Week 11 Mismatches: Geno Atkins could destroy Ravens' plans
Here's a breakdown of the most notable mismatches we expect to see in Week 11:
Bengals DT Geno Atkins vs Ravens LG Alex Lewis
Unfortunately for the Baltimore Ravens, Marshal Yanda can't play both guard positions this Sunday when defensive tackle Geno Atkins and the Cincinnati Bengals come to town. Yanda's one of the few guards with a track history of slowing Atkins down, but he'll likely see very little of him on Sunday, as Cincinnati would be wise to match Atkins up with the Ravens' other starting guard, Alex Lewis.
Atkins is good at many things, but above all, he's widely considered one of the best power rushers in the NFL. At 6-foot-1 and 300 pounds, he possesses a natural leverage advantage, which - combined with immense raw strength and effective hand techniques - allows him to consistently bull rush interior offensive linemen straight into their quarterback's lap. It's amazing to see Atkins displace 300-pound humans so easily, as he does here:
On this play, Atkins aligns with a slight inside shade over Kansas City Chiefs left guard Cam Erving. Once the ball is snapped, Atkins takes a couple power steps and engages at the point of attack, battling Erving for superior hand placement.
Atkins wins that hand-fighting battle with effective, powerful strikes that are meticulously placed so he can walk Erving back into Patrick Mahomes' face. Notice that any time his helmet rises above Erving's, Atkins immediately drops his pad level to reset his leverage and continue maximizing his power output. He doesn't get a sack, but he hits Mahomes mid-throw, causing an incompletion.
Unfortunately for Lewis, his weaknesses match up terribly with Atkins' strengths, as the left guard tends to struggle against powerful interior defenders. This play demonstrates his issues:
Here, Lewis is lined up opposite Pittsburgh's Cam Heyward, another powerful interior pass-rusher. Lewis tends to let his hands get wide at the point of attack, allowing defenders to initiate contact with superior hand placement.
This wouldn't be a huge problem on its own, but when an offensive lineman plays with wide hands, it's paramount that he wins the leverage battle and generates enough force to stymie a defender's momentum. Lewis fails to do that here, which is why he ends up getting pushed back into Joe Flacco's face, forcing the unathletic quarterback to break the pocket and take a sack.
That combination of wide hands and an inconsistent ability to win the leverage battle at the point of attack is a recipe for disaster against Atkins. The Bengals star could put together another monster performance on Sunday and make the difference in a key divisional game.
Texans DL J.J. Watt vs. Redskins RT Morgan Moses
Morgan Moses hasn't been bad this season. In fact, the Washington Redskins right tackle has been above average by league standards. But above average won’t cut it against J.J. Watt, who's proven once again - even after a litany of injuries in recent years - that he's still a top-three defensive lineman in the NFL.
In his eighth pro season, Watt still possesses one of the most potent speed rushes in the game. It’s almost unfathomable that a 6-foot-5, 295-pounder can zip around the edge at a faster clip than others who are 50 pounds lighter, but the future Hall of Famer does it by leveraging impressive burst, impeccable footwork, and well-timed hand techniques:
Here, Watt's aligned with an outside shade over Miami Dolphins right tackle Ja'Wuan James. Once the ball is snapped, Watt explodes upfield, looking to stress James' pass set with each step. James initially attempts to square up Watt, but is forced to turn his shoulder perpendicular to the line of scrimmage almost immediately after his first step - a cardinal sin for offensive linemen.
Once he gets within range, Watt feints with a two-handed swipe - effectively drawing out James' hands - which gives him space to dip and rip around the lunging blocker for a sack.
Pay attention to Watt’s feet as he wraps around the edge. His toes are constantly pointing toward the quarterback, allowing his hips to get on track, while his feet are consistently underneath him, letting him maintain momentum and balance through contact.
Watt’s nuanced speed rush should give Moses fits, as the latter tends to be inconsistent with his set points and hand techniques. At 6-foot-6 and 335 pounds, Moses is a giant offensive tackle who often gets away with those shoddy techniques based on his hulking frame and length. But sadly, those physical traits won't do much against Watt, who's seen and beaten every type of lineman since entering the NFL.
Expect Watt to finish Sunday's game with a sack or two while consistently harassing quarterback Alex Smith in the backfield.
Cowboys LT Tyron Smith vs Falcons DE Takkarist McKinley
Almost one year ago to the day, the Atlanta Falcons threw the Dallas Cowboys' 2017 season into a tailspin. The Falcons won 27-7, as their pass rush destroyed the Cowboys' offensive line and finished with eight sacks of Dak Prescott. Defensive end Adrian Clayborn (now with the Patriots) had six of those sacks, as he consistently defeated backup left tackles Chaz Green and Byron Bell.
But now, the Cowboys have five-time Pro Bowler Tyron Smith back and healthy after he missed last year's sack party. In fact, Smith should give Dallas the big-time advantage this time around against Takkarist McKinley, his likely matchup for most of Sunday's game.
McKinley's an interesting player because his box-score stats often look better than his actual performance. Through 10 weeks, he has 20 tackles and six sacks, which are nothing to sneeze at, but his snap-to-snap effectiveness lacks consistency. At this point in his career, McKinley's a flash player - someone who occasionally makes a big play but struggles to execute on an every-down basis.
That's not a recipe for success against Smith, who's playing his best football of the season after some earlier struggles. He bounced back in a big way against Philadelphia's vaunted defensive line last weekend, dominating for nearly the entire game. Here's an example:
Above, Smith executes a simple 45-degree pass set against Brandon Graham, who's one of the most effective pass-rushers of the last half-decade. Graham attempts to utilize a speed-to-power bull rush, but Smith's anchor is simply too much - the left tackle gives up ground for just a step or two before showing off his impressive rotational power by tossing Graham to the ground.
That simply never happens to Graham, and it certainly doesn’t bode well for McKinley, whose favorite pass-rushing move is converting speed to power.
Life could be even tougher for McKinley against the run because he won't have momentum on his side, meaning Smith's superior power and technique will allow him to displace the defender from his gap with regularity.
Don't be surprised if McKinley's held pressure-less as a pass rusher while getting rag-dolled in the running game. Meanwhile, Prescott will surely be glad to have Smith in the fold this time around.
Vikings DE Danielle Hunter vs Bears RT Bobbie Massie
The Bears' offense has been on fire recently - scoring at least 30 points in five of the last six games - so Minnesota must find a way to generate pressure on young quarterback Mitch Trubisky, who tends to struggle under duress.
Fortunuately for the Vikings, they employ the current NFL sack prince, Danielle Hunter, who's recorded 11.5 this season, just one behind Aaron Donald for the league lead. This week, Hunter gets a juicy matchup opposite Bears right tackle Bobby Massie.
Throughout his career, Massie's been the type of offensive tackle who does well against 85 percent of the edge defenders he faces. However, the other 15 percent tend to have their way.
Hunter fits into that latter group, as he's developed into one of the scariest pass-rushers in the NFL. He's seen a lot of time at right defensive end this season, but with Everson Griffen back, Hunter will likely return to the left end, where he was last week.
Unlike most athletic pass-rushers, Hunter doesn't just pin his ears back and speed skate around the edge a la Dee Ford. Instead, he relies on effective hand use and varied footwork to soften the edge so he can take a tight path to the quarterback:
Here, Hunter's working against Green Bay's Bryan Bulaga, one of the better right tackles in football. Once the ball is snapped, Hunter's already up to his usual shenanigans, as he starts slow with choppy footwork before getting within striking distance.
Once he's within range, Hunter mimics an inside move with a jab stab before expanding his rush to the edge, where he pulls Bulaga forward with his inside hand. With Bulaga off-balance and leaning forward, Hunter works around the edge and then flattens to the quarterback for the sack.
Expect Hunter to do similar things against Massie this week as the Vikings look to regain their spot atop the NFC North.
John Owning is a football writer at theScore. He has written for Bleacher Report and Football Insiders. He was also the lead NFL content editor at FanRag Sports. John provides analysis on the Dallas Cowboys for the Dallas Morning News and edits for The Quant Edge. Find him on Twitter @JohnOwning.