Philadelphia, PA – Depth charts have been part of the NFL's culture for decades.
But in this era of specialization, conventional depth charts have never been more outdated.
On offense, teams utilize a third receiver or a second tight end far more than often a fullback. Four- or five-receiver sets and an empty backfield are the norm in obvious passing situations for the high-powered teams with depth outside.
On defense, a nickel back is going to play far more than a 4-3 linebacker who lacks the ability to drop and cover in space. Meanwhile, most 3-4 outside linebackers are more hybrids than anything else, sometimes putting their hand on the ground as a defensive end and sometimes dropping in a zone-blitz scheme.
All this specialization on both sides of the ball has offensive coaches focusing more and more on singling out a specific player in order to magnify his deficiencies in the passing game.
It could be the run-thumping linebacker who can only play downhill, the overmatched nickel back who they want on the field 60 or 70 percent of the time or the safety who serves more as an extra linebacker.
Back in the 1970s, the no-huddle offense was saved for the final few minutes of the half or game. Now, it's become a strategic move to change the pace of an offense and limit defensive substitutions.
"You're looking to push the tempo, play fast, wear an opponent down, kind of play faster than they are," Miami first-year coach Joe Philbin said. "Ideally, you're getting a bunch of first downs. I think there's some advantages if you can get it rolling."
Those advantages only exist, however, if an offense possesses players with the kind of flexibility and versatility to produce in different formations.
"It's got to be real in the sense that just sticking guys in certain places and not using them -- people aren't going to defend that," Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. "We have tight ends; we have people that we can move and running backs outside that they aren't a decoy -- it's real."
When it's "real" and clicking, it puts a ton of pressure on defensive lineman, who are taught to rev their motors non-stop since most defensive coordinators rotate their big men liberally.
"One of the main points of running a no-huddle offense and what you're trying to accomplish is making the defense uncomfortable," Ravens Pro Bowl center Matt Birk said. "Sometimes you're calling plays and the defense isn't even set."
The no-huddle is especially effective when you have a veteran quarterback who can diagnose things quickly at the line and audible to the right formation and play call.
"I think every team wants to play fast and get up to the line of scrimmage," said Denver Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy, who can lean on Peyton Manning to run the Broncos' no-huddle. "Every team has a no-huddle system. How fast you go depends on what type of quarterback you have and how fast can your players react to it all."
It doesn't always have to be a veteran running things, though.
Philbin's rookie quarterback in Miami, Ryan Tannehill, often executed a form of the no-huddle during his college days at Texas A&M, so Philbin brought in Tannehill's coach with the Aggies, Mike Sherman, as the team's offensive coordinator.
"When we get to the line quicker, we are able to assess the defense and get ourselves into a good play," said Tannehill, who seems far more comfortable when pressing he action. "We're then able to run more plays and give ourselves more opportunities to put points on the board. We run these same no-huddle plays in practice, so we're used to not being able to say, 'do this on this play.' It's just kind of an understanding that we're on the same page."
That preparation along with flawless communication on the field are the key ingredients in offenses operating a complex no-huddle attack.
"Communication is everything when it comes to the no-huddle," NFL Network analyst and former MVP Kurt Warner said. "You have to get the communication to the offensive line first and foremost, to the running backs and also to the wide receivers. That's why the good teams are so good at it because everybody communicates very, very well together."
Concentration is also paramount, especially on the road when an opposing crowd can roar like a jet engine when it thinks it's having an impact on the game.
"It takes a lot of concentration," New England Patriots All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski said when discussing the no-huddle. "It takes a team effort for sure. You've got to have all 11 guys working at the same pace and you've got to make sure you're doing your own job out there."
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THE GAMES (All Times Eastern)
Kansas City (1-6) at San Diego (3-4), Thursday, 8:20 p.m.
LINE: Chargers by 8
THE SKINNY: It's been a disastrous season for Kansas City, which is the first team since 1940 to go seven games into a season without holding a lead during regulation. The Chiefs have given the ball away an NFL-worst 25 times and their team passing rating is a league-low 64.4. Needless to say, that's not a recipe for winning football.
The Chargers typically have big hiccups under Norv Turner but find their stride sometime in late October or early November. The Chiefs, who are on the verge of losing five straight for the first time since Nov. 29-Dec. 27, 2009, are the perfect club to kick start things against as long as San Diego's offensive line can keep Philip Rivers clean.
PREDICTION: Chargers 24, Chiefs 17
Denver (4-3) at Cincinnati (3-4), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Broncos by 3 1/2
THE SKINNY: Peyton Manning is back. The veteran recorded his 37th career game with at least three touchdown passes and no interceptions last Sunday as the Broncos blitzed New Orleans, surpassing Brett Favre for the most such games in NFL history. Things don't figure to change all that much in Cincinnati this week. Peyton is 7-0 all-time versus the Bengals with 17 TDs vs. three interceptions.
PREDICTION: Broncos 27, Bengals 20
Baltimore (5-2) at Cleveland (2-6), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Ravens by 3 1/2
THE SKINNY: Joe Flacco probably spent his bye week trying to forget about J.J. Watt. Whether he was successful not won't matter on Sunday since the lowly Browns will likely make things easy for the signal-caller. Baltimore and Flacco have won nine straight versus Cleveland and 10 consecutive against the AFC North. Meanwhile, with their next win, Flacco and his head coach, John Harbaugh, will record their 50th career win together.
PREDICTION: Ravens 24, Browns 10
Arizona (4-4) at Green Bay (5-3), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Packers by 11
THE SKINNY: A perfect September turned into a perfectly awful October for the Cardinals. November isn't shaping up well either for Arizona, which arrives in Titletown to face the red-hot Aaron Rodgers, who already has 21 touchdown passes. A-Rod is the first quarterback in NFL history to have 20-plus TD passes through his team's first eight games in back-to-back seasons.
PREDICTION: Packers 28, Cardinals 13
Buffalo (3-4) at Houston (6-1), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Texans by 10
THE SKINNY: Mario Williams, the NFL's highest-paid defensive player, returns to Houston. The No. 1 overall selection by the Texans in the 2006 NFL Draft, Williams signed a $100 million contract with Buffalo in the offseason, but the Bills have struggled mightily on defense and Williams underwent minor wrist surgery recently. Since his absence in South Texas, Watt has developed into the NFL's most dominant defender, with 9 1/2 sacks and 10 passes defended for the Texans, who are shooting for the first 7-1 start in franchise history.
PREDICTION: Texans 30, Bills 20
Miami (4-3) at Indianapolis (4-3), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Dolphins by 2 1/2
THE SKINNY: What figured to be a battle between two of the NFL's best rookie quarterbacks could be derailed by Tannehill's left knee injury. An MRI on Monday did not show any structural damage, but his status for Sunday's game against Indianapolis and Andrew Luck remains uncertain. Tannehill was hit by Jets linebacker Calvin Pace in the first quarter on the Dolphins' second possession Sunday and didn't return. Backup quarterback Matt Moore filled in for Miami during its 30-9 blowout victory over the Jets.
Luck has the highest winning percentage (.571) through Week 8 by a rookie QB who was selected with the No. 1 overall pick in NFL history and has been averaging 281.6 passing yards per game, the most among the rookie signal- callers. Tannehill, meanwhile, has turned the corner recently, completing 40- of-60 passes for 426 yards with two TDs and no picks over his last three games.
PREDICTION: Colts 21, Dolphins 20
Detroit (3-4) at Jacksonville (1-6), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Lions by 3 1/2
THE SKINNY: The Lions may have saved their season last Sunday when Matthew Stafford found Titus Young for a TD with 20 seconds to play as Detroit edged the Seahawks, 28-24. Now, Stafford will try to continue his dominance against the AFC when the Lions visit lowly Jacksonville. Stafford has passed for 1,843 yards with 17 TDs and just one interception in his last six games versus AFC teams.
PREDICTION: Lions 24, Jaguars 14
Chicago (6-1) at Tennessee (3-5), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Bears by 3 1/2
THE SKINNY: The Titans have won 10 of their last 12 home games against NFC competition, but they will be facing a Bears team with an incredibly opportunistic defense this week. Chicago's defense has six interception returns for TDs, the most in NFL history through seven games. Bears linebacker Lance Briggs and cornerback Charles Tillman became the first teammates to have a pick-six in consecutive games earlier in the season. Meanwhile, cornerback Tim Jennings, who turned things around versus Carolina with his own pick-six last Sunday, has seven interceptions in his past eight games.
PREDICTION: Bears 21, Titans 17
Carolina (1-6) at Washington (3-5), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Redskins by 3
THE SKINNY: It's Cam vs. RG3 as last year's NFL Rookie of the Year takes on the leader at the midway point for this year's award.
Cam Newton and Robert Griffin III will always be compared since both were selected in the top two selections in back-to-back drafts (Newton was No. 1 overall in 2011, RG3 was No. 2 in '12), and both were Heisman Trophy winners.
Newton is currently in the midst of a sophomore slump for the 1-6 Panthers as opposing defenses have caught up a bit to his unique style. Griffin, meanwhile, leads all NFL rookies with a 66.8 completion percentage and 97.3 passer rating, and is first among all QBs with 476 rushing yards. That said, the 'Skins are only 3-5 and Griffin will be facing similar hurdles down the line.
PREDICTION: Panthers 23, Redskins 21
Tampa Bay (3-4) at Oakland (3-4), Sunday, 4:05 p.m.
LINE: Raiders by 1 1/2
THE SKINNY: The Buccaneers will be aiming for a franchise-record fourth consecutive game with 28-or-more points but will have to do it without Pro Bowl guard Carl Nicks, who will be undergoing season-ending toe surgery.
Tampa QB Josh Freeman is already the first signal-caller in franchise history to pass for three-plus TDs in three consecutive games and will be looking to lead the Bucs to their first-ever win in Oakland. The Raiders are 5-0 all-time at home versus Tampa Bay.
PREDICTION: Raiders 24, Bucs 21
Minnesota (5-3) at Seattle (4-4), Sunday, 4:05 p.m.
LINE: Seahawks by 5
THE SKINNY: The NFL's two top rushers meet in this one. Minnesota's Adrian Peterson, No. 1 with 775 rushing yards, and Seattle's Marshawn Lynch, second with 757, probably won't decide this one, however. The alarming regression of Vikings QB Christian Ponder probably won't slow this week against a Seahawks secondary which could be the NFL's best.
PREDICTION: Seahawks 28, Vikings 13
Pittsburgh (4-3) at New York Giants (6-2), Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
LINE: Giants by 3
THE SKINNY: It's strength vs. strength here. Pittsburgh has usually dominated NFC foes under Mike Tomlin, compiling a 16-6 record. Meanwhile, Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger is 23-7 all-time against the NFC. His counterpart, Eli Manning, has won eight in a row versus AFC teams, however. Call home-field advantage the difference here.
PREDICTION: Giants 24, Steelers 20
Dallas (3-4) at Atlanta (7-0), Sunday, 8:20 p.m.
LINE: Falcons by 4
THE SKINNY: The Falcons are 7-0 for the first time in franchise history and Matt Ryan has been playing an elite level. Ryan passed for 262 yards and three TDs with 137.4 passer rating against Philadelphia last Sunday. It's paramount Dallas slows him since the Falcons are 28-0 when Ryan is above the century mark in passer rating and 15-0 when he throws three or more TDs.
PREDICTION: Falcons 30, Cowboys 17
Philadelphia (3-4) at New Orleans (2-5), Monday, 8:35 p.m.
LINE: Saints by 3
THE SKINNY: Michael Vick will remain the Eagles' starting quarterback against the Saints on Monday night. Vick has struggled for the 3-4 Eagles, completing 59 percent of his passes for 1,823 yards with nine touchdowns and eight interceptions. He also has lost five of nine fumbles while rushing for 247 yards, leading to speculation that rookie backup Nick Foles could replace Vick under center.
Philadelphia is coming off a 30-17 drubbing at the hands of the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday. The loss marked the first time in coach Andy Reid's 14-year tenure that his team was defeated coming off a bye.
The Saints, meanwhile, stumbled badly last Sunday as Peyton Manning outdueled Drew Brees in the first game for New Orleans under new interim coach Joe Vitt, who was suspended for the season's first six games for his involvement in the Saints' bounty case.
PREDICTION: Saints 34, Eagles 23