Eye in the Sky: I spy … Cam?

As we will highlight in our “Tale of the Tape” this week – the Giants versus the Bills — we take particular interest in if and how a defense can get to the quarterback. In the case of the Bills-Giants game, the Buffalo offensive line has surrendered the fewest sacks and the Giants’ defense has recorded the most in the league.

But the flavor of this chess match between a pocket quarterback and his hunters is quite bland compared to the dimensions a play-making signal-caller can add.

Take Cam Newton, for example. Not since the first few years of the careers of Michael Vick and Donovan McNabb have NFL coaches had to ponder how to contain a passer-slash-runner like Newton.

Do you spy him? If you do, usually an inside defender is used, whether it be a linebacker or safety. This tactic leaves you susceptible to Newton hitting one of his favorite targets — his tight end. Against a spy, Newton is disciplined enough to keep his eyes down the field and make plays with his arm, before he resorts to his legs.

Do you blitz him? If you do, Newton might be moved off his spot but he really works to keep his eyes downfield. Newton has proven that he can counter pressure in multiple ways with his legs. He obviously has the ability to take off; but his legs allow him to break the pocket and extend plays, allowing him to still make downfield throws.

These will be questions the Falcons will have to answer this week versus the Panthers. Atlanta’s defense has a crew of linebackers that possess the speed to run from sideline to sideline; it will be interesting how they will use it to contain Newton.

That’s just one matchup we’re looking forward to. Here are a few others we are focusing our “Eye in the Sky” on this weekend:

Colts @ Bengals
Matchup: Indy defensive line vs. Cincy’s power run

The Colts have given up two straight, 190-plus rushing days to opposing offenses (the Buccaneers and Chiefs). And the Bengals’ downhill run offense will surely come after Indy in the same manner this week.

As a team, the Indianapolis defense was built to play with a lead. Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis and the Colts’ lighter defensive tackles are meant to pin their ears back and sack opposing QBs, after Peyton Manning put them up early. They aren’t built to withstand double teams or hold the point of attack against the run.

This year, with the quarterback position in flux, the Colts have been behind and teams have had the luxury to pound the ball.

While this seems like an obvious advantage for the Bengals, they have not been consistent in the running game. They either run for 100-plus, like they did against the Browns (139 in Week 1) and Bills (171 in Week 4), or underwhelm you with 70-yard outputs like in the other three weeks.

Terrance Knighton and the Jaguars stout front gave Cincinnati center Kyle Cook and left guard Nate Livings fits last week. We can’t see Antonio Johnson or Drake Nevis being as dominant versus the run this week, though.

This turns the onus back on Curtis Painter. He needs to get the Colts out front – or he’ll be hearing it from his battered defense at game’s end.

Cowboys @ Patriots
Matchup: Sean Lee vs. New England’s tight ends

Every week, we are talking about what kind of matchup nightmare Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski can be for a defense. But it seems like this week we have a linebacker who might be able to stick with them.

Lee, who played point guard on his high school basketball team, hasn’t lost his quick twitch to break on the ball in the passing game. In zone coverage, we have seen read route combinations, under-cutting in-breaking routes intended for tight ends and wide receivers.

We aren’t saying he’s an athletic match for Hernandez, but Lee’s an opportunistic player. He has shown the ability to take away throwing lanes that quarterbacks initially read as open; with Dallas’ pressure being coordinated by Rob Ryan and executed through DeMarcus Ware, they have a chance for forced throws to be made.

And as Sterling Sharpe tells you in the AFC edition of “Playbook”, Lee is no slouch versus the run, either.

Eagles @ Redskins
Matchup: Washington red zone D vs. Eagles red zone O

The Eagles are in desperate straits right now in terms of their record. And times have been most desperate for Philly’s offense at the worst of times -– in the red zone.

It has been stated ad nauseam how bad Philadelphia is in the red zone (surely you have seen Ronnie Brown’s fumble at the two-yard line, Eagles fans) and their touchdown efficiency from within the five yard line ranks 25th in the league (scored on four of eight opportunities). Conversely, the Redskins are the third-best red-zone defense in the NFL.

ESPN Radio Analyst Barrett Brooks, a former Eagles and Steelers offensive lineman, conferred to us a few of his solutions to Philly’s red-zone woes on one of his many stops by the “Playbook” War Room:

1)  Stop condensing formations at the goal line. The Eagles do not have the personnel to mash their way across the doorstep. Instead, they need to spread defenses out, put out three or four wide receivers into the game, and make defenses try to defense Vick’s ability to convert with a run-pass option.

2)  Stop splitting DeSean Jackson out on an island. He gets beat up on routes versus a corner with no space to operate. Instead, put him in a bunch formation and use that to give him a free release.

Sound advice.

Saints @ Buccaneers
Matchup: Mike Williams vs. Saints corners

Josh Freeman has targeted Mike Williams 39 times this season, but they have only connected on 19 of those passes. After Williams’ breakout rookie campaign in 2010, this trend has to be disturbing for the Bucs. And after scoring only three points last week, Freeman-to-Williams needs to get on track versus New Orleans for Tampa’s season to get on track.

Studying targets to Williams this season, it is apparent the Bucs want to get him open on short in-breaking routes, slants and screens, in particular. Josh Freeman’s strength is passing inside of the numbers, but corner backs have been playing with inside leverage on Williams, daring him to use his average speed to run by them. At the same time, Williams has dropped his share of balls as well.

Fortunately for the Bucs, the Saints’ corners have had their trouble covering down the field (evidenced by Steve Smith’s touchdown last week). If Williams is going to get behind anyone this season, it would have to be New Orleans’ corners.

Otherwise, it’s back to the drawing board for the Bucs’ passing game.

“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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