NFL Nation: 2013 NFL Week 4 Double Coverage

Adrian Peterson and Ben RoethlisbergerUSA TODAY SportsEither Adrian Peterson's Vikings or Ben Roethlisberger's Steelers will leave London with a win.
As exports go, sending the Minnesota Vikings and Pittsburgh Steelers to London this weekend probably wasn't what the NFL had in mind.

Both teams are 0-3. The Vikings have the second-most turnovers in the NFL (10), and the Steelers are third with nine turnovers. Pittsburgh has yet to force a turnover on defense, and the Vikings gave up last-minute touchdowns the last two weeks in losses to the Chicago Bears and Cleveland Browns.

And yet, one of these teams will likely head back across the Atlantic Ocean with a win on Sunday. The other will probably have to say goodbye to their already-slim playoff hopes, so there's plenty on the line in London on Sunday. To set up the game, Vikings reporter Ben Goessling and Steelers reporter Scott Brown got together to break things down:

Ben Goessling: Well, Scott, I don't think this is what either of us expected this game to be -- both of these teams, badly in need of a win, looking lost as they head over to London. For me, the most surprising thing with the Vikings has been how much trouble they've had getting Adrian Peterson going.

He's clearly missed fullback Jerome Felton (who's back this week) and he's admitted to trying to do too much on a number of runs. I think Peterson gets going this week as he follows Felton's lead, but I can't say I expected him to have only three runs longer than 10 yards through three games. What has surprised you most about how the Steelers have struggled?

Scott Brown: Ben, to put the Steelers' running game into perspective, consider this: Their leading rusher, Felix Jones, has 71 yards, or seven yards fewer, than Peterson had on his first carry of the season. As bad as the running game, and the offense in general, has been, I am most surprised that the defense hasn't made more of what coach Mike Tomlin calls splash plays, especially since Troy Polamalu is healthy and has looked terrific. In addition to their lack of takeaways, the Steelers have yet to force a turnover.

Takeaways have been an issue since 2011, and the Steelers have to find a way to force turnovers if they want to have any chance of turning their season around. Speaking of defensive issues, the Vikings have been atrocious against the pass. Is this a get-well game for Ben Roethlisberger?

Goessling: Yes, I think it could be, especially considering how many issues the Vikings appear to have in their secondary. Chris Cook, Jamarca Sanford and A.J. Jefferson are all in some danger of missing the game Sunday, which would likely leave Josh Robinson and Marcus Sherels as the starters, and Xavier Rhodes as the only other healthy corner on the roster.

I've always thought Roethlisberger is one of the league's best at exposing a suspect secondary, since he can extend plays and force defensive backs to stick on their receivers longer than they should need. As effortlessly as everyone has been able to throw on the Vikings so far, I don't see why Sunday's game should be much different.

Let's switch sides of the ball. If Christian Ponder plays -- and that appears to be in at least some doubt now that he has a rib injury -- he'll have to properly diagnose the Steelers in their 3-4 defense. As hesitant as Ponder can be sometimes, is this a chance for the Steelers to put some heat on a quarterback?

Brown: Dick LeBeau will try to confuse Ponder, and the longtime defensive coordinator has traditionally tormented young quarterbacks who struggle to figure out where the Steelers are blitzing from and when they are sending an extra pass-rusher. The best thing the Vikings can do for Ponder, or whoever plays quarterback, is to win on first and second down.

They have just the player who can help them do that and keep them out of third and long in Peterson. He is the best running back on the planet and he is catching the Steelers at a time when their run defense looks vulnerable.

The Steelers are giving up 115.3 rushing yards per game, which is exceedingly high for a team that has finished among the NFL’s top three rushing defenses 13 of the past 19 seasons. They yielded 5.4 yards per carry last Sunday night to Chicago’s Matt Forte. Forte is a good back, but he is no Peterson. Ben, here is my final question for you: What has to happen for the Vikings to win?

Goessling: Peterson has to have a big day. They haven't had a game yet this year where he's been able to take control of things, and if he can do that Sunday, that'd be a huge help to whomever the Vikings quarterback will be. My hunch is Ponder's injury will be just bad enough -- or it will at least be portrayed as such -- to make Matt Cassel the starter, but regardless of the quarterback, the Vikings need Peterson to do what he did last year.

They've also got to cut out the turnovers. Their own 10 turnovers have washed out their defensive productivity in that area, and on a couple occasions, the Vikings have given the ball back right after their defense took it away. That can't happen against a defense that hasn't forced one yet. What's the key for the Steelers to come away from London with their first victory?

Brown: Contain Peterson. I don’t think it is realistic to shut him down, but the Steelers need to put the Vikings in enough third-and-long situations where they can really go after Ponder or Cassel. They also need to generate a couple of takeaways.

The offense also has to build on the positives it produced last Sunday night against the Bears when it gained 459 total yards. Yes, the five turnovers were a killer but I also think the generosity displayed by Roethlisberger (two lost fumbles and two interceptions) was also an anomaly. If the Steelers protect the ball and take it away here and there from the Vikings, I think they win.


Double Coverage: Jets at Titans

September, 27, 2013
Jake Locker and Bilal PowellUSA TODAY SportsJake Locker, left, and Bilal Powell hope to build on big games when their teams meet Sunday.
Preseason expectations for the New York Jets and the Tennessee Titans were poor, at best. Rex Ryan and Mike Munchak were at the top of the list of coaches on the hot seat. They had questions at quarterback and critics wondering about the caliber of their defensive playmakers.

Those questions still exist.

But three games into the season, entering a head-to-head matchup in Nashville, each stands at 2-1. They each won last week despite major penalty problems.

The Titans' offseason included more than $100 million spent on a big group of free agents and a revamping of the coaching staff, including the addition of senior assistant/defense Gregg Williams.

The Jets were much about turmoil, particularly with the drafting of quarterback Geno Smith and his competition with Mark Sanchez. To set up the game, Titans reporter Paul Kuharsky and Jets reporter Rich Cimini got together to break things down:

Paul Kuharsky: How, Rich, have the Jets pulled off this start after such an ugly offseason?

Rich Cimini: You're right, Paul, it was an ugly offseason. Ugly preseason, too, with a rigged quarterback competition that ended with Sanchez's shoulder injury. But to its credit, this team has stayed focused and confident. It's too early to say the Jets have arrived, but they're playing good defense. For a change, they actually have a front three/four that can put pressure on the quarterback. In the past, Ryan had to rely on exotic blitzes to generate the heat. Now he has a young, talented defensive line led by Muhammad Wilkerson. Seven of their eight sacks last week came on four-man rushes. The offense exploded last week, for one of the most prolific days in team history -- if you can believe it -- but I think a lot of that can be attributed to a lousy Buffalo secondary. Smith has a big arm, but he's prone to two or three big mistakes per game. He already has seven turnovers, compared to none for Jake Locker. What can you say about Locker's development?

Kuharsky: He's really made nice, steady progress. I like my quarterback to do more than not make giant mistakes, and Locker showed last week that he might be capable of more. The Titans love his intangibles. In a lot of ways, they drafted him because he's the anti-Vince Young. Locker prepares well, works hard, understands the hard parts of being an NFL quarterback and earns the respect of his teammates and coaches. He's blazing fast and can really throw. He changed protections twice in the game-winning drive against San Diego, which is real progress. Still, it's a run-first team that wants to hand the ball to Chris Johnson and, when he's healthy, Shonn Greene. (I know Jets fans are sad he's out this week.) The Titans rebuilt their interior line to protect better, but even more so, they can establish and count on the run. How is the Jets' front as a run-stopping group, and how are the Jets running the ball to take some of the burden off the rookie quarterback?

Cimini: Bilal Powell is coming off a career day (149 rushing yards), but offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg isn't married to the idea of running the ball to take pressure off Smith. He has been pretty aggressive with his play calling, allowing Smith to attack downfield. In fact, he has nine completions on attempts that went 21 yards or longer, tied with Aaron Rodgers for the league lead. As for stopping the run, the front seven is doing a nice job. It's a younger, faster front seven than the one you saw last December in Nashville. Linebacker DeMario Davis, nose tackle Damon Harrison and rookie defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson have injected much-needed speed into the defense. They have held a couple of good backs in check, namely Doug Martin and C.J. Spiller. I'm really curious to see how they handle Locker and Johnson. Talk to me about the Titans' defense. Sounds like Williams has brought a different dynamic.

Kuharsky: Yeah, Jerry Gray might still have the defensive coordinator title and might still be calling the game. But the Titans are running stuff he never thought to install or call on his own, and they've got an attitude he wasn't able to instill without Williams. The Titans are blitzing more, they are playing more press coverage, they are hitting harder, they are more assertive and their confidence and swagger is well beyond what we saw last season. Williams is completely in the background, low-keying it. If the defense plays as it has, he could re-emerge as a candidate for coordinator jobs after just one year back from his suspension. Rex seems to have backed off the crazy pronouncements and is more low-key himself. Same guy being a bit more guarded, or is there more change to it than that?

Cimini: Ryan is in self-preservation mode. He has a new boss, general manager John Idzik, a buttoned-down guy whose objective was to send the circus out of town. He has changed the culture around the organization, and Ryan has bought into that mentality. So yes, the old bravado is gone. Selfishly, as a reporter, I liked the old Rex because he gave us plenty to write about. Another reason for the change in his approach, I think, is he realizes this is a fairly young team (three or four rookies in the starting lineup) and he doesn't want to put extra pressure on them by making outrageous statements. As a result, it's a lot quieter around here. Bummer.

Kuharsky: It’s always quiet down here, Rich. Hopefully, someone will make some sort of noise Sunday. I’m thinking it’s unlikely to be a Jets receiver. I know Stephen Hill did some good work against the Bills. But the Titans' pass rush and coverage might be fine against Smith and his receivers. They don’t rate very well, do they?

Cimini: Astute observation, Paul. The Jets picked on a couple of backup cornerbacks for the Bills, racking up numbers you'd expect to see from Peyton Manning and the Broncos. It won't be that easy against the Titans. Hill is talented, yes, but he's wildly inconsistent. He'll make your heart race with a big play, but he'll also break it with an easy drop. Santonio Holmes remains their best receiver. Last week's big game notwithstanding, he's not the Holmes of a few years ago, still not 100 percent after foot surgery. Bottom line: This is still a receiving corps with questions.

Alfred Morris and Darren McFaddenUSA TODAY SportsAlfred Morris and Darren McFadden combined to account for three touchdowns in Week 3.
The Washington Redskins, with their still-healing franchise quarterback seemingly rounding back into shape, are 0-3 for the first time since 2001.

The Oakland Raiders, with their young quarterback in question after a concussion, are coming off a spanking on national television.

Something has to give Sunday at 4:25 p.m. ET in Oakland, right?

Washington team reporter John Keim and Raiders team reporter Paul Gutierrez break down this week’s rematch of Super Bowl XVIII.

Paul Gutierrez: John, there’s a lot of uncertainty in the heart of Silver and Blackdom, what with Terrelle Pryor’s first-ever concussion putting his availability to play Sunday in serious doubt. Many critics of running quarterbacks say this is the risk they take -- more hits. From afar, it seems the shine is off Robert Griffin III a bit, and not just because his team is winless and the catcalls have the young QB being called RG0-3. Is he already at a career crossroads, or are we simply seeing a young signal-caller dealing with adversity after a devastating injury?

John Keim: I think it’s a combination of both, Paul. Griffin does not want to rely on his legs as a quarterback, using them only as an occasional weapon. Eventually I think he’ll get there, but he’s not a refined passer just yet. So he still needs to evolve and that’s where the injury comes in: He still needs his legs to be a dynamic player and because of the injury he’s still not quite himself. When he was at Baylor they used a rather elementary passing game. I think he’ll eventually blossom as a passer because he throws the ball well, is smart and works hard. But he’s not at that point yet. Paul, along those lines, the Raiders’ defense does not have good stats against the pass. Is that just because they’ve faced Andrew Luck and Peyton Manning in two of the first three weeks? Or are there real issues here?

Gutierrez: True, the Raiders have faced Luck and Manning in two of their first three games and lost both. Yet stats-wise, Oakland is a middle-of-the-pack defense when it comes to defending the pass, ranking 16th in passing yards allowed per game. And really, at this stage, the Raiders will take it, especially after beginning the season with nine new starters on defense and then losing strong safety Tyvon Branch in Week 2 against Jacksonville on a blitz. What’s really sticking in their craw is the lack of interceptions by the Raiders. As in zero. No picks. None. As Charles Woodson put it after the clinic Manning put on against them on "Monday Night Football," it’s something the secondary especially has to make a concerted effort on this week. So I’d expect the Raiders to take a page out of Denver’s defensive playbook by stacking the box and daring RG III to beat them through the air, rather than on the ground. If that is Oakland’s strategy, might that backfire on the Raiders? Or does the threat of RG III turning the corner on a zone read actually open up the play-action pass?

Keim: That’s definitely the strategy I would take right now. Detroit did it last week, daring Griffin to beat them with his arm and not his legs. Actually, they weren’t afraid of his legs. On one of the zone read runs he made Sunday, Detroit sent both the end and the linebacker at Alfred Morris. They were more worried about him running. It will be this way until Griffin shows that he not only can run, but can hurt a team while doing so. I will say that Griffin was really close to having a good game against Detroit. They were using more play-action -- and a 57-yarder off this play-action was dropped in the end zone. If not for that play and Griffin’s late fumble off a 21-yard scramble, his game would look different. But even if the Raiders use eight in the box the Redskins will try to run. Everything works better when that’s their focus and it sets up what was a lethal play-action game a year ago. What does your gut tell you about who will play quarterback this week for the Raiders? And could you break down where Pryor’s game is, as well as Matt Flynn’s? Obviously their offense would look much different with Pryor than with Flynn.

Gutierrez: The gut, especially with Pryor having yet to be cleared to practice as of Wednesday, tells me that Matt Flynn will get the call. And the locals will not be happy. Pryor has become a huge fan favorite and his skills are as raw as he is electrifying. His pocket presence has improved as has his downfield passing. He simply does not look like the same scattershot guy who was a dark-horse favorite to be the Raiders’ No. 3 quarterback after the draft. He has a presence about him that did not exist a few months ago and he is improving every week in this small sample size. Flynn, meanwhile, is the prototypical West Coast offense quarterback. He's accurate and mobile enough but needs time to let plays develop. He didn't get that in the exhibition season. He had a sore elbow and was under constant assault by the defense and had no time to pass. So the $6.5 million man was beaten out for the second summer in a row after signing a big-money deal. He admitted he was down but said it did not affect his preparation. And with Washington’s defense giving up record-level points thus far, maybe the stars are lining up for the chosen quarterback, or the guy who was supposed to be the franchise quarterback. Then again, sometimes things don’t go according to plan. Like Mike Shanahan and the Raiders. Hard to believe it’s been a quarter of a century since he was hired by Al Davis in Los Angeles. Not so hard to think he still harbors resentment toward the Raiders. Has that come up at all during Raiders week? After all, he says Al Davis still owed him money.

Keim: Mike talked about that today and says he had a lot of respect for Al, even though they had their differences. Knowing Mike, he’d still like to stick it to that franchise. He’s a competitive guy who loves beating people or teams that he has a grudge with. He used to save articles when he was with Denver and then bring them out after the Super Bowl to remind the writers that they were wrong. And we all know the story about the time he was on the field before the game and one of his players threw a ball at Al (Steve Young, I believe). This is also the first time Shanahan has played an AFC West team since he left Denver. I’m sure those old feelings are still there; after all, he spent a brief time there and then spent a number of years wanting to beat them twice a year. Those feelings don’t just fade away, especially in a guy like Shanahan. But right now, he has bigger things to worry about than any money Al Davis might have owed him. It seems like the Raiders have been without hope for a while. Where is the hope now -- and what should the Redskins be concerned with?

Gutierrez: The hope, from the fans’ perspective, resides in Pryor’s arm and legs. Realistically, it’s in the Raiders having some semblance of continuity. Consider: Since Jon Gruden was traded to Tampa Bay following the 2001 season, the Raiders have had seven coaches in 11-plus seasons in Bill Callahan, Norv Turner, Art Shell, Lane Kiffin, Tom Cable, Hue Jackson and now Dennis Allen. The message from general manager Reggie McKenzie is that he’s getting closer to putting a product on the field that resembles his vision. The Raiders will have a lot of money to spend in free agency next year but McKenzie said he will not be shopping at Macy’s. Hope and change -- you being in the District should be familiar with such talk, no? -- come with gradual improvement, and continuity being allowed to foster, so to speak.

Jimmy Graham and Ryan TannehillAP PhotoJimmy Graham has as many touchdown catches (4) as Ryan Tannehill has TD throws.
One team is the biggest surprise in the NFL. The other has worked its way back to prominence after the return of its Super Bowl-winning head coach.

That leads to a monumental matchup of undefeated teams when the Miami Dolphins travel to face the New Orleans Saints on ESPN’s “Monday Night Football.” This is the only matchup of unbeatens in Week 4.

Is Miami ready for prime time? Can the Saints stay hot?’s Dolphins reporter James Walker and Saints reporter Mike Triplett weigh in.

James Walker: Mike, I don’t know whether we can have this discussion without starting at the top with the head coaches of both teams. Joe Philbin in Miami and Sean Payton in New Orleans have done a tremendous job through three games. Dare I say we could be looking at two early coach of the year candidates if the Dolphins and Saints maintain their winning ways. For Philbin, I’ve really been impressed with his game planning and his attention to detail in his second year. Miami has committed just two penalties for 13 yards in the past two games. This is a team that doesn’t beat itself. Miami also is outscoring opponents 41-16 in the second half, a credit to the coaching staff’s ability to make halftime adjustments. Mike, you saw the impact of Payton when he was suspended in 2012. How much has Payton meant to New Orleans’ fast start?

Mike Triplett: Well, let’s start with those two traits you just mentioned: game planning and attention to detail. I think Payton has been the best game planner and offensive schemer in the league during his tenure in New Orleans, especially exploiting mismatches in the passing game. Also, when asked that same question you just posed, players such as quarterback Drew Brees have said Payton’s attention to detail and ability to focus on what’s most important are what make him stand out. But I think, more than anything, there is just a confidence and comfort level that has returned along with Payton. The Saints believe that Payton is going to put them in the right situations to win -- and have an answer when things aren’t working. I think that played a big part in their down-to-the-wire victories over the Atlanta Falcons and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 1 and Week 2.

I have to imagine that “trust” and “confidence” are some words that are starting to be used to describe Philbin and quarterback Ryan Tannehill around Miami. I’ll admit that from afar I didn’t expect this much out of Tannehill in his second season. What’s working so well?

Walker: I’ve seen Tannehill up close and personal from his first minicamp in 2012 after he was drafted, and even I’m surprised with how well he is playing in Year 2. If you told me before the season that Tannehill would have a better passer rating (94.3) than Brees (91.4) after three games, I would have thought you were crazy. But there really are not a lot of quarterbacks playing better football right now than Tannehill. He has outdueled Andrew Luck and Matt Ryan in back-to-back weeks. On top of that, he has made key drives in the fourth quarter in both games, something I did not see from Tannehill in his rookie year. His growth involves more than statistics. Tannehill’s confidence has skyrocketed, and the game appears easier and is slowing down for him. But a big concern has been pass protection. Miami has allowed 14 sacks and faces an aggressive Saints defense. How do you view that matchup, Mike?

Triplett: The Saints’ young defense has been just as surprising -- especially the way it has been able to generate consistent pressure with its four-man front. The Saints have eight sacks (four of them last week). End Cameron Jordan and outside linebacker Junior Galette have been particularly disruptive. And players are clearly responding to new coordinator Rob Ryan’s versatile schemes (a mix of 3-4 and 4-3). They’re still a work in progress, but, if Miami’s pass protection is suspect, the Saints sure look prepared to exploit it.

Tell me about the Dolphins’ defense. I know it's been solid, but will it have answers for matchup problems such as Jimmy Graham, Darren Sproles and Marques Colston?

Walker: I’m not sure Miami has a lot of answers for New Orleans defensively. That’s why I think the Saints are a tough matchup for the Dolphins. Miami has had trouble for years defending tight ends. It was one of the reasons the Dolphins upgraded at linebacker in free agency, signing Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler. But Miami still struggled until the second half last week against Tony Gonzalez of Atlanta. Graham’s athleticism over the middle could be a nightmare for the Dolphins. Brent Grimes has been terrific for Miami and has a good track record against the Saints. But New Orleans could have a lot of success attacking the Dolphins’ second and third corners. I think Miami’s best chance to disrupt the Saints is with its pass rush. Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Wake’s (knee) status is up in the air, but the Dolphins’ blitz packages have been a strength. How would you assess New Orleans’ offensive line, and can it improve?

Triplett: The Saints’ pass protection has been surprisingly porous. Brees has been sacked 10 times, the most in any three-game stretch since he arrived in 2006. The Saints have actually allowed the fewest sacks in the NFL over that stretch -- so it’s a problem I think they’ll correct. It will be huge for them if they can get All-Pro right guard Jahri Evans back healthy. While he was out last week with a hamstring injury, his rookie backup Tim Lelito allowed three sacks. But the rest of the line is still solid, including new left tackle Charles Brown. And Brees and Payton are savvy enough to keep him clean. The bigger issue for the Saints’ offense has been its lack of a consistent run game. I think it’ll still be pretty pass-heavy this week against Miami. Sounds like the run game has been an issue for the Dolphins, too?

Walker: The only way I can describe Miami’s running game, Mike, is sluggish. It just hasn’t looked good, and various parts aren’t on the same page. Sometimes, it’s the offensive line missing blocks. Other times, it’s the running backs not eluding tacklers. The play calling on runs, too, has been predictable. Add this up and you have a Dolphins team averaging 3.2 yards per carry. Miami running backs Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas still have a lot to prove. They haven’t showed much in three weeks, but Monday’s game is a good opportunity. The Saints’ defense has allowed 5.3 yards per carry. It’s the one hole I’ve seen so far in the New Orleans defense. Look for Miami’s offense to try to grind out yards on the ground and control the clock to some degree. That will be big playing on the road. Speaking of which, a big topic in Miami this week is playing in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Dolphins are 2-0 on the road, but this could be their biggest challenge to date. How much will home-field advantage affect this game, especially in front of a rowdy Monday night crowd?

Triplett: The Saints’ home-field advantage is no joke, especially for these prime-time night games. The Saints have won 10 straight night games at home, including the playoffs, and 13 of their past 14. Whatever advantage you can get from a loud dome and a frenzied crowd, the Saints obviously seem to feed off it. I asked new Saints tight end Benjamin Watson about it earlier this year, and he said the loudest game he ever played in was a regular-season Monday night game in the Dome when he was with the New England Patriots in 2009. And you hear that kind of stuff quite a bit from visiting players. At least some folks in the crowd will be cheering for NOLA native Mike Wallace, though.

All right, speed round. If the Dolphins win Monday night, who will get the game ball?

Walker: It would have to come down to Miami’s defense. I don’t see the Dolphins beating the Saints on the road in an offensive shootout. Someone in the secondary must have a big game for Miami to pull this out. The top two candidates are probably Grimes and safety Reshad Jones. Brees is going to throw the ball in the Superdome -- a lot. Someone such as Grimes or Jones probably has to get a big turnover or two to give the Dolphins momentum. Jones believes he’s one of the NFL’s top young safeties, and he’s being paid like one after his summer contract extension. This is the type of national game to prove it, especially when matched up against Graham. Which key player could thrive for New Orleans?

Triplett: I’m cheating if I say Brees or Graham, right? I’ll give you two other names, as well -- Sproles on offense and Galette on defense. I think Sproles looks as dynamic as ever as a runner/receiver, so it might be his turn to bust out if the Dolphins concentrate too much on stopping Graham. And Galette is the Saints’ speed-rusher who could best exploit the Dolphins’ pass-protection issues.

DeMarco Murray and Philip Rivers USA TODAY Sports, Getty ImagesSunday's game between DeMarco Murray's Cowboys and Philip Rivers' Chargers could show which team is a real contender.

The Dallas Cowboys travel to Qualcomm Stadium to take on the San Diego Chargers for the first time since 2005, when Drew Bledsoe served as the team’s starting quarterback. The Cowboys hold a 6-3 edge in the series, but haven’t defeated the Chargers in San Diego since 1995.

Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray is fourth in the NFL with 286 rushing yards through three games. Is this the year he finally stays healthy and provides some balance to that Tony Romo-led offense?

Todd Archer: Like everything in the NFL, it's week to week. When Murray sees the Rams, he's very good. He has 253 and 175 yards against St. Louis in two games. He's kind of pedestrian against everybody else. The biggest difference last week was the commitment to the run. The Cowboys started the game well running the ball and stood by it. Will they stand by it when it doesn't start out as well? When Murray rushes for more than 100 yards in a game the Cowboys are 10-0. Clearly that helps Romo, who had to throw it only 24 times versus St. Louis and had three touchdown passes. What the Cowboys do best is throw the ball with Dez Bryant, Jason Witten and Miles Austin, but if the running game can do anything, then they become much more dangerous.

Are we seeing a rejuvenated Philip Rivers after he became a turnover machine the past few seasons?

Eric D. Williams: It certainly appears that way. Head coach Mike McCoy and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt’s installation of an up-tempo offense emphasizing getting the ball out quickly has helped keep Rivers upright. San Diego’s offensive line also has done a nice job of protecting Rivers. He has been sacked only five times through three games. Rivers was sacked 49 times last season, second only to Aaron Rodgers (51). Through three games, Rives has completed 70 of 100 passes (70 percent) for 798 yards, eight touchdowns and just one interception. His QBR of 116.2 is second only to Peyton Manning (134.7), and Rivers has spread the wealth, completing passes to 10 different receivers. Right now, Rivers is part of the solution in San Diego, and not the problem.

The Cowboys are holding teams to just more than 66 rushing yards a contest, and giving up only 18.3 points a game. How has new defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin helped stabilize that side of the ball?

Archer: What Kiffin has done best is keep things simple. Under Rob Ryan, the Cowboys tried a lot of looks and wanted to disguise things. Oftentimes they were just confused and it showed. The 4-3 scheme isn't about tricking people. It's pretty straight forward. The guy who deserves a lot of credit is defensive line coach Rod Marinelli. He has DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher playing well, and guys like George Selvie and Nick Hayden believing they are great players.

Speaking of coaching, how are things different for the Chargers with Mike McCoy after so many years under Norv Turner?

Williams: Accountability and attention to detail are key buzz words at Chargers Park. Under the direction of new general manager Tom Telesco and McCoy, the Chargers are in the process of revamping the roster, with 21 new players on this year’s team. Veteran holdovers such as Rivers, tight end Antonio Gates and safety Eric Weddle help provide some consistency, giving San Diego a chance to win each week. But in order to build a roster that can be a championship contender long-term, Telesco and McCoy understand that a talent upgrade is needed on both sides of the ball.

At 2-1, the Cowboys sit atop the NFC East. Is this the year the Cowboys finally put it all together and make a deep playoff run?

Archer: I've been covering this team since 2003, and the one thing I've learned is just when you think they have it figured out they falter. So I can't say they have it all figured out. To me that's why this game is pivotal. The early part of the schedule is the easiest, so coming out with a 3-1 mark at the quarter mark is important. I will say this, though: The NFC East looks brutal, so the Cowboys should be in the race the whole year even if they don't win games early. But we know how this team has done in December over the years. If the Cowboys can, they want to have the business taken care of before they get to Week 17.

From the outside, the pass defense looks brutal in San Diego. What's the deal?

Williams: Youth and inexperience are the key culprits here. Besides Weddle and cornerback Derex Cox, the Chargers are young in the back end defensively. On the Titans’ go-ahead score last week, recent addition Crezdon Butler was forced into action because Shareece Wright and Johnny Patrick were out with hamstring injuries. Butler gave up a 34-yard touchdown to Justin Hunter at the end of the game. The Chargers have zero interceptions on the year. But the defensive backfield also needs to get more help from the front seven. San Diego has just six sacks in three games.


Double Coverage: Seahawks at Texans

September, 27, 2013
Matt Schaub and Russell WilsonGetty ImagesMatt Schaub and Russell Wilson have combined to throw 12 touchdowns through Week 3.
When they saw each other at the Pro Bowl earlier this year, Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt told Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson that if Watt had just stayed another year at Wisconsin, they might have won a national championship together.

“I wish I knew he was coming,” said Watt on Wednesday, who left Wisconsin after his junior year, just as Wilson arrived.

Sunday at Reliant Stadium, they might see a lot of each other. The matchup between the Texans and Seahawks will pit the league’s two best defenses against each other. But Wilson won’t be easy to contain for a Texans’ defense that gave up only 236 yards in last week’s loss to the Baltimore Ravens. The Seahawks, meanwhile, are coming off such a dominating win over the Jacksonville Jaguars that Wilson didn’t need to finish the game.

Texans reporter Tania Ganguli and Seahawks reporter Terry Blount take a look at the matchup.

Ganguli: So Terry, what makes Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman special?

Blount: Preparation, enormous athleticism and confidence are what makes him special. I know many people outside of Seattle just see Sherman as a arrogant guy with a big mouth. That's a big mistake. Sherman is an extremely hard worker who spends hours studying film of every receiver he faces. Consequently, he rarely gets fooled on a play, and the few times when he does, he has the athletic ability to react quickly, overcome it and get back to the ball.

Tania, how do you think Andre Johnson will do against the talented Seattle secondary, and especially a head-to-head matchup with Sherman?

Ganguli: The Texans are considering Johnson day-to-day right now. He didn’t look right when he tried to play Sunday after suffering a shin bruise in Baltimore and ultimately recognized that it was better for him to leave and heal than play hindered by the injury. If they don’t have him, the Texans will look to rookie receiver DeAndre Hopkins, a budding star who has shown talent from the moment he arrived in Houston, but also improved steadily as a rookie.

And speaking of young players, how has quarterback Wilson changed in his second year?

Blount: Wilson is willing to take a lot more chances on difficult throws now because he understands what his receivers are going to do and where they will be. In the Jacksonville game, he made what appeared to be a dangerous throw in the middle of the end zone when Sidney Rice had three defenders near him. But Rice had signaled Wilson to toss it up high and Rice would get it, which he did. Wilson knows the offense now and has complete confidence to make plays at clutch moments, and his teammates believe in him.

Wilson is at his best when he scrambles and improvises, often resulting in big plays downfield. Can the Texans defense contain him?

Ganguli: The most mobile quarterback they faced so far this season was Titans quarterback Jake Locker, who threw two touchdown passes but had a QBR of 44.3 against the Texans. They haven’t faced a quarterback who is such an accurate passer while having the ability to use his legs and improvise. Wilson’s numbers have been among the best in the league this season. That will be a challenge for a defense that wants to be the best in the league.

You wrote that the loss of left tackle Russell Okung didn’t hurt much against the Jaguars, but how do you see it impacting the Seahawks going forward?

Blount: Tania, this has to be Seattle's biggest concern entering the Texans game. The Seahawks may be the deepest team in the league, but the offensive line, and particular the tackle spots, is a thin area. They are no match for J.J. Watt. Paul McQuistan moved from guard to left tackle to replace Okung, but the team is weaker without Okung on the field. Right tackle Breno Giacomini probably won't play because of a knee injury. That means rookie Michael Bowie, a seventh-round draft choice, will have to go head-to-head with Watt. Bailey is talented, but he has a lot to learn. Throwing him out there this week against Watt is truly scary for the Seahawks.

I know the Seahawks have major concerns about trying to stop Watt and keeping him off Wilson. Do you see Watt having a big game Sunday?

Ganguli: Watt has a keen ability to exploit weaknesses in inexperienced players. And if he doesn’t know it right from the start, he figures it out eventually. He’s a player with work ethic to match his talent, which isn’t always the case with athletes of his caliber. Watt has been the third most effective player at disrupting opponents’ passes since he entered the NFL. He ranks behind San Francisco’s Aldon Smith and Minnesota’s Jared Allen. Watt has played very well this season and he’s determined to have a better year than he did last year when he led the league with 20.5 sacks and 16 batted passes.

The Seahawks secondary gets the most attention, but how has their defensive front played and what are their strengths and weaknesses?

Blount: This was an area of needed improvement at the end of last season, so the staff made a major effort to bring in veterans who could help with the pass rush. It worked. Defensive linemen Michael Bennett, a free agent Seattle signed after he spent four years in Tampa Bay, has been a force up front. Cliff Avril, the biggest offseason acquisition, was hurt all preseason, but is back now and just starting to contribute. Defensive end Chris Clemons, the team's top pass-rusher last season, returned last week after offseason ACL surgery. And O'Brien Schofield, who was released at Arizona, has been strong at linebacker and defensive end. This is a much stronger, deeper and quicker group than it was a year ago, and it still doesn't have Bruce Irvin. He returns next week after a four-game suspension for PEDs.

Tania, these teams have two of the best running backs in the NFL in Arian Foster in Houston and Marshawn Lynch at Seattle. Which running back do you think will have the upper hand on Sunday?

Ganguli: The running back situation has been interesting in Houston this season. The Texans eased Foster into the season after he missed the entire preseason and in the meantime backup Ben Tate has played very well. Tate is in a contract year and if he keeps up the way he’s started, he’ll be making some money after the season. His yards per carry have been strong and even better have been his yards after contact, 4.5 yards, the best in the NFL. If we’re talking fantasy numbers, Lynch will definitely have the upper hand on Sunday. Foster will be sharing his load with Tate.

Last question from me: What is one name Texans fans might not know that they will after Sunday’s game?

Blount: Great question. I'll pick a couple. First might be middle linebacker Bobby Wagner, a second-year player who is growing into one of the best linebackers in the league. Another is slot receiver Doug Baldwin, an exceptional possession-type receiver who has a knack for making the big catch on third down.

And finally, everyone talks about how the Seahawks have the best home-field advantage in the NFL, but I’m a Houston native who has seen some pretty rabid fans down there, as well. How much of a factor can the crowd be Sunday at Reliant Stadium?

Ganguli: They are a rabid bunch and have the added benefit of a perpetually closed roof that keeps their rabidity trapped like a greenhouse gas. They’ve been frustrated recently, but if their team plays well on Sunday, it will be loud.

Tom Brady and Matt RyanGetty ImagesTom Brady and Matt Ryan have both come in for heaping praise ahead of Sunday's meeting.

ATLANTA -- There are $100 million reasons why Matt Ryan should be talked about among the NFL’s elite quarterbacks. One thing the Atlanta Falcons quarterback doesn’t have that his Sunday-night counterpart possesses is a Super Bowl ring.

Ryan's showdown with New England Patriots star Tom Brady is sure to be a hot topic throughout Week 4. He already lost one such head-to-head matchup, when Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints got the better of Ryan and the Falcons in the season opener (23-17).

So how will Ryan fare against the Pats? He’ll need help from all phases, something he didn’t receive in last week’s loss to the Miami Dolphins. Falcons team reporter Vaughn McClure and Patriots reporter Mike Reiss break it down:

McClure: The Falcons were touted as a Super Bowl contender -- and possibly a favorite -- going into the season. But now, at 1-2, they find themselves in almost a must-win situation at home. How will the Patriots respond to the hostile environment they’ll enter Sunday night at the Georgia Dome?

Reiss: With 13 rookies on the 53-man roster -- including receivers Aaron Dobson (second round) and Kenbrell Thompkins (undrafted), who are playing key roles -- there is an element of unknown for the Patriots when projecting how the team will respond. Some of these players simply haven’t experienced this environment and prime-time stage. It’s rare for a Patriots team to be relying on such a large number of rookies for significant contributions, and that is one of the interesting storylines from a New England perspective this week. Other storylines are if this might be tight end Rob Gronkowski's season debut, if receiver Danny Amendola will also return after missing two games with a groin injury and if the defense -- which has been solid against lesser competition (Jets, Bills, Buccaneers) -- can limit an explosive passing game that is easily the best the unit has seen to this point in the season. Give us a feel for how things are going for the Falcons on offense.

McClure: Not too well, at the moment. Head coach Mike Smith’s biggest complaint is how inefficient his team has been in the red zone. During the Week 3 loss to the Dolphins, the Falcons were 2-of-5 in red zone opportunities. For the season, they are 6-of-12 (50 percent) in terms of touchdowns in the red zone, but offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter wants that number to be a bit higher. Having bruising running back Steven Jackson in the lineup would no doubt help in goal-line situations, but Jackson will miss Sunday’s game while nursing a hamstring injury. Receiver Roddy White is also a solid red zone target, but White is not 100 percent healthy coming off a high-ankle sprain. Ryan still has Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez as primary scoring weapons. How do you think the Patriots will keep up with the speedy receiver and ageless tight end?

Reiss: I think it starts with how they decide to match up against the Falcons’ “11 personnel” (one back, one tight end), because that looks like the most explosive package -- receivers Jones, White and Harry Douglas, with Gonzalez at tight end and either Jacquizz Rodgers or Jason Snelling at running back. Last Sunday against the Buccaneers’ “11 personnel,” the Patriots stayed in their base defense but played with three cornerbacks in the secondary -- their way of staying sturdy against the run but adding a coverage element to the secondary. I’d be surprised if we see that this week because the Falcons are much more potent in the passing game. So I could envision the Patriots turning to a coverage-heavy dime defense (six defensive backs), specifically with Jones and Gonzalez in mind, with the thought that a lighter box might be enough to limit the running game. For the Falcons, how are things shaping up on defense?

McClure: The defense has had its issues. Take the Miami game, for example. The Falcons held a 23-20 lead with just less than five minutes remaining in regulation. The defense needed to close, needed to put pressure on Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill, needed to lock down the receivers. Instead, the Falcons played soft coverage after the Dolphins reached midfield and couldn’t disrupt Tannehill’s rhythm. In the end, Tannehill engineered a 13-play, 75-yard drive that ended with his game-winning touchdown pass to Dion Sims. Not playing tight coverage and not wrapping up on tackles cost the Falcons in that game, and it could cost them the rest of the season if they don’t find a way to correct those problems immediately. They could use their defensive leader, linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, who was placed on injured reserve (foot) with a designation to return in Week 11. One other aspect noticeable in Miami was how the Dolphins tight ends won their one-on-one matchups against the Falcons on that final drive. That being said, will Atlanta have to contend with one of the best tight ends in the league, Gronkowski?

Reiss: We might not know the answer for sure until 90 minutes before kickoff, but things have been pointing in that direction. The one area the Patriots could use Gronkowski most, at least initially, is in the red zone. One season after ranking first in the NFL in red zone touchdown percentage (which we acknowledge isn't a foolproof stat), the Patriots rank last (4-of-13). It’s going to be hard to win a game like this settling for field goals. Speaking of which, let’s not overlook special teams. The Patriots are getting good contributions in that third phase of the game, with a 53-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski a highlight in Sunday’s victory over the Buccaneers. How about the Falcons?

McClure: Yet another area in which the Falcons could use much improvement. Against the Dolphins, returner Douglas fumbled a punt he admitted he shouldn’t have fielded in the first place. It translated into a Dolphins touchdown three plays later. The usually reliable Matt Bryant missed a 35-yard field goal in the fourth quarter. And the Falcons had three penalties on special teams: two holds and an illegal block above the waist. Through three games, the Falcons are ranked 26th in punt return average and 30th in kickoff return average, although they’ve returned just one kickoff. Those special-teams issues are enough to cause special-teams coordinator Keith Armstrong to blow a gasket. Speaking of that, is Brady still yelling at his receivers?

Reiss: Could you hear him down there in Atlanta? That was probably the most talked about storyline after New England's 13-10 win over the Jets on Sept. 12, whether Brady’s on-field frustrations were making things tougher on the young receivers than they needed to be. But it was mostly yelling at himself this past Sunday. He was upset with an end zone interception he said he shouldn’t have thrown. And he missed some open receivers, too. So while Brady’s stats were better last week, his performance wasn’t up to his own high standard, and it was actually more about him than the young pass-catchers, who turned in their best performance of the season. What is Ryan saying about this matchup?

McClure: Ryan said plenty about the Patriots when he addressed the media in the locker room Wednesday. He said he expects to see a lot of man-to-man coverage and complimented the Patriots for being very sound with their technique. He believes the front seven does a great job of creating pressure in both the run game and against the pass. Of course, Ryan gave much credit to Brady for being one of the top quarterbacks in the league for such a long time. In fact, Ryan joked that he hoped to be around as long as Brady. And Ryan singled out Vince Wilfork for not only being a disruptive force up front, but for being a 325-pound guy who plays a lot of snaps. So what’s the word from Bill Belichick?

Reiss: Belichick complimented Ryan, saying among other things that Ryan has very few bad plays. He shared his belief that consistency is the mark of any great player and Ryan is “pretty consistent -- every play, every game, every series.” And, according to Brady, Belichick said the following to players this week: “If you love football, then Sunday night at 8:30 in Atlanta will be the place to be.” Hard to imagine many would disagree about that. This is going to be fun.


Double Coverage: Ravens at Bills

September, 26, 2013
Fred Jackson and Bernard PierceUSA TODAY SportsWith ailing starters on both teams, RBs Fred Jackson and Bernard Pierce could see a lot of action Sunday.
The Baltimore Ravens and Buffalo Bills will meet Sunday for the first time since 2010, when Baltimore edged Buffalo 37-34 in overtime.

It's only September, but it might not be too early to call this a must-win for the Bills, who sit at the bottom of the AFC East at 1-2. If Buffalo can't pull out a win over the Ravens on Sunday, they face a tough four-game stretch that begins next Thursday in Cleveland.

The Ravens, on the other hand, must be feeling good after toppling the Houston Texans 30-9 last week. They are now 2-1 and in first place in the AFC North. Bills reporter Mike Rodak and Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley dig deeper into this matchup.

Mike Rodak: Jamison, all the talk this offseason was about how the Ravens were set for a Super Bowl slide. After losing some key veterans on both sides of the ball, they just weren’t going to be the same team, some said. That belief seemed to hold up in their opener, in which the Denver Broncos had their way with Baltimore, scoring 49 points. But in the past two weeks, we’ve seen the Ravens pick up steam at home, handily defeating the Texans on Sunday. Was Week 1 just an anomaly, and have the Ravens overcome their offseason changes?

Jamison Hensley: Mike, not to sound too much like an apologist, but the Ravens were in a tough spot in Denver. They were facing a Broncos team that waited seven months for revenge and had seven new starters from the Super Bowl team that faced Peyton Manning. The Ravens have since changed their personnel in the secondary and their attitude in coverage. Baltimore benched safety Michael Huff and cornerback Corey Graham after the season opener. The Ravens went with two first-round picks, rookie safety Matt Elam and cornerback Jimmy Smith. Baltimore also became more aggressive with receivers and more physical in breaking up passes.

Of course, what also helps is having Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil coming off the edge. They've been able to put a lot of pressure on quarterbacks, such as Brandon Weeden and Matt Schaub. Rushing EJ Manuel is totally different. Have the Bills protected their rookie quarterback this season? And how has Manuel handled the pass rush?

Rodak: If you asked me that last week, Jamison, I think the answer would have been that the offensive line had done a great job protecting Manuel. Through two games, they allowed just one sack, second in the NFL to the Rams, but the flood gates opened last week. The Bills knew the Jets were going to blitz -- that’s the hallmark of Rex Ryan’s defense -- and they couldn’t stop it. Manuel was sacked eight times and hit 16 times. He completed only 45 percent of his throws, and some of his incompletions were ugly. The concern on the Bills’ end, I think, is that teams will copy the Jets’ model going forward, bottling up C.J. Spiller and forcing Manuel to throw downfield. Coach Doug Marrone was asked about this possibility Monday and said that he expects teams to blitz but feels as though it will open up the big play. While he gave credit to the Jets, Marrone said he felt they left some big plays out there Sunday.

For the Bills, Spiller is dealing with a thigh injury, but he expects to play Sunday. What about Ray Rice, who has a hip injury?

Hensley: Rice missed his first game since 2008 when he sat out Sunday. Coach John Harbaugh said Rice has "a chance" to play against the Bills, and I expect him to be labeled the proverbial game-time decision. The bigger question is whether the Ravens are going to get their run game on track, with or without Rice. The Ravens are averaging 2.6 yards per carry, which is next to last in the NFL. Backup running back Bernard Pierce was held to one yard or less on 11 of his 24 carries against the Texans. He's a one-cut-and-run-downhill type of a runner, and he looked very indecisive. The offensive line, especially tackles Bryant McKinnie and Michael Oher, have struggled to open holes.

One of the biggest keys of the game will be whether the Ravens can run at Buffalo. I see the Bills are allowing 155 yards rushing per game. Is that number inflated? Or is there a big concern with the Bills' run defense?

Rodak: There’s definitely concern with the Bills’ run defense. They’re actually allowing more yards per game than they did last season, when they allowed 145 yards per game, 31st in the NFL. They’re tied with Washington as second worst this season. However, it’s worth noting that teams are racking up most of their rushing yards in the middle of the field. Once opponents get deep inside Bills territory, they struggle to run. Buffalo allows just 2.36 yards per rush inside its own 25-yard line, 10th best in the NFL. That’s when a well-stocked defensive line, especially Kyle Williams, seems to be at its best.

What has plagued the Bills, though, is their third-down defense. They rank 27th in the NFL and struggled, especially in the first half, to stop the Jets on third down last week. Jamison, is that something Joe Flacco and the Ravens can exploit?

Hensley: The Ravens are ranked eighth in third-down conversions (44 percent), but this fails to tell the whole story. Over the past two games, Baltimore converted only three of 14 third downs (21.4 percent) in the first half. After halftime, the Ravens have converted 13 of their 18 third-down chances (72.2 percent). The Ravens are going to have to figure out a way to start faster on offense. Torrey Smith and Brandon Stokley are tied for the most third-down catches on the team with seven, although there's a disparity between the average yards for those catches between Smith (24.3) and Stokley (8.3). The Ravens' pass protection has held up well for Flacco this season and limited the Texans' J.J. Watt to one sack. The challenge this time is Mario Williams. Will Baltimore have the same success? We'll find out Sunday.


Double Coverage: Giants at Chiefs

September, 26, 2013
Alex Smith and Eli ManningUSA TODAY SportsThis matchup may hinge on which team gets more pressure on the quarterback.
The Kansas City Chiefs and New York Giants seem like two teams going in opposite directions. Kansas City is off to a 3-0 start for the eighth time in franchise history, while the Giants are 0-3 and coming off a lopsided loss to the Carolina Panthers. Chiefs reporter Adam Teicher and Giants reporter Dan Graziano break down Sunday's matchup.

Adam Teicher: Last week's blowout loss against the Carolina Panthers caught me by surprise. Is this another of Tom Coughlin's slow-starting teams, or are the problems really that deep that the Giants could be serious contenders for next year's No. 1 draft pick?

Dan Graziano: Caught me by surprise, too, Adam. And I'm pretty sure it caught Coughlin by surprise. But the alarming thing on this end is that Coughlin's teams are not traditionally slow starters. He was 5-2 or better in his first seven games in each of his first nine seasons as Giants coach -- a streak that obviously ends this year. The only other time a Coughlin team has started 0-3 was 1995, when the expansion Jaguars lost the first four games in franchise history. So this is uncharted territory for Coughlin and many of his players. If there's a coach in the league who can hold things together through a time like this, even if turning things around is impossible, it's Coughlin. And starting in mid-October, the schedule eases considerably. But the issue is getting to that point. The Giants' next three games take place in a span of 12 days, and two of them are on the road against unbeaten teams, including this one Sunday. The Giants' offensive line was completely shredded Sunday by a very tough Carolina defensive front.

Having watched the Chiefs last Thursday, I'm expecting something similar this week. Do you agree?

Teicher: The front seven for the Chiefs is playing very well. That group has controlled things for large portions of games this season. One thing that's helped is the Chiefs have played mostly with a lead. It would help the Giants if they can get off to a quick start and force the Chiefs to honor their entire playbook. The Eagles rushed for 264 yards against Kansas City last week, so the Chiefs could make some improvements in that area. Tackling at times was more sloppy than it has been all season. Another thing the Chiefs have done is pick on the rookie tackles. They mostly had their way with Jacksonville's Luke Joeckel and Philadelphia's Lane Johnson, so that is an issue for the Giants because they start a rookie, Justin Pugh, at right tackle. Outside linebacker Justin Houston leads the league in sacks with 7.5. He had three against the Jaguars and Joeckel and 4.5 against the Eagles and Johnson, so the Houston-Pugh matchup is one to watch.

Thirteen turnovers in three games is enough to choke any offense. Obviously, there are other problems, like a feeble running game. But assuming the Giants don't cough it up a bunch of times against the Chiefs on Sunday, isn't it reasonable to expect them to score some points?

Graziano: Yes, the Giants' offense should be scoring points. With Eli Manning at quarterback, Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz at wide receiver, Brandon Myers at tight end and a very talented, if star-crossed, David Wilson at running back, they have the weapons to score against anyone. Some week, they will. However, the blocking problems up front are so significant right now that the offense is completely choked off. Manning did not even have time to get to his first or second read on most plays Sunday before he was getting hit, and Carolina's front four got into the backfield on running plays as well. I would expect the Giants to play around with formations a bit to try to help out the line -- maybe run more plays from the shotgun or the pistol. That could be a problem if center David Baas (who had an MRI on his neck Monday) is unable to play. The Giants sure look as though they're capable of outscoring the Chiefs, but they have to find a way to keep those Chiefs defenders off Manning long enough to give him time to throw the ball.

I'm curious about the Andy Reid Revenge Tour aspect of the game. The Giants hammered Reid's Eagles in Week 17 last year in his final game as Philadelphia's coach. Obviously, he had a dead team at that point and his fate was sealed. But Reid was 8-3 the past five years against the Giants, sometimes with inferior Eagles teams. Do you think ol' Andy's got something up his sleeve for his old rivals from New Jersey?

Teicher: Hard to say what Reid will have the Chiefs do this week. The Chiefs had nothing special for another of his old division rivals, the Cowboys, two weeks ago. Dallas was the better team for much of the game. The Chiefs were able to survive that day with plenty of grit and the backing of a loud home crowd. But it appeared he coached with some inside knowledge against the Eagles last week. The Chiefs seemed to dial up consistent pressures that played to Michael Vick's weaknesses. Other than one long pass, the Chiefs were also able to eliminate DeSean Jackson as a threat. Regarding the Giants, I would think Reid would realize, as you point out, that New York is better equipped to win a scoring war than the Chiefs. It plays to Kansas City's strengths if the game is a low-scoring one. It may be instructive that the last two times while coaching the Eagles that Reid beat the Giants, neither team reached 20 points.

The Giants have allowed a ton of points this year, but how much of that is a factor of lousy field position given the 13 turnovers? The one thing I'm most surprised about with the Giants defensively is their lack of a pass rush, which is usually a staple for that team. The pieces still seem to be in place. What explains the inability to get pressure on the opposing quarterback?

Graziano: That is, for me, the most significant issue facing the Giants. The Panthers had more sacks Sunday (seven) than the Giants have in their past eight games (six) dating back to last November. Jason Pierre-Paul, who had 16.5 sacks in 2011 and 6.5 in his first nine games of 2012, has only one in his past 10 games. He played with a back problem last year and had surgery to correct it in June, and he admitted last week that he hasn't been able to play like his old self because of the physical limitations. But he needs to, or else this Giants' pass rush will be ineffective and the defense will be ordinary as a result. Justin Tuck isn't what he used to be, Mathias Kiwanuka isn't consistently creating pressure and rookie Damontre Moore has not practiced enough because of a preseason shoulder injury. If the Giants aren't getting to the quarterback, they're not a good defense. And Pierre-Paul needs to elevate his game or else they're just too easy to stop.

What about that Kansas City passing offense? The Giants are familiar with Alex Smith from his recent San Francisco days and had some success against those teams. How do you describe the way Smith is functioning in Reid's offense?

Teicher: Efficient is the best way to describe Smith. He’s not making mistakes and putting the Chiefs in bad situations. He has four touchdown passes and hasn’t thrown an interception or lost a fumble yet. In large part because of his solid work, the Chiefs were 5-for-5 scoring touchdowns inside the red zone. He has been able to identify some favorable matchups and take advantage. That changed last week against Philly when the Chiefs were only 1-for-6 getting a touchdown while inside the 20. The Chiefs have used mostly a short passing game, which plays to Smith’s strengths. But most of their big passing plays have happened because the receiver made significant yards after the catch. Even at that, Smith is completing only 61 percent of his passes, a low number given the high-percentage nature of a lot of those throws. Smith has been able to put pressure on opposing defenses with his ability not only to scramble out of trouble but also to gain some yardage on the option and other running plays.

Patrick Peterson and Mike WilliamsGetty ImagesMike Williams will be called on to help jump-start Tampa Bay's offense, while Patrick Peterson will be charged with helping to keep him in check.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers aren’t the only NFL team practicing in the Tampa Bay area this week.

The Arizona Cardinals are practicing at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., as they get ready for Sunday’s game.

Cardinals reporter Josh Weinfuss and Buccaneers reporter Pat Yasinskas talk about Sunday’s game.

Yasinskas: Josh, I know IMG has great facilities. The Buccaneers used them during the lockout, and the Carolina Panthers worked out there last year to avoid the congestion from the Democratic National Convention before playing the Bucs. But why did the Cardinals elect to come east early?

Weinfuss: Having just adjusted to the two-hour time difference in New Orleans, Bruce Arians didn’t want his players’ bodies to get totally out of whack going back to Pacific time (technically, Arizona is on Mountain time, but the state doesn’t change its clocks when the rest of the country does) and then five days later fly cross-country to the East Coast, another three hours ahead. I’m tired from thinking about it. This way, the Cardinals can adjust their body clocks to playing what would be a 10 a.m. home game in Arizona. We’ll see whether it works. There’s a pretty significant contingent inside the locker room that's not a fan of this, but those players might be after they realize what their bodies would have gone through. And then there’s playing in the Florida humidity, which takes more than a day or two to adapt to. In Arizona, it’s a dry heat (yeah, I know, everyone doubts it, but it really is), and the Cards neither practice nor play outside, so the added time in the elements could help.

Speaking of elements, is the Bucs' locker room in as much disarray right now as the perception makes people believe?

Yasinskas: It might be in even more disarray than people realize. Wednesday's news that the Bucs are benching quarterback Josh Freeman in favor of rookie Mike Glennon was just more evidence of how much dysfunction is going on with this team. Freeman and coach Greg Schiano never were firmly on the same page, and Freeman's fate was sealed the moment Schiano used a third-round draft pick on Glennon in April. But the fact that Schiano now is going with "his guy" isn't going to instantly solve all the problems. Freeman is a popular figure in the locker room, and some teammates might not agree with his benching. There also have been multiple reports about players not liking Schiano's militaristic style. The Bucs have denied those reports, but I think there's something to them. I believe that where there's smoke, there's fire.

Speaking of coaching styles, it’s early in the Arians era, but what is his persona and how has he been received by the players?

Weinfuss: He’s a no-nonsense type of guy, and the players love it. Well, maybe they loved it. Having a lackluster offense and starting 1-2 wasn’t what this team projected out of Arians. There haven’t been any signs of the players losing faith in their coach. They all raved about him during organized team activities, minicamp and training camp. The players appreciated his candidness with them. If they ever want to know where they stand, he’ll tell them the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Whether they like it or not.

He has been there for only three games, but is the Darrelle Revis acquisition working out and how has he changed the Bucs' defense?

Yasinskas: Revis has been everything the Bucs hoped for. They brought him in to fix a defense that led the league in passing yards allowed last season, and the early results have been good. Revis is the kind of player who makes those around him better, and his arrival really has helped strong safety Mark Barron. I’d imagine the Bucs will put Revis on Larry Fitzgerald for most -- or all -- of this game.

If Revis can neutralize Fitzgerald, do the Cardinals have enough other offensive weapons to win?

Weinfuss: That’s the $10,000 question. The short answer is yes, they do. The long answer is only if the other weapons -- most notably receivers Michael Floyd and Andre Roberts -- are not double-teamed. If they are and Revis can shut down Fitzgerald, it could be a long day for Arizona’s offense. But Arians is a smart enough offensive mind, so I’m sure he has accounted for this. Expect tight end Rob Housler to play an integral role Sunday, and look for the Cardinals’ stable of running backs -- Rashard Mendenhall, Alfonso Smith, Andre Ellington and Stepfan Taylor -- to come out of the backfield for passes and to create mismatches.

Aside from Revis, how has the rest of Tampa Bay’s defense looked?

Yasinskas: The defense has been a bright spot for Tampa Bay. In addition to the secondary, linebackers Mason Foster and Lavonte David, defensive end Adrian Clayborn, and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy are off to very good starts. But the Patriots were able to run the ball against the Bucs, and Tampa Bay had trouble with the tight ends against the Jets and the Saints. The Bucs could be susceptible if Arizona can get some production from the running game or its tight ends.

A.J. Green, Joe HadenGetty ImagesJoe Haden, right, hopes to contain A.J. Green, who had two TDs in his last game in Cleveland.
The 80th edition of the Battle of Ohio may be one of the more intriguing ones in quite some time.

Then again, it is still very early in the season, so maybe not.

Yes, in general, victories have seemed to elude both teams throughout their long tenures. But perhaps the winds have shifted this year. With a new quarterback and a revamped offensive look after the blockbuster trade of their biggest young star, the Cleveland Browns enter the game buoyed by a win and believing in Brian Hoyer.

For the Cincinnati Bengals, hope and hype have meshed this season as their fans think this might finally be the year Cincinnati gets past its first-round playoff hurdle.

As you get set for Sunday afternoon's contest between the 2-1 Bengals and 1-2 Browns, check out the spirited exchange between Coley Harvey and Matt Williamson as they pondered a few storylines:

Matt Williamson: The Browns' pass protection improved dramatically in Week 3 in Minnesota. Joe Thomas and the edge protection did a great job against Jared Allen & Co., but Michael Johnson is coming off a spectacular performance himself. Do you think the Bengals’ pass-rushers continue their dominant ways?

Coley Harvey: It certainly seems the Bengals’ pass rush has finally hit its stride. All season their fans had been waiting for a performance like Sunday’s against the Packers, when they hurried quarterback Aaron Rodgers for eight sacks, and limited him to just 244 yards of passing offense. The week before, he threw for 480. The line also accomplished something that hadn’t been done in five years: batting down three of Rodgers' passes at the line of scrimmage. Johnson was key in those deflections, coming away with arguably the game’s biggest when he swatted Rodgers’ fourth-and-5 passing attempt on Green Bay’s last play of the 34-30 Cincinnati win.

One name that hasn’t appeared much on stat sheets through the first three games is Geno Atkins. The newly re-signed defensive tackle has been swallowed up by double-teams and has been chipped by virtually every player on the offensive lines he has faced. The attention teams are giving him has benefited players such as Johnson and fellow defensive end Carlos Dunlap. You have to imagine that trend continues.

Pressure is something Hoyer seemed to handle pretty well in his start against Minnesota last week. If he gets the nod behind center again this week, do you think he’ll pick up where he left off?

Williamson: I like Hoyer quite a bit ... as the Browns’ long-term backup quarterback. It has surprised me a great deal that he bounced around the league so much in a short amount of time, and I respect how he played in Minnesota, but again, I think his ceiling is that of a high-end backup. Can he spark this team, though? For sure. He clearly has eyes for Jordan Cameron and especially Josh Gordon -- for good reason. Gordon being out of Cleveland’s lineup had a much bigger effect on this offense than many realize. But overall, yes, I think Hoyer can have a nice day once again targeting Gordon and Cameron.

A.J. Green is obviously a very special wide receiver, but the Bengals have gotten away from him at times. They now have a wealth of other receiving options, including the rookies Giovani Bernard and Tyler Eifert, but if Joe Haden can slow down Green one-on-one, much as Ike Taylor did in Week 2, could the Bengals struggle to create offense through the air?

Harvey: Yeah, I suppose that could happen, but I’m not banking on it. There’s just something about playing on the road that seems to get Green going. His home-road splits are actually quite creepy. In the 16 road games he has played in his career, Green has 106 receptions for 1,619 yards and 16 touchdowns. In the 18 games he has played at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati, he’s caught just 75 passes for 1,037 yards and eight touchdowns. He’s even been targeted by quarterback Andy Dalton about 8 percent more often on the road than he has been at home. The two games in which Green was stifled this season? Yep, you guessed it: They were at home.

OK, so maybe I’m reading too far into the home-road splits, but I have a feeling Green will do well this weekend. He had a tough matchup in Week 1 at Chicago. Even though Charles Tillman intercepted two passes while covering him, Green still caught nine passes and two touchdowns. Still, Browns fans should watch Bernard and Eifert. The two rookies figure to be an even larger part of the offense.

There obviously has been a lot made of Cleveland’s offense in the past few weeks, but it looks like D'Qwell Jackson has been the unsung hero of the defense. He had 10 tackles last week. How much should Bengals wideouts and running backs be wary of going across the middle with Jackson out there?

Williamson: Jackson has played very well and is highly productive, for sure. He has excellent range, reads plays well and is excelling against the run and in coverage. But I would say the true unsung heroes are those in front of him. Phil Taylor is a personal favorite of mine as a dominant interior presence that demands extra blocking attention. Taylor makes room for everyone, especially Jackson, to do what they do best, but Desmond Bryant, Ahtyba Rubin, John Hughes and others are also playing very well on the interior for Cleveland and should give Cincinnati’s guards and center all they can handle against both the run and pass.

I briefly mentioned Gio Bernard earlier and I must say, I don’t think it will be long before he is putting up Pro Bowl numbers year after year for the Bengals. But right now, he and BenJarvus Green-Ellis split carries, which makes some sense so early in Bernard’s career. However, coach Marvin Lewis needs to unleash his rookie running back. When do you see that happening?

Harvey: I agree with you, Matt. At some point, Lewis needs to start going even more with Gio. And that’s not a slight to Green-Ellis. He’s been a solid back since he arrived in Cincinnati, and has even benefited from having Bernard on the field. When they’re on the field together, Green-Ellis’ yards-per-carry average is higher than it is when he’s back there in a one-back formation.

I suspect the Bengals will keep bringing along Bernard slowly, but before the season is over he should be seeing 20 touches.

Double Coverage: 49ers at Rams

September, 26, 2013
Colin Kaepernick and James LaurinaitisGetty ImagesThe 49ers' Colin Kaepernick and the Rams' James Laurinaitis will try to help their respective squads avoid a 1-3 start.
No NFL division rivals were more evenly matched than the St. Louis Rams and San Francisco 49ers in 2012. It took almost 10 full quarters to determine a winner after the teams tied in San Francisco and went late into overtime in the meeting in St. Louis.

The Rams and 49ers renew acquaintances in front of a national audience at 8:25 p.m. ET Thursday night at the Edward Jones Dome. ESPN Rams reporter Nick Wagoner and 49ers reporter Bill Williamson kick around some important topics heading into the game in this edition of Double Coverage.

Wagoner: These two teams couldn’t possibly have played a pair of closer games in one season than they did last year. That came as something of a surprise given the way San Francisco was bullying opponents from week to week. Somehow, the Rams seemed to have the 49ers' number last year. How much does that bother 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh & Co. entering this one?

Williamson: I am sure the 49ers are not thrilled to be playing at St. Louis on a short week right now. Times are tough in San Francisco. They are under .500 and have lost two games in a row for the first time under Jim Harbaugh. They are having issues on both sides of the ball, dealing with Aldon Smith going to rehab and experiencing many injuries. To top it all off, the Rams, as you said, had success against the 49ers last year when they were playing at a high level. I think the 49ers are focusing this week on getting themselves fixed and not worrying about their recent past with the Rams. But if the Rams strike first, it could get in the 49ers’ heads.

Wagoner: Well, on the bright side for San Francisco, the Rams are going through some troubles of their own after getting decimated in Dallas last weekend. That the Rams are 1-2 at this point isn’t a huge surprise, but the way the Cowboys manhandled them has caused some to push the panic button already. Playing a division rival at home on short rest should serve as a quick way to snap out of whatever funk it was that plagued them in Dallas. On the flip side of that equation, it also doesn’t provide much time to fix all the problems that have been evident not just against the Cowboys but in the first three weeks as a whole.

You mention the loss of Aldon Smith; how does that affect the Niners on the field and perhaps in the locker room?

Williamson: Moving forward, I think the biggest effect is on the field. The team has had time to allow this to hit them. If anything, it might have been a distraction Sunday against the Colts. Now, they are worried about being without Smith on the field. He has 37 sacks since he came into the league in 2011, the most in the NFL during that span. The 49ers are going to use rookie Corey Lemonier, a third-round pick, and Dan Skuta, mostly a special-teamer, in Smith's absence. The 49ers’ entire defense is going to have to respond well as it begins to play without Smith. Suffice to say, it won’t be easy.

Wagoner: The 49ers playing without Smith bodes well for the Rams given the fact that he’s had so much success against them in previous meetings. Smith had five sacks in four games against the Rams, so his absence is a good thing for an offensive line that gave up six sacks last week in Dallas. Before that game, the Rams had a four-game streak dating to last season of not allowing a sack, but it appeared to be a bit of smoke and mirrors this season given the Rams’ penchant for short passes and not having faced a team with a top pass-rusher. Perhaps more important for the Rams’ offensive line this week will be establishing the line of scrimmage and trying to get the running game going. It’s an area where the Rams have yet to show much life but one they’ll absolutely need against the 49ers.

Speaking of areas that haven’t revved up yet, 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick isn't off to the best start. What have you seen from him so far and what type of changes (if any) have the 49ers made schematically since last year?

Williamson: It’s weird, Nick. Kaepernick was brilliant -- basically flawless -- against the Packers in Week 1. But he has really struggled in the past two games as the 49ers have scored a combined 10 points. Frankly, this offense has been incapable of playing winning football the past two weeks. But it’s not all on Kaepernick. The receivers (other than Anquan Boldin) have not gotten open and the offensive line, which has been great in the past, has slid back. Kaepernick seems flustered. He has to rise above it and become the leader. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more of the read-option (it has been used sparingly this season) against the Rams to give the offense a spark.

Wagoner: That’s an interesting thought given the Rams’ relative success against the read-option last year. The Rams seemed to be on to the basic keys to slowing it down and that played a big part in their win against the 49ers in St. Louis. They had it defended well enough to score a game-changing touchdown on a missed pitch late in that one. One thing that could play in San Francisco’s favor is the knee injury to defensive end William Hayes. It’s unlikely Hayes will play this week and he’s the best the Rams have at setting the edge and blowing up run plays. That’s a big loss for the Rams going into this one.

Sunday’s game between the Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears has some major implications for both teams a month into the season.

A Chicago win would give the Bears a two-game lead over the rest of the division. If Detroit wins, it would share the early lead with Chicago and give the Lions a potential edge in important tiebreakers when it comes to division titles and potential wild-card berths.

For Detroit, it is a chance for a rare win against the Bears. Chicago has won nine of its past 10 games against the Lions.

ESPN Bears reporter Michael C. Wright and ESPN Lions reporter Michael Rothstein break down some of the keys to the game.

Rothstein: Let’s start here. Chicago has won nine of the past 10 in this series. Is there any sense of overconfidence in the Chicago locker room, or has the Lions' start really kept that down?

Wright: Not at all because the Bears know they could be 0-3 as easily as they became 3-0. Remember, Jay Cutler led the Bears on back-to-back late comebacks to start the season, and they almost let Sunday’s game in Pittsburgh get away from them. So they know how fortunate they are to be the only undefeated team in the division, and they’re not taking the fast start for granted because, remember, just last season the Bears started off 7-1 only to lose five of their last eight to miss the playoffs. This game is essentially for first place in the NFC North. What’s the feeling in the Lions' locker room with such a high-stakes game coming up and the team coming off a big road win at Washington?

Rothstein: That it is early in the season. The players have stressed the importance of divisional games in the past, as has their coach, Jim Schwartz. But the truth is, this game would be a huge deal for Detroit if it won. It would give the Lions early control of the division and a two-game winning streak heading into a place they haven’t won in a long time -- Green Bay. There is definitely confidence in this group and the feeling that it can make enough plays to win games. That said, this is the first time Detroit will see the Bears under new coach Marc Trestman. How much different do the Bears look?

Wright: Chicago definitely features more diversity with formations on offense than it did a year ago, but don’t expect anything elaborate or mind-boggling in terms of actual play calls. Trestman and the offensive staff have been adept at finding weak spots in opposing defenses and drawing up the plays that will work best given the matchup. The biggest difference you’ll see is the improvement in protection, and the fact that Cutler now spreads the ball to other receivers as opposed to relying solely on Brandon Marshall. Because of the improved protection, running back Matt Forte no longer has to stay in and chip-block, and that frees him up to get out on pass routes. So Forte is another weapon for Cutler, as is Martellus Bennett, Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. If teams take away Marshall, Cutler now has plenty of options in the passing game. In the past, the Lions’ front four has given Chicago problems. How potent is Detroit’s defensive line this year with guys like Ziggy Ansah, Nick Fairley and Ndamukong Suh in the mix?

Rothstein: This group might be the most talented and deepest in the NFL. Suh is having a standout season, even if he isn’t putting up big numbers. His pressure of opposing quarterbacks has forced two interceptions in three games. Plus, the attention that opposing offensive lines place on blocking Suh opens things up for Fairley, Ansah and Willie Young. Ansah has 2.5 sacks and has a high-level speed burst for a defensive end. All of the linemen complement each other well, and that forms a highly productive unit. The biggest key there is the four linemen can pressure quarterbacks on their own, and that allows defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham to scheme differently than normal in the back seven. The Bears appear to have done a good job protecting Cutler this year, at least statistically. Now they face one of the toughest defensive lines in the NFL. What's the strategy for holding up there?

Wright: Chicago showcased its new offense in Week 1 against a formidable Cincinnati Bengals defensive line and didn't allow a sack, and the protection held up well Sunday night against a blitzing Pittsburgh front seven. So the Bears feel they’re battle-tested in terms of protection, and obviously a major component of the success they’ve experienced on the offensive line is new additions such as left guard Matt Slauson, rookies Kyle Long and Jordan Mills on the right side and tight end Martellus Bennett. Schematically, the Bears aid the protection with a faster, more rhythmic passing attack with drops designed to get the ball quickly out of Cutler’s hands. The Lions lost defensive end Jason Jones to a season-ending knee injury, so who’s the next man up, and what does he bring to the table?

Rothstein: It’ll likely be a combination of players, but the immediate answers are veterans Young and Israel Idonije, along with rookie Devin Taylor. Young is having a productive season with 10 tackles, a sack and the ability to pressure the quarterback. Bears fans should be familiar with Idonije, who played in Chicago the past nine seasons. Taylor is the question mark. He’s best known for lining up as the defensive end opposite Jadeveon Clowney at South Carolina, but he is extremely athletic and could be a matchup problem if he can get over his inexperience. Shifting to Chicago’s defense, working with the assumption Reggie Bush plays Sunday, how would you anticipate Chicago defending the Lions?

Wright: The Bears won’t deviate from playing their standard 4-3 over front, where the focus is penetration and gap control. Bush is certainly a dynamic threat on the edges in the passing game, but the Bears probably won’t experience much difficulty handling him because they’ve dramatically improved the athleticism of the linebacking corps with the additions of James Anderson and D.J. Williams to play alongside Lance Briggs. So they won’t put in any new wrinkles. If anything, the Bears will probably just focus more this week on defending the screen game, and accomplishing that task will also involve the club’s athletic defensive linemen such as Julius Peppers. Bush said he could’ve played against the Redskins. What’s the latest on his injury situation, and what does he add to Detroit’s offense?

Rothstein: I would be very surprised if Bush did not play Sunday -- especially now that wide receiver Nate Burleson is out for the foreseeable future. The Lions' offense is just so much different with Bush in the lineup -- whether he lines up in the backfield, out wide or in the slot. His ability to accelerate out of screens, dump-off passes and if he gets a small crease in the backfield is a skill few players in the NFL have. That Detroit has him along with the league’s best overall wide receiver in Calvin Johnson offers a tough matchup to defend when both are healthy. One of Chicago’s biggest playmakers is Devin Hester. Is he returning to early career form in that area, or was that more of a coverage issue by opponents?

Wright: Hester isn’t thinking as much, and he’s a fresher player than in years past because he’s no longer playing receiver, which has allowed him to focus solely on duties as a return man. Shortly after Trestman took the head-coaching job, Hester indicated to the coach a desire to focus solely on special teams. From there, Trestman said he “was all in” with the move. Hester no longer spends time during the week in offensive meetings with the receivers. The club has allowed him to concentrate exclusively on contributing as a special-teamer, and that’s paid dividends. Detroit’s biggest playmaker is Calvin Johnson. Given all the attention teams give him, how important has it been for the Lions to diversify distribution of the ball in the passing game?

Rothstein: It has been key, although it’ll be interesting to see how that changes now that Burleson is out. The obvious option is receiver Ryan Broyles, who played for the first time this season against Washington this past weekend. He is almost definitely going to receive more snaps and more targets. The other option could be an increased role for tight ends Joseph Fauria and Tony Scheffler. They both have receiving skills for tight ends, and at 6-foot-7, Fauria has already turned into an enticing red zone target. Now he may end up on the field in more than just scoring situations.


Double Coverage: Colts at Jaguars

September, 26, 2013
Maurice Jones-Drew and Trent RichardsonUSA TODAY SportsMaurice Jones-Drew and Trent Richardson will square off Sunday in Jacksonville.
The winless Jacksonville Jaguars return to EverBank Field after spending more than a week on the West Coast -- they played at Oakland on Sept. 15 and remained in California to prepare for this past Sunday's game at Seattle -- for Sunday's game against the Indianapolis Colts. The Colts had a much better trip out West than the Jaguars. They routed host San Francisco 27-7 on Sunday by shutting down 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. The Jaguars, meanwhile, fell to 0-3 after the Seahawks routed them 45-17. Sunday presents another tough task for the Jaguars. Colts reporter Mike Wells and Jaguars reporter Michael DiRocco take a look at this week's matchup.

Michael DiRocco: Mike, Peyton Manning was such an iconic figure in Indianapolis. With all the success he's had in his first 20 games, has Andrew Luck come close to that level yet?

Mike Wells: Manning may be on his way to his fifth MVP trophy out there in Denver, but the Colts could be set at quarterback for the next decade with Luck. It’s only natural to compare the quarterbacks because they both carry themselves in the same manner. They’re humble, perfectionists and, best of all, damn good quarterbacks. Luck isn’t at the same level as Manning, but the goal in Indianapolis is for him to reach that status or beyond. Speaking of quarterbacks -- or maybe it’s not a good idea -- what’s going on down there in Jacksonville with that situation? When do the Jaguars officially throw in the towel and say Blaine Gabbert is not the answer for them?

DiRocco: That is the general belief around Jacksonville, but that's not yet the case for new general manager Dave Caldwell and coach Gus Bradley. They have given Gabbert a clean slate and will evaluate him based on what they see from the 6-foot-4, 235-pounder this season. They have to find out whether Gabbert is the player around whom they can build the franchise, so this season is essentially a pressure-packed tryout for him. He has not performed well since being taken with the 10th overall pick in the 2011 draft. This year he's dealing with a pretty porous offensive line, and two of his top three weapons -- tight end Marcedes Lewis (calf) and Justin Blackmon (suspension) -- have yet to play this season. By the end of the season Caldwell and Bradley will know whether Gabbert is the answer. The Colts obviously have one piece of their foundation in Luck, but they recently traded for Trent Richardson to fulfill the role Edgerrin James had for years. My question is this: Who's the next Marvin Harrison?

Wells: They don’t have that receiver yet. Reggie Wayne is obviously a future Hall of Famer, and he’s still playing at a very high level. But he’s also 34 years old. The Colts are hoping that Darrius Heyward-Bey could be that receiver. He was the No. 7 overall pick in 2009, so he has the potential to complement Luck and Richardson. But Heyward-Bey has to get over his case of the drops. Playing well in spurts isn’t good enough. In fact, T.Y. Hilton, the Colts’ third receiver, outplayed Heyward-Bey in the preseason. I hate to do this to you -- and probably a lot of NFL fans -- but is there any possibility that the Jaguars would even think about bringing in Tim Tebow? There are fans down there rallying for him. And if anything, it’ll help in the attendance department.

DiRocco: Not going to happen, no matter how much noise Tebow’s supporters make. The Jaguars are moving forward with Gabbert, and if it turns out he’s not the player around whom they can build the franchise, they’ll look to the 2014 draft to find a quarterback. I covered Tebow at Florida, and he was fantastic, one of the best collegiate players of all time, but he’s just not able to make the leap. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It doesn’t diminish what he did at Florida in any way. As for attendance, the Jaguars actually ranked 20th in that stat last season, drawing an average of 64,984. That’s ahead of teams such as Chicago (62,329), Minnesota (60,725) and Miami (57,379). That was for a 2-14 team that didn’t have Tebow. Sometimes young, talented teams that make the playoffs take a step backward the following season before really taking off a year later. Do you see that being the case with the Colts in 2013?

Wells: The Colts are a better team this season, but they will take a step back with their record by a game. Good fortune was on their side in more ways than one last season. They caught some breaks and Luck led them to seven fourth-quarter comebacks. They're still a playoff team, and if Houston slips up, the Colts will take advantage of it and win the division. The Jags are ranked last in this week's Power Rankings. Will they stay there all season?

DiRocco: I think they'll battle the Browns and -- I can't believe I'm writing this -- the Steelers for the last spot all year. Right now no team is playing worse than the Jaguars, especially on offense. But I do think things will get a little better with the return of Lewis and Blackmon. The offensive line has to play much better, though. Cleveland's victory last week was surprising, but I see that as more of a byproduct of emotion and anger after the Richardson trade than anything else. The Steelers have looked horrible, and the loss of Maurkice Pouncey has them reeling. Plus, we all know it's a matter of time before Ben Roethlisberger gets hurt.

The Denver Broncos and Philadelphia Eagles will collide in high-speed fashion Sunday at Sports Authority Field at Mile High in a 4:25 p.m. ET kickoff.

The 3-0 Broncos feature the league's highest-scoring offense -- their 127 points are 31 more than any other team this season after three weeks -- and quarterback Peyton Manning has thrown for more touchdowns (12) than 29 teams have scored overall.

The Eagles, at 1-2, lead the league in rushing and yards per play (7.0), so this one could have the look of a drag race, think Mile-High Nationals, a summer staple for race fans on the Front Range.

Eagles team reporter Phil Sheridan and Broncos team reporter Jeff Legwold break down the game.

Legwold: Phil, you have been around the Eagles for a long time and have seen the organization go through many changes. Coach Chip Kelly's offense was certainly the talk of the offseason around the league, as most teams discussed wanting to join the fun, to go faster, to get more snaps, to stress defenses with speed. But given what the Broncos have done on offense this season, how fast does Kelly really want to go in Denver? Is there a risk of exposing his defense if he gives the Broncos too many possessions?

Sheridan: There is enormous risk, Jeff, but my sense of Kelly is that he'll want to put the pedal to the metal anyway. He's trying to build a culture, with an aggressive approach to every aspect of the sport. I don't see him easing up for one game, no matter the specific challenges. Besides, I think the Eagles' only chance is to try to match the Broncos score for score and take their chances with a close, high-scoring game. As the Eagles learned the hard way the past two weeks, their defense is not good enough to shut down an opponent at crunch time.

That leads me to this question: Doesn't Denver's up-tempo offense put stress on the Broncos defense? Oakland seemed to move the ball as the game wore on. Doesn't that suggest the Broncos will be vulnerable to Michael Vick, LeSean McCoy and the rest of the Eagles offense?

Legwold: I think that is the risk overall with the move toward up-tempo offenses around the league. It's all well and good to be fast on offense, snapping the ball at light speed, but those 45-second possessions that end in a three-and-out are just about the worst thing for any defense that just got to the sideline. That's one of the most interesting items about the Eagles so far: They have had just one three-and-out that ended in a punt in 38 possessions.

The Broncos were aggressive against the Raiders defensively last week, and linebackers Wesley Woodyard and Danny Trevathan did a quality job keeping Terrelle Pryor hemmed in. The Broncos are a speed defense overall, up and down the depth chart, so the teams that try to run out of open formations, like the three wide, tend not to do as consistently well as the teams that keep them in the base defense and pound away a bit. But McCoy and Vick will easily be their toughest challenge in the run game of the young season. In terms of defense, how would you expect the Eagles to approach the Broncos -- come after Manning a bit or drop into coverage and hope they can fill the gaps?

Sheridan: The Eagles' best bet might be to close their eyes and just pray Manning fumbles the snap. Don't think that's in the game plan, though. Seriously, they know their only hope is to generate some pressure from unexpected sources, be incredibly disciplined in their gap and coverage assignments and be exponentially better at tackling than they have been. They're not going to outsmart Manning, but if they can make him a little uncomfortable and get a break or two -- a fumble, a tipped pass that gets picked off -- they can keep the Broncos from running away with the game. Denver thrives on yards after the catch, which is what killed the Eagles in their two losses.

I was interested in your comments about getting the Broncos into their base defense, because the Eagles have used a lot of three wide receiver sets to get defenses into nickel personnel. So much depends on the corners, so let me ask A) If Champ Bailey is playing, and B) Why Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is so much better than he was in Philadelphia for two lost seasons?

Legwold: Bailey has not played since injuring his left foot in a preseason loss to the Seahawks in mid-August. He certainly wants to play, keeps saying he's "close" and even upped to it "very close" last week. The Broncos would like him out there, especially in this one, but he's going to have to move around better than he did a couple of hours before kickoff Monday night when it was pretty clear he was going to miss his third consecutive game. But if he shows a little better movement this week, especially Thursday and Friday, I think he'll be in uniform.

On DRC, the Broncos gambled a bit on tough love. They essentially, and Rodgers-Cromartie has said this as well, told him what was wrong with him on his visit. They told him why he wasn't playing as well as he should and that they could fix it if he was willing to be coached hard. He said he was and has been. A gifted athlete, Rodgers-Cromartie has been the saving grace with Bailey's injury and has played like a No. 1 guy. I won't be surprised if the Broncos try to work out a little longer deal at some point in the coming months.

I know we've spent plenty of time on offense, but I am wondering if Kelly sees Vick as the long-term future at quarterback -- or as long term as a 33-year-old can be -- or does Kelly have bigger plans at the position?

Sheridan: I would love to know the answer to that one too. The Vick situation is fascinating. If he has a great year and somehow gets the Eagles into the playoffs (not as far-fetched as it sounds in an NFC East where half the teams are 0-3), it would be awfully hard to let him walk. But can you re-sign a guy at his age, with his injury history, and expect him to be the guy when you're really ready to contend in one or two or three years? My hunch is that Kelly would love to get one of the quarterbacks in next year's draft, that this year is about getting as much of the rest of the program in place as possible. But that would make much more sense if he had gone with Nick Foles or even rookie Matt Barkley than with Vick, who is just good enough to keep you from drafting high enough for a franchise quarterback.

Since it's a subject of discussion, let me ask you about the altitude. Do the Broncos believe it gives them a physical advantage, or do they see it more as a psychological thing? Is their home-field advantage about thin air or having good teams with loud, passionate fans rocking the stadium?

Legwold: The Broncos believe it gives both a physical and mental advantage. Objectively, for an elite athlete to work for three or so hours in Denver likely has minimal impact on performance. But who's to say even a sliver of impact isn't enough to tip the scales at times. The Broncos' record at home over the decades is well over .600 since 1960, and in September games, they are over a .700 winning percentage at home. The Olympic Training Center is in Colorado and many of the world-class cyclists on the planet train in the area, so it means there's some athletic benefit for the Broncos to work in the altitude. The Broncos particularly feel it's an advantage when they go fast on offense. Watch the Ravens defense in the second half of the opener and it was pretty clear that group didn't enjoy Manning at 5,280 feet.

Phil, great stuff and that should cover it. It could be a long night for both defenses with these two high-powered offenses going at it.