NFL Nation: 2013 NFL Week 7 Double Coverage

Sam Bradford and Cam NewtonUSA TODAY SportsQuarterbacks Sam Bradford and Cam Newton led their teams to victory last week.
The Carolina Panthers and St. Louis Rams put on an offensive showcase in a 2003 NFC divisional playoff game at the Edwards Jones Dome. The Rams overcame an 11-point deficit in the final 2:39 of regulation and the Panthers ended the 29-23 double-overtime thriller with a 69-yard touchdown catch by Steve Smith.

They were two teams loaded with offensive weapons, from St. Louis' Marshall Faulk and Isaac Bruce to Carolina's Smith and Stephen Davis. They had identities.

Fast-forward 10 years to Sunday's game at Bank of America Stadium, where both the Panthers (2-3) and Rams (3-3) are searching for an identity. Panthers team reporter David Newton and Rams team reporter Nick Wagoner are here to break down the 2013 version of this matchup:

David Newton: Nick, it seems both teams have been waiting for their quarterbacks to become consistent winners since they were drafted No. 1, St. Louis' Sam Bradford in 2010 and Carolina's Cam Newton in 2011. Why has it taken so long for Bradford to get there, if he is?

Nick Wagoner: Well, I don't think he is there yet. This is the first year Bradford has had any sort of continuity in terms of scheme, and in the past he's dealt with a mediocre receiver corps and offensive lines that aren't much better. He's not devoid of blame, though. Bradford has had issues in the past with going through progressions and locking onto receivers, among other fundamental problems. He's been up and down this year, but has done a really good job of protecting the ball. Now that the Rams seem to have some semblance of a competent running game, he's been better in the past couple of weeks.

Ultimately, the jury is still out on whether he's the long-term answer, but if he can continue to take care of the ball and toss touchdown passes in leading the Rams to more wins, that picture suddenly gains clarity.

I'm going to ask you to try to analyze Newton. From afar, it seems he struggles with consistency. Is that the case and how do you think he's adjusted to life after Rob Chudzinski?

Newton: Cam Newton's consistency remains a question. Yes, his career-high 143.4 passer rating against Minnesota in Game 5 was impressive, but do you know the last time he topped 100.0 in consecutive weeks during the first six games? Never. Sunday was only the second time this season he completed more than 60 percent of his passes and only the eighth in the past 21 games. His passer rating looks like a yo-yo -- 97.3 to 79.8 to 104.4 to 47.8 to 143.4.

As for life without Chudzinski, it has been a learning process. New offensive coordinator Mike Shula is attempting to go with a more traditional ground game out of the I-formation, but each week he's figuring out better ways to utilize his quarterback's natural abilities. In the long run, he'll make Newton a better quarterback who will have a much longer career relying on his arm more than his legs.

While we're on offense, Carolina's running game ranks seventh in the NFL and the Rams rank 30th against the run. Is this misleading or an area you expect the Panthers to exploit?

Wagoner: Without question, it's the latter. Carolina would be silly not to attack heavily in the run game. The Rams' problems really seem to come in the back seven. Linebacker Alec Ogletree has trouble getting off blocks and is inconsistent tackling, and the Rams aren't getting reliable run support at safety. Darian Stewart has filled in for rookie T.J. McDonald and has really struggled. On top of that, the Rams continue to have issues with being consistently assignment-sound with everyone fitting the proper gaps on run plays.

The Rams' offense, on the other hand, has started to find success in recent weeks with rookie Zac Stacy as the lead back. Carolina has been quite good statistically against the run. Not that the Panthers were bad against the run last year, but what allowed them to go from middle of the pack to upper tier in that area, and do you think that level of success will be sustained over the course of the year?

Newton: First, yes, the Panthers can sustain it. No question the front seven is one of the best in the league. The addition of first-round pick Star Lotulelei and second-round pick Kawann Short at tackle has been key, particularly Lotulelei. He has been as disruptive in the middle as any tackle the Panthers have had since Kris Jenkins was a four-time Pro Bowl selection here. End Greg Hardy has stepped up his game as well, even though statistics might not show it.

Then there is the real strength of this group, the linebackers. Trading Jon Beason to the Giants has been a positive. With Beason out and Chase Blackburn in, defensive coordinator Sean McDermott has had more flexibility with his schemes. Thomas Davis is playing more on the weak side, where Beason was, and has three sacks over the past three games. He has never had more than 3.5 in a season. Blackburn can play either spot as well. And while his tackles are down because Davis and Blackburn have been making so many plays, middle linebacker Luke Kuechly continues to perform at the level that earned him the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year a season ago.

This unit is fundamentally strong. It doesn't need a lot of elaborate blitzes to stop the run or pressure the quarterback. Just ask Adrian Peterson how good the Panthers are. He had a season-low 62 rushing yards, and 31 of those came on one carry.

An area that rarely gets discussed in Double Coverage is special teams. Panthers kicker Graham Gano, who has been flawless on field goals, has had only one kickoff not reach the end zone all season. How key have special teams been for the Rams?

Wagoner: The Rams' special teams have been alternately excellent and awful. They have perhaps one of the best coverage units in the league, with punter Johnny Hekker and kicker Greg Zuerlein having been nearly flawless in their respective disciplines and the young cover guys getting down the field and making tackles consistently. But the Rams have racked up 18 special-teams penalties, with the bulk of those coming on punt returns. That has been maddening for them because many of those infractions have wiped out long returns from rookie Tavon Austin. Progress was made Sunday in that regard, and the Rams even got a touchdown on kick coverage against Houston. The talent is in place in all areas of the special teams. They just need to keep eliminating mistakes and be more consistent.

Getting back to Carolina's defense, I see that the Panthers haven't been too shabby against the pass this year, either. Does that group have any real weaknesses or areas that opponents have been able to exploit? If so, what are they?

Newton: The secondary was suspect before the season and even into the first two games. Since injuries shook things up in Week 2, the Panthers have found the right combination and been solid. They give up passes underneath, as their 68.4 completion percentage -- second worst in the NFL -- attests. Minnesota took advantage last week when Matt Cassel completed 32 passes. But Carolina tackled well and held most of those to short gains.

If I had to pick one weakness, though, I would say left cornerback Josh Thomas. He's solid against the run but soft at times against the pass. If the Rams are to put many points on the board they'll definitely have to do it through the air.


Double Coverage: Chargers at Jaguars

October, 18, 2013
Philip Rivers and Chad HenneUSA TODAY SportsPhilip Rivers and Chad Henne are coming off strong Week 6 efforts heading into Sunday's game.
The Jacksonville Jaguars haven’t given the crowd at EverBank Field much to cheer about this season.

The team has lost both of its home games by a combined score of 65-5 and totaled just 383 yards of offense. But there’s some optimism for Sunday’s game against San Diego because the Jaguars are coming off their two best performances of the season.

They were both losses, but the Jaguars were in the game in the fourth quarter and had their two best offensive outputs of the season.

San Diego is coming off an impressive victory over Indianapolis, which put the Chargers squarely back in the hunt for a playoff spot.

Jaguars reporter Michael DiRocco and Chargers reporter Eric Williams break down the matchup:

DiRocco: The NFL didn’t do the Chargers any favors with a Monday night game followed by a game in Jacksonville that kicks off at what would be 10 a.m. West Coast time. Is this much of an issue with the team and what, if anything, are they doing in terms of modifying their schedule to compensate?

Williams: Teams are always at a disadvantage traveling across the country while coming off a short week. Players injured during the Monday night game have a shorter recovery time, which makes it harder for them to get back on the field. San Diego receiver Eddie Royal suffered a toe injury against the Colts, so his availability for Sunday remains uncertain. The Chargers will travel to Jacksonville on Friday, giving them more time to get acclimated to the time change. San Diego also practices at about 11 a.m. PT during the week, so the body clock of the players should be used to getting up and being ready to compete at that time. Since 2012, the Chargers are 4-3 in 10 a.m. PT starts.

Jacksonville played the Broncos tough on the road, moving the ball on offense and forcing three Peyton Manning turnovers. How much confidence does that effort give the Jaguars as they try and get their first win?

DiRocco: That was by far the Jaguars’ best performance of the season, and the game was much closer than nearly everyone anticipated. And while the players were encouraged by the way they played, they were still disappointed in the outcome because they continued to make critical mistakes that extended drives or put the offense in a hole. There isn't anything but the normal level of frustration seeping into the locker room, though, because the players have bought into coach Gus Bradley’s “the process is important” approach. This means they’re concentrating on improving and becoming more consistent, which in turn will lead to victories. They feel good about themselves because they played better, but they can’t be too confident because they’re still winless.

A former Jaguars player, cornerback Derek Cox, has come under a little fire for the way he has played this season after signing a significant contract. What’s your take on how he has played and whether he’s been worth the money?

Williams: Cox deserves a full season of evaluation before we consider him an under-performer, but he certainly can play better. He signed a four-year, $20 million contract, including $10.25 million in guaranteed money, as San Diego’s No. 1 corner of the future. Cox made his first interception of the year last week against Indianapolis, is second on the team in pass deflections with four and has 26 tackles on the year. He’s played every game, even after suffering a minor knee injury against Dallas three weeks ago. But Cox also has been beat deep a few times, and has not made as many game-changing plays you would like to see from a shutdown corner.

Chad Henne is expected to get the start again Sunday while Blaine Gabbert continues to recover from a hamstring injury. Is either player the long-term answer at quarterback, or are the Jaguars looking to draft their franchise signal-caller in 2014?

DiRocco: One of the top priorities this season was to find out if Gabbert was the player around whom general manager Dave Caldwell could build the franchise. Six games in, however, they’re no closer to that answer because Gabbert has missed three games because of injuries. He hasn't played well when he’s been on the field, either. Henne has played well, however, and is coming off a 303-yard performance against Denver. That being said, neither of them appears to be the long-term answer. Gabbert has been maddeningly inconsistent and still makes the kind of throws that cause you to look around and go, “What was he thinking?” Henne is more consistent, but still leaves too many plays out on the field. The Jaguars are heavily scouting quarterbacks throughout the season -- Caldwell has already been to see Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater play -- and I’d be shocked if they didn't take one with their first-round pick in 2014.

Speaking of quarterbacks, what is it that has sparked Philip Rivers’ mini resurgence this season? Is coach Mike McCoy’s offense just a perfect fit for him?

Williams: McCoy and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt have emphasized ball security and getting the ball out quickly, all while empowering Rivers to make more decisions at the line of scrimmage in the team’s new, up-tempo offense. So far it’s worked. Rivers is third in the NFL in passing yards (1,847), third in passer rating (108.7) and tied for second in the league in passing touchdowns (14). He’s had much better pass protection this season, getting sacked just 10 times through six games. Tight end Antonio Gates is healthy again, and the addition of Danny Woodhead has made teams pay for bracketing Gates. And the emergence of rookie Keenan Allen has given Rivers someone who can consistently win against one-on-one coverage on the perimeter.

Speaking of talented pass-catchers, Justin Blackmon is playing like the dominant No. 1 receiver the Jaguars expected when they selected him in the first round last season. But has he gained enough control over his off-the-field issues so that they do not affect his on-the-field availability again in the future?

DiRocco: That’s the biggest question with Blackmon, and so far the answer appears to be that he has. Teammates and coaches were impressed with the way he handled himself during his four-game suspension. He worked out pretty hard and gained eight pounds of muscle, attended meetings, got someone to throw with him at a nearby field and did some work in the community as well. He seems to have matured a bit, but there is a bit of a holding-their-breath feeling about Blackmon. It all comes down to how much football means to him and whether he makes smart decisions, but he doesn't have a great track record there.


Double Coverage: Broncos at Colts

October, 18, 2013
There will always be games when a player returns, with his new team and wearing a new set of NFL colors, to the city where he once worked. Happens all the time.

And then there is this week. When the former face of a franchise, a future Hall of Famer, returns, not as a legend in the final days of his career, but as a 37-year-old vying for the league's MVP award, having the season of his life with a Super Bowl hopeful. Peyton Manning returns to Indianapolis as the 6-0 Denver Broncos will meet the 4-2 Indianapolis Colts in Lucas Oil Stadium. Broncos team reporter Jeff Legwold and Colts team reporter Mike Wells break down this week's game.

Legwold: Mike, let's get right to it. Manning. Colts. Indianapolis. There isn't much precedent in the league's history for a player of Manning's stature returning, playing as well as ever, to meet his former team. How has it played there? And just how many of the current Colts were even teammates with Manning?

Wells: As much as I hate to admit it, safety Antoine Bethea, a former Manning teammate, said it best inside the locker room in San Diego on Monday, “We see players come and go all the time,” and that the media will make a big deal about it. Bethea was the first Colt not named Jim Irsay to talk about Manning's return. Coach Chuck Pagano didn't even want to talk about it on Tuesday. There are only 11 players still on the roster from when Manning played here. The Colts respect Manning, but they also want to prove they've moved on and they can win without him.

You've been around Manning for more than a season now. Do you get a sense that he'll be more pumped than what he is every weekend?

Legwold: Manning has already been on the media merry-go-round earlier this season when he faced his brother Eli for the third and likely final time in his career. He didn't like it that much and said as much. I think he certainly will want to show, at least in some way, he appreciated his time with the Colts and that he enjoyed the successes there. In the end he will try to play it straight through the week. That said, when Manning arrived in Denver, those close to him said he was initially surprised the Colts actually released him, even though it made sense financially and for the overall direction of the franchise due to the uncertainty surrounding how he would recover from his neck surgeries. As one of the most competitive people in a league full of competitive people, there is likely a part of him that wants to show what he has left for a team that considers itself to be a Super Bowl contender.

To that end, Andrew Luck has consistently seemed comfortable in his role as the team's leader in the post-Manning era, how do you think he will handle all of this? And will he have some added adrenaline?

Wells: Luck hasn't given any indication that he'll prepare for or approach the game any different. It obviously wasn't the same magnitude as what Sunday will be, but the second-year quarterback was put under the spotlight earlier this season when he returned to the Bay Area, where he starred at Stanford, to take on his college coach, Jim Harbaugh, and the San Francisco 49ers. Luck played within himself -– 17-of-26 for 159 yards --and I expect him to do the same thing this weekend. Don't be surprised if offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton tries to get Luck going early in front of the sold-out Lucas Oil Stadium crowd. But don't expect to see Luck throwing the ball 45 times unless the Colts dig themselves into a big hole.

I was little surprised Broncos coach John Fox took exception to Colts owner Jim Irsay's comments to USA Today. Is that normal for Fox to respond the way he did?

Legwold: From the Broncos' perspective, some in the organization see it as Irsay gladly reaping the benefits of the Colts' success with Manning at quarterback, including a new stadium that allowed the city to host a Super Bowl, and now acting as if one Super Bowl win in Manning's tenure sticks in his craw. Fox simply came to the defense of his player, something he does when he sees it as necessary and something that only strengthens his standing in the Broncos' locker room. Manning almost always takes the high road publicly in such things, as he did this week, but there isn't much question he has one of the game's longest memories when it comes to what's been written or said.

Much of what is, or isn't said, this week won't matter much once the ball is snapped, but on the field what do you think the Colts' defensive plan will be against the Broncos' offense?

Wells: Don't expect the Colts to sit back in a Cover 2 the way Jacksonville did. That's not defensive coordinator Greg Manusky's style. The cornerbacks will press up on the receivers and they'll continue to gamble to try to make a play. That may not be the right approach to take because as you know, Manning makes teams pay for their mistakes. It'll be interesting to see if Robert Mathis, another one of Manning's former teammates, is able to get off the edge and get to Manning. Mathis is tied for the league lead in sacks with 9.5. The area of concern for the Colts is at linebacker. Linebacker Jerrell Freeman, the team's leading tackler, had to sit out the second half of last week's game at San Diego with a concussion.

Speaking of linebackers, the Broncos will have Von Miller for the first time this season this weekend. Do you expect him to be rusty after being suspended for the first six games?

Legwold: On the field that may be the biggest question of the week. Miller, under a provision added to the league's collective bargaining agreement in 2006, could attend team meetings during his suspension and work out at the team's strength and conditioning center. He could not practice or attend games. So, all of the on-field work he has done with the strength coaches has been a solo affair. The question will be if he stayed up to speed in the team's defensive playbook – he says he has. He is an impact rusher, a "game-wrecker" as Pagano likes to say (Pagano is a Boulder, Colo., native). Miller's adrenaline will be off the charts, especially early in the game. It wouldn't be a shock for the Colts to test him with a little misdirection early to see if he's up to the challenge. But Miller should have an impact in the pass rush, especially if his conditioning is as good as he says it is.

A lot of folks here are interested to know how Pagano has done healthwise this season following last year's cancer treatments. How important is he to the team's success?

Wells: The fact that Pagano was able to overcome cancer to be back on the sideline coaching at the end of last season is a remarkable story in itself. The players like how he motivates them and is constantly positive. I don't think there are many head coaches in the NFL who would think about heading over to Lowe's (he ended up having somebody else go for him) to purchase mousetraps as a reminder for his team not to overlook winless Jacksonville after beating San Francisco the week before.

So much is said about Denver's passing game, but what about its rushing game? Can it be effective the same way San Diego was last week?

[+] EnlargeVon Miller
Dustin Bradford/Getty ImagesVon Miller will make his season debut against Andrew Luck and the Colts.
Legwold: Much of the Chargers' offense comes from first-year head coach Mike McCoy -- the Broncos' offensive coordinator last season. Denver certainly noted the success the Chargers had running at the heart of the Colts' defense, especially with a zone run scheme. For all of the talk about how much the Broncos throw the ball, and they throw it with purpose in any down-and-distance situation, they are still fifth in the league in carries with 180, or 30 per game. With Manning at quarterback, with this coaching staff, they will always be pass-first, but offensive coordinator Adam Gase's mentor in the league was Mike Martz. And Martz's high-flying offenses always had a major run-game component.

With the Colts' run game, and with Luck 20th among the league's starters in pass attempts, is there an element of having a system in place that doesn't require Luck to have to do everything for the team to win?

Wells: Offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton, who held that same role at Stanford with Luck, is big into being a run-first team. The Colts have stuck to that mindset through the first six games. But it'll be interesting if Hamilton loosens things on the offense this season after the Colts ran for a season-low 74 yards last week at San Diego. Luck gives the Colts the best chance to win. They'll need Luck's arm to beat the Broncos because Manning & Co. are going to put points -- a lot of them -- on the board this week. It's hard to imagine the Colts will be able to run the ball well enough to keep Manning on the sidelines looking antsy to get back on the field.

Passing the ball is probably a good idea since the Broncos are last in the league in defending the pass (338 yards a game). Why have the Broncos defended the pass so poorly?

Legwold: Some of it, especially over the first four games of the season, was a good bit of stat padding late in blowouts by opposing offenses. But there is an element that is a personnel issue as well. Elvis Dumervil left in free agency after the fax fiasco in the offseason, Miller was suspended and Champ Bailey missed five games after injuring his left foot in the preseason. That's 17 Pro Bowl appearances from guys who were in the lineup last season when the Broncos tied for the league lead in sacks. And they have had some sacks -- 17 thus far -- but those plays have often been clustered near the end of games with the Broncos having built 20-point leads. They haven't consistently pressured opposing passers this season and as a result some of those quarterbacks are finding some openings against a steady diet of man coverage in the Broncos' secondary. They know they have to get to Luck this weekend or he will pick away at them.

That should do it, enjoy the game.

Adrian Peterson and Eli ManningUSA TODAY SportsAdrian Peterson and Eli Manning will likely have to carry the offenses on Monday night.
This time last year, the New York Giants and the Minnesota Vikings were both 4-2 and headed for winning seasons. But as they get set to square off on "Monday Night Football" at MetLife Stadium, the Vikings are 1-4 and the Giants an even more miserable 0-6. Giants reporter Dan Graziano and Vikings reporter Ben Goessling break down the matchup of NFC disappointments.

Dan Graziano: Ben, the Giants only have four interceptions and five sacks, so I imagine there were a lot of people in the Vikings locker room interested in playing quarterback in this game. Why did the Vikings pick newcomer Josh Freeman, and what do you expect their offense to look like with him running it for the first time?

Ben Goessling: A lot of this, I think, is an attempt to make a quick-course correction after things with Christian Ponder didn't pan out. If it works, GM Rick Spielman can make people forget about the Ponder pick, the Vikings might win a few games to keep coach Leslie Frazier's job and they could have a solution to their quarterback problem for next season. If it doesn't work? They're only out $3 million.

As for Monday night, I'd expect the Vikings to try to limit how much they put on Freeman, so I expect we'll see plenty of Adrian Peterson (not that we wouldn't anyway). Considering how bad the Giants have been at stopping the run, that could be a good approach for the Vikings. They're always better when they can get a lead and let Peterson go to work, and they haven't done a good job of controlling the clock so far this season. This matchup might give them a shot to do that.

Now back to the quarterbacks: We know Eli Manning has a tendency to turn the ball over, but this has been strange even by his standards. What has been his biggest problem?

Graziano: Yeah, 15 interceptions in six games is stone-cold ridiculous, and I think it speaks to a general lack of comfort for Manning, who for years has thrived on comfort and routine and familiarity. The Giants started the season with major problems on the offensive line, and they have continued (and in some cases worsened) as the year has gone along.

The inability to establish any kind of run game, combined with the early-season failures in pass protection, rattled Manning, and even though the protection has improved overall and Brandon Jacobs managed to rush for 106 yards against Chicago, Manning still just doesn't seem right. He's not making those great, deep sideline throws he used to make, he's missing too many easy throws, and even when he's throwing well, he's staring down receivers and isn't setting his feet. He's just been erratic, and the result the past couple of weeks has been interceptions in the worst possible spots. The Bears didn't really pressure him that much, but he coughed it up anyway in the clutch. Just not himself.

Will he have a chance to get comfortable at all Monday night? How's that Minnesota pass rush these days?

Goessling: It hasn't been up to the Vikings' normal standards, which has been one of their biggest issues on defense. In the past, the Vikings have been able to survive because their pass rush generated enough pressure to mask issues in the linebacking group and the secondary. But the Vikings have just 10 sacks this season, and what's worse, they've had to bring pressure to get some of them -- three of the 10 are from linebackers Chad Greenway and Erin Henderson. They shouldn't have to bring extra pressure with Jared Allen, Brian Robison, Everson Griffen & Co. on the defensive line, and having to do so exposes a porous secondary, which might be even worse this week with Harrison Smith battling turf toe. So, yeah, I think this might be a good week for Manning to get on track.

The Vikings also haven't been as good as they're accustomed to being against the run. Is Jacobs in line to hurt them, or do you see his game against the Bears being a fluke?

Graziano: Got to be a fluke, Ben. The Bears are down to third-stringers in the middle of that defensive line, and the Giants' game plan wisely took advantage of it for Jacobs' throwback-to-2008 game. His 106 rushing yards against Chicago represent 26 percent of the Giants' team total for the season. And, perhaps, most importantly, both he and Da'Rel Scott injured their hamstrings in that game. Scott has been released, and Jacobs didn't practice Monday. Even if he does play, they may not want to work him as hard as they did in Chicago.

The backups are rookie Michael Cox, who doesn't have an NFL carry yet, and Peyton Hillis (yeah, same guy), who signed Wednesday and is no sure thing to even get a uniform for this game. New fullback John Conner looked to be an asset as Jacobs' lead blocker in Chicago, so it's possible things are getting better for the Giants in the run game. But based on their options for carries, this has to come down to Manning and the passing game getting on track.

But I'd like to get back to something you said in your last answer. Ten sacks! That's twice as many as the Giants have. Oddly, in spite of the overall yardage totals, one thing they have done well on defense is stop the run up the middle. They're allowing just 3.9 yards per carry and have held Matt Forte, LeSean McCoy and Jamaal Charles to 67, 46, 65 yards, respectively, in the past three weeks. Peterson is obviously his own special case, but he didn't have a big game Sunday. Do you think the off-field tragedy was or could be a factor in his performance?

Goessling: I didn't see that as a huge issue on Sunday, though I'm sure it was on his mind. It had more to do with the Panthers' stout run defense and the inability of an offensive line that was pretty good last season to open holes for Peterson. As a result of that, he has gotten anxious at times, trying to turn every run into a big play, and he just hasn't looked as fluid this year as he did last season. Missing Jerome Felton, his Pro Bowl fullback, for the first three games didn't help, but now that Felton is back, Peterson has everything he had last year.

If the Giants have been able to hold the point of attack up the middle, Peterson might not have as much success as I would have initially thought. He's obviously capable of breaking a big run at any time (he has touchdown runs of 78 and 60 yards this season), but we're still waiting for him to control a game like he did so often last season.

To wrap this up, complete this sentence for me: The Giants will win on Monday if they ...

Graziano: Get some pressure on Freeman and don't turn the ball over more than once. I'm not holding my breath. Thanks, Ben. This has been fun. See you Monday night.

Vernon Davis and Chris JohnsonGetty ImagesTitans RB Chris Johnson will need to pick up his production in order to pull off an upset over Vernon Davis and the 49ers.
As with the Chiefs and the Seahawks the past two weeks, the Titans look at the 49ers and see a team they want to become.

While Tennessee has pledged to be run-centric and earn the tough yard, San Francisco’s been doing it.

Sunday at LP Field in Nashville, the 49ers will be looking for a fourth consecutive win, while the Titans will be trying to avoid a third consecutive loss.

The Titans are probably getting the 49ers at a bad time -- those bad showings at Seattle and against Indianapolis are an old memory already, as the Niners have scored an average of 34 points over the past three weeks.

The Niners are probably getting the Titans at a good time -- with starting quarterback Jake Locker sidelined, Ryan Fitzpatrick has struggled and Tennessee has topped out at 17 points.

Let’s check out some of what’s been going on.

Bill, we know the Niners struggled at Seattle and against Indianapolis. What's keyed their bounce back?

Bill Williamson: Paul, this was a team in crisis. The Niners lost to the Seahawks and the Colts by a combined score of 56-10. Star pass-rusher Aldon Smith went into an alcohol treatment center a day after the loss to the Colts. But on a short week, the 49ers went to St. Louis and saved their season. They focused on being the 49ers -- they went back to a power running game on offense and they rededicated to stopping the run on defense. The approach has worked beautifully. The 49ers have won three straight games and have outscored their opponents 101-34. Paul, does Tennessee have the means to stop the 49ers’ run and to run on the 49ers?

Paul Kuharsky: The Titans' defense is for real. They’ve made good game-to-game adjustments and have been really solid on third down. The new blood has taken a team that gave up a ton of points in 2012 and really settled things down. That starts with strong safety Bernard Pollard, but also includes Ropati Pitoitua, a run-stopping end who leads the team in sacks. Defensive assistant Gregg Williams’ fingerprints are all over disguised fronts, more frequent blitzes and regular man-to-man coverage. The biggest thing for slowing 49ers running back Frank Gore is getting a crowd to him and tackling well, and the Titans have been pretty good at both. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick running could be a bigger concern, as Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson really hurt the Titans more than RB Marshawn Lynch did last week.

The Titans want to be a physical team that can run and stop the run. Kansas City and Seattle just showed them how it's done. How much does San Francisco fit that mold?

Williamson: Yes, as I mentioned above, that is the 49ers' mantra. In a passing league, the 49ers do their work on the ground -- by running on offense and by stopping the run on defense. The focus on the run breeds success in the passing game on offense and it allows the 49ers to tee off against the pass on defense. The 49ers miss injured receivers Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham, but Kaepernick gets it done in the passing game with tight end Vernon Davis and receiver Anquan Boldin. Davis had 180 yards receiving in Week 6. It was tied for the third-best receiving game by a tight end in the NFL in 20 years. In Week 1, Boldin had 13 catches and 208 receiving yards. Defensively, the 49ers have taken advantage of their success against the run by forcing 10 turnovers in the past three games against frustrated offenses.

Paul, do you think the Titans are capable of stopping that turnover trend?

Kuharsky: It would take a major shift. With Locker in charge through the bulk of four games, the Titans didn’t turn the ball over at all. In the past two games, they’ve given it away five times. And to go with his four interceptions, Fitzpatrick has put the ball on the ground three times but has gotten away with it. To play his best, Fitzpatrick probably needs to take some risks. But it’s got to be smart risk. If he overthrows guys or throws too far inside on a ball that has to be outside, as he did in Seattle, the Titans will have problems. The Niners are on a good takeaway streak and the Titans are on a bad giveaway streak. If that doesn’t change, the Titans will have no chance. And I see no reason from the Titans' side to think they can fix it against a tough opponent.

Bill, we see a lot of 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh's news conference personality. What's his game-coaching personality? How do you rate him as a strategist and game manager?

Williamson: Yes, Paul, Harbaugh certainly has carved a persona for himself. But his success as a head coach cannot be denied. He built up programs at the college levels at the University of San Diego and at Stanford and then has made the 49ers an elite program again in less than three years as an NFL coach. The 49ers became an instant legitimate program when Harbaugh took over. He and his coaches are known as teachers and his game-day approach is aggressive on both sides of the ball. This team always seems prepared. It is a huge positive sign that Harbaugh’s team has responded with three straight wins after it lost back-to-back games under Harbaugh for the first time. Paul, how do you see the coaching matchup unfolding Sunday?

Kuharsky: Mike Munchak hasn’t proved that he’s an NFL coach with staying power yet. I give the check mark to the opponent in coaching any time it’s an established head coach and staff going against the Titans. Williams has helped transform the defense as a senior assistant. But the offense is still very much a work in progress. It’s a team that rebuilt that interior offensive line and said that would be the key to fixing things. And Chris Johnson is averaging 3.1 yards a carry and the Titans are making a change to Brian Schwenke at center for this game.

LaMarr Woodley and Terrell SuggsAP PhotosRecords matter little when LaMarr Woodley and the Steelers meet Terrell Suggs and the Ravens.
The Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers renew their storied rivalry Sunday at Heinz Field, and both teams are badly in need of a win. That should only increase the intensity, which is never an issue anyway when these teams meet.

What is a bit unfamiliar, however, is how both teams have struggled this season. The 1-4 Steelers went winless in September. The defending Super Bowl champion Ravens are just 3-3 and have issues on both sides of the ball. Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley joins me for Double Coverage, and, Jamison, one thing I have wondered is whether this rivalry has lost some of its luster. Forget that the teams are a combined 4-7 and simply consider some of the faces of the rivalry who are either retired or playing elsewhere.

When I think of Ravens-Steelers, I see Ray Lewis ending Rashard Mendenhall’s rookie season with a devastating hit, and Ed Reed covering all kinds of ground in the secondary. I see Hines Ward infuriating Bart Scott to the point that Scott threatened to kill him, and James Harrison’s breakout game against Baltimore in his first season as a starter.

Game-winning drives engineered by Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco have been a constant in this rivalry since 2008, but I’m wondering if raw emotion and animosity are still as much a part of this game as in years past.

Jamison, you have seen your share of alley brawls masquerading as football games between the Steelers and Ravens. What is your take on where the rivalry is with their first meeting of the 2013 season just days away?

Hensley: I agree with you that the "bad blood" between these teams is significantly lower these days. Daryl Smith, who replaced Ray Lewis, isn't a trash-talker. He isn't a talker, period. And Antonio Brown isn't going to knock a cornerback down on a running play. This is what got under the players' skin.

The only player on the Ravens who will carry the emotional torch is linebacker Terrell Suggs. He once wore a shirt in training camp that had a cartoon Raven flashing a certain finger at the Steelers' logo. Suggs has never hidden the fact that he has an extreme dislike for Pittsburgh, which is why he probably plays so well against the Steelers. Honestly, rivalries are only as good as the stakes involved. The Ravens and Steelers are usually playing for first place in the division or in the playoffs. With neither team holding a winning record, the aura of Sunday's meeting isn't the same as previous years.

This rivalry is also considered one of the most physical in all of sports. These two franchises were built on running the ball and pushing defenders off the line. But the days of Jamal Lewis and Jerome Bettis are long gone. The Ravens have the NFL's 27th-ranked run game and the Steelers are 31st in rushing yards per game. What's been the biggest problem with the Steelers' ground attack this season?

Brown: The biggest issue is that the Steelers’ plans for the running game were blown up when Le’Veon Bell went down with a mid-foot sprain in the second preseason contest. The Steelers simply don’t have a viable No. 1 back behind him, and problems with the running game were compounded when Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey went down in the opener with a season-ending knee injury.

The Steelers haven’t rushed for 100 yards in a game since the last time they played the Ravens at Heinz Field, and that was almost a year ago. Despite that and despite the fact the Steelers are averaging a feeble 61 rushing yards per game, the arrow for the running back, to paraphrase coach Mike Tomlin, is pointing up.

Bell has two NFL starts under his belt, and while his numbers haven’t been great, he looks the part of a No. 1 back, and he has impressed the Steelers with his physical running style. He is only going to get better with experience, and it looks like the Ravens are vulnerable against the run this season.

As you mentioned earlier, the Ravens aren’t exactly putting on clinics when it comes to running the ball, and it is shocking, at least from this end, to see how pedestrian Ray Rice has looked. He is one of the few backs who had success against the Steelers when they were one of the top run defenses in the NFL. Is this the kind of opponent, the kind of game that he needs to get back on track?

Hensley: Rice certainly hopes so. He has gained more than 36 yards rushing just once this season, and has not averaged more than 3.4 yards a carry in any of his five games. After being limited to 34 yards on the ground last Sunday, Rice acknowledged that he's "a little frustrated."

Unlike in previous seasons, Rice has been more hesitant when running to the line. Some of it can be traced back to poor blocking by the offensive line. Coach John Harbaugh said the team is changing its run scheme because the Ravens can't keep allowing their running backs to get hit behind the line of scrimmage. But Rice is partly to blame as well. He lacks the same explosiveness and power. He's broken only three tackles this season, and is averaging 1.1 yards after contact (39th in the NFL). The Ravens are still committed to the run, but Rice can't keep getting stopped for just a couple of yards.

The offensive line has been a problem in pass protection, too. This is why the Ravens traded multiple draft picks to Jacksonville for Eugene Monroe, who replaced Bryant McKinnie in the starting lineup Sunday. Flacco has been sacked 19 times this season; only three quarterbacks have been dropped more. Is there any chance the Ravens can keep a safe pocket against the Steelers?

Brown: The Steelers’ pass rush hasn’t been great this season, and they had just four sacks before dropping Geno Smith three times in their win over the Jets last Sunday. Rookie Jarvis Jones is still adjusting to the NFL game, sharing time at right outside linebacker with Jason Worilds.

The Steelers have been getting pressure from their defensive ends, and Cameron Heyward could be one to watch Sunday. He has overtaken Ziggy Hood as a starter and really seems to be coming into his own in his third season. I will be interested to see how frequently the Steelers blitz Flacco. Other than Torrey Smith, no one in the Ravens’ receiving corps really scares you, and that could allow the Steelers to leave their defensive backs in single coverage a lot and really go after Flacco.

That leads me to my final question: Are Flacco’s early struggles related to his supporting cast more than anything else?

Hensley: Flacco would be the first to tell you that he hasn't performed as well as the Ravens need him to. But he really has become a victim of circumstance. It starts with the run game, which has struggled to get yards on first and second downs. That leads to third-and-long situations, where Flacco has become a piñata at times because of the pass-protection problems. Plus, Flacco's top two targets from last season -- Anquan Boldin (traded) and Dennis Pitta (injured reserve-designated for return) -- are gone. Two of his wide receivers (Marlon Brown and Deonte Thompson) are undrafted players, and another (Tandon Doss) had been cut before the regular season started.

Some of Flacco's mistakes have come when he's tried to throw into tight windows like he used to do with Boldin and Pitta. The result has been interceptions. Of all the quarterbacks who have thrown for more than 1,500 yards this season, only three have more interceptions than touchdowns: Flacco, Matt Schaub and Eli Manning. Flacco has had most of his trouble on the road this season, but he has won his last three regular-season games at Heinz Field. Before Flacco, the Ravens had won four times in their 13 trips to Pittsburgh.

How would you rate the play of the other Super Bowl-winning quarterback in the division. How much has Big Ben factored into the slow start?

Brown: Roethlisberger has played reasonably well, especially considering how handcuffed he was in the first two games because of injuries. The only loss you can put on him is the one against the Bears, when he committed four turnovers, and those games are few and far between for him.

Roethlisberger has played really well since then, nearly bringing back the Steelers from a 17-point deficit against the Vikings in London, and then playing turnover-free ball against the Jets last Sunday while also completing nearly 77 percent of his passes.

I think the Steelers win if they protect Roethlisberger reasonably well. The games in which they have really struggled against the Ravens were when Roethlisberger had no chance against Baltimore's pass rush.

Eddie Lacy and Brandon WeedenUSA TODAY SportsThe Packers may have to rely more on their run game, while Browns QB Brandon Weeden seeks to recover from a forgettable outing.
The Green Bay Packers have made it past a difficult stretch in which they played four playoff teams from last season in their first five games.

And they came out of it with a respectable 3-2 record.

The Cleveland Browns, despite going from Brandon Weeden to Brian Hoyer and now back to Weeden at quarterback, also aren't out of anything yet at 3-3. Packers reporter Rob Demovsky and Browns reporter Pat McManamon break down the matchup:

McManamon: Rob, what will Green Bay do at receiver with all those injuries, and how much will it affect the offense?

Demovsky: It's bound to have a significant impact. Randall Cobb more or less became the focal point of the passing game last season and if anything, that intensified this season. Sure, he's only a slot receiver and the Packers still have the deep threat of Jordy Nelson on the outside. But in this offense, a lot of those quick-hit passes -- especially against teams that blitz -- are directed to the inside. No team used more three-receiver sets than the Packers had until Cobb went down last week against the Ravens. They had used a three-receiver set on 90 percent of their snaps. That number likely will go down beginning this week against the Browns. They might have to rely on their new-found running game more than ever. But with fewer threats in the passing game, teams might be able to load up to stop running back Eddie Lacy.

The Browns have offensive issues of their own, Pat. Brandon Weeden's turnovers in the loss to the Lions looked like killers, especially that backhanded, underhand flip. How can they get him to play smarter?

McManamon: That backhanded, underhand flip will live for a long time in the annals of Cleveland Browns misplays since 1999, Rob. A lengthy list just got longer. As for getting him to play smarter, that's the challenge. And the challenge has gone on for 18 starts. Weeden actually started fairly well as a 29-year-old rookie, but he struggled the end of last season and this season he's played in fits and starts. Which of course won't be good enough against Green Bay. With Brian Hoyer injured, the Browns have few other options -- it's not like Tom Brady is on the streets waiting for a job -- so they will stick with Weeden. But you have to wonder whether the Browns aren't coming to the conclusion that what they see is what he'll be when it comes to this 30-year-old quarterback.

Rob, Weeden does not read the rush well and does not move well. The Packers are ninth in the league in sacks. Is that yet another bad recipe for Weeden and the Browns offense?

Demovsky: It remains to be seen whether they can keep up their sack pace. They did it without Clay Matthews last week, getting five sacks at Baltimore, but now they're going to be without another outside rusher, Nick Perry. Matthews and Perry each have three sacks on the season, which ties A.J. Hawk for the team lead. At some point, those injuries have to slow down their pass rush. The one thing that's helping them is they're playing the run very well, probably the best they have since they led the league in rushing defense in 2009. After shutting down Ray Rice last week, they're up to third in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game (78.2). That's putting teams in a lot of third-and-long situations, which allows defensive coordinator Dom Capers to blitz. That's how Hawk got all three of his sacks against the Ravens.

Perhaps the Browns can help protect Weeden if they run the ball effectively to keep the Packers from rushing like crazy. What are their prospects for doing that?

McManamon: Running the ball would protect Weeden. But it helps to have a ... well ... a running game. At present, the Browns are in make-do mode with the running game, and as the season continues that will more and more become a problem. Since the trade of Trent Richardson the Browns have relied on aging Willis McGahee, young Bobby Rainey and fullback Chris Ogbonnaya. These guys give effort, but there's only so much they can give. McGahee can't run outside, Rainey is inexperienced and Ogbonnaya is what he is. The Browns rank 22nd in the league by running for 86.8 yards per game -- though they are averaging 3.9 yards per carry. If the Browns want to run, they will have to commit to it and pound it out, something I am not sure they can do.

Rob, the Browns have had 19 starting quarterbacks since 1999 -- and it appears next year or soon after that number will hit 20. Do the Packers and their fans realize just how fortunate they have been these many years to have Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers?

Demovsky: They should. There are only a handful of organizations who can say they've had the kind of quarterback transition that the Packers had. The 49ers with Joe Montana to Steve Young come to mind. Maybe the Colts have that now with Andrew Luck following Peyton Manning. Not only was Favre a great quarterback, but he was there week in and week out. Rodgers is pretty much the same way. Those guys rarely get injured and when they do, they still play.

Most Packers fans here are still fond of Mike Holmgren, for leading them to the Super Bowl XXXI title. His tenure with as a Browns executive was much shorter. What impact, if any, did he have on the organization?

McManamon: Let's just say the feelings for Holmgren are a lot warmer in Green Bay -- odd as that sounds -- than in Cleveland. Many fans feel Holmgren's epitaph with the Browns should be "As a president, he was a great coach." A lot of that is frustration at constant losing. Some is frustration at the job title and salary scale Randy Lerner gave Holmgren. More still that Holmgren never took on the coaching duties himself. On balance, Holmgren's tenure was no worse than many, and better than some. He and GM Tom Heckert brought in some good players who are helping the team win now. But with any regime change comes more change, and Joe Banner has gotten rid of some of Holmgren's guys -- notably Richardson. Holmgren's biggest gamble was selecting a quarterback in the first round a year ago who is now 30. But Weeden clearly would have been helped by more continuity in the front office.

Jay Cutler and Robert Griffin IIIGetty ImagesJay Cutler will use his big targets; Robert Griffin III hopes to count on a stable run game.
The Washington Redskins again are facing a must-win game -- that is, if they want to start achieving what many thought they would this season. Otherwise, they're staring at a disastrous season. The Chicago Bears don't need to win with the same urgency, but they need to keep pace with Green Bay for first place in the NFC North.

There's no doubt quarterback Jay Cutler wants a better showing than what he provided the previous time he faced Washington. Redskins corner DeAngelo Hall made the Pro Bowl after the 2010 season in large part because of his four interceptions off Cutler in the road win.

The Bears have not played in Washington since Dec. 6, 2007, when the emotionally charged Redskins, playing shortly after the death of safety Sean Taylor, won 24-16.

This also will be a reunion between Cutler and Redskins coach Mike Shanahan, who drafted the quarterback in Denver in 2006. Cutler threw for a career-high 4,526 yards in his last season with Shanahan (2008). The Redskins tried to trade for Cutler before the 2009 season. Redskins reporter John Keim and Bears reporter Michael C. Wright take a look at the matchup.

John Keim: The Bears have a strong-armed quarterback who has some big targets. And the protection seems pretty solid. How dangerous is the Bears' passing game right now, and is this just about talent?

Michael C. Wright: John, it's a combination of talent and scheme. The Bears prioritized protecting Jay Cutler when new coach Marc Trestman took over. So they went out and signed left tackle Jermon Bushrod and left guard Matt Slauson in free agency, and drafted right guard Kyle Long and right tackle Jordan Mills. The Bears also added Martellus Bennett to give them a threat down the middle and somewhat of a mismatch against safeties and linebackers. The club already possessed weapons outside in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery and in the backfield with Matt Forte. So the Bears used a combination of additions and Trestman's West Coast scheme, which emphasizes getting the ball out of Cutler's hands quickly, to get to where they are today.

It's difficult for me to characterize the passing game as "dangerous" right now because we haven't yet seen the Bears put together a full game in that department. What I will say is that Cutler has more weapons at his disposal than he's used to, and he's playing a much more efficient game now than he has in the past.

Sticking with quarterbacks, RG III clearly isn't the same guy, so I've got to ask whether the Redskins are trying to find a way to compensate for that? And if so, what are they doing?

Keim: That's a tough question to answer because there have been too many games in which they had to change their offense just because they had fallen far behind, especially in the first couple of games, when Griffin was not going to run the ball. He is running much better, so they're now back to what they used to do; it's just a matter of executing.

Griffin ran the zone read-option more Sunday night at Dallas than he had all season -- the Cowboys' playing a lot of man coverage helped open the outside for him. What they need to do is stay in games and run the ball. Their offense looks different at times because they can't use as much play-action, thanks to game situations. They're so much better when they're running well and using play-action. Griffin can operate in the pocket, but it's not what he does best. And he's shown signs of growth in terms of keeping the ball alive and finding receivers and not just running.

I wonder if the Bears will be able to pressure him. I know the Bears have had injuries up front, but it still seems like Julius Peppers is a bit too quiet. Is he still a dangerous player?

Wright: You want to say Peppers is, because it's hard for me to believe he has all of the sudden lost it after back-to-back seasons of 11 sacks or more. But we might finally be seeing Peppers on the decline. In four career games against the Redskins, Peppers has registered just two sacks. So far this season, he's posted only one, which is a concern, considering Peppers collected 3 1/2 sacks in 2012 through the first six games. Certainly, the injuries inside at tackle play a role in Peppers' lack of production. The Bears lost two starters at defensive tackle in franchise player Henry Melton (six sacks last season) and his replacement, Nate Collins. The club also has played without Stephen Paea, who is fighting through turf toe. That has forced the Bears to play starting defensive end Corey Wootton inside at tackle, along with a host of unheralded players such as Landon Cohen, who signed two days before the club faced Detroit on Sept. 29, and surprisingly played in that game. I think Peppers is still dangerous, but he certainly doesn't look the part now.

It looked to me like Alfred Morris was a big part of RG III's success last year, but early on he seemed to struggle. I know lack of opportunity played a part in that because the Redskins were behind. But do you see Morris sort of regaining his form moving forward because he looked better against the Cowboys?

Keim: I like Morris a lot and it's funny because I didn't think he looked that great against Dallas, with the exception of a few runs (including his touchdown). There's no doubt the coaches want him carrying the ball more, and his main issue this season has been the lack of carries. He's averaging 5.2 yards per carry, but has yet to carry more than 16 times in a game (he had three such games last season). Morris is a better runner than a year ago; a little quicker and more knowledgeable about where to hit the hole. With his patience and vision, he does an exceptional job setting up his blocks. But he needs more work -- and unlike last year, the Redskins have been unable to establish the run early in games. That must change.

The Redskins also need to make more big plays. And I see that the Bears have allowed 29 pass plays of 20 yards or more and have a new middle linebacker this week. Where do you think the Redskins can take advantage?

Wright: Not only do they have a new middle linebacker, John, but the Bears will line up rookie Jonathan Bostic, a second-round pick. So the Redskins might be able to take advantage there. Bostic turned heads in the preseason with big hits and a couple of impressive plays. But he made too many mistakes, which is why the Bears opted to start D.J. Williams at that spot in the first place. As far as the explosive plays in the passing game go, I think they're a function of the team being unable to generate pressure with the front four, which in turn leaves the secondary in coverage for way too long. Chicago's injury situation up front likely means it won't improve the pass rush sufficiently to help out a secondary that has struggled some at the safety position with Major Wright and Chris Conte.

Let's turn to the Redskins' defense. It pretty much shut down Dallas' high-powered offense Sunday. What can Chicago expect to see?

Keim: Good question, because the defense was dreadful for the first three games and in the fourth, it faced Matt Flynn playing behind a bad line in Oakland. Sunday night was a bit of a surprise, but in reality it's how I expected the defense to play entering the season. They have the talent to be middle-of-the-road, capable of a good game and also a clunker if the matchup is bad. They have used three corners and one safety in the secondary quite a bit, adding speed and giving them the ability to disguise coverages a little longer. They will blitz, from the slot in particular. They will run stunts up front -- linebacker Brian Orakpo, end Stephen Bowen and nose tackle Barry Cofield work well together. They will use five linebackers at times in obvious pass situations, with Ryan Kerrigan in a four-point stance. They need to play out of their base defense because their main goal is to stop the run. Their secondary has done a better job lately of limiting big plays, but everything starts with their ability to stop the run. If Forte has a big game, I have a hard time seeing the Redskins limiting this offense enough to win the game.

Jamaal Charles and J.J. WattUSA TODAY Sports, Icon SMIContaining Jamaal Charles will be key for J.J. Watt and the Houston defense.
Some role reversal will be in play Sunday when the Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Texans meet at Arrowhead Stadium. The Chiefs were 2-14 last season but now are 6-0 and one of the NFL's two remaining unbeaten teams. The Texans were 5-0 last season and on their way to an 11-1 start but are 2-4 after losing their last four games.

ESPN Chiefs reporter Adam Teicher and Texans reporter Tania Ganguli discuss Sunday's game.

Teicher: After the collapse against Seattle, blowouts the past two weeks, explain Gary Kubiak’s thinking in starting Case Keenum over T.J. Yates, give a little description of his strengths and weaknesses and how ready to do you think he is to play against one of the NFL’s better defensive teams in a difficult stadium for visiting teams?

Ganguli: He wants a spark. It’s as simple as that.

Coming out of Kevin Sumlin’s offense at the University of Houston, Case Keenum had a lot to learn on the NFL level. He didn’t do too much talking in his college offense and had fewer responsibilities in running the plays. He also had to transition to playing under center like so many shotgun spread quarterbacks do. Yates beat out Keenum for the backup job at the beginning of the season, but they were close. Keenum has a very nice deep ball, which isn’t something we’ve seen out of the Texans very much this year. You ask a great question about his readiness to face Kansas City’s defense on the road. That’s not easy for veterans to face. And it won’t be an easy beginning for Keenum.

What do you think have been the most important factors in the Chiefs’ fast start this season?

Teicher: If their success can be boiled down to one factor, it’s field position. The Chiefs have started 17 possessions on their opponent’s end of the field while the opponents have started three possessions on Kansas City’s side of the field. The best starting field position for the opponent this season has been the Chiefs’ 42. So the Chiefs aren’t just consistently winning the turnover battle -- at plus-12, they’re best in the league -- they’re using it to their benefit. They haven’t put their defense in a bad position all season. Their offense doesn’t generate many big plays, so favorable starting field position is a necessity. The Chiefs have also scored a touchdown on an interception three times. They are consistently getting pressure on the quarterback even when they don’t get the sack. They’re putting teams in a lot of third-and-long situations and getting off the field.

Turnovers aside, why aren’t the Texans scoring more points? With Arian Foster and Ben Tate running the ball and Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins catching it, shouldn’t they be producing more on offense?

Ganguli: Turnovers have been a huge factor in why the Texans aren’t scoring, probably the biggest. But we can talk only so much about it. The Texans’ red zone efficiency has been a problem. On Sunday against the Rams, for example, Houston scored once on six trips to the red zone. Its goal-to-go efficiency was only 33 percent. Those kind of numbers hurt. It’s a departure from earlier this season when the Texans’ red zone offense was fantastic. Against the San Diego Chargers in Week 1 and the Tennessee Titans in Week 2, Houston entered the red zone seven times and scored a touchdown every time. Some consider the Texans’ red zone play calling to be conservative. I had ESPN Stats & Information look into it, and the Texans have run 53 red zone plays -- 28 passes and 25 runs. Of those, 10 have been passes into the end zone. That ranks in the lower half of the league as a percentage of total plays and pass plays.

Speaking of numbers, the Chiefs have put up some incredible pass-rushing numbers and have more than twice as many sacks as the Texans have. Are they as good as their numbers indicate? How can an opponent neutralize the pass rush?

Teicher: They’ve been pretty good with the pass rush. Consistent. They're disrupting the quarterback even when they don’t bring him down. And they can come at him from many places and angles. That’s maybe the most impressive thing about it. Seven players had at least a half-sack Sunday against the Raiders. Justin Houston (9.5 sacks) and Tamba Hali (7.5) are their top pass-rushers, but even taking those guys out of the picture, the Chiefs have 14 sacks from eight players. Nose tackle Dontari Poe has been the key, providing a strong, consistent inside pass rush. Inside linebacker Derrick Johnson and strong safety Eric Berry are two of the other players to watch when the Chiefs send more than four to the quarterback. The best way to neutralize their rush is to have an effective running game. Runs by mobile quarterbacks have hurt the Chiefs this season, but otherwise only one running back, Philadelphia’s LeSean McCoy, has had a big game against the Chiefs.

When the Texans are on defense, there might be a lot of favorable matchups for them. Other than the obvious ones like J.J. Watt and Brian Cushing, who are some of Houston’s defenders who are playing well?

Ganguli: Outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus has played well with an expanded role this season. He was one of the most productive rookies in the league last year on a per-snap basis and leads the team with 4.5 sacks this season. Nose tackle Earl Mitchell has been solid but isn’t on the field much. Safety Danieal Manning had been playing well and was about to become a bigger part of the Texans’ return game. But Manning suffered a knee injury Sunday that will land him on injured reserve. As a whole, the Texans' defense has played well, but it could help the Texans more if it created more turnovers and committed fewer penalties.

The Chiefs’ offense has done enough given how strong the defense has played. Is that going to bite them?

Teicher: Eventually it will, perhaps as soon as Sunday. The passing game has been particularly unproductive. Alex Smith is completing just 56.5 percent of his passes, an alarmingly low number in Andy Reid's version of the West Coast offense that features a large number of high-percentage passes. Some of that is his fault, but protection has been leaky and Smith has been forced to run for his life on too many plays. Right tackle Eric Fisher, the first overall pick in this year's draft, has been lousy. Most everything the Chiefs get offensively comes from Jamaal Charles. He leads the team by a sizable margin in rushing, receptions, receiving yardage and touchdowns. I'd be surprised if he can keep this up over 16 games and maybe more, so the Chiefs need to develop other threats.

Double Coverage: Patriots at Jets

October, 17, 2013
Tom Brady and Antonio CromartieUSA TODAY Sports, AP PhotoTom Brady mustered just 185 passing yards in a Week 2 win over Antonio Cromartie's Jets.
The New York Jets and New England Patriots renew their heated rivalry Sunday at MetLife Stadium, where the Jets (3-3) hope to jump back into the AFC East race by stealing a much-needed win.

The Jets are tired of getting pushed around by the Patriots, having lost five straight meetings, so their theme this week is "Unfinished Business." They felt they should've won the previous meeting, a 13-10 loss in Week 2, and they see this as an opportunity to exact revenge. Of course, the Patriots (5-1) have heard this before from the Jets. They stay out of the war of words; they just keep winning. Jets reporter Rich Cimini and Patriots reporter Mike Reiss break down the matchup.

Cimini: Mike, I guess we should start with the last-second win over the New Orleans Saints. Tom Brady was marvelous on the final drive, as usual, but it wasn't a vintage Brady game. He was sacked five times and finished with a 74.7 passer rating. Is he still having chemistry issues with his receivers, as we noticed in Week 2?

Reiss: Yes, Rich, it remains a work in progress as the Patriots are among the league leaders in dropped passes. The overall unsteadiness has had a trickle-down effect on some of Brady’s decision-making and accuracy, in part because he just doesn't have that assurance at all times of where his receivers are going to be. But the end of that game could be a breakthrough because they had little margin for error and still came through. And before that, they got the running game going with Stevan Ridley, and I think that’s going to be key this week. The Patriots didn't run it well in their 13-10 win over the Jets on Sept. 12 -- let’s give the Jets' defense some credit for that -- so that’s high on the priority list this week. How are the Jets different, on both offense and defense, since that meeting?

Cimini: First of all, Geno Smith is more comfortable at quarterback. I know you can't tell from his stats this season (10 interceptions), but he has been making better decisions over the past eight quarters. This will be a huge test to see how much he's grown since Week 2.

Their problem is, the supporting cast isn't the same. Tight end Kellen Winslow is serving a PED suspension, wide receiver Santonio Holmes is a major question mark with a balky hamstring and wide receiver Clyde Gates is done for the year. Jeremy Kerley is back -- he didn't play in the first Jets-Pats game because of a concussion -- but I don't think he's the type of player who will change a game. I think the Jets will feature the running game, using Bilal Powell and Chris Ivory. That's probably the best way to attack the Patriots, who won't have the big fella -- Vince Wilfork -- or Jerod Mayo. How much will the Patriots miss those guys?

Reiss: These losses hit at the heart of the Patriots’ defense. In baseball, it's often said that a team wants to be strong up the middle, and the same could be said for a football team. Wilfork and Mayo are the Patriots' "middle" men, the glue guys who play almost every snap. These are big losses, about as big as they get on defense. Then you consider that cornerback Aqib Talib, arguably their best defender over the first six weeks of the season, also didn't finish Sunday's win over the Saints (hip injury), and it's a banged-up unit. But as we know, no one is going to feel sorry for a team with injuries in the NFL.

I think one of the big themes this week is that Bill Belichick's team-building philosophy, and the value he puts on depth, is in the spotlight. People often ask why he generally trades down in the draft instead of up. Or why the team might make hard financial decisions in free agency that make key players sometimes defect. This is a main reason: He believes in the importance of depth and the complete team, from player No. 1 to player No. 61 on the back end of the practice squad. They'll need them all to overcome these losses.

As for the Jets' defense, I know the Patriots respect the line and the ability to stop the run. But I was surprised to see just three takeaways for the Jets this season. That doesn't sound like a Rex Ryan defense, at least the one that comes to mind, with his creative schemes and disruption. What's going on with that unit?

Cimini: To quote Ryan, it's shocking and disappointing. They have one interception and one forced fumble (the third takeaway was produced on special teams). They haven't made an interception since Week 1, a span of 207 passes without a pick. Why the drought? A few reasons. For one, the Jets haven't had too many leads and, as you know, it's easier to force turnovers when you're playing with a lead. Secondly, the secondary has dropped off.

They miss Darrelle Revis, no doubt, and Antonio Cromartie isn't playing as well as he did last season. No. 1 pick Dee Milliner (hamstring) hasn't been able to get on the field, and there's no one else in the secondary with any sort of playmaking ability. They're not even coming close to interceptions, as the DBs have combined for only 11 pass breakups. The odd thing is, the front seven is generating decent pressure, but teams have adapted to the improved pass rush by throwing a lot of quick screens and short passes. How do you think the Patriots will attack the Jets?

Reiss: This is now primarily a three- or four-receiver offense, and they are coming off an up-tempo attack against the Saints, as they ran 50 snaps in the first half. I could see the same thing against the Jets. Part of the reason I think they went up-tempo was to negate some of the presnap disguise and scheming that a Rob Ryan-coached defense can be effective with. The Jets' defense, under Rex Ryan, seems to have some similar concepts. In addition to that, they know they have to run the ball better than they did last time. What do you see as the key?

Cimini: This might seem like a cliché, Mike, but it's all about the turnovers. Under Ryan, the Jets are 3-0 against the Patriots when they're plus or even in turnover ratio, and 0-7 when it's a negative margin. Much of this burden falls on Geno Smith. He has thrown at least two interceptions in four of six starts. If he makes it five out of seven, I don't see how the Jets can win this game.


There was a time when the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys both had a good chance of being undefeated going into an October showdown. That time may be long gone, but this meeting between a pair of 3-3 teams still has a lot of cachet.

The winner will have sole possession of first place in the NFC East. With Washington (1-4) and the New York Giants (0-6) already wrecked on the side of the road, this game will establish pole position for the race ahead.

Todd Archer, who covers the Cowboys for's NFL Nation, and Philadelphia counterpart Phil Sheridan discussed some of the big questions going into the game.

Sheridan: DeMarcus Ware and DeMarco Murray -- whether they're out or just limited by injury -- which can the Cowboys least afford to lose and why?

Archer: To me, the easy answer is Ware because they really don't have much of a pass rush without him. The Cowboys can get by without Murray because of Tony Romo and the passing game. Ware has several little injuries this year with a stinger, a back strain, dehydration, getting poked in the eye and now this quad strain. He says he is a fast healer, but I don't think he'll heal fast enough for this week and the Cowboys will have to get by with what Jerry Jones called the "no-names," like George Selvie, Kyle Wilber and Caesar Rayford.

I'll go with the either/or as well: Michael Vick or Nick Foles? If both are healthy, whom does Chip Kelly eventually roll with?

Sheridan: I wish I knew what Chipper is really thinking. Ultimately, I think he has to get an extended look at Foles this season. Vick's injury opened the door, and Foles certainly took a confident stride through it Sunday, earning NFC Offensive Player of the Week honors in Tampa. But part of being a successful NFL quarterback is coming back, week after week, through nagging injuries and fatigue. Kelly has to know whether Foles can do that before this season is over. Combine that with the fact that Foles may actually run the offense more effectively and I think it may be a while before we see Vick again.

Foles had a good day in Tampa. Now he faces the godfather of the Tampa 2. How is Monte Kiffin's defense coming together after six games?

Archer: To be kind, not well. The Cowboys have allowed three 400-yard passers this season. They allowed 216 rushing yards last week against Washington. They likely won't have Ware, so that will hinder the pass rush. The Cowboys aren't really the true Tampa 2 scheme that Kiffin ran so well in Tampa. First off, he doesn't have Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks or John Lynch, but the Cowboys are mixing their coverages a lot more because of their cornerbacks. They paid a lot of money for Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne and Orlando Scandrick and have tried to play more man-to-man lately. They were fairly effective against the Redskins, and that helped the pass rush. They'll have to be that effective this week too.

I mentioned the 216 rushing yards, and LeSean McCoy is on the docket for the Dallas D. He's off to a great start and seems to be a perfect fit in this offense. True?

Sheridan: One hundred percent true, although McCoy might be a pretty good fit in any offense that involves a football. Some of the Broncos, who don't see him often, were comparing him to Barry Sanders, and it's not as big a reach as you might think at first. He's quick, he's strong, he changes direction almost magically, and his instincts are remarkable. For a few weeks, the Eagles were piling up rushing yards without getting enough points. Against Tampa Bay, McCoy went for 116 yards and there was a 31 on the scoreboard. That's where the Eagles need to be.

Let's turn to the Dallas offense. Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis said this week what a lot of people think, that Romo is capable of making a big play or a big mistake at any time. How is the franchise quarterback's confidence this year?

Archer: I wonder if Davis has seen Romo play much this year. Maybe he just saw the end of the Broncos game when he had the interception, but Romo has only three picks on the year. One was a busted route by a rookie receiver, and another was a tipped ball. I think his involvement in the game plan really has Romo tuned into the opposing defenses and what they're trying to do. He is not forcing throws (no, I'm not forgetting the late Broncos interception), and he is being more patient than ever. This is his offense in a lot of ways, and he doesn't want to screw it up. That being said, the offense has not performed well in its first two road games, scoring 16 and 14 points against Kansas City and San Diego. In the last two games, the Cowboys have spread it out more, and without Murray this week, I think you'll see more spread looks Sunday.

For so long we've been used to seeing a Jim Johnson-type defense in Philly, but Davis has a different style. What has or hasn't happened so far in the Eagles' move to the 3-4?

Sheridan: It is a process, as Davis and Kelly constantly remind us. It's a tough transition when you have players better suited to a 4-3. It's even tougher with players who aren't suited to any defensive scheme at all. The Eagles seemed to have a few of those while giving up 33 passing touchdowns last year. They made a lot of changes in the secondary, but it has still been vulnerable -- especially on third down. The defense seemed to make progress against the Giants and Bucs, but those are two winless teams. It will be a big deal if the Eagles can continue to make progress against a quarterback like Romo.

How good is Dez Bryant right now, and how much more potent can this offense be if and when Miles Austin gets it going?

Archer: Bryant has carried over his success from the second half of last season to this season, at least in terms of touchdowns. He is a nightmare for cornerbacks in the red zone. He's just too big and physical down there for them to handle. He's almost too physical and might get a pass interference penalty one of these days. But Romo is so confident in him down tight that he'll just throw it up knowing Bryant will get it or nobody else will. What's strange, however, is that Bryant has had three games in which he has averaged less than 10 yards per catch. If teams want to take him out with help, they can. And that's where Austin comes in. He's just not healthy yet but was off to a good start before injuring his hamstring. Rookie Terrance Williams has really caught on lately and helped make up for Austin's absence/lack of production. When he's right, Austin is dangerous in the slot and outside and is a tough matchup.

Let's stick with the receivers. Is DeSean Jackson, well, DeSean Jackson again?

Sheridan: DeSean Jackson is DeSean Jackson, only better. He seems to have matured almost overnight. He says he worked out and added a little muscle mass during the offseason. Not sure whether it's that or Foles or Kelly's offensive approach, but Jackson is suddenly a factor in the red zone. He was always a deep threat but disappeared inside the 20. He has red zone scores in each of the last two games. He'll never be the kind of receiver you described Bryant as being, but he's added a better understanding of the game to his gift of speed.

Both teams are 3-3. It's not exactly the 1990s, when they might both be undefeated when they met in October, but this will still decide who is in first place in the NFC East. Do you think the Cowboys have what it takes to knuckle down and win the division in a decidedly down year?

Archer: I think they do, but if there's one thing I've figured out in covering this team, it is to never come to expect anything. They are just too up and down. There's no doubt the NFC East is down, but the prevailing wisdom is that the Cowboys are infinitely more talented than every other team in the division, so they should run away with it. I don't know about that. They're good at the top but not so much in the middle and bottom. They have a ton of questions on defense. They can't afford injuries. They might have the best chance to win the NFC East, but it's not a lock. This game, to me, is huge. If they can get to 3-0 in the division, it gets a little easier. If they lose, they're riding that 8-8 bus again.

Is Kelly in this for the long haul?

Sheridan: Here's another case where I wish I knew what was going on inside Kelly's head. He's good at talking about football, what he's trying to do and why. He doesn't entertain any questions that appear to be probing into his personal life or his feelings about anything. I think he's learned the NFL is difficult in different ways from the college game. Whether he enjoys being out of his comfort zone and sees it as a challenge to excel at this level or whether he can't wait to get back to a college gig, I have no idea. He just doesn't share that kind of thing. I can say that neither extreme would surprise me. More to the point, I think he can be a very good NFL coach. His offense certainly works in the league.

Double Coverage: Bills at Dolphins

October, 17, 2013
Thad Lewis and Cameron WakeGetty Images, AP PhotoBanged-up Bills QB Thad Lewis will feel pressure from Miami pass-rusher Cameron Wake.

Sunday's matchup at Sun Life Stadium involves AFC East teams on a pair of two-game losing streaks.

The Miami Dolphins (3-2) will host the Buffalo Bills (2-4) in a game with several interesting storylines. Miami and Buffalo split their season series in 2012.

Can the Dolphins get on track at home? Will Buffalo get its act together and win its first game on the road? Bills reporter Mike Rodak and Dolphins reporter James Walker weigh in:

James Walker: Mike, let's begin by discussing this past week. The Dolphins enjoyed their bye and got a chance to recuperate from their injuries. This will probably be as healthy as Miami has been since Week 1, especially on defense. The Dolphins are still reeling after back-to-back losses against the New Orleans Saints and Baltimore Ravens. But Miami should feel good about itself heading into Sunday's game against the Bills, who are also on a two-game losing streak. After facing Andrew Luck, Matt Ryan, Drew Brees and Joe Flacco the past four games, the Dolphins' defense feels better about its chances against Buffalo. Bills quarterback Thad Lewis played a solid game in Week 6 against the Cincinnati Bengals, but he also has a sprained foot. What are your expectation of Lewis and what challenges will he present?

Mike Rodak: The expectation is that Lewis will play Sunday. Head coach Doug Marrone said Monday that tests on Lewis' foot were clean. However, he was in a walking boot after Sunday's loss to the Bengals, and when he took it off, Lewis was heavily labored in trying to walk across the locker room. If that doesn't fully clear up in the next few days, Lewis might be limited in what he'll be able to do against the Dolphins. Lewis was billed as a mobile quarterback with a strong arm, and although it was just one game, he lived up to those expectations against Cincinnati. With the injury, I don't think the Dolphins have to worry too much about Lewis' scrambling ability, but they will need to watch out for the deep ball, as the Bills have a speedy group of receivers.

James, I saw a statistical comparison the other night between Luck and Ryan Tannehill, two of the top quarterbacks in the 2012 draft. Luck has more career yards (5,720) than Tannehill (4,677) and also has a better touchdown-to-interception ratio (30-to-21 for Luck; 18-to-18 for Tannehill). But Tannehill has a better completion percentage (59.5) than Luck (55.8), and their QB ratings are nearly identical. Luck has received most of the national publicity, but what's the feeling in Miami about Tannehill in his first season-plus?

Walker: It's mostly optimistic in South Florida. The Dolphins have lost two in a row but Tannehill is not the problem. Miami has two major issues on offense that could help Buffalo: The Dolphins' running game is ranked 29th in the NFL and their pass protection is horrid. Tannehill has been sacked 24 times in five games. That's inexcusable if Miami wants its QB to last all 16 games this season. But Tannehill has shown toughness and poise through it all. When he has time, Tannehill has made some stellar throws. He looks the part of the franchise quarterback thus far. Although Tannehill's statistics aren't through the roof, I've actually beaten the drum that he is performing above expectations in Year 2 because of the adversity he is facing.

Mike, it looks like the Bills certainly have their running game figured out with tailbacks C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson. Why has Buffalo been so successful on the ground despite a rotating door at quarterback?

Rodak: I think a lot of it stems from the toughness of Spiller and Jackson. Spiller got off to a slow start and then was hit by back-to-back injuries in Weeks 3 and 4. But he showed guts in Week 5 against Cleveland, limping his way to a 54-yard touchdown, and also had a strong performance against Cincinnati. Meanwhile, Jackson is having a career season, even at 32 years old and despite battling a sprained MCL in recent weeks. He's third in the NFL behind Ben Tate and Alfred Morris in yards gained after contact. I think what's troubling, though, for the Bills is that they are third in the NFL in rushing (149 yards per game) but 27th in time of possession. That's an unusual combination, the result of a fast-paced offensive philosophy that might not be getting the most out of Spiller and Jackson's production.

James, what's the latest on Cameron Wake? The Dolphins' foes in the AFC East know all too well how dangerous he can be when he's healthy. Will he be a full go on Sunday? And if not, can we expect Dion Jordan to make any sort of impact? Some gushed about his talent back in the spring, but it doesn't seem like he has been a factor thus far.

Walker: A big smile was back on Wake's face this week, which is a good indication that he's feeling closer to 100 percent. I think the bye did wonders for Wake and several ailing players on Miami's defense. This will be as healthy as this group has been in about a month. Wake plays so hard and so violent that it's difficult for him to play at 70 percent or 75 percent. That's what we saw in the last game against Baltimore when he tried to play on a bum knee for just one series. I expect Wake to be much closer to full strength on Sunday. As far as Jordan, I blame Miami's coaching staff for keeping the kid gloves on too long with the rookie. The Dolphins use Jordan only on special teams and as a situational pass-rusher. But Jordan has made several impact plays in limited playing time. He had a tipped ball against Flacco in Week 5 that caused a pick-six. Jordan has earned more playing time, and I'm curious to see if the Dolphins oblige following the bye.

Finally, Mike, Buffalo is winless on the road and within the AFC East. Both factors are in play here. What Bills team do you expect to show up Sunday in Miami?

Rodak: I think we'll see a competitive game Sunday. Despite their 2-4 record, the Bills have hung tight in every game they've played. More than anything, I'll look for the way Lewis handles himself on the road. I thought EJ Manuel struggled against both the Jets and the Browns, prior to his injury. Maybe Lewis, in his fourth season, will be steadier when away from Ralph Wilson Stadium. I also think that the Bills are starting to get healthier. If they are ever able to get back to full strength, or close to it, they can be dangerous. They've shown as much at points this season.

Matt Ryan and Mike GlennonAP Photo, Getty ImagesMatt Ryan, left, and Mike Glennon are both working to get their teams on the winning track.
No one expected the Atlanta Falcons to go into their first of two NFC South games against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers desperate for a win, but that’s exactly the position they find themselves in right now.

At 1-4, the Falcons have little margin for error from now until the end of the regular season. Facing the winless Bucs (0-5) could help the cause, but the Falcons can’t afford to take any opponent lightly, particularly after losing top receiver Julio Jones for the season.

Falcons team reporter Vaughn McClure and Buccaneers team reporter Pat Yasinskas discuss the matchup.

McClure: Pat, I caught a few glimpses of Sunday's game against the Eagles and saw the Buccaneers make quarterback Nick Foles, in his seventh NFL start, look like a seasoned veteran. I was especially surprised to see Darrelle Revis, one of the top cornerbacks in the league, trailing on a few plays. Is the defensive scheme just not suited to Revis’ strengths as a lockdown, one-on-one defender?

Yasinskas: Vaughn, Revis did get beat more than once. But I don't necessarily put the blame on him. I think coach Greg Schiano is trying to fit a square peg in a round hole by sometimes playing Revis in a zone defense. Revis should be on the other team's top receiver in one-on-one coverage all game. The Bucs are wasting his talent by using him in a zone defense. Speaking of top receivers, what do the Falcons have in the passing game now that Julio Jones is out and Roddy White has been banged up all season?

McClure: The natural solution would be to go to tight end Tony Gonzalez more often. He has been outstanding against double coverage and even been mauled by a host of defenders near the goal line. Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter made it clear that Gonzalez instantly becomes Matt Ryan’s No. 1 option without Jones in the lineup. But the Falcons also expect more out of slot receiver Harry Douglas.

What the Falcons will miss, if White is sidelined by a hamstring injury, is that vertical threat on the outside. Unproven receivers Kevin Cone and Drew Davis might get a chance to fill in outside, and the Falcons are trying to get newly signed veteran Brian Robiskie -- the son of receivers coach Terry Robiskie -- up to speed quickly as an outside receiver. Speaking of getting up to speed, how is rookie quarterback Mike Glennon coming along?

Yasinskas: Glennon made some obvious progress from his first start to his second. He was fairly accurate and even showed some mobility, a trait he supposedly was lacking. Still, this is all new to Glennon and I think the Bucs are trying to be careful not to put too much on him. They'd like to take the pressure off by running Doug Martin constantly, but opposing defenses have been slowing Martin by playing eight or nine men in the box.

The next step for Glennon is to keep defenses honest with more downfield passing. Rookie tight end Tim Wright came on strong in the Eagles game and Glennon seems to be developing strong chemistry with Vincent Jackson. No. 2 receiver Mike Williams should be back after missing the past game with a hamstring injury. That gives the Bucs a pretty strong receiving corps. I know the Falcons, aside from Asante Samuel, are young at cornerback. Can the young corners hold up against Tampa Bay's receivers?

McClure: Actually, I think first-round pick Desmond Trufant has held his own through the first five games. Naturally, there is always room for improvement with a rookie. But he’s not the primary issue. Neither is second-round pick Robert Alford, a corner now expected to move into the role of primary punt returner. The bigger issue for the Falcons is how the defense has performed as a whole, particularly on third down.

The Falcons have surrendered too many big plays and failed to generate pressure up front in game-winning drives by both the Miami Dolphins and New York Jets. The players believe in defensive coordinator Mike Nolan's system, but they have to play the system better. A slew of injuries at linebacker hasn't helped the cause. The defensive woes and offensive red zone struggles have made the Falcons look like an average team. So, Pat, do you regret picking Atlanta to win the Super Bowl?

Yasinskas: It sure looks like I was way off base in picking the Falcons to win the Super Bowl. I picked them because I thought they were loaded on the offensive side of the ball and had enough talent to be pretty good on the defense. But the injuries have taken a toll on both sides and I'm shocked that the Falcons are sitting there at 1-4. I guess it's the curse of winning the NFC South, which the Falcons did last year. No team has ever won the division in back-to-back years and it sure looks like that trend will continue this season. I think we can pencil in the Saints as the division champion.

Ndamukong Suh and Geno AtkinsAP PhotoNdamukong Suh and Geno Atkins lead two of the league's best front fours.
The Detroit Lions have a chance to solidify themselves for a playoff push. So do the Cincinnati Bengals. They may be in different conferences, but this game should be a good test for both teams as to where they stand in the larger picture of the NFL.

Both teams lead their divisions, and both won on the road last week. And in the wacky world of the NFL, Detroit has beaten both teams Cincinnati has lost to (Chicago and Cleveland) while the Bengals have beaten one of the two teams the Lions lost to (Green Bay).

As for this week’s game, Bengals reporter Coley Harvey and Lions reporter Michael Rothstein break down what should be an interesting matchup.

Rothstein: Detroit's cornerbacks continue to either be banged up (starters Chris Houston and Rashean Mathis) or really young (rookie Darius Slay). How much of a problem is A.J. Green going to pose in this situation? Does he feast on these matchups?

Harvey: Given the Lions’ lack of experience and consistency at cornerback, that could be a problem for Detroit this weekend. Or maybe it will be a good thing. Here’s what I mean: Green does well when he’s going one-on-one against particular defensive backs, and he seems to relish having opportunities to expose both really good and really poor corners. Against Buffalo’s Leodis McKelvin on Sunday, Green caught six passes for 103 yards and a touchdown. He was targeted 11 times as the Bengals went more to their receivers than they had the week before. As good as McKelvin is, though, he’s no Charles Tillman, whom Green caught nine passes against in Week 1. He also isn’t Joe Haden, who allowed Green to catch seven balls but held him to just 51 yards in Cleveland three weeks ago. So Detroit having a revolving door at corner could be problematic since Green has had his opportunities against some of the league’s best this season.

As far as the inexperience and inconsistency at the position being a good thing for the Lions, I say that because that might prompt Detroit to double-team Green. As we’ve seen this season, Green struggles when safeties are able to come over the top and help out in coverage against him. If double coverage ends up being a cornerstone of the Lions’ game plan, Green could have a tough day.

We’ll stick with receivers, and I'll ask you, Michael, about Calvin Johnson. We know he’s hobbled a bit with that knee injury, but how much do you think he’s looking forward to squaring off with a guy like Green, who also is considered one of the game’s best receivers?

Rothstein: Johnson seems to enjoy seeing other top receivers on the field, but he gets more excited to see topflight opposing cornerbacks like Patrick Peterson. For instance, he and Peterson swapped jerseys after their Week 2 game.

His knee is a concern. He didn't quite look like himself against Cleveland on Sunday, dropping a couple of passes and not being his typical deep threat. But when he is out there, teams still have to pay extra attention to him because he is the top receiver in the game.

Johnson's presence changes a lot, even if he can't go deep. Detroit can still use him on underneath routes, and he's still likely to draw the double-team or added attention, especially in the red zone. As long as he can do some things and run some routes, Johnson will be out there and making a difference.

That leads me to this question -- how will Cincinnati's defense handle both the questionable health of Johnson combined with everything else Detroit's offense has to offer?

Harvey: Cincinnati’s top corner, Leon Hall, likely will draw the bulk of reps against Johnson, even though, at 5-foot-11, he stands some six inches shorter than his 6-5 counterpart. It’ll be interesting to see how Hall and the other defensive backs handle the threat of the deep ball, assuming Johnson can run better and get underneath those passes this week. If he’s forced to go underneath, the Bengals feel confident their cover linebackers -- Rey Maualuga, Vontaze Burfict and Michael Boley -- and cover safety Taylor Mays can disrupt short- to intermediate-range passes.

When it comes to stopping Reggie Bush in the run game, the Bengals have the type of defensive front that will make such a matchup intriguing. Last week, against the No. 3 rushing offense in the NFL, they gave up 130 yards on the ground but limited Fred Jackson to just 35 yards on 10 carries. With fewer big-play threats in the Lions backfield, the Bengals have to be glad they’re keying primarily on one running back this week. That said, it’ll be interesting to see what they do with linebacker James Harrison. He factored heavily in the run defense last week, but with the passing threat Detroit possesses, he likely won’t be on the field as much this week.

Speaking of defensive players, Ndamukong Suh continues to be a disruptive force in the Lions’ interior. Statistically speaking, though, it seems he wasn’t very productive last week. Any idea what happened there, Michael?

Rothstein: That hasn't been unusual. His numbers have not been astronomical, but he picks up double-teams on almost every play, it seems. So just the attention he draws assists everyone. There have been hurries that have led to interceptions as well. He is playing extremely well and very consistent.

Has Andy Dalton said anything about Suh this week? They had a prior run-in, and a hit on Brandon Weeden last week is being looked at by the league.

Harvey: Dalton was asked about the body slam Suh gave him during the 2011 preseason opener. But being the polite politician that he is, the quarterback didn’t show any ill will toward Suh. Quite the contrary, actually. Like several of his offensive linemen, Dalton simply called Suh a good player and credited the way he passionately plays the game. Though few linemen wanted to make the Dalton-Suh incident a storyline this week, they will have that play in the back of their minds, rest assured.

Oh, and is there a week when the league isn’t looking at one of his hits?

Final question for you, Michael. Why does Bush have only one rushing touchdown this year? Is that a function of being part of a good passing offense or something else?

Rothstein: It’s a misleading number, Coley. He would have had two rushing touchdowns in Week 1, but both were reviewed and taken away at the 1-yard line. Joique Bell rushed both of them in instead. And he has two receiving touchdowns, so he is finding the end zone. Detroit is more of a passing team that likes to employ screens with its running backs, so that could be why those numbers look strange. But Bush is having a good season, no doubt.




Thursday, 9/18
Sunday, 9/21
Monday, 9/22