Tag:Jason Witten
Posted on: February 25, 2012 2:51 pm
 

2012 NFL Free Agency: Tight End Rankings

Shiancoe leads what is a fairly unimpressive group of free agent tight ends. (US Presswire)
By Josh Katzowitz

Leading up to the start of free agency on March 13, we're compiling the best 2012 NFL free agents by position. These are the tight ends.

Originally for this post, I listed Jermichael Finley for the No. 1 spot on this list. Obviously, he was an easy call, because he was so obviously the best tight end on the market. Now, though, he’s a signed a two-year deal with the Packers worth about $7.5 million per season, and therefore, the free agent tight end class of 2012 suddenly has grown awfully weak (let’s face it, it wasn’t all that great with Finley on top either).

The best tight ends in the game -- guys like New England’s Rob Gronkowski, New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham, San Francisco’s Vernon Davis and Finley -- are safely secure with their respective teams, and those teams who actually are looking for tight ends will have to draw on a list with very few, if any, top-line playmakers. Considering Gronkowski and Graham are helping to redefine the position, that’s not great news. Nevertheless, here we go.

1. Visanthe Shiancoe

Breakdown: Since catching 56 passes for 566 yards and 11 touchdowns when Brett Favre was throwing to him, Shiancoe’s production has decreased the past two seasons, especially in 2011 when he caught 36 passes for 409 yards and three touchdowns. Since he made $4.5 million last season, it doesn’t seem likely the Vikings will re-sign him. Especially since the Vikings seem high on Kyle Rudolph. But unless Favre is planning to return for another season (and let’s face it, we can never rule out this option), the value of Shiancoe isn’t as high as it once was.

Potential Landing Spots: Giants, Browns

2. Martellus Bennett


Breakdown: Though Bennett doesn’t have impressive receiving numbers, that’s not what he’s called upon to do. Instead, he’ll be one of the more valuable tight ends in free agency because he’s top-notch run blocker. Bennett oftentimes is overshadowed by his teammate Jason Witten, but his worth to the Cowboys is evident every time Bennett steps on the field (it also seems evident, though, that Bennett’s time in Dallas is finished). But in order to get paid tons of money, he needs to show he can catch the ball, and that’s something missing from his arsenal at this point.

Potential Landing Spots: Bears, Broncos, Jets, Bengals

3. Joel Dreessen


Breakdown: Dreessen is a solid tight end, and he’s been an important cog for the Texans as quarterback Matt Schaub, receiver Andre Johnson and running back Arian Foster have turned Houston into a consistent top-10 offense in the past three years. He’s not a big-time pass catcher, but he’s a solid run-blocker (as Foster, Ben Tate and Derrick Ward likely would attest). The Texans would like to keep their two tight end set, but assuming Owen Daniels can stay healthy, Dreessen becomes a little more expendable in Houston.
Fred Davis
Potential Landing Spots: Chiefs, Jets, Giants, Texans, Redskins

4. Fred Davis

Breakdown: He’s actually a pretty good candidate to be franchise-tagged by the Redskins (safety LaRon Landry (and his muscles!) is another candidate), and considering he caught 59 passes for 796 yards in 12 games last year in the best season of his career, Davis is a potential emerging star. Unfortunately for Davis, he was suspended for the final four games of the season for a failed drug test, and if he happens to fail another one, he’d be suspended for a year. So, there’s a little bit of a gray cloud following him around, and teams that need a tight end might shy away from a potential off-the-field problem like that.

Potential Landing Spots: Redskins

5. Jeremy Shockey


Breakdown: It was only four years ago when Shockey was considered an elite tight end, good for about 60 catches, 600 yards and six touchdowns per season from 2004-07. He’s been hurt (literally) by injuries, and after the Saints released him in 2010, he was solid enough  last season in Charlotte (though the team did like the toughness he brought to the squad). Shockey has talked about wanting to play in Miami -- he’s also talked apparently about retiring, though it seems like everybody is denying it at that point -- but with Anthony Fasano already entrenched as the Dolphins tight end, Shockey probably would have to be content to play as the No. 2 tight end. He made $4 million last season, and in order to return to the Panthers to play with tight end Greg Olsen, he’d probably have to take a paycut.

Potential Landing Spots: Dolphins, Giants, Panthers
Shockey

6. John Carlson


Breakdown: Carlson missed the entire season with a torn labrum in his shoulder, so there will be plenty of caution surrounding him, even though he’s caught at least 50 passes in two of his first three seasons in the league. Making matters worse, Carlson said in January that he’s not completely healed, estimating that he was only at 90 percent. “Obviously missing the season is not ideal,” he told the Tacoma News Tribune. “But that was the situation I was in. I feel really good. I didn’t beat my body up over the course of the season and my shoulder is repaired.” Carlson is also a solid run-blocker, and he seems like one of those guys who could move into the top-10 of tight ends around the league.

Potential Landing Spots:Seahawks, Rams

7. Jacob Tamme


Breakdown: Like most everybody inside the Indianapolis franchise, Tamme suffered without Peyton Manning around. Playing in place of the injured Dallas Clark, Tamme caught 67 passes for 631 yards and four touchdowns in 2010. Last year, those numbers dropped to 19 for 177 and one. Which obviously is not the kind of season you want to have in a contract year, but it reflects Tamme’s position on the team and, probably, in the league. He’s a solid backup, the No. 2 tight end in a two-tight end set. He has talent, but it’s unclear how much of that was reflected off Manning. He could be a low-risk, somewhat-high reward guy for the right team.

Potential Landing Spots: Colts, Dolphins, Broncos, Bengals

8. Honorable Mention


Unrestricted free agents: Scott Chandler, Reggie Kelly, Daniel Fells
Restricted free agents: None

For more NFL news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnNFL on Twitter, Like Us on Facebook, subscribe to our NFL newsletter, and while you're add it, add our RSS Feed.
Posted on: December 29, 2011 11:06 am
 

Film Room: Giants vs. Cowboys preview


Posted by Eye on Football Analyst Andy Benoit


An NFC East championship game in primetime – no further introduction needed. Here’s the breakdown.

1. Reviewing Week 14
These teams gave us a classic Sunday night showdown just a few weeks ago. That contest was defined by mistakes more than anything. Tony Romo posted good numbers but missed a few throws that would have changed the outcome. His only completion to Dez Bryant was a 50-yard touchdown against a blown coverage.

The Cowboys defense blew several coverages of its own, leading to a 400-yard night for Eli Manning and prompting Rob Ryan later to scale back the complexity of his scheme in 2:00 type situations. Big-time throws against poor pass defense was why a game that was 34-22 Cowboys with under 6:00 to play wound up being 37-34 Giants.

2. The star quarterbacks in big games
The common perception is that Eli Manning is a big game riser and Tony Romo is a big game faller. The Week 14 battle only reaffirmed this; Manning was absolutely magnificent on the final two touchdown drives, fitting balls into tight windows and, as he’d been doing all night, quickly diagnosing and dissecting the Cowboys’ Byzantine blitzes. Romo, on the other hand, missed a third-and-five throw to Miles Austin with 2:25 remaining that would have sealed the win.

That throw came against an all-out, Cover 0 blitz. In the past, Romo’s inability to recognize blitzes before and after the snap often led to his blunders. Those issues, however, have been largely corrected this season. And yet, because of what happened against the Jets in Week 1, and because of the interception-riddled second half meltdown against the Lions in Week 4, Romo’s reputation remains that of a choker.

That’s mostly an unfair and overly simplistic characterization of a quality veteran. If not for the botched field goal hold at Seattle in the ’06 wild card loss – a play that had nothing to do with quarterbacking skills – Romo almost certainly wouldn’t be thought of as a late-game anything.
 
That said, Romo has indeed made some mistakes in critical moments. Most of those have been due to defenses confounding him with false looks. The broadcast viewers might tie this to Romo feeling stressed in crunch time; the film viewers tie it back to Romo’s mediocrity at reading defenses before the snap. When you’re a sandlot player, you’re reactionary. A reactionary player is much easier to trick – especially late in games after he’s gotten comfortable reacting to certain looks the same way.

This same concept applies in the other direction with Manning. He’s a splendid field general, audibling at the line of scrimmage, running the no-huddle offense and trusting his eyes and underrated arm strength in the face of pressure. While reactive quarterbacking is prone to defensive manipulation late in games, proactive quarterbacking is apt for defensive manipulation. You change your defensive looks and play aggressively to bait a reactionary quarterback into a mistake. Against a proactive quarterback, you change your looks and play aggressively so that he doesn’t bait you into a mistake.

The relevance of this sexy “big moment quarterbacking” storyline is debatable. As stated before, Romo has improved his mental approach to the game. And just because Manning has been great in crunch time doesn’t mean he’s unstoppable (especially given how up-and-down his receivers have been).

Dez needs to work on his disappearing act. (Getty Images)

3. Pass games
It’s been far too easy for defenses to take away Dez Bryant this season. The Giants had no trouble doing this with Corey Webster a few weeks ago. They also took away Jason Witten by smacking him with a defensive end or linebacker as he came off the line. Don’t be surprised if the Cowboys split Witten to the slot to prevent this from happening again.

Also, don’t be surprised if the Cowboys line up in three receiver sets to force the Giants into their nickel D. That nickel D has been poor in coverage the past few weeks, mainly because of Prince Amukamara. The first-round rookie has since been benched, with safety Antrel Rolle moving back to slot corner. The Cowboys should eagerly test Rolle with either Miles Austin or Laurent Robinson, both excellent route runners.

4. Run games
The Cowboys lost DeMarco Murray for the season in their last meeting with the Giants. Felix Jones showed his uncanny burst and acceleration in the lone game of consequence since then (Week 15 at Tampa Bay), but that was against the worst run defense in football.

It remains to be seen whether the Cowboys can sustain on the ground against a quality opponent. Expect them to try to establish the run, especially if the Giants play their three-safety nickel defense against base offensive personnel (something they did a bit against the Jets). Jones’ might also run out of three-receiver sets against that nickel D, as that’s a good way to take advantage of his proficiency on draws.

New York’s run game remains unimpressive, though there were a few signs of life last week. Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw both ran with power after averaging barely one yard per carry after contact against the Redskins in Week 15. David Baas is back at center after missing several weeks with migraines. Baas has been below average overall this season but at least offers a tad more short-area mobility than backup Kevin Boothe.

5. Up tempo?
The Meadowlands crowd will be in full throat – especially early. The Cowboys may want to go no-huddle to quell the crowd and dictate the flow.

A quick tempo can also be a good way to calm a pass-rush, which is critical when facing Justin Tuck, Jason Pierre-Paul and, perhaps, Osi Umenyiora. And the less time the Giants defense has between snaps, the harder it will be for them to change their coverages, which coordinator Perry Fewell likes to do.

So who will win? Check our NFL expert picks for all Week 17 games

Follow @Andy_Benoit on Twitter or contact him at Andy.Benoit-at-NFLTouchdown.com.
Posted on: December 7, 2011 10:43 am
Edited on: December 7, 2011 12:05 pm
 

Film Room: Cowboys vs. Giants preview

Posted by Eye on Football Analyst Andy Benoit


A hallmark rivalry renews Sunday night with the first of a two-game series between the Cowboys and Giants that will likely decide the NFC East. We’ve recently grown familiar with the Giants as they’ve spent the past few weeks on football’s center stage (Patriots-Eagles-Saints-Packers!).

In examining whether they can break their slump and get back above .500, we take an in-depth look at how they match up with this week’s familiar foe.


1. Stopping DeMarco Murray
New York’s most valuable contributor Sunday night might just be Jason Garrett. The Cowboys’ play-caller unwisely drifted away from Murray in the second half against the Dolphins on Thanksgiving, and he all but abandoned Murray against the Cardinals last week (12 carries, just seven after the first quarter).

Garrett’s pass-first decision at Arizona was likely in response to the aggression of the Cardinals linebackers. They recklessly attacked downhill much of the game, often as part of designed blitzes. Garrett may have felt that passing against an iffy and over-leveraged Cardinals secondary was the best response.

That said, Garrett can’t simply let Murray become an afterthought. The rookie running back has been the stabilizing force of the Cowboys’ offense. In recent weeks, the Cowboys’ front line has played with enough power in the ground game that, with the help of fluid H-back John Phillips, it’s realistic to think they could push the pile against aggressive linebacking. Even if they couldn’t, Garrett could still feature his young back in the passing game. Murray has soft hands and is smart in protection. Screen passes are a great way to punish fast downhill linebackers.
 
Expect the Giants to attack with their second level defenders much in the same way the Cardinals did. Defensive coordinator Perry Fewell knows that this might make Garrett one-dimensional in his play-calling. What’s more, the way to contain Murray is to make him go east and west early in the run. He has decent lateral agility and change-of-direction but only if he’s already built momentum.

By shooting the gaps, the Giants will push Murray to the perimeter, where he’s less dangerous. If the Giants continue to operate out of their big nickel package (two linebackers, three safeties), they’ll have enough speed on the field to chase the outside runs.

2. Cowboys passing game
Shooting the gaps against Murray will leave New York more susceptible to play-action passing and one-on-one matchups downfield. That’s a risk the Giants should be willing to take. They have a quasi-shutdown corner in Corey Webster.

They likely believe they can cover Jason Witten with one of their three safeties, or even with athletic linebacker Jacquian Williams. Williams was matched one-on-one against Jimmy Graham and Jermichael Finley the past two weeks. He was defeated in both matchups, but the Giants may be inclined to trust him again this week. Witten is elite, but he’s a prototypical tight end, not an insanely athletic hybrid wideout like Graham or Finley.

The Cowboys’ passing attack is interesting. Early in the season, it flowed through Witten. A few weeks ago, most noticeably on Thanksgiving, it was flowing through Laurent Robinson (a graceful, long-striding, deceptively fast street free agent who has blossomed now that he’s finally stayed healthy). Last week, it flowed through Dez Bryant, even though Bryant was defended by rising star Patrick Peterson. And keep in mind, last season, the passing attack flowed through Miles Austin, who may return this week from his hamstring injury.

In Dallas’ system, the go-to target is often determined by whom Tony Romo feels most comfortable with. Romo’s comfort may be influenced by the rhythm of the game. When things are grinding, Witten’s the guy. When everything flows, it’s Robinson. When it’s a sporadic, sandlot type game, he likes Bryant. The Giants will have studied the Cowboys’ offense all week. Whom they decide to put No. 1 corner Webster on will tell you who THEY think Romo likes most.

3. Tyron Smith
The first-round rookie right tackle from USC has been better than advertised, showing improvement with every start. Smith, the youngest player in the NFL, has uncommonly light feet for 310-pounder. He’s dripping with athleticism, which is evident when he lands blocks off short-area movement in the run game. His technique continues to be a work in progress – he was exploited by wily defenders early in the season and had a tough time against Cameron Wake two games ago – but it’s much better at this point than most expected.

That said, there may not be a worse player to face in a war of fundamentals than Justin Tuck. The seventh-year veteran has had a down season, but he’s still one of the craftiest – if not THE craftiest – ends in football.

If the Giants cared about our viewing entertainment, they’d move Tuck to the defensive right side and let Jason Pierre-Paul, the most dynamic young athlete playing defensive end today, go mano-a-mano against Smith.

4. Rob Ryan’s pass-rush tactics
Rob Ryan’s primary focus is on creating one-on-one situations for DeMarcus Ware. The league’s most prolific sack artist over the last five years almost always aligns on the open side of the offensive formation (i.e. away from the tight end).

To help ensure more one-on-ones for Ware – and to simply generate as much pressure as possible – Ryan walks safeties down into the box (Abe Elam’s physical strength is a plus for this), uses fire-X blitzes with his inside linebackers (where the left linebacker attacks the right A-gap and the right linebacker attacks the left A-gap) and often brings cornerback Orlando Scandrick off the edge from the slot (Scandrick is an excellent blitzer).

Ryan may want to be a bit cautious this week. Eli Manning is superb at identifying blitzes and audibling. Plus, it was on a double A-gap blitz that Ryan got outsmarted by Ken Whisenhunt with a screen pass for LaRod Stephens-Howling on the overtime touchdown last week. Ahmad Bradshaw is very good in the screen game.



5. Defending Cruz
Over the years, the Giants have had a field day going after Orlando Scandrick with slot receiver Steve Smith. Scandrick has drastically improved all-around in his third season. But the Giants also have a more dynamic slot weapon in surprising 1,000-yard receiver Victor Cruz. Cruz has big, ball-plucking hands and sinewy body control that allow him to make late adjustments to the ball. His powerful elusiveness after the catch makes him a threat to score on any play.

If Scandrick is blitzing or outside, the Cowboys are more likely to play a zone or some sort of off-coverage in the slot. The Cardinals had their outside and slot receivers align tight to one another last week, which the Cowboys defended by playing off-coverage inside. That left easy eight-yard completions on the table. Manning will gladly take those if given the opportunity.

The Cowboys may defend the seam with safety help – which could keep Cruz, as well as surprising downfield producer Jake Ballard, in-check. In that case, Scandrick would be an underneath defender, where he’s most comfortable. The cost here is that this safety help would either water down some of the blitz designs or leave one-on-one coverage against Hakeem Nicks outside.

Rob Ryan’s best bet might be to mix and match with disguise, in hopes of setting up a Manning turnover.

So who will win? Check our NFL expert picks for all Week 14 games

Follow @Andy_Benoit on Twitter or contact him at Andy.Benoit-at-NFLTouchdown.com.
Posted on: November 14, 2011 3:55 am
Edited on: November 14, 2011 10:18 am
 

Sorting the Sunday Pile: Week 10

Posted by Will Brinson


Sorting the Sunday Pile takes all of Sunday's NFL action and figures out the most important storylines for you to digest. Send your complaints, questions and comments to Will Brinson on Twitter. Make sure and listen to our Week 10 podcast review below as well and feel free to subscribe via iTunes.


1. Houston We Don't Have a Problem

"Who's the best team in the AFC?" -- that's a question I got asked a couple of times on the radio this past week, and I pointed out each time that we shouldn't be sleeping on the Texans. Following their 37-9 pimp-slapping of the Bucs in Tampa, I doubt I'll be the only one saying that this week.

Yes, they play in one of the NFL's worst divisions and, yes, they have a ridiculously cake schedule this year. No, Matt Schaub is not "elite." Yes, the Ravens have beaten them this year.

I don't expect people to stop using those arguments to knock down the Texans. That's fine -- but people need to realize that Houston is as complete a team as there is in the NFL.

They can run: Arian Foster and Ben Tate are the most dangerous backfield combo in the NFL, Derrick Ward's a nice third option and their offensive line is criminally underrated. (All three guys scored Sunday against the Buccaneers.) They can pass: pan Matt Schaub all you want, but he's thrown just three picks in the six games since losing Andre Johnson, and when Johnson returns after the bye he'll only get better.  They play defense: after ranking 30th in total yards allowed in 2010, the Texans find themselves as the stingiest defensive team in football through 10 weeks of the 2011 season.

The Texans rank third in the NFL with 14 interceptions. That's one more than they had in all of 2010. And their point differential (107) currently tops the league.

Heading into Week 10 the Texans were the only team to rank in the top 10 of Football Outsiders efficiency metrics on offense, defense and special teams. The Steelers could join them in that distinction after this week, but thanks to an absolutely dominant game in Tampa Bay, there's zero chance the Texans will see their stock fall.

Look, it's perfectly OK to expect the Texans to figure out a way not to make the playoffs. It's what they do. But it's not like they're working on some fluky formula here. Their offense won't slow down, particularly with Johnson returning, and their defense, despite losing Mario Williams, really appears to be gelling.

And because the division's so terrible, there's a distinct chance the Texans clinch their first AFC South title before Christmas.


2. The Only Stat That Matters ...

If I told you that Tim Tebow would go two of eight passing on Sunday while Willis McGahee and Knowshon Moreno left the game early with an injury, you'd assume that a) the Chiefs rolled the Broncos and b) Tebow got benched. You would not assume what actually happened, which is that the Broncos beat Kansas City 17-9 to hand the Chiefs their second-straight inexplicable victory.

And what's weirder, that Tebow was 0-fer at halftime, missing on all five of his passing attempts? Or that he only attempted three more passes in the second half? Or that his second completion was a straight-up NFL throw that resulted in a 56-yard touchdown pass to Eric Decker?

Or maybe that Broncos coach John Fox was clearly overjoyed to beat a division rival with an offensive gameplan that probably caused the NFL's marketing arm to set fire to the highlight reel within 15 minutes of the final whistle.

"It's just a mindset. It's a low-risk offense. It's not an indictment on Tim Tebow or whoever our quarterback is," Fox said. "It's just whatever is working for us. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. We tried to possess the ball and keep our defense fresh."

That sounds kind of ridiculous, and I guess it is. But we're talking about John Fox here -- he's not exactly an offensive innovator, much less someone who cares in the slightest how many passing attempts his quarterback has, particularly if the team wins.

But hey, there's a precedent for this kind of game -- it's the 27th quarterback time since the merger that a team's won a game despite having a quarterback who completed two or less passes on eight or more attempts. The parameters are weird, and the list is weirder, especially because several of the quarterbacks weren't the only guy to take snaps for their team. Most interesting (to me) are a pair of names on the list with Tebow: Kyle Orton ... and John Elway.

Tebow's not the same quarterback as the man in charge of his future, but he's now 3-1 since taking over as the Broncos starting quarterback. He's improving, Denver's figuring out how to design offensive schemes around his specific skillset, and they're turning what looked like a lost season into an interesting little run in a weak AFC West.

3. Texas Is Big Enough for Two Teams

It really is nuts how much the NFL playoff picture can change in a matter of weeks. Or days. Or hours -- the Cowboys entered Sunday morning two games back of the Giants for the NFC East lead with the potentially resurgent Eagles hot on their heels. Less than 12 hours later, after a 44-7 whipping of Buffalo? Dallas is one game back of the Giants, the Eagles look done, and it's like the Cowboys season was never in jeopardy.

"We needed a game like this," Jason Witten said. "This needs to be the foundation of what lies ahead for this team."

"A game like this" equates to what might be the best game of Tony Romo's career. The oft-maligned quarterback was 23 of 26 for 270 yards and three touchdowns, and the only reason his numbers were suppressed is Dallas 28-7 halftime lead. Romo attempted just seven passes in the second half and set the Cowboys franchise record for completion percentage, hitting 88.5 percent of his passes.

Could it be a coincidence that Romo got rid of his flak jacket for the first time since his broken ribs in Week 2? Maybe. But over the course of the next few weeks, it probably won't look like it, because the Cowboys go to Washington, play Miami and travel to Arizona before hosting the Giants on December 11.

Given that the Giants play the Eagles, the Saints and the Packers in that same time frame, don't be surprised if we're approaching that Week 14 matchup throwing out terms like "division-leading Cowboys" and "darkhorse MVP candidate Romo."

Things change, because this is the NFL. But watching the Cowboys bounce back over the past two weeks, and knowing that Romo's now 17-2 in November (his .895 winning percentage in the month is the highest of any quarterback in the Super Bowl era), it's hard not to think they're getting hot at the right time.

4. Bold But Bad

Mike Smith's decision to go for it on a fourth-and-inches on his own 29-yard line in overtime will be analyzed a lot over the next seven days, because it giftwrapped a 26-23 victory for New Orleans Sunday. And, most importantly, it put the Falcons way behind the eight ball for a shot at the NFC South title, as they're now two games back of the Saints.

Atlanta's still in decent position for a wild card berth, and I'm OK with the call Smith made, even if, like my man Pete Prisco, I probably wouldn't have made the call. (This is hindsight creeping in -- I hated it at the time.) The Saints are terrible against the run (a league-worst 5.2 yards per carry allowed), handing the ball to Drew Brees in overtime is the football equivalent of suicide, and Michael Turner is the perfect back for that situation.

My beef is with the playcall, which was precisely the same play that Atlanta used on fourth and one with six minutes left in the third quarter. Witness what the Saints defense looked like then:



Obviously New Orleans is playing to stop the run, but they're not selling out. They got no penetration, and they're certainly wary of the possibility that Matt Ryan could roll out, or that Turner could cut outside to try and pick up the first down.

The second time around, in overtime, that wasn't the case.



As you'll recall, Gregg Williams called a timeout right before Atlanta broke the huddle not in punt formation for this second try. Do you think he might have pointed several Saints defenders in the direction of where Michael Turner might be running with the ball?

Judging by the relative positions of said Saints defenders in the two pictures above, that seems like a pretty reasonable assumption.

And I understand that Turner's a bowling ball and that the Falcons have Smith's back on this and they appreciate his confidence in them picking up a half-yard or less in such a situation.

But knowing that you showed Williams this exact same play less than an hour ago, you have to be more creative with the playcall, especially when there's a division title on the line.

5. Deja Vu All Over Again

After the Patriots lost to the Giants in Week 9, there was a weird feeling of deja vu. You should have that same feeling right now, because after New England pummeled the Jets 37-16 in New York, every single "the Patriots are dead" column from the past week is totally pointless.

Making the premature eulogizing of the Patriots even more irritating is the similarity between 2010 and 2011.

Last year, the Patriots lost their second game of the season when the Browns shocked them 34-14 in Week 9 in Cleveland. The loss of Randy Moss meant that the Patriots couldn't get vertical and ergo/therefore/henceforth the Pats were dead men walking. Naturally, Tom Brady waltzed into Pittsburgh on November 14, went 30 for 43 for 350 yards and hit Rob Gronkowski for three touchdowns.

On Sunday (Week 10! November 13!) Brady waltzed into the New Meadowlands and carved up Rex Ryan's defense, going 26 of 39 for 329 yards and hitting Gronkowski for two touchdowns.

In case you forgot, Brady closed out last year in pretty good fashion -- he didn't throw an interception for the rest of the year, the Pats didn't lose another game and finished 14-2, and Brady became the first-ever unanimous MVP winner in NFL history.

My point is this: though the Patriots defense might stink, Tom Brady is still on the roster. It's not as if the defense in 2010 was all that good; they finished 25th overall in the NFL last year. But the Pats went 14-2 because Brady played at an unholy level with essentially the same offensive personnel he's got now.

In other words, Expecting the Patriots to lose three-straight games -- they haven't since 2002! -- was about as smart as writing off Belichick and Brady after what went down last season.


6. Run This Man!

I planned on taking screenshots of all the commenters who ripped me for picking Seattle to upset Baltimore and posting them here. But there were too many of them. And they were all too vulgar.

Plus, I'm sure everyone who called me names will be back to apologize later anyway.

But really, should we be surprised at this point when the Ravens fail to win after refusing to utilize Ray Rice, clearly the best offensive weapon on their team?

No, no we should not.

Week - Opponent
Rice Carries
Rice Rushing Yards
Points Scored
Result
1 - Steelers
19 107 35 W
2 - Titans
13 43 13 L
3 - Rams
9 81 37 W
4 - Jets
25 66 34 W
6 - Texans
23 101 29 W
7 - Jaguars
8 28 7 L
8 - Cardinals
18 63 30 W
9 - Steelers
18 43 23 W
10 - Seahawks
5 27 17 L

Rice's usage and subsequent success (or lack thereof) isn't a direct correlation with the win-loss record of the Ravens. He's had nine carries in a game (against the Rams) where the Ravens absolutely rolled.

But two games above really stand out in terms of similarity -- the loss to the Seahawks and Jaguars. Both were on the road, both were against teams that aren't even remotely considered on the Ravens level and both featured Rice inexplicably getting less than 10 rushing attempts.

The Ravens were behind for much of each game, but never were they in full-on blowout territory, and the downside of running the ball is really only losing a couple of seconds of game time and actually getting the defense to respect the natural balance that the Ravens offense should feature.

It's doesn't seem that hard to figure out that the Ravens are 1-3 when their best player on offense rushes the ball less than 15 times in a game. And yet somehow Cam Cameron can't do it.

7. Red Rocket

Alright, I give up: Andy Dalton, despite losing to Pittsburgh 24-17 on Sunday, deserves to be the leader for Rookie of the Year right now.

This might sound weird considering he's coming of a loss, he threw a game-ending interception (his second in the fourth quarter Sunday) and my blatant homerism deep respect for Cam Newton.

But it was ridiculously impressive that Cincy took the Steelers best shot early in the game and then rallied back to get within a touchdown, despite losing their other studly rookie A.J. Green after he hyperextended his knee.

Oh, it also doesn't help that Newton absolutely laid an egg on Sunday, failing to score a touchdown in a football game for what he said might be the first time in his life. I haven't seen any confirmation of this, but I also have no trouble believing it.

Back to Dalton and the Bengals though: if Green's injury is substantial, I don't think the Bengals make the playoffs (they currently project as the sixth seed) because not only are the Ravens and the Steelers better, but the Ravens might actually try against Cincy.

And if Newton bounces back over the next few weeks, and the Bengals lose their last three games against the Steelers and Ravens, it's going to be tough for voters to hit Dalton up.

But if he improves from the growing pains he suffered against the Steelers, he might end up stealing the award after all. And, you know, a playoff berth.

8. Andy Reid's Hot Pants

Before the season, we penciled in the Week 10 Cardinals-Eagles matchup with the idea that Kevin Kolb would lead a revived Arizona squad into Philly with a chance for redemption against the team that cast him off for Michael Vick. Instead, Kolb couldn't play Sunday, so John Skelton started and ... the Eagles still lost, 21-17.

With that L, let's just go ahead and bury the Eagles 2011 season. Instead of debating whether 9-7 is possible, let's discuss whether or not Andy Reid should be fired if the Eagles miss the playoffs.

I, unequivocally, say he should not be fired. He's got issues with his roster construction, his clock management and his balance on offense, but there's a reason why he's the longest-tenured coach in the NFL.

Additionally, this is a lockout year, and teams were supposed to struggle to adapt under circumstances. "Bringing in a bunch of new faces" is one such circumstance where there's a built-in excuse.

And perhaps the best reason to hold onto Reid: he's Michael Vick's guy, and Michael Vick just got paid $100 million. That's not to say Vick couldn't play for another coach and succeed, but Reid's mentored him on and -- perhaps more importantly -- off the field. He's turned Vick from an ex-con into a franchise quarterback.

Vick's taken a step back this season, but if Philly can beef up its offensive line and address some of the defensive issues, there's no reason why Reid can't just can Juan Castillo in sacrificial lamb fashion and come back next year, regardless of how this season plays out.

9. What the Helu?

Would the Redskins beat the Colts if they played today? Wilson and I talked about that on the podcast (I assume you hit play above and are listening now but just haven't gotten that far yet), and, um, I'm not sure?

Indy's terrible, but Washington is just depressing -- the latest feather in Mike Shanahan's cap is a 20-9 loss to Miami that not only gave Shanny his first-ever five-game losing streak, but also handed the Dolphins their first win at Sun Life Stadium in 364 days.

The saddest part of the Redskins failure on Sunday isn't even that Rex Grossman gives them a better chance to win than John Beck. That's just the truth, even if it's cringe-worthy. Although apparently Shanahan doesn't know that? Or he does? Or ... you tell me:

"We’re going to make decisions that we think gives us the best chance to win," Shanahan said about the decision to go with Grossman. "Then before the game we decided to go in another direction."

I know what he's saying (I think), but it's kind of awesome that this quote, taken out of context, sounds like "Beck gives us the best chance to win, that's why we started him. But on Sunday we changed our minds."

Anyway, the saddest part is that Roy Helu broke Art Monk's single-game receptions record last week and he was inexplicably benched Sunday in favor of Ryan Torain.

"Well, I wanted to give Ryan a chance, see what he can do," Shanahan said of the decision. "[The Dolphins] are a very good defensive team."

Again, I don't know what that means or how it's sound logic for benching Helu.

Whatever, an obviously motivated Torain carried the ball 10 times for 20 yards. Helu still managed to end the day as Washington's leading rusher, though, as he carried the ball six times for 41 yards in the second half.

This logical result would have stemmed from an illogical decision, but there's nothing justifiably rational about the Redskins right now.

10. Bear With Me Here

First of all, allow me to congratulate my colleague Matt Norlander, who not only got engaged Sunday, but got a win for his precious Bears (an awkward 37-13 slaughtering of Detroit) and a Devin Hester touchdown return.

And second of all, allow me to say I'm sorry for thinking the Bears stink. Because they don't. I can't justify saying that if I'm going to tout the Texans as the top team in the AFC; after all, the Bears play a complete brand of football. They're great on defense, they generate turnovers, they can run the ball on offense and, needless to say, their special teams are pretty good.

Now there's still room for an implosion here. Lord knows they were 2-3, couldn't protect Jay Cutler and looked like a lost team only a few weeks ago. But just like 2010, Mike Martz realized just how true the old equation of "seven-step drops + passing every down = quarterback injuries" really is and Chicago currently projects as the final NFC wild card.

The Bears getting ready to run the not-so-scary AFC West gauntlet, playing San Diego, Oakland, Kansas City and Denver over their next four games. No, that portion of the schedule could not come at a better time, and if you think that running a cover-2 against a read-option offense and having Brian Urlacher shadow Tebow depending on what side of the line he runs off won't be fun, well, you clearly don't enjoy pain.

With Seattle and Minnesota also on the sked -- only Green Bay is really scary -- and Detroit having to play the Packers twice over the rest of the schedule, Chicago could somehow easily weasel their way to 11-5. Again.

Muffed Punts

Leftovers from Sunday's action...
... For the third time in his career, Reggie Bush scored multiple rushing touchdowns.
... The NFL West went undefeated on Sunday for the first time since division realignment. According to my buddy RJ Bell of PreGame.com, a $100 bet on that happening would've paid out $8,400. So, yeah, everyone saw it coming.
... Tebow's the only quarterback in NFL history to throw a touchdown pass and rush for 25 yards in each of his first seven starts.
... Drew Brees passed Brett Favre for the second-longest streak of consecutive games (37) with a touchdown pass.

Worth 1,000 Words


GIF O' THE WEEK

This is unfortunate for Ray Lewis:

Hot Seat Tracker

  • Todd Haley -- Welcome back, sir! We missed you. How can one manage to not prepare for the read-option after watching another division opponent look totally unprepared for it and lose?
  • Mike Shanahan -- He's the one who thought Grossman and Beck were a winning combination.
  • Juan Castillo -- It's either him or Andy Reid right?
  • Jim Caldwell -- If Caldwell doesn't get canned, I'm convinced no one does.

Chasing Andrew Luck

Colts (1/4): Everyone else in the NFL has two wins, and the only game Indy might even reasonably come close to winning is their Week 16 matchup against the Jaguars. We can almost call this off.
Redskins (3/1): My darkhorse! I think they'll lose out, but I just don't buy the idea of Indy winning one game, much less three.
Vikings (4/1): They play the Packers Monday and get the Lions and Bears again.
Dolphins (5/1): That whole Stephen Ross in a leopard-skin bikini thing is working out well.
Panthers (6/1): Tough schedule coming down the pipe ... and they play the Colts!
Rams (7/1): NFC West schedule and they're starting to fight a little.

MVP Watch

Aaron Rodgers will most likely extend his season-long virtuoso performance on Monday night and further give us reason to pick him as MVP. But just in case he falters, I've got my eye on a few guys who could get hot and supplant him in the second half, via what we talked about above: Brady, Foster and Romo. Brady, well, duh, he's good. And he sure wasn't a unanimous MVP winner after Week 9 (or Week 10) in 2010. So it could happen. Foster's playing as well as any running back in the NFL right now; if the Texans win out and clinch the top spot in the AFC, people will talk about it. And if Romo can blow up over the next two months and get the Cowboys a division title, well, weirder things have happened.
Posted on: October 31, 2011 12:03 am
Edited on: October 31, 2011 11:47 am
 

Coming off the bye, Eagles pound the Cowboys

J. Maclin and Philadelphia looked fantastic against Dallas (US Presswire).

Posted by Josh Katzowitz

Andy Reid was 12-0 in his career coming off the bye week -- and it seems impossible to believe he wasn’t doing something special during his team’s time off. He was asked about it this week, but he always discards the notion that he was doing anything out of the ordinary.

“You know, I get asked that every year, and I don’t think there’s any secret,” Reid said earlier this week. “You just do what you do. We’re going to practice just like we did last week and the week before that, and so on. So I don’t know if there’s any secret to it.”

But obviously, after the Eagles dominated the Cowboys 34-7 Sunday night, Reid is doing something right. Lost this season, among Vince Young’s Dream Team comment and the team’s 1-4 start, is that Reid is still a fine football man. Even if he’s never taken the team to the Super Bowl title, he’s one of the better coaches in the league.

The fans in Philadelphia want to see their team go all the way, and the Eagles have been so close so many times. With Philadelphia’s early-season failure this year, it was easy to hoist much of the blame on Reid, because he has such tight control over the roster and because many of the team’s offseason decisiosn seemed to clunk on arrival. But during their last two games, you’ve seen how good this team can be, how well they can play.

I don’t know what Reid did during the bye week, but his team looked like NFC title contenders Sunday night. LeSean McCoy dominated the Cowboys No. 1 rush defense, accumulating 185 yards and two touchdowns on 30 carries. The offensive line opened up enormous holes. Tight end Brent Celek made his triumphant return to the spotlight by catching seven passes for 94 yards and a score. And Michael Vick, who completed 21 of 28 passes for 278 yards and two touchdowns while rushing seven times for 50, looked absolutely awesome. In all, the Eagles gained 518 total yards, the most ever against a Cowboys squad.

“The biggest thing is to get everybody healthy off the bye week and to stay focused,” McCoy told NBC after the game. “With the losses, we weren’t focused with the turnovers and letting guys run for yards. So many things were going wrong. Coach talked about focus, to take care of your job and not worry about the next man.”

Remember a few weeks ago when everybody was bashing Reid for hiring former offensive line coach Juan Castilllo and the team’s installation of the Wide 9 defensive scheme? Well, it seemed to work wonders tonight, keeping Tony Romo from doing much of anything and rendering Dez Bryant and Jason Witten irrelevant.

The team looked fast and fit and refreshed, and the Cowboys never had a chance. If Reid has a secret about how to prepare his team during a bye week, he’s obviously not going to share it. But at 13-0, it’d be surprising if he didn’t know exactly what that secret is.

For more NFL news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnNFL on Twitter and subscribe to our RSS Feed.
Posted on: October 5, 2011 11:40 am
 

Cooley mocks Romo, wants to cagefight him

Posted by Will Brinson

The rivalry between the Cowboys and Redskins is always entertaining, especially when you have characters like Chris Cooley involved. (For those that don't remember Cooley and then-teammate Colt Brennan did a mock video of Jason Witten and Tony Romo doing a "Fantasy Files" video. It's amazing.)

But Cooley might have taken things to a new level this time, mocking the Cowboys choke against Detroit last week and Romo's meltdown. Also, challenging Romo to fight.

"It’s SO good," Cooley said of Romo's play in Week 4, via Dan Steinberg of the Washington Post. "I was watching the scoreboard in St. Louis, and I didn’t see that they’d lost really until they end, I thought they blew them out so I kind of stopped paying attention. It’s amazing, AMAZINGto watch him choke like that.

"I’m just saying, I’m up 24 points in the third quarter, if I’m the head coach, I feel like I could probably just take a knee for the rest of the game, punt it away and there’s no way that Detroit’s gonna drive on you that many times," Cooley said. "The only way you’re gonna give up that many points is turnovers, right? It’s hilarious to watch him throw pick sixes, too, back-to-back. I loved it. But it wouldn’t be as good as my cage fight."

Cooley makes a pretty good point, and the same one I've been screaming about all week -- the Cowboys were up 24 points and weren't running the damn ball. Just because it's a passing league doesn't mean you have to pass. Run the ball. Melt the clock. Win the game. It's a pretty simple formula if you're up 24 points.

Whatever, the point being that Cooley also said he thinks he can take Romo in a cagefighting match. Arrington, per Steinberg, asked Cooley how long it would take to finish Romo off in the classic steel-cage format. The result is, predictably, awesome.

"For me to beat Tony? I’m gonna be honest, I don’t know what kind of cagefighting skills he has," Cooley said. "I would probably try to incorporate my wrestling ability, like when I was in high school. Obviously it’s been a while, but I didn’t like to beat people fast. I like to embarrass 'em a little bit. Like, take a 24-point lead, and then just play with it a little bit."

Well then -- the Redskins/Cowboys rivalry is just taking on a whole new turn of nastiness isn't it? Cooley seems to have already forgetten what happened in Week 3, when the Cowboys won on Monday night. But that's OK, it only makes the fight that much spicier.

With that in mind, let's break down the measurables. Or, at least, the stuff we like to compare between the two guys. To the tape!



For more NFL news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnNFL on Twitter, subscribe to our NFL newsletter, and while you're add it, add our RSS Feed.
Posted on: September 29, 2011 11:57 am
Edited on: September 29, 2011 11:58 am
 

Top Ten with a Twist: Most underrated

D. McFadden is one of the league's most underrated players (US Presswire).

Posted by Josh Katzowitz

You know all the big-name players, even if they’re past their prime. Guys who once were great and impactful and who were rated exactly as their athleticism required. Now, though, some of those players have begun their descent into the final phases of their career, but fans, remembering their past exploits, still think of them as high-end performers on the field.

Now, they’re making way for players you’ve probably heard of but can’t place. Players who you’ve seen but can’t remember on which team they reside.Players who are overshadowed and under the radar. The players who won’t be considered underrated for much longer.

In this week’s Top Ten with a Twist, we feature the best players who are not as well known as they should be. You can call them underrated and call them under the radar, but their teams and their teammates know how important they are. They are, in fact, some of the best players in the league who aren’t necessarily considered the best players in the league.

10. Sean Lee: He won’t be a name only hardcore fans recognize for much longer. He was just named NFC defensive player of the month after a sensational start to the season (31 tackles, two interceptions, and two fumble recoveries). Lee had knocked long-time starting linebacker Keith Brooking out of the lineup, and with the way he’s playing, you can certainly see why. He has been scary this year.

9. Hakeem Nicks: Considering wide receiver is one of the most glamorous positions in the sport, it’s tough to find a guy who you could call underrated -- conversely, there’s no shortage of players we could consider overrated at this position. But Nicks is one of those guys who doesn’t get the national attention (even though he plays in New York!) of a Calvin Johnson, an Andre Johnson or a DeSean Jackson. And while Nicks might not quite be on the same level as those receivers, he’s close. His 79 catches, 1,052 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2010 is a testament to that.

8. Ryan Kalil: You might have been shocked when the Panthers gave him a six-year, $49 million ($28 million guaranteed) deal before this season to make him the highest-paid center in the game, but those around the league know his value. He’s versatile in pass protection and run-blocking, and he doesn’t get called for holding penalties. Is he the best center in the league? Probably not as long as Nick Mangold is playing, but Kalil is still one of the top guys out there.

7. Vince Wilfork: He gets plenty of attention -- especially when he’s picking off passes and strolling his way back up the field -- but when compared to defensive tackles like Haloti Ngata, Ndamukong Suh or (gasp!) Albert Haynesworth, Wilfork doesn’t get the admiration he deserves. Despite his size -- he very well could be playing in the 400-pound range -- he’s one of the most athletic big men you’ll see. He’s one of the best run-stoppers around, and he’s the anchor of the Patriots defense. You know him, but he still hasn’t made his way to superstar status.



6. Darren Sproles: It was thought that the new kickoff rules would hinder Sproles, and that was probably one of the reasons the Chargers didn’t re-sign him in the offseason. But Sproles has continued to prove his wealth, settling into the Saints backfield, where he’s shown he can still rush (7.4 yards per carry), catch the ball (21 receptions, second-best among running backs) and score (he’s recorded a touchdown in all three games). He’s like a Reggie Bush who actually is effective for the Saints. Oh, and he can still return kicks (sixth in the league among those who have at least five chances) and return punts (second in the league).

5. Tramon Williams: Although he helped the Packers to a Super Bowl, Williams isn’t mentioned in the same breath as the Eagles cornerback trio (Nnamdi Asomugha, Asante Samuel and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie) or the Jets duo (Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie). Plus, he plays in the shadow of Charles Woodson, who is still one of the best cornerbacks in the league after 14 seasons. But Williams has shown why he’s a top-10 cornerback. He’s not avoided by other team’s quarterbacks quite as much as Asomugha and Revis -- that’s a byproduct of playing with Woodson -- but he’s shown that when his receiver is targeted, Williams is one of the better cover corners in the league.

4. Rob Gronkowski: Who are the best tight ends in the league? Antonio Gates? That’s true if he’s healthy. Tony Gonzalez? That’s true if this was five years ago. Jason Witten? Yes, he probably is the top tight end out there. But you know who’s really close to him? That’s Gronkowski -- who, in his second season in the league, is one big reason the Patriots offense has been so dominant this season. He was decent as a rookie last season, but he’s exploded for five touchdowns already this year, and with Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in the lineup in New England, that is a tough, tough matchup for the opposing teams’ linebackers.

3. Brandon Pettigrew: Last Sunday was the perfect example of why Pettigrew can make a Lions fan’s mouth water. He played through a shoulder injury, yet he managed to catch 11 passes for 112 yards in Detroit’s huge comeback victory against the Vikings. He’s probably not on the same level as Witten or Gronkowski, and yes, he drops the easy passes way too much (even if he also makes the spectacular catches). But in his third season in the league, he shows real potential to be a top-five tight end.

2. Trent Cole: He’s always good for between 55-80 tackles a year. He’s always good for between eight and 13 sacks. He’s almost always assured to be making life difficult for whichever offensive tackle who is charged with slowing his momentum. Cole might be the best player many NFL fans don’t know anything about. But this year, he’s off to a hot start in Philadelphia with three sacks. He’s a monster, and even if you haven’t heard his name very much, you can be sure the league’s offensive linemen have.

1. Darren McFadden: Along with Adrian Peterson and Chris Johnson, McFadden might be a top-three running back in this league. But since he plays in the black hole of Oakland, he wasn’t discussed as much as those who have lesser talent. That’s changing this year with the Raiders off to a 2-1 start and McFadden performing like the best back in the league. In 2010, McFadden gained 1,664 yards from scrimmage, and through three games this season, he’s rushed for 393 yards and three touchdowns while catching 11 passes for 84 yards and another score. If he keeps playing like that, he won’t belong on this list next year. Because everybody is going to know about him.

For more NFL news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnNFL on Twitter and subscribe to our RSS Feed.
Posted on: September 28, 2011 2:52 pm
Edited on: September 29, 2011 2:30 pm
 

Film Room: Cowboys vs. Lions preview

Posted by Eye on Football Analyst Andy Benoit

For the first time seemingly since their Portsmouth days, the Detroit Lions will enter a nationally-followed non-Thanksgiving game with high expectations to live up to. They’re taking their 3-0 record to Dallas to face Tony Romo’s Ribs and a Cowboy defense that is getting more potent by the week in Rob Ryan’s scheme.

You’ll hear plenty this week about how the Lions can bring some much needed joy to the struggling Motor City, and about how they have crawled out of a miserable past decade, and about the wonders of NFL parity and turnaround stories.

These human interest stories are nice, but they’re only relevant because of what the Lions do on the field. Here’s a look at that.



1. Open formations
The Lions have lined up in shotgun 67 percent of the time this season, mostly in a 2 x 1 single-back set (two receivers to one side, one to the other). Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan has taken this approach because it plays to the strength of his two young backfield stars: Matthew Stafford and Jahvid Best.

The semi-spread formations clarify the reads for Stafford and propagate a lot of quick-strike throws (which he has the arm strength and compact release to execute). Because defenses are compelled to roll coverage to Calvin Johnson (by far the most athletically gifted wideout in the NFL), Stafford has opportunities to exploit the seams.

This is a big reason why Detroit drafted Titus Young in the second round. Young is an unrefined route runner at this point, but route running precision is not the end-all, be-all when you’re attacking zone coverages from the slot.

Also helping spread the field is the way Detroit crafts sideline routes for Johnson. When a receiver runs a downfield pattern outside the numbers, safety help over the top often becomes irrelevant due to the nature of the limited spacing. Thus, you get a one-on-one matchup by default. Johnson has never been great at beating double teams.

That’s partly why the Lions specifically send him on isolation patterns outside. They’ll do this at least five or six times Sunday because the Cowboys, like most teams, don’t have a corner who can handle Megatron alone.

Detroit’s running game also benefits from the three-receiver shotgun sets. The very nature of the formation creates extra spacing, which is what a finesse runner like Jahvid Best needs. It also aids Detroit’s blocking. Receiving tight end Tony Scheffler often aligns in the slot as the third receiver. Scheffler has never been a great run-blocker, but as a slot receiver he doesn’t have to rely on strength and technique as much.

When it’s a wideout in the slot, it means the Lions get to run against a nickel defense, something they’ve done with alacrity thus far. Best’s rushing numbers aren’t great, but the Lions’ run game overall is not the weakness it was a season ago.

2. Receiving X factors
Detroit’s second and third best receiving weapons are not wideouts. Tight end Brandon Pettigrew caught 11 balls for 116 yards against Minnesota. He’s a plodding runner with softer hands and more effective agility than you’d guess. Stafford loves when Pettigrew is matched up on a linebacker. It will be interesting if that’s still the case after he watches outstanding Cowboys inside linebacker Sean Lee on film this week.

Pettigrew ranks third on the team in receiving. Ranking second is Best, who has 15 catches for 182 yards. Best, who has great elusiveness and acceleration, hurts opponents as a true receiver out of the slot, and he kills them as a screen receiver out of the backfield. One of the unheralded reasons Best thrives on screens is Calvin Johnson is a superb downfield blocker.

3. The much-ballyhooed defensive line
The Lions front four is as good as advertised. And it may only get better this week if Nick Fairley debuts as a pass-rushing defensive tackle (the first-round rookie has been out since undergoing foot surgery in August). Defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch plays with great leverage and tenacity. Opposite him, Cliff Avril is a vastly underrated athlete who has recently gotten faster and stronger. Inside, underrated Corey Williams can play both a one-and two-gap style.
 
Of course, Ndamukong Suh is the driving force of Detroit’s front four. Suh’s greatest asset is his ability to quickly exert power off of movement. Elite defensive tackles like Vince Wilfork, B.J. Raji or Haloti Ngata often overpower opponents with their sheer size and force.

But those guys all weigh 330-plus and are wide enough to play the nose. Suh, at 307 pounds, is a beast, but he doesn’t quite have that exceptional raw power to dominate every down in a phone booth. However, he compensates by having the initial quickness and agility of a Pro Bowl caliber defensive end (that’s end, not tackle).

Suh is off to an incredible start this season because he’s now learned to consistently use that quickness to create favorable positioning immediately off the snap. Moves that take most players two seconds to execute, he executes in less than one. Thus, he’s always facing blockers who are caught just a little bit off-guard. That’s all Suh needs to take their manhood.

For the most part this season, the Lions have relied on straight four-man pass-rushes. But last season, against upper-tier offensive lines, defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham would have a few of his linemen roam around before the snap in order to create confusion. Given Dallas’ inexperience, it would not be surprising to see Cunningham move Suh around on Sunday.

But Cunningham won’t dig too far into that bag of tricks if he doesn’t think it’s absolutely necessary. He knows there are also plenty of ways to create matchup problems with his traditional fronts. For one example, see the illustration below:


From this alignment, Suh creates a mismatch either for himself or the defensive end next to him – it depends on how the Cowboys choose to block it.

In this formation, the Cowboys have three players to block two. But personnel is still a problem. By splitting the defensive end out wide (in what’s called a nine-technique) and putting Suh in the B-gap (between the offensive guard and tackle) the Cowboys have three options here, all of which put them in an unfavorable position.

Option A: They double-team Suh with guard Kyle Kosier and tackle Tyron Smith, which leaves their tight end (either Jason Witten or Martellus Bennett) overmatched one-on-one against Cliff Avril.

Option B: They let OT Smith block Avril, which leaves a terrifying one-on-one matchup for G Kosier against Suh.

Option C: They send the tight end on a passing route, but it will have to be a short one because they’re still dealing with a one-on-one matchup between G Kosier and Suh.

Option D: The Cowboys slide protection to the right side, which is unlikely because it makes life too easy for Detroit’s other two defensive linemen and could also compromise the left side of the field for passing route options.

4. Lions pass defense
The secondary has been the Lions’ Achilles heel the past two years. But this season, the Lions are allowing only 188 yards per game through the air, fourth best in the NFL. That could just be a function of weak opponents, though. In Week 1, the Lions faced a Bucs receiving group that lacks speed. In Week 2, the Lions faced a Chiefs offense that was without dynamic tight end Tony Moeaki and thin behind the seemingly detached Dwayne Bowe.

In Week 3, the Lions faced a Vikings team that humorously believes Michael Jenkins and Bernard Berrian form an adequate one-two punch outside. A true test for the Lions secondary may have to wait another week, as the Cowboys without Miles Austin have a fairly feeble receiving corps.

Quality of opponent aside, give this secondary credit for its improvements. The Lions play a lot of Cover 2, but their corners have performed well in man coverage on third downs. Plus safety Louis Delmas has sharpened his ball-man prowess against tight ends.

5. What to expect
The Lions have not seen a defense as conceptually difficult as Dallas’. Against the Bucs and Vikings, Stafford had to only read zone coverages behind basic four-man pass-rushes. This Sunday, he and his offensive line will have to decipher more blitzes and sub-package personnel.

They have an ultimate resource in Calvin Johnson, though. The Cowboys simply can’t cover him.

If the Lions can exploit that mismatch early and play from ahead, they’ll make the Cowboys offense one-dimensional and vulnerable in long-yardage situations. That should be enough to get to 4-0.

So who will win? Check our expert picks for all Week 1 games

Follow @Andy_Benoit on Twitter or contact him at Andy.Benoit-at-NFLTouchdown.com.
 
 
 
 
The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of CBS Sports or CBSSports.com