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Arizona’s top ranked run defense hasn’t allowed personnel changes to slow it down. This week, their defense looks to continue their success against LeSean McCoy and the Eagles in a battle of top NFC contenders in the NFL. Plus, the Colts and Steelers square off at Heinz Field, while the Saints host the Packers on Sunday Night.
Thursday Night Football, October 23 8:25 PM ET – TV: CBS/NFL Network
San Diego Chargers 5-2 @ Denver Broncos 5-1
Week 8 begins with an extravaganza expected to be at Mile High for spectators to feast their eyes on. San Diego was the only team that defeated the Broncos in their house during the regular season in 2013 on Dec. 12. And once again, both AFC contenders will square off under the Thursday Night spotlight, but this time around – it will be for sole possession of first place in the AFC West.
Keeping high-powered offenses off the field that have quarterbacks that are one of the best on moving the chains on third down — can come from getting pressure on passing downs, placing them in long-distance passing situations, taking away their ground attack, and playing keep-away on offense by eating up clock. Those key-elements helped the Chargers pull the upset off against Denver in their Week 15 contest last December. San Diego kept the football for nearly 39 minutes by feeding the football to their running backs (Ryan Mathews 29 carries, Danny Woodhead 9, and Ronnie Brown with 3 for a combined 168 yards from their backs). Mathews (MCL) and Woodhead (ankle, injured-reserve) won’t be part of the Chargers’ offensive plans against Jack Del Rio’s defense this time, but rookie Branden Oliver has successfully stepped in as the lead-runner.
There’s doubt that Chargers’ head coach Mike McCoy won’t use the same approach on trying to control the tempo against Denver. That strategy has worked for his squad this season. Arguably, the Broncos have the most talented group of down-lineman and outside rushers in the league – and with strong-side linebacker (Von Miller) healthy, Del Rio’s unit is getting after the quarterback, and more importantly – they’re stuffing the run, allowing only 74.3 yards per game against the run, ranked 3rd in the league. If McCoy is going to get the best out of Oliver running the football, his interior lineman (left guard Chad Rinehart, center Rich Ohrnberger and right guard Johnnie Troutman) need to negate Denver’s beefy defensive tackles (Sylvester Williams and Terrance Knighton) from clogging running lanes on power-runs between the tackles. On the outside, tackles D.J. Fluker and King Dunlap will have their hands full. Miller, who leads the NFL in sacks with 8 – will be Fluker’s assignment, while DeMarcus Ware will be Dunlap’s. Miller and Ware have combined for 15 of Denver’s 21 team-sacks. They’ve also been key-assets for Denver’s defense on limiting runners from gashing them on the ground.
Denver may have the best all-around group between receivers and tight ends, but San Diego has enough in the pool to attack Denver’s defense through the air. At 34 years of age, tight end (Antonio Gates) has been Philip Rivers’ bread and butter option in the red zone. Denver’s cornerback (Aqib Talib) was used against New Orleans’ talented tight end Jimmy Graham when a member of the Patriots last season, and he fared extremely well on tacking away vertical attacks, and seam routes. Del Rio will likely place Chris Harris on San Diego’s Keenan Allen, but the question here is – will he throw Talib on the tall and physical Malcom Floyd or assign him on Gates? Safety T.J. Ward will also be a vital part on shadowing Gates on the seams, and don’t be surprised if Del Rio does some switching up between him and Talib on the versatile Gates in San Diego’s combination-spread-formations. San Diego’s defense has been defending the pass well, ranked second in the league, but the task they face against Peyton Manning’s filthy-range of options presents some difficult challenges for San Diego. Their top cornerback Brandon Flowers (concussion) will likely be out and rookie Jason Verret (shoulder) is questionable. That spells bad news for John Pagano’s defense, and at the moment, it looks as if Demaryius Thomas and Peyton Manning are playing pitch-and-catch with each other. Over their last three games together, Manning has connected with Thomas 26 times on 37 attempts for 521 yards and 4 touchdowns.
Pick: Broncos 31, Chargers 24
Final Score: Broncos (6-1) 35, Chargers (5-3) 21
Sunday, October 26
9:30 AM ET (Wembley Stadium in London)
Detroit Lions 5-2 @ Atlanta Falcons 2-5 – TV: FOX
The usual prowess of the Lions has recently been their big-play capabilities on offense, but this season has taken them a step forward in the avenue of defense under head coach Jim Caldwell. And this week, football fanatics across the globe will need to set their alarm clocks to an early wakeup time in order to catch this early televised contest that will be played overseas in London.
The Lions’ defense got it done in Detroit’s come-from-behind 24-23 win over the Saints last Sunday, and this week, their top ranked defense that’s allowing a league-low of 290.3 yards per game, and second in points allowed (15 points per game) – will look to pancake a decimated Falcons’ offensive line that’s made life difficult for Matt Ryan and the Falcons offense to look anywhere near as good as it has in recent years. If the Falcons’ offense is going to negate Detroit’s forces of Nick Fairley, Ndamukong Suh and Ziggy Ansah, they’ll need better protection for Ryan to stand tall in the pocket to deliver the football to his talented receivers (Julio Jones, Roddy White and Devin Hester). The Falcons will also need better production from their backs (Steven Jackson, Antone Smith, Devonta Freeman and Jacquizz Rodgers), but doing so will be a tall mountain to climb against a Lions defense that’s allowing only 73.4 yards per game against rushing attacks. Dirk Koetter, Atlanta’s offensive coordinator knows his offensive line is overmatched, so keeping Ryan in the shotgun and developing quick passing plays should be the objective on passing downs. And when running the football, staying away from Suh and Fairley would likely set Koetter on dialing up plays outside the tackles, and using his best screen-game backs, Smith, Freeman and Rodgers.
Lions’ quarterback Matthew Stafford will likely be without Calvin “Megatron” Johnson for a third straight game. Johnson has reportedly been moving around better, and has hinted that he’s on his way to returning to lineup soon. Atlanta’s defense has been the total opposite of Detroit’s, and even with the minus-factor of Johnson out for Detroit – Stafford and company should be able to sustain drives and punch in a few scores against a Falcons defense that’s ranked 27th against the run and 29th against the pass. Joique Bell will likely get the bulk of carries, while Reggie Bush sees a few, but could be a serious threat to the Falcons’ linebackers (Kroy Biermann, Joplo Bartu, Paul Worrilow and Prince Shembo) that have been isolated in coverage this season. And with Bush being a back that can motion out as a flanker, Stafford may see a good number of favorable matchups to strike Atlanta’s defense on some single coverage opportunities to Bush and Golden Tate, particularly in the slot. Both quarterbacks are capable of reading defenses before the snap to locate weaknesses to attack, but Stafford has a much better chance to keep his jersey clean against a lackluster Falcons’ defensive front. Jonathan Massaquoi , Osi Umenyiora, Tyson Jackson, Jonathan Babineaux, and Paul Soliai just aren’t getting it done collectively upfront to help fix the issues Mike Nolan’s group is having defending the pass.
Pick: Lions 27, Falcons 17
1:00 PM ET
St. Louis Rams 2-4 @ Kansas City Chiefs 3-3 – TV: FOX
Time-consuming drives and disciplined-play got head coach Andy Reid’s Chiefs the W on the road against the red hot Chargers, while Jeff Fisher’s Rams got efficient-play from quarterback Austin Davis and trick-plays from his special teams to top defending champion Seattle.
Despite their inspiring win over the Seahawks, the Rams’ defense continued their woes against the run. And this week, Rams’ defensive coordinator (Gregg Williams) will need to formulate a game plan to try to put a stamp on Kansas City’s diverse rushing attack – led by Jamaal Charles, one of the more dangerous threats in the league. Russell Wilson’s scrambling did most of the damage against Williams’ group, but if there’s a slight-blink of a positive standpoint for his defense, they’ve been better on closing gapes against top-rushers over their last two games. They held Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch to just 53 yards on 18 carries last Sunday, and held San Francisco’s Frank Gore to 38 yards on 16 rushing attempts the previous week. If Williams’ unit can reach the same heights on limiting Charles and the Chiefs on the ground, they could take the efficiency of Alex Smith out of effectively managing a smooth methodical-based passing game.
Rams’ rookie running back (Tre Mason) shouldered most of the work last Sunday, with 18 carries for 85 yards and a score. Mason looks to be the prime-ball-carrier for the Rams’ offense, but I wouldn’t throw Zac Stacy or Benny Cunningham under the bus. Coach Fisher indicated earlier this week that the Rams’ backfield could be a week-to-week thing going forward on who’ll receive the most touches. Whichever way Fisher decides to roll against the Chiefs’ defense this Sunday, he’ll need his running game to be effective to negate Kansas City’s dynamic outside-edge-rushers (Tamba Hali and Justin Houston). The two have a combined 11 of Kansas City’s 17 team-sacks on the season, and they’ll look to take advantage of what’s been an inconsistent Rams’ offense line that’s allowed at least 4 sacks in 3 different games this season. That’s the difference between these two clubs – the execution upfront on the offensive line has been more consistent for Kansas City when they run the ball. And they can attack you with Charles and his spell-backs (Knile Davis and De’Anthony Thomas), while Alex Smith can use his feet and work the intermediate routes to his tight end Travis Kelce to move the sticks. The Chiefs’ offense should be the winners in this matchup on protecting the football, and creating more turnovers on the defensive side of the ball.
Pick: Chiefs 24, Rams 17
Houston Texans 3-4 @ Tennessee Titans 2-5 – TV: FOX
While the Texans aren’t sold on their quarterback situation, head coach Bill O’Brien continues to roll with veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick. As for Tennessee’s head coach Ken Whisenhunt, their potential future and search for a franchise quarterback begins a new chapter this week, with rookie sixth-round pick Zach Mettenberger confirmed as the Titans’ main-man under center.
Tennessee’s offense has been dreadful, with Jake Locker and Charlie Whitehurst quarterbacking the offense. And going inside the numbers in each of their four games played, the passing game produced a putrid average of 191 yards, ranked last among starting quarterbacks. Their running game has been just about equally bad, not producing enough to help dictate the passing game. And going up against the talents of Houston’s defensive line, the Titans will need a complete turnaround on the ground to keep their rookie quarterback out of situated-scenarios of being ambushed by the league’s top defensive player (J.J. Watt). Rookie Bishop Sankey will continue to be Tennessee’s lead-back, but the services of Shonn Greene (hamstring) is on pace to return this week, giving the Titans some extra muscle as a power-runner.
Without a doubt, Texans’ defensive coordinator (Romeo Crennel) can get creative with his amazing talent in Watt, but Tennessee’s interior line will have their hands full against nose tackle Ryan Picket, who’s been a good addition to the Texans’ front. Picket is a massive nose tackle that plays a major role on stuffing the run between the tackles, and Tennessee’s guards (Andy Levitre and Chance Warmack), and center (Brian Schwenke) will need to keep Picket from getting bench-press pushes off the ball — so they can find some running lanes for Sankey and Greene to run through. They’ll also have to neutralize the interior to help slow down the rush coming from the outside. Jadeveon Clowney (knee) might play on a limited snap count, and if the talented first-round pick comes to life, Mettenberger can be in for a long afternoon in his first career start.
If there’s a true offensive player between these two clubs that’s in line to produce well, it’s Texans’ running back Arian Foster. In Foster’s last three games, he’s eclipsed the 100 yard barrier, and he should find open lanes against a Titans’ defense that’s allowing 123.7 yards per game against the run. If the Titans’ defense is going to get any penetration upfront, their standout D-lineman (Jurrell Casey) needs to win his one-on-ones against Houston’s left tackle (Duane Brown). Fitzpatrick is prone to making mistakes when pressured, but if Casey is negated, he should be able to find his top targets (Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins). Hopkins is more of a deep-threat, and Tennessee’ safety Michael Griffin will need to play over the top on him. Houston’s defense has faced some talented offenses in recent weeks, but Crennel’s defense should fare much better against an offense that hasn’t been able to put it together. And with a rookie quarterback on the Watt-Radar, chances of getting takeaways look good.
Pick: Texans 26, Titans 16
Minnesota Vikings 2-5 @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers 1-5 – TV: FOX
In their first seasons at the helm of their respective teams, Tampa Bay’s Lovie Smith and Minnesota’s Mike Zimmer know they’re in a rebuilding process of trying to turn around both franchises recent ways of losing. Zimmer’s Vikings look to end a three game losing streak, while Smith’s Buccaneers will try to avoid opening their 2014 campaign with 4 consecutive losses at Raymond James Stadium.
Some rookie quarterbacks don’t take off like bottle-rockets, and examining Vikings’ rookie quarterback (Teddy Bridgewater) – the overthinking has made his decision making processes a glaring weakness for Minnesota’s inept offense. Since Bridgewater’s excellent debut against the Falcons in Week 4, he’s thrown 5 interceptions and hasn’t chucked the pigskin for more than 188 yards in each of his last two starts. Facing defenses (Detroit and Buffalo) that boast an extreme amount of talent played a good part in Bridgewater’s struggles, and this week – chances of him finding comfort in the pocket may swing towards the positive side of things — going up against Tampa Bay’s defense that ranks last against the pass, allowing 294.5 yards per game.
And in Tampa Bay’s Cover 2 defensive scheme, Bridgewater should find open spaces and opportunities to guide the Vikings’ offense – by moving the football in small chunks on passing downs. Tampa Bay’s defense has also been putrid against the run, and Vikings’ offensive coordinator (Norv Turner) needs to use his offenses strengths — by utilizing Jerick McKinnon in the 20 plus touch range to keep the Bucs’ defense honest — and to place Bridgewater in higher-percentage situations on third down. Keeping McKinnon in check will be the responsibility of Tamp Bay’s stout linebacker Lavonte David, but who Smith’s defense needs to spy on – is Cordarrelle Patterson, Minnesota’s X-Factor that can score anytime he has his hands on the ball.
Like Minnesota’s, the Buccaneers’ offensive line has had its deficiencies. Pass-protection and run-blocking has been atrocious – a good reason why they’ve allowed opposing pass-rushers to constantly harass Josh McCown and Mike Glennon this season. The Bucs’ offense has been better equipped with Glennon under center on developing vertical attacks downfield, with receivers (Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans), but the ineffectiveness on creating running lanes hasn’t been able to keep Glennon upright in the pocket. Starting running back Doug Martin is only averaging 2.9 yards per carry, and in the notable factors of Tampa Bay’s dismal ground attack, Martin and his change-of-pace back Bobby Rainey each have only 1 rushing touchdown. The bright spot of Zimmer’s Vikings has been his defense that’s ranked 9th against the pass, and he has two key-players in this matchup that could make a difference on giving his team a chance in the south this weekend. His rookie linebacker (Anthony Barr) has been everything expected on stopping the run and being a disruptive force upfront. If Barr does his job and limits Rainey and Martin from making plays, the Vikings’ pass-rush should get a slew of chances to put duress on Glennon for most of the afternoon. But, my verdict here has me going with Glennon over Bridgewater. Glennon gives me much more reasons to believe that he will take chances downfield, knowing that he has better and reliable targets on the outside.
Pick: Buccaneers 28, Vikings 20
Seattle Seahawks 3-3 @ Carolina Panthers 3-3-1 – TV: CBS
It’s amazing how things can change so drastically in this league. After a 3-1 start, head coach Pete Carroll’s defending champion Seahawks have dropped two straight games. And during that span, Carroll’s team was beat to the punch by the surging Cowboys at home, and then stunned by the Rams the following week on the road. The controversial shipping of Percy Harvin to the New York Jets is still being looked upon as a locker room distraction among fans and players of the Seahawks. Anyhow, either way you want to point your fingers at the current state of the champs, they need to turn things around, and they need to do it on the road against Cam Newton and the Panthers…to avoid falling under the .500 mark.
When facing a quarterback like Cam Newton, who can make tones of electrifying plays with his feet from the pocket, it puts lots of pressure on your defensive front to bring him to the ground for sacks. Losing ends (Red Bryant and Chris Clemons) in the offseason is showing negative results for Seattle’s defensive coordinator Dan Quinn’s bunch. Seattle’s D-line hasn’t been up to par as their sack-eating ways from a year ago. Through their first 6 games in 2013, the Seahawks’ defense had 17 sacks – this season, they have only 7, ranked near the bottom of the league in team-sacks. Their lack of depth on the defensive line has halted their ways of implementing their 6-to-8 man rotations that propelled their defense as the best in football last season. And when D-fronts aren’t providing pressure, it usually calls for defensive coordinators to apply manufactured-pressure-packages, but Quinn may be intent to use those elements against the elusive Newton, but throw some different coverage’s at him to try to confuse him.
The Panthers’ running game has been one of the worst in football this season, and with the absence of DeAngelo Williams (ankle), their biggest threat on the ground – Jonathan Stewart will be the Panthers’ lead-back against a Seattle defense that’s been much better on defending the run. The Seahawks should be able to limit Stewart from getting past their second level of their defense, but the key-player for Quinn’s defense to take out of this matchup – is Panthers’ tight end (Greg Olsen). This is where Seattle safety Kam Chancellor comes into play. Chancellor is a (safety/linebacker/defensive end) that can be used up towards the line of scrimmage to disrupt Olsen on his routes, and cut Newton off the edges if the Panthers run the option.
Surely, Percy Harvin brought an expandable element to Seattle’s offense, with his ability as a rushing-threat off the Jet-Sweeps, but with Harvin out of the picture – offensive coordinator (Darrell Bevell) can focus in on setting the tone with Marshawn Lynch on the ground, and use his speedy group of receivers for Russell Wilson to connect with. Without Harvin, receiver Doug Baldwin caught 7 passes for 123 yards and a score in a losing effort against the Rams. Expect to see increased roles for rookie receivers Kevin Norwood and Paul Richardson in this matchup in Seattle’s spread alignments. Russell Wilson will still be able to use his feet, and I think Seattle’s offense can be a much better functioning group without Bevell needing to be creative on more than half the play-calls when Harvin was part of the mix. This is a must win game for Pete Carroll’s team, and there’s lots of advantages for Seattle’s offense to play a smart and fundamentally sound game at Carolina.
Pick: Seahawks 29, Panthers 19
Baltimore Ravens 5-2 @ Cincinnati Bengals 3-2-1 – TV: CBS
The Bengals eliminated the Ravens from playoff contention last season, and in their Week 1 square off, the Bengals got the best of the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium. Bengals’ quarterback Andy Dalton threw for 301 yards and connected with star-receiver A.J. Green on a 77 yard touchdown pass late in the fourth quarter — that proved to be the decisive score in a 23-16 win. But over the last three weeks, head coach Marvin Lewis’ squad has lost two and tied one, and could be without Green (toe) for a third straight game.
Green has done some light jogging this week, but his status is still up in the air to return to action. Without Green, the Bengals don’t have many serious threats that can beat corners and safeties deep. That factor will give the Ravens the green light of playing up near the line of scrimmage on defense. If Green is out again, Ravens’ cornerback Lardarius Webb will be matched up on Cincinnati’s Mohamed Sanu. Sanu doesn’t possess the same explosiveness as Green, but is physical and crafty enough on getting separation downfield. If Cincinnati is going get out of their offensive mess, getting back to the basics of what makes their offense go is imperative. And that’s getting Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill running the football effectively to shorten up the passing game for Dalton, and back off Baltimore’s safeties (Matt Elam and Darian Stewart) away from the tackle box — if the Bengals passing game is able to work effectively off the play-action pass. Ultimately, getting Bernard and Hill in open space, rather on the ground and in the screen-game will negate Baltimore’s outside linebackers (Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs) from getting after Dalton when the Bengals elect to pass.
Baltimore’s ground game has been much more consistent than Cincinnati’s, averaging 131.4 yards per game as the 7th best rushing attack in the league. In Gary Kubiak’s system of utilizing zone-blocking concepts, the Ravens have been mixing it up between Justin Forsett and Bernard Pierce doing most of the work, while Lorenzo Taliaferro has received a minimum piece of the action. The execution upfront has been outstanding on the offensive line that looks healthier than ever, with the return of Eugene Monroe at left tackle and left guard Kelechi Osemele expected to play Sunday. If there’s a bump in Baltimore’s offense, it’s injuries they’ve suffered at the tight end position. They’ve already lost Dennis Pitta for the season, and with his replacement Owen Daniels (knee) listed as questionable, Joe Flacco’s tight end could end up being rookie Crockett Gillmore.
The outcome of success between the Ravens and Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium this Sunday will be predicated on which offense sets the pace on the ground first to dictate the pass. The Ravens are a more balanced team to keep the Bengals on the downside of things. Plus, with Torrey Smith coming to life over his last two games – he and Steve Smith Sr. are getting Flacco to heave the ball deep like he did during his golden Super Bowl run two seasons ago. Unless Cincinnati’s Carlos Dunlap, Geno Atkins, Wallace Gilberry, and Domata Peko come ready to fight and put forth their best effort, Baltimore’s offense should be able to control the tempo and up the Bengals on sustaining drives.
Pick: Ravens 27, Bengals 20
Miami Dolphins 3-3 @ Jacksonville Jaguars 1-6 – TV: CBS
Thanks to his running game and defense that stifled Cleveland’s running game, three interceptions and only 159 yards passing from Blake Bortles still got him his first win of his career. However, Bortles’ play needs to improve this week against the Miami Dolphins, who are coming off an impressive win on the road against the Bears.
A much needed boost from Jacksonville’s running game behind the legs of Denard Robinson – took advantage of a dreadful against the run Browns’ defense. But, unlike the Browns, who are ranked last against the run on defense, the Dolphins have been in the top 10 range this season, and are a much more formidable group – with a range of talent on the defensive line and in the secondary. The worst-case scenario for Bortles going up against Miami’s defense is being situated to throw often. The backend of Miami’s defense sports two feisty and grimy cornerbacks (Cortland Finnegan and Brent Grimes), and two solid safeties (Louis Delmas and Reshad Jones). Those four were outstanding against Chicago’s talented group of receivers last Sunday.
They held one of the league’s top receiver tandems (Brandon Marshall to 6 catches for only 48 yards, while Alshon Jeffery caught just 2 passes for an abysmal 9 yards). In fact, the longest play from scrimmage the Dolphins’ defense allowed against the Bears’ high-powered offense was a 24 yard screen pass to running back (Matt Forte), a premier runner Miami’s defense held to 49 yards on the ground. If Bortles is going to get protection from his offensive line, offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch better dial up lots of running plays for Robinson and Storm Johnson, otherwise the beast in Miami’s edge-rushers (Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon) will make things (malamente) for Jacksonville’s passing game. In case you’re wondering what malamente means? It means bad in Italian.
Jacksonville has a quality group of D-lineman of their own, with Chris Clemons and Red Bryant at defensive end. As a unit, they’re second in the league behind the Bills in team-sacks with 22 on the season. But where the Jaguars have had their woes on defense has been against the run, other than their strong performance against the Browns last week. Halting Lamar Miller and not falling for the read-option that Miami’s offensive coordinator (Bill Lazor) has implemented on shortening the field for Ryan Tannehill, will be the keys for success for Gus Bradley’s defense (if they have a chance to keep the game close enough by the final quarter). Miami has had their lapses of inconsistencies on offense, but with Jarvis Landry overtaking Brandon Gibson in the slot at receiver, who’s been a reliable target for Tannehill on the intermediate routes, Tannehill has been much more efficient than his struggles in the early goings of the season. And he should be able to muster enough drives for Miami’s offense – as long as he doesn’t turn the football over.
Pick: Dolphins 26, Jaguars 13
Chicago Bears 3-4 @ New England Patriots 5-2 – TV: FOX
Although Bill Belichick’s Patriots have been on the winning side of things, the injuries continue to pile up. In their 27-25 win over the Jets, the team found out their best pass-rusher (Chandler Jones) suffered a hip-injury that will sideline him for a month. As for Marc Trestman’s Bears, who are coming off a terrible displayed game against the Dolphins, his Bears are facing a 3-5 start that could put them in a deep-hole on chances of making the playoffs.
With Jones and linebacker Jerod Mayo out, the Patriots front office got to work on adding Tennessee’s defensive end/linebacker (Akeem Ayers) via a trade to try to solidify positions that are missing important parts of their defense. Miami’s talented defense stuffed Chicago’s Matt Forte last Sunday — and the plan for defensive coordinator Matt Patricia’s defense will look to do the same. Forte is a dynamic-weapon in Trestman’s system that is used to create mismatches on the outside against linebackers in coverage. And stacking the box or using extra defenders upfront can catch New England in some disadvantages with Forte’s ability in the screen-game — or if lined up on the outside against a linebacker or nickel corner. Forte can also run the football with authority, between and outside the tackles, and if Patricia’s defensive front can limit Forte from being effective like Miami’s defense did, chances of getting after Bears’ quarterback Jay Cutler should increase.
The exciting matchups to look at in this contest – is Patriots’ cornerbacks (Brandon Browner and Darrelle Revis) going toe-to-toe with the big and physical specimens of Cutler’s receivers (Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery). Browner and Revis are physical and could apply press coverage’s on the outside to disrupt the timing routes of Marshall and Jeffery. Miami’s corner’s Cortland Finnegan and Brent Grimes were tremendous on limiting the two from gaining separation downfield, and with Cutler not seeing many open looks — the Dolphins’ front was able to get him off his spots in the pocket. It’s hard to count on a talented group to have consecutive bad outings, but if the Patriots can throw in the same concepts Miami applied, their defense can force Cutler into threading the needle.
Chicago’s defense is also dealing with nagging injuries. Linebackers Lance Briggs (rib) and Jonathan Bostic (back) have missed the last two games – safety Chris Conte (concussion/shoulder) missed last Sunday’s game, and standout rookie cornerback Kyle Fuller (hip) is also banged up. Briggs and Bostic have returned to practice to a limited extent, while Conte has practiced fully, and Fuller’s status remains questionable. The imperative part of Bears’ defensive coordinator Mel Tucker’s defense will be getting all of his starting linebackers back on the field. Tom Brady has a specialized weapon of his own in running back Shane Vereen. Vereen creates just about the same amount of attention Forte generates to opposing defenses, and Chicago’s linebackers will have Vereen and Brady’s bona fide tight end Rob Gronkowksi to deal with. How Tucker’s linebackers play in coverage will be vital to Chicago’s defense in getting off the field on third down. My take is that Chicago’s defense has the favorable arrow pointing downward on their chances. Brady has been masterful in his last three games – throwing 9 touchdown passes and no interceptions, and with Chicago’s defense lacking to provide pressure upfront, I like Brady’s chances of staying hot to continue.
Pick: Patriots 34, Bears 24
Buffalo Bills 4-3 @ N.Y. Jets 1-6 – TV: CBS
With a lack of quality go-to-options for quarterback Geno Smith, Jets’ general manager John Idzik completed a deal with Seattle on Saturday for receiver/kick returner (Percy Harvin) to give New York’s offense and special teams a speedy playmaker in exchange for a draft pick. Harvin has been prone to injury, and word out on the street has it that he was a locker room cancer in Seattle, and wasn’t willing to listen to his coaches. Is he worth the gamble? Well, at this point, Rex Ryan’s Jets need anything they can to put a positive spin on season that’s headed down the drain.
On the flip side of things for Bills’ head coach (Doug Marrone) – his team is in the AFC East division race after a dramatic win over the Minnesota Vikings in the games closing seconds last Sunday. Buffalo’s 4-3 start is their best start in three seasons. Though the wins have been piling up for Marrone’s team, an offense that once was a top rushing attack (ranked second in the league in 2013) has taken a step back this season. Adding to their issues of gaining some juice on the ground, their offense will be without C.J. Spiller (broken collarbone) and Fred Jackson (groin) against New York. Spiller was placed on the injured-reserve/designated to return list, while Jackson may be able to return by Week 10. Bryce Brown and Anthony Dixon will take over the absences of Spiller and Jackson, not giving Buffalo’s ground game a promising-outlook in this matchup – going up against a Jets’ defense that’s holding opponents to just 88 yards per game against the run.
Here’s where Buffalo can attack New York’s defense: The Jets’ secondary has been banged up all season long and lost their top cornerback (Dee Milliner) for the season due to an Achilles. Antonio Allen has been New York’s biggest weakness on the defending the pass, and Darrin Walls, Phillip Adams and Calvin Pryor haven’t been coming to the rescue. The good news for Rex Ryan’s defense in the contest, however, is the upside of being able to disrupt the pocket against the non-mobile Kyle Orton. Ryan will use pressured fronts and throw some stunts towards Orton, and if Buffalo’s offensive line allows New York’s Muhammad Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson and Damon Harrison to get pushes off the snap, Orton will have a difficult time to get the football to his top receiver (Sammy Watkins). The Bills’ Defensive front is arguably the best in the game – with Jerry Hughes, Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams and Mario Williams leading the way for the league’s top ranked defense in team-sacks (24). But, the difference here between Smith and Orton is Smith’s ability to extend plays by using his athleticism to elude Buffalo’s dynamite pass-rush. This game has the makings for some slobber-knocking happenings, and I like New York to finally have things bounce their way.
Pick: N.Y. Jets 19, Bills 16
4:05 PM ET
Philadelphia Eagles 5-1 @ Arizona Cardinals 5-1 – TV: FOX
Perhaps the game of the week here: The Eagles are without two of their top offensive lineman, while the Cardinals have been without top players on defense. Still, it’s been mostly about the A-pluses for the Cardinals and Eagles, who are both sitting pretty with 5 wins through their first 6 games in 2014.
Adding to the injury-bug for Chip Kelly’s Eagles, his up-tempo offense could be without their key offseason addition of running back/return specialist (Darren Sproles). Sproles (knee) is listed as questionable, but has been seen moving around in individual drills this week – not counting out his chances of playing for this Sunday’s battle for midway part of the season’s NFC supremacy. Rather Sproles suits up or not, the main objective for Cardinals’ defensive coordinator Todd Bowles (will be keeping the train of his league-leading run-stuffing defense moving against the ever-so-dangerous LeSean McCoy). McCoy and the Eagles’ running game are starting to pick up the pace – after a sluggish first four games due to a makeshift offensive line. In his last two games, McCoy has ran for 230 yards, giving the plus-signs for Chip Kelly’s offense to finally get the proper balance it needs for quarterback Nick Foles to manage under center.
Bowles has been one of the better assistants this season, thriving on a bend but don’t break philosophy. His defense is ranked second to last against the pass, allowing 284.8 yards per game, but making up for allowing bulks of yardage, Arizona’s defense has been taking away the football from its opponents. The test for Bowles defense will be one of the more challenging tasks at hand against a slew of speed the Eagles possess on offense. Bowles will likely employ Patrick Peterson on Jeremy Maclin and throw Antonio Cromartie on Riley Cooper on the opposite side. Peterson is one of the best cornerbacks in football, but this season – he’s been getting torched, and Maclin is having a solid run after missing all of last season due to an Achilles. So far, Maclin has caught 27 passes for 445 yards and 4 touchdown passes, but what stands out – is not dropping any passes this season. Peterson will need to slow Maclin in his tracks by using his physicality. Mainly, Arizona’s defense needs to neutralize McCoy if they want to keep the play-faking being functioned by Foles at the snap to a minimum. If McCoy and the Eagles’ running game displays positively, Foles will be able to use the play-action and find his tight ends Zach Ertz and Brent Celek, who could find holes in the Arizona defense that’s suspect to covering tight ends.
Arizona’s offense is much better with Carson Palmer at quarterback, and he has a trio of receivers (Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and John Brown) that could fare well against an Eagles’ pass defense that’s susceptible to the pass (if they don’t get after the quarterback). In recent weeks, Billy Davis’ unit has turned it up a notch, notably against Eli Manning and the Giants when his defense recorded 8 sacks in a shutout win. Palmer isn’t the most mobile of quarterbacks out there, but he does have a running back in Andre Ellington that can do it on the ground and as a pass-catcher in the screen-game. It’ll be important for head coach Bruce Arians to get Ellington a good amount of touches and gain positive yards on early downs for Arizona to negate Philadelphia’s speedy-pass-rush. Both offensive lines have their corks, and I’m expecting some extra fronts and blitzes sent towards Palmer and Foles. The difference is — Palmer is more vulnerable than Foles when he’s under duress.
Pick: Eagles 27, Cardinals 24
4:25 PM ET
Oakland Raiders 0-6 @ Cleveland Browns 3-3 – TV: CBS
For the second straight week, the Browns will face a team looking for their first win. Last week, the balanced attack of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s system went missing – as the Jacksonville Jaguars’ defense derailed the Browns’ running game to only 69 yards on 30 attempts – making quarterback Brian Hoyer throw the football 41 times, completing only 16 passes and an interception.
Hoyer has been an efficient passer, but when the offensive line struggled last Sunday to create running lanes, Hoyer was placed in long distance passing downs, and he had his worst outing of his career. Oakland’s defense is ranked towards the bottom pack of the league, and their offense is averaging just 15.3 points per game. Not take anything away from the Jaguars’ first win, but being at home certainly helps, and the Browns have lots of matchups in their favor to bounce back at FirstEnergy Stadium against the Raiders. The bottom line for the Browns to get back to being balanced this weekend — is by getting running backs (Ben Tate, Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell) running downhill on early downs. When the running game is working for Hoyer, the better the chances for him to connect with tight end Jordan Cameron in open space off the play-action pass.
The interior of the Browns offensive line was the centralized-point of their woes against Jacksonville’s pressure up the middle. But unlike the Jaguars’ D-front that’s ranked second in the league in team-sacks, the Raiders’ defense has only registered 6 sacks, tied with the Cowboys for second worst in the league. Center John Greco and guard Paul McQuistan, who displayed a series of porous executions against Jacksonville should fare better against the interior of the Raiders’ D-line this week. And with defensive ends Justin Tuck (knee) listed as questionable and LaMarr Woodley (torn bicep) likely done for the season, much more pressure will be put on Oakland’s linebackers (Sio Moore, Miles Burris and Khalil Mack) to be forces upfront for the Raiders’ defense.
Browns’ defensive coordinator (Jim O’Neil) can’t take the Raiders offense lightly. Though they’ve been out of sync, and unable to put a better than average rate of points on the board, there’s some talent on the Raiders’ offense that can do some damage to a defense. Running backs (Darren McFadden and Maurice Jones-Drew) are capable playmakers when healthy – receivers James Jones and the emerging Andre Holmes are threats in the red zone – that have traits to gain separation downfield. And rookie Derek Carr has shown some swagger and arm strength when his offensive line keeps him upright. O’Neil’s defense has some weak-spots that Carr can exploit them on, but I’m looking at the line of scrimmage, an area where the Browns should be better than the Raiders to set the passing game up for positive outcomes on third down.
Pick: Browns 24, Raiders 16
Indianapolis Colts 5-2 @ Pittsburgh Steelers 4-3 – TV: CBS
The Colts are riding a five game winning streak in which they’ve outscored their opponents 165-75, and though their top ranked offense has been the prime-focus behind the arm of quarterback (Andrew Luck) striking defenses all over the field, head coach Chuck Pagano’s team is also making lots of good music on the defensive side of the ball. Mike Tomlin’s Steelers, on the other hand, have been flowing through the ups and downs, and a win against the sizzling Colts at Heinz Field just might the start of a needed level of consistency for the yellow and black.
Without Robert Mathis rushing off the edges, defensive Coordinator Greg Manuksy is using manufactured pressures, and getting the best of out his down-lineman. Indianapolis’ defense has recorded 20 sacks during their five consecutive wins, and going up against Ben Roethlisberger, who’s been pressured lots behind a subpar offensive line – Manusky’s defense will look to continue their havoc creating ways to stop a Steelers’ offense that features a few dangerous threats. Last week, against a running back (Giovani Bernard) that has an all-around purpose – Indianapolis linebackers (Jerrell Freeman and D’Qwell Jackson) did a tremendous job on taking away Bernard’s ability to get in open space. And this week, their assignments against Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell will be no different. Bell has received 153 touches for 938 all-purpose yards, averaging 6.13 yards per touch – that’s even more yards per touch than league-leading rusher (DeMarco Murray), who’s doing most of the damage on the ground. The Steelers hardly use empty backfield sets in offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s system, but if they do, expect to see Bell lined up in the slot as receiver against Indianapolis’ linebackers. Bell will be the viable focus that can determine the outcome of Pittsburgh’s success against a surging Colts’ defense.
Indianapolis’ ground attack is more in the realm on power type runners with Trent Richardson and Ahmad Bradshaw doing it by committee. Both have also been contributors in the passing game on screens, and have been super in the red zone, particularly Bradshaw, who has 6 receiving touchdowns and 1 rushing, while Richardson has 2 on the ground to round out 9 combined touchdowns for the Colts’ runners. Pittsburgh’s linebackers (Sean Spence and Lawrence Timmons) will need to spy on Indianapolis’ backs and not allow them to get full-steam ahead for large gains. Richardson (hamstring) is listed as questionable, but fully expects to play. If he misses this Sunday’s showdown – that will leave lots of work on the plate for Bradshaw and less-worries for Pittsburgh’s D-front against the run.
The Colts’ passing game can attack a secondary from just about every angle. Tight ends Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener are serious threats on seam-routes and everything intermediately. And Pittsburgh’s safety Troy Polamalu will need to be his tackling-self and not allow Fleener or Allen to gain chunks of yards after the catch, especially Allen — the more athletic target for Luck out of the two. Luck’s favorite target has been T.Y. Hilton – a nightmare for any defensive back to contain. He’s used on a slew of routes and can line up anywhere to use his blistering-speed to burn a secondary — from bubble screens to anything over the top. Dick LeBeau’s defense hasn’t done anything this season for me to believe they’ll be able to get after Luck and rattle him in a matchup like this, and unless the genius-mind of LeBeau can come up with some master-plan, I’m penciling in another solid offensive display from Luck and company. Here’s my favorite one-on-one matchup to look at: Steelers’ receiver Antonio Brown going up against Colts’ cornerback Vontae Davis. Davis has been playing lights out this season, and his traits spark enough goods to be aggressive with the speedy and precise route-running of Brown. The outcome in games of this magnitude will come down to which defense creates turnovers, and I’m just overwhelmed by the feisty and aggressive play from Indianapolis’ defense that I favor to do more.
Pick: Colts 30, Steelers 24
Sunday Night Football in America 8:30 PM ET – TV: NBC
Green Bay Packers 5-2 @ New Orleans Saints 2-4
I circled this matchup back in August, with both teams positioned in good standards in the NFC. However, one team is, but the other isn’t. The Saints are off to rocky start, and only a limping NFC South division has head coach Sean Payton’s team breathing at 2-4 – just a game behind first place Carolina. The Packers are coming full-circle as we enter the halfway point of the season, and as usual, Aaron Rodgers is dissecting opposing defenses, with a world of pin-point passes to his talented group of pass-catchers.
If there’s some hope for the Saints to make a second-half turnaround, playing in front of their home-crowd gives them an optimistic-outlook. The Saints haven’t lost a home-game since Week 17 in 2012, but if they’re going to push their 9 game home winning-streak to 10, they’re going to need a boost from their reeling defense, and protect the football on offense in order to top Green Bay. In a game that has all the implications of the scoreboard being lit up by two elite-quarterbacks, playing keep-away could be in the works for both offenses that have enough juice in the backfield to control the tempo. The Packers’ defense is allowing 147.9 yards per game against the run, and if coach Payton wants to keep Rodgers’ hot-hand on the sidelines, a better than average workload on the ground should be in the game plan for New Orleans’ offense. With Pierre Thomas (shoulder/ribs) expected to be out for the next 2-to-3 weeks, and Khiry Robinson (forearm) nicked up, Mark Ingram could be lined up for a large role. Robinson’s status doesn’t look threatening to miss Sunday night’s contest, but if he’s to be limited, Travaris Cadet, a back that’s been used in the screen-game, will take over the prowess of Brees working the flats to his backs for the absence of Thomas.
Packers’ defensive coordinator (Dom Capers) has a unique approach on utilizing his linebackers. His five linebackers (Julius Peppers, Clay Matthews, Mike Neal, Nick Perry, and A.J. Hawk) all have skill-traits to rush the passer on the outside and up the middle on blitzes. Brees is one of the best on reading coverage’s and recognizing blitzes before the snap, and if Capers is going shoot his versatile linebackers towards Brees on blitzes, Brees can turn to the screen-game and stifle the Packers’ linebackers if they over pursuit. The health and effectiveness of tight end Jimmy Graham in this matchup will be another aspect of how Brees can negate Capers’ set of linebackers. Graham’ shoulder is still being nursed, but he’ll likely suit up. Graham was used as a decoy against the Lions last week, only getting 2 passes thrown his way in which he didn’t come away with a catch. If the Saints’ running game gets off to a fast start and sets up the play-action pass, Graham could trounce Green Bay’s linebackers, who are vulnerable in pass-coverage.
Saints’ top corner (Keenan Lewis) will be matched up on Green Bay’s Jordy Nelson. Lewis can stay with receivers and play tight in coverage, but if Rob Ryan’s defense doesn’t wake up and smell the coffee upfront, too much time for Rodgers will come at a punishing price to pay. Defensive end Cameron Jordan and outside linebacker Junior Galette need to take advantage of the left side of Green Bay’s line. Left tackle (David Bakhtiari) is a liability, and on passing downs, the Packers may place running back Eddie Lacy offset to the left as an extra blocker to help Rodgers’ blind side. Ryan’s defense has been much better against the run, and the Packers have had their share of lapses of getting Lacy some running room. But if the Saints don’t pressure Rodgers – Nelson, Randall Cobb and Davante Adams could have a field day on the fast track of Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Both offenses should move the ball well – but the play-makers on defense — is on the Packers’ side of the fence for them to come away with more takeaways than New Orleans.
Pick: Packers 37, Saints 30
Monday Night Football, October 27 8:30 PM ET – TV: ESPN
Washington Redskins 2-5 @ Dallas Cowboys 6-1
I’m not going to throw sour-grapes at a high-level to other analyst in this field that picked the Cowboys to go 3-13 this season. But 3-13, guys? Well, I had them going 7-9…so I can’t really say that I didn’t see issues on defense, especially after losing Sean Lee for the season during training camp. Anyways, everything’s been W’s for “Big D” after their opening 28-17 loss to the 49ers. As for their arch-rival Washington Redskins under Jay Gruden in 2014, getting wins have been an adventure – and with injuries and undisciplined play at quarterback, Colt McCoy has been called upon to be the starting quarterback for Gruden’s offense on Monday Night.
It’s no secret that DeMarco Murray is the catalyst of Dallas’ offense, becoming the first running back in NFL history to run for 100 yards in each of his first seven games to start the season. Murray leads the league with 913 yards rushing and rushing touchdowns (7) – doing it behind a stout offensive line that’s been imposing their will at the line of scrimmage in dominating fashion. The league’s best rushing attack has also helped quarterback (Tony Romo), who leads the league in completion percentage (69.2), and his passer-rating is at his all-time high of 104.7. As you can see, going by the numbers, Dallas’ offense is controlling games as a top efficient unit under offensive coordinator Scott Linehan.
And if the Redskins’ defense is going to have a chance to throw them off balance, defensive coordinator Jim Haslett needs to play a numbers game. Being basic isn’t going help Washington’s defense stop Murray or pressure Romo. Of course, Romo could strike Washington’s secondary with less-defenders in pass coverage if Haslett loads up the box, but he has to take the gamble by having his cornerbacks (David Amerson and Bashaud Breeland) press Romo’s stud-like-duo of receivers (Dez Bryant and Terrance Williams) on the outside. Haslett’s linebacker (Keenan Robinson) was outstanding in coverage last week, holding Titans’ tight end Delanie Walker to 2 catches. And fresh off of being named NFC’s Defensive Player of the Week – Robinson will be assigned against another top-level tight end (Jason Witten). If Robinson could blanket Witten, Romo’s long-lasting and reliable third down option — it could force Romo to hold onto the ball long enough for the Redskins’ D-front to harass the pocket.
Dallas’ defense is playing with grits and enthusiasm under Rod Marinelli coordinating the defense. Rolando McClain has brought energy to the defense, and it’s showing on a weekly basis. When the Cowboys lost Sean Lee for the season, it looked as if their weak-link was going to be at linebacker, but with McClain, Justin Durant, rookie Anthony Hitchens, and Bruce Carter likely to return from a thigh-injury – Marinelli’s core of linebackers that’ve been a ball-hawking group will need to be physical against Washington’s bruising-running back (Alfred Morris). Morris’ success will determine the outcome of McCoy being able to make plays with his talented receivers (DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon), where Jackson will be manned by Orlando Scandrick, Dallas’ best corner, and Garcon matched up against Brandon Carr. If Marinelli’s defense stuffs Washington’s ground game, it will better the chances for his linebackers on taking away Washington’s Jordan Reed, a talented tight end in Gruden’s offense. The ultimate separation that I’m circling here is – Dallas’ defense can be exploited (if McCoy doesn’t turn the football over). Marinelli’s group is allowing a good amount of yardage per play, but the aggressiveness of his defenders are creating turnovers – an aspect of the game I see Dallas prevailing at.
Pick: Cowboys 30, Redskins 17
You can follow Massimo Russo on Twitter @NFLMassimo and SilverandBlueReport.com @SilverBlueRpt
Bye: N.Y. Giants 3-4, San Francisco 49ers 4-3