In this installment of "Bucky's Best," former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks highlights the can't-miss matchups to watch in Week 8:
The Bears desperately need to get their offense back on track to remain viable contenders in the NFC North. Despite having two of the top pass catchers in football, Chicago has just 19 plays of 20-plus yards this season (tied for 29th), which is well off the pace that saw them tally 66 such plays in 2013. Going forward, the Bears must make it a point to feed the ball to Marshall and Jeffery in the passing game and generate the explosive plays needed to create scoring opportunities. Given their size and athleticism advantage over most defenders on the perimeter, Marshall and Jeffery typically should be able to produce enough plays in the passing game to spark this offense.
But of course, the Patriots are one of the few defenses in the NFL with the corners to match up with the Bears' dynamic duo. Revis (5-foot-11, 198 pounds) and Browner (6-4, 221) excel at challenging receivers in press coverage, and their collective physicality wears down opponents over the course of a game. Additionally, their smothering play on the perimeter eliminates easy throws for quarterbacks, forcing them to fit the ball into tight windows. With each player adept at "playing the pocket" (knocking balls out of receivers' hands prior to the catch) down the field, the Patriots' pass defense will make things hard for Jay Cutler.
The Ravens' running game has picked up steam since Forsett stepped into the lineup as the full-time starter. The seventh-year pro leads the NFL with a per-carry average of 5.78 yards and ranks behind just DeMarco Murray with 18 runs of 10-plus yards. Coming off a 23-carry effort against the Atlanta Falcons, Forsett is getting the ball on an assortment of inside- and outside-zone plays designed to take advantage of his vision, quickness and burst between the tackles. As the Bengals' defense will be intent on getting after Joe Flacco, Baltimore offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak could make Forsett the focal point of the game plan, to alleviate the pressure on his franchise quarterback.
Burfict is not only the Bengals' emotional leader, but he is their most disruptive defender on the second level. The third-year pro is a tackling machine; his ability to gobble up running backs between the tackles sets the tone for Cincy's defense. Burfict, who has battled through an assortment of early-season injuries, must deliver a strong performance for the Bengals to have any chance of slowing down an offense that's starting to impose its will on opponents. Given the role that Forsett plays as the Ravens' workhorse back, Burfict must snuff out the diminutive runner for Cincy to win a pivotal AFC North showdown.
The Percy Harvin trade thrust Baldwin squarely into the WR1 role in the Seahawks' offense. And the crafty veteran immediately showed the football world that he was ready for the challenge when he posted his first 100-yard game of the season against the St. Louis Rams last Sunday. Given a week to fully adjust to being the primary playmaker in the passing game, Baldwin could put up big numbers against a Panthers secondary that is susceptible to surrendering big plays.
Cason and White must be able to hold up in man coverage for the Panthers to have a chance against Seattle. Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch are dangerous runners, so the defense will need to drop an additional defender in the box to contain the ground game. Thus, Cason and White will be assigned to handle Baldwin and Co. on the outside with little assistance from safeties (over the top) and linebackers (underneath). If these two corners are unable to win their individual battles, the Panthers could be forced to abandon their eight-man fronts, which will allow Lynch and Wilson to run roughshod over this D.
Bell has quickly become one of the top playmakers in the NFL. He ranks second in the league in total yards from scrimmage, exhibiting a versatile game that makes him nearly impossible to defend in the Steelers' offense. From attacking the defense on hard-charging runs between the tackles to snagging passes out of the backfield on an assortment of screens and option routes, Bell is an explosive multipurpose back capable of delivering big plays in a variety of ways. With the Steelers fully taking advantage of his unique skill set, Bell's production could have the biggest impact on the outcome of this intriguing AFC battle.
For the Colts, the onus falls on Jackson and Freeman to slow down Bell. The linebacking tandem boasts the speed and quickness to corral the Steelers star on perimeter plays while possessing the toughness and physicality to stop him in his tracks on inside runs. Given Bell's importance to the Steelers' offense in critical moments, Jackson and Freeman must keep him in check for the defense to remain effective on third down (Indy leads the league in third-down defense) and in the red zone.
The chess match that will ensue between Kelly and Bowles is must-see TV this week. Each is respected as a superb tactician and masterful game-day adjuster, but it is the unique styles of their individual units that will make this a fascinating game to watch.
Kelly's Eagles offense revolves around a fast-paced, run-centric scheme that features one of the most explosive runners in the NFL. The coach finds clever ways to get LeSean McCoy on the perimeter on a variety of zone runs and screen passes, taking advantage of his speed and quickness in space. Yet Kelly also sprinkles in enough play-action with Nick Foles to keep opponents from selling out against the run. Given his ability to set up home-run shots in the passing game while befuddling defensive play callers with unique and exotic runs, Kelly's game plan will challenge Bowles' ability to make proper adjustments on the fly.
Brooks: Potent offense vs. stingy D
For the Cardinals, Bowles' innovative schemes have allowed the defense to remain one of the top units in football despite a barrage of personnel losses. Bowles has tweaked his schemes to fit his available players, which is why the Cardinals confuse opponents with an exotic 2-3-6 package that features a variety of fronts and blitzes. The wily defensive coordinator is also adept at implementing pre-snap disguises and post-snap chaos, and the Eagles' offense could be on the defensive as it deals with the wide array of tactics Bowles will employ on game day.
To prevent Peyton Manning from picking apart a banged-up secondary with a barrage of quick-rhythm throws, the Chargers must find a way to disrupt his timing in the pocket. While most would assume the pressure must come from off the edges, Manning's lack of athleticism and limited mobility makes "gut pressures" more effective against the Broncos. Thus, the Bolts need their dominant interior defender to generate a consistent push through the A- or B-gap to force Manning off the sweet spot in the pocket. If Liuget can create enough pressure to make Manning move to his right or left before making a toss, he will disrupt the veteran's rhythm just enough to force an errant throw. With Eric Weddle and Co. adept at snagging picks off tips and overthrows, the persistent pressure could be enough to throw Manning off his game.
The Broncos switched Franklin from right tackle to left guard in the offseason to solidify their offensive line. The fourth-year pro gives Denver a big, athletic mauler at the point of attack who is capable of moving defenders off the ball. Franklin's physicality and toughness will be needed in this matchup, what with Liuget's ability to create chaos at the line of scrimmage. If Franklin can neutralize the Chargers' beast at the point of attack, Manning should have enough time to distribute the ball to an explosive cast of playmakers who should find plenty of room against a vulnerable secondary.