After breaking down the film and critiquing the teams heading into Week 6, Scouts Inc. tells you what to watch for this weekend.
Moss vs. Cromartie
This weekend features a rematch of the AFC Championship Game, and there is one matchup in particular that we will be paying attention to. Patriots WR Randy Moss and Chargers CB Antonio Cromartie are arguably the best players at their positions and will frequently be lined up across from each other, wide left. These teams faced off twice last season, and even though both resulted in New England victories, Moss' production drastically dropped in the second meeting.
During Week 2 last season, Moss had eight catches for 105 yards and a touchdown, but Cromartie didn't play. The Chargers used a lot of off coverages because they were afraid of Moss' speed, yet he still made big plays down the middle of the field. In the AFC Championship Game, Moss had only one catch for 18 yards, and Chargers CBs Cromartie and Quentin Jammer used tight press schemes to disrupt his routes.
The Chargers believe Cromartie can handle Moss with little help over the top. Cromartie will press the future Hall of Famer because he is a great turn-and-run corner. As much as we want to see this matchup on every down, the Chargers won't have Cromartie follow Moss wide right. When Moss moves to the right side, he will face off against Jammer, who is even more physical than Cromartie but requires more help over the top. The Patriots like to line Moss up on the right because QB Matt Cassel is more comfortable having him in his line of sight at all times.
Manning's pump fake
Eli Manning has been in a rare zone for a quarterback. He rarely makes a bad play and his ballhandling has evolved to a Peyton Manning-like level. Eli has been very good at the play fake in the past, but now he has added a pump fake to his arsenal of deception. Manning will fake the handoff to one of his three backs, and that will at least freeze the defenders. Then he sets up, looks off the defender and pump-fakes. This forces the defender, who is already trying to recover from the play fake, to break on the ball toward the pump fake. As the defender breaks, Manning throws the ball to the other side where his receiver is wide open. The Browns' secondary is going to have its hands full on "Monday Night Football."
Fundamentally sound run game
Even though the Panthers are missing starting offensive tackles Jordan Gross and Jeff Otah, they are still having success running the ball. Carolina has two explosive backs, DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, who hit the hole quickly and trust their blockers. The offensive line gets great position, maintains contact and is fundamentally sound. This line is especially good with trap plays in which the guard pulls and traps the defensive end. Plus, FB Brad Hoover is providing good lead blocks and the wide receivers, especially Steve Smith, are blocking downfield.
The Panthers have a tough test this week versus the Buccaneers, but it isn't going to matter because everyone is buying into the philosophy. Whatever the Bucs throw at them, the Panthers will block it with good angles and instinctive line calls.
The Dolphins spent a lot of time during their bye week working on fundamentals, especially tackling drills in which they broke down players in the open field and made sure to wrap up and finish. This obviously paid off last week versus the Chargers because the Dolphins held them to 60 yards rushing. The Dolphins do an excellent job of attacking from the outside, and they are quick enough off the edge to get to the ball carrier before he gets to the line of scrimmage.
NT Jason Ferguson has done a great job dominating inside and clogging up the middle. He attracts at least two blockers, freeing up the linebackers to make plays in the hole. This forces the running backs outside; that's why the Dolphins had to improve their tackling in space. Miami defenders refuse to get blocked, put themselves in excellent position and maintain their gap discipline. Texans RB Steve Slaton will be forced to run side to side, and the Dolphins will show off their improved tackling skills.
Chicago Bears and New England Patriots
Orton, Cassel are on the rise
Bears QB Kyle Orton and Cassel are improving week after week. They are becoming more poised in the pocket, and neither seems to panic when the pass rush is coming. Orton and Cassel display good accuracy on passes into tight windows, and they consistently hit holes in the Cover 2 -- which is not always an easy read for a young quarterback. Both are good at throwing over the middle and on skinny posts and deep outs. Chicago and New England are using offenses that don't force their quarterbacks to make high-risk passes. The majority of both team's passes are designed so the receiver can gain yards after the catch -- a style that builds confidence and limits turnovers.
Orton is ahead of Cassel in his ability to read his second and third options, but both are consistently reading the defense well and getting through their progressions. These two could be special down the road because they have the physical tools, and their composure appears to be fine. Both face tricky defenses this weekend, but both should be able to take steps forward in their development.
Gary Horton, a pro scout for Scouts Inc., has been a football talent evaluator for more than 30 years. He spent 10 years in the NFL and 10 years at the college level before launching a private scouting firm, The War Room.