunday, 4:05 p.m. | Fox

This is a great opportunity for the Rams to get back on track, though it should be noted that the Cardinals play a lot of the same two-deep matchup zone coverages that have given Jared Goff and company fits over the last three weeks. Arizona’s defensive line is also better than that of most three-win teams. Don’t be surprised if L.A.’s much needed bounce-back game is less springy than anticipated.

Bengals (6-8) at Browns (6-7-1) | Sunday, 1:00 p.m. | CBS

The Browns are taking a liking to rookie running back Nick Chubb’s receiving prowess. (That could spell trouble for scatback Duke Johnson, by the way.) This is a good week to push Chubb’s receiving further, as Cincinnati’s linebackers lack speed and twitch in coverage.

Packers (5-8-1) at Jets (4-10) | Sunday, 1:00 p.m. | Fox

One bright spot in a dark season for the Packers has been the play of the defensive line. Green Bay’s overall run-stopping numbers are medicocre, but individually a lot of young players have shown significant promise. Kenny Clark, before injuring his elbow in Week 14, had emerged as a full-fledged star. In his absence, undrafted rookie Tyler Lancaster has shown excellent lower-body strength and mechanics, and 2017 third-rounder Montravius Adams has flashed intriguing short-area quickness. This will be a rich D-line in 2019.

Falcons (5-9) at Panthers (6-8) | Sunday, 1:00 p.m. | Fox

Let’s see, um, a reason to watch … how about: running back Tevin Coleman’s speed and acceleration, especially to the perimeter, against Luke Kuechly.

Broncos (6-8) at Raiders (3-11) | Monday, 8:15 p.m. | Fox

Oakland’s biggest problem this season has been the shoddy play of offensive tackles Kolton Miller and Brandon Parker, though both rookies (particularly Miller) have been a little steadier lately. Monday night presents a great challenge, with Von Miller and Bradley Chubb coming to town. The Raiders will have to dedicate running backs and tight ends to chip-block before releasing into routes.

Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com


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