NFL Week 3: Key Player Matchups

Matt Eurich@@MattEurichAnalyst ISeptember 23, 2011

NFL Week 3: Key Player Matchups

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    Week 2 of the NFL season showed us that we were right about Tom Brady continuing to dominate his opponents, and it also showed us things we were wrong about, like the Ravens getting beaten by the Titans a week after beating up the Steelers.

    Week 3 brings us some of the great rivalry games in the NFL: Packers vs. Bears, Giants vs. Eagles, and Redskins vs. Cowboys. Along with the great rivalry games, Week 3 once again offers a great set of player matchups.

    Here is my breakdown of Week 3's best player matchups.

New England Patriots vs. Buffalo Bills

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    Tom Brady vs. Bills Secondary

    Through two games this season, Tom Brady has passed for 940 yards and seven touchdowns. Brady has virtually looked unstoppable in his two games against the Miami Dolphins and the San Diego Chargers. He currently leads the league in passing yards, yards per attempt, completions, longest pass completion and is tied for touchdowns, and there is little doubt that in the very small portion of this season, Brady is the clear-cut MVP.

    Faced with the difficult task of trying to slow down Brady is a Bills secondary that is ranked 13th in passing defense. Cornerbacks Terrence McGee and Leodis McKelvin as well as safeties Jairus Byrd and George Wilson will be assigned to not only slowing down Brady's arsenal of receivers, but also trying to slow down his tight ends. But they do catch a break with the injury to Aaron Hernandez. 

    Brady has been on a tear in his first two games, and the Bills secondary does not offer much of a challenge.

    Advantage: Tom Brady

San Francisco 49ers vs. Cincinatti Bengals

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    Patrick Willis vs. Andy Dalton

    When thinking about the most dominating linebackers in the game, Ray Lewis, Brian Urlacher and Clay Matthews all come to mind, but one of the most dominating/underrated linebackers in the game is Patrick Willis. Willis suffers from the fact that he has not been on many good 49ers teams, while Lewis, Urlacher and Matthews have all had their chances at a Super Bowl. 

    Willis plays the similar role that Lewis does in the 3-4 Defense. He changes calls at the line of scrimmage, he blitzes, he drops back in coverage and he is a monster against the run. Any opportunity he has against a rookie quarterback is like a shark smelling blood in the water.

    Andy Dalton, who was the Bengals' second-round pick this past offseason, has been given the opportunity to start for the team after Carson Palmer's unwillingness to play for the organization. Dalton, who has already been battling a wrist injury, is probable to start this Sunday's game.

    In his first start against the Browns, he went a modest 10-15, while only passing for 81 yards and one touchdown. Last week against the Broncos, he threw for over 300 yards, while also tossing two touchdown throws. Dalton still has a long ways to go in this league to become a solid NFL starter, but if his poise in the pocket and accuracy continue to improve, he has a chance to play for many years.

    Despite Dalton's solid play in the first two games, he has faced two average-at-best defenses in the Browns and Broncos. Look for Patrick Willis and the 49ers to try and exploit the young quarterback and put him in more pressured situations.

    Advantage: Patrick Willis

Miami Dolphins vs. Cleveland Browns

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    Paul Soliai vs. Alex Mack

    If the Cleveland Browns stand a chance at being successful, they rely heavily on their running game and Peyton Hillis. Hillis broke out last year to rush for over 1,100 yards and scored 11 touchdowns. One major factor in Hillis' breakout season was the play up front of his young offensive line—particularly Alex Mack. 

    Mack, who in 2010, was named to his first Pro Bowl, helps open up the running lanes for Hillis. Although Mack's strengths are in the passing game, his foot quickness and awareness make him a terrific pulling center and the Browns like to utilize those sets of skill in front of Hillis.

    If Hillis makes a big run, Mack is often the facilitator.  

    Going up against Mack will be five-year veteran nose tackle Paul Soliai. Although Soliai's stats do not jump off the page, only 74 career tackles and one sack, he is an important part of the Dolphins' 3-4 defense. Soliai gives a great burst off the snap, and in a sense is utilized as a "guard" on defense by maneuvering the center to one side, allowing his linebackers to come in and do the dirty work.

    There will be no doubt on Sunday that the Browns will once again try and push the running game, and Mack will have to be on top of his game to stop Soliai. But with star linebacker Karlos Dansby questionable for Sunday's game, Mack gets the nod, with an inexperienced Austin Spitler waiting to take Dansby's place and stop the running game.

    Advantage: Alex Mack

Denver Broncos vs. Tennesse Titans

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    Andre' Goodman vs. Kenny Britt

    In his last two games, Kenny Britt has caught 14 passes for 271 yards and three touchdowns. Britt is only second to Steve Smith in receiving yards and has the fourth-longest catch of the season at 80 yards. Despite being paired with an "aging" quarterback in Matt Hasselbeck, Britt has made the best of the situation, using his size and speed to get up and over defenders and becoming a more consistent receiver with the veteran in place.

    Andre' Goodman has spent time in Detroit, Miami and now in Denver. Goodman has always been an above average corner, but he does not posses the skill set that his usual counterpart, Champ Bailey, does. Bailey, who is still known as one of the best shutdown corners in the NFL despite his age, was inactive last week for the Broncos, and his status for this Sunday is still up in the air. With Bailey not expected to play, Goodman will have the chance to go up against one of the better young receivers in the NFL.

    With how well Hasselbeck and Britt have been clicking to start this season, I cannot imagine Goodman giving Britt much of a hard time.

    Advantage: Kenny Britt

Detroit Lions vs. Minnesota Vikings

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    Matthew Stafford vs. Donovan McNabb

    After all the hype surrounding the former first overall pick, and after injury-shortened seasons the past two years, Matthew Stafford has finally given Lions fans something to cheer about. After beating the Buccaneers in Week 1, the Lions went out last week and destroyed a reeling Kansas City Chiefs defense. Against the Chiefs, Stafford threw for over 280 yards, four touchdowns and one interception on his way to leading the Lions to a 48-3 victory. 

    Stafford is lucky to have one of the best wide receivers in the game with Calvin Johnson, as well as a solid offensive line and decent a supporting cast of wide receivers. The Lions have won both of their games so far this season by relying on the passing game and I would not expect any of that to change this weekend.

    Following a disappointing 39-yard passing effort against the Chargers, Donovan McNabb bounced back with a solid 228 yards passing this past week against the Buccaneers. McNabb was not able to find the end zone and has made some Vikings fans call for rookie quarterback Christian Ponder to take over. McNabb struggled last season in his first year in Washington, and this season seems to be much the same. 

    In order for McNabb to not only beat the Lions, but to also keep his job, he will have to start making better decisions and come up with bigger plays. This Lions secondary can be exposed, but McNabb has to worry about that ferocious front seven getting pressure on him.

    In what might be one of the most important games in McNabb's career, it almost seems like a now-or-never game. If McNabb can succeed and hold off the Lions, his job could be safe for another week, but if he struggles, it could be one of his last chances to start in this league. Given the great run the Lions have been on (including preseason, they have one 10 straight games) and Matthew Stafford's great arm and top weapon, Calvin Johnson, it looks like another win for the Lions.

    Advantage: Matthew Stafford

Houston Texans vs. New Orleans Saints

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    Matt Schaub vs. Drew Brees

    For the past few seasons, the Houston Texans have been the "sexy" pick to go to the Super Bowl. The Texans, despite having some flashes, have yet to put a team in the playoffs. To go along with Matt Schaub's stellar arm and production, the Texans also boast of one of the best receivers in the NFL, Andre Johnson, and last year's top rusher, Arian Foster.

    Despite Foster's absence due to injury, the Texans have won their first two games. Through those first two games, Schaub has thrown for over 450 yards, as well as two touchdowns. In order for the Texans to succeed, they need another big season out of Schaub and his offense.

    In their first two games, Drew Brees and the Saints offense have looked unstoppable. After a Week 1 shootout with the Packers and a beating up of the Bears this past week, the Saints once again look like the top of the class in the NFC South. Through two games, Brees has thrown for over 650 yards, six touchdowns and no interceptions.

    With two potent offenses matching up, it appears that, once again, both of these quarterbacks have an opportunity to put up big numbers.  Despite Schaub having a decent season so far, look for Brees, who is playing at home, to continue to put up big numbers against a porous Texans secondary.

    Advantage: Drew Brees

New York Giants vs. Philadelphia Eagles

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    Giants Pass Rushers vs. Michael Vick

    When the Giants defense is at its best, its calling card is the upfield pressure that it gets from its defensive ends.  Despite a rash of injuries to the whole Giants team, and despite the injury to Osi Umenyiora, the Giants still boast one of the better combinations of defensive ends in the league, with Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul.

    In his first start of the season last week, Justin Tuck was able to register 1.5 sacks against Sam Bradford and the Rams, with Pierre-Paul registering half a sack, and two sacks against the Redskins the week before. In order for the Giants to slow down an injured Vick, they need to get pressure on him and eventually bring him down.

    During last Sunday's game against the Atlanta Falcons, Michael Vick left in the second half with an apparent concussion. As of Thursday, Vick has resumed practicing with the team. Through two games, he has thrown for over 400 yards and four touchdowns, as well as rushing for 117 yards. Vick is the glue that keeps this team together. With backup Vince Young questionable and second-year backup Mike Kafka as the other two options, look for Vick to still be in the lineup this Sunday.

    Any time a player comes back from a head injury, and specifically a concussion, there is always a cause for concern. Vick will likely not alter his game plan and still tuck and run when needed. I think with Vick's uncertainty and the Giants defense knowing they have to get to him, the pass-rushers help bring Vick to a halt.

    Advantage: Giants Pass-Rushers

Jacksonville Jaguars vs. Carolina Panthers

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    Blaine Gabbert vs. Cam Newton

    After an offseason that saw the Jaguars release former Pro Bowl quarterback David Garrard and decide on starting NFL journeyman Luke McCown, the Jags are finally on board with starting their No. 1 pick, Blaine Gabbert. Many believed early on that Gabbert would be giving Cam Newton a run for his money as the No. 1 overall pick in this past NFL Draft. Rumor had it that the Panthers were even interested in taking Gabbert this past April.

    The Jaguars moved up to draft Gabbert 10th overall, and he saw his first bit of playing time this past Sunday, going 5-6 for 52 yards. In order for Gabbert to succeed not only this weekend, but throughout his career, he is going to have to showcase the pinpoint accuracy and mobility that he had shown in college.

    Not many people would have expected the impact that Cam Newton has already had on the Carolina Panthers. Despite being 0-2, the Panthers have been one of the more surprising teams in the NFL.  Newton went out and tied the NFL record for most passing yards by a rookie in his first game with 422 yards, and not to be undone the following week, he through for 432 yards against the defending Super Bowl champions. Newton has shown that he has the big-play ability, as well as the mobility to get out of the pocket and run when his receivers are not open.

    It should be interesting to see how Gabbert responds to his first start, and this should mark one of the better rookie quarterback matchups that we have seen in years, but look for Newton to continue to spark his offense and shred through the Jacksonville defense.

    Advantage: Cam Newton

New York Jets vs. Oakland Raiders

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    Nick Mangold vs. Richard Seymour

    Since he entered the league in 2006, Nick Mangold has been the anchor of a terrific Jets offensive line.  Regarded as one of, if not the best, center in the game, Mangold is a bruising blocker who engages quickly off the football, is excellent in the pass game and even better in the running game. Mangold often gets matched up against some of the biggest and strongest guys in the NFL and never flinches.

    After playing from 2001-2008 with the New England Patriots, Seymour was dealt to the Oakland Raiders in 2009 for a first-round pick. Seymour, who primarily played defensive end in the Patriots scheme, has since moved over to playing inside at the defensive tackle position with the Raiders. Last season, he was named to his sixth career Pro Bowl. Seymour has unusual speed for a guy playing the defensive tackle position, and he uses his speed to beat the guard and center he is usually matched up against.

    The Jets, who have been known in the past as a running team, need to continue to run the ball to be successful. Look for both Shonn Greene and LaDainian Tomlinson to run up the gut with Mangold helping to pave the way.

    Advantage: Nick Mangold

Baltimore Ravens vs. St. Louis Rams

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    Terrell Suggs vs. Jason Smith

    In Week 1 against the Steelers, Terrell Suggs looked unstoppable, registering five tackles and three sacks against Ben Roethlisberger and the rest of the Steelers. Suggs has become one of the most feared rushing 3-4 outside linebackers in the NFL, registering 71.5 sacks in his nine years in the league. One of the main reasons the Ravens have been so good defensively is because of their ability to get pressure on the quarterback.

    Jason Smith was the Rams' first pick and second overall pick in the 2009 NFL draft. Although originally drafted as left tackle given his good footwork and athleticism, Smith has been moved to the right side of the line.

    Although, on paper, they typically do not line up against each other, look for the Ravens to switch up their linebackers and use Suggs to attack who they believe to be the weaker link in the offensive line.

    Advantage: Terrell Suggs

Kansas City Chiefs vs. San Diego Chargers

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    Jon McGraw vs. Philip Rivers

    Who is Jon McGraw? Good question. McGraw, who has is a nine-year veteran, has spent much of his career as a special teams player and was the captain the past two seasons. He is slated to start in the safety position left by the injury of Eric Berry. McGraw is known as a versatile player who can play both safety positions as well as cornerback.

    Philip Rivers again continues to put up big numbers in the NFL, and in his first two games this season he has passed for over 700 yards and four touchdowns, as well as four interceptions. Rivers, in recent years, hasn't been handed the best of situations with many injuries to his receivers, tight ends and running backs, but this year with a healthy(and non holding out) Vincent Jackson, and Antonio Gates getting healthier, his numbers once again appear to be moving upward.

    Look for Rivers to try and exploit McGraw's lack of speed and size with his taller and quicker receivers.

    Advantage: Philip Rivers

Green Bay Packers vs. Chicago Bears

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    Clay Matthews vs. Frank Omiyale

    There are few players in the NFL who strike as much fear in opposing quarterbacks as Clay Matthews.  Despite being listed as questionable for Sunday's game against the Bears, it looks unlikely that Matthews won't be on the field. Matthews only has one sack through two games, but his presence is always felt. In his two previous seasons, Matthews has 23.5 sacks, and is regarded as one of the most feared pass-rushers in the league.

    After the injury to rookie starting tackle Gabe Carimi, veteran Frank Omiyale was called upon to help protect Jay Cutler against the Saints, which did not end well. The Bears gave up six sacks to the Saints, and without keeping Cutler upright, do not expect the Bears to have much success. Omiyale has been a starter in the past, and spent much of last season blocking on the left side of the line. He is nothing more than a veteran swing tackle who can play both sides of the line, although he seems to be better suited on the left side.

    Look for Matthews and the rest of the Packers to go after Omiyale all day, realizing that the offensive line is clearly the weakness of the Bears offense.

    Advantage: Clay Matthews

Arizona Cardinals vs. Seattle Seahawks

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    Kevin Kolb vs. Tarvaris Jackson

    After months of speculation during the offseason, the Arizona Cardinals finally got their wish and acquired former Eagles quarterback Kevin Kolb. In Kolb's first two starts of the season, he has thrown for over 550 yards and four touchdowns to just one interception. Kolb is lucky to have one of the best wide receivers in the NFL to throw to with Larry Fitzgerald, but with a struggling running game, the Cardinals can often become one-dimensional.

    In one of the stranger moves of the offseason, the Seattle Seahawks were adamant in their pursuit of former Minnesota Vikings quarterback Tarvaris Jackson. In his five seasons with the Vikings, Jackson threw 24 touchdowns to 21 interceptions, and was usually more relied upon for his ability to run outside of the pocket than his actual arm strength. In his two starts this season, he has put up decent numbers with 356 yards passing, two touchdowns and one interception.

    With one of Jackson's top receivers, Sidney Rice, questionable for this Sunday's game, and with a Seattle offense that has struggled, look for Kolb and the Cardinals to put up some points against an average-at-best defense.

    Advantage: Kevin Kolb

Atlanta Falcons vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Michael Turner vs. Gerald McCoy

    Since joining the Falcons in 2008, Michael Turner has become one of the most bruising and effective runners in the game. Turner uses his size (5'11", 245 lbs) and speed to beat defenders. In his first season with the Falcons, he rushed for over 1,600 yards and finished last season with over 1,300 yards rushing and a trip to the Pro Bowl.

    So far this season, Turner has accumulated over 200 yards rushing, but due to the Falcons falling behind in games, they have had to rely more heavily on the passing game.

    After being drafted as the third overall pick in the 2010 NFL draft, much was expected out of McCoy.  Although McCoy did not have the kind of numbers that his former draft class defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh had, he is still regarded as a good young talent at the defensive tackle position. Although looked at as more of a rushing defensive tackle, he will be relied upon to help stop the run.

    As well as Michael Turner has played this season, it will be key for the Falcons to continue to feed him the ball and give him the opportunity to put up even better numbers. With the Falcons' desire to run first and pass second, expect Turner to have his best game of the season.

    Advantage: Michael Turner

Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Indianapolis Colts

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    Rashard Mendenhall vs. Joseph Addai

    Throughout the history of the Pittsburgh Steelers, they have been known as a team that plays great defense and can run the ball. Despite injuries that have slowed him down in previous seasons, Rashard Mendenhall has proven he can be a very capable runner in the NFL. So far this season, the explosive Mendenhall only has 111 yards rushing on 31 carries.

    With their star quarterback likely done for the season, and an aging veteran at quarterback with Kerry Collins, the only way the Colts can succeed is by feeding Joseph Addai the football. Addai has never had to be the workhorse for the Colts given their success in the passing game, but so far this year, he only has 103 yards on 22 carries. Addai possesses the ability to be a big-game player, but he needs to be given the chance.

    In a battle between two struggling run offenses, look for the Steelers to set the tone with their tough defense, and expect Mendenhall to finally get more carries.

    Advantage: Rashard Mendenhall

Washington Redskins vs. Dallas Cowboys

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    DeAngelo Hall vs. Tony Romo

    This matchup is not particularly about the fact that DeAngelo Hall will be covering one of Romo's favorite targets, but more about the fact that Hall has stated he will do whatever he can to hurt Romo even further.

    Last week, Tony Romo suffered bruised ribs and a minor punctured lung. Hall was quoted as saying, "Absolutely. I want to get a chance to put my helmet on whatever's hurt. Romo's ribs—I'm going to be asking for some corner blitzes. If I know Felix Jones' shoulder's hurt, I'm not going to cut him. I'm definitely going to try to hit him up high, so that's just part of it."

    This storyline will continue to build leading up to the game, and although I understand what Hall is saying, it still appears to be a dirty play if it actually comes up. Look for Romo's line to do whatever it takes to protect its leader and keep him from getting hurt even worse.

    Advantage: Tony Romo