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With Ben Roethlisberger returning from a knee injury, Pittsburgh will be fully equipped against NFL first place Cincinnati. Plus, Aaron Rodgers and the Packers will take on Peyton Manning and the Broncos in a potential Super Bowl Preview at Mile High.
Sunday, Nov. 1
N.Y. Giants 4-3 @ New Orleans Saints 3-4 1:00 PM ET – TV: FOX
New York’s defense is coming off a putrid performance against the run, allowing 233 yards against the Cowboys despite the win. In fact, DC Steve Spagnuolo’s unit has been gashed on the ground in their last three games. However, the bright side of New York’s defense has been generating turnovers with 15 takeaways (11 interceptions, 4 fumble recoveries and 2 defensive touchdowns), good enough for a ranking of third best in the league.
The real downside of Spagnuolo’s group is not bringing opposing quarterbacks to the ground, and with the Saints renewed commitment to running the ball, the Giants can’t allow New Orleans’ backs Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson to find a slew of open lanes between the tackles and room to get out to the edges. If Ingram and Robinson set the tone early, the assortment of play-action passes will open up for New Orleans’ aerial attack to stymie New York’s defense that’s susceptible to the pass. Coverage sacks always can always give more time for your defensive front to get after the quarterback – so it’s imperative for New York’s secondary to play sound in coverage.
When the Saints’ offense is functioning, the various formations and groupings of HC Sean Payton’s system can be frustrating for opposing defenses to deal with. New York’s best corner, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie will bait quarterbacks to test him when Spagnuolo has him playing off man, but in this contest, an elite quarterback like Brees will take advantage if his receivers are given free releases. Playing off man and zone will allow Brees to find voids and work effectively on quick slant and quick screen concepts (Brandin Cooks and Willie Snead used on these) for his receivers to gain chunks of yards after the catch. All of New Orleans’ backs (Ingram, Robinson and C.J. Spiller) are used on screens and swing passes, so sending the house toward Brees on blitzes can catch New York’s defense over-pursuing for Brees to connect with his backs in space for big plays. Spagnuolo should take an aggressive approach, particularly in coverage (man press), but his D-lineman better be able to win their battles in the trenches to get in Brees’ face consistently for New York’s defense to get off the field on third down.
It’s the same deal on the opposite side of the ball for New Orleans DC Rob Ryan’s unit – play tight in coverage and force Eli Manning to squeeze the football to his receivers in tight windows. Delvin Breaux has picked up the slack for Kennan Lewis, who’s been limited due to a sports hernia. It’s a no brainer to have a safety play over the top of New York’s electrifying receiver, Odell Beckham Jr., and I would think Ryan would have Breaux, the speedier defensive back matched up on Manning’s deadly weapon while assigning Brandon Browner on Rueben Randle in a more physical man-on-man matchup. New York’s offensive line may have flaws, but the concepts of OC Ben McAdoo’s West Coast system has propelled Manning to get rid of the football quickly on slants, fades and some pick concepts to find his outlets in open spaces.
Ryan likes to use manufacturing pressure concepts, but like New Orleans’ backs, New York has backs of their own in Rashad Jennings and Shane Vereen that can make a defense pay in the screen game. Vereen is the more dangerous option McAdoo can flex in the slot and perimeter to draw mismatches when Manning is operating out of shotgun spread sets. Look for McAdoo to get his backs involved in the passing game while mixing in jumbo sets on power based runs to keep New Orleans’ defense honest. To negate the loud crowd at Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New York will need to be able run the ball effectively and get positive plays on early downs to keep Manning out of third and longs. If Manning Gets behind in the down and distance, it will ignite Ryan’s blitzing concepts and get Cameron Jordan, Hau’oli Kikaha and the rest of New Orleans’ pass rush to tee off on Manning.
Pick: Saints 30, N.Y. Giants 24
Cincinnati Bengals 6-0 @ Pittsburgh Steelers 4-3 1:00 PM ET – TV: CBS
Both offensive coordinators, Pittsburgh’s Todd Haley and Cincinnati’s Hue Jackson have weapons galore to stress the backend and negate pass rushes. Starting with Haley’s unit, it begins with Pittsburgh’s multi-faceted running back, Le’Veon Bell, who’s arguably the best all-around back in the game. Inside zone runs are part of Haley’s playbook, but where Bell and the Steelers’ ground game has found most of its success has been executing on man blocks (counter and power) runs that fit the style of Bell’s patience and vision. As an extension of the running game to negate Cincinnati’s pass rush, look for Haley to use empty spread sets, utilizing Bell’s tremendous receiving skills, lining him up in the slot and out on the perimeter to draw mismatches, while using WR screens to Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton and Martavis Bryant – mixed in with Bell working out of the backfield as a pass catcher for Haley’s prime threats to make plays in space.
That doesn’t leave out the vertical stretching concepts with Brown and Bryant able to blow the roof top off of a secondary, and with Ben Roethlisberger (knee) back under center this week, Pittsburgh’s offense is once again a juggernaut. Cincinnati’s defense has improved from a year ago, particularly on getting after the quarterback. DC Paul Guenther has a healthy Geno Atkins penetrating on the interior that’s freed up Carlos Dunlap on the outside. Mike linebacker, Ray Maualuga will likely spy Bell, but for Guenther’s unit to contain Pittsburgh’s ground game, the interior of Cincinnati’s line needs to be a force to clog Bell’s lanes to limit him from getting to the second levels. Once Bell gets in the open, he’ll be able to run circles around Cincinnati’s suspect linebackers that’ve been the weak link of Guenther’s defense. Roethlisberger is one of the best on making schoolyard plays outside the hash marks, but if Guenther’s unit pressures the middle while Dunlap and Michael Johnson can take advantage of Pittsburgh’s vulnerable tackles (Alejandro Villanueva and Marcus Gilbert), they’ll be able to lay hits on Roethlisberger and mitigate him from surveying the field with pressure coming from all angles.
Jackson has also been creative with a range of formations and groupings. The Bengals have a duo threat at running back with Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill. Bernard and Hill are both versatile backs that Jackson uses on a combination of zone and power run concepts – more power with Hill and zone with Bernard. The effectiveness of the ground game has kept quarterback Andy Dalton poised. Dalton is flourishing with a balanced and diverse offense, but what’s really helped him this season is having Marvin Jones healthy, forming a triple threat at receiver with the bona fide A.J. Green and the versatile Mohamed Sanu – all deep threats. Sprinkle that in with the emergence of tight end Tyler Eifert getting single coverage looks in the middle and seams (due to the respect Green, Jones and Sanu get on the outside), and Pittsburgh’s defense will have their hands full. Steelers DC Keith Butler has his unit playing aggressive on blitzing concepts, but there are major disadvantages for his unit in this matchup in the secondary. With William Gay battling a shoulder injury, Brandon Boykin will likely see more snaps, but Boykin, Ross Cockrell and Antwon Blake aren’t trust worthy in coverage or to play tight against Dalton’s slew of threats. Butler will throw his pressure looks at Dalton, but looking at the way Cincinnati’s O-line has been executing and the backs able to pick up the blitz – I like Cincinnati to edge Pittsburgh, slightly on splash plays.
Pick: Bengals 30, Steelers 27
Sunday Night Football in America 8:30 PM ET – TV: NBC
Green Bay Packers 6-0 @ Denver Broncos 6-0
Denver’s dynamic tandem of DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller at outside linebacker are at their best when they have their ears pinned back, rushing on the edges to get after the quarterback, but when trying to get after Green Bay’s reigning league MVP Aaron Rodgers, one of the best quarterbacks on extending plays outside the hash marks, it’s paramount for Denver’s front to keep Rodgers in the pocket with pressure in his face coming up the middle. Denver DC Wade Phillips’ unit has been harassing the pocket all season. Denver’s extreme talent in the secondary has made the most of their opportunities when opposing quarterbacks have been rattled, but for the backend to make plays on the ball against a pin-point passer like Rodgers, Denver’s front will need to crash the pocket to limit Rodgers from using his mobility to move the chains with his feet (throwing on the run or scrambling).
The interior blockers (Josh Sitton, Corey Linsley and T.J. Lang) of Green Bay’s O-line have been able to keep the middle firm while tackles Bryan Bulaga and David Bakhtiari have kept outside rushers in check, allowing Rodgers to step up in the pocket to sling the pigskin to his outlets and take off with his feet when defensive backs have their backs turned. The Packers are magnificent on moving their personnel around and using Randall Cobb’s versatile game (working him out of the slot, boundary and lining him up in the backfield). However, the Broncos’ secondary is versatile as well. Chris Harris and Aqib Talib can play inside and on the perimeter. Harris will likely follow Cobb on the majority of the snaps while Talib’s physicality is suited to man James Jones or Davante Adams. Phillips has the defensive backs that can jam receivers and stay toe-to-toe with them. Those techniques should be part of Denver’s defensive game plan to potentially take away the quick slant game from Rodgers. I know, that’s easier said than done, but allowing free releases for Rodgers’ targets off the snap is absolute death. Phillips’ unit has been disciplined in gap integrity and has been sound in coverage. They’ll need to keep that train moving this week and play physical against Rodgers’ receivers – applying their ball-hawking tactics to make plays on the ball.
Denver’s offensive struggles have been singled out on the porous play of future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning (7 touchdown passes, 10 interceptions). For HC Gary Kubiak’s system to work and for Manning to be more efficient, a ground game that’s been ineffective needs to come to life. Establishing the run with Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson will not only keep Manning upright – it will get the play-action pass functioning for Denver’s aerial attack. Manning lacks mobility and Packers DC Dom Capers will focus on caving Manning’s pocket in so that he won’t be able to step up to deliver the football to Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. Capers moves his pass rushers around (Clay Matthews the biggest threat) on the tackles and guards on a variety of pressure concepts, and Green Bay’s front has the upper hand to create havoc and get Manning to thread the needle. Will Kubiak have Manning go no huddle and operate out of the shotgun to neutralize Green Bay’s pass rush?
Pick: Packers 24, Broncos 20
Monday Night Football, Nov. 2 8:30 PM ET – TV: ESPN
Indianapolis Colts 3-4 @ Carolina Panthers 6-0
Going inside the numbers of Indianapolis’ play selection on offense, there’s a wide gap differential between the run (153) and pass (286). OC Pep Hamilton’s system has feasted on a multitude of vertical concepts for quarterback Andrew Luck to dissect defenses prior to this season. Luck has been able to use his sandlot skills to make plays with his feet and extend plays by improvising, but the lack of protection seems to be catching up to the young gunslinger. In ’15, time for Luck to survey the field has been worse than ever, forcing Hamilton to roll with more shallow concepts for Luck to get rid of the football quickly. However, that hasn’t eased things for Luck and Indianapolis’ offense has continued to struggle to find consistency.
Sloppy play has snake bitten a once potent offense, and for Luck to protect the football against a feisty and stingy Carolina defense, Hamilton’s game plan should focus on taking a physical approach at the point of attack. Carolina’s defense has had its woes against the run and Hamilton should dial bruising back Frank Gore’s number 20 plus times. It’s highly unlikely for the Colts to be able to run the ball outside the tackles effectively, knowing that Carolina’s dynamic tandem (Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly) at linebacker are able to run down ball-carriers on the edges – and although Indianapolis’ interior O-line is at a disadvantage in the trenches on containing Carolina’s gap-clogging and penetrating forces (Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short), Hamilton can’t be shy to run the ball between the tackles with Gore’s violent prowess. If the vertical game is going to open up for Luck to stretch the field with his speedy receivers (T.Y. Hilton and Donte Moncrief) to win their battles against Carolina’s stout corners (Josh Norman and Bene Benwikere), the ground game will need to set up the play-action pass.
Panthers OC Mike Shula has to be licking his chops this week when watching film. The Colts got gashed on the ground by New Orleans last week, between the tackles and on sweeps. Shula’s system is predicated on a deception based ground attack, utilizing zone-read concepts to neutralize pass rushes and to isolate linebackers and safeties. The play-fakes and smash mouth approach of Carolina’s offense wears down opposing defenses, and if Indianapolis’ DC Greg Manusky’s unit doesn’t show up with a punchers attitude, Carolina will have their way running the ball with RB Johnathan Stewart and QB Cam Newton, grounding and pounding the football. Manusky will likely keep a spy on Newton with linebacker Jerrell Freeman to try to contain him when the Panthers run draws and read-option plays. If Newton and the Panthers are successful from the get-go, the scripted play fakes will catch Indianapolis’ second and third levels out of position for Newton to find his bread and butter target in tight end Greg Olsen. In the grand scheme of things when examining this matchup, Carolina has lots of favorable advantages at the line of scrimmage to pressure the pocket, and McDermott has the scheme and talent up front to disguise pressure looks toward Luck and force Indianapolis’ offense to be one dimensional. The better ground game should decipher the outcome, and Carolina has the recipe control the tempo.
Pick: Panthers 27, Colts 17
The Rest of Massimo’s Week 8 Picks:
Patriots 31, Dolphins 17 – Game Already Completed, Final Score, Patriots 36, Dolphins 7
Lions 24, Chiefs 21
Falcons 34, Buccaneers 21
Cardinals 28, Browns 17
Rams 26, 49ers 16
Vikings 27, Bears 20
Chargers 30, Ravens 27
Texans 25, Titans 22
N.Y. Jets 23, Raiders 20
Seahawks 24, Cowboys 17
BYE: Buffalo Bills (3-4), Philadelphia Eagles (3-4), Washington Redskins (3-4), Jacksonville Jaguars (2-5)