Most coaches in the NFL break the schedule into quarters and judge their team's progress through the schedule much like they would within an individual game. Week 4 marks the end of the first quarter of the season, and for coaches that's a significant landmark. Of course every team wants to be 4-0 at this point, but 3-1 is just fine and 2-2 certainly is tolerable.
Lots of teams have their first quarter grade on the line this weekend. But beyond that, Week 4 offers a litany of quarterbacks under siege, coaches supposedly on the hot seat, a trio of underperforming running backs, at least five passers on a record pace and more.
At the quarter pole
There are three undefeated teams left in the league -- Buffalo, Detroit and Green Bay. Last year we also had three teams at 3-0 and all lost in Week 4. Could our three 3-0 squads suffer the same fate this year? A clean sweep seems unlikely with the Bills traveling to Cincinnati, the Lions visiting Dallas and the defending Super Bowl champs playing host to Denver.
From my perspective the Cowboys appear to have the best chance at pulling off an upset, but how interesting would it be if the Bengals and Broncos also played the spoiler role this weekend? Hey, it happened last year.
Can they withstand the hits?
Michael Vick has taken an absolute beating through the first three games of the season -- suffering a concussion against the Falcons and a badly bruised right hand against the Giants. Nonetheless, he vows to be on the field this weekend against the 49ers, but he has to be careful if he wants to play 16 games. Remember, he's only achieved that feat once in his career.
Ben Roethlisberger has been sacked a total of 283 times in the regular season throughout his career (102 games). Roethlisberger is a big athlete who can take a pounding, but all those hits will catch up to even Big Ben sooner or later.
Three true pocket passers also have me worried whether they can withstand all the violence and make it through a 16-game slate. The Bears' Jay Cutler, the Falcons' Matt Ryan and the Rams' Sam Bradford are all on a very dangerous pace in terms of the number of hits they're taking. Cutler was the most sacked quarterback in the league last year at 52 and now he's on pace for an absurd 75. Panthers head coach and ex-Bears linebacker Ron Rivera surely will bring lots of pressure at Cutler this week. Ryan went down 23 times in 2010 yet is on pace for 69 sacks in 2011. Bradford absorbed 34 sacks during an excellent rookie campaign but now is on track for 59.
If any of those quarterbacks sustain three or more sacks this week it might be time to start thinking about the backup quarterback on the roster. Or the Bears, Falcons and Rams could give David Garrard a call, though the ex-Jaguar might be more comfortable in his current situation where he isn't sandwiched between a defensive lineman and the turf.
When will these RBs prove their worth?
Chris Johnson, Frank Gore and DeAngelo Williams got paid serious money during the offseason based on production in the past and the expectation that there was more to come. So far, none of these three runners who cashed the big checks have made good on those contracts.
Johnson, Gore and Williams have rushed for a combined 307 yards at 2.3 yards per clip and just one rushing touchdown in nine games. None are ranked in the top 20 at their position, and you have to wonder how long it will be before their teams look at alternatives. Kendall Hunter is pushing Gore, and Jonathan Stewart already has more yards than Williams in Carolina. There was even a column in the Charlotte Observer this week calling for Stewart to get the bulk of the carries.
Johnson swears he's going to get things turned around. Now would be a good time or by next week people will be labeling him, along with Gore and Williams, as busts.
Old school vs. new school
New England is coming off a surprising loss to the Bills in which the infallible Tom Brady threw four interceptions. It's not the first time that has happened to him -- it's happened four times in his career -- and he bounced back from those performances with a 3-1 mark the next week and has only tossed one pick in the four games following a four-INT day. Brady should be razor sharp against the Raiders and he also should be right on his game pace of 45 pass plays, 442 yards and 3-4 touchdown passes. New England is the leader of the "new school" offense in the NFL in which a balanced attack is considered 35 percent run to 65 percent pass.
For the Raiders a balanced attack is defined as 55 percent run to 45 percent pass and they fully intend to shove their run philosophy down the throats of the visiting Patriots. Oakland's "old school" plan will call for 35-38 run plays and 28 pass plays. Raiders quarterback Jason Campbell is perfect for this system and so far has just one interception, two sacks and no lost fumbles.
Can the Patriots score fast enough to take the Raiders out of their run-first mentality? Or can the Raiders' running game keep Brady and company off the field? New England leads the NFL in passing touchdowns in the red zone and the Raiders lead the league in red-zone rushing touchdowns. It should be a very interesting contrast in offensive philosophies.
Time for Texans to respond
Hype isn't new for the Texans. Three years running, prognosticators predicted Houston was ready to overtake the Colts for the AFC South title. The Colts are out of the picture without Peyton Manning and there's nothing in the Texans' way now except themselves.
Last year they started out 2-0 and finished 6-10. This year they had another 2-0 start and then gave up 40 points in a Week 3 loss to the Saints. Good teams bounce back from a loss and if the Texans are who they thought they were then they'll prove it this weekend against the visiting Steelers.
The Steelers got beat down by the Ravens in Week 1, bounced back to shut out the Seahawks and looked shaky in a close win over the Manning-less Colts. It's still not clear what to make of the defending AFC champs. Pittsburgh comes in with a beat-up offensive line and a run defense that doesn't look like a typical Steelers unit. The Steelers have more turnovers (10) than any team in the league except Kansas City.
No team in the NFL gets off to faster starts than the Texans, who've ripped off 66 first-half points this year, while the Steelers consider a touchdown and a field goal typical production through the first two quarters. Houston's ability to get off to a fast start will play a huge role in deciding the game, but a good start won't mean anything if Houston can't figure out how to finish off a good team. Pittsburgh couldn't care less about stats and potential. They are coming to Houston to punch the Texans in the mouth. Can Houston finally respond to a bully-type team?
A change is in order
Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz is under the microscope to give the Chicago offense some much-needed balance. The Bears started out pass happy last year before Lovie Smith put his foot down and the running game with Matt Forte was emphasized in the offense. The Bears won the division with an offensive breakdown of 44 percent run and 56 percent pass, but on first down calls they ran 54 percent of the time.
Now the Bears are 1-2 and the pass numbers are out of tilt once again. Cutler is dropping back to pass 71.5 percent of the time and no team runs the ball less than the Bears, which is unthinkable based on the team's history of power football.
Chicago doesn't have a rushing touchdown this season. The Panthers come to town this weekend featuring a run defense that gives up 4.4 yards per carry and is without two starting linebackers -- Jon Beason and Thomas Davis. It is time for the Bears to change what they do.