NFL1000: Week 5 Weekend Preview

NFL1000 ScoutsFeatured ColumnistOctober 6, 2017

NFL1000: Week 5 Weekend Preview

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    Bob Leverone/Associated Press

    After four games, we start to get a good idea of which teams are for real, which teams need help and which teams already need to think about next year's draft. Sunday's matchup between the 0-4 Chargers and the 0-4 Giants is its own derby of desperation; the loser might as well put a bow on the 2017 season and try to figure out the best ways to maximize its overall talent with the playoff picture gone.

    Sunday night's game between the Chiefs and Texans will feature a Kansas City offense that seems unstoppable and Houston rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson, who torched the Tennessee Titans for four passing touchdowns and one rushing score last week.

    The Seahawks will try to deal with the Rams' defense, which hasn't produced great results of late. Seattle also now has to attend to the fact the Rams have an actual offense. The Packers and Cowboys always go at each other in exciting ways, and we'll see the regular-season debut of Bears rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky on Monday night against the Vikings' stellar defense.

    Great matchups abound in Week 5, and our scouts have been working hard previewing all the games based on tape and stat study.

    Lead Scout: Doug Farrar
    Quarterbacks: Mark Schofield
    Running backs/Fullbacks: Mark Bullock
    Receivers/Tight Ends: Marcus Mosher
    Offensive Line: Ethan Young
    Defensive Line: Justis Mosqueda
    Linebackers: Derrik Klassen
    Secondary: Ian Wharton

    Here's what we've been watching in preparation for Week 5 of the 2017 season.      

Philadelphia Eagles' Run Game Poses Tough Matchup for Cardinals

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Through the first two games, the Philadelphia Eagles amassed just 165 total rushing yards, seemingly invalidating the free-agent acquisition of former Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount. Blount gained 46 yards on 14 carries in Philadelphia's opening-day win over the Redskins, and he was muted—not a single carry—in the team's Week 2 loss to the Chiefs.

    And then, Philly's run game got on track, and Blount started running wild. He gained 67 yards on 12 carries in Week 3 against the Giants. Against the Chargers last Sunday, he beat L.A.'s defensive line to pieces with a 16-carry, 136-yard game.

    While the Eagles like to use multiple running backs in multiple ways, Blount has to be the epicenter of the ground attack. Against the Chargers, the blocking schemes and offensive formations helped his case a great deal.

    One of the reasons Philly's run game has picked up is head coach Doug Pederson and offensive coordinator Frank Reich are doing an excellent job of creating defensive confusion by running Blount out of passing-friendly formations in which there are three receivers outside and in the slot, and it's up to the close-formationed receivers and tight ends to help with the blocking.

    Pederson and Reich are committed to a zone-running scheme in which the backs are asked to make quick gap decisions based on the holes that open up as the front five moves as a unit to shift defensive linemen and linebackers out of the way.

    What's made the Eagles' run game especially effective of late is the ways in which they'll use H-backs to cross block and take out front-side and back-side tacklers. Defenders have to commit quickly against zone slide blocking, and Philly's schemes allow the blockers to use the defenders' agression against them.

    Blount's 68-yard run against the Chargers provides an optimal example. The Eagles lined up in a tight bunch-left formation, with tight end Zach Ertz in motion from left to right. At the snap, Ertz cracked back to the defensive right side and took end Joey Bosa out of the play.

    Left tackle Jason Peters and left guard Stefen Wisniewski took out tackle Tim Jernigan with a double-team, and Wisniewski took his assignment to the second level to negate the efforts of linebacker Jatavis Brown. Center Jason Kelce and right guard Brandon Brooks doubled tackle Brandon Mebane, and right tackle Lane Johnson held end Melvin Ingram at bay.

    The Eagles have the right kind of power/speed back in Blount, and the perfectly executed blocking schemes to make their running game go. The Arizona Cardinals, whose front seven has been tested by injuries and free-agent attrition, will have a severe test as they try to stop it this Sunday.

    —NFL1000 Lead Scout Doug Farrar    

Different Formations Will Power Chiefs Offense

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    Scott Halleran/Getty Images

    After their impressive 29-20 win over the Washington Redskins on Monday night, the Kansas City Chiefs stand as the NFL's last undefeated team in the 2017 season.

    They're succeeding with a fine defense directed by Bob Sutton. They're doing it with a career year from quarterback Alex Smith and the efforts of rookie running back Kareem Hunt. Tight end Travis Kelce is always a force. But the new wrinkle is the frequent use of different option concepts to set up defenses for failure and add spice to the playbook.

    Head coach Andy Reid has been interested in adding option ideas to his offense for some time. He hired former Nevada head coach Chris Ault as a consultant from 2013 through 2015—Ault invented the pistol formation and was Colin Kaepernick's college coach. And he's had former Vikings head coach Brad Childress on staff since 2013. Childress is the team's assistant head coach, but he was the Chiefs' spread-game coordinator from 2013 through 2015.

    Now, when the Chiefs line up on offense, they come at an opponent with a dizzying array of formations and concepts. They have power runs featuring Hunt with fake jet sweeps in which speedster Tyreek Hill fakes out one or more defenders. They use the run-pass options so common to the game today, in which the quarterback has a simple "if this/then that" equation to either run or pass, depending on the defense, but they add a sweeping receiver as a third option.

    Smith is the pointman in all this—he must read the defense and decide which option is best—and he has a history of executing this well, based on his time under Urban Meyer at Utah. He can also take the ball in designed carries; he gained 56 yards and scored a touchdown on seven carries against the Redskins. The touchdown came in the third quarter. It was a simple power fake to Hunt in which the running back pretended he had the ball and was going to try to score. Several Redskins defenders followed Hunt, which gave Smith an easy lane for the touchdown.

    An underrated part of this trickery is an offensive line that understands how to not only block well on standard plays, but also to set up defenses with blocking schemes that suggest one type of play, only to fire out into another.

    This is why the Chiefs rank first in offense in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted rankings without a dominant receiver. Reid and his staff are using their personnel in the best possible ways to succeed, and when the Houston Texans face the Chiefs this Sunday, they'll be challenged on every play to watch every possible option. Because the Chiefs are using them all.

    —NFL1000 Lead Scout Doug Farrar    

Can Deshaun Watson Keep Hot Streak Going Against Undefeated Chiefs?

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    Bob Levey/Getty Images

    When analyzing young quarterbacks, it is important to look at the overall growth trend. Is the player developing from week to week? Is he improving, are there signs of regression or are defenses starting to figure him out and take away what he does best?

    As he heads into his fourth NFL game, Deshaun Watson is on an upward track, which can continue Sunday night against the Chiefs.

    When Watson made his first start against the Cincinnati Bengals, it was on a short week with his offense depleted at tight end—a focal point of the Texans' attack when healthy. The playbook, as well as Watson's play, reflected that. He ran a small number of passing concepts and his eye discipline was faulty throughout the game, as he stared down his primary reads and narrowly avoided throwing multiple interceptions.

    But over the past few weeks, head coach Bill O'Brien has put more on Watson's plate schematically, and the rookie has thrived. Against the Titans last week, we saw more timing concepts, full-field progression reads and a quarterback who was willing and able to get through multiple reads on a play and not simply lock on to his first option.

    The results spoke for themselves. Watson threw four touchdowns and ran in another in a 57-14 Texans rout.

    For those focused on his eye discipline, use his 16-yard touchdown pass to Will Fuller as an example. On a two-receiver crossing concept, Watson took the snap and opened to the middle of the field to read the safety. Then, he picked up DeAndre Hopkins crossing from the right to the left and gave every indication he would throw left to Hopkins, before flipping his feet and shoulders to the right at the last moment to hit Fuller.

    If you want further proof that Watson is developing in this area, just watch the defenders on that play, who trail Watson's eyes to converge on Hopkins before peeling back late to try to stop Fuller.

    Now Watson goes up against a defense that has made talented quarterbacks look like mere mortals. When facing Kansas City this year, Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, Carson Wentz and Kirk Cousins have combined to complete 51 percent of their passes for four touchdowns and four interceptions. Against the rest of the league, those four QBs have a combined 68 percent completion rate with 25 TDs and only three interceptions, per Chiefs.com's BJ Kissel.

    Something to watch for is third downs. The Chiefs have been effective at getting off the field and rely on man coverage and/or Cover 1, using that in 77 percent of those situations, per NFL Matchup on ESPN. That means Hopkins and Fuller will face some one-on-one opportunities, and if Watson can continue to use his eyes to move defenders, he and Houston can extend drives and finish them with points.

    —NFL1000 QB Scout, Mark Schofield

Is This the Real Jared Goff?

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Many wanted to write off Jared Goff after his disastrous rookie campaign, but under the tutelage of his young, offensive-minded head coach, Sean McVay, the second-year quarterback is thriving. The Los Angeles Rams are 3-1, Goff has completed 66.7 percent of his passes for 1,072 yards and seven touchdowns with one interception, and for believers in Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt (ANY/A), he leads the league at 9.39.

    It starts with the offensive scheme, where McVay has installed quarterback-friendly designs that both stress the defense and simplify the process for the QB. Similar to what he did with Kirk Cousins in Washington, McVay is using a number of mirrored passing schemes, where the offense uses the same route concept to both sides of the formation. That eases the decision-making for the quarterback, as he can read the coverage and then read one-half of the field.

    McVay is also running some of the concepts that Goff ran at California but is incorporating window dressing. Lots of teams run four verticals, but on the Rams' opening play against Dallas, they utilized that concept out of a 12-personnel, tight-deuce formation. Both wide receivers ran seam routes, while the two wing tight ends released to the flats initially, making it look like a mirrored-go/flat combination. But then the tight ends broke vertically, giving Goff the four-verticals look.

    Also, if you wanted evidence that the NFL is a copycat league, look at Goff's 53-yard touchdown pass to Todd Gurley. If it looks familiar, it's because Andy Reid used that in Week 1 against the Patriots, for a long Alex Smith touchdown pass to Kareem Hunt. Smart coaches steal from other smart coaches.

    McVay's designs have unlocked the quarterback inside Goff and the player some expected him to be coming out of California. The game is now slowing for him, and that is evident in his anticipation. This was an area of strength for him in college, but last year it was just one of his many struggles.

    Whether it on was the deep dig to Robert Woods to start the fourth quarter against Dallas, the long hitch route he threw to Josh Reynolds in Week 3 or even the touchdown pass to Gurley, the ball has been coming out on time and ahead of his target's break. If you rewatch the touchdown pass to Gurley, the running back was covered by two defenders when Goff let the ball fly. He knew his receiver would break open; he didn't wait to see it happen. That, more than anything, is a sign he is seeing the game better.

    One thing to remember is he has posted his numbers against the Colts, 49ers, Redskins and Cowboys, four defenses that are in the bottom half of the league when it comes to passing yards allowed per game. Next up? The Seattle Seahawks, who are near the top of that category as you would expect. If we see the same success—and anticipation—from Goff this weekend, then we can buy in to what he and McVay are selling.

    —NFL1000 QB Scout, Mark Schofield     

What to Expect from the Seahawks' Backfield

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    Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    The Seattle Seahawks were just starting to get consistency from their running back spot as Chris Carson earned more playing time. He was establishing himself as a potential every-down back. But Sunday, Carson suffered a left ankle injury that will keep him out for the rest of the season.

    Now, the onus will fall on Eddie Lacy and Thomas Rawls to pick up the slack. Lacy has had a sluggish start, though he did have his best game of the year last week against the Colts, picking up 52 yards on 11 carries. Rawls, meanwhile, was a healthy scratch last week and has only had five rushes.

    Rawls is more familiar with Seattle's system, having been with the Seahawks since 2015, but he's failed to stay on the field consistently. His production has dropped off significantly since his rookie year as a result. Expect Lacy to get the first shot at the starting job, given Rawls was held inactive last week while the former Packer managed his best performance of the season.

    J.D. McKissic is the wild card in this backfield. He was undrafted in 2016 but spent most of the season on the Falcons practice squad before being waived and claimed by the Seahawks. McKissic flashed versatility and explosiveness in his limited time on the field against the Colts. He had five touches—four carries and one catch—and he managed to score a touchdown on two of them.

    He had a 30-yard touchdown run on an outside-zone play where he read the defensive end crashing, bounced his run outside and then made a sharp cut to elude the unblocked slot corner on his way to the end zone. He also had a touchdown catch on 4th-and-3, where he split out wide and ran past a linebacker down the sideline. The ball from quarterback Russell Wilson was slightly underthrown and too far inside, but McKissic made a great adjustment to come back to get it in between the linebacker and the deep safety.

    McKissic likely won't take many snaps away from Lacy and Rawls, but he could try to carve out a role as a third-down back.

    —NFL1000 RB Scout Mark Bullock       

Zach Ertz Has Developed into One of the League's Best Tight Ends

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    Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

    Can you guess which tight end leads the league in receiving yards in 2017? As you probably can surmise from the picture above, it's none other than Philadelphia Eagles tight end Zach Ertz. After a somewhat slow start to his career, Ertz has exploded, catching 26 passes for 326 yards this year. However, his quick start isn't all that surprising. In his last nine games in 2016, Ertz caught 63 passes for 666 yards and four touchdowns.

    So why the sudden outburst at 26?

    It's simple: He's found a quarterback who fits his style in Carson Wentz. Ertz isn't a top-tier pass-blocker, but he's done fairly well when asked to run-block as an H-back. His quickness and athleticism allow him to dominate in the short to intermediate parts of the field. When paired with a quarterback who can get rid of the ball quickly and accurately, Ertz became one of the best receiving tight ends in the league.

    What makes him different from a traditional tight end is most of his receiving production comes after the catch. Instead of running up the seam, Ertz will get the ball from Wentz quickly so he can make plays in space against less athletic linebackers and safeties.

    Ertz is unique because of his versatility as a receiver. He has the size to win outside at 6'5", 250 pounds, but also the quickness to play in the slot. Through four weeks, Ertz has already caught 11 passes from the slot for 138 yards, per Pro Football Focus.

    His arsenal of routes also make him nearly impossible to stop with an accurate quarterback. Through four games, he has been targeted on nine different routes. His deep route tree prevents defenders from keying in on certain routes on certain downs. Despite his deficiencies as a blocker, his ability to line up in so many different formations makes him a mismatch nightmare.

    According to Pro Football Focus, he has the second-highest receiving grade among tight ends, just slightly behind Kansas City's Travis Kelce. There's no reason to assume that grade will fall, as he should only get more comfortable as he adjusts to Wentz. Don't be surprised if Ertz finishes the season near 100 receptions and over 1,000 receiving yards. He's one of the emerging stars at a revamped position in the NFL.

    —NFL1000 TE Scout Marcus Mosher         

Rams Offensive Line a Huge Factor in Taking Back NFC West

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    Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

    The Rams' new-look offense has been one of the biggest stories of 2017, and their offensive line has made significant improvements that have been a big part of their success. Everything in Los Angeles seems to start with new head coach Sean McVay, who has designed a system that keeps defenses on their heels. That in turn has cleared out traffic for this Rams front. McVay also made the smart move of bringing in proven offensive line coach Aaron Kromer, who has been able to jump-start the development of the Rams' younger linemen, especially right tackle Rob Havenstein.

    Not only has the new scheme made life easier on the LA front, but they also saw a huge talent infusion on the blind side this offseason as the unit added a bookend stud in Andrew Whitworth. Whitworth, 35, has helped change the makeup of this line, and his play so far, in both run and pass protection, has been fantastic. He's an ageless wonder, fueled by masterful technique and a long frame (6'7", 333 lbs) that allows him to create leverage with the best of them.

    Of course, the implementation of McVay's spacing-based system has made life easier on not only the Rams' O-line, but also Jared Goff. The QB has a tendency to throw off his back foot to try to extend plays when pressured, and he made big mistakes last year doing that. Between the schematic changes and the improvement of the Rams' front in terms of personnel, Goff has seen much cleaner pockets this year.

    The additions of McVay, Kromer and Whitworth have all built on each other and raised this line and offense as a whole, but the new house they've built will be put to the test this week against the Seahawks' loaded front seven. If the Rams want to establish a hold over the NFC West, their ability to keep Goff clean against Michael Bennett, Sheldon Richardson, Frank Clark, Bobby Wagner and friends will be a huge factor.

    The absence of defensive end Cliff Avril with a neck injury means that either Bennett or Clark will need to stay outside instead of switching as much between end and tackle, which may lead Pete Carroll to feature Sheldon Richardson at three-tech and five-tech tackle for more reps. And at his best, Richardson is just about uncblockable, especially against the run. No matter how it goes, this is by far the toughest test the Rams' new-look offensive line has faced thus far.

    —NFL1000 OL Scout Ethan Young

Breakout DE Anthony Zettel Can Continue Torrid Pace Against Panthers

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    Leon Halip/Getty Images

    The Carolina Panthers visit the Detroit Lions in the only game between teams with winning records in Week 5. One of the biggest matchups will likely be Panthers left tackle Matt Kalil against Detroit's pass-rushing tandem of Ziggy Ansah and Anthony Zettel, who might be the most improved defensive lineman in football.

    Zettel, a 2014 All-Big Ten player who at one point was best known for tackling a tree, was the fourth-most-played defensive end for the Lions as a rookie, according to Football Outsiders. Their most-played end, Devin Taylor, hit the free-agent market this offseason, while their second-most played end, Kerry Hyder, tore his Achilles. The team's third-most played defensive end, Ansah, missed time in 2016 with a high-ankle sprain and a shoulder injury on his way to a career-low two-sack season.

    The Lions needed a quality pass-rusher for 2017. After Hyder's injury this August, the top returning sack leader from 2016 was Armonty Bryant, who started 2017 with a suspension and only recorded three sacks the year before. Four games into the Lions' season, Zettel already has four sacks and is coming off his first multi-sack game, an incredible improvement from his one-sack rookie season.

    He's now playing 58.4 percent of defensive snaps, per Football Outsiders. He's playing more defensive snaps than all but five Lions, making him the most frequent face on Detroit's defensive line.

    Zettel has made run tackles in the backfield and the red zone. He's generating pressure that has resulted in incompletions, sacks and interceptions when the 3-1 Lions have needed him the most. Zettel will flip from left to right and outside of those tackles to inside of those tackles vs. Carolina, but when he's matched up with Kalil, he has the potential to exploit the bookend for what he is, like Buffalo's Jerry Hughes did in Week 2.

    Last week, New England's patched-up defensive line only generated initial pressure on the Panthers a couple of times, and one of those plays was called back. Kalil, a former No. 4 overall pick, has essentially been a marked man since 2013 when he went from a rookie Pro Bowler to a well-below-average bookend at the young age of 24. The right type of pass-rusher can exploit him, and Zettel appears to be just that.

    According to FiveThirtyEight, from 1995 to 2015, 74 percent of teams that started a season 4-1 made the playoffs. In the same time frame, only 48 percent of teams that started a season 3-2 made the playoffs. The league's best secret, Zettel, facing this offseason's $55 million free-agency mistake, Kalil, could swing who makes the playoffs.

    Don't miss this game inside the game.

    —NFL1000 DL Scout Justis Mosqueda 

Panthers Linebackers Key to Containing Lions' Passing Game

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    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    Speed at linebacker is crucial in today's NFL. Offenses are centered around getting running backs and wide receivers the ball quickly out on the edge. Linebackers have to be able to work to the perimeter in the run game and cover the flat area in coverage. The Carolina Panthers are known for having fast linebackers who can play in space, but this week's game vs. the Detroit Lions will put that speed to the test.

    The Lions run a quick-pass offense. Offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter is set on getting the ball out of Matthew Stafford's hands and into the hands of playmakers. Wide receiver Golden Tate is the workhorse, but Detroit's running back group plays a strong second fiddle. Theo Riddick and Ameer Abdullah have a combined 23 receptions, second only to Tate's 24.

    Carolina's defensive structure plays right into team's throwing to its running backs as checkdown options. Carolina runs a heavy Cover 4 defense that relies on its secondary to clamp deeper routes and trusts its linebackers to roam in space.

    In base packages, the Panthers have Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and Shaq Thompson on the field. Kuechly is one of the best coverage linebackers the sport has ever seen, and Davis is an athletic marvel who can still run with tight ends and running backs. Thompson is a bit clunkier in coverage, but he has the athleticism to flow down and tackle in the flat and underneath areas.

    Tackling will be key. Their defense is designed to force running backs to catch the ball, but the Panthers linebackers have to be able to bring them down before they get free in space. Carolina's linebackers have done an excellent job of that so far this year, and it has helped reassert them as one of the league's best defenses. Detroit's running backs are particularly slippery, though, and this will be the Panthers' toughest battle to date.

    This matchup is strength vs. strength. Something has to give.

    —NFL1000 LB Scout Derrik Klassen          

Rookie Tre'Davious White Is Leading Bills' Shutdown Secondary

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    Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

    It's not often that a team trades away one of its best two corners (Ronald Darby) and loses the other to free agency (Stephon Gilmore) and improves its secondary. But behind Buffalo Bills head coach Sean McDermott's corner-friendly scheme, there are two unheralded corners and a rookie contributing to one of the most improved units in the NFL.

    The star of the group has been rookie corner Tre'Davious White.

    White was so good in September that he earned Defensive Rookie of the Month honors. The 27th overall pick has outplayed every rookie corner sans New Orleans' Marshon Lattimore, which is more of a testament to how well the latter has played. In Buffalo's Cover 2-heavy scheme, White's superb blend of speed, length and instincts have been on display early and often.  

    Not only are the optics encouraging, but the numbers are as well. Per my own charting, White's been excellent in man-coverage responsibilities. He's been targeted 19 times, allowing only nine receptions for 103 yards. He's been called for two penalties, highlighting an area where experience will benefit him, but the raw talent he's shown early on has more than justified his draft status.

    The play of fourth-year corner E.J. Gaines has also given the unit a boost. Though Gaines is more of an off-ball corner, he's a smart player who stays in position to challenge at the catch point and limit yards after the catch effectively. As a player on his rookie deal, Gaines has been another good value for a competitive, tough defense. And Leonard Johnson has allowed an 85.0 opponent passer rating as the Bills' primary slot defender.

    Looking at the safeties, both Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde have outperformed expectations. Poyer struggles more in coverage than he does as a run supporter, but that's been mitigated with timely blitzes and aggressive pre-snap alignments to protect him. Hyde's been a factor here as well, giving solid range over the top and showing the ability to cover tight ends just often enough to keep the unit working well as a whole.

    Against the Bengals this Sunday, expect White to get the A.J. Green matchup, and with tight end Tyler Eifert out with a back injury, that leaves more opportunities for Buffalo's safeties and slot defenders to stick with their zone responsibilities. Andy Dalton is in for a tough game, especially if pass-rushers Jerry Hughes and Lorenzo Alexander are able to being their usual level of pass rush.

    —NFL1000 DB Scout Ian Wharton