Authored by Jeff Risdon - 3rd November, 2011 - 11:13 pm
Last Week: 11-2, pushing the season tally to 77-41.
|Current Featured Columns|
|2012 Breakthroughs And Bounce-Backs|
Philip Rivers and Chris Johnson are candidates to have bounce-back seasons, while J.J. Watt, Greg Little, Brooks Reed and Kyle Rudolph are poised to breakthrough.
Thoughts From The Road
While driving up and down America's heartland, Jeff Risdon weighs in on LaDainian Tomlinson, BCS provisions, Percy Harvin, Colt McCoy and Jerry Sandusky.
Opening Day Quarterback Starters
The NFL is living in a golden age of quarterbacks where the one common denominator of winning teams is a strong passing game.
Eagles Swoop In, Sign Asomugha
The Eagles seemingly came out of nowhere to sign Nnamdi Asomugha as they eye a trip to the Super Bowl.
It's time for the midseason awards. Most of these are pretty much no-brainers:
MVP: Aaron Rodgers, who could miss the next four weeks and still win the award at the end of the season.
Defensive MVP: Darrelle Revis. He has directly won two games for the Jets and indirectly impacted every other one with his unparalleled coverage skills.
Offensive Rookie: Cam Newton. Passing like the rookie Dan Marino, except Cam can run too and he's not doing it with a returning Super Bowl team. Andy Dalton, AJ Green, and Doug Baldwin are thriving, and Demarco Murray is coming on strong. Not a good year for rookie linemen.
Defensive Rookie: Aldon Smith. The project leads all rookies in sacks despite playing only in certain situations and has provided the missing dynamic to the SF defense. Ryan Kerrigan, Von Miller, Jabaal Sheard and Marcel Dareus have all been impact performers as well.
Most Improved: Jared Veldheer, T, Oakland. Spearheading a strong rushing attack, but his footwork and balance in pass protect have been remarkably improved. Cowboys LB Sean Lee gets the defensive nod over Veldheer's teammate Tyvon Branch.
Comeback Player: Steve Smith, WR, Carolina. Everyone almost forgot that Smith was an elite WR from 2005-08. He's back. Could be the league's first two-time winner of this award, which he also won in 2005 returning from injury. This year he is returning from years of crappy QB play. Browns LB D'Qwell Jackson gets the defensive nod.
Coach: Mike McCarthy, Green Bay. Many coaches (Jim Harbaugh, Chan Gailey, Marvin Lewis) deserve consideration, but I harken back to what Marty Schottenheimer once told me about how much easier it is to coach when you are the hunter, not the hunted. The Packers are the hunted yet still demonstrate the hunger. That is impressive.
GM/Front Office: Cincinnati. Getting a king's ransom for a discard QB is the topping, but a measured draft and smart offseason shopping list laid a nice foundation as well.
Assistant Coach: Texans secondary coach Vance Joseph. Wade Philips gets the lion's share of the credit for Houston's impressive turnaround, but Joseph has done a fantastic job with what was easily the worst unit in the league for years.
Baltimore (8) at Pittsburgh (2): Most people are going to focus on the revenge factor and the massacre that Baltimore's defense put on Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh offense in the opener. My take is that these two teams have enough enmity and history that one specific game means little in the grand scheme of things to either side. My main curiosity is what Pittsburgh does different this time around to help Roethlisberger.
In that opener, the line had major trouble handling Baltimore showing one look and quickly switching to another. The Pittsburgh line has improved since then, and the lockout rust is long gone from Big Ben and his track squad of receivers. But the Ravens defense remains best in the league on 3rd down and is virtually tied for 1st (with NYG) in sack percentage. Terrell Suggs and his heated urine are going to present some problems once again. The Steelers must run the ball more effectively, and also change up the predictability. Too often, Steelers OC Bruce Arians dials up a first down deep throw, run on 2nd and 10, and then hope for some kind of rollout pass on 3rd down.
Last week that changed, and that is why I really like Pittsburgh here. The move to the no-huddle and quicker, shorter throws baffled the Patriots. It will serve the purpose of keeping Ed Reed from making big plays and tame the aggressiveness of Ray Lewis, who gets frustrated when forced to be a read-react backer and not an instigator. I like the new wrinkle, and I also like the mental gymnastics it creates in the minds of the Ravens defenders and coaches. Are they going to run it? When are they going to break it out? Are they setting us up for the deep ball? When can I get a breather?
Pittsburgh 20, Baltimore 13.
Tampa Bay (18) at New Orleans (5): I am very curious to see how the Bucs come out of their bye week after a lackluster effort in London, a game where Josh Freeman was awful and they lost invaluable Earnest Graham, their fullback and frequent runner and receiver out of the backfield. They should get LeGarrette Blount back, and that will help the running game. But where they are really going to miss Graham is in the passing game. Blount has been frequently chided in practice for his inattention to blocking duties and aimless wandering instead of running an actual route when asked to play receiver. The Bucs really don't have anyone that can fill that role, and that figures to be a problem.
The Saints have shown they know how to bounce back from tough losses this year. After scaring the mighty Packers in the opener, New Orleans went out the next week and destroyed the Bears. They lost three weeks ago to these Bucs in Tampa, then followed that up by hanging 62 on the Colts. I like the payback angle from that earlier loss, the game where Sean Payton got whacked early and the Saints defense applied little pressure all day long. Graham was the hero of the day for the Bucs in that one, and he is gone. I like a different Graham--Saints TE Jimmy--to wear the superhero cape in this game. Toss in how much better the Saints play at home, and New Orleans should taste sweet revenge here. Saints 26, Bucs 20.
NY Jets (13) at Buffalo (10): This is a very important game in the AFC East. If the Bills win it deals the Jets a severe blow in their quest for an elusive division crown, putting the Bills 2 games up plus a tiebreaker.
The key to me is how well the Jets DBs not named Revis play against the array of Bills that Ryan Fitzpatrick utilizes. Stevie Johnson is ostensibly the #1 receiver for Buffalo, but the Bills offense runs their receivers basically interchangeably. David Nelson, Naaman Roosevelt, and Donald Jones all are capable of running the same routes as Johnson, and they have bought into the collective mantra nicely. As an added bonus, CJ Spiller is starting to look like a decent slot/motion weapon, finding a role for himself now that Fred Jackson has slammed the door on the running back competition. The Jets have to cover the whole field, and that means Antonio Cromartie and Kyle Wilson must stay alert and focused the entire game. They have done a sound job of that this year, but the Bills really understand how to stress test a defense. Fred Jackson is so versatile coming out of the backfield, and the Jets defense has had issues with backs that can make the first guy miss (see Darren McFadden or Ray Rice).
I do think The Sanchize will find some throwing room against a Bills secondary that gives up lots of yards and plays for the interception instead of the safe play. Santonio Holmes remains one of the best big-play weapons in the league, and he has a knack for coming through when his team needs him the most. But the Jets have not been as sharp on the road, and the Bills really feed off the energy of the home crowd. I think that, and Jackson's versatility, will be just enough to win what figures to be a very entertaining affair. Bills 24, Jets 20.
NY Giants (6) at New England (3): Can ESPN not get enough of their East Coast bias or their obsession with the Boston/New York dynamic?! I've seen at least two hours of Sportscenter this week devoted to a stale rehash of the Super Bowl meeting between these two teams. That was four Super Bowls ago. Enough already!
The Giants continue to just chug along, as under the radar as any 5-2 team in the NFC East could ever possibly be. Eli Manning is playing his best football, consistently finding the correct target and delivering throws with confidence and touch. The emergence of Victor Cruz as a viable weapon has been a pleasant surprise. With all of New England's secondary woes, this could be another huge game for Manning and WR Hakeem Nicks (assuming he is healthy).
I think the key to the game will be how well the Patriots offense counters against the New York defense. The Giants do a fine job generating pressure with only their front four, but I'm not sold New York can bring the press man coverage that Pittsburgh utilized so well last week in slowing down Tom Brady and Wes Welker. I also expect Bill Belichick to learn from that game and adapt some countermeasures. The two tight end set represents a problem for the Giants safeties and LBs, as both Rob Gronkowksi and Aaron Hernandez can line up tight, wide, slotted, even in the backfield on occasion. The Giants should keep it close, but I like the Patriots at home in what could be a real shootout. Patriots 31, Giants 28.
Cincinnati (7) at Tennessee (20): Chris Johnson's year is a prime example of why I do not play traditional fantasy football. All that effort to ascertain who should be your first round pick, endless jockeying for draft slotting, and all those great expectations are thrown completely out the window when your first round player either gets hurt or stinks up the joint. Johnson is apparently healthy but looks little like the Chris2K fantasy owners thought they were getting with their top-five draft pick. He has fewer rushing yards than Colts QB Curtis Painter at this point, and it will not turn around against this strong Cincy defense.
That makes it incumbent upon Matt Hasselbeck to lead the offense to victory. His inconsistency makes that a very difficult forecast, but there is a trend to his performances. Against pass defenses ranked in the top 10 (HOU, PIT, JAX), Hasselbeck has struggled to his three worst outings of the year. Against everyone else, his QB rating is over 100. The Bengals rank 9th in pass defense. With no run game to ease the pressure, I expect the Cincinnati defense to contain Hasselbeck & Co.
But Tennessee has a pretty solid pass defense as well, particularly their corners. It will be a challenge for Andy Dalton and AJ Green to find consistent success attacking over the top. Having Ced Benson back at running back will help, but I'm not sure how effective he will be on the Tennessee turf. In short, I think points are going to be hard to come by in this one. The Bengals have been quite opportunistic in creating points via defense and special teams, but I sense that well is a little tapped out at this point. Plus as much as I like and respect what Marvin Lewis is doing here, I just cannot see the Cincinnati Bengals winning 5 games in a row. Tennessee is the tentative pick, 20-17.
Green Bay (1) at San Diego (15): I am probably on a sparsely populated island with this line of thinking, but I'll swim with it anyways. I think Philip Rivers' worst day ever Monday night makes the Chargers more dangerous to pull off the upset. This Chargers team has never been good at handling success, and riding in first place in the AFC West after vanquishing a division rival on national television would have inflated its ego. Now that they have experienced a disaster resulting from their own inattention to detail and lack of execution, I actually expect a much sharper focus from San Diego.
They do have the talent in the right spots to compete. Philip Rivers likes to attack down the field, and the Packers have shown vulnerability in pass defense. Green Bay is not getting to the passer all that effectively (19th in sack percentage), and the size of the Chargers targets presents issues in the red zone. If Mike Tolbert or Ryan Matthews can stay on the field, they do have some ability to run a balanced offense that can chew up the clock and control field position. San Diego has some talent in the secondary that is as capable as any of slowing down the Packers bevy of targets. They're at home on the west coast, and the Packers are coming off a bye that could cause some early rust.
So it is not out of the realm of possibility that San Diego pulls off the improbable here. I might even be tempted to take the 5.5 points and a couple dimes to the window at the Flamingo. But I have too much trust in Mike McCarthy and the Green Bay veterans to think they will get caught napping. It might not be Aaron Rodgers' best day ever, but unless it's his worst the Packers will win. Green Bay 27, San Diego 24.
San Francisco (4) at Washington (24): Apparently Mike and Kyle Shanahan are comfortable watching John Beck sink the Ethnic Slur ship. Last week was the first time Team Shanahan has ever been shut out, and that was to a Buffalo team with one of the weaker defenses in the league. Now the 49ers come to town with a top 10 overall defense that features the best ILB duo in the league in Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman. They also feature Aldon Smith, featured above as my choice for Defensive Rookie of the Year thus far. He should get to introduce himself to Mr. Beck early and often.
Beck has one major flaw that shone brightly even when he was coming out of BYU as a 27-year old prospect: he has no concept of how to handle pressure. Most QBs do one of three things when pressured. They take off and run, they check down to a receiver, or they try and make a risky play. Beck does none of these things; he crouches like a frightened sheep and waits to get hit, maybe inching forward to try and avoid the dramatic loss of yardage. It was obvious on scouting tape years ago and it has not changed in his multiple stops in the NFL. I respect Mike Shanahan more than most people do, but he's lost his gourd if he thinks Beck gives this team a better chance of winning than Rex Grossman. Beck might not lose the game in epic fashion like Grossman will from time to time, but Beck also is physically incapable of commanding a victory. For all of Grossman's faults, he has shown the ability to rally a team and make plays. With their toothless running attack, that is exactly what they need.
I do hold some reservation in making the obvious forecast in taking the Niners. It is in Washington, an early game on the east coast against a team with a strong pass rush and corners that can make plays. As impressive as Alex Smith has been, I'm still not convinced the magic carpet is going to unspool at some point. As much as I like Frank Gore, he is due for his annual 2-game injury-induced break. As well as the San Fran secondary has played, I can see former Ethnic Slur Carlos Rogers trying too hard to make a statement and giving up a big play. But I just can't envision any forecast model where John Beck beats a team with this solid a defense. 49ers 17, Ethnic Slurs 15.
Miami (31) at Kansas City (14): This one is a straight-up gut hunch. The Dolphins might stink, but they've been competitive in most games. They are going to win a game or two at some point. I think the Chiefs have made a great statement by winning four in a row and vaulting to the top of the AFC West, but I still see the underbelly of the group that was 0-3 and playing like they wanted their coach fired. It's a short week coming off a miraculous victory over a hated rival. I smell a letdown trap. I have no real rational way to justify it using Xs and Os, but I like the Dolphins to get into the win column. Miami 20, Kansas City 17.
Seattle (25) at Dallas (19): As much as people would like to think Dallas will dominate here, the Seahawks could present some problems. They have the stingiest run defense in the league and have faced some of the league's prolific RBs (Michael Turner, Frank Gore, Ahmad Bradshaw). This is where we find out if DeMarco Murray is for real. Chris Clemons continues to be a menace to quarterbacks; he has "only" five sacks but game charters credit him with 31 QB hurries. The Seahawks have 11 other players that have recorded sacks, an indication they like to bring pressure from all over the place, albeit not real effectively. That can cause confusion for a young Dallas line that was not impressive last week. They also have strong special teams units, something the Cowboys have battled for years now.
Seattle's issue will be outscoring the Cowboys, because the Seahawk offense is anemic. Having Tarvaris Jackson running the no-huddle helps, but their own O-line ranks dead last in sack percentage. They also cannot run the ball with any sort of consistency. Dallas will miss Sean Lee (wrist injury), but as long as Ware and Spencer can generate some pressure they should be fine. I expect Tony Romo to find a couple of big plays against the inexperienced Seattle secondary, and that should be enough. Cowboys 22, Seahawks 13.
Atlanta (11) at Indianapolis (32): Is there hope for Indy in this one? Perhaps a glimmer. I like the move to Delone Carter at running back, and I continue to be impressed with how well Curtis Painter throws the ball down the field when given time. Alas, he seldom gets enough time and still lacks great chemistry and synchronicity with his wideouts.
And then there is the defense. As Bill Polian himself stated last week, it's astonishing how some guys that have played well in the past have fallen off a cliff. That would be Dwight Freeney. Sure he has 5 sacks in 8 games, but that accounts for almost half his tackles (12) and he has been much more easily neutralized than in years past. They really miss Gary Brackett in the middle. Pat Angerer is racking up tackles but is not a downhill attacker like Brackett, who also had a great nose for the ball in space. The secondary has just two INTs for the season and has given up an average QB rating of 111.2 for the season and nearly 125 for the last month.
That equates to Painter and the offense having to play out of their minds to merely keep pace in most games. Maybe the Falcons are a little rusty coming off a bye. Maybe the shaky Atlanta OL collapses without injured Sam Baker and gets Matt Ryan forced out of the game. Maybe the Colts special teams can provide a major spark. Maybe...not. Falcons 34, Colts 17.
Cleveland (26) at Houston (12): The Browns travel to Houston likely without their top two running backs. Montario Hardesty is definitely out, and Peyton Hillis is a real iffy proposition. That means their running back will likely be Texans castoff Chris Ogbonnaya. I actually like him, and the Texans did as well but he was the victim of a numbers game. At this point, however, he is a better receiver than runner, and the Texans defense knows his style well. With no real credible running threat, that leaves it to Colt McCoy to return to the Lone Star state and try to beat the vastly improved Texans pass defense. It ain't gonna happen. Browns defense keeps it close, but barring a huge special teams day from Josh Cribbs they will not have enough to win. Good week to use Houston in the survivor fantasy games if you are one of the scant few still alive and kicking. Beware that kiss of death...Texans 21, Browns 10.
Denver (29) at Oakland (21): Other than the final five minutes of the Miami game and a meaningless romp against a terrible Texans defense a year ago, the Tim Tebow QB experiment has been a laughable failure. Broncos Coach John Fox has committed to seeing through at least one more week of Tebowmania. It's hard to imagine him performing any worse than he did against Detroit last week, and the Raiders are desperate enough at corner to sign Lito Sheppard's carcass to the active roster. If ever Tebow was going to show even a modicum of competence as an NFL quarterback, this is the game.
I don't think it happens. Sorry Florida fans and Tebow worshippers, but contrary to what Skip Bayless yells at you, Fox has indeed made the offense more Tebow-friendly. He's taking over 60% of his snaps in the shotgun, being given only one long read and one check read per pass play, and they've incorporated several sprint outs, QB draws, and misdirection options that were staples of the Gator offense. Still Tebow struggles to look like he has played the position at higher than the junior varsity level.
Aside from all that, I really like where the Raiders are right now. They got perhaps the best-timed bye week in league history, giving them a chance to acclimate Carson Palmer to the offense and his receivers. They even brought in his beloved Bengals target TJ Houshmandzadeh to serve as a mentor to the youngsters and play the security blanket role on 3rd downs. Darren McFadden has had time to heal (though he is still questionable at this time) and I like the steadily improving Raiders line to come out fired up. I talked to a couple of Raiders insiders during the past week, and they both independently offered that there is a tangible positive energy and real sense of purpose around the team. Oakland rolls 33-13.
Cold November Rain
St. Louis (28) at Arizona (30): These are the two worst teams in the league that ostensibly will have no interest in drafting a quarterback next April. The Rams are still paying Sam Bradford top-five QB money for the next couple of years, and the Cards traded away a starting corner and a valuable pick to get Kevin Kolb. So instead of Suck for Luck, this game is probably a duel to get in position for the best offensive line prospect in the draft, likely Matt Kalil or perhaps Jonathan Martin. In fact, I would venture a creepily premature guess that those two players wind up on these two teams in 2012.
I like the Rams here for a number of reasons, but chief among them is the play of their defensive front. Last week St. Louis finally got some return on investment from 1st round pick Robert Quinn, who tallied a sack, a blocked punt, a tackle for loss, and drew two penalties--all in the first half against the Saints. When the Saints shifted to help on Quinn, Chris Long took advantage and dominated from the other side. Arizona has no way to answer that. Considering Kevin Kolb is hindered with turf toe, an injury that impacts lateral agility and initial burst to avoid the rush, I like the Rams defense to carry the day here. Good week to have Steven Jackson as a fantasy back, no matter if Sam Bradford is playing or not. Rams 24, Cardinals 13. Make it 30-6 if John Skelton starts in place of Kolb.
Chicago (16) at Philadelphia (17): Philadelphia rose from the ashes last week, and while LeSean McCoy's outstanding performance got most of the attention, what really caught my eye was how well the Eagles defense played. Nnamdi Asomugha finally played like the big-ticket free agent contract he got, Jamar Chaney looked more sturdy and aggressive at linebacker, and Jason Babin remained a terror off the edge. I also thought rookie LB Brian Rolle did an admirable job stringing out some runs. He didn't make a lot of plays but he impacted the running lanes and allowed his speedy accomplices to quickly snuff out several runs.
I just wonder how much of Philly's success last week stems from them being fresh and focused off their bye week. Andy Reid is legendary for getting his teams ready to roll during off weeks, and the opponent-specific game planning almost always pays off. Chicago plays a very different style of football than Dallas, however, and I think that can create some issues.
Yet, I find the Bears very tough to buy on the road. Their one road win was in London against a flat Tampa team. They have no answers for Jason Babin or Trent Cole pressuring off the edge. They are banking on two young safeties to try and contain the explosiveness of Jeremy Maclin, Desean Jackson and the freshly rediscovered Brent Celek. They rank 29th in yards per carry and draw the lightning hot McCoy running behind the vastly improved Eagles line. There are just too many signs pointing to Philly to ignore here. Eagles 30, Bears 17,
Byes: Carolina (23), Minnesota (22), Detroit (9), Jacksonville (27)
Alabama 26, LSU 21 in this year's Game of the Century. And the loser should have no shot at getting a BCS bowl because they cannot even win their own division, even though these are the two best teams in the land.
Arkansas 33, South Carolina 30. No Lattimore means "the other USC" just doesn't have enough.
Oklahoma 52, Texas A&M 40. Defense optional.
Baylor 47, Missouri 40, Defense optional here too, but I'll be in Waco for this one with several NFL scouts.
Michigan 33, Iowa 24 in a blah Big 10 weekend.