In this installment of "Bucky's Best," former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks highlights the can't-miss matchups to watch in Week 7:
The Panthers finally unleashed Newton after his health issues (he underwent offseason ankle surgery and suffered a preseason rib injury) forced them to take a cautious early-season approach. The two-time Pro Bowler has helped Carolina score 30-plus points in each of its past two games, largely due to his increased role as a dual-threat playmaker. Against Cincinnati in Week 6, Newton rushed for 107 yards on 17 carries, displaying outstanding speed, quickness and athleticism while executing a variety of designed runs on the perimeter. He complemented that spectacular ground effort with a superb performance from the pocket that showcased his growth as a traditional passer. Newton is rounding into form as the ultimate playmaker at the position, making the Panthers' offense look tricky to defend heading into this NFC showdown. If Kelvin Benjamin (concussion) is unable to go, Cam will have to take matters into his hands even more.
The addition of Peppers has finally given Matthews a legitimate playmate on the opposite side of the field. Despite losing some speed and quickness off the edge in his 13th NFL season, Peppers remains one of the best athletes at the position and continues to flash the disruptive ability that has helped him dominate the league since his arrival in 2002. Matthews, meanwhile, has continued to wreak havoc against foes with his relentless energy and burst. This 1-2 combination has helped the Packers' D creep back to respectability in the NFC North. With their collective athleticism and quickness, Peppers and Matthews could confine Newton to the pocket and force him to attempt pinpoint throws under duress.
When Vikings coach Mike Zimmer turned to Bridgewater following a season-ending injury to veteran Matt Cassel, he surely expected the rookie to endure some ups and downs while acclimating to the speed of the pro game. When teams throw clever disguises and exotic blitzes at the young signal-caller, he can fall prey to indecisiveness and hesitation, resulting in turnovers and miscues from the pocket. Last week, Bridgewater was completely overwhelmed by a Lions defense that brought a variety of aggressive pressures from every angle. Not only did Bridgewater take eight sacks, but he threw three picks and failed to lead the Vikings to an offensive touchdown.
Facing a Bills defense that is every bit as talented and aggressive as the Lions up front, Bridgewater must display better poise, anticipation and awareness when attacking the pressure. From getting the ball out of his hands more quickly to making proper checks at the line of scrimmage, he must take advantage of blitz opportunities to deliver big plays in the passing game.
Schwartz has surely pored over film of his former team's dismantling of the Vikings, and the Bills defensive coordinator will certainly implement some of the tactics that disrupted the rookie's rhythm. Additionally, he will utilize a variety of stunts and games along the line to unleash his ferocious front four on the Vikings while limiting the exposure of his defensive backs in coverage. Thus, he will force the rookie quarterback to try to fit the ball into tight windows while avoiding a pass rush that will disrupt his comfort level within the pocket.
Having been discarded by the Carolina Panthers this offseason, the 35-year-old Smith is turning in a campaign for the ages in Baltimore. The veteran has already posted four 100-yard games this year and is averaging 16.4 yards per catch as the Ravens' No. 1 receiver. Quarterback Joe Flacco is growing increasingly comfortable throwing the ball to Smith in critical situations; he's become the straw that stirs the drink for that team.
Trufant and Alford are explosive athletes on the perimeter, but the second-year pros are still mastering the nuances of playing defense in the NFL. They've struggled to blanket elite receivers, and their propensity for giving up big plays has led opposing quarterbacks to take more shots down the field against the Falcons. Plus, the team's non-existent pass rush hasn't helped mask their deficiencies. Ultimately, Atlanta's young cornerback duo must exhibit better discipline and awareness if the defense is to have a chance of containing the crafty Smith.
The Lions have the No. 1 overall defense in the NFL due to the remarkable play of a defensive line led by Ndamukong Suh and Ezekiel Ansah. The tandem has comprised a two-person wrecking ball at the point of attack, exhibiting a combination of strength, power and athleticism that overwhelms blockers. Additionally, the emergence of George Johnson and C.J. Mosley as credible pass rushers has given Detroit a formidable front line that destroys the timing and rhythm of opponents' passing games. The Lions' ascension to the top of the defensive charts has clearly been fueled by the play of their stellar D-line, which is responsible for 14 of the team's 20 sacks.
Against the Saints, Detroit will need that line to create pressure without assistance from the linebackers or defensive backs on blitzes. If the Lions can win with a four-man rush, new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin can blanket New Orleans' passing game with seven defenders using an assortment of coverages designed to take away the deep ball.
For Brees, this matchup will come down to his ability to quickly identify the first receiver who comes open in the progression. Brees will need to be efficient and decisive with his reads to get the ball out of his hands before the pocket collapses against a four-man rush that has demolished other teams. If Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham isn't available for Brees to target on quick-rhythm throws, the veteran quarterback could find himself running for his life at Ford Field on Sunday.
The football world is waiting for the Cowboys to collapse, but "America's Team" has gained so much confidence in its blue-collar approach that it's hard to envision this group deviating from a punishing ground game spearheaded by one of the best offensive tackles in football. Smith is a dominant force at the point of attack, exhibiting explosive strength and power while moving defenders off the ball. His ability to kick out defenders on off-tackle runs has helped DeMarco Murray reel off six straight 100-yard games and emerge as the NFL's leading rusher. Given the impact of the ground attack on the outcome of games in this league, Smith's ability to control the edge is key to the Cowboys' strategy.
For the Giants to have any chance of slowing down Dallas, their defensive line must deliver a stellar performance. Pierre-Paul's long arms and explosive athleticism have posed problems for elite blockers in the past, but against a dynamo like Smith, he'll have to bring his A-game and break out all of his tricks to have a chance of winning the biggest matchup on the front line.
The loss of Stevan Ridley to a season-ending knee injury puts the onus on Vereen and Bolden to carry the Patriots' ground game. Although neither runner is suited for the heavy workload Ridley absorbed as the feature back in New England's power-based running scheme, the duo can provide Tom Brady with an effective 1-2 punch in the backfield and help balance out a rapidly improving offense.
Vereen, a fourth-year pro, is an elusive, change-of-pace back adept at doing damage on draws and delays. Most effective on shotgun running plays, he also creates chaos on screens and option routes in the passing game. Bolden, a third-year pro, is a big, physical ball carrier with a hard-nosed approach that is perfect for inside runs. His per-carry average of 1.7 yards raises concerns about his readiness to handle a substantial workload, but Bolden has shown flashes of being a "grinder" when given opportunities.
For the Jets, it's all about containing the run with the front seven. Harris will team with Sheldon Richardson and Muhammad Wilkerson to form a disruptive triangle in the middle, neutralizing inside runs between the tackles. In addition, Harris will be asked to cover the Patriots' running backs on checkdowns out of the backfield. Although he certainly isn't the quickest linebacker in the lineup, his savvy and guile give him a chance to make plays in the passing game off anticipation and instinct.