As the 2019 NFL regular season rolls into Week 7, NFL Network analyst and former Super Bowl-winning executive Charley Casserly provides five storylines to watch on Sunday.
1) How Wade Phillips' defense looks after major trades.
The Rams' defense has dropped off in its last three games (all losses) by allowing 35 points and 408 yards per game since Week 4. The Rams wasted no time making moves this week -- sending Marcus Peters to Baltimore and trading away the farm for Jalen Ramsey -- in an effort to get the unit back on track before the division lead is completely out of reach. With Ramsey in the mix, expect Wade Phillips' defense to play more man coverage, a scheme the Rams struggled running with Peters and veteran Aqib Talib, who is now on injured reserve, in the secondary. Best in press coverage, Ramsey is a proven shutdown corner who forces the quarterback to throw away from him and routinely follows the opponent's top receiver. Having a cornerback who's able to work (and wants to work) on an island will be extremely helpful when the Rams face the Atlanta Falcons and Julio Jones on Sunday. Ramsey, who appears to be on track to play, will have his hands full against Jones in their first meeting, but the new Rams corner can limit Jones by being physical at the line of scrimmage. I would still give Ramsey safety help even if Jones isn't having a heyday -- it's better to be safe than sorry! Troy Hill will start opposite Ramsey and has held his own when filling in for Talib both last week and last season. He and Nickell Robey-Coleman will be tasked with covering Calvin Ridley and Mohamed Sanu this weekend. Those matchups could be a struggle for the Rams.
The Saints have searched for Jimmy Graham's replacement at tight end since they traded him away to Seattle in 2015. This offseason, they nabbed a huge potential threat in Jared Cook, who led the Oakland Raiders in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns in 2018. Cook was relatively quiet in the Saints' offense until Week 5, but since then, he's logged seven catches for 78 yards and two touchdowns. Cook's emergence has really put defenses in a bind because now Sean Payton has three guys who pose some of the biggest mismatches at their positions with Cook, receiver Michael Thomas and running back Alvin Kamara. However, Cook did show up on the injury report this week (ankle) and did not practice in Wednesday's walkthrough or Thursday's practice. He'll be one to look out for if he's able to play. Another free-agent addition last offseason, Latavius Murray, has come on strong recently with Alvin Kamara, who also has been sitting out practices this week, playing through injuries. Murray has moved the chains in relief of Kamara, who is serving as the Saints' full-time back for the first time in his career, and must continue to do so against a tough Bears front that will be without Akiem Hicks.
Heading into the season, I can't say I was expecting Ryan Tannehill to be the Titans' starting quarterback in Week 7, but here we are. Tannehill, who was traded from Miami in the offseason, will start for Tennessee against the Chargers on Sunday, and he brings a lot of positive assets to the offense. He has a strong arm and can make all the throws while also being a dangerous threat outside the pocket when plays go off schedule. However, there are several areas where the Titans will have the same problems they did when Marcus Mariota was under center from Weeks 1-6. Both quarterbacks struggle reading defenses and adjusting to them. Against the Chargers, look for the Titans to use a heavy dose of Derrick Henry and the run game, as well as play-action passes to make reads simpler for Tannehill. On the flip side, Anthony Lynn will attempt to keep Tannehill in the pocket and force the quarterback to read the defense/make adjustments. If the Chargers get to Tannehill early, it'll be interesting to see how this one plays out.
The Eagles have a big opportunity with their ground game against the Cowboys on Sunday. As a one-cut, downhill runner, Jordan Howard thrives running inside the tackles, an area where Dallas has struggled. The Cowboys' defensive tackles are undersized and Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch are fast-flow linebackers. When they see a running back break one way, they pursue hard without hesitation and run themselves out of the play when the runner cuts back. Another reason why the Cowboys struggle against the run is they rotate their linemen but don't have enough quality backups to stand up against a team with a good run game. I've seen the Cowboys take Demarcus Lawrence out of the game and replace him with undersized defensive end Dorance Armstrong, but keeping the unit's top player on the field might be a good decision against an Eagles team that can wear you down with its ground attack.
5) Will Kellen Moore's offense get back to using play-action?
The Dallas Cowboys' injury report is brutal heading into their Week 7 tilt with the Philadelphia Eagles. The good news is tackles La'el Collins and Tyron Smith have a shot to play Sunday after practicing Thursday, but game status is still up in the air for a number of starters, including guard Zack Martin (back/ankle), center Joe Looney (back), receiver Amari Cooper (thigh), receiver Randall Cobb (back), corner Byron Jones (hamstring) and corner Anthony Brown (hamstring). If the Cowboys are without some key players, the offense can still be productive if it gets back to its identity of pounding the rock with Ezekiel Elliott to set up the play-action passing game. The Eagles boast the league's top run defense, but the Cowboys still must get Zeke involved early and often, while also using designed runs for Dak Prescott.
Kellen Moore's offense had a ton of success early in the season when using play-action, but the Cowboys have gotten away from it in their three losses. Their use of play-action has decreased by 22.2 percent from Weeks 1-3 to Weeks 4-6 (the largest decrease in the league in that span), but Prescott has also struggled when using play-action since Week 4, with a league-low 54.6 passer rating (minimum of 20 play-action attempts). By getting back to using play-action more often -- like they did in their three wins -- Prescott will benefit by having more time to find receivers downfield and it will help his receivers get open against Philly's struggling secondary. Look for Dallas to take advantage of the Eagles' zone defense in the pass game because their linebackers must honor the run game. It seems like a simple formula, but it's all dependent on whether Zeke can find success early with the run game.
The Carolina Panthers enter their bye week after winning four straight games with Kyle Allen at quarterback. The second-year pro has looked good in his four starts this season by reading defenses well, making accurate throws, staying poised in the pocket and extending plays with his legs when needed. The offense is more unpredictable with Allen than it was with a banged-up Cam Newton. However, Newton could be healthy enough to make his return after the bye week, which prompts the question: Does he get his job back? I don't think he should. I would stick with the hot hand in Allen, who has outplayed Newton this season. After the Panthers' latest win, which has them comfortably in second place in the division, veteran tight end Greg Olsen had praise for the young QB, saying, "He's doing a great job. ... but at the end of the day, he's won four games in a row. Three have been away from our home field, which is hard to do in this league."
I look at that statement as an endorsement to stick with Allen, and I agree. It's a big decision to make, but we'll see what shakes out in the coming weeks.