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In a rematch of January’s NFC title game, Russell Wilson and the Seahawks look to avoid starting the NFL season 0-2 on the road against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. Plus, the Cowboys and Eagles will square off at Lincoln Financial Field while the Patriots and Bills are set for battle at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
Thursday Night Football, September 17 8:25 PM ET – TV: CBS/NFL Network
Denver Broncos 1-0 @ Kansas City Chiefs 1-0
Denver’s defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has versatile coverage guys in Aqib Talib and Chris Harris that can man up on the oppositions best receivers. Insert the return of safety T.J. Ward returning from his one game suspension and Phillips’ unit will have everything aligned in this matchup against Kansas City’s intermediate passing attack. Does Phillips put Ward on tight end Travis Kelce, Alex Smith’s seam threat, or does he mix things up by placing Harris on Kansas City’s best receiver, Jeremy Maclin? My guess is he’ll have Harris on Maclin and Talib, a physical corner man up on Kelce some while he has Ward down in the box as an extra enforcer to contain the dangerous Jamaal Charles.
Denver’s offense looked sluggish against Baltimore’s stellar front in Week 1 without head coach Gary Kubiak’s zone running scheme effective. Lead back C.J. Anderson will likely play, but his nicked up toe may limit his touches. Ronnie Hillman figures to get more work, but what’s imperative to me in this contest is Kubiak getting Peyton Manning comfortable. It wouldn’t surprise me if Kubiak has Manning take shots vertically early on to Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders to try to back Kansas City’s defense off the line because K.C. DC Bob Sutton will throw lots of pressured looks toward Manning and stacked boxes against the run. Denver’s new look, shaky O-line better show up if they want to neutralize Kansas City’s dynamic edge rushers in Justin Houston and Tamba Hali, and if the rhythm and beats of Denver’s offense is going to get out of their funk of being off-key, a once prolific passing game needs to come back to life – otherwise stretching the field will be an uphill battle against top-flight pass rushes.
Pick: Chiefs 20, Broncos 17
Final Score: Broncos (2-0) 31, Chiefs (1-1) 24
Sunday, September 20
1:00 PM ET
Houston Texans 0-1 @ Carolina Panthers 1-0 – TV: CBS
The obvious for Carolina’s protection scheme will be to have an extra blocker trying to mitigate the incredible J.J. Watt, but you don’t want to put too many extra maulers on J.J. because that will free up Houston’s defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel’s other havoc men up front, Vince Wilfork, Whitney Mercilus and Jadeveon Clowney. Look for Crennel to have linebacker Brian Cushing trail Carolina quarterback Cam Newton while Watt and Clowney try to contain him on the edge when the Panthers run the option. Carolina will feed the rock to Johnathan Stewart while using some play-fakes to try to isolate Houston’s linebackers to work the middle to tight end Greg Olsen. If those concepts work, Houston’s pass rush will be slowed.
Things are just messy and unstable with Houston’s offense. What’s it going to be like at quarterback this season? Just one week in the books and Brian Hoyer has already been kicked aside for Ryan Mallett to take over under center. Plus, still no Arian Foster (groin) and the rotational backfield of Alfred Blue, Jonathan Grimes and Chris Polk don’t cut the cheese for me to think they’ll be able to gash Carolina’s front. That’s a calling for lots of third and longs for Mallett…not good.
Pick: Panthers 23, Texans 13
San Francisco 49ers 1-0 @ Pittsburgh Steelers 0-1 – TV: FOX
San Francisco’s defensive coordinator Eric Mangini’s unit has a much meaner animal to face in Week 2. Pittsburgh’s offensive coordinator Todd Haley likes to use multiple spread sets to keep defenses with extra defensive backs in dime and nickel packages. Despite losing to the Patriots to kick off the season, Haley’s spread offense kept New England’s defense keying on the pass, giving Pittsburgh’s ground game lighter boxes for DeAngelo Williams to gain over 100 yards on the ground. Mangini may employ some blitzes to try to rattle Pittsburgh’s QB Ben Roethlisberger, but Haley can negate that by having Roethlisberger get rid of the football on quick WR screens while moving the dangerously-versatile Antonio Brown around, keeping San Francisco’s back end on their heels. The 49ers looked like the grounding and pounding team that made them a contender from ’11-to-’13 last week, with the former Buckeye Carlos Hyde gashing Minnesota’s defense. I like Hyde’s chances to be effective again this week against a non-Dick Lebeau coached Steelers’ defense that has major holes. If Mangini’s unit can find ways to force “Big Ben” into mistakes, the Niners can steal the show on the road, but I’m thinking Pittsburgh’s passing game finds voids to be the deciphering factor in a high scoring affair.
Pick: Steelers 31, 49ers 27
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 0-1 @ New Orleans Saints 0-1 TV: FOX
DC Rob Ryan must be licking his chops, knowing his defense has a rookie QB on deck for his unit to game plan for. Look for Ryan to open up the flood gates with a slew of blitzes, forcing Jameis Winston to throw on the run, and if the Bucs have a prayer to keep Winston poised, they’ll need running back Doug Martin plowing through New Orleans’ stacked fronts to slow the pass rush and for Winston to work on high percentage passing downs. The matchups are favorable for quarterback Drew Brees to exploit Tampa Bay’s defense, and he should have a bounce back game at home where the Saints are looking to be much better than they were a year ago.
Pick: Saints 31, Buccaneers 17
Detroit Lions 0-1 @ Minnesota Vikings 0-1 – TV: FOX
I’d be shocked if Minnesota’s OC Norv Turner doesn’t dial up 25 to 30 touches for Adrian Peterson in this matchup. It’s a must, because his passing game doesn’t have the same ammo to expose and create mismatches against Detroit’s secondary like the Chargers did last week. Look for Detroit’s DC Teryl Austin to stack the box and use some manufacturing fronts toward Minnesota’s QB Teddy Bridgewater while playing bump and run against Turner’s receivers. My thinking for the Lions’ offensive approach, particularly when they pass will be using a methodical strategy, with QB Matthew Stafford working underneath to draw the Vikings’ back end up – igniting one-on-one’s for Stafford to take shots vertically.
Pick: Lions 27, Vikings 20
Arizona Cardinals 1-0 @ Chicago Bears 0-1 – TV: FOX
Under new defensive coordinator James Bettcher, Arizona’s philosophy remains the same on defense as it was when former coordinator and now Jets head coach Todd Bowles called the shots (extra fronts and blitzes to put opposing quarterbacks under duress). However, Bettcher needs to be careful on how he utilizes his front against Chicago’s offense. Running back Matt Forte is Chicago’s lethal weapon in the screen game, and Bettcher can’t have him making plays out in space. Forte is also an excellent blocker to pick up the blitz. Those factors will be vital for Chicago to keep quarterback Jay Cutler upright, and if Forte can gain positive yards on the ground on early downs, it could setup the play-action, moving pockets for Cutler. That should be the plan for OC Adam Gase to try to slow Arizona’s Calais Campbell, Frostee Rucker and Alex Okafor from penetrating on the edge.
The Cardinals will likely be without RB Andre Ellington (PCL), but the depth moves they made in the offseason, drafting David Johnson and signing Chris Johnson should keep coach Bruce Arians’ backs effective, particularly in the screen game. This matchup boils down to which defense gets more pressure and which offense can protect the football, and until I see the Bears play a sound game on offense (like convert in the redzone and not make foolish mistakes) — a more disciplined team, the Cardinals have the edge.
Pick: Cardinals 29, Bears 20
New England Patriots 1-0 @ Buffalo Bills 1-0 – TV: CBS
How will New England try to neutralize Buffalo’s stud D-lineman, Mario Williams, Jerry Hughes, Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus from buzzing in Tom Brady’s ear? Well, we know that New England’s future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady dissects defenses when he’s standing tall in the pocket, particularly when there’s no pressure coming his way from the interior. So, Buffalo head coach Rex Ryan will use some stunts, twists and blitzes, mainly up the middle to try to get Tom Brady out of his comfort zone. Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will have a game plan drawn up to work against Buffalo’s defense prowess by employing double tight end sets and extra chippers to contain the edges.
Will Ryan place CB Stephen Gilmore on the athletic and physical TE Rob Gronkowski? Either way Ryan slices it in coverage, the pass rush needs to be on point because New England uses multiple combination routes and picks to free up other receivers while moving all of Brady’s targets around. When Buffalo has the ball, it’s all about getting running back LeSean McCoy out to the edges. Quarterback Tyrod Taylor brings an extra dimension to Buffalo’s offense due to his athleticism. The read option will be imperative for New England’s edge defenders Chandler Jones and Rob Kinkovich to mitigate Taylor and McCoy from making plays outside the tackles. Buffalo’s defense did a high-octane Indianapolis offense in last week, but New England is much more discipline on sticking to their game plans on a weekly basis. The Patriots could also use some empty back sets with the tight ends and backs flexed out while feeding LeGarrette Blount the pigskin on power based runs. That could be another silencing factor against Buffalo’s rush. Ultimately, every yard gained in the contest will need to be earned because I’m expecting a physical tight ball game.
Pick: Patriots 20, Bills 17 OT
San Diego Chargers 1-0 @ Cincinnati Bengals 1-0 – TV: CBS
When quarterback Philip Rivers is in rhythm, San Diego’s passing game can create headaches for defenses in coverage, especially when they’re moving quickly to the line. Rivers has himself a herd of weapons at his disposal, and having a healthy Danny Woodhead, a back used as a receiver out of the backfield and flexed out as a slot receiver, forms lots of mismatches. Coach Mike McCoy likes to have Rivers connect with his receivers on shallow crosses, screens and quick hitches (Keenan Allen used on these concepts) while working the middle to his tight ends. Disrupting the timing of Rivers will be the focal point of Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther’s game plan. Guenther does have some meat on the D-line to get bench press pushes off the snap, but I think he needs to throw in some manufacturing pressure packages (stunts and blitzes off the edges) to force Rivers to do what’s not his pedigree (extending plays). Offensively, the Bengals have what it takes to keep Rivers on the sidelines with their one-two-punch by running the rock and using the screen game with Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard. The Chargers will likely keep a safety (Eric Weddle) over the top on WR A.J. Green to bracket the deep ball, but if Hill and Bernard gash San Diego’s defense, that’ll get the play action pass going for Andy Dalton to isolate the linebackers and safeties, opening up the middle to connect with tight end Tyler Eifert and potentially deep to Green.
Pick: Bengals 26, Chargers 23
Tennessee Titans 1-0 @ Cleveland Browns 0-1 – TV: CBS
Awesome, we get another Heisman vs. Heisman Trophy winning QB square off in Week 2. Tennessee’s defensive personnel isn’t up to par with what Cleveland faced last week against the Jets’ stout front and lockdown defensive backs, but it remains paramount for the Browns to get Isaiah Crowell and rookie back Duke Johnson in space for Johnny Football to have balance. On the flip side, Marcus Mariota will be facing a more formidable defense, particularly a secondary led by Joe Haden that can man up on his receivers. Look for Browns defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil to utilize some blitzing fronts toward Mariota while pressing Tennessee’s receivers off the snap. To combat that, I like Mariota’s schoolyard skills to kick in – using his feet to move the chains and extend plays from the pocket. (Maybe Johnny does the same against pressured fronts?), but the Duck from Oregon seems far ahead of schedule than the Aggie to guide his team in a slobber knocker battle.
Pick: Titans 23, Browns 20
Atlanta Falcons 1-0 @ N.Y. Giants 0-1 – TV: FOX
It would be a big boost for Steve Spagnuolo, New York’s defensive coordinator to get Jon Beason (knee) back at Mike linebacker because Uani’ Unga looked dazed and confused defending the tight ends and got torched defending Dallas’ backs in the screen game last week. Beason has made progress in practice this week, aiming to return, but the major issue for Spagnuolo’s unit is not having guys with their hands in the ground worthy of getting after the passer. With that in mind, look for Spagnuolo to use some blitzes to try to disrupt Atlanta’s QB Matt Ryan from going vertical. New York’ corners, Prince Amukamara and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie are better than what they get credit for to man up on Ryan’s prime pass catchers in the freakishly talented Julio Jones and Roddy White, but without a pass rush, life will be difficult for them to slow down Atlanta from stretching the field. Eli Manning should find windows to get the ball to the super-duper Odell Beckham Jr., but I’m rolling with the offense that I’m favoring to be better on third down and in the redzone – Atlanta’s.
Pick: Falcons 27, N.Y. Giants 23
St. Louis Rams 1-0 @ Washington Redskins 0-1 – TV: FOX
At least head coach Jay Gruden understands Washington’s offense needs to centralize their game plan on pounding the rock with Alfred Morris and rookie Matt Jones, both bruising style of runners. They’ll need their work horses gaining positive yards on early downs to keep quarterback Kirk Cousins ahead of the down and distance. If that doesn’t come to fruition for Washington’s offense, a fearsome St. Louis front featured by Aaron Donald, Robert Quinn, Chris Long and Michael Brockers that brought Seattle’s Russell Wilson, the games most dangerous sandlot skilled QB to the ground six times last week can turn Cousin’s into mashed potatoes.
Pick: Rams 24, Redskins 16
4:05 PM ET
Miami Dolphins 1-0 @ Jacksonville Jaguars 0-1 – TV: CBS
Jacksonville can’t have quarterback Blake Bortles throw the ball 40 times against Miami like he did in the season opener against Carolina. Offensive coordinator Greg Olson needs to get T.J. Yeldon and Denard Robinson going on the ground, mixed with some screen game concepts to neutralize Miami’s bull on the interior, Ndamukung Suh. I don’t like Jacksonville’s chances to gash Miami’s defense between the tackles, so that lends to think that Olson will try to use his speedy backs on sweeps and in open space through the air. Maybe he’ll try to use some trickery, but the more efficient offense in this matchup is Miami, who I like to control the tempo and take advantage of Jacksonville’s sloppy habits of turning over the football.
Pick: Dolphins 26, Jaguars 13
Baltimore Ravens 0-1 @ Oakland Raiders 0-1 – TV: CBS
Oakland defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. will need safety Charles Woodson (shoulder) to be a factor against the run and to match up on Baltimore’s tight ends Crockett Gilmore and the rookie Maxx Williams, who I see blossoming in a system that likes to utilize the middle seam game. The Ravens’ offensive line and running game behind the legs of Justin Forsett should see much more open lanes this week, and quarterback Joe Flacco should be able to work off the play-action, isolating Oakland’s vulnerable linebackers to his tight ends, a game plan that will open up the perimeter for Flacco to connect with Steve Smith. Reports have it that Oakland quarterback Derek Carr (hand) will start, but if he’s going to get high percentage passing opportunities, his running back Latavius Murray better be able to buckle his chinstrap and move the pile against Baltimore’s hybrid-attacking front.
Pick: Ravens 27, Raiders 16
4:25 PM ET
Dallas Cowboys 1-0 @ Philadelphia Eagles 0-1 – TV: FOX
One game in thus far for the Murray-less backfield in “Big D” and they produced 211 total yards (80 rushing and 131 receiving). That’s very effective and something I’ve been expecting OC Scott Linehan to use (the elusive backs out in space). That should be part of Linehan’s game plans throughout the season, but in this matchup, he’ll need Joseph Randle and Darren McFadden to get the dirty yards while still using Lance Dunbar flexed as a receiver. The Eagles’ linebackers are far more athletic and speedier than the Giants to keep up with Dallas’ backs, so the voids the Giants left last week won’t be as big for quarterback Tony Romo to exploit. That doesn’t leave the screen game out of the equation, but to neutralize Fletcher Cox and Bennie Logan along the Eagles’ defensive line, as well as linebackers Mychal Kendricks, Demeco Ryans and Kiko Alonso – Linehan will need his maulers on the O-line and backs to get them working to setup Tony Romo on high percentage passing downs. Without Dez Bryant (foot), Linehan still has a quality group, particularly on underneath concepts with Terrance Williams, Cole Beasley, Jason Witten and Gavin Escobar, but I’m thinking he’ll need to be more creative for his receivers to get separation, using combination routes and have his receivers set picks to free other guys up against the Eagles’ secondary that will likely be in man coverage.
Then there’s the famous Chip Kelly up-tempo, fast-paced offense the Cowboys will be dealing with. Look for Kelly to keep Cowboys DC Rod Marinelli’s unit in dime and nickel packages for most of the game. The play-fakes, quick screens, shallow quick slants, and all the sprinting motion from the backfield is a headache to handle. Plus dealing with a mixture of power and speed with DeMarco Murray, Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles on runs between and outside the tackles adds more responsibility for Marinelli’s unit. For the betterment of Dallas’ defense, look for Marinelli to deploy safety J.J. Wilcox in the box while having the rest of his coverage men challenge Philadelphia’s receivers by pressing them off the snap. He has to, because playing off man or zone will give Philadelphia’s QB Sam Bradford lots of open windows and room to get the ball to his speedy receivers and backs in space to gain yards after the catch. I know the Eagles lost on Monday Night, and I don’t believe in moral victories, and I do know the Cowboys have a better chance of winning than the talking heads are giving them, but the Cowboys have lots of missing pieces going up against a team that needs a win badly – like not having Dez, not having Rolando McClain and Greg Hardy, who are both out until Week 5, and not having Randy Gregory. Things could be different down the road, but at the moment, the Eagles do have lots in their favor to take advantage of.
Pick: Eagles 31, Cowboys 24
Sunday Night Football in America 8:30 PM ET – TV: NBC
Seattle Seahawks 0-1 @ Green Bay Packers 1-0
Seattle needs to use what makes offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell’s unit control the game at the point of attack. Looking at the tape, the read option was essentially ghost against St. Louis’ dominant defensive front, but going up against Green Bay’s DC Dom Capers’ NASCAR linebackers, it would be wise for Bevell to lean on a heavy dose of running plays for Marshawn Lynch while trying to isolate Capers’ defensive strengths on some play-fakes, whether it’s Russell Wilson using his feet to get out to the edges or throwing on the run off the bootleg. The weakness of Green Bay’s defense is defending the run, and if Lynch has a solid day on the ground, the play-action pass could allow Wilson to stifle Capers’ second level with TE Jimmy Graham getting behind the linebackers when the Packers are playing near the box. Capers will likely keep an extra defensive back to shadow Graham, but his key players up front, Clay Matthews, Julius Peppers and B.J. Raji need to be effective to take Seattle’s offensive game plan (control time of possession to keep Aaron Rodgers on the sideline) out of their prowess.
With Kam Chancellor holding out, Seattle’s DC Kris Richard doesn’t have his most versatile tool that can play in coverage to man up on a tight end, defend the run in a linebacker role, or as an extra edge rusher. The Packers use multiple formations, ranging from power and spread sets – all with meaty back Eddie Lacy in the backfield (lots offset when Rodgers is in shotgun). OC Edgar Bennett likes to keep defenses guessing on the run and pass, and stacking the box against his offense can be costly, especially when Rodgers knows you’re in man…he’ll use the play-action to get the back end to cheat, and then BOOM, over the top he goes. Jordy Nelson is out of the picture, but Randall Cobb, Devonte Adams and James Jones can get vertical. Safety Earl Thomas is amazing at bracketing the deep end in a center fielder role, but if I’m Richard, I don’t want to mess around by employing too many single high looks. The big matchup will be Richard Sherman on Cobb. There’s many ways the Packers use Cobb and move their personnel around to form favorable matchups for Rodgers. “The Shermanator” will need to disrupt Cobb off the snap to negate his precise route running, but if Seattle’s D-front doesn’t get in Rodgers’ face often, the games most efficient passer will continue his outstanding streak of not throwing an interception at Lambeau Field since 2012.
Pick: Packers 30, Seahawks 24
Monday Night Football, September 21 8:30 PM ET – TV: ESPN
New York Jets 1-0 @ Indianapolis Colts 0-1
Buffalo’s blitzing fronts got the best of Indianapolis’ offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton’s group in Week 1. His offense will likely get the same fronts against New York’s head coach Todd Bowles’ aggressive approach. Indianapolis clearly has glaring weaknesses on the offensive line and the Jets have the muscle to derail Hamilton’s protection scheme. Hamilton will need to keep New York’s defense honest by calling power back Frank Gore’s number a whole lot more this week while taking advantage of the blitz on short passing concepts for quarterback Andrew Luck to get the ball out quickly. Luck’s vertical stretcher WR T.Y. Hilton (knee) looks more on the plus side to play.
He may be limited, but that won’t leave out Hamilton sending him vertically and having both of his tight ends Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener run down the seams – a strategy that will open up singled looks for Luck to connect with his receivers on shallow crosses and to utilize Gore as a check down option on passing downs. Indianapolis defensive coordinator Greg Manusky also likes to use aggressive fronts, and knowing New York’s signal caller Ryan Fitzpatrick has a track record of making bad decisions when under duress, look for Manusky to send the house and stack the box to negate New York’s offense that’s premised on running the ball with Chris Ivory. The key matchup for Manusky’s unit in coverage will be placing CB Vontae Davis mostly on New York’s physical and playmaking receiver Brandon Marshall. Both quarterbacks will see lots of pressure, so it comes down to which passer can escape the rush and make quick decisions – vintage Luck, who has the ability to use his feet to extend plays to move the chains.
Pick: Colts 27, N.Y. Jets 17
You can follow Massimo Russo on Twitter @NFLMassimo and SilverandBlueReport.com @SilverBlueRpt