The First Fifteen: Week Five

Posted Oct. 04, 2011 @ 1:42 p.m.
Posted By Eric Edholm

Here's an early look at the Week Five action, the first shortened (and the bye isn't coming at a great time for a few teams) week of the 2011 NFL season:

1. Michigan doesn't know what to do with itself. The Tigers are up two games to one against the Yankees in the playoffs, the Red Wings are back on the ice, the Wolverines have cracked the top 15 and — uh, hello! — the Lions have ripped off eight straight wins. Yes, only four of them count towards this season, but that's actually 12 straight if you count preseason and the end of the 2010 campaign, and Jim Schwartz's boys can do no wrong. They stake the Vikings and Cowboys to 20- and 24-point leads on the road? Meh. Just throw it up to Megatron a few times and all is solved. I might even argue that Johnson (24 catches, eight touchdowns) isn't getting the ball enough. Now the Lions get a chance to make a big statement against the Bears, who have had their number the past six matchups. The Lions still don't run the ball enough or well enough for my liking, and their special teams are a little squishy, going up against some of the best units in the NFL. But they have a resilience that can't be quantified, and this will be one of the 10 biggest regular-season games in Lions history, it being the first Monday-nighter in more than 10 years. Expect Ford Field to be on fire. Well, not literally, of course.

2. The Bears remain a very capable three-phase team, and anytime you have Devin Hester and Matt Forté doing their things the way they did against the Panthers, you're probably going to win about 90 percent of those games. But can Mike Martz help himself? He showed great restraint on Sunday, opening the game with eight straight called runs, and he made it to halftime with only four pass attempts. The scoreboard (24 points) showed that Martz was calling the game properly based on the matchup. But how will he handle things this week in a hotly contested divisional game with a rabid crowd? The statistics show that the Lions are far more vulnerable against the run (20th in rushing yards allowed, 23rd in yards per carry allowed) than the pass (15th pass yards allowed, eighth in yards per pass play, three second-half interceptions on Sunday to stoke the comeback). But will Martz ride Forté? Or will he ask Jay Cutler to throw to mediocre receivers behind bad pass protection ... again and again, over and over? That's asking a lot.

3. If you're the Jets, is it time to start panicking? Maybe, but maybe not. The special teams have stood out at times, but the defense looks nothing like the last few seasons and the offense just isn't progressing. Rex Ryan is still in Mark Sanchez's corner (publicly), and he really has to be because there are forces — the state of the offensive line and the coordinator — that are beyond Sanchez's control. It likely will take Patriots week to reassess what is going on offensively and come up with a game-specific plan to redo the offensive approach. Clearly, they have no good solutions inside if Nick Mangold can't play, and I suspect he will do everything he can to face his old rival, NT Vince Wilfork. Watching Sunday night's loss, it was clear that Colin Baxter and Vlad Ducasse were not in a position to start and perform to task. Brian Schottenheimer had to know this was a possibility, and his task this week is to come up with a simpler game plan that accentuates his quarterback's strengths and hides his line's undeniable weaknesses. He outsmarted himself Sunday night with the play calling, no question about it.

4. The Patriots still have their defensive warts, and now LB Jerod Mayo is out for a month or more. But they can compensate with a little more of the run game they displayed Sunday at Oakland. The natives had been restless, calling for more Stevan Ridley, and they got their wish, along with a dose of BenJarvus Green-Ellis. The Patriots will not stop throwing the ball, but they have to be prepared for the fact that Darrelle Revis will be in Wes Welker's hip pocket all day. Welker has caught 40 passes in four games, and though he had seven receptions in the playoff loss to the Jets, his impact was minimized. Have you noticed, though, that teams are throwing deep against the Jets? Joe Flacco was under duress at times Sunday, but he escaped pressure often, and the mere fact that teams are taking seven-step drops against Ryan's defense is newsworthy. The pass rush isn't feared anymore, and the secondary (hello, Eric Smith) is vulnerable to the deep pass. This might be the week Tom Brady tries a few shots downfield. Could Taylor Price be running some 9-routes this week?

5. At some point Sunday, Buccaneers RB LeGarrette Blount and 49ers ILB Patrick Willis will collide. Actually, I am guessing it happens about six or eight times. You'll want to watch. Blount is the Bucs' most dependable option right now coming off his 127-yard performance against the Colts in which he ran through and past defenders all night. Josh Freeman and the passing game did get going too, but when it was crunch time they went to the hammer. The 49ers have played the run well this season and they limit your first downs. Neither 3-1 team has won over legions of critics to date, but they will have the chance in this game. Playing at home typically is an advantage, but the Niners were sluggish offensively at Candlestick in Week One and let the Cowboys come back in Week Two. Plus the Bucs shut them out there last season, 21-0.

6. The question I have been asked the most the past two days by fans and on radio shows: What team is the biggest surprise so far? The answer I keep coming back to: the 49ers. Jim Harbaugh was known as "Captain Comeback" as a player, and he might have enhanced that reputation as a coach with Sunday's stunner at Philly. He leaned on three Smith boys — QB Alex, OLB Aldon and DE Justin — to win the game for the 49ers, and their ugly brand of football is working as a whole. So what is the formula they use? Good run defense, winning the turnover battle (No. 1 in the NFL), solid special teams and winning third downs. The offense is still very much an unfinished product, but it has the earmarks of a good Harbaugh-coached group, even if the talent isn't all there. The Bucs' defense gave up some big plays to the Colts Monday night, but the young defensive line started taking over late and really getting to Curtis Painter.

7. There is a feeling in Atlanta that the Falcons are a pretty mediocre team after building a 20-point lead in Seattle and then having to hold onto victory. They can't get the run game going, the offensive line is not really progressing, the defense is ordinary and now, strangely, Roddy White just isn't himself. He's dropping passes, and even if he is fighting his way through a thigh bruise, the drops are coming at an alarming rate: We're up to six through four games. A couple of them in the Bucs game came in key situations. Whatever the Falcons' shortcomings, they have to get right quickly. In come the 4-0 Packers, which surely will get them up for this game, but there has to be more than that. If Tarvaris Jackson looked as good Sunday as he did against this defense, Aaron Rodgers might get immediate entry to Canton following Sunday's matchup if there is no improvement.

8. The Packers are the best team in the NFL. The Packers are better than they were at this point last season. They are not yet better than the team that won the Super Bowl. But they are close, and with no other dominant team (the Lions are not there yet) the Packers will be the team everyone looks up to for at least the next month. Would a loss in Atlanta change that? Probably not, no. But right now, it appears that the few Packers weaknesses don't match up with the Falcons' strengths. The only pressing concern in Green Bay right now appears to be the offensive line, although a smart defensive team might do what the Broncos did and corral TE Jermichael Finley as much as possible. He seemed to be frustrated by the extra attention; the problem is that the Broncos are not good enough to defend all the Packers' talent at wide receiver.

9. So which team's loss this past Sunday was the bigger surprise, the Eagles or the Bills? We'll stick with the Eagles because the talent level is stronger on both sides of the ball. But the Bills are the better team right now, as their 3-1 record indicates. They'll be the home team Sunday, and it will be fascinating to see a few things: the play of their offensive line; the performance of Ryan Fitzpatrick; and the play of the cornerbacks. The Bills' O-line, which had looked good until Sunday, will have to deal with Eagles DE Jason Babin (NFL-best seven sacks) but not Trent Cole, who is out a few weeks it appears. Fitzpatrick might have been bothered by the increased pressure, because he just looked in a funk most of the game. The Eagles have been prone to giving up some big plays and they are not picking off passes, which means there will be plays out there to be had. But can the Bills slow down Mike Vick and the vertical passing game? They rank in the bottom half of the league in yards allowed per pass play, and Vick threw for 416 yards, with DeSean Jackson hauling in 171 of those.

10. The Texans might inadvertently have done their division rivals and co-AFC South leaders, the 3-1 Titans, a favor by knocking out Ben Roethlisberger on Sunday. The Steelers' QB has a foot sprain but is expected to play this week. He likely will be under fire behind a suspect offensive line, no matter what combination the Steelers use up front. But the Steelers also should be prepared for the Titans' five- and seven-step drops. The Titans are protecting Matt Hasselbeck well, and even with the loss of Kenny Britt, QB Matt Hasselbeck is looking downfield for pass plays. TE Jared Cook has been a tremendous breakout player, and Steelers ILB Lawrence Timmons has struggled at times in coverage on backs and tight ends. The Titans might have caught a break ... and Chris Johnson might be ready to break out of his funk and right when James Harrison is out of the lineup with a broken orbital bone.

11. The timing of WR Andre Johnson's injury isn't great with the Raiders, Ravens and Titans the next three up on the schedule, but the Texans will get a second opinion and keep their fingers crossed on a speedy return. So it's next man up: Jacoby Jones is off to a quiet start (7-91 receiving), but he caught 17-235 in the three games he replaced Johnson when he had a high ankle sprain a year ago. But Kevin Walter must step up, too; he has only four catches for 49 yards and a TD, but that score was a big gift via a deflected pass against the Saints. The Raiders took a hit against the Patriots, and they are a little banged up right now with Darren McFadden and Michael Bush ailing. If you are watching this game, keep an eye on Taiwan Jones, a talented rookie with speed who could take the RB reps in this one.

12. George Whitfield, Cam Newton's QB coach during the pre-draft process, told me last week that Newton spent two 90-minute sessions this summer studying NFC South defenses. Whitfield would start the tape of Josh Freeman against the Saints' defense or Drew Brees vs. the Bucs and pause it pre-snap. Newton then would have to look at the formation, look at the defense, draw it up on the whiteboard and predict what the safeties will do, where the pressure is coming from and also what the offensive play would be. It's that kind of preparation that has Newton ranked among the NFL's leading passers, third with 1,386 yards behind Tom Brady and Brees. The Saints might be surprised at how good he is. Last year's game in Charlotte turned ugly fast and ended up 34-3, Saints. This game, however, could be the shootout of the weekend. Newton diced up the Bears and though he made some poor throws, he also is the best rookie in the NFL by a mile. And the losing is killing him, too. The Panthers won't have many answers for Brees and the Saints' offense, but the Saints might not have many for Newton, either.

13. Four of the worst teams in the NFL that have combined for two wins are facing off this weekend, with Chiefs-Colts and Cardinals-Vikings. The good news is that the Chiefs earned their first victory of the season and showed a little fire in doing so, with Todd Haley and Matt Cassel getting into it on the sidelines. Some of these teams — ahem, Vikings — could use a little more of that fire and brimstone. The Cardinals seem to be in games and have plenty of fire, but they just have lots of holes on defense. The only coaches of this group who are in trouble might be Haley and Leslie Frazier. But losing this game will weigh heavily on two of these teams, just like the Vikings falling to the Chiefs, earning them an 0-4 mark.

14. Three AFC teams are on bye: the Ravens, Browns and Dolphins, which qualify, respectively, as the good, bad and ugly. The Ravens have to feel good about their fairly dominant win over the Jets, but they should spend much of that bye week examining their passing game and how better to get Joe Flacco in rhythm. The Browns have to get healthy, with two of their best players hurt: CB Joe Haden (knee) and C Alex Mack (appendicitis). And they have to figure out how to beat teams with victories; they have yet to do that this season despite their 2-2 mark.

15. The three NFC bye teams are the Redskins, Cowboys and Rams. The Redskins are sitting fairly pretty now, and it's the defense that has paid the bills. Everyone spent the summer dissecting the QB situation, but Mike Shanahan has managed that very well while Jim Haslett's defense has taken major strides. It's amazing what having the proper pieces to run the scheme can mean. The Cowboys will have two weeks to stew about the Detroit debacle, but they should use that time wisely to reassess their offensive design. Tony Romo has been scalding hot and dry-ice cold, but there has been one constant: he hasn't played four good quarters this season. As for the Rams, it's getting downright ugly. The offensive line is the new culprit, with even promising OLT Rodger Saffold appear to take a step backwards. That unit's decline has really hurt the progress of QB Sam Bradford.