Cincinnati at Dallas
Bengals: Geno Atkins is the best player on this defense, but Domata Peko, at least on running downs, is not far behind. Peko is extremely difficult to seal-block and he knows how to tie up double-teams, which keeps linebackers clean.
Cowboys: If he gets past a current back injury, Demarcus Lawrence will return from suspension. Now all he has to do is rescue a pass rush that’s been so inept we could have a philosophical discussion about whether it actually exists.
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Philadelphia at Detroit
Eagles: It’s only a matter of time before receiver Dorial Green-Beckham assumes a major role. In Week 3 against Pittsburgh, he was used essentially as a flex tight end on the weak side opposite trips. This is the most popular formation in today’s NFL, and one that Doug Pederson particularly loves. Its potency depends on how well that weak side receiver performs.
Lions: If Ziggy Ansah remains out, the Lions will struggle. They’re not a high-percentage blitz defense, and without Ansah, they have no pass rushers who scare you. (Though granted, we may soon need to take a closer look at Kerry Hyder’s merits. He’s been playing very well.)
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N.Y. Giants at Green Bay
Giants: Something that Odell Beckham Jr. could add to his list of “Things He’s Sensitive About” is the fact that the Giants aren’t moving him around the formation a whole lot, or putting him in motion before the snap. That’s not how Ben McAdoo’s system is configured, but who cares? There’s nothing the Giants could do that would mentally stress a defense more.
Packers: Meet the only other team that runs the Giants offense. You might not notice the similarities Sunday night, though. Eli Manning is a very scheduled, structured QB. Aaron Rodgers is not. Two different styles orchestrating the same system. The contrast will be fun to analyze.
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Atlanta at Denver
Falcons: This pass rush, outside of Dwight Freeney’s handful of bull rushes and spin moves, remains lethargic. Its turnaround hinges on Vic Beasley. Too often the 2015 first-rounder does his own thing and ends up somewhere he’s not supposed to be. Beasley’s not freelancing here, he’s trying to execute rush moves that currently cover too much area and take too long to unfold. You can see his talent in his north/south pass rushes, including when he dips. It’s imperative that Beasley tighten his mechanics and expand his repertoire. He won’t be productive until he does.
Broncos: An unheralded star on a defense full of stars is safety T.J. Ward. He can play single-high or two-high coverage. He’s good in the box. He covers tight ends man-to-man. Last week at times, he even manned up versus wide receiver Vincent Jackson when Jackson aligned inside and the Broncos had two safeties over the top. (He and Jackson fought to a draw.) Ward is also an exceptional blitzer and, as many tight ends and ballcarriers have learned, a fierce hitter.
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Tennessee at Miami
Titans: Marcus Mariota does not fit Mike Mularkey’s old-school, ball-control offense. Or, more accurately, Mularkey’s offense doesn’t fit Mariota. At some point this must be rectified.
Dolphins: Twenty of Miami’s 25 pass attempts last week traveled nine yards or less. The question is whether that was because the Dolphins were facing a Bengals D that plays a lot of 2-high safety coverages or because Adam Gase isn’t kidding when he talks about how much he likes football’s new-age, quick-strike passing game.
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Houston at Minnesota
Texans: Deep shots have been a defining trait of this offense in 2016. (The addition of wideout Will Fuller is the main reason why.) But will we see that Sunday? The Panthers got killed trying to stretch the field against the Vikings in Week 3. The Vikings secondary is too sound, their pass rush too potent on the edge. The Texans last week against a less imposing Titans defense attempted four deep shots in the first quarter alone. Only one was successful, and one of the unsuccessful ones resulted in Brian Orakpo quickly beating left tackle Chris Clark for a sack. It’ll be Duane Brown back healthy at left tackle for the Texans this Sunday. We’ll see how comfortable they are taking their shots.
Vikings: Last Monday night Cordarrelle Patterson saw snaps on offense, and not just on gadget plays. If he emerges as a viable No. 4 receiver, this team gets a lot more dangerous.
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Chicago at Indianapolis
Bears: Fifth-round rookie Jordan Howard showed potential as a feature back. He was particularly effective on outside zone runs out of two tight end sets against the Lions last week. (He had a 36-yarder against the Cowboys on a “12” personnel outside zone run, too.)
Colts: In the loss to Jacksonville, the backup rookie-laden O-line wasn’t the primary problem. The receivers and passing designs were. Andrew Luck threw nearly 20 times to running backs, usually in the form of a checkdown. He completed eight of 11 passes on first down (where downfield throws usually occur), but they totaled a measly 20 yards.
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N.Y. Jets at Pittsburgh
Jets: Left tackle Ryan Clady has mostly been sound in pass protection. Clady has long arms and a great sense for hand placement. That technique will be crucial for extending his career into his 30s after so many significant lower-body injuries in his 20s.
Steelers: Will third-round rookie nose tackle Javon Hargrave feel some added pressure this week? Not because he has a big role. In fact, with the Jets often being a spread, four-receiver offense, Hargrave might not play much. But he will see, on the other sideline, Steve McLendon, the longtime Steeler whom Hargrave replaced. McLendon has played very well, looking more athletic in green and white than he ever did in black and gold.
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New England at Cleveland
Patriots: They play a lot of man coverage on defense. That’s not a bad way to match up to a Browns offense that, even with the emergence of Terrelle Pryor, is limited at receiver. That said, they’re facing a third-round rookie QB who is making just his third NFL start. If you play man-to-man, Cody Kessler’s reads become clear. If you play zone, he’s forced to analyze bodies across the field.
Browns: On film, linebacker Christian Kirksey always seems to do two things: (1) jump off the screen with his explosive pursuit speed; and (2) disappear for weird stretches.
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Washington at Baltimore
Washington: Matt Jones rushed for 117 yards on 22 carries last week. Right when the coaching staff seemed to be starting to seriously waver on him.
Ravens: Their fans are wondering what’s wrong with the offense. Don’t fret. It’s a well-put-together vertical passing game with the right style of quarterback to run it. At some point, that quarterback will stop checking it down so much because it reasons that his targets will get better. Steve Smith will get more comfortable coming off last year’s Achilles injury. Same for Dennis Pitta, coming off three years of hip injuries. And same for second-year receiver Breshad Perriman coming off last year’s knee injury (and in just getting more NFL experience in general). And Mike Wallace will acclimate more and more to coordinator Marc Trestman’s system. He looks like a strong fit so far. Relax, Ravens fans.
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San Diego at Oakland
Chargers: Last week we mourned Manti Te’o’s season-ending injury. This week, it’s Jason Verrett. Even on a partially torn ACL, no corner had been playing at a higher level than the third-year pro.
Raiders: The reason Derek Carr has only been sacked a league-low two times is Raiders offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave does a great job of unburdening the offensive line in pass protection. When the Raiders aren’t spreading out and throwing almost instantly after the snap, they’re keeping an extra back or tight end in to block and often moving the pocket. Raiders offensive linemen are rarely asked to keep pass rushers at bay for long durations.
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Buffalo at Los Angeles
Bills: Through two games, it’s clear that new offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn is comfortable using overloaded formations to the short side of the field. In other words, when the ball is on a hashmark, Lynn will put most of his receivers and tight ends (and sometimes an offset fullback) to that same side, even though there’s less field available. It’s the opposite of how teams typically line up. The Bills were a little predictable out of these looks in Lynn’s OC debut against Arizona. (That may have contributed to Tyrann Mathieu’s forced fumble play.) But at New England they were much more diverse and, for the most part, successful.
Rams: This defense has been great in straight zone coverage, perhaps even more on the back end than along its dynamic front line.
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Tampa Bay at Carolina
Bucs: Don’t be surprised if the Bucs see more man coverage, perhaps even this week against the predominantly zone-based Panthers. Their receivers really struggled here against Denver.
Panthers: Of the many things there are to fix, start with the most obvious one: putting cornerback Bene Benwikere back in the slot. As the Falcons confirmed again and again, Benwikere is not equipped to play outside.
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Arizona at San Francisco
Cardinals: Larry Fitzgerald remains as good as any route runner in football. Just ask Tramaine Brock.
49ers: If the running game isn’t going (and it mostly hasn’t been) then Chip Kelly cannot play fast. And all that’s left is an overly simplistic offense.
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On Bye This Week
Saints: Jairus Byrd was finally benched last week. Second-round rookie Vonn Bell replaced him in the base D. The Saints still need Byrd to play centerfield in a lot of their nickel and dime packages, though.
Seahawks: Jimmy Graham was dominant in Week 4—and from an array of different positions. That’s what we’ve been waiting to see. If it continues, this offense could be lethal.
Jaguars: Since we highlighted his struggles in Weeks 1 and 2, it’s only fair to mention that wideout Allen Robinson has played better as of late. He’s still not winning often enough against press coverage, but he’s been more proficient in short-area route running.
Chiefs: It’s surprising they enter their bye ranked 28th in run defense. Jaye Howard, Allen Bailey and Dontari Poe comprise a formidable front. The Chiefs run D has been statistically poor in other years with these guys, too, and it was also surprising then.
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