Here's a look at the key tactical questions that will go a long way toward determining the outcomes of three Week 7 matchups.
Can Tom Brady and Co. survive a Mack attack?
Don’t look now, but the Patriots’ offense might just be back. New England has won three straight games following a 1-2 start, averaging 39.67 points per contest over that stretch.
But a big question lingers: Is their offense getting back on track powering the Patriots' resurgence, or is the team taking advantage of weaker defenses? That question likely gets answered this weekend in Chicago.
The Bears boast one of the league’s fiercest defenses. Chicago has the top-ranked defense in Football Outsiders’ defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA) with a rating of -21.2 percent, just ahead of the Baltimore Ravens. Their run defense is among the best in the league, as the Bears are giving up just 83.4 yards per game on the ground.
Mack has been one of the most dominant defenders in the league this season, already accumulating five sacks, four forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, and one interception return for a touchdown.
If he can go, Mack might be working mostly against LaAdrian Waddle, New England’s backup right tackle, as starter Marcus Cannon left last Sunday night’s game against the Kansas City Chiefs with a concussion and has missed practice time prior to Week 7.
The Bears will need a healthy Mack because New England's multiplicity makes its offense difficult to defend.
With the growth of rookie running back Sony Michel, as well as the acquisition of Josh Gordon and the return of Julian Edelman from suspension, the Patriots' offense can attack a defense in a number of different ways. They can line up in the I-formation and run Michel behind fullback James Develin:
Or they can spread out and trust Tom Brady to make the right decisions, which he usually does just fine:
If Mack plays on Sunday, look for New England to rely on its rushing attack and quick passing while leaning on Edelman and James White. Either way, this will be a fascinating matchup between one of the best defenses in the league, and an offense that often uses a variety of schemes to move the football.
Will Baltimore's sack-happy D get to Drew Brees?
As I outlined in the By Design piece this week, the Ravens set a franchise record with 11 sacks in Week 6 against Marcus Mariota and the Titans. They face a much different offense in Week 7, squaring off against Drew Brees and the Saints.
Thanks to last week’s dominance, the Ravens now own the second-ranked defense in DVOA, posting a rating of -19.7 percent, just behind the Bears. When looking at the 11 sacks they recorded against Tennessee, you see Mariota occasionally holding the ball too long. But he also couldn't escape some impressive scheme elements, as seen on this sack featuring two different delayed blitzes:
Pressuring Brees, however, is another story.
According to NFL.com’s Next Gen Stats, Brees is tied as the second-quickest passer in their time to throw statistic. Brees averages 2.52 seconds to release after the snap, tied with C.J. Beathard and just .01 seconds behind Sam Bradford.
You can see that rapid-fire release all over Brees’ tape this season:
Not that the Saints' offense needed any help, but New Orleans got a major boost last week when running back Mark Ingram returned from suspension. The Saints now have a two-headed running back tandem of Ingram and Alvin Kamara.
When those two are on the field simultaneously, Kamara represents a significant receiving threat and mismatch piece:
In Ingram, the Saints also have a more traditional running back who can be used on the inside to wear down a defensive front. He's versatile too, and very effective on screen passes:
The combination of Kamara and Ingram, in addition to Brees’ ability to quickly get the ball out, poses a serious challenge for Baltimore's defense. The Ravens have a chance to slow down the Saints' offense and come out with a victory on Sunday if they can somehow generate pressure on Brees and force some mistakes.
Will Eli take his shots against Atlanta's injury-riddled defense?
On the surface, this doesn't seem like one of the more enticing matchups of Week 7. But the angst in the metro New York City area over the floundering Giants’ offense and embattled quarterback Eli Manning will reach a crescendo if New York can't put together a strong outing and leave Atlanta with a victory.
Manning is struggling this season, and many believe they've figured out the main reason. The veteran quarterback has completed 68.7 percent of his pass attempts, but he's thrown just six touchdown passes against four interceptions. While some point to protection problems because Manning has been sacked 20 times, third-most in the league, others highlight the 37-year-old's reluctance to take shots downfield and challenge a defense vertically:
His hesitancy to challenge defenses downfield is making the Giants’ offense predictable and easy to defend. The Giants certainly have weapons, such as Shepard, Odell Beckham Jr., and rookie running back Saquon Barkley, and they should get tight end Evan Engram back from injury for Monday's game against the Falcons. But Manning needs a big outing amid rumors that the locker room would welcome a quarterback change.
If there's a silver lining for Manning and the Giants’ offense, it's that the unit will be going up against a banged-up defense also struggling this season. Atlanta enters Week 7 without several defensive starters due to injury, including strong safety Keanu Neal and linebacker Deion Jones, both of whom have been lost for the season. In addition, defensive tackle Grady Jarrett has been out since Week 4 with an ankle injury, and could still be hobbled or on limited snaps if he plays.
A matchup to watch is Engram against the Giants' backup strong safety, whether that's Sharrod Neasman or the recently acquired Jordan Richards. The Giants utilize 11 offensive personnel (one running back, one tight end, and three wide receivers) 67 percent of the time, one of the highest percentages in the league. That means the Falcons will often be in their nickel package, giving them an extra defensive back to counter this look. It also means that either Richards or Neasman will likely be responsible for Engram in coverage, a matchup that could tell the final story of this game.
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.