The Playbook: Previewing Saints-Pats, Packers-Ravens, more Week 6 games
New Orleans (5-0) at New England (4-1) — 4:25 p.m. ET, FOX: If you hypothesized before the season that the Saints defense would have the edge over New England’s offense in this game, you’d have received some funny looks. But that’s where we are now. Tom Brady is dealing with injuries and attrition all along his receiver corps, and the formerly historically porous Saints defense has been a revelation since switching coordinators from Steve Spagnuolo to Rob Ryan. Brady currently ranks 19th in Football Outsiders’ DYAR (season-cumulative) efficiency metric, the lowest mark of his career, and the Saints are teeing off on their opponents. Ryan, who worked as New England’s linebackers coach from 2000 through ’03, has always had a way of getting to Brady with his schemes. Last time, it was Ryan’s Dallas Cowboys against the Pats in 2011, and Brady countered with constant no-huddle to keep Ryan’s weird blitzes off the field. The problem now is that Brady’s own receivers may need the time between snaps to get their bearings and remember what they’re supposed to do.
Meanwhile, there’s the always efficient Drew Brees, who is reunited with Sean Payton and has an interesting history of absolutely waxing New England’s defense when he faces it. In three career games against the Pats, Brees has completed 47 passes in 65 attempts for 723 yards, eight touchdowns and no picks. He has a higher quarterback rating (148.3) against New England than against any other team. Small sample size? Yes. Different personnel? Sure. And the Pats’ defense has played very well this season for the most part. But if Brees gets a head of steam going at Gillette Stadium and the seemingly unstoppable Jimmy Graham goes on a roll, watch out. Brady’s team as currently constructed isn’t ready for a shoot-out, and that’s true even if Rob Gronkowski is finally able to make his 2013 season debut.
Payton wouldn’t bite, however, when asked this week if Brady will be an easier matchup than in years past.
“You see everything you’ve seen prior, you see the arm strength, you see the will to win, you see the competitive drive, you see all those things,” the Saints coach said. “I think just like we are a work in progress each week, we’re trying to improve, we feel like we tell our players we’re in a race to get better. It’s either that or you’re going in the other direction, and I’m sure they’re working hard to improve in the areas they feel like they need to just like we are.”
The issue for the Patriots is the Saints are much further along in their progression. – Doug Farrar
Green Bay (2-2) at Baltimore (3-2) — 1 p.m. ET, FOX: Can the Packers shuck their early-season trend? Their first four games have played out like this: loss on the road, win at home, loss on the road, win at home. This is, obviously, a road game, so Green Bay has to get off the schneid away from Lambeau Field if it’s to avoid dropping back below .500.
It’s hard to say which Baltimore team will be awaiting the Packers’ arrival. The defending champs’ last home game, in Week 3 versus Houston, was a blowout victory, paced by stellar defensive and special-teams play. But the Ravens have been tough to pin down in two road games since, losing to Buffalo in a game that saw Joe Flacco throw 50 times before winning at Miami behind 27 rush attempts and a pair of touchdowns from Ray Rice.
There may be more openings through the air than on the ground against Green Bay. That said, both aspects of the Packers’ defense will be stunted some by the absence of linebacker Clay Matthews, who is expected to miss at least a month with a broken thumb. Green Bay went 3-1 without Matthews last season, but it will take a complete effort to make up for his loss again.
The Ravens’ secondary may be the unit that’s really in the spotlight. It has not faced a wide-open attack since Week 1, when Peyton Manning threw for 445 yards in a convincing 49-27 win. Baltimore has stiffened considerably against the pass since then, but slowing Aaron Rodgers and his arsenal of weapons will be a substantial challenge.
For all the early season hand-wringing in Green Bay and Baltimore, the teams are in decent shape to make matching runs. The Packers, with a critical win over Detroit last Sunday, pulled within a half-game of first in the NFC North (now a full game with the Bears’ win Thursday night); the Ravens are tied atop the wide open AFC North, sharing the division lead with Cleveland and Cincinnati.
For Green Bay to keep spinning its momentum forward, though, it will need to break its brief road losing streak … while ending Baltimore’s run of four straight wins at home, dating to last season. — Chris Burke
Jacksonville (0-5) at Denver (5-0) — 4:05 p.m. ET, CBS: The line for this game had Denver as a 27-point favorite as of Thursday morning. In just about any other matchup, this game would be ripe for a Broncos letdown — coming off an emotional win in Dallas, expected to roll at home. However, the Jaguars hardly look capable of keeping pace.
Even the Broncos’ official Twitter feed pointed out the obvious: Jacksonville’s offense (51 points in five games) is no match for Denver’s Peyton Manning-led attack (51 points in Week 5, 46 points per game overall). Chad Henne will get the nod as Jacksonville’s QB with Blaine Gabbert injured. Henne has made 10 starts and won just one game over the past three seasons.
The Jaguars did wake up on offense in a Week 5 loss to St. Louis, mainly thanks to Justin Blackmon’s return from suspension. He took his first reception of the season to the house and finished with 136 yards. Maurice Jones-Drew also showed signs of life, rushing for a season-high 70 yards.
Denver’s defense, up until a late interception by Danny Trevathan, looked mighty vulnerable against Dallas last week. But the return of cornerback Champ Bailey should help, even though Von Miller’s still serving his suspension and both Robert Ayers and Wesley Woodyard have missed practice this week.
Will it matter, though, if the Broncos cough up some points? Maybe to bettors, but the lowest output for Manning’s offense this season? Thirty-seven points, in a Week 3 win over Oakland. It’s hard to envision any team, let alone the 0-5 Jaguars, keeping the Broncos totally in check for 60 minutes. Jacksonville’s defense is the worst in the league against the run, too, so the revitalized Knowshon Moreno might be set up for a monster afternoon. – CB
Tennessee (3-2) at Seattle (4-1) — 4:25 p.m. ET, CBS: Last Sunday, quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick made his first start for the Titans in place of the injured Jake Locker. He did so against Kansas City’s amazing defense, and the results were surprisingly decent — Fitzpatrick completed 21-of-41 passes for 247 yards, two touchdowns and two picks in a 26-17 loss. Not world-beating numbers by any stretch, but not bad for a physically limited guy against a clamp-down defense. And, he rebounded nicely after completing just five passes in 14 attempts for 31 yards in the first half. Plus, Fitzpatrick completed a zero-yard pass to himself, which is nice.
What’s not so nice for Fitzpatrick is he now has to travel to Seattle’s CenturyLink Field to face a Seahawks defense feeling raw about several blown coverages against the Colts last weekend. Andrew Luck picked the Legion of Boom apart late in Indy’s 34-28 win with a series of route combos that took the Seahawks away from their preferred press coverage and had them playing some passive zone stuff instead.
“We’re not backing off,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said of his defense Monday. “I tried to make the point that … they didn’t want to hear it, how good [the Colts] are. They have really, really good players, and good receivers and a great quarterback, and it took them until the fourth quarter…. Our guys, they will be up for the next challenge for sure.”
The Titans offer no such challenges for Seattle’s defense. Kenny Britt has been MIA all season, and Tennessee has just 10 pass plays of 20 yards or more this season — the Titans have allowed 17. Chris Johnson is averaging 3.2 yards per carry. Where they may be able to pull this game out is on defense. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams (remember him?) is running his usual Pandora’s box of schemes, blitzes and fronts, and Seattle’s offensive line has been a relative pushover all season. Marshawn Lynch broke 100 yards for the first time all season against the Colts, though Seattle converted just 2-of-12 third-down chances at Lucas Oil Stadium. Russell Wilson is used to running for his life, and he’s done a great job of it this season, but the Seahawks need more conversion plays at some point. The Titans also have Alterraun Verner, who is absolutely the NFL’s most underrated cornerback. Seattle should win this one, but don’t look at Fitapatrick as a starter and assume that it will be a gimme. – DF
Oakland (2-3) at Kansas City (5-0) — 1 p.m. ET, CBS: The matchup of mobile Raiders QB Terrelle Pryor versus the Chiefs’ ferocious pass rush could be among the most entertaining of Week 6. Kansas City currently leads the league with 21 sacks, but Pryor will be a test. The Chiefs did sack Michael Vick six times, so the evidence is there to suggest that an athletic QB will not be a problem. Can the Raiders, with just six turnovers all year, continue to protect the football? – CB
Cincinnati (3-2) at Buffalo (2-3) — 1 p.m. ET, CBS: The Bengals haven’t allowed a 300-yard passer in 19 games, and snapped Tom Brady’s touchdown streak last Sunday. Into this fray steps undrafted fourth-year quarterback Thad Lewis, subbing for the injured EJ Manuel. Another problem for the Bills: Cincinnati has one of the league’s most efficient offensive lines, allowing just four sacks and clearing the way in the run game. — DF
St. Louis (2-3) at Houston (2-3) — 1 p.m. ET, FOX: The Texans’ season is on the brink after three straight losses — and with Matt Schaub in the midst of an implosion. St. Louis, record-wise, is no better off at a matching 2-3, but its win over Jacksonville last Sunday at least steadied the ship. The team that falls short here might be faced with some heavy questions, perhaps starting with what to do at the quarterback position. – CB
Detroit (3-2) at Cleveland (3-2) — 1 p.m. ET, FOX: Calvin Johnson is a game-time decision for this one. He missed last week’s game against the Packers, and Detroit’s offense had few answers in a 22-9 loss. There may be additional problems against the Browns — Ray Horton’s defense has been as good as expected. Detroit’s best hope is to have its defense do to Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden what other teams have already successfully done — pressure him, force him into abrupt reads and await the inevitable meltdown. – DF
Arizona (3-2) at San Francisco (3-2) — 4:25 p.m. ET, FOX: After a 1-2 start, the 49ers have set things right, outscoring the Rams and Texans 69-14 over their recent two-game winning streak. The key to San Francisco’s turnaround has been a return to their power run game, which has helped an unexpectedly shaky offensive line and given relief to Colin Kaepernick. Arizona is also on a two-game winning streak, though, and the Cards have one of the better run-stopping lines in the league. This may be Kaepernick’s game to win or lose. – DF
Washington (1-3) at Dallas (2-3) — 8:30 p.m. ET, NBC: Arguably the two biggest wins Washington secured in 2012 came against Dallas. Robert Griffin III torched the Cowboys on Thanksgiving Day to move his team to 5-6, then the Redskins clinched the division with a Week 17 victory over the ‘Boys. The stakes are relatively high again here: A Redskins win could leapfrog them into first place in the NFC East. Dallas, meanwhile, would like to erase the memory of last week’s deflating loss to Denver. – CB
Indianapolis (4-1) at San Diego (2-3) — 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN: If the Broncos and Saints have the league’s hottest offenses, the Colts can’t be far behind. Pep Hamilton has mixed power running with a deep passing game in ways that are bedeviling opponents, and this week they face a Chargers defense that ranks dead last in Football Outsiders’ opponent-adjusted metrics. Then again, the surprising Colts secondary will be tested by Philip Rivers, who has been totally reborn under new head coach Mike McCoy; Rivers is playing as well as any quarterback not named Peyton Manning. – DF
Only For The Faithful
Pittsburgh (0-4) at NY Jets (3-2) — 1 p.m. ET, CBS: The Jets have been talking this week about not overlooking the Steelers, in case you need evidence of how far Pittsburgh has fallen. Ben Roethlisberger might see the Jets’ D-line in his nightmares — Muhammad Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson and Co. swarmed Matt Ryan in Week 5. – CB
Carolina (1-3) at Minnesota (1-3) — 1 p.m. ET, FOX – Christian Ponder’s ribs are still a problem, which means Matt Cassel will likely start against Carolina’s bullying front seven. The Josh Freeman era may begin sooner than we thought. – DF
Philadelphia (2-3) at Tampa Bay (0-4) — 1 p.m. ET, FOX: Will it be Michael Vick or Nick Foles at quarterback for the Eagles? Will it matter against an 0-4 Tampa Bay team that boasts the league’s second-worst offense? Vick’s ailing hamstring could keep him out of this one, but Nick Foles stepped in last week and torched the Giants. – CB
(Unless otherwise indicated, all stats come from our friends at Pro Football Focus).
• Remember when we told you in the Titans-Seahawks preview how underrated Alterraun Verner is? Check this out: The Titans’ cornerback has been targeted 28 times this season. He’s allowed nine catches for 159 yards, which means that you can beat him deep, but he has yet to allow a touchdown. Verner has four picks on those 28 targets, and opposing quarterbacks have managed a preposterous 12.9 quarterback rating when targeting Verner — to put that in perspective, Aqib Talib of the Patriots has the second-best QB rating against at 30.8. If he keeps it up at anything near this level, Verner should be talked about as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate when the season is done.
• The fourth-best slot cornerback in the league through five weeks? Bills rookie Nickell Robey, who’s allowed eight catches, 59 yards and no touchdowns on 19 targets. Appropriate for a guy playing in nickel situations, yes. Of course, the undrafted free agent has his one interception this year on the outside.
• Is it time to put New Orleans’ Cameron Jordan in the discussion with J.J. Watt and the New York Jets’ Muhammad Wilkerson among the league’s best pass-rushing 3-4 ends? The numbers certainly back it up. Jordan, Wilkerson and Watt all have four sacks, but Jordan actually has one more total pressure than Watt, and 12 more than Wilkerson — five quarterback hits and 19 hurries to Watt’s eight and 15 and Wilkerson’s three and nine. No player has benefitted more from Rob Ryan’s schemes.
• The Vikings signed end Brian Robison to a four-year, $28 million extension this week, and he’s certainly deserving of it. Only Cincinnati’s Carlos Dunlap and New England’s Rob Ninkovich have more pass-rush snaps as 3-4 ends than Robison’s 169, and Robison’s 24 total pressures rank fourth in the league at his position.
• We often castigate receivers for drops, and justifiably so, but let’s take a moment to give Baltimore’s Torrey Smith a round of applause. Joe Flacco’s main deep threat hasn’t dropped a single pass all season on 49 targets, which is the fifth-highest total in the league. Smith also leads the NFL with 18 targets of 20 yards or more.
• Whatever ails the Redskins’ offense this year, it’s certain that pass protection on Robert Griffin III’s blind side is on lock. Trent Williams has allowed no sacks and just four total pressures (two hits and two hurries) while playing 100 percent of his team’s dropback snaps. – DF
• Matchup to Watch: Jimmy Graham vs. New England’s secondary.
The Patriots have had little luck stymieing the league’s better tight ends of late — Tony Gonzalez posted 12 catches for 149 yards and two TDs against them in Week 4, while Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert enjoyed a solid afternoon in Week 5.
New England figures to vary its coverage looks on Graham, with No. 1 cornerback Aqib Talib even in the mix as a possible counter. Shutting out Graham is an impossible task, even for the league’s best defenses. But keeping him in check, so Drew Brees is forced to utilize his receivers and running backs, is a must for the Patriots if they want to pull off a victory.
• This Week’s Sleeper: Jerome Simpson, WR, Vikings.
Even though Josh Freeman now resides in Minnesota and Christian Ponder may be able to suit up, the Vikings appear as if they’ll roll with Matt Cassel at QB against the Panthers. And that’s good news for Simpson, who had seven catches (and 11 targets) for 124 yards in Minnesota’s Cassel-led London win in Week 4. Simpson already has 342 yards receiving this year, topping his total from 2012 (274).
• Pressure’s On …: Matthew Stafford, QB, Lions.
The Lions are paying Stafford like an elite quarterback, and occasionally he’ll fit the bill. In two games sans a leading offensive weapon, though, Stafford has slumped — first in a loss to Arizona with Reggie Bush on the bench in the second half, then last week at Green Bay with Calvin Johnson out of the lineup. Johnson’s questionable for Sunday’s matchup in Cleveland. So for the Lions to improve to 4-2, they’ll need their high-priced QB to deliver.
• Rookie Spotlight: Matt Elam, S, Ravens.
One key change for the Ravens defense since it was shredded by Peyton Manning in Week 1: Elam, in place of Michael Huff.
“I would assess that he’s the starting safety right now, and he’s doing a good job,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said this week of Elam. “They’ve been testing him that way, and he’s held up pretty darn well.”
Will Harbaugh be singing the same tune after Elam faces Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ prolific attack on Sunday? – CB
• Dallas Cowboys: Coming off of last week’s heartbreaking setback, the last thing the Cowboys need is to turn around and drop another one to the Redskins. Putting another win on the board — and doing so while keeping Washington struggling — would do wonders in Big D. – CB
• Green Bay Packers: The Packers travel to Baltimore at 2-2, looking up at the Bears and Lions in the NFC North. They’ll be without premier pass-rusher Clay Matthews for at least a month, and Joe Flacco can tear a defense to bits if he’s not pressured. – DF