Sunday Slate: Analyzing Week 11 Matchups
Going past the obvious storylines and taking a deeper dive into every Sunday game in Week 11.
All times Eastern; click on teams for more on the matchup.
One week after the return of starting quarterback EJ Manuel, Buffalo’s top two receivers get bit by the injury bug. Such is the luck of a 3-7 team. Rookie Robert Woods (ankle) has already been ruled out for this week. Veteran Stevie Johnson is unlikely to play with a bad groin. Even if Johnson were to go, he’d likely be ineffective given that his game, predicated on fundamentally sound route running, relies heavily on lateral movement.
Woods’ and Johnsons’ absence spell serious trouble for the Bills. Last time they played the Jets, Manuel was making just his third NFL start and was working his way back from a preseason knee injury. Still, the Bills asked the rookie to drop back 54 times. Head coach Doug Marrone and offensive coordinator Nathanial Hackett realized their offense could not run against New York’s stingy front seven. (Take out Fred Jackson’s 59-yard scamper and the Bills had just 37 yards on 20 called carries.)
The Bills this week don’t have the resources to constantly attack the Jets through the air. The numbers suggest Buffalo didn’t really have the resources even when guys were healthy. Eight of Manuel’s 54 dropbacks in Week 3 resulted in a sack, while another 23 yielded an incompletion. Manuel’s percentages should be better this time, as the only pass he’ll be able to throw might be screens to Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller.
Nothing will be available downfield—especially now that Ed Reed is with Gang Green. Reed no longer plays at a Hall of Fame level, but his greatest strength—diagnosing route combinations—happens to solve one of the Jets’ greatest weaknesses.
The Bears have been ravaged by injuries, but they still have a chance to soldier through because of a dynamic receiving corps. (Who ever thought that would be said about Chicago’s offense?) Brandon Marshall is easily a Top 10 wideout, but it won’t be long before defenses treat second-year star Alshon Jeffrey as the No. 1. Both are nightmares to defend. With their size and catching radius, they really just need a quarterback who can throw the ball in their general vicinity. Josh McCown, who has shown a gunslinger’s mentality, is capable of doing that. Obviously, “heaving the ball up” is not a formula for sustainable success. But for this team, it’s a great tactic to temporarily fall back on.
Marshall and Jeffrey will both have to make contested catches Sunday; the Ravens secondary last week put the Bengals through a clinic on how to play 2-man coverage. That’d be a great coverage to play in this game, as it would provide safety help over the top on both sides of the field and enable corners Jimmy Smith, Corey Graham and Lardarius Webb to play underneath the receivers in man-to-man.
Andy Dalton certainly has not been as sharp the past couple of weeks, but his receivers haven’t helped much. Mohamad Sanu had a critical drop resulting in a tipped interception in the loss at Miami. Marvin Jones struggled to make contested catches at Baltimore. So did tight end Tyler Eifert. And Jermaine Gresham, who is back after missing last week with a groin injury, committed a few costly mistakes in his last outing, including multiple route running miscommunications with A.J. Green and a holding penalty (albeit questionable) that negated a touchdown.
Washington’s defense will be significantly more prepared for Philadelphia’s up-tempo offense than it was in the Monday Night season opener, but that doesn’t mean it will be significantly more effective. Washington is at its best when disguising blitzes and coverage rotations. A fast tempo like Philadelphia’s prevents that because there is no time to organize before the snap. Thus, Washington often will have to just line up in basic looks and execute soundly. These players, specifically in the secondary, simply aren’t good enough to prosper this way. That was evident when this defense gave up 38 second-half points to Denver’s up-tempo offense.
Not many will watch this game, but there is one personal matchup in it that IS worth watching: Falcons defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux against Bucs right guard Davin Joseph. It won’t be an every down battle, as Babineaux aligns at all sorts of different spots up front. But when he is in his preferred three-technique spot on the left, he’ll be sparring with one of the league’s hottest run-blockers right now in Joseph. The talented but somewhat inconsistent eighth-year guard is very good at working off double teams and up to the linebacker level. Babineaux will try to combat that with penetration.
Typically, the Steelers put cornerback Ike Taylor on the opposing No. 1 receiver. Sometimes Taylor is on an island, other times he has help up top or underneath. Given that slant routes are Calvin Johnson’s prime avenue of attack, the help coverage in this game should come underneath, either with a safety buzzing down or a linebacker dropping back. But should it be Taylor getting the help on Johnson?
Here’s an idea for Dick LeBeau to consider: have Taylor guard Kris Durham one-on-one, and put William Gay or, when it’s a slot formation, Cortez Allen, on Megatron. There will be serious help coverage no matter which defender has Johnson. Essentially, the cornerback becomes just a puzzle piece here. Instead of watering down your best corner and then worrying about whether the struggling Gay can handle Durham alone, let Gay play with all the extra help and at least know that Durham will be stopped. Taylor has not been as stifling as usual in man coverage lately, but he would have little trouble with the No. 2 receiver.
One reason the Jaguars are off the schneid is starting cornerbacks Dwayne Gratz and Alan Ball are both healthy for the first time since Week 1. Jacksonville’s secondary was more aggressive with Gratz back in the starting lineup last week. The third-round rookie brings a press element to the coverage outside, which is the lynchpin of Gus Bradley’s Cover 3 scheme. Gratz and Ball are no Sherman and Browner, but their more assertive style enables the safeties to play faster and takes pressure off the linebackers underneath.
Both teams have turned to young, freestyle quarterbacks in Terrelle Pryor and Case Keenum. And, predictably, both teams have endured a bit of a roller coaster in return. As always, with this brand of quarterback, the ups aren’t as high as the downs are low. Pryor at this point is a flashier Tim Tebow. He has sensational running abilities, but absolutely no idea how to read from the pocket. It’s almost hard to evaluate Raiders film because Pryor abandons so many play designs. Keenum has shown similar, though far less pronounced, tendencies. His lack of sense for plays structure causes him to ignore open receivers and unnecessarily leave the pocket. What’s concerning is defenses are realizing they can dictate when and how Keenum leaves the pocket. Mainly, they do it by threatening interior pressure. The blitz-happy Raiders normally disguise their pressure concepts, but in this game it would make sense for them to present them plainly. Keenum will fluster himself from there.
For both teams, this is the exact type of opponent they normally blow a winnable game against. The Dolphins do this with protection breakdowns in big moments. We saw this against the Ravens in Week 5, the Bills in Week 7 and the Bucs in Week 10. (We also saw it in Week 9 against the Bengals, though Ryan Tannehill bailed out his line with some huge throws.) It will be a true testament to this O-line’s crunch-time incompetence if it happens again this Sunday. The Chargers have seen their top edge-rushers go down one by one this season, starting with Melvin Ingram in August, then Dwight Freeney in September, Jarret Johnson for much of October and Larry English this past week. If Johnson remains hampered, San Diego’s top edge-rushers are undrafted third-year man Thomas Keiser and sixth-round rookie Tourek Williams.
The Saints offense against the 49ers defense is one of the best matchups football can offer. Though the Niners diversified their coverages more last week, at the core they remain a predominant man-to-man, two-high-safety unit. They’ll play a lot of that Sunday, as that’s proven to be the best way to combat New Orleans’ high-powered offense. Whether the scheme works will come down to whether the Niners can generate pressure with their four-man rush. Though temporary starting outside linebacker Dan Skuta was sensational against the Panthers last week, expect to see Aldon Smith more in his second game back from a self-imposed absence. Smith looked pretty good on his 12 snaps last Sunday, primarily as a standup nickel defensive tackle. The Niners should be eager to get him back outside, where he can hopefully work against left tackle Charles Brown, who often stumbles in one-on-one pass protection. However, there might not be a lot of one-on-one scenarios to exploit; the Saints are better than any team at building chip-blocks into their passing game. Smith will have to fight hard.
A rash of injuries has compelled Packers head coach Mike McCarthy to be more innovative in his personnel location on passing downs. One thing he’s done is put Jordy Nelson in the slot. According to Pro Football Focus, Nelson aligned inside on just 16 percent of his routes from 2010 through the first seven weeks of 2013. But since Jermichael Finley joined Randall Cobb on the injured list, Nelson has run 64 percent of his routes from the slot. The changeup has paid off. Nelson has 17 catches for 246 yards over the last three games. Eleven of those catches and 202 of the yards have been from inside. So have both of his touchdowns.
Reinforcements are on the way for Seattle’s secretly struggling offense. Starting tackles Russell Okung and Breno Giacomini are expected back soon, as is newly acquired receiver Percy Harvin. Presumably, Harvin would love to make his debut against his former team this Sunday. Whenever his debut comes—if it’s this Sunday, it might be only a partial debut—it will be fascinating to see how Seattle uses the multidimensional lightning bug. The guess here is Harvin will become a revolutionary weapon in Seattle’s read-option game.
Statistically, this is the best November matchup in the NFL’s post-merger history. Here is my complete breakdown.
Head over to Page 2 for a breakdown of the Monday night game, Patriots-Panthers.
Patriots offense vs. Panthers defense
Monday night will be a coming out party for the Panthers. Football fans are hearing more and more about the NFC’s No. 1 defense, but many have not seen it in full. It’s a defense that just traveled some 2,700 miles and destroyed the defending NFC champion 49ers. Counting sacks, the Panthers held Colin Kaepernick to 46 net passing yards. They surrendered only three field goals, two of which came from the Niners getting possession on a short field. This was not an unusual performance for Ron Rivera’s crew. Carolina’s opponents are scoring just 12.8 points per game, and none—save for Buffalo on a somewhat fluky last-second drive in Week 2—have managed more than 15 points.
So who is on this Panthers defense and why are they so good? Let’s start with a front four led by Greg Hardy (who is in a contract year and playing like it) and Charles Johnson. Both are power-based rushers who can also turn the corner. In obvious passing situations this season, one of them has often lined up at tackle on whatever side the other is playing. This has propagated a lot of great two-man stunt concepts and one-on-one pass-rushing scenarios.
Behind the front four—which, it should be mentioned, also includes a solid rotation of defensive tackles in Dwan Edwards and high-drafted rookies Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short—is perhaps the fastest linebacking group in football, headlined by Luke Kuechly. In his second season, the Boston College product is already the NFL’s best 4-3 Mike ‘backer. Kuechly’s multidirectional speed and football instincts are remarkable. So is his pass coverage acumen. Joining Kuechly in Carolina’s predominant nickel package is Thomas Davis, whom the Panthers are comfortable using alone against tight ends like Vernon Davis and Tony Gonzalez. Davis will probably draw the Rob Gronkowski assignment Monday night.
This dynamic front seven buttresses a fairly average secondary. Because the linebackers are so rangy, Carolina’s patented zones—which involve one safety in centerfield and one underneath—shrink inside and along the seams, giving the corners a greater margin for error. In this contest, Tom Brady won’t see a lot of trickery in the coverages, but he won’t see much room in them, either.
Panthers offense vs. Patriots defense
Cam Newton is an enigma. One play, he’ll show all the traits you’d expect from a former No. 1 overall pick. The next, he’ll look like a rubber-armed Jayvee player, with shoddy mechanics and blinder-eyed field vision that lead to disastrous ball placement. These maladies tend to show up early in the contest. Newton, to his credit, has lately done a better job at settling down as the game progresses.
Despite his twists and turns, it’s apparent that the Panthers brass believes in Newton. This team has an aggressive passing attack that features timing-based routes at deep-intermediate levels and tight-window throws near the sidelines. Newton, when he’s right, can deliver even though Carolina’s receivers are fairly ordinary outside of Steve Smith. The 34-year-old veteran still gets in and out of breaks as crisply as anyone.
For New England, corner Aqib Talib could return from a hip injury and shadow Smith in what would be one of the testiest sideshows of this 2013 NFL season. (The two embody that old “chip on shoulder” cliché and used to battle annually when Talib played in the NFC South.) If he doesn’t, Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington are both playing well and could probably survive.
With so many longer-developing patterns in the passing game, Carolina has to often employ extra blockers to help a line that, aside from center Ryan Kalil, is sub-par in pass protection. (This includes left tackle Jordan Gross, who has struggled against bull-rushers.) It will be telling if the Panthers continue giving help even against a fairly mundane Patriots pass rush.
What would really help this O-line is a commitment to the power run game. This offense, and particularly Newton, are best off when the play-calling is balanced. With DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart both healthy, offensive coordinator Mike Shula would be wise to mix more traditional under-center handoffs into his shotgun-based option run game. The Patriots have physical downhill linebackers in Dont’a Hightower and, especially, Brandon Spikes, but as the recent trade for nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga suggests, they’re still trying to formulate a firm run-stopping front in the absence of Vince Wilfork.