After recharging their batteries, the Ravens, Texans and Colts have a chance to announce themselves as contenders on Sunday ... plus what ails the Patriots, looking at the possible No. 1 pick in 2014 and condolences for a cursed franchise
For every NFL team, the bye week is important for many reasons. It’s a few extra days of rest to get bodies ready for the stretch run. It’s a chance to self-scout, to assess strengths and look for ways to improve. It’s an opportunity to get back to fundamentals, to get some quality teaching reps in and tighten up your technique.
This week, three teams return to action following extremely important bye weeks. What the Ravens, Colts and Texans do on Sunday will give clues as to whether they’ll be AFC contenders in the final two months of the season.
A look at what each will be concentrating on:
The Ravens continue to feel the loss of tight end Dennis Pitta to a preseason hip injury, and they’d love to get him back at some point to open up the rest of the offense. But coming off their bye, the Ravens first have to get their running game going against the Browns.
So far it’s been awful. And that might be an understatement. The Ravens are worst in the league with 2.8 yards per rush, as well as the percent of rushes that have gone for four yards or more—overall and on first down. That has correlated into the Ravens having the worst offense on first and second down in the league.
Simply put, Baltimore has to find a way to get better on first down. Running backs Ray Rice (hip) and Bernard Pierce (hamstring) have shown signs that they’re getting healthier. That has to happen. Rice hasn’t shown any explosion, which has led to questions about whether he’s starting the downward arc in his career. The Ravens better hope not, or they’ll need Pierce to get healthy even faster so he can take over the No. 1 role.
But the problems haven’t all been on the backs. The offensive line has underachieved, especially at center and left guard. Gino Gradkowski hasn’t come close to giving the Ravens what retired center Matt Birk did. And Kelechi Osemele has been playing hurt, and it shows. It now looks like he's headed for injured reserve, which means converted center A.Q. Shipley will get the call. Both Shipley and Gradkowski need to be play effectively down the stretch.
On defense, the Ravens have one of the best front sevens in the league, and they generate plenty of pressure on the quarterback. But the secondary has been subpar, as evidenced by the Ravens’ being ranked 30th in passer rating when blitzing (their 109.5 dwarfs the league average of 86.6). The signing of safety Michael Huff was a disaster, and it ended this week when he was released. Veteran James Ihedigbo has played very well this season overall, but he’ll always be limited against the pass. The player on the spot is first-round pick Matt Elam. He was expected to have an instant impact, but that has yet to happen. Starting in the second half of the season, he can no longer be considered a rookie. They need him to play like a veteran.
They are not out of it, especially after the Colts lost receiver Reggie Wayne to a torn ACL, but any comeback must start Sunday night against Indianapolis—the first of two meetings between the AFC South divisional rivals.
Nobody can truly replace injured inside linebacker Brian Cushing—Joe Mays gets the call—so the Texans won’t be quite the same on defense. But the unit should still be one of the league’s best down the stretch.
It’s all going to come down to the Texans’ offense. Coach Gary Kubiak had an extra week with the bye to get comfortable with quarterback Case Keenum, who has replaced the benched Matt Schaub. It’s up to Kubiak to put Keenum in the best possible situation to succeed. That means more pistol sets and likely more designed runs to take advantage of the athletic dimension Keenum brings to the position. Kubiak’s offense is actually designed for an athletic quarterback—Schaub isn’t one—so there is potential for a lot of improvement. It’s a big spot for Keenum, an undrafted free agent in 2012. Every game is going to be important, none moreso than Sunday night at home against the Colts.
There may not be a more closely watched team coming out of a bye week than Indianapolis. There is a lot of curiosity about how the Colts will deal with the season-ending knee injury to receiver Reggie Wayne. With victories over the 49ers, Seahawks and Broncos in recent weeks, the Colts were an unquestioned contender. The Colts were able to flourish despite losing their invaluable all-round tight end Dwayne Allen. But can they still contend without Wayne?
That’s a huge question mark going into Sunday's game against the Texans. Wayne is the receiver who made the passing offense go. As their motion receiver, he was able to dictate coverage all over the field. One of every four throws by quarterback Andrew Luck went to Wayne. Luck would even throw to Wayne when he was covered. Can anyone else provide that kind of security? It looks like Darrius Heyward-Bey will get the first opportunity to prove himself. He’s become a much more well-round receiver since his Raiders, days but he’s never had to be The Guy before.
Expect more stress to be put on the run game. The offensive line could stand to be a little sharper and build on its performances of late, but it’s also time for Trent Richardson to show why the Colts traded for him.
Everyone, especially the rabid fans in New England, wants to know what’s wrong with the Patriots’ offense. After watching film this week, here’s my quick synopsis: they stink.
All of them.
It’s not just the receivers. It’s not just the pass or run blocking. It’s not just Tom Brady’s inaccuracy. It’s a combination of everything. Basically, there isn’t one thing they do well. It looks like the Patriots coaches think that as well, because the game plan against the Dolphins last Sunday was bare bones. The Pats won, 27-17, but there wasn’t a whole lot of motion or variety. They stuck to a few basic runs, a handful of different pass concepts.
What's wrong with the Patriots’ offense? After watching film this week, here’s my quick synopsis: they stink.
The Patriots looked like they were saying, “We aren’t doing anything well at this point, so let’s dial it back and start from the basics.” The problem is, they couldn’t even execute that game plan. The first half was one of the worst performances I’ve seen in some time from the Patriots’ offensive line, both run and pass. Left guard Logan Mankins, normally the stalwart, struggled mightily in all phases of the game. He might be toughing out some sort of lower body injury. That said, the run blocking was much cleaner in the fourth quarter, so that may be something to build off of. Although I have no clue why the Patriots aren’t playing Stevan Ridley more. He’s by far their best running back. It’s not even close.
... and 10
1. As for Brady, he’s certainly part of the problem—but not a huge part. Yes, he has missed throws he normally makes and his ball placement has been shoddy. The hand injury he’s dealing with has probably caused some of that. What I also see is that Brady, in years prior, made his living down the middle of the field to Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowsi and Aaron Hernandez. With Danny Amendola not 100%, and Gronkowski shaking the rust off, Brady has lacked those kinds of targets. He’s had to rely more on throws to the boundary; those aren’t his strong suit, and they’re a lower percentage pass in general. But the bottom line is, the Patriots’ offense is far from a lost cause (even if swapping injured right tackle Sebastian Vollmer for Marcus Cannon is a huge step down). They’ve had so much flux in personnel, they are obviously discombobulated. If they get some stability there, the Patriots can regain some of their timing coming out of a bye in Week 10.
2. I recently talked to University of Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost, the former Nebraska quarterback and NFL defensive back, for a magazine story, and I couldn’t let him go without asking about quarterback Marcus Mariota, who is draft eligible and could wind up as the No. 1 pick in April. “Marcus is getting better every week,” Frost said. “Marcus is going to be a phenomenal NFL player, in my opinion, whenever he decides that’s what he wants to do. The best way I can say it is before we even started playing last year, I made a gentleman’s bet with a friend that (Mariota) would be the first pick in the NFL before he was done. I still believe that he will.”
3. One player who has jumped out on film in recent weeks is Dolphins outside linebacker Olivier Vernon. As a rookie third-round pick in 2012, he was used only as a situational pass rusher. But in the past month Vernon has stood out more for his work against the run. Vernon gave the Patriots’ and Bengals’ left tackles all they could handle, playing the run with surprising strength and leverage.
4. It will be old home week on Sunday when the Rams host the Titans. Rams coach Jeff Fisher spent 17 years as coach of the Oilers/Titans, and cornerback Cortland Finnegan and tight end Jared Cook started their careers with the Titans. “I know there’s going to be emotion there because that’s just the humanly (reaction),” Finnegan said. “I think (Fisher) wants to win because it’s the next game, but also because we’re playing a team that he formerly coached and was a big part of in building that history and tradition there. We definitely want to win for him, and I think it’s a big game for the guys who played there before.”
5. Speaking of Cook, his signing hasn’t worked out as St. Louis had hoped. Before the season began the Rams were touting his ability to post up his 6-5, 254-pound frame in the red zone. Yet when the Rams had their final fourth-and-goal play from the 1-yard line against the very big secondary of the Seahawks on Oct. 28, Cook wasn’t even on the field. He caught seven passes for 141 yards and two touchdowns in Week 1. In the seven games since, Cook has zero touchdowns. He caught less than five passes in six of those games and hasn’t gone over 45 yards.
6. Those who know Dolphins tackle Jonathan Martin are completely shocked that he left the team after reportedly being fed up with bullying by teammates. No one saw any signs of something like this happening. In fact, there’s a lot of anger, if the reports are accurate, toward the Dolphins for letting this happen.
7. I wouldn’t blame Bengals fans one bit if they think their franchise is cursed. There might be older examples, but look no further than Carson Palmer going down with an ACL injury in a 2005 playoff game (after an 11-5 regular season) and now All Pro defensive tackle Geno Atkins suffering the same injury. Both went down in what might turn out to be their most promising seasons ... yikes.
8. It’s amazing that the Falcons’ matchup with the Panthers on Sunday marks the final call for Mike Smith’s group this season. Atlanta virtually has to win-out in order to have a chance at making the playoffs. It has to also play the Seahawks, Saints, Packers and 49ers down the stretch. Because of the Falcons’ struggles, not many have noticed that quarterback Matt Ryan has thrown the ball better this season. It’s just that the Falcons are terrible running the ball, and pressuring the quarterback.
9. Everyone noticed how the AFC went 15-6 against the NFC through the first four weeks of the season. Since then, the NFC holds an 11-6 advantage.
10. If Tamba Hali (9.0) and Terrell Suggs (8.0) can join the double-digit club this week, it will mark the first time since the sack stat became official in 1982 that six players had 10 or more through Week 9.