Take 5: MVP frontrunner Wilson leads Seahawks into San Francisco
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Rarely does the NFL's MVP frontrunner face the league's best defense, but that is just the San Francisco treat in store on "Monday Night Football" when the Seattle Seahawks visit the 49ers.
The game will be Russell Wilson's biggest test of the season.
1. Seahawks match up (reasonably) well to 49ers
Stingy as San Francisco's pass defense (4.89 yards per attempt, best in NFL) is, its run defense (4.7 yards per carry, 22nd) is susceptible. That's partly personnel: Protecting many leads, the 49ers play mostly nickel with two lighter defensive tackles in DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead.
The Seahawks use 11 personnel 71 percent of the time, tied for fourth-most in the NFL, and run on 40 percent of those plays, tied for fifth-most. They'll test the 49ers' run defense -- which lost thriving linebacker Kwon Alexander to a season-ending injury -- early and often. Success could force San Francisco to play nose tackle D.J. Jones, a solid run-stuffer but less dangerous pass rusher.
That would be welcome, because the 49ers' front four is comfortably the best pass-rushing group in the NFL. The unit isn't just uber-talented -- it's also a perfect mix of styles.
Rookie Nick Bosa wins with speed and power and is already a technical master. He never stays blocked, eventually threatening the quarterback somehow. Buckner has a rare combination of quickness, size and power, routinely pushing pockets and flushing QBs to improve angles for edge rushers. Dee Ford can win off the edge on his own, but his speed also makes him the ultimate clean-up man when teammates flush the quarterback.
That skill, of course, is critical against Wilson. Not only is he a masterful escaper, but Wilson protects the ball incredibly well while doing so. He has just one interception and three fumbles (one on a handoff exchange) all season, with only one turnover while extending a play.
The 49ers will sack Wilson some -- his line is overmatched, and his playing style leads to sacks -- but they must be cautious of his movement. Coordinator Brian Schottenheimer will use plenty of play-action and moving pockets to slow the rush. More than any other team, the Seahawks love rolling the pocket one way while targeting a route in the other direction. Wilson is one of few QBs with the quick feet and arm strength to make such designs a staple.
2. Pettine, Packers have a run defense problem
The Green Bay Packers have allowed at least 149 rushing yards in five of nine games, and they're 25th in yards per carry allowed (4.73). That's a major problem with the Carolina Panthers and Christian McCaffrey visiting.
The Packers have some solid, even special run defenders. Kenny Clark is a top-five nose tackle, against both run and pass. Dean Lowry is mean and tough inside, while Preston Smith and Za'Darius Smith set physical edges and show great pursuit.
But coordinator Mike Pettine prefers lighter personnel, often sticking with nickel and dime packages against heavier sets. The Packers can stop the run with base personnel -- they limited the Chargers to 13 yards on 11 such carries Sunday -- but they rarely use it. That overtaxes the D-line, along with up-and-down linebacker Blake Martinez.
Pettine can't be so stubborn against the Panthers' diverse run game. Even without the factor of Cam Newton's mobility, coordinator Norv Turner uses a litany of run schemes -- from all types of personnel packages, and from under center or shotgun -- and McCaffrey excels in all of them.
Pettine probably should play 250-pound linebacker B.J. Goodson more, as he has excelled in the box in limited snaps. Of course, that would give Turner chances to try to exploit Goodson in coverage with McCaffrey.
3. Sneaky good matchup in Nashville
It isn't the best game on the slate, but the Kansas City Chiefs' offense vs. the Tennessee Titans' defense should be a fascinating matchup.
Whether or not Patrick Mahomes plays, the Titans have the personnel to match the Chiefs' weapons. Adoree' Jackson's speed -- plus safety help -- could be enough to slow Tyreek Hill. Kevin Byard, the league's best all-around safety, could hold his own one-on-one with Travis Kelce, with sturdy slot corner Logan Ryan mixing in. Linebackers Jayon Brown and Rashaan Evans are agile enough to handle LeSean McCoy and Damien Williams in space.
The question is how much man coverage -- which has given the Chiefs some issues -- coordinator Dean Pees will use. One of Pees' effective tactics is to play simple zone coverages (especially Cover-2) in unorthodox manners, rotating his secondary late and rushing a linebacker or defensive back while dropping a D-lineman. With Malcolm Butler (wrist) lost for the season, he could lean more on complexity and less on man coverage.
The Titans have the talent up front to give the Chiefs' protection issues, but they're at their best on stunts and twists involving second-level rushers. Those looks usually come from Pees' zone designs, rather than pure man-to-man.
4. Premier edge battles in Dallas
Two top pass protectors will draw two freakish edge rushers when the Dallas Cowboys host the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday night.
Though banged-up at times, Tyron Smith remains a rock -- a rock with great lateral agility, at that -- on the left side. Right tackle La'el Collins is in the midst of his best season, having taken major strides in protection.
The Vikings counter with Everson Griffen -- closer to his 2017 form after a disrupted 2018 campaign -- and Danielle Hunter, who has career 48.5 sacks despite turning 25 less than two weeks ago. Griffen brings a relentless, threatening style, always trying to jump the snap count and get upfield, with a wicked inside spin for OTs who overstep. On the other side, Hunter will threaten Collins with his hands and athleticism, looking to bend the corner.
Expect Collins to get help at times, but the Cowboys might be comfortable leaving both on an island for stretches. Dallas' best advantage is likely in the run game, where Smith and Collins can dictate. Hunter had a critical misstep last week in Kansas City that aided the Chiefs' 91-yard touchdown run, and Collins will test his discipline early.
5. How Steelers could pull the upset
Despite spotty quarterback play, the Pittsburgh Steelers have won three in a row, owing the turnaround primarily to their defense. To run the streak to four against the Los Angeles Rams, that unit will be critical once again.
Pittsburgh's front remains its best asset, with dangerous edge rushers in T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree and three interior disruptors in Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Javon Hargrave. The latter trio will be critical Sunday against the Rams' inexperienced and depleted interior offensive line.
With L.A.'s preference for 11 personnel, Heyward and Tuitt will play the most, but Hargrave -- one of the NFL's most mobile nose tackles -- will get plenty of time.
Coming off its bye, Los Angeles should have some new wrinkles, but it's hard to hide glaring holes up front. Even in recent victories over the Falcons and Bengals, the Rams' offense has yet to truly click early in games. Expect that to continue with Heyward & Co. disrupting inside.
--By David DeChant (@DavidDeChant), Field Level Media