No one knows what to expect from Jared Goff. But we can surmise what to expect from the elements around him. The offense Goff takes over: It can’t run the ball (the O-line gets no movement) and it lacks wide receivers who can create on their own. That’s a bad combination, and it might have contributed to why Goff rode the bench so long.
So what are the Rams to do? For starters, expect them to continue trying to run the ball—not so much because it’s the tough, spirited approach, but because if you’re weak at wide receiver, then more of your passing game must take place on running downs and out of running formations when the defense is most predictable and playing extra linebackers instead of corners. But those running downs and running formations only help the pass if you’re actually doing what those formations suggest: running from time to time.
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The Dolphins are a pure zone defense, which makes them that much more predictable on first down. The most common zone coverage you see here is Cover 3—zone with a single-high safety. Rams offensive coordinator Rob Boras has done smart work calling plays that specifically exploit Cover 3. Often these have involved play-action rollouts. You’ll see those Sunday because, besides attacking the predicted coverage, rollouts also slice the field in half for the quarterback. Almost always, the quarterback has to read only the side he’s rolling to. The beauty of moving the pocket like this is it also negates Los Angeles’s disadvantage along the offensive line. As long as the widest edge defender is controlled, either via block or play fake, the pass rush is unlikely to get home.
Early down play-action out of running formations—that’s been the name of the game for Los Angeles, and it is more than ever this week. When Goff isn’t doing these, expect to see Tavon Austin on quick strikes—Boras’s other favorite first down tactic. Swing passes, screens, slants—these all give the QB only one read (simple as it gets) and force the ball out of his hand, which is how rhythm is established. We’ll see how the No. 1 overall pick does with these aids against a rising Dolphins defense.
Texans: Safety Andre Hal twice had trouble against deep routes at Jacksonville. (He never paid the price, as Blake Bortles missed on both throws.) He was too slow transitioning out of his squat position in Houston’s staple Cover 4 matchup zone. You can bet the Raiders will send Amari Cooper Hal’s way a few times Monday night.
Raiders: Defensive tackle Stacy McGee will return this week after missing two games with an ankle injury. His raw physical strength has flashed tremendously on film this season.
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Baltimore at Dallas
Ravens: The Jets D-line has stars (Muhammad Wilkerson, Leonard Williams and Sheldon Richardson) but Baltimore’s has been just as stingy against the run. (The stats reflect this, too.) The embarrassingly underrated Brandon Williams continues to develop, Lawrence Guy is having a career year and a hidden gem has been uncovered in undrafted rookie Michael Pierce. It will be fun watching these guys go up against the NFL’s best run-blocking front five on Sunday.
Cowboys: There’s a lot to like about Dak Prescott, but one thing that can improve (and for good QBs it does with experience) is his field vision and sense of timing when his primary read is covered. Prescott doesn’t play with great anticipation when he has to work off his first read and into his second. This can make him a beat slow. It hasn’t been exposed yet because Dallas’s pass protection is so good.
Packers: It looks like four-wide receiver sets will remain a part of Green Bay’s offense. Often in this package’s formations they detach the tight end from the line of scrimmage. In that case, the Packers might as well just go five wide receivers since Richard Rodgers and Justin Perillo are not dynamic receiving threats.
Washington: It’s easy to see why Robert Kelley has replaced Matt Jones at running back. Kelley is quicker, more agile and more fluid. He’s not as big as Jones, but at 6', 228, he’s certainly not small.
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Arizona at Minnesota
Cardinals: Perhaps the most consequential area where Carson Palmer has been less effective this year compared to last is on deep balls. The picture-perfect precision has not been there. As a result, Palmer’s rating on passes that travel more than 15 yards downfield has plummeted from 103.8 last year to 45.1.
Vikings: Everson Griffen got a snap at defensive tackle late in last week’s game at Washington. Given his versatile athleticism, it’s always been surprising that Minnesota doesn’t move him around the D-line more. On this one snap, Griffen beat left guard Shawn Lauvao with an explosive spin move.
Bills: This defense had success with interior stunts in the loss at Seattle. Expect to see more of this against a Bengals O-line that has struggled in pass protection, particularly inside.
Bengals: Vontaze Burfict is an aggressive downhill attacker. Usually, that benefits this D. But the other edge of that sword: Burfict can be susceptible to misdirection fakes. That’s a concern against a Bills ground game that features pull-blockers and additional bodies in the backfield.
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Chicago at N.Y. Giants
Bears: Defensive lineman Pernell McPhee said of the Giants O-line: “We gonna tear their ass up.” (Hey! Hey! BULLETIN BOARD MATERIAL! Now the Giants are sure to play hard!) McPhee’s confidence is not unfounded. He, Willie Young and Leonard Floyd were tremendous against Tampa Bay’s offensive tackles last week. New York’s offensive tackles are below average.
Giants: It’s not just that they have an unproductive ground game, it’s also an unimaginative one. It takes place almost exclusively out of shotgun and always with just six blockers. Defenses don’t have to spend much time preparing for it.
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Pittsburgh at Cleveland
Steelers: Two weeks ago, the Ravens came out and ran a lot of outside zone against this defense, often leaving the backside edge defender unblocked. Their thinking was the flow of the run design naturally takes the ballcarrier away from that defender, so no need to waste a body on him. But with Baltimore’s zone flow not always getting a great push, that unblocked defender often worked down the line of scrimmage and made the tackle. (Especially when the unblocked defender was James Harrison.) So it wasn’t surprising last week when the Cowboys’ staple outside zone runs featured split zone design. In split zone, the tight end crosses the formation against the flow and blocks the backside edge defender. The Browns, for all their faults, execute very well in the run game. They haven’t run much split zone this season, but we could see it this Sunday.
Browns: Where has tight end Gary Barnidge been? At this point last season, he had 48 catches and 667 yards. This year he's 37 for 434 (and it's felt much quieter than that watching the film.) In 2015, he benefitted from coordinator John DeFilippo’s cleverness in getting tight ends open through play design. Hue Jackson is a master schemer, as well, but he hasn’t prioritized Barnidge. Maybe that’s because Jackson has what DeFilippo didn’t: threatening wideouts.
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Tampa Bay at Kansas City
Bucs: Cameron Brate is one of the NFL’s fastest-rising tight ends. He’s long and fluid. Against the Bears last week Brate caught seven balls for 84 yards, almost all of them on inside patterns that got him matched against a zone safety. The Chiefs are a much different defense. Their safeties (a) are better than Chicago’s, and (b) play man-to-man techniques against vertical inside receivers. This will be a good litmus test for Brate.
Chiefs: Center Mitch Morse is having a solid season. He’s proficient against pass rushing stunts and twists, plus he’s mobile as a run-blocker.
Jaguars: Tight end Julius Thomas has not blossomed into what Jacksonville hoped when signing him for more than $20 million guaranteed in 2015. Part of the problem is he hasn’t emerged as a vertical weapon, despite Jacksonville having a very vertical passing attack. That needs to change. Thomas does not have good enough body control and quickness to be effective on horizontal routes. He makes a catch and takes forever to collect himself and turn upfield. He needs to be running routes that go north and south, not east and west.
Lions: Free safety Glover Quin is having a very solid season. A versatile matchup piece years ago as a Texan, he’s almost strictly a last-line-of-defense player for the Lions. Yet Quin still manages to stand out each game running the ally in rush defense.
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Tennessee at Indianapolis
Titans: Delanie Walker is this offense’s most important player. His versatility brings invaluable dimension to Tennessee’s staple three-tight end packages. And those packages have contributed significantly to the success Marcus Mariota is having with downfield throws on first downs.
Colts: Speaking of throwing on first down, that’s what the Colts did often and effectively against Tennessee in Week 7. (In fact, Andrew Luck threw for 210 yards on first downa alone.) They were particularly adept out of formations where two tight ends lined up side by side on the line of scrimmage (with two wide receivers aligned on the other side). This formation, called a “2 x 2 closed,” can distort zone coverage principles and leave the tight ends’ man defenders out-leveraged inside.
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Miami at Los Angeles
Dolphins: The rich got richer: Just when defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and especially Jordan Phillips have started playing really well, unheralded veteran stud Earl Mitchell has returned from a calf injury suffered in Week 1. Mitchell played 31 snaps against the Chargers last week and jumped off the screen a number of times.
Rams: Jared Goff is ready… we hope. His first game comes against a Dolphins defense that has often just lined up and played straight zone coverages, aiming to out-execute (as oppose to outsmart) opponents. But three weeks ago, when the Dolphins faced an undeveloped field-reader in Tyrod Taylor, we saw selective use of different fronts and pressure concepts, which were very successful. The Rams must have Goff prepared for this.
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New Orleans at San Francisco
Patriots: This season Martellus Bennett has been the short-yardage tight end (with great run-after-catch numbers) and Rob Gronkowski has been the downfield threat. Against a San Fran defense that’s most vulnerable at linebacker, that would typically mean Bennett is in store for the big game. But in New England’s system, with all its inverted formations, it might actually mean the big game goes to receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola. Their production will come out of spread formations.
49ers: They’re facing a man-based Patriots defense. Last week the Niners made a few plays with “easy release” concepts, which is when you have a tight end against a man-to-man defense run a dummy route away from where a run play is going. The tight end’s man defender follows, removing himself from the run front. It’s the same effect as the tight end blocking that defender except it has no chance at error and also creates more space.
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Philadelphia at Seattle
Eagles: Jim Schwartz’s defense is built on penetration along the D-line. Because of that, offenses like to use “trap” runs against it. (It was the same with Schwartz’s D in Detroit.) It’ll be interesting to see if the Seahawks do this. A zone-running team, “trap” runs aren’t typically in their repertoire.
Seahawks: With Michael Bennett out, second-round rookie nose shade tackle Jarran Reed has been getting snaps in nickel—and looking pretty good.
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Carolina 23, New Orleans 20
Saints: Dannell Ellerbe has injected a lot of life into this defense, particularly as a blitzer.
Panthers: Cam Newton made just enough big throws to survive for a win on Thursday night, but the ineptitude of Carolina's ground game remains a major concern.
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Bye Week Teams
Falcons: Second-year defensive tackle Grady Jarrett has great quickness for his size. If he can learn to finish plays once he gets in the backfield, he could be a perennial Pro Bowler.
Broncos: We saw a new, frightening look from this D last week at New Orleans: Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, Shaquil Barrett and Shane Ray all on the field together. The guess here: Wade Phillips will use some of his bye week to expand this package.
Jets: It’s unusual to hear a star player admit in the middle of the season that age is catching up to him, but that’s what Darrelle Revis did after getting exposed by Kenny Britt. Remember Revis’s lost season in Tampa Bay when everyone wondered why the Bucs were wasting his talents by calling zone coverages? Maybe that’s the type of defense Revis needs to play in now.
Chargers: Second-year wideout Tyrell Williams has a lot of talent and has done a lot of nice things, but here’s hoping he spends some of his bye week fine-tuning his understanding of San Diego’s offense. Too many times last week Williams was not where Philip Rivers expected.