Thanksgiving Week in the NFL signals the end of bye weeks and the beginning of the final stretch toward the playoffs. This means that not only are there more matchups to watch out for this weekend, but those games are even more important due to their proximity to the end of the season.
Maybe surprisingly, the Arizona Cardinals are 7-4 and the Philadelphia Eagles are 6-5 after both sides endured rough stretches earlier this year. The Cardinals and Eagles play the game in contrasting styles. The Cardinals are a defensive team that looks to do just enough to get by on offense, while the Eagles are the inverse of that.
A clash between those contrasting styles this weekend will play a role in determining which side can stay alive in the playoff hunt.
Staying in the NFC West, the best division in football, one of the most fascinating matchups of the weekend features the 7-4 San Francisco 49ers and the 5-6 St. Louis Rams.
Although the Rams have more losses than wins, they have been enjoying a recent hot streak that has put them back in contention for a playoff spot. The 49ers, on the other hand, have been struggling with their consistency this year and could slip out of the playoffs if they're not careful.
Even though the 49ers already blew out the Rams in St. Louis earlier this season, too much has changed for both sides to rely on that result this weekend.
Monday night will feature a clash between two favourites for the Super Bowl in the NFC. The Seattle Seahawks have the best record in the NFL at 10-1, while the New Orleans Saints are not far behind at 9-2. Both sides are desperate for home-field advantage in the playoffs, so this game in Seattle could prove much more significant than any normal regular-season game.
Here are some of Week 13's biggest matchups.
Daryl Washington and Karlos Dansby versus Nick Foles
Washington and Dansby have been outstanding additions to Todd Bowles' defense in Arizona. Washington was with the Cardinals last year but was a late arrival this season because of a suspension, while Dansby was a relatively cheap addition in free agency during the offseason.
Even though Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman are performing at a high level, there may not be a more valuable inside linebacker pairing than Dansby and Washington. Their value isn't exclusively in their ability but also their partnership. Both players are versatile—Washington exceptionally so—which makes it difficult for opposing quarterbacks to feel comfortable accounting for them.
Washington is probably the fastest inside linebacker in the NFL, but he still has the bulk and aggressive approach to take on blockers and tackle bigger ball-carriers. Dansby is 32 years of age, but he still has enough athleticism to drop into coverage or chase down the quarterback on blitzes.
The Eagles have a quarterback who hasn't thrown an interception all season long. Nick Foles has a stat line that belongs in the college game, but he is still a young, developing quarterback. His reads and decisions are made somewhat easier for him because of Chip Kelly's well-designed offense, but the Cardinals will likely put him into more uncomfortable situations than he's seen this season.
Not only do the Cardinals have one of the best all-around defenses in the NFL, they also have an overwhelming front seven. The Cardinals defensive line should allow them to be more creative than other teams have been when trying to defend the Eagles, which will put Dansby and Washington in position to be disruptive.
This matchup will likely be the Eagles' toughest of the season because the Cardinals are comfortable defending the run in their nickel package. This keeps any pre-snap/alignment advantages out of the Eagles' hands. On this play against the Seattle Seahawks, the Cardinals looked to trap Russell Wilson on 2nd-and-10 with Dansby in their nickel package.
Obviously, there is no running back rushing threat because Wilson is alone in the backfield, but he is a mobile quarterback who still poses a threat. With the offense spread out, the defense only has one linebacker over the middle of the field. That linebacker is Dansby, and he threatens to blitz over the center before the snap.
Fortunately for the Seahawks, Wilson is also an exceptionally smart quarterback and immediately sees the threat from Dansby.
Wilson was aware enough to notice Dansby's threat to blitz, but he was also smart enough not to immediately throw the ball based on what he saw before the snap. With the quick train of thought that is needed to succeed against the Cardinals defense, he looks away from the middle of the field when Dansby doesn't come forward at the snap.
Although he hesitates and doesn't throw to the slant coming in from the sideline, Wilson makes a good play by throwing the ball away. The quick pressure forced him to throw the ball away, so it wasn't an obvious positive play, but by avoiding a dangerous situation over the middle of the field, the Seattle quarterback made a good play.
Last week, the Cardinals didn't confuse Andrew Luck to score a vital defensive touchdown off a turnover. Instead, Dansby and Washington perfectly passed off two receivers in zone coverage before Dansby showed impressive athleticism and awareness to take advantage of a bad throw from the quarterback.
Dansby and Washington line up close together between the hash marks. It's 2nd-and-10, and the Colts have come out with three receivers, one tight end and a running back in a shotgun formation. Again, the Cardinals are in their nickel package with just two defensive linemen on the field.
The Cardinals drop into zone coverage. Colts tight end Coby Fleener is running a shallow crossing route that should allow him to come free over the middle of the field against this coverage. Washington initially covers Fleener, but he must let him go because Trent Richardson is breaking into the flat on his side of the field.
Washington and Dansby time their coverage with each other to cover both Richardson and Fleener. While they are putting themselves in position to cover their assignments, very quick pressure is closing in on Luck in the pocket.
That pressure, combined with the score of the game at the time, makes Luck force a tough throw to Fleener that Dansby reads and jumps in front of.
Even though the Cardinals have opportunistic inside linebackers, it's not easy to devise a game plan that will play away from them. That is because Arizona has crafty players throughout every level of the defense.
Eagles head coach Chip Kelly won't alter his offense much for any opponent, but relying on the run and screen passes won't work against the Cardinals. Calais Campbell, Darnell Dockett and John Abraham are playing outstanding football this season. They will do enough against the Eagles running game in a nickel package to contain their variety of ball-carriers.
On the outside, Patrick Peterson, Tyrann Mathieu and Jerraud Powers won't shy away from screen plays. Not only that, Peterson and Mathieu have the propensity to create turnovers when tested often enough. Chances are that one of the pair will jump a screen pass if the Eagles dare them too often.
The Eagles offense hasn't been suffocated since the Kansas City Chiefs beat them early in the season. Other teams have held them to lower point totals, but bad play from the offense contributed to those low scores. Even if the Eagles offense is at its best, the Cardinals could still cause havoc for Philly's young quarterback.
San Francisco 49ers Running Game versus the St. Louis Rams Defensive Front
When the 49ers and Rams met earlier this season in Missouri, San Francisco came away with an easy victory. That game occurred in Week 4, when both sides were at different stages of their respective seasons. The 49ers offense has struggled since then, while the Rams have found new life on the offensive side in recent weeks.
The story of the 49ers' 35-11 victory in Week 4 centered around the Rams' inability to stop the run. Frank Gore ran for 153 yards and a touchdown, while Anthony Dixon and Kendall Hunter also scored touchdowns.
Although they are ninth overall in defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA) against the run, according to FootballOutsiders, the Rams have been inconsistent from week to week and have repeatedly surrendered big plays to the better running backs in the NFL. Outside of Gore, Chris Johnson, DeMarco Murray and Arian Foster have gained at least 140 yards against St. Louis this season.
With Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers passing game struggling, the importance of who wins this battle is amplified. In their last meeting, Kaepernick threw for two touchdowns but only 167 yards, and much of that came when the 49ers picked on Cortland Finnegan, who is now on the injured reserve. Kaepernick had an improved display last week, but he is still proving to be a limited passer when he can't rely on a strong running game.
The Rams' inconsistency in stopping the run is reflective of their front seven as a whole, but when the sides last met, their three touchdowns came when they attacked Chris Long and Alec Ogletree's side of the field.
For Anthony Dixon's one-yard touchdown run, Ogletree is lined up outside the widest tight end, and Long is lined up directly across from the inside tight end. The 49ers motion Daniel Kilgore (No. 67) across the formation so that they have an extra offensive lineman and two tight ends to run behind on that side of the field.
Ogletree actually plays this well, as he gets on the outside shoulder of the outside tight end to seal off the edge. However, the outside tight end wanted him to go outside because the 49ers were running off right tackle. This put the focus on Long, who was pushed backward and infield at the snap.
Long is taken out of the play, and to make matters worse, he blocks off James Laurinaitis' path to the quarterback. Dixon is able to run untouched into the end zone, while two of his blockers don't even look to engage anyone.
On Gore's long touchdown run, the 49ers come out with a similar formation, except they have a wide receiver wide left instead of Kilgore behind the line of scrimmage. This moves one of the tight ends behind the line of scrimmage.
Again, Long comes completely out of the play because he takes himself too far downfield at the snap. Against a tight end, he makes it too easy for his blocker to just hold his position and wall off his rush downfield to create a running lane for Gore, who is attacking right tackle again.
Ogletree initially does well to sidestep a teammate who is being pushed backward into his lap.
However, once he gets around the initial blocker, he drifts wide and shows no awareness of the pulling lineman. When that lineman arrives in the hole, Ogletree submits by going to the ground instead of looking to fight through him or spin back inside to make it more difficult for Gore to get through the hole.
Even if Ogletree had not initially drifted, he would have at least forced Gore to go wider, where a defensive back was waiting in the hole. Instead, Ogletree took himself and a teammate out of the play.
For Hunter's touchdown, the 49ers spread their formation out a bit but still have two tight ends to the right side. Long is lined up at left defensive end across from running back Dixon, who is in the position of a tight end, while Ogletree is lined up directly across from the outside tight end.
The outside tight end chips Ogletree before blocking the linebacker inside of him. Even though the tight end only chips him for a moment, Ogletree does an elaborate spin backward that takes his eyes away from the play and pushes him wider than he needs to be. Meanwhile, a blown assignment from the 49ers leaves Long unblocked with a route to the running back behind the line of scrimmage.
After Ogletree turns around, he is unable to get off the block of Dixon, a running back. This pushes him out of the play to create a cutback lane for Hunter. Long doesn't take advantage of the 49ers' initial mistake to leave him unblocked, because he takes a terrible angle to reach Hunter.
Ultimately, Hunter cuts back to get onto the second level with ease before another cut infield sends him to the end zone unscathed.
The 49ers will likely attack the Rams in a similar way this time around and force them to prove that they can stop them before altering what they do offensively. Even with a rejuvenated offense and the potential for turnovers, the Rams can't expect to go into San Francisco and win if they don't stop the run.
Charles Brown versus Chris Clemons
New Orleans Saints starting left tackle Charles Brown hasn't had an impressive first season protecting Drew Brees' blindside. Brown was drafted in the second round of the 2010 draft as a raw athlete who needed to be developed into a pass protector. With Jermon Bushrod as the starting left tackle, the Saints were able to be patient with Brown up until this season.
Not until he was 26 years of age in his fourth season did Brown enter the season as a starter for the first time. He didn't elevate himself to take the starting spot of Bushrod. Instead, the Saints were somewhat stuck with him when their former starting left tackle left in free agency for Chicago.
Even though he had spent three seasons developing in the background with accomplished offensive line coach Aaron Kromer, Brown hasn't proved himself a quality starter so far.
Brown's failings have been masked by the Saints' well-designed offense, their outstanding quarterback and the home-field advantage that gives them an edge every other game. Although two of those advantages will go with him to Seattle on Monday night, this week's game against the Seattle Seahawks will be his biggest test of his career so far.
Not only will he be facing one of the toughest defensive fronts in the NFL, he will also be playing in the toughest road game a team can face. He will go up against a platoon of defensive ends such as Michael Bennett, Red Bryant and Chris Clemons. Clemons is the most problematic because he has the speed to take advantage of any hesitation in the inexperienced offensive lineman's game.
Clemons is one of the best edge-rushing defensive ends in the NFL, but his impact has been limited this season after he returned late from a torn ACL suffered in the 2012 playoffs.
Although he has just four sacks and hasn't taken the quarterback down since Week 7, Clemons has consistently been putting pressure on the quarterback. Last week, he tipped a pass to create an interception.
Having the speed to explode around the corner against a potentially hesitant offensive tackle in a tough environment could dramatically affect the Saints offense. While New Orleans will always look to run a versatile and expansive offense, any deep drops for Brees will ask a lot of Brown if he is not given help from a running back or a tight end.
If the Saints avoid deep drops or commit extra help to Brown consistently, they would be affecting what they can do on offense from snap to snap. That may be a more compelling option to take if the other option allows Clemons to make game-changing plays off the edge by creating turnovers or getting multiple sacks.
Although this game is littered with superstar players such as Jimmy Graham, Brees, Darren Sproles, Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and Bobby Wagner, Clemons could steal the spotlight if Brown isn't at his best.