deep dive
Sunday Slate: Analyzing Week 14 Matchups
deep dive

Sunday Slate: Analyzing Week 14 Matchups

It should be no surprise: defense will tell the story when the Seahawks and 49ers battle by the Bay. Plus, how the Cowboys should utilize Dez Bryant against the Bears and why the Eagles could have a big day against the Lions

In the Seahawks' 29-3 win in Week 2, Niners tight end Vernon Davis was limited to three catches for 20 yards. (Otto Gruele Jr./Getty Images) In the Seahawks' 29-3 win in Week 2, Niners tight end Vernon Davis was limited to three catches for 20 yards. (Otto Gruele Jr./Getty Images)

Seahawks (11-1) at 49ers (8-4), 4:25 p.m., FOX

With receivers Mario Manningham and Michael Crabtree back in full force, this is a stronger 49ers offense than the one that got trounced by the Seahawks in Week 2. Of course, it’s a stronger Seahawks defense, too, as defensive end Chris Clemons and outside linebacker Bruce Irvin were not in the lineup last time. Clemons and Irvin push Seattle’s front seven from good to great.

On the back end, Walter Thurmond’s suspension leaves the Seahawks a man weaker this time around, but there’s been nothing from fill-ins Jeremy Lane and Byron Maxwell that suggests Thurmond’s absence will be a problem. Both young corners have played extremely well.

Even with a healthy stable of receivers, the 49ers are still a run-oriented offense. Not only do they frequently move the ball on the ground, but they construct a lot of their passing game out of run formations. Knowing their wide receivers won’t consistently shake Seattle’s press corners, Jim Harbaugh and play-caller Greg Roman will center their passing attack around tight end Vernon Davis and fullback Bruce Miller.

The onus in pass defense will be on strong safety Kam Chancellor, plus linebackers K.J. Wright, Bruce Irvin and Bobby Wagner. All four were great last Monday night, but New Orleans’ widened passing attack allowed them to be run-and-chase defenders, which is their forte. San Francisco’s condensed formations will shift the emphasis from speed to physical strength. More importantly, it will force the safety and backers to play coverage from uncomfortable angles and rely on nuanced technique. That’s far less natural for a linebacker. Irvin will be the most fascinating watch, given this is just his ninth game playing the position.

Titans (5-7) at Broncos (10-2), 4:05 p.m., CBS

A rule of thumb is when you play Peyton Manning, you have to move your safeties around. A year ago, this would have been a problem for Tennessee. Strong safety Bernard Pollard, with his inflexible coverage movement skills, was strictly a box defender—almost like a deeper full-time linebacker. Michael Griffin was strictly a deep centerfielder, believed to lack the physicality needed for mixing it up in traffic. The fixedness of these safeties made Tennessee’s entire defense static.

Things are different now. In October, Pollard and Griffin unexpectedly started flipping roles, with good results. Pollard can play looser in coverage at free safety, where there’s more space. Griffin at strong safety can use his quickness to cut-off run angles without getting caught in traffic. The next phase is for them to expand their multidimensionality to after the snap, with more coverage rotations and exchanges. This would be a great week to start.  

Eli Manning (Patrick McDonald/Getty Images) Eli Manning (Patrick McDonald/Getty Images)

Giants (5-7) at Chargers (5-7), 4:25 p.m., FOX

Eli Manning faces the franchise he once spent 60 awkward minutes being a part of nearly 10 years ago. The Chargers are just hoping the number of fans that show up to boo Manning at Qualcomm this week will be greater than the number that showed up to boo him that day at Madison Square Garden. Will Manning please the crowd by adding to his NFC-leading 18 interceptions? The Chargers do not have a potent pass rush or secondary, but defensive coordinator John Pagano is sly with selective coverage rotations aimed at fooling quarterbacks into bad decisions. Manning is a hard quarterback to fool, but his backs and receivers aren’t. Poor recognition on their part has caused around half of those 18 interceptions.

Colts (8-4) at Bengals (8-4), 1 p.m., CBS

Pardon Andrew Luck if he’s a bit jealous when he sees the Bengals this weekend. Cincinnati’s offense is a lot like what the Colts’ was supposed to be. The Bengals have a true No. 1 receiver, A.J. Green. The Colts have an injured Reggie Wayne. The Bengals have two flexible tight ends, Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert. The Colts have an injured Duane Allen. The Bengals have a lightning back, Giovani Bernard. The Colts have former first-rounder Donald Brown, who has played better lately but remains a week-to-week proposition. The Bengals also have a thunder back, BenJarvus Green-Ellis. The Colts have Trent Richardson, who has turned out to be essentially a Green-Ellis ersatz. The Bengals have a big, powerful offensive line. The Colts do too, only it’s significantly less competent in pass protection. So how is it that both teams are 8-4? The Bengals have the respectable Andy Dalton. The Colts have the incredible Andrew Luck.

Rams (5-7) at Cardinals (7-5), 4:25 p.m., FOX

Quietly, Arizona’s offensive line has improved in pass protection—it’s gone from “atrocious” to “iffy.” It can be reclassified from “iffy” to “ho-hum” if it can somehow contain the virtually uncontainable St. Louis front four. Doing so will require consistent chip-block help on the edges. Right tackle Eric Winston simply can’t block Chris Long one-on-one; left tackle Bradley Sowell, like the rest of the league’s left tackles, has no chance on an island against Robert Quinn. But with the proper help, both linemen do have a chance to survive.

Falcons (3-9) at Packers (5-6-1), 1 p.m., FOX

One bright spot— maybe the only bright spot—for the Packers last week was outside linebacker Nick Perry. Seeing his first significant action since breaking his foot in Week 6, the 265-pounder flashed the combination of speed and power that made him the 28th overall pick a year ago. He had the weak side sack-fumble in the first half that created Green Bay’s only touchdown. There also was a critical pressure from Perry off the strong side, where he forced Matthew Stafford out of the pocket before Stafford threw an interception. Perhaps just as encouraging was how Perry, from both the weak and strong sides, showed good leverage and lateral movement against the run. Green Bay will be a dangerous defense if its No. 2 outside backer can start performing like this on a regular basis.

Vikings (3-8-1) at Ravens (6-6), 1 p.m., FOX

Two weeks ago, Adrian Peterson rushed for a then-season-high 146 yards on 32 carries at Green Bay. Last week against Chicago, in another five-period contest, Peterson ran 35 times for 211 yards, putting himself on track for a third career rushing title. If Peterson can top 200 yards again this week, he’ll officially be a monster. The Ravens have held their past five opponents to an average of 94.2 yards rushing, with indomitable trench play. Haloti Ngata has shown more of his old power and burst; Arthur Jones has taken after Chris Canty by using strength and technique to win one-on-one battles in phone booths; and nose tackle Terrence Cody has even shown hints of his light bulb finally being on. Minnesota’s ground game uses a lot of lead-and pull-blocking concepts, which means it depends on its offensive linemen to get a push on the front side. Pushes will be hard to generate Sunday.

Browns (4-8) at Patriots (9-3), 1 p.m., CBS

Aqib Talib vs. the white-hot Josh Gordon might be the most even-matched corner-receiver battle that football has to offer. Both are respectably fast, lanky, deceptively agile, and willing to jostle. Talib has shut down several top receivers this season, sometimes with safety help, sometimes without. Whether he gets help this week could depend on who plays quarterback for the Browns. Jason Campbell and Brandon Weeden are both getting over concussions. It’s possible undrafted second-year QB Alex Tanney could start.

Belichick believes in doing whatever’s possible to eliminate the opponents’ greatest strength. As record-setting back-to-back 200-yard receiving games attests, Cleveland’s greatest strength is Gordon. But if Tanney has to play, Belichick could elect to play with base personnel (to stop the run) and focus a safety primarily on breakout tight end Jordan Cameron. In Cleveland’s system, Cameron runs a lot of shallow crossing patterns, which would figure to be a security blanket for the untested Tanney. It’d make sense to take that away even if it means leaving Talib alone against Gordon.

LeSean McCoy (Drew Hallowell/Getty Images) LeSean McCoy (Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)

Lions (7-5) at Eagles (7-5), 1 p.m., FOX

Offenses like to attack Detroit’s fast-flowing zone defense with misdirection concepts. Tactics like wind-back runs, receiver end-around handoffs, quick play-action rollouts and screen passes are great ways to punish defenders for their speed and aggression. As it so happens, misdirection concepts make up the bulk of Chip Kelly’s hurry-up system. As long as Philly’s interior O-line can survive against the increasingly dominant duo of Ndamukong Suh-Nick Fairley, LeSean McCoy and tight ends Brent Celek and Zach Ertz will post good numbers. 

Raiders (4-8) at Jets (5-7), 1 p.m., CBS

Another intriguing corner-receiver matchup: Antonio Cromartie vs. Andre Holmes. Cromartie always shadows the opponent’s No. 1 wideout. With Denarius Moore nursing a shoulder injury the past two weeks, Holmes has emerged as that guy for the Raiders. It’s difficult to understand how Holmes, a supple 6-4, 225-pounder with decent speed and explosive leaping ability, could go undrafted and be on his fourth team in three years. His 136 yards turned heads on Thanksgiving, but perhaps more enthralling (from a viewing standpoint) were the sideline jump-balls he almost caught in the game two weeks earlier at Houston. Now Holmes must pull off his acrobatics against the first equally-athletic foe he’s faced, Cromartie.

Dolphins (6-6) at Steelers (5-7), 1 p.m., CBS

Mike Wallace expects to be booed Sunday at Pittsburgh. A few weeks ago, the former Steeler might have been booed even if this game was in Miami. Wallace’s first few months as a Dolphin were underwhelming. But in November, the $30 million free agent started paying true dividends. Last week against the Jets, Wallace caught seven balls for 82 yards and a touchdown. The previous week against Carolina, he had five catches for 127 yards and a touchdown. Perhaps even more encouraging was the game Wallace had against San Diego the week before. He caught four balls, all in the first quarter, and was blanked the rest of the way, but that was only because the Chargers constantly rolled a safety over the top against him. Believe it or not, this was really the first time all season that a defense paid Wallace this sort of every-down respect. The two-deep coverage opened up the rest of Miami’s offense, leaving play-caller Mike Sherman extremely happy with his top-flight receiver. 

Bills (4-8) at Buccaneers (3-9), 1 p.m., CBS

Typically we see the Bills outside corners play press coverage on third down, which is when defensive coordinator Mike Pettine likes to unleash his trademark blitz and zone exchange pressures. This week Pettine should consider having his corners press on first down. That’d be a way to disrupt the play-action deep shots that Tampa Bay’s offense both feasts and relies on. Look for Stephon Gilmore, one of the best jammers in the NFL, to shadow Vincent Jackson. That leaves the agile Leodis McKelvin responsible for Tiquan Underwood, who has erupted for 159 yards on six catches the past two weeks, mostly on deep play-action crosses.

Chiefs (9-3) at Redskins (3-9), 1 p.m., CBS

With or without Justin Houston, the Chiefs won’t give up at least 35 points a third straight week. Washington’s passing game does not feature the intertwined route combinations that San Diego and Denver used to exploit K.C. Instead, Washington counts on its receivers to win on isolation routes against defenses that are, hopefully, concerned about stopping the run. This approach works well against zone-based defenses, but it’s considerably less effective against man-based defenses like the Chiefs. Man-defenders watch their man, not the ball or backfield. This inherently nullifies the effects of fake handoffs and other pistol-oriented deceptions.

Panthers (9-3) at Saints (9-3), 8:30 p.m., NBC

Earlier this week, I wrote about why Cam Newton needs to emulate Drew Brees in order for Carolina to reach a Super Bowl.

Go to page 2 for the Monday night game between the Bears and Cowboys ...

Dez Bryant hasn't topped 100 yards receiving since Week 7, a string the Cowboys hope he breaks Monday night against the Bears. (Tom Pennington/Getty Images) Dez Bryant hasn't topped 100 yards receiving since Week 7, a string the Cowboys hope he breaks Monday night against the Bears. (Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

Cowboys (7-5) at Bears (6-6), 8:30 p.m., ESPN

Cowboys offense vs. Bears defense

We’ve yet to see any team really go hard after Bears right corner Zack Bowman, who is filling in for the injured Charles Tillman. Bowman has never been particularly quick or inherently smooth in changing directions. The Cowboys have an ideal weapon to attack him in Dez Bryant, who has made his living beating right corners along the boundary.

This season Bryant, for really the first time in his career, has lined up in a variety of different spots. While the results have been outstanding, this would be a good week for the Cowboys to keep the electrifying star in his old “plus split left receiver” position—at least on first down, when the Bears would be most inclined to drop a safety in the box, leaving Bryant one-on-one against Bowman.

Of course, the Bears dropped a safety in the box almost every snap at Minnesota last week and still gave up more than 200 yards to Adrian Peterson. DeMarco Murray is no Peterson, but Murray has looked like a Pro Bowler at times when running against a soft seven-man box. That’s what he’ll face if the Bears elect to double Bryant and play their once-foundational Cover 2.

Earlier this season, it would have been a no-brainer for Chicago to double Bryant and defend the run with just seven men. But the absence of veteran linebackers D.J. Williams and Lance Briggs compromises that. Rookie replacements Jon Bostic and Khaseem Greene remain too hit-or-miss at diagnosing run plays, particularly when there’s a pulling lineman or lead-blocker involved.

Bears offense vs. Cowboys defense

In a way, Chicago has two Dez Bryants of its own: Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. It’s hard to envision Dallas’ 31st-ranked pass defense keeping both wideouts in check. During the Cowboys’ Week 11 bye—which came after their nationally televised spanking from the Saints—Jason Garrett and defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin decided to recommit to playing press coverage on the outside. Since then, the Cowboys have given up 154 yards passing to the Giants and 255 to the Raiders (which isn’t great but is still 40 yards better than their season average).

It will be tough for corners Brandon Carr and Orlando Scandrick to win with press coverage against the sizeable Jeffery and Marshall. Still, it’s the best way to go. Jeffery is too swift to leave unimpeded as a route runner; Marshall is too good at finding voids against zone corners. The Bears could look to help Marshall avoid the press corners and find more zone voids by aligning him in the slot, which is how Marshall killed the Cowboys when these teams last played on Monday night (Week 4, 2012). In that game, however, the Cowboys, under Rob Ryan, mixed in more man coverage concepts inside. Kiffin almost always plays zone inside, which is what’s allowed Sean Lee (back from a hamstring injury) to jump on more turnovers. Lee will undoubtedly clue in on Marshall.

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