NFL Week 5: Breaking Down the Biggest Matchups
Finding big matchups from each week of the NFL season can be difficult at times. In Week 5, it's easy to find big matchups, but the problem is deciding which ones are the biggest of the bunch.
Can Eddie Lacy return to keep the Detroit Lions defensive line away from Aaron Rodgers, or should the focus be more on the interior of the Cincinnati Bengals defensive line against the New England Patriots offensive line?
Does Victor Cruz pull the New York Giants to their first victory, or does Dontari Poe keep the Kansas City Chiefs unbeaten?
Every single game this week has a viable matchup to pay attention to. Even the St. Louis Rams clash with the Jacksonville Jaguars features one of the most talented young receivers in the league facing off against one of the most talented young cornerbacks.
Instead of figuring out which one or two of these storylines were the biggest, it made more sense to highlight the biggest matchup from each game.
Steve Johnson vs. Joe Haden
Joe Haden is receiving lots of acclaim for his performances so far this season. Andy Benoit of the MMQB even put him in his All-Pro first-quarter team. Haden is coming off a week when his Cleveland Browns beat the Cincinnati Bengals while he was matched up against superstar wide receiver A.J. Green.
Much of the narrative this week has pointed to how Haden shut down Green, but that simply isn't true. Green didn't have statistical production because of poor quarterback play, but he was able to come free from Haden on nine of their 20 snaps against each other in man coverage. Success on 55 percent of plays is not shutting down a receiver.
Haden hasn't played like a top cornerback in a long time. He has played well this season so far, but he also hasn't faced the toughest receivers. Both Mike Wallace and Torrey Smith are primarily speedsters, while Greg Jennings is past his prime at this stage. Green is the only top receiver whom he has faced.
While Steve Johnson of the Buffalo Bills isn't a top receiver, he is one of the most difficult in the league to cover. He only has 18 receptions for 235 yards and two touchdowns this season. His production is down primarily because the Bills now have more weapons to throw to in a different offense, but last year he was one of the toughest assignments in the NFL.
He doesn't have elite speed, but he runs routes better than any receiver in the NFL. He repeatedly bested Darrelle Revis when Revis was in New York and had the most productive day against Richard Sherman last season also.
If Haden can contain Johnson on his own, that will go a long way to help the Browns beat the Bills. However, Haden hasn't faced a receiver like him yet this season and struggled with lesser receivers last season.
The Interior of the Cincinnati Bengals Defensive Line vs. Tom Brady
With players such as Geno Atkins, Michael Johnson, Domata Peko, Carlos Dunlap and Wallace Gilberry in the rotation, the Cincinnati Bengals had arguably the best defensive line in the NFL last season. While the majority of the unit, including all of the key players mentioned above, have returned, the unit hasn't produced to the same level this season so far.
Regardless of who is healthy in the Bengals secondary and who is playing receiver for the Patriots, the best way to stop Tom Brady is always pressure. More precisely, pressure up the middle.
The Bengals will need Atkins to have a huge game against the Patriots if Cincinnati is to rebound from the devastating loss to the Cleveland Browns last week. He has 2.5 sacks already this season, but sacks won't be important against Brady. What will be more important is constant pressure.
If he and the Bengals' other interior defensive linemen can consistently push Ryan Wendell, Logan Mankins and Dan Connolly back into Brady, then the Patriots offense is likely to beat itself.
If that interior pressure doesn't come, then Johnson and Dunlap will need to have huge games. Brady is very good at adjusting to edge pressure, so it's rare that defensive ends can consistently disrupt the Patriots offense. Both players will need to play well, but they won't be the key figures in deciding the outcome of this game.
Eddie Lacy vs. the Detroit Lions Defensive Front
Green Bay Packers running back Eddie Lacy is likely to return this week after missing time because of a concussion. Although Johnathan Franklin and James Starks both had over 100 yards rushing in his absence, Lacy's combination of aggression and explosion could be decisive against the Detroit Lions.
The Packers don't have the offensive line to withstand the pressure of the Lions defensive line. For that reason, they will need to look to the running game to keep Rodgers from being hit too much. He can perform under that pressure and has done so for the last two seasons, but it's a massive risk against a Lions defense that is much improved from last year.
If Starks hadn't already been ruled out, the Packers would likely have relied on both him and Lacy to carry the load. Although Franklin made some explosive plays against the Cincinnati Bengals, he will likely see limited exposure in a third-down role.
Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley and Ezekiel Ansah in particular have overwhelming levels of athleticism. For a smaller back such as Franklin, that is a terrible matchup. It's made especially worse when you consider that he is a rookie coming off a key fumble in his first real game.
Andrew Luck vs. the Seattle Seahawks Secondary
Andrew Luck has been in this position many times during his short career so far. As the first overall pick, he knew in 2012 that he would more often than not be playing with teammates who weren't as good as the defensive players he faced. In 2013, the Colts invested in different pieces to try and improve the offensive line and running game.
The most recent addition was Trent Richardson, while the offensive line had a few free-agent additions in the offseason. While that has leveled the playing field against some teams, it won't against the Seattle Seahawks.
Even though some will point to them playing poorly away from home, the reality is that the Seahawks are still a very good team on the road. They just reach ludicrous levels of domination at home, which makes those away performances look worse in comparison. The Colts and Seahawks face off in Indianapolis, but Luck shouldn't expect to face anything but an outstanding defense.
Against the San Francisco 49ers two weeks ago, the Colts matched their physicality upfront, while Luck made key throws against a less than stellar secondary. While the Houston Texans were productive against the Seahawks last week, the statistical numbers somewhat flattered what they achieved on the field. There is no doubting the ability of the Seahawks secondary.
Richard Sherman struggled with Andre Johnson last week. That will give Reggie Wayne hope, but he doesn't have the same athleticism as Johnson, so Sherman should rebound. Brandon Browner has played some excellent football since his return from injury, so finding Darius Heyward-Bey or T.Y. Hilton consistently will be a problem too.
Realistically, Luck will need to make very precise throws if the Colts are to win this game.
Eugene Monroe vs. the Miami Dolphins Defensive Front
Joe Flacco has been sacked 12 times over the first four games of the season. Those sack numbers are bad, but it's the constant pressure that has helped him throw seven interceptions. After he threw five picks against the Buffalo Bills last week, Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome knew it was time to make a move.
The Ravens offensive line has struggled in different areas since the start of the season, but the worst damage was coming on the left side. Left guard Kelechi Osemele was impressive as a rookie and is only in his second year, so there are still reasons to believe that he will return to form.
Left tackle Bryant McKinnie is on the other end of his career arc, however.
He solidified the Ravens offensive line before the playoffs last season, but he spent most of the season on the sideline. Since he is 34 years of age with a history of weight problems, it's no surprise that he has struggled this season. He has looked old and slow, so he would be much better suited to a role on the sideline.
Newsome recognised his mistake and acquired Eugene Monroe from the Jacksonville Jaguars as a solution.
Monroe only cost the Ravens multiple mid-round selections, but that's not a reflection of his ability. He came so cheap because he is in the final year of his contract and the Jaguars weren't planning on re-signing him. The former top-10 draft pick is one of the few Jaguars selections in recent seasons who has lived up to his billing.
He is an outstanding left tackle with all the talent to be an elite player for many years to come. However, that may not be enough to allow him to perform this weekend. The 26-year-old is set to arrive in Baltimore this week and will have only a few days to adjust to his new teammates, coaches, facility, scheme and life before he must face off against the Miami Dolphins.
The Dolphins front is very talented and played well at times against the New Orleans Saints on Monday night. In that game, Cameron Wake was absent, and his status for this Sunday isn't 100 percent clear just yet.
If he plays, he will likely play on the other side of the field throughout the game, but his presence will put pressure on Monroe because the Ravens will want to slide their blocking toward the All-Pro-caliber player.
Brandon Marshall vs. Keenan Lewis
The Chicago Bears offense fell apart for the first time this season against the Detroit Lions last week. Most of their issues could be laid at the feet of quarterback Jay Cutler.
In previous seasons, bad play from Cutler would have killed the Bears. But with Marc Trestman at the helm, there is an optimism that the quarterback can rebound and play more like he did during the previous weeks of the season.
If Cutler can rebound, the Saints face a very tough test this week. Unlike the Miami Dolphins, who were decimated by their offensive line's inability to handle the Saints' front four, the Bears offensive line has played well this season. With Matt Forte, Alshon Jeffery and Martellus Bennett also on the field, the Bears offense as a whole is more comfortable and polished than the Dolphins, so it should provide a sterner test.
However, Brandon Marshall's matchup with Keenan Lewis is the most intriguing head-to-head competition.
Lewis has the size and speed to stick with Marshall. In 2012 with the Pittsburgh Steelers, he had 23 pass deflections. The majority of those deflections came when he was tight to the body of a receiver and used his long arms to knock the ball away. Marshall's wingspan is as impressive as any other receiver in the league, so it'll be interesting to see who can win the battles in tight.
Even though Lewis has the attributes to cover Marshall, the Bears receiver is a much more fluid athlete and could cause havoc if Rob Ryan leaves the pair in too much space. If the Bears offensive line holds up and Ryan is tempted to return to his more aggressive ways with different blitzes, that will put pressure on Lewis to stick with Marshall all over the field.
Marshall is one of the few receivers in the NFL who can take over a game by himself. Lewis is touted by some as a legitimate No. 1 cornerback. He needs to prove that in this game because covering Marshall isn't the same as covering Mike Wallace.
The New York Giants Wide Receivers vs. the Philadelphia Eagles Secondary
The New York Giants keep on falling further and further from where they want to be. The Philadelphia Eagles have followed a similar path since beating the Washington Redskins in Week 1. Both of these failing franchises have clear identities, so don't expect any radical changes to be made ahead of this matchup.
Because Chip Kelly and Tom Coughlin are committed to their approaches, this game will be decided by strengths and weaknesses.
Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks and Rueben Randle as a trio make up probably the best unit in this game. Cary Williams, Bradley Fletcher and Brandon Boykin combine to create the weakest unit in this game. For that reason, this is where the game will be won and lost.
While Nicks and Randle should prove to be matchup nightmares for the Eagles defensive backs, it's Cruz who should be the game-breaker. He is the only receiver who has legitimately impressed for the Giants this season. Randle is an emerging talent, but he still hasn't established himself at the top level. Nicks is the Giants' most gifted player, but injuries appeared to have slowed him.
Cruz is a problem for Philadelphia because he can line up anywhere and have a favourable matchup. Boykin in the slot doesn't have the physical tools to stick with him in space. Williams on the edge has better physical tools, but he is inconsistent and often reckless in coverage. Fletcher is probably the Eagles' best cornerback, but he has the size that will likely keep him on Nicks or Randle.
If Eli Manning and Cruz can connect enough, then the Giants could finally finish a game on the winning side this season.
Dontari Poe vs. the Interior of the Tennessee Titans Offensive Line
Because he is a space-eating defensive tackle who can get to the quarterback, Dontari Poe won't be considered for any MVP awards during his career. That said, it's difficult to find any player outside of Peyton Manning who has outperformed the youngster this season.
Poe received a level of criticism as a rookie because his physical gifts never translated to the NFL. In Year 2, those physical gifts are no longer being used to bash him. Instead, he is using them to bash others. He has been an immovable object resembling former Pittsburgh Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton in his prime while still being a viable pocket-pusher and sack-collector.
That combination is terrifying for a team without its starting quarterback.
Ryan Fitzpatrick may have started more than most NFL backups, but he didn't receive an opportunity to start somewhere else this offseason because he played poorly with the Buffalo Bills. He looked tentative when he replaced Jake Locker last week. While he did throw a 77-yard touchdown pass, he actually underthrew Nate Washington on the play, forcing the receiver to make an athletic catch instead of a wide-open reception.
With a week of practice, Fitzpatrick should be better this week, but the Titans will still look to rely on Chris Johnson and their running game.
Chance Warmack, Robert Turner and Andy Levitre have been impressive this season as mauling offensive linemen. They haven't dominated the opposition, but they have done enough to allow the Titans to be more than efficient on offense. Poe is their biggest test yet, however. He will demand double-teams throughout the game, and even then, the Titans may not be able to move him.
If they can't create running room for Johnson and Jackie Battle, the Titans will risk putting Fitzpatrick in the spotlight more. When he is in the spotlight, Tamba Hali and Justin Houston will have a better idea of how to take him out.
Cecil Shorts vs. Janoris Jenkins
The Jacksonville Jaguars have been horrific on offense this season. Star wide receiver Justin Blackmon is set to return, but that addition may be offset by the trade that sent left tackle Eugene Monroe to the Baltimore Ravens. Unless Blackmon returns in the same fashion that Josh Gordon did for the Cleveland Browns in Week 3, Cecil Shorts should remain the star of this unit.
He has been outstanding this year despite playing in a difficult situation. He is consistently gaining separation against defensive backs. On the few targets when he doesn't gain separation, he has been able to gain position on the ball for difficult receptions. He has the ability to work the sideline, come infield underneath and work well against safeties over the middle of the field.
He hasn't scored a touchdown yet, but he has a 59-yard reception and four 20-plus-yard receptions.
Against Janoris Jenkins of the St. Louis Rams, Shorts should have more opportunities to make big plays down the field. Jenkins earned a flattering reputation as a rookie, but that recognition was based on his ability to create turnovers. While he got his hands on the ball often in 2012, he also gave up many big plays because of his poor decision-making.
Fellow starting cornerback Cortland Finnegan looked slow against the San Francisco 49ers before leaving the game with a thigh injury, while Trumaine Johnson isn't fast enough to cover Shorts. That should keep Jenkins on Shorts despite Blackmon's return.
If Blaine Gabbert can give Shorts enough opportunities, he could pave the way to an unlikely victory against less than stellar opposition.
Steve Smith vs. Patrick Peterson
The Carolina Panthers are 1-2, and a 34-year-old Steve Smith is finally showing some decline. He has been a true superstar in the league for a long time, but through three games this season, he has just 14 receptions for 143 yards and one touchdown. He did face Richard Sherman in Week 1, but that game proved to be his most productive so far this season.
As poor as Smith's production this season, it's still too early to write him off into retirement. He is still a threat who can change games with big plays. He is also still Cam Newton's most dangerous wide receiver, after you discount Greg Olsen as a tight end.
For a long time, Smith bullied defensive backs with his physical style of play and athleticism. This Sunday against Patrick Peterson, he may be able to use his physical style, but he won't have any athletic advantage.
Peterson is exceptionally fast and adept at preventing big plays down the field. He doesn't play overly physical coverage like a Richard Sherman or Stephon Gilmore, but he does have the ability to mirror most wide receivers in the NFL.
Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles will likely leave Peterson in single coverage against Smith until the Panthers wideout proves that he can beat the young defensive back.
Dez Bryant vs. the Denver Broncos Cornerbacks
Stopping the Denver Broncos is all about stopping Peyton Manning. Unfortunately, stopping him appears to be impossible right now, so the Dallas Cowboys may want to explore other avenues.
The Cowboys' best performance this season came against the St. Louis Rams. The Rams and Broncos are completely different teams at this point, but one key can be taken from that game: Dez Bryant was able to bully the Rams' smaller cornerbacks. While the Broncos have cornerbacks who are performing better than the Rams players at this point, they also lack the size and strength to handle Bryant.
Against the Rams, Bryant was only a part of the offensive success. The Cowboys were also able to consistently run DeMarco Murray off tackle during that game. That won't happen against the Broncos run defense because it has been outstanding all season long. Instead, a bigger game will be needed from Bryant. Tony Romo should be able to get him the ball because the Broncos pass rush is not great.
Without Champ Bailey, who doesn't look like he is playing this weekend, the Broncos will look to Chris Harris, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Tony Carter against Bryant.
Harris is the most talented player, but he's also significantly smaller than Bryant. That matchup would be a nightmare for the Broncos. Rodgers-Cromartie has played physical coverage this year and could fight for the football consistently, but Bryant would likely win that battle often. Carter is a good player but not someone who can handle elite receivers.
The Broncos will likely double-team Bryant often and shift coverage his way, but if he wants to be an elite receiver, then he needs to perform in those situations. Instead of stopping Manning, the Cowboys need to try and outscore him.
J.J. Watt vs. the San Francisco 49ers Offensive Line
Both J.J. Watt and the San Francisco 49ers offensive line played to an unbelievable level last season. While Watt was threatening the sack record from a position that doesn't normally threaten it, the 49ers offensive line was dominant in the running game and consistently brilliant protecting the quarterback.
The 49ers offensive line has not been as good this season. The linemen have failed to impact games the way they did last season, and each player has struggled at different times. The unit still has multiple first-round picks and some of the best players in the league on it, so at some point, the O-line should regain that form from last season.
There would be no better time than this Sunday.
Watt already has 3.5 sacks in four games. It may seem unfair to the rest of the Texans defense to list him here instead of the unit as a whole, but the Texans will move him around the formation, and he has a massive impact on how the offense sets itself up. The rest of the Texans defense hasn't performed on the same level as it did last season, but the talent is there for the unit to turn itself around in a moment also.
In a prime-time matchup, the best players are expected to show up and perform. On Sunday night, those players should be in the trenches when the 49ers have the ball.
Philip Rivers vs. the Oakland Raiders' New Defense
The Oakland Raiders and San Diego Chargers are the two most surprising teams in the league so far this season. At least, they have the two most surprisingly positive storylines.
Philip Rivers has seemingly returned to his best form, which has elevated the Chargers offense, while Terrelle Pryor has been better than most expected, and the Oakland Raiders defense has come together quickly.
That Raiders defense is fascinating. It's nowhere near the best unit in the league, but it has overachieved considering how much turnover it has endured.
Charles Woodson, Tracy Porter, Mike Jenkins, Nick Roach, Kevin Burnett, Pat Sims and Lamarr Houston are all familiar names, but only Houston is familiar to the Raiders. He is the only remaining starter from last season. The Raiders essentially have a completely new unit on that side of the ball.
Normally, that causes problems for a team because players need time to jell together. Andy Reid's last two years in Philadelphia exemplified that perfectly. The Eagles brought together more star players and tried to push them into a scheme together, which failed. The Raiders haven't brought in stars. Instead, they added a mixture of reliable, downtrodden and supposedly past-it veterans.
Through the first four weeks of the season, that defense has shown up well. Outside of the Denver Broncos, whose offense is playing on another level altogether, the Raiders haven't faced an offense as hot as this Chargers unit all season long.
Presuming that Rivers continues to play as well as he has, the Chargers will provide a stern test for the Raiders' congruency on defense this Sunday night.
Antonio Cromartie vs. Julio Jones
Quietly, Julio Jones is having an impressive season. He already has 481 yards and 33 receptions. He isn't receiving much credit because he only has two touchdowns in four games, with none during the last two weeks, and the Falcons have a losing record.
He has three 100-yard games already this season, with a reception of at least 22 yards in each game. Considering the Falcons are missing Steven Jackson from the backfield, the offensive line has issues and Roddy White has been a glorified decoy at times, those numbers are remarkable. This week, nothing else will matter, though, as Jones and Antonio Cromartie face off on Monday night.
Cromartie is a good defensive back who typically excels against receivers who play like Jones. In 2012, Cromartie was an elite cornerback, but this season he has already reverted to his previous form. The now 29-year-old has struggled somewhat through four games this year.
His performance against the Tennessee Titans last week was compounded by Nate Washington's 77-yard touchdown reception. Washington not only beat Cromartie badly down the field, but the Jets cornerback couldn't recover an underthrown pass from Ryan Fitzpatrick before colliding with a referee.
Cromartie should be desperate to get back on the field. Jones is one of the toughest matchups in the NFL for any cornerback right now. Cromartie has to step up his game like he did last season after Darrelle Revis tore his ACL. On Monday night, there won't be a better time to do it.