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Looking stay unbeaten in the NFL, Cam Newton and the Panthers will square off against Chip Kelly’s Eagles on Sunday night, while the Jets and Patriots will battle for first place in the AFC East at Gillette Stadium.
Breaking down the most intriguing Matchups
New Orleans Saints 2-4 @ Indianapolis Colts 3-3 1:00 PM ET – TV: FOX
Although the Colts brought along bruising back Frank Gore to add another dimension to a prolific offense, the saving grace of OC Pep Hamilton’s unit isn’t going to be the ground game, grounding and pounding the football. The main issue has been ineptness on the offensive line protecting the pocket and creating running lanes. Sprinkle that in with inaccurate throws from QB Andrew Luck (yeah, that’s right, Luck’s ball placement has been off) along with falling behind in the down and distance, and you got yourself an erratic offense. That’s not saying Hamilton’s offense hasn’t made any splash plays – his unit is loaded with talent, but this offense will live and die by the sword of Luck’s arm. Is it Luck’s nicked up shoulder that’s played a part in his over and under throws? That could be the case, but whatever the deal is, Hamilton’s unit needs to get some consistent rhythm going for the Colts to be serious contenders and gain separation from their foes in the AFC South.
Saints DC Rob Ryan likes to use manufacturing pressure concepts, and knowing Indianapolis’ O-line has struggled to pick up the blitz, look for Ryan to use a few toward Luck. Hamilton has gone with more short concepts for Luck to get the ball to his outlets quickly. That should continue this week, but I like Luck’s chances to get the vertical game going against a susceptible to the pass Saints defense that’s allowed 11 touchdown passes. Ryan’s best corner Keenan Lewis has been battling a sports hernia, limiting his snaps, so it’s going to be up to Brandon Browner and Delvin Breaux to keep up with Indianapolis’ speedy receivers, T.Y. Hilton and Donte Moncrief.
Does Ryan take a conservative approach or challenge Luck’s deep receiving corps with press coverage? Either way Ryan dials it up, the Colts should have their way against Ryan’s unit. The running game may not be the special sauce of Indianapolis’ offense, but I’d be surprised if Hamilton doesn’t try to get Gore going early against Ryan’s group that’s also struggling against the run. If the backend of New Orleans’ defense is going to have any chance of slowing Luck’s weapons, Kevin Williams, John Jenkins, Cameron Jordan, Hau’oli Kikaha, Stephone Anthony and the rest of New Orleans’ front must minimize Gore’s lanes and pressure Luck to put him in sandlot mode. That’s not saying Luck won’t be able to make plays outside the hash marks, but the more he has to work, the better the percentages will be for Ryan’s unit to make plays on the ball.
The Saints haven’t lit up fireworks on the ground offensively themselves, but what many fail to realize when examining a backfield’s production is how effective the backs have been in the passing game. Averaging 3.4 yards per carry is a non-sexy number, but what HC Sean Payton has always kept functioning since he’s been at the helm is getting the backs to be effective on screen game concepts. Mark Ingram, C.J. Spiller and Khiry Robinson aren’t as explosive as former backs Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas were on screens, but the extension of the running game is still there for QB Drew Brees to turn to on drawing the second and third levels of opposing defenses to bite.
A lack of a pass rush has enabled opposing offenses to exploit DC Greg Manusky’s unit. Payton may try to get his speedster Brandin Cooks matched up on Greg Toler, who’s been picked on by opposing quarterbacks this season. Look for the Saints to use intermediate concepts while trying to gash Indianapolis’ defense on the ground to set up the play-action pass for Brees. The Saints don’t present the same matchup issues the Colts’ defense faced last week against New England, particularly at tight end. Saints tight end Ben Watson will need to be shadowed, but he’s no Rob Gronkowski, who defenses double with an extra DB over the top and a linebacker underneath. Look for Manusky to deploy safety Mike Adams on Watson while having his secondary play aggressive in man press. There will be voids for both offenses to attack, but I like Indianapolis’ offense to stretch the field better in this matchup.
Pick: Colts 34, Saints 24
N.Y. Jets 4-1 @ New England Patriots 5-0 1:00 PM ET – TV: CBS
Defensively, you need players in the secondary that can go toe-to-toe with QB Tom Brady’s bunch of precise route runners. The isolating and neutralizing concepts of OC Josh McDaniels’ unit varies from multiple spread sets when the Patriots attack you through the air, and although New England’s thrown the ball 78 more times than they’ve handed off the football, both backs, Dion Lewis and LeGarrette Blount are averaging 5 yards per carry with a mixture of Lewis’ speed and Blount’s power.
The Jets have one of the most talented defensive fronts with Sheldon Richardson, Muhammad Wilkerson and Leonard Williams, who are all able to get bench press pushes off the snap to penetrate into the backfield to stuff the run and rattle the pocket. Jets HC Todd Bowles’ pressuring concepts stems from using exotic blitzes, and if his havoc creators up front execute their twist and stunts, it’ll open up lanes on the interior to pressure Brady up the middle. Without pressure in Brady’s face, New England will be able stay firm on the interior and widen the pocket for Brady to step up and deliver the football to his targets. It’s going to be interesting to see who Bowles mans on New England’s trio of pass catchers (Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and the freakish Rob Gronkowski). Safety Marcus Gilchrist has been defending tight ends well, but if Gilchrist struggles in coverage, Bowles may place Darrelle Revis on Brady’s bona fide weapon.
Whoever Bowles rolls with to man Edelman and Amendola, be it Antonio Cromartie, Revis or slot corner Dexter McDougle, they can’t allow New England’s receivers to execute their combination and pick routes. Amendola and Edelman have been dynamite on setting picks to free each other up inside and find open spaces on the outside on swing/wheel routes for big plays. With most of the attention on Gronkowski, Edelman and Amendola, look for McDaniels to get Lewis involved in the passing game. The Patriots have been one of the very best when utilizing their backs as flankers, and Lewis’ versatility can draw away the main reads and get New York’s backend out of position.
The Jets have a physical ground game, leaning on the legs of Chris Ivory, who can run between and outside the tackles to get to the second and third levels. New England’s defense will bend but not break and DC Matt Patricia’s unit has lots of talent up front getting after opposing quarterbacks, with Chandler Jones and Jabaal Sheard combining for 9.5 of the teams 19 sacks. To poise QB Ryan Fitzpatrick and neutralize New England’s front, Ivory will need to move the pile against an expected aggressive approach New England will focus on to contain New York’s ground game. Fitzpatrick has the tendency to turn the ball over when he’s placed in third and long situations, and for him to find comfort in the pocket or opportunities to stretch New England’s defense with his dynamic tandem at receiver in Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker, Fitzpatrick will need to stay ahead of the down and distance, otherwise the play-action pass will be non-existent and the Patriots’ defense will keep things underneath, forcing Fitzpatrick to thread the needle.
Pick: Patriots 27, N.Y. Jets 17
Dallas Cowboys 2-3 @ N.Y. Giants 3-3 4:25 PM ET – TV: FOX
Ineptness on the offensive side of the ball has influenced Cowboys HC Jason Garrett to shake things up – giving Matt Cassel the nod at quarterback – and the progress of rookie standout O-lineman La’el Collins has earned him the starting spot at left guard over Ronald Leary. According to reports from Valley Ranch, the Cowboys have been giving Christine Michael first team reps at running back during practice. Joseph Randle hasn’t rocked the house as the lead ball-carrier for Dallas’ ground game, averaging only 3.9 yards per carry, but the yards in total have been decent with OC Scott Linehan getting Randle and the backs involved in the passing game.
The Giants’ defense is ranked near the bottom pack of the league against the pass, allowing 299 yards per game and on bringing quarterbacks to the ground with only 8 sacks, but defending the run, DC Steve Spagnuolo has his unit staying disciplined in their gap integrity and creating turnovers. The opportunistic attitude Spagnuolo’s unit has taken to the gridiron has created turnovers, with 8 interceptions and 9 forced fumbles. I’d doubt Spagnuolo would put the brakes on his unit playing up near the line against Cassel, especially with the Cowboys missing Dez Bryant (foot) on the outside. Cassel’s footwork in the pocket and ability to improvise may be up the ladder on Weeden, but the veteran quarterback has the tendency to turn the ball over. That should give Spagnuolo the green light to send some blitzes toward Cassel to try to force him to make erratic throws under pressure while deploying loaded fronts against Dallas’ ground game.
If Linehan calls Michael’s number on a good amount of snaps, will he be able to fight his way through traffic against the 8 to 9 man fronts Dallas’ offense has been facing (due to defenses showing a lack of respect for the passing game)? Michael has the makeup of a north and south runner who uses his low center of gravity to take on tacklers with violence and use his cutbacks to burst through holes with speed, but for the Cowboys to get the best production out of their backs, Linehan will need to find ways for Cassel to push the football vertically for the Giants’ defense to fear the pass. Spagnuolo will focus on containing Cassel’s main outlets, Terrance Williams, Cole Beasley and “Giant Killer” Jason Witten. Look for Spagnuolo to have safety Landon Collins up in the box to man Witten with an extra DB shadowing him over the top, while having CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie press Williams along with the rest of his secondary to play Dallas’ receivers aggressively. Will Linehan switch things up by using some empty backfield sets to spread New York’s defense? As much as the running game dictates the passing game, the passing game can also ignite the running game.
Speaking of spread sets at the point of attack, Giants OC Ben McAdoo has installed his version of the West Coast offense that’s gotten QB Eli Manning to thrive for most of the season. The combination of the slant game and quick passing concepts has kept Manning upright behind a subpar offensive line. With DE Randy Gregory returning from an ankle injury, Cowboys DC Rod Marinelli will have all of his hounds ready to provide pressure up front. DE Greg Hardy and MLB Rolando McClain’s return on Oct. 11 from their four game suspensions against the Patriots immediately upgraded the Cowboys’ defense, particularly on getting pressure. Though Giants head coach Tom Coughlin will use some of his old school running between the tackles tactics with running back Rashad Jennings, New York’s backs (particularly Shane Vereen) are deadly options in the passing game. Marinelli would like to get all of his best pass rushers in at the same time, with Hardy, Demarcus Lawrence, Tyrone Crawford and Gregory in the nickel package to pressure Manning, but what I think is going to be extremely vital for the Cowboys’ defense to slow down a high-octane New York passing game is (playing tight man press and not allowing Manning’s receivers to get free releases off the ball).
Keeping a safety over the top of Odell Beckham Jr., New York’s electrifying receiver would be wise for the Cowboys, but doing what Philadelphia’s defense managed to do on Monday by (taking away the slant and seam game to force Manning to throw the ball outside would only better the Cowboys’ chances of getting stops). If the Cowboys are going to pressure Manning, they need to play physical and challenge Beckham Jr., Rueben Randle, Larry Donnell, and Dwayne Harris (Manning’s main targets) off the snap to disrupt their routes to give the defensive front more time to harass the pocket. Open windows and time in the pocket will only allow Manning to make quick reads to dissect Dallas’ defense and get the rhythm of McAdoo’s concepts functioning smoothly.
Pick: N.Y. Giants 24, Cowboys 16
Sunday Night Football in America 8:30 PM ET – TV: NBC
Philadelphia Eagles 3-3 @ Carolina Panthers 5-0
Outside of QB Sam Bradford turning the ball over, the Eagles are starting to gain some needed pluses on the ground with RB DeMarco Murray, who finally ran for 100 yards in the Eagles’ 27-7 win over the Giants on Monday. The isolating and neutralizing concepts of HC Chip Kelly’s up-tempo spread offense needs to be at full strength against a hard-nosed Panthers defense that’s solid up front on the D-line and arguably has the best linebacker tandem in Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly (two forces of DC Sean McDermott’s unit that can run down ball carries, defend the flats and tight ends running the seams). McDermott also has two stout interior gap clogging defensive tackles in Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei, and Kony Ealy, Jared Allen and Mario Addison setting the edge and able to rush the passer. It’s imperative for the weak spot (guards Allen Barbe and Mat Tobin) on the Eagles’ O-line not to allow the Panthers’ front to get penetration to move Bradford off his spots.
Kelly’s system specializes on using fast motion from the backfield, play fakes and quick slants and screens to nullify pass rushes, but going up against a Carolina defense that’s disciplined in gap integrity and closing out running lanes, the outside zone and draw runs aren’t concepts that I like for them to use at the point of attack. Thomas and Kuechly are quick moving east to west against these concepts and can mitigate the swing passes and wheel routes Kelly’s utilizes with his trio set of backs in Murray, Darren Sproles and Ryan Mathews. Those concepts shouldn’t be thrown out of the playbook (Kelly will always use them), but more inside zone runs of a north and south approach with Murray to wear down the Panthers’ front needs to be part of the offensive game plan.
McDermott’s unit is feisty and will jump all over opportunities to take away the football (if they rattle Bradford and force him to make throws on the run), so the Eagles need to add in a physical punchers approach by grinding things out on the ground with Murray’s violent prowess to take the burden off of Bradford’s shoulders. McDermott has deployed CB Bene Benwikere to man slot receivers, but I’m wondering if he mixes it up by having Josh Norman, who’s playing at an elite level, man up on Eagles’ slot threat Jordan Matthews. How his corners fare against Matthews’ shallow and deep crossing routes can decipher the outcomes of the Eagles’ aerial attack. Mainly, McDermott’s defense will need to keep things underneath and not allow Bradford to stretch his defense or have his receivers gain chunks of yards after the catch.
Looking at Carolina’s pass catchers on paper, there really isn’t anyone who stands out more than tight end Greg Olsen, but the play fakes and option concepts of OC Mike Shula’s system have worked mightily against opposing defenses. With defenses keying on stuffing Carolina’s ground attack that relies on RB Jonathan Stewart and rawness/unorthodox skills of QB Cam Newton making plays with feet, opposing second and third levels of defenses have bit the dust to spring Newton’s targets free. The Eagles also have a stout defensive front, and if the Panthers are going to keep the Eagles’ beast up front in D-lineman Fletcher Cox from creating havoc, Shula will need to use an extra chipper wherever Eagles’ DC Bill Davis lines him up.
Davis’ unit possesses lots of speed at linebacker and versatile tools to utilize on multiple pressuring fronts, with Cox, Bennie Logan, Connor Barwin, Brandon Graham, Cedric Thornton and Vinny Curry all capable of harassing the pocket. Strong play-action fakes have frozen linebackers and safeties for Newton to find Olsen intermediately and streaking down the seams. Newton is a big part of Carolina’s ground game, giving Shula an opening to use empty sets because he can run and take on tacklers while spreading defenses out. Carolina’s O-line is vulnerable, particularly on the edges, but where I like the big plays to come from in this matchup is the sandlot skills of Newton to kick in and the smash mouth style of Carolina’s offense to control the tempo.
Pick: Panthers 24, Eagles 17
The rest of Massimo’s Week 7 Picks
Seahawks 27, 49ers 13 – Game Already Completed, final score, Seahawks 20, 49ers 3
Lions 24, Vikings 21
Chargers 31, Raiders 24
Dolphins 27, Texans 14
Rams 27, Browns 19
Steelers 26, Chiefs 20
Falcons 34, Titans 17
Redskins 28, Buccaneers 20
Bills 23, Jaguars 14
Cardinals 34, Ravens 21
BYE: Chicago Bears (2-4), Cincinnati Bengals (6-0), Denver Broncos (6-0), Green Bay Packers (6-0)
You can follow Massimo Russo on Twitter @NFLMassimo and SilverandBlueReport.com