Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-2) at Arizona Cardinals (2-3)
Both teams are coming off losses, but Arizona has more to be concerned about than Tampa Bay. The Cardinals were embarrassed at Philadelphia last week and all of their flaws were exposed. Without David Johnson their run game is nonexistent, their offensive line cannot protect immobile Carson Palmer, and defenses attack them in all-out pass rush mode versus minimal pass protection schemes and a lot of spread sets –that leads to numerous Palmer hits.
The Cardinals look like an aging, struggling team right now. The Bucs lost a close game to New England. They will tease you with good play and then disappoint you with boneheaded play. They do have a chance to work out their deficiencies quickly. If they can get more consistency from Jameis Winston, they will be a tough team to deal with.
Keys to Game
- Can Arizona take away Winston deep ball? – New England did an excellent job last week of sitting back in zones instead of playing preferred man schemes. We know that Winston loves to throw the deep ball (especially versus man), but the Pats forced him to throw mostly underneath in a bend-but-don’t-break look. Arizona has an aggressive man coverage pass defense by nature, but it should take a page out of the New England playbook in this game. Winston struggles with accuracy at times on short throws; his patience on multi-play drives will be tested.
- The Bucs need to sit back in defense – Arizona has a similar passing game philosophy to the Bucs – attack with the deep ball. Bruce Arians loves vertical routes off seven-step drops and has excellent speed weapons outside (but he also has an offensive line that can’t hold up in pass pro). This is the perfect game for the Bucs to sit back in a bend-but-don’t-break scheme and force the Cardinals to throw mostly underneath routes and keep everything in front of them. If they take away the deep ball threat, Arizona has not shown the ability to put multi-play drives together with dink and dunk passes. We know the Cardinals have no run game.
- Tampa Bay needs to convert on third down – The Bucs’ lack of success in this situation is becoming an area of concern. They are an embarrassing 16 of 45 on third down through five games. A lot of it has to do with Winston’s up-and-down accuracy. Because the Bucs have so many three-and-outs, they put their defense on the field for too many snaps and they fade late in games. This offense has too many weapons to be this bad on third down. It falls on Winston’s shoulders to get them going — their play-calling must be creative.
Key Matchup – Patrick Peterson vs. DeSean Jackson and Mike Evans. In all likelihood Peterson will stay with Evans most of this game (he has done that in previous matchups). Winston looks to Evans when he needs a big play and Peterson has done a good job when they have gone head to head. Both guys have size and are aggressive, so this could be a very physical matchup. The winner here may be Jackson. If Peterson goes with Jackson that leaves the other corner, Justin Bethel, in coverage versus Jackson, a matchup that favors the Bucs.
X-Factor – Arizona receiver Larry Fitzgerald. He is the ultimate slot receiver –nobody works the underneath routes like he does. Danny Amendola wore the Bucs out last week on his option routes out of the slot; Fitz can do the same. It also helps that the usually elite Tampa Bay linebackers have been banged up; that makes them vulnerable to those underneath passes and they do not have a great slot corner. They have given up a lot of passing yards to good offenses inside. With marginal pass pro and a ball-out-quick passing game Palmer will look for Fitz a lot.
Fantasy Football Sleeper – Buc back Doug Martin. He started the season with a suspension. when he came back a week ago there were rumors that the Bucs would waive him and move on. They decided to give him some snaps versus the Pats. He responded with 74 yards rushing and a touchdown on only 13 carries. He showed a burst, he broke tackles, and he gave this lackluster run game hope for the future. His snaps should dramatically increase going forward — we know he has fresh legs.
New York Giants (0-5) @ Denver Broncos (3-1) (SNF)
The Giants are in a terrible tailspin after their fifth loss to the previously winless L.A. Chargers. Now they must deal with not only bad play, but also devastating injuries. They have a bad offensive roster and their high-priced defense is not playing up to expectations.
They do not have the look of a team that can fix its weaknesses in-season. The last thing the Giants want to do is visit a solid and well-rested team coming off a bye. The Broncos are not a perfect team but they like their commitment to the run and its improvement. They have the best run defense in the NFL and their pass defense made some “tweaks” during the bye week. Where will Eli Manning find positive plays against this defense?
Keys to Game
- Bend-but-don’t-break Denver pass defense – The Broncos know that Eli and the Giants’ passing game will be a ball-out-quick philosophy with a ton of short passes (slants, crossers, outs) off three- and five-step drops designed to get positive yards after catches. The Giants have little chance for deep passes, partly because their linemen cannot hold up in seven-step drops and partly because all of their vertical receivers (Odell Beckham Jr.) are gone. Because the Broncos’ usually terrific man press defense has given up more pass plays than usual, the Broncos are starting to go to more zones that keep the ball in front of them. Versus the Giants’ dink and dunk passing game, that is the ideal pass defense scheme.
- Where is the Giants’ physicality? – This used to be a team which would “punch you in the mouth” and play hard for 60 minutes, but the Giants have lost that identity. They don’t appear to intimidate their opponents and are starting to get pushed around on both sides of the ball. Part of the problem could be their play calling, especially on offense. They don’t attack defenses and have a finesse mentality with their dink and dunk passing game. They even appear to have lost some of their defensive aggressiveness and now the players are starting to echo these sentiments — that is a bad sign.
- Can Giants slow down Denver edge rush? – The Chargers’ duo of Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram embarrassed them last week. Now they get to face Von Miller and Shaq Barrett, who have five combined sacks and are as relentless as the Chargers’ duo. Bennett is not in Miller’s class and he doesn’t get as much attention, but he should exploit the single blocking matchups that he gets. Versus these Giant tackles there is no excuse. Miller constantly sees double-teams and “chips” — he will move around the formation to get the right matchup. Eli may negate Miller’s rush with mostly three- and five-step drops that protect his embarrassing offensive line.
Key Matchup – Trevor Siemian vs. Landon Collins. The versatility of Collins gives most quarterbacks fits. He can line up deep as a center fielder and take away the middle of the field and the seam route. However, he is playing close to the line of scrimmage most of the time to help the run defense and also be in a better position to blitz. Siemian started the season quickly, but his production has slowed down in a run-first offense. He must do a good job at the line of scrimmage before the snap identifying where Collins is lined up, not only to be aware of the blitz, but also to try to force him to bite on play action. He will not likely see Collins sit back deep in coverage in this game.
X-Factor – Denver run defense. The Broncos are the best in the NFL through five weeks, and a year ago they finished 28th in this statistic. Their front three defensive line is big and physical at the line of scrimmage. The Broncos show solid gap control and the linebackers are much better at the line of scrimmage and in “step up and fill” situations, which was a problem a year ago. The positive run game the Giants showed last week versus the Chargers is not sustainable, especially versus the Broncos. Stopping the Giants’ run game and with no fear of the vertical passing game, Denver can concentrate on stopping a one-dimensional short passing game.
Fantasy Football Sleeper – Denver tight ends Virgil Green and A.J. Derby. The Giants have an elite safety in Landon Collins, but he is often in the box closer to the line of scrimmage because of his run defense and blitz skills. Good passing tight ends can exploit the Giants between the hashes, especially if they are in a single-high safety look or if they are caught in a blitz. Neither one of these tight ends puts up great numbers, but versus this Giant defense they may get more targets than usual.
Chicago Bears (1-4) @ Baltimore Ravens (3-2)
The Bears are still the Bears, but at least they have some hope with match Trubisky at quarterback. His first game showed us some good and some bad. When he is on the move and creating with his feet or improvising his passes, you see how special he can be. However, he is not very consistent and, as you would expect, his defensive recognition at the line of scrimmage was up and down.
As he gets more comfortable and if this offense goes to more spread sets, he will have a chance to make more plays. Baltimore continues to be impossible to figure out. The Ravens look terrible one week and then they go to an Oakland team missing Derek Carr and physically beat the Raiders on both sides of the ball. We saw a run game and passing attack that had been missing most of the year. You would think they could handle the Bears at home, but who knows?
Keys to Game
- The Bears should run at the edge of the Ravens’ defense – Without nose tackle Brandon Williams, the interior of this Baltimore defense was the perceived weakness versus the run, but the Ravens are giving up more plays by teams who run wide and attack their outside linebackers. The Bears could go with multi-tight end looks to give them more edge power and they might even go with an extra lineman at times. Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen should run more off-tackle and force the Ravens to hold up at the point of attack and stay in the right gap, something they have not done consistently through five games.
- Can Trubisky give the Bears’ offense hope? – After one game he is still a work in progress, with some positive signs but also some things to clean up. Although we didn’t see it last week, his accuracy is a real strength and it will get better as he gains experience. His feet and ability to scramble out of trouble are real assets that Mike Glennon lacked with bootlegs and rollouts. Those skills are very much needed in an offense that has little explosiveness. A positive sign was his willingness to take some deep shots to at least force the defense to play more honest schemes and open things up for the run game, and he is willing to use play action. These are all things we did not see with Glennon, which made the offense so predictable. The progress will be slow, but at least there is some.
- Can the Baltimore offense play another strong game? – You don’t know what to expect each week from this unit, but if they can play like they did last week in Oakland, the Ravens will be in good shape. The offensive line played well in pass pro and run blocking, and they ran the ball better than we have seen in recent weeks. The passing game also opened up and they even took some deep shots that made them less predictable and conservative. The strength of the Chicago defense is pass coverage. The Bears will rush four and drop seven with stunts rather than blitzes; the throwing window for Flacco will be tight. The best way to attack the Bears is to run the ball, use play action off the run, and beat Chicago physically.
Key Matchup – Mitch Trubisky vs. Eric Weddle. This will be a real challenge for the rookie at the line of scrimmage before the snap. Weddle may be the smartest safety in the game. He is not easily fooled and will line up all over the defense in a variety of roles. He will line up as a center-field safety to take away Trubisky’s evolving vertical passing game, but he can also line up closer to the line of scrimmage as a box safety and can even blitz. Right now Trubisky is a “one read” quarterback and Weddle is a magician at reading the quarterback’s eyes and jumping the route. It is hard to imagine Trubisky showing the ability to look off Weddle.
X-Factor – Baltimore receiver Mike Wallace. On an offense that has had few big plays and rarely stretched a defense in recent weeks, the Ravens opened things up versus Oakland — a lot of it was because of Wallace. He had only three receptions but they produced 133 yards. His deep speed put the Raiders back on their toes and made them play deeper in pass defense than they wanted to. The Bears are decent on the back end, but the Wallace threat can open things up for the run game and underneath passing game. Wallace could find a couple of big plays off play action.
Fantasy Football Sleeper – Chicago tight end Zach Miller. With an offense that has few outside options, he becomes the ultimate safety blanket for an inexperienced quarterback. He is not flashy but he knows how to get open, especially versus zone. He is good on the seam route, but with Baltimore safety Eric Weddle sitting in center field in this game, he may go to curls and underneath out routes to keep things simple for Trubisky. With the other tight end Dion Sims doing most of the blocking, Miller can line up wide or in the slot.
Indianapolis Colts (2-3) @ Tennessee Titans (2-3) (MNF)
The Colts are coming off an overtime win over winless San Francisco, but at this stage of the season they will take a win wherever they can get it. They have little chance to be competitive until they get Andrew Luck back, and even then they are still a team with a flawed roster and not enough dynamic playmakers.
Tennessee is coming off a lackluster loss at Miami, and while the Titans have played without Marcus Mariota the last two weeks, their other stars have not stepped up — they are not playing with a sense of urgency and pride. However, it is hard to see how the Colts can stay with them with Jacoby Brissett at quarterback in front of a national audience. If this is not a strong Tennessee win, the Titans better start worrying.
Keys to Game
- Tennessee should attack with the underneath passing game – When you break down this Colt defense, you see much better run defense production that has been missing for years. Not only is their front four better but their linebackers crash and fill gaps faster than any group in the NFL. However, that makes them very susceptible to play action fakes and opens up a lot of space for 10-to-20-yard throws. The Tennessee run game can lure the linebackers up. The Titans should attack with a lot of slants and crossing routes over the linebackers and underneath the safeties, forcing the defensive backs to make a lot of tackles in space.
- Can the Colts come after the Tennessee secondary? – Teams are having success using spread offensive sets to put the Titans in unfavorable sub packages. They do not hold up well in single-man coverages, especially if they are forced to blitz to create pressure. Brissett struggles versus pressure, but if he has time to throw he can pick apart the Titans on slant routes and the occasional pick play. When they are getting beaten consistently on man coverage they often back off and rush three and drop eight into coverage. However, this looks like a game in which Tennessee will take some chances with an all-out pressure package to rattle a semi-experienced quarterback.
- The Colts must figure out a way to finish – They have periods of solid play but they show no ability to put a 60-minute game together. They have been outscored by 45 points in the fourth quarter through five games. They had a 23-9 lead last week at San Francisco with only 9:56 left in the fourth quarter and could not close the game out. When their opponents are behind late they have gone after the Colts’ pass defense; the Colts have shown little ability to make defensive stops. They face a Tennessee team that had a lead last week and lost it late to Miami, so both teams know that a play in the fourth quarter could win or lose this game.
Key Matchup – Jabaal Sheard vs. Jack Conklin. Sheard will line up mostly on the left side and faces an elite right tackle in Conklin. Sheard can play up or down in stance, and his production is very consistent. He has 2.5 sacks and is the best pass rusher on this team. The former Patriot is a good technician — he works to finish, and he plays with good instincts. He is not elite but will give Conklin all he can handle. The Titans’ right tackle has noticeable athletic ability and takes pride in handling edge rushers without tight end help. He should be able to handle Sheard in this game.
X-Factor – Colt receiver T.Y. Hilton. He is the only real explosive weapon on this offense and the only guy who gives the Colts big plays. Last week he had seven receptions for 177 yards versus the 49ers and is getting all this production without Andrew Luck. He has developed some chemistry with Brissett. They are starting to hook up on the deep ball to take advantage of Hilton’s speed. The Titans do not have a corner who can cover him and they will likely play some combo coverage or double-teams to take him out of the game. Hilton is terrific at using motion to get away from press coverage.
Fantasy Football Sleeper – Colt back Marlon Mack. It looks like he is quietly sliding into the lead back role in this offense, in front of a tough but maybe fading Frank Gore. Last week he had nine carries for 91 yards and a touchdown. He gives the Colts their best chance for explosive plays. He has good speed and can attack the edges. Right now he is a change of pace guy who will help them on wide runs and as an outlet receiver out of the backfield. He will make the most of his touches. If he can improve in pass pro, his coaches will trust him with more snaps.
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