Welcome back to Blanket Coverage, your midweek smorgasbord of NFL coverage where we like to spin the dial like a Rex Ryan defense. Inside, you’ll see who needs to step up after injuries have hit the Cowboys, Packers, Dolphins, Giants and Titans. The Wet Blanket report slows the horses on the Cardinals (for now, easy #BirdGang), the Ravens’ demise and a coach going after his quarterback. A Raider gets the tip of the cap for his off-field efforts, and we borrow from John Harbaugh in asking five experts who has the most talented roster in the NFL (one answer surprised me). And you’ll have my 10 thoughts on Week 3, but first, we start in Cleveland. I know we had a roundtable earlier this week on the Browns' QB decision, but upon further review, I had more to say on the topic:
It’s very easy for all of us. We sit at home, watch the game, maybe delve into the all-22 film if we’re really crazy, and look at the stats. It seems obvious. Johnny Manziel, after leading the lowly Browns to a victory in his first start of the season, should get the chance to make it two in a row even though Josh McCown is healthy after a concussion.
Did you see the three touchdowns he’s thrown to Travis Benjamin?
He came off the bench against the Jets and led them to a touchdown and a 10–7 lead!
At least Manziel brings excitement. What do the Browns have to lose?
Hello, he won last week.
Those statements might very well be true. But we don’t have to deal with collateral damage from the decision to start Manziel or McCown. If we say start Manziel and it doesn’t work, we go watch another game or drop him on our fantasy team for another quarterback. We can throw Manziel out with the trash as soon as he crashes to Earth.
Browns coach Mike Pettine can’t. He’s got 14 weeks of the regular season to navigate. Every decision he makes has a trickle-down effect. Pettine has a quarterback, whom the team traded into the first round to get, with four years left on his contract. Pettine is dealing with a quarterback who, obviously, did not conduct himself like a professional last year and who, just five months ago, was released from a nearly three-month stay in a rehabilitation center.
You could tell these factors were weighing on Pettine when he announced his decision on Wednesday.
“Very proud of him, personally and professionally, with the progress he has made, [it’s] a very positive thing for us,” Pettine said. “This is all very positive that we now feel that we have a backup that can come in, and he has already proven that he can move the team and make plays and win games for us. He is making great strides, and if he continues to make strides, ultimately, he can get where we all want him to be. But where we are right now, we look forward to Josh leading the offense against the Raiders on Sunday.”
You get the sense that when the Browns had to turn the reigns over to Manziel in the wake of McCown’s injury, the entire building held their breath. While Manziel, from all reports, has been doing all the right things since he emerged from rehab, the nightmare of last season doesn’t just wash away. Manziel did not prepare himself like a professional last year, and it showed on the field. An ESPN report said Manziel worked harder when he started, but it was like cramming for a final exam because he hadn’t put in the previous work. The same report said some veterans preferred to play with undrafted rookie Connor Shaw because they knew he was prepared and knew the plays.
All that had to be part of the evaluation process this time around with Manziel. And after one moderately successful start (he had his struggles as well), at least now the Browns know Manziel can go through an entire week, take his job seriously and navigate a game successfully.
From where he was at the end of last season, fined for being late or missing treatment the day before the season finale, that is a 180-degree turn.
“We also can see a lot of his progress if he’s not playing, just how he’s preparing and how he is on the practice field and just going about his daily business,” Pettine said.
“Johnny has made a lot of strides and we have no problem with him playing football for us. We have a plan for him, and we feel that he is headed in the right direction.”
If Browns fans want Manziel to be the quarterback of the future, Pettine’s plan is the best for that.
What if, with the pressure of starting, Manziel falls on his face on the field, and goes back to his old bad habits off the field? Where’s he supposed to go then? By bringing him along slowly, not only will Manziel be better off with his command of the offense, he’ll have earned more trust with his teammates, which is everything for a quarterback.
On the field, Pettine’s decision makes sense as well. All he wants is for a quarterback to execute the game plan and take care of the ball. Pettine wants the running game, driven by the Browns’ terrific offensive line, and the defense to be the workhorse for this team until he knows he has that “special” quarterback. It worked last season until center Alex Mack went down to injury and more had to be asked of quarterback Brian Hoyer. McCown gives the Browns the best chance to continue where Hoyer left off and fulfill Pettine’s vision.
There’s no reason to rush things with Manziel. If he’s indeed ready to run the show, he’ll be ready four weeks from now if McCown isn’t getting the job done. There’s no downside to that.
The downside to Manziel starting and failing now is too great just three games into the season after his disastrous rookie season. Middling quarterbacks might be interchangeable to us, but they aren’t when you have a real person, who is still just 22 years old with a troubled history, sitting on your roster and looking you in the face in your office.
It’s not Johnny’s time yet. He’s come far, but for the Browns, he has further to go.
Who needs to step up in the wake of the following Week 2 injuries?
1. Tony Romo, QB, Cowboys (broken clavicle, out eight weeks): Obviously Brandon Weeden is getting the call here, and Matt Cassel was brought in via trade. But the real unit that needs to step up is the Cowboys’ running operation, starting with new line coach Frank Pollack. It’s just not acceptable to go from 147.1 yards per game in 2014 (4.63 per attempt, and second in the league) to 94.5 so far this season (3.38 per attempt). There’s way too much talent on this team for that to happen.
2. Eddie Lacy, RB, Packers (ankle, one to three weeks): James Starks replaced Lacy against the Seahawks and did well with 95 yards on 20 carries (4.8 average), including a 35-yarder. Starks has been largely the same player as when he came in as a rookie in 2010: He’ll have some big, slashing runs along with a few where he will struggle with his read, and he has average hands in the pass game.
3. Branden Albert, LT, Dolphins (hamstring, day-to-day): He’s been limited in practice, so he’ll likely be questionable for the game. Jason Fox replaced Albert against the Jaguars and should get the call again. He struggled against a game Jaguars defense, but at least this time the Dolphins can game plan more help for Fox.
4. Ereck Flowers, LT, Giants (ankle, week-to-week): Flowers gutted through the opener with an ankle injury but succumbed to it in Week 2 against the Falcons. The most likely plan is for left guard Justin Pugh (who struggled so much at right tackle he was moved to guard) to move to left tackle, opening the guard spot for John Jerry. Hopefully this doesn’t wreck Pugh’s confidence, as he was playing well at guard.
5. Chance Warmack, RG, Titans (sprained MCL, three to four weeks): The 10th pick in 2013 has slowly improved since starting his career in underwhelming fashion. Jamon Meredith, the well-traveled veteran (he’s spent time with nine teams in seven years), performed well against a challenging Browns front. The Titans will need him to do it again against the Colts, with rookie RT Jeremiah Poutasi still feeling his way.
WET BLANKET REPORT
1. The Cardinals' ascension: Bruce Arians's team has been very impressive in its first two games, with a league-leading plus-37 point margin, but wake us up when the FCS portion of its schedule is over. Wins over the Saints and Bears? We’re talking about No. 2 and No. 1 picks in the 2016 draft bad. But as long as Carson Palmer stays healthy, the Cardinals should reign in the NFC West. Still, we’ll be waiting for Oct. 18, when Arizona starts a five-game stretch that includes games against the Steelers, Ravens, Seahawks and Bengals. Then we’ll know exactly how good the Cardinals can be.
2. The Ravens' demise: Yes, the Ravens are 0–2, and the loss to the Raiders didn’t look good at all. But it was a tough West Coast swing to start the season, and the Ravens always have head-scratching losses like the Oakland game. That’s just who they are. The Ravens will figure out how to play without Terrell Suggs in time, but the bigger injury has been the concussion suffered in the first game by LT Eugene Monroe. He still hasn’t practice yet. The Ravens can’t survive with James Hurst protecting Joe Flacco’s blind side.
3. Chuck Pagano's comments: Colts coach Pagano was not taking a shot at Andrew Luck when he asked about the QB making mistakes against pressure in the Monday night loss to the Jets. “That's been the case for three years now, has it not? He should be more than comfortable dealing with what he's dealing with,” Pagano said. If it was a shot at anybody, it was at GM Ryan Grigson, who hasn’t put any resources into the offensive line but has been rewarded with a contract extension while Pagano has not.
1. The Eagles are in serious trouble at 0–2: Chip Kelly will be second-guessed about trading for Sam Bradford and sending LeSean McCoy to Buffalo, but the real issue is on the offensive line, where the release of guards Evan Mathis and Todd Herremans has had a trickle-down effect and hurt the play of Pro Bowl center Jason Kelce. His comfort level with Andrew Gardner and Allen Barbre is obviously not near the level of his previous linemates. Don’t know how that gets fixed. Nobody’s walking through that door. It couldn't be worse timing for the Eagles to meet the Jets' awesome defensive line in Week 3.
2. Jabaal Sheard: The Patriots defensive end has played outstanding football for New England since coming over from the Browns in free agency. Against the Bills, he had five hurries, a knockdown, drew a penalty and had a half stuffed run (runs of one yard or less). If he keeps it up, Sheard may start to cut into the playing time of veteran Rob Ninkovich. At the very least, the Patriots finally have a viable three-man rotation, and not just two starters and a journeyman, at end with Chandler Jones. It will help everyone. Patriots ends have played too many snaps in the past. They get worn down at the end of the season.
3. Bengals DT Geno Atkins is back, baby: After suffering through an average season last year recovering from ACL surgery, Atkins has three sacks (two official), two quarterback hits and four hurries in two games, according to ProFootballFocus.com. He’s going to be a big problem for opposing offensive lines going forward.
HUMANITARIAN OF THE WEEK
Raiders end Justin Tuck and his wife, Lauran, started their eighth annual Tuck’s RUSH for Literacy season at Alliance Academy in Oakland, Calif. Tuck’s foundation promotes literacy to low-income children. Through the years, Tuck has provided 14,000 children with books and supplied 86,000 books to seven middle schools in New York, New Jersey and Alabama. The Tucks recently announced a $250,000 grant to provide books and literacy programs for low-income Bay Area children, prioritizing children in public housing.
You can donate or learn more at http://rushforliteracy.org/.
ACCORDING TO THE EXPERTS
Each week, we'll poll five in-the-know people on a certain topic.
This week's question: Ravens coach John Harbaugh said this week that the Bengals were the most talented team in the league. Who would get your vote?
• “That's subjective. You can argue a few teams but for people on our side it doesn't matter the most talented [team], it matters the team that wins the trophy at the end of the year.” – AFC general manager
• “Dallas, not taking into account the current injury situation. Premium players at quarterback, receiver, tight end, left tackle, guard, pass rushers and linebacker.” – NFC personnel director
• “Green Bay. It starts with the quarterback but they have players all over that roster.” – AFC personnel director
• “I'd say it's between Seattle, Denver, Green Bay and Dallas....each of those teams has their Achilles heel though, I don't think there is one team with a dominant 1–53 man roster, there's so much parity in the league. If I had to go with one, I'd say Denver because their defensive depth and talent will offset their offensive warts.” – AFC scout
• “Top to bottom, I would say Green Bay, Seattle, Arizona, Cincinnati and Baltimore.” – AFC scout
10 thoughts heading into Week 3
1. The way the Patriots are playing right now, using shotgun empty with five targets spread wide across the field to jump on opponents early, the only way to slow them down is to play press man and hope to disrupt their timing with three cornerbacks and two safety/linebacker types, and getting home with a four-man rush. But how many teams can actually do that? Not many. The Broncos, Jets and Packers come to mind. Certainly not the Jaguars, the Pats' opponent on Sunday. Expect New England to target safety Sergio Brown, the former Patriot who got “tossed out the club” by Rob Gronkowski last season as a member of the Colts.
2. People don’t care because it wasn’t opening week against Marcus Mariota, but Bucs QB Jameis Winston had a very nice bounce-back game against the Saints. He showed the accuracy most expected when he was drafted, and he dealt with pressure better. Another test comes this week with the Texans and J.J. Watt. Winston should keep a lookout for Jadeveon Clowney, who is nearing a full snap load and was impactful against the Panthers.
3. Scouting report on new Cowboys QB Brandon Weeden: He can make all the throws and is a decent athlete, but he has a lot of trouble seeing where pressure is going to come from and then feeling it in the pocket. His motion can get long and slow as well, but Weeden looked like he has tightened that up from his appearance against the Eagles.
4. If the Chargers don’t find a way to pressure the quarterback, they’re going to have a tough time beating the good teams in the league. Andy Dalton felt pressure on 17.5% of his snaps last week, according to ProFootballFocus.com. The banged up Vikings’ line has had all sorts of trouble protecting Teddy Bridgewater the first two weeks. That should give the Chargers some hope in their matchup this week.
5. The Colts will have their moments offensively, but offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton has to realize the continued struggles the line is having and adjust. Scrap the deep passing game and get the ball out of Andrew Luck’s hands. Spread the defense out, get him in shotgun, and let Luck go to work.
6. Falcons first-round pick Vic Beasley (sack, two hurries) had a good game rushing the passer against the Giants, but he was going up against a rookie in Ereck Flowers. We’ll see if Beasley is a legitimate threat to be Defensive Rookie of the Year after facing the Cowboys and excellent LT Tyron Smith.
7. Eagles QB Sam Bradford, who struggled diagnosing the coverages against Dallas, could have continued difficulties against the Jets. This is not the same Jets defense that you’re used to with Rex Ryan, even though the cornerbacks are familiar (Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie) and excel at man coverage. Todd Bowles varies his coverage much more than Ryan. Bradford is going to have to be much better and quicker at finding the voids.
8. As we expected, Titans rookie QB Marcus Mariota didn’t have such an easy time against a Browns defense that plays mostly man coverage combined with zone pressures in his second start. But he played well, considering his poor pass protection. Mariota really impressed with his poise in the pocket, and he didn’t get sped up by the pressure. It bodes well for his chances of success against the Colts, who aren’t quite as exotic on defense.
9. With his team trailing by 14 points to the Panthers with a little over six minutes remaining, Texans quarterback Ryan Mallett celebrated his rushing touchdown by mocking Cam Newton’s Superman celebration. Seriously?! What a joke. #BringBackHoyer
10. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has looked in complete command through two games, but the Chiefs’ defense will present a legitimate challenge on Monday night with pass rushers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali, and a big secondary that plays a lot of man coverage. Rodgers does catch a break with top cornerback Sean Smith out for the final game of his three-game suspension. Marcus Peters and Phillip Gaines (moves inside in nickel) are solid. Jamell Fleming got burned repeatedly as the third corner against the Broncos. Marcus Peters could replace him. Regardless, expect Rodgers to target that third Chiefs corner.