How will Dez Bryant and the Cowboys bounce back? Can the Chiefs get their perfect start to 9-0? Will the Texans get a boost from Case Keenum in a prime-time AFC matchup against the Colts?
Going past the obvious storylines and taking a deeper dive into every Sunday game in Week 9. All times Eastern; click on teams for more on the matchup.
Thanks to NFL Films, we now know that Dez Bryant was not completely losing his mind on the sideline in Detroit. The fourth-year star was, at least some of the time, merely rhapsodizing about tactics for the dedicated double teams he was facing. The Lions played a safety over the top all game against Bryant. That is very difficult to throw against.
It was a little odd that Bryant seemed to lose his patience; two-deep coverage is nothing new to him. The Giants played it against him in Week 1. The Chiefs played it against him in the second half of Week 2, after he torched the quality one-on-one press coverage of Brandon Flowers. The Rams played it for 60 minutes in Week 3. The Chargers used similar tactics in Week 4 after Bryant beat their single-high zone for a 34-yard touchdown early in the game. The Broncos often played a safety over the top in Week 5. In Week 6, Washington did not double Bryant over the top, but that’s only because Jim Haslett likes to apply doubles underneath with buzzing linebackers. (Also, Haslett has a lot of faith in top corner DeAngelo Hall.) The Eagles also did not regularly double Bryant in Week 7, which is why he caught six balls for 76 yards in the second half (mostly on in-breaking routes).
The Vikings absolutely will put a safety help over the top of Bryant. Cover 2 is their foundation, and none of their corners come close to warranting solo duties against an elite receiver. Last Sunday aside, Bryant mostly has maintained his patience and positivity against extra attention this season. He’ll have to do that this week.
Thad Lewis is reportedly good to go despite missing some practice time with a rib injury. If he wants to avoid exacerbating the ribs, he needs to be on alert for corner cat blitzes. A corner cat blitz is a catchy description for “outside cornerback blitz,” which is something the Chiefs love to do when the opponent is backed up in its own territory on third down. The Chiefs had a lot of success with it last week against the Browns. In other weeks, they’ve also had success with slot blitzes involving Brandon Flowers. Lewis should be on alert for those, too. They can afford to blitz any corner, as the Bills do not have a game-changing wideout. (Stevie Johnson is a nice, fundamentally sound player but not an athletic dynamo.)
After giving up 130 rushing yards per game in Weeks 1-6, the Rams over the past two weeks have held the Panthers to 102 yards on 38 carries and the Seahawks to 44 yards on 15 carries. As long as the front seven maintains its gap discipline, they’ll build on that success Sunday. This season, Titans running back Chris Johnson has only gained the yards that are blocked. He hasn’t made people miss, and he certainly hasn’t broken tackles. Granted, Johnson did look a little better in the last outing against San Francisco. But with two rookies on the interior line and left tackle Michael Roos lately not playing quite his best, Johnson will have to create yards himself at times.
Sean Payton and Drew Brees probably salivated when watching the Bengals-Jets film this week. Counting pass interference penalties, the Bengals had five pass plays go for 30-plus yards against this Jets secondary—and it would have been more if not for a few drops. Jets top corner Antonio Cromartie is less than 100 percent and having his flawed technique get exploited. Safety Antonio Allen has been identified as a slow reactor and is seeing offensive plays specifically designed to attack him. No team is better than New Orleans when it comes to designing downfield shots.
Someone bring a torch to FedEx Field so Antonio Gates can pass it to Jordan Reed. Okay, maybe it’s no longer the 33-year-old Gates’ torch to pass. But you get the idea. At this time next season, Reed will be considered either the second or third best tight end in football, depending on where Rob Gronkowski is. (Soon-to-be-27-year-old Jimmy Graham has a few more years left as the No. 1.) Reed, a third-round rookie from Florida, has the speed and suppleness of a slot receiver, and the toughness and solidity of a fullback. His route running and run-blocking are rapidly improving. Since becoming Washington’s fulltime No. 2 tight end three weeks ago, Reed has averaged seven receptions and 93 yards per contest.
Both of these defenses run a single-high 4-3 zone-based scheme, but with very different philosophies. The Falcons believe that pressure can be manufactured through blitzes and zone-exchange concepts. So, GM Thomas Dimitroff this past offseason kept his mediocre front four pretty much intact and spent his first two draft picks on cornerbacks: Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford, both of whom have played fairly well. The Panthers believe winning begins in the trenches. Their GM, David Gettleman, kept a mediocre secondary mostly intact and used his first two picks on defensive tackles: Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, who have been decent. So far, Gettleman’s approach is looking like the better of the two. Rich defensive line depth has the Panthers ranking eighth in pressure points and second in scoring. The Falcons, on the other hand, have repeatedly paid a price for their inability to generate pressure with a four-man rush. They rank 20th in pressure points and 26th in scoring, and likely are realizing that it’s not feasible to ALWAYS manufacture pressure via scheme.
The Eagles probably assumed that the best read-option opponent they’d see this season would be in Weeks 1 and 11, when they faced RG3 and Washington. Instead, it will be here in Week 9, when they face Terrelle Pryor and the Raiders. Much like Cam Newton, Pryor has the size-speed combination to run read-option keepers out of traditional power-blocking plays. The Eagles will have to stay very disciplined up front.
Both teams put an expensive starting wideout on injured reserve this week. Obviously, with Seattle being in contention for homefield advantage and Tampa Bay being in contention for the first pick next April, the loss of Sidney Rice has an inherently deeper impact than the loss of Mike Williams. But quite frankly, Rice had not been contributing much anyway. Coming off August knee surgery, the seventh-year pro never looked completely comfortable despite the team’s early efforts to feature him more on the deep routes that he ran so well in his heyday with the Vikings.
Few defensive coordinators blitz as creatively and aggressively as Cleveland’s Ray Horton. He’ll bring the house this Sunday, guaranteed. Horton knows the best way to attack Baltimore is to force Ray Rice to stay in and block. Rice—and backup Bernard Pierce, to a lesser degree—is very dubious in blitz pickups. To force him to stay, the Browns will overload the front prior to the snap. Also, look for them to send cornerbacks after Joe Flacco, especially on third-and-medium.
Tom Brady is coming off his worst game of the season. Pittsburgh’s defense is coming off its worst game, thanks to uncharacteristically surrendering several big plays in the first half at Oakland last week. Something figures to give. Most likely, though, this contest will be decided on the other side of the ball. New England’s defense has not just survived, but actually thrived, without its top three players (Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, Aqib Talib). Credit the suffocating man coverage of this secondary plus the unexpected solid play of the front line. Specifically undrafted rookie defensive lineman Chris Jones has helped stabilize the run defense and bring back at least a semblance of an interior pass rush. Jones should have even more playmaking opportunities now, as he’s likely to see time at defensive end after Wednesday’s trade for nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga. Jones and Sopoaga will take snaps from Joe Vellano, who has struggled to shed blocks (particularly double teams at the point of attack). Whoever plays up front this Sunday will have the luxury of facing a makeshift Steelers O-line that last week backtracked from its step forward performance against Baltimore.
Matt Schaub is healthy, but the Texans are going with undrafted rookie Case Keenum again. That’s not a surprise. Schaub’s already-iffy arm strength has declined this season. It really shows in the way he’s been pressured. In order to push the ball downfield, Schaub must have extra room to wind up and step into his delivery. Extra room takes extra time, which an NFL quarterback rarely has. Schaub’s 2.5 sacks per game this season is nearly a full sack more than he endured last season.
Head over to Page 2 for a breakdown of the Monday night game, Bears-Packers.
Packers offense vs. Bears defense
Eddie Lacy has given the Packers the sustainable ground game they’d been missing since 2009, when Ryan Grant rushed for 1,253 yards. Lacy is not a superstar in the making, per se. He lacks top notch speed and quickness, and stiff hips prevent him from consistently creating his own space. That said, the 230-pounder can continue averaging 99 yards on 24 carries like he has during Green Bay’s four-game win streak. Lacy plays with natural downhill momentum. He’s surprisingly proficient running from the shotgun, which is critical in Green Bay’s system. The best way to sum up Lacy: he’s a more powerful version of BenJarvus Green-Ellis. In an offense quarterbacked by Aaron Rodgers, that’s enough.
Lacy should keep moving the chains against a Bears defense that’s minus its MVP, Lance Briggs. Briggs’ absence, plus the season-ending injury to Mike ‘backer D.J. Williams, leaves this linebacking corps inexperience and light (James Anderson and Jon Bostic don’t play with great physical strength). Bostic, a second-round rookie, is unfamiliar in the nickel packages; in base, he’s now working alongside Blake Costanzo, who misdiagnosed a few runs in his relief performance two weeks ago. Don’t be surprised if either fourth-round rookie Khaseem Greene or recently signed ex-Niner Larry Grant winds up seeing regular snaps before long. Grant has the talent to be a quality NFL starter.
Lacy might not get quite as many opportunities to pound the rock in this one; it’s easy to picture Rodgers taking to the air against a zone-bases secondary that’s playing behind an anemic pass-rush. Rodgers is getting more comfortable with fill-in wideout Jarrett Boykin, particularly late in the down when the action becomes improvised. The later in the down it gets, the larger the natural voids in a zone coverage become. Even though Green Bay’s O-line is improving on the left side, Chicago fans would be right to lose all hope if their team’s pass-rush (Peppers? Paging Julius Peppers…) can’t emerge in this game.
Bears offense vs. Packers defense
This will be the third straight week that Green Bay has faced what amounts to a backup quarterback (Brandon Weeden, Christian Ponder, and now Josh McCown.) That’s only fair, as Green Bay’s defense has been playing with plenty of No. 2’s itself, mainly at linebacker and defensive back. Aside from undrafted third-year inside linebacker Jamari Lattimore, none of the backups have really shined. That’s been okay, though, as some veterans have stepped up.
The most notable is A.J. Hawk, who has been faster on blitzes and in run pursuit. Additionally, cornerbacks Tramon Williams, Sam Shields and Davon House have all been solid in man coverage, which allows coordinator Dom Capers to use more of the confounding pressure concepts that one must consider when missing a celebrated edge-rusher like Clay Matthews.