Patriots (10-3) at Dolphins (7-6), 1 p.m., CBS
There’s no replacing Rob Gronkowski—especially this season, where his expanded versatility as a blocker has been invaluable to a Patriots offense that’s more run-oriented than people think. The Patriots can, however, adjust to Gronk’s absence. That will mean two things: wider formations with more three-receiver personnel, and an increased role for agile, multi-tooled running back Shane Vereen, who now becomes the offense’s most important player not named Tom Brady. No linebacker can consistently cover Vereen when he splits out wide. If defenses start playing dime to match a third safety on Vereen, you’ll see the Patriots dominate with a power run game out of three-receiver sets.
Falcons (3-10) at Redskins (3-10), 1 p.m., FOX
You might have heard that Robert Griffin III is sitting this one out. He’s won’t be the only one. Atlanta cornerback Asante Samuel did not play a single snap at Green Bay last week. That could be the case again this week. Presumably, the coaching staff and front office want to give rookie Robert Alford as much work as possible down the stretch. The second-rounder has been decent on the outside in sub-packages this year. Samuel, on the other hand, battled a quad injury early in the season and has not made his customary game-breaking plays. Samuel’s off-man coverage style works in Atlanta’s current scheme, but Mike Smith and defensive coordinator Mike Nolan likely will install more press-man concepts this offseason, which is not Samuel’s strength. That, plus a nearly $4 million salary in 2014, would suggest the soon-to-be 33-year-old has played his last meaningful snaps for the Birds. Alford’s, meanwhile, are just beginning.
Bears (7-6) at Browns (4-9), 1 p.m., FOX
Josh Gordon is the hottest receiver in the league right now, but few GMs would take him ahead of Alshon Jeffery. The Bears’ second-year sensation possesses not only an uncanny blend of size, speed and body control, but a playing style that accentuates it. Like Brandon Marshall, Jeffery instinctively attacks and plucks incoming passes (versus letting them get into his body). When needed, Jeffrey can tap into his inner Randy Moss and make defenders unaware of incoming deep balls by keeping his hands low before reacting at the very last second. But most of the time, physical strength and a sprinkler-like catching radius allow Jeffrey to be the aggressor. No cornerback—including an upper-tier one like Cleveland’s Joe Haden—can guard him in these instances.
Texans (2-11) at Colts (8-5), 1 p.m., CBS
One item on the long list of concerns for the Colts heading into the postseason: their run defense. It wasn’t good against the Bengals last week, and recent history suggests it won’t be good again this week with the zone-running Texans coming to town. For years, the Colts’ speed-oriented inside linebackers have had a tendency to get caught skating east and west. That’s what happened in the final three weeks last season, when the Texans and zone-running Chiefs rushed for a combined 632 yards against them. With a defensive line that has since been retooled, the Colts have fared better against zone ground games this season, but they’re still not where they want to be. The Seahawks gouged this run D for 218 yards (102 were from Russell Wilson, but still…); the Titans got them for 284 in two games, while these Texans went for 143 on them in Week 9.
Eagles (8-5) at Vikings (3-9-1), 1 p.m., FOX
Quietly, the Eagles have put together a very solid defense—one that’s becoming increasingly more adept at blitzing. The Vikings’ problems with blitz pickup have gradually been ironing out, but the amoeba looks with Trent Cole and Connor Barwin standing up behind explosive down-linemen Vinny Curry and Brandon Graham will be a real challenge. If the Vikings can protect Matt Cassel, they’ll have a chance. Cassel is very average in almost all facets. But unlike Christian Ponder, he reads the entire field and is more willing to attempt anticipation throws. This has galvanized the receivers.
Seahawks (11-2) at Giants (5-8), 1 p.m., FOX
One critical way in which Eli Manning and Russell Wilson are similar is they both make their receivers better by extending the play. Highlight reels from either of New York’s Super Bowl runs are filled with wide receivers working back to balls that Manning unleashed at the last second. For Seattle, there seem to be four or five instances every game where Golden Tate or Jermaine Kearse improvise their routes to make chains-moving catches after things break down. Then again, maybe those routes are not completely improvised given how much of Seattle’s offense is built around Wilson’s mobility. That’s where these two quarterbacks different. Wilson extends plays moving outside the pocket, Manning extends plays moving inside the pocket. Both give their receivers extra opportunities.
49ers (9-4) at Buccaneers (4-9), 1 p.m., FOX
Colin Kaepernick has played better the past few weeks, but expect a hiccup Sunday. The Bucs are a zone-based defense, which Kaepernick is not as comfortable reading. That would figure; against zone, a quarterback must account for multiple defenders near a throwing window. Against man, the read is more defined, as there’s generally just one defender to account for. The overwhelming majority of Kaepernick’s passes last week targeted the perimeter, where the Seahawks play press-man. Kaepernick did not make a lot of reads inside, where the Seahawks play zone. Another example came two weeks prior to the Seahawks game, when Kaepernick rediscovered his aggression against a Washington defense that played man-to-man. This week, the Niners will plan to use zone-beater route combinations, which can still create defined reads for Kaepernick, but it’s unlikely the young quarterback will play as loose as he has lately.
Bills (4-9) at Jaguars (4-9), 1 p.m., CBS
Doug Marrone recently said the Bills will scale back their game-plan in order to ease the burden on EJ Manuel. That’s smart. Six of the seven sacks Buffalo gave up at Tampa last week could be attributed to the rookie quarterback holding the ball and not moving comfortably within the pocket. This week Manuel is facing a Jaguars defense that, with its secondary finally healthy, could choose to deviate from its typically low-blitz frequency.
Chiefs (10-3) at Raiders (4-9), 4:05 p.m., CBS
Eric Berry almost certainly will fill one of the two strong safety slots in this season’s Pro Bowl, but you could argue that he should be going as a linebacker. Berry has lined up next to Derrick Johnson on roughly half his snaps this season, as that‘s where he plays in Kansas City’s predominant dime package. Strong safeties playing dime linebacker is a growing trend across the NFL, as defenses look to get more speed and athleticism on the field. You can bet the Raiders, barring a coaching change, will try to find their own Eric Berry this offseason. Dennis Allen and defensive coordinator Jason Tarver’s disguise-oriented scheme is tailor-made for multi-tooled box safeties.
Jets (6-7) at Panthers (9-4), 4:05 p.m., CBS
When good teams lose, we always hear that the blueprint for beating them has been set. This is mostly overblown; it’s not like there are magic strategies that NFL coaching staffs suddenly become aware of for the first time. That said, the National Football League is known as a copy-cat league for a reason. So you can expect other teams to attack the Panthers defense the same way the Saints did last Sunday night: by spreading horizontally so as to widen the Panthers’ zones and isolate their mediocre defensive backs. The Saints built outstanding route combinations off this. The Jets don’t have good receivers, but they might as well spread anyway. If nothing else, the broader zones will be easier for Geno Smith to read.
Packers (6-6-1) at Cowboys (7-6), 4:25 p.m., FOX
It’s tempting to throw the ball nonstop against Dallas’s 32nd-ranked pass defense, but if Matt Flynn starts again, Green Bay will have to stay committed to its methodical running game. Flynn’s best aerial work against Atlanta last week came on run-based concepts—like play-action, screens or designer routes from tight formations with heavier personnel. If this becomes a wide open passing affair, Flynn becomes susceptible to turnovers, be it interceptions (likely on throws inside) or sack-fumbles. A methodical, ground-oriented approach will mean plenty of snaps in the red zone. If the Cowboys double Jordy Nelson down there, they must be on alert for two things: back side screens to running back Eddie Lacy and fade routes to tight end Andrew Quarless when he’s split wide by himself.
Cardinals (8-5) at Titans (5-8), 4:25 p.m., FOX
The Cardinals blitz more than any team in football. This Sunday, expect a lot of their blitzes to be of the zone variety, with a defensive lineman dropping back into underneath coverage. The Broncos used this tactic to combat the Titans’ staple shallow-cross passing game. Not only did it successfully hinder Nate Washington’s and Kendall Wright’s catch-and-runs over the middle, it also muddled a lot of Tennessee’s protection concepts.
Saints (10-3) at Rams (5-8), 4:25 p.m., FOX
The most impressive part of New Orleans’ victory last Sunday was the way its offensive line contained Carolina’s vigorous four-man rush. Sean Payton does a better job than any coach at building chip-blocks into his system. That’s a big reason why ho-hum offensive tackles Charles Brown and Zach Strief held up so well against Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson. (Giving credit where it’s due, Brown and Strief also both had their best games of the season.) The Saints will have to reenact this performance again, as they’re facing a Rams front four that not only ranks near the top in sacks but also is looking to bounce back from a disappointing outing in which they got almost no pressure on Carson Palmer. Part of what kept the Rams at bay were good chip-block concepts by the Cardinals.
Bengals (9-4) at Steelers (5-8), 8:30 p.m., NBC
Treat yourself to some superb football by keeping an eye on Andrew Whitworth. The veteran left tackle moved to guard two weeks ago when Clint Boling got hurt and immediately went on a terror that has yet to cease. Whitworth’s seven quarters at left guard have been the best seven quarters any guard has had this season. His mobility and awareness on the move is tremendous, and his drive-blocking power is astounding. He has an innate feel for angles and technique. It would not be the least bit surprising if “left guard” becomes the 33-year-old’s full-time position.
Go to page 2 for the Monday night game between the Lions and Ravens …
Ravens (7-6) at Lions (7-6), 8:30 p.m., ESPN
Ravens offense vs. Lions defense
At least both teams know they won’t get stuck playing in weather this time. For the first 54 minutes last week, Joe Flacco and the Ravens offense clomped around in the snow and played an almost randomized form of football. In the final six minutes, the field conditions stabilized and Flacco went to work, completing 7 of 11 passes for 91 yards and two touchdowns. Flacco feasted on Vikings linebackers Audie Cole and Chad Greenway in both man and zone coverage.
The Lions use a lot of similar coverage concepts as the Vikings, so it will be on Stephen Tulloch and NFL interception leader DeAndre Levy to play with discipline. That includes late in the down, which Flacco was able to work into last week as the Ravens used a sixth blocker – usually running back Bernard Pierce or Ray Rice – to buttress their protection against the Vikings’ formidable four-man rush. The Ravens will take the same approach this week against an even better Lions four-man rush.
To save his team some trouble, offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell may want to just have Flacco drop back and throw on every down. After all, the Ravens offensive line continues to get no push whatsoever on the ground. Likely the only thing keeping the Ravens from throwing nonstop is a wide receiving corps that lacks the depth and refinement to be featured in an unbalanced offense.
Lions offense vs. Ravens defense
Last week the Ravens defense had success in press-man, which is not a coverage they play often. This was likely a strategic adjustment made for a snowy field. This week, they should get back to more of their off-man coverages, which means savvy linebacker Daryl Smith will be a key buzz defender underneath against Calvin Johnson’s slant routes.
Johnson is frequently used on slants at the deeper intermediate level, as well, so strong safety James Ihedigbo, who was outstanding in the box against Minnesota, will play deep, alongside free safety Abe Elam. This will mean more understaffed defensive fronts for Detroit to run against. Reggie Bush appears set to play after sitting last week with a calf injury. His presence is vital because the Lions’ ground game will have to come out of passing looks, as their offensive line—like many offensive lines these days—is not capable of driving Haloti Ngata, Chris Canty and Arthur Jones off the ball.