… and 10
1. The showdown between Chicago and New Orleans will be won in the trenches. With their injuries on defense, Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has relied almost exclusively on nickel and dime packages. That means they should be weaker against the run, and they have, ranked third against the pass and 30th against the run, according to Football Outsiders. The Dolphins had the right idea with 96 yards on 16 carries and 13 pass attempts in the first half on Monday night. But two turnovers that were turned into touchdowns doomed them. They ran the ball three times in the second half. The way to beat the Saints is to run the ball, take care of it, and hit them with the pass when the Saints have to commit a safety to help against the run. Look for a big game from Matt Forte, who has received some excellent blocking on the edges from his receivers.
2. I have to give Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib kudos for the job he did against the Falcons’ top receivers, Julio Jones and Roddy White, on Sunday night. Yes, he received a decent amount of help over the top from safeties, which allowed him to be more aggressive underneath, and he got away with some handsy coverage. But you play with the techniques you know you can get away with. It’s been a marked turnaround for Talib during his first full season in the Patriots’ system. He was a bit overrated last season, considering he’s the same guy that got torched by rookie Ryan Tannehill and Brian Hartline last season. That Talib is gone. He has now started to fulfill his immense talent because his technique is night-and-day better.
3. It will be interesting to see what the Patriots do with Talib, an impending free agent. If the same trade with the Bucs was available today in the post-Aaron Hernandez era, it’s likely the Patriots wouldn’t have made the deal given Talib’s laundry list of off-field issues. But he’s been in the building now for a year, and he was a top performer in the offseason program, so the Patriots have much more information to go on. They also can’t say they were duped if a big-money contract for Talib blows up in their face once he gets paid. And Talib may be looking to do that: at 27, this will be his best and maybe last chance for a big-money deal.
4. If Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden thinks his team (another which has rushed the ball less season) is going to beat the Patriots with Andy Dalton outdueling Tom Brady, he’s wrong. The Patriots prefer to play with both safeties back, which they did most of the game against the Falcons. They can get away with that most years when the front seven is stuffing the run without much help. But this season the Patriots haven’t been great stopping the run, and that effort is going to be hurt even more with Vince Wilfork done for the season. If the Bengals are successful controlling the game on the ground, New England will lose.
5. It’s going to be very tough for released Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman to make a difference anywhere this season. To do that, he’d have land in a familiar system. Given that his last two offensive coordinators were Mike Sullivan (former Giants quarterbacks coach) and Greg Olson (current Raiders offensive coordinator), the Giants and Raiders would make sense—with Oakland making the most. However, Olson didn’t show much confidence in a young Freeman to take care of the ball, so the passing game was overly conservative. But things change.
6. If Rams offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer doesn’t get things turned around quickly, he may be looking for another job after this season—if not sooner. It’s been distressing to see the lack of imagination he’s used when it has come to deploying eighth overall pick Tavon Austin. Start with his position, or how he’s used. Austin isn’t a receiver, he’s a multi-faceted offensive weapon. Only Schottenheimer deploys Austin as a slot receiver. That’s not his game. The Rams should be using his speed in different ways on every snap. Schottenheimer should have spent time with Rich Rodriguez and Dan Halgorsen, Austin’s two coaches at West Virginia, who also happen to be two of the brightest offensive minds in the game. They’d tell Schottenheimer to start with a handful of Jet sweeps a game—where the player comes in motion sprinting nearly at full speed in front of the quarterback—and getting some handoffs, shovel passes and direct snaps. That would force the offense to react to Austin’s speed, and open up openings for other players on play fakes. There has been none of that. It’s been mind-numbingly boring.
7. Expect Colts coach Chuck Pagano to be drilling containment into the heads of outside linebackers Robert Mathis and Erik Walden in advance of Sunday’s game against the Seahawks. Quarterback Russell Wilson has been at his best—and making up for some terrible pass protection—when he’s used his feet to set up plays. That’s what keyed the comeback against the Texans, thanks to the terrible containment and lack of discipline that outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus showed in the second half. Defenders almost have to resist the urge to rush Wilson, because most times he’s going to get away. Then all you’ve done is open up a huge running lane.
8. The Ravens’ decision to trade for Jaguars left tackle Eugene Monroe only reinforces what we said two weeks ago: Baltimore’s offensive line has been as much of a problem as the lack of viable targets have been. The Ravens’ brass probably thinks the trade could at least send a jolt into the other underacheivers in the unit, most notably left guard Kelechi Osemele. But the biggest problem, from this view, is still center Gino Gradkowski. He’s giving up pressure way too easily up the middle, which is even more of an issue with a sedentary pocket quarterback like Joe Flacco.
9. Expect Peyton Manning and his Four Horsemen of targets—Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Wes Welker and Julius Thomas—to take aim at the Cowboys’ two young safeties, J.J. Wilcox and Barry Church. They’ve played very well for the most part this season, but the Broncos, with all their motion and adjustments, are about as tough of a challenge as they’re going to see. We’ll know how good Wilcox and Church are after this one. Know this: Cowboys defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin knows he can’t sit in Tampa 2 and expect to slow down the Broncos, not that Kiffin has done that to this point.
10. Tough luck for Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer to go down with an apparently serious knee injury against the Bills. Have to feel for Hoyer, who is one of the good guys in the league. He sat behind Tom Brady for three seasons, and then was a victim of circumstance last year when he didn’t make the final cut. Quarterback transitions into another system are nearly impossible during the season, but Hoyer finally got a shot when he signed with his hometown Browns. He quickly ascended into the starting role, and then reeled off two victories in his first two starts before the injury.