Colts (1-1) @ 49ers (1-1)
When Pep Hamilton was hired in January to run Indy’s offense, it was clear that more traditional, balanced game plans were on the horizon. Hamilton vowed to use a fullback in his West Coast system and promote the running game. In Week 1 against Oakland, Indy ran the ball on just 20 plays (not counting Andrew Luck’s scrambles), but fullback Stanley Havili played 26 of 55 snaps (and looked pretty good). Vick Ballard looked comfortable as well, showing quicker feet and more decisiveness in his second season than he did last year as a fifth-round rookie.
In Week 2, with Ballard having just torn his ACL in practice, the Colts ran the ball on just 22 of 72 plays (not counting Luck carries) against Miami. Their offensive line overachieved in man-blocking against an immovable Dolphins front, and Ahmad Bradshaw was effective in all phases. Still, you could tell from the play-calling that Hamilton and his colleagues felt they didn’t have the right pieces for a foundational rushing attack. Also consider that the offense lost its short-area flexibility when tight end Dwayne Allen (hip) joined Ballard on IR, and it was clear that Indy’s only chance of running Hamilton’s full system was to make a bold move at running back.
Time will tell whether Trent Richardson, acquired from the Browns in a trade, is the right guy. If you had watched him on film last season without knowing who he was, you would have never guessed that many considered him to be the best ballcarrier coming out of college since Adrian Peterson. Though he was taken third overall in the draft, there was unequivocally nothing special about Richardson in 2012.
But now that he is playing with a passing attack that defenses actually respect, maybe he’ll be different. He won’t have an easy go of it this week, though. Not only is he adjusting to a new system—which could mean minimal snaps in passing situations, as he’ll have to learn the protection concepts—but he’s facing one of the best run-stopping defenses in football. Or, what we think is one of the best run defenses in football. San Francisco has actually allowed 235 yards on the ground this season, ninth most in the NFL. Because they believe so strongly in their defensive line’s ability to clog the trenches, especially in the ability of Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman to recognize and hunt down runs, the Niners don’t use an eighth defender in the box. An uncrowded box is something Richardson never got to see in Cleveland.
Browns (0-2) @ Vikings (0-2)
Without Trent Richardson, the Browns are likely to ask even more of backup quarterback Brian Hoyer, who is starting just his second career game while Brandon Weeden nurses an injured thumb. Something Hoyer must be on alert for in the second half is the surprise blitz. Leslie Frazier and his defensive coordinator Alan Williams rarely send more than four rushers, but late in close games, after having shown a basic Cover 2 or 3 zone look all day, they like to pull a five- or six-man rush out of their back pocket. They did this on back-to-back plays in the second half against Chicago last week (and probably wish they’d done it more often later in the game, given how their pass rush disappeared). Hoyer must be ready.
Packers (1-1) @ Bengals (1-1)
Cincinnati has one of the league’s stingiest defenses, but Green Bay may expose a weakness. Individually, linebackers Vontaze Burfict and Rey Maualuga are not great in coverage. But with Emmanuel Lamur on IR, both have to play in nickel. Strong safety George Iloka was a versatile cover guy at Boise State, but he saw almost no action as a rookie last year and has not truly been tested through the air so far. That will change Sunday. Randall Cobb and Jermichael Finley are two versatile weapons who can challenge Cincy’s interior defenders working out of flexible passing designs.
Rams (1-1) @ Cowboys (1-1)
Will the Rams trust Janoris Jenkins enough to put him on Dez Bryant? It was Jenkins, not high-priced veteran Cortland Finnegan, who drew the mission of shadowing Julio Jones last week. When Jenkins had double-team help, he survived. When he didn’t, he got burned. Bryant is coming off a sensational performance at Kansas City, where he made several contested grabs against quality man coverage from Brandon Flowers. Tactically, Bryant can be harder to double than Jones because almost all of his routes take place outside the numbers, which is often too far away for a safety to get over and help. Will the Rams throw their talented second-year corner back into the fire? Or will they have professional instigator, Finnegan, follow Bryant in hopes of getting inside the youngster’s head?
Chargers (1-1) @ Titans (1-1)
Philip Rivers had one of the best games of his life last week, mainly because of his work before the snap. Rivers was tremendous in setting protections and identifying Philadelphia’s coverages. This enabled him to get the ball out before his shaky O-line could be a factor. He’ll have even tougher presnap reading assignments this week. The Titans, who had the most vanilla defense in football last season, have transformed into an aggressive, disguise-oriented unit under Gregg Williams.
Buccaneers (0-2) @ Patriots (2-0)
Darrelle Revis claims he’s not frustrated in Tampa Bay. It would make sense if he was. The Bucs have almost exclusively played zone. Revis Island, of course, is governed by the laws of man-to-man. Revis has been effective in zone, so don’t expect an Asomugha-in-Philly kind of tragedy here. But being “effective” is different than being “dominant.” No corner can be dominant if he’s constantly playing zone.
Cardinals (1-1) @ Saints (2-0)
Want to know how former seventh-round pick Marques Colston can post similar numbers to former first-round superstar Larry Fitzgerald? Click here.
Lions (1-1) @ Redskins (0-2)
If RG3 is not a running threat—which he hasn’t been so far—then not only does Washington lose its most dynamic ballcarrier, it also loses creativity in its passing game. Washington’s receivers need the benefit of intricate design; it was evident last week at Green Bay (and all of last season) that they’re not dynamic enough to create their own opportunities against good man coverage. The Lions have been a zone-based defense under Jim Schwartz, but they used more matchup-coverage concepts than usual against the Cardinals last week.
Giants (0-2) @ Panthers (0-2)
This spring, new Panthers GM Dave Gettleman chose to reinvest in his defensive line before reworking an iffy secondary. That’s to be expected from a man who spent 15 years in the Giants’ front office. The contrast from Gettleman’s decision will be on full display Sunday, as the Panthers enter the game with a potent eight-man rotation up front but a secondary that, thanks to injuries, could find itself relying on undrafted rookies Melvin White and Robert Lester. Even if Carolina’s D-line can get to Eli Manning, it may not matter. Manning is one of the best in the league at making stick-throws just before contact.
Texans (2-0) @ Ravens (1-1)
The problem that has long plagued Baltimore—wide receivers being unable to shake press-coverage—could soon plague Houston. Andre Johnson is still one of the best route runners in the NFL, but at 32, he’s not quite the same athlete he onces was. Rookie DeAndre Hopkins made some spectacular catches against Tennessee last week, but what made them spectacular was how tightly they were contested. That comes from not getting separation.
Falcons (1-1) @ Dolphins (2-0)
We also looked at this game in Wednesday’s Deep Dive, specifically stud receivers Julio Jones and Mike Wallace. The Falcons may have a little trouble getting Jones the ball in this one—at least downfield. Offensive tackles Sam Baker and Lamar Holmes have been a bit vulnerable in pass protection (Holmes especially). Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter and Matt Ryan have masked this with a lot of five-step timed passes, but that mask can’t be worn 100% of the time. Miami has one of the best pass rushes in football, led by certified monster Cameron Wake, who plays almost exclusively on the left side (across from Holmes).
Bills (1-1) @ Jets (1-1)
A rookie to watch: Bills inside linebacker Kiko Alonso. He is a very fluid athlete with good size and naturally quick “football movement” skills.
Jaguars (0-2) @ Seahawks (2-0)
What immediately stands out with Jacksonville’s putrid offense is the wide receivers’ inability to get open. (Noticing a theme here with iffy offenses?) This won’t change anytime soon—not even when Justin Blackmon returns from his four-game suspension; he lacks the initial quickness or acceleration to create separation. The Seahawks, as we all saw last Sunday night, might have the most suffocating man-to-man secondary in all of football. That alone justifies the 19.5 point spread.
Bears (2-0) @ Steelers (0-2)
Contrary to popular belief, the sky has not fallen in Pittsburgh. The Steelers are just one game out in the AFC North, with 14 still to play. Take a deep breath, people, and remember: Things should only get better because, well, the offense can’t get any worse. In past years, Pittsburgh’s D has stepped up when the offense struggled. Statistically, this remains one of the soundest defenses in the league (it ranked first against the pass and second against the run last season). However, it has produced just 35 turnovers over the past two years, which ranks near the bottom of the league.
The Steelers are one of two AFC teams still without a turnover this season (Oakland is the other) but they’ll have chances to change this Sunday night. After playing with patience and calmness in his debut under Marc Trestman, Jay Cutler last week reverted back to some of his risk-taking ways. He was at least partially culpable for three turnovers against the Vikings.
On one, he tried to throw a laser to his second read in the end zone off a goal-line play-action—a sequence that took just a tad too long, which allowed defensive lineman Everson Griffen to break down the block of Jordan Mills and deflect the pass for a tipped interception.
On the series prior to that, Cutler was loose with the ball in trying to escape Jared Allen’s pursuit. The result was a sack-fumble that Brian Robison returned for a touchdown.
On the first play of the fourth quarter, Cutler lofted a deep ball to Brandon Marshall that was picked by Harrison Smith. Marshall had scored on virtually the same play earlier, but that was against a single-high safety, which the play was designed to exploit. The interception came against a two-high safety look. Cutler saw that, but took the chance anyway.
This isn’t a criticism of Cutler as much as it is a commentary. He makes a lot of great plays by being aggressive (see the game-winning touchdown drive he orchestrated). But in doing so, he gives the defense opportunities to make great plays. The Steelers must capitalize.