These four games should be the best matchups of Week 2 and each week we will call them “The Big Four.”
New England Patriots (0-1) @ New Orleans Saints (0-1)
These are two proud teams who did not play up to expectations in Week 1, and all of a sudden we might not know what we can expect from them. The Patriots were embarrassed at home by the Chiefs; New England did not look prepared and its real flaws were exposed. They are usually the best in the NFL at making in-game adjustments but we didn’t see it last week. Now they have to go on the road and play a dangerous New Orleans offense that always has a chance with Drew Brees at quarterback. The Saints are coming off a disappointing loss at Minnesota, where their defense and run game let them down. Neither team wants to be in a 0-2 hole, though the Pats can probably afford it more in the weak AFC East than New Orleans can in the improved NFC South.
Keys to Game
- The Pats must fix their defensive front seven – They gave up 537 yards to Kansas City and we saw several flaws. We know they have edge pass rush problems (with no current fixes) but they were soft versus the run and that is a new problem. They also played mostly dime packages against the Chiefs, which should be good for pass defense but not very stout versus the run. They also got in bad individual matchups and did not make their usual in-game adjustments. New Orleans can roll out a ton of offensive personnel groupings and that puts a lot of pressure on the defense to make those adjustments.
- What happened to the Saints’ pass defense? – They looked good in the preseason but that did not carry over to Week 1, when they looked like the poor pass defense that we saw a year ago. Their early pass rush was not effective so they brought some blitzes but that did not work either versus Sam Bradford. They gave up too many deep balls and their communication was not good, which was a problem a year ago. Both the Pats’ passing game and the Saints’ pass defense underperformed last week so which one bounces back?
- Tom Brady must get back to the short passing game – He is obviously frustrated with his short passing attack without Julian Edelman and with oft-injured Danny Amendola. Against Kansas City Brady went to a lot of slow-developing deep passes and there just didn’t seem to be a flow to New England’s passing game. He is at his best when he throws short passes off three- and five-step drops and gets into a nice rhythm. The Saints play a lot of three-safety looks and they think that they match up well in the underneath passing game but they didn’t show it on MNF so maybe Brady can have success short.
Key Matchup – Saints linebacker A.J. Klein vs. Tom Brady. Klein was really good in the preseason at calling their defensive signals and getting everybody lined up properly, which was a huge problem a year ago, but the same old problems emerged last week at Minnesota. Individually, Klein was excellent with 11 tackles but this defense isn’t good enough to get by with mental mistakes and breakdowns. Brady is a master at the line of scrimmage in recognizing a defense and catching it in the wrong alignment or coverage so Klein will have to be on top of his game mentally as well as physically.
X-Factor – Pats wide receiver Chris Hogan. This offense desperately needs a slot receiver to depend on with Edelman out and Amendola seemingly always hurt. Hogan seems like the most likely candidate, even though he has vertical outside skills. He knows how to get open and separate and Brady seems to trust him. He faces a New Orleans pass defense that did not look good versus Minnesota and the Saints give up a lot of bend, but don’t break underneath throws; that bodes well for Hogan.
Fantasy Football Focus. A lot of fantasy options here but also a lot of shared production. Brady and Rob Gronkowski are givens, and Hogan could be an underrated sleeper. It is hard to sort out the running backs but it looks like Mike Gillislee will get most of New England’s goal-line carries. For New Orleans, Brees is a passing machine but his receiving corps and stable of backs did not dazzle on MNF. There is a lot of shared production but Michael Thomas and Coby Fleener could have a breakout game as this passing game tries to re-establish the seam route that seems to have left town with current Patriots receiver Brandin Cooks.
Minnesota Vikings (1-0) @ Pittsburgh Steelers (1-0)
Both teams are coming off Week 1 wins to set up this elite matchup, but each looked dramatically different last week. The Steelers looked sluggish against Cleveland and did not dominate an inferior opponent. The Vikings looked great in their MNF victory over New Orleans, and though this is only Week 2 they appear to be markedly improved from a year ago. We have two productive run games, two explosive passing games and two aggressive defenses. Will Minnesota play as well as last week or are we overrating the team? Will we see the explosive Steelers and a better version of the team that looked lethargic last week? There is a lot to digest in this game.
Keys to Game
- Run to keep the other offense on sidelines – The Steelers have a proven run game and the Vikings look like they are developing one. As explosive as these offenses are they should be at their best when they control time of possession, convert third downs, set up excellent play action and keep two hot quarterbacks off the field. These are two solid defenses; neither is elite versus the run, statistically, though both are capable of putting together a strong performance. Le’Veon Bell versus Dalvin Cook will be fun to watch.
- More blitzes and man coverage – We have seen a lot of zones and four-man rushes from both defenses but they seem to be drifting to more aggressive schemes. That likely means increased blitzes and man coverages behind those pressures. Minnesota likes to attack the A gaps while Pittsburgh attacks more from the edge. Both already have good defensive fronts but bringing extra rushers makes them even more effective. If these offensive lines can pick up the blitz and if the quarterbacks can identify the right matchup at the line of scrimmage there are plays to be made, especially the deep ball.
- Stay aggressive, Sam Bradford! – He came to Minnesota with a reputation as a good deep-ball thrower, but a year ago because of poor line play the Vikings had to go to a ridiculous short passing game that was easy to defend. With an improved line in Week 1 he had the luxury of seven-step drops; he took deep shots against the Saints and his vertical accuracy was excellent. That forces the defense to play off and honor the passing game and maybe even play more sub packages, opening better lanes for the run game and Dalvin Cook. The Steelers will play a lot of man schemes with their corners (who they like) and they will try to take away Bradford’s newly found deep ball.
Key Matchup – Antonio Brown vs. Xavier Rhodes. Brown almost singlehandedly beat Cleveland in Week 1 (11 receptions for 182 yards) and he can get it done on short routes and yards after catch or vertical routes where he can use his speed. Rhodes is an elite cover corner; he doesn’t always line up versus No. 1 receivers but in this game he will likely cover Brown. They are both from the same high school, Miami Norland, and they know each other well and they have squared off a lot. Rhodes is long and physical and he will try to disrupt Brown if he can get his hands on him. This could be the most interesting matchup of the week.
X-Factor – Pittsburgh tight end Jesse James. He emerged as the go-to guy in the short passing game at Cleveland. He is a huge target and he uses his body well to wall off defenders, especially in the red zone, and he is effective on back shoulder throws. The Steelers traded for 49ers tight end Vance McDonald in the preseason because they were unhappy with their tight end production but James held on to the starting job. Minnesota has not covered tight ends very well so there might be some opportunities for some nice plays.
Fantasy Football Focus. We know what to expect from Pittsburgh. Big Ben, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown are sure things and Jesse James could be an interesting sleeper, but after that the other guys may be in a “wait and see” category. Minnesota is a different story because the offense in Week 1 was so much better than expected, it might force fantasy owners to re-think things.
Sam Bradford is suddenly a hot play for the Vikings because of his new deep ball and that has a positive effect for his passing weapons. Wide receivers Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen and tight end Kyle Rudolph are interesting and running back Dalvin Cook looks like a real star and a big fantasy producer. We will know more about Minnesota after this game.
Dallas Cowboys (1-0) @ Denver Broncos (1-0)
Both teams are coming off satisfying Week 1 wins and look poised for a solid season. Dallas won in the expected way – run the ball and control the clock, get efficient quarterback play, and get better production from the defense. The Cowboys totally outclassed the Giants and as long as they have Ezekiel Elliott on the field they will have a chance to dominate. Denver played its usual strong defense versus the stubborn Chargers, but the Broncos offense surprised with an efficient run game and better quarterback play from Trevor Siemian. Can the Denver defense control Elliott and limit the Cowboys’ ability to put long, multi-play drives together? That might be where this game is won or lost.
Keys to Game
- Both quarterbacks need to play “clean” games – Neither one of these offenses are dynamic and explosive and it looks like their key to success is to limit mistakes and not give the ball back to the opposition. Dak Prescott led an offense that did not turn the ball over versus the Giants and when the Cowboys play that way they are tough to beat. Denver turned the ball over twice versus the Chargers (one lost fumble and one INT) but Siemian is doing a nice overall job of taking care of the football. This looks like a close game that could be won or lost by a key mistake and that puts a lot of pressure on these young quarterbacks.
- Denver must play good run defense – It did a nice job in Week 1 versus Melvin Gordon but Elliott and this Dallas offensive line is a much different challenge. The Broncos ranked 28th against the run in 2016 and they were especially vulnerable versus the inside run. They added size and power to their front seven in the offseason and they feel confident that they will be better in this area. Dallas might play a lot of spread offensive looks to force the Broncos to go to their athletic dime cover packages and open better run lanes for Elliott. This could be a nice philosophical “tweak” for this Dallas offense.
- Do the Broncos have a run game? – Versus the Chargers on MNF they ran the ball better than anticipated with the duo of C.J. Anderson and Jamaal Charles (121 combined yards on 30 carries). They are getting it done behind an offensive line that is a work in progress, and they are especially vulnerable at the tackle positions, partly because they don’t get a lot of tight end blocking help. Time of possession is important in this game because their ability to keep the ball away from Elliott and the clock-eating Dallas run game would let the Broncos beat the Cowboys at their own game.
Key Matchup – Von Miller vs. Dallas tackles. The Denver coaches are constantly working on ways to free up Miller and avoid all the double and triple teams that he routinely sees. He can line up on both sides of the defense and even rush from the inside in some of their 3-4 packages but he faces a Dallas offensive line that does an excellent job in pass protection. Left tackle Tyron Smith and RT La’el Collins are excellent one-on-one blockers but if they struggle versus Miller they will get help from tight end Jason Witten, who is an underrated edge blocker. This is a tough assignment for the Broncos’ best pass rusher.
X-Factor – Dallas linebacker Sean Lee. He is the heart and soul of this defense and he was all over the field against the Giants. He is a tackling machine (eight tackles, one tackle for loss) and he has sideline to sideline range. Because of his underrated ability in underneath coverage he can stay on the field all three downs. This is not a great Dallas defense but he is a stabilizing force and his knack for making big plays is a real positive. Denver ran the ball better than expected last week and Lee will be challenged to slow the run and force the Broncos to throw more than they want.
Fantasy Football Focus. We know what to expect from Dallas as long as Elliott is on the field. He will post elite numbers and the passing game will be less than dynamic. Prescott is improving, but he will not likely put up a lot of fantasy points, and right now his favorite targets appear to be Witten and Cole Beasley (and maybe Terrance Williams as a real sleeper), with Dez Bryant the odd man out. However, Bryant wants more targets and his coaches could game plan to keep him happy but a big passing day versus this elite Denver pass defense is not likely.
The Broncos are tougher to get a handle on. Their run production last week was solid, but also shared, and the same goes for the passing game. Siemian is throwing the ball better but don’t expect big numbers. Right now it just doesn’t look like anybody on this offense is capable of a huge breakout day.
Green Bay Packers (1-0) @ Atlanta Falcons (1-0), SNF
Both teams are coming off wins but neither played a perfect game and they know there is room for improvement. Green Bay beat an elite Seattle team while the Falcons really struggled against a much weaker Bears’ team and they were lucky to win. Now all bets are off as these teams re-focus and get ready for a heavyweight fight in primetime. This is a battle of two decent (and maybe underrated) defenses and two great offenses led by great quarterback play. What we saw from them last week will not look like anything we see this week, as the expected improvement should be dramatic.
Keys to Game
- The Green Bay offensive line needs a big game – The Packers’ receivers don’t consistently separate from tight man coverage and that is what they will see a lot from Atlanta. That forces Rodgers to hold on to the ball until receivers get open and that puts extra pressure on the guys up front. Rodgers will extend plays with his feet, forcing linemen to adjust their blocks on the move. Atlanta will try to get away with rushing mostly four and the Packers should be able to handle that. This is an underrated front five but they are asked to hold their blocks longer than any other line in the NFL.
- Will the Falcons roll out dime defensive packages? – They have been a Cover 3 secondary in the past but as they have improved in personnel we are seeing more man schemes and they have an interesting dime package, with four corners and two safeties. Against one of the best spread offenses in the NFL, but one without a threatening run game, the Falcons may stay in their sub packages versus Green Bay all day. Rodgers will like that; he will see a lot of man coverages and nobody identifies the right matchup at the line of scrimmage better than he does.
- Both defenses must be aware of sight adjustments – Rodgers and Atlanta’s Matt Ryan are two pocket quarterbacks but will not hesitate to drift from the pocket and if a play starts to break down they are excellent adjusting their throws and routes. These quarterbacks demand that their receivers scramble to an open spot and if they don’t do it they won’t see the ball. Along with Ben Roethlisberger, these are the best improvisers in the NFL and this game could be won by who makes plays when it looks like the original play breaks down.
Key Matchup – Green Bay receiver Jordy Nelson vs. the Atlanta corners. Nelson will move all over the formation and he is a master at finding the right matchup and using his size and speed to win. Rodgers has ultimate faith in him and their chemistry is rare. He will see a lot of man coverage and Atlanta’s best corner, Robert Alford, may cover him all over the field. Nelson is a master at the back shoulder catch and he is also terrific at the sight adjustment when the play starts to break down.
X-Factor – Green Bay defensive tackle Mike Daniels. He embarrassed the Seattle offensive line and his inside pressure was a real factor. He posted seven tackles, 1.5 sacks, four quarterback hits and a tackle for loss. His production was really helped by good coverage, which forced Russell Wilson to hold on to the ball and allow Daniels to get there. Daniels has a non-stop motor and he will give a good Atlanta offensive line all they can handle. If he can get penetration and move Ryan off his mark it could really hurt the Falcons’ passing game.
Fantasy Football Focus. These are offenses with all sorts of fantasy possibilities. Both quarterbacks are capable of putting up huge numbers and neither of these defenses are elite enough to stop them. Jordy Nelson and Martellus Bennett could come up big but Green Bay’s run game is still a work in progress and Randall Cobb may have emerged as a deep fantasy sleeper after being a forgotten man in this offense.
Where do you start with Atlanta? We know about Ryan but he also has numerous weapons. Julio Jones will be a beast for the Packers to cover. Both of Atlanta’s main running backs (Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman) will have their work cut out for them versus a good Packers’ run defense. But Atlanta’s sleepers could be receiver Taylor Gabriel and tight end Austin Hooper, as both will get favorable matchups versus a pass defense that gives up a lot of big plays.
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