Five ‘eye in the sky’ matchups for Week 3

You have probably heard the phrase “a team is only as strong as its weakest link.” In the NFL, the difference between a team’s weakest link and their strongest can determine the outcome of a game.

Leading up to Sunday, we did a little tape study and tried to find a few links that could be broken:

Patriots at Bills
Matchup: Bills interior D-Line vs. Dan Connolly

Connolly has stepped in at center for the Patriots, replacing Dan Koppen, and didn’t embarrass himself versus the nose of the Chargers’ 3-4 defense. But against the Bills’ two 4-3 defensive tackles, Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams, he’ll have his hands full.

While a base 4-3 scheme leaves a center uncovered, the Bills shade at least one tackle over the center or an “A-gap.” Across from Connolly, for the most part, will be Williams, who played 40 of his 53 snaps over the center in Week 2. Dareus is almost always shifted over a guard, but he’ll loop around Williams on stunts.

Whether Connolly faces the never-ending motor of Williams or the immense strength of Dareus, he’ll have to anchor and finish blocks if Tom Brady hopes to sit in the pocket and shred Buffalo’s secondary.

Giants at Eagles
Matchup: Trent Cole vs. William Beatty

Beatty, a third-year player out of Connecticut, is in his first full year as the Giants’ left tackle. A leaner, more athletic blind-side protector, Beatty was able to ride the inside shoulder of the Rams’ speed rushers and take them right out of the plays in Week 2.

He won’t have the same luxury versus Cole, however.

Emerging from his four-point stance, Cole is a ferocious defensive end who loves to bring a speed rush and also mix in a heavy bull-rush when the left tackle is off-balance. Last week, Cole jacked Atlanta left tackle Sam Baker with his hands, pushing through the line and registering six tackles — including four for a loss.

This will be Beatty’s chance to prove he can keep the Giants’ offense on schedule by keeping Eli Manning upright.

Texans at Saints
Matchup: Darren Sproles vs. Texans defense

Houston had a practice run versus a scat back with Reggie Bush and Miami last week, but the Dolphins only threw to him once. They’ll face a real test in the pass game with Bush’s replacement in New Orleans — Sproles.

A cat-quick weapon out of the backfield, Sproles has 15 receptions in two games this week and 7.9 yards per catch. He is a perfect fit for the Saints’ offense on passing downs, which spreads defenses out with multiple receiver sets. Sproles lines up in the backfield or at wide receiver, leaking into voided zones and posing a matchup nightmare for the safety or linebacker who is left to cover him.

Looking at the Texans, they blitzed 59 percent of the time on passing plays in Week 2, which means Sproles might find himself with one man — or maybe no one — to beat for a splash play on offense.

Packers at Bears
Matchup: Aaron Rodgers vs. Bears safeties

In last year’s NFC Championship, the Bears tried to disguise their coverages, rolling their safeties in order to confuse Rodgers. Even if the Bears’ secondary has a new look — Daniel Manning is in Houston, Major Wright is uncertain with a head injury and Chris Harris is on the bench — expect a lot of the same looks from Chicago’s defensive scheme.

On the other hand, Rodgers is a master of manipulating safeties, and Green Bay has the weapons to stretch a defense vertically. Whether it’s Harris, Wright, Brandon Meriweather or Craig Steltz, the Packers will stress the top of the Bears’ defense — and they can’t break.

Redskins at Cowboys
Matchup: Cowboys linebackers vs. Redskins zone running attack

With Tony Romo and the Dallas wide receivers banged up, the Cowboys’ best offense might have to come through their defense. They will host an efficient Redskins running attack that is the crux of their passing attack. Dallas must make them a one-dimensional passing offense to increase the odds in its favor.

Washington runs Mike Shanahan‘s zone-run scheme, which allows its line to flow in one direction and their running back to pick and choose a hole. That means the Cowboys’ linebackers will have to be disciplined and consistent with their gap integrity.

This defense must close running lanes for Tim Hightower and Roy Helu and limit gains on first and second down.

“Playbook”, the ultimate football Xs and Os show, airs Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m. ET on NFL Network. Check the NFL Network broadcast schedule for further details. Follow “Playbook” on Twitter @NFLN_Playbook.

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