Week 17 NFL Preview: Deciding factors in this week's games
With plenty to be decided in the final week of the regular season, Owen Ravenna picks out the key matchups in some of the crucial contests in Week 17 of the NFL…
Pittsburgh Steelers @ Cleveland Browns
While this is a must-win for Cleveland to secure their postseason berth, the Steelers have locked up their playoff spot and are resting some of their starters. The Browns will be happy to get their receiving corps back, as they will be essential to getting the win. With OLB Alex Highsmith developing as a reliable player for the Steelers, it allows them to defend the run better on both sides of the line, as TJ Watt will typically attack the right side of the offense, leaving Highsmith on the left.
The Browns will run up the middle and to the outside varyingly, using their TEs as extra blockers and to disguise their plays. Whether or not they can run the ball effectively won’t be the main concern for the Browns, as it will allow them to incorporate more play action and RB screens, getting their playmakers into space. Once their full passing attack is opened up, the Browns can attack the outside of the field more, as well as intermediate throws over the middle to the TEs. WR screens and short in routes will help gain yardage, but the deeper curls, hitch and out routes by the TEs will net the biggest yards in the first half.
Cleveland will get a few chances to score before the third quarter, but until the starters are pulled, they won’t get a lot of time for deep passing plays to develop. Pittsburgh’s own offense, despite needing to get their rhythm going after struggling for the past month, will ensure nobody gets injured. The Steelers’ struggling run game won’t get going against the Browns’ strong run defense, but they should find space against the secondary. Throwing to the opposite side as CB Denzel Ward, and attacking the LBs with the RBs in the flats and TE Eric Ebron on crossing routes, should allow Pittsburgh to move the ball through the air, if QB Mason Rudolph can make the throws open to him.
If this draws Cleveland into sliding their LBs to over the OTs instead of the B gap, this could then allow the Steelers to get yards on the ground up the middle, especially with counters and the TE pulling inside to block. The best case scenario for the Browns is that they are ahead by multiple scores in the second quarter, and get to close it out against backups. However, they can’t rely on other results going their way, and need to be more balanced on offense this week, even if the Steelers aren’t intent on winning.
Miami Dolphins @ Buffalo Bills
With little for the Bills to play for aside from retaining the #2 seed, Miami may be gifted with an easier game than they expected a few weeks ago. Although as a divisional matchup neither team will take it lightly, in the big picture this game isn’t worth a lot to either team. Even for the Dolphins, who will secure the #5 seed with a win, it’s possible they can lose and still make it in, but they won’t want to leave it to chance, especially with 3 of the 4 teams they are competing with for playoff spots going up against teams with a combined 9 wins.
The Dolphins defense is good enough to win them games, but will have a tougher matchup against the Bills. Buffalo will mostly run their RBs at the OTs, often using a OG or TE to pull to the outside and create rushing lanes. Miami’s defensive front often brings the LBs to the line of scrimmage, plugging all the gaps before the snap, and could restrict Buffalo’s ground game from getting many big plays. Instead, the Bills will have WR Stefon Diggs running deeper in routes and slants, allowing WR Cole Beasley to run underneath mesh and crossing routes.
The other WRs provide the outside vertical routes, as well as screen options, with the TEs on hitch and deeper out routes to box out the defenders. The Dolphins have the players to matchup against these receivers in single coverage, allowing them to double Diggs, but need to ensure they cover the inside passing lane, as this is where teams have struggled this season. By dropping a LB into pass coverage and blitzing a CB instead, QB Josh Allen can be tricked into the wrong read, but this doesn’t work every play. However, if Miami alternate their coverages enough, they could come up with enough stops to get good field position.
However, Miami’s offense has been inconsistent, especially in Week 16, but as most players appear to be back from injury it could be functional again. With WR DeVante Parker running vertical routes along the sidelines as well as slants, a second WR or one of the TEs can operate in the underneath space or behind him. The RBs will operate up the middle mostly, as well as receivers on curls and slants to the outside. The Bills’ DL will seek to generate pressure, leaving the LBs to spread across the middle of the field, usually with one matching up against a RB. Bills’ CB Tre’Davious White will cover one outside receiver, reducing the options for Tagovailoa to attack.
The Bills’ run defense is less effective, but by bringing the Safeties up to the box and forcing the rushing plays up the middle to the LBs, Buffalo can dictate how the game goes. While Tagovailoa has had difficulty since taking over as starter, increasing the amount of designed runs, play action and bootlegs could give him easier reads and chances to move the ball. Miami can push Buffalo to the limit, but should benefit from the Bills benching their starters for most of the second half.
Arizona Cardinals @ Los Angeles Rams
This NFC West matchup is simple for the playoff implications: it’s win-and-in for both teams. The Rams were one of the NFC frontrunners a few weeks ago, and are now without their starting QB Jared Goff. The Cardinals are optimistic their own starting QB, Kyler Murray, will play in Week 17, which significantly increases their chances of victory, as long as he is as mobile as he normally would be. With Rams’ DL Aaron Donald able to collapse pockets and handle double teams, their pass rushers get more opportunities, and the Cardinals need someone who can get the ball out quickly and/or escape pressure.
With their mediocre run game, the Cardinals will need to rush to the outside more often to help spread the defense out, as well as aiming to get RB Kenyan Drake into space. The spread passing game will take advantage of the LBs, whose coverage skills are vulnerable, often resulting in the Rams playing nickel formation. WR DeAndre Hopkins will move all over the field to either exploit matchups, or to prevent CB Jalen Ramsay removing a different WR as a target. With their 3 WR sets, the Cardinals will use a mixture of curls, slants and vertical routes to force the DBs to commit, indicating one-on-one matchups deep or space underneath.
The Rams’ best chances on defense are forcing quick throws and pressuring the QB, preventing their defenders from having to cover for too long. Regardless, Los Angeles still need to score points of their own if they are to win, and QB John Wolford will benefit from an average defense. The Rams will give him easier reads to begin with, including a variety of screens, as well as curls and comebacks by the WRs. The TEs will run intermediate in and out routes, and Wolford won’t be asked to go through many progressions, as his receivers are schemed open instead. The Rams’ run game, however, will be restricted with both RBs Darrell Henderson and Cam Akers out with injury, leaving Malcolm Brown to handle the majority of carries, after looking the least effective of the three all season.
With the Cardinals able to focus on the pass, Safety Budda Baker will roam around the defense, dropping into coverage over the middle as well as serving as an additional pass rusher at times. CB Byron Murphy has had success in the slot in single coverage too, and Arizona’s LBs should drop into coverage over the middle of the field to remove the TE as an option, as well as not allowing the WRs to get behind them. With the Rams’ offense impaired due to injury, the Cardinals could get an early lead and build on it, but only if their own QB can play effectively.
Green Bay Packers @ Chicago Bears
The Packers have all but wrapped up the first seed in the NFC, but a win over the Bears will guarantee it, as well as potentially eliminate their biggest divisional rival from the playoffs. The Packers will want to do both of these things, while the Bears not only will want to win to ensure their spot in the postseason, but also to play spoiler for Green Bay. The Bears’ offense has been rolling over the past few weeks, as they have finally figured out how to use their pieces effectively.
Using a power scheme that gets their OL sliding left and right, RB David Montgomery has been one of the best RBs over the past month. From this, Chicago use play action and get QB Mitchell Trubisky moving, including on designed runs. The TEs operate on 8-15 yard routes, either getting to the outside or over the middle. WR Allen Robinson provides a downfield threat, while WRs Anthony Miller and Darnell Mooney are used on short plays to add RAC yards. This strategy should work on Green Bay too, as it will reduce the impact the secondary can have, and will force them to play more press coverage against Mooney and Miller.
The Packers defensive front should aim to contain Trubisky, and should deploy a LB on each side to protect against counters and backside runs. If the Packers can restrict Montgomery’s impact, and avoid biting on play action, they should restrict the Bears’ scoring opportunities. Chicago’s own defense has the pieces to impact the Packers’ offense, but needs to avoid a shootout. Green Bay’s run game has improved with AJ Dillon’s strength up the middle and Aaron Jones’ agility across the line and to the outside.
With TE Robert Tonyan on out routes, WR Davante Adams on slants and deep in routes, and WR Allen Lazard on the outside, the Packers can use a combination of their remaining WRs, TEs and RBs on short and deep routes. Chicago’s front seven close out the run well, but struggle more as RBs head to the outside. LB Khalil Mack should pressure QB Aaron Rodgers for most of the game, and if he can force quick throws, it will reduce Adams’ ability to separate and get downfield for big gains.
The Bears’ secondary can also cover well, with CB Kyle Fuller matching up against Adams or Lazard on the outside, while the LBs get into the flats well to potentially break up passes to Tonyan or Jones. While the Packers’ benefit from having Rodgers’ accuracy and ability to read the field well, they could find themselves punting more than they’re used to. Without being able to play from in front, their pass rush will also be reduced, and they could be fighting to keep a lead into the fourth quarter.
Washington Football Team @ Philadelphia Eagles
Washington need to win this game to close out the division which will give them the #4 seed, whereas a loss will result in the winner of the New York Giants-Dallas Cowboys game to take the division instead. Philadelphia have nothing to play for except pride, and the players could be trying to prove their worth if the team decides to clean house. Washington are also dealing with uncertainty at QB, as Alex Smith may be unavailable due to injury, leaving Taylor Heinicke as the starter. Either one offers a similar skillset, with Heinicke having an advantage as a more mobile player currently, while Smith’s experience allows him to make better reads and know how to play a safer brand of football.
With RB Antonio Gibson still coming back from injury, and WR Terry McLaurin in doubt, Washington could have difficulty moving the sticks. But with the Eagles’ secondary also understrength, the remaining WRs could get open downfield. Antonio Gandy-Golden and Charles Sims will provide short yardage options on screens and slants, while Steve Sims acts as the downfield threat. TE Logan Thomas serves as the big threat over the middle, while the RBs also provide short underneath targets. The Eagles are vulnerable to the outside, and lack the quality at CB to match up consistently without someone getting open.
If DT Fletcher Cox returns from injury, it will help against the run, but Philadelphia also need to get their LBs to the outside quicker to reduce space and chance of RAC. The Eagles can generate pressure, but if they can’t defend the pass downfield, they’ll see themselves behind as the game progresses. Philadelphia’s offense is similarly potent, although offers substantially more on the ground. QB Jalen Hurts and RB Miles Sanders have provided strong contributions with their feet the last few weeks, and will be essential to restricting Washington’s DL causing negative plays. The TEs will operate over the middle on intermediate routes, also working to the outside at times, and provide the main receiving threat for the Eagles.
Although WRs DeSean Jackson and Alshon Jeffrey are healthy once more, their roles are limited, offering a vertical and sideline big-bodied target, respectively. With a mixture of these players on different routes, along with the supporting cast including Jalen Reagor as a short yardage receiver, the Eagles will focus on attacking the sidelines through the air, and intermediate and deeper downfield targets over the middle. Washington’s defensive front needs to contain Hurts and plug the holes to limit Sanders, but could have difficulty matching the speed of Reagor and Jackson, as well as the size of the TEs and Jeffrey. Washington’s main problem in this game is their own struggling offense, but if they can get it working, should walk away with the win.