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Steve Smith vs. Panthers' secondary among matchups to watch

In his weekly "Bucky's Best" series, former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks highlights the can't-miss matchups you need to watch.

Most favorable offensive matchup

LeSean McCoy/Darren Sproles vs. 49ers' linebackers

The Eagles' fast-paced offense revolves around the best 1-2 backfield punch in football. Chip Kelly's spread attack puts the ball in the hands of his electric running backs in a variety of ways, including via inside/outside zone runs, screens, swings and option routes. McCoy and Sproles are dangerous space players capable of taking it the distance from anywhere on the field. Their dynamic skills force opposing defenses to alter their tactics, leading to big-play opportunities for teammates in the passing game.

The 49ers' defense has slipped considerably this season, largely due to the notable absences of Aldon Smith and NaVorro Bowman. Without the Pro Bowler linebackers on the field, San Francisco's D ranks dead last in third-down stops. While Patrick Willis remains the gold standard at inside linebacker, he is playing alongside a cast of newcomers without the experience or athleticism to contain explosive players in space. The Eagles are intent on creating mismatches in the open field; thus, the Niners' ability to corral McCoy and Sproles is the key to this intriguing NFC showdown.

Most favorable defensive matchup

Chargers' defense vs. Blake Bortles

San Diego defensive coordinator John Pagano must be licking his chops, with the Chargers poised to take on a rookie quarterback making his first NFL start. The wily defensive play-caller has quietly transformed the Bolts' D into a ferocious unit on the strength of a creative scheme that smothers receivers on the perimeter and harasses quarterbacks in the pocket. Given the Jaguars' inexperience at wide receiver and questionable talent along the offensive line, Pagano could throw everything at the rookie QB, to see if he can function amid chaos.

For the Jaguars, the move to start Bortles is an attempt to energize an offense that struggled to move the ball with Chad Henne at the helm. The veteran quarterback was sacked 16 times in 10 quarters and directed an offense that was outscored by 78 points prior to his benching at halftime of Week 3. Although Bortles will suffer through his fair share of growing pains as a first-time starter, he'll also add a bit of explosiveness to the offense with his athleticism and playmaking ability. It might not translate into significant production against the Chargers' stingy defense, but it could help the Jaguars get back on track as the season progresses.

Best WR-CB matchup

Nelson is the NFL's second-leading receiver with 351 receiving yards on 23 receptions. The seventh-year pro accounts for 50.4 percent of the Packers' receiving yards (the highest mark of any pass catcher in football) and is unquestionably Aaron Rodgers' primary target in critical moments. With the pressure mounting on the 1-2 Packers to deliver a win in a tough NFC North tilt, Mike McCarthy could make the Rodgers-Nelson connection the focal point of the game plan.

Fuller is a rookie still learning the ropes on the perimeter, but he is already emerging as the Bears' No. 1 cover corner. The 5-foot-11, 190-pounder has snagged three interceptions and forced a pair of fumbles while displaying exceptional ball skills, awareness and anticipation in the back end. Although the Bears' zone-heavy approach limits Fuller's exposure to one-on-one matchups, he will have plenty of opportunities to knock around Nelson in the team's Cover 2 scheme. If Fuller is able to disrupt Nelson's releases and shadow him throughout his zone, he could force Rodgers to move off Nelson and rely on the Packers' less-heralded pass catchers.

Most intriguing matchup

Steve Smith vs. Panthers' secondary

The energetic veteran has always played with a chip on his shoulder, but the edginess will be at an all-time high when he takes on the team that released him. Smith will want to show Panthers brass that he remains a dominant player despite his advanced age (35), and he will get plenty of opportunities to do so, with the Ravens increasingly leaning on him to carry the passing game in injured tight end Dennis Pitta's absence. With a pair of 100-yard games and six catches of 20-plus yards already on his résumé for 2014, Smith could be the focal point of the Ravens' offense on Sunday.

The Panthers' patchwork secondary has held up well, despite questions surrounding their ability to contain receivers on the outside. Antoine Cason and Melvin White have consistently kept receivers from getting behind the defense, which is why Carolina has allowed just six receptions of 20-plus yards in 113 pass attempts. If the Panthers can keep Smith from snagging deep balls, forcing the veteran to settle for short and intermediate connections, Carolina could walk out of M&T Bank Stadium with a huge road win.

Best coaching matchup

Scott Linehan vs. Rob Ryan

Credit Linehan with transforming Dallas' offense into a ground-based attack built around a dominant line and an electric running back with home-run potential. The philosophical shift has allowed the Cowboys to control the clock (Dallas ranks fifth in time of possession), protect ailing quarterback Tony Romo and limit the exposure of their defense. Additionally, it has helped DeMarco Murray emerge as the NFL's leading rusher (385 yards) and post three straight 100-yard games. Considering the Cowboys' 13-1 record when Murray gets 20-plus carries, this run-first strategy could make "America's Team" a tough out down the stretch.

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For all of the criticism tossed in Ryan's direction these days, the numbers suggest New Orleans' defense is nowhere near as bad as people seem to think it is. The Saints are tied for ninth in run defense (101.3 yards per game) and have yet to yield a run of 20-plus yards. Although the Saints' pass defense has been leaky at times, the ability to force opponents into a one-dimensional game plan eventually leads to negative plays when Ryan dials up blitzes in long-yardage situations. Given the Cowboys' sudden preference to grind it out with Murray, Ryan must come up with a plan to slow down the Pro Bowler and put the game on Romo's shoulders.

Bucky's Beast

The second-year pro is quickly emerging as one of the premier playmakers in football. Bell leads the league in total yards from scrimmage, exhibiting explosive skills as an all-purpose weapon in the backfield. Against a Tampa defense that was completely undressed by the Falcons last week, Bell could have a monster performance -- especially if Bucs DT Gerald McCoy is limited by his fractured hand.


Best Thursday night matchup: Kirk Cousins vs. Giants' pass defense

Cousins is making a strong case to be the permanent starting quarterback in Washington with his spectacular play from the pocket. The third-year pro is connecting on 64.2 percent of his passes while boasting a 5:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 105.8 passer rating. Most importantly, he has led the Redskins to 75 points in 25 drives, compared to the six points (in 13 drives) scored under the direction of Robert Griffin III. With the Redskins' offense running like a well-oiled machine behind Cousins, the Giants must find a way to disrupt the quarterback's rhythm and timing in the pocket.

For New York, the game plan could mimic that of last December, when the Giants forced Cousins into a a horrific Week 17 performance (19 for 49, 169 passing yards, two interceptions, 31.8 passer rating). Sure, the Redskins' offensive scheme and coaching staff have changed, but the Giants certainly understand how to rattle Cousins with their pass rush and coverage. Thus, I would expect defensive coordinator Perry Fewell to attack Cousins with a host of four- and five-man rushes -- speeding up the clock in his head -- while dropping a variety of defenders into coverage to clog passing lanes. If Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Prince Amukamara can crowd Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson on the perimeter, the Giants could temper some of the enthusiasm brewing in Washington over this sensational backup quarterback.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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