I love this weekend's matchups. We have the NFL's top rushing quarterback facing the NFL's No. 1 run defense. We also have the fifth-ranked passing offense squaring off against the top-ranked pass defense. There are also a few intriguing divisional matchups to keep an eye on in Week 4. Here are the six key battles to follow:
Drew Brees vs. Packers' secondary
For the New Orleans Saints to have any chance to knock off the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field, they will need a monster game from Drew Brees. Things haven't gone smoothly for the Saints quarterback this season. His completion percentage is down more than 16 percent from 2011 and he's already thrown five interceptions. He has had stretches of great play, but he just hasn't been able to sustain it for four quarters. Consistent success will be very difficult against this talented Green Bay secondary.
The Packers are currently the NFL's top-ranked pass defense, allowing only 125.3 passing yards per game. Cornerback Tramon Williams has been playing at an elite level and Charles Woodson's ability to matchup with opposing tight ends is a huge luxury for defensive coordinator Dom Capers. While it hasn't shown up in the win column, this defense quietly has returned to its Super Bowl form.
Robert Griffin III vs. Buccaneers' linebackers
So far this season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' pass defense has been inconsistent, but their run defense has been tops in the NFL. They are currently allowing a measly 47.3 rushing yards per game. The key to their effectiveness against the run has been the play of young linebackers Mason Foster and Lavonte David. Foster has shown drastic improvement in his second season, while David looks like one of the top rookie defenders in the NFL. The Tampa linebackers will face a tough challenge this week against the Washington Redskins.
Robert Griffin III has been a major weapon as a runner, averaging an impressive 69.7 yards per game on the ground. His ability to run the option and zone-read has given each of Washington's first three opponents major problems. However, the Bucs have already proven they know how to play against this style of offense by limiting Cam Newton to just four rushing yards on five carries in their opening-day win over the Panthers.
Jamaal Charles vs. Chargers' run defense
In Week 3, the Kansas City Chiefs overcame an 18-point deficit and defeated the New Orleans Saints to collect their first win of the 2012 campaign. The key to K.C.'s victory was the explosive running of Jamaal Charles. The NFL's leading rusher piled up an impressive 233 yards on 33 carries, and his 91-yard touchdown run was the key play in the comeback. The Chiefs will need Charles to be at his best Sunday, when they welcome a divisional foe to Arrowhead.
The San Diego Chargers' run defense will provide a much stiffer test than the Saints did in Week 3. The Chargers are ranked fourth against the run, allowing only 67.3 yards per game. There aren't any big-name stars in the front seven, but it's a physical, aggressive group. Linebacker Donald Butler has the athleticism and instincts to make plays sideline to sideline, while fellow linebacker Takeo Spikes is still playing well at the age of 35. The entire front seven of the Chargers will need to play at a high level in order to contain the explosive Chiefs runner.
J.J. Watt has been one of the early stars of the 2012 season. The Houston Texans' talented second-year defensive end has already recorded 5.5 sacks. While Watt has grabbed the headlines, he is not the only pass rusher on this Houston defense. Outside linebacker Brooks Reed and defensive end Antonio Smith also have been able to generate consistent pressure on the quarterback. They will face one of the league's better pass-blocking teams this weekend against the Tennessee Titans.
The Titans' struggles to run the ball have been well documented, but they have been effective through the air. Quarterback Jake Locker has had the luxury of playing behind an offensive line that has only allowed two sacks this season. Tackles Michael Roos and David Stewart are both athletic enough to handle speed rushers and strong enough to anchor down versus the bull rush. These two divisional opponents know each other extremely well and this battle in the trenches should be fascinating to watch.
Jay Cutler vs. Cowboys' secondary
The Chicago Bears take on the Dallas Cowboys on Monday night in a battle of 2-1 teams with playoff expectations. In order for the Bears to pull off the road win, they are going to need quarterback Jay Cutler to play much better than he has over the past two weeks. The Bears' trigger man has failed to throw for more than 200 yards in each of the past two games and he's accounted for five interceptions. He has really struggled with his decision-making, as well as his accuracy.
The Cowboys aren't the ideal team to play against when your quarterback is looking to get back on track. Aided by the new additions in the secondary, Rob Ryan's defense is currently the second-ranked pass defense. Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr have been excellent and the healthy return of Mike Jenkins has been an added bonus. I'm anxious to see how well Claiborne handles the physical play of Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall.
The Buffalo Bills actually enter this contest with a better record than the New England Patriots. One of the reasons for the Bills' 2-1 start has been the stellar play of their offensive line. Led by center Eric Wood, the Bills' line has been able to generate a consistent push in the run game while also providing plenty of time for quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick in the passing game. The Bills currently rank third in rushing yards and first in fewest sacks allowed. Both of those statistics reflect the effectiveness of their offensive line.
The Patriots are coming off a disappointing loss to the Baltimore Ravens. One thing that stood out after studying that game tape was the ineffectiveness of the New England pass rush. Outside of rookie Chandler Jones, the Patriots haven't been able to generate any consistent pressure with their defensive front. After recording 40 sacks in 2011, the Patriots have only tallied three sacks thus far in 2012. While they have struggled to get after the quarterback, they have done an excellent job against the run, allowing only 81 yards per game. This will be a very intriguing matchup to watch unfold on Sunday afternoon.
Follow Daniel Jeremiah on Twitter @MoveTheSticks.