What to Watch for in NFL Week 9
But whenever I can move my eyes away from quarterbacks and onto other areas of the game—these are the priorities I’ll be keeping tabs on during this week’s slate of delighting matchups through Week 9.
So let's take a gander at some of the things I find extremely intriguing this week.
The Ryan Bros. Set to Face Each Other from the Sidelines
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It looks as though Rob Ryan finally has the more favorable chance to beat Rex on Sunday for the first time since each coach has been in the NFL. Rex currently holds a 4-0 advantage in head-to-head matchups between these two, according to a tweet by the Jets’ official account, but the Saints have one of the best turnover margins in the league (plus-8), while the Jets are tied for dead last in this category (minus-12).
This defensive test of wits between twin brothers, tutored by the same NFL coaching legend, should offer up a ton of showmanship with regard to exotic blitzes and gutsy calls.
Look for each Ryan brother to go “all in” in an attempt to outsmart the other in this epic battle of two defensive geniuses.
There’s little question that Rob Ryan is having a signature year so far by turning the worst defense in league history, merely one season ago, into one of the more formidable groups ever to complement Drew Brees’ ultra-efficient offense. What’s most impressive about what Rob has been able to do is that he has basically done all of this with the same group of guys who appeared constantly outmatched.
The biggest change has been along the defensive front, where they’ve made the switch from a 4-3 front to a 3-4. This switch has been especially beneficial for defensive end Cameron Jordan, who has thrived thus far with a more physical assignment versus trying to speed rush off the edges from a wider position.
Keep an especially close eye on how Rex Ryan plans to match up against an offense which is notoriously good at generating favorable matchups ever since Sean Payton took over as head coach.
Of course, as we all know by now, the No. 1 weapon Rex will need to have an answer for is tight end Jimmy Graham. To read more about this we go to the next slide.
Can Cromartie Cover Graham?
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With the absence of Darrelle Revis from Rex Ryan’s defense over the last couple of years, Antonio Cromartie has been asked to step up and play some of his best football—in 2012 he did just that. As such, he’s routinely asked to cover the opponent’s best weapon each and every week.
This year, however, Antonio has struggled mightily through eight weeks, looking more like a distracted man than a Pro Bowler.
He currently has the second-lowest grade of all cornerbacks who have played at least 25 percent of the team’s snaps, per Pro Football Focus (paid subscription required). He has also failed to register a single interception while also allowing his opponents three touchdown receptions on the season.
Come Sunday, there’s a good chance the Jets hand Cromartie the arduous and near-impossible task of shutting down one of the league’s most dangerous mismatches, tight end Jimmy Graham.
Graham has the obvious size advantage, as his 6’7”, 265-pound frame towers over every NFL defensive back.
Though Cromartie is a big cornerback by NFL standards, the five-inch difference in height would be a great disadvantage for anyone. It would take a completely focused and inspired Antonio all week long, which just so happens to be something Rex is very good at. He knows how to properly motivate and challenge his players.
Plus, we must remember New England’s Aqib Talib was assigned to shadow Graham in its Week 6 win over the Saints. In that game Graham was indeed shut out and shut down by the much smaller Talib. The star tight end was shockingly held without a catch on six targets before leaving the game with an injury.
With a successful model laid out to fall back on, Cromartie will need to take careful notes from that matchup and play one of his better games as a pro in order to shut down New Orleans’ highly talented tight end. After all, Graham does lead all tight ends with 630 yards through the air.
The quickness, agility and flat-out speed of Cromartie should even things up a bit and keep this matchup interesting.
What Will the Bears Look Like with Josh McCown Under Center?
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With franchise quarterback Jay Cutler sidelined for the next month or so, the 34-year-old veteran backup Josh McCown will be taking over as the 4-3 Bears look to stay relevant in the NFL North division. They’ve already fallen to third place behind the Packers and Lions.
McCown has had 33-career starts in the NFL and has lost 20 of them. He also has thrown 44 interceptions to just 38 touchdown passes. His biggest asset as a quarterback is his ability to scramble around and make a few plays out of the pocket.
Against the Packers on Monday Night Football, Aaron Rodgers and Co. will look to steamroll the headless Chicago Bears and take full advantage of McCown’s lack of ability to get the ball downfield efficiently.
However, Josh does have the added benefit of a bye week to prepare while also looking like a man reborn in their impressive loss against Washington a few weeks back. If this happens to be the guy who shows up to work every weekend, the NFC North better watch out.
Josh does have a formidable arsenal of weapons at his disposal with Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffries—whether or not he knows how to use them is the real question.
Which Proud Yet Struggling Franchise Will Seize the Day?
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The Patriots are not exactly a team in destitution this year despite all of the criticism and expectations from a spoiled fanbase. But New England has struggled some this year as victories become harder to achieve. As of late the Patriots dropped two of their last four contests after winning their first four games.
This will be the final game for the Patriots before shutting things down for a week of rest.
The Pittsburgh Steelers, on the other hand, just won their first two games of the season coming off of a Week 5 bye. Last week they took a step backward in a disappointing loss to the Raiders.
Sitting at 2-5, Pittsburgh cannot afford to lose to the Patriots this Sunday if it expects to keep its already meager playoff hopes alive.
Quarterbacks from both teams have established themselves as elite throughout their careers, yet each is having a statistically down season thus far. Tom Brady is looking very mortal with a makeshift receiving corps and erratic accuracy sprinkled in amidst the chaos.
It seems obvious that chemistry and timing have been a work in progress while both Tom and his receivers acclimate to one another.
As for Big Ben, he too is struggling with a young and somewhat injured group of pass-catchers, but his biggest issues have come by way of poor pass protection. He has been sacked 27 times in seven games.
No matter who wins this game on Sunday, it seems strange to watch these two storied franchises function at half strength. The Steelers appear to be more in need of a roster makeover than do the Patriots, but a win by Pittsburgh here and the story could quickly change.
How Many Targets Will Romo Give Dez?
By now we’ve all seen or heard about the infamous sideline antics of Dez Bryant during last week’s heartbreaker to the Lions. But what seemed to be immature selfishness turned out to be more of a passionate plea effort while criticizing his personal failings throughout the game.
In any case, Romo’s body language and lack of reaction to Dez in that heated banter seemed to suggest something deeper than what we’ve been made aware of.
Why was the Cowboys’ most dangerous offensive weapon only targeted six times in a close shootout? It’s hard to believe that some of Bryant’s frustrations weren’t the product of being somewhat marginalized in a game that seemed to demand his special talents and abilities. Last week’s game was the lowest amount of targets Bryant has received since Week 3 when he also had six.
So what about Tony Romo in all of this? Did what took place on the sideline negatively affect their relationship? Of course we are not going to hear anything of the sort in a public interview, but I’m curious to see how many times Dez is targeted Sunday in a very winnable game against the Vikings.
If the game gets out of hand early, Romo might be met with a choice to either feed No. 88 the rock when possible or simply spread the ball around and minimize his rising stardom.
Personally I don’t think this incident is going to carry much weight moving forward, but there’s always a chance that there is something more than meets the eye with a situation like this. This is definitely something to be on the lookout for this Sunday.
Can Steven Jackson Revive the Falcons’ Running Game?
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With all of the injuries mounting for the Falcons’ wide receivers there’s no better time than now for the team’s prize free-agent acquisition to start paying some dividends.
Running back Steven Jackson was lured away from the Rams with the hope he could provide a physical run presence through the season. So far he has only played in three games and is averaging 3.3 yards per carry.
Last year this talented Atlanta squad made it all the way to the NFC Championship Game only to fall short. Heading into the season expectations were at an all-time high. Seven weeks later and the Falcons are 2-5 and looking to throw this entire season down the drain.
Matt Ryan has played well most of the season, but last week he completely came apart, throwing four interceptions against the Arizona Cardinals.
Jackson is also returning from an injured hamstring and seems to be confident that he can get a pedestrian running game back on track. The Falcons are ranked dead last in rushing yards per game (62.4) and 27th in average yards per carry (3.4).
Clearly this offense could use some help with a 100-yard rushing effort from the guy the Falcons hoped would carry them to the next stratosphere. Now they would be glad just to pull off a win against the red-hot Carolina Panthers who have won five of their last six games.
The only way the Dirty Birds can pull this win off is with the support of Steven Jackson and the running game. Will he be able to answer the call?
Can Houston Rebound from a Difficult 1st Half of the Season?
At the beginning of the year I had the Houston Texans making it all the way to the AFC Championship Game. I figured that with the returning caliber of talent and the additions of Ed Reed and DeAndre Hopkins, this would be one of the most complete rosters in the NFL. I suppose there was no accounting for Matt Schaub’s complete and total meltdown.
Because of the perceived talent around Schaub this year, his struggles were met with extremely harsh criticism by the Houston fanbase. He has since been replaced by youngster and local product from the University of Houston, Case Keenum.
Keenum made his NFL debut two weeks ago against one of the best defenses in the league. Although his inexperience showed regarding blitz pickup and other nuances of the game, he showed a level of poise and promise that could keep him under the center for the rest of the year and possibly for years to come.
Matt Schaub is currently healthy and cleared to play but will have to watch this Sunday night’s game against Andrew Luck and the Colts from the sideline. Keenum has earned the opportunity to start another week.
On the road against the Chiefs, he completed 60 percent of his passes for 271 yards and a touchdown. Case was under constant pressure the whole game yet still managed to avoid an interception. He nearly came up with one of the biggest upsets of the year.
This week Keenum faces a much more forgiving defense while in the comforts of his own stadium. This could be defining game for the youngster as he makes a case to become the future of the Houston Texans.
Expect a lot of help from the running game, although both Ben Tate and Arian Foster are injured and may not play this Sunday. The Colts are giving up the fourth-most yards on the ground (122.3) and allowing 4.5 yards per carry, also near to bottom of the league.
I’m excited to see if 2-5 Houston can turn the tide on the 5-2 Colts. Don’t be surprised if the Texans surprise the Colts with a big win here in front of the whole nation.
Ryan Riddle is a former NFL player and current Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report