Week 6 of the NFL regular season is here, therefore so are the biggest matchups of the weekend. However, this week isn't like most others. This week, there is one clear matchup that is bigger than any other.
It doesn't feature two teams with the best records. It doesn't even feature two teams with the worst records. It does feature the Super Bowl champions and a playoff team from last year, but that's not important.
It's not even about the matchup between the two teams, but rather the matchup between one unit on each side that will face off against each other.
With Ray Lewis and Ed Reed departed, the lasting memory of the Ravens defense right now likely reverts back to that display in Week 1 of the regular season against the Denver Broncos. Peyton Manning neutralised some amazing play from individuals on the Ravens defense, so that game was more about him than anyone wearing purple.
The Packers offense is littered with recognisable names that reflect star players on the field. Aaron Rodgers, Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson, James Jones and Jermichael Finley are all reputable players who make the Packers a marquee team in the NFL no matter their record.
However, along with those star names, the Packers have a limited group of offensive linemen who take the field every week.
Last season, the Packers' offensive line was a major issue. Rodgers was constantly under pressure in the pocket. This year, the Packers have two new offensive tackles, but neither are experienced or accomplished players. Rookie David Bakhtiari is playing left tackle in place of the injured Bryan Bulaga, while Don Barclay, a second-year player, is starting at right tackle ahead of Marshall Newhouse.
Neither Bakhtiari nor Barclay were high draft picks, and neither has proven to be a high-quality starter at the professional level.
In spite of that, the Packers gave up just one sack to the Detroit Lions' outstanding group of defensive linemen last week. Even though the Packers scored just 22 points, head coach and offensive play-caller Mike McCarthy called a perfect game to neutralise the defense's greatest strength and hide the Packers' greatest weakness. Dropped passes and starting field position kept the Packers from scoring more than they did.
McCarthy came out with a clear understanding of how to slow down the opposition's defensive line. He understood that his players would be overwhelmed in a fair fight, so he used draws, traps, misdirection, quick passes, multiple screens and a hard count early in the game. That made the Lions defensive line think more before they could act, slowing them down.
But once they figured out what McCarthy was doing, the Packers' head coach flipped the switch and changed the point of attack in the running game with a sliding line, a pitch outside and runs outside of the offensive tackles.
Examples of McCarthy's Game Plan
Each of these plays comes from the first quarter of the game. The first is a trap play that is designed to pull the defensive line down the field so that his urgency to rush the passer takes him out of the play.
It's 2nd-and-6. The Packers come out with two receivers to the right, a tight end to the left and another receiver to the left. This is an ideal passing situation for the Packers, but crucially, Eddie Lacy is lined up behind Rodgers in the backfield. The red line through Rodgers' front foot is a full yard ahead of Lacy's. This hints that the Packers are looking to run the ball, but this isn't something the Lions can see.
The Packers are trapping the right defensive end. After the snap, Jermichael Finley runs straight past him. To the defender, this looks like Finley is just releasing into his route, another hint that this is a passing play. However, Finley is actually running past him to block the linebacker on the next level, while right guard T.J. Lang pulls across the formation to block the right defensive end.
Because Lacy was a step behind Rodgers, he is able to take the ball off of him at speed, meaning this is not a draw play.
Not only does Lacy have a huge hole to run into because of the trap, but the defensive line is punished for the urgency in rushing the passer. This helps to make him hesitate on future plays, which will mean that he is less likely to get a quick jump off the line of scrimmage in passing situations.
On this play, the Packers use play action and a screen play to drag the defensive front seven in different directions.
The Lions are daring the Packers to run the ball as they come out in a Cover 2 look. The Packers have six potential blockers on the line of scrimmage, and the Lions have only six potential tacklers in the box. This drags the nickel cornerback slightly further infield and makes the Lions think the Packers are going to run the ball.
With their right guard pulling and their left tackle clamping down inside, the Packers run another trap play that leaves the right defensive end unblocked. However, this time they don't run the ball.
Instead of giving the ball to Lacy, Rodgers fakes it to him and quickly throws the ball into the flat for Randall Cobb on a bubble screen. Cobb is tackled for a loss, and the cornerback makes an outstanding read early in the play, but the effect of the fake still hits home on the defensive line.
After running the trap and play action off the trap, the Packers run a draw.
The Lions show Cover 2 again with their safeties deep, while the Packers come out with four receivers, two to either side. Lacy is behind Rodgers again, but this time he is not a full yard deep. He is on the shoulder of his quarterback.
At the snap, Rodgers takes the ball and surveys the defense. He has the ball in a throwing position, but he holds it lower than is typical when he stands in the pocket looking to throw. Jermichael Finley releases into his route, but again, he is actually not running a route. Lacy bounces on his feet as if he is looking for a potential blitz.
These small actions cause the Lions linebackers to hesitate before they begin to drop backwards into coverage. At this point, the Lions defensive line is also fully committed to rushing the passer.
After a moment, Rodgers quickly hands the ball off to Lacy. The Packers offensive line has created a huge hole for Lacy to run through because the Lions were trying to run down the same lanes the Packers were hoping they'd attack.
With two good blocks on the second level, Lacy is released unopposed.
However, the most notable aspect of this play is the Lions' defensive line. The Packers didn't have to commit two defenders to any of the players up front. Instead they pulled themselves downfield away from the play. The Packers used their own assignment against them.
The Packers used many quick passes and screens to slow the rush also, but the last notable fake they used was a read-option look.
This time, on 2nd-and-8, Lacy is further behind Rodgers than he has been at any other point in the game.
When Rodgers receives the ball, he turns in such a way that he can read the defense still. He looks directly at the left defensive end, who is intentionally left unblocked, and his lower body is set to allow him to run if he wants to pull the ball back.
It's unclear if this was actually a read-option play from Rodgers or just a fake, but either way, it worked.
The left defensive end stops of his own accord, and Rodgers holds him there by running outside. That gives Lacy a free run up the middle where his blockers outnumber the defenders.
Like most things in football, offensive play-calling isn't straightforward. You can't simply see which offense scores the most and anoint that play-caller. McCarthy showed an understanding of his team's weaknesses and the defense's strengths with his play-calling last week.
McCarthy's approach was vindicated also, because even with the hesitation, the Lions defensive line was able to pressure Rodgers on a number of occasions during the game. That speaks to the talent differential between the two units.
This week, there is another huge talent differential when the Packers face the Ravens.
McCarthy will need to approach the game in the same way. The Lions have an excellent defensive line, but the Ravens have the best edge-rusher duo in the NFL in Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs.
Suggs and Dumervil have combined for 10 sacks so far this season, but both players have consistently been beating better offensive linemen than what the Packers have. Last week, Ryan Tannehill was under pressure throughout the game, and Suggs was able to notch three sacks in the fourth quarter alone.
Because of that quality, the Packers will only be able to provide some breathing room with their play-calling. If they can provide themselves with that breathing room, they will have matchup advantages against Jimmy Smith and Corey Graham on the outside. Lardarius Webb is an elite cornerback, but he can't cover Jordy Nelson, James Jones and Randall Cobb at the same time.
With the Ravens' quality and depth in their front seven, the Packers likely won't be able to run the ball consistently. A big play from Cobb in the backfield is a possibility, but it's not something the Packers can rely on consistently against this defense.
On the other side of the ball, the absence of Clay Matthews and the arrival of Eugene Monroe could shift the balance in favour of the Ravens offense.
However, if this becomes a shootout, it will always favour the Packers because of Rodgers.
Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall vs. the New York Giants Secondary
If anything is certain about the 0-5 Giants this year, it's that they can no longer rely on their pass rush to compensate for their secondary. With Alshon Jeffery exploding last week, he and Brandon Marshall will be looking to take over this game for the Bears.
Stephon Gilmore vs. A.J. Green
Gilmore is expected to return this weekend after missing the season so far through injury, per democratandchronicle.com.
It didn't receive much press, but Gilmore was quietly one of the best cover cornerbacks in the NFL last year. Ideally, Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine would like to leave Gilmore on an island to build his defense off his ability the way he did with Darrelle Revis when he was with the New York Jets.
However, with Gilmore just coming back from injury and Green being an elite receiver, that's unlikely to happen this weekend.
If Gilmore can contain Green, it will go a long way to propelling the Bills to victory.
Reggie Bush vs. Ray Horton
Ray Horton's Cleveland Browns defense is all about pressure. He wants to disrupt the quarterback and is able to do that in a variety of ways. However, those ways often leave a lot of space available to certain throws. If Horton is reckless and he allows the Lions to get the ball to Reggie Bush in space, it could be another career day for the dynamic running back.
Arian Foster vs. the St. Louis Rams' Lack of Discipline
With quarterback Matt Schaub struggling and tight end Owen Daniels ailing, the Texans should look to feature Arian Foster heavily this weekend. Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins will be able to get the better of the Rams secondary, but with the lack of discipline the front seven has shown, running the ball with Foster appears to be the safest route to victory.
Adrian Peterson vs. the Carolina Panthers' Front Seven
Josh Freeman isn't going to play for his new team, the Minnesota Vikings, so the Vikings appear set to rely on Matt Cassel again this week. Cassel was competent against the Steelers in London, but the Panthers' pass rush is much more threatening than the Steelers' is. That means that the Vikings will need another massive game from Adrian Peterson this week.
Terrelle Pryor's Scrambling vs. the Kansas City Chiefs' Pass Rush
Dontari Poe, Tamba Hali, Mike DeVito and Justin Houston have been outstanding this year. Each player has been consistently winning battles at the line of scrimmage. Presuming that Houston plays, the quartet will not only need to be disruptive against the Raiders, but they will also need to rush as a unit with discipline to contain Pryor.
That's very difficult because even though Pryor is a phenomenal athlete, he is firmly a pass-first quarterback.
Muhammad Wilkerson vs. David DeCastro
The Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line is a bad unit. It hasn't performed well by any measure in some time.
This week, the Steelers face an outstanding group of young defensive linemen on the New York Jets roster. Muhammad Wilkerson is the best of that group. He will spend a lot of time working against Steelers right guard David DeCastro.
DeCastro was selected in the first round of the draft two years ago and was considered an exceptional prospect. His career was stalled by a torn ACL, but he is still the most talented player the Steelers have in the trenches. He needs to step up if the Steelers are to win this game.
Bill Sheridan vs. the Philadelphia Eagles Offense
Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan hasn't used Darrelle Revis in man coverage all the time this season. Against the Philadelphia Eagles, the Kansas City Chiefs have already shown the blueprint that is needed to contain the offense. That should put Revis and the rest of the secondary in man coverage.
There's no question that Revis can shut down DeSean Jackson, but he has to be used properly.
Chad Henne vs. the Denver Broncos Secondary
Blaine Gabbert is expected to miss an extended period through injury, so that means Chad Henne will start against the Denver Broncos.
For this game to be competitive, the Broncos need to beat themselves by overlooking their opposition, but Henne also needs to have a strong game. Henne isn't the long-term answer in Jacksonville, but he has had very good performances at times during his career. With Justin Blackmon and Cecil Shorts on the outside, he has enough weapons to put some points on the board.
Ryan Fitzpatrick vs. Richard Sherman
While in relief for Jake Locker last week, Ryan Fitzpatrick once again proved why he's not a starting quarterback. Fitzpatrick threw many more interceptions than defenders actually caught.
Those missed opportunities for the Kansas City Chiefs are unlikely to be replicated by the Seattle Seahawks. Richard Sherman in particular is someone Fitzpatrick needs to avoid.
Darren Sproles vs. the New England Patriots Linebackers
Tom Brady and the offense have been struggling lately, but the New England defense has been excellent this year. That trend may not continue this weekend. The New Orleans Saints are a tough matchup for anyone, but for a team with less athletic linebackers, the potential for Darren Sproles to have a huge game is increased.
Carson Palmer vs. the San Francisco 49ers' Pressure
The Arizona Cardinals have enough weapons to expose the San Francisco 49ers secondary, but Carson Palmer needs to play much better than he did last week if they are to win this game. Palmer struggled at times last week when he wasn't under pressure.
Against the 49ers, there should be more pressure.
That may help Palmer, as he has dealt with pressure well over the last two years, but it also raises the potential for turnovers that the Cardinals can't afford.
Dez Bryant vs. the Washington Redskins Defensive Backs
It's unlikely that Dez Bryant isn't double-teamed this weekend. He had 141 yards and two touchdowns on six receptions last week. Bryant and Tony Romo have had a strong connection this season and the Washington Redskins need to stop that in any way possible this weekend.
The San Diego Chargers' Running Game vs. the Indianapolis Colts' Front Seven
Against the Oakland Raiders last week, the San Diego Chargers ran the ball just 19 times for 36 yards. That kind of production is going to kill any offense, but especially one that is facing a defense coming off a strong performance against two of the best teams in the NFL.
The Indianapolis Colts beat the San Francisco 49ers because of their excellent defensive display, while they forced the Seattle Seahawks to earn every point they scored last week.