November 1, 2018 / 5:08 PM / 14 days ago

Take 5: Can Packers’ D maintain progress vs. Patriots?

Sunday’s deflating ending in L.A. obscured an outstanding defensive performance by the Packers, who go from trying to slow down the Rams to preparing for Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.

FILE PHOTO: Oct 28, 2018; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Rams running back Todd Gurley (30) dives for a first down as Green Bay Packers cornerback Jaire Alexander (23) defends during the fourth quarter at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

As Green Bay draws another top NFL offense this week, New England should be an excellent barometer for Mike Pettine’s defense.

1. Is the defensive progress sustainable?

The Rams were without Cooper Kupp, but the Green Bay’s cornerbacks still deserve ample credit for stalemating a great receiving corps.

Rookie slot cornerback Jaire Alexander was perhaps the best player on the field. He fought tooth-and-nail at the line of scrimmage and at the catch point, while showing off tremendous closing burst. Kevin King, a 2017 second-rounder, has been inconsistent in press coverage but looks much more comfortable in Year 2.

It’s not unreasonable for those two to survive against Julian Edelman and Josh Gordon. But who will handle Rob Gronkowski? Despite looking clunkier of late, Gronkowski remains outstanding making contested catches, and the Packers traded one of their best weapons against tight ends in Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.

Pettine, whose schemes often gave Tom Brady trouble while with the Jets and Bills, will throw myriad looks at Gronk, including eight-man zones, and try a variety of blitzes to unsettle Brady.

The key could be whether Kenny Clark — the uber talented 2016 first-rounder — keeps playing with the consistency he’s shown more often this season. Clark and Mike Daniels comprise a scary interior rush duo when they’re on, but that must translate to pressure up the middle against Brady.

2. Can Saints’ run D handle the spotlight?

New Orleans’ run defense is quietly the NFL’s most efficient by far (3.2 yards per carry allowed; Dallas second at 3.6). Defensive tackles David Onyemata and Sheldon Rankins are brutishly powerful and embrace dirty work, while Cameron Jordan sets an awfully mean edge.

But the Saints haven’t faced a ground game that compares to that of the Rams.

Most of Sean McVay’s core runs are forms of outside zone: some attacking the perimeter, others designed to cut back and many featuring jet motion. The front five has developed excellent chemistry and rarely allows penetration, which usually short-circuits outside zone. Todd Gurley is a nightmare to tackle outside, but also exceptional at pressing the edge and sifting through cutback lanes.

Powerful and crafty with his hands, Jordan often blows up the frontside of outside zone runs. Expect McVay to run mostly away from Jordan while bringing a wideout — who will keep the ball at times — in jet motion AND a slice blocker (usually a tight end) toward him, a tactic L.A. employed heavily against Von Miller. The jet motion keeps Jordan honest, and the slicer looks to cut-block him to keep cutback lanes open.

L.A. doesn’t have to run it well to win, but the entire offense is built off Gurley and the outside-zone run game. If the Saints’ run D can hold up, New Orleans will have the upper hand.

3. Steelers-Ravens Round 2 is a new ballgame

The Ravens won Round 1 handily in Pittsburgh, but don’t assume they’ll sweep the season series. A lot has changed since then, including the standings: Baltimore (4-4) was 3-1 after Week 4; Pittsburgh (4-2-1) was 1-2-1.

The Ravens’ deep passing game — which produced gains of 71 and 33 yards to John Brown in Pittsburgh — has run dry. For all his progress this year, Joe Flacco remains inaccurate and inconsistent on deep throws, and he’ll face tighter windows this time around.

The Steelers’ defense has mostly gotten its act together, erasing many of the coverage breakdowns that left receivers running wide open early this season. Its secondary is still mediocre, but the chemistry has improved, and linebacker Jon Bostic’s zone awareness helps relieve some pressure.

Baltimore has also been less consistent defending the run, springing a few leaks in Carolina (154 yards on 33 carries) last week, while Pittsburgh’s offense has run through James Conner the last three weeks (64 carries, 367 yards, six TDs). The Steelers will far exceed Week 4’s 11-carry, 19-yard performance.

4. Tough test for surprising Seahawks

As we covered in our Week 8 film study, Seattle’s young defense has overperformed without Earl Thomas. This week, a bigger challenge awaits.

Philip Rivers would be an MVP front-runner if not for Patrick Mahomes and Drew Brees, as he’s carving up defenses with his arm and his mind better than ever. He and coordinator Ken Whisenhunt are deadly attacking downfield against predictable zone defenses.

They showed as much two weeks ago in London, exploiting the Titans’ Cover-4 for touchdowns of 75 and 55 yards. First, Rivers baited Logan Ryan as Tyrell Williams zipped by on a go. Later, Whisenhunt called a scissors concept (post route and corner route that intersect) to blur Tennessee’s coverage responsibilities and spring Mike Williams wide open.

The Seahawks’ D is more diverse than during coordinator Ken Norton’s tenure as linebackers coach (2010-14), but it still relies heavily on Cover-3, especially on early downs. Coming off a bye, the Chargers will surely attack this tendency.

Expect several vertical concepts with switch releases — like scissors or post/wheel — as well as a deep-over route by the inside slot receiver (closest to the formation) out of a three-wideout set. In Seattle’s Cover-3, a linebacker (usually Bobby Wagner) or strong safety Bradley McDougald must match that route, a very difficult matchup against Tyrell Williams or Travis Benjamin.

Meanwhile, Wagner and K.J. Wright must meet their lofty standards when closing and tackling underneath. Rivers loves to use his checkdown early while a zone defense is still dropping back, and Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler have been outstanding making defenders miss in space.

5. Detroit’s D-line could dictate vs. Vikings

The Lions’ front isn’t down-to-down impactful, despite a league-high sack rate (11.5 percent). Detroit has turned an unsustainable amount of pressure into sacks (36.5 percent; 22.1 is league average), and its edge rushers have been almost invisible with Ziggy Ansah (shoulder) out since Week 1.

But there is hope Ansah might finally return this week.

If healthy, he should bother Vikings left tackle Riley Reiff, who’s been out with a foot injury and struggled against bull and speed rushes when on the field. If Reiff is out, it’ll be Rashod Hill at left tackle and rookie Brian O’Neill on the right, both of whom have proven exploitable.

On the interior, the Vikings were already shaky — especially run blocking — before left guard Tom Compton’s injury. The Saints hounded them last week, with Rankins tossing center Pat Elflein aside on multiple occasions.

Newly acquired Damon “Snacks” Harrison should feast, as usual, in the run game. Against the pass, the Lions should get pressure from perhaps the league’s quietest rookie standout, fourth-rounder Da’Shawn Hand.

FILE PHOTO: Oct 28, 2018; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Rams cornerback Sam Shields (37) runs after catching a pass on a fake punt during the second quarter as Green Bay Packers cornerback Kevin King (20) defends at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

The top high-school recruit in 2014, Hand disappointed at Alabama but is already a better pro than collegian. Despite just two sacks, he has been a handful (sorry, couldn’t help it) as an interior rusher, routinely beating blocks and forcing QBs to move.

Kirk Cousins and his receivers have been fantastic, but batted balls and interior pressure have been issues. His shaky line is the most glaring weak spot for a team with Super Bowl aspirations.

—David DeChant, Field Level Media

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