NFL1000's Week 4 Weekend Preview: Is There a New Legion of Boom?

NFL1000 ScoutsFeatured ColumnistSeptember 29, 2017

NFL1000's Week 4 Weekend Preview: Is There a New Legion of Boom?

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    After three weeks of a season that has seen more than its share of bad football, Week 4 might give us a reprieve. Several fascinating matchups are featured as divisional play comes to the forefront.

    Neither Pittsburgh's nor Baltimore's offense is on track, but both defenses are playing well, and those Steelers-Ravens tilts are always entertaining. The Raiders and Broncos face off, as Oakland tries to recover from what the Redskins defense did to it last Sunday night, and as the Broncos hope, once again, Trevor Siemian will prove he's their franchise quarterback.

    An under-the-radar interconference game pits the Bills against the Falcons and features two offenses trying to find consistency with new coordinators. The Jaguars and Jets will see if recent offensive performances are more than flukes. Perhaps the best game of the week is on Monday night, when Washington and Kansas City duke it out. The Chiefs and Redskins each have estimable defenses and quarterbacks who are looking to bust out of their game-manager reputations.

    It looks like a good week of football, and our NFL1000 scouts are ready to get forensic with the matchups.

    Lead Scout: Doug Farrar
    Quarterbacks: Mark Schofield
    Running backs/Fullbacks: Mark Bullock
    Receivers/Tight Ends: Marcus Mosher
    Offensive Line: Ethan Young
    Defensive Line: Justis Mosqueda
    Linebackers: Derrik Klassen
    Secondary: Ian Wharton

    Here's what we've been watching in preparation for Week 4 of the 2017 season.

Can the Giants Start to Save Their Season with a Win at Tampa?

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    It's not an exaggeration to say the New York Giants' season is already on the line. They stand at 0-3, and though the offense looked good in the second half of last week's loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, most of that production came from the excellence of one person: receiver Odell Beckham Jr.

    Beckham caught nine passes for 79 yards and two impressive touchdowns. And receiver Sterling Shepard, beating up on Philly's depleted secondary, led the team with 133 yards on seven catches. His 77-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter came on a quick slant from the slot on which he ran through five Eagles defenders.

    Against the Buccaneers this Sunday, the Giants can exploit another secondary that's licking its wounds. Tampa Bay took a 34-17 loss to the Vikings last week as backup quarterback Case Keenum riddled the Bucs defense for 369 yards and three touchdowns. Keenum threw several deep passes to receivers Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, and Tampa's defense, without cornerback Brent Grimes (shoulder) and linebacker Kwon Alexander (hamstring), couldn't respond to the Vikings' multifaceted deep passing attack.

    The Giants should be able to win in Week 4. Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston threw three interceptions against Minnesota, and New York's secondary is even better. But the onus is on Giants QB Eli Manning, his receivers and head coach/play-caller Ben McAdoo.

    Tampa Bay is incapable of defending intermediate to deep route combinations, and with Shepard and Beckham on the field at the same time, there's potential for effective offensive complexity. Both Alexander and fellow linebacker Lavonte David (ankle) may miss this game, and when you watch Shepard's slant touchdown, you can see Philly's linebackers cheating inside, giving Shepard a free release over the top.

    McAdoo must design specific route concepts to deal with another defense that's under the weather. If he does so effectively, the Giants have a good chance win. If not, it's time to start thinking about the 2018 draft—and a new head coach.

    —NFL1000 Lead Scout Doug Farrar    

Is Jacksonville's Secondary the Next Legion of Boom?

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    The Jacksonville Jaguars stand at 2-1, tied with the Tennessee Titans for the AFC South lead. They have an outstanding defensive line, an excellent power running attack led by rookie Leonard Fournette and are getting good play from their linebackers. As long as Blake Bortles stays mistake-proof in a relative sense, things are looking bright for this Jags team, unlike in previous seasons.

    But the main reason Jacksonville is so on-point is one of the NFL's best secondaries. And its epicenter is the league's finest cornerback duo. Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye are making things nearly impossible for opposing quarterbacks and receivers.

    The numbers bear this out. Per Pro Football Focus, Ramsey has allowed just four catches on 14 targets for 26 yards, eight yards after the catch, no touchdowns, one interception and an opponent passer rating of 9.8. Bouye has allowed seven catches on 17 targets for 116 yards, four yards after the catch, no touchdowns, one interception and an opposing passer rating of 40.3. No other cornerback duo comes close to those numbers.

    Ramsey, the team's first-round pick in 2016, is the alpha—the Richard Sherman of the group. It's his job to take the opponent's best receiver up and down the field, and he does it with length, speed and an increasing route understanding that allows him to stick and stay with the best pass-catchers all the way through their routes.

    Bouye, signed away from the Texans on a five-year, $67.5 million contract, plays varied coverages. He'll play near linebacker depth at times, waiting to cover his assignment out of cluster formations. He also plays a lot of press-bail coverage, aligning his back to the sideline so he can keep his eye on the running back and quarterback as a potential force defender. He's prone to give up the deep ball against speed receivers, but he's terrific in short and intermediate zone coverage.

    The one caveat to the early success of Jacksonville's cornerbacks is they've only faced one quarterback who's playing at his best: Tennessee's Marcus Mariota in Week 2. That the Jags beat up on Tom Savage and Joe Flacco requires us to adjust for the opponents. The Jags get the Jets this Sunday, and then, they'll face the Steelers and Rams over the next two weeks. At that time, we'll have a better picture of this cornerback duo, but so far, the results are impressive.

    —NFL1000 Lead Scout Doug Farrar           

Why Isn't the Jay Cutler-Adam Gase Partnership Working This Year?

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    Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    It's important to remember the Miami Dolphins are only two games into their 2017 slate and won their season opener in Week 2 over the Los Angeles Chargers. In that game, Jay Cutler completed 24 of 33 passes for 230 yards and a touchdown without turning the ball over. So it might be premature to state definitively that the partnership between head coach Adam Gase and the quarterback is not working.

    But it did not look good last week against the New York Jets.

    Both Cutler and the offense struggled, as the QB completed only 26 of 44 passes for 220 yards, one touchdown and one interception. The TD came in the closing seconds when the game was already well in hand, and the interception was a poor decision from Cutler where he bought time in the pocket and then threw the football right to safety Terrence Brooks.

    One reason Miami's offense has yet to kick into high gear might be the usage of wide receiver Jarvis Landry. Even last year, Gase relied on his receivers to get yardage after the catch, incorporating a variety of screens and shallow crossing routes into the offensive game plan.

    To some extent, that worked with Landry last year. He tallied 634 yards after the catch on the season, which as the fifth-most in the league for an average of 39.63 per game, per Fox Sports. While he has 78 yards after the catch in 2017, which is right on track with last year's numbers, how he is getting there is different.

    If you look at this chart from NextGen Stats from Week 3 of last year, a game where Landry caught seven passes for 120 yards and a touchdown, you see a lot of deeper crossing routes, as Landry was used both close to the line of scrimmage and as more of a downfield weapon. Contrast that with this chart from Miami's Week 2 victory over the Chargers. Landry caught 13 passes for 78 yards, and every target was shorter than eight yards downfield.

    This has made Landry in whole, and the Miami defense in part, easier to defend.

    Think of those times the New England Patriots struggled against Rex Ryan defenses, or last year when the Eagles and Carson Wentz had their midseason offensive woes. When a defense can collapse on the short areas of the field and take away what the offense likes to do as well as its biggest offensive threat, the entire attack slows down. That's what we've seen so far from the Dolphins. By turning Landry into a one-dimensional receiver, the Dolphins have made themselves easier to defend.

    If Gase wants to get his offense and his quarterback back on track this weekend, a critical first step would be to vary Landry's usage. Thankfully, the Dolphins get to face the New Orleans Saints and a defense that has given up the second-most passing yards (933) through the first three weeks of the season.

    Facing the Saints might be the missing ingredient.

    —NFL1000 QB Scout Mark Schofield           

Browns Need to Start Setting Up DeShone Kizer for Success

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    If you want to understand the reasons for DeShone Kizer's struggles, you can begin with two numbers: 33 and 108. The first refers to the amount of quarterback hits Kizer has taken, according to NFL Matchup on ESPN. That is the most in the league through three weeks. The second is the number of passing attempts from Kizer, which is 10th-highest in the league.

    This shows there's a lot on the rookie's plate, and it's putting him in a difficult position.

    One takeaway from Cleveland's offense is how simplified it seems, at least to an outside observer. Head coach Hue Jackson is known for his offensive creativity, but that seems to be lacking. Granted, it might be due to the youth on offense, starting with Kizer, but a coach needs to try to help out his players.

    For example, last week against the Indianapolis Colts it was not until their fifth drive of the game—midway through the second quarter and on Kizer's 12th passing attempt—that the Browns used some kind of pre-snap motion or movement. This might seem like a small detail, but for a young quarterback, pre-snap motion helps identify the coverage or at least gives him a clue as to the secondary's intentions. Of his 24 passing attempts in the first half, only two incorporated pre-snap motion.

    By staying static before the snap, the offense gives its opponent the upper hand at the start of the play. It gives the players in the secondary more time to digest the offensive formation, and it gives them time to roll their coverage and confuse the quarterback and receivers at the snap.

    By moving players around and forcing the defense to react in the final seconds before the snap, the offense can regain that upper hand. Plus, it gives the quarterback better indicators to digest the coverage scheme. Finally, it gives some of the receivers a chance to get a better release off the line of scrimmage if defenders are moving around, or if receivers are moving into stack-slot formations before the play.

    Also, asking your rookie quarterback to throw the ball 47 times on the road is a big request.

    As the 0-3 Browns look to notch their first win, watch for what the offense does in the pre-play phase. If it starts moving players, incorporating shifts and motions, it'll accomplish three goals: It'll help its rookie quarterback identify the coverage, it'll help its receivers get a better release off the line and it'll hopefully confuse the secondary, gaining a little bit of an advantage at the snap.

    It might not seem like much, but everything you can do to help your rookie quarterback before the play sets him up for success.

    —NFL1000 QB Scout Mark Schofield     

Chris Thompson Is Redskins’ X-Factor in Possible Upset of Chiefs on the Road

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    With Washington having lost wide receivers Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson in the offseason, and with star tight end Jordan Reed struggling with injury (chest), running back Chris Thompson has become the team's big-play threat. The Redskins have always spoken highly of Thompson but restricted him to a third-down role because of his frame (5'8", 191 lbs) and injury history.

    But now he's become the X-factor. He's capable of turning any touch into a large gain, be it a carry or a catch out of the backfield. He's made a number of big plays this season—at least one in every game.

    During the Redskins' opening contest against the Eagles, Thompson worked out of the backfield on a choice route. He worked plenty of separation inside and made a catch running into the middle of the field. He then managed to beat seven Eagles defenders on his way to the end zone for a huge touchdown catch.

    In Week 2 against the Rams, Thompson secured a delayed handoff on a simple draw play. The offensive line picked up its blocks, but Los Angeles had a linebacker unaccounted for. Thompson angled his run outside of one of his blocks, baiting the linebacker outside before shifting back inside and bursting up the middle. He made one final cut to skip past another defender before sprinting down the field to complete a 61-yard touchdown.       

    Thompson had 150 receiving yards and 38 rushing yards Sunday night against the Raiders. He's a dual-threat out of the backfield, and the Redskins offense runs through him. The Chiefs defense has struggled somewhat to start the season. It's 28th in the league in total yards allowed with an average of 369 per game. However, it's managed to bend but not break. The Chiefs are seventh in the league in points allowed per contest at an average of 19.

    While Thompson is the biggest threat on the team, head coach Jay Gruden understands how to use him as a decoy to open up other receivers. Gruden has lined up Thompson in the slot or even out wide and used him as a decoy on quick-hitch or curl routes to draw the attention of underneath zone defenders, clearing space behind them for deeper routes.

    While Thompson's ability after the catch must be respected, Kansas City can't afford to focus too much on him. Tackling will be a key point of emphasis for the Chiefs to limit his yards after the catch, where Thompson has found most of his success.

    —NFL1000 RB Scout Mark Bullock     

Can Devin Funchess Fill the Void If Kelvin Benjamin Is Limited Against Patriots?

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    With tight end Greg Olsen on injured reserve with a broken foot and No. 1 wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin nursing a knee injury that may limit him this week against the New England Patriots, the Carolina Panthers will rely on third-year receiver Devin Funchess to shoulder the load in Week 4.

    Funchess has 990 career receiving yards and only nine touchdowns. However, he's locked into starter-level snaps and is seeing increasing targets in the Panthers offense. In Week 3, he saw 10 targets and reeled in four for 58 yards.

    Funchess' biggest weakness is his limited ability to beat man coverage. At 6'4" and 225 pounds, he doesn't have the necessary quickness or flexibility to get in and out of his breaks in time, and that allows defenders to stay close to him. In 2016, he created the fourth-fewest yards of separation per play in the NFL, according to Next Gen Stats.

    However, the Panthers have found ways to take advantage of his size and limit his ineffectiveness as a route-runner. Carolina has used him out of the slot on 25 passing attempts so far and has targeted him five times, according to Pro Football Focus. By playing him more in the slot, especially after the Olsen injury, Carolina has allowed Funchess to avoid traditional man coverages, and his size in the middle of the field makes him a nice target for quarterback Cam Newton.

    Luckily for Funchess, the Patriots are a zone-heavy team that will likely dare the Panthers to sustain long drives by throwing short to intermediate passes. That means he should get a lot of looks against a defense that is getting gashed through the air.

    However, don't look for Funchess to fill the traditional role as the team's X receiver that Benjamin usually occupies. Instead, expect him to do most of his damage inside as a pseudo tight end. It'll be a tough challenge for Funchess, but it's a good test for him and his development.  

    —NFL1000 WR Scout Marcus Mosher      

Patriots OL Must Keep Tom Brady Clean Against Blitz-Heavy Panthers

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    Under new defensive coordinator Steve Wilks, the Carolina Panthers have become one of the most blitz-heavy teams in the league, and they will put a Patriots line that struggled last week against the Houston Texans' dynamic pass rush to the test.

    Left tackle Nate Solder may be the biggest name on the Patriots offensive line, but he's been their worst starter up front this year. He's especially struggled in pass protection, where his biggest problem has been getting on his toes too much and lunging out of his stance. Most edge-rushers, especially ones with a multifaceted tool set such as Mario Addison's, can immediately counter this over-extension and breeze right by.

    While the Pats' interior is solid and right guard Shaq Mason is building off his strong finish from last year, it looks like the task of keeping Kawann Short, Star Lotulelei and blitzing backers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis at bay all day is a tough test for any unit.

    Luckily, the Patriots have a perfect counter to this heavy attack: Tom Brady.

    While the book on beating Brady has always been to get pressure on him, the key is to get home with four, so there no weaknesses in your coverage shells for him to exploit. Brady is one of the best quarterbacks in the league at deciphering opponents' blitzes and targeting the soft spots on the back end. Against this young Panthers secondary, expect him to do just that.

    —NFL1000 OL Scout Ethan Young           

Can Demarcus Lawrence Keep Up This Pace?

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    After a three-sack game against the Arizona Cardinals on Monday Night Football, Dallas Cowboys defensive end Demarcus Lawrence, the league leader in sacks with 6.5, is on most opponents' minds.

    The question now is simple: Is he legit?

    His sack total roughly translates to 34.5 sacks over 16 games, an unrealistic number, as the single-season NFL record is 22.5 (Michael Strahan, 2001). Despite the unrealistic idea of being able to keep pace with his production in his first three weeks, there is plenty of promise for Lawrence.

    Those who question Lawrence's long-term potential as a game-breaking pass-rusher will likely say his sacks don't come at the highest level of difficulty. He's not ripping off the edge like a Von Miller or even Melvin Ingram, but Lawrence is getting home on a variety of moves. In every Cowboys game in 2017, Lawrence has had multiple sacks. Here are the plays that got him there:

    • Giants, Week 1: Lawrence had one effort and/or coverage sack and one TE stunt that a guard failed to pick up, which led to a sack.

    • Broncos, Week 2: Lawrence beat right tackle Menelik Watson cleanly with an inside swim move once and then generated separation with a spin move and took out quarterback Trevor Siemian on his way down.

    • Cardinals, Week 3: Lawrence got home on a poorly picked-up stunt, won a long-arm battle with right tackle Jared Veldheer after earning inside hands and leverage, and acquired a sack after tight end Jermaine Gresham went through some form of catch and release on him.

    Outside of the inside swim against Watson, none of those sacks would be a highlight you would lead off with in a Hall of Fame ceremony, but you can't ignore the variety of moves Lawrence is displaying on his way to the quarterback. That's similar to last year's sack leader, Vic Beasley, who got to the passer in just about every way imaginable.

    Beasley couldn't do that on his own, though, as 10 of his sacks came when the Atlanta Falcons were up by more than a touchdown. The second-best mark in the NFL last season in that situation was six sacks. Lawrence is already halfway there, three weeks into the season.

    Lawrence has been dominant this year; there is no doubting that. However, forcing teams into one-sided situations where they have to pass the ball—where Lawrence can use his variety of moves without thinking about having to play the run first—will be key to whether he leads the NFL in sacks at the end of the year.

    So far, the Cowboys are just one of eight teams to win by multiple scores in more than one game this season. That is giving Lawrence a boost, and that's the statistical benefit of playing for a winning squad.

    At the moment, Dallas has about two sacks more than the average NFL team would based on the amount of dropbacks it's seen on the defensive side. Like Beasley in Atlanta, Lawrence is the guy to clean up a messy pocket. Like Beasley in Atlanta, Lawrence is benefiting from his offense and overall team's success. Like Beasley in Atlanta, Lawrence will likely benefit from that all season.

    Should the Los Angeles Rams get down by multiple scores at any point this weekend, expect Lawrence to smell blood in the water in his matchup with right tackle Rob Havenstein.

    —NFL1000 DL Scout Justis Mosqueda

Broncos Linebackers Key to Stopping Raiders Offense

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    The Oakland Raiders offense was out of sorts in the team's loss on Sunday Night Football last week. Neither passing nor running the ball netted much. The Washington Redskins got to Derek Carr using only four pass-rushers, and their linebackers plugged up any rushing lane the Raiders tried to pave. A normally elite Oakland front looked pedestrian.

    This week, the Raiders face a similar dilemma. They'll travel to Mile High to face the Denver Broncos. Despite Shane Ray's wrist injury (IR), the Broncos still have a fearsome pass-rushing presence from the edges and sound inside linebacker play.

    One key for Denver to slow down Oakland's offense will be outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett. Von Miller's capabilities are well-known and will be accounted for. Miller is expected to constantly create havoc, and the Raiders offense will do its best to scheme around that by using extra blockers or throwing screen passes to his side.

    However, Barrett is more of an unknown. He has been buried on the depth chart since 2014, but he has the skills to generate pressure. If he can turn his game up to 100 percent versus an offensive line coming off a bad week, he could be the difference in dismantling Oakland's passing game.

    Inside linebackers Todd Davis and Brandon Marshall will also be critical to Denver's success. Oakland's rushing game is predicated on generating push with double-teams and moving quickly to the second level on "duo" and inside zone plays, as well as stretching wide on outside zone.

    Davis and Marshall have to press their landmarks before Oakland's offensive linemen can beat them there. Their ability to consistently win the positioning battle should be enough to stifle Marshawn Lynch and Co. on the ground. Davis and Marshall make up one of the more underrated linebacker duos in the league, and it would not be surprising to see them make a major impact.

    —NFL1000 LB Scout Derrik Klassen

Redskins Secondary Must Slow Down Dynamic Chiefs Offense

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    The Week 4 matchup between the Redskins and Chiefs features a battle between two of the more surprising storylines. The Chiefs have built a dynamic offense through their patented misdirection with quarterback Alex Smith, running back Kareem Hunt and wide receiver Tyreek Hill all playing at elite levels. The Chiefs rank third in both points per game and yards per game, and they're first in rushing yards per contest.

    The Redskins enter this game not as an offensive juggernaut like seasons past but as a defense-led squad that is 10th in points, fifth in yards allowed and second in rushing yards allowed per game.

    Despite losing defensive end Chris Baker in the offseason, the additions of defensive ends Jonathan Allen, Terrell McClain and middle linebacker Zach Brown have been significant in helping the unit. Brown has been the primary linebacker in coverage, but he’s given up 14 catches on 15 targets for 121 yards and three touchdowns this season.

    Tasking a safety or nickel cornerback to move with Hunt on seam routes and curl/flat combinations may be wiser. Washington will have to balance the need to stop the run with its base defense and the flexibility to have more defensive backs on the field.

    The Redskins clobbered the Raiders 27-10 last week by relying on their front to bully the Raiders’ talented offensive line and dropping their talented corners into zone. That’s going to be the game plan against the Chiefs as well, and Smith will have to react better than how Derek Carr did to early pressure and roaming defensive backs.

    The risk with keeping Josh Norman and Bashaud Breeland in zone against an offense that relies on misdirection and movement is their discipline will be tested. Both are more than capable of living up to the task, but all Smith needs is a small window, and if he continues to play as well as he has, the Redskins are in for a difficult game.

    Norman is generally the aggressor while Breeland is more of a technician, but the Chiefs present unusual challenges because they don’t have a traditional No. 1 receiver. They have Hunt, speedster Tyreek Hill and tight end Travis Kelce, and all three players can be used in Andy Reid’s option concepts.

    Norman and Breeland are good players, but they’ll have to alternate between deep coverage and force defender responsibilities against the run. That’s how the Chiefs challenge the defenses they face.

    —NFL1000 DB Scout Ian Wharton

                                    

    Advanced stats courtesy of Pro Football Focus unless otherwise noted.