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Lingering back issues hasn’t kept Tony Romo from playing at a high level, and on Thanksgiving Day, he’ll the get the chance to ride the Cowboys into sole possession of first place against defending NFC East champion Philadelphia. Plus, the Lions look to bounce back against the Bears after a porous performance in Week 12 in the NFL, while the Seahawks and 49ers will square off in a rematch of last year’s NFC title game that has playoff implications on the line.
Thursday, November 27
12:30 PM ET
Chicago Bears 5-6 @ Detroit Lions 7-4 – TV: CBS
Chicago’s offense has displayed lots of undisciplined factors that’s halted drives due to pre-snap penalties in which they’ve committed 17 false starts — tied for third most in the league, and though quarterback Jay Cutler has thrown 22 touchdown passes – he’s turned the ball over 18 times, the most by any signal-caller in 2014. Pass-protection has been one of the falters of Chicago’s offense, and on the blind side of Cutler’s pocket, his left tackle Jermon Bushrod, who’s struggled this season, will need to up his game against Detroit’s defensive end Ezekiel Ansah, who’s been keeping opposing quarterbacks under duress on the outside-edge. On the interior, Chicago’s best O-lineman (guard Kyle Long) will have a matchup that could decipher Chicago’s execution on offense on trying to contain three-time Pro Bowler (defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh). Leverage will be the keys for Long on limiting Suh from wrecking things off the snap and Cutler needs to get rid of the football quickly – because you can’t expect Long to hold Suh up for more than two seconds before he can use his freakish strength and athleticism to maneuver on the inside and out of Long to get to Cutler.
This is where the offensive game plan needs to be constructed by head coach Marc Trestman and offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer on deploying a short passing game, with slants and screen concepts to ensure Cutler doesn’t stand in the pocket too long. Kromer’s most versatile weapon is running back Matt Forte – a back that has 72 catches on the season. Forte can carry the bulk of work on the ground as a reliable work-horse, but in this matchup, his special-traits within his skill-set can draw lots attention from Detroit’s back seven in the passing game. Forte can lineup just about anywhere from the backfield to the outside and slot as a receiving option that’ll get him matched up on a linebacker or defensive back — taking Detroit’s coverage away from Cutler’s main-read — giving him favorable matchups. DeAndre Levy has been a tackling force at linebacker for Detroit’s defense against the run. Levy has lots of range and speed to the ball-carrier and his duties against Forte can get him singled up in coverage, an objective for Kromer to take Levy out of his excellence.
Rashean Mathis and Darius Slay have been solid on the outside in coverage and safeties James Ihedigbo and Glover Quin have been taking away the deep pass. Chicago’s receivers Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall are physical specimens that could out-muscle defensive backs and break tackles in the open field, and if the Bears are going to use what I’m expecting with a methodical approach – those four in Detroit’s secondary need to keep them in front of them. Gaining chunks of yards after the catch could force Detroit’s defense out of their zone-prowess, getting them to play more up towards the line and Cutler could find vertical attempts to start kicking in.
Detriot’s offensive line has been banged up and their running game hasn’t provided much balance on offense without Reggie Bush (knee). Bush has stated that he’s ready to go, but how much of factor he’ll be is up in the air. Joique Bell will continue to get most of the touches as a physical runner and should be able to gain positive yards against Chicago’s defense that’s had their woes against the run. However, Detroit’s running game doesn’t have to be spectacular, but their offensive line needs to protect Matthew Stafford against an improved Chicago pass-rush. Buying Stafford time will help him exploit Chicago’s pass defense that’s allowed the second most touchdowns (25) on the season. Tim Jennings and Kyle Fuller may play press-coverage on Detroit’s dynamic receiving duo of Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate to try to disrupt them off their routes, but Ryan Mundy and Chris Conte aren’t trust-worthy safeties for Mel Tucker’s defense, and I like Stafford to take shots deep on them for big plays.
Pick: Lions 27, Bears 17
4:30 PM ET
Philadelphia Eagles 8-3 @ Dallas Cowboys 8-3 – TV: FOX
Battle of speed vs. physicality here: Though Philadelphia’s defense is ranked 26th, allowing 375.3 yards per game, defensive coordinator Billy Davis has used the speed within the Eagles’ personnel on the defensive side of the ball as an opportunistic group – deploying a philosophy on a variety of looks upfront with blitzes that has his defense up the ladder in team sacks (38), ranked second behind the Buffalo Bills that lead the league with 46. Leading the pack of Philadelphia’s defensive front are players such as defensive end Fletcher Cox, linebackers Trent Cole, Brandon Graham and Connor Barwin, who all can apply pressure – keeping opposing quarterbacks guessing on pre-snap reads on who Davis will be sending at the line of scrimmage.
We’ve seen Dallas’ offensive line look flustered before against extra fronts in the direction of Tony Romo against the Redskins in Week 8, and Davis may use the same concepts to not only get after Romo to try to throw Dallas’ passing game out of rhythm, but stopping Dallas’ league-leading rusher DeMarco Murray, who’s only had one game in which he’s rushed for under 100 yards. When Murray sets the pace on the ground – Romo is able to work effectively off the play-action. And over the last two games – offensive coordinator Scott Linehan has been more creative on utilizing star-receiver Dez Bryant on crossing routes, while Romo rolls out — finding Bryant in open space – getting him to catch the football in stride. When the interior of Dallas’ offensive line that features guards Ronald Leary and rookie standout Zack Martin along with center Travis Frederick dominate games, it opens up the gates for Romo to continue his efficient passing – mainly when he’s kept out of third and longs. Bottom line – Davis’ unit needs to harass the pocket or it will be a long day for his defense on keeping Romo from connecting big with Bryant and getting the football to tight end Jason Witten on critical passing downs.
Speed also consist on the offensive side of deal for Philadelphia, but even with the consistency of being able to rack up points, the pressing issue has been the inability to protect the football. Before starting quarterback Nick Foles broke his collarbone against the Texans on Nov. 2, he threw 10 interceptions and since Mark Sanchez has filled the void under center, the turnovers have continued. Sanchez has been connecting with rookie receiver Jordan Matthews and the offenses best threat at receiver in Jeremy Maclin, but in order to win at AT&T Stadium, Sanchez will need to protect the football and lean on his backs LeSean McCoy and Darren Sproles on the ground and in the screen game. McCoy and a healthier version of Philadelphia’s offensive line seems to be peeking, and if McCoy can have an effective day on the ground, Sanchez will be able to keep Dallas’ defense on their heels that showed vulnerabilities on Sunday night against the Giants defending the pass in a winning effort.
Dallas’ middle linebacker Rolando McClain has been a gem replacing the injured Sean Lee as the Mike linebacker against the run, and he and safety Barry Church will need to be the ball-hawks for Rod Marinelli’s defense on keeping the shifty McCoy from cutting back against the grain for big runs. In Chip Kelly’s upbeat system, the screen game to the backs and receivers in the short passing game can also setup the deep pass – so it’s important for Marinelli’s unit to tackle well, halting the yards after catch effectiveness of Kelly’s offensive principles. I see lots of open windows for both offenses to do things positively at the point of attack and special teams could be a deciding factor that’s been HUGE for the Eagles this season. But I’m circling things in on the plus-minus take and giveaway things, and the Eagles are minus 8 in that department to Dallas’ minus 1. And did you see the time Romo had in the pocket on the game-winning drive against New York? Davis’s unit better pressure Romo lots or else stacking the chips on Cary Williams matched up on Dez Bryant will end in bad results.
Pick: Cowboys 31, Eagles 27
Seattle Seahawks 7-4 @ San Francisco 49ers 7-4 – TV: NBC
The return of Aldon Smith at outside linebacker has jump-boosted San Francisco’s pass rush. Before his return from suspension in Week 11, San Francisco’s defense had just 15 sacks on the season, but with Smith back drawing extra blockers – it’s freeing up the rest of defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s group that’s recorded 7 sacks over their last two outings in hard fought wins over the Giants and Redskins. Seattle’ offensive line is far worse without center Max Unger and left guard James Carpenter, who were out nursing ankle injuries last week. Carpenter is in line to return but Unger — a viable tool on creating running lanes for Marshawn Lynch between the tackles remains out. And without Russell Wilson using his feet to make plays inside and outside the hash marks — Seattle’s offense wouldn’t have survived against Arizona’s defense that ambushed Seattle’s elusive quarterback for 7 sacks.
Unlike Arizona’s aggressive blitzing fronts, Fangio has had the luxury of leaving things up to his front and keeping more defenders back in coverage with Smith back in the mix for his defense. Spying on Wilson, taking a more containment route to keep him in the pocket is the better formula to take away the abilities of Wilson taking over a football game. Of course, gang-tackling Lynch, keeping him from getting extra yards by shedding off tacklers will be essential for San Francisco’s middle linebackers Chris Borland and Michael Wilhoite, but on the edges where Wilson can burst to the outside off the play-fakes, Smith and Ahmad Brooks need to be disciplined and not over-pursuit Wilson, who’s the most dynamite quarterback outside the pocket on moving the chains with his feet. Seattle’s offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell utilized his tight ends Tony Moeaki and Cooper Helfet last week. Helfet, who scored the lone touchdown on a 20 yard pass sprained his ankle against Arizona and is listed as doubtful. That leaves Moeaki as Wilson’s prime tight end for 49ers’ safety Antoine Bethea, who’ll likely shadow the seams, particularly in the red zone against the tight end.
When the 49ers have the ball, there’ll be some intriguing matchups on the perimeter between Seattle’s top cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell going up against Colin Kaepernick’s top targeted receivers Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree. Sherman will likely be assigned on Crabtree, while Maxwell will be on Boldin — a physical and reliable third down option for San Francisco’s passing game. More imperatively, like San Francisco’s defense that needs to keep Seattle’s running game from igniting a flame on the ground, Seattle’s defense will need to hold San Francisco’s double-combo of Frank Gore and Carlos Hyde in check. Keeping the two from making plays will keep a reeling San Francisco passing game stagnant that hasn’t gotten anything in the plus realm from tight end Vernon Davis. The lack of Davis stretching the middle of the field on the seams, forcing safeties and linebackers to funnel towards him is helping opposing defensive backs man up on a less-threating vertical attacking passing game.
San Francisco’s defense and ball-control-offense has kept them in games, but offensive coordinator Greg Roman needs to find ways to keep Seattle’s top-tier safety Kam Chancellor away from the box – an area where he displays his linebacker/defensive end elements on the exterior against the run. And he’ll be vital on keeping Kaepernick from using the same aspects as Wilson from extending plays and running outside the tackles to move the sticks. To me, this bout at Levi’s Stadium is going to come down to field position, turnovers and which offense is going to punch it in the end zone more than kick field goals when in striking distance. I’m favoring Seattle on these facets of the game, and unless Davis comes to life and Gore and Hyde gash the daylights out of Seattle’s defense – I’m taking Seattle to nip Frisco.
Pick: Seahawks 17, 49ers 16
You can follow Massimo Russo on Twitter @NFLMassimo and SilverandBlueReport.com @SilverBlueRpt