The Brandt Report  

 

Bears, Colts can weather injury storm; Texans, Rams in trouble

If you're driving down the freeway and get a flat tire, it's easy enough to switch to a spare and keep rolling. But if the engine falls out, you're in trouble.

Injuries in the NFL can be similar, in that losing a player who was central to your team's plans can leave you scrambling to avoid stalling out completely.

The NFL world was rocked by a series of significant injuries in Week 7. Players like Jay Cutler, Reggie Wayne, Lance Briggs, Jermichael Finley and Sam Bradford left their respective teams with huge holes to fill. I thought I'd zero in on a handful of key situations to see how -- or if -- any of those holes are fillable. (Teams are ranked in terms of potential to weather the storm, from most likely to least likely.)

1) Chicago Bears

Before the season began, I thought the Bears could have the right mix of players and coaches to make the playoffs. With Jay Cutler and Lance Briggs both set to miss a big chunk of time, we'll see exactly what the rest of this squad is made of.

The thing with this offense is, the other pieces (running back Matt Forte, receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery and tight end Martellus Bennett) are pretty good; even the line is better than it was in 2012. Obviously, Forte and the ground game will have to pick up some of the slack. Forte has a ton of ability, and he's already having a solid season, but he'll have to do even more. Instead of gaining 100 yards from scrimmage, he'll have to pick up 140; when it comes to gaining a drive-sustaining yard on the ground, Forte will have to deliver. Left tackle Jermon Bushrod, who came over as a free agent this offseason, will have to block better for Forte, especially as opponents focus more on shutting down the running back.

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I like backup quarterback Josh McCown. He isn't the kind of guy who can win by himself, but if your team has enough talent, you can afford to roll with McCown for a bit. He's not Cutler, but he's capable. Of course, if the Bears want to bring someone in with a bit more upside, Vince Young -- who has improved his work habits to the point where he's almost like a new man -- could be their guy. Young has more big-play ability than McCown.

As for the Bears' defense, I think Julius Peppers has to emerge as more of a factor in Briggs' absence. Great veterans like Peppers often will recognize when they need to step forward and carry more of the load. I know Peppers (33) is on the older side; let's hope he found a filling station and got his tank filled up. Rookie Khaseem Greene had a history of producing at Rutgers, and I'd feel comfortable having him play for Briggs -- of course, he won't be able to immediately play at Briggs' Pro Bowl level.

Ultimately, I think the Bears have what it takes to survive without Cutler and Briggs and remain solidly in the mix to win the NFC North.

2) Indianapolis Colts

Losing reliable receiver Reggie Wayne and his veteran leadership will hurt Indianapolis. In his absence, we should find out if the Colts can implement the sort of power running game they obviously desire (see: the Trent Richardson trade). Unfortunately for Indy, I have not been encouraged by what we've seen from Richardson in the weeks since he arrived; fortunately for Indy, one-time-shining-hope-turned-afterthought Donald Brown has been a pleasant surprise, averaging 5.9 yards per carry this season. Brown, however, is not built for the power running game. Unless Richardson improves as he continues to learn the offense, we might see Andrew Luck -- who excels at converting first downs, regardless of the distance involved -- take more risks on the ground.

Tight end Coby Fleener also must carry more of the load in the receiving game. He's not quite fully developed, but he's definitely going to get more business, as Hank Stram would have said. Fleener has the ability to make an impact, though he does have to improve at catching the ball. His prior Stanford relationship with Luck will help.

Regarding receivers, the Colts would do well to leave the smaller T.Y. Hilton in the slot and play Darrius Heyward-Bey out wide. Heyward-Bey has improved every year since he was a surprising top-10 pick by the Oakland Raiders in 2009. He will, unfortunately, drop more passes than Wayne -- some guys are just prone to dropping the ball, no matter how hard they work at it -- but I'd still feel comfortable running him out there. LaVon Brazill, who has outstanding speed but needs playing experience, should be moved up to the third receiver spot.

Luck is just too good for the Colts to fall off because of Wayne's injury. I still see them winning the AFC South.

3) Green Bay Packers

Replacing the versatility of tight end Jermichael Finley, a downfield threat who could create a bunch of mismatches, will be difficult for Green Bay. Of the four other tight ends on the Packers' roster, Andrew Quarless probably is their best bet. While Quarless definitely can pick up the slack on short- and mid-range throws, he does not have the explosiveness, speed or athletic ability to replace Finley's downfield presence. Quarless also will be easier for opposing defenders to match up against.

I expect the Packers to hand off the ball more to rookie running back Eddie Lacy, who should be able to contribute in an expanded offensive role.

Aaron Rodgers is very good at quarterback, and there's no taking away from that. And yes, he has Jordy Nelson and promising youngster Jarrett Boykin to work with. But Randall Cobb is on injured reserve (with the designated-to-return tag), and James Jones is hobbled. I picked the Packers to miss the playoffs before the season; the injuries to Finley and Cobb won't make things any easier.

4) Houston Texans

Pushing on without linebacker Brian Cushing will be challenging for the Texans, who struggled when he missed 11 games in 2012. With Cushing gone, reigning Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt must shoulder more of the load. Watt has just 4.5 sacks so far -- five fewer than he had at this point last season, when he went on to finish with a league-leading 20.5. Opponents might have figured out ways to successfully counter what he was doing last season; it'll be up to him to adjust, which I think he can do.

When it comes to those in the mix to directly replace Cushing, Darryl Sharpton is an interesting guy. He's a competitive player who has started in the past. The big negative about Sharpton is his size; shorter linebackers often have difficulty getting off the blocks of longer-armed offensive linemen. Otherwise, Sharpton is very good. 

I don't know why the Texans aren't playing better this season, especially on defense. Cushing is a very good player; losing him might cost Houston one or two games, though I'm not sure if that will end up making a difference to the team's season anyway.

5) St. Louis Rams

The Rams are going to have a tough time finishing out the season without quarterback Sam Bradford, who was having a better campaign than in 2012.

Left tackle Jake Long had better boost his play to help whoever does suit up at quarterback for St. Louis. Speaking of signal-callers, current backup Kellen Clemens is the kind of player who won't embarrass you, though he doesn't have what it takes to turn a team into a winner, either. Of the recently signed Brady Quinn and Austin Davis, I like Davis, who was with the Rams in 2012 before being cut. Davis doesn't have the strongest arm, but he will extend plays with his legs and has a good, high release point; frankly, I was surprised he didn't stick in St. Louis the first time around. Quinn, meanwhile, was a good college football player who has yet to turn the corner in the pros. 

The defense has room to improve: St. Louis is ranked 30th against the run and has just 18 sacks in seven games, tied for 16th in the NFL. The Rams have some good pieces, like Robert Quinn -- who can rush the passer pretty well -- Michael Brockers and James Laurinaitis. I'm just not sure how much the unit can do, as it obviously can't score enough to replace the production of a quarterback. That said, I'd never dismiss any Jeff Fisher-coached defense; he's one of the great defensive innovators of our time, always capable of getting more out of his defenders.

Before the season began, I thought St. Louis had a good chance to nab a wild-card berth. Without Bradford, the Rams' odds of making up for a slow start to the season look slim. The former first overall pick was able to get rid of the ball quickly behind a less-than-awesome offensive line; I'm not sure Clemens can handle that challenge as well.

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Here's a quick look at two more significant injuries from Week 7 and how the affected teams will cope:

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Mike James, who is set to start for injured running back Doug Martin, is a big back with good vision. He's a top-notch receiver who fits the Bucs' system well. Of course, Tampa Bay is in such dire straits at 0-6 that I don't think it makes much difference who's at running back.

Cincinnati Bengals: The defense has been rolling, and I'm optimistic it will continue to do so even without cornerback Leon Hall. Adam Jones should take over Hall's starting duties, while Dre Kirkpatrick will come in when the Bengals go with five defensive backs. Cincinnati shouldn't lose much more than depth here.

Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.

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