Week 10 of the NFL season is similar to Week 1 of the NFL season. Not only is it the first step in the third quarter or second half of the season, but it also features many, many matchups between top wide receivers and cornerbacks.
Week 1 brought us Lardarius Webb versus Wes Welker, Darrelle Revis versus Santonio Holmes, Richard Sherman versus Steve Smith, Charles Tillman versus A.J. Green and even Joe Haden versus Mike Wallace. A few of the Week 10 matchups feature the same players, but they're going against different opponents this time around.
Two AFC North teams coming off of disappointing losses will meet in Maryland, as the Baltimore Ravens entertain the Cincinnati Bengals. This features two players who were also in the spotlight in Week 1, but this time the Ravens' Webb will be looking to lock down the Bengals' Green.
After his big game against the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday night, Andre Johnson will be looking to feast on Patrick Peterson in the same fashion this weekend. Peterson hasn't had a great season, but he is arguably much more talented than Vontae Davis, whom Johnson abused last week.
In what figures to be the most high-scoring game of the weekend between the Dallas Cowboys and New Orleans Saints, the Saints will be desperate to keep Dez Bryant quiet. Bryant has quietly made some very important plays for the Cowboys over the last two weeks. Keenan Lewis will be hoping to stop that run this week.
Lardarius Webb versus A.J. Green
Green has 57 receptions for 862 yards and five touchdowns this season. Over the last two weeks, he has 14 receptions for 243 yards in games against the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins. Those are incredible numbers, but what's more incredible is that Green left big plays on the field in both games as he had drops down the field.
Most of his success last week came against Brent Grimes, while he was primarily covered by Antonio Cromartie the week before. Grimes is playing well this season, but his height is a major issue against Green, and while Cromartie has all the physical traits to fight Green for the ball, he has really struggled this season.
That's not to invalidate Green's recent success. He is clearly an elite NFL receiver and he had his biggest game of the season in Week 1 against Charles Tillman, who is an exceptional talent at the cornerback position. However, this week will be his biggest test yet.
Patches of Webb's short career so far have been taken from him because of multiple torn ACLs, but when healthy he has been a shutdown cornerback. Webb has been healthy this season and while he has had his struggles at times, he has been an outstanding cornerback for the most part.
In his return from injury against the Denver Broncos in Week 1, Webb was dominant in coverage. Critically, the Ravens moved Webb onto Wes Welker during that game after he had put up big numbers early. Webb shut down Welker for the most part, losing him just once, really. That willingness to move Webb around the field is important to note because last week Webb stayed in his preferred left cornerback position.
He was dominant in that game also, giving up just three coverages on 19 man-coverage routes. Webb only gave up three short routes and he completely shut down Josh Gordon, whose only successful route against Webb came in zone coverage, as he found the soft spot between he and the safety.
The Ravens have two choices with Green: They can either exclusively use Webb on him in man coverage or they can double-team him. Outside of cutting off the service at the source by attacking Andy Dalton with exotic blitzes, there are no other options because the Ravens lack talent in the secondary. They likely won't be able to play as much zone as they did last week, but it's not easy for them to play man, either, with the variety of weapons available to Dalton.
When the Ravens and Bengals last faced off with Webb and Green in the lineups, the duo wasn't matched up much. Webb didn't follow Green around the field in Week 1 of the 2012 regular season, but the Ravens defense looked very different back then. This year's unit is much more fragile on the back end and will fear Green much more because of that.
Green is 6'4" and Webb is just 5'10", but the height advantage shouldn't be as obvious this week as it was against Brent Grimes last week. Webb can compensate for his lack of height because of his fluidity as an athlete and his aggressive style of coverage. He's one of the few cornerbacks in the NFL who won't feel intimidated by Green's fluidity, which is probably the most impressive for any receiver in the NFL right now.
Late in the Bengals' last game, there was a perfect example of how Grimes was overmatched physically. He couldn't stick with Green on this out route as the receiver was exceptionally quick in and out of his break. That separation meant that Grimes couldn't even get his arms up to challenge the receiver or make the catch tougher for him.
With a player as good as Green, often just competing is the best anyone can do. Webb will expect to do more, but the Ravens need him to at least compete on every single snap. That is more than most cornerbacks can do against Green.
Andre Johnson versus Patrick Peterson
Against the Indianapolis Colts on prime-time football last week, Andre Johnson reminded everyone that he was still one of the very best wide receivers in the NFL. That performance was a reminder rather than a comeback, because the reality is that Johnson has been one of the best receivers in the league for almost as long as he's been in the league. Scheme and the struggles of his quarterback have masked that, however, much like has happened to Larry Fitzgerald in Arizona.
What Johnson did last week was show off his talent, but he also put on a masterclass of his all-around ability. When he plays like that, it is clear that Andre Johnson is still the closest thing in this league to Calvin Johnson. Calvin and Andre are very similar players, even though Andre doesn't tower over triple-teams deep down the field on a regular basis.
They are similar because both are incredibly athletic but still crisp route runners and often overpowering when defensive backs try to play physical coverage against them. Even cornerbacks such as Richard Sherman, whom Andre exploited somewhat earlier this season, will struggle with players such as Andre and Calvin because they are so well-rounded.
Well-rounded is a key term for Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson. Peterson has almost everything you would want in a man-cover cornerback. His technique is good, his athleticism is outstanding in terms of his ability to run with receivers and twist in tight spaces, he reads situations well, plays good zone coverage and has outstanding ball skills. Peterson's only real weakness is his susceptibility to big, powerful receivers who can run.
Fortunately for the relatively young defensive back, there aren't many receivers in the league who fit that description. Unfortunately for him, Andre does.
Peterson hasn't faced Andre this season, but he did face Calvin back in Week 2. Calvin only beat him six of 17 routes they faced off in man coverage, but just like when they faced off last season, those numbers can't be trusted.
Peterson is always able to run with Calvin and stick with him up until the point of the catch, but like he does to every defensive back in the league, the Detroit Lions receiver can overpower him with his strength at the catch point. This means any numbers that track success covering routes can't be completely trusted.
Andre probably won't dominate Peterson at the catch point like Calvin would, but that ability to overpower Peterson when he tries to play tight coverage will be a decisive aspect of this clash.
Calvin scored one huge touchdown against Peterson on a slant route, but that's not the telling play. On that play, Calvin had a free release and Peterson thought his teammate had intercepted the ball, so he didn't concentrate on Calvin running across his face. It was two other slant routes that exposed the cornerback's weakness.
On 3rd-and-2, Peterson is lined up slightly off Calvin in the slot. Stafford is looking their direction before the snap and immediately recognises the space between them.
With a free release, Calvin is way too quick for Peterson to close the space between the duo. Stafford waits until he sees Calvin turn infield before letting the ball go, so Peterson still has a chance to recover and punch the ball out as it arrives.
Peterson recovers the ground, but Calvin is too big and too strong for him to knock the ball out.
On a similar route later in the game, Calvin used his power to create separation coming out of a break. Again, he created an easy throwing lane for Stafford as Peterson was out of the picture. In fact, Stafford's poor ball placement cost him a chance at yards after the catch.
That soft coverage contributed to Calvin's second touchdown of the game at the goal line.
Andre and Peterson's matchup this weekend has another outside X-factor, however. The reason Andre excelled against the Colts at the weekend was Case Keenum. That's not to say Keenum made Johnson what he was, but rather he trusted him to beat defensive backs and took chances forcing the ball down the field to him.
Because Keenum is playing and not Matt Schaub, Peterson doesn't need to shut down Andre to win this matchup. He could have one or two opportunities to create turnovers, turnovers that could be decisive in this game. When Peterson catches the ball, it doesn't just take away a scoring chance for the opposition, it often puts points on the board for his side either directly or indirectly.
Keenan Lewis versus Dez Bryant
The Saints will probably play a lot of zone coverage against the Cowboys and their pass-centric offense. However, the only real cornerback matchup for Bryant that gives the Saints any chance of containing him is Lewis. Lewis isn't a star cornerback, but he has the physical talents of a legitimate No. 1 corner on a good team.
Bryant has been receiving too much attention for his off-field and non-football actions over the last two weeks. It has overshadowed the fact that he has played some outstanding football. Statistically he has just nine receptions for 136 yards and two touchdowns over the last two games, but some of the plays he has made have been massive for his team.
He caught both of his touchdowns against the Detroit Lions two weeks ago, two scores that were vital to give the Cowboys a chance at winning the game late on. His second touchdown was a 50-yard score when he came free against zone coverage before breaking a tackle down the sideline. Outside of executing what they would normally expect to execute, there is nothing in particular the Saints can do to counter that kind of play.
However, Bryant's other touchdown is an example of where Lewis can be used to potentially contain him.
Last season, Lewis had 23 official pass deflections and he has seven this season already. This doesn't happen randomly. Lewis is very good at using his long arms in tight coverage to locate the football and punch it away from receivers.
In goal-line situations where the Cowboys love to throw to Bryant against single coverage, that kind of ability is very valuable. That is how Bryant scored his other touchdown against the Lions. There's no guarantee that Lewis could stop him in this situation, because he has all the ability to make tough receptions, but he does give the Saints a much better chance than any of their other defensive backs would.
Bryant has outstanding size, athleticism, ball skills and body control. He is a nightmare to stop in these situations and may only be second best in the league to Calvin Johnson. With the Saints and Cowboys both figuring to score a lot of points this weekend, winning in one or two of these pivotal situations could be the difference in who comes out with a victory from this game.
On Thursday night, football isn't so much about game-planning or how teams match up to each other, it's about which team can handle the quick turnaround from last week's games. The likelihood is with these two teams is that whatever team's star player can rise to the occasion will win the game.
Seneca Wallace versus the Philadelphia Eagles Secondary
It's unfair to judge Wallace on what he did in relief of Aaron Rodgers last week. Without adequate preparation time, most quarterbacks fail in that situation. With a week of preparation under his belt, Wallace has a favorable matchup against a relatively weak Eagles defense. Nick Foles won't throw another seven touchdowns, so he won't have to be that impressive either.
Maurice Jones-Drew versus Jerry Gray
Tennessee Titans defensive coordinator Jerry Gray called a terrible game against the St. Louis Rams last week. He allowed Zac Stacy to have a huge game with his overly cautious game plan that feared the Rams deep threat. Gray needs to be more aggressive this week, or Maurice Jones-Drew could have a similar impact.
Stephon Gilmore versus Antonio Brown
Although he was benched at the end of last week's game, Antonio Brown has been a model of consistency during this season. He is the Pittsburgh Steelers' most-reliable weapon on offense. Buffalo Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore has been struggling since his return from injury this year. Gilmore was outstanding as a rookie, so if he can recover that form this weekend, the Bills have a good chance to come away with another victory.
Menelik Watson versus Jason Pierre-Paul
Jason Pierre-Paul has looked lifeless this year as he recovers from offseason back surgery, but with extended time off during the bye week, he may be closer to his previous self this week. If he can regain even a little of his explosiveness, he could make a big impact against expected debutant Menelik Watson.
Janoris Jenkins versus T.Y. Hilton
The Indianapolis Colts may have won last week, but it wasn't an impressive display against the Houston Texans. The Colts passing attack looks a little lost without Reggie Wayne and Dwayne Allen. The pressure is all on youngster T.Y. Hilton to help Andrew Luck carry the offense. Hilton and St. Louis Rams cornerback Janoris Jenkins should see a lot of each other.
Richard Sherman versus Roddy White
Is Roddy White really ready to play? Seemingly so. Is he really ready to be effective? That is unclear. If White can prove to be more than a decoy, then at the very least he will draw Sherman away from feasting on a lesser receiver such as Harry Douglas.
Calvin Johnson versus Charles Tillman
Tillman has struggled this year while Johnson continues to be dominant. For that reason, this isn't a marquee matchup for the whole week, but rather just the biggest matchup from this game. Tillman has had great success in previous years against Johnson, but he's struggled against a variety of receivers this year while also battling injuries.
Steve Smith versus Tarell Brown
The San Francisco 49ers secondary is not overly impressive, and the Carolina Panthers are likely to test it as much as possible this weekend. If Steve Smith can get the better of Tarell Brown, then Cam Newton could have a big day and the Panthers would have more than a chance of winning this game.
Von Miller versus D.J. Fluker
Von Miller returned a few weeks ago, but he's still adjusting after missing the first chunk of the season. He may be about to hit his stride, which could spell serious trouble for San Diego Chargers rookie right tackle D.J. Fluker. Fluker has played well for the Chargers, but Miller at 100 percent is something he will never have faced before.
Joe Philbin versus his Locker Room
There is an awful lot going on in Miami right now that has nothing to do with preparing for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Miami Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin must keep his team focused on playing football if it is to have any chance of even beating Greg Schiano's Buccaneers.