Here’s a look at the key tactical showdowns that will ultimately decide the outcomes of three NFL games this coming week:
Bengals’ pass attack vs. Panthers’ secondary
One of the more surprising elements of the 2018 season to date has been the success of Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton and the offense as a whole. Cincinnati is 2-0 following victories over the Indianapolis Colts and Baltimore Ravens, while Dalton is tied for third in the league with six touchdowns and his adjusted net yards per attempt of 7.90 ranks seventh.
If the Bengals hope to start 3-0 for the first time since 2015, they’ll need to pass a big test in Carolina, which features a stout defense led by a tough front and linebacker Luke Kuechly. However, the Panthers’ secondary has been known to experience breakdowns in coverage from time to time.
To mask that deficiency, Carolina employs a zone-heavy defense that led the league by playing zone on 70 percent of snaps last season, according to Pro Football Focus. Much of that time, Carolina uses a Cover 3 scheme, which can be attacked using “exit/enter” concepts in which a receiver runs through a zone to occupy a defender, allowing a second pass-catcher to move into the vacated space. Atlanta ran that type of play successfully against Carolina’s Cover 3 last week:
On the play above, the Falcons line up with three tight ends and only a single receiver, Marvin Hall (No. 17), who runs a deep vertical route down the left side. Hall is followed deep by the cornerback on his side, James Bradberry (No. 24), while Austin Hooper (No. 81) runs a deep out route on the same side of the field. That puts Hooper into the area vacated by Bradberry, who’s still chasing Hall. Essentially, as Hall exits the zone, Hooper enters to find plenty of space.
Fortunately for the Bengals, their playbook already features a similar design, as evidenced by this play against Baltimore in Week 2:
Here, the outside receiver runs a post route while Tyler Boyd (No. 83) runs the deep out route from the slot. The Ravens are in a Cover 4 look, but the idea is the same. The post route occupies the cornerback, which allows Boyd to find space on the outside working away from the safety who’s trying to cover him from the middle of the field.
Chargers’ run game vs. Rams’ defensive front
A battle of Los Angeles awaits as the 1-1 Chargers will “visit” the 2-0 Rams. The Chargers’ offense features star running back Melvin Gordon, but could find it tough to establish consistency on the ground against the Rams’ defensive front. With players like Aaron Donald, Ndamukong Suh, and Michael Brockers up front, the Rams have the talent to disrupt almost any run concept.
Last week, the Rams held David Johnson and the Arizona Cardinals under 100 yards rushing by stopping inside-zone plays, outside-zone plays, and even power-running designs. Here are some examples. This first play is an outside-zone running play from the Cardinals, which the Rams shut down before it had any chance to get going.
Outside linebacker Samson Ebukam (No. 50) does a very good job of setting the edge here, maintaining outside leverage and forcing Johnson (No. 31) to turn inside – right into the waiting arms of Donald (No. 99), who does a great job of fighting off two blockers and making the tackle for a loss.
Next, when the Cardinals tried to use a power-blocking scheme on this counter play – pulling linemen to get in front of the running back – the Rams were also ready with an answer. On this play, Arizona tries to run Johnson to the left side by pulling right guard Justin Pugh (No. 67) and even tight end Gabe Holmes (No. 85) across the formation:
However, the play gets slowed down from the start, thanks to immediate penetration from Suh (No. 93). He drives the center backward and right into the path of Holmes, preventing the tight end from helping on the play. From there, Brockers (No. 90) and linebacker Ramik Wilson (No. 52) clean up the play to allow just a minimal gain:
Finally, here’s an example of the Cardinals trying to run a third way: with an inside-zone play. But Donald and Suh use their hands to stand up their blockers while keeping their eyes on the backfield, allowing them to identify the play and then shed their blockers for the stop:
This was a third-and-2 play, on which Arizona gained just 1 yard and was forced to punt.
Clearly, the Rams have the ability up front to turn an offense into a one-dimensional unit. But if the Chargers can find a way to get any sort of ground game established, it will allow them to keep the playbook open and keep Rams DC Wade Phillips guessing.
Indy’s Frank Reich vs. Philly DC Jim Schwartz
Familiar faces will square off in Philadelphia this Sunday when the Colts travel east under new head coach Frank Reich to take on Reich’s old team, the Eagles. If the defending champions hope to improve to 2-1 in Carson Wentz’s return, the defense will need to slow down familiar plays that Reich is now using in Indianapolis.
On that note, it shouldn’t be surprising that Indy’s offense – which employs quick passing designs, multiple tight end formations, and some Air Raid concepts – looks similar to what the Eagles ran last year when Reich was their quarterbacks coach. One specific example is a “mesh concept,” which incorporates two underneath crossing routes. It’s designed to create traffic and a natural rub against man coverage, or to give the underneath receivers a chance to find space against zone coverage.
Indianapolis loves involving its tight ends with this design, and here are a couple examples. In their Week 1 loss to the Bengals, the Colts converted a third-and-3 using the mesh concept with three tight ends in the game:
On this play, Erik Swoope (No. 86) chips the backside defensive end before getting into his crossing route. Quarterback Andrew Luck hits him for a big gain.
Here’s another mesh concept from the Colts, this time from Week 2 against Washington. The two crossing receivers are tight end Jack Doyle (No. 84) and receiver T.Y. Hilton (No. 13):
This time, Luck hits Hilton for only a short gain, but it’s enough to convert the second-and-4.
Whether Wentz is victorious in his return might just depend on whether his defense can contain plays it’s seen the Philadelphia offense run against it throughout training camp and practices.
Mark Schofield writes NFL feature content for theScore. After nearly a decade of practicing law in the Washington, D.C., area Mark changed careers and started writing about football. Drawing upon more than a decade of playing quarterback, including at the collegiate level, Mark focuses his work on quarterback evaluation and offensive scheme analysis. He lives in Maryland with his wife and two children. Find him on Twitter @MarkSchofield.