We'll be through one quarter of the season after this weekend, and this is the time when great teams prevail and average teams fall back. With more game tape available to evaluate what teams are doing, Week 4 represents the first bumpy road in what is always a tough season. Here are 10 things I'll be watching this week:
1. Where is the Steelers' pressure?
Last week, Carson Palmer and the Bengals got the ball with 5:14 left in the game and had a 16-play drive for the winning touchdown. Palmer wasn't touched by the Steelers' pass rush and there were 11 passes in the drive. The week before, Jay Cutler got the ball with 3:14 left and drove against the same Steelers defense for the winning score. The Bears QB only attempted three passes on the drive, but he was untouched. In total, that's 14 pass plays with the game on the line in the last two weeks and the Steelers couldn't put out the fire with their pass rush. This week, Philip Rivers and the San Diego passing game comes to town for a prime-time showdown.
|Derek Anderson is one of five backup QBs pressed into action this week. Can he pass the Browns to their first win?|
2. Quarterbacks off the bench
The most important position on the field is quarterback and rarely does a team go very far with the backup under center. It's only Week 4 and already five teams are asking the backup to save their seasons. Strong-armed Derek Anderson of the Browns will open up the passing game with the deep ball. The last time he was a backup pressed into duty, he actually made the offensive line look better and helped Cleveland finish 10-6. ... Chad Henne in Miami will also bring a deep-ball passing attack to the table and -- with injuries in the Bills' secondary -- he might just be what the doctor ordered. ... Seneca Wallace, replacing the injured Matt Hasselbeck, can escape and make plays with his feet. He has a career average of five yards per carry, and he connected with 10 different receivers last week. ... Josh Johnson wasn't even the third QB when I made my camp stop in Tampa this summer, which meant he was getting virtually no reps. He has thrown just 10 passes in his NFL career (completing four), and his first start is on the road. Good luck! ... Kyle Boller may go for Marc Bulger, and his mobility may give the Rams a better chance. I think three of the five backups make the team better, but only one gets a win.
3. 3-0 or 0-3
Last year, three teams that started 3-0 never made the playoffs. Buffalo, Dallas and Denver were riding high when October began, but everything came tumbling down for them. Buffalo rolled to 4-0 last year, but finished 7-9; Dallas and Denver lost in Week 4 and struggled the rest of the year. As for 0-3 teams, not one of them finished with a winning record. Falling to 0-4 this week would really seal a team's fate, but somehow, some way, I think Miami and/or Tennessee fight their way out of the mess they are in with a win.
4. Time to balance the offense
Getting teams to balance up their offense is important if they want to reduce their tendencies and be less predictable. Five teams that simply have to run the ball more than they pass are Tampa Bay (who pass 67 percent of the time), New England (64 percent), Houston (64 percent), San Diego (63 percent) and Pittsburgh (62 percent). The Buccaneers have to pass because they are chasing teams from behind, but the other four have good teams and need to force the run on opponents or they are headed for disappointing seasons.
|Rex Ryan's Jets have allowed 33 points all season, while the Saints are averaging 40 points per game. Something's gotta give.|
5. Starting fast vs. stopping fast
No team starts faster than the New Orleans Saints. They have three games under their belt and 21 points to show for their three opening drives. That's perfect. They play the New York Jets this week, and Rex Ryan's defense is equally perfect -- the Jets have not allowed any points in their opponents' opening drives. Something has to give. As for the slow starters, 10 teams have yet to put up any points in opening drives: Chicago, Denver, Houston, Kansas City, Minnesota, Oakland, San Diego, St. Louis, Tampa Bay and Washington. These teams better pick it up or get left behind.
6. Speaking of Jets-Saints ...
What a game this should be! Everyone knows about the Saints' passing attack, but they are also one of the best run offenses in the NFL with 48 runs over four yards in the first three games. Ryan's defense has to slow down the pass attack, but if it loses sight of that run game it will get burned.
7. O-line injuries + rookies = QB troubles
Offensive linemen usually don't get hurt at the same pace as other positions. It's not uncommon for a team to have its offensive line intact for a whole season. This year, the number of injuries to offensive linemen has been unusually high. Add to that the unusual number of rookies starting at the position (18) and it spells trouble for the quarterbacks. The NFL is averaging 60 sacks a weekend this year and at least 120 hits on quarterbacks. Between injuries and inexperience, there are probably eight starting offensive tackles, four guards and two centers in question right now and that puts the health of quarterbacks at risk. For example, Aaron Rodgers of the Packers has already been sacked 12 times and he faces the Vikings without his regular left tackle.
8. Keep an eye on Benson
Cedric Benson is reinventing his career. He never got it right in Chicago, but things have been looking up for the former first-round pick since he joined the Bengals. Dating back to last season when he signed with Cincinnati, the team is 5-1-1 when he gets 20-plus carries. In his last six games with the Bengals, he has 160 touches for 792 yards (132 yards per game). I wouldn't be surprised if he's on his way to a 1,300-yard season.
9. Can Pats take a long drive?
This week, the New England Patriots face the Baltimore Ravens at home. The Patriots lead the NFL with 11 drives of 10 plays or more. That's more than a third of the 30 possessions they've had. The Ravens have only permitted one 10-play drive in the 34 drives their defense has faced. A great offensive force meets a great defensive force.
10. Breast Cancer Awareness Month
It's football season and we are all excited about the Week 4 games. But it's also the start of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. My mom died of breast cancer and I will not let football stand in the way of my responsibility to help find a cure for this disease. Wear something pink when you're watching your favorite game. Let your mother, wife, girlfriend, or daughter know you care!