Highlighting Week 14’s excellent slate of matchups are the premier offense-defense battles in Chicago and Kansas City.
Dec 2, 2018; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Lions running back LeGarrette Blount (29) runs the ball during the fourth quarter against the Los Angeles Rams at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports
Offenses owned these clashes (Rams-Vikings, Jaguars-Chiefs, Saints-Ravens) early this season, but the pendulum swung back in Week 13 (Saints-Cowboys, Colts-Jaguars).
Perhaps the Bears can keep that trend going in frigid Chicago on Sunday night.
1. A formula to slow the Rams?
There’s no “blueprint” to stop Sean McVay’s offense, but one particular approach has given it trouble. L.A.’s disjointed performance in Detroit came against a Lions defense leaning heavily on Cover-4 (also known as “quarters”), which Denver also employed when holding the Rams to a season-low 23 points.
With four deep defenders, Cover-4 creates multiple double teams against two- and three-man route concepts — like many of McVay’s play-action designs — by bracketing vertical routes with a cornerback and a safety. The approach also fits Los Angeles’ condensed formations, keeping defenders from getting picked by intertwined releases from stacks and bunches.
Vic Fangio’s zone-heavy scheme features plenty of Cover-4, often from disguised looks that muddy the quarterback’s read. Safeties Eddie Jackson and Adrian Amos have thrived in these designs, with Jackson instinctively reading multiple routes and Amos flying downhill to hammer crossers or fill run lanes.
Jared Goff hasn’t been poor, but his early-season precision — both with ball placement and field reading — has slipped some. (Even against the Chiefs, he missed several open targets low.) That could be exacerbated Sunday by Khalil Mack and Akiem Hicks, who should get push in Goff’s face even if they don’t reach him often.
2. Chiefs offense losing its balance?
Kansas City still scored 40 points Sunday, but its run game clearly missed Kareem Hunt. Patrick Mahomes and Tyreek Hill accounted for 89 yards on 11 carries, but Spencer Ware and Damien Williams totaled 85 on 19 totes (4.5 average), with more than half (47 yards) on three carries.
Ware especially struggled (3.4 average) despite facing the Raiders’ 28th-ranked run defense (5.0 average) and a slew of light boxes. With Oakland keeping two safeties deep, Andy Reid’s spread formations regularly created 5-on-5 or 6-on-6 blocking (even 6-on-5 on one occasion). But Ware lacked the one-step, upfield cuts to explode through seams, often continuing laterally past gaping holes up the middle.
The drop-off from Hunt to Ware won’t matter often, given the explosive passing game, but it might when trying to salt away a playoff lead, or when facing better defenses.
This week, Baltimore’s top-ranked unit can key almost entirely on Mahomes and the passing game, looking to flummox him with myriad zone blitzes. Those tactics normally give free releases to slot targets — a dangerous move against Hill and Travis Kelce — but the Ravens could add wrinkles, especially if they don’t fear the run game.
Rather than having Terrell Suggs set the edge, Baltimore could walk him out over Kelce (wide or in the slot) to slam the tight end at the snap. The Ravens could even use this “bullseye” tactic against Hill, disrupting his momentum however possible to keep him from threatening downfield so quickly.
Mahomes won’t be confused like a typical first-year starter, but he could struggle some if the Chiefs get one-dimensional and his receivers can’t get off the line cleanly.
3. Can Philly’s front handle Dallas’ D?
Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith are shining in a scheme that unleashes their speed. That’s certainly true in coverage, with Rod Marinelli’s bevy of zones, but it’s also clear against the run.
A D-line guru, Marinelli has long favored an aggressive approach with slants and stunts, and the Cowboys have the penetrators to run them. Rather than passively holding gaps, Dallas calls slants on run downs, forcing offensive lines to react quickly and in unison. The unpredictability can create chaos and prevent O-lines from executing double teams as planned.
When double teams go awry, Vander Esch and Smith remain unblocked, allowing them to sift through traffic to the ball carrier. O-linemen that do get to the second level have had their paths altered, offering more favorable angles to slip blocks, at which Vander Esch is particularly adept.
Underwhelming most of the year, Philly’s front five got rolling Monday night, taking it to a stout Washington front-seven (4.6 yards per carry, excluding kneeldowns), but Dallas is a different challenge.
Perhaps the Eagles could combat the Cowboys’ aggression by dusting off some of offensive line coach and run-game coordinator Jeff Stoutland’s more exotic designs. Stoutland broke out several uncommon concepts in Dallas last year, many featuring split-flow action to move linebackers one way while attacking another.
4. Colts-Texans sequel nothing like the original
It feels like 10 months, not 10 weeks, since Houston’s 37-34 overtime victory in Indianapolis, which started an eight-game win streak.
After averaging 38.4 attempts through five weeks, Deshaun Watson has averaged 24.6 since. The Texans have instead leaned heavily on the run, using the O-line’s athleticism in outside zone and power schemes with pulling tackles (rather than guards). Lamar Miller and Alfred Blue aren’t dynamic creators, but both are disciplined hitting the designed hole, which has been there of late.
Meanwhile, the Colts’ O-line looks brand new. In Week 4, J.J. Watt feasted (two strip-sacks) on Le’Raven Clark and Denzelle Good. Anthony Castonzo’s return sent Clark back to the bench, and rookie Braden Smith has shored up right tackle (Good was released Saturday). Mark Glowinski has thrived replacing injured right guard Matt Slauson.
With the protection stabilized, Frank Reich’s offense has become far more open and aggressive, which worked brilliantly until it hit the Jaguars’ brick wall last week. Jacksonville’s front was dominant, and Houston could create similar problems with center Ryan Kelly (knee) again looking iffy.
While not a pure edge-bender, Jadeveon Clowney is a terror on the interior, where Houston matches him on guards and centers from a stand-up rover position, often with stunts and twists. Smith, of course, must counter Watt, who sees fewer double teams thanks to the Texans’ five-across fronts.
5. Vikings could put onus back on Russell Wilson
Seattle’s run-heavy approach has rendered Wilson more of a complementary piece. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — a tremendous downfield thrower, he has maximized Brian Schottenheimer’s play-action designs — but we’ve seen much less of the superhero-like playmaker.
That version of Wilson made a cameo two weeks ago against the Panthers, who shut down a Seahawks run game nobody else has stopped (2.7 yards per carry, first time under 4.2 since Week 3). Wilson had to carry the load and came through brilliantly with two late drives in the fourth quarter.
A similar script could play out Monday against Minnesota and its stout run defense (3.7 yards per carry, T-4th). Linval Joseph is a block of granite with tap dancers’ feet, and Sheldon Richardson has quietly had another excellent season. Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter set wicked edges, and the second level is filled with speed.
When Wilson does throw, he’s trusted his protection more lately, extending plays from within the pocket rather than via his trademark escapes. That could lead to big plays downfield to Tyler Lockett and David Moore.
—David DeChant, Field Level Media