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Niners hope to turn season around after hitting 'panic button'

  • By Pat Kirwan NFL.com
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One coordinator has already been fired and some coaches are already on the hot seat with Week 4 upon us. We only have three undefeated teams, but five teams are still searching for their first win. A legendary player returns to his old stadium in an effort to beat his former team. Special teams, team discipline, and having more offensive balance are still hot topics around the league.

Here are 10 things I'll be keeping my eye on in Week 4:

1. Will the 49ers' offense change?

Firing offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye will probably have little effect on the 49ers' offense. Raye wasn't the problem, and as Bill Cowher told me this week, "You can relieve a coach of his play-calling duties without firing him." Right now it looks like San Francisco is just hitting the panic button. What will another loss do to the decision-making of this once-great franchise?

2. Welcome back

Michael Vick is the hottest player in the NFL right now, and he is a much-improved player from his days with the Falcons when he went to three Pro Bowls. He recently told a friend of mine that he learned a lot from Donovan McNabb last year about how to prepare and play the position. Well, here comes the teacher back to teach him another lesson, if he can.

Eagles fans will boo McNabb from the second he enters the stadium. It was the Eagles that showed McNabb the door, and the fans should stand up and applaud him when he trots out on to the field. My head tells me Vick has too many weapons and a better team, but my heart really wants to see McNabb come back to Philly and show the City of Brotherly Love what it once had and failed to understand.

3. Road woes continue?

If you want to be a playoff team, you really need to be at least a 5-3 road team. Last year the final four teams left standing (Saints, Colts, Vikings, and Jets) had a combined 23-9 road record. Well, as usual, the road isn't a nice place for some teams. Denver, New England, Seattle, Detroit, San Francisco, Carolina, and Washington all hit the road this week and have yet to win away from home this season. Not one of these teams had a winning road record last year, and it's a problem that has carried over. Last year, those seven teams were a combined 13-43 away from home.


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4. It might be a passing league, but...

Having a top rush offense and a top rush defense still translates into winning in the pass-happy NFL. The top three running teams (Chiefs, Falcons and Steelers) have a combined 8-1 record. Kansas City is off this week, but the Falcons should keep it rolling against the 49ers and the Steelers are up against a Ravens defense that is giving up a surprising 4.7 yards per carry. The top three run defenses (Chicago, Houston and Pittsburgh) also boast an 8-1 record.

5. More of Washington

I asked Seahawks coach Pete Carroll if he has considered finding more ways to get Leon Washington the ball. His answer: "As he was running by me on the first of two kickoff returns for a touchdown."

I have a feeling we will see him as a third-down back this week and that will prove to be a big problem for the Rams. As Gil Brandt said to me during the draft when the Washington trade from the Jets to the Seahawks was announced, "They got him for a ham sandwich."

Ready to go at it
NFL.com's Gil Brandt breaks down the top individual matchups of Week 4, including the one between James Harrison and Michael Oher in the Steelers- Ravens showdown. More ...

6. My favorite matchups

Chicago's Julius Peppers will line up over David Diehl of the Giants most of the night, but Diehl will get help from a back or tight end. That leaves a much more interesting matchup on the other side, as Kareem McKenzie will be left alone to block Mark Anderson. Giants quarterback Eli Manning has already been sacked seven times.

In Green Bay, Clay Matthews, who was held without a sack last week after six in the first two games, rushes against Jeff Backus or Gosder Cherilus.

My favorite of the whole weekend will be Steelers OLB James Harrison against Ravens OT Michael Oher. Flacco has only been sacked three times in 111 pass plays, but Harrison is relentless. After the Steelers stop the run, the Ravens could pass close to 40 times.

7. Division of interceptions

You could make a case that, besides Drew Brees and his passing attack, it was the interceptions on defense that led the Saints to the Super Bowl title last season. This year they are sitting in the fourth spot in their division in interceptions. The NFC South is on fire when it comes to picking off passes this season, and no division comes close. Atlanta and Tampa Bay are tied for the league lead with six, and Carolina is right behind them with five. When you add in the Saints' three you have a division with 20 already.

Tampa Bay is off this weekend, but QB Alex Smith (five interceptions) and the 49ers travel to Atlanta, while the Panthers and Saints face off in New Orleans. John Fox is 7-2 against the Saints, and his Panthers' defense has intercepted Brees in five straight games.

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8. Still sitting at zero

Only three teams don't have an interception on defense: Buffalo, who was second in the NFL last year with 28; Houston, which has given up 1,106 passing yards; and Baltimore, which sure misses Ed Reed.

Only two teams haven't forced a fumble: Denver and San Francisco. And just two teams don't have a rushing touchdown: Chicago and Jacksonville.

9. Return to sender

In 2008 there were only 13 kick returns for touchdowns. That number increased to 18 in 2009.

We have only had three weeks of games, and there are already six scores on kick returns. Of course, the healthy return of Seattle's Washington is a big factor in the pace, but it also speaks volumes about how poor the coverage units really are right now.

The Chargers might be undefeated if their coverage units were better. They have already given up three touchdowns on returns, and now the Cardinals come to town with LaRod Stephens-Howling, who already has a 102-yard kickoff return for a touchdown this year. Rarely do you see a player criticize his teammates, but this week Chargers WR Patrick Crayton said his teammates don't take special teams seriously enough. Heads will roll if the Cardinals return a kick for a touchdown.

10. Time for a change?

What a year for quarterback changes all around the NFL. Will this be the week we see Jacksonville or San Francisco ask their starting QBs to take a seat?

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