Two weeks ago at Philadelphia, Aaron Rodgers rediscovered his timing and discipline and turned in one of the best quarterbacking performances of this NFL season. Rodgers had big numbers the previous week at Washington, as well, but they came mostly off extended plays that he himself had broken down. Rodgers can be great when plays break down, but he can also be erratic. He hasn’t been the razor-sharp improv passer that he was a few years ago.
Such inconsistency is inherent with out-of-structure play—especially when you have receivers like Green Bay’s, who can struggle to get separation. That’s why, in the big scheme of things, it’s critical the Packers be a rhythmic, structured offense. NFL games already present enough scenarios where a quarterback has to improvise; it’s too hard to sustain drives with a quarterback who seeks out improvisation.
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Interestingly, last week against Houston, snow made for poor field conditions at Lambeau. Understandably, receivers couldn’t get in and out of their breaks, and the Packers passing game lost that rediscovered timing and structure. But the poor conditions impacted the Texans defense, as well. Their pass rushers could literally not get traction. And so it became schoolyard football. And here, the Packers were the more practiced unit. That usually costly habit of breaking down their own pass designs turned into an advantage.
Bad weather is expected again at Lambeau for this week’s Seahawks game. The Seahawks, like the Texans, are dominant in matchup zone coverages. But if the field is slick, that gets neutralized. And so does Seattle’s pass rush, which is back to full strength now that Michael Bennett is healthy.
For the Packers to fulfill their potential and play deep into January, Rodgers and this offense, like they did against Philadelphia, will have to play on time and within structure. For them, that takes a deliberate, committed effort. It’s their football equivalent of going to the gym or watching what they eat. But if the field is sloppy on Sunday, this offense will be free to ride the couch and gorge for one more weekend.
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Dallas at N.Y. Giants
Cowboys: When the Giants saw Dak Prescott in Week 1, he was struggling with ball placement at the deeper-intermediate levels. Somewhat surprisingly, those issues have been ironed out. Prescott has been a much sounder thrower than scouts expected. Now the issue he’s facing—and it has popped up just a little more the last few weeks—is leaving some open receivers on the field. Prescott isn’t seeing things quite clearly enough. He compensates by being mobile and poised, but if Dallas is to recognize its Super Bowl aspirations, he’ll have to get this cleaned up at least a little.
Giants: Perhaps no cornerbacking group is playing better than this one right now. Janoris Jenkins is traveling with No. 1 receivers and often winning. Eli Apple has shown strong route recognition out of zone and has the short-area athleticism to make plays in man-to-man. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has settled soundly into a new slot role—something few outside cover corners have successfully done, especially in a scheme that features as much zone coverage and disguise as New York’s.
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Baltimore at New England
Ravens: What stands out each week is how alert Baltimore’s linebackers and safeties are in underneath zone coverage. Now they face the one team that challenges that level of the defense more than any. Game on.
Patriots: After the Jamie Collins trade, the question on everyone’s mind was who on this roster can replace him in coverage? Turns out the answer was no one. That’s why six weeks ago the Patriots traded for Kyle Van Noy. The former Lions second-rounder has been stellar in New England’s sub-packages. He’s been much more than just a straight man defender, too (perhaps because that’s an area of his game still being evaluated). The Patriots have used Van Noy in individual zone coverage concepts, pressure disguises and as a blitzer or even edge-rusher.
Saints: Kenny Vaccaro had an excellent game in the slot last week against Detroit. His physicality and versatility are critical to the Saints’ foundational “big nickel” defensive unit. The Saints were wise to exercise the $5.7 million fifth-year option on the 2013 first-round pick.
Bucs: Two of the best guys in the league to talk football with are Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter and quarterbacks coach Mike Bajakian. I already know the first thing I’m going to ask next time I see them: On Jacquizz Rodgers’s third-and-22 draw run against San Diego, was Jameis Winston supposed to hand off the ball and then sprint out in front as a lead-blocker? And when they tell me that Jameis did that on his own, my next question will be: What did you say about that to your young, invaluable star quarterback afterwards?
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Pittsburgh at Buffalo
Steelers: Ladarius Green has eight catches and 177 yards over Pittsburgh’s last two outings. Five of those catches have been third-down conversions. It appears the Steelers offense all of the sudden has a seam threat, which creates a whole new dimension not just in downfield passing designs, but also in ways that Le’Veon Bell can come out of the backfield.
Bills: Aside from Sammy Watkins, none of these receivers can consistently separate on their own. That was the biggest problem in last week’s loss at Oakland. To change this for 2017, Marquise Goodwin would be wise to work on his comebacker route running this offseason. He’s O.K. already, but he could become lethal for the simple reason that corners, fearing his speed, play him with so much cushion.
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Cincinnati at Cleveland
Bengals: Supposedly Bengals fans are displeased with second-round rookie Tyler Boyd’ season. But there’s a thick silver lining: Boyd’s inside route running has improved markedly over the last month. He has a chance to develop into a quality slot weapon.
Browns: Briean Boddy-Calhoun is another rookie who has improved in recent weeks. The undrafted corner from Minnesota has been excellent in solo coverage deep along the sidelines. He’ll probably get matched on speedy wideout James Wright a few times Sunday. Expect Wright to continue being invisible.
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Chicago at Detroit
Bears: Matt Barkley has thrown the ball very well over the last five quarters. Probably not well enough to insert himself into starting QB discussions for 2017, but certainly well enough to warrant a steady backup role.
Lions: Left tackle Taylor Decker has had a nice rookie year. He started strong, survived some rough patches and now has steadied into a fine week-to-week player. In pass protection, Decker plays with a firm, balanced base and strong hands.
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Denver at Tennessee
Broncos: When this defense has struggled, it has usually been against the pass out of its base 4-3 package. That could be a problem this week. The Titans have become one of the NFL’s most intriguing first-down passing teams, often working out of a multi-tight end or multi-back personnel.
Titans: Veteran corner Perrish Cox was finally released after a season littered with mental and physical errors at left corner. A collection of players are in contention to fill the job, which isn’t encouraging. (You’d rather someone already have emerged by this point in the season.) Wholesale changes at a critical position like this can be precarious, especially in December. And it gets worse: In Tennessee’s last two outings, right corner Jason McCourty has struggled in deep coverage along the perimeter. Teams have taken to going after him early in games.
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Houston at Indianapolis
Texans: Left guard Xavier Su’a-Filo has been a liability this season, but last week he shined down the stretch as a pull-blocker. It’s critical that a puller stay square and tight to the line of scrimmage. That’s where Su’a-Filo has really improved. He gave the Texans some quality “power” runs in the second half at Green Bay.
Colts: Watch for T.Y. Hilton on corner routes out of the slot. In Houston’s foundational Cover 4, those routes often have to be picked up by the safety on that side. That’s a tall order for any safety, particularly one who is dealing with Hilton’s type of speed and quickness. And the corner route means that safety will have to change directions sharply, often from an initially out-leveraged position.
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Arizona at Miami
Cardinals: This is the most blitz-happy defense in football. One thing they love to do is send safeties off the edge. They’ve developed a very obvious “tell” in one of their safety blitz structures: D.J. Swearinger. When he aligns down in the box, he’s coming.
Dolphins: When they get behind in the down-and-distance, Adam Gase has a strong tendency to call a wide receiver screen—especially out of trips formations.
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Washington at Philadelphia
Washington: Trent Williams is back from suspension and the plan is to play him at his usual left tackle spot. Normally, putting a top-shelf star back in his own position is a no-brainer. But Williams’s replacement, Ty Nsekhe, he been stellar if not sensational filling in these past four weeks. What’s more, left guard Shawn Lauvao has had some costly struggles against bull-rushers. And when Williams earlier this year had to fill in at left guard for a few series against the Giants in Week 3, he overcame some expected early hiccups and looked very good in the end. There’s a strong argument to be made that Washington should start Nsekhe at left tackle and the four-time Pro Bowler Williams at left guard.
Eagles: Dorial Green-Beckham’s best route is the “dig.” The Eagles often run this in combination with a slot vertical route. The vertical route lifts the inside safety; the outside receiver (Green-Beckham) runs the dig underneath it. It’s best against Cover 4 but can also work against Cover 3—the coverage Philly should expect to see most often from Washington.
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San Diego at Carolina
Chargers: Melvin Gordon ran extremely well last week, which has been the case for the past two months now. He’s playing with more speed and physicality, which is usually a sign of a guy being more comfortable.
Panthers: Luke Kuechly has returned to practice on a limited basis and should be back in the lineup soon. Also alongside Kuechly in concussion protocol is safety Kurt Coleman. The versatile veteran’s absence was a glaring problem last week at Seattle. The Panthers are young at corner and, all season long, have been unsteady at the safety position opposite Coleman.
Vikings: Losing Harrison Smith might put the final nail in the coffin that Minnesota’s depleted offensive line had nearly finished building. Smith is the key to the Vikings foundational split-safety coverage concepts, both in how he disguises pre-snap and executes along the seams.
Jaguars: Third-rounder Yannick Ngakoue needs one sack to tie Tony Brackens’ franchise rookie record of seven set back in 1996. Going up against Minnesota’s T.J. Clemmings should help. Ngakoue has been one of the few pleasant notes in Jacksonville this year. After looking undeveloped as a pass rusher out of the gates, he’s cultivated a nice repertoire of moves with both speed and power elements. He’s not yet “dynamic,” but it’s always encouraging to see a player improve during his rookie season.
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N.Y. Jets at San Francisco
Jets: If Bryce Petty were truly ready mentally, he would have been named the starter weeks ago. And so there’s more than a little reservation about him taking the reins. But there’s one positive we can probably all agree on: From a pure physical standpoint, as a thrower of the ball, Petty certainly looks the part.
49ers: First-round rookie right guard Josh Garnett is another intriguing pull-blocker. He’s a fluid, efficient lateral mover. The Niners feature him in this capacity every week. It will be interesting to see how the pull-block plays go against an underachieving, but still very imposing, Jets run defense.
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Atlanta at Los Angeles
Falcons: The zone coverage awareness of rookie linebackers De’Vondre Campbell and especially Deion Jones has been a work in progress this season. Both have at least shown they can learn from the previous week’s mistakes. But without question, offenses are going after these guys. How they respond down the stretch could decide Atlanta’s playoff fate.
Rams: One thing you hope to see before this season ends is Jared Goff’s accuracy stabilize. He throws a pretty ball, but too often his placement has gone awry. Some of that could just be part of a young player adjusting. Let’s hope so.
Raiders: Hard to imagine the cold weather didn’t have something to do with Derek Carr’s pitiful throwing. Playing with the bad finger the previous week against Buffalo, he was absolutely sensational in his mechanics and delivery.
Chiefs: If Alex Smith keeps driving the ball at the intermediate levels the way he did Thursday night, you’re looking at a very dangerous playoff team.