Published: September 30th, 2011 | Tags: Eye in the Sky, Calvin Johnson, Carolina Panthers, Chicago Bears, Dallas Cowboys, Darren McFadden, Denarius Moore, Detroit Lions, Greg Olsen, Jason Campbell, Jeremy Shockey, New England Patriots, Oakland Raiders, Philadelphia Eagles, Playbook, Rex Grossman, San Francisco 49ers, St. Louis Rams, Vernon Davis
As hardcore football addicts, we’ve noticed we have a tendency to break down the battles in the trenches — the real blood and guts stuff. Often times, it adds some context to an otherwise obscure offensive linemen that you’d never hear about other than on a holding call by an official.
Up to this point, we have avoided targeting the real stars of today’s NFL — the pass catchers. So, to all the gun-slinging divas and sticky-gloved jockeys out there, this is your week.
In Week 4, let’s take a look at some aerial battles that will take precedent in a football stadium near you.
Vernon Davis vs. Eagles’ LBs
The Eagles’ embattled linebacking corps goes through another change this week, with Casey Matthews out of the starting lineup on the weakside and fellow rookie Brian Rolle taking his place. Rolle, a sixth-round pick out of Ohio State, doesn’t have a lot of size (5-foot-10, 229 pounds) but he sure has speed.
Vernon Davis lacks neither, but Rolle has publicly asked to guard the 49ers’ Pro Bowl tight end. Despite this show of confidence, Moise Fokou is on the strong side and will face-up on Davis for the majority of the game.
Either way, this will be an interesting matchup, because Fokou lacks Rolle’s speed while Rolle lacks Fokou’s size. In an ideal world, you’d have both to cover Davis. While Rolle was able to break up a pass intended for Giants FB Henry Hynoski last week, staying with Davis is a whole other animal.
Niners QB Alex Smith operates a very vanilla passing attack that relies upon Davis to get open via routes to the flat and up the sideline on out and wheel routes. Rolle, Fokou — or maybe one of the Eagles’ three stud cornerbacks? — will need to stick with Davis long enough for the pass rush to barrel through a less-than-stellar San Francisco offensive line.
Calvin Johnson vs. Dallas’ secondary
The Cowboys have already said WR Calvin Johnson might be the best player in the league. Who they will use to guard him — Michael Jenkins, Terence Newman or Alan Ball — is anyone’s guess. Regardless, we’re pretty sure a safety will remain over the top of whoever is lined up across from him.
Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has to know what type of matchup nightmare he has on the outside. In the end, he’ll probably have to rely on his pass rush off the edge, especially DeMarcus Ware, to make getting the ball to Johnson a real hassle for QB Matt Stafford. That works in theory, and will certainly force Stafford to take a few hits as a sacrifice. But if the Cowboys do choose to blitz, the Lions can counter with their tight ends by either keeping Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler in on pass protection or using them as outlets for Stafford.
Excluding the win over the 49ers (we won’t glorify their passing game), 83.3 percent of the yards given up by Dallas have been through the air (548 out of 658 yards). The Cowboys had trouble manning-up WR Plaxico Burress in Week 1, so you would have to think Megatron is primed for something huge.
Carolina’s tight ends vs. Chicago’s defense
Through three games this season, 42 of QB Cam Newton’s 70 completions have been to his tight ends and running backs. To negate the Bears’ pass-rushing front four, we expect Newton to rely on his tight ends that much more in Week 4.
It’ll be interesting to see how the Panthers deploy Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey. While Carolina has made a concerted effort to protect the No. 1 overall pick this season, often keeping backs and tight ends to maximize protection, Newton eyes his tight ends when pressure comes. Chicago couldn’t defend TE Jermichael Finley last week — not that anyone can — but the Panthers’ passing game runs through two veteran pass catchers in Olsen and Shockey.
Whether the Panthers keep the tight ends in to widen Julius Peppers’ rush or deploy them down the field, they have to be on-call if Carolina stands a chance against Chicago.
Rex Grossman vs. St. Louis’ secondary
Torrey Smith reminded everyone why he was projected to be a first-round pick last April (picked in the second by the Ravens) against the Rams, grabbing his first five balls for 152 yards and three touchdowns.
This week, we’ll see how serious the Rams’ secondary issues are against the Redskins.
Washington’s offense still revolves around the running game, but QB Rex Grossman is still averaging career-highs in passing yards per game (282), yards per attempt (7.4) and completion percentage (59.6) through three games this season. While Santana Moss and Anthony Armstrong commonly run intermediate routes to move the chains, they both have the deep speed to burn the Rams.
St. Louis had played the pass relatively well until Week 3 — giving up an average of 185.5 passing yards per game in the first two weeks — but the 385 yards the Rams allowed versus the Ravens exposed some weaknesses. Their safeties didn’t rotate well and their corners lost in man-to-man situations.
But let’s see how this matchup unfolds before passing any judgment.
Oakland’s play-action pass vs. New England’s defense
The Patriots have allowed more yards through the air (1,131) than any other team in the league. While you wouldn’t think of QB Jason Campbell and the Raiders as a team to opt for the pass over RB Darren McFadden, Oakland could be unstoppable if they can pick up chunks of yards while McFadden reloads for another carry.
If the Patriots stack the box against the Raiders’ league-leading running attack, they could leave themselves vulnerable on the back end. Rookie WR Denarius Moore is proving to be no slouch on the outside. With a good play-action fake, Campbell could find New England’s linebackers biting hard to open up the middle of the field on crossing routes.
Even if New England stops McFadden on the first two downs, third-and-long can still potentially be converted on the pass-weary Patriots.
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