Posted by Eye on Football Analyst Andy Benoit
Eagles vs. Bears
You could make a strong case that both of these offenses are built around their star running backs. The Eagles have football’s No. 1 offense and lead the league with 179 yards rushing per game (20 more than Oakland’s No. 2 ranked ground game). Running back LeSean McCoy is second in the NFL with 754 yards rushing. The Bears’ 16th-ranked offense would likely rank somewhere in the mid-twenties if not for Matt Forte’s 672 yards on the ground and 419 yards through the air.
These are the best two running backs in the NFC not named Adrian Peterson. (And both are significantly better receivers than Peterson.) Two years ago, neither was very good. McCoy was a callow, unpolished rookie who could not always read basic defenses. Forte was an inexplicably sluggish runner averaging just 3.9 yards per carry. So what’s changed since then?
One noticeable improvement is in both players’ lateral agility. Though not as emphasized as speed, quickness or power, lateral agility is the most important attribute for an NFL back. It’s often the difference between college runners and pro runners. In short, lateral agility is a running back’s quickness and explosiveness when going left and right. It plays a central role in how he sets up blocks and creates his own space.
Unless you’re an incredibly gifted downhill runner playing behind a decent run-blocking front (ala Darren McFadden), lateral agility is vital in the NFL, where holes close quicker than a hiccup and defenses feature 11 world class athletes, most of whom can immediately diagnose about 90 percent of the run plays they see.
McCoy has the best pure lateral agility in the league. He had it as a rookie but just recently learned to implement it with timing and purpose. He can explode left and right behind the line or at the second level. Most laterally agile running backs, including Forte, have to be on the move in order to cut sharply. McCoy can do it from a standstill (which is why Philly is so fond of draws and delayed handoffs). Forte can occasionally do it from a standstill, though with his smooth, patient running style, he’s much more effective off motion.
On Sunday, keep a count of how many of McCoy’s and Forte’s touches are impacted by their east-west prowess.
Patriots vs. Giants
The key to the Giants’ upset of the undefeated Patriots in Super Bowl XLII was the pressure the Giants pass-rush put on Tom Brady. New York’s then-defensive coordinator, Steve Spagnuolo, brilliantly had his linebackers crowd and attack the A-gaps. That did a few things.
For one, it put extra defenders directly in Tom Brady’s line of vision, which would make any quarterback subtly feel a bit hurried. That hurriedness left New England without enough time to run Randy Moss on deep routes.
Another thing it did was force the Patriot running backs to stay in and pass protect. And because there were multiple defenders crowding the A-gaps, the Patriots focused their protection help inside, which left one-on-one mismatches outside for Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora.
Some things have changed in the four years since 18-1. Spagnuolo is now in St. Louis. Moss is retired. So is Strahan. The Patriots’ high-powered passing game has become horizontal instead of vertical. But despite the changes, don’t be surprised if the Giants once again crowd and/or attack New England’s A gaps this Sunday.
Teams like the Jets, Cowboys and Steelers have shown that the best way to pressure Brady is with bodies up the middle. The goal is not always to sack him – it can be to mentally preoccupy him with what’s going on inside. When Brady’s doing that, he seems to lose a little trust in stepping into throws and sensing his protection on the edges.
The Giants had great success with A-gap blitz concepts against the Dolphins last week. Mathias Kiwanuka is a potent defensive end who happens to play linebacker. He’s natural standing up over the center in nickel defense. Lately, end Dave Tollefson, himself a good athlete, has also been used as an A-gap blitzing joker. In these instances, the Giants don’t just rush the A-gaps, they also confuse offensive linemen and set up stunts and edge-rushes for Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora.
New England’s answer to New York’s A-gap attacks will be quick passes in the flats. Wes Welker is not a bad guy to turn to for that.
Chargers vs. Packers
Green Bay can take the lipstick off the pig that is San Diego’s defense. The No. 1 ranked defense from 2010 has been decent but not necessarily impressive under new coordinator Greg Manusky in 2011. A soft schedule has made it difficult to pass full judgment. The Chargers rank sixth in yards allowed, but they’ve faced the Vikings, Dolphins, Broncos, Jets and Chiefs (twice) – all inexplosive offenses.
The Packers have the most lethal offensive attack in football. It’s not just that Aaron Rodgers has been nearly flawless, or that his top five receiving targets would all be No. 1 or 2 targets on a typical team. It’s that the Packers have perhaps the best formation variation in the league. This, with their array of weapons, strongly tests a defense’s depth, intelligence and confidence.
Currently, the Chargers are vulnerable at cornerback. Antoine Cason appeared on the verge of stardom late last year, but the ’08 first-round pick has reverted to the baffling inconsistencies that marred his first two seasons as a pro. Cason normally plays the right outside. The Packers love to create one-on-one matchups for Greg Jennings by lining him up as the X-iso receiver on the left side (across from the right cornerback) in 1x3 receiver sets. It’s a matchup Rodgers goes to virtually every time.
With four receivers on the field, Cason will have to play. Marcus Gilchrest and Quentin Jammer are the outside starters; Dante Hughes is the slot nickel. The Chargers like to blitz Hughes and will likely align him across from the receiver furthest inside on the three-receiver side. Jammer plays outside on the defensive left. That leaves either Cason or Gilchrest, a second-round rookie, to face Jennings outside on the right.
This isn’t a fantasy column, but here’s a tip: if your opponent has Greg Jennings on his or her team, remove yourself from the trash-talking email thread this week.
So who will win? Check our NFL expert picks for all Week 9 games.
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