NFL1000 Week 3 Weekend Preview: Can Dak and Dez Figure It Out?

NFL1000 ScoutsFeatured ColumnistSeptember 22, 2017

NFL1000 Week 3 Weekend Preview: Can Dak and Dez Figure It Out?

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    If you've noticed the quality of play through the first two weeks of the 2017 season isn't up to par, you're not alone. Many have bemoaned the stilted passing attacks, bad offensive lines and reductive schemes that seem to make explosive offenses a thing of the past. Defenses appear to rule the roost, unless you want to parse that out and deduct that it's more about often unprofessional offensive play.

    Week 3 doesn't look as though it will provide a big break in that trend. The NFL is sending Joe Flacco and Blake Bortles to London, which may cause another Revolutionary War unless the English are satisfied with two good defenses mixed in with their iffy quarterbacks.

    Chicago's Mike Glennon will once again start, this time against Pittsburgh's defense, which may make you wonder if the mercy rule is in effect. The Seahawks and their abysmal offensive line have to deal with the Titans' blitz concepts, authored by defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, so Russell Wilson should probably add to his insurance policy.

    Still, there are several intriguing one-on-one matchups in Week 3, and our NFL1000 scouts have gone forensic on several of them.

    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         

New York Giants Need to Switch Up Their Scheme to Fix Offensive Issues

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    Through the first two games of 2017, the New York Giants have scored a total of 13 points. They haven't scored more than 20 points in a game since they beat the Cleveland Browns 27-13 in Week 12 of last year, and they've never scored 30 or more points in Ben McAdoo's tenure as head coach, which began in 2016. The Giants ranked 26th in points last season; right now, they rank 30th.

    The problems with New York's offense aren't easily fixable because they're all over the place. The offensive line is horrid, with the exception of center Weston Richburg. The passing game is a schizophrenic combination of deep iso routes and tepid short passes. The run game is just about nonexistent.

    Talent is an issue along the line and in the backfield, but with Eli Manning as the quarterback and a receiver group that includes Odell Beckham Jr., Brandon Marshall, Sterling Shepard and tight end Evan Engram, this team has enough talent to make things happen if McAdoo and offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan expand the playbook.

    Week 3 sees Big Blue heading to Lincoln Financial Field to face the Eagles and their excellent defense. In press conferences following his team's 24-10 Monday night embarrassment against the Lions, McAdoo discussed the possibility of turning the play-calling over to Sullivan and giving left tackle Ereck Flowers more blocking help. But he needs to use his receivers and their specific skills to outfox Philly's aggressive defense.

    Neither McAdoo nor Sullivan is a big fan of advanced receiver distribution and location, which makes Manning's job harder. The Giants run slant-flat and curl-flat combos to the left side a lot, which makes them easy to read. But you rarely see the bunch and twins formations that provide easy releases for receivers.

    You don't see rub routes, in which one receiver ties up a pass defender in coordination with another receiver to free up space downfield. Stack releases are a rarity. Manning doesn't have time to make consistent deep throws in which receivers must break free of coverage in isolation downfield. So it's up to McAdoo and Sullivan to create those spaces for him, especially in route concepts that are designed to create yards after the catch.

    McAdoo bemoaned Manning's "sloppy" play after the Detroit loss, but when you watch the tape, it's clear that the play-designers are as much at fault for New York's offensive woes. McAdoo and Sullivan must create offense out of formation diversity to maximize the talent they have and minimize the liabilities that remain on the roster.

    Put simply, that's what good coaches do.

    —NFL1000 Lead Scout, Doug Farrar     

Sheldon Richardson, Seahawks D Ready to Spoil Derrick Henry's Breakout

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    DeMarco Murray continues to miss practice this week and has been habitually outplayed by Derrick Henry over the Titans' past seven games. With Murray possibly sidelined, it's plausible to expect a breakout week for Henry. But a matchup against the Seahawks does not bode well.

    When the Seahawks traded receiver Jermaine Kearse and a 2018 second-round pick to the New York Jets for defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson, they hoped Richardson, fresh off a 2016 campaign in which he was frequently miscast as an edge-rusher, would shore up a line that was already one of the NFL's best as a pass-rushing unit.

    Seattle likes to use ends Michael Bennett and Frank Clark as tackles on obvious passing downs, and tackles Jarran Reed and Nazair Jones can help inside. But Richardson is at a different level against the run when he's put at the 1-tech and 3-tech tackle positions in a four-man attack front. Through two games, we've already seen the benefits of his presence.

    Against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 2, the version of Seattle's defense without Richardson on the field had a lot of trouble dealing with running back Carlos Hyde, who broke free for a 61-yard power run in the second quarter and gained 124 yards on 15 carries overall. Richardson was playing 3-tech when Hyde gained 27 yards on a carry later in the second quarter, but it took two 49ers linemen to box him out, and Richardson missed the cutback downfield.

    When the Seahawks had Richardson at the line as the point of emphasis against the run, it was a different story. He has the power to soak up double-teams without getting overwhelmed, and he's persistent and quick enough to occasionally blow right through gaps to create negative-yardage plays.

    His presence will be required in Week 3 when the Seahawks travel to Tennessee. Mike Mularkey's team has one of the most powerful, diverse rushing attacks in the NFL, especially when Derrick Henry is the feature back. Henry is enough of a challenge with his bruising style, but he also plies his trade in an offensive system that uses three tight ends frequently and can run or pass out of those heavy packages.

    There's no "book" on Tennessee's run game, because the Titans present multiple looks and force defenses to adjust to what they do.

    The best way to beat scheme is with execution. And as long as the Seahawks have Richardson in the middle of their defensive front, he'll do a lot to open things up for Seattle's other defenders in one of the most challenging tests they'll face.

    —NFL1000 Lead Scout, Doug Farrar      

How Deshaun Watson Can Find Success Against the Patriots

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    History indicates Deshaun Watson will struggle Sunday when he and the Texans travel to Gillette Stadium to take on the New England Patriots. Under Bill Belichick, the Patriots are 8-0 at home against rookie quarterbacks, and Watson will be the second-youngest quarterback to ever face off against a Belichick-coached team, per Mike Reiss of Only the 21-year old Drew Bledsoe was younger when he and the Patriots squared off against the Belichick-coached Browns.

    If Watson is going to have success against New England, it will start with his eyes. We all know Belichick loves to take away a team's biggest threat, so the defense will likely focus on receiver DeAndre Hopkins. Watson targeted his fellow former Clemson Tiger on 13 of his 24 passing attempts last week, and many times the rookie QB never took his eyes off his initial target.

    He will need to be much better with his field of vision and avoid leading defenders to the football. Last Thursday, the Bengals left Adam "Pacman" Jones on an island with Hopkins, but expect the Patriots to throw different coverage looks at the Texans to try to take him away.

    So Watson will need to look elsewhere for production.

    Something to watch, given the lack of depth at tight end for the Texans, is how often Houston uses its 20 offensive personnel package. This two-running back, three-wide receiver personnel group was heavily involved on two of Houston's biggest drives of the game: the drive before the half that ended with Watson's big scramble, and its final field-goal drive.

    In that package, the rookie QB seemed most comfortable and was making the full field reads that more experienced quarterbacks make. His best throw of the night—the dig route to Hopkins late in the second quarter—came with this group on the field.

    One last wild card? The Nick Saban factor. Belichick was asked this week if he would chat with his friend, who just faced Watson in two straight national championship games, but Saban was non-committal in his answer, saying "I don't know." There is some schematic familiarity between what Belichick and Saban do defensively, so Watson might be a step ahead of the previous eight rookies who went into Foxborough.

    Whether that's enough to move that record to 8-1 remains to be seen.  

    —NFL1000 QB Scout, Mark Schofield     

Can Drew Brees Lead the Saints Out of a 0-2 Hole at Carolina?

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    Chris Graythen/Getty Images

    Heading into Week 3, the New Orleans Saints sit at 0-2 and face serious questions on both sides of the football. The defense has struggled mightily, and through two weeks the Saints are the only team to give up over 1,000 yards. But there are offensive woes as well. In Week 1 they had a hard time ending drives with touchdowns instead of field goals, and through two games they only have three offensive touchdowns.

    That is not the number that people expected this high-powered unit to produce.

    The problems begin up front. Tackles Zach Strief (knee) and Terron Armstead (shoulder) are injured and remain questionable for the game against Carolina. Last Sunday against the Patriots they trotted out a patchwork offensive line, with guard Andrus Peat shifted over to left tackle and first-round pick Ryan Ramczyk moved to right tackle. That group gave up a sack and multiple pressures on Drew Brees, with rookie Deatrich Wise beating Peat on a few occasions.

    Willie Snead won't return until Week 4, when his suspension ends. Snead is not a big-time downfield threat, but the receiver is the missing piece to this offense.

    Michael Thomas and Brandon Coleman are nice boundary receivers, and Thomas is emerging as a young star. But Snead gives Brees that quick outlet out of the slot that he values, particularly when he's facing stiff pressure up front. Think Julian Edelman in New England. Those quick slant or pivot routes that give a QB an outlet right after the snap can alleviate the protection concerns up front.

    Until then, the Saints will need to use Alvin Kamara and Tommylee Lewis in those roles, but that is a tough ask going up against the Panthers' linebackers. Brees, Thomas and Co. might hit a few plays Sunday, but they face an uphill task on the road.

    When Snead returns we'll get a much better look at what this offense can be, but until then, the struggles will continue.

    —NFL1000 QB Scout, Mark Schofield     

Christian McCaffrey Has a Good Case to Break Out in Week 3

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    Grant Halverson/Getty Images

    Panthers rookie running back Christian McCaffrey hasn't been the explosive spark many expected the eighth overall pick to be. Through two games, he has 57 yards on 21 rushes, a 2.7 yards-per-carry average and just nine catches for 72 yards. Those numbers are far from spectacular, but that isn't to say McCaffrey isn't having an impact.

    While the Panthers have incorporated things like the Wildcat to try to get McCaffrey as many touches as possible, his biggest impact has been in the passing game. Lining up in the slot, outside or even running routes out of the backfield, McCaffrey has drawn the attention of defenders and opened space for deeper routes. There were a couple of plays against the Bills where the Panthers lined up McCaffrey outside and used him as a decoy on quick hitch routes.

    Midway through the first quarter, McCaffrey ran one of these hitch routes and forced a zone defender to account for him, opening space for a corner route from the slot. Unfortunately, Carolina quarterback Cam Newton was late to deliver the pass and the defender got back. But if the throw had been on time, the receiver would have been wide open.

    Newton hasn't had the best start to the season, either.

    He's missed a couple of opportunities to find McCaffrey open, particularly late in the game against the Bills. On 3rd-and-goal, McCaffrey ran a terrific route out of the backfield, squaring up the defender covering him and then cutting inside. He then sharply pivoted back outside into the flat and created plenty of separation. The runner was open in the flat, but Newton overthrew him and the Panthers had to settle for a field goal instead of a touchdown that would have secured the game.

    Fortunately for the Panthers, they face the Saints on Sunday, who have already given up 65 points and 1,025 yards in two games. For McCaffrey, Carolina should follow the Patriots' lead. New England went after Saints rookie linebacker Alex Anzalone whenever he was in man coverage. Rex Burkhead, lined up in the slot much like McCaffrey has been doing for the Panthers, ran by Anzalone on a seam route for a 19-yard touchdown.

    The Panthers have been willing to move McCaffrey around so far, and that is a matchup they could look to exploit.

    —NFL1000 RB Scout, Mark Bullock      

Can Dez Bryant Get on the Same Page as Dak Prescott Against the Cardinals?

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    After an up-and-down performance against the Denver Broncos, Dez Bryant will try to redeem himself this week when he faces one of the best cornerbacks in the league, Patrick Peterson. Last week, Bryant struggled to get on the same page with quarterback Dak Prescott as he was targeted 18 times (two of which were nullified due to penalties).

    Bryant caught just seven of those targets for 59 yards and a score. However, two targets led to interceptions, one of which bounced directly off Bryant's hands and into Chris Harris Jr.'s arms.

    How can Bryant and Prescott get back in sync this week?

    First, they need to be creative in terms of getting Bryant open. According to Pro Football Focus, the Cardinals are the only team in the league that has used its top cornerback in both weeks to shadow a certain receiver. And in Bryant's previous meetings against Peterson, the All-Pro cornerback followed him all over the field, so expect the same this week.

    If the Cowboys want Bryant to be successful, the first thing they could do to free him is move him around pre-snap. According to Mark Schofield, only one of Bryant's 25 targets this season has come when the team motioned him pre-snap.

    If Dallas wants to avoid forcing Bryant to beat Peterson's press coverage on every snap, the team could try to stack him behind other receivers or motioning him away from coverage.

    As for the types of routes that Bryant can succeed on, slants and in-breaking routes are both staples of the Prescott-Bryant connection. But expect the Cowboys to test Peterson deep as he typically loves to jump the shorter routes.

    It's been a tough two games for Prescott and Bryant, but that should be expected. They are still a relatively new connection, as Sunday marked just their 16th game together. Expect them to get on the same page soon, but the Cardinals and Peterson will provide Bryant and Prescott another great test.  

    —NFL1000 WR Scout, Marcus Mosher

Vikings Offensive Line Is Key to Beating Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    The Buccaneers' front four looked like a unit to be reckoned with in its debut against the Bears. This week it faces off against a rebuilt Vikings offensive line. The key to this game is whether the Vikings' big boys up front can slow the likes Gerald McCoy, Noah Spence, Chris Baker and William Gholston, especially in the run game.

    This new-look Vikings offensive line has four new opening-day starters, and so far the unit has looked better, particularly in pass protection. The free-agent pickups at tackle, Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers, have been keeping cleaner pockets for the Vikings QBs, which was a big reason for Sam Bradford's early success.

    The increased protection allowed the Vikings to build longer-developing routes into their playbook, as the increased time to throw for Minnesota's quarterbacks from 2.47 to 2.70 seconds, per Next Gen Stats, shows.

    That said, while the book-end tackles may be able to hold the defensive ends in check, stopping McCoy, Baker and Gholston from crashing interior gaps in the run game will be a different story.

    Despite his promising preseason, Pat Elflein has struggled to latch on to defenders in the run game. While his development will continue over the year, it's clear that expecting that to change in a matchup with this Bucs unit may be asking too much of him and neighboring guard Nick Easton, who can win with active feet in pass protection rather than as a seal blocker on trap plays.

    If the Vikings want running back Dalvin Cook to be a factor, they will need to favor an outside-zone-heavy run game to avoid Tampa's tough interior, and get their athletic interior to the second level against Tampa's talented, but also undersized, second level.

    —NFL1000 OL Scout, Ethan Young     

Pass-Rushers Could Decide Ravens, Jaguars Matchup

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    Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

    According to Odds Shark, the London matchup between Baltimore and Jacksonville opened with a 40.5-point total and has since moved to 39.5, the lowest number of any game Sunday. In a league that has been criticized for its low scoring, this Baltimore-Jacksonville tilt is the most likely to be impacted by singular defensive plays in Week 3.

    When their games have been within a score, the Jaguars have recorded five sacks on 37 opponent dropbacks, good for third in the NFL. The Ravens' pressures have resulted in four interceptions when their games have been within a score through two games, twice the amount of any other team in the NFL.

    Both of these pass defenses are strong, and that starts up front. For Jacksonville, Calais Campbell, a 2017 signing who set the franchise single-game sack record in Game 1 of his Jaguars career with four, and Yannick Ngakoue, quietly one of the better young edge-benders in the league, make up a defensive end duo that should strike fear in Baltimore.

    For the Ravens, the rotation of Matt Judon, Brent Urban, Terrell Suggs, Michael Pierce, Brandon Williams, Tyus Bowser, Tim Williams and Carl Davis, who have all played at least 15 percent of Baltimore's defensive snaps, per Football Outsiders, make the front five unit that's by far the deepest in the league. It's a major reason why Baltimore's only given up 10 total points.

    Since 2014, no one has thrown more interceptions or been sacked as much as Jaguars starting quarterback Blake Bortles (53). Since 2014, only four quarterbacks have thrown more interceptions than Baltimore starting quarterback Joe Flacco (41).

    In a low-scoring, low-quarterbacking game, look for the 1-1 Jaguars' splashy starters or the 2-0 Ravens' uncommonly deep defensive line to be the difference-makers. You have to go back to 2008 to find a Jaguars-Ravens game that was decided by eight or more points. Someone's defensive line will clinch a game-winning sack or force a pressure for a game-winning interception this week.

    It's only right with these teams' history and quarterbacking talent.

    —NFL1000 DL Scout, Justis Mosqueda 

How the Buccaneers' Stout Run Defense Can Stifle Dalvin Cook

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    Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

    Last week was the first week of the season for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after their Week 1 tilt was postponed due to Hurricane Irma.

    They swallowed the Chicago Bears' running backs Sunday. Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen, both of whom are quality talents, could not get anything going. The longest gain between the two was a nine-yard run from Cohen. The Bucs defense held the duo to 20 yards on 16 carries, corralling it to 1.3 yards per attempt.

    The Buccaneers face Dalvin Cook and the Minnesota Vikings this week. Cook is third in the league in rushing yards with 191 yards, sitting behind fellow rookie Kareem Hunt of the Kansas City Chiefs (229 yards) and Denver's C.J. Anderson (199). Despite Latavius Murray's offseason arrival, Cook has received the lion's share of the running back touches. Cook's vision and pace are devastating. He can make linebackers look wrong even when they are right, and he can bounce outside when defensive linemen break the line.

    Run blitzing will be key to slowing Cook. It is designed to get one defender in each gap immediately, which is different from a pass blitz that may have looping defenders or multiple blitzers overloading one spot. With linebackers as effective as Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander, run blitzing should lead to a handful of tackles for loss.

    Likewise, mixing up defensive line stunts should slow the Vikings' run game. Stunting is when a defensive lineman immediately moves to an adjacent gap off the snap. It's meant to confuse the offensive line as to who is blocking whom, theoretically opening a path for one of the linebackers to shoot through and get to the running back.

    Of course, Cook has the patience and acceleration to let a play unfold and take off if given the slightest crease. He has the potential to do that regardless of how the Bucs play him, though, so they ought to get after him. There is no value in allowing Cook more time to sift through a defense.

    —NFL1000 LB Scout, Derrik Klassen             

Patriots Defense Faces Easier Task in Week 3 Against Houston Texans

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    The New England Patriots got back on track with a 36-20 victory against the New Orleans Saints last week. Quarterback Tom Brady looked like his usual dominant self (447 passing yards, three TDs), picking apart the porous Saints defense with ease. Despite the win, the Patriots defense has a long way to go to get back to its Super Bowl standard.

    Through two games, the Patriots have just four sacks and haven't snagged an interception. Their talented cornerback trio of Stephon Gilmore, Malcolm Butler and Eric Rowe hasn't been as good as a unit as expected, although Gilmore has been excellent in his individual assignments. Even safeties Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung have been exposed some as the pass rush has struggled to create chaos to help the back end of the defense be more opportunistic.

    New England should benefit from playing the 1-1 Houston Texans. The Patriots have dominated the turnover differential since 2006, ranking in the top 10 in all but one year since, and finishing in the top five a whopping seven times. Compare that to the early pace they've set this year, and it's clear the defense has not been as dynamic. Houston, a team with maybe the worst offensive line in the NFL, has given up a league-leading 13 sacks and has rookie Deshaun Watson making just his second NFL start.

    Without a fear-inducing pass-rusher to rely on, the Patriots need to get creative in their front seven and continue to ask the secondary to play tight coverage with little help from linebackers. Sending linebacker Kyle Van Noy and Chung on frequent blitzes is a risky but needed move to confuse Watson and force him into bad decisions.

    New England does have a deep group of capable bodies on its defensive line, so running stunts to create holes in the offensive line for blitzers is also an option. Inserting fresh rushers every few drives can help win the war of attrition.

    On the back end, Rowe and Butler have traded places, moving inside and outside, respectively. That should change, as Rowe has struggled to play in the slot and Butler's physicality is a better fit there. Rowe will have more deep help from McCourty on the boundary, which he needs as his stiffness showed more in Week 2 against shiftier receivers.

    —NFL1000 DB Scout, Ian Wharton