Posted by Eye on Football Analyst Andy Benoit
Saints vs. Colts
New Orleans’ two new weapons
The Saints have redefined their passing attack. It now runs through Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles. Graham has been far and away the best tight end in football this season. All onlookers could observe last season that the former Hurricanes power forward possessed considerable raw talent, but few could have predicted he’d polish it this quickly.
Graham has a natural feel for gaining positioning against pass defenders (insert obligatory “like a rebounder” comment here) and, best of all, he’s a hands-catcher who snags the ball away from his body. This makes him nearly impossible to defend, given his size and elevation abilities. Helping the cause is that the Saints align Graham all over the formation, which gives defenses fits in deciding what personnel package to use (most, including the Bucs this past week, have been going with nickel and treating Graham like a slot receiver).
Graham is Brees’s go-to guy. Sproles might be Sean Payton’s.
When the Saints are trying to dictate the tempo of a drive, they often look to get Sproles the ball underneath. The key is putting him in positions to run after the catch. This could mean screens, though often it has meant short outs and ins on spread plays where wideouts run deep to lift the coverage. Sproles has remarkable quickness and elusiveness, amplified by a rare-found ability to start and stop. He’s been much better in this offense than Reggie Bush ever was.
So how will the Colts defend the two new weapons? They’re a zone-based defense with fast linebackers. That helps against Sproles, but it does little for containing Graham. If the Saints can find ways to pass protect long enough to run vertical routes outside, that’ll prevent the Colts safeties from running under and over Graham’s routes. This would spell a fifth-straight 100-yard game for the rising star.
Dolphins vs. Broncos
Tebow’s limited resources
You couldn’t ask for more favorable conditions for a new starting young quarterback: two weeks to prepare, a game at Miami (where the weather is nice and the crowd is irrelevant) and facing a defense that, even with a beast like Cameron Wake, has for some reason completely forgotten how to rush the passer.
Trading your No. 1 receiver just days before the game might not seem favorable to a young quarterback, but that receiver was unenthused about playing with Tebow and hadn’t been getting open in Denver’s new ball-control offense anyway. Plus, he was liable to leave after the season, and his spot is ready to be filled by a now-healthy (hopefully) Demaryius Thomas.
Thomas is a possession target, whereas Brandon Lloyd was more of a vertical threat (though not a burner). The Broncos already have a litany of possession targets, such as Eric Decker, Matt Willis and, when healthy, Eddie Royal. This lack of vertical speed compresses the field and narrows throwing lanes, which isn’t good with a slow-reading young quarterback who has a long windup and prefers to improvise outside the pocket.
The Dolphins are healthy at cornerback again; with no downfield threats to worry about, don’t be surprised if this is the week they finally figure out how to reach the quarterback.
Bears vs. Buccaneers (London)
Forces up front
When playing well, these teams offer two of the faster defensive front sevens in football. The Bucs defensive ends – vastly improved Michael Bennett and explosive rookie Adrian Clayborn – feasted on the shoddy Saints tackles last week and should be licking their chops for J’Marcus Webb and Lance Louis (a guard by trade who has taken over for the overwhelmed Frank Omiyale on the right side).
Linebacker Geno Hayes played with instincts and speed against the Saints, which hasn’t always been the case this season. He’ll have a big say in whether the Bucs can contain Mr. Do It All, Matt Forte.
For Chicago, the mission will be attacking right tackle Jeremy Trueblood. Julius Peppers, bum knee and all, is a force who can matchup with Donald Penn on the left side. Same goes for underrated Israel Idonije. But over the years, when it’s rained on Trueblood, it’s poured. He’s the guy to go after.
The Bucs don’t have a backfield star like Matt Forte to build around, though Earnest Graham is a productive receiver who, as he showed last week, can add a dimension of surprising (though subtle) inside quickness and elusiveness.
Don’t be stunned if Graham becomes a bigger component in the run game even after LeGarrette Blount gets healthy. Graham, however, is facing a much greater challenge this week than he faced last week; Chicago’s linebackers are just as fast as New Orleans’ but a lot more physical.
So who will win? Check our NFL expert picks for all Week 7 games.
Follow @Andy_Benoit on Twitter or contact him at Andy.Benoit-at-NFLTouchdown.com.