Cowboys (7-7) at Washington (3-11), 1 p.m., FOX
Not to rehash the Cowboys’ loss to the Packers last week … but let’s rehash the Cowboys’ loss to the Packers last week. Too many things need clearing up.
Wideout Cole Beasley took the blame for Tony Romo’s second interception. Beasley, however, is just being a good teammate and lying. The Packers ran a “Cover 2 trap” on that play. Cornerback Tramon Williams initially acted like he was staying with the outside receiver downfield, but peeled back and sat in the shallow outside zone. This was a specific defensive call designed to take away Beasley’s quick-out route, which had gained nine yards on the previous down. Beasley recognized Green Bay’s adjustment and correctly truncated his route. Romo didn’t recognize it.
Romo’s first interception could also be attributed to failed recognition the quarterback’s part, this time before the snap. Sam Shields was in tight press position against Miles Austin, which meant Austin would take an extra half-second to beat the jam and get off the line. The Cowboys could not afford that extra half-second because the mechanics of their particular run play left Clay Matthews initially unblocked. (Tight end Gavin Escobar was going to cross the formation to block Matthews as the play developed, but Romo checked out of the run and opted for pass when he saw eight defenders stacking the box.) Romo should have realized the timing would not work well.
Bad as the two picks were, they weren’t Romo’s costliest blunders. Four plays before the first interception, he badly underthrew a wide-open Dez Bryant on a 1st-and-10 play-action deep shot. It was a perfect play call that should have produced six points. Instead, everyone in America put on their hindsight goggles and criticized Jason Garrett for not running the ball. If Romo had executed, Garrett would be praised for having the guts to stay aggressive in crunch time.
What’s more, imagine if Dallas had run the ball three times against an overloaded box, gotten stuffed and punted. Given the way Dallas’s injury-riddled defense was playing, Green Bay would have had to march a little farther to find the end zone but likely would have still scored. Garrett would be getting censured for being too conservative, just like he was after losing at New England two years ago.
The Cowboys hung 26 points on the Packers in the first half by calling 28 passes and 11 runs. Nobody griped about the unbalanced play-calling then. All game long, the Cowboys’ pass designs worked. There were just too many cases where Romo executed poorly—and not just in the fourth quarter. Bryant also beat safety Morgan Burnett for a would-be TD early in the second quarter, but Romo underthrew him. On the next series, Bryant got free in a Cover 2 void for a would-be 25-yard TD, but Romo overthrew him. And on Bryant’s impossible back-of-the-end zone TD in the fourth, Romo was actually making an ill-advised throw to Miles Austin.
In short, the Cowboys offensive players and coaches had a great game. Their quarterback, who has had a Pro Bowl worthy season, had a bad one. Now he must bounce back at Washington.
Dolphins (8-6) at Bills (5-9), 1 p.m., CBS
Just like when these teams met in Week 7, Bills backup quarterback Thad Lewis is starting in place of an injured EJ Manuel. In the previous matchup, Lewis managed the game sufficiently enough for Buffalo to eke out a defense-driven victory. (Corner Nickell Robey had an early pick-six and Mario Williams beat right tackle Tyson Clabo inside for two sacks late in the fourth quarter, the second one resulting in a lost fumble that set up Buffalo’s game-winning field goal). The Bills gave Lewis a simplified game plan in Week 7 that featured throws to Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller out of the backfield. The Dolphins defended it well, holding Jackson to 49 yards on four catches and Spiller to minus-four yards on three catches. Last week the Dolphins firmly defended an even tougher version of a similar game plan in their win over the Patriots. Miami’s linebackers paid particularly close attention to Shane Vereen, which was key even if opened a few windows for wideouts Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman inside. Perhaps Lewis’s best bet this game would be to look for his wide receivers between the numbers.
Vikings (4-9-1) at Bengals (9-5), 1 p.m., FOX
Expect aggressive play-action from the Vikings, not because Adrian Peterson is back after sitting last week with a foot injury, but because Matt Cassel has been terrific throwing dig-and in-routes at the deep-intermediate level off run fakes. Attack-minded linebackers Vontaze Burfict and Rey Maualuga can be goaded into missteps when they spot hard run-blocking action off the snap (see Chargers tight end Lardarius Green’s touchdown in Week 13), plus Cincy’s corners play a lot of off-man coverage. Both keys suggest this defense could be vulnerable to fast play-action.
Colts (9-5) at Chiefs (11-3), 1 p.m., CBS
With almost half of Kanas City’s starting defense in contention for the Pro Bowl, it’s easy to overlook right end Mike DeVito. Don’t. The 29-year-old ex-Jet has been outstanding in playside run defense, particularly with bull-rushes against zone-blocking. The Colts are a man-blocking team, but that doesn’t mean left tackle Anthony Castonzo won’t have his hands full.
Buccaneers (4-10) at Rams (6-8), 1 p.m., FOX
This game will come down to whether the Bucs can contain Robert Quinn. In the Rams’ surprising (and convincing) win last week over New Orleans, the Saints dedicated regular chip-blocks and protection-slides against the third-year defensive end. Quinn still wrecked the offense with two sacks, a fumble recovery and two drawn penalties. He did, however, quiet down somewhat in the late second half after the Saints had picked up their tempo and replaced left tackle Charles Brown with veteran Zach Strief. The Bucs, with rookies at quarterback, running back and tight end, aren’t an up-tempo offense, so they must figure out ways to account for Quinn from snap to snap. They’ll have to augment the strategized help that they’ve been giving to left tackle Donald Penn throughout this season. Penn doesn’t do well when forced to make contact early in his pass blocks; he needs about two clean drop-steps to balance his feet and get his hands in place. He won’t have time for that against Quinn, who has the league’s most explosive first step.
Browns (4-10) at Jets (6-8), 1 p.m., CBS
Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton is as creative as any blitz designer, but this Sunday, he might as well just copy what Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott did last week and attack Geno Smith with combo slot corner-linebacker blitzes. The Panthers consistently aligned their blitzers at favorable angles before the snap, sent them down paths in Smith’s blind spot after the snap and dropped an extra zone defender directly into Smith’s hot reads. They did this out of a variety of looks and against a variety of different formations. That doesn’t happen by accident, but rather, by a coaching staff noticing a young quarterback’s conspicuous habits and tendencies on film. Horton has watched the same film.
Saints (10-4) at Panthers (10-4), 1 p.m., FOX
When these teams met two weeks ago, New Orleans dominated by using chip-blocks to neutralize Carolina’s lethal four-man rush, affording Drew Brees the time and space to throw vertically. They’ll take the same approach this week, only with a new left tackle. Terron Armstead has replaced Charles Brown, who was embarrassed at St. Louis last week and has struggled in one-on-one pass protection throughout the year. Armstead, an untested third-round rookie, will be facing perhaps the NFL’s stiffest test possible: defensive end Greg Hardy, who has shown the most potent combination of every-down power and speed of all 4-3 defensive ends. Having Armstead at left tackle might mean more one-on-one scenarios for mechanically-sound-but-slow-footed right tackle Zach Strief. Fortunately for Strief, Panthers left defensive end Charles Johnson has not looked like his usual self since injuring his knee in Week 11.
Titans (5-9) at Jaguars (4-10), 1 p.m., CBS
Kendall Wright has flown under the radar but into “star receiver” territory this season. Lateral movement skills make the second-year Titan a fantastic short-area weapon out of the slot. Wright has started beating quality corners downfield, too. Last week, he caught four passes of 17-plus yards in the final five minutes, working mostly against Cardinals shutdown corner Patrick Peterson.
Broncos (11-3) at Texans (2-12), 1 p.m., CBS
If Wright is a rising slot receiver, the man at the top of the mountain he’s climbing is Wes Welker. The 32-year-old’s concussion-induced absence had a very negative domino effect on Denver’s passing game last week. Eric Decker moved to the slot, where he lacks the fluid change-of-direction prowess to thrive. Andre Caldwell (who is a wiry 6-0, 200 pounds but, for some reason, is called “Bubba”) filled Decker’s spot outside. Caldwell made some nice catches—including touchdowns of five and 15 yards—but he also ran some incorrect routes. With downgrades at two receiver spots, top target Demaryius Thomas got more attention from the defense and finished with four mostly uneventful catches on five targets. The Broncos offense never found its rhythm.
Giants (5-9) at Lions (7-7), 4:05 p.m., FOX
Detroit’s defense played well last Monday night, holding the Ravens to six field goals, including Justin Tucker’s miraculous 61-yarder with 38 seconds left to play. But the Lions didn’t make many big plays, in large part because their front four could not pierce Baltimore’s overloaded protections. That front will face more overloaded protections against the Giants this week, but it should have an easier time getting penetration, especially against the right side, where tackle Justin Pugh struggles against redirect moves and guard David Diehl continues to show marked decline in his recovery ability.
Cardinals (9-5) at Seahawks (12-2), 4:05 p.m., FOX
Seattle has a great coaching staff, but Arizona’s has been the NFL’s best this season. Click here to read why.
Steelers (6-8) at Packers (7-6-1), 4:25 p.m., CBS
There’s a chance Aaron Rodgers will play. If he doesn’t, let this be a final notice: The Packers under Matt Flynn have three distinct tendencies. We touched on them in last week’s Sunday Slate, but the Cowboys did nothing to stop them, so we might as well touch on them again:
1. Jordy Nelson in the slot is overwhelmingly the go-to target early in the game or on third down outside the red zone.
2. If it’s goal-to-go and Andrew Quarless is split out as an X-iso receiver opposite three wideouts, Quarless is getting the ball. Flynn loves throwing to the fourth-year tight end when he’s one-on-one against a safety.
3. If the ball is spotted inside the opponents’ 30-yard-line, a running back screen is likely on the horizon.
Raiders (4-10) at Chargers (7-7), 4:25 p.m., CBS
Speaking of running back screens, that was the play call on three of the four touchdown receptions Oakland gave up to Jamaal Charles last week. San Diego’s Danny Woodhead is tied for third among running backs with 66 catches this season. A lot of those catches have come from the slot or out wide, not out of the backfield. It will be interesting to see how much Mike McCoy tweaks his offense this week to incorporate more backfield screen concepts.
Patriots (10-4) at Ravens (8-6), 4:25 p.m., CBS
In the AFC Championship last year, the Patriots surprised people by putting Aqib Talib on Anquan Boldin rather than on Torrey Smith (who was red-hot at the time). They did that because whoever took Smith would be getting deep safety help over the top. It made more sense to use Kyle Arrington or Alfonzo Dennard, who would need the help more than Talib. That freed Talib to take Boldin, who was too strong for Arrington and Dennard anyway.
Boldin is gone now, but don’t be shocked if Talib still doesn’t match up with Smith. The Patriots could elect to double Smith the same way again and use Talib one-on-one against Dennis Pitta. Yes, TIGHT END Dennis Pitta. The Patriots took this approach against Charles Clay last week and befuddled the Dolphins for almost the entire first half. (Mike Wallace had a 39-yard touchdown, but that was a product of missed tackles, plus it came against fourth corner Marquice Cole, not Arrington or Dennard). Pitta is Flacco’s security blanket and top inside target. If the Patriots can eliminate him with just one guy, they can play two deep safeties the entire game, which is a great way to combat Flacco’s long bombs.
Normally, playing a corner on a tight end leaves a defense too light against the run. But Talib has the size to handle spot duty in traffic. Plus Pitta is a poor in-line blocker and will often play the slot. Oh, and the Ravens’ running game is nothing to worry about.
Bears (8-6) at Eagles (8-6), 8:30 p.m., NBC
LeSean McCoy might be the best outside runner in the NFL, but the Bears, somewhat quietly, have an excellent outside runner of their own in Matt Forte. The sixth-year veteran doesn’t quite have McCoy’s speed or change-of-direction quickness, but he’s sufficient in these realms and has keen patience and vision. Marc Trestman’s system does a good job at manufacturing perimeter rushing lanes, particularly by involving Alshon Jeffery on fake (or “ghost”) reverse action.
Falcons (4-10) at 49ers (10-4), 8:40 p.m., ESPN
49ers offense vs. Falcons defense
Last week, the Buccaneers shaped their pass rush around forcing Colin Kaepernick to move to his left. Kaepernick responded decently, but his unrefined mechanics and footwork will make him a week-to-week proposition against these sort of tightly focused defensive tactics. If the Falcons want to influence where Kaepernick moves, they’ll have to blitz, as their defensive line, unlike Tampa’s, can’t be counted on to win individual matchups off the edge.
Defensive end Osi Umenyiora was recently demoted to backup duties, as the Falcons continue to insert more youth into the starting lineup. Promoted second-year man Jonathan Massaquoi is probably an upgrade anyway, as he’s bigger and just as explosive. Massaquoi’s limited experience on running downs is a concern, though, particularly against a creative, high-volume ground game like San Francisco’s.
The same concern applies to undrafted rookie linebackers Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu. Both are fluid in space, but both can get tied up in blocks. Especially Worrilow, whose great tackle numbers are primarily a function of circumstance. Remember, almost every play ends in a tackle, so the stats have to go to someone. In Atlanta’s case, they go to a rookie linebacker who makes a lot of stops downfield.
Falcons offense vs. 49ers defense
Aldon Smith is gradually regaining his monstrous form. The destructiveness he showed against the Bucs last week should continue this week, as he’ll often go up against slow-footed left tackle Lamar Holmes. Lately, the Niners have used Smith more as a standup nickel defensive tackle for added dimension in their stunt game.
There’s a more alarming mismatch opposite Smith, with Ahmad Brooks (who deserves All-Pro honors this season) working against Ryan Schraeder. The undrafted rookie right tackle is playing as part of Atlanta’s end-of-the-year youth movement. Like previous starter Jeremy Trueblood, Schraeder lacks the lower body strength to sustain against bull rushers.
If—and this is a big if—Matt Ryan has time to throw, he’ll be looking for Tony Gonzalez. With a secondary that’s healthy and deeper since the emergence of corners Tramaine Brock and Eric Wright, the Niners have diversified their coverages. Will they use their depth and diversity to zero in on Gonzalez? Or, will they take their usual approach and just let Patrick Willis battle the future Hall of Famer?