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Headlines in the NFL … Can Tom Brady and the Patriots’ offense that’s been out of sync turn things around against the undefeated Bengals at Foxboro? Plus, Chiefs’ quarterback Alex Smith returns to San Francisco to face his former team, and the Ravens and Colts will square off in an AFC showcase showdown at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Thursday Night Football, October 2 8:25 PM ET – TV: CBS/NFL Network
Minnesota Vikings 2-2 @ Green Bay Packers 2-2
Eddie Lacy has yet to breakout for Green Bay’s running game, but when you have weapons on the outside that Aaron Rodgers is able to exploit on favorable matchups, there’s no need for serious panic. Green Bay moved the football at will against the Bears last Sunday – completing every offensive possession with at least a field goal. This week, Rodgers and the Packers host a Vikings defense that’s been tested by top-tier quarterbacks (Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Matt Ryan) in its last three games.
Minnesota may be without Teddy Bridgewater. The rookie quarterback suffered a sprained ankle in his first career start and win. He threw for 317 yards on 19 completed passes out of 30 attempts, while rushing for 27 yards and a score on the ground, helping the Vikings top the Falcons 41-28, ending their two-game losing streak. If Bridgewater is scratched from the starting lineup, Christian Ponder will get the nod at quarterback. In five of their last seven meetings against the Packers, the Vikings’ defense has given up 30-plus points – so keeping Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay’s deadly aerial attack on the sidelines is a must for Vikings’ offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s game plan.
And Turner’s unit may have found the right mix without the suspended Adrian Peterson in the Vikings’ backfield. Green Bay’s defense is ranked dead-last against the run, allowing opponents to run for 176 yards per game, and it’s probable for Turner to attack Green Bay’s lack-luster run defense by utilizing his new-look change-of-pace combination of power and speed between Matt Asiata, the power back and rookie-speedster Jerick McKinnon. McKinnon has major-upside and showcased his skill-set against Atlanta – rushing for 135 yards on 18 carries.
Minnesota hired Mike Zimmer – a known defensive guru with hopes of turning around a defense that was ranked second to last in 2013. And four games in, Minnesota is showing some signs of improvement. The Vikings drafted cornerback Xavier Rhodes in the first-round of the 2013 draft to give them a pass defender with size and physicality to help defend receivers (Jordy Nelson, Calvin Johnson and Brandon Marshall) in a division that sports one of the best in the league. Rhodes, who fared well against Atlanta’s star receiver Julio Jones last week — will be matched up against Green Bay’s sure-handed receiver Jordy Nelson. Nelson leads the league in receptions (33) and yards (459), and is on pace for one of the best receiving seasons in NFL history.
Without question, Rhodes will need to be at his best in a physical matchup with Nelson, but the more important area for Minnesota to get the pluses is how safety Harrison Smith can slow Green Bay’s Randall Cobb, a receiver that can beat you intermediately and over the top. Smith needs to shadow Cobb and be tackling force whenever Cobb has his hands on the ball after the catch, and halt the Packer’s receivers from getting open deep. Not to undermine Minnesota’s talented receivers Greg Jennings and the dangerous Cordarrelle Patterson, but Green Bay has the upper hand on generating ways to put points on the board in this contest. And unless Zimmer’s defense pressures Rodgers like the Lions did in Week 3, outscoring Green Bay can only happen by getting takeaways and limiting Green Bay’s offensive possessions.
Pick: Packers 34, Vikings 23
Final Score: Packers (3-2) 42, Vikings (2-3) 10
Sunday, October 5
1:00 PM ET
Chicago Bears 2-2 @ Carolina Panthers 2-2 – TV: FOX
Carolina’s strength on the defensive side of the ball has been known for stuffing the run. This season, their defense has spiraled downward on what propelled them on making the playoffs in 2013. Carolina’s defense currently ranks 27th against run, giving up 140.8 yards per contest. Over the last two weeks, their defense has been ambushed, giving up 75 points — and are coming off back-to-back blowout losses to Pittsburgh at home and on the road against Baltimore.
Chicago has been much better on the road, especially the solid play they’ve gotten from quarterback Jay Cutler. On the road, Cutler has thrown 6 touchdown passes and no interceptions – much better than his 4 touchdown passes and 4 interceptions at Soldier Field. There’s more good news for Cutler this week: Brandon Marshall has been a full participant at practice and looks to be fully recovering from an ankle-injury that’s limited him on the field. Head Coach Marc Trestman’s system is predicated on the passing game — using its tall and athletic options for Cutler to stretch defenses with, and Matt Forte finally got his 20-plus touches last week – rushing for 122 yards against the Packers. Chicago finally got some balance going, and if they can avoid turning over the football and finish off drives against a bewildered Carolina defense, chances of the Bears improving to 3-0 on the road are at a high-percentage.
Carolina’s defense can use some relief from their offense. Their running game has been horrendous, averaging only 3.1 yards per carry that’s taken Carolina’s offense away from their smash-mouth approach. Without balance, the Panthers aren’t moving the chains on third down — and putting their defense back on the field often is a prime example of their defensive lapses of not getting a breather. To add more bitter waters for their offense to drink, their backfield will be without DeAngelo Williams (ankle), Mike Tolbert (leg) is on injured reserve and Jonathan Stewart (knee) is expected to sit this week. Without three of their viable runners, the Panthers are hoping a committee of Darrin Reaves, Fozzy Whittaker and Chris Ogbonnaya will fill the voids effectively.
The Bears are hoping they get back two hobbled D-lineman (Jared Allen and Jay Ratliff) back to help pressure the elusive Cam Newton. Both Allen and Ratliff have been practicing on a limited basis. Newton can find holes against the Bears’ soft-zone, but his offensive line has been putrid on protection. Bears’ defensive end Lamarr Houston has yet to register a sack, but I think he has a golden opportunity in this the game – along with the rest of the Bears’ D-line to finally put forth a better than average performance. Carolina should come prepared and play much better in their gaps against the run, but too much Jay Cutler to Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery and Martellus Bennett will be an obstacle to overcome without suspended Gregg Hardy rushing off the edges.
Pick: Bears 27, Panthers 17
Cleveland Browns 1-2 @ Tennessee Titans 1-3 – TV: CBS
You can point fingers towards many reasons for Tennessee’s struggles, particularly on the offense. Coach Ken Whisenhunt’s Titans are averaging only 207 yards per game, ranked third to last (29th) in the league — and are scoring only 15 points per game — ranked second to last (30). Lots of their offensive deficiencies have been their ineptitude of sustaining drives and are last in the league on converting third downs.
Jake Locker (wrist) has practiced, looking more on the upside of returning at quarterback this week to try to help the Titans end their three-game losing streak. Locker back under center does better Tennessee’s chances than what they had last week with backup Charlie Whitehurst chucking the football. But if there’s going to be room for improvement as far as being able to open up the pass, the Titans need to start putting trust in their running game. The team is ranked towards the bottom of the league in rushing attempts (95) – mostly from Shonn Greene, rookie Bishop Sankey and a little bit of Dexter McCluster carrying the rock.
Whisenhunt has stated this week that he plans for the offense to get second-round pick Sankey the most reps he’s seen in a single game. They’ll need to, because the Browns have a formidable secondary that’s ranked 7th against the pass – led by Joe Haden – a top-tier cornerback. And it’s hard to have faith in a Titans’ receiving-corps (Kendall Wright, Justin Hunter, Nate Washington and Derek Hagan) that aren’t getting much separation downfield.
The Browns have been much more efficient offensively, not taking as big as a dive expected without the suspended Josh Gordon. And they’ve been doing it with balance – relying on their backs (Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell). Ben Tate (knee) has missed two straight games, but head coach Mike Pettine has indicated Tate making full progress by the end of the week – leaving some optimism of Tate returning to action to give Cleveland a trio-set of runners.
The difference between these clubs is balance and the Browns have more of that going for them. Watching the Browns set the pace on the ground to setup up the play-action — and the chemistry quarterback Brian Hoyer has going with speedy and swift route-runner (Andrew Hawkins) – and Miles Austin getting more familiar each week in a new system (catching touchdown passes) — has me going with Cleveland…the more organized team.
Pick: Browns 23, Titans 15
St. Louis Rams 0-3 @ Philadelphia Eagles 3-1 – TV: FOX
With injuries on the offensive line, Philadelphia’s offense has taken a dive. And due to not getting a push to create running lanes for LeSean McCoy, play-selection became an issue late in the fourth quarter against the 49ers when the Eagles abandoned the run. Most notably, the Eagles’ offense didn’t score a single point against San Francisco as their special teams and defense did all the work of their 21 points scored in a 26-21 loss.
Clearly, head coach Chip Kelly turning the lights off on the run was part of not trusting his front that’s without guard Evan Mathis and center Jason Kelce. However, the Eagles get right tackle Lane Johnson back from his suspension this week. Having Johnson back allows Todd Herremans to move back to his natural position at right guard – giving the Eagles three out of five starters on the O-line from last year back. The Eagles are hoping the return of Johnson can help get McCoy (the leading rusher of 2013) going for the first time this season. McCoy has carried the football 29 times for an abysmal 39 yards in his last two outings, but this can be the week he finally turns things around against a Rams’ defense that’s surrendering 5.1 yards per carry – the third most allowed in the league.
Rams’ head coach Jeff Fisher announced Austin Davis as his starting quarterback going forward. Davis has thrown a few costly interceptions, but other than that, he’s helped the Rams’ offense move the chains effectively. The Rams went with a three-back committee against the Cowboys in Week 3 – sharing the load between Zac Stacy, Benny Cunningham and Trey Watts. Stacy is the lead-back, Cunningham is the preferred option on passing downs — while Watts continues to work his way in. If the Rams can keep Davis upright by getting Stacy going on early downs, Davis can do some work against an iffy Eagles’ pass defense that’s ranked 25th in the league.
The Rams have some physical specimens, particularly at tight end with Jared Cook and Lance Kendricks in their double tight end sets – and receivers Brian Quick and Kenny Britt are capable of outmuscling cornerbacks in tight coverage. On the defensive side of things for St. Louis, they’ll need defensive end Robert Quinn to be able to win the battle in the trenches against Philadelphia’s blind-side tackle Jason Peters. Peters is still a respectable left tackle in the NFL, but Quinn should be able to win this matchup against the 32-year old Peters with his speed and aggressiveness on the outside.
Here’s where I think the Rams will be in trouble: Eagles’ tight ends Zach Ertz and Brent Celek (more so Ertz) have things in favor for them, going up against a Rams’ linebacker unit (mainly Alec Ogletree) that doesn’t perform well against tight ends. Look for Eagles’ quarterback Nick Foles to attack that area of the Rams’ defense and for Philadelphia to rely on its talent by using their spread alignments (zone-read, screen game) to move the chains much better than a week ago.
Pick: Eagles 31, Rams 17
Atlanta Falcons 2-2 @ N.Y. Giants 2-2 – TV: FOX
The Giants’ offense has seemingly figured out offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo’s West Coast approach after sputtering in their first two games. The running game is getting much better production out of Rashad Jennings and rookie spell-back Andre Williams is coming off his best change-of-pace performance – rushing for 66 yards on 15 carries, scoring a touchdown in New York’s 45-14 dismantling over the Washington Redskins on Sep. 25.
New York’s tight ends Daniel Fells and Larry Donnell have been key contributors in the Giants’ passing game, particularly in the red zone. Between Fells (3 touchdown catches) and Donnell (4 touchdown catches) combined, they’ve caught seven of Eli Manning’s nine touchdown passes. Although Fells has been as effective in the red zone as Donnell, he isn’t as much of a difference maker that’s helping Eli Manning find open windows on passing downs. Donnell has been used to help New York’s blocking schemes and more viably – he’s a go-to-option on seam-routes that Manning is finding confidence in Donnell’s ability to get separation from defenders by using his physicality.
Donnell is drawing attention in the middle from the backend (linebackers, nickel corners and safeties) that’s making their crossing-routes and slant-concepts function smoothly, with the ever-so-dangerous Victor Cruz getting open in space and singled up in the slot. It’s also opening up the outside for Manning on fade-routes with the outside receivers in one-on-one matchups. Throw in rookie Odell Beckham Jr. (hamstring) that looks ready to get his first career snaps – and OH BOY — New York’s offense just might be one of the more explosive groups in the league.
New York’s defense, like Atlanta’s will have its hands full as well. The Falcons have a dynamic group of receivers, led by a top-five talent in Julio Jones. However, the Falcons took a HUGE blow last week. They lost center Joe Hawley (knee) and right tackle Lamar Holmes (foot) to season-ending injuries. Left guard Justin Blalock (back) also left last week and his status for this Sunday’s game is questionable. Looks like the Falcons’ game plan will have quarterback Matt Ryan working out of the shotgun to give him more time in the pocket against a Giants’ D-line that’s staring to hit their stride. The Giants’ secondary has its vulnerabilities on allowing high-powered passing games to stretch them, but when you don’t run the ball well against their defense that’s quality against the run, they place your quarterback in long distance passing situations – giving them the luxury of creating turnovers. And Steven Jackson and the Falcons’ running game isn’t equipped enough to control time of possession – a vital element Atlanta needs to win at MetLife.
Pick: N.Y. Giants 34, Falcons 24
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 1-3 @ New Orleans Saints 1-3 – TV: FOX
Putrid-play from defensive coordinator Rob Ryan’s defense has been a marked-factor of New Orleans’ 1-3 start. Ryan’s defense that was solid a year ago has taken a step back in 2014. His unit is allowing 396 yards per game and ranks 29th in the league. And when your defense isn’t getting off the field on third down, you’re limiting your offensive possessions – losing the battle in time of possession. That’s not the pedigree for head coach Sean Payton’s team to climb out of the cellar in the NFC South.
Ryan’s defensive approach against Dallas was throwing eight defenders in the box against Dallas’ leading-rusher DeMarco Murray and his defense still got trampled for 190 yards on the ground. Tampa Bay doesn’t boast the same offensive line as the Cowboys, but with Mike Glennon under center, the Buccaneers offense was able to get big plays out of their talented receivers (Mike Evans and Vincent Jackon), who Glennon connected for scores in Tampa Bay’s come-from-behind win over Pittsburgh. Evans suffered a groin-injury that will keep him out of the lineup for the next 2-to-3 weeks. And with him out, the Bucs will fill the absence of the rookie Evans with a combination of Louis Murphy, Austin-Seferian-Jenkins and Russell Shepard.
Saints’ top cover-corner Keenan Lewis, who defended Dez Bryant (an elite talented receiver) well – will be responsible for covering Tampa Bay’s Vincent Jackson. Don’t expect to see the Saints defensive-alignments with lots of 8-man fronts and single-high safety looks. The Bucs don’t feature the talent the Saints faced last week at Dallas, and Tampa Bay’s running game hasn’t been consistent enough this season. Doug Martin returned from injury last week but only received 14 carries while Bobby Rainey got only 4. Tampa Bay isn’t going to win many games with that being implemented on a weekly basis, and even though the Saints’ defense is back-peddling, they’re capable of playing much better – especially at home where the Saints have won nine-consecutive games.
The last time these two teams met in New Orleans on Dec. 29, 2013, Drew Brees demolished the Buccaneers’ secondary, completing 24 of the 31 passes for 381 yards and four touchdown passes. Not much has changed for Tampa Bay’s defense with Lovie Smith at the helm. We already saw what a prolific passing game can do to them when they were abused by Matt Ryan and the Falcons in Week 3, and you can pencil in Brees and his skilled-bunch to do the same.
Pick: Saints 41, Buccaneers 24
Houston Texans 3-1 @ Dallas Cowboys 3-1 – TV: CBS
With all the skill-position players getting most of the attention – ranging from fans and major-media networks, the inside track of the game for the bright minds of the land will always tell you that winning games comes from who wins in the trenches. The Dallas Cowboys and Houston Texans have been an illustration of what exemplifies that aspect of the game this season.
The Cowboys have one of the better offensive lines in football, while the Texans have a defensive line that has the games most dominant defensive player (defensive end J.J. Watt) that disrupts passing games and everything else an offense is trying to do upfront. Here’s a look at Watt’s stats on the season: 15 tackles, 2 sacks, 4 tackles for a loss, 16 quarterback hits, and an 80 yard interception return for a touchdown. Wait, there’s more…he’s also scored on offense this season, with a 1 yard touchdown catch against the Raiders in Week 2. Watt’s athleticism and strength is what propels a defense to make plays, but getting after the quarterback against the Cowboys at AT&T Stadium will have to come from the Watt-led defense putting the brakes on Cowboy’s league-leading rusher DeMarco Murray (534 yards), who’s ran for 100 or more yards in each of Dallas’ four games.
The matchup in the trenches is centralized on Cowboys’ left tackle Tyron Smith going up against Watt. In the 2011 draft, the Cowboys selected Smith two spots ahead of Houston with the 9th overall pick. Cowboys’ then defensive coordinator Rob Ryan wanted Watt, but Jerry Jones decided to start a plan on building at the line of scrimmage and the Cowboys now have arguably the best blind-side pass-blocker in the game. Romeo Crennel, Houston’s defensive coordinator can get creative with Watt, however. It’ll be interesting to see if he moves Watt around enough and place him up against Dallas’ right tackle Doug Free, a susceptible from time to time pass-blocker on the opposite side of Smith.
Like the Cowboys, Houston will commit to the run and have a talented back themselves with Arian Foster. Foster has been dealing with a hamstring and has been limited on carries, splitting touches with Alfred Blue. Not to downgrade Houston’s level of talent in the passing game with DeAndre Hopkins and Andre Johnson, but the Cowboys have more to work with throwing the football with Tony Romo, a much better quarterback than Houston’s Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Both defenses are capable of allowing receivers to get separation downfield, but the ultimate difference maker to me is a healthier Dallas running game that’s drawing 8 man fronts — due to respecting the run. It’s getting Dez Bryant and Terrance Williams in one-on-one matchups. If I’m Crennel…I’m not using an extreme amount of extra defenders in the box. Houston needs more pass defenders to limit Bryant and Williams from reaching the end zone. The Texans have been porous against the run, giving up 130.3 yards per game, and I think their woes continue – setting up Dallas’ offense for Romo to strike Houston’s secondary on play-action passes.
Pick: Cowboys 30, Texans 20
Buffalo Bills 2-2 @ Detroit Lions 3-1 – TV: FOX
Former Lions head coach Jim Schwartz makes his return to Ford Field as defensive coordinator of the Buffalo Bills. Schwartz was fired after the Lions disastrous second half stretch, finishing 7-9 after a 6-3 start in 2013. This season, under new head coach Jim Caldwell – the Lions are playing disciplined football and are ranked atop the league in defense.
The Bills are struggling mightily on offense that’s forced them to make a change at quarterback. As a quarterback, you have to be able to move the sticks on passing downs. E.J. Manuel’s horrific play of converting only 48 percent on third down opportunities has been the centralized reasoning for head coach Doug Marrone making the switch to veteran Kyle Orton to manage Buffalo’s offense. Orton won’t be asked to do much but continue to guide a run-heavy Bills’ offense that leans on the legs of C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson — but getting the football to talented rookie receiver Sammy Watkins, making better and quicker reads is an element that Orton’s experience brings to the table.
Orton needs to feed a quarterbacks best buddy in order to negate a Lions’ defensive front led by Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley creating havoc on the interior. If Buffalo’s offense is going to work to its strengths, they need C.J. Spiller’s production to move on the upswing. 3.1 yards per carry isn’t going to cut it for Buffalo’s offense to turn around its porous ways to pull off an upset at Detroit. Schwartz has a group of havoc creators of his own with Mario Williams, Jerry Hughes, Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus that will need to pressure Lions’ quarterback Matthew Stafford.
Stafford may have his best herd of route-runners hauling in passes from him since he’s been the signal-caller in Detroit. Schwartz likes to use lots of pressure-fronts – with overloaded fronts that sometimes leaves open spots in the zone. Needless to say Buffalo will take its attention towards Calvin Johnson and Stafford’s new reliable target (team-leader in receptions Golden Tate). Schwartz needs not to gamble with eight in the box – the Lions have running backs (Reggie Bush and Joique Bell) that can burn defenses in the screen-game. Some coaches are stubborn, and Schwartz appears to be one of them – and I see his defense giving up a few big plays from the likes of Stafford’s pre-snaps of recognizing less pass defenders.
Pick: Lions 30, Bills 14
Baltimore Ravens 3-1 @ Indianapolis Colts 2-2 – TV: CBS
The Ravens will begin their first of four road games over the next five weeks against the league’s top ranked offense (Indianapolis) – led by the red hot hand of quarterback Andrew Luck. The Colts have won two straight after dropping their first two. And in their two consecutive wins, Luck has thrown for 736 yards, 8 touchdown passes, 1 interception, with a passer-rating of 132.4 against the Titans and Jaguars (two teams that aren’t up to par with the Broncos and Eagles the Colts lost to in their first two games).
If the Colts are to be taken as a serious contender, they’ll need to start taking care of the league’s upper echelon teams that look primed for a playoff run. The Ravens have been overcoming some injuries and off the field issues stemming from the Ray Rice domestic violence case. Their defense has been without cornerback Ladarius Webb (back) for three games. The Ravens would surely like to have Webb on the field against the Colts’ high-powered aerial-attack, but it’s the talent they have upfront on the defensive line that needs to rattle Luck to pull out the W at Lucas Oil Stadium.
The Ravens have a stout front seven. Haloti Ngata, Chris Canty and Brandon Williams anchor their D-line, while linebackers Elvis Dumervil, Terrell Suggs and Pernell McPhee are solid rushers on the outside. Indianapolis’ running game has been decent behind a sub-par offensive line that offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton has mixed and matched it up with Ahmad Bradshaw and Trent Richardson carrying the load. Hamilton hasn’t let a shaky line make him think twice on keeping opposing defenses honest, and in this matchup – the hard-nosed style of running between Bradshaw and Richardson needs to be able to fight through Baltimore’s gang-tackling defense to neutralize their front.
Richardson and Bradshaw don’t need to be supermen, but if they can gain positive yards on early downs, Luck won’t have to do much by extending plays from the pocket. The Colts have more ammunition than Baltimore’s offense to attack the backend of defenses, but the silver-lining of this showdown will be the protection the quarterback gets from his offensive line. Ravens’ quarterback Joe Flacco has been sacked only three times this season – standing upright from the pocket in differential to Luck using his athleticism to improvise on passing downs. The Colts’ tackles (Anthony Castanzo and Gosder Cherilus) will need to be on their A-game.
The Colts interior is thin without injured rookie guard Jack Mewhort (ankle), and the Ravens could pressure Luck up the middle, forcing him outside the hashes. The Colts will be without safety (Laron Landry), who was suspended for illegal use of performance enhancing drugs, leaving the Colts’ secondary up to the test to take away Flacco’s deep-ball threats (Torrey Smith and Steve Smith). The Ravens will likely keep their safeties over the top on Indianapolis’ speedster-receiver T.Y. Hilton. I’m thinking both defenses will keep things underneath, but I’m favoring Baltimore to win in the trenches and continue to apply their zone-blocking running scheme – with a combination of Justin Forsett, Lorenzo Taliaferro and Bernard Pierce to dictate the pass – setting up the deep-ball.
Pick: Ravens 27, Colts 23
Pittsburgh Steelers 2-2 @ Jacksonville Jaguars 0-4 – TV: CBS
Pittsburgh’s D-coordinator Dick LeBeau’s defensive unit has some woes flowing in the early stages of the season that looks to turn things around against the winless Jaguars in the south. The lack of providing pressure has put Pittsburgh’s secondary in non-favorable matchups against talented receivers, and they’re getting torched. To add some optimism on their lack of getting after the quarterback, the team brought back James Harrison, a familiar veteran outside linebacker that helped LeBeau’s defense win a Super Bowl during the 2008 season.
Offensively, the Steelers haven’t been struggling on sustaining drives. They’re averaging 412 yards per game and have been doing most of their positives through the air – averaging 268 yards with Ben Roethlisberger distributing the football. They also have the league’s second leading-rusher (Le’Veon Bell) that’s doing things effectively on the ground and as a viable option out of the backfield in the screen-game. And going up against Jacksonville’s defense that’s at the bottom of the pack of the league – Roethlisberger should be able to dissect Jacksonville’s defense that’s allowing over 300 yards per contest against the pass.
Pittsburgh’s offensive coordinator Todd Haley has thrown in a variety of ways of attacking defenses with Roethlisberger in the shotgun. Antonio Brown will always get his targets as their dangerous playmaking receiver, but what’s helping the offense open things up is having a running back like Bell that draws in defenders. The delayed handoffs that Haley uses Bell with Freezes a pass rush, forcing defenses to respect the run – and when the Steelers go play-action – Roethlisberger should be able to strike Jacksonville’s weak secondary over the top. And with Jacksonville’s inability to run the football, the Steelers should be able to finally get a consistent pass rush on Blake Bortles, a rookie quarterback who has a hobbled receiving core, with Marqise Lee and Cecil shorts III both nursing hamstring injuries. Some rookie quarterbacks that have potential like just don’t have the right pieces in front of them.
Pick: Steelers 31, Jaguars 16
4:05 PM ET
Arizona Cardinals 3-0 @ Denver Broncos 2-1 – TV: FOX
The Broncos and Cardinals are coming off their bye weeks. The Broncos are looking to rebound after their rematch against the world champs in which Peyton Manning’s late-game-heroics — sending the game into overtime wasn’t enough as the Seahawks scored a touchdown on their first offensive possession to defeat the Broncos 26-20. Meanwhile, Bruce Arians’ Cardinals have been getting it done with injuries on both sides of the ball, notably at quarterback.
Carson Palmer’s (nerve/shoulder) isn’t threatening enough to sideline him for the remainder of season, but Doctors don’t know when Palmer will be ready to finally get back on the field. Palmer is listed as week to week, and could be in danger of missing more starts. His replacement (Drew Stanton) has managed the Cardinals’ offense well and he isn’t throwing it to the other team. Stanton has completed 32 of 62 passes for 411 yards, 2 touchdown passes and 0 interceptions. Stanton isn’t getting out of his way by forcing the issue and is being patient on finding matchups downfield for vertical throwing spots.
The Cardinals haven’t been blowing up the Fantasy Football stat-meters through the air, but receivers Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and rookie slot-speedster John Brown are capable of burning pass defenders in Arians’ vertical passing system. This season, the Cardinals have a much better backfield in Arians’ offense with running backs Andre Ellington and Stepfan Taylor being utilized in the screen-game. Ellington is one of the more talented backs with upside to his game that Denver will have to negate from getting in open space. Ellington is fast and elusive that can make plays as the Cardinals’ lead-runner. Denver’s linebackers Nate Irving, (Danny Trevathan expected make his season debut after missing the first three game with a knee injury), Brandon Marshall and Von Miller need to contain Ellington from gaining positive yardage between the tackles, helping their ends (DeMarcus Ware and Derek Wolfe) cut off the edges outside the tackles.
If Denver takes away Arizona’s smash-mouth game on the ground, they’ll be able to place Stanton in low-percentage opportunities of getting the football to Michael Floyd –his deep-threat that’s averaging 22.9 yards per catch. The Broncos have a massive-range of receivers and tight ends for Arizona’s defense to deal with. Cardinals’ defensive coordinator Todd Bowles has two stout cornerbacks (Patrick Peterson and Antonio Cromartie) that challenge receivers at the line of scrimmage.
If Bowles’ D-line can generate pressure, it could disrupt the timing of Peyton Manning (take a look at Seattle’s press-coverage and pressure from the Super Bowl) – getting him out of his quick-striking ways on multiple spread-alignments. Denver will need to keep Arizona’s defense honest and commit more on giving running back (Montee Ball) touches. The Cardinals will likely place Peterson and Cromartie on Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders (Denver’s vertical threats) – leaving slot receiver Wes Welker and tight end Julius Thomas in favorable matchups. Wes may be in line for a BIG game, and I see him and Julius being Manning’s difference makers in this one.
Pick: Broncos 31, Cardinals 21
4:25 PM ET
Kansas City Chiefs 2-2 @ San Francisco 49ers 2-2 – TV: CBS
With the return of Jamaal Charles at running back for Kansas City’s offense, the Chiefs appear to be surging after their thumping 41-14 victory over the New England Patriots on Monday. San Francisco was in the same scenario of potentially dropping to 1-3 like the Chiefs were, but came out with a much needed W over the Philadelphia Eagles last Sunday, moving back to .500 at 2-2.
The story line out in the bay area this week is the return of (former 49ers’quarterback Alex Smith) coming to town, squaring off against his former team. Smith was labeled a bust during his early years with the 49ers before he turned things around and came one game shy of reaching the Super Bowl in the 2011 season. The next season, Smith was replaced by now 49ers’ quarterback (Colin Kaepernick) when he sustained a concussion in Week 10. Smith never regained his job as he watched Kaepernick provide a park for the 49ers’ offense – guiding them to a Super Bowl appearance that ended up in a heartbreaking-loss to the Baltimore Ravens.
That being said, the bread and butter for both offenses — is leaning on their featured backs. The Chiefs haven’t abandoned the run, even when Charles was absent due to injury, and with Charles back in charge, the Chiefs may have the best overall backfield in the league with Knile Davis sharing the wealth with him. The 49ers finally turned things over to their workhorse (Frank Gore), who went over the century mark, rushing for 119 yards on 24 carries against the Eagles. That’s a positive sign for Jim Harbaugh’s squad that might be coming together from what seemingly has been talked about as a locker room divided with their head coach.
49ers’ offensive coordinator Greg Roman needs to keep the chain of grounding and pounding going against Kansas City. The Chiefs’ defense is a force to be reckoned with when outside linebackers (Tamba Hali and Justin Houston) are healthy. The two have combined for 8 sacks through four games that could have the advantage in an area where the 49ers’ offensive line has shown vulnerabilities in pass protection. So…Roman needs his offense to negate Kansas City’s pass rush by calling Gore’s number often and mixing in Carlos Hyde to set the pace – to get a feisty Chiefs’ secondary to cheat up towards the line of scrimmage — giving Kaepernick’s chances of utilizing the play-action pass effectively.
Containing Charles and Davis will be vital for San Francisco’s defense to pressure Alex Smith. Keeping Smith in long distance passing downs will take away the short passing game, keeping him from using the screen-game with Charles and getting the football to his new favorite target (tight end Travis Kelce). When Smith is pressured, he gets taken out of his game that forces him to make quicker decisions, rather than flowing with the offenses rhythm. The key player I’m looking at in this matchup that could keep Smith from converting passes on third down is 49ers’ safety Antoine Bethea shadowing the talented Kelce on the seams. Bethea is playing outstanding ball in the secondary – a focal point of the 49ers’ defense not getting beat over the top. And my verdict has it like this: Kansas City’s running game has to be excellent for Smith, San Francisco’s just needs to be quality, and Kaepernick can use his feet and make improvising throws when in doubt.
Pick: 49ers 24 Chiefs 17
N.Y. Jets 1-3 @ San Diego Chargers 3-1 – TV: CBS
Philip Rivers is on fire. The league-leader in passer-rating (114.5) has been magnificent in his last three games, completing 74.3 percent of his passes for 917 yards and 8 touchdown passes. And without his injured running backs (Ryan Mathews for at least two more weeks and Danny Woodhead for the season), Rivers single-handedly made up for the offenses lack of running the football against the Jaguars in a convincing 33-14 win.
Rex Ryan says he still believes in his second-year signal-caller, but if Geno Smith continues to turn the football over with the Jets ending up on the losing side of things, the chants from the New York faithful will continue to grow louder for Michael Vick to replace him. And if the Jets are to pull off a shocker out west this weekend, offensive coordinator Marty Morhinweg needs to mimic the same approach of San Diego’s dominance of eating up clock. Smith isn’t anywhere near the same class as Rivers to do it through the air, and he doesn’t have the same giftedly talented pass catchers the Chargers have to spread out defenses.
But where Mornhinweg has talent is in the Jets’ backfield. Mornhinweg called running back Chris Ivory’s number 17 times in a hard fought loss to the Lions at home last Sunday. But after Ivory gained 51 yards on 9 carries on the Jets’ first drive of the game, the Jets turned away from him and only fed him the ball 8 more times the rest of the way. Ivory is clearly the Jets’ best option at running back to get past opposing defenses linebackers for big runs — and if Mornhinweg wants to limit Smith from his inefficient ways, New York’s ground game needs to be his rescuer.
The Jets’ defense is ranked 1st against the run and they should be able to continue to stuff the run against San Diego’s Donald Brown, but where Rex Ryan needs to be careful against the Chargers’ spread offense is not getting blitz happy. Ryan likes to take chances by blitzing, and if the Jets fall behind early due to Rivers attacking a susceptible to the pass Jets’ secondary by connecting with receivers Keenan Allen, Malcom Floyd, Eddie Royal and tight end Antonio Gates — Ryan may be forced to manufacture pressure. And Rivers has stifled defenses by recognizing blitzes before the snap. The Jets will need their front to be able to get after Rivers without loading up the box, and I don’t like their chances against a quarterback that has X-Ray vision.
Pick: Chargers 31, N.Y. Jets 19
Sunday Night Football in America 8:30 PM ET – TV: NBC
Cincinnati Bengals 3-0 @ New England Patriots 2-2
It’s just strange looking at Tom Brady’s numbers at the moment. Somebody pinch me, because uncharacteristically, the Patriots’ offense is a shell of itself. Brady (a future Hall of Famer) has a passer-rating of 79.1 (ranked 29th) and is completing a career-low of 59.1 percent of his passes. In any event, the Patriots aren’t in danger of falling deeply behind in their division. They still have lots of football left, and can right the ship in New England on Sunday Night (under NBC’s bright lights) against the Cincinnati Bengals, who are playing the best sound football than any team up to this point.
Brady has been rattled in the pocket due to an offensive line that’s been terrible in pass protection. An inept O-line can even give one of the brightest signal-callers second thoughts, and when Brady has his chances of staying upright, he doesn’t seem settled behind his struggling offensive lineman. The Patriots don’t feature threats in the passing game to strike defenses over the top – and with defensive backs playing in to defend their intermediate-routes due to a lack of respect for New England’s vertical game, Brady’s receivers aren’t getting much separation, and when they catch the football, there’s not much room for gaining yards after the catch.
Bengals’ quarterback Andy Dalton’s situation is much better than the Elite Brady’s. Dalton’s offensive line hasn’t put him under any duress and Dalton has yet to be brought to the ground this season. In Hue Jackson’s offensive system, the Bengals have been keeping their philosophy of setting up things favorably for Dalton on third down. How? Working their duo of Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill in a power and speed based run first offense of attacking defenses. If the Patriots’ defensive front allows Bernard and Hill to do the same things as Kansas City’s Jamaal Charles and Knile Davis did to them by carving them up on the ground, and out of the backfield in the screen-game, Dalton should be able to find comfort in getting the football to his physical and athletic receivers (A.J. Green and Mohamed Sanu). The Patriots defense has to force Dalton into making rapid-decisions. Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia may use some extra rushers and disguise them to keep a stout Bengals’ offensive line guessing on who the Patriots are rushing.
New England’s offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels uses his running back Shane Vereen – an X-factor that’s a viable option on screens and will be lined up in the slot as a receiver. Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola are Brady’s shallow-route runners – Edelman’s the best of the group, but if the Patriots are going to open up the passing game, they need to do more than just establish the run. Aaron Dobson is a key part of their offense that can setup the vertical game, but he isn’t seeing eye-to-eye with McDaniels – leaving his status uncertain on getting some action to help a floundering offense.
I’m not buying the chit-chat of the rookie (Jimmy Garoppolo) taking over for Brady if the offense continues to be a non-functioning group. A quarterback needs receivers that can stretch the field, and the Patriots just don’t have that right now. I hardly ever pick against the Patriots at Foxboro, unless Peyton Manning is in the building. And I like all that Jazz going with Marvin Lewis’ team, but an L will come soon or later – and though the Patriots are favored by 1.5 according to Vegas Odds, they look like the underdogs. Always go with “Home Dogs” my fellow football fans. I have to see more woes from the Patriots in order for me to start losing trust in Belichick and Brady to bounce back.
Pick: Patriots 23, Bengals 20
Monday Night Football, October 6 8:30 PM ET – TV: ESPN
Seattle Seahawks 2-1 @ Washington Redskins 1-3
It’s easier to stamp Russell Wilson’s future as a bright one in Seattle – already with a Super Bowl title on his resume. The Redskins once looked like they had a sure franchise quarterback when Robert Griffin III showed promise during his rookie campaign, leading Washington to a division title, but lost to Wilson’s Seahawks in the wild-card round of the 2012 playoffs.
A knee injury Griffin III suffered proved to be the cause of Washington’s offense tanking — after jumping out to a 2 touchdown lead in the early goings of that game. Ever since then, Griffin III hasn’t been able to stay healthy – his team has changed coaches, and Kirk Cousins, who’s throwing interceptions all over the place is Washington’s starting quarterback. Griffin III (ankle) will be sidelined for at least 6-to-8 more weeks, and if Washington is going to turn things around under head coach Jay Gruden, they’ll need better play from Cousins, who’s coming off a nightmarish 4 interception performance in a crushing 45-14 loss to the Giants on Sep. 21.
Cousins will have the games most skilled secondary before him. Seattle’s cornerback Richard Sherman, safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor are game-changing forces that apply a combo of hard-hitting, ball-hawking and technical excellence within their Cover 3 scheme that takes away the oppositions ability to beat them over the top on deep balls. It takes precision passing from a quarterback to be able to complete passes against Seattle’s vaunted secondary, and a running back to be able to withstand the punishment of gang-tacklers that don’t allow runners to get past their stout linebackers (Malcom Smith, K.J. Wright, Bobby Wagner and Bruce Irvin). The Chargers and Broncos have Elite passers and found some soft spots against Seattle’s coverage — with a combination of spread formations and using combination routes to isolate Seattle’s backend, particularly with tight ends (Antonio Gates 3 touchdowns catches on Sep. 14 against them) singled up.
Cousins isn’t as sharp as a knife like Philip Rivers and Peyton Manning are, but if Gruden uses his skilled group of receivers (Pierre Garcon, DeSean Jackson and Andre Roberts) vertically instead going with shallow concepts, chances will be better for his offense to generate points. But those are just if’s – and putting trust in Cousins to fire away against a playmaking secondary could end up being a flashback of his last start. Redskins’ running back Alfred Morris should be in line for a 25-plus touch game as the teams “Bell Cow” against Seattle’s defense that’s ranked 5th in yards allowed per game against the run (72.3). Washington’s defensive coordinator Jim Haslett is known for his blitzing ways, but he’ll only get the green light on sending blitzes up the middle – with rushers on the outside towards Wilson if the Redskins can contain Seattle’s Marshawn “Beast Mode” Lynch from keeping his quarterback in short distance passing downs. And of course, all the play-faking and Percy Harvin motioning around in the backfield can drive a defense insane. Not looking good for Washington.
Pick: Seahawks 30, Redskins 17
Bye: Oakland Raiders 0-4, Miami Dolphins 2-2
You can follow Massimo Russo on Twitter @NFLMassimo and SilverandBlueReport.com @SilverBlueRpt