Week Fifteen NFL Preview
By: Matt Harmon
The Major Story lines
The Biggest Matchup to Watch
Keenan Allen vs. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie
The Major Story lines
- Will either defense step up in this game? Early on in the year, it was easy to defend for the Denver Broncos defense; their low statistical ranking was an anomaly. Von Miller was out, amongst a number of other injuries, and upon his return things got much better. However, that good play has really not been sustained. As recently as last week the Broncos defensive brain trust could be seen sitting some of the guys who started the season on a high note. Wesley Woodyard and Duke Ihenacho to name a few. On the other hand, the Chargers defense has been a woeful mess all season. Only one of their regular defensive players, safety Eric Weddle, carries a positive grade from Pro Football Focus. It is really hard to imagine this game resulting in anything but a shootout.
- With that being said, how do the Chargers plan on keeping up with the Broncos in that type of game? Their best bet would be to attack the middle of then Denver defense. The reason the aforementioned players were benched is because the Broncos linebackers and safeties can absolutely be had in coverage. The Chargers have the personnel to exploit some of those coverage deficiencies. Danny Woodhead is both quick, and tremendous receiver out of the backfield. Mike McCoy and Ken Whisenhunt would be wise to find ways to get him isolated on linebackers. Despite having zero catches last week after two breakout performances, Ladarius Green should be a prominent figure in this game. The Broncos safeties do not have a prayer of keeping up with him in coverage. Properly utilizing those two players will help the Chargers score ample points, and perhaps enough to keep pace with Peyton Manning’s show.
The Biggest Matchup to Watch
Keenan Allen vs. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie
- Keenan Allen unjustifiably fell to the third round of this year’s draft, but has been it’s most impressive offensive rookie. With Phillip Rivers throwing him the football, Allen has been able to show what a great technician he is at the wide receiver position. On Thursday night he will draw a tough matchup with Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who has been the one consistently solid defender in Denver. DRC is an athletic specimen, so Allen will need to bring all his savvy in order to get the best of the veteran cornerback. Here is a play that demonstrates exactly the type of little things the rookie does so well:
- The Chargers love to bring Allen in motion in order to get the best feel for the defense’s gameplan. Allen starts this play lined up outside the numbers, but is motioned in tight with the slot receiver. The motion causes Marcus Cooper to back off the line of scrimmage, which will allow the receiver to come clean off the line of scrimmage. He has the size and strength to beat press, but getting free from off-man coverage really allows Allen to show off his skills:
- Following the image from top left to bottom right, you can see how Allen beats Marcus Cooper on a post route. On the vertical part of the route, Allen recognizes Cooper is defending him man to man by reading his back-peddle. When Allen must cut on the route he actually stops at the ten-yard line and performs a double move on Cooper. Now, double moves are not uncommon. However, what makes Allen so unique is how he explodes in tight spaces. Allen shuffles left and right at such a rapid pace Cooper is left completely baffled as to where he will take the route next. The cornerback is frozen just long enough that the receiver has the chance to run by him. The burst that Allen shows out of that break is simply uncanny. He creates almost a yards’ worth of separation in the mere second between the bottom two images:
- Here is the only part of the play that goes wrong, and it has nothing to do with Keenan Allen. The rookie receiver is open in the end zone for an easy touchdown, but Phillip Rivers puts the ball just out of his reach. The fact that this play did not go for six hides what masterful work Allen did. A massive outing against the Chiefs could have been even bigger.
- It will absolutely be worth watching Keenan Allen go against Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie on Thursday night. The Chargers are going to need to light up the scoreboard to win this game. It will be easy for the passing game to win the battle in the middle of the field with Woodhead and Greene; they may be able to get thirty points from those matchups alone. But to gain the forty to fifty points they will almost certainly need to beat the Denver Broncos, they will need Keenan Allen to win on the outside as well.
My meaningless pick that does not matter to you
- Broncos over Chargers
Sunday and Monday Night Games:
The Five Major Storylines
- Will the Lions continue to underperform and lose their lead on the NFC North?
- Will Kirk Cousins presence behind center do anything to improve the Washington Redskins?
- Can Matt Flynn do enough for the Packers to beat the Cowboys and their dreadful defense?
- Can the Dolphins upset the Patriots and keep pace with the Ravens for the sixth seed in the AFC?
- Will Marc Trestman’s decision to reinsert Jay Cutler into the starting lineup pay off in the short term?
The Best Matchups to Watch
1) Torrey Smith vs. the Lions corners
- The electric wide receiver had a very favorable matchup with the Vikings secondary last week. Yet he only came away with a single reception for eleven yards. The Vikings rookie cornerback, Xavier Rhodes did a tremendous job in limiting Torrey Smith on the snowy Sunday afternoon. Rhodes physical style of play was very effective in taking Smith out of the equation for his offense:
- This is standard cover-two defense by the Vikings. The corners defend the short sideline areas; the linebackers drop into coverage, while the safeties defend the deep ball. The key to effectively playing cover-two is having physical corners who can jam receivers at the line of scrimmage. The idea is to never allow them into the hole that exists in the defense at the outside intermediate level of the field. At 6’1” and 210 pounds, Rhodes is a great fit for those physical demands. Smith is going to run an intermediate in route; perfect against a cover-two. However, Rhodes puts such an effective jam on Smith that throwing his direction never becomes a consideration for Joe Flacco:
- Flacco’s first move is to look off the strong side linebacker lurking underneath Smith. Once that is done he turns his gaze over to Smith. When he sees his receiver locked up with Xavier Rhodes, he snaps his head back less than a second later. Flacco knows that his offensive line, while improving, is not adept at holding their blocks for too long. The ball must get out in a hurry. He turns his attention back to the left side of the field. Even though he does get free and into the hole in the cover-two, Smith has been effectively taken out of this play.
- The Lions tend to play their corners in off-man coverage, not asking them to press very often. Torrey Smith has shown the ability to consistently take advantage of that sort of coverage. When the Lions play the Ravens on Monday night, it may be wise for the team to change things up. If the Lions corners can hold Smith up at the line for just a few seconds, their defensive line should be able to get to Joe Flacco for a few sacks.
2) Hakeem Nicks vs. Richard Sherman
- Statistically, Hakeem Nicks had a nice game against the Chargers. Many seemed ready to declare him one hundred percent healthy, and back to full effectiveness. When watching the tape, Nicks still does not look right physically. Most of his 135 against the struggling Chargers pass defense came on coverage lapses, not necessarily plays Nicks was making on his own. Here is a play where Nicks body still seems to betray him:
- Hakeem Nicks is going to run a deep post route. The corners are lined up in man-coverage, while the strong safety Eric Weddle is doing to drop to defend the deep ball. An additional linebacker is going to drop in the area where Nicks will run his route, but does not get enough depth in his coverage, and if Nicks runs a crisp route he will be open for a big play:
- Unfortunately, he does not do that. Nicks makes a cut to the middle of the field and at the second image looks like he will leave the cornerback in his dust. However, his cut is so slow and belabored that the corner is able to undercut the route (third image). He should be able to make an easy interception as Eli Manning has already released the ball. The cornerback fails to make the play as the ball bounces off his hands and into the arms of Nicks. This type of play shows that while Nicks stuffed the stat sheet last week, he still does not seem the player from early in his career.
- When Hakeem Nicks meets Richard Sherman this weekend, failures like this play will not end with such favorable results. Sherman has some of the best ball skills in the league, amongst defensive backs. If Nicks cannot run crisp routes with Sherman tailing him in man-coverage, you can bet Eli Manning will be adding to his season interception total.
3) Jordan Todman vs. Kiko Alonso
- Bobby Rainey has been a pretty matchup dependent running back, so many felt he would not perform against a Bills defense ranked third best in the NFL by Pro Football Focus (subscription required). However, Rainey took his first carry of the day for 80 yards. Rainey and the Buccaneers did this by exploiting farce Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate Kiko Alonso. He has put up great numbers in pass coverage, but has consistently been caught guessing against the run:
- This is actually a really well designed play by the Buccaneers offensive coaching staff. The offensive line runs pure power blocking to the left, each cutting off their man. Then, the Bucs use the receivers to take members of the secondary out of the play. Tight end Tim Wright (number 81) runs a fake route out in the flat, dragging the safety to the line of scrimmage. Russell Sheppard (number 89) runs across the offensive line, which serves two purposes. He helps to block the defenders on the backside of the play, but more importantly takes Stephon Gilmore away from where the run will occur. Kiko Alonso is left alone to read running back Bobby Rainey:
· With members of the secondary biting on the fakes of Wright and Sheppard, Alonso will take on full responsibility of Rainey. As he is left unblocked, he should be able to easily make a solo tackle on the diminutive running back. However, as he has far too often this season, Alonso makes a poor read on the run. Rainey runs behind the center, and Alonso assumes he is heading to the gap to the linebacker’s left. Rainey cuts on the misdirection and heads into the opposite gap. Alonso is caught reading where Rainey was, not where he was going. The impending results are disastrous for the Bills:
- Still unblocked, Alonso tries to recover and tackle Rainey. Unfortunately, he was so far out of position he has to lung to at the running back in his tackle attempt. Alonso is easily dispelled with a swift stiff-arm from Rainey. Since the defensive backs were all taken out of the play by the Buccaneer’s deception, none of them are around to tackle Rainey. He is never touched again and heads down the field and runs into the end zone for a score.
- The Bills have a great defensive line, but they can only do so much to help out their linebackers. As a middle linebacker, if you are left unblocked on a play, you need to play disciplined football and make the tackles on the run. The Jaguars will be without Maurice Jones-Drew this weekend, but his backup Jordan Todman has been very impressive in limited snaps. Todman shows the burst and vision to change directions quickly, which could spell trouble for Kiko Alonso. The Bills offensive line should be able to wreak havoc on the Jaguars offensive line, but it will be up to Alonso to hold up his end of the bargain and clean up runs plays.
4) Browns running backs vs. Bears front seven
- For my take on this match up, check out my column at Roto Rants (http://rotorants.com/?p=1346)
My meaningless picks that you don’t care about: