Burke Report: Can transformed Smith, Cousins get the job done in playoffs?

Is your perception of Kirk Cousins and/or Alex Smith the same as what it was at the beginning of the season? Likely not, since realities change often in the NFL. Also, four players to watch in wild-card weekend (can Steelers RB Fitzgerald Toussaint get the job done?), previewing every game and more in the Burke Report.
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Alex Smith can’t throw deep. Russell Wilson can’t throw from the pocket. Kirk Cousins can’t be a franchise quarterback.

There are instances when perception fails to meet reality in the NFL, but the real truth is that realities change and change often.

For example, a time did exist not all that long ago when Smith was among the least aggressive quarterbacks in football—the Chiefs’ offense reeled him in quite a bit, too. In 2014, he attempted just 24 passes beyond 20 yards—completing eight—per Pro Football Focus; this season, this numbers bumped up to 40 and 14, respectively. The uptick may not sound like much, but that extra deep ball per game on average has helped unlock a missing dimension in the Kansas City offense.

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Wilson’s transformation has been even more striking. The Seahawks’ QB has delivered strong passing numbers throughout his four NFL seasons, but neither he nor offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell had to work quite as hard to pick spots this season. In fact, Wilson led the league in passer rating from inside the pocket (118.6) and completed nearly 73% of his attempts there, according to ESPN Stats and Info.

Then, there is Cousins. During the first half of the season, there were fans and analysts alike calling for Colt McCoy or even Robert Griffin III to replace him as starting QB. But Jay Gruden stuck with him and the dividends are paying off: he now heads into the postseason with a red-hot offense, powered by the Cousins-led passing attack. Once the off-season arrives, it’s a almost guaranteed that Washington will hand Cousins a multi-year deal in line with other top QBs.

Was the majority wrong about these players? Yes and no. The opinions formed about them mostly were based on what happened on Sundays. But establishing those baseline beliefs requires less effort than changing them.

Take the Calvin Johnsonretirement rumors. The natural reaction there is to compare Megatron’s possible departure to Barry Sanders’s sudden exit, to chalk the whole thing up as the latest proof that the Lions are destined for doom.

What has rarely been pointed out is that Detroit made the playoffs and then finished 9–7 in the two years after Sanders’s retirement, or that this current Lions team could be in decent shape to withstand a similar move by Johnson. Losing him would hurt in 2016, without question—he’s still an offensive focal point coming off a 1,200-yard season, plus Detroit immediately would have to pony up his remaining signing bonus owed (approximately $13 million).

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The flip side is that his retirement would wipe from the books the remaining $67 million or so in base salary Johnson has left on his contract. As for Jim Bob Cooter’s offense, it obviously takes advantage of Johnson, but it’s built for players with a different skill set. The Lions finished this season with 2,484 yards after the catch, behind only San Diego and New Orleans. Johnson contributed a mere 298 yards to the total, fewer than Eric Ebron (299) or Joique Bell (308).

The reality for next season? Detroit would miss Megatron badly, from an emotional standpoint if nothing else. But the picture could shift and do so in a hurry.

Franchises hunting new coaches are facing the same reality. Remember, it was just two off-seasons ago that Ken Whisenhunt was something of a hot commodity, taking interviews with the Browns, Lions and Titans. He chose Tennessee and was out of work again within a season and a half.

Lovie Smith reportedly was in the mix to be USC’s next head coach back in 2013. He wound up with Tampa Bay instead and now he’s looking for another gig, too. A defensive mastermind brought in to orchestrate a quick turnaround, Smith produced eight wins over two seasons (though six came this past year, as Jameis Winston showed significant potential.)

Or how about the Rex Ryan arc? He went from instant cult hero status in Buffalo a year ago to facing questions about his job security this January after a fade from playoff contention. 

The NFL world evolves with rapidity, so it can be hard to keep up. What we think we know often winds up being proven wrong, whether we're willing to admit it or not.

Four-man front

Here are four players I’ll be keeping a close watch on this week …

1. Chris Clark, OT, Texans

Clark started at left tackle twice against the Chiefs in 2013, and he drew another start the next year vs. Kansas City, playing on the right side. So, the 30-year-old veteran lineman at least knows the task that lies ahead of him on Saturday, as he steps into the lineup for LT Duane Brown, who tore a tendon in his quad during what turned out to be a rather meaningless Week 17 game. A Pro Bowler from 2012–14 and reportedly a first-team alternate this year, Brown has served as the Texans’ most reliable blocker for several years now.

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The task awaiting Clark as Brown’s replacement would be daunting ahead of a regular-season game. That it comes in the playoffs, just as the Chiefs get healthy again on defense, cranks up the intensity a few notches.

“Playing against [the Chiefs] so much, he has a lot of experience year in and year out, playing them twice,” guard Brandon Brookstold the Texans’ website. “He came to us Monday when he came in and kind of gave us his speech and things to look out for. We kind of rallied around it, took it all in.”

Right tackle Derek Newton will have his hands full, too, now that Justin Houston is back practicing. Even if Houston cannot go full steam, Dee Ford finally showed some life in Houston’s absence. But much of Clark’s responsibility, at least on passing downs, will be in locking up Tamba Hali.

If the Texans can’t keep Houston and Hali out of the backfield, their offense doesn’t stand a chance.

2. Fitzgerald Toussaint, RB, Steelers

For a team that employs Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams, starting Toussaint in a road playoff game hardly qualifies as Plan A. But much like the Texans’ situation at left tackle and potentially the Bengals’ at quarterback (Andy Dalton has been ruled out against Pittsburgh), the Steelers will have to play the hand they’re dealt at running back.

With Williams ruled out against Cincinnati,Toussaint is prepping as the No. 1 back, five games removed from being activated off the practice squad. He finished the regular season with 42 yards rushing on 18 carries.

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“I think he’s one of those guys that everybody is excited about seeing play,” Mike Tomlin said this week of Toussaint. “They are excited about seeing him get an opportunity because he’s a guy that doesn’t say much. He’s extremely low maintenance. He really works hard to put himself in position to be a positive asset to us when given the opportunity.”

Even with Bell and Williams out, the Steelers are in better shape now than they were ahead of last year’s wild-card round, when they made a starter out of emergency-signing Ben Tate (he rushed for just 19 yards on five carries in a loss to Baltimore). Worse yet, the Steelers’ pass game was badly hindered minus Bell—Tate, Dri Archer and Josh Harris combined for seven catches for just 30 yards, none showing much oomph as a pass-blocker either.

Toussaint will get a little help from Jordan Todman, though he attempted all of four runs this year. This will be Toussaint’s show, if Williams is unavailable. Can he at least keep the Steelers’ offense on track?

3. Linval Joseph, DT, Vikings

The injury news is brighter here. Minnesota has Joseph, Anthony Barr and Harrison Smith all back in the fold for Sunday’s showdown with Seattle. Barr and Smith exited the Vikings’ 38–7 manhandling by the Seahawks in Week 13, while Joseph didn’t suit up at all. Joseph also missed the Vikings’ Week 17 win over Green Bay, after playing in Week 16 vs. the Giants. He was a limited participant in Wednesday’s workout, but that counts as an improvement to his status.

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The Seahawks gashed the Joseph-less Vikings in early December, rushing for 173 yards and two touchdowns. Thomas Rawls, since sidelined by a broken ankle, was the star then; Marshawn Lynch should be leading the charge this week (Update: Lynch has been ruled out, too). Regardless, Joseph’s presence would change the entire outlook for the Vikings’ defense.

Sharrif Floyd has been trying to fill Joseph’s shoes, with Tom Johnson as the three-tech. Dropping Joseph back in at nose tackle would allow Floyd to slide back to his usual role, thereby giving Minnesota a far more realistic shot at clogging up the interior and limiting the Seahawks’ ground game.

4. Randall Cobb, WR, Packers

With Jordy Nelson out Cobb set a career high in targets this season, getting 129 looks from Aaron Rodgers. He also caught fewer passes than he did a year ago (79 to 91) and posted his worst-ever yards per reception (10.5). It has been a disappointing few weeks for the Packers’ offense in general, but Cobb’s decreased production is among the more frustrating factors.

Between the offensive line’s injuries, Rodgers’s surprisingly inconsistent play and Nelson’s absence, Cobb simply never found his footing. After topping 100 yards receiving five times in 2014, Cobb now has gone 14 games without hitting that mark. Cobb also has been negatively impacted as much as any Green Bay receiver—if not more—by the lack of imagination in the play calling. He is explosive with the ball in his hands, but the Packers have struggled to get him in space.

Has he saved his best for last?

Washington is banged up in the secondary—see: signing Cary Williams this week—and ranked 25th in pass defense during the regular season. The question is if the Packers can exploit the holes at all. Their best opportunities could come, as they often do, when Rodgers can break contain and extend plays.

Breaking it down

An even deeper dive into the wild card matchups …

Kansas City at Houston (4:35 p.m. ET, ESPN)

The Chiefs’ and Texans’ earlier matchup may as well have happened in another decade. Starting Houston QB Brian Hoyer was benched midway through a 27–20 loss in favor of Ryan Mallett, who is currently the Ravens’ No. 1 quarterback as Joe Flacco rehabs a knee injury. The Chiefs still had Jamaal Charles in the backfield, yet it hardly helped the next few weeks as that Week 1 victory was followed by five straight defeats. 

After Week 7, both teams were 2–5.

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Alex Smith has been instrumental in Kansas City’s ascension since. And lest we all forget, he’s been quite productive in three previous playoff appearances (two with the 49ers, one with the Chiefs)—nine TD passes to zero INTs, with averages of 291 yards passing and 42.3 yards rushing per outing.

He went for three touchdowns and no picks back in Week 1. Continuing the theme of change, though, the Texans now count Kevin Johnson and Andre Hal among their full-time starters in the secondary. Not coincidentally, the defense has been surging ever since those two began to see increased playing time.

The Texans’ offense has scored 30 points two straight games, as well, though all signs point to the AFC South champs needing to win a slugfest here. Who emerges as an unheralded passing target could key the result. Kansas City is still limited in its options, leaning mainly on Jeremy Maclin and Travis Kelce, with some Albert Wilson recently; Houston has DeAndre Hopkins (Marcus Peters should keep him busy), then injuries to Nate Washington and Cecil Shorts.

Pittsburgh at Cincinnati (8:15 p.m. ET, CBS)

Previewing a Steelers-Bengals matchup is a bit like recapping The Godfather for someone. Eventually, your audience will snap and hit you with, “Yeah, I know. I saw it. Everyone saw it.” Aside from Toussaint’s potential start in the Pittsburgh backfield (see above) and the curiosity that would surround an AJ McCarron playoff start, there is little in the way of unknowns.

Something to keep in mind, however, as it pertains to McCarron facing the Steelers’ 30th-ranked pass defense: that unit wasn't exactly stingy vs. tight ends but it allowed more yards to wide receivers than any other NFL defense this season.

Can McCarron exploit the advantages A.J. Green, Marvin Jones and others will give him on the outside? It may depend on what Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler draws up this week. McCarron has been far less effective against zone defenses thus far—the Broncos basically won their game vs. Cincinnati by switching away from a man approach. He’s also been susceptible to sacks, taking a combined nine over his past three starts.

“I think I learned that I gotta be a more aggressive defensive [play] caller than I was against Baltimore [in Week 16],” Butler said recently on Steelers’ Nation Radio, per SteelersDepot.com. “I think that’s what we do a little bit better. We have to mix it up. We can’t just be one thing all the time. We can’t blitz all the time, we can’t drop everyone into coverage all the time. Be hard to find in what we’re trying to do.”

Is McCarron ready for such a challenge?

Seattle at Minnesota (1:05 p.m. ET, NBC)

Early kudos to the fans who sit there for four hours in minus-20 degree wind chills on Sunday. That sound you hear on TV either will be cheering or people’s frozen fingers snapping off their bodies.

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Ahead of the game, players will psych themselves into believing the cold doesn’t matter. A few will come out sleeveless, others will talk about not noticing it. The only real choice is to try to win the mental battle, because it’s a losing physical fight. Eventually, being out in that miserable weather for enough time drains a little extra from every player, regardless how tough he is.

It’s not a universal rule, but games played in extreme weather—and extreme cold, especially—tend to be far sloppier affairs.

“I think it’s the handling of the ball probably, over a long period of time,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll said, via ESPN.com. “It’s the handling of the ball. It always seems to make the coaches feel like it’s going to be a more vulnerable situation, that because of feel and touch and that kind of stuff.”

Both teams took care of the football extremely well during the regular season: 17 turnovers by Minnesota, 16 by Seattle. The Vikings’ number could have been worse, though, because Adrian Peterson put the ball on the deck seven times—his most since 2009—but Minnesota recovered four.

His O-line will find it difficult to keep Teddy Bridgewater clean, and the Seahawks are rolling on offense themselves, so Peterson as usual will handle a huge chunk of work. A reckless afternoon with the ball would spell doom for Minnesota.

Green Bay at Washington (4:40 p.m. ET, FOX)

How do the Packers plan to cover Jordan Reed? There will be myriad other factors that go into this game’s outcome, but Reed’s usage is a main component to what else Washington can do on offense.

Odds are, Green Bay defensive back Micah Hyde will be in the spotlight often against Reed, as he has been against opposing tight ends throughout the year. He is a reliable piece, and yet some of his numbers are ugly—Pro Football Focus had him allowing a 109.2 QB rating and 75.6 completion rate on passes thrown his way. Should Reed (87 catches for 952 yards and 11 TDs) run him in circles, the Packers will have a very difficult time getting off the field. Reed is Kirk Cousins’s most trusted target.

One reason Reed has had so much success in 2015 is that the Redskins have been able to find him advantageous matchups via motions and alignment. Hyde has not played more than 35 snaps since Week 8 and Reed is an offensive fixture, so the Packers will have to adjust when Hyde is not in play.

The other options will be tricky to utilize. Dropping a safety down would expose the back end of Green Bay’s secondary to DeSean Jackson’s terrific speed. Using a linebacker extensively on Reed is almost out of the question—the Packers do not really have the athletes there to stick with Reed. Zone coverage? Double teams?

Probably all of the above. Taking Reed away, or at least limiting him, should be among Green Bay’s top priorities heading into Sunday.

Lock of the Week

Seattle (-6) over Minnesota. I do think the Vikings will manage to keep this close, assuming their key defensive pieces are out there. They’re just outmatched in a handful of key spots, including when their offensive line has to pass block.

Upset of the Week

Washington (+1) over Green Bay. This line has swung (at least on Bovada), after opening with Washington favored. The combination of Green Bay’s experience, Aaron Rodgers and the Redskins’ secondary injuries all are at play, no doubt. The weekend finale feels like a toss-up, but Washington’s offense is far outperforming Green Bay’s at the moment.

Mock draft watch

The latest SI Mock Draft ran earlier in the week, covering Round 1. Here are the five (well, six) players that were toughest to leave out:

1. Jonathan Bullard, DE, Florida: He initially was in the 31-pick first round (No. 26, Kansas City), until I swapped that pick out for Duke safety Jeremy Cash. Bullard deserves first-round consideration nonetheless, as a potent run-stuffer (18.0 tackles for loss) with enough giddy-up to pressure the QB (6.5 sacks).

2. Connor Cook, QB, Michigan State: As mentioned in the mock draft footnotes, Cook currently sits as my third QB behind Jared Goff and Paxton Lynch. I don't have much of a gap between Cook and Lynch. The experienced Spartans’ star will entice some team before the draft goes too deep.

3. Su'a Cravens, S/LB, USC: This was the most difficult omission, as I pointed out in the mock. He’s such a force on defense across the board—run defense, coverage and even blitzing the QB. Where exactly NFL teams see him playing is the lingering question.

4. Corey Coleman, WR, Baylor and Tyler Boyd, WR, Pittsburgh: I’ve made no secret that Boyd is among the guys I would go to the mat for when choosing the safest prospects. His game is so polished already that he can produce immediately. Coleman has further to go but more room at his peak. He was lights out for Baylor all season and plays bigger than his 5'10" frame.

5. Noah Spence, OLB, Eastern Kentucky: Spence could have been on the board as yet another Ohio State prospect. He’s carrying the Eastern Kentucky banner because he failed multiple drug tests as a Buckeye, then transferred out last year. There’s no question he can play—Spence is a dynamic force off the edge. An upcoming trip to the Senior Bowl could be huge for his stock.

Poll games

Each week, I’ll take to Twitter to take the readers’ pulse on a pressing NFL issue.

My money was on the Mike Tirico-Jon Gruden combo, which personally I look forward to hearing every week—Gruden’s enthusiasm is infections (if over the top) and Tirico very well might be the most consistent, versatile broadcaster out there today.

Michaels, of course, comes with his own credentials. And while Collinsworth has his critics, he is the best NFL color commentator there is, constantly picking out nuances of the game to highlight during broadcasts.