Week 16 NFL Preview: What Will Be The Deciding Factors In This Week's Games?

Owen Ravenna focuses in on five games this weekend as The NFL season enters the home straight…

New York Giants @ Baltimore Ravens

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With the Ravens finding form, and the Giants as inconsistent as ever, this game looks like it will be another win for Baltimore as they make their push for the playoffs. But with the Giants still hanging around, and QB Daniel Jones potentially back from injury, this game could be closer than it would appear on the surface.

With the Ravens’ defense having a few key players battling injuries, including Calais Campbell, Pernell McPhee, Marcus Peters and Jimmy Smith, the Giants could be able to move the ball through the air. While CB Marlon Humphrey will restrict Jones’ favourite target Darius Slayton from getting open too often, slot WR Golden Tate and TE Evan Engram should fare better.

When Engram is lined up across from one of Baltimore’s LBs, especially rookie Patrick Queen, Jones should be targeting him on hitch and deeper out routes, as the Ravens’ LBs have had difficulties in pass coverage this year. However, Baltimore will be mixing up their coverage to disguise blitzes, and with Jones limited in being able to get out of the pocket, the defense should force plenty of three-and-outs. New York will need to mix in plenty of runs to try and counteract the pass rush, but with the Ravens tenth in the league in total rush yards and rushing TDs allowed, the Giants can’t rely on moving the ball on the ground all game.

The Ravens’ own offense will have similar difficulty against the Giants’ run defense, although with QB Lamar Jackson back to his 2019 form, will prove to be something unlike what the Giants have faced this year. Although the Giants’ LBs cover the outside well, with the Ravens’ deception in pre-snap motion, as well as extra blockers, both RBs JK Dobbins, Gus Edwards, and also Jackson, should find holes to exploit.

While the Giants’ secondary might be the weaker component, Baltimore’s offense is predicated on the run game. WR Marquise Brown and TE Mark Andrews will be targeted on medium and deep routes throughout the game, but if the Ravens can establish a lead early, there will be fewer riskier throws made, instead shifting to shorter underneath and crossing routes. Moreover, if Baltimore goes ahead early on, their blitz will become more potent as the Giants are forced to move the ball through the air trying to make a comeback.

Carolina Panthers @ Washington Football Team

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Despite how well the Panthers have played at times this season, they don’t have anything left to play for except pride this season, whereas Washington still have playoff hopes on the line. This game will be a matter of whether the latter’s offense can move the ball enough, as regardless of how good their pass rush is, the Panthers should still put some points on the board.

Between WRs DJ Moore and Robby Anderson providing downfield targets, and an enhanced running game involving WR Curtis Samuel and QB Teddy Bridgewater, the Panthers can attack in different ways. While Washington can use just a 4-man pass rush, allowing extra players in pass coverage and to attack the run, with Moore running slant and comeback routes, and Anderson on vertical and deeper in routes, Washington lack the secondary depth to defend both of these players effectively. By running Mike Davis up the middle and using WR screens to Anderson and Samuel, the Panthers can stretch and spread defenses to give themselves scoring opportunities.

Washington’s own offense is far less potent, but has been able to rely on the defense for much if the season. With RB Antonion Gibson possibly back from injury, Washington can get him into the flats as a runner or receiver, testing the weak points of Carolina’s defense. While fellow RB JD McKissic will see snaps through the middle and to the outside as a rusher, but the Panthers’ DL has tightened up against the run in the second half of the season.

While WR Terry McLaurin provides a dominant receiving option, the Panthers should double team him often, leaving a LB or Safety underneath on slant routes, with a CB over the top. While McLaurin will also run deeper in and out routes, restricting his chances to get open or be targeted will force Washington into more 3rd and long situations where they are unable to rely on their rushing attack either. With the starting QB likely to remain Dwayne Haskins, unless he starts making better downfield reads, Carolina could edge out Washington, playing spoiler for their postseason hopes.

Indianapolis Colts @ Pittsburgh Steelers

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With neither the Colts nor Steelers able to afford a loss in a tight AFC playoff race, this game could be a low-scoring affair, as both teams have effective defenses. Pittsburgh’s offense has been dysfunctional since their winning streak ended, unable to run the ball effectively or attack downfield in the passing game.

Without a dynamic RB able to make guys miss, the Steelers rely on extra blockers to create rushing lanes. However, the Colts’ front seven have shown themselves capable of beating their blockers, with the LBs especially shooting inside the B gap or getting to the outside to restrict big running plays. Instead, the Steelers will need to move the ball through the air, and could find spaces for receivers against Indianapolis’ zone scheme. Pittsburgh need to have more creative formations and plays, including bunched WRs, TE screens and levels concepts to scheme WRs open, instead of having QB Ben Roethlisberger read defenses.

Pittsburgh might struggle to move the ball, but their defense can cause problems for the Colts too. The Steelers need to stack the box when the Colts have RB Jonathan Taylor on the field, especially on 21 and 22 formations, unless QB Philip Rivers switches to an empty backfield or shotgun formation. Restricting Taylor’s ability to set up play action and wear down an opponent, as well as making the Colts think twice about running the ball, will give the Steelers the chances to end Indy’s drives early.

The Colts will also send their TEs on short and intermediate out routes, which the Steelers can counter by shading Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick to whichever side Trey Burton is on, as the primary receiving TE. While WRs Michael Pittman Jr and TY Hilton will pose problems on deeper crossing routes, vertical outside routes and slants, Rivers doesn’t always connect with them, and forcing him to throw over the top instead of underneath will also work in the Steelers’ favour. Although the Colts possess all the advantages, Pittsburgh have enough talent to keep themselves in it, but need to capitalise on any mistakes or turnovers they can cause.

Los Angeles Rams @ Seattle Seahawks

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With a single game between these NFC West rivals, a win for the Rams would keep their chances of winning the division intact, whereas a Seattle victory wraps up the division for them. Los Angeles need a bounce-back game after giving the New York Jets their first win of the season, and will seek to return to their varied formations.

The Rams will use a combination of 1, 2 and 3 WR sets to gauge the Seahawks’ weaknesses, while simultaneously disguising runs and giving options in the passing game. WR Robert Woods will go vertical on the outside, while WR Cooper Kupp operates out of the slot, working inside or outside depending on what Seattle gives them. From this basis, the Rams will work on running their trio of RBs up the middle, as well as to the outside by pulling a Guard as an extra blocker, in addition to their TEs on the field. By giving themselves the option to run or pass on every play from different formations, Seattle’s defense will be restricted from focusing their attention on 1-2 players.

Instead, the Seahawks will continue to try and create pressure on QB Jared Goff with Safety Jamal Adams coming off the edge, and DL Carlos Dunlap to disrupt throwing lanes over the middle. The Seahawks will also need to keep their LBs over the middle too as plays start to defend against the run, but spread them out across the middle if the Rams fake handoffs or use end arounds and screens. Seattle should be able to break up a few plays, but if they struggle against the run will have problems closing down the pass later in the game.

Seattle’s offense, meanwhile, also needs to find their groove again. Against the Rams they won’t have as much ease getting WR DK Metcalf open downfield, especially when he lines up opposite CB Jalen Ramsey, and he could be moved to the opposite side instead to see if he has better luck there. WRs Tyler Lockett and David Moore will provide options over the middle and to the outside respectively, and should have more room to work, if Russell Wilson can find them as they get open. With DL Aaron Donald creating pressure up the middle, Wilson will need to move outside of the pocket instead, and this could allow the Rams to bring extra defenders to try and bring him down.

Seattle’s rushing attack will slowly set up counters and misdirects, but they will need to shift to RB screens and toss plays instead as that is where the Rams are more vulnerable. The Rams are the more well-rounded team, but Wilson’s ability to make up for any deficiencies will keep the Seahawks in it, if they don’t get some early stops on defense and an early lead. This game should come down to the last possession.

Tennessee Titans @ Green Bay Packers

Week 16 Preview
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Although the Packers have been one of the best passing attacks this season, and are up against a vulnerable secondary in Tennessee, the Titans have a strong counterattack in their run game, which is also the Packers’ weakness. Green Bay should be able to feed WR Davante Adams, TE Robert Tonyan and RB Aaron Jones for the whole game, with Adams as a threat over the middle, Tonyan on the outside and Jones in the flats to head upfield on the outside too. The Titans don’t have the necessary players to cover these three, and if they do, it will leave the likes of Allen Lazard and Marquez Valdes-Scantling in single coverage, where they can use their speed to create separation.

Tennessee will need to blitz and speed QB Aaron Rodgers’ throws up, so that the big plays downfield can’t develop. The Titans will also need to stay in nickel formation for most of the game, and ensure they have the outsides covered, even at the expense of leaving short throws over the middle open, as the Packers target this area less. Tennessee’s offense will also need to go blow-for-blow with Green Bay. The Titans can chew up time with their running attack and give the Packers fewer possessions, and should be able to find holes through the middle.

Green Bay’s secondary is capable of playing man coverage effectively, and while a few plays might see WR Corey Davis get open on the outside, the deep shots from play action won’t be there as often for the Titans. The more Henry gets going the more Tennessee’s receivers will have space to work, but Green Bay’s own nickel formation will break up pass attempts often enough. If the Packers can find a way to restrict Henry early, and also in the fourth quarter if the game remains close, they should close the game out themselves. However, if their offense is less than perfect, they could find themselves behind on the scoreboard instead.

Owen Ravenna