- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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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 8.
First New England Patriots at Pittsburgh Steelers: To blitz or not to blitz?
That's the question facing Patriots coach Bill Belichick as he prepares for Steelers rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The Cowboys elected not to blitz and Roethlisberger picked them apart for 21 of 25 completions for 193 yards in a Steelers come-from-behind 24-20 victory.
In that game, the Cowboys blitzed roughly six times. Though the Cowboys defense pressured Roethlisberger, he scrambled around enough and kept his wits about him enough to keep the offense moving. He didn't make the mistakes usually expected of a rookie quarterback. Though the Patriots aren't much of a blitzing team, they might be tempted to do it to keep their winning streak alive and beat the Steelers in an important road game.
This is the toughest stretch for the league's surprising rookie of the year candidate. Though he was expected to sit during his first season, Roethlisberger has surprised the world. He's 4-0 as a starter. He's completed 78 of 113 passes for 937 yards and seven touchdowns. His quarterback rating is 100.1 (2nd in the AFC and 4th in the NFL) and his mental mistakes have been minimal.
Roethlisberger does things you don't expect from rookies. He's aware of defenders when he is scrambling and protects the ball well if he's being tackled. He's got an uncanny ability to look downfield long enough while running to hit second and third receivers.
But he's going against a coach, Belichick, who knows how to disrupt young quarterbacks with his schemes. Next week, he faces the Eagles and their blitz-crazy defense. If Roethlisberger can survive these two games with good statistics and two victories, his rookie season will be considered legendary.
So Belichick faces several key decisions in this game. According to Stats Inc., Roethlisberger does well against the blitz. He's completed 17 of 29 for 247 yards and two touchdowns against blitzes. His quarterback rating in those situations is 95. Not bad, but it also indicates he doesn't get blitzed often. If you add the three times he's been sacked by blitzes to his 29 pass attempts, he's only being blitzed in passing situation eight times a game. That's really not a lot.
The Patriots aren't a blitz crazy team. They send extra people roughly 20 times a game but Belichick usually picks the right time to blitz. The other decision facing Belichick is where to use cornerback Ty Law, one of the best in taking away a team's best receiver. Hines Ward catches most of the passes for the Steelers, but Plaxico Burress is more of the big play threat, averaging 19.8 yards per catch.
Predictions are hard in this league, but you get the feeling that these next two games in Pittsburgh will mean a lot for the league. The Patriots and Eagles could continue their unbeaten streaks if they win these games against the Steelers. Of course, the Eagles have to handle Baltimore at home first. But you also get the feeling the Steelers are good enough to win one of these games.
And 10. N.Y. Giants at Minnesota Vikings: The Vikings are toying with opposing defenses. Daunte Culpepper is so hot throwing the ball that he's putting up incredible numbers whether or not Randy Moss' hamstring is healthy. Last week, Moss participated in only two plays. Even without Moss, the Titans defense didn't commit an eighth defender to stop the run, so rookie halfback Mewelde Moore rushed for 138 yards on 20 carries while a safety stayed deep in coverage. The problem facing the Giants is they have lost their most experienced safeties for the season -- Omar Stoutmire and Shaun Williams. The Giants have a veteran safety in Brent Alexander and a promising young safety, fifth-rounder Gibril Wilson. Culpepper will play games with them whether Moss plays or not. Early in the game, he will test talented cornerbacks Will Peterson and Will Allen because the Vikings have the ability to do that with their speed at receiver. The return of Michael Bennett adds speed and big-play ability on third downs. And Moss might try to play some. Tom Coughlin is trying to regain the momentum from a 4-1 start that was lost during the bye week when he thought his players didn't practice hard enough.
9. Baltimore Ravens at Philadelphia Eagles: This game is personal. Terrell Owens stiffed the Ravens last offseason when they traded for him. In his new book, he attributed a racially motivated quote to Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome, who is one of the nicest people in the league. There was no reason to sling mud at Newsome. Owens got his way and had the league void the trade to the Ravens and let him go to the team he wanted, the Eagles. Though Owens and quarterback Donovan McNabb have formed one of the best one-two punches in the league, the Ravens will hope to make Owens pay a price if he comes across the middle of the field. The Ravens will have to rely heavily on their defense because they won't have halfback Jamal Lewis, who is serving the final game of a two-game suspension, and left tackle Jonathan Ogden (left hamstring), the foundation of their offensive line. Chester Taylor is a decent running back, but Kyle Boller will have to face Jim Johnson's tricky Eagles blitz schemes. The Eagles, though, have their own problem. Halfback Brian Westbrook is questionable with a minute fracture in his first rib. Other than McNabb and Owens, Westbrook is the player the Eagles can least afford to lose. He's an elusive back who is as dangerous on the ground as he is in the passing offense, and the drop off is huge if he's out. The next options are 34-year-old Dorsey Levens and inexperienced Reno Mahe.
8. Atlanta Falcons at Denver Broncos: The Falcons hiring of former Broncos offensive line coach Alex Gibbs might have been the steal of the year. Gibbs brought his controversial blocking scheme to the Falcons, and it's been a big reason for the team's 5-2 start. The Falcons rank third in the league in rushing and second in rushing average. Of course, a lot of the running is the 57 yards a game from quarterback Michael Vick. Warrick Dunn has 405 yards and a 3.9 yard average. But Gibbs' legacy continues in Denver. Reuben Droughns has rushed for 509 yards in three starts since moving from fullback and has a 5-yard average. Both teams will make a point to win the game on the ground. Even with Gibbs gone, the Broncos continue to take heat for their blocking techniques. Two defensive linemen -- Paul Spicer of the Jaguars and Tony Williams of the Bengals -- are out for the season because of low blocks made by Broncos offensive linemen. Both players suffered serious leg injuries (broken leg for Spicer and broken ankle for Williams). The blocks are legal but are highly controversial. Gibbs' return is the sidebar to an interesting game of two quarterbacks who rely heavily on rollouts and using their legs. Jake Plummer works most of his offense on the move while rolling out. Vick is the most mobile quarterback in football. One interesting stat for the Falcons: they have been averaging only 55 offensive plays a game. If roughly 30 of them are runs, the Falcons have only 25 chances to pass in a game. That's not a lot.
7. Green Bay Packers at Washington Redskins: Just when you thought the Packers defense was coming together, they suffer more injuries. While their run defense has improved with last week's return of defensive tackles Grady Jackson and James Lee, their secondary is in trouble. Safety Darren Sharper and cornerback Al Harris suffered knee injuries last week and may not be able to play. Maybe, just maybe, struggling Redskins quarterback Mark Brunell can open up Joe Gibbs' offense by sending his receivers against inexperienced cornerbacks -- Ahmad Carroll and Joey Thomas, who would get a bulk of the playing time if Harris isn't around. Brunell is only completing 51.2 percent of his passes. Though Gibbs praises him for his smarts in running the offense, the Redskins need more consistency. Brunell's 5.4 yards an attempt average is one of the worst in football. The Redskins will try to try to run the ball with Clinton Portis, but they will be tempted to attack a revamped, young Packers secondary if Sharper and Harris can't play.
6. Jacksonville Jaguars at Houston Texans: These teams are fun. Both were supposed to be improved teams with the playoffs on next year's schedule. Well, the Jaguars have shown they are a contender this year and the Texans have shown they are close. What's fun about these teams are their young offenses. It's been a pleasure watching Jaguars quarterback Byron Leftwich develop over the past four weeks in the three-receiver, shotgun offense. He's average 318 yards a game passing in an offense that's averaged 407 yards a game. Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave is putting his name in the mix for assistant coach of the year with some of the subtle changes he's made over the past four weeks in opening up the offense. The only problem could be Fred Taylor's groin injury. He's questionable and didn't practice Wednesday because of a groin injury, but Jack Del Rio is confident Taylor will play. The Texans have a lot on the line for this game. They trail the Jaguars by two-and-a-half in the AFC South, and a victory could put them in the playoff hunt. A loss could leave only a wild-card chase. The bye week gave Texans quarterback David Carr the chance to rest a sore ankle that nagged him for two weeks. Carr and receiver Andre Johnson have established one of the best big-play combinations in the league. This should be a fun game.
5. Oakland Raiders at San Diego Chargers: Suddenly, the Chargers are selling tickets to home games and may be able to sell out the Raiders game, their first sellout since giving up the city ticket guarantee. Are the Chargers a playoff team? These next two games will give a good indication. The Chargers have home games against the Raiders and Saints before their Nov. 14 bye week and could be 6-3 with a chance to rest. Halfback LaDainian Tomlinson has been playing at less than 80 percent because of a groin injury, but just the threat of having him on the field is enough to keep opposing defenses honest. Plus, the addition of Keenan McCardell adds a receiver who can consistently come up with five or six catches a game. The Raiders come to town with a four-game losing streak and lots of questions surrounding the team. Quarterback Kerry Collins has thrown nine interceptions since taking over for Rich Gannon and can't get the offense going. Jerry Porter wants out after the season. The offensive line lost guard Frank Middleton for the season, and the defense can't find its confidence. Usually, the Chargers split this rivalry series with the Raiders and they certainly can't afford to lose a home game against them. The timing couldn't be better because the Chargers are playing with confidence and the Raiders aren't.
4. Indianapolis Colts at Kansas City Chiefs: For the next two weeks, the Colts could deactivate punter Hunter Smith. when the Chiefs and Colts met in the playoffs last year neither team used a kicker, and both offenses are good enough to repeat that Sunday. And next week, the Colts face the high-powered Vikings offense. Who needs a punter? The Colts have more touchdown drives (23) than punts (18) in six games. The Chiefs finally got their offense on a roll in last week's 56-10 victory over the Falcons. This weekend, the last team with the ball could be the one who wins this. The Colts are still reeling from their 27-24 loss to the Jaguars last week. But they play well on the road because of Peyton Manning's ability to focus the offense in loud arenas. Don't be surprised if he opens the game with a completion to wide receiver Reggie Wayne to put the spat the two had at the end of the Jaguars game behind them. For the Chiefs, this is a desperate time. They gained momentum and confidence with their victory over the Falcons, but they can't afford to loss a home game and drop to 2-5.
3. Detroit Lions at Dallas Cowboys: What a difference a year makes. The Lions couldn't win a road game last year (in fact they lost 24 straight). Now, they are 3-0 away from Ford Field. A year ago, Cowboys coach Bill Parcells took owner Jerry Jones' assembled talent and won 10 games and made the playoffs. Now, Parcells is trying to take pressure off his players by saying he's mismanaged the team. Maybe, the Cowboys just aren't talented enough. That appears to be the case, but these are the types of games the old Lions used to lose. Of course, it's a road game, and the Lions always lost road games. But the Lions still don't come in with a lot of offense. They rank last in total offense, averaging just 243.5 yards a game. Like Atlanta, though, the Lions need to improve on moving the chains. They only get 54 offensive plays a game. Teams that rank that low offensely generally are horrible on third down. The Lions are 29th. Last week, though, Joey Harrington had one of his best games. He was 18-of-22 passing and two of his incompletions were throwaways. On third downs, he was six for 10. Still, these are the types of games Parcells win.
2. Carolina Panthers at Seattle Seahawks: Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren wants his team to get back to basics. He's taking complicated pass plays off the book for quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and trying to run the ball more. Hasselbeck has lost his rhythm in the passing game. Interceptions outnumber touchdown passes, and he simply can't get wide receiver Koren Robinson to consistently catch the ball. Robinson has nine drops. The Seahawks, for a second consecutive year, are second in drops in the NFL. While the Seahawks won't have defensive end Grant Wistrom and linebacker Anthony Simmons, the Panthers are the perfect team for the defense to regain its confidence against. The Panthers are missing their three top running backs following Wednesday's official scratch of Stephen Davis. Jake Delhomme can't generate many points with an offense that lacks speed with the loss of Steve Smith for the season.
1. San Francisco 49ers at Chicago Bears: Of the bad games of the week, this one has that sick appeal to it. No team is worse at quarterback than the Bears. Jonathan Quinn finally got benched because he was so bad. So rookie Craig Krenzel gets the start on Halloween night. No trick. No treat. After looking at a sore-armed Tim Couch, Bears coach Lovie Smith decided to go with his three quarterbacks for the rest of the season. Chad Hutchinson doesn't offer much hope. Going back to Quinn could even be worse. It's Krenzel or bust. The 49ers had a bye week to allow one of the league's thinnest and most banged-up rosters to recover. Let's face this fact: on Halloween, you're not going to see many trick-or-treaters dress up in Bears or 49ers disguises. Watching this game is the only way you will see this treat. The loser could have the inside track on the No. 1 pick in next year's draft.
John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.
The decision Bill Belichick has to make is whether or not to blitz Steelers rookie Ben Roethlisberger.