Rob Gronkowski and the Pats host the NFL's best defense in the 49ers this week.
Injuries are a significant concern entering Week 15 of the 2012 NFL season.
Rob Gronkowski of the New England Patriots is arguably the most notable of injuries as well.
Gronkowski is the only player absent from practice. Love returns. Welker starts on the stationary bike. Spikes, too.— Jeff Howe (@jeffphowe) December 13, 2012
So, with January implications and fantasy football implication on the line this week, keep a close eye on Gronk. Ahead, let's check out his potential expectations along with others for mid December.
Note: Some slides have two players of the same team.
Last week the New England Patriots steamrolled a perennial Super Bowl contender, no sweat.
Even more impressive was the Pats dominating the Houston Texans without Rob Gronkowski.
Tom Brady and the offense have not slowed down, but Week 15 is New England's toughest challenge yet. The San Francisco 49ers allow only 14.2 points per game and present a consistent pass rush to generate pressure and force turnovers.
If Gronk plays, he will be a great competitive advantage for New England as the 'Niners can be beat downfield. The Pats general balance will be required to move the ball, though.
So, if Gronk doesn't play, expect more aggression from San Francisco. In short, the 49ers won't need to play nearly as much bracketed zone coverages at the intermediate level.
For the Patriots to keep rolling, defensive secondary players such as Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard must contribute.
Fortunately, according to the Patriots' official website each participated in a limited capacity on Wednesday.
Although that's not the best-case of scenarios, it could obviously be much worse.
New England also needs to be full strength for the 49ers. San Francisco may be known for defense, but Colin Kaepernick has the offense balanced out nicely. Factor in the Pats' vulnerable coverage and San Francisco's running game is capable of keeping Tom Brady off the field.
Talib and Dennard's playmaking abilities will be required because the 'Niners simply don't make an excessive number of mistakes. Turnovers, though, will be the key as getting Brady one additional series creates quite a disparity regarding the possession and field position battle.
According to Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area:
Outside linebacker Aldon Smith, fullback Bruce Miller and special-teamer Tavares Gooden each wore black jerseys at practice Wednesday, indicating that they were off-limits for contact. Each is expected to play against the Patriots.
The 49ers will definitely need Aldon Smith full go for Sunday night's big game also.
Constantly applying pressure to Tom Brady is the recipe for success against the Patriots, or any explosive offense for that matter.
And because the 49ers aren't nearly as high-powered offensively, minimizing the damage from New England's offense will shorten the game. Smith's presence coming off the edge will even take away Brady's checkdown targets.
Meaning: the running backs have to account for Smith or at least help the offensive tackle with extra pass protection. A byproduct of that is that there won't be an outlet receiver for Brady to find when under duress.
The end results are more possessions for San Francisco and the luxury of maintaining momentum.
For the Atlanta Falcons to get back on track, Asante Samuel must make a strong impact in Week 15.
Well, according the Falcons' official website he was limited in practice on Wednesday and Thursday.
On the bright side, there is optimism from this video courtesy of Orlando Ledbetter of the Atlanta Journal Constitution.
Samuel is a masterful reader of quarterbacks. He makes plays on the ball and locks down in man coverage. Include the fact that Eli Manning can occasionally hit a funk in terms of being turnover-prone and Atlanta is capable of forcing some turnovers.
That potential just gets amplified when Samuel is taking away one half of the field.
The New York Giants have a distinct competitive advantage over the Atlanta Falcons: rushing offense.
Entering the Week 15 matchup, Big Blue averages 4.5 yards per carry and Atlanta allows 4.9.
No Bradshaw at practice again. Amukamara, Phillips, Sash also sitting out. #nyg— Jenny Vrentas (@JennyVrentas) December 13, 2012
Fear not Giants fans, because rookie David Wilson really shined in Week 14 against the Saints.
There, Wilson compiled 100 rushing yards on 13 attempts with two scores. Now without question, Atlanta will definitely be a tougher go-round than New Orleans.
When looking at the positives, we see a quick and explosive back who will punch inside and keep the Falcons off balance. New York needs that because the Falcons offense is just as explosive as New Orleans.
The status of Robert Griffin III remains uncertain.
According to the Associated Press via ESPN.com:
So, to cut to the case, Griffin was asked if he expects to play Sunday.
"I can't tell you all that," he said. "First, I don't want to give the Cleveland Browns a competitive advantage. And I don't want to let anybody down, so I don't want to say that I'll be playing and end up not playing."
Regardless, the Cleveland Browns are an intriguing matchup for the Washington Redskins.
Obviously RG3's dual-threat ability provides a different threat than Kirk Cousins, but the Redskins have proven to move the rock no matter who is under center. In other words, Cleveland has much to prepare for.
As for Griffin, provided he suits up, don't expect much scrambling. The Browns have a well-disciplined front seven and can apply pressure to force turnovers. So, whether it's RG3 or Cousins, anticipate quicker developing plays.
The Browns are aggressive, but faster plays will help set up the run and keep Cleveland off balance.
Optimistic news for the Baltimore Ravens.
According to Ryan Mink of the Ravens' official website:
The Ravens could get a huge boost to their banged-up defense Sunday against the Denver Broncos.
Head Coach John Harbaugh said reigning Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs and team leader Ray Lewis both have a chance to play.
Baltimore potentially getting both Lewis and Suggs on the field in Week 15 is straight up huge, because Peyton Manning resides under center for the Denver Broncos.
Along with Manning's quick release, his pass protection is among the best in pro football. On the contrary, the Ravens have struggled with finding a consistent pass rush even when healthy.
Despite the Broncos already having clinched the AFC West, Denver is fighting for a playoff bye. By that token, the Ravens need to be fully loaded in order to fend off Manning and Co. at home.
And the only way Baltimore can get a pass rush, stuff the run and shield in coverage is if Lewis and Suggs are lined up across from No. 18.
The Dallas Cowboys are trying to make a playoff push and fielding their best defensive players in Week 15 is imperative.
Coming into Dallas are the Pittsburgh Steelers in a similar position, so the need for DeMarcus Ware and Morris Claiborne would be a competitive advantage.
Cowboys OLB DeMarcus Ware said he has a hyperextended elbow and will wear a brace while playing in Sunday's game vs. Steelers.— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) December 13, 2012
Claiborne missed practice Wednesday because he has a concussion that he sustained in Sunday’s win at Cincinnati when he took a helmet-to-helmet hit from teammate Danny McCray.
Given that precautionary measures for head injuries have basically taken over pro football, it would be surprising if Claiborne played on Sunday. If he does, expect Dallas either helping with a zoning safety over the top or letting Claiborne drop back in a Cover 3 scheme.
In addition, not blitzing from his side will allow for an extra run defender on the edge. Doing so will simply reduce the odds of a collision, which is what often occurs against the run and in man coverage over the middle.
Looking back at how the San Diego Chargers diced up the Steelers, the Cowboys present just as much potential.
Bryant has not caught passes this week and will not do so on Thursday, because the finger still is swollen. But [Jason] Garrett said Bryant will try to do so at some point, possibly even waiting until game day.
"We are going to give him every chance to play," Garrett said. "If that is wait til Saturday (to catch passes), then we will wait til Saturday. If it's wait til Sunday, it's wait til Sunday. We will give him every chance to do it."
Bryant's presence out wide is vital to Dallas' offense because regardless of production his impact allows for balance. Defenses have to account for him going deep, so the Cowboys can enjoy more success on the ground without that extra defender in the box.
Combine the elements of Pittsburgh's defensive capabilities and Dallas remaining inconsistent at running the ball, Bryant changes that complexion. He'll force Pittsburgh on its heels and open up Witten and Miles Austin elsewhere.
Plus, keeping a sound defense such as the Steelers honest is the key to offensive efficiency and ball control.
Week 15 is a key divisional matchup between the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears.
The Packers hold a one-game lead over Chicago and are looking to sweep their NFC North rivals.
Include the playoff implications and Green Bay needs get healthy and fast.
A potential game-changer, Clay Matthews, may return. According to Mike Spofford of the Packers' official website:
LB Clay Matthews returned to practice on Wednesday for the first time since injuring his hamstring on Nov. 4 vs. Arizona. Matthews has missed the last four games, but it appears he could return to game action this Sunday in Chicago.
The potential of Matthews playing is a significant boost to Green Bay's defense. He still leads the team with nine sacks, so that simply shows the profound impact Matthews gives the Pack.
Packers practice update, DNP: Starks (knee), Nelson (hamstring), Wilson (knee)— Pete Dougherty (@PeteDougherty) December 13, 2012
For as long as Aaron Rodgers is under center, the Packers offense will be fine. The rushing attack is also gaining confidence as well, so the Bears still have plenty to prepare for regardless of Nelson's status come game day.
Two things regarding Jay Cutler for Week 15.
First, earlier in the week according to Michael C. Wright of ESPNChicago.com:
Jay Cutler said he "should be ready to go later in the week." #JayCutlerShow— Michael C. Wright (@mikecwright) December 10, 2012
#Bears didn't practice but if they did, oh my. Bennett, Briggs, Bush, Cutler, Kellen, Geno, Tim J, McClellin, Melton, Scott & Urlacher DNP— Sean Jensen (@seankjensen) December 12, 2012
Given the implications of this game against the Packers, Cutler not at the helm would be surprising. Not only are the Bears fighting for the division title, but also just to earn an NFC Wild Card spot.
Losers in four of their last five games, the Bears cannot afford to drop another game. Cutler's strong arm and underrated mobility does help with limited pass protection and Green Bay still being suspect in coverage.
That impact alone also takes pressure off of Chicago's ground game, which must produce for the Bears to avoid the loss.