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Headlines in the NFL … Jay Cutler and the Bears came up short against the Packers with the division title on the line in 2013. A win this week against their arch rival will put Cutler and the Bears two games ahead of Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. Plus, NFC pivotal matchups between the Dallas Cowboys/Saints, 49ers/Eagles and Cam Newton and Panthers look to rebound at Baltimore.
Thursday Night Football, September 25 8:25 PM ET – TV: CBS/NFL Network
N.Y. Giants 1-2 @ Washington Redskins 1-2
Washington’s hard fought loss to Philadelphia had some positives in terms of what the offense showed it can be like with third-year signal-caller Kirk Cousins taking over for the injured Robert Griffin III. And against Houston, Eli Manning had his most efficient outing of the season throwing for 234 yards, not throwing an interception for the first time in eight games. That has to be a huge boost of confidence for Eli and New York’s offense that turned to their running game (Rashad Jennings career day 176 yards on 34 carries) to help Eli and the Giants find some much needed balance, winning their first game, avoiding a second straight 0-3 start.
The West Coast offense under offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo seems to be picking up the tempo, dinking, dunking with short passes from Eli that his targets are gaining a good amount of yards after the catch — a primary-essential of what makes McAdoo’s system function properly. Rookie running back Andre Williams will need to take some burden off of Jennings, who will likely get a lesser workload after an oversized handling of 30 plus touches just four days ago.
Washington’s defense has a couple of ailing assets, linebacker Brian Orakpo (finger) and defensive tackle Jason Hatcher (hamstring) are questionable. The team lost their best cover cornerback DeAngelo Hall (Achilles) and safety Duke Ihenacho (foot) for the remainder of the season. On offense, running back Alfred Morris twisted his knee against the Eagles but still managed to gut it out last Sunday and is expected to play against rival New York.
Washington’s defensive coordinator Jim Haslett has to have his unit ready to disrupt the timing of New York’s quick-slant concepts. The Texans’ defense allowed the Giants to make the quick-slant game work to the tee by allowing the dangerous Victor Cruz to get separation and get behind Houston’s linebackers to speed his way into the open field. Washington’s linebackers Keenan Robinson and Perry Riley Jr. need to be able to help in coverage and defend New York’s receivers on crossing routes. If the Redskins can limit Jennings from effectiveness on the ground, it’ll give Haslett’s group the green light to blitz Manning on passing downs against New York’s vulnerable pass protection.
Like the Giants, Washington’s offensive line has some concerns of its own. Guard Shawn Lauvao, center Cory Lichtensteiger and right tackle Tyler Polumbu are banged up. Lichtensteiger and Polumbu should play, while Lauvao is questionable. The Redskins should use some double-tight end sets to help protect Cousins against New York’s edge rushers (Robert Ayers and Jason Pierre-Paul) on the outside.
The outcome of this matchup will be determined on the ground game dictating the passing game. What I like most about Cousins quarterbacking Washington’s offense is him getting the football to his prime-receivers Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson. And although Jennings provided some juice last week for New York’s running game, the Redskins have been the more consistent team running the ball. And if I’m going by laws of average, Cousins has his best chance to get off the schneid of losing four straight starts at quarterback for the Redskins.
Pick: Redskins 27, N.Y. Giants 20
Final Score: N.Y. Giants (2-2) 45, Redskins (1-3) 14
Sunday, September 28
1:00 PM ET
Green Bay Packers 1-2 @ Chicago Bears 2-1 – TV: FOX
Chicago and Green Bay are looking to get better production from their talented runners. The Packers’ offense was stifled last week in their 19-7 loss to the Lions. Lots of their porous play came from their offensive line and inability to get Eddie Lacy going. In fact, last year’s offensive rookie of the year has only 113 yards rushing this season after climbing over the 1,000 yard barrier in 2013. As for Chicago’s Matt Forte, who’s capable of averaging more than his 3.2 yards per carry, he’s ran for only 54 yards in his last two games – a prime example of Chicago’s offense running for a league-low 192 yards.
If there was ever a time for the Bears and Packers to establish an effective level of play running the pigskin, this is the week. Bears’ defensive coordinator Mel Tucker’s defenders have faced a combination of teams that use the read-option thus far. Against the Bills, his defense allowed 193 yards, 127 against San Francisco and 114 yards last week at New York. And in between those overall yards allowed on the ground, all three quarterbacks (E.J. Manuel, Colin Kaepernick and Geno Smith) tallied for a combined 103 yards. Green Bay’s offensive principles doesn’t utilize much of the same play-fakes the Bills, 49ers and Jets use, but they have an elite quarterback (Aaron Rodgers), who’s looking to bounce back after a dreadful outing on the road against Detroit.
Rodgers and the Packers’ offense has faced defenses (Seattle, N.Y. Jets and Detroit) that have defensive lineman that get bench-press pushes up the middle – forcing the quarterback to make throws on the run. Chicago’s defense isn’t in the same ball park, and you can bet the house that Green Bay will be able to score more points against the Bears than what they put up last Sunday. And due to the fact of Green Bay’s offense capable of racking up points, it’ll be interesting to see how many times Chicago head coach Marc Trestman will dial up Matt Forte’s number.
Jay Cutler’s duo of freakish athletic receivers (Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery) are matchup nightmares for pretty much any secondary, and the 6 to 7 man rushes the Packers have used to create pressure needs to be able to use and rely on just rushing 4 – giving their backend of the defense more to cover Cutler’s set of playmakers downfield. The good news for the Packers is Clay Matthews (groin), their top pass rusher off the edges is in line to play and they’ll need him and Julius Peppers to pressure Cutler and get him into his (every now and then sporadic ways). Cutler will take chances, and when he’s forced to make throws when pressured – he turns over the football.
Chicago’s offensive line is a few steps ahead of Green Bay’s and should be the better team on keeping their quarterback upright in this game. Overall, both defenses are going to have fits, mainly against the pass, and in games of this magnitude, Rodgers and his number one go-to-receiver (Jordy Nelson) usually come through. This is a golden opportunity for Chicago to kick Green Bay down a flight of stairs and they have a good chance to do it, but I’m thinking they come up short against the Pack that get the last chance – with the football – like they did in last year’s regular-season finale for the division title – with Rodgers engineering a game-winning drive in an overtime shootout.
Pick: Packers 34, Bears 31 OT
Buffalo Bills 2-1 @ Houston Texans 2-1 – TV: CBS
With Arian Foster (hamstring) still iffy to go, the Texans may be without their star running back once again – not the pedigree for success for Houston’s offense. Ryan Fitzpatrick headed into New York last week playing mistake-free football, but without his reliable and focal part of the offense behind him, the Texans elected to have Fitzpatrick throw the football 34 times and the turnovers mounted into 3 interceptions the Giants took advantage of, giving the Texans their first loss of the season.
Either Foster plays or not, the Texans still have a tough task going up against Buffalo’s defense that hasn’t allowed a runner to gain over 90 yards through their first three games. Foster’s replacement rookie (Alfred Blue) showed flashes of being able to turn it up field with a 46 yard run against the Giants, but 13 carries isn’t going to solve Fitzpatrick’s errors.
Houston’s head coach and offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien should have his offense ready to get back to the formula of using their power running game. The Texans will need this to work to give Fitzpatrick some breathing room to keep a Buffalo pass rush from taking over the game. If Houston doesn’t gain anything in the pluses on first and second downs, Buffalo’s two dominate inside D-lineman (Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams) and Mario Williams on the outside will create havoc and force Fitzpatrick to make ill-advised throws.
Here’s the difference between the two quarterbacks in this matchup: Fitzpatrick isn’t gun-shy and will take chances downfield with his best weapons (Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins). Buffalo’s E.J. Manuel tends to work on the intermediate routes and not take vertical shots downfield. C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson are the pace-setters for Buffalo in a run first system, but at some point, head coach Doug Marrone needs to have his second year quarterback take more chances and give defenses another dimension to focus on. And if Manuel doesn’t connect with rookie Sammy Watkins like he did in Week 2, dinner will be served to the J.J. Watt led Houston defense.
Pick: Texans 23, Bills 12
Tennessee Titans 1-2 @ Indianapolis Colts 1-2 – TV: CBS
In one of his best performances in his career, Andrew Luck dissected a horrific Jacksonville defense last Sunday – completing 31 of 39 pass attempts for 370 yards and 4 touchdown passes. His 79.5 completion percentage was his best since being the leader of the Indianapolis offense. This week, Luck will face a Tennessee defense that’s up the ladder on defending the pass (ranked 4th overall) but at the bottom of the pack on defending the run (30th) in the league.
The Titans’ defense has faced top running backs over the last two weeks against Cincinnati’s Giovani Bernard and Dallas’ DeMarco Murray. Their run defense is allowing 134 yards per game – much in part of facing power backfields behind stout offensive lines. Indianapolis’ offensive line doesn’t fit the same category as a big and physical line, but their will and attitude with Ahmad Bradshaw, a hard-nosed runner — gives the Colts a good reason to play smash-mouth football against the Titans. Bradshaw’s 6.0 yards per carry ranks second in the league for running backs with at least 20 or more carries.
Getting Bradshaw and Trent Richardson going early can force the Titans to bring their safety Bernard Pollard down in the box to help stop the run and cover the backs out in the flats. The Colts like to use the play-action, either when they elect to run or pass first, and if the Titans don’t pressure Luck, those single-high safety looks can be exploited by Luck’s core of solid pass catchers (Reggie Wayne, T.Y. Hilton, Coby Fleener, Dwayne Allen and new comer to the passing game Hakeem Nicks). The Titans’ offense has struggled to get their running game going, and with Jake Locker (wrist) listed as questionable, Charlie Whitehurst and rookie Zach Mettenberger are next on the depth chart. Locker hasn’t been practicing this week and reports have it that he can barely grip the football.
Tennessee’s head coach Ken Whisenhunt’s bright spot of the offense has been tight end Delanie Walker, who should find open spaces against the Colts’ defensive problems of covering the middle of the field. But, if his offense is going to open things up outside of his tight end, Tennessee’s backfield needs to come to life. Shonn Green, Dexter McCluster and rookie Bishop Sankey need to get into the open. McCluster could be Whisenhunt’s secret weapon in the screen game with the Indianapolis’ linebackers and nickel corners keying on Walker. Even if Locker somehow manages to fight through the swelling of his wrist and plays Sunday, their offense isn’t getting receivers Justin Hunter and Kendall Wright to stretch defenses. The Colts don’t have that problem and should be able to win this game with balance on offense – powering their way with Bradshaw and Richardson, helping Luck find some favorable looks.
Pick: Colts 29, Titans 16
Carolina Panthers 2-1 @ Baltimore Ravens 2-1 – TV: CBS
Uncharacteristically, Carolina’s defense got bamboozled against the run. Pittsburgh ran for a combined 264 yards with a mixture of Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount in Week 3 – leaving what could be a blue print for offenses that are committed on relying on their backs to shred the Panthers’ defense.
Baltimore’s offense had some deficiencies in 2013. Their lack of being able to establish the run was a negative for quarterback Joe Flacco, who threw 22 interceptions in differential to his 19 touchdown passes. You’d think without Ray Rice, their running game would take a dive, but that hasn’t been the case. This year, in new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak’s zone-blocking scheme, the offensive line has been executing their blocks much better than a year ago. All three of their ball carriers are producing strongly without Rice. The Ravens are gashing defenses with a well above average yards per carry committee between Justin Forsett (6.3), Bernard Pierce (4.0) and rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro (5.1).
Bernard Pierce remains the Ravens’ starting back, but after what coach Harbaugh saw from the 226 pound rookie, running downhill with physicality, Taliaferro exemplifies the emphasis of what makes Baltimore a tough team, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he eventually becomes their lead back. Another valuable part of the Ravens offense had a setback, however. Tight end Dennis Pitta (hip) was placed on injured-reserve, leaving the position up to veteran tight end Owen Daniels. Daniels is more of an intermediate route-runner, but should fill in the absence of Pitta decently.
Carolina needs their defense to get back to stuffing the run behind the heart and soul (linebacker Luke Kuechly) of their defense. If the defense allows the Ravens to jump out to an early lead, Baltimore will control the tempo of the game and force Carolina’s offense to take chances against a Ravens defense that’s capable of generating turnovers. The Panthers have missed DeAngelo Williams (thigh) the last two weeks and can use him to negate Baltimore’s talented defensive front. The teams other two backs (Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert) are out leaving the Panthers with a thin backfield.
The matchup I’m circling in this showdown expected to be is Baltimore’s cornerback Lardarius Webb that should be manned up against Carolina’s Kelvin Benjamin. Benjamin is Carolina’s best playmaker that sports the passing games best ability to make plays downfield. How Cam Newton and Benjamin fare against Baltimore’s pass defense will be vital for Carolina to sustain drives and put points on the board. I’m thinking they’ll have a tough time doing it, and as the weeks go on, Flacco and former Carolina receiver (Steve Smith) are upping on their chemistry together.
Pick: Ravens 23, Panthers 16
Detroit Lions 2-1 @ N.Y. Jets 1-2 – TV: FOX
New York’s offense isn’t getting the job done when in the red zone. On six trips of knocking on the door of Chicago’s end zone, the Jets scored just one touchdown. A big part of not being able to muster enough points has been the erratic play from second-year quarterback Geno Smith, who threw a pick six and an interception when attempting a touchdown pass.
Smith has his critics in the “Big Apple” calling for head coach Rex Ryan to make a change at quarterback, but the Jets for the moment are still rolling with the punches of their potential franchise thrower. Ryan would sure like to see improvement from his signal-caller when the Jets’ offense is in passing situations. You can’t say the running game hasn’t given Smith the chance to work on percentages that favor him in terms of down and distance. The Jets have been a solid group of producing a bulk of yardage – ranked second in the league (427 team rushing yards).
The Lions have a stout quality-unit of gap-stoppers, particularly on the defensive line with Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley clogging the middle. Those two king-sized defensive tackles force you to run the football outside the tackles — once they let the opposition know they’ll have a difficult time of gashing them between the tackles. The Jets have a trio of backs between Chris Ivory, Chris Johnson and Bilal Powell. In the statistical metrics, Ivory has been the most dangerous out of three averaging 5.7 yards per carry. Coach Ryan’s offense won’t get out of their norm of feeding the dogs in the backfield, but in games like the matchup the have on Sunday, there’s going to be weeks when the running game doesn’t pull through, and you have to trust your quarterback to make more plays with his arm than his feet.
To me, the major concern for New York is a banged up secondary going up against Detroit’s Calvin “Megatron” Johnson and Golden Tate on the outside. Dee Milliner is still fighting his way through his quad and ankle injuries and hasn’t seen much action on the field as a limited pass defender. And with Antonio Allen being picked on with Milliner out of the picture — It’s a lock that Detroit’s Matthew Stafford will be looking his way with either Tate or Johnson matched up with him. New York has the same pressing issues it had against Chicago when examining what they’re up against this Sunday, and once again, I see the visiting team bettering them on scoring touchdowns, not kicking field goals.
Pick: Lions 21, N.Y. Jets 16
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 0-3 @ Pittsburgh Steelers 2-1 – TV: FOX
All the hope, excitement and expectations during the offseason for Tampa Bay putting Lovie Smith at the helm — has been nothing but sour and bitter grapes. And to add more fire to what looks like a bridge that’s burning down, Josh McCown, a veteran that was brought along from Chicago to bring some stability to a cloudy quarterback situation has a severe sprained thumb.
Smith’s defense hasn’t provided any consistency getting after the quarterback with defensive ends Michael Johnson, Adrian Clayborn and standout defensive tackle Gerald McCoy nursing injuries. And the matchup Smith’s Bucs have awaiting them in the “Steel City” has an offense that’s averaging 419.3 yards per game and is coming off a remarkable performance against one of the league’s top defenses (Carolina) – a game the Steelers tallied 454 total yards in a convincing 37-19 win on the road over the Panthers. Pittsburgh’s defense has caught some injury woes themselves. Cornerback Ike Taylor (forearm) is out indefinitely, linebacker Jarvis Jones (wrist) will miss at least two months and rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier (knee) is out this Sunday. Tampa Bay is likely to get back their starting running back Doug Martin, who looks to gash Pittsburgh’s defense that’s shown to be vulnerable against the run at times this season.
Mike Glennon will likely get the nod for the injured McCown. If Tampa bay has a prayer at Heinz Field, they need to run Doug Martin and Bobby Rainey on full blast against an injured Pittsburgh defense. Pittsburgh pass defense is susceptible and if Martin and Rainey can set the pace for the Bucs to use the play-action pass (something they haven’t been able to do) – the aerial game can finally come into effect with Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans on deep-routes.
Overall, examining the body of work from what both offenses have put forth through their first three games, the chemistry the Steelers have going with running back Le’Veon Bell leading the league in total yards (461) from scrimmage and Ben Roethlisberger finding Antonio Brown on a regular basis (19 straight games Roethlisberger and Brown have connected at least five times) – Pittsburgh has a smooth operating system flowing. Add 250 pound back LeGarrette Blount to the mix and Tampa Bay’s defense will have a world of problems to solve.
Pick: Steelers 34, Buccaneers 17
Wembley Stadium in London, England
Miami Dolphins 1-2 @ Oakland Raiders 0-3 – TV: CBS
Ryan Tannehill has one of the lowest passer ratings (74.1) and completion percentages (56.5). He hasn’t thrown for over 250 yards in any of his three starts this season and has been dreadful throwing beyond 10 yards. His porous play has put him on notice from head coach Joe Philbin, but for now, it looks like he’ll remain the starter against the winless Raiders overseas in London this week.
QB slumps always need a helping hand from the running game, and the Dolphins may catch a break against an Oakland defense that may be without three injured important players (Miles Burris, Sio Moore and Nick Roach) to help stop the run. Miami’s Lamar Miller is averaging 5.8 yards per carry and will likely attack the Raiders’ front as the Patriots did last week. Tannehill can benefit from Miller finding holes through their zone-blocking schemes and setup play-fakes to get the football to receivers Mike Wallace and Brian Hartline on crossing-routes and comebacks – an area where the Raiders’ pass defenders have struggled at halting.
The Raiders’ offense hasn’t been able to put points on the board. They’re averaging a dismal 12.3 points per game with rookie Derek Carr under center. And like Miami, the Raiders can use some extra fuel running the football as Maurice Jones-Drew (hand) returns to action to try to help Oakland’s offense use their strengths of attacking defenses — with Jones-Drew and Darren McFadden changing the pace.
Miami’s defense got ran over by Kansas City’s ground attack, giving up 174 yards (mostly from Knile Davis, who ran for 132 yards on 32 carries) but their talented D-line still managed to bring Alex Smith to the ground five times.
Miami’s defensive coordinator Keven Coyle has been taking some heat this week for his defensive decisions on using certain players that formulated mismatches against Kansas City. A wake up call is needed, and I’m banking on him listening to his critics in the locker room and using some pressured fronts against Oakland’s inept O-line to get after Carr.
Pick: Dolphins 20, Raiders 13
4:05 PM ET
Jacksonville Jaguars 0-3 @ San Diego Chargers 2-1 – TV: CBS
If there’s room for anything good on Jacksonville’s table, it’s their future with first-round draft pick Blake Bortles showing some poise to earn the starting job at quarterback for Gus Bradley’s team. Coach Bradley benched veteran Chad Henne and threw the rookie in after trailing 30-0 at halftime. Bortles completed 14 of 24 pass attempts for 233 yards and two touchdowns, two interceptions and was sacked once while showing his ability to use his feet – gaining 30 yards on two scrambles.
Jacksonville has been horrifically-putrid across the board. They’ve been outscored by 75 points and are surrendering 466 yards per game on defense, both a league-worst. And matters are looking on the down-slope against the Chargers they face on the road this weekend. Philip Rivers has been a living nightmare for Jacksonville’s defense in his last three meetings against them. Rivers has completed 66 of 83 passes for 913 yards, seven touchdown passes and only two interceptions. Over the Chargers’ last two games of two straight wins, Rivers has thrown 5 touchdown passes and 0 interceptions, completing 74.2 percent of his passes. Yep, Philip Rivers is pretty good and he has six different of his receivers that have caught at least six passes.
The only setback steering San Diego’s head coach Mike McCoy in the face is his backfield losing a viable part of the screen game. Danny Woodhead (ankle) will be out for the remainder of the season and Ryan Mathews (MCL) is still out. Donald Brown will be the workhorse of the Chargers’ rushing attack – a back that’s also an option for Rivers out of the backfield. San Diego should be able to handle their own against a rebuilding Jacksonville team. If they can keep the mobile Bortles from extending plays from the pocket, their defense should be able to keep the Jaguars from reaching the endzone. And I don’t see how Jacksonville’s defense finds a way to rattle Rivers or contain Donald Brown from gashing them between the tackles on power-running plays.
Pick: Chargers 31, Jaguars 14
4:25 PM ET
Atlanta Falcons 2-1 @ Minnesota Vikings 1-2 – TV: FOX
Without Adrian Peterson due to a child abuse charge, Kyle Rudolph (groin) for eight weeks and starting quarterback Matt Cassel, the Vikings hope their first-round draft pick Teddy Bridgewater can turn around an offense that’s second to last in the league, averaging 173.7 yards per game, and ranked 24th on the ground (99.3 yards).
Vikings’ offensive coordinator Norv Turner must put his trust in his rookie quarterback by dialing up favorable-plays through the air. Most coaches tend to be conservative with inexperienced quarterbacks, but in this matchup against an Atlanta offense capable of blowing up the scoreboard, Minnesota’s drives can’t afford to stall when in striking distance. Bridgewater’s athleticism can be used on play-action rollout passes, allowing him to get on the move by using his feet. Minnesota’s receivers (Greg Jennings and Cordarrelle Patterson) need to be a factor in this matchup.
Patterson is their most dangerous weapon with his ability to make plays in the open field, catching the football or on gadget plays. The downfall to Minnesota’s air-attack is dropped passes. They’ll need to clean that up going forward and adjust to Bridgewater’s ability to elude rushers and extend plays from the pocket, unlike running routes with Cassel trying to find them downfield. The inability to run the ball is forcing Minnesota’s offense to get out of traps. Matt Asiata will need more production on running downs and be able to get out of the habit of 2 yard gains, turning them into 5 plus yard gains to place the passing game in higher-percentage opportunities when the Vikings have to pass.
Pressuring Atlanta’s Matt Ryan is a must. Ryan has explosive receivers on the perimeter with Julio Jones and Roddy White. White missed last week’s game with a hamstring injury but looks ready to return to the Falcons’ deep receiving unit. Slot receiver Harry Douglas (foot) is another one of Ryan’s go-to-targets on passing downs working from the shotgun formation. Douglas has practiced this week — despite being listed as questionable on the injury report…so he should suite up this Sunday.
Atlanta’s running back Steven Jackson lacks explosiveness that he once had during his prime years, but the Vikings need to keep him from gaining 4 to 6 yard gains when the Falcons run on first down. The Vikings don’t want to get Ryan setup on third and shorts — he has too many options and will pick the Vikings’ defense apart if that ends up being the case. Bridgewater brings a change of pace to Minnesota’s offense, but it will take a couple of games before his receivers adapt to his style of play…the Falcons are already in sync with Ryan, and he should be the quarterback that plays more efficient at TCF Bank Stadium.
Pick: Falcons 31, Vikings 21
Philadelphia Eagles 3-0 @ San Francisco 49ers 1-2 – TV: FOX
Despite injuries and some suspensions on their offensive line, Chip Kelly’s Eagles are still finding ways to amass points with their juggernaut offense. No starter on Philadelphia’s O-line missed action in 2013, but this year, they’re dealing with a few bumps, bites and bruises. Center Jason Kelce (hernia) will be out for at least two months, right tackle Lane Johnson will miss this Sunday’s game serving the last of his four-game suspension for a banned substance, and guard Evan Mathis (knee) is sidelined for six more weeks.
Philadelphia’s O-line is still protecting Nick Foles, who’s leading the league with 978 yards passing. Foles hasn’t been sacked in two consecutive games, but creating holes for LeSean McCoy have been difficult without their top run-blockers in front of him. The top-rated back carried the ball 19 times for only 22 yards in the Eagles’ win over Washington. His 1.2 yards per carry was his worst performance of his career when carrying the ball 10 or more times. Philadelphia can certainly use a better performance on the road from McCoy, who’ll be going up against a San Francisco defense that ranks 6th in the league against the run.
Where the Eagles can exploit San Francisco’s defense is through the air. The 49ers are missing their top pass rusher (Aldon Smith), who’s serving a nine-game suspension, and their inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman is still recovering from a knee injury. Their absences have had a negative effect on getting after the quarterback. The 49ers have just 4 sacks through their first three games (3 of them from Justin Smith). Not to say the Eagles should stray away from handing off the football to McCoy, but in this matchup, the passing game looks better suited to muster points against a San Francisco defense that’s iffy on defending the pass.
The 49ers need to quit with the fussing around and get back to what has made them one of the better teams in football over the last three seasons. Against Arizona, the 49ers gave their running backs (Frank Gore and Carlos Hyde) a combined 11 carries. That’s not their brand of football, and they’re putting Colin Kaepernick in position to use his feet more when he should be feeding the dogs in the backfield. The 49ers used some empty backfield sets on their scoring drives against Arizona and could use the same against a lack-luster Eagles defense, especially with tight end Vernon Davis (knee) looking to return to the lineup.
But if offensive coordinator Greg Roman wants his offensive unit to limit their silly mistakes, he better have a game plan intact to gash an Eagles’ defense that’s allowed over 100 yards per game against the run. Controlling the tempo by eating clock is imperative for San Francisco to keep Nick Foles and company off the field. Things may look rocky on the surface for last year’s NFC runner ups, but I like them to finally put together two halves of solid football, not just one (1st half) like they’ve been displaying in their 1-2 start – and for them to limit LeSean McCoy on the ground due to a makeshift Philadelphia offensive line.
Pick: 49ers 31, Eagles 24
Sunday Night Football in America 8:30 PM ET – TV: NBC
New Orleans Saints 1-2 @ Dallas Cowboys 2-1
‘Twas the night of November 10, 2013 at Mercedes-Benz Superdome when Drew Brees threw for 392 yards and 4 touchdown passes in a clobbering 49-17 win over the Cowboys for the Saints. The dismantling the Saints’ offense put on the Cowboys’ historically third-worst ranked defense was highlighted by New Orleans setting an NFL record of most converted first downs (40) – embarrassing Dallas on national television.
This time around, the Cowboys’ new identity of leaning on DeMarco Murray (the league’s leading rusher) behind one of the better offensive lines – gives the Cowboys a much better outlook on trying to play keep-away against a vaunted New Orleans offense that is one of the best at creating favorable matchups. One in particular player Dallas’ defense has on their marked list is dealing with Jimmy Graham, the games most giftedly-talented tight end. And in Rod Marinelli’s Cover 2 defensive system, his defense has been terrible on limiting tight ends in their zone concepts from finding open spaces. Between the 49ers, Titans and Rams Marinelli’s defense has faced — a combination of Colin Kaepernick, Jake Locker and Austin Davis have targeted tight ends 36 times, completing 27 passes for 290 yards for 4 touchdowns. Throw in Brees’ options B (Marques Colston), C (Brandin Cooks), and D (Pierre Thomas and Khiry Robinson in the screen-game) – the Cowboys’ defense will have their hands full.
And the only way to stop Brees from distributing the football all over AT&T Stadium is by applying pressure upfront –and Dallas isn’t getting it done. Defensive tackle Henry Melton, who the Cowboys signed during the offseason, has 0.5 sacks, the rest of their D-lineman have 0. The other 2.5 sacks have come from linebackers Bruce Carter and Rolando McClain (1 apiece) and outside linebacker Kyle Wilbur (0.5) to round out a team total of only 3 sacks. McClain, the bright spot of the defense is dealing with a groin injury and might miss his second straight game.
Melton (hamstring) isn’t expected to play, but the Cowboys will get Anthony Spencer (knee) back after missing more than a year. Spencer will likely play on a limited snap count and hopefully for Dallas’ below-average D-line, Spencer doesn’t have any setbacks and returns to his old self of getting after the quarterback. Hope is all the Cowboys really have defensively and Marinelli may need to use some manufactured pressure-packages towards Brees, but with the Saints using the screen-game and Brees reading defenses before the snap – that approach can get Dallas burned.
In his return to his former team on the opposite sideline, Rob Ryan, New Orleans’ defensive coordinator must limit DeMarco Murray from reaching the century mark. Dallas’ record is well above .500 when Murray carries the football 20 or more times and rushes for 100 plus yards. His linebacker Curtis Lofton will be vital on running Murray down from getting past New Orleans’ linebackers.
The Saints’ defense has been burned in the secondary this season, and like what they faced against the Falcons in Week 1, the Cowboys have upper echelon talent at receiver (Dez Bryant) and tight end (Jason Witten) – Tony Romo’s bread and butter pass-catchers. Seeing Romo move better in the pocket and using his feet to move the chains is a plus, but Ryan knows Romo’s back is still limiting him from eluding rushers like he did in his healthy days. If the Saints can limit Murray from setting the pace on the ground, they should get better chances at getting after Romo if he’s placed in 3rd and longs. My decision on picking the winner here is based on which quarterback will be placed in better situations on passing downs. Dallas can win this game if Murray grinds things out, setting up the play-action pass, but where I see Brees being able to attack Dallas’ defense on seam routes, screens – without enough pressure coming his way — has me going with New Orleans’ offense closing the deal on Dallas’ weak defense late in the fourth quarter.
Pick: Saints 37, Cowboys 30
Monday Night Football, September 29 8:30 PM ET – TV: ESPN
New England Patriots 2-1 @ Kansas City Chiefs 1-2
Through most of the Tom Brady era, New England’s offense has been one of the best in the league, but since last season, the offense has sputtered in developing ways to get big plays. The Patriots aren’t stretching defenses vertically and have become more of a methodically ran offense, using the short passing game.
This season, New England’s offensive line has been a mess – using multiple switches. The only consistent player on the O-line has been Sebastian Vollmer as far as keeping him at his natural position. And when the offensive line is scrambling for consistency, your offensive coordinator may use extra blockers to keep the quarterback upright. Tom Brady has been seeing lots of D-lineman in his face, being sacked seven times. And though Kansas City’s pass rush is hit or miss, their outside rushers Tamba Hali and Justin Houston that go missing at times are capable of putting together a good performance.
Knile Davis has filled in nicely for the injured Jamaal Charles, rushing for over 130 yards on 30 plus carries in route to Kansas City’s 34-15 thumping over Miami last week. Charles has been seen moving well during limited practice, and though he’s listed as questionable, head coach (Andy Reid) said he expects Charles to be ready to go against a New England defense that’s tied for the league-lead on intercepting passes (6). Bill Belichick’s defense has shown signs of improvement from a year ago that has stuffed the run in their last two games, holding the Vikings and Raiders to a combined 121 yards on the ground. Knile Davis and Jamaal Charles are runners that can make plays in space – so look for New England’s linebackers to focus in on limiting Kanas City’s backs from getting into the open field.
Alex Smith’s doesn’t have a tremendously talented group of targets for him to stretch the field with, but if Charles and Davis start making plays, it’ll open things up for Smith to get the ball to his tight end Travis Kelce, a tight end that possesses speed. Smith can hurt you with his legs, so limiting him from using play-fakes effectively — will also be important for defensive coordinator Matt Patricia’s unit. The Patriots will likely use running back Shane Vereen on screens, draws and everything to neutralize Kansas City from getting after Brady.
Eric Berry, Kanas City’s top defensive player and one of the better safeties in football is dealing with a high ankle sprain. If he plays, he’ll be essential for Kanas City trying to take away New England’s seam and intermediate routes – with Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski in the slot. This matchup will come down to which offensive line plays better upfront – they both are struggling, so it comes down to which quarterback delivers on passing downs — and Brady has more holes to throw through against the Chiefs’ defense than what Alex Smith’s windows will look like against the Patriots’ that have a nag of creating turnovers.
Pick: Patriots 24, Chiefs 17
Bye: Cincinnati Bengals 3-0, Cleveland Browns 1-2, Denver Broncos 2-1, St. Louis Rams 1-2, Arizona Cardinals 3-0, Seattle Seahawks 2-1
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