Welcome the Spotlight
You’re Chris Clark. You’re 27 years old, and you may have trouble sleeping Sunday night.
You’re starting your first game at left tackle this weekend. Your only significant regular-season game experience to this point is as a jumbo tight end in 2011, when Tim Tebow ran the offense. Now your job is to protect Peyton Manning’s blind side.
You’ll be playing on Monday night. You entered the league as an undrafted free agent, you’ve been cut three times, and your debut comes on Monday Night Football.
You’ll be going up against a pass rusher, Oakland’s Lamarr Houston, who leads all NFL pass rushers through two weeks in quarterback pressures. He has 16, in eight quarters. He’s very good at stunting, which means you not only have to block Houston, but when he stunts, you have to be able to communicate with your guard about who’s blocking whom. Not easy when it’s your first game starting at left tackle.
You’ll be taking over for the consensus best left tackle in football, Ryan Clady. He’s out for the season after rupturing a foot ligament last week. Which means it’s all you now. The last line of defense, expected to sub in and not let the offensive production fall off with the great Clady missing.
Oh, and in the next two weeks, two of the best pass rushers in football—Trent Cole (Philadelphia) and Demarcus Ware (Dallas)—are ready to test you.
So how are you feeling about it all?
“So excited,’’ the 6-5, 315-pound Clark said, driving home Thursday evening after practice and meetings at the Broncos facility. “No feeling of fear. I will not be afraid. But it’s pretty intense, and believe me, I am not taking any of this lightly.”
Clark’s mobility is just average, and Denver may need to help him with chip-blocking from an extra tight end on passing downs. On the plus side, he’s played a lot of left tackle in the spring and summer this year, because Clady held out of camp while negotiating a contract and Clark was the nominal starter there, getting reps and comfortable with the line. “I was lucky to have learned so much from Ryan,’’ he said. “You want to be able to learn from a guy who does everything right. I try to match what he does, mimic him.’’
The matchup with Houston, Clark said, “will be tough. He plays hard every play. All the guys in the league are good, and he’s one of those guys.’’
And Manning has his back, according to Clark.
“When we found out about Ryan,’’ Clark said, “Peyton texted me. He said to me, basically, ‘I know you can do it. You’ve been waiting for this moment your whole life. Let’s get it done.’ That meant a lot.’’
“What’s your goal for Monday night?” I asked.
“No one touches the quarterback,’’ Clark said.
That’s Manning’s goal too.
About Last Night …
Kansas City 26, Philadelphia 16. I thought the story was the marauding Kansas City defense, with its five sacks, four forced fumbles and 11 pass deflections. That is one tough group to block. It’s clear the Chiefs have the right formula to win: an offense that doesn’t turn the ball over (12 quarters, zero giveaways) with a defense that chases the quarterback all over the field and can stop the run. But the other story of the night was the coach who went back home. Check me on this: Ever see Andy Reid smile so much late in a game and in the post-game scrum? I don’t think I ever have. The game, clearly, meant more to him than a third win by Sept. 19 for a team that won two all last year. “You put it out of your mind as best you can,’’ Reid said after the game. “But 14 years is 14 years. I really didn’t think much about it 'til the game was over. I’m not sure exactly how I feel, other than we won the game.’’ I’ll translate for Reid. This is what he just said: “YIPPEEEE! WE WON! WE WON WHERE THEY RAN ME OUT OF TOWN!!!!!”
Player You Need To Know This Weekend
Tyrann Mathieu, safety, Arizona (No. 32). He’s emerged, as Arizona GM Steve Keim thought he would, as an impact player early, and now he goes home to his birthplace, New Orleans, and his home state, where he has had so much triumph and sorrow, to play the Saints.
In 92 defensive snaps, Mathieu is second on the Cards with 13 tackles, and has a forced fumble (saving a Jared Cook touchdown against the Rams) and a deflected pass. The emotion should be on display Sunday at the Superdome.
Sound Bite of the Week
“We did not bring him here to be the water boy. He’ll be ready to go, as much as he can handle.”
—Indianapolis coach Chuck Pagano, who watched Trent Richardson practice Thursday in Indy, 18 hours after the Colts consummated a trade with Cleveland for the third pick in the 2012 draft. Expect Richardson to start at running back at San Francisco Sunday.
Ten Things I’ll Be Watching For This Weekend
1. The putrid Giants pass rush. For the draft currency New York has spent on pass rushers—Justin Tuck, Mathias Kiwanuka, Jason Pierre-Paul, and the dearly departed Osi Umenyiora—it seems amazing that the Giants are so bad right now in getting to the quarterback. New York has two sacks, and Pro Football Focus has the Giants with seven pressures or quarterback hits in 45 pass drops. That cannot continue if the Giants hope to beat Cam Newton and exit winlessville Sunday in Charlotte.
2. Ray Rice’s health. Sure looked like a serious hip injury Rice suffered last Sunday, though Ravens coach John Harbaugh said several times he expects Rice to play Sunday against Houston. He walked off the field in great discomfort, limping. Rice hasn’t practiced all week. If he plays, how effective will he be in a game the Ravens are going to have to score a lot to win?
3. Ed Reed’s debut. Texans at Ravens. Reed argued to play last week, but was held out with a hip injury. How will Gary Kubiak possibly prevent Reed from playing in the stadium he called home for 11 seasons?
4. RG III’s condition. Another loss—Washington hosts Detroit—and the fans might start calling for Rex Grossman, never mind Kirk Cousins.
5. Rehabber of the Week. Will New England tight end Rob Gronkowski, after five offseason surgeries on his forearm and back, make his season debut Sunday at home against Tampa Bay? Magic 8 Ball says … Looks doubtful. Atlanta next week more likely.
6. An unexpectedly important injury. If you watched the Monday night game, you saw what an impact running back Giovani Bernard is going to be for Cincinnati. He scored once on the ground once with a pass, and made Steelers miss several times in the Bengals' win. But he was limited with a hamstring injury in practice Thursday, and Cincinnati will need all hands on deck to win an anticipated shootout with Green Bay Sunday.
7. The San Diego offensive line. Tennessee’s defensive front has been impactful in the first two weeks, and the Chargers took a hit at practice Wednesday when starting right tackle D.J. Fluker was concussed. Fluke didn’t practice Thursday. If he can’t play Sunday, backup Mike Harris, a second-year man from UCLA, would go—and the Titans would be pleased.
8. Ladies and gentlemen, your 2013 Cleveland Browns. At quarterback, Brian Hoyer. At running back, Willis McGahee. Yeeesh.
9. Dashon Goldson’s target. The league had its one-game suspension of Goldson, the Tampa Bay safety, for helmet hits overturned, and so Goldson will play against the Patriots Sunday in Foxboro. Whoever plays receiver for New England—that is always a moving target these days—must watch for Goldson for three hours Sunday.
10. The underrated game of the weekend: Atlanta at Miami.