Week Fourteen NFL Preview
Thursday Night Game:
The Major Storylines
The Biggest Matchup to Watch
Alan Ball vs. Andre Johnson
The Major Storylines
- Are the Texans ever going to win a game? If they plan on doing so, tonight is the night. The talent discrepancy between these two rosters is real. Theoretically, the Texans should have several advantages. However, some of their best players like J.J. Watt had great outings last time these two teams met and it did not matter. This will be yet another indicator of whether the Texans have packed it in or not. Case Keenum also must continue to show he has value to this franchise beyond this year. His worst outing of 2013 was the game against these Jaguars in Week Twelve.
- The race for the number one overall draft pick. This was billed as the “Teddy Bridgewater Bowl” a few weeks ago, but Jacksonville does not seem to want any part of that. After going the first few months of the season without any wins, Jacksonville has suddenly won three out of their last four, and is playing with great pride. Gus Bradley’s bunch certainly is not concerned with draft positioning; in the moment winning is more important for players. However, Jacksonville still desperately needs a franchise quarterback no mater what. Will they be in a better position to get one after this game is over? As dreadful as this game would seem, sometimes these games have a way of altering the entire landscape of the NFL for reveal years. Do not click that remote just yet.
The Biggest Matchup to Watch
Alan Ball vs. Andre Johnson
- This matchup features a guy playing at a really high level, but is flying way under the radar. Alan Ball is widely remembered for his poor run with the Dallas Cowboys several years ago, and he has really just bounced around the NFL since then. However, he has found a home in Jacksonville and in his sixth year in the league, is having his best season as a pro. He fits the mold of the big physical corners that Gus Bradley coveted as the defensive boss under Pete Carroll in Seattle. Ball did some of his best work of the season against Andre Johnson two weeks ago:
- Johnson and Ball are at the top of the image. As he frequently does, Ball is lined up in press-man coverage, and only has one deep safety over the top. This is the type of look Houston loves to throw against off of play action, and that is exactly what the play call will be. Keenum fakes the ball to Ben Tate (red arrow) who goes out for a pass route into the flat himself. Andre Johnson runs a deep curl route, but finds things will not come too easy against Alan Ball:
- As soon as Keenum completes his play fake and gets into his drop, he is looking for Johnson. During his time as the starter Keenum has shown an affinity for fearlessly trying to hit his star receiver for big plays. However, as you can see, Ball has Johnson blanketed in tight coverage. Keenum continues to wait for Johnson to break free, but that moment never comes. In the time he spends waiting, the Jaguars defensive line begins to break free from the Texans blocking. The interior pressure is able to break this play up:
- The defensive tackle is able to move Keenum off his spot, redirecting him to his right. He dumps the ball off to Ben Tate, and the play goes for a modest four yards. Sometimes pressure makes a coverage unit look better, but in this instance Alan Ball’s excellent coverage on Johnson allowed the defensive line the time they needed to break this play up.
- While this may not seem too significant, the play above was exactly the type Keenum and Johnson were using to torch teams in the weeks prior to that game. When the duo let the Jaguars into their house, there were no such opportunities. All thanks to Alan Ball’s outstanding play. Ball has just been getting better and better, and it will be interesting to see if he can replicate his Week Twelve performance against Johnson tonight. Expect to see Ball lined up in tight man coverage against the super star receiver yet again. If Andre Johnson cannot put up better numbers than the two catches for 36 yards he registered previously against Ball, the Texans will be hard pressed to snap their losing streak.
My meaningless pick that does not matter to you
- Texans over Jaguars
Sunday and Monday Games:
The Major Story Lines
- Can the Panthers dethrone the Saints for the NFC South crown?
- Will the Seahawks suffer a letdown in San Francisco after throttling the Saints last Monday Night?
- Will the Eagles keep pace with the Cowboys in the NFC East?
- When their teams face off, which rookie quarterback will look better, E.J. Manuel or Mike Glennon?
- Can the Chiefs defense rebound against a slumping Washington offense?
The Five Best Matchups to Watch
1) Luke Keuchly vs. Jimmy Graham
- • A matchup of two players at the very top of their respective positions. Jimmy Graham is the centerpiece of the Saints passing offense, as much Keuchly is the brains behind the elite Carolina defense. On passing downs, Keuchly often takes the responsibility of patrolling the middle of the field as the middle linebacker in a cover two defense. He can often be seen flying downfield to defend tight ends in single coverage. However, the team knows better than to leave him alone with an elite, athletic freak at the position. We have a blueprint for how they will try to defend Graham based off how they played Keuchly and a safety on Rob Gronkowski two weeks ago:
- The Panthers bring rookie safety Robert Lester into the box, and assign him to Gronk in man coverage. Wherever Gronk goes on this play Lester will follow. Keuchly is also responsible of covering the middle of the field, where Gronkowski will head to on a post route:
- When the ball is snapped Robert Lester is asked to get physical with Gronkowski. Not that Lester can possibly be expected to jam Gronk with great effectiveness, but the slight hesitation the press causes provides opportunity for Keuchly. The linebacker reads Tom Brady’s eyes and sees he is looking downfield to where Gronkowski will be. Thus, Keuchly continues to drop into his zone in the deep middle of the field. Gronk is effectively double teamed by these two players now:
- Since he is a great player, Brady tries to fit the ball in to his star tight end anyways. However, he cannot try to hit Gronk directly or that is an easy interception for Keuchly, and with Lester effectively covering him as well, there is no easy place to throw to. Brady does not manage to get the ball in Gronkowski’s hands and the result of the play is an incompletion. While Luke Keuchly is a very athletic defender, when going against an elite player like Jimmy Graham on Sunday night, expect the Panthers to give him some help. A similar strategy helped them a few times against another great player a few weeks ago. The Saints may make things a bit trickier for the Panthers because they split Graham out a bit more often than the Patriots do with their superstar tight end.
2) Josh Gordon vs. Aqib Talib and Devin McCourty
- • Josh Gordon is on an unbelievable tear. With over 200 receiving yards in two straight games headed into Sunday’s matchup with the Patriots there is no doubt he has peaked the interest of Bill Belichick. The Patriots head coach is a master at limiting what opposing offenses do best, and no doubt he will have a plan ready for the emerging wideout. Belichick has used his two best men in the secondary, Talib and McCourty, to limit other star receivers, but recently Andre Johnson effectively broke through such bracket coverage:
- The Patriots will often have Talib in man coverage with the opposition’s best receivers, but he is very infrequently left alone. Devin McCourty, the converted cornerback, is almost always covering that receiver deep. Unseen by most, it is McCourty’s role in these coverage schemes that keep number one receivers from going deep on the Patriots. With Talib jamming Johnson off the line, and McCourty roaming overhead, the Patriots probably feel pretty good about this play. Johnson beats this coverage with ease and manages to get open for his quarterback:
- When Talib comes to press Johnson, the veteran receiver makes a series of misdirection moves to keep him off balance. He then uses his significant strength to just push Talib off of him and wins the matchup with Talib. He never once allows Talib to lock down on him with his hands. Johnson is unexpectedly free to the inside:
- With McCourty following Keenum’s eyes and coming over top of Johnson he cannot go deep. However, Johnson is a master of cutting on his routes, and snaps back to face the quarterback with urgency. Johnson gets himself plenty open and receives a pass from Keenum. Now, Josh Gordon is not Andre Johnson yet, but he needs to play with this kind of technical savvy if he plans to win this matchup on Sunday. The Patriots are simply not going to allow him to get deep on them like the Steelers and Jaguars did over the last two weeks. He will need to be physical and make precise cuts to get open; much like Andre Johnson did to the tune of eight catches for 120 plus yards last week.
3) Broncos receivers vs. Titans cornerbacks
- The Broncos wide receivers are rightfully a highly touted group, but still no one seems to mention the Titans cornerbacks as an elite unit. Jason McCourty and Alterraun Verner are as good of a set of corners we have in the NFL today, and Cody Sensabaugh has been a nice surprise as the nickel corner. It will be interesting to watch these two team strengths go head to head. Especially considering how good the Titans corners are in man coverage. Here they are against the Colts:
- The Colts have all their wide receivers lined up on one side of the field, and the Titans respond by shadowing with all their corners. The Titans only have one deep safety back who will be responsible for tracking the ball. The Colts receivers all run vertical routes, but do not find much space free once the ball is snapped:
- The receivers are all locked up and Andrew Luck has no one to throw to on this play. On a third and long, Luck is trying to move the sticks and forces the ball to T.Y. Hilton (top receiver). With no space for the ball to go to, the safety is able to come over to the ball and snare an interception. The tight man coverage from the Titans corners left the Colts without much passing production and forced poor decisions from their quarterback. Of course, the Broncos receivers are eons better than the ones the Colts field, and Peyton Manning is not likely to make such poor decisions. However, if the Titans can play this well in man coverage, it may mean the Broncos have to feature a hobbled Julius Thomas. Look for Peyton Manning to get the ball out on screens and get Wes Welker reestablished in the short passing game. Receivers are just not getting open deep often against these cornerbacks.
4) Andre Holmes vs. Antonio Cromartie
- To see why this young receiver could continue to break out, check out my column at Roto Rants
5) Jared Cook vs. Cardinals linebackers and safeties
- For a look at why Jared Cook could have another big day, check out this week’s "Eye in the Sky"
My meaningless picks that you don’t care about: