With Week 11 NFL matchups here, the playoffs are in sight. Division battles are heating up and the contenders are battling for tiebreakers that could ultimately prove crucial.
In a division that has typically been tight and one of the best in the league over recent seasons, the AFC North, nobody has really distinguished themselves yet. The Cincinnati Bengals have a two-game lead over the Cleveland Browns, so the meeting between the two sides this weekend could go a long way to deciding who ultimately claims the division crown.
In the NFC, the San Francisco 49ers face the unenviable task of traveling to Louisiana to try to overcome the New Orleans Saints. The Saints easily beat the Dallas Cowboys last week, but the 49ers should prove to be a more resilient opponent.
While there are many tantalizing games to watch this week, none is as big as the AFC West matchup between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Denver Broncos. Peyton Manning may not be fully healthy, but the Chiefs are looking for their first statement win of the season so they won't care either way.
Andy Dalton versus Ray Horton
In just two weeks, Andy Dalton's season has turned on its head. Dalton threw for five touchdown passes against the New York Jets two weeks ago, but he has had two disastrous outings against the Miami Dolphins and Baltimore Ravens since.
With nobody distinguishing themselves in the AFC North to this point in the season, Dalton still has plenty of time to help his Bengals salvage their season. His first chance comes this weekend against the Browns who are two games behind the Bengals in the division.
Against the Jets, Dalton was able to have a lot of success because he got rid of the ball quickly and his offensive line played very well against the Jets' defensive line. A similar approach will be needed against the Browns, but Dalton will be forced to adjust to more blitzes than simple four-man rushes. Two weeks ago, the Baltimore Ravens Joe Flacco and Marshal Yanda in particular were unable to handle Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton's blitzes.
On this play, the Browns move T.J. Ward down from a deep safety position into the box before the snap. Flacco and the offense have plenty of time to see Ward move down and adjust accordingly. The Browns are anchoring their coverage off of Joe Haden, who is left on an island with speedster Torrey Smith.
Ward doesn't blitz, instead he drops back into coverage. Flacco immediately looks at Ward at the snap, so he understands that the blitz isn't coming.
If Ward blitzes, Flacco would have the perfect play to take advantage. The receiver circled in blue would be coming free across the field, but because Ward drops, the safety is now in the passing lane. Ward actually begins to move forward towards the underneath crossing route, so Flacco could make a difficult throw to that receiver still, but instead he holds the ball and looks to scramble as the pressure closes in.
It is likely a good decision by Flacco because Ward moves towards the underneath route for only a moment before dropping backwards. It would take a perfect throw by Flacco to make the connection with his receiver.
Ward's motion before the snap seems small initially, but it has a huge ripple effect on the play. Not only is Flacco now more uncomfortable reading the coverage, but center Gino Gradkowski is left with nobody to block as he had anticipated Ward attacking the middle of the line.
Diagnosing these plays would be much easier for opposing quarterbacks if Horton wasn't such an aggressive coordinator. As a disciple of the Dick LeBeau coaching tree in Pittsburgh, Horton has always been taught to be aggressive with his blitz packages and how he uses them. When he was the defensive coordinator of the Arizona Cardinals, he led one of the most aggressive units in the NFL.
In Cleveland, very little has changed.
On this play, left cornerback Chris Owens hints that he is going to blitz the quarterback with his alignment before the snap. He lines up a step inside the wide receiver on the outside. Whether as a reaction to that alignment or simply because of their own play design, the Ravens motion that receiver tighter to the formation. This brings Owens into a better position from which to blitz Flacco.
After Owens' initial, pre-snap hint, he again gives away his intentions by moving inside too early, tipping off Flacco to the blitz. He regains control of himself, but he told enough with his body language to alert the Ravens that he was coming.
Apparently, the Ravens didn't listen to what he was saying.
Owens and Barkevious Mingo crash the B-gap between the right tackle and right guard. Ray Rice does an outstanding job against Mingo, but right guard Marshal Yanda moved inside to double on the nose tackle leaving nobody to pick up Owens.
Flacco had no chance on this play, as Owens immediately hit him in the pocket.
In Arizona, Horton used just two defensive linemen very often. With Calais Campbell and Darnell Dockett, he was able to command double-teams so as to not expose his linebackers against the run. In Cleveland, Horton doesn't have the same talent in the trenches, but he's not giving up much. Here, Armonty Bryant and Desmond Bryant are the two down linemen.
The Browns linebackers are in a typical 3-4 alignment, but with the extra defensive back on the field, they have six players standing in a position to attack the offensive line. The Ravens' offensive line has no idea who is coming and who isn't, even though the defenders aren't moving around the field.
With a play that rings of LeBeau's influence, Horton has five players rush the quarterback. All five defenders come from between the tackles as the two inside linebackers and the deeper defensive back run forward at the snap. The two pass-rushing outside linebackers, Paul Kruger and Jabaal Sheard, drop into coverage with the nickel cornerback.
Ward, the deeper defensive back, will eventually get the sack, even though the tight end, who is beginning to get out into his pattern, looks to get in the safety's way. Ward is able to get to Flacco because D'Qwell Jackson takes advantage of the confusion that the Browns created at the snap. Again, right guard Yanda is at fault as he goes with Armonty Bryant, who is rushing outside of the right tackle. Craig Robertson, the other inside linebacker, occupies the center, which gives Jackson a free run at Ray Rice.
Rice is able to redirect him, but not before Jackson disrupts Flacco's positioning and forces him to step up and sideways into the pocket. Flacco keeps his eyes downfield and is looking to throw the ball, but he never gets the opportunity to let it go because Ward has slipped through the gap vacated by Rice and Yanda as they focus on Jackson.
The Bengals have a much better offensive line than the Ravens, but the center position isn't the best and Dalton will still have to get the ball out quickly. If he can do that, the Bengals have plenty of weapons to overmatch the Browns and get the offense back on track.
The key for the Bengals' passing game will definitely be at the source.
The New Orleans Saints' Front Seven versus the San Francisco 49ers' Rushing Attack
For the second straight week, the Saints face a high-profile team at home in Week 11 with the arrival of Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers. Much like the Cowboys, whom the Saints comfortably beat last week, the 49ers haven't been at their best this season. They may be 6-3, but the flaws on both sides of the ball are clear to see.
Unlike the last time they played in the Superdome—during their Super Bowl loss to the Baltimore Ravens—the 49ers offense is lacking balance. Kaepernick isn't playing well, and he doesn't have star receiver Michael Crabtree to rely on. Meanwhile, Mario Manningham has only just returned to the lineup, and Vernon Davis has been hit with minor injuries more than once this year.
With all of those issues, the 49ers have turned to their reliable running back Frank Gore. San Francisco's power running game could prove to be a major problem for the Saints.
Against the Cowboys last week, the Saints allowed DeMarco Murray to rush for 89 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries. Those numbers aren't overwhelming, but the Cowboys aren't a good rushing team and couldn't stick with the run because the Saints offense created a big lead.
The 49ers are a good rushing team with a good defense, so they should be able to sustain more drives and keep the Saints offense on the sidelines.
New Orleans can't allow Gore, Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James to take over this game. They were too relaxed last week against the Cowboys, so they will have to play with much more intensity this week.
On Murray's 35-yard run, his longest of the game, the Saints hesitation on defense is evident. The Cowboys fake an end-around with Terrance Williams, which draws the New Orleans cornerback covering him across the field. However the fake also holds the left defensive end on that side of the field and freezes rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro, who is lined up on the right side of the defense.
While the end-around fake drags two defenders out of the picture, Jason Witten is the key blocker. Witten initially blocks the strong-side linebacker, but when Vaccaro attacks the line of scrimmage, he disengages and blocks Vaccaro.
Vaccaro is too aggressive attacking the edge. He had no choice but to hesitate initially because of the play-fake, but after that he needed to stay disciplined, play within the structure of the defense and look to force Murray wide.
Instead he ran down too far and created a hole for Murray to run through.
Even considering Vaccaro's mistake, the strong-side linebacker should have been there to tackle Murray. When Witten turns his attention away from the linebacker and looks to Vaccaro, the linebacker drifts backwards instead of coming forward. That allows the left tackle to get to him downfield, a block which in turn prevents the pursuing middle linebacker from getting to Murray.
Vaccaro needed to show more discipline and the strong-side linebacker needed to be more aggressive. Because they weren't, Murray escaped into the flat for an easy, huge gain.
Even though most think of the 49ers as a team that lines up and looks to run over defenses, they do have huge variety in their running game. Like the Cowboys, they will look to attack the edges and use misdirection to throw off the linebackers.
If the Saints can't handle the variety of looks and formations that San Francisco's ground game will throw at them, their home-field advantage may be irrelevant.
Von Miller versus Eric Fisher
The Chiefs and Broncos matchup this week may be the biggest game of the 2013 NFL season.
With the Chiefs still unbeaten and the Broncos just one game back within the AFC West, there is a lot at stake—especially since the two teams face off twice in a three-week stretch. This weekend's game could prove to be more important than the matchup at Arrowhead Stadium because victory for either side could be a massive boost for the remainder of that team's season.
As is natural with any game that features an elite quarterback and arguably the best defense in the NFL, most of the buildup to this game is focused on Manning and how he handles Bob Sutton's group of talented defenders. However, if the Chiefs are to win this game they will need to produce on the offensive side of the ball as well.
That may prove to be more difficult than containing Manning.
The Chiefs offense is limited. Alex Smith doesn't turn the ball over, but he doesn't make every throw and isn't an aggressive passer either. Jamaal Charles is the focal point of the offense, with Andy Reid's creativity and turnovers from the defense keeping them on track to this point. While many have debated how far this offense can go because of the quarterback, few are talking about the potentially fatal weakness on the offensive line.
Eric Fisher was the first overall pick of the 2013 NFL draft, but he hasn't looked like it to this point. Fisher has consistently been beaten by lesser defensive players than Von Miller and Shaun Philips. Because he plays right tackle, Fisher is likely to face Miller more often than Philips this weekend.
Miller was suspended for the first six games of this season, so he has only been on the field for three games. He doesn't look to be back to the player he was last season, but he still has two sacks since returning.
Last season, Miller was arguably the most talented pass rusher in the NFL. He had 18.5 official sacks on the season, but of the top pass-rushers, he was the only one to have a sack rate higher than four percent. That means he had more sacks per pass rush than J.J. Watt, Aldon Smith, Cameron Wake, Chris Clemons and Geno Atkins.
All but two of Miller's sacks last season came when he was lined up on the left side of the defensive line—over the offense's right tackle—in a two-point stance.
It wasn't just the eye-opening sack and pressure totals that made the former Texas A&M star's second year so impressive. Miller's sacks turned out to be impact plays as well. Thirteen of them came on third down, while he forced six fumbles and got to the quarterback after 3.29 seconds on average. Miller is a very disruptive player who can take over a game in many ways if he's not contained. His physical talent makes him unique as an edge-rusher but allows him to be comfortable when dropping into coverage.
Miller's speed is going to cause major problems. Eight of his sacks last season came when he used a speed rush, a speed rush to set up a bull rush or hesitation before using his speed rush. As the above image shows, his burst off the snap often puts offensive tackles at an immediate disadvantage.
As many fast edge-rushers as there are in the NFL, but none boast his combination of speed and power. Despite only being in his third season, Miller also is a refined pass-rusher, who can use his hands, body control and an assortment of moves to knock opponents off balance.
Against Washington, Miller had a rare sack from the right side of the defense. With Shaun Philips replacing Elvis Dumervil as his partner in crime this year, Miller can move around a bit more. Dumervil always preferred to be on the right-side of the defense, whereas Philips appears to be comfortable rushing from anywhere.
This has actually been a positive development for Miller in his return to the field, because it pits him against one of the better left tackles in the NFL, Trent Williams. The Washington left tackle is an outstanding physical talent, so Miller doesn't actually get a step or a good push on him off the line of scrimmage. Instead, Williams is in perfect position to counter his speed rush or his bull-rush at this point in the play.
Miller reportedly put on weight during his suspension. That weight may have taken away from his burst slightly, but it could make him even more dangerous with his hands.
He uses his hands very well on this play, as he engages Williams in such a way that his arms are above the tackle's and his hands grasping Williams' chest. Miller is in a perfect position to attack Williams in a variety of ways. He has enough balance to push outside before coming back past the tackle's inside shoulder. He has position to begin to bull rush Williams if he wants to, and he is close enough to Williams to swim past him if he so chooses.
Ultimately, Miller rips Williams to the ground and gives himself a clean path to Robert Griffin III in the pocket.
This kind of display by Miller is what makes the upcoming situation for the rookie Fisher so tough. Miller is a nightmare to deal with for even elite offensive tackles because, like Williams did above, they can play the situation perfectly to a point, but Miller is so versatile that he can still wreak havoc. This will be a tough matchup for Fisher to manage, but he will only get to that point if he can handle Miller's speed-rush or bull-rush attempts.
If Miller can beat him with those simpler aspects of his game, he will have no need to dig deeper into his back of pass-rushing tricks.
That doesn't bode well for Fisher, because he gave up a very easy sack to Paul Kruger three weeks ago against the Cleveland Browns. In the one game they've played since (against Buffalo), he performed adequately enough, but he received a huge amount of help from teammates and the coaching staff.
With Alex Smith and Andy Reid running the offense, it's no surprise that the Chiefs are looking to get rid of the ball very quickly. They have attempted to do that throughout the whole season. That has aided Fisher, but against the Buffalo Bills two weeks ago, the Chiefs designed the protection schemes of their quick-passing offense to avoid putting Fisher in space against Mario Williams.
This made Fisher's life easier, but it undoubtedly limited what the offense could do elsewhere at times.
On this play, Fisher is lined up at right tackle as usual. The Chiefs initially lined up two tight ends outside of him, before motioning one across the formation. Still, he has one tight end outside of him, as well as fullback Anthony Sherman and running back Jamaal Charles to help him.
Fisher doesn't actually receive any help from the tight end. Instead, he shifts inside to block the defensive tackle at the snap, as the Chiefs run play-action directly behind him. Fisher is left in a one-on-one situation initially, but that play-action to his side of the field will prove crucial as the play develops.
The defensive tackle very quickly sheds Fisher before attacking the pocket. While Sherman runs a route into the flat, Charles waits for the defender and immediately cuts him down with an excellent block. Fisher meanwhile is on the ground after losing his balance in the battle with the defensive tackle.
Smith threw the ball down the field, but he missed his target badly.
A few plays later, the Chiefs use Fisher to trap Mario Williams and twice double-team the Bills end during the process. Fisher again has a tight end outside of him, and Charles is split to his side in the backfield.
Fisher double teams the defensive tackle with his right guard, but he never fully engages. Instead he just punches the defensive tackle to aid the guard who is maintaining most of the responsibility in the block. This allows Fisher to remain free as the play develops.
Fisher immediately turns and runs towards Williams. Williams brushes the tight end aside with ease and is about to attack the quarterback, but Fisher comes from his blind side and knocks him off course. Williams is knocked upright by Fisher, so it's easy for the double-team to resume and keep him away from Alex Smith.
It's possible that the Chiefs could have a successful offense in spite of overcommitting to Miller in pass protection, but it unlikely will be enough considering that Manning is running the other offense on the field.
This is the Chiefs' biggest test of the season. They can't simply rely on their defense to win them the game like they did in Buffalo.