As the 2019 NFL regular season rolls into Week 12, NFL Network analyst and former Super Bowl-winning executive Charley Casserly provides five storylines to watch on Sunday.
There are two advisable defensive strategies when playing against Tom Brady: mix coverages to keep him off balance and apply pressure, especially from the inside. Brady has been pressured on 23.4 percent of his dropbacks this season, per Next Gen Stats, and has struggled when defenders close in on him, with a 32.9 completion percentage under pressure (second-lowest in the NFL). Last week, the Philadelphia Eagles were able to frustrate the veteran passer, causing Brady to have one of his worst games in some time. There are other Patriots players that defenses must account for, but it all starts with Brady and the way to affect him is by winning matchups in the trenches. Philly was able to win battles against left tackle Marshall Newhouse and right tackle Marcus Cannon, who both have issues with quickness. The Eagles' Brandon Graham was able to win his matchups with right guard Shaq Mason more often than not, too.
Looking ahead to Sunday's Cowboys-Patriots game, Dallas has the pass rushers to get to Brady even if 2018 first-round left tackle Isaiah Wynn returns from injury and replaces Newhouse in the lineup. There's a reason Wynn was a first-rounder, but he's played so few games in two seasons (two) that it's anybody's guess as to how he'll play. Whether it's Wynn or Newhouse, Cowboys defensive end Robert Quinn should give them trouble with his quickness and speed off the edge. Opposite Quinn, DeMarcus Lawrence presents an even bigger problem for the Patriots. He can beat anyone with power, speed and inside moves. Then there's ex-Patriot Michael Bennett, who could give Brady fits if he's playing over Mason. In fact, I'd consider moving Lawrence over Mason with Bennett over left guard Joe Thuney to get more pressure on Brady. When it comes to mixing coverages, this will be a good test for passing game coordinator/defensive backs coach Kris Richard, but if the Cowboys can apply constant pressure to keep Brady off balance, they have a good chance to leave Foxborough with a W.
Bill Belichick enters each game with a simple defensive game plan: take away what the offense does best. I expect the Patriots to take the same approach this week against the red-hot Cowboys. Look for the Patriots to load the box in an effort to stop Ezekiel Elliott -- like the Lions did a week ago, though the Cowboys' pass game was Detroit's undoing. Keep in mind that the Pats are well-equipped to handle high-powered offenses like Dallas' thanks to their talented secondary. I'll be watching several fascinating matchups when Dallas' top-ranked offense and New England's top-ranked defense take the field, including Amari Cooper vs. Stephon Gilmore, J.C. Jackson/Jason McCourty vs. Michael Gallup and Jonathan Jones vs. Randall Cobb in the slot. The matchups on the perimeter will draw the most attention, as Dak Prescott has been one of the most efficient quarterbacks on passes outside the numbers with nine TDs to two picks, while the Patriots have been the best defense at defending passes outside the numbers by allowing just two touchdowns and forcing five INTs. The Patriots' exceptional coverage should limit Prescott, who's inching his way into the MVP conversation, but they must find ways to get pressure on him up front. Without an outstanding individual pass rusher, expect the Pats to use a variety of line stunts and blitzes, especially against the left side of the Cowboys' offensive line.
One thing's for sure: There will be no shortage of big plays with these two units on the field. The one that makes the most big plays could determine the game.
It's nice to see Jon Gruden, whose passion for the game I've always admired, having success in his coaching return. He and general manager Mike Mayock are seeing their long hours pay off, as the Raiders (6-4) are a playoff contender. Gruden's offense has the necessary pieces to get the team back to the postseason. Derek Carr is playing his best football since 2016 and is on pace for career highs in completion percentage (72.3) and passer rating (105.2). Tight end Darren Waller, who is the feel-good story of the year, is an exceptional pass catcher and a physical mismatch for defensive backs, while Tyrell Williams gives Carr a deep threat and playmaker on the perimeter. Not to mention, rookie running back Josh Jacobs is a strong inside rusher with deceptive speed and has been a viable option out of the backfield in the pass game. With Waller, Williams and Jacobs, the Raiders make life difficult for defenses. Add in Carr's mobility, and they present a whole lot of problems. However, Oakland's defense still needs a lot of work. It's strength lies up front with defensive tackles Johnathan Hankins and Maurice Hurst, who are stout against the run, while Maxx Crosby has been a pleasant surprise as a pass rusher.
Can the Raiders make the playoffs? Yes, I really believe they can. But their offense is going to have to do some heavy lifting. It starts with Sunday's game against the New York Jets on the road. This might not feel like a big game but the Raiders can't get caught looking past the 3-7 Jets, who have won two straight. If anything, this game is a great opportunity for the Raiders' offense to pick up momentum down the stretch and for the defense to gain some confidence against an offense that ranks dead last in the league. With a win Sunday, the Raiders would have the same record as the Kansas City Chiefs (7-4) heading into a Week 13 meeting between the two teams.
4) The challenges of selecting the NFL 100 All-Time Team.
The highly anticipated NFL 100 All-Time Team series premiere is finally here! The first episode, which reveals the team's running backs and coaches, airs tonight at 8 p.m. ET on NFL Network and continues through Week 17 of the regular season. As one of the 26 members of the blue-ribbon panel, I helped choose the top 100 greatest players and 10 greatest coaches in the first 100 years of the National Football League. While I won't tell you who received my votes, I want to take you through the selection process. Keep in mind that as I write this article, I (and the rest of the voters) still don't know who made the final list.
Back in 2018, the panel members were given a list of over 800 names (Hall of Famers, Hall of Fame finalists, All-Decade Team members, etc.) and we were even allowed to add names. We had a number of meetings with open discussions about the nominated players, and the most challenging things for me were: How should I judge players in the Golden Era (1920s-30s)? How should player comparisons from decade to decade be handled? And, should players who are still playing today be considered for the All-Time Team? (Yes, they were considered.)
A sub-committee, co-chaired by Bill Belichick and John Madden, was set up to study video and other materials on players from the Golden Era. That committee presented all voters with a report based on what they scouted, and those reports heavily influenced my player selections. As for comparing players from different decades, I leaned heavily on the respective All-Decade Teams and the 75th Anniversary Team because I respect the work of the voters who made these difficult decisions in the past. In the end, I looked for players who were the best in their eras and tried to balance my selections at each position by representing as many different decades as possible.
Members of the panel had two separate votes -- both by secret ballot. The first vote reduced the field to approximately 160-170 names across all positions, and the second vote reduced that number to the final 100. I was honored to take part in this process, and I took it very seriously. Ultimately, I can't say enough good things about the quality of our committee and the comprehensive discussions that allowed us to arrive at the All-Time Team.
Kyler Murray began his 2019 campaign as the front-runner for Offensive Rookie of the Year because, well, he came into the league with a Heisman Trophy on his resume and was the draft's first overall pick. He went through a stretch of inconsistency but has re-established himself over the last three games with seven TD passes to only one pick. Now, I realize the Cardinals are on their bye week, but the fact that Murray is a one-man show on offense is worth discussing in this space.
Think about it. Arizona's offensive line is average. The running game is inconsistent. The tight end position isn't a big factor. Future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald isn't the player he once was. Christian Kirk, however, has proved he can make plays; he just needs to find some consistency. The offense still seems to be in search of its identity, but give Kliff Kingsbury credit for adapting to NFL defenses and guiding the unit to 25 and 26 points in its two games vs. the 49ers' second-ranked scoring defense. The Cardinals are having success on offense by using fewer four-receiver sets and more sets with a tight end, who can provide help in both the running game and pass protection. Kingsbury is using Murray less on designed runs (QB power runs and sweeps) but he's still utilizing the run-pass option, which keeps Murray out of position from taking a lot of hits.
That said, Murray is playing very well and continues to improve his accuracy and in reading coverages. I'm convinced that if the Cardinals, who've been streaky this season, had even an average defense, they'd be in playoff contention. Nonetheless, Murray is making a serious case for the Offensive Rookie of the Year award. If he can continue to show improvement down the stretch, he'll add another achievement to the resume.