NFL football is at its core, a collection of one-on-one matchups. Sure, schemes matter and the machine as a whole working together matters. But when it comes right down to the nitty gritty, game-breaking plays come from one man beating another man.
With that in mind, I am looking at four one-on-one matchups from four marquee games in the 2019 season.
Week 5 Colts @ Chiefs
G Quenton Nelson v. DT Chris Jones
Sunday Night Football, two of the projected AFC elites? With two of the best quarterbacks in football and two brilliant play-callers? How about we focus on the battle in the trenches instead?
Chris Jones cemented himself last season as one of the premier interior pass rushers in the game, surpassed perhaps only by Aaron Donald. And despite Indianapolis entering Kansas City in the Division Round with one of the top offensive lines in football, Jones made his presence felt in that game with three batted passes. The Colts were unable to get anything going, as the Chiefs hammered Andrew Luck and the passing game while blowing up Quenton Nelson and the Colts’ running game.
But now Nelson is entering year two. In theory, that would point to a greater sense of the offense and shoring up of the pass protection inconsistencies Nelson suffered from at times last year. Nelson’s strength and awareness are undeniable, and he has all the tools to take the mantle of the league’s best interior lineman. But first, he has to show he can stand up to the best of the best.
Indianapolis has often gone as their offensive line takes them. When Luck has protection in front of him, he typically dissects defenses as well as anyone. In the same vein, Kansas City’s defense rides their pass rush above all. And since Dee Ford and Justin Houston have found different homes, the Chiefs will be looking to Jones to handle a great deal of the pressure. On paper, this looks like an archetypal “unstoppable force versus immovable object” face-off up the middle.
Week 7 Saints @ Bears
OT Ryan Ramczyk v. LB Khalil Mack
Let’s stick with the hogmollies, this time in a battle of NFC elites.
The general impression of NFL offensive lines is that the long, athletic pass blocker plays left tackle to protect the quarterback’s blind side against premier pass rushers. However, in this age of eccentric defensive scheming and player versatility, pass rushers rarely stick to one side. In fact, many, such as Von Miller and Danielle Hunter rush far more against right tackles. Hence, the reason Ryan Ramczyk has become so vital to New Orleans’ success these past two seasons. Along with Terron Armstead, the Saints have both of Drew Brees‘ sides covered, no matter where the opponent’s best pass rusher lines up.
Khalil Mack is certainly wont to move around a bit, drop into pass coverage, what have you. But when he is in ears-pinned-back mode, he typically rushes from his left side. Last season, his enormous play-making ability, from pressure to sacks to sack-fumbles to chance interceptions, had him in the MVP conversation through the first quarter of the season. And while his numbers ultimately dipped in the latter half, teams had to send max protections Mack’s way in order to slow him down.
The Saints seem like they are a bit more comfortable letting Ramczyk handle Mack one-on-one. Per Pro Football Focus, Ramczyk has been one of the very best right tackles in the game. He has surrendered only six sacks, six hits and 30 hurries in two seasons, in which he took 1,006 pass-blocking snaps. His pressure-allowed rate is tied for third over that stretch. Ramczyk does it with immense athleticism and refined technique, which in theory counters Mack’s varied approach fairly well. However, there are plenty of plays where Mack’s burst and incomparable power make even the best look silly.
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This mid-season game will tell us a lot about these two teams. Are the Saints still hung over from their controversial Championship Game loss? Are the Bears the same defense under Chuck Pagano? Through it all, this battle of pass rusher against pass blocker will potentially loom largest.
Week 9 Vikings @ Chiefs
TE Travis Kelce v. S Harrison Smith
While the Vikings may not necessarily have the top-notch projections of other teams, there is no denying that their defense should still rank among the best of the best. That starts, above all, with the queen on their chess board, Harrison Smith. Smith took a modest step back last year from his First Team All-Pro 2017, but he was still one of the best and most versatile safeties in the game. He mans the box against the run, he blitzes, he lines up in nickel, he mans up tight ends and backs, he drops into short zone, he patrols center field, the very definition of jack of all trades.
With that being said, Smith’s last 18 months has seen a couple of occasions in which he was torched by elite tight ends. Zach Ertz ate him alive with Philadelphia’s RPO-heavy attack in the 2017 NFC Championship Game, and then George Kittle opened 2018 with a massive game in Minnesota. So while Smith has always taken the mantle of elite tight end cover, some of the very best can find space against him.
Travis Kelce had no problem finding space against safeties last season. Or against anyone, for that matter. With Tyreek Hill’s season in doubt, Kelce figures to again serve as the de facto number one receiver for Patrick Mahomes. So when Minnesota walks into the brutal Kansas City environment, Harrison Smith is going to have a lot on his plate. Granted, many of the advantages Kelce typically has over his matchups do not apply to Smith. Smith is 6-foot-2, 220 with elite quickness, which should pair as well as any safety with Kelce’s 6-foot-5, 250-pound frame.
This game will be the classic high-powered offense against stingy defense matchup. These two individual players are the lynch pin that hold their unit together, so their duel will likely define how the game plays out.
Week 13 Patriots @ Texans
WR DeAndre Hopkins v. CB Stephon Gilmore
It does not get much simpler than a receiver against cornerback matchup. It is the definition of mano-a-mano, strength against strength in the NFL. And Hopkins and Gilmore are arguably the best in the business at what they do.
Hopkins is a bit of an anomaly in the NFL, a truly elite receiver with good, not great athleticism and good, not great size. What he does possess is impeccable release, technical route-running and some of the best hands on God’s green Earth. His ability to find space helped make Deshaun Watson’s first two years a resounding success, providing the young quarterback with a constant safety net and almost single-handedly taking the Texans’ offense from sub-par to solid.
So it would stand to reason that the best press corner in the game should be the answer to Hopkins. Gilmore is that corner. He is almost identical in size to Hopkins with the strength to stone wall him at the line. But even if he allows enough to space to draw a throw, Gilmore allowed a completion percentage of only 44 percent last season. His press-man coverage was a major reason why the Patriots’ defense was Super Bowl-caliber last year, despite looking fairly pedestrian on paper.
So there is the matchup at its essence: the cornerback who allows the fewest catches against the receiver who caught a whopping 70.6 percent of his 163 targets. One-on-one, best against best.
–Sam Smith is the Managing Editor for Full Press Coverage Vikings and Deputy Editor for Full Press NFL. Like and Follow @samc_smith.
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