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Matthew Stafford and the winless Lions look to upset the Seahawks on Monday night in the NFL. Plus, Teddy Bridgewater and the Vikings will square off against Peyton Manning and the Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High while the Saints are hoping the return of Drew Brees will guide them to their first win of the season against the Cowboys on Sunday night.
Thursday Night Football, October 1 8:25 PM ET – TV: CBS/NFL Network
Baltimore Ravens 0-3 @ Pittsburgh Steelers 2-1
The zone running scheme was a big part of Baltimore’s success last season. This season, the running game has been dreadful, averaging only 3.3 yards per carry. Baltimore’s backs have been ineffective as whole on the ground and through the air, but the seam and perimeter areas have been all good for quarterback Joe Flacco. Flacco’s been connecting mightily with veteran receiver Steve Smith and the tight ends have been reliable. OC Marc Trestman will lean on athletic rookie TE Maxx Williams, who’ll start in place for Crockett Gillmore (calf) to draw attention from the Steelers’ linebackers and safeties in the middle. If Flacco can get the ball to his tight ends, it should keep the perimeter game functioning for Flacco to exploit Pittsburgh’s suspect secondary.
Without Eugene Monroe (concussion) at left tackle for Baltimore, look for Steelers DC Keith Butler to have his rushers, James Harrison, Jarvis Jones and Bud Dupree aimed to take advantage of James Hurst, who’s struggled in Monroe’s place to protect Flacco’s blind side. With that in mind, Baltimore will need to get Justin Forsett going early to neutralize Butler’s unit from getting Flacco out of his comfort zone (operating inside the pocket and making subtle moves to clear throwing lanes). Without Ben Roethlisberger (MCL), will OC Todd Haley change the game plan with Michael Vick at quarterback? I would expect Haley to try to get the moving pocket game on some rollout passes for Vick to throw on the run, but that won’t leave out the bread and butter of utilizing spread formations to keep Baltimore rolling with extra defensive backs. As long as Le’Veon Bell’s multifaceted skills remains effective for Haley’s offense (on running plays and as a pass catcher out of the backfield) while Antonio Brown gets the ball in space, it’ll help Vick operate with balance.
Pick: Ravens 27, Steelers 23
Final Score: Ravens (1-3) 23, Steelers (2-2) 20 OT
Sunday, October 4
9:30 AM ET
@ Wembley Stadium, London – TV: CBS
New York Jets 2-1 @ Miami Dolphins 1-2
If the Dolphins are going to get out of their funk of playing sloppy football, OC Bill Lazor better start getting the ground game working. Going inside the numbers, quarterback Ryan Tannehill has thrown the ball 127 times in differential to the offense rushing 54 times. Talk about being unbalanced. Miami isn’t going to win games if RB Lamar Miller isn’t setting the tone to set up the play-action pass. Getting the football out in space to receivers Jarvis Landry and Rishard Matthews on a combination of intermediate routes is wise for Lazor to use, but without an effective running game, your offense becomes one dimensional, and the vertical game will be handcuffed. Pass protection has been an issue without LT Branden Albert (hamstring), but he may return this week.
Still, even if Albert returns, it’s vital for Miami’s ground game to get positive yards on early downs to keep Tannehill out of long distance passing downs. Point being: New York’s defense is stout up front and in the secondary. With Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie, arguably the best one-two-punch at cornerback able to man Miami’s receivers and press them at the line, there won’t be many free releases for Tannehill’s receivers to get the football in open space. If the running game does what the Eagles did last week against New York’s defense, Miami can potentially have a decent offensive performance, but I just don’t trust them right now.
Pick: N.Y. Jets 20, Dolphins 16
1:00 PM ET
Jacksonville Jaguars 1-2 @ Indianapolis Colts 1-2 – TV: CBS
You should never abandon the strengths of your personnel. OC Pep Hamilton has lots of weapons for quarterback Andrew Luck to chuck the football downfield to on a multitude of vertical concepts, but when pass protection is putrid, you need to find ways for your quarterback to get rid of the ball quickly. The Colts added a bruiser (RB Frank Gore) to their backfield in the offseason to improve their ground game and to give Luck better protection to pick up the blitz and leak out of the backfield as a pass catcher. The interior of Indianapolis’ O-line has been their weakness and defenses are sending the house up the middle toward luck to disrupt the timing of down the field throws. Luck’s speedy receivers, T.Y. Hilton, Donte Moncrief and Phillip Dorsett have the jets to burn a secondary, but on seven step drops and pressure coming, Luck hasn’t had much time to stand upright in the pocket to strike defenses with his deep threats.
Jacksonville’s defense may be suspect, but there’s quality talent up front to derail Indianapolis’ shaky O-line. Moving forward, I’d like to see Hamilton use more short passing concepts (bubble screens, shallow crossing routes, quick slants and screens to the backs) to neutralize the rush to Limit Luck from relying mostly on his improvising skills. It’s one thing to know that Luck is a tough cookie to withstand hits, but he has a banged up shoulder. Will HC Chuck Pagano rest him this week, knowing that his team has a game to play Thursday? It’s unreal looking at the slew of injuries across the league this year. By the way, if Matt Hasselbeck gets the start, I still like the Colts to come out on top.
Pick: Colts 28, Jaguars 20
N.Y. Giants 1-2 @ Buffalo Bills 2-1 – TV: FOX
What does New York OC Ben McAdoo have up his sleeve to halt Buffalo’s elite defensive front? Does he use extra blockers or does he try to spread Buffalo’s defense out with Eli Manning in the Shotgun? I think he uses a combo of both. Surprisingly, New York’s subpar O-line has played better than expected, but their true test will be in front of their faces going up against Mario Williams, Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus and Jerry Hughes – all havoc men of Rex Ryan’s defense. Eli has been outstanding in his progressions and he looks comfortable in the pocket. Whoever it is that’s going to run the rock, whether it’s Rashad Jennings, Shane Vereen or Andre Williams, I wouldn’t expect McAdoo running between the tackles against Buffalo’s front, but trying to get outside the tackles and creating cutback lanes on stretch runs would be ideal for New York to mitigate Buffalo’s stout front. Time in the pocket will likely be at a minimum for Eli, so quick shallow passing concepts (maybe Vereen involved as a flanker/screen game back) and a hard-nosed approach on the ground could potentially ignite the deep ball for Eli to connect with Odell Beckham Jr. off the play-action. Whichever way McAdoo slices up the game plan, having Eli throw the ball 40 plus times isn’t going to get it done against Buffalo’s ball-hawking/opportunistic defense.
I don’t think Buffalo’s offense will see a major drop off without Sammy Watkins (calf) and LeSean McCoy (hamstring) in this matchup, but how New York’s defense fares against Buffalo’s QB Tyrod Taylor on read-option concepts (and if they can bottle up McCoy’s substitute runner, Karlos Williams, a rookie that runs with violence that’ll get the majority of the work on running downs) can be the deciding factor in this contest. I liked Williams dating back to the draft. He was one of my sleepers and the Bills’ 5th round pick may be one of the biggest steals.
Pick: Bills 23, N.Y. Giants 16
Carolina Panthers 3-0 @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers 1-2 – TV: FOX
This matchup ultimately comes down to how Jameis Winston fares against Carolina defensive coordinator Sean McDermott’s blitzes, and if Tampa Bay’s meat up front (D-lineman Gerald McCoy, Clinton McDonald and weakside linebacker Lavonte David) can slow down Carolina’s smash-mouth approach on the ground – whether the Panthers are using power based runs or on read option concepts with Cam Newton. If Tampa Bay allows Newton to get the play-fakes functioning, Carolina will be able to isolate their second levels, particularly in the seam areas where Newton’s been able to find tight end Greg Olsen – his prime target. Tampa Bay’s ground game has been abysmal, and to make matters worse, starting RB Doug Martin (knee) is in danger of being out. Unless Winston can extend plays and pull off a dazzling performance to stretch the field for big plays to his tall receivers Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans, Carolina’s defense should have the edge.
Pick: Panthers 26, Buccaneers 17
Philadelphia Eagles 1-2 @ Washington Redskins 1-2 – TV: FOX
Washington DC Joe Barry likes to rush four while playing Cover 3. If his scheme is going to work and slow down the Eagles’ spread offense, his D-lineman better be able to generate pressure. The Eagles use lots of play fakes with QB Sam Bradford in the shotgun. The fast sprinting motioning from the backfield (be it Darren Sproles or a WR) can catch linebackers and safeties out of position. All of Chip Kelly’s running backs are viable in the passing game, and what can really stifle Washington’s defense is the design Kelly uses to get his backs in space. Kelly likes to run his receivers vertically (usually 4), attacking the seams with his two tight ends, Zach Ertz and Brent Celek while having his receivers run crossing routes, shallow and in the deep areas (Jordan Matthews is their biggest threat on these concepts). With the traffic created in the middle by design, it gets the backs open in the flats and on wheel routes (look at Ryan Mathews’ 24 yard TD catch against the Jets last week). It’s hard to determine pre-snap if the Eagles are running or throwing because Kelly uses his backs on just about every formation. Washington’s defense better be on point on gap integrity and be able to run from sideline to sideline, because the sweeps and screens are coming.
The Redskins will rely on their ground attack behind the legs of Alfred Morris and Matt Jones, but can Washington’s O-line stop Philadelphia’s beefy D-lineman Fletcher Cox and Bennie Logan from penetrating? I’m starting to think this is the year that Cox gains lots of respect from his peers and makes NFL Network’s 2016 top 100 players list. Washington can win this game, but that all depends if Kirk Cousins doesn’t turn the ball over. What would you bank on, Cousins playing mistake free ball or making critical mistakes?
Pick: Eagles 30, Redskins 20
Oakland Raiders 2-1 @ Chicago Bears 0-3 – TV: CBS
I’d expect Oakland defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. to use stacked boxes and manufacturing pressure looks toward Jimmy Clausen, if he gets the nod at quarterback again. Jay Cutler (hamstring) practiced limitedly this week, but with Cutler likely to miss another start, Oakland’s defense has the green light to play near the line, considering the limitations of Clausen to stretch the field. Look for Norton Jr. to mix things up in coverage with his linebackers and utilizing safety Darren Woodson down in the box to man Chicago tight end Martellus Bennett while shadowing Chicago’s all-around RB Matt Forte, who the Bears use out on the boundary and slot lined up as a receiver and out of the backfield on screen game concepts. Chicago will need to win this game with Forte gashing Oakland’s defense. Look for Forte to touch the football 25 plus times in order for Clausen to manage the game, but dinks and dunks aren’t going to get it done for the Bears to get their first win in ’15.
Mainly, you just have to like the swagger of second year QB Derek Carr giving the Raiders’ organization a positive outlook, and young slinger is already making music with rookie standout WR Amari Cooper. Keep this in mind: if the Raiders leave Chicago with a W, they’ll be returning to O.co Coliseum next week for a first place showdown with rival Denver in front of their home crowd.
Pick: Raiders 30, Bears 22
Houston Texans 1-2 @ Atlanta Falcons 3-0 – TV: CBS
Arian Foster (groin) may return to the starting lineup for Houston’s backfield. Assuming he’ll be limited if he gets the go, an inconsistent running game that found pluses on stretch runs last week against Tampa Bay will need to do the same against Atlanta. The Texans have the men up front for DC Romeo Crennel to pressure Matt Ryan, but like Houston uses the zone running scheme, the Falcons have the same pedigree to seal Houston’s linebackers to gash them on the ground with Devonta Freeman, a speedy and shifty back that can also burn second levels on screen concepts.
OC Kyle Shanahan has done a tremendous job moving the freakishly talented WR Julio Jones around – motioning from the boundary, lining him up in the slot and getting him in stride out of the backfield on short yardage situations. There isn’t a soul that Crennel has in the secondary that can go toe-to-toe with Ryan’s amazing weapon. Therefore, he’ll need to bracket him with a DB over the top or have a linebacker drop underneath his routes. The Texans will need to eat up clock to keep Atlanta’s prolific offense on the sidelines. They’ll also need the forces of J.J. Watt and company to bark in Ryan’s ear often. All in all, the responsible pick here is riding with Atlanta to move the chains on passing downs and deliver when in the redzone better than Houston.
Pick: Falcons 31, Texans 17
Kansas City Chiefs 1-2 @ Cincinnati Bengals 3-0 – CBS
Both offenses can offset the oppositions pass rush. The Bengals have a duo of backs in Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill that can get it done on running plays and out of the backfield. Kansas City’ offense is centralized around Jamaal Charles, an all-around runner that’s dangerous in the open field, carrying the ball and as a receiver. The difference between both offenses is getting the football down field to stretch the defense. Although Alex Smith functions on short passing concepts in HC Andy Reid’s west coast system, the addition of WR Jeremy Maclin in the offseason has yet to spark much vertical splash plays for Kansas City’s passing game. On the other hand, Andy Dalton may be a streaky passer, but OC Hue Jackson doesn’t put the handcuffs on Dalton to go deep. Having A.J. Green and Marvin Jones on the boundary helps, but Jackson’s game plans are usually steady on a weekly basis (let the backs and intermediate passes setup the vertical game). I’d be shocked if both Smith and Dalton get lots of clean pockets, but there’s more sugar in the punch for the Cincinnati’s offense to move the chains than Kansas City’s. Same old story for Andy Reid’s team, if Charles doesn’t go buck wild against solid defenses, Smith doesn’t deliver.
Pick: Bengals 26, Chiefs 20
4:05 PM ET
Cleveland Browns 1-2 @ San Diego Chargers 1-2 – TV: CBS
San Diego’s offensive line is banged up. Tackle King Dunlap, guard Orlando Franklin and center Chris Watt were replaced by Kenny Wiggins, Chris Hairston and Trevor Robinson in their blowout loss at Minnesota last week. Protection and injuries were one of the key reasons for San Diego’s downfall last season. Hopefully, the future doesn’t turn out the same in ’15 for head coach Mike McCoy’s team. The good news is, the skill position players haven’t been caught with the injury bug. On the opposite sideline, the Browns are dealing with injuries of their own, particularly in the secondary. Can a nicked up Joe Haden (ribs) keep Rivers’ go to receiver Keenan Allen in check? Both defenses have struggled against the run, but the deciphering factor in this matchup to me is San Diego’s spread offense. Look for the Chargers to negate Cleveland’s rush by having Rivers get the ball out quickly to his receivers on screens, hitches and shallow crosses while working the backs (Melvin Gordon and Danny Woodhead) on draw runs and in the passing game.
Pick: Chargers 27, Browns 17
4:25 PM ET
Green Bay Packers 3-0 @ San Francisco 49ers 1-2 – TV: FOX
49ers OC Geep Chryst better find a way to take Green Bay’s linebackers away from their strengths. Clay Matthews is a nightmare roaming from the inside and outside, particularly on passing downs where DC Dom Capers uses him as a rusher on the edge in Green Bay’s nickel and dime packages. Capers has so many versatile tools to use with his rushers to derail the pocket and will likely have Matthews spy on 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick on read option concepts – so it’s paramount that Chryst uses extra blockers to help Kaepernick in protection and dials up a heavy dose of running plays for Carlos Hyde. A clean pocket for Aaron Rodgers spells death to any secondary, and if I’m 49ers DC Eric Mangini, I’m challenging Rodgers’ receivers at the line and putting a DB over the top on Randall Cobb. I would also have some manufacturing pressure packages lined up. You can’t send too many blitzers though, because the Packers mostly keep a back (Eddie Lacy or James Starks) in on spread sets that can hurt a defense on screens. If the 49ers are to pull off the upset, they’ll need to control the line of scrimmage and run the ball through the heart of Green Bay’s defense.
Pick: Packers 34, 49ers 21
St. Louis Rams 1-2 @Arizona Cardinals 3-0 – TV: FOX
This will be a battle in the trenches. It’s a no brainer that Arizona HC Bruce Arians will have his protection schemes ready to double team Aaron Donald (the Rams’ force on the interior of their D-line). However, too many double teams can be risky against a Rams’ D-line that also features Robert Quinn, one of the best edge rushers in the business. Double teams on the interior can open up gaps for DC Gregg Williams to send a linebacker on a blitz to pressure Arizona QB Carson Palmer. Palmer is deadly when throwing from inside the pocket, but pressure up the middle will force him out of his strengths by moving him outside the hash marks. I’m expecting both offenses to use extra sets up front on running downs, but on passing downs, I like Arizona better than St. Louis to get the backs (Andre Ellington, Chris Johnson and David Johnson) involved in space on screens. That plan can open up the vertical game for Palmer to strike the Rams over the top to John Brown or Michael Floyd. St. Louis’ offense has yet to find any rhythm since their Week 1 win over Seattle. They better find success on the ground in this matchup. If not, it could be a long day for Nick Foles to find open windows against an opportunistic Cardinals’ secondary.
Pick: Cardinals 23, Rams 13
Minnesota Vikings 2-1 @ Denver Broncos 3-0 – TV: FOX
The Broncos are heading into this contest bruised and battered on the offensive line. Ryan Harris will take over for the inured Ty Sambrailo at left tackle and Michael Schofield will start at right tackle. With that in the fold, look for Minnesota HC Mike Zimmer to use overloaded fronts and blitzes while pressing Denver’s bona fide receivers in man coverage. Everson Griffen and Anthony Barr can make life miserable for opposing protection schemes, and for the Broncos to negate them from taking over the game and putting Peyton Manning under duress, look for Denver OC Rick Dennison to use 12 personnel packages for extra protection purposes on the edges.
It’s vital for Denver to use their zone blocking scheme to keep Minnesota’s front honest. Stretch runs should be expected for the Broncos when they hand the rock to C.J. Anderson to get Minnesota’s front out their strengths. The boot-game is one of the elements HC Gary Kubiak likes to get going, but I’d favor Manning to be in shotgun often to scan and recognize blitzes pre-snap. The more room and time Manning has, it’ll better his chances to avoid taking hits. Look for the Broncos to have Manning get the ball to his outlets, Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders on quick screens, combination and shallow crossing route concepts to create traffic to single up his pass catchers. It’s no secret, if Manning is upright in the pocket and is setup on short distance passing downs, the higher the percentages will be for him to dissect a secondary. The Vikings must pressure him and hit him often. Defensively, the Broncos have the upper hand to matchup with Minnesota’s passing game options. CB Aqib Talib and S T.J. Ward are both capable of manning up on Minnesota tight end Kyle Rudolph to mitigate the Vikings’ seam game. Denver DC Wade Phillips will use stacked fronts to try to contain Adrian Peterson and force Teddy Bridgewater to beat his vaunted defense with his arm. Conclusively, it’s my visions of Denver’s defense winning the turnover battle that has me favoring the men in orange.
Pick: Broncos 30, Vikings 16
Sunday Night Football in America 8:30 PM ET – TV: NBC
Dallas Cowboys 2-1 @ New Orleans Saints 0-3
It’s a no brainer for Saints DC Rob Ryan to do everything he can to make Dallas’ offense one dimensional, but doing so is easier said than done. Despite being without Dez Bryant and Tony Romo, Dallas still has the horses up front on the offensive line that can control the line of scrimmage. Ryan will likely deploy his safeties in the box and press Dallas’ receivers in coverage. It wouldn’t surprise me if Ryan has his physical corner Brandon Browner man up on Dallas’ sure handed tight end Jason Witten while deploying strong safety Kenny Vaccaro near the line as an extra enforcer against the run. It’s imperative for the Cowboys to get Joseph Randle going from the get-go to neutralize Ryan’s game plan of putting the weight of the world on Brandon Weeden’s shoulders. If the Cowboys establish the run early, it’ll ease things up for Weeden and Dallas’ passing game. Another isolating factor for the Cowboys to negate the blitz is the screen game. Lance Dunbar has been dynamite in space, and if Ryan gets overly blitz happy, Dunbar, Darren McFadden and Randle are all capable of stifling a defense, especially if they catch the Saints’ defense over-pursuing and out of position.
How effective will Drew Brees (shoulder) be? Word out on the street has it that the inflammation in his shoulder subsided earlier this week. I still wouldn’t want him throwing lots if I’m Sean Payton, and as bad as Dallas’ D-front was last week against a prolific Falcons’ offense, there’s not as many matchup issues the Saints present in the passing game, other than Brandin Cooks. If Brees is going to find comfort and opportunities to exploit Dallas’ defense, New Orleans’ offensive line will need up their porous play for Mark Ingram to do what the Falcons did to Cowboys DC Rod Marinelli’s unit last week – gash them on the ground.
Pick: Cowboys 27, Saints 20
Monday Night Football, October 5 8:30 PM ET – TV: ESPN
Detroit Lions 0-3 @ Seattle Seahawks 1-2
The acumen of being an organized organization: We all know Seattle’s offense is based on punishing defenders with the most violent runner (Marshawn Lynch) in football and getting Russell Wilson functioning smoothly on designed play-action and read-option concepts. Well, Lynch is dealing with a hamstring and will likely be absent – leaving the duties up to undrafted rookie Thomas Rawls, who brings the same style of grit to the table, with power, size and the ability to move the pile and breaks tackles. Now, don’t get me wrong, Rawls has lots of steps to climb to reach ‘Beast Mode’ status, but the point is, smart organizations have an eye for talent, and most importantly, they keep their system aligned properly by finding personnel that fits their schemes on all facets of the game.
As far as the Lions go, OC Joe Lombardi really needs to dig down deep in the playbook and find ways to get a running game that’s averaging a putrid 2.6 yards per carry to rise up against Seattle’s stout front. Welcome to the Hounds of Boom Joe, home of the ‘Legion of Boom’ that now has their vaunted defense at full force with SS Kam Chancellor as an enforcer down in the box to hunt down ball carriers, man up on tight ends and play the edge. You have to be physical to win at Seattle and Detroit’s attitude on offense (shy) is the total opposite of their defense (punchers approach). Not good…not good.
Pick: Seahawks 27, Lions 14
Bye: Tennessee Titans (1-2), New England Patriots (2-0)
You can follow Massimo Russo on Twitter @NFLMassimo and SilverandBlueReport.com @SilverBlueRpt