Let’s go past the obvious storylines and take a deeper dive into every Sunday game in Week 6:
(All times Eastern; click on teams for more information on the matchup)
We’ll learn a lot about the Ravens defense this week. It has been very stellar the past four weeks, but it’s faced Brandon Weeden, Matt Schaub, EJ Manuel/Jeff Tuel and Ryan Tannehill. Not bad quarterbacks, necessarily, but certainly not elite ones.
The one elite quarterback the Ravens have faced, Peyton Manning, lit them up for seven touchdown passes. The second elite quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, has not caught fire yet this season, but he has his full arsenal of receivers healthy and remains as dangerous as ever.
It’s uncertain whether Baltimore’s corners can handle Green Bay’s receivers. Jimmy Smith is improving, but underdeveloped fundamentals leave him susceptible to movement late in routes. The Packers should try to get Smith isolated against back-shoulder extraordinaire Jordy Nelson. Ladarius Webb would prove a challenging opponent for Randall Cobb, but lately the Ravens have instead used Corey Graham in the slot (perhaps because in this scheme there’s often more help from zone linebackers and safeties there). That’s where Cobb, for all his versatility, has been used almost exclusively this season. (According to Pro Football Focus, 152 of his 162 routes have been run from the slot.) Cobb was owned by Cincinnati’s Leon Hall two games ago, but that was likely more an aberration than harbinger. He will be a handful for Graham.
That is, if the receivers have enough time to execute. As usual, the Packers’ pass protection has been suspect. Mike McCarthy has masked it with three-step timed passes and spread concepts (which allow Rodgers to identify throwing lanes quicker), but there comes a time in every game where a linemen must survive on an island. When this time came in the Ravens’ game at Miami last week, Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil unleashed a fury of bull-rushes to seal a victory. Suggs and Dumervil aren’t the only forces to contend with. The Ravens have a deep interior rotation that’s rich in power and athleticism. Plus, inside linebacker Daryl Smith has been a fantastic X-factor in all phases against the pass.
If you’re Thad Lewis, a practice squad quarterback making his second NFL start, perhaps the very last man he wants to face is Mike Zimmer. The sixth-year defensive coordinator called a brilliant game for the Bengals last Sunday, featuring a variety of pressure concepts—some that dominated New England’s crucial play-action game and other well-executed matchup zone coverages that blurred Tom Brady’s intermediate reads. This Sunday, expect Zimmer to incorporate more aggressive disguise elements, as the callow Lewis likely will be under orders to get the ball out on quick, defined reads. Zimmer’s patented zone blitzes would be a great tactic. Of course, first things first, the Bengals will have to stay stingy against the run, which is something this Bills offense has successfully recommitted to the past two weeks.
Nick Fairley and Ndamukong Suh both have tremendous raw strength and initial quickness, making them potent on all forms of stunts. Either player can crash blockers to create a pass-rushing lane or swoop around and burst through a lane. And the stunts don’t just involve these two; the LIons also incorporate athletically explosive rookie ends Ziggy Ansah and Devin Taylor as well as the underrated Willie Young. Browns left guard John Greco blew several protections against the Bills’ stunts last week. He’ll be targeted in this one.
Many felt D.J. Hayden was the best corner in this year’s draft. But entering Sunday’s contest at Kansas City, the so far up-and-down 12th overall pick won’t even be the best rookie outside nickelback on the field. That distinction, right now, belongs to Marcus Cooper, who was taken 252nd overall by San Francisco and picked up off waivers by Kansas City. Cooper popped on the radar at Tennessee last week with a muffed punt recovery in the end zone and game-sealing interception late in the fourth quarter. Even without those highlights, the 6-2, 190-pounder would still be noteworthy. His lanky build, innate sense for physicality and athletic fluidity make him a terrific fit in Kansas City’s man-based scheme. The Raiders don’t have a wide receiver who can shake Cooper.
Josh Freeman never progressed after an impressive start to his NFL career. At the core, that’s why he’s now a Viking and not a Buc. Freeman has the size, athletic strength and raw arm talent to be a star. He also has the inconsistent mechanics (footwork, especially), trouble with reading defenses and reputation for emotional immaturity to be a career-long backup.
The Freeman story seems eerily similar to another quarterback in this game. During the National Anthem this Sunday in the Metrodome, Cam Newton should take a moment to look over at Freeman and reflect. He might have a Ghost of Christmas Future-type experience.
Le’Veon Bell is making his official debut as a professional running back in the United States. His debut in Britain went okay—57 yards on 16 carries, plus a pair of touchdowns. In this game, Bell will have to exhibit more of the powerful swivel that allows him to break tackles and give this offense a glimmer of hope. The Jets have the best run-defending front line in the NFL. It should devour a makeshift Steelers line that is still acclimating to a new zone-blocking scheme. It’s on Bell to do what a quality runner does: create his own yards.
If you think the Eagles will simply carry on as usual with Nick Foles in the lineup, you’re wrong. This offense might still be productive with Foles, but it won’t feature the same concepts. When Foles came in last week, the Eagles got away from their read-option and featured more short, out-of-the-backfield passes. They also eschewed the moving pockets to favor a more traditional drop-back game. Call it good coaching; Chip Kelly was playing to the strengths of his quarterback. Foles was good in his progression reads and showed poise and arm strength whenever the pocket quivered (which wasn’t often against a bad Giants pass rush).
The Eagles might see a different type of defense this week. The Giants, like the Broncos and Chiefs before them, matched up man-to-man on the Eagles wide receivers. The Bucs have the resources to do this (Darrelle Revis can take on DeSean Jackson, and just about any two-legged 18-to-35-year-old male could take on Riley Cooper), but so far they’ve committed to being more of a classic zone defense this season. Can Foles keep making good stick-throws with more defenders having eyes on him?
Will the Texans take a cautious approach to try and help Matt Schaub? Really, in their system, the only way to do that is to get the running game going. That happens to be exactly what the Rams did last week to steady Sam Bradford. Having seen too many checkdowns and off-target downfield passes when operating out of spread sets, Brian Schottenheimer went back to the basics, repeatedly rushing between the tackles against Jacksonville. It worked, thanks in part to staunch blocking from once-struggling linemen like Shelley Smith and Scott Wells. The Texans, of course, are more difficult to run against. Despite the aid from his ground game, Bradford was still a tad impatient in play-action last week. He can’t afford to play with nerves against the faster, more aggressive Texans.
What’s wrong with the Jaguars and are there any slivers of hope? The answers are here.
Few seem to notice how choppy Seattle’s offense has been this season. America saw the Seahawks blow out the Niners in Week 2 and was ready to crown them in the NFC. Seattle’s ensuing, and much-expected, thumping of lowly Jacksonville in Week 3 only reaffirmed the coronation. But look at this offense’s other three games: 12 points at Carolina in Week 1, 13 points at Houston in Week 4 and an ugly 26 points at Indy in Week 5.
If you don’t think a 26-point performance on the road can be ugly, watch the film. Seattle’s receivers were unable to separate from Indy’s man-to-man corners; all that kept the chains moving was Russell Wilson’s scrambling. Wilson finished just 15 of 31 passing, which was the third time this year he’s been held to under-55 percent completion rate.
This isn’t to say Wilson and the Seahawks are overrated. They were playing with three backup linemen last week, and it showed. There’s no reason to think their passing game won’t iron things out. But as of right now, it’s not near where they want to be. That could be a problem this week with a red-hot Titans defense coming to town.
The 49ers officially have found their running game. After getting just 81 total yards from running backs in Weeks 1 and 2, they’ve gotten 316 yards from Frank Gore and 92 yards from Kendall Hunter over the past three weeks. The difference has come from up front—specifically, left guard Mike Iupati, who has rediscovered his dominance on pull and trap blocks (two staples of San Francisco’s offense). Iupati will be entangled in a great battle this week, as Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell are two of the best B-gap penetrators in the NFL.
Rob Gronkowski, we think, is back—and not a moment too soon. Tom Brady again last week had to deal with receivers not being in the right spots. Now, Brady gets not just a proven go-to target, but a mismatch-creator whom defenses will have to make sacrifices against. Put a corner on Gronk and risk getting trampled on the ground; put a safety on him and risk getting sliced through the air. The Saints, however, might not have to make any sacrifices. They play a three-safety base, and first-year man Kenny Vaccaro has been an outstanding utility force, working primarily in the slot. Vaccaro can cover like a cornerback, hit like a linebacker and make miscellaneous space-oriented plays like a true safety. The rookie is by no means flawless, but he certainly deserves the key assignment this week.
Tony Romo was the topic of conversation this past week, and he will be again Sunday night. Jim Haslett is the rare defensive coordinator who is willing to risk getting burned for an easy touchdown if it means giving his guys a clear path to the quarterback. But Haslett likely won’t gamble this way Sunday; he knows the way to beat Romo is not to sack him but to confuse him. Or, to confuse his receivers. Look for the Redskins to drop out of a lot of aggressive presnap looks and into rotating coverages.