After watching tape on every team this week, here are some of the things that caught my eye and could be a major factor in each of this week's games.
I have one nugget for each team in all 14 games coming up Sunday and Monday that could impact what happens on the field in a big way in Week 5.
New England at Cleveland
The story this week is all about Tom Brady returning, but the defense has to be better as well. The Patriots have struggled on third down this season and the tackling was bad last week against the Bills. When you watched that tape, there were a lot of Patriots defenders on the ground whiffing on tackles. That's unlike them. It was almost everybody, including good tacklers like Dont'a Hightower. He missed on a 9-yard run by LeSean McCoy in the third quarter that should have been a short gain. You can bet that Bill Belichick had that group working on improving their tackling this week.
With Brady back, the young Cleveland safeties will be tested. Last week the two safeties were Jordan Poyer and Derek Kindred. They had some issues in coverage against the Redskins, with Poyer getting beat for a touchdown by Jordan Reed. That's what happens with young safeties. Second-year player Ibraheim Campbell was starting but missed the past two games with a hamstring injury. He was playing well when he was on the field. Whoever plays this week, you can expect Brady to try and go after them and use play-action to take advantage of their aggressive youthfulness.
Philadelphia at Detroit
When the Eagles signed Rams safety Rodney McLeod, it wasn't a move that got a lot of national buzz. But he's been a heck of a pickup for the Eagles. He has really improved the coverage on the back end, teaming with Malcolm Jenkins to give them a nice 1-2 safety combo. Both can play up near the line or in the deep middle. That gives coordinator Jim Schwartz a lot of versatility on the back end.
The Lions have major issues running the football. The middle of the line is a big reason why. They expected to be strong up the middle, but guards Laken Tomlinson and Larry Warford, as well as center Travis Swanson, haven't been getting great push in the middle. Tomlinson, a 2015 first-round pick, has really disappointed in the run game. Take a first-down run from last week's game. It was a run to the left with Theo Riddick, but Tomlinson couldn't handle Mitch Unrein in the hole, and forced Riddick to bounce. That led to a hold on left tackle Taylor Decker. The Lions are 22nd in rushing yards. The power of the middle just hasn't worked out, with Swanson being the best of the three so far.
Chicago at Indianapolis
While the Colts are having major linebacker issues, former Colts linebacker Jerrell Freeman, who will face his old team this week, is having a nice season for the Bears. Freeman, who was signed as a free agent by Chicago, leads the Bears in tackles with four tackles for loss. He looks fast in their defense and showed up on tape against the Lions in a good way last week. On one run wide to Theo Riddick, he was able to jump underneath the block of the tight end and hold the gain to 2 yards. Later, on a draw to Zach Zenner, he fought off the block of Riley Reiff to make the tackle. You know he will be amped this week against his former team.
The Colts releasing starting corner Antonio Cromartie and starting linebacker Sio Moore should be a signal that nobody is safe in this 1-3 start. Cromartie, quite frankly, was washed up. He was terrible last week against the Jaguars, and was benched. Moore had major problems in coverage, which seemed to show up on a weekly basis. Darius Butler is expected back from a hamstring injury this week against the Bears, and I would expect that rookie Antonio Morrison will get more work at linebacker. He got his biggest workload last week, and while he did miss a few tackles and run fits, he will be an upgrade over Moore when he takes over. Josh McNary is also in that mix.
Tennessee at Miami
A lot of people are asking what's wrong with Marcus Mariota. So I went back and watched his last two games. Here's what's wrong: The system. It is predicated on the run, and that limits what he can do. When he's played faster, he's been better. Here's a vintage series from last week: Down 20-17, he hit a bullet to Andre Johnson for 20 yards and a first-and-goal at the 10. So what do the Titans do? Run DeMarco Murray twice for gains of 1 yard each into 9- and 10-man boxes. On third down, Mariota threw incomplete on a fade. Why not continue to play wide open after the big pass to Johnson? Take the lead. Mariota did make a horrible throw on a scramble for an interception, but he's pressing because he's not playing loose. Period.
The Dolphins have issues stopping the run, which could be a problem against the Titans, who love to run it. But don't blame the run problems on Ndamukong Suh. He has been really good inside against the run. But because of his contract, it's never good enough. The linebackers have been a big problem in the run game. They have to play better in the run game with their fits or this will never get fixed. But don't blame Suh.
Washington at Baltimore
When the season began, the Redskins expected big things in terms of pass rush from Preston Smith. He had five sacks in his final three games last season, giving him eight on the year as a rookie, but so far this season he doesn't have one. Joe Thomas handled him last week against the Browns, but Thomas has handled a lot of guys. Smith did make a nice play in the run game on a reverse to tackle Terrell Pryor for a loss. Smith has been solid in the run game, but he needs to pick up his pass-rushing game.
Ravens inside linebacker C.J. Mosley has received a lot of praise this season for his play -- deservedly so -- but don't sleep on Zach Orr, the other linebacker. He was impressive the past two weeks. He had a late interception against Jacksonville, and then followed it up with a nice performance against the Raiders last week. The third-year player does a nice job in the run game and in coverage.
Houston at Minnesota
When you play the Vikings, your offensive line has to be up for a big challenge. The Minnesota front gets after it, and the Houston offensive line has been unsettled this season. That could change some since veteran left tackle Duane Brown looks like a possibility to play his first game of the season after tearing a quadriceps tendon last season. Brown has been good in pass protection in his career, which is key against Minnesota. Just ask Cam Newton, who was dumped eight times two weeks ago. The Vikings are second in the league with 15 sacks.
Vikings corner Xavier Rhodes got a lot of credit and hype for his play against Odell Beckham Jr. last Monday night -- deservedly so. But veteran corner Terence Newman is also playing some really good football for the Vikings. The 38-year-old Newman, who has played for coach Mike Zimmer also in Dallas and Cincinnati, is defying his age. He's one of those players coaches can always rely on, especially mentally, which you know Zimmer loves.
New York at Pittsburgh
A player who has to pick it up for the Jets is safety Calvin Pryor, especially against the Steelers. This was his season to take a big step forward, and so far it hasn't happened. He was OK the first few games, but he struggled last week against the Seahawks. On Russell Wilson's 42-yard touchdown throw to Tanner McElvoy, Pryor cheated to his left as a single safety and never saw McElvoy cross the field. The corner on that side of the field should have sunk too, but Pryor didn't play it well. When he tried to recover, Pryor tripped over his own feet. Pryor did make a really nice play on C.J. Spiller for a 3-yard loss, coming from across the formation to follow him and drop him after a short completion. He was never considered good as a pass-cover safety, but he has to pick it up this week against the Steelers.
Getting ready to face Muhammad Wilkerson is not a time you want to be down to a third-team tackle. But that's what the Steelers may face this week. With starter Marcus Gilbert all but out, and backup Ryan Harris doubtful, it appears Chris Hubbard could get his first NFL start. He has played some center and guard with the Steelers in a backup role, but this would be his first game action as a starter. He did play tackle in college and has played there in the preseason. He had a crunching block on a 2-yard touchdown run by DeAngelo Williams late last week against Kansas City as an extra offensive lineman lined up outside the left tackle.
Atlanta at Denver
One of the more underrated players in the NFL is Falcons right tackle Ryan Schraeder. At 6-foot-9, 315 pounds, he is a big offensive tackle. But he has developed into a really good player in his fourth season. He will be tasked with trying to keep Von Miller off Matt Ryan this week. Schraeder hasn't given up a sack this week, but this is the biggest challenge he's faced this season -- by far.
John Elway always seems to have the knack for finding players others don't want. One of the latest to emerge is middle linebacker Todd Davis. When Danny Trevathan left to sign with Chicago in free agency, Brandon Marshall moved to his weak-side spot, which allowed Davis to take over in the middle. He has responded with some impressive performances in the run game and has done a nice job in coverage. He also has a half-sack as a blitzer. He was not drafted out of college, signed with the Saints, and was cut four different times before settling in Denver. The third-year player has made big strides this season.
Cincinnati at Dallas
The Bengals are averaging 3.2 yards per rush. That's awful. They have to pick that number up moving forward or they will have problems on offense. One of the issues in the run game is center Russell Bodine. He just isn't good getting push. Right guard Kevin Zeitler, who has been solid as a run blocker in his career, hasn't played as well in that area this season. The Bengals need to run it better.
Cowboys right guard Zack Martin was outstanding against San Francisco in the run game. On several of Ezekiel Elliott's runs, he was able to turn his man and create a huge void in the defense. He also was good getting to the second level, showing off his athletic ability. On Elliott's 23-yard run in the third quarter, he got out on linebacker Nick Bellore to create a big lane for Elliott. Martin's fundamentals are outstanding. He is playing top-level football right now. Martin will have his hands full this week when Geno Atkins lines up over him. The Martin-Atkins battle will be a treat inside the Bengals-Cowboys game.
Buffalo at Los Angeles
The Bills are getting good play out of linebacker Zack Brown. When the Titans drafted him out of North Carolina, he had the look of a player who could develop into a star. But it never happened with the Titans -- there was talk he didn't work as hard as he should and he suffered a torn pec muscle in 2014 -- and they let him walk. Buffalo signed him, but when Reggie Ragland was drafted he was expected to be a backup. When Ragland went down for the year, Brown stepped in and has done a really nice job. He can still get to the football and he's playing a more physical brand. Last week against the Patriots, he beat the block of the offensive guard on a screen pass and was able to chase down James White to limit it to 5 yards. He came from the other side of the field to do so. With the Rams wanting to run Todd Gurley, keep an eye on Brown this week.
Why can't Todd Gurley get going? Two things: Teams are loading up the box to stop him and there's been a ton of penetration against his offensive line. Watching the tape from last week's game against Arizona, it was clear Gurley didn't have much space to get going. The Rams might be wise to try and open things up a bit formation-wise to try and lighten the box.
San Diego at Oakland
The Chargers thought their offensive line would be much better than 2015 when injuries crippled the unit. But so far, the line hasn't played up to expectations. They had issues last week against a not-so-great Saints front seven. Joseph Barksdale, who was their best lineman last season, struggled in pass protection. Orlando Franklin hasn't been the player they expected at left guard. That unit needs to pick it up.
When the season began many thought the Raiders would have one of the best -- if not best -- offensive lines in the league. The signing of guard Kelechi Osemele as a free agent made many think that would be the case. Osemele has been good at left guard, but the expected ascension of third-year guard Gabe Jackson hasn't happened. Jackson, who moved from the left side to the right side for Osemele, hasn't been as good as expected. Last week against the Ravens, he had some issues in the run game. On an early third-and-1 play, Brandon Williams beat him hard inside to make the stop for no gain. He beat him a few other times as well. Jackson was solid in pass protection. It's not like he's been bad. It's just that he hasn't become the dominant player many -- including me -- expected this season. Maybe it will take time moving to the right side.
New York at Green Bay
Jason Pierre-Paul isn't piling up sacks, but he's playing really good football for the Giants, both rushing the passer -- getting pressures -- and in the run game. Pierre-Paul looks much more comfortable this season now that he's more than a year removed from his fireworks mishap and he's seemingly more comfortable playing with his injured hand. He has just one sack this season, but the way he's playing they will start to come.
One of the things I noticed from the Packers-Lions game in Week 3, especially compared to Week 1, was how much more Jordy Nelson looked like the pre-injury Nelson. In his first start, against Jacksonville, he looked to be laboring. The next week at Minnesota was a little better. But against Detroit, he seemed to have his legs back under him better. He looked quicker and faster, something he didn't look like in the opener. With a week off, I would expect Nelson to be even better this week against the Giants. They need him back as they are an entirely different offense without him being what he was before he tore up his knee.
Tampa Bay at Carolina
One of the problem areas for the Bucs has been up front on the offensive line. Left tackle Donovan Smith, who was expected to make a step forward in his second season, has actually regressed. As the blind-side pass protector for Jameis Winston, he has to be better. On a third-and-7 play last week in the first quarter against Denver, Shane Ray came underneath him with a nice move to hit Winston and force an incompletion. The Bucs line also seems to be having a lot of issues with stunts. The Broncos got a couple of sacks with stunts last week.
The Panthers haven't had a sack from their starting defensive ends this season, which puts a lot of pressure on the corners. Last week, Bene' Benwikere was awful against the Falcons. Not only did he get beat in man coverage, but he also struggled in zone. Julio Jones had a 53-yard catch against Cover-3 where Benwikere got caught looking inside at the QB and didn't get enough depth. He was also beat a bunch in man coverage. He's the corner they thought would provide stability to the young group. And up until last week, he was solid. Now he has to face those good Bucs receivers. Maybe a little edge pass rush would help his cause.