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NFL Week 2 keys to victory | Part 1

December 4, 2016 - Oakland, CA, U.S - NFL 2016. Oakland Raiders wide receiver Amari Cooper (89) 37-yard touchdown reception agains Buffalo Bills cornerback Kevon Seymour (29) in the second half from Derek Carr. (Photo by Paul Kuroda/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire)
Paul Kuroda/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire

Houston Texans (0-1) at Cincinnati Bengals (0-1) 

This is a quick turnaround for two teams who were shocked at home in Week 1 losses. Now they must regroup and try to avoid falling into an 0-2 hole. Both offenses are a mess and both defenses are not playing up to expectations. This game has a real sense of urgency even though it’s only Week 2.

The Houston quarterback situation is a mess — it may be that way all season — but the Texans will likely fix their run game and defense. Cincinnati has proven offensive performers and will be better than a week ago. A veteran Bengal defense will likely settle down. There seems to be a feeling that Houston is a complete team without a sure thing at quarterback, while the Bengals are loaded with veteran players — is Cincinnati’s window starting to close?

Keys to Game

  1. The Houston defensive line needs to take over this game – The Texans have three guys up front – J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, and Whitney Mercilus — who are almost unblockable when they are dialed in. They did not dominate in Week 1, with zero sacks among them, and they were up against a mediocre Jacksonville offensive line. They face a Bengal front five which is the weakness of their offense, especially in individual matchups. The Texans will move their trio along the line of scrimmage to find the right matchup. This should be a huge Houston advantage.
  2. Both offensive lines need big improvement – These were expected to be solid units, but Week 1 was distressing. Houston gave up a whopping 10 sacks to Jacksonville while Cincinnati allowed five sacks by Baltimore. What is most alarming is that they lose one-on-one battles when defenses rush only four and don’t blitz. That means it may be more of a personnel issue and less a scheme problem. There is a trickle-down effect to the entire offense that results in no run game, marginal play action, and too many quarterback hits. The superior Houston defensive front should dominate this trench battle.
  3. What will this Houston offense look likeAll three tight ends are in concussion protocol and they will not likely play on a short week. That really changes what formations and personnel groupings they will use. The Texans may go to multi-receiver sets and spread things out against a Cincy defense that doesn’t handle sub packages well. The Bengals do not have great man cover guys. Also, those softer defensive personnel groupings could open up more room for the run game. Bill O’Brien wants more production from his tight ends, but that will be out the window in this game.

Key Matchup – Houston quarterback vs. Cincinnati pass coverage. Whoever starts at quarterback will likely have a short leash, and at least in the near future this position could be a revolving door. Tom Savage can run the entire offense, but Deshaun Watson will go to less plays with bootlegs and rollouts and half-field reads, but he brings a flair to this offense that we don’t see from Savage. Both guys will see a Bengal defense that prefers to rush only four and play zone coverages behind it to hide their man coverage deficiencies. The Texans desperately need some consistency from this position.

X-Factor – Houston back D’Onta Foreman. The coaches vow to get him more touches, but it will likely be on early downs as a power runner. He has size and speed, he shows excellent short-yardage and goal line skills, but he is a liability in pass protection and as a receiver. Look for him to be a battering ram and give this run game some needed toughness, with Lamar Miller adjusting his role to fewer carries and more third-down touches. The Bengals’ defensive line is not as good as it has been in the past and Foreman will get his chance to wear it down between the tackles.

Fantasy Football Focus. After lethargic Week 1 performances, it is hard to get excited about these offenses. Houston is a “buyer beware” offense because of an unsettled quarterback position and all three tight ends being out because of concussions. That leaves DeAndre Hopkins as their best hope and rookie D’Onta Foreman as a deep sleeper (he will likely take touches away from Lamar Miller). What will you get each week from the committee-style Cincinnati rushing game and an up-and-down Andy Dalton? That leaves Tyler Eifert and A.J. Green as solid fantasy guys, but their production is a direct result of quarterback play.

Houston Texans running back D'Onta Foreman (27) runs against the Carolina Panthers during the first half of an NFL preseason football game, Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2017, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Jason E. Miczek)

(AP Photo/Jason E. Miczek)

Chicago Bears (0-1) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (0-0)

Both teams come into this game feeling good about themselves, even though Chicago is coming off a close home loss to Atlanta and Tampa Bay is coming off a chaotic weekend in which it tried to dodge Hurricane Irma and had its game at Miami postponed to Week 11.

Little is expected from the Bears, but they played hard versus a superior Atlanta team that looked flat. However, their lack of playmakers is a big problem. The Bucs have a lot of their own playmakers, but they did not play up to expectations in the preseason. They need to attack a less talented Bear team with a very aggressive game plan and put them away quickly. The Bucs need to avoid the dreaded “trap” game versus an inferior opponent who already has a game under its belt.

Keys to Game

  1. The Bucs need great early-game play-calling – The Bears are not very talented but they are a resilient bunch. They will hang around if opponents don’t put them away early. They have a game in the bank and the Bucs do not. Bucs coach Dirk Koetter does a good job scripting his early plays. He now faces a Chicago defense that is fairly predictable in its schemes in those game situations. The Bucs need early success not only to build their own confidence, but also to deflate the Bears’ confidence from a week ago.
  2. Can the Bears play “bend but don’t break” defense? – They have a very simple defense that gives up a lot of plays between the 20s, but they “try” to tighten up close to the goal line. They will play a lot of cover two with only a four-man rush versus the Bucs, so the windows in this defense are well defined. The key will be for Jameis Winston to make smart throws off good reads and not force balls into coverage as he often does. Tampa Bay will move the ball against this defense but must be creative and efficient in red zone play-calling. The Bears have good red zone numbers on defense and the Bucs do not in their red zone offense. Something has to give!
  3. The Bucs need to play good third-down defenseThey were the best in the NFL in this category in 2016 and it is a key part of their improved defense. The Bucs cannot afford to let the Bears’ methodical offense convert on third down with Jordan Howard runs. The Bucs have a huge edge in explosiveness on offense and big-play potential, but that can only happen if they have the ball. The number of offensive possessions and time of possession are two stats to keep an eye on. If Tampa Bay controls both categories it should be in good shape.

Key Matchup – Chicago back Jordan Howard vs. Bucs linebackers. If the Bears expect consistent offensive success it will have to be with the Howard run game. He is physical and hits the hole hard, but he is also patient and seems willing to let his blocks form. He has a real challenge versus the Bucs’ Kwon Alexander and Lavonte David, physical tackling machines who close and fill as well as any pair of linebackers in the NFL. Chicago has upgraded the interior of its offensive line. This will be a real battle between the tackles. The Bears need to slow this game down and control the time of possession to keep the Bucs’ explosive offense on the sidelines. That pressure falls on the Howard run game.

X-Factor – Chicago back Tarik Cohen. Who is this guy? He emerged from being an unknown rookie fourth-round draft choice to become the only explosive weapon in this offense. He is small (5-6, 179) but quick and elusive and tough to bring down in space. He had 66 yards rushing versus Atlanta, but where he can do his best work is as an outlet receiver. He caught eight passes for 47 yards and a touchdown on swing passes and checkdowns, where the Falcons’ linebackers struggled to cover him in the open field. The Bucs’ linebackers are excellent upfield attack guys, but getting them in coverage versus Cohen could be an advantage for the Bears.

Fantasy Football Focus. This is a tale of two very different offenses. The Bucs have a lot of weapons and versatility if they can get consistency from Winston, but their Week 1 game was postponed — they are still a work in progress. Expect solid production from Mike Evans and Cameron Brate and good Winston numbers versus the Bears’ zones, but nothing from the run game. This may be a week to play the Bucs’ defense.

With a game under their belts, it looks like the Bears can get production from Jordan Howard (who else can they lean on?) if they are not behind and forced to throw, which could lead to inflated Mike Glennon numbers, but they have virtually nothing at receiver against an improving Tampa Bay defense. Last week little Tarik Cohen looked like a guy who gives this offense a much needed spark, but is he a one-week wonder? A lot of fantasy players are scrambling this week to add him to their roster.

Buffalo Bills (1-0) at Carolina Panthers (1-0)

Both teams are coming off Week 1 wins, but their mindsets heading into Week 2 may be totally different. Buffalo is in rebuilding mode and 2017 wins won’t be easy to come by, so beating the hapless Jets at home is a positive thing. Much more is expected of Carolina, and while the Panthers easily beat another hapless team, the 49ers, they looked rusty and will have to play much better against tougher opponents.

They hope that they got some of their offensive problems worked out at San Francisco. Buffalo should not present a lot of problems if they play a smart game and don’t let the LeSean McCoy run game control the pace of this contest. If the Panthers are the elite team that we think they are, they should be in total control of this game.

Keys to Game

  1. McCoy needs to attack the Carolina defense wide – The Bills want more production from their outside zone run game, but McCoy must have patience for blocks to form before he hits the hole, which has not always been his style. Attacking the edges of the Carolina defense makes sense, because running right at the defensive ends wears them down and also neutralizes their ability to pursue. Running inside at their elite defensive tackles and linebackers is not a recipe for success. McCoy needs to take over this game if Buffalo has any hopes of pulling out a road upset.
  2. Cam can have success versus Buffalo cover three – Sean McDermott believes in zone looks on the snap (with some man looks before the snap) and he won’t bring a lot of blitzes, so Cam Newton will have well-designed throwing windows to attack. If the Bills struggle to apply pressure with their front four, he will have time to read his progressions, something he needs to do better. The cover three is a “bend but don’t break” scheme designed to limit big plays and force the quarterback to be patient. This may not be a productive deep game for the Panthers. Cam may have to be satisfied with underneath throws and multi-play drives – not exactly his style.
  3. Can Carolina get to Tyrod Taylor with only a four-man rush?Carolina has a similar philosophy on defense to what McDermott brings to Buffalo from the Panthers. The Panthers want pressure from their front four while they drop seven defenders into coverage and prefer not to blitz. Buffalo will see a cover three scheme. Taylor has not shown a consistent ability to exploit zones, especially inside. If the Bills’ offensive line can hold up in pass protection and force Carolina to “think” about blitzing and putting so-so corners in man coverages, it could help the Buffalo passing game.

Key Matchup – LeSean McCoy vs. Luke Kuechly. These are two elite players teeing off against each other. Kuechly is a tackling machine who can either step up and fill or pursue laterally and tackle in space. His biggest advantage inside is that he has two huge defensive tackles, Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei, to eat up blockers and let him step up without always having to take on a block, but the interior Buffalo line is solid and will give them all they can handle. Look for McCoy to bounce more of his runs outside (maybe some jump cuts). Kuechly will be forced to slide outside and get through trash to make the play. Stopping McCoy is the key to beating Buffalo.

Buffalo Bills running back LeSean McCoy (25) reacts after a play during the second half of an NFL football game against the New York Jets Sunday, Sept. 10, 2017, in Orchard Park, N.Y. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)

(AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)

X-Factor – Carolina back Jonathan Stewart. With all the attention Christian McCaffrey is getting, Stewart has almost become a forgotten guy in this offense. After one week it looks like the rookie will get all sorts of creative touches, but short yardage and goal line carries will go to Stewart. He plays behind a good interior offensive line. With the Panthers’ ability to spread out the defense, he will run at a lot of softer sub packages. Buffalo has a solid interior run defense and will be a challenge for Stewart. Although we don’t think of him as an outlet receiver, the matchups Stewart may get if he releases on a route may be tempting for the Carolina coaches to create an unexpected big play.

Fantasy Football Focus. This much-anticipated and explosive Carolina offense looked sluggish versus San Francisco, but should be better in Week 2 with the usual suspects. The Panthers are committed to get the ball to McCaffrey in every creative way that they can. Greg Olsen will also get his targets (a good day versus Buffalo’s cover three defense?), and Stewart looks like their go-to goal line guy.

Newton is not in a groove yet and he is not making plays with his legs, but when settles in he will put up great numbers — just not this week. The only guy to get excited about for Buffalo is LeSean McCoy because he will have a heavy workload. Tyrod Taylor is an inconsistent risk, there is nothing to really like at receiver, and tight end Charles Clay might have “sneaky” production versus the Carolina cover three. This may also be a good week to play the Carolina defense.

New York Jets (0-1) at Oakland Raiders (1-0)

These are two teams at the opposite ends of the NFL food chain. Oakland is young, talented, confident, and loaded with good players on all three levels. The Jets have an alarming lack of talent and explosive playmakers, facing a long season of losses and frustration.

They played just about as well as they could in Week 1 in their loss at Buffalo, while Oakland looked very mature and efficient in a quality road win at Tennessee. It is difficult to see how the Jets can stay in this game and be competitive. It is also difficult to see the Raiders playing poorly in their home opener. A big road loss could put the Jets one step closer to throwing in the towel for the 2017 season.

Keys to Game

  1. The Raiders need to deflate the Jets early – A bad football team is making a cross-country trip to play an opponent that looks superior in every category. It is early enough in the season that the Jets are still showing some fight, but the quickest way to negate that is for Derek Carr and the Oakland offense to be very creative in their early scripted plays and jump out to a quick lead. The Jets cannot match up with all of their weapons. This is a confident Raider offense that should be very aggressive. Build a lead early and then hand off to Marshawn Lynch late to close the game and control the clock (if they need it).
  2. Carr needs to get the Jets’ defense into sub packages – The Jets are playing with two talented rookie safeties but their cornerback play is awful, and they have marginal depth when they are forced to play nickel and dime schemes. The Jets want to blitz and play man looks behind it, but asking these defensive backs to hold up on an island in coverage may be wishful thinking. That may force them to play a lot of soft cover two looks that will give Carr good throwing windows. The best outcome for Oakland is to hold up well in pass pro to force the Jets to gamble with the blitz. That is when Carr can have a field day in one-on-one situations.
  3. Jets need backs to produce in passing gameThe Jets’ run game is not very good and they appear to have given up on it. They have a one-dimensional passing game (15 rushes and 39 passes in Week 1). Backs Bilal Powell and Matt Forte may no longer be effective run game producers, but they are solid receivers. In an offense that is desperately looking for production, they can put up good outlet passing numbers and move the chains as an extension of the run game. The Raiders don’t cover backs and tight ends very well, so maybe there is room for a little success here.

Key Matchup – Jared Cook vs. Jets safeties. The Jets have two promising rookie safeties, Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye, and you would think that would tighten up their pass defense between the hashes. They will be forced to play a lot of cover two looks to cover up their man coverage secondary weaknesses. That gives Cook room to work inside. Both rookies are aggressive guys who want to attack. They could be vulnerable to Marshawn Lynch–Derek Carr play action, biting on the fake. Cook is an excellent new weapon for the Raiders and he will get his touches.

X-Factor – Jet receiver Jermaine Kearse. He has been on this roster a short time after his trade from Seattle, but he is already their best passing game weapon. He had seven catches for 59 yards against Buffalo with a limited knowledge of their playbook. Going from the bottom of the Seahawks’ depth chart to the number one receiver on the Jets tells us how bad this offense is. The Raiders’ corners are a work in progress and are capable of giving up big one-on-one plays, but can Josh McCown get Kearse the ball?

Fantasy Football Focus. How do you like anything you see from the Jets? However, as bad as they are, this offense could produce inflated stats because it plays from behind so much. That may mean garbage stats for quarterback Josh McCown and Kearse, but even that may be a stretch. Oakland is a different beast with multiple offensive options.

Carr should have a big day versus this poor New York pass defense. Cook has a good seam matchup, and the other receivers may put up good numbers. Caution: Oakland could feature shared production. Lynch will get an increased workload and may get a lot of carries late to close out the game. His red zone production could be a real positive… and how can you go wrong with new kicker Giorgio Tavecchio?

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