Here's a look at the key tactical matchups that could determine the outcomes of three pivotal Week 6 games:
The New England Patriots are coming off back-to-back victories following a 1-2 start, and they might be rounding back into form. But their toughest test yet arrives this weekend when they host the unbeaten Kansas City Chiefs.
Last year, the Chiefs throttled the Patriots on opening night, spoiling an evening planned around raising the banner for New England’s fifth Super Bowl title. Kansas City exposed the Patriots’ defense through a mix of timely passing plays, creative designs, and effective rushing from rookie star Kareem Hunt.
Now, second-year phenom Patrick Mahomes leads the 2018 version of the Chiefs’ offense to town. Despite throwing his first two interceptions of the season last week, Mahomes remains perhaps the league’s most productive passer so far in 2018 with his 14 touchdown passes.
The Chiefs' offense is full of weapons. Could that unit provide another huge offensive explosion in New England?
Last week, we might have seen our first glimpse of how Bill Belichick and Patriots defensive play-caller Brian Flores will attempt to slow down the Chiefs' offense.
In New England's game against the Indianapolis Colts, the Patriots used a 3-2-6 dime package on a high number of defensive snaps. The Pats were among the league leaders in using dime personnel in 2017, deploying six-plus defensive backs on 37 percent of their defensive plays, fourth-most in the league.
The Patriots’ dime defense hinges on safety Patrick Chung, who gives the group some versatility. More of a box safety, Chung is adept at pass coverage, though he can also defend the run like a linebacker:
Chung’s run defending allows New England to convert its 3-2-6 defense into a 3-3-5 on the fly. Depending on the offensive alignment and personnel, the Patriots can utilize Chung’s skill set and use him as an extra linebacker.
Given the number of defensive backs on the field when the defense is in a dime package, offenses often want to keep running the football. But that might be the ultimate ploy for New England to use while slowing down Mahomes and the Chiefs’ passing game.
Belichick's defensive game plan from Super Bowl XXV is already showcased in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He told his Giants defense - a team that prided itself on stopping the run - that the key to winning the game was to give up more than 100 yards on the ground to Thurman Thomas, as that would slow down Jim Kelly and the Buffalo Bills’ passing attack.
His 3-2-6 package would dare the Chiefs’ offense to call more running plays, and it could be the next version of that game plan.
Pittsburgh bounced back from its early-season struggles in Week 5 with a convincing 41-17 victory over the Atlanta Falcons. Ben Roethlisberger completed 19 of 29 passes for 250 yards and three touchdowns, with two of those going to star wide receiver Antonio Brown.
Standing in the Steelers' way on Sunday will be a defense largely responsible for Cincinnati’s Week 5 victory over the Miami Dolphins. In the fourth quarter of that game, the Bengals tallied two defensive touchdowns to erase a 17-point halftime deficit. While the defensive front generated the turnovers and scores, a player to watch this week is rookie safety Jessie Bates.
The Bengals' second-round draft pick in 2018 out of Wake Forest, Bates was a surprise starter in Week 1 after the organization cut longtime starting free safety George Iloka.
It hasn't taken long for Bates to make that move look like a smart one. He notched his first NFL interception during a Week 2 victory over the Baltimore Ravens on a play where he perfectly read the eyes of quarterback Joe Flacco:
Bates (No. 30) does a great job of watching Flacco and breaking on the deep crossing route. The throw is off target, but Bates is in position to capitalize.
Last week, he grabbed his second interception, again showing veteran-level discipline in coverage:
Late in the game, the Dolphins were facing a third-and-17 and needed a big play. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill tried to hit Kenny Stills on a deep post route, splitting the two deep safeties in Cincinnati's Cover 2 scheme. But Bates watched Tannehill the whole way and cut under the route, securing the interception and erasing any chance of a comeback.
Bates’ effort last Sunday earned him the highest defensive grade of any Bengals player in that game from Pro Football Focus, which noted that he allowed only 0.17 yards per coverage snap.
The Steelers might present the toughest challenge yet for the young safety. He'll go up against Brown, Roethlisberger, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and tight end Jesse James. But given what we've seen from the rookie defensive back, Bates might just be up to the challenge.
The New York Jets and Indianapolis Colts won't exactly give us a heavyweight title bout in Week 6. But there will be an interesting schematic matchup between Colts rookie weakside linebacker Darius Leonard and the resurgent Jets’ running game, featuring running backs Isaiah Crowell and Bilal Powell.
Crowell and the Jets’ offensive line played well in Week 5 against the Denver Broncos, with the back racking up 219 yards on just 15 carries, including a 77-yard touchdown and a 54-yard run. The 54-yarder, coming on a “duo” blocking scheme, featured a pair of double-team blocks, with offensive linemen working in tandem up to the second level of the defense.
But this simple 15-yard run sets the stage for discussing the matchup between the Jets' rushing offense and Leonard:
Crowell gets the handoff on another “duo” running play. He cuts this run to the backside, aiming right for Brandon Marshall (No. 54). The linebacker isn't able to work off the block from left tackle James Carpenter (No. 77), and Marshall is forced to chase this play down from behind. He can't prevent the big gain.
That's where Leonard comes in. Despite missing Week 5 due to injury, the rookie still leads the league in tackles with 54. He's shown an ability to stack and shed blockers while flowing to the football, an area where Marshall struggled against the Jets.
This is how it's done:
On this play against Washington, Leonard explodes downhill when he sees run action. Then he stands up tight end Vernon Davis (No. 85) in the hole and sheds the block before chopping down running back Chris Thompson for no gain.
Additionally, Leonard’s read-and-recognition skills, when combined with his burst and quickness, allow him to crash down on running plays and stop them before they get going:
Crowell erupted last week, but Leonard, who is expected to return to the lineup, might have the skill set necessary to slow down this Jets’ rushing attack.
Mark Schofield writes NFL feature content for theScore. After nearly a decade of practicing law in the Washington, D.C., area Mark changed careers and started writing about football. Drawing upon more than a decade of playing quarterback, including at the collegiate level, Mark focuses his work on quarterback evaluation and offensive scheme analysis. He lives in Maryland with his wife and two children. Find him on Twitter @MarkSchofield.