Week 8 NFL Preview: What will be the Deciding Factors in this week's games?

Week 8 is a slate that on the surface looks somewhat underwhelming but has the potential for a number of juicy storylines. A handful of games, Steelers-Ravens, Dolphins-Rams, 49ers-Seahawks, Patriots-Bills, jump off the page immediately. However, other contests, such as the battle between the Colts and Lions and the Raiders and Browns have the potential to create some intriguing storylines heading into the back half of the season. Let’s take a look at what will be the potential deciding factors in our Week 8 NFL preview.

Pittsburgh Steelers @ Baltimore Ravens

NFL Week 8 Preview, Redzone Tips
Nov 4, 2018; Baltimore, MD, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner (30) is tackled by Baltimore Ravens linebackers Kenny Young (40) and Matthew Judon (99) at M&T Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

With one of the fiercest rivalries in the NFL possibly going to decide the final standings in the AFC, both Baltimore and Pittsburgh will put up a good fight. Although Pittsburgh’s injury to LB Devin Bush will make it harder to defend inside runs and the TEs, the OLBs will still make life difficult for the Ravens. Baltimore will use extra blockers constantly for their RBs, as well as looking to get QB Lamar Jackson out of the pocket to see if he can beat the LBs with his speed and agility. 

Despite the Steelers having an inconsistent and slightly above average secondary, Baltimore’s WR group will struggle to truly test them, unless Marquise Brown can become the game-changing deep threat he has threatened to be in his first two years. Similarly, Devin Duvernay will be used to try and stretch the field on the outside, as well as with end arounds and screens, but the Ravens simply don’t have the consistent aerial attack they need to beat the Steelers in the passing game. 

Conversely, Baltimore’s secondary is one of the better ones in the league, and will favour their chances against a Pittsburgh WR group that has improved as the season has gone on. Even with their 4WR sets, Baltimore’s CBs have the depth to go toe-to-toe with the Steelers, with Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphrey both able to handle single matchups with Juju Smith-Schuster and Chase Claypool. Baltimore’s biggest weakness on defense is their pass rush, although after trading for Yannick Ngakoue, they should be able to generate more pressure on QB Ben Roethlisberger. 

The Steelers’ own rushing attack will be able to add yards at times, especially towards the outside of the OTs, but hasn’t looked like it is able to be leaned on in tough games. Baltimore’s passing game could be what lets them down, but if they can restrict the Steelers’ rushing attack, it should lead to a tightly contested matchup.

Los Angeles Rams @ Miami Dolphins

Despite the Dolphins looking more formidable over the past few weeks prior to their bye, with a change at QB to Tua Tagovailoa against the Rams, there figure to be teething issues. The Dolphins’ OL won’t give Tagovailoa consistent protection to find receivers downfield, which could result in repeated check downs for minimal gain. With CB Jalen Ramsay also taking one side of the field away, the Dolphins will also be reliant on intermediate and shorter passes over the middle. Miami will also try to establish the run early, and with Tagovailoa might be able to move the ball a bit, but will see plenty of stacked boxes. 

The Rams will have similar success with their own rushing attack, as Miami’s defensive formations disguise what they are doing effectively, allowing them to show blitz often, yet ultimately only using four to collapse the pocket. This then feeds into their run-defense, as the Rams’ OL assignments become trickier to organise, taking away clear rushing lanes to target. The Rams should be able to hit their receivers on short passes to the outside, as well as deeper in and crossing routes, despite Miami’s above-average secondary. 

While he could keep them in it until the fourth quarter, Tagovailoa will have his work cut out for him on debut as the Rams will use DL Aaron Donald to disrupt him repeatedly. With Los Angeles able to move the ball on offense, and their defense able to get enough stops, the Rams should see themselves playing from in front by the second half.

New York Jets @ Kansas City Chiefs

In what could be one of the biggest mismatches this season, the Jets will be overwhelmed with a team that is among the best in the NFL in terms of firepower on offense. 

Although the Jets were able to move the ball better in Week 7 than Week 6, they still lack the weapons they need to put enough points on the board. With rookie WR Denzel Mims finally available, and QB Sam Darnold returning from injury, there is more scope for positivity, as they can get a bit more creative on offense. 

The RB tandem of Frank Gore and La’Mical Perine has begun to find a rhythm, with Perine predominantly the receiving back. The Chiefs will use their Safeties to help defend against these two, either bringing an extra defender into the box, or having either Daniel Sorenson or Tyrann Mathieu to track them out of the backfield. Although the Chiefs’ defensive front hasn’t been dominating teams, with the Jets’ OL and lack of receiving options, Kansas City can blitz more often to prevent Darnold making plays, including with his legs. 

The Jets’ defense lacks the depth in the secondary to compete with the speed of WRs Tyreek Hill, Mecole Hardman and Byron Pringle, even with DBs Pierre Desir, Brian Poole and Bradley McDougald showing flashes from time to time. TE Travis Kelce should be feasting on the lack of coverage LBs over the middle all game, but by the second half with the Chiefs likely up two scores, could see less targets as the run plays increase. Moreover, with New York still unable to regularly defend runs outside the tackles, RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire should also pile on the yards all game long.

Minnesota Vikings @ Green Bay Packers

If not for this game being a divisional matchup to keep each team aggressive, there would be less competition involved. Green Bay’s passing attack returned to form in Week 7, and while the Vikings’ secondary is significantly better than in Week 1, they have still allowed 1720 passing yards, 10th worst in the league. With RB Aaron Jones ruled out for Week 8, backups Jamaal Williams and AJ Dillon will handle the load in his absence. The Packers won’t change their game plan significantly, especially as the Vikings are mediocre against the run. But with WR Davante Adams able to create separation consistently, Minnesota will be forced to give him extra attention, potentially leaving themselves exposed elsewhere – such as the TEs on short out routes. 

Similarly, the Vikings will be looking forward to the potential return of RB Dalvin Cook if he can overcome his injury, as the Packers are more vulnerable against the run than the pass. Minnesota will need to move the ball through the air if they are to keep up, but will find it tough sledding against the Packers’ DBs. With WR Justin Jefferson becoming a consistent outside threat, and Thielen able to work the middle of the field, the Vikings should be able to scheme up something, especially if Cook is back. However, if the Packers’ pass rush can continue having success, it will further restrict the Vikings’ passing game. With Minnesota too often finding themselves behind, and struggling to make plays on defense, including pressuring the QB, they will be hard-pressed to win a shootout.

Indianapolis Colts @ Detroit Lions

As the Lions start to get things on the right track, they will face their first true test in recent weeks with the Indianapolis Colts. Detroit’s run and pass games have steadily improved this season, and with WR Kenny Golladay as a deep threat, it will force the Colts to risk big completions, or shorter underneath completions to Marvin Jones, Danny Amendola, and the RBs. TE TJ Hockenson can provide a second deep threat, but the Colts should be able to limit his targets on shorter and intermediate throws with their LBs.

Likewise, Indianapolis’ LBs have helped them become one of the better defenses against the run, which will force Detroit to try and get D’Andre Swift to the outside more, either as a runner or receiver, to see if his speed can beat the likes of Bobby Okereke and Darius Leonard (if healthy) to the edge. 

The Colts, meanwhile, will lean on the run early, especially if the game remains close. RB Jonathan Taylor may see more touches this side of the bye, but will still be used as a decoy to draw defenders, giving extra time and space for the passing game. While the Lions’ own LBs are beginning to close down runs to the outside more consistently, they will struggle against the extra blockers that the Colts use in the form of both TEs and OL.

Indianapolis’ receivers should be used to attack the middle of the field on deep and intermediate routes, as the Lions have been vulnerable there this season. If TE Mo Alie-Cox suits up, he will be a main target with fellow TE Trey Burton as they run out routes and deeper post/corner routes. Detroit’s defense figures to be outmatched, but if they can keep up on offense, could keep it close, especially if QB Philip Rivers is as inconsistent as he has been in the first half of the season.

Las Vegas Raiders @ Cleveland Browns

With these teams competing for Wild Card spots, a win here could have long-term ramifications for both, as neither is likely to win their Division. The Las Vegas Raiders have an above-average defense, but could be stretched against the Browns’ rushing attack. Cleveland’s OL is one of the best in the league, and should be able to create holes for RB Kareem Hunt throughout the game, with some RB screens and underneath curls thrown in. 

Although WR Odell Beckham Jr. is out for the season, the Browns can still field a strong passing attack. WRs Jarvis Landry, Rashard Higgins and Donovan Peoples-Jones will be used to spread out the Raiders’ defense with spacing and levels concepts, leaving room through the middle for the RBs to attack. Las Vegas’ front seven can generate a good pass rush, but will need to blitz a little more against this OL, and if not for Safety Johnathan Abram, would have little chance to restrict Hunt. 

Las Vegas’ own offense will similarly be focused on their RB Josh Jacobs, especially early on, but with Cleveland one of the worst teams against the pass, will transition quickly to aerial attacks. With the TEs attacking the middle of the field on out, in and hitch routes, it will make it hard for Cleveland’s LBs to close down passing lanes properly. WRs Nelson Agholor, Henry Ruggs and Hunter Renfrow will be used on a mixture of short screens and slants, as well as deeper vertical routes to further test the Browns’ CBs. If Cleveland’s DL can create pressure with a four-man pass rush, which it should be able to with the Raiders’ OL, it could take away the deep passes better than the DBs can. While both teams play a similar style and are evenly matched with their weapons on offense, this game rests on which defense can make more plays and get more stops.

Tennessee Titans @ Cincinnati Bengals

The Titans continue to impress as the season continues, even if they are no longer undefeated. Although the Bengals are also finding their feet as QB Joe Burrow settles in, Cincinnati’s OL will be up against it all game long. The Titans won’t need to blitz often to pressure Burrow, and while they will concede some plays on quick slants and screens, they really need to contain Burrow more than sack him, so that he can’t extend plays and find his receivers downfield. 

The Bengals will move WR Tyler Boyd all over the field to find winnable matchups, but ultimately will be forced to take short completions, despite being a more vertical-based offense. Cincinnati’s run game isn’t providing much help either, especially with RB Joe Mixon still injured, and will continue to use their RBs as receivers often to supplement the run. 

Tennessee’s game plan will be simple – run the ball with Derrick Henry against the Bengals’ poor run defense. While they will take a few deep shots, often off of play action, Cincinnati’s pass defense could prove effective against this type of passing game, especially with their Safeties providing extra coverage over the top. Instead, Henry will amass plenty of yards on the ground, putting this game away regardless of any Burrow heroics.

New England Patriots @ Buffalo Bills

Unaccustomed to fighting for a playoff spot and the Division title, the Patriots will be looking to prove they are still contenders by knocking off the Bills in Week 8. Fortunately for New England, their strength on offense, running the ball, has been what Buffalo has been weakest against this season, until Week 7, when they allowed just 99 rushing yards (albeit against the Jets). 

With a combination of QB Cam Newton, RBs Damien Harris, James White and Rex Burkhead, as well as their WRs able to be used in the ground game, the Patriots will unleash their full playbook. Using multiple backs on the field at once, Newton will have plenty of read option and designed runs, while the RBs get runs inside, outside, fake handoffs for receptions, and also handoffs before handing off again to someone else. With the Bills’ front seven overwhelmed, they will be forced to commit extra men against the run, leaving themselves in single coverage across the field. While Buffalo’s CBs can more than handle the underwhelming Patriots’ receiving corps, there will be the occasional chance on a broken play or well-designed pass attempt. 

The Bills’ own offense should be able to put up points against a Patriots’ defense that has relatively underperformed at times, even with players missing from last year. While New England have been inconsistent against the run, Buffalo’s real chances of success are through the air. While CB Stephon Gilmore may follow WR Stefon Diggs, the Bills still have deeper options in Gabriel Davis and potentially John Brown returning from injury, as well as shorter options in Cole Beasley, the TEs and RBs. 

While Buffalo will continue to run the ball as well, the Patriots will seek to take away the run game and pressure QB Josh Allen, as that is when he struggles the most. If the Patriots succeed in forcing the Bills to throw, and can get their own ground game going, they could eke out a win, although the Bills have the superior advantage in their overall well-rounded and functional offense.

Los Angeles Chargers @ Denver Broncos

Although these teams are middle of the road for the 2020 season, both have young QBs capable of getting the job done, although neither has consistently won games yet. The Chargers’ QB, Justin Herbert, has been a more dynamic playmaker, able to cover up the holes around him, whereas the Broncos’ QB, Drew Lock, has had success more because of the talent around him. 

Denver’s passing attack continues to boast depth at WR, TE and RB, and the Broncos will vary their formations to create holes and mismatches against the defense. With TE Noah Fant and WRs KJ Hamler and Jerry Jeudy over the middle of the field, it creates more space for WR Tim Patrick, TE Albert Okwuegbunam and the RBs as receivers along the sidelines at different depths downfield. The Chargers’ secondary will allow some completions, but will also break up enough passes to keep the air game evenly contested. However, the Chargers’ pass rush will have an impact often, and should be enough to force third and long regularly, resulting in more punts for Denver than scoring drives. 

On the other hand, Herbert’s ability to escape under pressure will allow for him to evade Denver’s pass rush at times, despite it being reasonably successful this season. While the Chargers’ will again be an even match for Denver’s run defense, it will provide a balanced attack for them to not have to rely only on Herbert’s arm. With WR Keenan Allen able to create space downfield or box out the CB on slants, it forces Denver to keep one of their Safeties deep as extra protection, leaving space for the other receivers on the opposite sideline, or for TE Hunter Henry on vertical, out and crossing routes over the middle. With a fairly even matchup in this one, Herbert’s playmaking abilities, including extending plays, likely make the difference, especially if the Broncos’ WRs can’t get loose frequently.

San Francisco 49ers @ Seattle Seahawks

After the 49ers appeared to continue righting the ship, if only temporarily, the Seahawks struggled to maintain their undefeated run in Week 7. 

As San Francisco gets healthier in the secondary, they will be better suited to defend the Seahawks’ deep passing attack, with WR Tyler Lockett working the middle of the field. Although 49ers’ LB Fred Warner can restrict the space Lockett will have to work, the latter should be sent a little deeper in this game to further force the secondary to split between him and WR DK Metcalf. San Francisco’s defensive front will be hard-pressed to bring down QB Russell Wilson too often without blitzing the Safeties and LBs, in turn risking completions downfield. However, the Seahawks shouldn’t expect to achieve much on the ground outside of Wilson scrambling, and will need to run plenty of counters and power runs to throw the 49ers off the scent. 

Conversely, the 49ers don’t have the WRs to constantly test the Seahawks’ secondary, and will need to focus more on intermediate throws to the sidelines to avoid the LBs. In addition to TE screens, George Kittle will run in and out routes, with a WR running into the space he leaves behind him, also helping to counteract Seattle’s blitzes with quick release options. San Francisco’s run game will be the biggest difference maker though, as they aim to chew up clock while also getting the ball into the hands of their best players. In addition to utilising their RBs behind blockers throughout the game, the 49ers will also use end arounds, jet sweeps and reverses to give WRs Brandon Aiyuk and Kendrick Bourne chances to make plays. With Seattle’s LBs they can resist the inside runs by RBs, but will struggle to hold their own on the outside. 

While Seattle’s aerial attack has been among the best in the league this season, San Francisco’s complex run scheme could keep them in it with a close scoreline late in the game.

New Orleans Saints @ Chicago Bears

With WR Michael Thomas still out for the Saints, they will find this matchup against Chicago’s defense the toughest of their season so far. The Bears can generate pressure with three and four man fronts, while their LBs make it even more difficult to use RBs like Alvin Kamara as a receiver. On top of that, the Bears have a strong secondary led by CB Kyle Fuller and Safety Eddie Jackson, who will restrict QB Drew Brees’ top options in WR Tre’Quan Smith and TE Jared Cook. 

With the Saints not able to pass the ball as well as they would like, they will turn to the running game, but will have similar struggles there. While a few big plays can be created outside of the Tackles at times, the Bears’ defense should limit the Saints’ scoring. 

However, if this is a great Chicago defense against a good Saints offense, then it’s also a mediocre Bears offense against a good Saints defense. New Orleans’ pass rush should enjoy attacking the right side of the Bears’ OL, giving QB Nick Foles little time to find his open receiver. The Bears’ have a quality receiving corps, but are inconsistent in getting them going due to the lack of protection they give their QBs. New Orleans’ LBs are far from the quality of Chicago’s, but can equally patrol across the field to restrict TEs and RBs as receivers on short routes. 

Chicago should be scheming to get their run game going, so that they can integrate more play action later on, but could abandon it early. The Bears’ defense should be able to keep their offense in it, and it will come down to the Bears being able to protect Foles adequately if they can hold on for a win.

Dallas Cowboys @ Philadelphia Eagles

In a dire matchup that before the season would have attracted attention as possibly deciding the Division come January, this game could still decide the Division for all the wrong reasons. Dallas are banged up along the OL and at QB, possibly starting their third-string option in Ben DiNucci, and have barely given any resistance on defense. 

With the Eagles likely able to generate a pass rush with their DL alone, let alone when they add LBs and DBs, the Cowboys could find it difficult to move the ball through the air. This will put plenty of pressure on RB Ezekiel Elliott, with the Eagles’ able to target him all game and remove him as a weapon. While Dallas could get the ball out quickly, and do possess the WRs to constantly beat Philadelphia’s secondary, if either Andy Dalton or DiNucci don’t get time to read the field, Dallas are likely to see three and outs constantly.

Philadelphia are equally injured on their own OL, as well as at WR and TE, but QB Carson Wentz is still able to make plays, finding receivers in Travis Fulgham and Greg Ward. If RB Miles Sanders returns from injury, it will further add to the Cowboys’ woes, as they lack anyone who can cover him as a receiver. Sanders will also be used to attack up the middle often, holding off the Cowboys’ attempts to blitz too often in case a big play occurs.

Although Dallas need their offense to keep them in this one, the defense also needs to make some plays. The Cowboys should consider a zone scheme to reduce their man coverage issues, especially while the Eagles aren’t at full strength. Dallas will also want to see more out of LB Jaylon Smith covering the flat too, but will likely be exposed on both short and deep passes. Another win for the Eagles will keep them moving in the right direction, even if they have more to figure out before the postseason.

Owen Ravenna

NFL Analyst