A number of players and teams have performed counter to what most experts and fans expected heading into the 2010 NFL season. As the schedule moves to Week 4, there are plenty of storylines to watch closely: will teams off to slow starts bounce back? Will high-profile players scuffling through three games get their acts together and produce numbers on par with expectations? Here I'll try to project 10 different Week 4 events you can hang your hat on. Whether it's a breakout game for elite runners like Chris Johnson and Maurice Jones-Drew or a struggle for a still-unbeaten team like the Pittsburgh Steelers, here you'll get some bold predictions for Week 4 in the NFL.
Through three weeks last season Chris Johnson had eerily similar statistics compared to what he's done so far in 2010. He rushed for 351 yards and 2 touchdowns over his first 3 games in 2009, whereas in 2010 he's gotten 301 yards and 4 scores. Yet there has still been plenty of discussion about Johnson struggling in 2010, due in large part to his being shut down by Pittsburgh in Week 2 to the tune of only 34 yards on 16 carries. Week 3 against the Giants, Johnson got off to a bit of a slow start, struggling to churn out 54 yards in the first half on 17 carries, an unimpressive 3.1 yard average.
But in the second half Johnson took off, ending up with 125 yards on the day to go with 2 scores. He wore down a Giants defense that had been successful against the run so far in 2010, running them ragged late in the game. This bodes very well for Johnson and the Titans heading in to a game at home against Denver in Week 4. The Broncos have a run defense in the top 10 and will no doubt be focused on stopping Johnson, much as they did in their Week 1 win over Jacksonville and Maurice Jones-Drew.
But Tennessee has more of a complete offense and Vince Young thrived last week passing against a run-loaded defense, so it will be a tough task for Denver to find the right balance on defense in order to contain Chris Johnson. I expect him to post a 120 rushing yard, 2 touchdown type game at home against Denver.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have leaned heavily on their defense and their running game in the absence of starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, and it's paid great dividends over their first three victories. Defensively they've been almost perfect, shutting down the running games of the Atlanta Falcons and Tennessee Titans in the first two weeks of the season and just generally smothering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 3. They've gotten points on turnovers, scored defesive touchdowns, and just dominated field position so far.
But they face divisional foe the Baltimore Ravens this weekend at Heinz Field. While they've smothered runners like Michael Turner and Chris Johnson, recent history says that Baltimore's Ray Rice could give the Steelers problems in their Week 4 game. Last year in the teams' two meetings Rice ran for 221 yards on 49 carries, and also caught 6 passes for 81 yards.
Rice heads into the game banged up but is expected to play, and I could see him being the first running back of 2010 to crack the Steelers' run defense puzzle. His effectiveness against Pittsburgh, combined with Joe Flacco having a bounceback game last week and having more weapons at his disposal this year in Anquan Boldin in particular, makes me think this will be the game that Pittsburgh's defense comes back to Earth.
Michael Vick's resurgence has been discussed almost ad nauseam three weeks into this season, and Week 4 against the Washington Redskins will see the hype die down slightly. Why? The Washington Redskins are coming off a dismal showing on the road against the St. Louis Rams, an embarrassing loss for a team that had increased expectations heading into the season.
The Eagles have beaten up on two of the league's worst teams with Vick at the helm, rolling over the Detroit Lions and Jacksonville Jaguars and getting the Vick hype machine started. Washington has struggled mightily on the defensive side in the last two weeks, falling apart in the second half of their game against the Houston Texans and not being able to stop the usually-anemic Rams' offense. They have a ton to prove, and will be looking for the ultimate statement game against a hated division rival.
Vick has not been truly tested thus far in 2010, and I expect this to be his first true tough assignment of the season. I am not expecting his performance to fall off a cliff, but I definitely see a few timely turnovers and less accuracy than what he's exhibited so far in his 2 victories. His versatility as a quarterback helps his chances of avoiding a true stinker, but I think Washington's defense is due for a good game while Vick is due to struggle, a combination that works in the Redskins' favor.
It has been a very tough last few seasons for St. Louis Rams fans, but the 2010 campaign has started to give them some reasons for optimism. Number 1 overall draft pick Sam Bradford has looked good for a rookie quarterback thrown directly into the role of starter, after having not played hardly at all in his last season at Oklahoma.
Bradford and company have had their best performances in their two home games so far, a closely contested loss to Arizona in Week 1 as well as their only victory, against the Washington Redskins in Week 3. Conversely, the Seattle Seahawks have played their most inspired football at home, where they've surprisingly defeated preseason darlings the San Francisco 49ers and San Diego Chargers.
Seattle heads into the Edward Jones Dome with a Jekyll and Hyde defense: great against the run, awful thus far against the pass. Bradford has had his best performances at home, and seems in sync with receivers Mark Clayton and Danny Amendola. I expect St. Louis to have another good showing in Week 4, led by their impressive rookie quarterback.
Jay Cutler's first season in the Windy City did not go according to plan. The team flamed out and Cutler was maddeningly inconsistent, throwing a high number of interceptions and struggling to lead his offense to much success. Now in his first year working with new offensive coordinator Mike Martz, Cutler is thriving and the Bears are no longer just a team that relies on a smashmouth defense.
Cutler and company head into a Sunday night meeting with the New York Giants ready to pounce on a banged-up and largely ineffective Giants defense. The Giants will be without key defensive players like defensive lineman Mathias Kiwanuka and linebacker Keith Bulluck, and lineman Osi Umenyiora reported swelling in his knee that may limit his effectiveness as well. They have been torched the last two weeks first by Indianapolis and then by Tennessee.
As a result, it looks like a great match for Jay Cutler and the now pass-happy Bears offense. Considering what Cutler has done so far offensively, as well as the fact that he has running back Matt Forte to fall back on should the passing game struggle, it should be a good week for the Bears offense as a whole.
The Carolina Panthers expected big things from their running game going into the 2010 campaign. They trusted Matt Moore could succeed at quarterback given the two-headed monster of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart on the ground. However, both Williams and Stewart have underperformed their preseason expectations, with Williams only having 180 yards through 3 games, and Stewart an even more disappointing 68 yards on 21 carries.
Jimmy Clausen has been installed as the starter at quarterback, making it even more important for the Panthers' two runners to get going. They'll be up against a New Orleans Saints defense that has been ripped apart by the run in its last two games. In Week 2 the 49ers' Frank Gore had a huge game on the ground, while in Week 3 the running of Michael Turner and Jason Snelling played a big part in getting the Falcons their hard-fought overtime victory in the Superdome.
The Saints' defense will provide a welcome tonic for Carolina's running attack. I expect big games from one or both of Williams and Stewart, as they will be leaned on to carry the offense with a rookie under center.
Calvin Johnson has consistently been one of the best wide receivers in the league in recent years, in spite of playing for a team that's had a historically hard time winning games. Yet this year Megatron has had a very hard time getting going. He seemed to finally have the right quarterback in place in former number one pick Matthew Stafford, but now in 2010 Stafford is out with an injured shoulder and the offense has fallen to Shaun Hill.
Johnson is still the number one target in the Lions' offense, but draftee Jahvid Best, the running back from Cal, has allowed the passing game to become more conservative without Stafford at the helm. It's added up to only 151 receiving yards for Johnson through 3 games, as well as only one receiving touchdown, numbers far below his usual output.
This week the Lions are up against the Green Bay Packers, on the road in Green Bay no less. I don't see this as the week that Megatron will be fully activated, as the Packers will key in on shutting him down and making Shaun Hill beat them by finding other, lesser receivers. It will continue to be a slow go for Calvin Johnson come Week 4.
The Jacksonville Jaguars have gotten off to an 0-3 start and their most dynamic offensive player, running back Maurice Jones-Drew, has not been able to contribute much so far. Facing an Indianapolis Colts defense not far removed from being run down by Houston's Arian Foster, I expect MJD to have his first breakout game of the 2010 season at home against Indianapolis this week.
The Colts have done a decent job against the run in their two wins, but last week they faced a depleted Denver running game missing starter Knowshon Moreno. On the road against a desperate Jacksonville team, stopping Jones-Drew will be a very tall task for the Colts.
Even with the uncertainty and ineffectiveness at quarterback with which the Jaguars have dealt so far in 2010, they have been able to count on Jones-Drew as a playmaker. He will return to his usual excellence this week against the Colts. Will it be enough to lead to a Jaguars upset?
It has been difficult to watch the anemic San Francisco 49ers offense through the first three weeks of the season. They have had two atrocious games, sandwiching a tough loss to the New Orleans Saints at home in which running back Frank Gore tried to single-handedly carry the team to victory.
A huge disappointment has been the passing game, led by quarterback Alex Smith and former number one draft pick receiver Michael Crabtree and Pro Bowl tight end Vernon Davis. The three key cogs in the passing game have not been on the same page at all thus far in 2010, leading to the dismissal of offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye after their embarrassing loss in Week 3.
Going in to Atlanta will be a tough task for the Niners to pull out a victory, but I expect to see progress on the offensive side of the ball. They will rely on Gore to rush effectively despite a presumably loaded against the run Falcons front seven, and hope that Alex Smith can start connecting with his receivers effectively. I think this week the 49ers will start to get into more of an offensive rhythm, and will actually post some points for a change.
AFC East competition is always tight, and I expect a similarly-tough game between the Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots in South Florida on Monday night. The Dolphins are coming off a tough loss to the Jets, whereas the Patriots had a battle with the Buffalo Bills in Foxboro last week.
The Dolphins defense proved itself early this season in wins against the Bills and the Minnesota Vikings, only allowing 10 points in each game and getting key stops late in the game against Minnesota to hold on for a victory. They have struggled against the Patriots in years' past, but New England has not looked like the same team that's frequently beaten Miami in recent years.
I expect the Dolphins defense to focus on hitting Tom Brady as often as it can, and hope to force turnovers by disrupting the elite quarterback's timing and vision. They will look to bounce back from a poor performance against a less-heralded quarterback last week, when they were torn apart by second year man Mark Sanchez of the Jets. Their defense should give Brady some fits, but it will be interesting to see if it's enough to slow the Patriots down and get a big divisional win for the Fish.