Teams can't stray away from running

Expect the Packers to run often, while the ground attack could be an issue for Indy without Edgerrin James.

Originally Published: September 22, 2004
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Editor's note: ESPN senior NFL writer John Clayton's weekly "First And 10" column takes you around the league with a look at the best game of the week followed by primers for 10 other games. Here's his look at Week 3.

First … Green Bay at Indianapolis Colts: Offensive balance is important these days.

Sure, it's a passing league. Sure, several teams aren't big on running the ball. But it's important to have balance. That's the interesting part of Sunday's showdown between the Packers and Colts.

Both teams have the league's longest standing constants at quarterback. Brett Favre has played 191 consecutive regular season games for the Packers. Peyton Manning has started 98 straight games. Few quarterbacks in history have controlled games more than these franchise quarterbacks.

Ahman Green
Ahman Green has already rushed for 247 yards in two games.
What's interesting is watching how they operate this year. As everyone knows, the Packers switched to a run-first, pass-second offense last season. The reason was the desire to cutdown turnovers and let Ahman Green carry the offense. Green leads NFC rushers with 247 yards on 57 carries, but a costly fumble was partially responsible for Sunday's home loss to the Bears.

Living true to their philosophy, the Packers have run 78 rushing plays compared to 64 passes against the Panthers and Bears. But they rank just 22nd in offense and are averaging 4.7 yards per play. Teams are adjusting to the new Packers offense, and Favre will have to come through with more big pass plays to open things up.

Most disappointing is the Packers total of four offensive touchdowns. Green is averaging 4.3 yards a carry, but defenses are loading up to stop him at the line of scrimmage. With the Colts banged up in the secondary, the Packers may switch off and try a few more passes this week to get the offense going.

The Colts, meanwhile, may be without Edgerrin James, who has a second-degree hamstring pull. Thanks to James, the Colts have had great offensive balance. They've had 65 runs versus 64 passes in two games. Manning, meanwhile, is completing 64.5 percent of his passes with four touchdowns and a 104.9 quarterback average.

Were it not for red-zone turnovers in New England, the Colts might be 2-0. The one-two punch of Manning and James allowed them to take control of last Sunday's crucial divisional game against the Titans and win, 31-17.

Backup halfback Dominic Rhodes has fully recovered from his knee surgery of two years ago and the team is confident he could be a 1,000-yard back if given the chance. James will test his hamstring Wednesday and Thursday to see if he can play, but the Colts would need a 60- or 70-yard rushing day from Rhodes to maintain the balance.

The return of cornerback Mike McKenzie gives the Packers four cornerbacks to match up against the deep Colts receiving corps. Expect the Colts to spread the field to help open up running lanes.

With Green, the Packers will try to run first. Without James, the Colts must be able to run, period.

And 10. Jacksonville Jaguars at Tennessee Titans: Are the Jaguars for real? We'll find out Sunday in Nashville. Defensively, they are good, we think. They've given up only 16 points and running against them is tough because of defensive tackles Marcus Stroud and John Henderson. So why are teams banging their heads against the wall by running on them? The Bills and Broncos had more runs than passes against the Jags this season. Maybe they didn't realize the Jaguars are paper thin at defensive end with the releases of Hugh Douglas and Tony Brackens and the season-ending broken leg to Paul Spicer. The Jaguars are primarily counting on Lionel Barnes, Rob Meier and Bobby McCray -- a rookie seventh-round pick -- at defensive end. Teams have spent little time testing cornerback Dewayne Washington. Expect the Titans to test Jacksonville's pass defense. Steve McNair runs a pass first, run second offense even though Chris Brown has been sensational in his first two games as Eddie George's replacement. Brown has 252 yards on 42 carries. Jacksonville's style is to win low-scoring games. They've won their first two games despite scoring only 20 points, having nine three-and-outs and having Byron Leftwich complete only 50 percent of his passes for 267 yards.

9. Philadelphia Eagles at Detroit Lions: Are the Lions for real? The Eagles will answer that question in one of the most interesting Lions home games in years. No one questions the growth of the offense. Joey Harrington is getting better production out of his receivers. They have five drops in two games, but that's not as bad as last season when they led the league. Roy Williams is making incredible catches as one of the league's most impressive rookies. Kevin Jones is adding outside running that the team didn't have last season. With receivers catching the ball instead of dropping them, Harrington is finally a 60-percent passer. The challenge for the Lions will be on defense where injuries have taken away two of their better players -- Pro Bowl cornerback Dre' Bly and linebacker Boss Bailey. The Eagles have scored seven offensive touchdowns in two games, and Terrell Owens has four of them. The Lions may not be able to match up against Owens. Donovan McNabb is the league's best quarterback over two games with a 129.4 quarterback rating, six touchdown passes and a 70.3 completion percentage. Remember the talk that McNabb wasn't that accurate. Add a big time receiver like Owens and McNabb suddenly looks like Joe Montana.

8. Dallas Cowboys at Washington Redskins (Monday 9 ET, ABC): Bill Parcells versus Joe Gibbs. This is the headline coaching matchup of the season, only natural for it to be shown on Monday night throughout the nation. Everyone expects great game plans and excellent sideline instruction. Gibbs is still getting a feel for his Redskins talent. Last week's seven turnover loss to the Giants threw Gibbs a little. In NASCAR, his cars didn't turn over. Now, he has to understand why his offense did it seven times. Barring a miracle comeback from a hamstring injury, Mark Brunell will be replaced with Patrick Ramsey at quarterback. Ramsey seems to be struggling as he tries to get comfortable with Gibbs' offense. Also, teams are overloading to stop the run and have held Clinton Portis to 3.2 yards a carry since his opening touchdown run against the Bucs. What's strange about the Cowboys is that they have become a passing team with a 40-year-old quarterback. Vinny Testaverde is averaging 42.5 throws a game because the running attack hasn't gotten started yet. The loss of Julius Jones with a broken shoulder for two months should keep the Cowboys a passing team. The Redskins love to blitz and will be loading up on Testaverde Monday night.

Jon Gruden
Jon Gruden's victorious moment against the Raiders must seem like years ago.
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Oakland Raiders (Sunday 8:30 ET, ESPN): Two years ago, Jon Gruden took Super Bowl rings away from the team he built by moving to Tampa and winning a title. Somewhere along the line, he's lost his offense. Brad Johnson looks like a shadow of himself and was benched after 15 plays last week. The receiving corps is without many threats. The running game hasn't gotten started. The offensive line has holes. Now, Gruden goes cross country to play the team that wants to beat him the most, the Raiders. Thanks to aggressive defensive schemes by coordinator Monte Kiffin, the Bucs defense should keep them in this game for four quarters. The question is whether or not this team will score. The Bucs have gone eight quarters without an offensive touchdown. They are averaging 3.13 yards a rush. Even worse, they are averaging 3.5 yards a pass attempt. Johnson will be looking over his shoulder to see if he is going to be benched again in favor of Chris Simms. The Raiders defensive game plan is to blitz. They did it against the Bills and sacked Drew Bledsoe seven times. The Seahawks put a big time rush on Johnson and caused him problems.

6. Baltimore Ravens at Cincinnati Bengals: After blowing the opening game against the Browns, the Ravens quickly get another shot to win a critical AFC North road contest. Winning is important because a victory would give the Ravens a 2-1 division record and two of their final three division games in Baltimore. The matchup is interesting because both teams are banged up with injuries and both quarterbacks are young and in their second seasons. Kyle Boller has more experience than Carson Palmer of the Bengals but Palmer looks more poised in the pocket. He's completing 60 percent of his passes and seems to be in sync with receivers Chad Johnson, his long threat, and Peter Warrick, his possession option. Boller made more plays with his feet against the Steelers and improved from his opening week disappointment. Part of his problem is a lack of proven receivers. Because of injuries last week, Boller has Randy Hymes as his second best receiving threat and Clarence Moore, a rookie, as his third. To make matters worse, he won't have wide receiver Travis Taylor and tight end Todd Heap for the next month because of injuries. For the Ravens to win, they have to win on defense or on the legs of halfback Jamal Lewis, who is drawing as much attention as any back in football. Teams are loading up on Lewis, trying to make Boller win the game. The Bengals have a significant advantage in offensive weapons, but it will be up to the Ravens defense to neutralize them.

5. New Orleans Saints at St. Louis Rams: The Saints offense seems to focus better when it loses key players, but wow, to lose Deuce McAllister, that's going to take a major league focus. For the next 4-5 weeks while McAllister recovers from a high ankle sprain, the Saints will have to operate a pass first, run second philosophy. McAllister had been struggling behind the two tight end set, but now, the Saints will have to mix the two tight end options with three-receiver sets to open up running room. For now, the Saints only have Aaron Stecker and Ki-Jana Carter to use as halfbacks. Stecker entered the league undrafted and started the season with only 101 career carries. Carter was the first pick in the 1995 draft but he's had only 309 carries. Jim Haslett will have to rely on the passing of Aaron Brooks to Joe Horn, Donte' Stallworth and Jerome Pathon to move the offense. The Rams have no trouble moving the ball. That's their specialty. Marc Bulger has two of the best receiving threats in Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce, but the Rams need to pick up the pace on touchdown drives. They have only three touchdown drives in two games. They've settled for four field goals. That's not the same production for an offense that grew accustomed to 500-point seasons.

4. Pittsburgh Steelers at Miami Dolphins: The Ben Roethlisberger era starts prematurely because of the elbow injury to Tommy Maddox, and this isn't the right kind of opponent to face. The Dolphins, despite their problems, create a lot of difficulties for young quarterbacks. Last week, for example, they held Carson Palmer to 116 net passing yards and stopped the Bengals on 14 of 19 third downs. Roethlisberger did well coming off the bench against the Ravens defense, but it's a lot different starting and going four quarters in a game. Coming off the bench, Roethlisberger was behind and was able to run out of the pocket and work out of the shotgun. That's his game coming out of Miami (Ohio) where more than 50 percent of his passes were from shotgun. The Dolphins have to regroup their offense. They were horrible Sunday night against the Bengals. A.J. Feeley struggled. The offensive line broken down leaving no holes for halfback Lamar Gordon. Dave Wannstedt vowed to shake up the offensive line to get better blocking and left tackle Wade Smith has been sent to the bench.

3. Chicago Bears at Minnesota Vikings: The Vikings proved Monday night they could play with the Eagles, but they had three drives down to the Eagles goal line and came away with only three points. That's not good enough. Emotionally, they may be down coming off a tough Monday night game, but they are hitting the Bears at the right time. Injuries robbed the Bears of three defensive starters -- cornerback Charles Tillman, safety Mike Brown and defensive tackle Alfonso Boone. The Tillman loss was huge because he has the size and speed to match up against Randy Moss. The Vikings have to settle a few problems on offense. They need to find the right combination of tight ends now that Jim Kleinsasser is out with a bad knee. The season-ending loss of right tackle Mike Rosenthal creates a big hole on the right side of the line. Rosenthal was perhaps the team's most improved player since the offseason and his improvement earned him a six-year, $15 million contract extension.

2. San Francisco 49ers at Seattle Seahawks: A year ago, the 49ers came to town and blitzed the Seahawks all game. The Seahawks won. Now, the 49ers come to town with as many as nine backups from last year's team who are starting, including quarterback Ken Dorsey. The 49ers are battlers. Last week, they were down five starters because of injuries and lost left tackle Kwame Harris. They almost pulled off a come-from-behind victory over the Saints, but lost in the final seconds 30-27. The Seahawks survived two opening road games sparked by their defense. Now, it's time for the offense to get going. The Seahawks will be aware of the blitzes of linebacker Julian Peterson. They were aware last year, too. Matt Hasselbeck will study tape of how the Bucs blitzed him and what he would do differently. The Seahawks hold a huge edge in their opener.

1. Houston Texans at Kansas City Chiefs: Even though it has nothing to do with their division, the Chiefs have a critical game Sunday in Arrowhead. They have to get things right against the Texans or their hopes of a Super Bowl could end rapidly. Next week, they have to go to Baltimore for a real tough Monday night game. The Texans offer some hopes for a struggling offense. The Chiefs may be without halfback Priest Holmes and wide receiver Eddie Kennison, leaving them without speed down field and dependability in the backfield. The Texans defense has been disappointing. It's given up too many big plays and the Chiefs offense is in need of some confidence building big plays. The problem facing the Chiefs is the improved Texans offense. Though their turnover numbers are high, the Texans rank 10th on offense, and David Carr is averaging 9.2 yards an attempt. He's completing 71.2 percent of his passes, but still the team is 0-2. For the Chiefs, this is their season. For the Texans, it's their season, too.

John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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