Each Friday, Andy Benoit will take a quick look at every NFL game to be played on Sunday. Here's his Week 17 preview for a full slate of 16 games on the season's final Sunday.
Colts (9-6) at Titans (9-6)
The Titans must figure out how to stop Andrew Luck, after the NFL’s leading Comeback Player of the Year candidate hung 38 points on them back in Week 11. Titans defensive coordinator Dean Pees (who missed that game with a medical issue) has stymied veteran field generals like Tom Brady and Eli Manning with something called a “zone exchange.” In a zone exchange, the defense sends a blitzer and drops a defensive lineman back into coverage. You get a four-man rush, but with a different four rushers than the presnap look suggested. It has two benefits: 1. The offense might not pick up the blitzer. (In Tennessee’s case, the blitzer is often a speedy defensive back.) 2. The quarterback must wait to identify the coverage. The QB knows it is zone, and he might even know what TYPE of zone (with the Titans, it’s often Cover 2 or Cover 3). What he doesn’t know is where the zone defenders are dropping from. Luck and the Colts have one of the NFL’s better quick-strike passing games. They should expect the Titans to zone exchange into Cover 3, presenting four defenders in shallow coverage, some of whom Luck can’t foresee.
Browns (7-7-1) at Ravens (9-6)
When these teams met back in October, Baker Mayfield at times read the field like a rookie, missing opportunities against Baltimore’s pressure-intensive defense. That won’t happen this time. Mayfield now reads the field like a tenured veteran. It’s not just spotting open receivers, it’s quickly eliminating covered receivers. That’s how a QB gets deeper into his progressions. Cleveland’s passing game is full of shrewd designs under new offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens. Jet sweep-action, vertical routes (including out of multi-TE and multi-RB sets) and deep high-low route combinations are just a few of the features. The Ravens will show Mayfield a heavy pressure look. If he can stay calm and trust his sturdy interior O-line (which is where many of Baltimore’s disguised blitzes attack), he’ll have opportunities downfield against a Ravens D that often plays with one less man in matchup zone coverage.
Bears (11-4) at Vikings (8-6-1)
New Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski is presumably under stern orders from Mike Zimmer to run the ball. The Vikings did so very successfully in Stefanski’s play-calling debut two weeks ago against Miami, but last week they were stifled by a strong, oversized Lions front line. Chicago’s front line is similar to Detroit’s. One thing Stefanski does that could help the zone ground game is leave the widest defender unblocked. That gives the offense favorable numbers and can create better angles for blockers. It only works, though, if your linemen get an initial push off the snap. That’s unlikely for Minnesota against the likes of Akiem Hicks and Eddie Goldman.
For the Vikings to win, Zimmer must be comfortable with Stefanski substituting some would-be run plays for short passes—something Zimmer did not love previous offensive coordinator John DeFilippo doing.
Bengals (6-9) at Steelers (8-6-1)
Ben Roethlisberger will have plenty of opportunities to extend plays; Cincinnati’s pass rush is, at best, inconsistent. The Bengals in pass situations should consider aligning Geno Atkins on the side away from defensive end Carlos Dunlap. Steelers right tackle Matt Feiler has played very well given he’s a backup filling in for the injured Marcus Gilbert, but Feiler will have his hands full with Dunlap. Guards Ramon Foster and especially David DeCastro are strong and nimble, but, like every blocker, they’ll be challenged by Atkins’s power. The Steelers like to spread out in empty sets and pass-block with just their five O-linemen. Splitting up Atkins and Dunlap would force to the Steelers to block one of those stars one-on-one. The good news for the Steelers is they’ll have no trouble with any of Cincy’s other pass rushers.
Eagles (8-7) at Redskins (7-8)
Right tackle Lane Johnson is coming off one of his best games, having sparred successfully with J.J. Watt last week. Now he faces old foe Ryan Kerrigan, who has maybe the best “long arm” pass rush move in football and is familiar with any and all of the mechanical pass-blocking glitches you get from the supremely athletic Johnson.
Cardinals (3-12) at Seahawks (9-6)
Russell Wilson throws the NFL’s best deep ball. There will be opportunities against the Cardinals, as deep safety Antoine Bethea is slowing down and the No. 2 corner spot opposite Patrick Peterson has been a problem for years (it’s currently being filled by, an albeit respectable, journeyman David Amerson).
Chargers (11-4) at Broncos (6-9)
Melvin Ingram has been too up-and-down to warrant Pro Bowl placement ahead of snubbed Chief Chris Jones, but there is this to say about Ingram: he is extremely dangerous as an unblocked defender against read-option. No player has a better sense for deciding when to crash on the running back and when to stay home on the quarterback. That will be a small factor in this game (Denver employs read-option every so often with Keenum), but it could be a big factor in the playoffs, if the Chargers face Deshaun Watson in Houston or especially Lamar Jackson in Baltimore.
Raiders (4-11) at Chiefs (11-4)
It looks like running back Spencer Ware will return after missing two weeks with a hamstring injury. But in Ware’s absence, Damien Williams was potent in Kansas City’s expansive misdirection screen game, plus he ran with unexpected power. Don’t be surprised if the former Dolphin gets significant snaps ahead of Ware come January.
Jets (4-11) at Patriots (10-5)
The 2018 Jets offense never found The Guy to run its system through. Wide receiver Robby Anderson, for whatever reason, was not specifically featured in many designs, despite showing hints of true No. 1 receiver potential as a downfield perimeter weapon in 2017. New York’s lack of offensive identity in Sam Darnold’s rookie year could make this the last game for offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates.
Jaguars (5-10) at Texans (10-5)
Jalen Ramsey vs. DeAndre Hopkins has become the best individual matchup in football. Ramsey has the unique length, strength and athleticism to spar with Hopkins, the greatest contortionist and contested catch artist of his era. And because Deshaun Watson has learned that throwing to a covered Hopkins is often smarter than throwing to an open Somebody Else, we’ll see this battle play out at least 10 times on Sunday.
49ers (4-11) at Rams (12-3)
When Aaron Donald gets hot, he catches fire; 17.5 of his league-leading 19.5 sacks have come in seven games. One of his “fire” games was in Week 7 against these Niners, as Donald had 4 sacks, 9 tackles and 1 forced fumble, primarily exploiting left guard Laken Tomlinson and center Weston Richburg. Those two Niner blockers have had highs and lows in recent weeks. Donald has a chance to get the 3.5 sacks he needs to break the bogus single season record set by Michael Strahan (with help from Brett Favre).
Cowboys (9-6) at Giants (5-10)
The Cowboys would be nuts to let Ezekiel Elliott play in this meaningless game, but you can understand the third-year back’s desire to. New York’s run defense in recent weeks has been very gap sound, only to run out of gas late in games. Elliott could get 65 yards on 15 carries but, say, 120 yards on 23 carries.
Panthers (6-9) at Saints (13-2)
It’s an audition game for Teddy Bridgewater, who will get snaps in place of a resting Drew Brees. Inside the NFL, the book on Bridgewater prior to his knee injury was that he doesn’t have enough arm. We’ll find out Sunday, as the Saints will try to get a recently-returned Ted Ginn back in rhythm on downfield routes.
Dolphins (7-8) at Bills (5-10)
The Bills should come in with at least half a dozen deep shot plays designed specifically to attack zone coverage. It would be a shock if the Dolphins played any man-to-man given how Josh Allen killed them here with scrambles in Week 13.
Falcons (6-9) at Buccaneers (5-10)
Can you believe Julio Jones leads the league with 1,539 yards receiving and Mike Evans has 1,418, just seven fewer than No. 2 receiver DeAndre Hopkins? Both receivers are explosive and, in Jones’s case, highly refined. But it just doesn’t feel like it’s been that productive a year for either. The entire receiving yards race this season is weird. Just 49 yards separate the league’s No. 2 receiver, Hopkins, from the No. 7 receiver, Michael Thomas.
Lions (5-10) at Packers (6-8-1)
This is likely the last game for Lions offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter. You get the sense that Cooter, who took over Detroit’s offense in 2015 and was the one to finally tame uber-talented wild stallion Matthew Stafford, never felt quite comfortable under Matt Patricia, whom many believe wants to hire his own guy. This year we saw flashes of creativity from Detroit but never a sustaining glow. A team looking to develop its young QB should consider Cooter. In a stable situation, they’ll get the JBC of 2015-17, not the JBC of 2018.
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