NFC East Spin cycle: Week Three

Posted Sept. 24, 2012 @ 2:56 p.m.
Posted By Eric Edholm

The Giants and Eagles, who are both 2-1, will meet in Week Four, but they are heading in opposite directions, it appears based on what we saw this past week. The Redskins might lead the NFL in scoring, but the defense has become a major problem, and the Cowboys scratched out a narrow win in Dallas that answered few questions about the viability of this team.

COWBOYS

What we learned: Well, the defense looks good. Despite an in-game Achilles injury to S Barry Church (who likely will miss the season), the secondary was terrific against the Bucs, holding QB Josh Freeman was 10-of-28 passing for 110 yards, 71 of which came on a late drive when they were down two scores. CB Brandon Carr shifted over to a safety role in nickel, Mana Silva took Church’s spot, and CB Mike Jenkins (remember him?) filled in outside admirably. But the offense is broken. The line is a mess, the run game is horribly sporadic, Tony Romo is getting hit and making mistakes, WR Dez Bryant has gone missing and TE Jason Witten is in a career-worst slump.

What’s in store next: They’re staying in Dallas and the Cowboys have an extra day with the impending Monday-nighter against the Bears to figure out their pass-protection issues. The Bears have 14 sacks (their highest total through three weeks since 1987) and can bring pressure from inside and out. ORT Doug Free (four penalties on Sunday, including three false starts) is a mess, OLT Tyron Smith has taken a step backward and the interior has been subpar, too. The Cowboys also will have to decide what to do with Carr, Jenkins and the secondary. It’s doubtful they will keep Carr at safety, nor are they likely to bring back S Brodney Pool, whom they cut early in training camp. The Bears might have their warts, but Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall can go vertical on you.

What the heck? Witten has had a nightmare season, and it seems to be getting worse by the game. In Week One, he gamely said he would play despite suffering a ruptured spleen in the preseason. He clearly was rusty and ineffective in the opener, but the Cowboys won and Witten was praised. In Week Two, he dropped three of the 10 passes thrown his way. In Sunday’s victory over the Bucs, Witten dropped three more and was charged with two false-start penalties. That’s now seven drops for the season. Witten has caught only eight passes for 76 yards and no scores. It got so bad at one point Sunday that he allowed a sack to Bucs DE Michael Bennett, the brother of the man (the Giants’ Martellus) who once backed Witten up in Dallas. It doesn’t help that Martellus Bennett has 15-185-3 receiving and has been a big reason for the Giants’ success. Witten, who is among the more accountable players in the NFL, did not speak after the game but did say Friday he was healthy.

GIANTS

What we learned: You can’t count the Giants out. They might lose a head-scratcher game at some point in the next few weeks, and you know they will have to face some major adversity again at some point. But Thursday’s exclamation victory at Carolina — down three offensive starters, plus another key contributor — shows just how dangerous Eli Manning, this defense and a Tom Coughlin-led Giants squad can be. Reserves Andre Brown and Ramses Barden were the heroes in this game, but what we’ve learned under Coughlin is that “next man up” truly does pertain to almost anyone residing on the 53-man roster. They count on every one of them.

What’s in store next: It’s a big week, heading to Philadelphia in a showdown of 2-1 division-leading teams. The Giants took a big step forward with the victory over the Panthers, their second in a row after the season-opening loss to the Cowboys, while the Eagles were losing their first game — a blowout at the hands of the Cardinals — after a pair of one-point victories to start the season. Eagles-Giants is always a slugfest ripe with emotion; expect little different this time. It will be a big week for the health of the wide receivers, as we find out if the Giants’ Hakeem Nicks (foot) and the Eagles’ Jeremy Maclin (hip) are good to go for this Sunday-night game.

What the heck? The Giants struggled to defend the pass the first two games of the season. They were getting some pressure (four sacks) but not as much from the defensive line. So how did they come up with a plan to maximize their pass defense against the Panthers? They blitzed with a specific plan in mind. It wasn’t a breakneck, blitz-at-all costs approach at Carolina, but rather a smart, calculated attack of Cam Newton, who struggled to find his primary reads and get loose for his signature runs. The same approach has to be in the offing against the Eagles’ Michael Vick. He was hit 13 times Sunday by the Cardinals, sacked five times and lost two fumbles, and the numbers show that pressure has gotten him off his game. If the Giants’ rushers can be vigilant and maintain contain vs. Vick, they could put the opening two games’ memories tucked away deep in their banks.

EAGLES

What we learned: It’s not going to be easy for this team. Win or lose, pretty or not, the Eagles are going to expend maximum effort in each of their games. Their talent suggests they should win a few cake games this season, but that doesn’t appear to be happening anytime soon. After two one-point victories, they fell back to earth with a 27-6 loss to the Cardinals. Chief among their concerns — from both the victories and Sunday’s loss — are turnovers: The total now is up to 12 for the season after three more lost fumbles, two by the extremely generous Michael Vick. Adding up his rushing attempts, sacks taken and passes attempted, the ball has been in Vick’s hands 155 times in three games. He has accounted for nine turnovers. Both numbers are way too high on a team with LeSean McCoy.

What’s in store next: No rest for the weary. The Eagles have a key Sunday-night game against the Giants, in a matchup of 2-1 teams that are heading in different directions. The Giants have put together two statement victories and have played great ball the past six quarters. The Eagles won two hard-fought games to start the season but undercut a lot of that with the loss at Arizona. Andy Reid says he coached terribly and that he needs to help Vick more. Is there any chance we could see a switch to rookie QB Nick Foles? It has been floated the past few weeks, but it’s not likely in this key divisional game. Right? So far, nothing is set in stone with this Eagles team.

What the heck? So many issues to address, so we’ll try to stay focused on one. This was not Reid’s finest coaching effort Sunday, and he admitted as much. Ken Whisenhunt and Co. appeared to be one step ahead the entire afternoon. But some of Reid’s mistakes were purely on him. In the second quarter, Reid needlessly burned a timeout and the Eagles were left with none in a critical situation just before the half. Arizona was up 17-0, but the Eagles were on the doorstep. They stood at the 1-yard line with 16 seconds remaining. The problem was that the run was out of the equation with the timeouts gone; they had to throw three consecutive times, and the Cardinals were able to blitz fearlessly. The result was Vick getting hit on the final play of the half, fumbling and the Cardinals returning it the 93 yards for a back-breaking touchdown that sealed the game. That’s a 14-point turnaround in a matter of seconds. The Eagles’ chances of scoring with the threat of a McCoy run surely increased twofold if they had at least one timeout to use. They did not, and that was that.

REDSKINS

What we learned: If the Redskins are going to win more games than last season’s five, it will be Robert Griffin III that helps them do so. The defense took another step backward in the 38-31 loss to the Bengals Sunday, as the losses of DE Adam Carriker and OLB Brian Orakpo predictably hurt. The Redskins were victimized on a trick-play 73-yard TD on the first play from scrimmage, and through the rest of the afternoon they allowed another 405 yards. The Bengals’ average play traveled 8.2 yards. That's an Arena League type of average gain. Griffin was strong again (after a poor first half) and now has put his team in a position to win all three games. That’s the good thing. But can Griffin handle as much as the Redskins are placing on him? That’s the story line to watch.

What’s in store next: It’s a road trip to Tampa (the farthest the Redskins will have to travel, interestingly, until Thanksgiving week) to face the 1-2 Buccaneers, who are barnstorming their way through the NFC East with back-to-back losses to the Giants and Cowboys. The Bucs contained Cam Newton in Week One, so it will be interesting to see if they employ a similar defense against Griffin and Co. The Redskins have a similar style to the Panthers and have topped the 150-yard rushing mark the first three weeks of the season. To offset what the defense is likely to allow, even to the Bucs (who struggled badly offensively Sunday), the Redskins will need to run the ball effectively. Rookie RB Alfred Morris will get a nice test against the hard-hitting Bucs.

What the heck? As if the defensive problems were not enough, the Redskins will have to cope with the loss of OLT Trent Williams, who suffered a bone bruise in his right knee in Sunday’s loss. His replacement, Jordan Black, was terrible in helping to allow Bengals DE Michael Johnson to hit Griffin seven times (three sacks) Sunday. Williams perhaps never has reached his full potential, but his athleticism is elite for the position. You also never saw the kind of breakdowns that happened when he was out of the game. The Redskins have a clever, creative offense that taxes defenses, but Griffin is becoming more and more vulnerable. He’s going to get killed at this pace (32 rushing attempts, nine sacks in three games), and the Redskins will be turning to Kirk Cousins before you know it. They must protect Griffin better, or not leave him hanging out to dry.