The Playbook: Previewing Lions-Bears, Saints-Dolphins, more Week 4 games
Chicago (3-0) at Detroit (2-1) — 1 p.m. ET, FOX: Two seasons ago, when the Detroit Lions pulled off a surprising run to the playoffs, it was a raucous Monday night victory over the Bears that truly announced their presence as a contender.
Is it time for a repeat performance? Or is it the Bears’ turn to make a statement?
Chicago has missed the postseason the past two years (despite a 10-win campaign in 2012), but it’s off to a 3-0 start. The Bears have found success in a variety of ways thus far, too, from Jay Cutler’s offense clicking to the opportunistic defense putting up points to Devin Hester breaking big returns. They needed every little bit of effort to survive challenges from Cincinnati and Minnesota in Weeks 1 and 2, respectively, before rolling Pittsburgh.
There will be intriguing matchups all over the field in this one. The best of all? Perhaps Bears corner Charles Tillman on Lions superstar Calvin Johnson. Tillman has more than held his own, keeping Megatron under 80 yards per game in the past two seasons. The Bears’ defensive dynamo may be somewhat limited by a groin injury in this one, which could mean advantage: Johnson.
Also keep an eye on both lines. Chicago will have its hands full blocking Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley in the middle while Detroit’s inexperienced tackles have to keep Julius Peppers and Corey Wootton away from Matthew Stafford. The latter may be easier than in years past — Wootton and Peppers have combined for all of one sack through three games.
Detroit is expecting to have RB Reggie Bush back in the lineup after he sat out a win in Washington. Joique Bell more than picked up the slack in Bush’s absence. Who exactly fills in for injured WR Nate Burleson remains to be seen. Burleson, the Lions’ No. 2 receiver, broke his arm in a car accident this week.
The Bears could take complete control of the NFC North with a win, which would put them at least two games up on everyone else in the division. To do so, they’ll have to handle the crowd better than in that 2011 visit to Detroit — Chicago committed nine false start penalties that day. – Chris Burke
Seattle (3-0) at Houston (2-1) — 1 p.m. ET, FOX: This is an intriguing schematic matchup between teams that see things pretty similarly on both sides of the ball. Houston and Seattle each pass through the run game, with heavy play-action and power zone-blocking schemes that camouflage the occasional liabilities of their pass-protectors. One might have sold this as a Super Bowl preview before the season started.
The Texans are struggling on offense, and there are two injuries that bear watching. Left tackle Duane Brown, who missed the 30-9 loss to the Ravens last Sunday, is still dealing with turf toe, and Baltimore’s pass rush pushed around replacement Ryan Harris. Receiver Andre Johnson looks to be a game-time decision with a bruised shin. Given the excellence of Seattle’s defense, the decision will most likely be to get Johnson on the field as quickly as possible. The Texans are 2-1, but they’re the only winning team in the NFL with a negative point differential, and the wolves have been baring their teeth in Matt Schaub’s direction for months.
The Seahawks are starting to get their passing game together after a slow start, though Jacksonville wasn’t exactly a stern test last Sunday. Quarterback Russell Wilson ranks eighth in Football Outsiders’ opponent-adjusted rankings right now, but he’s been erratic at times and he’s still looking for consistency with his receivers against better defenses. He’ll get all he can handle against J.J. Watt and Houston’s furious front seven. Actually, both quarterbacks face pressure more often than they should, and they should each expect more of the same in this game. Watt will look to continue his barrage of batted passes against the 5-foot-11 Wilson, but it’s Schaub who has the real problem with that this year — two of his four picks have come off of tips this season, and two have been returned for touchdowns. He’s walking into a field full of landmines in Seattle’s secondary, which matches physical talent and disguised coverage as well as can be done. – Doug Farrar
New England (3-0) at Atlanta (1-2) — 8:30 p.m. ET, NBC: “We have 13 more opportunities, but we have a long way to go,” Falcons wide receiver Roddy White said after his team’s disappointing Week 3 loss in Miami. “We have to find a way to win games and win them consecutively.”
The Falcons have a terrific opportunity to string a few together right now, with three straight at home followed by trips to Arizona and Carolina. Step 1, however, will be tricky. The 3-0 Patriots are starting to get a little healthier, not to mention that they’re coming off an impressive 23-3 win over Tampa Bay. TE Rob Gronkowski could make his 2013 debut Sunday, which would tax an Atlanta pass defense that sits 27th in the league.
New England is not just Tom Brady and 52 random guys, however. The defense, coming off that shutdown of the Bucs, has allowed a mere 34 points in three games — that’s less than all but the Seahawks thus far.
Atlanta will counter with an offense that has been inconsistent and banged-up. RB Steven Jackson will miss Sunday’s game (and likely several beyond it), while WRs Julio Jones and White both sat out practice Wednesday. Jones and White should play Sunday, meaning Matt Ryan will take to the air frequently against the Patriots’ suddenly stout defense.
The return of Gronkowski would be a game-changer for the Patriots, even though Brady finally found a little connection with rookie WRs Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson in Week 3. Gronkowski not only opens up the passing attack, but also his blocking makes life easier for Steven Ridley and the Patriots’ backs.
The desperation level will be far more palpable on the Falcons’ sideline than that of the Patriots. A Falcons loss could leave them three back at the quarter mark of the season, given that New Orleans has a chance to move to 4-0 on Monday night vs. Miami.
The road is set for Atlanta to orchestrate a quick reversal of fortune. Finding a way past New England would be a sensational start. – CB
Miami (3-0) at New Orleans (3-0) — Monday, 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN: We all know how great Drew Brees is, but the quarterback with the hottest hand in this game might be Ryan Tannehill, who has risen from the shadows of last year’s amazing rookie class to transform himself into something pretty special. The light has come on for Tannehill after a streaky rookie campaign, and he’s performed very well in three wins over three solid defenses. The challenge New Orleans’ defense presents? Well, that could be a bit tougher. Atypically for this team under Sean Payton, defense is leading the way in the Big Easy right now, and Rob Ryan’s schemes are the key. He’s turned end Cameron Jordan into one of the most effective linemen in the NFL, and rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro is thriving in a system that asks him to play in multiple slots and roles.
Brees will have a couple of advantages against Miami’s impressive defense in that linemen Paul Soliai and Cameron Wake are not expected to play. This defense did not manage a sack against the Falcons last week, and Brees will carve any defense up if it doesn’t present a consistent pass rush. But giving Brees time to throw has been an issue for the Saints this year because although Brees makes his line look better than it really is, he’s already been sacked 10 times in just three games, a primary reason for the offense’s relatively slow start. Brees was sacked just 26 times last season.
Right guard Jahri Evans, one of the game’s best at his position, saw his 122-game starting streak snapped Sunday due to a hamstring injury. Brees was sacked four times by Arizona, but the offense did start to roll in New Orleans’ 31-7 win. Dolphins defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle may have to get seriously creative to disturb Brees. One thing’s for sure — Tannehill will see things from Ryan’s defense that he hasn’t seen before. – DF