As the 2019 NFL regular season rolls into Week 5, NFL Network analyst and former Super Bowl-winning executive Charley Casserly provides five storylines to watch on Sunday.
Mason Rudolph and the Steelers' passing attack were firing on all cylinders in last week's win over division-rival Cincinnati. Rudolph improved across the board in his second career start, but one area I'd like to see the passer tap into is his downfield passing. When I watched Rudolph at Oklahoma State, I felt his best attribute was throwing the ball deep. Yet in Rudolph's two starts this season, he's thrown the ball deep (20-plus air yards) just five times, completing two of those pass attempts, bothtouchdowns to rookie receiver Diontae Johnson. Rudolph told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review this week that the emphasis is to get JuJu Smith-Schuster more involved going forward. Rudolph has targeted JuJu just 11 times in the past two games and none were deep throws. I'm all for Rudolph getting his WR1 more involved, but Johnson might be his best option to stretch the field due to the youngster's speed. And this weekend's game against the Baltimore Ravens might be the perfect opportunity for Rudolph to throw deep.
Baltimore's defense hasn't produced the last two games, allowing 500-plus total yards in consecutive games for the first time in franchise history. The secondary has struggled all season with communication issues and missed assignments. All-Pro safety Earl Thomas has not been the playmaker he was in Seattle and Tony Jefferson has faltered in coverage. Against a unit that ranks 30th in pass defense, the Steelers can challenge the Ravens deep with play-action, deep crossing routes and double moves versus man coverage.
Containing Patrick Mahomes isn't easy, but the Detroit Lions did it as well as anyone last week when the reigning MVP came to town, holding him to 315 passing yards and zero TDs. Matt Patricia's defense limited Mahomes by playing tight man coverage, doubling Travis Kelce on third downs and in the red zone and keeping the quarterback in the pocket. I believe the Indianapolis Colts can execute this same approach on Sunday night when they travel to Arrowhead Stadium.
The Colts enter the game with a better group of cornerbacks than the Lions, who were without Darius Slay, as the entire group excels in press coverage. Kenny Moore and rookie Rock Ya-Sin play well in man coverage by being aggressive at the line of scrimmage, while Pierre Desir has length and is physical. The one question is how will the backup safeties fare in place of injured starters Malik Hooker (knee) and Clayton Geathers (concussion)? It comes down to how backups Khari Willis, George Odum, Rolan Milligan and Quincy Wilson play against one of the best deep-passing offenses in the league.
3) Dallas must find its run game against Green Bay.
The Dallas Cowboys did not run the ball effectively in Week 4, rushing for just 45 yards. Ezekiel Elliott had his third-fewest rush yards in a game (35) in his career against the Saints, in part, because the Saints were much more physical at the line of scrimmage and brought a safety down late to give them an extra defender in the box. This week, the Cowboys can get their ground attack back up to speed against the Packers by using play-action to keep the safeties honest and spreading the defense out so Zeke sees fewer loaded boxes. While it doesn't help matters that left tackle Tyron Smith will be out with the ankle injury he suffered late in last week's game, the Cowboys must be more physical up front to take full advantage of a Green Bay defense that has allowed 142.3 rush yards per game this season (26th in the league). The Cowboys must get back to the formula that has been so successful for them in the past by running Zeke every chance they get.
4) Can Mike Pettine's defense limit big plays to get back on track?
The Dallas offense was tied for second in the league in big plays heading into last week's game against New Orleans. The Saints limited Dallas' explosive plays by doing three things. 1) Marshon Lattimore was all over Amari Cooper, who had five receptions for 48 yards with his longest gain being a 14-yard reception in the fourth quarter. 2) The Saints also kept safety Marcus Williams deep to help takeaway big-play options. 3) They pressured Dak Prescott and disguised coverages, which caused the QB to hold onto the ball and become indecisive at times. Green Bay allowed some big plays in its Week 4 loss to Philly, including a 53-yard TD pass from Carson Wentz to Alshon Jeffery, but can find success against the Cowboys by following the Saints' approach. The Packers have a very talented cornerback in Jaire Alexander who can match up with Cooper. Plus, Adrian Amos has been an upgrade at free safety and Mike Pettine is great at disguising his pressure packages and coverages. With the personnel in Pettine's secondary, it's not surprising that the Packers' defense has been best against the pass, ranking third in the league. Making the Cowboys one-dimensional by taking away Prescott's downfield options could be the difference in this one.
Believe it or not, there is a way to move the ball successfully against New England's outstanding defense, which ranks in the top two in just about every defensive category. We saw Matt Patricia's Detroit Lions do it last season when the Lions rushed for 159 rushing yards on the way to a 26-10 victory. By spreading the Patriots out with formations and isolating their inside linebackers in the run game, Detroit controlled the clock all game long and kept Tom Brady on the bench.
Looking ahead to Sunday's Patriots-Redskins bout, Jay Gruden's offense is made to run the ball inside behind physical guards Ereck Flowers and Wes Martin (Brandon Scherff is still out with an ankle injury). If they can provide Adrian Peterson a lane, the physical, downhill runner can do what we've seen him do throughout his career -- explode through the hole and get to the second level. No offense is going to win every play, especially against a group as talented as the Pats' defense, but sticking with the ground attack could help get the Redskins' offense trending in the right direction with QB Colt McCoy making his first start of the season.