As the 2019 NFL regular season rolls into Week 10, NFL Network analyst and former Super Bowl-winning executive Charley Casserly provides five storylines to watch on Sunday.
Kareem Hunt is set to make his 2019 debut Sunday with the Cleveland Browns after serving an eight-game suspension. Hunt was one of the NFL's premier running backs with the Kansas City Chiefs at the time of his suspension last season. In the 2017 and '18 seasons, Hunt was a complete back for Andy Reid as a strong runner inside and outside the tackles. He was equally effective as a receiver out of the backfield. Hunt racked up 110.5 scrimmage yards per game in the 2017 and 2018 seasons, third in the NFL (min. 20 games) and behind only Todd Gurley (135.3) and Ezekiel Elliott (130.1).
Hunt hasn't seen the field in nearly a full calendar year so there are a lot of unknowns. What kind of shape is he in and how will he be used? Sunday against the Buffalo Bills, Hunt takes the field with a Browns offense that ranks 19th in yards per game and 25th in ooints per game but features the AFC's top rusher in Nick Chubb. It'll be interesting to see what happens further down the road because Hunt is the more versatile back based on what we saw from him in Kansas City. I think the Browns will no doubt use the fresh-legged Hunt to spell Chubb, but we could also see Hunt in a third-down role this weekend against the Bills because he is a better receiver than Chubb.
2) Can the Dallas D take advantage of favorable matchups up front?
Last week, Michael Bennett played his first game as a Dallas Cowboy against the New York Giants, registering one sack (on a line stunt) and two tackles for loss. His output far outpaced his production with the Patriots in the first six games of the season (2.5 sacks, three tackles of loss, four QB hits). Playing at defensive tackle and defensive end vs. Big Blue, Bennett was most effective when lining up next to DeMarcus Lawrence. They were often a problem for the Giants offense with two good rushers running a variety of stunts. What I didn't see from Bennett was the same quickness and explosiveness off the ball when lined up on the edge that he displayed with the Philadelphia Eagles last season. Looking ahead to this weekend's prime-time bout with the Minnesota Vikings, I think Dallas should refrain from using stunts -- though I expect Rod Marinelli will use them -- because one-on-one matchups favor the Cowboys. Marinelli should let defensive ends Robert Quinn and Lawrence rush against Vikings tackles Brian O'Neill and Riley Reiff. Bennett could find success inside against Pat Elflein, the weaker of the Vikings' two guards. Winning the line of scrimmage will be key in this one.
Last week against the Chiefs, the Vikings scored touchdowns on three of their four trips to the red zone. The one red-zone trip in which they came up short (just before halftime) was unsuccessful, in part, due to the Chiefs' varied pressure. Like I observed when he was in Washington, Kirk Cousins was bothered by the pressure and made a pair of poor throws that resulted in incompletions. The Vikings face a Cowboys team that is in the top three in red zone defense this season. Just last week, Dallas held the Giants out of the end zone on four of their five trips to the red zone. Cousins and the Vikings must convert on trips inside the 20 to win this one, but will they? How often the Cowboys pressure the Vikings' passer will be a factor in determining the ultimate answer to that question.
Historically, when a team introduces a new offensive concept to the NFL, it takes a year for others to catch up. The run-and-shoot offense was all the rage in the early 1990s, and we (the Washington Redskins) struggled to defend it, giving up 38 points against it during one game in 1990. After that season was over and in preparation for the '91 season, coach Joe Gibbs brought in several college coaches to learn about the system. One coach explained the offensive system and the other taught our coaches how to defend it. The plan worked! The 1991 Redskins played five run-and-shoot teams -- limiting them to an average of 10 points per game -- on our way to the Super Bowl.
This year's Baltimore Ravens offense reminds me of those years in Washington. Lamar Jackson has set the league on fire in Greg Roman's system with his explosive playmaking ability. Couple that with a good defense and they have a winning formula. Halfway through the season, defenses often play man coverage, load the box and force Jackson to beat them. It seems like the best strategy to date, but no one has been able to shut down the Ravens, as they rank in the top two in total, scoring and rushing offense. The team that has the best chance to limit Baltimore is the Houston Texans in Week 11 because Romeo Crennel will have two weeks to prepare, though it might take an offseason to figure out how best to defend Jackson and the Ravens.
Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky has not taken the next step in his development, evidenced by a regression in his production from his 2018 Pro Bowl season. The passer is averaging roughly 60 pass yards per game fewer this season and his passer rating has dropped from 95.4 last season to 80.0. Trubisky found success running the ball last season before defenses eventually caught up with him and forced him to stay in the pocket. Defenses have emphasized keeping Trubisky in the pocket this season and as a result, the passer has struggled against the blitz, isn't consistently getting to his third progression and is inaccurate on deep throws. In my opinion, he hasn't looked the same since he hurt his non-throwing shoulder earlier in the season and he's lost his confidence.
The Bears offense ranks in the bottom five in most metrics, including points per game (17.8). Chicago has scored 16 or fewer points in five games this season, but it's not all on Trubisky. His pass catchers haven't been the factors they once were in Matt Nagy's offense. Tight end Trey Burton has disappeared -- averaging two catches for 12 yards in eight games -- and he's admitted he's not playing well. No. 1 receiver Allen Robinson has not been a huge threat either with only one game with 100-plus receiving yards (one reception vs. the Eagles last week), while Tarik Cohen hasn't been anything close to the weapon he was last season. Cohen is averaging 2.5 yards per touch fewer this season than he did in 2018. I think the Bears need to add a No. 1 threat at tight end or wide receiver this offseason to help their passer, whomever that may be. If I'm Chicago, I would take a hard look at bringing in a quarterback in the offseason and I'd start with Teddy Bridgewater in free agency. But for the time being, everyone must take a look in the mirror if the Bears intend to work their way out of this rut.