These are two great matchups this weekend that we’re really excited about! Sunday’s games feature three (maybe four) future Hall of Fame QB’s, some of the top RB’s in the NFL, explosive skill players, and tough, physical defenses. They will also feature some of the best coaches in the game, and the chess match that takes place, the games within the game, will be as important as anything else.
Here’s what we see as the keys to these games for each team.
• Sight adjustment is a big part of this offense. The Packers receivers often struggle to separate from man coverage, and that’s what forces Rodgers to move around to extend the play. When that happens, receivers must break off their routes and adjust and go to an open spot. They actually practice it though, which is why they are having so much recent success with it.
• Will they at least “try” to run vs. Atlanta (only 17 rushes and 43 passes last week), or will they simply stick to allowing Rodgers to play a pass-heavy schoolyard game? The RB position right now is managed by WR turned RB, Ty Montgomery and FB Aaron Ripkowski, but the Packers dedication to the run is questionable. Montgomery gets the bulk of the carries, and they use Ripkowski in goal line/short yardage. The issue is they are vulnerable in pass pro/blitz pickup.
• But, Montgomery could be headed for a productive day vs. an Atlanta defense that does not cover well against pass catching RB’s. As a converted receiver, his ability to catch the ball vs. LB’s and safeties could lead to a nice game.
• ILB’s Jake Ryan and Blake Martinez are very good run defenders, but can they hold up in coverage against RB’s Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman? Most LBs can’t cover them.
• Green Bay has a big decision to make with their personnel packages on defense. They like 2-4-5 groupings to take advantage of their strength at LB, and to give them more bodies in pass coverage (their biggest weakness). But that could encourage Atlanta to pound the ball with Freeman and Coleman vs. softer personnel. Green Bay’s #8 ranking against the run is deceiving because opposing offenses go after them more with the pass (#31 ranked pass defense) and they ignore the run. The Packers have a lot of injury concerns in the secondary, and they lack depth. Not sure how they will cover Julio Jones.
• Matt Ryan has done a great job of distributing the ball in the passing game. He’s thrown TD’s to 13 different receivers, the most in the NFL. He does an excellent job of recognizing coverages and finding the right matchups at the LOS, and he will take what he’s given. He will not just force the ball to Julio Jones, which is going to put a lot of pressure on an already depleted Green Bay secondary.
• A matchup to watch could be WR Taylor Gabriel vs. DC Micah Hyde. Both are quick and both are really playing well in recent weeks, which should make for an interesting battle in the slot. They expect Hyde to cover Gabriel a lot, but the Falcons would love to move Gabriel around to get a matchup with Damarious Randall, who is really giving up a lot of big plays.
• This offense has been terrific on 1st down, averaging 5.21 yards per rush and 10.06 yards per pass. Thanks to some excellent play calling from OC Kyle Shanahan, they always seem to be in great position on 2nd and 3rd downs.
• They have had a lot of success with 13 personnel (1 RB, 3 TE). It has helped the edge run game, and the “heavy” run looks usually force defenses into more base personnel. But then they can also release the TE’s (Levine Toilolo and Austin Hooper) as receivers, putting a lot of pressure on the Packers LB’s. Green Bay likes to play a base 2-4-5, so expect plenty of “check with me’s” from Ryan. If he sees the lighter front, he’ll check to the run. If the front is loaded, he’ll check to pass and release the TE’s and RB into short receiving routes.
• As explosive as this passing game is, the Falcons are still one of the most balanced offenses in the NFL. They stay with the run and avoid the temptation of becoming pass happy, and the run game sets up play action and the passing game.
• SS Keanu Neal really gives this defense a boost. He’s a physical defender who brings it, but also has excellent speed and range. He can be a box safety against the run, he can blitz from anywhere, and he is decent in coverage against RB’s and TE’s. He’s today’s ultimate hybrid NFL SS, and his versatility gives them a lot of personnel and coverage options on the back end.
• The Steelers want to dominate TOP with Le’Veon Bell in the run game and keep Tom Brady on the sidelines. Limiting New England’s possessions is a big deal for the Pittsburgh defense. Bell is a physical runner who attacks primarily between the tackles with speed and power. But he is the most patient runner many of us have ever seen. Many times he literally stops behind the LOS to let blocks form, and his OL does a great job with double teams, they pull well, and they are excellent on the 2nd level . This presents a BIG challenge for New England’s DTs and ILBs who must maintain their gap discipline. For all his power, Bell has the quickness to jump cut and quickly get through the hole quickly when it presents itself.
• RB Bell has not been targeted enough in the passing game in recent weeks. He’s a very reliable outlet receiver, and the Patriots do not do a great job covering RB’s out of the backfield. Bell had 10 receptions in the regular season meeting against New England.
• In their nine-game win streak, this defense has really tightened up and are giving up only 16.6 pts per game. They have also recorded an NFL high 30 sacks over the 2nd half of the season, which has been a big key to their defensive improvement. Brady’s quick passing game may negate the blitz, but Pittsburgh may commit to taking away Edelman and force Brady to work his progressions, giving the pass rush more time to get there.
• We will see two elite placekickers in this game in the Patriots’ Stephen Gostkowski and the Steelers’ Chris Boswell, who scored all 18 of Pittsburgh’s points against Kansas City. Both have excellent accuracy and range, and if this game is close, they could be the difference.
• Tom Brady faces a Pitt pass defense that will give him a lot of zone looks and that will require him to be patient and put the ball into tight windows. He is a master at exploiting zone coverages, but the Steelers do not give up a lot of big passing plays, so Brady will likely have to be content to work the short/intermediate passing game.
• Now that it is playoff time, Brady is really leaning on WR Julian Edelman as his most-trusted target (13 targets, 8 receptions, 137 yards vs. HOU). Brady needs to work him in the middle of the field, which he did not do a great job of last week. Look for the Steelers to do some unique things to try and take him away and dictate his option routes with coverage.
• The Patriots have replaced their signature 2-TE sets with 2-RB sets since losing Rob Gronkowski. Mike Devlin is the key piece here. They will sometimes use him as a traditional FB, sometimes with an extra OL as a TE in heavy sets, but they will also run him out as a TE or H-back. They may favor those heavy offensive sets with the extra OL (usually Cameron Fleming) and a blocking FB this week. It will force Pittsburgh to stay in their base defense and help Brady get his RB’s matched up as receivers against the Steelers’ LB’s.
• This defense has quietly improved over the season, allowing 15.6 pts a game and gave up only 27 TDs for the season without a lot of marquee players, but they know their roles and they show versatility. They love “big nickel” personnel with three safeties. This allows SS Patrick Chung to play closer to the LOS, giving them more flexibility in coverage. All three safeties can play man or zone, and they are not a liability against the run.
• This is an underrated run defense despite being ranked #3 in the NFL. This group doesn’t feature a lot of big names, but they are smart and assignment oriented. They play with good gap discipline, and they take pride in being good tacklers. Their LB’s are solid step up and fill guys, which could help them slow down Bell.Add to My RFN