NFL Nation: 2013 NFL Week 2 Double Coverage
September, 13, 2013
AP Photo, Getty ImagesEddie Lacy, left, and Robert Griffin III are among the keys to Sunday's Packers-Redskins matchup.The Green Bay Packers and Washington Redskins, NFC division winners last season and playoff hopefuls this season, both lost in Week 1.
That means, barring a tie, when they meet Sunday at Lambeau Field, one of these teams will be in an 0-2 hole to start this season.
“It’s not about, does it make or break your season,” Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III said this week.
ESPN Packers reporter Rob Demovsky and ESPN Redskins reporter John Keim break down the key elements to this matchup.
Demovsky: John, let’s get right to perhaps the most closely watched knee rehabilitation in recent NFL history. You’ve watched Griffin’s every move in his comeback from the knee injury. You have chronicled practically every step he has made since, and by now, you’ve dissected the film of Monday night’s loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. What limitations, if any, did he play with?
Keim: Griffin did not look the same and showed the effects of not playing in a game in the preseason -- and of recovering from major knee surgery in January. Was his knee 100 percent? Everyone says it is, including the doctors. But his game was not 100 percent, as should be expected. Jon Gruden pointed it out a few times on Monday night, showing how Griffin wasn’t always transferring his weight onto his front leg when he threw. In some cases, the line was getting shoved back and provided him no chance to step into a throw. But it was evident early, even when he had that room. It seemed like his reactions in the pocket, especially early, were not where he would want them to be. He also made the worst passing decision of his career, throwing an interception into triple coverage to a receiver who never even appeared open. He finished strong, though most of the passes he completed during this stretch were short throws. Still, he showed a better rhythm. It’s going to take him a few games.
The Packers just played a mobile quarterback; how did they take away Colin Kaepernick's legs -- and how did it leave them vulnerable to the pass?
Demovsky: The Packers did a good job limiting Kaepernick’s running opportunities by playing a lot of zone coverage. That kept the defenders’ eyes on the quarterback, and they rarely had their backs turned to him. However, that meant they couldn’t play as much press coverage as they normally would, and the result was that they gave up massive amounts of yardage to receiver Anquan Boldin, who caught 13 passes for 208 yards, and allowed Kaepernick to throw for 412 yards. Now, it should be noted that the Packers were missing two key players in the secondary, safety Morgan Burnett and cornerback Casey Hayward, who both missed the game because of hamstring injuries.
How much, if anything, do you think Redskins can learn from watching the way Kaepernick and the 49ers attacked the Packers?
Keim: I’m sure there is a lot to learn, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they anticipate different looks in the secondary because of who might be back for Green Bay and because Griffin needs to prove himself as a dynamic threat again. Until he does, I wouldn’t be surprised to see teams play him more aggressively, or at least without as much fear. I’m not sure how long that will last; until he makes them pay, I suppose. But I also think what Washington needs to do more than learning from Green Bay's game is learn from its own. The Redskins killed themselves with penalties and poor decision-making. That meant their bread-and-butter run game could never get going, and their offense sputtered until it was 33-7.
Are Burnett and Hayward expected to play Sunday? If so, how big a difference will that make for the Packers?
Demovsky: Hayward won’t play. He already has been ruled out and is likely to miss at least another game or two. This is the second time he pulled the same hamstring. The first time, he missed a month. He reinjured it Aug. 23, and if it’s as severe, he could be out for a while. Last season, his six interceptions were huge for the defense. Burnett’s injury didn’t seem as bad, and it was somewhat surprising that he missed the 49ers’ game. The Packers hope he can play, because their safety play with M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian was subpar at San Francisco.
Speaking of the secondary, the Redskins were 30th in the NFL last season in passing yards allowed. Are there any signs that will improve this season? I would think Aaron Rodgers would be licking his chops to play against this defense.
Keim: It’s debatable how much they’ve improved. Long term? I think they’ll be helped because two rookies -- starting free safety Bacarri Rambo and cornerback David Amerson -- are playing key roles. Rambo’s big issue is tackling, mostly in the open field. His coverage has mostly been fine, but I don’t think he’s been challenged in a way that Rodgers could on Sunday. I like Amerson’s future, if he remains disciplined with his technique. He’s a better tackler than anticipated. But Washington has issues at strong safety because of Brandon Meriweather's constant injury issues (missed Monday with a groin injury). The Redskins used a cornerback who had never played safety before in his place (E.J. Biggers), and he struggled. Their corners, DeAngelo Hall and Josh Wilson, do some good things but are not top-line starters. What this group needs more than anything is a better pass rush.
Speaking of the rush, how is the Green Bay offensive line holding up without Bryan Bulaga, and where is it susceptible?
Demovsky: Perhaps surprisingly, Green Bay's young tackles, rookie David Bakhtiari on the left side and second-year man Don Barclay on the right, held up well against the 49ers. Aldon Smith beat Bakhtiari a couple of times for sacks, but Smith does that to a lot of tackles. It’s why he had 19.5 sacks last season. But other than those two plays, Bakhtiari’s first start went fine. Barclay is much improved over last season, when he filled in for Bulaga the final six games. As a unit, the run blocking needs to get much better. Eddie Lacy didn’t have much running room, and when he did, there were penalties -- three of them on left guard Josh Sitton, who is normally pretty clean -- that wiped away the Packers' longest rushes of the game.
Looking at the big picture, one of these teams is going to be 0-2 after this game (barring a tie). If that’s the Redskins, how devastating would that be for them? I know they finished strong last season, but I’m sure they don’t want to put themselves in a hole again.
Keim: It’s a hole they could dig out of with games against the Detroit Lions at home and on the road against the Oakland Raiders in the following two weeks before their bye. But I don’t think any team wants to start off 0-2, especially one that has designs on accomplishing grand things in the postseason, which, if healthy, the Redskins should have. I also think it would depend on how they look against Green Bay. If they play well and lose a close game, it still suggests they’re on a certain path (no moral victories, but more about being headed in the right direction). If it’s an ugly game like it was for nearly three quarters Monday? Then it suggests other issues. That would be difficult for them to swallow. But the one thing I’ve seen with this group, last season and in the previous few, is that they are resilient. Their mindset is a good one for a 16-game season.
I would think if there’s any formula for stopping the Green Bay offense, everyone would use it. But is there a theme to when teams are able to slow this attack?
Demovsky: For about the past year and a half, teams have played the Packers predominantly one way -- keep both safeties back and dare them to run the ball. That’s why they drafted Lacy in the second round. The hope is that teams will start respecting the Packers’ running game and bring a safety in the box to stop it. That would give Rodgers more open space to throw in the secondary. Lacy did not get off to a strong start against the 49ers, but he did have one impressive series late in the game in which he gained 26 yards on five carries. Problem was, he couldn’t get much else done the rest of the game.
September, 13, 2013
Getty Images, AP PhotoQuarterbacks Matt Schaub and Jake Locker look to lead their respective teams to a 2-0 start.Titans owner Bud Adams is vilified in Houston because he took the Oilers out of town. The aging, eccentric Adams still lives in Houston, and he’s expected to attend Sunday's Titans-Texans game.
The Texans are coming off a wonderful 31-28 comeback win in San Diego. The Titans took care of the Steelers in Pittsburgh.
Inevitably, an opening-day win gives a team some reassurance about its plan and course. The Titans' buy-in is certainly high.
Had the Texans lost to the Chargers, I imagine this week's themes would revolve around the carryover of issues that killed them late last season.
The comeback from a 28-7 deficit changed that. They’re the two time-defending division champions. Even so, Tania Ganguli, how much of a boost did that comeback give them?
Tania Ganguli: It gave them a big one. Coming back from big deficits was something they struggled with last year. That led to the Texans being labeled as a team that wasn't built to come from behind because their running game is such a big part of their offense. They showed an ability to pass their way out of a big hole. Quarterback Matt Schaub was excellent in the third quarter, spearheading the recovery. Defensively, they showed the ability to adjust. After the Chargers' third-quarter-opening touchdown, San Diego had 10 yards of total offense the rest of the half. Incredible.
How has Gregg Williams changed the Titans' defense?
Paul Kuharsky: He’s not the coordinator, and Jerry Gray continues to call the plays. But Tennessee really mixed up its fronts against the Steelers. They didn’t blitz an immense amount but they were more unpredictable and more aggressive than they had been last year.
I certainly felt like we were seeing Williams’ influence in those areas. Williams has certainly had a positive bearing on their aggressive approach to the game and on the team’s attitude. If guys like tackle Jurrell Casey and linebacker Zach Brown play like they did in the opener, they’ve developed some playmakers. If guys like end Ropati Pitoitua and linebacker Moise Fokou keep up their play from the opener, they’ve added some quality new pieces.
What’s Wade Phillips doing with his new pieces, and will we see all of them?
Ganguli: Ed Reed is getting healthier, but we won't know his status until Friday afternoon. He will have a lot of free rein to dictate what he does, just like he did in Baltimore. He's helped other players and helped his coaches by offering suggestions on things he's seen. I asked Phillips if he is more inclined to listen to Reed than other players and Phillips said Reed's suggestions are better than most players.
When the Texans drafted safety D.J. Swearinger, they knew they were in dime so often that even as the third safety he'd see the field a lot. Swearinger was on the field for 55 percent of the Texans' defensive snaps Monday in San Diego.
Joe Mays was solid starting at inside linebacker on Sunday. Given Darryl Sharpton's injury history, he's a very important piece the Texans added during training camp.
We could include Whitney Mercilus and Earl Mitchell as somewhat new pieces -- full-time starters at outside linebacker and nose tackle. Both had big nights in San Diego. Mercilus hit Philip Rivers on the pass that Brian Cushing intercepted. Mercilus also had an early sack, giving Phillips the outside pass rush he needs. Mitchell's most important play came when he chased down running back Ryan Mathews as he ran with a pass. Mitchell stopped Mathews two yards short of a first down. Rivers' next pass fell incomplete, and that was the last time the Chargers had the ball.
You mentioned Casey earlier. He's been fairly talkative lately, and apparently has played well, too. Will he cause problems for the Texans?
Kuharsky: If the Titans have a chance at a second consecutive upset, Casey will have to be disruptive. The 2011 third-round pick out of USC had a very solid rookie season, but last season he hurt an elbow in the preseason and had a couple of other injuries slow down his growth. He’s healthy now and could be on course to be a Geno Atkins type of player. I know some Texans fans bristled that he dared talk confidently. But I’m guessing those same fans were OK with someone like Antonio Smith talking before he’d done much, either.
If Casey draws double-teams from the Texans' offensive line, then others need to apply pressure. End Derrick Morgan and strongside linebacker/nickel end Akeem Ayers are the top candidates there, though Brown is the one who charged out the strongest last week.
The Titans usually think if they can rattle Schaub they’ll be in good shape, but last week Schaub was rattled in the first half and bounced back quite well against the Chargers. Do you expect him to be the first-half guy, the second-half guy, or something in between?
Ganguli: The defense he'll play is a little bit better this week, and their aggressiveness will present a challenge for Schaub. His QBR was much better against four or fewer pass-rushers than it was against five or more, though he did throw all three touchdowns against extra pressure. On the other hand, I think Schaub will be more comfortable with receivers like DeAndre Hopkins, who caught five passes in his NFL debut. I expect something in between first- and second-half Schaub. Schaub has more career touchdown passes against the Titans (17) than he does against any other opponent, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
Worth noting, though: I don't think he’ll be put in the same position he was in last week. The Titans don't have the offensive firepower to bury another team early, do they?
Kuharsky: I wouldn’t think so. The offensive line is way better and they should find some runs. But the passing offense is unproven. They have a group of quality receivers and a nice new tight end in Delanie Walker. The next step would be for them to show they can make consistent plays in the passing game with some big-chunk plays.
A lot of that comes down to what Jake Locker can do. The third-year quarterback has made steady improvements recently. But one of their objectives is to shape a game where too much doesn’t land on his shoulders. They want to throw it when they want to, not when they have to. I expect the Texans will make them have to.
Also, the last time Locker played at Reliant, he failed to make an adjustment at the line and got crushed by a blitzing Glover Quin. The resulting shoulder injury cost him time and slowed his progress. He’ll need to do better on the fly.
Pressure’s on him. Pressure’s on you. First home game with ESPN.com since taking over the Texans. What happened to the guy who used to monitor that team for us?
Ganguli: I heard he got run off due to his refusal to pronounce the H in Houston.
September, 13, 2013
By Phil Sheridan | ESPN.com
USA TODAY Sports, Getty ImagesSan Diego will have to rotate Dwight Freeney to keep him fresh against Michael Vick and the Eagles.PHILADELPHIA -- The similarities were striking, and then everything was completely different.
New head coaches made their debuts Monday night for the Philadelphia Eagles and the San Diego Chargers. Both teams held big leads early in the third quarter.
Chip Kelly’s Eagles hung on for the win. Mike McCoy’s Chargers lost on a field goal as time expired.
As a result, the mood in Philadelphia is downright giddy as the city prepares for Kelly’s home opener Sunday against the Chargers. The mood in San Diego is a bit different.
Let’s start there.
Phil Sheridan: How are the Chargers handling that dispiriting loss?
Bill Williamson: I think we will see the answer to that question on Sunday. The Chargers are saying the right things and they are going about their business. But this loss was devastating. San Diego led Houston 28-7 in the third quarter before being outscored 24-0 to end the game. San Diego was known for blowing leads in the Norv Turner era. To start the Mike McCoy era the same way has to sting badly. The Chargers looked really good for most of this game. But they have to wallow in the defeat. I wouldn’t be surprised if it takes them a while to get out of the funk Sunday.
Are the Eagles in any danger of being overconfident?
Sheridan: Actually, I think they are. There has been a lot of talk this week about how they showed the world they’re a legitimate contender now, and that Kelly’s offense can work and so forth. Meanwhile, they have former coach Andy Reid coming back Sept. 19 for a much-hyped game against Kansas City. This is a bit of a trap game, for sure.
Can the Chargers handle Kelly’s no-huddle, high-pressure offense?
Williamson: This is not the easiest team to prepare for after such a painful defeat. One of the reasons the Chargers fell apart Monday night was because the defense wore down. It was a nice, comfortable night in San Diego against a normal-paced offense. What is going to happen on a hot day in Philadelphia against Kelly’s amped offense? San Diego has a decent defense but it lacks depth, especially on the line and in the secondary. Keeping bodies fresh could be an issue.
Did the Eagles wear down themselves on Monday night?
Sheridan: They definitely did. It was very humid at FedEx Field. Center Jason Kelce said he needed to hit the oxygen tank for the first time since college (in fairness, it was only Kelce’s 19th NFL game). Kelly said he would be more careful to rotate players in order to keep them fresh. But this will be an issue all season for the Eagles.
Is Dwight Freeney the player he was in Indianapolis?
Williamson: In short, no. But he’s not bad. Freeney, 33, was very active against Houston. He had a half sack, but he was in the backfield often. The question is, can Freeney handle the Kelly attack on a regular basis? He is more of a rotational player. Keeping him on the field against the Eagles may be difficult. I could see his effectiveness wearing down late in the game if he doesn’t get a chance to rest much.
Is the Eagles' defense as good as it appeared against Robert Griffin III?
Sheridan: That is very much up in the air. RG III was not at all himself in his first live action since blowing out his knee last season in the playoffs. He found a rhythm in the second half, and the Eagles were not able to stop him. Philip Rivers is obviously a very different kind of quarterback. This Eagles secondary could be vulnerable to a smart, accurate passer -- especially if starting cornerback Bradley Fletcher (concussion) isn’t able to play.
September, 13, 2013
AP Photo/Greg TrottBen Roethlisberger must prepare to face former teammate James Harrison for the first time since college.Season-opening losses by the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers may have taken a little shine off their "Monday Night Football" clash in Cincinnati, but they actually added to the game’s importance.
Teams that start a season 0-2 usually don’t make the playoffs and neither team wants to go down that path. The Steelers have never done it during Mike Tomlin’s tenure as head coach, and they don’t want to start now, especially coming off an 8-8 season and a brutal loss to the Titans last Sunday.
They will be decided underdogs, and neither I nor ESPN Steelers reporter Scott Brown can remember the last time they have entered a game in Cincinnati in that role.
Scott joins me for Double Coverage this week. We'll give him the nod to ask the first question.
Scott Brown: Coley, everything seems to favor the Bengals in this matchup. They are at home and the Bengals defensive line could have its way with an offensive line that is replacing a Pro Bowler at center (Maurkice Pouncey) with a player who will make his first start at the position in (Kelvin Beachum).
How much of a potential mismatch is there up front, and what should worry the Bengals about the Steelers?
Coley Harvey: Yeah, Scott, this is really setting up to be a potential nightmare scenario for Big Ben and the rest of Pittsburgh’s offense. If Steelers fans thought they kept seeing Ben Roethlisberger’s career flash before their eyes every time he dropped back against the Titans after Pouncey's injury, then who knows what they’ll be thinking this week. Tennessee a year ago averaged 2.4 sacks per game. The Bengals averaged 3.2. Cincinnati’s entire defensive line is back and arguably better than ever.
To their credit, though, the Bengals are taking Beachum’s insertion into the lineup seriously. They know that he will be that much more motivated to prove that he belongs and to prove to Roethlisberger that he is more than capable of protecting him against a front that includes Pro Bowl tackle Geno Atkins, veteran tackle Domata Peko and young, up-and-coming ends Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap. To understand the motivations of a young backup offensive lineman, the Bengals actually don’t need to look any further than their own reserve tackle, Anthony Collins. Actually, speaking of Collins, are the Steelers aware of how the backup left tackle kept Chicago’s all-world defensive end, Julius Peppers, in check last weekend?
Brown: Wow, yet another thing that doesn’t bode well for the Steelers bouncing back in the second week of the season. The Steelers have to put consistent pressure on Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton or it could be a long night for Ike Taylor. The veteran Steelers cornerback gets the, ahem, privilege of shadowing Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green, who had a monster game in the opener and is arguably as good as any wideout this side of Calvin Johnson. Nothing would help Taylor more than if the Steelers get to Dalton early and often.
As well as the defense played in the opener, it allowed Titans quarterback Jake Locker to complete some clutch third-down throws. It also didn’t force any turnovers. The Steelers must win the turnover battle if they are to beat the Bengals, and the defense has to do its part there.
Speaking of disruptive forces, we should probably get around to talking about James Harrison, as he is playing against the Steelers for the first time, which is a major storyline leading up to the game. Harrison is playing in a different scheme from the one he thrived in for years in Pittsburgh. How has he adjusted and how much of an impact do you see him making Monday night and beyond?
Harvey: James Harrison is still James Harrison. The guy who was a terror on the field in Pittsburgh and who was a real social butterfly in the Steelers locker room has brought his whole persona with him to Cincinnati. (Even Tomlin shared a good laugh with reporters in Cincinnati earlier this week when he realized on a conference call that we had met the sociable Harrison.) After his finger-flicking, camera-dodging antics on HBO’s “Hard Knocks,” Bengals fans were completely won over. They may have hated the guy while he was in Pittsburgh, but now he’s one of their favorites. When it comes to the locker room, Harrison’s teammates respect him and believe in him. They are very optimistic that his presence will be a tremendous benefit to what was already a strong defense.
Now that it has been six months since Harrison was roaming the halls at Steelers headquarters, what are the folks in Pittsburgh saying about him? How much are people anticipating seeing him face his old club? Oh, and do you think the Steelers’ skill guys like Roethlisberger are ready to feel the hard-hitting justice Harrison used to dole out for them?
Brown: Harrison will always hold a special place in Steelers history. His ferocious style of play is one thing that linked the recent Steelers teams to the ones that dominated the 1970s and set a new course for a franchise that had once been synonymous with futility. Fans loved him. His teammates loved him. His coaches loved him.
I’m sure there will be plenty of pleasantries exchanged between Harrison and the Steelers players and coaches before the game and maybe after it. It will be all business between the lines. The Steelers know what they are up against in Harrison, and are very aware how motivated he will be to show his former team it made a mistake by releasing him.
Roethlisberger actually played against Harrison when the two were in college so that won’t be totally unfamiliar for the Steelers quarterback. One thing the Steelers have stressed is they can’t be too preoccupied with Harrison as there are plenty of other Bengals who can get to the quarterback. Geno Atkins, anyone?
OK, Coley, here is my final question: Do you see a scenario in which the Bengals don’t win Monday night?
Harvey: First off, great point about the former Miami (Ohio) and Kent State guys going at it like in their old college days. That’ll be another reason TVs across the Buckeye State will be tuned to ESPN on Monday.
As for your question -- yes. I do see a scenario in which the Bengals lose. One of two things can happen in the game, right? I’ll admit, it’s a pretty far-fetched scenario, but it definitely exists. Many of us did, after all, go into Cincinnati’s last game expecting the Bengals to roll to a one- or two-score win over the Bears. That didn’t happen. If the Bengals were to lose this week, it would likely be because of a scenario similar to what happened last week at Soldier Field: The opposing quarterback plays out of his mind. Jay Cutler did things against the Bengals last Sunday that he didn’t do all last season. And we all know Roethlisberger has the ability to put this team on his shoulders at any time. It would take a truly special performance, but if Big Ben can overcome the center issue, the Bengals' D-line issue and that whole playing on the road on a Monday night issue, then the Steelers can snatch away a big division win. If not, count this one a win for Cincinnati.
September, 13, 2013
Getty ImagesBucs QB Josh Freeman faces off against Saints QB Drew Brees in a Week 2 division rivalry game.Two of the biggest stories in the NFC South in Week 1 were that New Orleans played good defense and Tampa Bay never was able to get into an offensive rhythm.
Will that continue as the Saints and Buccaneers play one another?
ESPN’s Matt Williamson and Buccaneers team reporter Pat Yasinskas discuss the matchup.
Yasinskas: Matt, I have to admit I was stunned by the Saints holding the Falcons to just 17 points in the opener. I saw the Saints in training camp and had serious doubts about whether they had the personnel to run the 3-4 defense successfully, and they have endured several major injuries since then. Yet, the Saints kept one of the league’s best offenses in check. Was this just a fluke or is the New Orleans defense actually for real?
Williamson: If I were an optimistic Saints fan, I would take this stand: The Saints' young, talented three-man defensive line, led by Cameron Jordan, looks simply exceptional and fits the new scheme very well. Their secondary is also clearly improved from a year ago -- which isn’t saying much. If I were taking a more pessimistic view on New Orleans’ defense, I would say that Roddy White was a shell of himself and completely ineffectual, and the Falcons’ offensive line might be among the worst in the NFL right now. The truth is probably somewhere in between, but I also believe that as long as the Saints’ defense isn’t among the very worst in the league, that this is the team to beat in the NFC South. So, in return, here is my question: Even if the Saints’ defense isn’t noticeably improved and is closer to the 2012 version than what we saw last week, is Josh Freeman capable of exploiting it? Vincent Jackson played a great game in New York, but Freeman has looked terrible throughout the preseason and now into regular-season action.
Yasinskas: After watching Freeman in the New York game, I'm not so sure he's capable of exploiting any defense right now. He never got into any sort of rhythm in the passing game and, at times, look flustered. Over the past few years I've been steadfast in my belief Freeman has what it takes to turn into an elite quarterback. But that hasn't happened yet, and I'm starting to doubt if it ever will. He has plenty of weapons at the skill positions, but it seems like Freeman is regressing, instead of progressing. Speaking of regressing, what's your take on the Saints' running game? Coach Sean Payton has said he wants to run more, but the Saints got very little out of the running game in the opener. Now, they'll play a defense that was No. 1 against the run last season. Can Mark Ingram, Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas move the ball against the Buccaneers?
Williamson: That’s a great question and I know it is extremely early, but I have forecasted Ingram to have a breakout season in 2013. But I am having second thoughts on that, as he is a volume runner who needs to be fed the ball to be most effective, and I just don’t know if that will ever be the case here, as Thomas is such an effective all-around player and Sproles needs to be on the field. I do think Payton believes in balance and he wants to have a physical offense with a very good interior offensive line paving the way, but running against Tampa Bay doesn’t seem to be the prudent move. Of course, the Tampa secondary is also vastly improved, but Drew Brees is the type of elite passer who just produces no matter the competition ... and can the Buccaneers match up to Sproles and Jimmy Graham? I have my doubts they can. Therefore, I say this is a game Payton puts on Brees’ shoulders -- which is never a terrible idea. Along those lines, the Buccaneers clearly made a concerted effort to improve their pass defense by using numerous valuable resources to improve their secondary. Mission accomplished there. But this pass rush still has to be a concern, and if Brees is given time, he is going to find someone to his liking to eventually distribute the ball to. Brees is a tough guy to sack, but can the Bucs at least disrupt him in the pocket with some consistency?
Yasinskas: One of the few encouraging things to come out of the loss to the Jets was that the Bucs recorded five sacks. Four of them came from the linebackers, which shows a willingness to blitz. But the front four can be more productive and several guys have the ability to bring some heat on Brees. End Adrian Clayborn and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy both have the talent to get to the quarterback. But the real wild card could be Da'Quan Bowers. The team wanted him to start, but he didn't play well enough to earn the job in the preseason. For the moment, Bowers is being used as a situational player. But he has more upside as a pass-rusher than anyone on this team, and this game would be a good time for him to start showing. Brees is tough to slow down under any circumstances, but you absolutely have to have a strong pass rush to have any chance. Speaking of Tampa Bay's pass rush, that brings up another question. The Saints let left tackle Jermon Bushrod depart as a free agent and they've replaced him with Charles Brown. Can Brown be an effective left tackle?
Williamson: Because of their strengths on the interior and the need for the shorter Brees to have a clean pocket up the middle, the Saints construct their protections schemes from the inside out, which makes life for their offensive tackles easier. And, of course, Brees has a great feel for the rush to go along with underrated, but highly effective pocket movement and athletic ability to elude the rush, particularly from the edges. Bushrod never impressed me much, considering some viewed him as a Pro Bowl caliber left tackle. In fact, I think Brown has more natural ability when it comes to movement skills and length for the position. Brown played quite well in the preseason and that carried over to Week 1. It appears the Saints just might have found their starting left tackle for the foreseeable future.
September, 12, 2013
Getty ImagesSecond-year quarterbacks Andrew Luck and Ryan Tannehill face off in Indianapolis on Sunday.
The Miami Dolphins and Indianapolis Colts are two undefeated teams trying to establish themselves in the AFC. Both have young quarterbacks with promise and solid second-year head coaches.
Indianapolis beat Miami last year, 23-20, in an exciting matchup in which quarterbacks Andrew Luck and Ryan Tannehill both played well.
But who will win this season’s matchup? ESPN.com Colts reporter Mike Wells and ESPN.com Dolphins reporter James Walker weigh in.
Wells: Sunday will come down to which quarterback from the Class of 2012 -- Luck or Tannehill -- can limit his mistakes. And I’m sure we’ll talk about them before we end this conversation, but before that, James, we have to address the Mike Wallace situation. It seems like Wallace was being selfish by making Sunday’s win over Cleveland all about him because he only had one catch. For a Dolphins team that’s had only one winning season since 2006, Sunday should have been about getting a nice road victory to open the season. Not about Wallace. I know Wallace cleared up his comments Monday, but it shouldn’t have gotten to that point. Is that a sign of things to come out of Wallace, the $60-million man?
Walker: The situation was not ideal, but I thought the Dolphins did a masterful job putting the Wallace issue to bed during the week. Miami’s coaches supported Wallace’s competitiveness and desire to make an impact. Wallace also clarified that he was more upset at himself, and I expect he will be extra motivated to have a big game. Speed kills in domes, and I don’t think there will be a faster player in Sunday’s game than Wallace. Look for Miami to find more creative ways to get him the football in the event the Colts consistently double Wallace, which was Cleveland’s strategy. Speaking of strategy, I was surprised to see how much Indianapolis struggled last week with the Oakland Raiders. The Colts trailed Oakland at home with less than 6 minutes left in the game. Was this first-game jitters and what needs to be fixed?
Wells: You weren’t the only one surprised. I think most people were, especially when you look back at the Colts’ first two offensive series. They scored with ease and all indications pointed to Luck having a special day after he started 11-of-11 with two touchdowns. But you have to give credit to Oakland quarterback Terrelle Pryor. He did an excellent job creating with his feet. He kept the Colts off balance and his team in the game until Luck became the hero. Tannehill is a more traditional quarterback. Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson are the quarterbacks everybody talks about from 2012 -- and they should be talked about after they led their teams to the playoffs -- but do you get a sense down there in South Florida that Tannehill has the tools and work ethic to close gap on the three QBs I just mentioned?
Walker: I really like Tannehill’s tools, Mike. He can make all the throws, has good mobility and feet as a former college wide receiver, and he doesn’t get rattled often. Those are all qualities you want in a quarterback. He looks the part, but I still need to see him win consistently. What was interesting about last week’s win over Cleveland is Tannehill took over the game in the third and fourth quarters. Last year Tannehill played not to lose games. Last week Tannehill went out and won the game. That’s probably the biggest thing that separates Tannehill from Luck and other members you mentioned from the 2012 quarterback draft class. Tannehill can certainly learn from Luck and his fourth-quarter comebacks. Mike, where is Luck in his development in Year 2?
Wells: Everybody talks about sophomore slumps with players. You should go ahead and look elsewhere because that won’t be the case with Luck. He refuses to settle. The only thing he wants to talk about is getting better. That’s what you like to hear from your franchise player. Luck likely won’t pass for as many as yards this season because the Colts are putting an emphasis on the running game with Vick Ballard and Ahmad Bradshaw. Those two players should take a significant load off Luck’s shoulders. But it won’t be easy for Luck this weekend. Miami’s defense looked pretty good last week against the Browns. Six sacks and three interceptions. What makes the defense so dangerous?
Walker: The Dolphins focused in the offseason and training camp on forcing turnovers and pressuring the quarterback. The work clearly paid off with the stats you mentioned. But perhaps the most impressive stat is Miami hit Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden 16 times, which included the six sacks. The Dolphins’ front seven is both fast and physical. They have a deep rotation on the defensive line. For example, No. 3 overall pick Dion Jordan is a backup who only gets limited snaps. Dolphins defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle has done a good job and really likes the group he has. I think the best way for Miami to beat the Colts is the rattle Luck, force turnovers and try to make it a low-scoring game.
September, 12, 2013
Getty ImagesReggie Bush and Carson Palmer have given their respective teams major upgrades on offense.
A lot has happened since the Detroit Lions' most recent trip to University of Phoenix Stadium, last December.
The Arizona Cardinals hired an entirely new coaching staff and enlisted a veteran quarterback to bolster the offense. The Lions, meanwhile, added a shifty new running back by the name of Reggie Bush. In last year’s meeting, Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford played poorly, and it allowed the Cardinals to break a nine-game losing streak.
My, how times have changed. The Lions are flying high off a season-opening victory against NFC North rival Minnesota, while the Cardinals are still trying to find their footing in 2013.
Cardinals reporter Josh Weinfuss and Lions reporter Michael Rothstein discuss Sunday’s matchup.
Josh Weinfuss: A lot has been made of offseason additions on both sides. How has the Lions' offense changed by adding Bush?
Michael Rothstein: It has definitely become much more dynamic. You'll see a lot more screen passes and short passes to get Bush in space and allow him to create. The perfect example came on the 77-yard screen that went for a touchdown against the Vikings. Not sure the Lions had anyone with that kind of speed out of the backfield last season. Add to that Bush's ability to run between the tackles when he needs to, and it creates another dimension for defenses to be concerned about. No longer is it pay attention to Calvin Johnson and make Detroit's other pieces find a way to win. If teams do that, Bush will force them to abandon that strategy.
Sticking with offense, has the addition of Carson Palmer aided the passing game for both Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd?
Josh Weinfuss: Without a doubt. Palmer has brought not only stability to a position that's been a hurricane in the three seasons since Kurt Warner retired, but also talent. The proof of that came Sunday when Palmer and Fitzgerald connected for two touchdowns -- one on a 4-yard fade to the back left corner, the other on a 25-yard beauty that dropped into Fitzgerald's hands. Last season, Cardinals quarterbacks targeted Fitzgerald nine times in the red zone and didn't complete any. Palmer is already 2-for-3 in the red zone to Fitzgerald. Floyd also will benefit from Palmer's accuracy. With Floyd being a larger target than Fitzgerald, Palmer can get a little more creative with where he throws the ball, an issue all four Arizona quarterbacks had last season.
Let's switch sides of the ball. After his incident against the Vikings, is Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh becoming a distraction already this season?
Michael Rothstein: Distraction? No. The reason I say that is most people around the Lions have been around this situation before with Suh. If his teammates are telling the truth and indeed accepted his apology, it should be a nonissue for most in the locker room -- for now. Where it becomes a problem, perhaps, is if Suh does something like this again. It should become a distraction or an issue only if he were to be suspended in the future.
Since you asked about Suh, how does Arizona's offensive line deal with him, Nick Fairley and the rest of Detroit's deep, talented defensive line?
Josh Weinfuss: This is a different situation from Week 1, when the Cardinals focused on stopping two very strong outside rushers. With Suh and Fairley coming up the gut, Arizona will have to rely on its guards and center more -- which could be an issue, considering that right guard Paul Fanaika played in his first game in almost two years Sunday. Don't expect the Cardinals to overload the box with blockers. Palmer said he'd rather have less time to throw and more options downfield, but the Cardinals more than likely will keep a running back home to pick up that inside rush and a tight end on the outside to allow the tackle to cheat over and help the guard.
Speaking of the offense, has any team figured out how to slow down Johnson, because stopping him is unlikely -- and if anyone has slowed the stud receiver, how'd they do it?
Michael Rothstein: Kind of, Josh. Kind of. Johnson had four catches for 37 yards against Minnesota on Sunday. While he was targeted nine times -- and missed two touchdowns by not much -- the addition of Bush to the Lions' offense has taken some pressure off Johnson. When Minnesota chose to try to take away Johnson, Detroit focused on letting Bush operate. While I don't think teams will ever take Johnson out of the game while he is in his prime, it wouldn't shock me if he has some games in which Detroit looks to Bush more instead of always featuring Johnson. That, of course, just makes the Lions' offense much more difficult to stop.
I'll wrap it up with a question to you. How much is Patrick Peterson going to be involved in the offense? And can he be a true two-way player, be it this week or beyond?
Josh Weinfuss: Ideally, Peterson would play a prominent role in the offense. And the Cardinals have planned for that, installing a package specifically for him that was, at last check, 60 plays deep. They want him out there, so much so that on cut day, coach Bruce Arians said Peterson would be considered the Cardinals’ fifth receiver. But with all the hype, he played only three offensive snaps. Granted, Peterson’s involvement will always be dictated by the situation, but I think a lot of people were expecting more in Week 1. As to your second question, that’s tough to answer. Peterson is already playing nearly every down on defense and is the Cards’ primary punt returner. He’s young -- 23 in July -- so his body can handle it, but I don’t know whether there’s anyone these days getting significant time in all three facets. He’s more likely to get hurt on offense, but if he can make an impact on defense, special teams and offense, you’re looking at a potential MVP.
September, 12, 2013
AP PhotoThe Browns need to get Trent Richardson the ball but Haloti Ngata and the Ravens will be waiting.
The Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns have different levels of expectations for the season, but these two AFC North teams find themselves with the same 0-1 record. In their season-opening losses, the Ravens and Browns had some of the same problems. Their quarterbacks threw multiple interceptions. Their defenses wore down in the second half. Penalties were a problem again. And their commitment to the running game was lacking.
The Ravens are looking to get back on track against a Browns team they have dominated. John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco have never lost to Cleveland, beating the Browns 10 straight times. Under first-year coach Rob Chudzinski, the Browns are trying to avoid an 0-2 start for the fifth time in six years.
ESPN.com's Matt Williamson and Ravens team reporter Jamison Hensley discuss whether or not these streaks will continue or end.
Hensley: The one area of defense where the Ravens excelled in Denver was stopping the run. Baltimore held the Broncos to 2.8 yards per carry and didn't allow a run over 9 yards. But a big storyline in Cleveland right now is how the Browns ignored running back Trent Richardson in the season opener. He only received 13 carries and only ran the ball five times in the second half. So, does Richardson get over 20 carries on Sunday in Baltimore?
Williamson: I am not sure that Richardson gets more than 20 carries against the Ravens, but he certainly should have more than 20 total touches, as he is an excellent dump-off option out of the backfield. It was a crime for Cleveland's coaching staff to give their star runner just 13 carries while asking the struggling Brandon Weeden to throw the ball 53 times. That is a losing formula. However, clearly the best way to attack Baltimore's defense right now is through the air, so look for Weeden to target Baltimore's safety corps, specifically with Jordan Cameron. The Ravens had all sorts of problems with Denver tight end Julius Thomas, and the Browns could be looking to exploit the same weakness with budding star Cameron, a similar athlete and body-type player.
So, along those lines, obviously facing Weeden is a much easier assignment than doing battle with Peyton Manning and his extreme wealth of weapons in Denver, but the Ravens coaching staff should be concerned about their second half collapse against Denver's great passing game. Do you see any changes in this department on the horizon for Week 2?
Hensley: The Ravens acknowledge that it's tough to shut down Manning. The problem the coaching staff had is that the Ravens secondary made it too easy for him. There were miscommunications that left targets wide open in the red zone. There were cornerbacks, namely Corey Graham and Jimmy Smith, who flat-out got beat. And there were too many missed tackles, especially from safety Michael Huff.
I don't see the Ravens making any major changes to personnel for a couple of reasons: They're not going to panic after one game and they don't have many options. Lardarius Webb was the only defensive back who played well, and he's 11 months removed from ACL surgery. Graham and Smith are struggling at the other cornerback spot, and the Ravens don't have the confidence in Chykie Brown to bench someone. Baltimore will likely stick with Huff and James Ihedigbo at safety right now because of their experience, although rookie first-round pick Matt Elam will eventually be the starter this year.
What this secondary really needs is a strong pass rush on Weeden. And pass protection is a big storyline for both teams considering the injuries along the offensive line. The Browns have only sacked Joe Flacco 14 times in 10 meetings. Can the Browns get more pressure on Flacco this time?
Williamson: Mike Lombardi and company made it a huge offseason priority to improve their pass rush. And I think they very much accomplished that goal by signing Paul Kruger and Desmond Bryant, who was a real force rushing the passer from the interior last week, as well as using a high first round pick on the ultra-talented Barkevious Mingo. I expect Flacco to be under duress quite a bit in this contest when the Browns chose to bring just four, but with Joe Haden possibly locking down Torrey Smith (as he did last week to similar wide receiver in Mike Wallace), I could see Cleveland defensive coordinator Ray Horton dialing up a lot of additional blitzes, which goes back to his roots learning from Dick LeBeau in Pittsburgh.
The Browns have an exceptional young offensive line, but the Miami defensive line, led by Cameron Wake, dominated this group in all facets last week. The right guard position is particularly weak right now for Cleveland, but that performance against the Dolphins was rather shocking. The Ravens feature a very deep and talented defensive front. Could they wreak the same havoc up front?
Hensley: The Ravens know all about the Browns' struggling right guard. Oniel Cousins was a third-round pick of the Ravens in 2008. Coincidentally, that's the same draft that produced Flacco and Ray Rice for Baltimore. Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata lined up over the right guard for most of the game in Denver. He's healthy after playing last season all dinged up, and he has more explosion coming off the line. This is the game's biggest mismatch.
As you pointed out, right tackle Mitchell Schwartz had a rough time with Wake, and his assignment won't be any easier Sunday. In passing situations, Elvis Dumervil will be coming off the Browns' right edge. In his Ravens' debut, Dumervil had one sack and three quarterback hurries. Even with the Browns' No. 1 wide receiver Josh Gordon out, the Browns can't let Weeden have too much time in the pocket.
The biggest matchup that favors the Browns is at returner. The Ravens won't have Pro Bowl returner Jacoby Jones for another month after he sprained his knee. The Ravens, who have had lapses in their return game, have to contain Travis Benjamin. What are your thoughts on the Browns returner? And what other matchup could the Browns exploit?
Williamson: Benjamin isn't nearly as big or physical with the ball in his hands as Josh Cribbs, his predecessor, but Benjamin is flat out fast. He can change the game in a heartbeat and he doesn't need a lot of room to explode through. To me, as alluded to above, the Browns' pass defense against the Ravens' passing offense is what favors Cleveland the most in this contest. The Browns' secondary is very much a work in progress but if Haden eliminates Smith, which I think is quite possible, the Ravens really have very few other options in terms of wide receivers or tight ends to threaten the defense. Also, Baltimore's pass protection could be a liability against this revamped pass rush. Still, this will be an uphill climb against the defending Super Bowl Champions who were embarrassed on national television last week and has an extra long week to prepare.
September, 12, 2013
Getty ImagesRookie QB EJ Manuel guides rebuilding Buffalo; Cam Newton's under pressure to win now in Carolina.
Following tough home losses Sunday, the Buffalo Bills and Carolina Panthers look to get back on track in Week 2.
This game offers an intriguing quarterback battle between Bills rookie EJ Manuel, selected 16th overall this year, and the Panthers' Cam Newton, the top overall pick in 2011.
We'll hit on that matchup and more in our weekly "Double Coverage" conversation, so let's get it started:
Mike Rodak: David, it seemed like the Bills and the Panthers opened their seasons in similar ways. Both teams faced superior opponents: The Patriots and Seahawks are near the top of the AFC and NFC, respectively, while the Bills and Panthers are bottom-dwellers in their conferences. Yet, both teams kept it close. The Bills lost by two points on a late field goal, while the Panthers kept it within five points. There is a cautious sense of optimism around the Bills locker room right now. Is that also true down in Charlotte?
David Newton: Definitely optimism, which wasn't necessarily the case a year ago. The team feels it has more of an identity, an awareness of where it can go from here. Much of that identity is based around the defense, which established itself as one of the more solid units in the league by holding the potent Seattle offense to 12 points. Wide receiver Steve Smith, whether he was trying to inspire the rest of the team or because he actually believes it, set the tone by predicting that the Panthers will face Seattle again deep in January. I still don't see Carolina as a playoff team based on what its offense showed, but there is potential.
So both teams played top opponents close and lost. Now what? Is this a must-win for both if they have any hopes of being playoff contenders?
Rodak: I think it’s more of a must-win for Carolina. You look at the NFC South, and it’s stacked. If the Panthers want a shot at a wild-card spot, they might need to finish ahead of either Atlanta or New Orleans, and that’s a tall task. The Bills are in a weaker division, where an 0-2 start could have less of an impact. But still, not a good sign for Buffalo if it drops its first two, both at home.
The Bills spent a first-round pick this season on a quarterback in Manuel. The Panthers selected a quarterback, Newton, first overall in 2011. He’s now entering his third season. How does the team (and fans) feel about Newton’s development?
Newton: Agreed, it's much more of a must-win game for Carolina. An 0-2 start after getting out of the gate 1-6 a year ago will have the vultures swarming for coach Ron Rivera. It will have the critics pounding on Newton. As new general manager Dave Gettleman said before the season, it's time for Newton to win. Buffalo can write this off as a rebuilding season with a rookie quarterback; Carolina can't do that with Newton. I said before the season the Panthers had to start no worse than 2-1 to have a chance to be successful. The Seattle loss, as close as they came to pulling it out, wasn't unexpected. Sunday's is one of those winnable road games they can't afford to lose. There aren't many out there.
So what do you see this game coming down to?
Rodak: I think the Bills will need a better game out of C.J. Spiller. If he can get it going -- the Patriots shut him down Sunday, holding him to less than 3 yards per carry and per catch -- it opens up the Bills offense and gives Manuel a chance to take more shots downfield. The Panthers held the Seahawks to just 70 yards rushing and have one of the better defensive lines in the NFL, so it won’t be easy. If Spiller has another quiet day, not only will it upset his fantasy owners, but it will also be tough for the Bills to win.
What about for the Panthers?
Newton: It's going to come down to the Carolina offensive line and whether it can establish the run as well as New England did in Week 1 against the Bills. Right guard Garry Williams is gone for the year with an ACL/MCL tear. His replacement, Chris Scott, played well against Seattle. But Scott started on the left side, where Amini Silatolu was out with a hamstring injury. Silatolu is expected back this week, so if he holds up, the Panthers should be OK. But Carolina has to run effectively to make the offense under new coordinator Mike Shula click.
September, 12, 2013
Getty ImagesThe question for the Falcons in Week 2 will be how quarterback Matt Ryan matches up with the punishing Rams pass rush, led by defensive end Chris Long.
Atlanta wide receiver Roddy White drew a lot of attention in the offseason when he compared the Falcons’ offense to “The Greatest Show on Turf."
That was the nickname for the St. Louis Rams in their heyday. Ironically, the Falcons host the modern-day Rams on Sunday. The Falcons didn’t exactly light up the scoreboard in a season-opening loss to the New Orleans Saints, while the Rams won their opener against Arizona.
ESPN’s Nick Wagoner and Pat Yasinskas break down the matchup between St. Louis and Atlanta.
Yasinskas: I still believe the hype about the Atlanta offense, even after the disappointing showing against New Orleans. I think the Falcons simply hit the wrong team at the wrong place and time. The Saints were motivated by a rowdy crowd that was celebrating coach Sean Payton’s return after a season-long suspension. I think we’ll see more of what the Falcons are about when they play in the Georgia Dome. Still, I think the offensive line remains a major concern and could limit quarterback Matt Ryan’s ability to get the ball to his playmakers. Nick, the Rams did a nice job of getting pressure against Arizona. How good is this pass rush?
Wagoner: Everything the Rams do on defense is based on the idea of having a strong pass rush. The defensive line, in particular, is the team's greatest strength. It's not just starting ends Chris Long and Robert Quinn, either. The Rams have signed three key backups to contract extensions since March and have a group of eight under control through the end of 2014. Long is the mainstay but Quinn has the upside to become one of the two or three best pass rushers in the league. His three sacks and two forced fumbles last week were a big reason for the Rams' season-opening victory. You mentioned concerns about the offensive line. It looked like that group struggled against New Orleans. Exactly how much of a concern is that for Atlanta right now and what are that unit's weakest spots?
Yasinskas: The offensive line is a huge concern. The Falcons released right tackle Tyson Clabo in the offseason and center Todd McClure retired. The Falcons thought they were covered because they easily could move Peter Konz from guard to center and they thought Mike Johnson was ready to be the starting right tackle. Konz will be just fine at center. But Johnson suffered a season-ending injury early in camp and the Falcons have had to turn to second-year pro Lamar Holmes. He's starting next to guard Garrett Reynolds and that leaves the right side of the line as a big question mark. The left side of the line isn't exactly top shelf either, so this line could be the weak spot for a team with Super Bowl aspirations. Speaking of weak spots, what's the biggest one for the Rams?
Wagoner: After Week 1 there are multiple options, including persistent penalty problems, inability to convert turnovers into touchdowns and an underwhelming run game. The most glaring issue coming out of that game, though, was the Rams' struggles in pass coverage. The Rams sat in soft zones for most of the game and Arizona's Carson Palmer carved them up for 327 passing yards. Veteran Cortland Finnegan had probably his worst game as a Ram, giving up six completions for 96 yards and a touchdown and committing a pair of unnecessary roughness penalties. Janoris Jenkins was pretty good on his side but it seems the Rams don't trust he and Trumaine Johnson (who is the third corner) to come up and press consistently just yet. The soft coverage had a sort of nullifying effect on the team's strong pass rush at times because it allowed Palmer to get the ball out quickly. Switching gears a bit, there's an obvious major storyline in this one involving Atlanta running back Steven Jackson. After nine years in St. Louis, how is Jackson adjusting to his new digs?
Yasinskas: Jackson had one big run in the opener, and I think the Falcons really are only beginning to figure out how to properly use him. He's a huge upgrade over Michael Turner, who got old in front of our eyes last season, and that left the Falcons without even the threat of a running game. Jackson changes that. The Falcons still are a pass-first team, but they want to include a healthy mix of Jackson as both a runner and receiver because that should only open the way for big things from White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez. How are the Rams adapting to life without Jackson?
Wagoner: The Rams maintained throughout the offseason that they wanted to go with the en vogue running back by committee approach. Then Daryl Richardson clearly won the starting job, Isaiah Pead struggled and was suspended Week 1, and rookie Zac Stacy battled some injury issues in camp. Richardson got a bigger workload than expected against the Cardinals, and the Rams seem comfortable giving him the ball 20-plus times. There wasn't much room to run against the Cardinals, and the Rams know they need to improve there moving forward. Pead returns this week and the Rams want to see more of Stacy. Clearly, the jury is still out in regards to the running game. While we're on the topic of young position groups, it looked like the Falcons' young corners did pretty well without Asante Samuel against New Orleans. What did you see from that group last week and are you expecting Samuel to be ready to go this week?
Yasinskas: I think Samuel will return this week. But the Falcons are very high on rookie cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford. They're going to be targets because they're rookies, but they did all right in the opener against a very talented New Orleans passing offense. The thing that really has sped up the development of Trufant and Alford is that they got to work against White and Jones every day in training camp. The results weren't always pretty, but it made them both better players. They still might have some of the usual ups and downs for rookies, but they're only going to continue to get better. It’s time for our predictions.
September, 12, 2013
For the third time in their careers, brothers Peyton Manning and Eli Manning will oppose each other as the starting quarterbacks in the same NFL game. Peyton's Denver Broncos travel to East Rutherford, N.J., to take on Eli's New York Giants at 4:25 p.m. ET on Sunday at MetLife Stadium. Both of these teams have dreams of playing in the Super Bowl in that very same building in February. But while Denver looked the part of the contender in its Week 1 rout of the defending champion Ravens, the Giants turned the ball over six times in an ugly opening-week loss in Dallas. Broncos team reporter Jeff Legwold and Giants team reporter Dan Graziano break down this week's Battle of the Brothers.
Dan Graziano: So yeah, Jeff, I don't know if you were able to dig this up on your end, but my research does indeed confirm that the two starting quarterbacks in this game grew up in the same house with the same parents. I wonder if others will catch on and ask some questions and write some stories about that angle this week. I don't expect Eli Manning to admit that he's looking for revenge after his big brother beat him twice while he was with the Colts, but I'm sure there's some element of that going on. I have two little brothers myself, and personally I'd be pretty annoyed if I ever lost an NFL game to either one of them. Do you think this game means a little something extra to Peyton Manning?
Jeff Legwold: Dan, I wasn’t planning to ask about this ... but OK, I'm in. I've been around Peyton since my time in Nashville and his at the University of Tennessee, so I'm fairly certain Peyton isn't a big fan of this from a personal perspective. Plenty of his friends said after the Colts released Peyton they didn't even think he would go to an NFC team, let alone the Redskins (pre 2012 draft, of course) because there was far more potential to face Eli if he did. They’ll talk this week, but there won’t be any football on the phone. From a football standpoint Peyton is in regular-season mode, which is intense, focused and running the show. The Broncos didn't show all of their changes on offense against the Ravens last week -- they have another gear they can hit in the no-huddle they didn't use against Baltimore -- but Peyton has plenty of places to go in the passing game. How do you think the Giants' revamped defensive front will approach all of that?
DG: Yeesh. Another gear? The rest of the league can't be excited to hear that. The most positive and effective change the Giants made on defense this offseason was at defensive tackle, where they believe they've beefed up and are better suited to stop the run than they were a year ago. But while that sounds nice and useful, the plain fact is that the Giants' defense needs a dominant pass rush from the front four in order to be effective. The linebackers are terrible, and Dallas' short-range-passing game plan Sunday night showed that it's not hard for the rest of the league to figure that out and take advantage of it. The cornerbacks are just so-so, and if Prince Amukamara is out with a concussion (still unknown at this time), that unit becomes a liability. The key will be Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul generating pressure on Peyton from the edge. Pierre-Paul looked rusty and didn't play a full game Sunday as he was coming off of June back surgery and missed the preseason. If he can take a big step forward this week in terms of conditioning and practice time, that would help. He's the difference-making player in their defensive front -- the one who has the ability to take over a game if he's 100 percent. They need him as close to that as possible if they're going to pressure Peyton Manning enough to limit the time he has to take advantage of all of those options.
Peyton's brother has his share of options as well. Three different Giants receivers had more than 100 yards in the opener, including big second-year wideout Rueben Randle. With Victor Cruz in the slot and Randle and Hakeem Nicks on the outside, how are the Broncos equipped to cover the Giants' receivers?
JL: It is an issue for the Broncos, especially if Champ Bailey (left foot) isn't ready to go. He was jogging early in the week, but did not take part in Monday's practice. He has been in for treatment every day, including Tuesday, and still hopes to get himself back in the lineup. The Broncos signed Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in the offseason because they believed he could take his game to another level and that they could help him do that. He played like the former Pro Bowl pick (2009) he was in the opener and shut down Torrey Smith and showed plenty of athleticism. But take Bailey out of the mix and the Broncos are small when they go into the nickel. When Bailey doesn't play, the 5-foot-10 Chris Harris starts and the 5-foot-9 Tony Carter then comes in for the nickel. Without Bailey that puts Harris in the slot and Carter on the outside and quarterbacks tend to go after Carter in that situation. If Bailey plays -- and he's made no secret he wants to -- that gives the Broncos better matchups. Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio likes to mix it up overall and uses a lot of people, and if they get the right down-and-distance situations, he likes to even break out a seven-defensive back look and the rushers come from everywhere in the formation.
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezJason Pierre-Paul and New York's pass rush may be the key to containing Peyton Manning.
When Del Rio is looking at the Giants' running game, what will he see?
DG: Oh, yes. The run game. Better known as "The Only Thing I've Been Writing About Since Sunday Night." I still think the answer to your question is second-year back David Wilson, though his much-publicized pair of fumbles (and his less-publicized issues in pass protection) have the Giants tweaking last week's plan to give Wilson a full starter's workload. They had a bunch of veteran backs in for workouts Tuesday and ended up signing Brandon Jacobs, but Wilson is still the former first-round pick and the big-play threat who's likely to get the bulk of the first-down and second-down work as long as he doesn't fumble anymore. They had planned to use Andre Brown as the passing-downs back and the goal-line back before Brown broke his leg in the final preseason game, and after Wilson's tough opener, it looks as though Jacobs has been brought in to fill Brown's role. But Wilson's still their best running back, and assuming they throw him right back in there, he's someone for whom the Broncos will have to account. When he does hold on to the ball, he's impressive to watch run.
One guy who obviously stood out for the Broncos in their opener was the tight end, Julius Thomas. The Giants had no answers for Jason Witten on Sunday and, as I mentioned earlier, don't have anyone in their linebacking corps to really cover tight ends. So was Thomas a one-game wonder, or is this a serious candidate for a major role in the passing game?
JL: Dan, the Broncos and Thomas waited two years to see what folks saw last Thursday night. Since the Broncos took the former Portland State basketball player in the fourth round of the 2011 draft, he offered glimpse after glimpse on the practice field of what the potential was. But he suffered an ankle injury on his first NFL catch -- in the second game of his rookie season -- and wasn't the same after. He had surgery to repair the ankle before last season and spent much of the year simply being a game-day inactive. But coming down the stretch last season, players kept talking about what Thomas was doing in practice, and in training camp this summer he consistently ran away from defensive backs. He's great at getting the ball in a crowd and the Ravens did what most defenses figure to do, rotate coverage to the likes of Wes Welker and Demaryius Thomas, and leave Thomas with just one defender. Thomas is still raw in some of his route running -- he is in just his fourth year of football after just one season's worth in college -- and sometimes will drop one he shouldn't, but the guy is a matchup problem for defenses, especially since Peyton Manning trusts him enough to throw it to him in almost any situation.
Opposing tight ends did plenty of damage against the Broncos' defense last season with 81 receptions for 948 yards and 11 touchdowns as a position group. They've seen Brandon Myers plenty in previous seasons, how does he fit in an offense with so much output at wide receiver?
DG: Yes, Myers was kind of the forgotten man Sunday night with all of the wideouts going nuts. And as long as those three wideouts are healthy and productive, I wouldn't be surprised to see that continue. Myers is the Giants' fourth different starting tight end in four years. And over the past five years, the Giants' leading tight end has averaged 40.6 catches per season. Martellus Bennett's 55 catches last year were the most by a Giants tight end since Jeremy Shockey caught 57 in 2007. So while Myers was a big receiving threat in Oakland, I doubt he'll threaten 70-80 catches this year as a Giant. They just don't use their tight end as a weapon in the receiving game the way a lot of teams do. Now, might they pick a matchup, such as this one, in which you say the team hasn't been strong against tight ends, and throw it to him more in such a game? Entirely possible. Myers looked like a significant part of the offensive game plan in training camp practices, so there are definitely some packages in which they'll throw to him. But right now, with injuries on the offensive line and the problems they're having in general with pass protection, I believe they need Myers to stay in and block more.
Speaking of protection, and getting back to what I think is one of the key points at least from the New York end, what's the state of the Denver offensive line in front of big brother Manning? Are the Giants' pass-rushers in for a challenging day?
JL: That was THE story in the preseason for the Broncos. Two of their starting linemen -- right tackle Orlando Franklin and left tackle Ryan Clady -- had offseason surgeries and Clady didn't play in the preseason. They lost center Dan Koppen to a torn ACL in training camp and spent much of August signing veteran linemen to address depth issues, before finally bringing two of those signees -- John Moffitt and Steve Vallos -- onto the final 53-man roster. They want the three-wide set to be their base formation on offense -- they ran their first 20 plays from scrimmage out of it against the Ravens -- but can't play it if they can't protect. Their first target in free agency, because they felt like they surrendered far too much pressure up the middle, was guard Louis Vasquez, who got the longest deal (four years) the Broncos gave to any player they signed in the offseason. They had some bobbles early against the Ravens, went to a two-tight end set briefly in the second quarter to reset things and kept themselves together when they went to three-wide after that. Center Manny Ramirez is the key; when he plays well, the Broncos can stay in that three-wide look and they can consistently pressure defenses out of it.
Rushing a Manning is something the Broncos have to consider as well. What do the Giants think of a pass rush without Von Miller in it for another five games?
DG: I'm sure they wish he was coming back in time to face the Eagles in Week 4 and the Cowboys in Week 5. But as a Week 2 development, the Giants will take it. Preseason injuries shook up the Giants' line. They have rookie first-rounder Justin Pugh starting at right tackle, which wasn't the plan. They have left guard Kevin Boothe playing center and backup tackle James Brewer playing left guard for the first time in his life. Add in the blocking downgrade at running back, and Eli Manning's protection is one of the major issues the Giants are having right now. Like his brother, Eli has an insanely quick release, so he doesn't need a Hall of Fame line in front of him in order to be successful. But he does need some level of comfort back there, because he's not at his best when he has to move his feet. George Selvie and a cast of backup rushers had success against the Giants' line Sunday night and helped rattle Manning into three interceptions, so it's not as though the Broncos necessarily need Miller to get the job done. What are they doing with their pass rush to overcome that significant loss and the loss of Elvis Dumervil to the whims of a fax machine?
JL: With Dumervil now in Baltimore and Miller suspended for five more games for violating the league's substance-abuse policy, the Broncos are missing 29.5 sacks from last season's defense that tied for the league lead (52) last season. The Broncos talked to plenty of veteran pass-rushers in the offseason and, after deciding John Abraham and Dwight Freeney wanted too much money, they signed Shaun Phillips during the draft weekend. And it's Phillips who is going to have to be the biggest part of the solution in the pass rush until Miller comes back. He was up to the challenge with 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble against the Ravens. Del Rio likes plenty of pressure packages when the Broncos get the lead and will rush players from anywhere in the formation The Broncos are particularly aggressive and creative out of their dime looks as well as the seven-defensive back look. They still have to show they can win one-on-one matchups in the rush when the game is tight, however. The rush didn't really kick in against the Ravens -- Flacco was largely untouched in the first half last Thursday -- until the Broncos had built the lead and the Ravens had to open things up some.
The Giants will be one of three NFC East teams the Broncos will play over the next four weeks, so do the Giants believe the Broncos' no-huddle look will be an kind of preview for what's to come with the Eagles?
DG: Good question. The Cowboys showed some no-huddle Sunday, and obviously the Giants are going to have to expect it from the Eagles, so perhaps these are some good early tests for them. Makes me think it really would help if they had some better all-around instinctive playmaker types in the linebacking corps. But they don't prioritize that position, and they think if they can get to the quarterback they can make up for deficiencies there and in the secondary. We'll see. It's a lot to ask of Tuck and Pierre-Paul, but they've both been great players at times in the past.
Anyway, I think that about covers it. Should be a fun one Sunday at the Meadowlands. See you there, Jeff.
September, 12, 2013
AP Photo Terrelle Pryor and Maurice Jones-Drew are key players to watch in the Raiders-Jaguars game.
Oakland showed a flash of life in a 21-17 loss at Indianapolis last week and Jacksonville struggled mightily in a 28-2 home loss to Kansas City. Many see the Raiders and Jaguars as the two most downtrodden teams in the NFL, but somebody has to win, right? It’s not like they can play to a scoreless tie, unless … in any event, these two hook up Sunday in Oakland.
Paul Gutierrez: So, the Jaguars are the 32nd-ranked team in ESPN.com's NFL Power Rankings, and the Raiders are 31st. Not exactly a clash of the titans, but there were several silver (and black?) linings in Oakland’s 21-17 loss in Indianapolis last week. Primarily, the play of newly anointed starting quarterback Terrelle Pryor. To a man, the Raiders said there is no such thing as a moral victory. Yet there was a feeling of promise in the Raiders’ postgame locker room not felt in a while. What was the feeling like in the Jags’ locker room after they not only lost their starting quarterback, but lost the game to Kansas City in such dispiriting fashion, and does it already feel like another long season is in store in Jacksonville?
Michael DiRocco: Disappointment, but not just at losing. The offense played poorly in all phases, which was somewhat surprising because it had shown signs during the preseason of being competent. Most troubling was the play of the offensive line, especially the interior, where center Brad Meester and guards Uche Nwaneri and Will Rackley really struggled. Six sacks and not crossing midfield until the fourth quarter was embarrassing. But the Jaguars were missing starting receiver Justin Blackmon (suspension) and starting tight end Marcedes Lewis (calf), so that mitigates things somewhat. While the team believes it can certainly play significantly better than that, the veterans are realistic and understand that this is one of the youngest teams in the NFL and the new regime has begun a rebuild that will take three years. You've got to feel for Matt Flynn. Goes to Seattle and gets beat out by Russell Wilson. Then ends up in Oakland and gets beat out by Pryor, who played well in the season opener. He made a lot of plays with his feet but certainly has a way to go as a passer. Is he the long-term answer for the Raiders at quarterback or will we see Flynn at some point this season?
Gutierrez: Yeah, the humanistic side has to feel for Flynn’s predicament. Then the snarky side comes out and thinks he and his millions -- remember, he signed a two-year, $11.5 million contract extension with $6.5 million guaranteed after the Raiders traded for him this spring -- will be just fine, thank you very much. But your point is taken. Especially since Flynn was second-year general manager Reggie McKenzie’s handpicked choice to be this rebuilding franchise’s, ahem, franchise quarterback. And really, the case can be made that Flynn is a better prototypical NFL quarterback than Pryor. But that’s with a solid offensive line and a strong running game and trusted receivers. The Raiders, really, are still looking for those things. So until that trifecta comes in for Oakland, the playmaking Pryor is the Raiders’ best hope for winning games. Even if he was not the new regime’s choice and it inherited Al Davis’ last draft pick. At this point, it seems Flynn is destined to be a career backup, albeit a well-compensated backup. And speaking of clipboard holders, what’s taking the Jags so long to ink Jacksonville’s favorite son, Tim Tebow (you knew there’d be a Tebow question somewhere, right?), especially with ticket sales needed and Chad Henne being no Blaine Gabbert, and vice-versa? Or is it too soon?
DiRocco: The Tebow ship has sailed for the Jaguars. General manager Dave Caldwell said earlier this year that the Jaguars were not going to sign Tebow -- who at the time was still under contract with the New York Jets -- "even if he's released." He's sticking to that. As for the ticket sales argument, there's no way to quantify whether sales would increase and by how much if he was signed. Plus, the Jags are actually doing pretty well in the ticket department. The team hasn't had a blackout since 2009 and averaged at least 62,331 fans at every home game over the past three seasons. The No. 1 task for the new regime is to find out whether Gabbert can be a franchise quarterback and the player around which to build the team over the next decade. The only way to determine that is for him to play the entire season. Barring a rash of injuries to free-agent quarterbacks, I just don't see a scenario in which Tebow returns to his hometown. Sebastian Janikowski, who went to nearby Florida State, is one of the more colorful players in the NFL. There are a lot of colorful stories floating around about him both in the locker room and off the field. What's your favorite -- at least among the verified ones you can tell?
Gutierrez: Wow, you caught me off guard. This is, after all, a family website, no? I kid. Kinda. But yeah, the evolution of the wild child formerly known as Jano (he hates that name, by the way) has been a unique experience. He is now a doting father to twin girls. No word, though, on how strong their kicking legs are yet. Off the field, he’s become a proficient golfer. When he arrived in Oakland as a first-round draft pick way back in 2000, he had never touched a club before in his life. Then Shane Lechler, his long-time running, er, kicking mate, introduced him to the links. Now? He’s a regular in the Lake Tahoe Pro-Am. Then there was the time he had to punt for an injured Lechler against Kansas City in the rain. It was as ugly a punt as it was effective -- the Chiefs player fumbled the ball away and the Raiders recovered. It went down in Oakland and the crowd loved it. Speaking of guys known by one name or simple initials, how much does MJD have left in the tank for the Jags? Can a return “home” this weekend rejuvenate him?
DiRocco: That is a good question, because there is some uncertainty regarding whether MJD can again reach the level at which he played in 2011, when he led the NFL in rushing. He did miss 10 games last season with a foot injury. Nobody expects him to rush for 1,600 yards but he does need to be a 1,000-yard rusher for this offense to be effective and help take a load off Gabbert/Henne. Another thing to consider is that Jones-Drew is in the final year of his contract. He'll need prove that at 28 he's still one of the league's better backs in order to have a chance to sign the kind of deal he wants -- whether it's in Jacksonville or elsewhere. Speaking of running backs coming off an injury, hasn't that been the biggest knock on Darren McFadden? What kind of odds would you give on him playing all 16 games?
Gutierrez: Ouch. The biggest knock on Run DMC has been his inability to stay healthy throughout his career. He has never played in more than 13 games in any of his first five seasons and he has missed 23 games in his career. He insists he’s not injury-prone, though, and that each injury is a freak occurrence. Maybe, but based on his track record, it’s not a question of if McFadden gets hurt but when, and how the Raiders are equipped to deal with his absence. Harsh? Maybe, but also true. And based on that history, odds are low that he'll play all 16 games this season. Then again, he is in a contract year. And after being neutralized last week by the Colts to the tune of 48 yards on 17 carries, what better time for him to get going than against the Jags? In two career games against Jacksonville, McFadden has carried the ball 35 times for 176 yards.
September, 12, 2013
Getty ImagesAdrian Peterson, left, and Matt Forte present all sorts of challenges for opposing defenses.Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson gutted Chicago for a team-record 104 yards in the first quarter and a pair of touchdowns to ruin a 10-catch, 160-yard performance by Brandon Marshall while sparking a Vikings 21-14 victory the last time these teams met.
Peterson already appears to be in midseason form, judging from the 78-yard touchdown reeled off on his first carry of the season in last week’s Minnesota loss to the Detroit Lions, and that’s a scary proposition for a Bears defense that admittedly missed tackles it shouldn’t have in Week 1 against the Cincinnati Bengals.
“You can’t really put your guys in a situation where you have a lot of one-on-one tackles,” Bears linebacker James Anderson said. “If you watch that guy, he’ll make the first guy miss. He’ll run through tackles. The more guys we can get to the ball, the better chance we’ll have.”
The Vikings, meanwhile, face a new Bears offense that emphasizes protecting the quarterback and getting the ball quickly out of the quarterback’s hands. That philosophy can wreak havoc on Minnesota’s pass rush, which features Jared Allen, Brian Robison and Everson Griffen. The Lions neutralized Minnesota’s rush on Sunday by throwing screens to Reggie Bush.
ESPN.com’s Vikings reporter Ben Goessling and Bears reporter Michael C. Wright discuss the matchup.
Ben Goessling: The Vikings’ defense definitely starts with their pass rush -- and we saw Sunday how much this defense can struggle when opponents are able to get rid of the ball before Allen, Robison and Griffen can get to the quarterback. But if I’m a Bears receiver, I’m making sure I know where second-year safety Harrison Smith is located. He’s got a nose for the ball (he ran two interceptions back for touchdowns as a rookie) and, as Calvin Johnson learned last year, he isn’t afraid to make big hits. Smith will take some chances at times, but he’s smart enough and fast enough to recover if he’s a bit out of position. He looks like a force at safety, and the Bears will have to deal with him for a while.
Speaking of the pass rush, though, the Lions might have given the Bears a recipe for neutralizing it by throwing as many screens as they did to Bush. Can we expect to see the Bears use Matt Forte the same way?
Michael C. Wright: The Bears have always worked the screen game with Forte with plenty of success. With the Lions experiencing some success against the Vikings in Week 1, it’s now obviously on film and something the Bears will likely attack. But don’t look at Forte as merely a screen guy. He’s versatile enough to split out wide as a slot receiver, and on numerous occasions in recent years he’s burned defenders deep on the wheel route. In the opener against the Bengals, the Bears targeted Forte six times, with him coming down with four receptions for 41 yards, including a 24-yard completion.
So in answering your question, yes, the Bears will use Forte on screens. But I don’t anticipate it being a major part of the game plan. Forte ran 19 times for 50 yards last week and the team isn’t happy about that performance. Improving the rushing attack is a major point of emphasis this week for the Bears.
How much would you say Christian Ponder has grown as a quarterback from last season?
Goessling: It’s hard to say. He made some throws on Sunday that suggested he was gaining confidence -- he threw downfield more than we ever saw last year -- but especially on his second interception, he looked like the same tentative, mechanical quarterback we’ve seen in the past. Greg Jennings has been outspoken about how Ponder can be a good quarterback if he learns to anticipate throws and trust himself, and it still hasn’t seemed like Ponder has figured that out. He’d better show some progress quickly, though. The Vikings have Matt Cassel on the bench, and with Leslie Frazier trying to earn a new contract, he might not be able to remain patient with Ponder forever.
In fairness to Ponder, though, his offensive line didn’t play well in front of him on Sunday. In fact, a group that’s typically solid looked as bad as it has in some time. Julius Peppers is coming off a bad game, too.
Who’s got the edge as he and Matt Kalil both look to get back on track?
Wright: Honestly, I like Peppers in this matchup. Peppers worked against a backup left tackle on Sunday in Anthony Collins. But I don’t think people gave Collins enough credit for his performance. Collins is an athletic player (former basketball player) and probably one of the most athletic tackles Peppers will face this season. Couple that with the fact Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton got rid of the ball quickly and it’s easy to see how Peppers didn’t register anything on the stat sheet.
Remember this, though: Peppers is coming off back-to-back seasons in which he’s posted 11 sacks or more. Peppers certainly doesn’t appear to be slowing down, but at the same time, the defensive end didn’t register a sack in either of the two games last season against Minnesota.
With Percy Harvin out of the picture, outside of Peterson, who is the guy the Bears need to take notice of on defense?
Goessling: We could see more of Cordarrelle Patterson this week. The Vikings traded back into the first round to get the receiver in the draft, and they think he has many of the same skills that Harvin has. They didn’t use him much in Detroit, which was a little perplexing, but if they need a spark on offense, getting the ball to Patterson in the open field might be the quickest way to get it. The Bears also know plenty about Jennings from his days in Green Bay. Ponder targeted him more than any other receiver last week, and though he missed Jennings with a couple of throws, it wouldn’t surprise me if Jennings quickly becomes the focal point of the Vikings’ passing game.
Peterson is coming off an odd game; he ran 78 yards for a touchdown on his first carry, but the Lions stacked eight men in the box and held him to 15 yards on his next 17 carries. How will the Bears fare against the reigning MVP?
Wright: That’s difficult to answer because the Bears have been up-and-down against Peterson over the years. For the most part they’ve handled him. In 2011, Chicago limited Peterson to 51 yards in the only game they faced him. But then last season, Peterson hit the century mark in both games, including 104 yards in the first quarter when the teams met in December. Chicago’s front four of Henry Melton, Peppers, Stephen Paea and Corey Wootton should fare well. But the linebacker position, particularly the middle linebacker spot, is the most concerning. D.J. Williams is playing in the middle as the replacement for Brian Urlacher. But he missed virtually all of training camp and the preseason with a calf strain and wasn’t cleared to practice until the week of the Bengals game. Frankly, Williams looked as if he were running with concrete blocks on his feet against Cincinnati. Conditioning was definitely an issue for Williams and will likely be again Sunday when the teams meet. The Bears are pretty adept at stopping the run (they held Cincinnati to 63 yards), but Peterson is a special back. I don’t think the Bears can totally shut him down.
September, 12, 2013
Getty ImagesDeMarcus Ware and the Dallas defense will work to prevent Alex Smith and the Chiefs from getting into a rhythm on offense.The Kansas City Chiefs and Dallas Cowboys won their season openers last week in different manners. The Chiefs had an easy time against Jacksonville while the Cowboys won a wild shootout against the Giants. The teams, which haven’t faced one another since 2009, play on Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium. ESPN Chiefs reporter Adam Teicher and Cowboys reporter Todd Archer bring you their Double Coverage preview.
Teicher: The Chiefs had six sacks against Jacksonville last week. How healthy is Tony Romo and how ready is he to deal with what could be a strong pass rush?
Archer: He'll be healthy enough and he won't wear anything more than his normal rib protector. He played through a cracked rib and punctured lung in 2011 and actually threw five interceptions in his first three games after that. Last week against the Giants he was sacked just twice, but the Cowboys used a lot of quick and underneath throws. Miles Austin, Jason Witten and Dez Bryant didn't average more than 8.8 yards per catch against New York. I think you'll see some of that as well to combat the Chiefs' pass rush. Jason Garrett said the pass protection against the Giants was the best the team has had in a long time, so considering that pass rush, I think the Cowboys will have some confidence going into Sunday's game. And perhaps they could add your old friend Brian Waters into the mix this week. He was inactive against the Giants but the feeling is that he will be ready for action this week. We'll see.
But speaking of quarterbacks, how is Alex Smith meshing with Andy Reid?
Teicher: So far, so good. Reid called plays to Smith's strengths in Jacksonville last week. Mostly quick, short stuff. He completed 21 passes but for just 173 yards. Generally got the ball out of his hand in a hurry. Dexter McCluster averaged 14.3 yards per catch, but among the Chiefs' other eight receivers who caught at least one pass, none averaged better than 11 yards per catch. Smith was able to do what he did so well the past couple of seasons for the 49ers. He didn't commit any turnovers and completed more than 60 percent of his passes. Smith also managed the game well. He did a nice job of reading coverages and took advantage of some mismatches the Chiefs were able to create with their formation and their motion. But the Cowboys will present a more interesting challenge than the Jaguars did.
How is the transition to the 4-3 going for the Cowboys and do they have the personnel to make it work?
Archer: The transition has gone pretty well, but the defensive line is a mess. When they made the move they envisioned Jay Ratliff as their Warren Sapp, to a degree, and he will miss the first six games while on the physically unable to perform list. Anthony Spencer could make his debut Sunday, but he hasn't been on the field since undergoing knee surgery July 25. Tyrone Crawford was supposed to be the top backup and he tore his Achilles on the first day of camp. But at least there's DeMarcus Ware up front. The Cowboys felt like Sean Lee and Bruce Carter could fit in any defense and added Justin Durant as a free agent to take the Sam spot. If Lee and Carter can stay healthy, then this defense has a chance to be really good. The secondary is going through a transition. Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne are not the prototypical Tampa 2 corners, but the Cowboys say they will mix a lot of their looks the way Seattle did with its scheme. They don't have a John Lynch, if I'm staying with the Monte Kiffin theme, but they like Barry Church (forced fumble, fumble recovery for a TD in the opener) and have vet Will Allen in the other spot. Kiffin and Rod Marinelli are a good mix together. They have changed the defensive mindset when it comes to takeaways as you can see with the six last week. Marinelli had the "secret sauce" in Chicago and brought it with him here. The Cowboys gave up too many big plays against New York, but I think this will be a bend-and-don't-break defense, not one that eats up offenses.
We'll have to get used to seeing Reid in red Sunday, but how has his first year with the club been? I wondered if he would take a break after so many years with the Eagles, but he hopped right back on the bus.
Teicher: He seems energized by the move to K.C. That was the question I had, as did a lot of other people, when he took the job: How much did he have left in the tank? But he really attacked the job from the day he walked through the door. He's not as involved with personnel decisions as he was his last few years with the Eagles. The Chiefs hired a general manager, John Dorsey, with extensive personnel experience in part so they could free Reid from some of those duties. He's the playcaller on offense and has been very hands-on at practice. From the GM to the coaching staff to the offensive and defensive systems to the starting quarterback and 29 other players who weren't with the Chiefs last year, there's a lot new in Kansas City but Reid has done a nice job so far of tying it all together quickly. Reid, along with Dorsey, has already changed the culture in the organization from one where a lot of people had their own agendas to one where everybody seems to be pulling in the same direction. And you're right, even to those of us who see him daily, he still looks weird in red.
The Cowboys have a difficult schedule with few breathers and play in a division that looks to have a lot of parity. Assuming they stay reasonably healthy, what's a realistic expectation for Dallas this season?
Archer: On our prediction posts to kick off our NFL Nation blog, I said 10-6 and make the playoffs, so after they beat the Giants, I'm sticking with that. However, I must say the defense has me worried. I can't imagine the Cowboys getting six takeaways a game and they were shredded by Eli Manning. They have Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Jay Cutler, Aaron Rodgers, Robert Griffin III, Michael Vick (or Chip Kelly), Matthew Stafford and Philip Rivers on the schedule with a rematch with Eli coming, too. The national types always talk about the talent level of the Cowboys, but I don't know if they really get beyond the top 10 or so players. Yes, at the top the Cowboys are strong, but it falls off pretty quickly in my opinion. I believe they'll get better with their pass defense because it can't get worse, but they'll need to mix things up. On offense, they've always put up yards but struggled with points. Now I think they'll be better in the red zone and that'll help. So I'm sticking with 10-6.
What are the Chiefs' chances? They seem to be a chic pick to be a postseason team.
Teicher: I predicted the Chiefs to finish at 8-8 and even though they looked strong last week against Jacksonville, I’m not quite ready to back off from that until I see them beat a better team. The Chiefs are a talented team, particularly on defense. The Chiefs have a lot of new elements but they looked last week as though they’ve meshed them all very quickly. The Chiefs have a favorable early schedule and need to take advantage because it gets more difficult the second half of the season. The formula they used to beat the Jaguars is the one they’ll need to be successful: strong defensively with the defense and special teams helping the offense in terms of favorable field position. Then, a most efficient offense.
September, 12, 2013
As early season games go, this is about as big as they come. NFC West rivals, some would say bitter rivals, in a Week 2 showdown to see which team has the upper hand in the division and, if the preseason prognosticators are correct, in the race to the Super Bowl.
So let’s get right to it:
Quarterbacks Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson are rising stars in the NFL, dynamic team leaders who are masters in the read-option and dangerous with both their legs and their arm. So who has the upper hand?
Terry Blount: I'll say Wilson in this one, strictly because the home-field advantage is so big in CenturyLink and it's the home opener. These two guys are so similar in how they play the game, but much different in terms of personality. Wilson is more of a buttoned-up-businessman type of guy, while Kaepernick is more colorful and a little more carefree in his approach; at least that is how it looks. But I know Wilson has the utmost respect for Kaepernick and his abilities as a quarterback.
Bill Williamson: Terry, this reminds me of the argument I had to make last year when the question was who was having a better comeback season, Denver's Peyton Manning or Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson. There was no wrong answer. I have the same issue here. Kaepernick and Wilson are two of the reasons why the game going to be so great in the next decade. It’s difficult to disparage or poke holes in the game of either one. However, for the sake of this exercise, I will back Kaepernick. I’m sure the Packers would agree. Any time a guy beats a team with 181 yards on the ground and then comes back with 412 yards in the air, that is the work of a special player. I think Kaepernick may be just a tad more dangerous the Wilson. I’d lean on Kaepernick’s side, but again, I’d take Wilson on my side most Sundays. Kaepernick was nearly flawless against Green Bay. It was stunning.
What do you think will be the key defensively as the Seahawks try to contain Kaepernick?
Blount: Last week, Seattle middle linebacker Bobby Wagner said they wanted to keep Cam Newton from running because they didn't think he could beat them throwing. He was right, but that plan won't work with Kaepernick. The Seahawks' line will have to get more pressure on Kaepernick than it did on Newton. Defensive end Cliff Avril would help if he could finally get on the field. So would defensive end Chris Clemons, although that seems unlikely. And Seattle needs the return of cornerback Brandon Browner, who missed the opener with a hamstring issue. Walter Thurmond played well in place of Browner, but Browner's size (6-foot-4, 221 pounds) is such an asset against a strong receiver like Anquan Boldin.
Williamson: After the Green Bay game, San Francisco safety Donte Whitner said he can’t wait to see the season develop because Kaepernick can beat defenses so many different ways. If the Seattle secondary keeps Kaepernick from going wild, perhaps he will beat them with his feet. That’s the thing about Kaepernick -- he will get you. He will make his impact. Keeping it under control on the ground and in the air is the key for Seattle.
Let's talk about the running backs -- Frank Gore and Marshawn Lynch. Might one of these guys determine the outcome of the game?
Williamson: I certainly can see both veterans playing a major role. Gore was pretty quiet against the Packers -- until he needed to be loud. Yes, he had just a paltry 44 yards on 21 carries, but Gore made a difference with some key, clock-eating runs. At 30 years old, that is Gore’s role in this multidimensional offense. He is not going to be the lead dog, but the 49ers rely on him when needed. His days of carrying this offense are over, but he can help. I expect him to come up with a few solid runs Sunday. As for Lynch, he is clearly an emotional spark plug for the Seahawks. He will come at the 49ers. But this is a defense that will be ready. San Francisco allowed 3.7 yards a carry last season, the third-fewest in the NFL. And the 49ers shut down a revamped Green Bay run game Sunday, allowing the Packers 63 yards on 19 carries -- a 3.3-per-carry average. Green Bay’s longest run was 7 yards. In the end, I think both Gore and Lynch may have their moments, but neither will take over the game.
Blount: Lynch had a terrible game in the opener, rushing for only 43 yards on 17 carries. That won't work if Seattle hopes to win Sunday. With all the talk of Wilson and Kaepernick, the Seahawks still are a power-running team. Pete Carroll made the running game a point of emphasis at practice this week. Gore has enjoyed some of his best games against Seattle, rushing for 1,238 in 14 games against the Seahawks. But I think Lynch will go into Beast Mode on Sunday to prove last week was an exception. And it’s worth noting that Lynch has four 100-yard rushing games in his last six meetings with the 49ers.
It will be interesting to see how emotions come into play in this game. The 49ers are coming off an emotionally charged win over the Packers, and we all know about the 49ers-Seahawks rivalry. Do you think it will carry over to the field?
Blount: I really don't think it matters for this one. Both teams have been pointing to this matchup since the end of last season. And let's tell it like it is: Regardless how much they try to downplay it, these teams really don't like each other. The issues between Carroll and Jim Harbaugh go back to their Pac-12 days. Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman has made it clear he has no love lost for Harbaugh, his coach at Stanford. So a little bad blood going in makes it even bigger.
Williamson: Teams can play emotionally for only so long before they wear down. Still, no team is going to wear down emotionally in Week 2. The 49ers are coming off an emotionally draining win over the Packers, but there is zero chance for a letdown. Harbaugh will see to that. He will get his team up for this game. There is serious disdain involved here. I expect plenty of pushing, shoving and yapping. In this case, it will only enhance the game, and I don’t think it will be a detriment to either team unless someone loses control.
49ers wide receiver Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis are coming off huge performances last week. Can the Seattle defensive backs -- whom many believe are the best in the league -- slow them down?
Williamson: That will be the goal for sure. The biggest question mark about the 49ers going into the season was at receiver with Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham out. But Boldin and Davis answered that question. In their first game together, Boldin and Kaepernick looked like they had played together for five years. Nearly every yard of Boldin’s 208 yards came in the clutch. Kaepernick and Davis combined for just six catches total in the final six games of the regular season last year. But they connected well in the postseason, and they were terrific together Sunday. Seattle will likely slow down both Boldin and Davis some. Don’t expect for Boldin and Davis to dominate. The 49ers will have to find other options. The key for San Francisco is to get rotational receivers Kyle Williams, Marlon Moore and Quinton Patton involved, as well as Kendall Hunter out of the backfield. I think San Francisco is varied enough to do it, but Boldin and Davis will have to make some kind of impact as well.
Blount: No secondary, no matter how good it is, can stop Boldin and Davis entirely. Free safety Earl Thomas said what that they want to do, not just in this game but in every game, is lure a quarterback to throw to the middle of the field. Thomas often cheats up near the line, leaving only Kam Chancellor deep, to entice throws into the middle. The Seahawks see it as a trap. They believe they have enough talent to force turnovers and mistakes by any offense if they throw consistently over the middle, so Davis, especially, will get his chances. Seattle’s defensive backs have a knack for forcing turnovers, and I expect they will come up with one or two Sunday.
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