Week 4 matchups signal the end of the first quarter of the NFL regular season. If last week was the first crossroads of the season, then this week is all about taking the first step down the road to the playoffs or the first step to try and regain the ground already lost.
At this stage of the season, we can finally start identifying who is set to challenge for a playoff spot and who looks more likely to have already fallen too far. In a sense, we're separating the pretenders from the contenders.
The Miami Dolphins have all of the traits of a playoff team, including an unbeaten record. A home victory over the Atlanta Falcons is being celebrated as a landmark win, but the reality is that Atlanta was depleted by injuries to key players. This weekend's journey to New Orleans to face the Saints will do much more to determine just how good this team is.
With the Tampa Bay Buccaneers changing their quarterback this week, most media outlets have overlooked the fact that Darrelle Revis' usage is likely to cost us a matchup between two titans of modern football. Revis isn't likely to cover Larry Fitzgerald enough to make that matchup worthwhile, but Charles Tillman against Calvin Johnson has always been a fiercely contested fight in recent seasons.
Quietly, the Dallas Cowboys have been very good this season. Only a close loss to the Kansas City Chiefs has cost them a perfect start.
More noticeable has been the return of the San Diego Chargers. Both the Chargers and the Cowboys need to keep their early-season momentum going if they are to steal playoff spots, or in the Cowboys' case a division crown.
Ryan Tannehill vs. the New Orleans Saints Defense
Since Week 1 of his rookie season, Tannehill has shown off the kind of composure and poise that is atypical of most first-year quarterbacks.
Many of the struggles the then-24-year-old quarterback faced could be blamed on his supporting cast. Of course, Tannehill endured some rookie struggles, but even the best quarterbacks in the league struggled in a similar fashion when they were rookies.
The Dolphins spent the offseason re-tooling their roster, and so far the results have been positive. Victories over the Cleveland Browns, Indianapolis Colts and Atlanta Falcons have vaulted the Dolphins to an unbeaten start. During that time, Tannehill has thrown for 827 yards while completing over 66 percent of his passes for four touchdowns and two interceptions.
Adding Mike Wallace and Brandon Gibson to the receiving corps has dramatically helped Tannehill, but it's been somewhat offset by a drop-off in the running game. Neither Lamar Miller nor Daniel Thomas have established themselves as quality backs.
Because of that, the Dolphins' average per carry has fallen from 4.1 to 3.3 at this early stage of the year.
Last season, that number would have killed the Dolphins' offense, but this year the identity of the unit has changed. The Dolphins' running game has accounted for just 22 percent of their offensive output this year compared to 36 percent last season.
It's still very early in the season, so that number must be considered in context. But the Dolphins haven't been in any real shootout situations yet, so it does say a lot about their offense.
The Achilles' heel for the Dolphins has been their pass protection.
Neither Tyson Clabo nor Jonathan Martin have impressed as pass protectors so far this season, which has led to a league-leading 14 sacks allowed. Offensive line issues are the last thing you want when facing the New Orleans Saints in Louisiana.
The Saints have completely revamped their defense this year. They needed to after last year's historically bad unit, but how quickly they turned the unit from a weakness into a strength is astonishing.
Rob Ryan and Kenny Vaccaro were the two biggest additions this offseason. Both have lived up to expectations. Vaccaro is being used in a variety of ways, while Ryan has tempered his aggression to get the most out of the players available to him.
Ryan hasn't dramatically changed his approach, but he is playing to the strengths of his personnel.
Each of the unit's front seven has surpassed expectations so far this season, but Cameron Jordan in particular has proven to be a nightmare for opposing teams. Jordan leads the Saints with three sacks and one forced fumble, while Junior Galette has two sacks, Akiem Hicks has one, Parys Haralson has one and Glenn Foster has one.
Against the Dolphins, that front seven will expect to be able to pressure Tannehill.
That pressure is what will decide this game. Not only will Tannehill need to handle the physical pressure those defenders create, he must be as poised as he has been throughout his career to handle the environment of the dome in New Orleans. Third downs and turnovers will be even more crucial than usual.
Tannehill is leading the league in third-down conversions and has only thrown two interceptions. One of those interceptions was a good pass that hit his receiver's hands, while the other was a pass that he forced into a tight window.
The real turnover threat comes from that offensive line. Tannehill has already fumbled five times this year, losing two.
Charles Tillman vs. Calvin Johnson
There are three matchups this weekend that could feature an elite receiver going against an elite cornerback. Unfortunately, none of those matchups are certain to happen for a variety of reasons.
Larry Fitzgerald and Darrelle Revis would be facing off if the Tampa Bay Buccaneers used Revis the way he was used in New York with the Jets. The Buccaneers have primarily used Revis in zone coverage so far, and there are no inclinations that will change this weekend. Andre Johnson could be facing Richard Sherman, but he was injured during last week's game and isn't certain to be 100 percent.
With Andre's status unclear, Calvin Johnson's matchup against Charles Tillman takes center stage. Tillman's status is unclear according to Rich Campbell of the Chicago Tribune, as he also suffered an injury last week, but he won't miss a chance to shut down Johnson unless he is seriously hampered.
In recent seasons, these two players have had monumental games against each other. Tillman has played Calvin better than most in recent seasons, but so far this season he hasn't played well. A.J. Green had nine receptions for 162 yards and two touchdowns against the Bears in Week 1, with Tillman responsible for the majority of those receptions.
In Week 2 against the Minnesota Vikings, the ball barely came his way in the passing game and he only had a couple of tackles against the run. Tillman did give up one big play down the field to Greg Jennings, though. Jennings escaped initially as another receiver blocked Tillman off, but he dragged Jennings down from behind by his collar to add 15 yards onto the play.
Against the Steelers, the Bears played a lot of zone coverage and Antonio Brown had a career day with over 190 yards and two touchdowns.
It's unlikely that the Bears sit in zone coverage against the Detroit Lions, because that would expose them to Reggie Bush underneath on nearly every play, so they should trust Tillman to play better against Johnson this week.
Tillman faced Johnson 39 times over their two meetings last season. On those 39 plays, the Bears sent help to Tillman just four times. Tillman is able to stick to Johnson because he has the physical resilience to fight "Megatron" for the football in the air. Normally, jump balls or any kind of high passes to Johnson are almost certain to turn into positive gains for the offense. Against Tillman, that likelihood drops.
This is something that can be observed most clearly at the goal line.
Against most teams, Calvin draws a double-team in this situation. Against the Bears under Lovie Smith, that never happened because he trusted Tillman to fight receivers in tight.
In the above example, the Bears leave Tillman alone with Johnson. Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford immediately throws the ball towards Johnson, but he never gains good position on Tillman because the cornerback establishes himself and doesn't relinquish his spot, instead sticking tight to the receiver's body. When the ball arrives, Calvin gets his hands on it, but Tillman punches his arm, making it nearly impossible for the receiver to come down with the touchdown.
Even though Tillman's ability in man coverage is somewhat overlooked by NFL fans, coaches have taken notice.
New defensive coordinator Mel Tucker, who arrived with new head coach Marc Trestman this offseason, has already used Tillman in single coverage at the goal line against one elite wide receiver.
In Week 1, Green had a huge day against Tillman, but the most notable play came at the goal line.
Two important notes must be pointed out to provide context for this play. Tillman is one of the most aggressive cornerbacks in the NFL, and this is known across the league. He had already intercepted Andy Dalton on a quick slant early in the game and had just prevented Green from scoring on a fade route on the play immediately before this one.
As Dalton takes the ball from under center, Tillman is staring directly at Green and standing in a press coverage position. The Bengals have two tight ends to Tillman's side of the field, meaning that the defenders lined up inside of him are occupied by their own coverage assignments.
Green runs a slant at the snap and Tillman immediately jumps inside of him, anticipating a quick throw from Dalton. Dalton looks that way, but he holds the ball for a split second, giving Green time to move again.
Instead of fighting through a well-defended slant, Green immediately spins and works back towards the pylon. In such a tight space, Tillman has no opportunity to recover. His momentum pulls him towards the posts.
The Bengals used Tillman's greatest strength against him and turned it into an easy touchdown. They could do this because Green is an elite receiver and probably the most fluid athlete playing the receiver position in the NFL right now.
While Johnson is much broader and stronger than Green, he is also a very fluid athlete who is more than capable of running similar routes.
Touchdowns are a big issue for the Detroit Lions' wide receiver. Last season he had only five, in spite of the fact that he nearly cracked 2,000 receiving yards. With three already so far this season, Johnson appears to be on his way to an even bigger year.
In Week 1, he only managed 37 yards on four receptions against the Vikings. But since then he has had two 100-yard games and 13 receptions.
Johnson will always be a threat to take the top off the defense and make big plays down the field, but his biggest play this season came on an underneath route when the defense was too aggressive against him.
Early in the second quarter versus the Arizona Cardinals in Week 2, Johnson was lined up in the slot to the top of the formation. Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson followed him into the slot, as he did throughout the day.
Importantly, the Cardinals are playing zone coverage, and they drop off at the snap. Stafford immediately looks to his slot receiver. This draws the linebacker from the middle of the field towards Johnson. This means that the receiver is bracketed underneath and behind.
The linebacker coming underneath goes for the interception, but Stafford's arm strength allows him to fit the ball into Johnson's chest. Peterson doesn't know where the football is, so he hesitates and allows Johnson to keep running unopposed.
From that point onwards, Megatron outruns the defense for a 72-yard touchdown.
This may not be a matchup between two players playing at an elite level right now, but it's still the most important matchup in a vital divisional game.
Dallas Cowboys' Offensive Line vs. San Diego Chargers' Front Seven
Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray has run for 200 yards on 38 attempts over the last two weeks. That gives Murray a 5.26 yards-per-carry average, but he didn't consistently gain close to five yards in either game.
In Week 2 against the Kansas City Chiefs, Murray finished with 25 yards on 12 attempts for a 2.1 average. In Week 3 against the St. Louis Rams, Murray finished with 175 yards on 26 carries for a 6.7 average.
It may sound insane, but Murray didn't play dramatically better against the Rams.
The difference between the two displays came on the offensive line. The Cowboys have committed to running the ball off the tackle and outside this season, but when they attempted to do that against the Chiefs, their offensive line couldn't move defenders or create lanes for Murray to run through.
Murray didn't produce against the Chiefs because Justin Houston, Tyson Jackson, Tamba Hali and the rest of the defense flowed to the football and took away his running lanes.
Against the Rams, the opposite happened. Against the Rams, Murray only ran between the tackles five times before the Cowboys got to a 20-plus-point lead. He fumbled and was more often than not stopped for a short gain on those plays.
His big plays came at the expense of Robert Quinn, Chris Long and the Rams' edge defense, as Tyron Smith, Doug Free and the Cowboys' tight ends were able to consistently create space for him.
Murray's longest run against the Rams came early in the third quarter. The Cowboys lined up their receivers to the right, with two tight ends on the shoulder of their left tackle and Murray alone in the backfield. The Rams have a safety deep who doesn't appear in this image. The Rams also have their linebackers shifted to the tight ends' side of the field in order to match up in terms of formation.
When Tony Romo hands the ball off to Murray, defensive end Robert Quinn is in a good position to tackle him behind the line of scrimmage if he can get off his block. Safety T.J. McDonald and right outside linebacker Will Witherspoon are in good positions to counter this play, but both need to maintain discipline and get off their blocks to tackle Murray if Quinn doesn't.
Quinn doesn't tackle Murray, because Witten has won the hands battle to the point that the defensive end has to turn the other way to try and catch Murray from behind.
Witherspoon is the next defender looking to prevent Murray from advancing, but he aggressively attacks left tackle Tyron Smith's outside shoulder. This allows Smith to use Witherspoon's momentum against him and push him towards the sideline, completely clearing a lane for Murray.
Mackenzy Bernadeau, at left guard, and Travis Frederick, the center, do just enough to seal off the running lane by taking Michael Brockers and James Laurinaitis out of the play. This brings safety Rodney McLeod into focus, but he over-pursues and allows Murray to run straight down the middle of the field without being touched.
The Cowboys' line played much better in Week 3 than it did the week before, but a significant part of that can be attributed to the poor play from the Rams.
Against the San Diego Chargers this Sunday, it's unlikely they will see that kind of ill-disciplined play
The Chargers gave up 170 yards and a touchdown on 29 carries last week against the Tennessee Titans. The Titans have a very different team from the Cowboys, however. Not only do the Titans have two running threats in Chris Johnson and Jake Locker on the field at the same time, their offensive line is dramatically better than the Cowboys' line because of high-priced offseason acquisitions.
Even though the numbers don't reflect it, the Chargers played the Titans well last week. Inside linebackers Donald Butler and Manti Te'o were both sidelined, but the front seven as a whole played strong disciplined football and forced the Titans to earn every yard they gained.
The Chargers' strongest players against the run are Corey Liuget, Jarret Johnson, Kendall Reyes and Cam Thomas. If the Cowboys are to set Murray running on the second level again, they will need to win those individual matchups.
Brian Waters is set to play a full game for the Cowboys, according to David Moore of the Dallas Morning News, but at this stage in his career, it's unclear if that will really help them win those matchups.
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