Let’s go past the obvious storylines and take a deeper dive into every Sunday game in Week 4:
(All times Eastern; click on teams for more information on the matchup)
Buffalo’s front seven lost the run battle at New York last week. Bilal Powell had 149 yards on 27 carries against them, registering 11 runs of five yards of more (two of which went for 20-plus yards). He did a lot of damage bouncing outside off read-option looks. The Ravens, with the fairly stationary Joe Flacco, do not use read-option, but they have a fine-tuned zone-run game and two backs, Ray Rice (back from a hip injury) and Bernard Pierce, who are terrific at turning the corner. Defensive end Alex Carrington’s season-ending quad injury leaves the Bills thin on the edges up front. If the outside linebackers don’t play with consistent run gap discipline (looking at you, Jerry Hughes), Buffalo will get gouged.
Cleveland’s Joe Haden quietly is one of the best man-to-man corners in football, particularly in trail technique. Will he have an opportunity to play this way Sunday? If he matches up on A.J. Green, then yes, because he’ll likely have safety help over the top. But it wouldn’t be a world-stopping surprise if the Browns instead had Haden shadow Mohamed Sanu one-on-one, and left corners Buster Skrine and Chris Owens, along with a cavalry of safeties and linebackers, to deal with Green. This is not to suggest that Skrine and Owens are underrated quality corners. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Offenses have gone after them aggressively these first few weeks. With Green likely to command extra attention all game, whoever matches up on Sanu will be on an island. Skrine and Owens can’t win on an island.
On the other side, the Bengals defense might have a similar, though less severe, conundrum. Josh Gordon’s return from suspension has, at least after one game, redefined the Browns’ offense. Gordon’s size, speed and run-after-catch ability give this passing attack a true No. 1 receiver to build around.
Don’t expect either of these “Cover 2” defenses to play a ton of Cover 2 this game. Or in any other game, for that matter. Why? Glad you asked.
Obviously, all eyes will be on Mike Glennon. But there’s another rookie in this contest who’s worth watching: Arizona’s Andre Ellington. The sixth-round pick from Clemson was the offense’s lynchpin on about half of the 27 snaps he played last week. His versatility was astounding. Ellington got touches out of the backfield, from an H-back position, in the slot and split out wide. And he showed up positively as both a lead-blocker and veritable route runner.
Add “interior offensive line” to the growing list of concerns in Jacksonville. Left guard Will Rackley and center Brad Meester were consistently both overpowered in the running and passing game at Seattle last week. Glaring leakage in the middle of an O-line is the fastest way to ruin an offensive play.
This is fantasizing, but imagine if the Texans had Russell Wilson under center. You couldn’t craft a more perfect quarterback for Gary Kubiak’s play-action system. Wilson might be the best out-of-pocket passer in football. No one throws a wider variety of impressive balls on the move. Wilson has the upper body strength and compact arm motion to make deep, precision-accuracy throws in virtually all directions (as opposed to just directly in front of him). And he has the innate mobility to turn his bootlegs into scrambles if need be. Kubiak’s system is full of moving pocket concepts (though we’ve seen less of them this year). As an added bonus, those moving pockets are a great way to minimize whatever visibility issues stem from Wilson being just 5-10 (and five-eighths!).
Adrian Peterson looks just as explosive as last year. But since bursting for a 78-yard touchdown on his first carry, the reigning MVP has averaged just 2.9 yards on his other 68 carries. Defenses are loading the box against AD and, just as importantly, having their linebackers make a concerted effort to be the aggressors. Instead of reading and reacting to blockers, linebackers are attacking holes and forcing not just Peterson but also his lead-blocker to be reactive earlier in the down. Maybe the return of fullback Jerome Felton can reset the tone. According to Pro Football Focus, Peterson has had a lead-blocker on 52 of his 69 carries this season. But none of those lead blockers—Zach Line, Rhett Ellison, Kyle Rudolph or John Carlson—has the strength of Felton.
Trap game? Maybe, but not for the flimsy reasons that usually define so-called trap games (loss of focus for the home team, the road team’s backs against the walls, blah blah blah). This could be a “trap game” because the Kansas City offense is nowhere near as good as the team’s 3-0 record suggests. Kansas City’s defense has put Alex Smith & Co. in favorable field position and low-scoring affairs. Smith has simply not lost the games. Watch the coaches’ film and you see the mistakes he avoids are vastly outnumbered by the opportunities he passes up. Unless their running game really gets going (so far, it hasn’t), this will catch up to the Chiefs.
Quarterback play likely will determine which team will come away 3-1 and be at the center of all the premature “Cinderella story” talk. After babying Jake Locker with run-oriented game plans the first two weeks, Titans offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains opened things up a bit in Week 3. He obviously had to on the 94-yard game-winning touchdown drive. But even before that two-minute show—in which Locker was spectacular against a variety of different Chargers looks, including three blitzes—Loggains had shown a newfound willingness to pass on first down. In Tennessee’s first two games, Locker was just 9 of 23 on first-down passing. Last Sunday, he was 10 of 16 for 147 yards.
This isn’t to say the third-year quarterback has suddenly emerged. Locker still is not a progression passer, which is why so many of Tennessee’s aerial designs involve either/or reads or opportunities for him to rely on his feet.
Contrast this with Geno Smith. After unofficially losing a quarterback competition with Mark Sanchez, he was expected to be a handoff extraordinaire early on. Instead, the Jets have had virtually no leash on Smith. Their passing game is very vertical—Stephen Hill is blossoming into a more viable deep threat—and full of multi-progression concepts. The progressions are not as complex as what Bruce Arians did with Andrew Luck last year, but they’re similar in that the young quarterback is required to keep his eyes downfield while staying in a shrinking pocket. Smith has responded extremely well. Yes, there have been some costly misreads, which is to be expected. But there have been big gains, too (just ask the Bills). More importantly, Smith has allowed the Jets to run a true NFL-style offense, which has led to a more balanced approach.
Two more young quarterbacks who looked good in the pocket last week were Robert Griffin III and Terrelle Pryor. That has to be encouraging for both franchises. Griffin finally started planting on his back foot and relying on his mobility again. Hopefully for Washington, he keeps trending that way. Pryor was the bigger surprise. After moving around in the pocket with the randomness of a pinball the first two weeks, he was calm and steady in his dropbacks at Denver on Monday night. (Granted, part of this was due to the Broncos modifying their pass rush to help keep Pryor in the pocket.) Consequently, the Raiders converted a few unexpected third-and-longs against a very good Broncos secondary. This week, they’ll have a chance to do it again, as they’re facing one of football’s worst secondaries.
Something both offenses share—besides an appetite for fast tempo—is an expansive wide receiver screen game. The Eagles are reliant on it. We saw that when they lost a lot of rhythm last Thursday as Kansas City’s press corners took away the screens. The Broncos use their screens more as an additional “Gotcha!” weapon. So far, no one has taken them away.
Guard Brian Waters says he is ready to play a full game. The 36-year-old was signed out of de facto retirement on Sept. 3. He sat out Week 1, played 18 of 64 snaps in Week 2 and 31 of 62 snaps in Week 3, mainly spelling Mackenzy Bernadeau. Not coincidentally, with Waters playing half the snaps against the Rams, the Cowboys had their best run-blocking performance of the season last week.
Rookie wideouts Aaron Dobson (second-round pick) and Kenbrell Thompkins (undrafted) have had conspicuous growing pains in New England’s challenging option-route passing system. NBC undoubtedly will keep a camera on Tom Brady in hopes of capturing whatever frustration he might have left for these young guys.
But Dobson and Thompkins won’t be the most compelling first-year players on the field Sunday night. Thanks to injuries, the Falcons defense has been relying heavily on three rookies of its own: corners Desmond Trufant (first-round pick) and Robert Alford (second-rounder) and undrafted linebacker Joplo Bartu. Trufant, with his outstanding short-area agility, looks like a superstar in the making. Alford has been solid playing exclusively outside. As for Bartu, it’s hard to understand why he wasn’t drafted. His speed is terrific. Even when Sean Weatherspoon (foot) returns from short-term IR, Bartu probably will be the other nickel linebacker, meaning he could keep playing every snap.