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Can Dallas’ newfound identity behind a DeMarco Murray-led ground game help the Cowboys upset the champs in the most hostile environment in the NFL? Plus, the Bills host the Patriots under new ownership in a battle for sole possession of first place in the AFC East, and Eli Manning and the surging Giants take on Chip Kelly’s first place Eagles in the City of Brotherly Love on Sunday Night.
Thursday, October 9 8:25 PM ET – TV: CBS/NFL Network
Indianapolis Colts 3-2 @ Houston Texans 3-2
Texans’ running back Arian Foster – the league’s third leading–rusher (404 yards) has expressed his disliking of playing on a short-rested time period. Players and fans are seeing the negative results, and we’ve yet to get a competitive game before our eyes on Thursday Night. In any event, the Colts and Texans are set for a sole possession for first place square-off in the AFC South.
Indianapolis’ defense has faced a range of top quality quarterbacks and offenses that possess top-tier passing attacks and running games. So far, they’ve faced Peyton Manning, Chip Kelly’s up-tempo Eagles’ offense, and last week — they came out with a solid defensive effort in their win against Baltimore’s stout-offensive line that’s protected Joe Flacco well, sacking him 4 times, while holding Baltimore’s trio-set of backs (Justin Forsett, Bernard Pierce and Lorenzo Taliaferro) under the century mark. The Texans’ offensive line, like Baltimore’s uses a zone-blocking scheme for Arian Foster to run behind, and Foster has had his way against the Colts in his five career games against them. He’s averaged 150.4 yards per game against his divisional opponent, and is coming off a stellar 157 yard rushing, 2 touchdown performance in a losing effort to the Cowboys.
Last year, Indianapolis’ defense was ranked 26th against the run, but this season they’ve jumped up to 11. Colts’ defensive coordinator Greg Manusky’s unit has turned things around after their first two games, particularly on bringing quarterbacks to the ground. After registering just 1 sack in their first two games, his defense has recorded 11, forcing 9 turnovers in their three-game winning streak. Houston’s Ryan Fitzpatrick is known for making bone-headed throws, but he does have two playmakers on the outside with Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins to chuck the pigskin at. Fitzpatrick isn’t as gun-shy as perceived, and if Manusky’s defense allows Foster to continue his dominance against the Colts, Fitzpatrick will play much better from the pocket on passing downs.
Andrew Luck leads the league with 14 touchdown passes and 1,617 yards through the air, but he also leads the league in interceptions with 6. So…as good as Luck is, he’s capable of forcing the issue when pressured. This leads to how the Colts will prepare against Houston’s J.J. Watt, the most havoc-creating force in the game. Indianapolis’ offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton has stayed committed to sharing the load between Trent Richardson and Ahmad Bradshaw to keep defenses honest, but where his strengths remain are attacking the backend of defenses with Luck’s multiple targets (Reggie Wayne, T.Y.
Hilton, Dwayne Allen, Hakeem Nicks and Coby Fleener). Look for Hamilton to use some extra blockers on Watt’s side with backs and tight ends to help better protect Luck. In conclusion to this matchup, Andrew Luck is the better improviser when it comes to third down situations, and Houston isn’t stretching defenses enough behind the arm of Fitzpatrick. And I’m just marveled on the play of Indianapolis’ defense that’s getting it done without Robert Mathis.
Pick: Colts 34, Texans 24
Final Score: Colts (4-2) 33, Texans (3-3) 28
Sunday, October 12
1:00 PM ET
Jacksonville Jaguars 0-5 @ Tennessee Titans 1-4 – TV: CBS
Ken Whisenhunt’s Titans are coming off a disheartening loss to the Cleveland Browns. Tennessee led the game by 25 before the Browns scored 26 unanswered points to top the Titans 29-28. The blown lead by coach Whisenhunt’s team was the largest by a home team in NFL history.
Gus Bradley’s Jaguars are a rebuilding process in the making with Blake Bortles riding the organizations arm as the future of the franchise. But if we’re going to see Bortles progress significantly in his rookie campaign, Jacksonville’s offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch must emphasize on taking the pressure off of him by giving more touches to his running backs (Toby Gerhart, Strom Johnson and Denard Robinson). The Jaguars’ ground game has been miserably awful. They’re currently ranked second to last in that department, and Fisch needs to dial up more running plays for his backs against a Titans’ defense that’s allowing offenses to gash them for 136.6 yards per game against the run. Tennessee’s defense has been much better against the pass, but without Alterraun Verner, who they lost in free agency, their pass defense is giving up touchdowns (10), tied for fourth most in 2014.
Jacksonville’s aerial attack has been missing Cecil Shorts III and rookie Marqise Lee due to hamstring injuries – Lee could return to practice this week after resuming to running around. Lee and Shorts III look more likely to miss action again this week – keeping Bortles’ options up to Allen Hurns and Allen Robinson on the outside, with Ace Sanders and Mike Brown rounding things out in their 3-to-4 receiver sets. The Titans may be vulnerable over the top defending the pass after losing safety Bernard Pollard (ACL) for the remainder of the season – and this could be the time for Fisch and Bradley to unleash the deep-ball and take chances downfield more.
The Titans may be without Jake Locker (thumb), and believe it or not, Jacksonville’s defense is ranked atop the league in team sacks (16). Their defense was sound against Pittsburgh’s talented offense, and if Jacksonville’s offense can avoid turning over the football in the Music City this Sunday — chances of getting their first W of the season are pointing upward. Charlie Whitehurst remains Whisenhunt’s backup, but as the days go on for a team that looks like it’ll be out of the playoff discussion in the AFC — at some point Whisenhunt has to think about throwing in rookie Zach Mettenberger. The Titans may have a cloudy situation on their hands at quarterback, but what they can do against Jacksonville is continue to run the ball between the tackles. Shonn Greene (hamstring) has been limited in practice, and for once, Bishop Sankey can see a full-sized number of carries. I’m going to roll with Tennessee here, and for tight end Delanie Walker to have a good performance against a Jaguars’ defense that’s had difficulty defending tight ends this season.
Pick: Titans 21, Jaguars 16
Baltimore Ravens 3-2 @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers 1-4 – TV: CBS
After their embarrassing 56-14 loss to the Atlanta Falcons on Sep. 18 before a nationally televised audience, Mike Glennon has provided a spark for Tampa Bay’s offense. With Glennon quarterbacking the offense, they’ve scored more than the 17 points per game they averaged with Josh McCown directing things under center.
Statistical metrics can be deceiving when looking into the numbers of Baltimore’s defensive front only registering 5 sacks on the season. And though Tampa Bay’s offense may be sustaining drives and producing points through the air, they need to get things going with Doug Martin running the football. Tampa Bay currently ranks 24th in the league in yards per game when they feed their backs. Rushing for 90.4 yards per game isn’t going to give them a balanced attack — and against the Ravens’ defense that has a wide-number of talented players on their defensive front, neutralizing outside rushers Terrell Suggs, Courtney Upshaw, and getting rookie standout linebacker C.J. Mosley out of position by applying the play-action pass — should be a priority for the Bucs’ offense. The weak-link of Baltimore’s defense has been against the pass, and If the Bucs can establish effectiveness on the ground with Martin and Bobby Rainey, Glennon could have a decent outing against a Ravens defense that’s ranked 27th against the pass.
Baltimore’s offense will continue to do it by committee between Bernard Pierce, Justin Forsett and Lorenzo Taliaferro through Gary Kubiak’s zone-running scheme. Halting Baltimore’s three-set attack should be the objective for Lovie Smith’s defense, but taking away the Ravens’ threats (Steve Smith Sr. and Torrey Smith) will be the focal part of limiting Joe Flacco from stretching the defense. Smith Sr. still has game at the age of 35 and has been Flacco’s number one option, but on the opposite side of the well-polished veteran receiver is Torrey Smith that hasn’t been anything as expected through the quarter part of the season. Smith is due for a breakout game, and with most of the attention hovering over Smith Sr., he and Flacco look primed to have their best connection game and take advantage of Tampa Bay’s backend that’s allowed 135 catches, with opposing offenses completing 71.4 percent of pass attempts against them.
Pick: Ravens 27, Buccaneers 20
Denver Broncos 3-1 @ N.Y. Jets 1-4 – TV: CBS
Rex Ryan’s Jets were used and abused by the San Diego Chargers last week, getting shutout 31-0 out west. A return back to the east coast in front of their home crowd is usually a prescription ordered to stop the bleeding, but with Peyton Manning and the Broncos’ high-octane ways of moving the football on a consistent basis — the odds are against New York at MetLife Stadium.
You’d think an offense that’s ranked 6th overall running the football would create balance and open things up for the passing game, but that hasn’t been the case for offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg’s group. The pressing issue has come from the dismal play of Geno Smith at quarterback. The second-year product out of West Virginia is completing under 60-percent of his passes and has thrown 6 interceptions to his 4 touchdown passes. Smith was benched after completing only 4 passes in the first half against San Diego as coach Ryan made the switch to Michael Vick – a veteran the Jets brought along that may find himself taking over for the Jets’ woes at the games most important position. For now, Smith remains the starter, but with Smith missing team meetings — players indicating his bad ways of setting examples, and fans of the New York faithful looking for a change, Smith needs a complete face-lift this Sunday against one of the better teams in football.
The Jets could try to keep Manning off the field by eating up clock with Chris Ivory and Chris Johnson by smash-mouthing Denver’s front, but if they’re going to shock the world, they’ll need to find ways to be efficient on passing downs and when in the red zone. Their best overall receiver (Eric Decker) is dealing with a hamstring injury that kept him out of the picture last week. Decker has returned to practice this week and looks on track to make a possible return for an offense that lacks enough weapons to stretch defenses. If the Jets are going to operate well on offense, Mornhinweg needs to do everything possible to negate Denver’s dynamo duo of DeMarcus Ware and Von Millar on the edges. Using two tight end sets to keep Smith max protected to control the pressure is vital for Mornhinweg’s offense to keep pace against the Broncos.
When the Broncos have the ball, it’s easier said than done on forcing Manning out of rhythm. The Jets’ defense has been one of the best at stopping the run, but even with the Broncos not establishing some better than average ways on the ground, Denver’s tight end Julius Thomas, the league-leader in touchdown receptions (7) could scorch a Jets’ pass defense that got exposed by San Diego’s Antonio Gates, who caught two touchdown passes against New York’s Antonio Allen and Kyle Wilson, while safety Calvin Pryor didn’t help the cause by missing tackles. The Broncos offensive line is one of the best in the business — so for Ryan to rely on his front four to do the talking will leave Manning enough time to dissect a porous secondary. Either way Ryan chooses to go by manufacturing pressure or not, it’s hard for me to see his defense putting a stamp on Manning’s mass weapons of destruction. The Jets need to force turnovers and get the extras from their special teams — and chances of that happening — is on the 30 percent out of 100 meter.
Pick: Broncos 34, N.Y. Jets 20
Detroit Lions 3-2 @ Minnesota Vikings 2-3 – TV: FOX
With Calvin Johnson (ankle) doubtful to take the field on the road for the Lions, Golden Tate will be Matthew Stafford’s prime receiver as Detroit looks to shake off their mistakes that cost them last week against the Bills in a hard fought loss.
Matthew Stafford is capable of making big time throws, but from time to time, Stafford will take the underneath routes and avoid attacking the backend when the oppositions safety is in position to get burned. This week, Stafford faces a Vikings’ pass defense that’s susceptible of getting diced against receivers that are capable of catching the deep-ball. Detroit’s rookie tight end (Eric Ebron) can expand into a bigger role without Johnson in the fold. He and Tate will occasionally work out of the slot on the shallow and seam routes. The Lions’ running game has been silent through their first five games. Against Buffalo, George Winn took over as the offenses prime-ball-carrier when Reggie Bush left the game with an ankle injury. Bush’s status is up in the air, while Joique Bell (concussion) has returned to practice and looks ready to shoulder the handling of Detroit’s backfield.
Christian Ponder was forced to start for the injured Teddy Bridgewater against Green Bay. Minnesota’s offense went sour without Bridgewater – posting only 10 points in a 42-10 blowout loss. Bridgewater has been declared 100 percent healthy to guide Norv Turner’s offense as the Vikings look to get back to .500 on the season. Bridgewater will have to do it against Detroit’s defense that’s ranked first in the league in yards allowed per contest (282.4), and ranks second in fewest points (15.8) given up per game. Turner knows Detroit’s defensive line is arguably the most talented group in the game – with defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley disrupting the interior, while ends Ezekiel Ansah and Jason Jones pursuit towards the quarterback. Minnesota has a shaky offensive line and creating space between the tackles will be difficult for Running backs Jerick McKinnon and Matt Asiata.
But what Turner can do is spread Detroit’s defense with more 4 receiver sets and use Cordarrelle Patterson in the backfield on some motion-sweeps to negate Detroit’s pass rush by forcing them to move laterally. Bridgewater is capable of making plays with feet, and Turner needs to use his best athletic players to make plays against this year’s top defense. We saw what pressure did to Stafford last week, so if head coach Mike Zimmer’s defense can get in Stafford’s face without Detroit’s running game doing things effectively — the Vikings’ defense will force Stafford to be the hero of Detroit’s offense on third and longs for most of the afternoon.
Pick: Vikings 23, Lions 20
New England Patriots 3-2 @ Buffalo Bills 3-2 – TV: FOX
The Bills are under new ownership after league owners approved the sale to Terry and Kim Pegula. The Pegulas also own the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres and are looking to keep the Bills in western New York – ending years of wondering the Bills’ future in one of the smallest markets in the NFL. Ralph Wilson Stadium should be full of energy with a new beginning in place, but most importantly a win over rival New England will put Buffalo ahead of the pack in the AFC East.
Many spectators’ visions became blurry of the Patriots after getting man-handled out in Kansas City, with concerns along the offensive line that kept Tom Brady and the Patriots offense out of sync. But after rebounding against the undefeated Bengals in a convincing 43-17 win on Sunday Night, the usual correcting of the wrongs have the Patriots back in position to take command in a division they’ve been kings for over a decade. Buffalo’s defense is tied for the league-lead in team sacks (17) that boast a talented D-line. And without Kyle Williams’ disruptiveness on the interior, Marcell Dareus and Jerry Hughes combined for five of the Bills’ six sacks against the Lions in a 17-14 win at Ford Field. Williams (knee) has been a participant in practice this week and could return to the lineup.
Patriots’ head coach Bill Belichick is known for taking away the oppositions best functioning elements, and when Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen are finding running lanes, the Patriots’ offense is able to mix and match things up on the run and pass. Ridley (113) and Vereen (90) ran for a combined 213 of the teams 220 yards against a stingy Bengals’ defense. Getting the running game flowing in a positive direction gives offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels the luxury of dialing up the play-action pass — and for Brady to find his main-option (tight end Rob Gronkowski) on one-on-one matchups with defenders playing near the line of scrimmage. Buffalo needs to take New England’s ground game out of the equation to place Brady in low-percentage opportunities on passing downs — taking away New England’s quick and deadly short passing attack.
The plan for Bills’ head coach Doug Marrone on getting his talented rookie receiver (Sammy Watkins) the football is already coming in handy. In his first start of replacing the benched E.J. Manuel, Kyle Orton targeted Watkins 12 times and connected with him to setup Dan Carpenter’s 58 yard game-winning field goal. Belichick will throw top-tier cornerback Darrelle Revis on Watkins…so the percentages of gaining wide open windows will be at a minimum. Orton needs to be able to get the football to his 2nd, 3rd and 4th options – receivers Mike Williams, Marquise Goodwin and Robert Woods. Buffalo’s defense has the upper hand regarding talent in the trenches, but Kyle Orton isn’t going to be come out clean if placed to throw the ball 43 times like he did against the Lions. C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson need to show up to keep Orton from seeing pressure-fronts if the running game goes missing again. This game has the makeup of coming down to field position and turnovers – an area I give New England the edge on in the make or break opportunities.
Pick: Patriots 27, Bills 22
Carolina Panthers 3-2 @ Cincinnati Bengals 3-1 – TV: FOX
After winning their first three games, looking like the AFC’s top team, the Bengals got steamrolled by New England 43-17 on primetime television. And they’ll likely be without one of the league’s upper echelon receivers (A.J. Green), who’s dealing with a toe injury that could keep him out for the next few weeks.
Mohamed Sanu is projected to pick up the slack in Green’s absence. Sanu sports good enough skill-traits as a physical receiver that has shown the ability to get separation downfield. But if the Bengals are to erase their lack-luster outing of last week, they’ll need to get back to the basics of what makes them a playoff contender against a grimy Carolina team at Paul Brown Stadium. And those basics will come through the play-calling of their offensive coordinator (Hue Jackson) of making the ground game get off to a fast start to set the pace. Dropped passes hurt the Bengals last week, and Giovani Bernard, the focal part of the Bengals’ offense had only 15 touches. That’s not the recipe to help dictate the passing game for Andy Dalton to be able to get the football downfield to his receivers.
Carolina’s defense kept Chicago’s rushing attack under 100 yards, but got exposed in the screen-game – as Bears’ running back Matt Forte caught 12 passes for over 100 yards receiving. Bernard and his sidekick (rookie back Jeremy Hill) can both do it on the ground and as options out the backfield as pass catchers. The Panthers are allowing about 130 yards per game against the run, and you can bank on Jackson having Bernard and Hill ready for a hefty amount of touches in this contest. Carolina’s backfield is banged up. DeAngelo Williams (ankle) hasn’t practiced this week and looks doubtful, but head coach (Ron Rivera) has hinted that Jonathan Stewart (knee) has a slight chance to return pending on how he feels by Friday.
Darrin Reaves and Chris Ogbonnaya will share the work again, with both of Carolina’s top ball carriers looking more on the downside of playing. Cam Newton doesn’t have an exotic core of receivers, but his rookie (Kelvin Benjamin) is the offenses future of developing a star playmaker in the passing game. But what Newton does have is an underrated tight end in Greg Olsen that could be a factor for Carolina’s offense against a Bengals defense that’s had their troubles against tight ends.
Vontaze Burfict, Cincinnati’s top linebacker should return after sustaining a concussion in Week 2. That’ll be important for the Bengals on covering Olsen in the middle that can get their linebackers caught in disadvantages. Newton has targeted Olsen 40 times this season, and if Bengals’ defensive coordinator Paul Guenther sleeps on him, the veteran tight end could be the X-Factor for Carolina on third down and when in the red zone. Look for Guenther to have his defense ready to contain Newton from making plays outside the pocket with his feet, forcing him to work the underneath routes – and when in the red zone – the Bengals’ backfield is more capable of punching it in.
Pick: Bengals 23, Panthers 19
Pittsburgh Steelers 3-2 @ Cleveland Browns 2-2 – TV: CBS
The Steelers have dominated the series since the 2000 season, topping the Browns in 25 of their 29 meetings, and in the season opener at Heinz Field, the Steelers held off a second half surge from the Browns in a 30-27 win.
Pittsburgh’s offense has been the bright spot of the team, but needs a better performance of scoring only 10 points against an abysmal Jaguars’ defense last week in a 17-9 win. Cleveland’s offense has been just as steady as Pittsburgh’s, and with a running game that features Ben Tate and Terrance West — quarterback Brian Hoyer is leading an offense that has balance — an element of head coach Mike
Pettine’s team that stayed the course in their historic comeback win over the Titans. The advantages of examining this AFC North matchup is in the area of pass catchers. Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown has defensive coordinators not sleeping well, with extra time in the film room. And the players that standout in the one-on-one matchups for the Browns are cornerbacks Joe Haden and Justin Gilbert on the speedy, athletic and excellent route-runner Ben Roethlisberger is finding with comfort in 2014.
Haden injured his hip last Sunday and looks iffy, while the rookie Gilbert will be called upon for a bigger role, pending on Haden’s availability. Whoever gets cracks on Brown, Roethlisberger knows his number one option has had his way against Haden, and if Gilbert steps up to the plate – going up against an inexperienced-rookie should give Brown the edge and draw attention to free up everything away from him. With Ben Tate back from injury, the Browns ground attack should be able to keep Cleveland’s balance running smoothly. In their Week 1 meeting, Tate ran for 41 yards on 6 carries, while West ran for 100 yards on 16 attempts. Dick Lebeau’s defense has improved against the run. No team has rushed for more than 63 yards against LeBeau’s unit since their second game. That won’t get Cleveland to shy away from Pittsburgh’s improvement, and they should focus in on running the ball behind their solid offensive line.
Cleveland’s offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s system in terms of running the football is based off of making cuts and getting around the edges. Pittsburgh’s front needs to stay disciplined in their gaps and not allow Tate and West to get going by using cutbacks to get to the outside for long runs. The Steelers work out of the shotgun with running back Le’Veon Bell used on draws, shovel passes, and when he gets into the clear – his patience on drawing in defenders allows him to cut back against the grain. Roethlisberger has been forced to display his unorthodox ways of eluding pressure from the pocket, and he might face some pressure against a physical Cleveland defensive front. Both defenses will commit to stopping the run, but where the pluses remain between these two clubs is pointing towards Roethlisberger having more to work with than Hoyer on passing downs. Pittsburgh should be the better team in red zone opportunities.
Pick: Steelers 24, Browns 20
Green Bay Packers 3-2 @ Miami Dolphins 2-2 – TV: FOX
Aaron Rodgers’ arm is burning like lava. The elite quarterback has completed 34 passes on 45 attempts for remarkable percentage-rate of 75.5, while throwing 7 touchdown passes in Green Bay’s two straight wins to move above the .500 mark. The Dolphins are coming off their bye, after trouncing the Oakland Raiders 38-14 in London on Sep. 28.
Using the no huddle offense has been the key for Green Bay — keeping opposing defenses from using their sub-packaging and rotations. That element has allowed them to work things on the underneath routes and get the opposition out of position to strike them over the top. Rodgers has a variety of playmakers to throw the football to — centralized of consistently connecting with Jordy Nelson, who in 3 of his 5 games this season has caught at least 9 or more passes. Against the Vikings Last Thursday, Rodgers connected with Nelson for a 66 yard score, his only catch of the game – as the Packers ran up the score early that elected head coach Mike McCarthy to rest his starters late in the second half.
The Packers finally got power-house runner Eddie Lacy going in Week 5 before struggling to get the ground game to function in their first four games. Miami’s defense has been mostly solid against the run, but had their lapses against the Chiefs in Week 3. If Miami is going to slow down Lacy when the Packers run the ball, they’ll need their gap responsibility and integrity to be at its best. The style of runner dictates the pass, and if Miami doesn’t wrap up Lacy when he carries the football, it’ll be a long day for Miami’s defense as the Packers would be able to neutralize Cameron Wake and Miami’s rush off the edges.
Miami’s quarterback (Ryan Tannehill) has had his inconsistencies directing the Dolphins’ offense, but his running game has been up the alley of the league that’s ranked 5th – averaging 142.2 yards per game. Lamar Miller is averaging 5.7 yards per carry, and Miami could get Knowshon Moreno (elbow) back in the mix of changing the pace in the Dolphins’ backfield. Moreno has been limited in practice, hinting that his status may come down to a game time decision. Miami could win this game. Their offensive philosophy of controlling the tempo by running the ball – moving the football methodically can keep Green Bay’s prolific offense on the sidelines. If the Dolphins establish the run, they can get the play-action pass going that will negate Green Bay’s rush by putting outside linebacker (Clay Matthews) in coverage — where he and the Packers have been dreadful. In the end, I’m going with the Packers’ offense to protect the football better than Miami’s.
Pick: Packers 27, Dolphins 20
4:05 PM ET
San Diego Chargers 4-1 @ Oakland Raiders 0-4 – TV: CBS
The Chargers have suffered some key injuries on the offensive line and backfield. But with Philip Rivers’ continuation of exploiting defenses with an extreme amount of weapons at his disposal, the Chargers are riding high and face an Oakland team that’s been down in the dumps as one of the two winless squads this season.
Head coach Mike McCoy’s offense may have found an added element to San Diego’s offense on the ground. Donald Brown sustained a concussion last Sunday, and starter Ryan Mathews is still recovering from an MCL sprain. All is not lost, however. Undrafted rookie (Branden Oliver) helped jump start San Diego’s lackluster running game when taking over for the concussed Brown by rushing for 114 yards on 19 carries, while catching 4 passes for 68 yards. Oliver possesses speed and the ability to get underneath defenders to shed tacklers – giving McCoy a foreseeable plan that could lead to Oliver becoming the offenses main ball-carrier moving forward.
Oakland’s defense has been much better against the pass, ranked 5th in yards allowed per game (207), but against the run, they’re at the bottom of the pack – surrendering 158.3 yards per game, ranked second to last in the league. Oliver should get 20 plus touches against Oakland between the ground and air. San Diego’s combination of spread-attacking-alignments should keep the Raiders’ defense guessing on the run and pass. On passing downs, Oakland’s rusher off the edge (Khalil Mack) needs to be able to dominate against San Diego’ s left tackle King Dunlap. Rivers can get rid of the football when pressured, so QB-hurries aren’t going to force him into mistakes. You have to bring him to the ground and stop him from releasing the football to his millions of targets (Keenan Allen, Eddie Royal, Malcom Floyd, Ladarius Green and Antonio Gates). They lineup everywhere, and with the backs involved in the screen-game – everyone is a threat catching the football from Rivers.
With Tony Sparano as the interim head coach, reports out of the Bay Area have it that he’ll commit to getting Oakland’s running game behind the legs of Darren McFadden and Maurice Jones-Drew going. The Raiders will have to make this their number one objective moving forward to ease things up for rookie quarterback Derek Carr. And in this matchup, I’m expecting Chargers’ defensive coordinator John Pagano to use 5 to 6 man rushes towards the rookie. If the Raiders are going to get their first win, outside of needing to get Rivers out of sync — they need to pound the rock, create turnovers, and win in time of possession – something the Chargers have been doing consistently.
Pick: Chargers 28, Raiders 13
4:25 PM ET
Chicago Bears 2-3 @ Atlanta Falcons 2-3 – TV: FOX
This contest has all the implications for an offensive shootout. Both defenses are suspect in allowing chunks of yards through the air and on the ground. Most notably, getting off the field on third down has been an adventure when it comes to passing situations.
Chicago has the better offensive line, but with Jay Cutler’s blind-side tackle (Jermon Bushrod) nursing a knee and ankle injury, Atlanta’s pass rush can finally have their best outing on generating pressure off the edges. Atlanta uses a mixture of 3 and 4 man sets upfront — and they need their speed rushers (Osi Umenyiora and Jonathan Massaquoi) on the right side of their front to take advantage of Chicago’s left side of their line (if Bushrod misses his second straight game). Turnovers and sloppy play has stumped Chicago’s head coach Marc Trestman’s offense that’s capable of lighting up the scoreboard. But his running back (Matt Forte) should be the pace setter in this matchup. Forte (12 catches for 105 yards last week) is a dangerous weapon in the screen-game, and Atlanta’s defensive coordinator Mike Nolan needs to keep more run defenders upfront to key on Forte from making plays in the open field — and put it on Cutler to move the chains.
The Falcons don’t have a top-rated runner, but Steven Jackson still has a physical-trait to his game – and Matt Ryan is getting him the football out in the flats. Antone Smith is their homerun hitter that Chicago’s defense needs to be aware of, particularly in the screen-game. Chicago’s defensive line has been one of the more inconsistent groups, but they can also take advantage of injuries on the Falcons’ O-line. Willie Young (5) and Stephen Paea (3) have combined for 8 of Chicago’s 11 sacks, but the two key players (Jared Allen and Lamarr Houston) they added during the offseason to bolster their front have yet to bring a quarterback to the ground. Matt Ryan has one of the better groups of receivers, with Julio Jones, Roddy White — and Devin Hester taking over for the injured Harry Douglas in the slot. Hester has been used more on the offensive side of the ball, unlike his days in Chicago and could be the X-Factor against his former team.
Here’s why I like Chicago to be the team to bounce back: Though both defenses haven’t been able to keep things together, the Bears have more talent that just hasn’t been able to come full-circle — and glancing over at Atlanta’s undersized cornerbacks (Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford) that gives Cutler’s big and physical receivers (Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall) the upswing, I’m favoring Chicago’s offense to be more efficient when in striking distance. Marshall and Jeffery getting extra attention on the outside should give tight end Martellus Bennett favorable matchups in the middle.
Pick: Bears 34, Falcons 27
Dallas Cowboys 4-1 @ Seattle Seahawks 3-1 – TV: FOX
Needless to say that Seattle is a power-house team, but with many across the landscapes of analyst and people such as myself that spend lots of time examining this great sport – the Dallas Cowboys have been everything better than expected. Their offensive line is being looked upon as the next “Great Wall of Dallas” that has potential to be a dominate-force like it was during their 90’s dynasty years.
So far, their first round draft picks of taking O-lineman (left tackle Tyron Smith 09, center Travis Frederick 13 and guard Zack Martin this year) have been living up to their potentials as maulers upfront — creating running lanes for league-leading rusher DeMarco Murray. Murray and the Cowboys’ top-flight blockers will face the ultimate challenge of every team that has Seattle on their docket at CenturyLink
Field – a place where the Seahawks have won 19 of their last 20 games, including the postseason by punishing their opponents from the hands of their “Legion of Boom” defense. Cowboys’ offensive coordinator Scott Linehan should dial up the usual 25 to 30 touches for Murray, but facing Seattle’s defense that leads the league on stuffing the run – allowing only 62.2 yards per game that’s disciplined in their gaps – there’s a good chance that Seattle’s defense could hold Murray to under 100 yards on the ground.
Dallas’ interior part (Ronald Leary, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin) of their O-line needs to win the battles in the trenches against Seattle’s defensive tackles (Kevin Williams and Brandon Mebane). If they allow Mebane and Williams to penetrate into the backfield on early downs, it’ll place Tony Romo in long distance passing downs — that would end up being a HUGE plus for Seattle’s defense behind their screaming “12th Man” fans. If Linehan’s offense doesn’t get Murray going from the get-go, he may need to dig deep into his playbook and get creative. Receivers Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams and tight end Jason Witten are Dallas’ top threats in the passing game, but Dwayne Harris could be a sleeper in this matchup. Harris is known to be dangerous on special teams in the return game, but with offenses now using speedy-receivers on Jet-Sweeps, Linehan that has dialed up 2 rushing plays for Harris this season – could have a gadget-play under his sleeve to possibly catch Seattle’s defense off-guard.
Speaking of being creative: How about dealing with a million play-fakes that Russell Wilson, Marshawn Lynch and Percy Harvin as a trio have been dissecting defenses with? Seattle’s offense is based off the run that dictates the passing game like the Cowboys do, but unlike the Cowboys in the avenue of play-selection and design, the zone-read Seattle utilizes can be frustrating for any defense to try to contain. Whether Russell Wilson uses his feet with fake-handoffs to Lynch on one play, giving it to Lynch to plow away with authority on the next — and then giving the football to Harvin on fast-motion sweeps – Dallas’ defense can be handled by Seattle’s physical and nifty ways at the line of scrimmage.
Dallas’ defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli knows his defense can’t get caught in the act of over-pursuing and needs to be able to tackle well, not letting Lynch, Harvin or Wilson get to the second and third levels of their defense. The formula Seattle uses should be able to move the football well and get bench-press pushes against Dallas’ front by pounding the rock with Marshawn Lynch to set up the play-action pass — for Wilson to find soft spots downfield. The outcome to me of this showdown will come down to which defense can hold the opposition to field goals in the red zone, and which offense will be more efficient on third down. That’s where Seattle should win in just about every phase to continue their dominance at home.
Pick: Seahawks 28, Cowboys 16
Washington Redskins 1-4 @ Arizona Cardinals 3-1 – TV: FOX
Washington’s defense can breathe a little here – they don’t have worry about dealing with Russell Wilson doing all that zone-read stuff against them that got them burned this past Monday. In fact, they make catch a big break as the status of Carson Palmer continues to be cloudy on his return.
To add more uncertainty to Arizona’s quarterback situation, backup Drew Stanton (concussion) is feeling good, but still needs to pass his final test to be cleared to play this Sunday. If Stanton isn’t cleared by the weekend, rookie Logan Thomas will get the go for his first career start. Thomas attempted 8 passes, completing 1 of them for an 81 yard touchdown pass to running back Andre Ellington late in the third quarter against the Broncos. And if Thomas is going to be the straw that stirs the drink for Arizona’s offense – head coach Bruce Arians will likely call Ellington’s number 25 plus times with his rookie quarterback getting thrown into the fire.
Ellington is an elusive threat Washington’s defense will need to pay close attention to. His 112 yard receiving day in the screen-game against Denver should be an eye-opener for Redskins’ defensive coordinator Jim Haslett. However, Haslett shouldn’t be picking dandy lines like a little leaguer out in center field. The Cardinals still have talent in the passing game, with receivers Michael Floyd (a deep-ball threat), Larry Fitzgerald and speedster John Brown in the slot. If the Redskins’ linebackers stop Ellington from getting past them for large gains on early downs and don’t over-pursuit him on screens, they should be able to put a blanket on Arians’ vertical attacking system.
DeSean Jackson had a huge night catching passes from Kirk Cousins against Seattle, with 157 yards receiving and a touchdown, but if Washington’s offense is going to be a well-rounded group – they’ll need Pierre Garcon making plays like he did in 2013 when he caught over 100 balls. Alfred Morris will be going up against another top ranked defense against the run. The Cardinals are ranked 4th against the run, and will focus in on limiting Morris from breaking tackles by gang-tackling him. Arizona has won games before with rookie quarterbacks forced to make starts, and they have the grits and brass-knuckles to create turnovers on defense – and get the intangibles from their special teams.
The matchup that we need to look at here is how Patrick Peterson and Antonio Cromartie fare against Washington’s playmakers Garcon and Jackson. Jackson is the more dangerous target that will likely have Peterson on him wherever he lines up. It takes a quarterback with top ball-placement to be able to get the football to his receivers against a talented secondary — like Peyton Manning did last week against Cromartie. Cousins can heave the football deep, but I don’t think he’s going to have enough time behind his porous O-line. And I’m thinking Arizona’s defense is going to be the stars of this game.
Pick: Cardinals 20, Redskins 17
Sunday Night Football in America 8:30 PM ET – TV: NBC
N.Y. Giants 3-2 @ Philadelphia Eagles 4-1
Chip Kelly’s Eagles have already displayed enough evidence of what makes their offense go in an up-tempo system full of speedy receivers and one of the more dangerous running backs. However, injuries have forced them into a makeshift offensive line, and the lack of last year’s rushing champion (LeSean McCoy) getting in open space has been their wound of erratic play.
After dropping their first two games – looking dazed and confused in Ben McAdoo’s system – the Giants have improved mightily on the offensive end. Their offensive line is gelling together, and going on their 6th straight game together, they’ve allowed just 29 QB-pressures. At the current moment, they’re the third best pass-blocking unit in terms of efficiency with a rating of 87.2. The solid protection Eli Manning is getting from his lineman has him playing like (Playoff Eli). After throwing 3 touchdown passes to 4 interceptions in his first two games – his last three have been dazzling (8 touchdown passes and only 1 interception) — a big reason why the two time Super Bowl MVP is completing 66.3 percent of his passes in 2014.
Eli has a tremendous amount of options to dissect a secondary, making it extremely challenging for the opposition to pick and choose to double cover. And with rookie receiver (Odell Beckham) healthy on the outside, while the ever so dangerous Victor Cruz works out of the slot along with tight end Larry Donnell…it will likely keep Philadelphia’s defense away from crowding the box to keep as many pass defenders back in coverage when the Giants lineup in their spread formations. So…it’s going to be up to Trent Cole, Fletcher Cox, Bennie Allen and Cedric Thorton on the Eagles’ front of their defense to win the one-on-one battles in the trenches in order for Bill Davis’ group to pressure Eli and take him out of his comfort-zone.
When the Eagles have the ball, they’ll spread New York’s defense out by applying their spread formations, and the Giants’ front needs to stay disciplined and contain Nick Foles when the Eagles’ quarterback works off the zone-read. Philadelphia’s running game has been ineffective, but with LeSean McCoy and Darren Sproles creating attention upfront, Foles can catch New York’s defense on the backend out of position for Foles to hit them over the top with receivers (Jeremy Maclin, Riley Cooper and Jordan Matthews). The Giants will be without their leading-rusher (Rashad Jennings), who has a sprained MCL, but they won’t abandon the run with rookie Andre Williams taking over, who’s carried the football 15 to 20 times over the last two games — scoring a rushing touchdown in each of them. Philadelphia will do the same with McCoy and will try to use Sproles creatively in the passing game. This should be an exciting one to endure if you like offensive football. But where I see the pluses are in special teams that gets the ups in favor of Philadelphia.
Pick: Eagles 36, N.Y. Giants 31
Monday Night Football, October 13 8:30 PM ET – TV: ESPN
San Francisco 49ers 3-2 @ St. Louis Rams 1-3
Through the smoke and fire surrounding 49ers’ head coach Jim Harbaugh’s relationship with his players and organization, the team has managed to play well – winning two consecutive games. Jeff Fisher’s Rams have lost 3 of their first 4 games, but have been in just about every one of them with a chance in the final quarter of play.
Despite struggling to win games, the Rams still have a quality group of players on both sides of the ball that make things challenging for opponents. Quarterback Austin Davis, who’s been declared as the Rams’ starter the rest of the way seems to be improving. He’s currently sporting a rating of 96.8 — and in his last two starts – he’s thrown for over 300 to nearly 400 yards passing. His favorite target Brian Quick is emerging as a playmaking threat that caught two touchdown passes in a losing effort at Philadelphia. Davis also has two other big options in receiver Kenny Britt and tight end Jared Cook. Speedster (Tavon Austin) returned to the lineup last week, and if he can start making plays in the open field, the Rams offense can be a handful to deal with.
The 49ers’ defense has been improving, creating turnovers and taking the effectiveness of the oppositions running game out of the way. Rams’ running back Zac Stacy (calf) is listed as questionable, and even if Stacy plays, the Rams should give Benny Cunningham and Trey Watts some touches. Stopping the run is the forte of San Francisco’s defense that’s getting chances on their opportunistic approach of taking away the football. Safeties Eric Reid and Antoine Bethea have been making plays this season, and when facing a rookie quarterback, defensive coordinators will usually throw some different looks to confuse him. If the 49ers continue to play sound against the run, chances for Davis to setup the play-action pass to formulate the deep-ball will diminish.
On the defensive side of the fence for the Rams, they’ve been horrific trying to contain the run. They’re allowing 152.5 yards per game against runners, and the 49ers have been imposing their will with Frank Gore carrying the load. After rushing for 66 yards or fewer in his first three games, Gore has gone over the 100 yard mark in his last two. San Francisco’s offensive coordinator (Greg Roman) should find no reasons to abandon the run, and the 49ers should have a successful night that will keep Colin Kaepernick’s jersey fresh and clean from St. Louis’ top pass rusher Robert Quinn.
Pick: 49ers 30, Rams 20
Bye: Kansas City Chiefs 2-3, New Orleans Saints 2-3
You can follow Massimo Russo on Twitter @NFLMassimo and SilverandBlueReport.com @SilverBlueRpt