Every NFL franchise strives for perfection. Front offices and coaching staffs attempt to build well-oiled machines, with all 53 players on the roster firing on all cylinders. But in the ultimate team sport, with moving parts across three different game phases (offense, defense and special teams), there are inevitably imperfections. And if these defects aren't properly tended to, they can snowball and bring down the entire operation.
Not to fret, though: Mr. Fix-It is here!
Each week, 12-year NFL veteran and noted tape junkie Brian Baldinger will spotlight specific shortcomings and offer solutions for the affected teams. All free of charge! Here is his advice for three teams heading into Week 11:
1) HOUSTON TEXANS: Play with max effort despite unfavorable matchups.
The Houston Texans head to the Charm City this weekend to face the Baltimore Ravens in a game with all kinds of star power led by two young quarterbacks. And rightfully so. Both Deshaun Watson and Lamar Jackson are having great campaigns as the focal points of their respective teams. They will generate most of the headlines and while they receive all the hype, there's another story that is equally as important. The Ravens boast the No. 1 total offense in the league, and that seems like a misprint considering they've been known for their stout defense over the organization's 23 years in the league.
What should be discussed and showcased after the quarterback debates run out of superlatives is Baltimore's tight end trio of Mark Andrews, Hayden Hurst and Nick Boyle. They have combined for 83 receptions for 949 yards and seven touchdowns, and no other team is even close to matching that production at the position.
Expect Texans DC Romeo Crennel to look at this closely. How will he match up in 13 personnel (1 RB, 3 TEs)? Most teams match personnel to what the offense puts on the field. Last week, the Bengals matched three tight ends with as many linebackers, and the Ravens torched them with 35-yard and 25-yard passes to Boyle, who had the best receiving game of his career in snaring four Jackson passes for 78 yards.
The Texans must think about the Ravens' three main personnel groupings and what tendencies they have from them. The first is an 11 personnel package with one RB and one TE. The second is the 22 personnel package with two RBs and two TEs. The last is the dreaded 13 personnel package with one RB and three TEs. The X-factor in all of these groupings is Jackson. In the 11 package last week, the Bengals matched "11" with a pass defense, and Jackson ran a read option to the left alley for a 47-yard touchdown run -- an instant highlight on everyone's Twitter feed.
For Crennel and the Texans, they can't worry about matching personnel groupings on every play. All that does is it prevents players from getting into a rhythm and feel for the game. They have to understand that all three Ravens tight ends can run routes, catch and be a viable threat on any given play. Just be ready.
As for Jackson, understand that he has seen a lot of defenses try to defend him in his 16 starts -- with a spy, a mush rush or max blitz, all in an effort to keep him in the pocket. My advice to Crennel is to tell his defenders to "go get him," meaning they must use all of their instincts and abilities to chase him and force him into making a mistake. Jackson has yet to lose a fumble this season, and it's time the Texans change that. Live with the results, understand that highlights might be up on the video board but most importantly, get ready for the next play. Play hard on every snap, even if it's not the perfect call or matchup.
2) TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS: Execute Falcons' blueprint on stopping Saints.
In the Sean Payton-Drew Brees era, they had always generated a touchdown when playing a game in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome until last week when the 1-7 Falcons came limping into the Crescent City and stopped them from getting in the end zone. The Falcons limited the Saints to three Wil Lutz field goals and won the divisional matchup. When I studied the tape of how the Dirty Birds shocked the NFL in possibly the biggest upset of the season, Atlanta had a fairly simple game plan. It played a heavy dose of zone defense and married it with a fierce four-man pass rush. The tightly contested zone made Brees hitch and hold the ball a few too many times and the rush frequently got to him.
Can the Tampa Bay Buccaneers do something similar against the Saints on Sunday? For one, the Bucs have been on the toughest defenses in the league to run against -- surrendering 700 rush yards in nine games. The development of Vita Vea combined with the acquisition of Ndamukong Suh and drafting of rookie Devin White has made it difficult for any offense. But like the Falcons, the back end of the Bucs' defense has been abysmal. Between the breakdowns, the poor tackling and constant change in personnel have the Bucs into a sieve that has given up the most pass yards in the league and more points than any other unit.
But Bruce Arians made a bold decision this week that may influence the overall culture of the defense and team. He cut former first-round pick and starting cornerback Vernon Hargreaves during the week and cited poor effort on a catch-and-run by Arizona's Andy Isabella. This isn't common because teams ultimately need to talent to win, but I do think it woke everyone up at 1 Buccaneer Place. The results remain to be seen, but the message is clear. Play perfect assignment football on the back end -- paying attention to detail is key -- and make Brees hold the ball for even the slightest instant longer. Meanwhile, allow the NFL sack leader, Shaq Barrett, and newly activated Jason Pierre-Paul to get after Brees, while Suh collapses the pocket up the middle.
If Brees gets hot by constantly targeting Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara, like he is prone to do, then Jameis Winston must match his throws with targets to Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, who both sit in the top five in receiving yards this season. The last time I saw the Bucs play live, they put up a franchise-best 55 points against the Rams, so I know they have the fire power.
3) PHILADELPHIA EAGLES: Don't stray from newfound offensive identity.
After the Eagles fell to their perennial nemesis, the Dallas Cowboys, in convincing fashion in Week 7, nearly everyone in the Delaware Valley was ready to write off Carson Wentz and the Eagles in 2019. Talk radio and the passionate fan base had them buried, but that was premature and before the Eagles discovered their true identity.
Through the inconsistent and lackluster first half of the season, the Eagles meandered around in the first half of games with an aversion to scoring. But in consecutive wins at Buffalo and vs. the Bears at home, the Eagles have morphed into a solid power run football team. They had 41 rush attempts at Buffalo for 218 yards in Week 8, followed by 35 attempts for roughly 150 more yards in Week 9. It feels as if everyone is back on the Eagles' wings and ready for another postseason run.
They might just do it but it starts with a visit from the New England Patriots this weekend. Although the defending Super Bowl champs boast an AFC-best 8-1 record, they looked vulnerable after a loss to Lamar Jackson's Ravens in their last outing. Though that was notable, I think the Eagles studied the Patriots-Browns game even more closely. In New England's win over Cleveland in Week 8, Nick Chubb ran 20 times for 131 yards, and the Browns continued to run the ball effectively even after trailing by 17. This is exactly what the Birds want to do Sunday afternoon at Lincoln Financial Field.
The Patriots prefer to play a 2-5 defensive front, which is two D-linemen and five linebackers, unless you begin running the ball effectively like the Browns did. Once that happened, Bill Belichick switched to a three-man front with four linebackers, and after a simultaneous bye with the Eagles in Week 10, it won't surprise me to see the Patriots unveil four defensive linemen Sunday to limit the effectiveness of the Eagles' powerful rushing attack. It's something for everyone to look out for.
The Eagles feature many of the same offensive linemen they had in Super Bowl LII, a game in which they beat the Patriots to take home the team's first-ever Lombardi Trophy. Lane Johnson, Brandon Brooks and Jason Kelce make up the right side, and part of their success has been Brooks' return to full health after rupturing his Achilles in last year's postseason. He's had an amazing recovery considering he has started every game this season, playing all but 20 snaps. When studying him closely over the last two games, I feel like Brooks is just getting his full strength and power back. Together with Johnson and the rapid development of second-year tight end Dallas Goedert, this group can move the line of scrimmage. Running in tandem has been Jordan Howard and rookie Miles Sanders, which is a one-two punch reminiscent of thunder and lighting. Unfortunately, Howard's availability to play Sunday is in doubt as he hadn't been cleared for contact (shoulder) on Friday. That's why the Eagles signed Jay Ajayi, who is coming off a major knee injury that cut his 2018 season short, on Friday.
The key to this game is keeping the score close enough for the Eagles to stick with the run game. They could steal a page out of the Browns' book and stay true to the ground game no matter the score. The message here is that it's never too late to discover your identity. For the 5-4 Eagles, it feels like the right time to unleash a powerful rushing attack at the Patriots. -- no matter who lines up in the backfield.