Sunday brings the second matchup in three weeks featuring the league’s best scoring offense and best scoring defense, this time when the New Orleans Saints (36 points per game) visit the Baltimore Ravens (12.8 allowed per game).
This one should look entirely different than the Jaguars-Chiefs clash of Week 5, mostly because the Ravens’ defense is built on disguises and blitzes, unlike the straightforward Jacksonville defense. The multiplicity will put a heavy burden on New Orleans up front.
1. Saints’ protection must be sharp physically and mentally
Anchored by tackles Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk, the Saints’ line is excellent in protection. Always uber athletic, Armstead has blossomed into a technician and has been nearly flawless on Drew Brees’ blind side this year. Baltimore’s Terrell Suggs remains a terror despite turning 36 last week, but he won’t have it easy Sunday.
Ramczyk has continued the steady play he showed as a rookie, and he’ll draw a variety of challenges in Baltimore: Solid third-year man Matt Judon, speedy pass-rush specialist Tim Williams and the 274-pound Za’Darius Smith, who plays both inside and outside and has already matched his career high with 5.5 sacks (three last week)
New Orleans is stout inside, too, where former tackle Andrus Peat has become a rock at left guard, and center Max Unger ($8 million cap hit) and right guard Larry Warford ($9 million) are well worth their hefty contracts. That group will be tested mentally this week against an expansive collection of amoeba fronts.
The Ravens often bring only four or five rushers, but good luck trying to figure out who’s coming. They routinely line up players in both A gaps (on either side of the center), threaten blitz off either edge or employ both tactics at once. Chaos ensues at the snap, as four or five (and sometimes six or seven) men rush, and two or three drop out. Veteran safeties Tony Jefferson and Eric Weddle might rotate 20 yards as one blitzes and the other drops deep, while Suggs, Judon or Smith will buzz under crossers to take away quick throws.
The coverage usually settles into a three-deep zone featuring matchup principles and two or three underneath defenders, but the Ravens mix in plenty of man coverage as well. That frees up linebackers and safeties to blitz when the running back or tight end to whom they are assigned stays in to block (called a green-dog blitz), which led to several of the 11 sacks on Marcus Mariota last week.
But Brees is no Mariota, who looked lost trying to decipher the Ravens’ coverages and routinely held the ball too long, essentially sacking himself on several plays. Brees, an 18th-year veteran, has great protection, but more important, he diagnoses and delivers on time and decisively, often aided by an offense that manufactures short completions.
Brees will sniff out some of Baltimore’s disguises and make them pay. Saints coach Sean Payton, a master of the screen game, will call several to slow down the rush. But the Ravens will get home some, too, especially with a rowdy home crowd making communication difficult. Brees has historically been a different player outdoors (103.6 QB rating in domes compared to 90.8 outside), and the forecast at M&T Bank Stadium calls for some wind.
That should make for one of the more intriguing and evenly matched offense-defense battles we’ll see this year.
2. Bears must fix fundamentals, and fast
The consensus best defense in football through five weeks collapsed on Sunday against Brock Osweiler, of all people, because its players suddenly forgot how to tackle. The Dolphins quarterback went just 7 of 16 with two interceptions on throws at least 5 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, but he finished with 380 yards and three touchdowns because his receivers generated 274 (!) yards after the catch.
Miami coach Adam Gase deserves credit for crafty underneath designs, but most of the damage came from missed tackles. Chicago safeties Adrian Amos and Eddie Jackson each whiffed on Albert Wilson’s 43-yard touchdown, and then again on his 75-yarder. Linebacker Danny Trevathan could have kept the latter to a 4-yard gain, but he inexplicably let Wilson escape from a trio of Bears before the two safeties missed.
Chicago must correct those mistakes immediately, because defending the Patriots’ offense is untenable with tackling breakdowns. New England coordinator Josh McDaniels — who hired Gase in Denver — engineers the NFL’s shrewdest horizontal passing game, which became all the more lethal with Julian Edelman’s return in Week 5.
Against zone-heavy schemes like Bears coordinator Vic Fangio’s, the Patriots attack underneath pockets over and over, putting the burden on linebackers and safeties to close quickly and tackle shifty wide receivers. Though not major pieces of the offense, Josh Gordon and Cordarrelle Patterson are even more dangerous in space than Edelman, and James White is also extremely elusive.
Even if Khalil Mack (ankle) is healthy, the Bears’ pass rush could have trouble getting home before Tom Brady delivers. If Chicago can’t tackle soundly, it’ll be an awfully long day on defense.
3. Geno Atkins is licking his chops
Through six weeks, we’ve seen Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes do almost everything, and do it extremely well. But he hasn’t yet had to deal with repeated pressure, a credit to both Andy Reid’s scheme and a front five that has been excellent in protection.
But that line is taking hits, with right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif (fractured fibula) on injured reserve and center Mitch Morse (concussion) likely to miss at least one game. The timing isn’t ideal with Atkins coming to town this week. The Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle has a new contract that pays him more annually than any other non-QB over age 30 in NFL history, and Atkins has earned every penny so far.
The six-time Pro Bowler still has a lethal combination of lateral wiggle and forklift power, already producing six sacks and 12 QB hits (tied for second in NFL). Traditionally a 3-technique tackle, he usually lines up on a guard’s outside shoulder, but he also will align directly over the center in some third-down packages, a threatening look because centers are rarely isolated against top rushers in protection. Atkins happily beats single blocks, but he also reaches QBs through doubles on occasion and leading tackle-end stunts, plowing between the guard and tackle.
Jordan Devey moved to center in Morse’s absence last week, with Andrew Wylie stepping in at right guard. Even if recently re-signed Jeff Allen — released after struggling for two years in Houston — takes over at right guard, expect to see Atkins across from both spots often. Left guard Cameron Erving has had hiccups as well, so Atkins should have plenty of chances to collapse pockets in Mahomes’ face.
4. Get-right game for Jaguars’ pass rush
Eerily quiet in losses to the Chiefs and Cowboys the past two weeks, the famed “Sacksonville” front four is due for a bounce-back performance. As it happens, they face the league’s most exploitable offensive line this week.
Already thin entering the year, the Houston Texans lost Seantrel Henderson in Week 1, thrusting rookie third-rounder Martinas Rankin into the lineup opposite raw 2017 fourth-rounder Julien Davenport. Both players have been benched for stretches in favor of Kendall Lamm, a fourth-year undrafted free agent. The results have been about what you’d expect: 25 sacks (one shy of the NFL’s highest total) and 65 QB hits allowed, the latter a whopping 18 more than any other team.
With his front five whiffing blocks and getting bulled into him with frightening regularity, Deshaun Watson has exacerbated matters by moving preemptively and erratically. But his escapability isn’t limiting pressure — it’s expanding the burden up front because linemen aren’t taught to protect for a moving target. Not only is Watson moving into pressure, but he’s holding the ball too long while trying to create, leading to more hits and sacks.
Jaguars defensive end Calais Campbell (four sacks, seven QB hits) should have a field day. Offensive tackles rarely face edge rushers with his raw power, and Davenport lacks the anchor to handle it. Yannick Ngakoue (four sacks, nine QB hits) also should give Lamm repeated trouble with his blend of burst and bendability.
For whatever reason, Texans coach Bill O’Brien has dialed back the use of play-action in Watson’s second season, but that would be a helpful tactic to feature again this week. It won’t matter, however, if Houston gets behind early and has to throw.
5. Pressure squarely on Titans’ linebackers
With an offense that possesses little identity and a quarterback who isn’t seeing the field clearly, Tennessee needs defense to win right now, and the unit has mostly impressed. One weak spot, however, has been inside linebacker, where first-round rookie Rashaan Evans has been pulled in some passing situations in favor of nominal special-teamer Daren Bates.
The group should be better this week with the return of Wesley Woodyard (shoulder), who pairs with second-year man Jayon Brown to form a speedy duo. The two will be stressed often in London against the Los Angeles Chargers’ outstanding running back tandem of Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler, who rank eighth and second, respectively, in yards per carry among qualified rushers.
The Chargers killed the Browns with the perimeter run game last week, getting the edge on tosses and sweeps while often running the same plays. Gordon’s power and ability to set up blocks has been devastating, and the shifty Ekeler continues to leave defenders grasping at air in the open field.
They might be even more dangerous as receivers, especially because Philip Rivers has always been excellent at hitting his check-down early to maximize yards after catch. Gordon ranks fourth and Ekeler 12th in receiving yards by running backs this season, and Ekeler’s 14.8-yard average is tops among backs with more than 10 catches.
Woodyard and Brown will be central to the Titans’ hopes of slowing an offense that ranks fifth in scoring (29.2 points per game) and third in yards per play (6.8).
—David DeChant, Field Level Media