NFL Week 9 Early Game Previews

Falcons at Panthers

Matt Ryan has played much better than I’ve given him credit for lately. When teams take away Tony Gonzalez then Ryan has been able to find other options. Even in the face of a poor OL and no running game, Ryan has shown the ability to find receivers in the face of pressure. Last week, the wheels came off a little bit last week because the Cardinals blitzed the daylights out of the Falcons’ offense.

Carolina is not a blitz team but may up their blitz frequency this week because of the Falcons’ OL struggles. The problem is that the front 4 is so good that the Panthers don’t have to blitz. Carolina is coming off a few days of extra rest because they played on Thursday night in week 8.

Cam Newton has been playing very well as well and that is largely a result of the QB run concepts that that are being used within the offense each week. Cam has done a great job on third down in how he processes information and executing, whether that’s in the run or the pass. He is certainly trending up in my opinion. He should have a good game against ATL this weekend but I’m more interested to see him in the next two weeks against San Francisco and New England.

The Falcons have a massive uphill climb because of all the injuries. While I expected a bit of a regression from them this season, I didn’t expect this much. I’m not sure that Roddy White playing really has a tremendous impact on this game because he doesn’t seem healthy. But if White is fully healthy, his ability to run the short to intermediate routes and get separation could be extremely useful. It would give Ryan a good target to go with Tony Gonzalez to take advantage of a secondary that I still think has some personnel issues. Look for the Falcons to use Gonzalez more in the slot than normal, and probably outside too, to get matchups on the safeties and corners. The Panthers will try to stay in their base 4-3 most of the day but Kuechly and Thomas Davis have been phenomenal lately, especially in nickel. If the Falcons had the receivers to spread them out and eat into the depth of the Carolina secondary, then I think the offense would have a tremendous shot at putting up a ton of points.

On offense, I don’t think the Panthers will have a problem imposing their will up on the Falcons. They’ll have a ton of deep opportunities because Atlanta will want to march the safeties into the box to guard against Cam’s running abilities. While the young corners for Atlanta have been impressive, they haven’t face a receiver like Steve Smith yet. Smith should have a big day and I would think that Brandon LaFell might have a good day as well as the Falcons will dedicate most of their resources on defense to Cam and Smith.

Falcons just have too many issues and I’m slowly becoming a believer in the Panthers this season. As long as the Panthers avoid turnovers, I don’t see any reason why they shouldn’t win by 10+ points.

Vikings at Cowboys

Minnesota announced that they’ll be starting Ponder on Sunday because as the old cliché goes, “He gives us the best chance to win.” While that may be true, Ponder hasn’t given the Vikings a win all season. The Vikes only win came under the guidance of Matt Cassel. And let’s not discuss the debacle on Monday night with Josh Freeman.  There are a few things wrong with the Vikings offense and it starts with the quarterback. The 2nd biggest issue is the playcalling. There is no reason that a team with Adrian Peterson should be passing the ball 53 times. Instead they should be rushing that much.

Minnesota’s defense has looked awful this season even though it looked fairly decent last season. A lot of that has to do with the amount of time and plays that they’re on the field. They’re not built to play like that. Yet the coaches continue to play like that. And when they do get stops on 1st and 2nd down, Minnesota’s defense is the worst in the league on 3rd down.

The Cowboys should have a field day with this game. The Viking are a base 4-3 team and have been awful against the pass. Dallas loves the empty sets and when 4-3 teams are forced to spread out it’s never a pretty sight. The Cowboys have too many options in the passing game. The only way for the Vikings to have a shot is to get a ton of pressure on Romo and force him into mistakes. According to PFF, the Vikings pass rush ranks right in the middle of the pack at +0.5. The Cowboys are a much better offense when they have a sustained and effective run game. When DeMarco Murray was effective, the Cowboys’ offense was near unstoppable. I would think that the Cowboys don’t throw a heavy load on Murray in his return from injury this week. Lance Dunbar, Phillip Tanner, or Joseph Randle may all get some carries if active on gameday.

I did some specific filmwork on Sean Lee this week and he’s such a phenomenal talent. He deserves to be recognized as one of the best linebackers in the game, right up there with Willis and Bowman. He’s so smooth and fluid yet plays with such physicality at the line of scrimmage and in the hole. He’s instinctive, fast, and reactive and that makes it hard for opposing offenses. If the Vikings plan on running this weekend, they’ll need to get a hat on Sean Lee on every play. Fullback Jerome Felton will have his hands full all day dealing with Lee.

Outside of Lee, the Cowboys defense is in a bit of disarray. They have serious issues at safety that leaves other problems exposed. The Cowboys plays as much press man and single high safety as anyone else in the league. They’re not a traditional “Tampa 2” team as most might think. Last week they had a perplexing gameplan against Calvin Johnson that gave him single coverage at times or let him venture inside where a safety was supposed to cover him. With game planning and a lack of personnel, this defense can be torched through the air. The problem is that Christian Ponder is only holding a matchstick.

While I think the Vikings will have a focused dedication to running the ball this week, and should have some success, I just don’t think they can keep up. If the Cowboys can score early and often (they should), then it will force the Vikings to rely on Ponder’s arm to play catch up. And that will likely end in disaster. Cowboys win by 14.

Saints at Jets

This is the most fascinating matchup of the weekend for me. The Jets have a great run defense. Too bad it means very little against the Saints. Another problem for the Jets is that Cromartie hasn’t been playing well. The Saints will spread out the Jets and force them to get deep into that cornerback rotation and that’s really going to cause the Jets issues. The Jets are going to need to figure out ways to get to the QB. Drew Brees is fantastic at recognizing pressure and making the correct hot reads so Rex Ryan will have to be schematically intelligent in when and how he devises his blitzes. If Brees and Payton figure out the complexity and timing, Brees will throw for 500 yards or more. Rex also has to figure out how to pressure Brees without committing too many resources to the blitz.

The Saints will probably use Darren Sproles a ton in this game. Sproles will be a weapon against the linebackers if the Jets decide to use them to blitz. Sproles is a solid pass blocker for his size and can hold his own. He’s good at recognizing the nickel blitz and can act as a relief valve all game. The Saints will likely throw a ton of screens which means Sproles should be very active. I don’t think the Jets use Cromartie on Graham all game. They may use him on Graham on the outside but I don’t expect to see Cro slide inside with him. They might at times but it won’t be a base matchup for them.

The Saints’ defense is a week-to-week matchup. What they do in one week has no bearing on how they approach and scheme the next week. Sometimes Rob Ryan will scheme pressure and other times he will rely on his guys to win matchups. Safety Kenny Vaccaro will continue to move around the formation and be a type of joker for Ryan.

On offense, Geno Smith has been consistently inconsistent. He’s played much better at home than on the road so that bodes well for this game. My expectation is that Rob Ryan blitzes from the backside a lot with an emphasis on rolling coverage the opposite way. This will allow them to get pressure without Geno being aware and also taking away his first read which Geno still has problems coming off of at times. The Jets will absolutely need to be successful in running the ball to have a shot. If they try to play shootout with the Saints they’ll get blown out. I think they’ll pound the rock (duh) while allowing Geno to use his feet more than ever to make first downs. If tight end Jeff Cumberland plays he could see a lot of targets as he’s been a good option for the Jets.

As good as Rex Ryan is at scheming and developing gameplans, I just don’t think he has enough firepower to keep up with the Saints. The Jets will need to score 30 to beat them and I don’t think they can do that. Saints by more than a touchdown.

Titans at Rams

I didn’t get a chance to see Jake Locker’s entire game two weeks ago against the 49ers, but from the few minutes that I did see, he looked a little uncomfortable in his return from injury. The bye week should have helped and I hope to see the same Locker that was tearing up defenses early in the season. He’ll face a stiff pass rush – as everyone got to see on Monday night – from the Rams front four. He’ll need to be decisive with the football but based on the coverage of the Rams back 7, he should have plenty of open windows to throw through. However, if the Titans are smart, they probably won’t ask Locker to toss the ball around too much. This is a Rams defense that can be beaten on the ground and a good mix of Chris Johnson and Shonn Greene should be an effective weapon against them.

Kellen Clemens looked solid in his first start for injured QB Sam Bradford. His task this week is slightly easier than facing the Seattle defense, but not by much. The Titans have become a stout defense under the blitzing tendencies of coordinator Gregg Williams. Williams runs a blitz base defense that is opportunistic. While this has worked for them this year, it also leaves a lot of holes and can reap inconsistent results. Clemens at QB should play right into that. This could be an old school type of game where both teams try to run the ball 30+ times based on matchups.

The Rams are probably the better team but they play so inconsistently from week to week. The offense is stagnant – apparently just the way OC Brian Schottenheimer likes it – and I can’t count on the defense to show up like it did last week against the Seahawks. If this game were in Tennessee, I’d give it to the Titans easily. Because it’s in St. Louis, I’ll give the Rams the edge but only very slightly in what is really a toss up game.

Chiefs at Bills

Many people have dinged the Chiefs for the schedule they’ve played. They’ve played teams that are a combined 20-41 (.327 winning pct.) at this point. My counterpoint to that is that they’ve done a fantastic job to win the games they were supposed to. That’s a tough feat in the NFL. There are probably on 2-3 teams in the league that can say they’ve won all the games they’re supposed to at this point.

At any rate, we have a good idea of what the Chiefs are offensively and defensively. They’re attacking and aggressive on defense and they’re just the opposite on offense. They don’t turn the ball over and they create turnovers on defense. This is always a good recipe for success. They use short dumpoffs to Jamaal Charles as an extension of the run game and the Bills should be mindful of that in run situations by always having a player assigned to Charles out of the backfield.

The Bills bring their own attacking defense in to this game. They look eerily similar to Rex Ryan’s Jets as that’s where DC Mike Pettine learned his craft. He has some very good personnel to work with too. Mario Williams has rejuvenated himself and rookie LB Kiko Alonso looks like a phenomenal young talent. Jairus Byrd has played solidly in his return from a holdout. He seems to be getting more and more comfortable in this defensive scheme.

Thad Lewis has done a tremendous job in filling in for the injured EJ Manuel at QB, but now Lewis is doubtful. The Bills have done a good job of tailoring the offense to Lewis’ strengths and avoiding his weaknesses. The problem is that teams are now getting film on Thad and this offensive scheme with him in the game and they’re starting to adapt. Lewis is probably in for a tough game as I don’t think he has the decision making or accuracy to beat the Chiefs’ man coverage and attacking linebackers. I say this about Lewis, knowing he’s doubtful, and also knowing that if Matt Flynn or Jeff Tuel play, there’s a lot less chance the Bills have at winning.

Chiefs win by about a TD.

Chargers at Washington

The Chargers are rolling at the hot hand of QB Philip Rivers and impressive head coach Mike McCoy. They’ve found their groove and identity and are really playing to their strengths on offense. The defense has struggled a bit when they aren’t playing the Jaguars. I’ve actually been very impressed with the blitz schemes that are being devised by DC John Pagano. He’s been able to create some good opportunities via pressure concepts packaged with exotic coverages behind. They play a lot of half-quarter-quarter coverages compared to the rest of the league and those can sometimes be hard for QBs to figure out.

On the opposite side, Washington and OC Kyle Shannahan are looking for an identity. They’re really not sure how much they should or need to run with QB Robert Griffin III but they’re sure trying. Washington is at its best when they get Alfred Morris running downhill behind that zone blocking scheme. The problem is that the holes that were there last year just aren’t there. Griffin’s inability to get the ball downfield accurately has vastly impacted defenses’ game plans. Without having to defend the deep ball with an extra safety, they’re walking extra men in the box to make sure the real threats – Griffin and Morris – aren’t able to find the holes they want.

Shannahan has resorted more and more to the read option and packaged plays as the season has progressed. Washington was really a threat last year when they were able to stretch the field with Pierre Garcon and hit big plays down the seam or off the catch and run on slants. I’d like to see the Shannahans open up the game with some quick short passes to get RG3 in the flow of the game. Get him some rhythm and then start pounding the rock in short yardage situations. Take a shot on a 2nd and 1 and try to find some explosiveness to the offense. Without that threat, they’re limited. I’m really disappointed in Griffin’s progression as a pocket passer at this point and I greatly attribute that to Kyle Shannahan’s tutelage.

On defense, Washington has lacked in the ability to stop the run and cover the pass. They’ve been able to generate a small amount of pass rush but aren’t actually getting to the quarterback to bring him down. They still have major issues at safety. The Washington defense uses 3-3-5 as their primary pass defense personnel and that could pose a problem when the Chargers bring in Danny Woodhead and Antonio Gates and spread the field.

Washington is progressing this season but slowly. They’re still finding their way but the problem is that they just aren’t there yet. The Chargers present some unique matchup issues for the Washington defense that I don’t think Washington can overcome. The Washington offense can certainly put up some points of its own but it’s very hard to predict week to week. I believe this is a high scoring game where the Chargers eek out a win late.

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