Here's a breakdown of four significant positional mismatches in Week 17:
The Pittsburgh Steelers need help from the Cleveland Browns to have a shot at making the playoffs, but Cameron Heyward won’t need any help in his matchup against Cincinnati Bengals left guard Clint Boling.
The box-score scouts may look at Heyward’s sack totals over the last two years and conclude the two-time Pro Bowler has taken a step back this season, as he's recorded six sacks thus far in 2018 after posting 12 in 2017. That couldn’t be further from the truth because Heyward has produced a similar pressure rate.
Heyward is the rare defensive end in an odd front (3-4 base defense) who can still perform at a high level, accumulating 50 tackles (eight for a loss), 16 quarterback hits, six sacks, three pass deflections, and one forced fumble this season. Typically, defensive ends in a 3-4 defense don’t produce a ton because their primary job is to keep linebackers clean and occupy blocks instead. They don't penetrate upfield as often as defensive ends in 4-3 base defenses.
However, on a Steelers front seven that’s littered with talent, Heyward is the king of the castle. He possesses immense raw strength, deliberate hands, and sound footwork, and knows how to leverage his 6-foot-5, 295-pound frame to batter and bludgeon opposing blockers:
Here, Heyward is aligned across from the Panthers' left guard. After the snap, he immediately expands his rush to the outside, stressing the guard’s pass set. Once he gets close, Heyward initiates contact with a powerful two-hand strike, knocking back the guard to create enough separation as he continues to build momentum.
From there, Heyward attempts to initiate contact again. This time he drops his pad level, allowing him to get underneath the guard’s chin and win the leverage battle, maximizing his power output at the point of attack. Once Heyward rolls his hips, the guard gives ground and is driven to his back (with the help of a slight trip from the left tackle), giving Heyward an easy path to bring down a scrambling Cam Newton for the sack.
Heyward's skill set doesn't bode well for Boling, as the Bengals' left guard struggles mightily against power. Here’s a great example:
Boling is tasked with blocking Saints defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins. After the snap, he lets his hands get too wide and pad level too high while attempting to mirror Rankins’ initial movement, making it nearly impossible for the veteran to anchor against the bull rush.
Rankins then easily walks him back into the pocket before bringing down the quarterback.
Making matters worse, Heyward is a more skilled power rusher than Rankins, and the Bengals' defensive lineman was still able to find success with his power. That means Heyward should have a field day during a crucial game on Sunday.
To the surprise of many, Denico Autry has been one of the NFL's most productive interior defenders this season. After recording just 10.5 sacks over his first four seasons, Autry has blossomed as a pass-rusher, accumulating nine sacks and 11 quarterback hits in 2018.
This week, he has an opportunity to take advantage of Titans right guard Josh Kline during a game Indianapolis has to win to make the playoffs. The Colts move Autry around the defensive line quite a bit, but he spends much of his time against opposing right guards.
The last time these teams met, Autry leveraged his sublime hand technique to muscle past Kline for a sack:
Here, he's aligned as a wide three-technique defensive tackle with an outside shade over Kline. After the snap, Autry pushes forward for two steps, which slightly widens Kline’s pass set to provide an opening for the inside move.
He then puts his left foot in the turf and explodes laterally to cross Kline’s face and beat him inside, using a forceful club technique to parry the guard's initial strike.
Kline does a good job recovering, as he slides inside to obstruct Autry’s path to the quarterback. Unfortunately for Kline, Autry then uses a fork-lift move to eliminate the blocker's anchor before bullying his way into the pocket and bringing down Marcus Mariota for the sack.
Expect more of the same this week, as Autry’s silky smooth hand technique and quickness should be too much for Kline’s plodding movement.
The Vikings need a win in Week 17 to get into the playoffs, and you can bet Griffen will beat Bears left tackle Charles Leno Jr. often. Leno is playing well this season, but he still allows multiple pressures per game.
At his best, Griffen is one of the most difficult defensive ends to block, as he combines incredible burst and timing with a deep pass-rush tool kit. Griffen's speed is the foundation of his pass-rush plan. That quickness allows him to be successful with his best move: the inside spin.
Here’s an example:
On this play, Griffen is aligned with a wide outside shade over Lions left tackle Taylor Decker. After the snap, he explodes out of his stance and pushes forward, mimicking his speed-rush move up the edge to set up his inside spin.
Once Decker turns his shoulders perpendicular to the line of scrimmage and commits to stopping the speed rush, Griffen executes a long-arm stab with his inside arm to maintain the separation necessary to execute the inside spin.
Decker’s only option is to commit an egregious hold on Griffen, which still isn’t enough to keep the defensive end from taking down the quarterback for the sack.
Against Leno this week, don’t be surprised if you see Griffen use his inside spin to record a sack, as the tackle often turns his shoulders too early and makes himself vulnerable.
Za’Darius Smith is one of the most unappreciated defenders in the NFL. He's been one of the better playmakers on Baltimore’s dominant defense while racking up 43 tackles (nine for a loss), 25 quarterback hits, 8.5 sacks, two pass deflections, and a forced fumble.
Unable to rely on his athleticism to speed past offensive tackles, Smith leans on his timing and refined hand usage instead, which is why he’s able to generate pressure from a variety of different alignments.
In a must-win game for Baltimore, Smith is the defender best positioned to take advantage of his matchups up front. Baltimore moves him all around the front seven to take advantage of the opposing offensive line's weakness. This week, the weak link is right tackle Chris Hubbard.
These two aren’t strangers, as Smith has been successful against Hubbard in the past. That includes the last time Baltimore played Cleveland when Smith beat Hubbard for a sack:
Smith is aligned with a wide outside shade over Hubbard. After the snap, he fires out of his stance, looking to execute a stab-club to get around the edge.
While Smith’s initial move doesn’t work, it does make the inside counter move available. With Hubbard’s momentum taking him up the edge, Smith re-directs inside using a slingshot entry into an arm over move, allowing him to penetrate the pocket and take down Baker Mayfield for the sack.
Because of his success against him early this season, Baltimore will probably look to pit Smith against Hubbard as much as possible in an effort to make Mayfield’s life in the pocket miserable.
John Owning is a football writer at theScore. He has written for Bleacher Report and Football Insiders. He was also the lead NFL content editor at FanRag Sports. John provides analysis on the Dallas Cowboys for the Dallas Morning News and edits for The Quant Edge. Find him on Twitter @JohnOwning.