|Jon Gruden and Mike Shanahan square off Sunday in Denver.|
Before we get into five key on-field matchups that are worth watching this week, here is the most interesting -- as well as ironic -- coaching matchup of Week 5.
While the NFL is still abuzz over the firing of Lane Kiffin in Oakland, two men who got their first head coaching jobs in Oakland -- Jon Gruden and Mike Shanahan -- will be facing off in Denver when the Buccaneers play the Broncos.
In addition to being former Raiders head coaches, the other thing Gruden and Shanahan have in common is that they both moved on from Oakland to win Super Bowls with their next team. Shanahan was fired four games into the 1989 season after winning just 8 of 20 games with the Raiders. Gruden won 40 games and two division titles in four years with Oakland. He was actually "traded" to Tampa Bay after the 2001 season, let out of his contract and allowed to sign with the Bucs in exchange for draft choices and cash. In his first season with the Bucs, his team defeated Oakland in Super Bowl XXXVII.
In previous head-to-head matches between Shanahan and Gruden, Shanahan has won eight of nine -- he was 7-1 against Gruden's Raiders teams, and 1-0 vs. Tampa Bay.
Gruden runs his version of the West Coast offense in Tampa. He calls the plays himself in a system that has lots of verbiage and is pass heavy. In his first five years, he has called 800 more pass plays than runs (3,183-2,383).
Denver, meanwhile, has basically embraced the zone-blocking scheme under Shanahan. Thus, the run-pass ratio is almost 50-50 (2,988 passes, 2,993 runs). Shanahan has been the play-caller, though not as much this year.
Denver ranks No. 1 in total offense this season. Unlike in previous years, the Broncos rank 14th in rushing, while leading the league in passing.
Both Shanahan and Gruden were small-college quarterbacks who have turned into good coaches. Despite all the similarities between these two guys, they are different in many ways. Gruden likes big cigars, for instance, while Shanahan is not a smoker.
Of course, the one thing they have in common besides a shared history of success is that they both have their teams headed in the right direction this season.
Now, onto this week's key on-field matchups:
Atlanta RB Michael Turner vs. Green Bay LB Nick Barnett
Turner is the NFL's leading rusher with 422 yards on 77 carries (5.5-yard average), and he is tied for the NFL lead with 5 rushing touchdowns. He is a very strong inside runner with speed and strength, though he is not much of a factor in the passing game. Green Bay is 26th in the league versus the run, and the Falcons will certainly look to take advantage of that so they can keep the pressure off rookie QB Matt Ryan. Young quarterbacks traditionally need more help when they go on the road, so expect Turner to see plenty of action. It helps that the game is on grass, as Turner has had some big games on this surface in San Diego.
Barnett plays middle linebacker and is on the field for all downs in the Packers' defensive packages. He wears the radio helmet that is wired to the defensive coordinator, and he makes all the calls. Barnett is athletic, has outstanding speed, and is at his best when he is operating in space, making tackles and trying to force turnovers. He will have his work cut out for him here, especially because Green Bay has some injury problems at safety.
Also, don't be surprised to see Atlanta make use of RB Jerious Norwood out of the backfield -- that could force Barnett into defending the pass.
Washington OT Chris Samuels vs. Philadelphia DE Trent Cole
The Redskins and Eagles split their two meetings in 2007, with each team scoring a total of 45 points. Samuels and Cole both went to the Pro Bowl last season. They are both quality players, and the winner of their head-to-head matchup should go a long way to determine the outcome of this game. Samuels did well last week against DeMarcus Ware of the Cowboys -- without a lot of help. He has long arms and good technique -- and he is one of the main reasons for the improved play of QB Jason Campbell, who has yet to throw an interception this season, while throwing six TD passes and completing 66 percent of his passes.
Cole is relentless against both the pass and the run. He had more than 100 tackles last year -- you don't see that often from pass-rushing specialists. Cole is a better pass rusher at home than on the road: Of his 20.5 sacks over the last two years, 12 have come at home. He has a quick first step and turns the corner very well. However, he does not have a sack against Samuels in the three years he's been playing.
Buffalo DE Aaron Schobel vs. Arizona OT Mike Gandy
Schobel plays with great intensity and effort, and has great pass-rush moves. He likes the spin move inside and a slap-and-under move. In the run game, he will crash down inside and make plays from behind. He's another pass rusher who is not as good on the road, because he benefits from the noise in Ralph Wilson Stadium. The Cardinals have passed 42 times more than they've run the ball this season, so Schobel will have plenty of chances to get at the QB.
Gandy is very familiar with Schobel -- they were on the Bills roster together in 2005-06, and therefore have practiced against each other many times. Gandy doesn't have the greatest feet in the world, but he has long arms and is very competitive.
By the way: Gandy has a cap number this season of $6.8 million, while Schobel is the top-paid player on the Bills. Both Gandy and Schobel grew up in small towns in Texas -- and both probably make enough money to buy their hometowns.
Pittsburgh QB Ben Roethlisberger vs. Jacksonville QB David Garrard
Pittsburgh loves to run the football but multiple injuries at the position could force the Steelers to throw the football more. Jacksonville loves to run the football but the Steelers rank second overall on defense and fourth against the run.
The Jaguars have won three straight regular-season games in this series plus their meeting last season in the first round of the playoffs. In that wild-card game, Jacksonville rushed for 180 yards; three weeks earlier, in a Week 15 matchup, the Jaguars rushed for 224 yards in a 29-22 win over the Steelers. Knowing Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, he will not let that happen again. And so I would look for the quarterbacks to make the difference in this meeting.
Roethlisberger has a tendency to hold the ball too long in the pocket, but he also has a strong arm and can scramble and find receivers. He can improvise and make plays, and it usually takes two defenders to bring him down.
Garrard is a movement quarterback -- he beat the Texans last week with his feet and arm, and he is accurate moving to his left or right. Garrard has completed 64 percent of his passes, but after throwing only 3 interceptions in all of 2007 (325 attempts), he has thrown four in his first 117 attempts this season. The Steelers need to contain Garrard, and prevent him from scrambling for first downs. It will be a tough test for a Pittsburgh defense that is coming off a hard-fought game on Monday night.
Tennessee DE Kyle Vanden Bosch vs. Baltimore OT Jared Gaither
Both the Titans and Ravens are playing much better than people thought they would before the season began. For the Ravens to be successful this week, they have to block Vanden Bosch, Tennessee's productive and talented Pro Bowl pass rusher. Vanden Bosch will play hard every down until the whistle blows, so a blocker cannot let up on him or assume that someone else is going to pick him up.
Gaither is a young lineman that fans should keep an eye on. At just 22 years old, he is 6-foot-9, 350 pounds. He played very little in college at Maryland, and this Sunday will be just his 10th NFL game. After starting two games for the Ravens in 2007, he's started all three games this season and played well. He has a chance to be very good with more experience, and this will be a great test for him.