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Take 5: Packers pass rush critical at Minnesota

Thanksgiving week brings a funky slate, featuring no games between teams with winning records but several that could serve as playoff elimination contests.

That includes the juiciest matchup, which we all expected to be a battle for control atop the NFC North. Instead, the Packers and Vikings are fighting just to reach January.

1. Can Green Bay pressure Cousins without Daniels?

Kirk Cousins
Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Jimmy Graham’s broken thumb will hurt, but Mike Daniels’ foot injury could be the bigger blow for the Packers.

As the Bears showed Sunday night, the best way to short-circuit Minnesota’s offense is pressuring Kirk Cousins.

The Packers did this for much of Week 2’s tie against the Vikings. They finished with a modest two sacks and six QB hits, but that excludes two phantom sacks — Clay Matthews’ infamous roughing-the-passer penalty, and Daniels letting Cousins out of his grasp to avoid a flag.

Daniels’ numbers (two sacks, five QB hits) are lackluster, but he’s a preeminent pocket pusher who sets up teammates. Most teams slide their center toward the squatty and powerful 3-technique, which has helped Kenny Clark blossom. Likewise, Daniels moves linemen backward when he doesn’t win, creating favorable angles for edge rushers turning the corner.

On the edge, Clay Matthews has been unlucky (10 QB hits, 2.5 sacks), and Kyler Fackrell has 8.0 sacks on just 290 defensive snaps. That said, Fackrell hasn’t been a down-to-down disruptor, and several of his sacks have been of the cleanup variety. He and Matthews must get home against exploitable tackles Riley Reiff and Brian O’Neill.

2. Seahawks must contain D.J. Moore’s dynamite

Moore took a backseat early in the season, but the explosive first-rounder is getting harder to overlook after shining (seven catches on eight targets, 157 yards, TD) in Detroit last week.

Built like a running back (6-foot-0, 210 pounds), Moore’s ability in open space leaps off the screen. A shifty tackle-breaker like Golden Tate, he’s also physical and a long-strider who eats up ground when given a seam. Rather unique in today’s NFL, he almost reminds — stylistically, anyway — of a shorter Terrell Owens.

Carolina has wisely begun trusting Moore more as a receiver, where he already shows route-running savvy and the ball skills to pluck imperfect throws (a common issue with Cam Newton). His catch percentage (76.9) leads all wideouts with 10-plus career targets from Newton, and his 12.2 yards per target ranks second in the NFL this year (min. 30 targets).

Moore turned a 15-yard curl route into an 82-yard gain in Detroit despite a high-and-inside throw (Newton was pressured). Moore leapt for the catch, shrugged off Mike Ford while landing, spun out while staying inbounds, broke Glover Quin’s arm tackle and cutting inside before accelerating past two Lions for 60 more yards.

Just as impressive was Moore’s touchdown, which pulled Carolina within one in the final minutes. Facing All-Pro Darius Slay, Moore released inside and then showed great patience, faking deliberately inside before breaking out and coming wide open. Newton’s throw was again high (and a hair late), but Moore snared it and toe-tapped for six.

On Sunday, Moore will battle impressive second-year man Shaquill Griffin and rookie Tre Madden, who settled in after a rocky start this year.

Expect Turner to feature Moore on slant/flat or curl/flat concepts that give him run-after-catch opportunities against a defense likely missing K.J. Wright. Turner could also try Moore deep a few times, especially on switch-vertical concepts like post/wheel or scissors (intersecting post and corner routes).

3. Titans get a do-over in Houston

Deshaun Watson
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Titans’ last visit to the Texans was a 57-14 evisceration early in 2017, when Watson was taking the league by storm. Watson (ACL) missed the rematch, but Tennessee contained him at home 10 weeks ago, propping up a Blaine Gabbert-led offense to win.

With Marcus Mariota (stinger) ailing, Gabbert might start again Monday night against the red-hot Texans, but Tennessee’s defense could better its Week 2 performance.

Last week’s collapse in Indianapolis aside, the Titans have given quarterbacks fits with zone exchanges and “safe” blitzes paired with man coverage. The disguises could be potent against Watson, who has abandoned play designs early when DeAndre Hopkins isn’t open in the absence of Will Fuller (Demaryius Thomas has been invisible since his first Texans series). Knowing his protection is suspect, Watson has also dropped his eyes against pressure and been quick to flee.

Mike Vrabel knows Watson well from practicing against him in 2017, and his five-across pass-rush fronts should create mismatches for Harold Landry, Jurrell Casey and Wesley Woodyard. There’s no obvious ideal matchup against Hopkins, but Malcolm Butler handled him surprisingly well in Week 2, while Adoree Jackson and Logan Ryan would be fine options.

4. Pass protection will decide Steelers-Broncos

Pass rush has keyed Pittsburgh’s defensive resurgence, with a talented front seven manhandling opposing offensive lines, and coordinator Keith Butler dialing up more complex blitzes weekly. The Steelers have 11 sacks in the last two games, including six on just 24 Blake Bortles dropbacks last week.

That group meets a battered Broncos’ O-line that held up remarkably well against the Chargers last week, allowing no sacks and three hits of Case Keenum. With three interior players on IR, Denver started tackles Billy Turner and Elijah Wilkinson at guard, providing more athleticism in pass protection. That duo must hold up physically against Cameron Heyward, Javon Hargrave and Stephon Tuitt (13.5 sacks, 26 QB hits combined), but also mentally against Butler’s bevy of zone blitzes.

On the other side, the Broncos’ league-best edge duo of Von Miller and Bradley Chubb (19 sacks, 29 QB hits) could struggle to reach Ben Roethlisberger, whose sack rate (3.3 percent) is flirting with a career low thanks to an O-line with no weak spots. Denver has gotten little from its interior rushers, putting extra pressure on Miller and Chubb.

5. Juicy matchup in the trenches in Tampa

Lost in a mostly meaningless game are two quiet stars in the trenches.

DeForest Buckner continues to shine despite little around him. He leads the 49ers in sacks (six, 2.5 more than next most), QB hits (11) and tackles for loss (eight) while battling double-teams with regularity. Extra attention cooled Buckner after a scorching start (3.5 sacks through Week 2), but he’s beaten a double for a sack in consecutive games. He also maintains active hands to bat passes and is a handful in the run game, both as a penetrator and an anchor.

Meanwhile, Buccaneers left guard Ali Marpet is already paying dividends on the five-year, $54 million extension he signed in October. A product of Division III Hobart, Marpet has steadily developed from raw talent into polished technician. He dictates with strong hands and athleticism in the run game, and is even better in protection. He hasn’t allowed a sack this year in an offense reliant on downfield designs requiring the quarterback to hold the ball.

Buckner won’t always line up opposite Marpet, but the two should tangle plenty, especially in obvious passing situations. Will the Bucs slide center Ryan Jensen toward Buckner to help Marpet, or let the pair go one-on-one?

–David DeChant (@DavidDeChant), Field Level Media