Playbook: ‘Eye in the Sky’ focused on Texan DEs

One of the best matchups of the weekend has to be football’s version of the “Running of the Bulls,” a ground-and-pound contest between Texans RB Arian Foster and Raiders RB Darren McFadden.

Even so, given what we have seen with our coaching tape cameras (“Eye in the Sky”), we are also extremely excited to watch Houston’s two stud 3-4 defensive ends, J.J. Watt and Antonio Smith.

Watt and Smith have been looping and stunting with one another on pass-rushing downs, causing panic between the guards and centers who have to pass them off to one another. The interior linemen of the Raiders — Samson Satele, Cooper Carlisle and Stefen Wisniewski — will surely have their hands full. The same goes for Oakland’s tackles, Jared Veldheer and Khalif Barnes, who will have to be mindful of Smith as a picker for rush ends Mario Williams and Connor Barwin.

Smith might throw himself at Veldheer and Barnes as a sacrificial lamb of sorts, occupying blocks while Williams and Barwin sneak inside for a free rush at QB Jason Campbell. And every now and again, Smith might just break through two blockers and sack Campbell himself.

Smith and Watt will be two players we will watch closely on Sunday, and here are five other matchups we will take note of this coming weekend:

Buccaneers at 49ers
Matchup: Patrick Willis vs. LeGarrette Blount

When Willis and Blount meet in the hole, you expect the kind of impact that gives birth to universes. But before every big bang, other elements are required to make it happen.

Willis relies on NT Isaac Sopoaga to eat ups tons of blocks so he can fly around and make tackles. Sopoaga could very well be out this week with a staph infection, which means second-stringer Ricky Jean-Francois and Ian Williams will be Willis’ protection from guards at the second level.

After a poor start to the season, Blount and the Buccaneers have begun to establish a running game.  With 127 yards last week versus the Colts, Blount was able to run clear through the hole, flanked by his pulling guards on power plays. At nearly 250 pounds, Blount is quite a load for any ‘backer when he gets rolling. He’s even tougher to tackle when he has a guard out front blocking for him.

Eagles at Bills
Matchup: Eagles’ receivers vs. Bills’ cornerbacks

The Eagles are really hurting after a 1-3 start to the season, and their road doesn’t get any easier versus the 3-1 Bills. To get out in front of their own defense, which has allowed a lot of points, Philly needs to rediscover its quick-fire offense.

While the Bills are stout on the defensive line, their secondary is still giving up big plays through the air (17 plays of 20-plus yards, tied for fifth-most in the league).  Eagles WRs DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin are more than capable of getting behind a defense.

Bengals WR A.J. Green was able to get behind Bills CB Leodis McKelvin last week, hauling in four receptions for 118 yards. Andrew Hawkins also had a nice catch and run off a screen pass. The Bills’ bad tackling on the play made Hawkins’ escape eerily reminiscent of one most commonly associated with Jackson.

The Bills have the ability to send pressure after Eagles QB Michael Vick, who is more than capable of escaping it and making Buffalo pay with the deep ball. The Buffalo safeties will have to be on high-alert to be over the top of the Eagles’ speedy receivers.

Jets at Patriots
Matchup: Patriots’ receivers vs. Jets’ cornerbacks

On any given Sunday, the Patriots can throw Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski, Deion Branch, Chad Ochocinco and Wes Welker at a secondary.

The Jets might be able to breathe a sigh of relief this week if Hernandez, who returned to practice Friday, is able to play. Facing the Patriots’ full complement of receivers in Week 13 last season, the Jets secondary surrendered 304 yards, including a 100-yard receiving day from RB Danny Woodhead.

While CB Darrelle Revis can lock up one of QB Tom Brady’s options, CB Antonio Cromartie has not proven to be able to contain the shifty route-running of either Welker or Branch (who combined for 10 catches for 144 yards in Week 13). With the blitz schemes the Jets like to bring, they put their coverage players in one-on-one situations.

If and when Brady sees nickel cornerback Kyle Wilson, safety Eric Smith or LB David Harris across from Welker, Gronkowski or Hernandez — or mirroring any of the backs on an isolation route — he’ll look to exploit those matchups all day.

Titans at Steelers
Matchup: Titans’ stretch run vs. Steelers’ defense

This is a battle between two teams who are used to do one thing well but haven’t had as much success in those specific areas as of late.

Rarely will you see the Steelers allow 100 yards rushing, but Texans RB Arian Foster just stampeded through them for 155 yards last week. The Titans just got RB Chris Johnson his first 100-yard performance last week against the Browns, but he is only averaging 2.9 yards per carry for the season.

We’ll see after this matchup which trend is an aberration and which might be a true source of worry. Tennessee relies upon the zone-stretch run to grind on opposing defensive lines while opening up alleys for Johnson on the edge. The Titans line was just not in sync the first few weeks of the season.

The Steelers are usually equipped to defense any run scheme, with NT Casey Hampton clogging up the middle and LBs LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison holding down the edges. Last week in Houston, however, the Texans’ offensive line was able to push Hampton and DEs Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel out of the way to block the Steelers’ linebackers.

Pittsburgh and Tennessee will surely be in a battle for their respective reputations this week.

Packers at Falcons
Matchup: Marshall Newhouse vs. Falcons’ defensive ends

Newhouse, a second-year offensive tackle from TCU, has filled in admirably for injured RT Bryan Bulaga. But there is no denying that Green Bay would rather have Bulaga healthy for this one, because the Falcons bring some pass rushers to the party.

For Atlanta, it’s been a lame party thus far this season. John Abraham (two sacks), Kroy Biermann (one sack) and free-agent acquisition Ray Edwards (zero) have yet to really punish opposing quarterbacks.

Newhouse is big enough at 6-foot-4 and 319 pounds, but he’s not a show-stopper. His feet are adequate, but he is not super athletic. Newhouse has been able to stay between pass rushers and QB Aaron Rodgers, for the most part, barring two sacks by Denver LB Von Miller last week. Bulaga has been ruled out, so Newhouse and veteran LT Chad Clifton will still be asked to hold down the fort in his stead. We’ll see what the Falcons’ defensive ends really have to offer.

“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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