The second half of the NFL season is here, so it's time to look at individual matchups for Week 9. Although this weekend isn't full of clashes between top teams, plenty of teams are still desperate for wins as they try to force their way into the playoffs.
Despite losing their franchise quarterback to a torn ACL, the St. Louis Rams will feel optimistic about their potential in the NFC West after a strong showing from Kellen Clemens against the Seattle Seahawks. The Rams sit at 3-5, so they will need to go on a winning streak if they are to make the postseason. The Tennessee Titans are the first obstacle to overcome.
Another team that has lost its starting quarterback is the Chicago Bears, but even with their 4-3 record, they won't feel comfortable facing the Green Bay Packers this week. The Packers are just 5-2 after early-season struggles, so each side will be yearning to win on Monday night.
On Thursday night, Andy Dalton and the Cincinnati Bengals will be looking to carry over their success against the AFC East from last week. The Bengals face the Miami Dolphins after beating the New York Jets by 40 points on Sunday. Both teams are still within touching distance of a wild-card spot at the very least.
Here are the biggest matchups of the week.
Robert Quinn/Chris Long Versus Michael Roos/David Stewart
The Rams were unlucky to lose to the Seahawks on Monday night. Jeff Fisher's team put in a valiant effort with backup quarterback Clemens in a game they were supposed to lose comfortably.
A big reason for the Rams' success was the play of their defensive end duo, Robert Quinn and Chris Long.
Quinn and Long have combined for 15.5 sacks so far this season. Each had three sacks against the Seahawks last week, but Quinn has been the more impressive player throughout the season with 10 total sacks. It must be noted that Seattle played without its starting offensive tackles last week.
Michael Roos and David Stewart of the Tennessee Titans will be primarily responsible for handling Quinn and Long this week. Stewart, at right tackle, and Roos, at left tackle, have had impressive seasons in pass protection. Both players have more talent than the stiffs whom the Rams beat up on last week.
Roos and Stewart may not be able to contain Quinn and Long on their own, but if Jake Locker continues to improve his mobility as he recovers from his hip injury, they could turn the Rams' aggressiveness against them.
Both Quinn and Long are aggressive and love to attack the outside shoulders of their blockers. This can create running lanes for a mobile quarterback. The Seahawks exposed Long repeatedly last week, running bootleg play action to his side of the field on multiple occasions. Russell Wilson was able to evade him as Long was too aggressive in space at times too.
Locker isn't Wilson, but he is athletic and can be elusive if given space. Before his hip injury, he was playing impressive football as a pocket passer, but he still took advantage of running lanes when they were available. In his return from injury two weeks ago against the San Francisco 49ers, he grew more elusive over time, presumably because his hip began to loosen as the game went on.
With Locker and Chris Johnson in the backfield, Roos and Stewart should immediately have an advantage over Quinn and Long. The offensive tackles should be able to use their aggressive natures to turn their momentum against them and create space for big plays for their skill position players. Even though Johnson is struggling running the ball this year, he has shown explosion and long speed in space at different times during the season.
That, combined with Locker's elusiveness and ability to pick apart a defense from the pocket, should make this a rough outing for the Rams defense as a whole.
Aaron Rodgers Versus the Chicago Bears Pass Defense
Aaron Rodgers was sublime last week against the Minnesota Vikings. He isn't getting a lot of recognition for his play this season, but he is the closest thing to an MVP favourite outside of Peyton Manning. Not only is he playing behind a suspect offensive line, he carried the offense last week with only Jordy Nelson of his regular receivers being available.
Nelson finished the game with seven receptions for 123 yards and two touchdowns.
In previous seasons, the idea of facing the Bears with just one viable receiving option would have been considered a major problem. This season, it's not as big of an issue for two reasons.
First, Rodgers is playing phenomenal football that is somewhat reminiscent of that historically good playoff run he had during Green Bay's Super Bowl season. Second, Charles Tillman isn't playing to his best and has struggled with injuries.
He still has three interceptions and two forced fumbles, as you'd expect from the turnover machine, but he hasn't fought off receivers like he has in the past. A.J. Green lit him up in Week 1, finishing with nine receptions for 162 yards and two touchdowns. Tillman did have two interceptions during that game, but the negative plays outweighed the positives.
Rodgers has thrown just four interceptions on 249 attempts this season and showed off outlandish accuracy against the Vikings.
Even with his depleted receiving corps, the likelihood of Rodgers throwing enough interceptions to counter the production of his own offense is unlikely. Tim Jennings and Tillman are always viable to pick off a pass or two, but Rodgers knows this defense inside out by now. It would be an uncharacteristic performance if he suddenly lost his nerve.
The Bears need to stop the Packers offense in any way they can. Ideally, they could take advantage of the Packers' weak points on the edges of their offensive line. David Bakhtiari and Don Barclay have played relatively well this season, but Rodgers has hidden many of their flaws with his quick release, ability to throw from tough body positions, running ability and pre-snap recognition.
Unless Julius Peppers miraculously returns to the player he was during his prime or Shea McClellin suddenly starts to realise his potential, the Bears are unlikely to get pressure on Rodgers. Even if Chicago does muster some version of a pass rush that has been absent all season long, the Packers could always revert to their vastly improved rushing attack this season.
There isn't a legitimate reason on paper as to how the Bears can stop the Packers offense this week. However, sometimes when you face an old, beaten dog, that dog can summon more passion and fight than it has shown in a long time.
The Bears know that they have enough athletes with the ability to perform to their peak on occasion. This just needs to be one of those occasions.
Clint Boling Versus Jared Odrick
In Week 8, the Bengals beat the Jets by an incredible score of 49-9. All of the talk after the game focused on quarterback Dalton and wide receiver Marvin Jones. Jones caught four touchdown passes, while Dalton threw five in just three quarters of play.
That was obviously an incredible feat, but it was all the better because it came against one of the best-coached defenses in the NFL.
The Jets are lacking talent through their defense but not upfront on the defensive line. The Bengals offensive line, combined with some quick passing from Dalton, was able to limit New York to just one sack last week. That lone sack came in the flat after Dalton couldn't find anyone after bootleg play action.
Without pressure on the quarterback from their defensive line, the Jets linebackers and secondary couldn't cope with the Bengals' arsenal of weapons. Even though Jones had a big game last week, any one of Tyler Eifert, Jermaine Gresham, Mohamed Sanu, A.J. Green, Giovani Bernard or even Dane Sanzenbacher can make big plays in different situations.
The Dolphins will be in a similar situation this week during Thursday night football.
With more athleticism in their linebacking corps and a more well-rounded secondary, the Dolphins shouldn't need as much pressure upfront as the Jets did. Miami doesn't have a blitz-heavy defense. The team has 20 sacks this season, and 16 of them have come from defensive linemen.
Critically, Cameron Wake hasn't been healthy this year, so he has only contributed 2.5 sacks in six games. His explosion off the edge has made him one of the best pass-rushers in the NFL in recent seasons. In the past, an ineffective Wake would have crippled the Dolphins defense, but that is not the case this year.
Instead of focusing on Wake, the key battle in the trenches should be between Bengals left guard Clint Boling and Dolphins defensive tackle Jared Odrick.
Boling is far from a weak link for the Bengals. He is an impressive and still relatively young player. However, in comparison to Andre Smith, Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler, Boling is the weakest link. Because the Dolphins run a 4-3, it's more difficult for them to attack the center, Kyle Cook.
Last week against Logan Mankins, Odrick had two big sacks.
On this play, the Dolphins threatened to blitz over the right A-gap with a linebacker. This allowed the Dolphins to widen their defensive line alignment so that Odrick, at right defensive end, was lined up between the left guard and left tackle.
Mankins got a quick punch on Odrick at the snap, but when he tried to hit the defensive lineman a second time, Odrick slapped the arm away before using a swim move to push him out of his path. Odrick closed in on Brady for a sack, while Mankins was completely out of the play.
Odrick used the same swim move on Mankins for his second sack, but this time he escaped past his outside shoulder and showed the strength to hold him off when he was in a better position to recover.
If Boling can handle Odrick, then Dalton should be able to throw from a clean pocket. Of course, that hinges on the idea that Wake will continue to be less than 100 percent. He is a nightmare matchup for right tackle Smith because of his ability to bend and explode around the corner. Smith is playing outstanding football, but he is much too tall and wide to deal with a speed-rusher like Wake.
The Atlanta Falcons Interior Offensive Line Versus the Carolina Panthers Defensive Tackles
The Falcons have issues all through their offensive line, but with Matt Ryan at quarterback, they can alleviate some of that edge pressure. Ryan is good at handling pressure, but asking him to consistently throw the ball off his back foot is unfair. Last week, Atlanta couldn't contain the Arizona Cardinals defensive tackles during a loss. If that happens this week, it will likely suffer the same fate as a team.
Dez Bryant Versus the Minnesota Vikings Cornerbacks
Regardless of what happened off the field last week and whether it was a positive or a negative, Bryant needs to continue performing to his potential on the field. His talent is immense, and he has been unstoppable at times this season. Bryant has a favorable matchup against the Vikings cornerbacks, who have failed to fill the void left by Antoine Winfield in the offseason.
Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson Versus Drew Brees
Drew Brees is an elite quarterback, but the Saints have built their offense around him by neutralizing interior pressure when he is in the pocket. The Jets thrive at penetrating the pocket between the tackles but were held out by the Bengals last week. The New York defense should be angry, and if it plays like that, Brees could be in for a rougher day than he might expect.
Thaddeus Lewis Versus Bob Sutton's Pressure Packages
Bob Sutton is the Kansas City Chiefs defensive coordinator. While Tamba Hali and Justin Houston are playing outstanding football this season, Sutton's ability to disguise pressure and create hesitation in the offense is playing a big role in their success. Presuming Lewis is able to play, it will be interesting to see how he handles Sutton's defense. The Chiefs did well against Terrelle Pryor a few weeks back, but Pryor contributed a huge amount to that success with his poor play. Lewis can't have a similar outing.
Robert Griffin III Versus John Pagano
Washington scored just 21 points against the Denver Broncos last week, while RGIII continued to be inconsistent in his return from injury. This is the point of the season when the young quarterback should be close to his best, so this game should be all about him. San Diego Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano is smart and should be able to adjust during the game depending on what Griffin shows early on.
Matt Barkley Versus Matt Barkley
Barkley hasn't played that badly considering the circumstances to this point, but he must stop making critical mistakes. If he can do that, the Philadelphia Eagles should have an opportunity to win against the Oakland Raiders.
Mike Glennon Versus Richard Sherman
Quarterbacks keep making the mistake of throwing at Richard Sherman. He has four interceptions this season, exactly half of his total from last season, but he should have a few more since he dropped a few catchable passes this year. Glennon can't put the ball up there between the star cornerback and Vincent Jackson, because Jackson won't overpower Sherman like he does other cornerbacks.
Terrell Suggs Versus Joe Thomas
Terrell Suggs has been outstanding in his return from the injury that affected him all of last year. On the other hand, Joe Thomas has been his usual pillar of excellence on the Cleveland Browns line. This is an understated but outstanding matchup between two elite players this weekend.
Tom Brady Versus Dick LeBeau
Tom Brady terrorizes a lot of teams, but he seems to save his best for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Dick LeBeau. LeBeau has gotten the better of him at times in the past, but the Steelers defense is faltering, while the Patriots arrow is pointed upward with Rob Gronkowski still catching up after his return from injury.
Pep Hamilton Versus J.J. Watt
The Indianapolis Colts have no chance of blocking J.J. Watt this weekend, as very few ever do. Instead, offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton will be looking to slow him down with his play-calling and commitment to running the ball. This is one of the few games where unleashing Andrew Luck and asking him to throw more than 40 times would be foolish. Hamilton just needs to be smart in how he calls runs and passes early in the game.