Week 3 is the first week that coaches have enough game tape to evaluate their opponents and set a real game plan, which should make for tighter games. Formation tendencies, down-and-distance calls, blitz calls and coverage calls can now be diagnosed. Injuries are already starting to mount and, as one GM said when I asked about finding replacements on the street, "Good luck."
Here are the 10 things I will be looking at this weekend:
1. Be careful, Hines Ward
Ward is a great competitor and has his name attached to an NFL rule. A wide receiver can no longer turn back and block a defender who is blind to the block coming. Last year, Ward knocked Keith Rivers of the Bengals out for the season and he claims he will block the same way again this year. He better watch out, because the league is watching and Rivers' Bengals teammates will be looking for him. Ward is one tough football player, but so are the Bengals defenders. Keep your eye on this battle this weekend.
|Wade Payne / Associated Press|
|Jeff Fisher's Titans lost only three games in the 2008 regular season, yet they're in danger of falling to 0-3 this week.|
2. Hard to imagine these teams at 0-3
The Dolphins, Titans and Panthers all won their respective divisions last season and had a combined record of 36-12. All three are 0-2 and must go on the road this week to face good teams. Miami has been here before: The Dolphins were one of three teams (along with San Diego and Minnesota) to start 0-2 last year, and then stop the bleeding with a Week 3 win on the way to winning a division crown. One head coach said, "There's no way these three 0-2 teams go to 0-3, they're too good!" With their backs to the wall, I agree. But can the Dolphins win at San Diego? The Titans at the Jets? The Panthers at Dallas?
3. Centers of attention
Everyone worries about losing the quarterback to injury. The Eagles couldn't win without Donovan McNabb last week. But you might be equally concerned if your starting center is out with an injury. Last week, San Diego, Seattle, and Tampa Bay played without their starting centers and they all lost. The center calls the protection schemes, adjusts the run-blocking calls and handles the ball every play. Last week, teams without their starting centers rushed the ball for an average of less than 3.0 yards per carry and gave up five sacks.
|M. Spencer Green / Associated Press|
|Matt Forte was held in check last week against Pittsburgh, but he should break out Sunday in Seattle.|
4. Is it time for these guys to come alive?
There are a number of NFL players that have yet to get on track this year. Some of them, I feel, are ready to make a statement this week. Matt Forte has 38 carries for 84 yards (2.2 yards per rush). This week, he faces a Seattle team that gives up 166 rushing yards a game. Quarterback Jay Cutler played well enough last week that the Seahawks will play the pass more than usual. ... Packers running back Ryan Grant has 30 carries for 107 yards (3.6 yards per carry). He faces the Rams on the road and with the offensive line problems the Packers have, this will be the week they run the ball. ... Shawne Merriman of the Chargers and DeMarcus Ware of the Cowboys have been dominant pass rushers since coming into the league together in the 2005 NFL Draft. Through two weeks of play, neither one of these great players has a single sack. Ware had 45.5 sacks in the last three years and Merriman has 39.5 sacks in his last three seasons on the field. Ware faces Jordan Gross of the Panthers; Merriman faces Jake Long of the Dolphins.
5. If you like passing, this is your game
The Colts and Peyton Manning are in Arizona to face the Cardinals and Kurt Warner. Don't plan on finishing early Sunday night. This game could go three-and-a-half hours easy with close to 80 passes in the game and four to six touchdown passes. Last week, the Colts generated 303 passing yards in less than 15 minutes while Warner broke the NFL record for completion percentage. This game is a fireworks display waiting to happen.
6. Fix the running game
Pittsburgh and Houston have been good running teams in years past and they have gotten away from the run this season -- or they have simply lost the ability to rush. Houston has Alex Gibbs coaching the offensive line and managing the run game, yet the Texans are last in the NFL with an average of 50.5 yards per game. The Texans must find a way to fix the run problems and they have to do it without guard Chester Pitts, who is out for the year. Pittsburgh is now a team that passes 65 to 70 percent of the time, and it doesn't seem to bother them. The old-school fans know the run game is a key to success. I am looking for Rashard Mendenhall to take a bigger role in the offense.
7. Favre sticks to the plan
Brett Favre has not thrown an interception in two games as a Viking. He has bought into the philosophy that a sack is better than a high-risk pass that could wind up in the hands of a defender. Last year, Favre threw nine interceptions in his last five games and went 1-4. This week, Favre may have to throw the ball 30-plus times for the first time this year against a good 49ers run defense. I do not think he will resurface as a riverboat gambler; I expect tight end Visante Shiancoe and rookie receiver Percy Harvin to be big factors.
8. Tough after a loss
New England and Pittsburgh are two very tough teams that fix problems and regroup as well as any team in the league. Last year, the Super Bowl champion Steelers lost to the Eagles and bounced back the next week to beat Baltimore. They lost to the Giants and bounced back to beat the Redskins. And when the Colts beat them, they defeated the Chargers the next week. In three rebound wins, they gave up a total of 36 points. Without Tom Brady last season, the Pats lost five games but they always won the next game after a loss. Neither team lost two in a row last year. Both will try to avoid that fate in Week 3.
9. Vick, Part II
Michael Vick is back on the active roster for the Eagles. He has not played in a regular-season game since Dec. 31, 2006. To think a guy who has not been under center in 33 months could win a game is a stretch. His last three games back in 2006 were all losses, in which he threw five touchdowns, three interceptions and was sacked 10 times. The question for the Eagles is: What happens if Kevin Kolb goes down on the first play of the game? Does Vick play the traditional QB role for a whole game? I think the Eagles need Jeff Garcia on the active roster and not listed as the third QB. Last week, 44 of the 45 players on the active roster played (Jeff Garcia was the exception), which means someone has to sit in order to get all three quarterbacks on the 45-man roster. It will be interesting to see how the Eagles handle this issue.
10. Can Romo self-correct?
Tony Romo went from the penthouse to the outhouse after the Sunday night loss to the Giants. He is this week's QB under the microscope. Last week it was Cutler, Jake Delhomme, Warner and Matt Schaub -- who combined for two touchdowns, 11 interceptions and a disastrous 0-4 record in Week 1. They rebounded last Sunday to post a 3-1 record, with nine touchdowns and just one interception. Last year, Romo lost to the Steelers when he threw three interceptions; he came back the next week and beat the Giants with two touchdowns and no interceptions. I think he will self-correct Monday night against the Panthers, but time will tell.