These are the marquee matchups that we have picked as the “Big Four Games” of NFL Week 6.
Pittsburgh (3-2) @ Kansas City (5-0)
Going into Arrowhead Stadium after being embarrassed at home by Jacksonville is not what Pittsburgh needs as they try to sort out their problems. They are a mess on offense and, when they play less than a perfect game on that side of the ball, their defense is not dominant enough to take over a game. A deep passing game has nobody productive beyond Antonio Brown; the Le’Veon Bell run game is up and down; and Big Ben is making poor decisions that don’t make sense. In contrast, the Chiefs continue to roll and they are getting explosive production from all of their key playmakers. Their play-calling remains creative, and their veteran defense, while not always perfect, is smart and sound. Kansas City is full of confidence at home. Pulling off the upset looks like an uphill climb, but Pittsburgh is a veteran team that has been in this situation before.
Keys to Game
- Can the Chiefs stop the Pittsburgh blitz? – After a couple of seasons of not using a lot of pressure packages, the Steelers have made the blitz a big part of their defense in 2017. They finally have a group of defensive backs they can trust in aggressive man coverages behind the blitz, allowing them to bring pressures from all three levels of the defense. The Chiefs’ offensive line has improved from a year ago, and it helps that quarterback Smith is at his best in ball out quick three and five step drops. Will the Steelers blitz, taking a chance on Smith exploiting single man matchups, or will they assume the blitz can’t get to him and play more seven man coverage schemes?
- The Steelers must establish the run and be less predictable – Going to their no-huddle offense and working Big Ben out of the shotgun may help their passing game, but they tend to quit running the ball in that situation. Bell got only 15 carries last week versus a suspect Jacksonville run defense. His counterpart, Leonard Fournette, had 28 carries and wore out the Steelers’ defense. A good Pittsburgh run game against the Chiefs eats up the clock and puts the offense in shorter third down situations. It takes pressure off Big Ben and sets up play action. Another concern is Pittsburgh’s tendency to throw a lot of underneath routes, with slants and crossers designed to get yards after catch. You can see on film what they want to do in the passing game. Last week Jacksonville sat back rather than take those inside routes and closed well to stop the yards after catch. If Kansas City plays a lot of tight man schemes, the Steelers must go to picks on those crossing routes.
- The Chiefs should have screen game success – When they face an aggressive attacking defense like they saw last week at Houston and again in this game versus Pittsburgh, the screen is an excellent way to defeat that aggressiveness. It helps that the Chiefs’ offensive line is solid on trap and wham blocks versus penetrators. They can also get to the second level and block in space. They have the most versatile screen packages in the NFL and, before Kareem Hunt, the Chiefs often used the screen as an extension of the run game. We will see bubble screens, wide screens and middle screens; they will run them with wide receivers, backs, or tight ends. This is a big part of the Kansas City offense, and the Steelers need to be ready for it.
Key Matchup – Travis Kelce vs. Ryan Shazier. This could be a classic battle between two elite players who are arguably the best in the NFL at their respective positions. Since Kelce is in concussion protocol after being hit on Sunday night, we may not know until later in the week if he will play. Before leaving the Houston game in the second half, he caught eight passes for 98 yards. He helps this offense in a variety of ways: He can line up in the backfield and take a direct snap; he has run several shovel passes and he will line up all over the formation. We think of Shazier as an inside run defender, but he is really underrated in pass coverage. He will have his hands full with Hunt runs and Kelce shovel passes, but the matchup to watch is if they line up across from each other in a pass situation.
X-Factor – Chief corner Marcus Peters. Although he has been beaten a few times in man coverage, he is still a terrific shutdown corner. How his coaches have him play is the real question here. When an opposing offense does not have a premier receiver, Peters usually plays on one side of the defense and basically takes half the field away to force the quarterback to attack the other side. However, he can also follow a wide receiver all over the field in man coverage if they want to take one guy out of the game, and that certainly applies to Antonio Brown. If Peters and Brown face off throughout the game, it could be the matchup of the day in the NFL.
Fantasy Football Sleeper – Kansas City back Charcandrick West. Kareem Hunt is still “the man” for the Chiefs, but West is starting to build a role for himself in this offense. He is an elite pass catcher and pass blocker, and that is getting him more touches. He has enough skill as a receiver to motion or line up out wide and he can really make defenders miss in space; his run after catch is excellent. On an offense that has so many other explosive targets requiring defensive attention, West gets excellent matchups, and his two touchdown catches last week show that Alex Smith trusts him.
LA Rams (3-2) @ Jacksonville (3-2)
Who would have thought six weeks into the NFL season that this would be a “Big Four” game? Yet these are two interesting teams trending up. The Rams are coming off a tough loss to Seattle in a game they had a good chance to win in the fourth quarter. They are dramatically better than they were a year ago but, like most young teams, they can look great one week and mediocre the next week. Still, their prospects for future success look very positive. The Jaguars achieved a dominant victory at Pittsburgh, with their defense and Leonard Fournette’s run game taking over. When the Jags play like they did against the Steelers, not having to depend on Blake Bortles and the passing game, they are close to a complete team and tough to beat.
Keys to Game
- Who is this Jaguar defense? – How can they be near the top of the NFL in pass defense (5th) and yet near the bottom of the league in run defense (31st)? On film they appear to have quality players, yet they just don’t dominate like they should. Though they have spent a lot of money on this side of the ball, the results are not good enough.While the stats say they controlled Le’Veon Bell and the Pittsburgh run game last week, the fact is that Big Ben went to a lot of no huddle and shotgun, and they got away from the run. But now they get a dose of Todd Gurley. Their pass defense is a different story. They have excellent corners who can play man or zone schemes, giving them a lot of flexibility. They match up well versus the Rams’ pass offense, which can be great or average.
- Can the Rams get the Jags’ offense in third and long situations? – The Jacksonville game plan stays the same. Feed Fournette and be really good in the run game on first and second downs to set up third and short situations, giving them flexibility in their third-down play calling. The worst thing that can happen for the Jags is to be forced to put the ball in Blake Bortles’ hands and ask him to convert long third-down situations. The Rams’ front seven is solid versus the run, and will load up on early downs to stop Fournette and almost dare Bortles to beat them with his arm. If they can get off the field on third down and get the ball back to their improved offense, it will bode well for the Rams.
- The Rams need a heavy Todd Gurley workload – A Jacksonville defense that we thought was really good at the beginning of the season has really struggled against the run through five games. They actually have a solid front seven from a talent standpoint, but their gap discipline is not consistent. As a result, they get out of position and leave too many big holes open. Gurley is facing less loaded defensive boxes because his passing game forces defenses to play more coverage schemes. This gives his line better blocking angles and more room to work. Jacksonville must set the defensive edges and be aware of Gurley’s new tendency to widen his runs. The Jaguars would like to force Goff to try to beat them through the air.
Key Matchup – Calais Campbell vs. Rams’ offensive line. It is difficult to call this an individual matchup because Campbell will line up at defensive end or defensive tackle, depending on the front called. He is a massive guy with long arms, making it tough for a blocker to get to his body . He is a one gap penetrator and usually very disruptive against pocket quarterbacks. The Rams’ line, while better than it was a year ago, has nobody who can block Campbell one-on-one. If he has a good penetrating day, it will move Goff off his mark and also disrupt the interior Gurley run game.
X-Factor – Jacksonville corners Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye. As bad as the Jags are in run defense, they are just the opposite in pass defense. Because they are young and inexperienced in the secondary, they played a lot of safe cover two and cover three looks a year ago. But the players complained that they were too predictable and easy to attack. With another year of experience under their belts, we now see more aggressive man coverages that fits the skill sets of these two guys — they can take most receivers out of the game without help, and that coverage gives them all sorts of blitz flexibility. If they have a good man coverage day it will force Goff to hold on to the football and allow the pass rush to get to him.
Fantasy Football Sleeper – Ram tight end Tyler Higbee. He had four catches for 98 yards last week on eight targets versus Seattle and it finally looks like he is getting more chances in this offense. They like their two-tight end sets with Higbee and rookie Gerald Everett; he can line up in-line or go out wide and is really developing on the seam route. With Sammy Watkins, Cooper Kupp, and Robert Woods outside, and Gurley as an outlet receiver, this passing game has a lot of weapons that can spread a defense out –that leaves Higbee with good matchups. Look for increased production.
New England (3-2) @ NY Jets (3-2)
Beating the Browns certainly does not qualify as a signature win, but the Jets will take it — who thought they would be 3-2 and tied with New England for first place in the AFC East this late in the season? They are not explosive on either side of the ball but you have to give them credit for playing hard. The Pats are coming off a hard-fought win at Tampa Bay, and while they played better, they are still not the complete team we expect to see. They are making adjustments on both sides of the ball to fit their strengths but it is a work in progress. You would think that this game would be a “cakewalk” for Tom Brady and company, but this scrappy Jet team may hang around longer than expected.
Keys to Game
- Can the Jets’ pass rush get to Tom Brady? – His offensive line is starting to be an area of concern and Brady is getting hit too much — that problem must be fixed. Tampa Bay got nine hits on him a week ago and even a well-conditioned quarterback can’t take this much contact at age 40 for an entire season. He has taken 32 hits and 16 sacks through five games. He can’t run their entire offense because his line is not holding up on deep seven-step drops. The good news for the Pats is that an underachieving Jet pass rush has produced only seven sacks, which is 31st in the NFL. His protection should be better in this game.
- The Pats’ defense must avoid giving up big plays – We know about their front seven limitations, but the poor play of the secondary is really a surprise. They have talented cover guys with size and decent speed, yet they have given up too many passes of over 20 yards. Their problems are more mental than physical — that is shocking from a Bill Belichick-coached team. They have played a lot of aggressive man schemes and offenses are countering with condensed and bunch formations and a lot of crossing routes to rub out the defenders. The bigger problem is a lack of communication. They are doing a poor job of handing off receivers and staying with the right matchup — too many guys run free. The Pats are too good to let this bad trend continue — look for more zones to keep the ball in front of them.
- Are the Pats making adjustments on both sides of the ball? – Because of their deficiencies they have been forced to “tweak” some of their schemes on both sides of the ball. Offensively, Brady must eliminate all the hits that he is absorbing — that probably means going to three- and five-step drops that get the ball out quickly before the pass rush gets to him. That could mean fewer deep shots but that may be the trade-off for the Pats. Defensively, they thought that they had great man corners in the beginning of the season, but they were beaten too often and they had uncharacteristic coverage breakdowns that led to big plays. Against Tampa Bay they went to more off schemes (and some zones) to keep everything in front of them and also to avoid mental mistakes. It is a bend-but-don’t-break scheme that may not be exciting but may be their best chance for success.
Key Matchup – Nate Solder vs. Leonard Williams. The Pats’ offensive line has struggled in recent weeks, especially on seven-step Brady drops. Left tackle Solder seems to be the guy who is having the most trouble. He can be beaten most by power edge rushers who overpower him with a bull rush — that describes Williams. He uses power more than speed, but with all of his natural ability he has zero sacks in 2017 and he is not even getting a lot of quarterback hits. Solder will try to handle Williams without tight end help, but a bad pass pro day could negatively affect the Pats’ passing game.
X-Factor – Patriot receiver Danny Amendola. He is giving Brady the Julian Edelman production that the Pats have been looking for. He is effective out of the slot on the underneath option route; he and Brady have developing chemistry at being on the same page when he makes his break. He is especially productive on third down and is helped by some deep passes to Brandin Cooks that open up the defense for those short throws. Last week he had eight receptions for 77 yards and now he faces two talented rookie safeties, Marcus Maye and Jamal Adams. It will be a matchup to watch.
Fantasy Football Sleeper – Jet tight end Austin Sefarian-Jenkins. He is a career underachiever with off-field problems, but he might be actually starting to show us what we have been waiting for. He has elite skills, including size and speed, but he does not always play up to his skill level. Quarterback Josh McCown seems to be developing faith in him. He had six receptions for 29 yards and one touchdown last week on eight targets, and on an offense that lacks weapons he has a chance to improve his production. Also, the Pats are giving up plays to tight ends this year more than in the past.
Green Bay (4-1) at Minnesota (3-2)
The Packers are coming off another miracle Aaron Rodgers comeback in their win over Dallas in what has to be their most satisfying victory in a long time. He continues to carry this team on his back without a lot of help and he has no run game that he can really count on. His offensive line is a patchwork group because of injuries and the defense is not close to being elite, but the Packers are a resilient organization which keeps figuring out ways to win. The Vikings are coming off an unimpressive win over Chicago, and they were bailed out by backup quarterback Case Keenum and their defense. Keenum had to step in for Sam Bradford, who just didn’t look ready to play and might not be healthy this week. This is a tough division game between two teams who are not 100 percent. It will likely come down to the ability of the swarming Minnesota defense to slow down Aaron Rodgers.
Keys to Game
- Will the Vikings bring their A gap blitzes? – Nobody is better at attacking inside when they bring extra pressure than the Vikings. They can put four guys in the A gap (two defensive lineman and two linebackers) and you don’t know who is coming and who is dropping — it can be very confusing for a pocket quarterback. Rodgers’ interior line needs a strong blitz pickup game, but if the Vikings do get penetration he has the mobility to scramble outside and either throw or run. Minnesota must seal the edges to keep Rodgers’ inside — its biggest job in this situation is to be aware of great Green Bay sight adjustments when the play starts to break down. They can’t lose their coverage on a busted play.
- The Green Bay “Nitro” package should work versus Minnesota – They have gone to a lot of four-safety schemes because of linebacker injuries. The coaches like the versatility and speed it adds to this defense. It matches up well versus spread passing offenses and finesse run games, but it is not built to stop physical power run attacks. With Dalvin Cook gone, Minnesota doesn’t have an offense that will punish you with physicality in the run game. The Packers should be in good shape to defend the short to intermediate Vikings’ passing game and they will try to keep everything in front of them. With this package look for some creative pressures and coverages.
- What does this Minnesota offense look like now? – With Sam Bradford not looking close to being healthy it looks like this offense has its best chance to succeed with Case Keenum at quarterback. He makes good decisions, he manages the game well, and he has mobility to avoid the rush that Bradford lacks right now. Against the Packers he should go to a run-heavy offense and safe, short passes to move the chains and convert on third down, and most importantly eat the clock and keep Aaron Rodgers off the field. Minnesota cannot match the explosive Green Bay offense so it must slow the game down and run a very simple mistake-free offense. It may not be pretty but hopefully effective.
Key Matchup – Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen vs. Green Bay Corners. Nobody is more productive right now than the Diggs-Thielen duo — the two have posted those great numbers at times without their starting quarterback, Sam Bradford. They almost go unnoticed by a lot of “experts” but they grow on you the more you watch them. They were quiet versus Chicago but these guys are very competitive and work hard to get open. The Packers are not elite in their secondary so they try to win with a variety of schemes to keep the offense off balance. Will they play their four-safety “nitro” package, which might be more physical against Thielen and Diggs, but also give up some corner coverage skills?
X-Factor – Green Bay back Aaron Jones. Their run game will probably never be dynamic and the Packers could likely use a rotation of Jones and Ty Montgomery, but Jones may give them their best shot at explosive plays. The Packers’ organization was high on this guy all preseason and it looks like that optimism was well placed. He follows blocks well, he has excellent quickness, and he has the speed to get outside, either win a run or an outlet pass. For a little guy he has surprising yards after contact.
Fantasy Football Sleeper – Minnesota back Jerick McKinnon. Latavius Murray was supposed to be Dalvin Cook’s replacement, but that role lasted one half before McKinnon got his shot and his versatility carried the offense versus the Bears. He had 16 rushes for 95 yards and six receptions for 51 yards. Murray showed limited explosiveness, while McKinnon appears to have much more big play capability. It would be surprising if he did not take over the starting job, or at least see his touches go up dramatically.