In this installment of "Bucky's Best," former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks highlights the can't-miss matchups to watch in Week 6:
Bryant has blossomed into one of the NFL's elite receivers over the past few seasons. He leads the league in receiving touchdowns since 2012 (29) and enters this game with touchdown receptions in nine of the Cowboys' last 10 games (going back to last season). Although his production has dipped a bit due to Dallas' run-first approach this fall, the 6-foot-2, 220-pounder is a dominant playmaker on the edge due to his physicality, speed, athleticism and ball skills. He routinely wins 50-50 balls on the perimeter and his penchant for coming down with acrobatic catches makes him one of Tony Romo's favorite targets in critical situations. (See: This huge overtime catch against the Texans last week.)
Sherman is arguably the best cover corner in football. He suffocates receivers on the perimeter with his length and physicality in press coverage, yet remains a technically sound defender capable of using a variety of techniques to shadow receivers from "off" alignments. With few wideouts finding success against the All-Pro stud, opposing quarterbacks typically look to the opposite side of the field when hunting completions against the Seahawks. (Sherman has only been targeted 14 times in four games this season, according to Pro Football Focus.) While the Cowboys won't shy away from Sherman when Bryant's out there, they could quickly find out how tough it is to have consistent success throwing to the right side of the field.
The Bills are playing stifling defense under new coordinator Jim Schwartz. The unit ranks fifth in scoring defense (17.8 points per game) behind a dominant pass rush that is tied for the league lead with 17 sacks. Defensive linemen Marcell Dareus (five sacks), Mario Williams (3.5) and Jerry Hughes (three) overwhelm opponents with their collective strength, power and explosiveness. Williams and Hughes, in particular, have given opponents fits with their quickness of the edges in passing situations. With the Patriots showing vulnerability against elite pass rushers in previous games (like the Chiefs debacle), the Bills' dynamic duo could be in line for a big day against Tom Brady and Co. in this pivotal AFC East matchup.
Despite playing one of its best games of the season this past Sunday, the Patriots' O-line remains the biggest question mark for the offense. The unit has allowed 11 sacks in five games, and the constant harassment has contributed to Brady's woes as a passer. The veteran quarterback is on pace for the worst statistical season of his career and he leads the league with five fumbles. With the pressure greatly impacting Brady's rhythm and accuracy from the pocket, it is not surprising that he is only connecting on 8.3 percent of his throws of 20-plus yards in the air. Against a Bills team that thrives on creating disruption at the point of attack, New England's offensive line must neutralize the monster in the middle (Dareus) while also finding a way to contain Hughes and Williams off the edges. Keeping a tight end or running back in protection is an option, but the need to utilize every available weapon in the passing game will force the Patriots' offensive line to play one-on-one for the most of the game. How they hold up will determine whether the Pats keep their vise grip on the AFC East.
The Bengals have morphed into a run-first outfit under new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson. Cincinnati is one of just two teams to run on more than 50 percent of their offensive plays so far this season, which makes it critical for Bernard and Hill to have success early in the contest against the Panthers. And with star receiver A.J. Green likely to sit this one out, the ground attack becomes even bigger for the Bengals. Jackson likes to deploy his 1-2 RB punch in specific roles throughout the game -- Bernard is a perimeter specialist who is also adept at running draws and delays; Hill is a grinder who excels on runs between the tackles -- but he will make it a point to feature the hot hand based on the matchup. Given Carolina's recent struggles defending the run against the Steelers and Ravens, the wily offensive play caller could make it a point to give his running backs 30-plus combined carries.
Kuechly is a tackling machine with exceptional instincts, awareness and diagnostic skills. He quickly sorts through the trash at the point of attack to take solid shots on runners in the hole. Against a Bengals offensive line that's been blowing defenders off the line of scrimmage, Kuechly must be precise with his run fits to prevent Bernard and Hill from gashing the Panthers on inside runs. If the 2013 Defensive Player of the Year performs up to his lofty standard, the Panthers should be able to contain the Bengals' ground game and put the onus on Andy Dalton to make enough plays through the air to win the game.
Credit Mike Pettine for sticking with his veteran quarterback despite a lackluster performance in the preseason. The sixth-year pro has rewarded his head coach for his faith by playing mistake-free football at the position. Hoyer has completed 62.1 percent of his passes and compiled a 6:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Most importantly, he has been an efficient passer and playmaker from the pocket, particularly when the Browns utilize a no-huddle approach. Against a Steelers defense that likes to turn up the heat with a variety of zone pressures, Hoyer must rely on the knowledge gained from his spectacular second-half showing at Pittsburgh in Week 1.
For the Steelers, it is all about neutralizing the Browns' potent rushing attack to negate the effectiveness of the play-action pass. Hoyer has been killing opponents who overreact to the run with dart-like throws following deft ball fakes in the backfield. If the Steelers can contain the early-down runs and force Hoyer to throw into a defense loaded up to defend the pass, LeBeau can dial up his exotic schemes to bait the veteran into an errant throw that leads to a game-changing turnover. Given the impact of the turnover battle on the outcome of games, LeBeau's ability to stop the run could determine whether the Steelers have the opportunity to harass the veteran quarterback into a critical error.
The veteran receiver has rebounded from a torn ACL to reclaim his spot as the focal point of the Colts' passing game, as Wayne leads the team with 384 receiving yards. He's recorded three-plus receptions in the last 76 games he's played (an NFL record). Although the 14th-year pro is no longer a deep threat on the perimeter, his precise route-running and savvy make him a dangerous weapon in third-down and red-zone situations. With 24 of his 30 receptions resulting in first downs this year, the Texans must have a plan for slowing down Wayne to contain the Colts' explosive aerial attack.
The ninth-year pro is a technically sound cover corner with the size, speed and athleticism to challenge Wayne at every turn. Although the Texans aren't likely to instruct Joseph to shadow Wayne all over the field, the veteran corner will have plenty of chances to slow down the six-time Pro Bowler from his customary right cornerback position. How well he fares in those battles will go a long way toward determining the winner of this AFC South showdown.