In this installment of "Bucky's Best," former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks highlights the can't-miss matchups to watch in Week 9:
Broncos' receiving corps vs. Patriots' defensive backs
The Broncos' deep and talented receiving corps poses problems for opponents with its collective size, speed, athleticism and skill. Peyton Manning excels at exploiting the biggest mismatch on the perimeter, making it impossible to predict which receiver will be the focal point on any given day. Most expect Demaryius Thomas to be the team's No. 1 option, based on his impressive physical tools and talent, but the emergence of Emmanuel Sanders as a dangerous playmaker prevents defenders from rolling coverage exclusively in Thomas' direction. With Wes Welker and tight end Julius Thomas also capable of posting 100-yard games, the Broncos seemingly have an effective counter to every conceivable defensive tactic in the book.
The Patriots added Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner in the offseason with this matchup in mind. Coach Bill Belichick likes to rough up receivers on the perimeter with an assortment of "hug and mug" tactics that completely disrupt the timing and rhythm of the passing game. Against the Broncos, Revis and Browner will be tasked with neutralizing the size of Thomas and the explosiveness of Sanders to eliminate the outside part of the field. If they can force Manning to throw extensively between the hashes, the Patriots might be able to snag a couple of interceptions off tips and overthrows. Given the game-breaking impact of turnovers, the play of Revis and Browner -- as well as Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington -- will go a long way toward determining the winner of this pivotal AFC showdown.
Le'Veon Bell vs. C.J. Mosley
The Steelers' offensive resurgence has been keyed by the spectacular play of Bell in the backfield. The second-year pro ranks second in the league in total yards from scrimmage, exhibiting the kind of versatility and explosiveness that has quickly made him one of the elite three-down backs in the NFL. Bell has eight straight games with 100-plus scrimmage yards and is a dangerous weapon as a power runner/receiver in the Steelers' multi-faceted offense. Ben Roethlisberger has been given more freedom to make play calls at the line, and Bell has become a bigger part of an offense that has suddenly found its stride in recent weeks.
The Ravens remain one of the top defenses in football behind the play of a dominant front seven that controls the point of attack. Mosley has instantly emerged as an integral part of the defensive dominance. The rookie has made a number of splash plays on the second level, due to his unique combination of athleticism, instincts and awareness. Mosley will need to shadow Bell in the passing game while also stepping up to meet him on rushes between the tackles. If Mosley can win this matchup, he could key a team-wide defensive effort that enables the Ravens to sweep their AFC North rivals.
Tony Romo vs. Todd Bowles
The Cowboys surged to the top of the NFC behind a run-centric offensive formula that alleviated the burden on Romo. No longer forced to single-handedly carry the offense, Romo superbly managed the game from the line of scrimmage, delivering enough plays through the air to complement the NFL's top rushing attack. Against the Redskins, however, the bevy of all-out, Cover-0 blitzes neutralized Dallas' running game and dared Romo to throw accurately under duress. The "bluff and blitz" tactics befuddled the veteran quarterback at the line of scrimmage, leading him to make some questionable decisions in the pocket and finish with an overall disappointing performance. Romo also suffered a back injury against that aggressive Redskins D. The Cowboys star must be prepared to deal with more blitz looks from a Cardinals defense that brings heat from all angles.
Film of the Redskins' win last Monday will help the Cardinals' wily defensive coordinator craft more blitzes to harass Romo in the pocket. Arizona blitzes more than any other team in the NFL, using a variety of pressures from base and exotic sub-packages. From five-man zone dogs to all-out, Cover-0 hits, Bowles will make it a point to blitz gaps in an effort to snuff out the Cowboys' potent rushing attack and keep Romo under duress. The Cardinals have used these blitz-heavy tactics to eliminate the run (Cardinals rank third in rush defense) and disrupt the timing of the passing game (opposing quarterbacks have a passer rating of 74.5 against the Cardinals' blitz -- the third-lowest mark in the NFL). Facing a battered veteran quarterback in a big NFC showdown, Bowles could dial up the pressure to help the Cardinals walk away with a huge victory on the road.
Michael Vick vs. Justin Houston/Tamba Hali
Rex Ryan finally gave Vick the nod after watching Geno Smith self-destruct against Buffalo last Sunday. Vick didn't exactly spark the offense in that game, but the former Pro Bowler gives the Jets an opportunity to get something going with his athleticism, savvy and playmaking ability. Though he's no longer the explosive superstar who took the league by storm, the veteran remains a dynamic athlete capable of producing enough splash plays to help put points on the board. Facing a Chiefs' defense that doesn't surrender many big plays (Kansas City has allowed just 20 plays of 20-plus yards this season, the fewest in the NFL), Vick's improvisational skills could help generate some scoring opportunities in a must-win situation.
The Chiefs' pass rush is one of the most feared in the NFL, with Houston and Hali wreaking havoc off the edges. Houston, in particular, has been a dominant force, collecting 10 sacks in seven games. He and Hali will form a cocoon around Vick in the pocket, forcing the diminutive signal-caller to find passing lanes among the trees. Although Vick remains a dangerous playmaker on the move, he continues to struggle as a pocket passer. His tendency to lose the ball in traffic means Houston and Hali must harass him off the edges. If they can get home a few times, Vick might be forced into making a critical error that leads to an easy scoring chance for Kansas City.
The Saints showcased their offensive balance and versatility in last Sunday's win over the Packers by leaning on Ingram to anchor the ground attack. The fourth-year pro responded with an impressive and workmanlike effort (24 carries for 172 yards) that forced Green Bay to completely change the way it was defending New Orleans, leading to more explosive plays in the passing game off play-action. Facing a Panthers defense that has struggled against both the runand the pass, the Saints would be wise to pound Ingram between the tackles in the hopes of luring an extra defender into the box and creating a home-run opportunity in the passing game. Given Drew Brees' effectiveness off play-action (he leads the NFL with a 139.4 passer rating on play-action passes), establishing Ingram as a legitimate running threat will enable New Orleans to control the tempo of the game -- and provide plenty of chances to attack a vulnerable secondary that is susceptible to deep throws down the boundary.
The Panthers' defensive game plan begins and ends with stopping the run. Coach Ron Rivera's defense is at its best when it can dictate to the offense and force opponents to throw against loaded coverage or a ferocious pass rush. The onus falls on Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis to snuff out the early-down runs and force Brees to throw against max coverage. If the Panthers can make Ingram a non-factor on the ground, the defensive line can get after Brees and keep him from establishing a rhythm as a passer.