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What to Watch for in Week 4 of the NFL Season

Vikings' Rookie Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. Photo Credit: AP Images
Vikings’ Rookie Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. Photo Credit: AP Images

Week 4 of the NFL season kicked off Thursday when Eli Manning went on the road and led his Giants to a victory over the Washington Redskins in another strange, sloppy Thursday night game. Now as we move forward to Sunday, let’s take a look at five key storylines to watch and we might even throw in some quick picks at the end. But first lets acknowledge the teams who will not be playing this week, considering week 4 marks the start of bye week season. Some of them will missed more than others..

Teams Enjoying their Vacation: Broncos, Seahawks, Bengals, Cardinals, Browns, & Rams.

Now, here’s five key storylines for Week 4.

1. Rookie Quarterbacks Everywhere

 With four of the league’s top teams out of action, a natural place to start this week is two highly-touted rookie quarterbacks making their first career starts.Vikings’ rookie Teddy Bridgewater will get his first chance at the helm against the Falcons after the team placed starter Matt Cassel on season-ending injured reserve with multiple broken bones in his foot. Jaguars rookie Blake Bortles will get his first shot in the starting lineup when the Jags travel to San Diego to face the Chargers.

The Vikings landed Bridgewater after they traded up to the very last pick of the first round in this past year’s draft. Bridgewater fell into their hands after scouts soured on him following a less spectacular pro-day, despite still being widely regarded as the draft’s best quarterback prospect in the minds of many analysts for months leading up to the draft.

Judging by his time at Louisville, Bridgewater appears to have the critical tools it takes to play quarterback in the NFL. Mainly, pocket awareness and accuracy. Bridgewater completed 68.4% of his passes in his college career, and while pocket presence  is harder to quantify it is obvious Bridgewater has it. Bridgewater showed off both of these traits last week when he came into relieve Cassel against the Saints. He looked confident in the book even against a rush and completed 60% of his passes while playing within and extremely conservative game plan.

Any former player will tell you how hard it is to jump into a first team unit after not practicing with them all week, so Bridgewater is likely to improve this week after a full week of practice. It is also likely Vikings’ offensive coordinator Norv Turner will open up the playbook for Bridgewater more, giving him greater opportunities to make an impact.

Bridgewater will need to make an impact if the Vikings want chance to beat the Falcons this Sunday. While the Falcons defense has not been all that impressive this year, ranking just 17th in defensive DVOA per Football Outsiders. and 27th in Yards Allowed per Game, the Vikings offense is crumbling before our eyes. Adrian Peterson isn’t coming back any time soon and tight end Kyle Rudolph will be sidelined for about half of the season. Bridgewater relied heavily on veteran wide out Greg Jennings against the Saints. Jennings, along with standout Cordarrelle Patterson may be Bridgewater’s only options if he hopes to turn this Vikings’ offense around on Sunday.

If Bridgewater’s offensive situation looks bleak to you, the situation Blake Bortles is walking into in Jacksonville may hurt your eyes.

Bortles came into replace Jacksonville starter Chad Henne in the 3rd quarter of their game against the Colts last Sunday.While Bortles did throw for 223 yards and 2 touchdowns, along with 2 bad interception, in that game, it is hard to put much stock in those results given that the game was over before Bortles stepped on the field. He will get his first real chance to succeed after a full week of practice this Sunday when the Jags travel to San Diego to face the Chargers.

The Jaguars sent shockwaves through the NFL world when they picked Bortles with the 3rd overall pick in last May’s draft. While Bortles possessed all of the physical traits that teams love in quarterbacks(6’5, 232, cannon arm), he was still considered  a pretty raw prospect who would need some time to develop at the NFL level. The Jaguars were consistent on their plan to sit Bortles behind Henne all season, until last week when they handed Bortles the keys to the car. While Bortles was very impressive in the  preseason, the question still remains, is he NFL ready or are we looking at Blaine Gabbert (who the Jaguars also rushed into starting maybe a little too soon) version two? Only time will tell.

One thing that is certain about Bortles is the team around will be of little to no help. They say the best way to help a rookie quarterback is with a good offensive line and running game and those are no where to be found in Jacksonville. Their offensive line has given up 17 sacks, most in the NFL and the Jags rank 30th in the league in rushing yards per game. Bortles will have to rely on his receiving core, led by rookies Marquis Lee and Allen Hurns, but even that is a shot in the dark. Things look bleak for Bortles as he leads the Jags against a solid Chargers team.

Bridgewater vs. Bortles (vs. Manziel) is a question that only time will answer, but one thing is for sure, we get a glimpse into the future this weekend.

2. What is Going on in the NFC North? 

Through three weeks of play no division has been more confusing than the NFC North. The Bears and Lions lead the division at 2-1, while the Packers and Vikings are lingering close behind at 1-2. The standings are self-explanatory, the part of this puzzle that needs explaining is who is actually good in this division.

Before the season start the Packers were the consensus favorite, however they have looked like anything but. After being dominated by the Seahawks and the 12th man on opening night of the 2014 season, the Packers had to mount a comeback at home beat a less than spectacular Jets in less than spectacular fashion. Last week the Packers’ supposedly high powered offense was brutalized by the Lions defense in the Motor City, the Pack again came away with the loss. Now the question is, will this get better?

Green Bay’s offense ranks a lowly 28th in yards per game so far this year after battling injuries across their offensive line, most notably the loss of starting right tackle Bryan Bulaga. Without Bulaga, the Packers turned to back-up Derek Sherrod who has been just short of atrocious. Weak offensive line play has led to overall week offensive play, Aaron Rodgers has barely looked like himself except for in the second half against the Jets and Eddy Lacy looks like Trent Richardson. The Packers skill position players stepping up (or Bulaga’s return) appears to be the only route to improve for this offense. It’ll be up to Rodgers, Jordy Nelson, and the rest of the boys to improve this unit inspite of their offensive line. Otherwise, this below average offense (when combined with the Pack’s below average defense) may carry this team to a below average season if nothing changes.

Down the road in Chicago, the Bears have have an equally confusing season. Chicago could be 0-3 just as easily as they could be 3-0, they have fallen somewhere in the middle at 2-1.

After losing in week 1 to the Bills, the Bears rallied back in the second half of a Week 2 match-up  to pull out a victory over the 49ers, and then beat the Jets in a game that appeared to be a lot closer than it should have been. Beating the Niners on the road is an impressive win, if they are the Niners of old, that is still up in the air. Losing to the Bills seems bad, but they might be good and the Jets are definitely bad so inching out a win over them doesn’t look so hot.

Using just the eye test is just as confusing with the Bears. The offense cannot run the ball (ranking 32rd in rush yards per game) but it’s hard to believe this what the offense looks like  a finished project, given the injuries to their offensive line and receiving core. Their defense looks improved from last year but that is only good enough for 20th in league in yards allowed per game (and that is with a game against the abysmal Jets’ offense). The Bears appear to be a team that we will need more time to tell on.

One team that has been very impressive in the North is the Detroit Lions, who are coming off their impressive win over the Packers last Sunday and now sit at 2-1 under new head coach Jim Caldwell.

While the first thing most people think of when they think Lions is Calvin Johnson, it is actually the Lions defense that has carried them early on this season.They lead the league in both yards allowed per game and Defensive DVOA this season despite overall weak play from their secondary. An unjury to middle linebacker Stephen Tullock will also hurt the cause but things still look very promising for this group. Weakside linebacker DeAndre Levy looks like a defensive player of the year candidate in the early going and Ndamukong Suh is picking up where he left off, that alone makes for a frightening unit.

If their defense continues to play this way and Matt Stafford and crew continue to growinto their new scheme this Lions team very well could be the best in the NFC North, on the other hand, they are still the Lions.

Hopefully at least some of these questions can be answered this Sunday when the Bears and Packers face off at Soldier Field.

3. Where do we Stand with the Saints? 

Up to this point in the season, no team has been harder to pinpoint than the New Orleans Saints. The Saints currently stand at 1-2, including a loss to the Cleveland Browns. Both of the Saints losses were closely contested games and they could have just as easily emerged 3-0, but there still appear to be critical flaws with this team; especially on the defensive side of the football.

The primary reasons this New Orleans Saints team entered the season with such high expectations was their defense that was supposed to be vastly improved in their second season under defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. Those lofty expectations were also heightened when the Saints added Pro-Bowl safety Jairus Byrd in the offseason and impressive young safety Kenny Vaccaro’s returned from injury. It’s safe to say none of that has panned out, as the Saints rank 21st in the league in total yards per game allowed. The defense did get a boost last week when they benched corner Patrick Robinson against the Vikings, Robinson was the primary target of the Falcons and Browns in the season’s first two weeks of the season for good reason. Robinson aside, the Saints still cannot rush the passer, sacking opposing quartersbacks just four times through three games. That is far below expectations for blitzing enthusiast Rob Ryan’s defense, especially considering it features to traditional stud pass rushers in Junior Galette and Cameron Jordan. If the Saints are looking to turn around their 27th in the league pass defense, finding a way to get some pressure on the quarterback would be a good place to start.

Offensively the production for the Saints has still been there, but it is interesting to watch how the offense has evolved this year. In the past Drew Brees and Co. have lived to destroy teams with the big play. This year the Saints have featured an attack focused more on  timing than explosiveness. They have also placed on a stronger focus on their running game early in the season.

That run game took a big hit when Mark Ingram (averaging 6.0 yards per carry up to this point) broke his hand, placing him out for 6-8 weeks. Backups Khiry Robinson and Pierre Thomas have picked up the slack, have averaged 4.3 and 4.0 yards per carry respectively. Along with this new found rushing attack, the Saints offense has featured a lot more timing routes and shorter passes. This could be to play to the skills of Drew Brees’ new go-to-guy, rookie wideout Brandin Cooks or could speak to the fact that Brees is evolving into a later stage of his career where he can’t pull out a big play whenever he wants. We will have to wait and see how effective this new Saints offensive can be, but it is definitely a different look for this once explosive scoring machine.

The good news for the Saints is they play the Cowboys in Dallas Sunday night. Last year when the Saints faced off the with the Cowboys their offense converted a record 40 1st downs in the Super Dome. If the Saints are going to look like the Super Bowl contenders a lot of people thought they were, this is their chance.

Dolphins’ Quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Photo Credit: Brett Davis/US Presswire

4. Ryan Tannehill Madness in Miami 

Through the first two years of NFL career, it felt like we still knew very little about young Dolphins’ quarterback Ryan Tannehill. His offensive line was the worst in football for two years, his weapons around him weren’t quite good enough, and he had no running game to rely on. Given the circumstances it seemed impossible to pass judgment on the 8th overall pick of the 2012 Draft.

This season was supposed to be the year we found out what Ryan Tannehill really was, he had a real offensive line in front of him, Knowshon Moreno and Lamarr Miller were going to pick up the slack  in the running game, and the receiving core was finally good enough for Tannehill to succeed. These changes spurred many, including myself, to predict Miami’s first playoff appearance since 2008.

Now this is where things get strange for Tannehill. Everything has worked out exactly how you want it to for Tannehill’s development. This offensive line is better, they Phins are running it like crazy in spite of Knowshon Moreno’s season ending injury, and Mike Wallace looks like the number one receiver the whom the Dolphins paid huge money to take away from the Steelers. Given all of those factors, you would think Tannehill would be making major strides. Unfortunately for the Dolphins and their fans, it has been the exact opposite.

Tannehill’s poor performance sparked coach Joe Philbin to make a comment this past week where he refused to back Tannehill as the team’s starting qquarterback this Sunday in London against the Raiders. While three weeks into his first season with a new offensive coordinator seems a little fast to pull the plug on a young quarterback, it is important to remember, Tannehill has played very poorly. The third-year man from Texas A&M has completed an abysmal 56.5% of his passes, averaging just 5.0 yards per attempt, and 190 yards per game.(30th in the league)

Tannehill will start this Sunday against the Raiders over veteran backup Matt Moore, however, whether you agree with it or not this, it may be his last chance. Bye weeks are time when teams traditionally make early season quarterback changes and Miami’s is looming in week 5. While it may seem too soon to a lot of people to pull the plug on the Tannehill operation, it obviously does not seem too quick for Joe Philbin. Tannehill is going to need to play well this Sunday if he wants to keep his job. The good news for him, he’s playing the Raiders.

5. Steve Smith’s Quest for Vengeance

“I want to make sure that whatever team I go to, they’re going to get the best, in-shape 35-year-old guy they can get. If that happens to run through Bank of America Stadium, put your goggles on cause there’s going to be blood and guts everywhere.”

That is what new Ravens’ wide receiver Steve Smith told a Carolina radio station on March 13th upon his release from the Panthers after 12 seasons of service to the team. Now on Sunday, the Panthers get to journey to Smith’s new home in Baltimore for the veteran receiver to get his vengeance.

Smith has had a resurgence in Baltimore, where he now would like to be called Steve Smith Sr. While adding the title Sr. to his last name, he has also added the title of top number one receiver back to his resume after the Panthers released following a disappointing 2013 campaign. Smith has already accounted for 290 receiving yards in the first three weeks of the season, over double the amount of any other Ravens’ receiver pass catcher. Smith has obviously taken well to new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak’s offense and clicked perfectly with veteran quarterback Joe Flacco. Smith is right at home in Baltimore.

That being said, Steve Smith’s resurgence as a playmaker is not what Sunday is about. Sunday is about blood. Sunday isn’t about fancy stats or complex analysis, we can save that for the rest of the games. Sunday’s Panthers-Ravens showdown is going to be a blood bath. These are two hard-hitting teams on a normal day, then when you factor in the emotion/insanity Steve Smith will bring to this game, we could be in for an all out brawl. In a league gone soft, we should be taking time to appreciate games where all of the safety rules go out the window and the two teams just want to kill each other. Panthers-Ravens is a game like that, and those are the games we should live for.

Quick Picks

Those are five stories that need to be remembered as everyone settles in to watch the NFL this Sunday and into Monday, but before we leave you for the weekend here are my quick game picks for this weekend. (Home team in Caps)

Packers over BEARS

TEXANS over Bills

COLTS over Titans

RAVENS over Panthers

Lions over JETS

STEELERS over Buccaneers

Dolphins over Raiders (London Game)

CHARGERS over Jaguars

Falcons over VIKINGS

49ERS over Eagles

Saints over COWBOYS

Patriots over CHIEFS (Monday Night)