NFC East: Wes Welker

IRVING, Texas -- For good reason Dez Bryant and Calvin Johnson have dominated the headlines leading into Sunday’s game between the Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions.

They are two of the best receivers in the NFL. They can do things athletically that few in the game can do. They are vital to their team’s success.

But for the Cowboys there’s another receiver that will play a large role Sunday and he is nothing like Bryant or Johnson. It’s not Terrance Williams, either, although the Cowboys rookie receiver has become a large part of Tony Romo’s success.

[+] EnlargeCole Beasley
AP Photo/James D. SmithDallas WR Cole Beasley has produced 10 first-down catches in his past four games.
It’s Cole Beasley, who is nine inches shorter and 56 pounds lighter than Johnson and six inches and 42 pounds lighter than Bryant.

In his past four games Beasley has caught 17 passes for 160 yards and a touchdown. Ten of those catches have produced a first down.

Romo is “never really going to come to you and say, ‘I have confidence in you,’ or anything like that, but it’ll show in his play,” Beasley said. “If he’s looking for you out there to throw the ball to you, then he has confidence you’re going to be open and be where you’re supposed to be. Really just being with him and making plays when he throws the ball to you, that’s going to be for any quarterback. They’re not going to have confidence in you if they throw the ball and you drop it and you’re running the wrong route and it gets picked. You just have to be reliable and that’s what quarterback friendly is.”

As the Cowboys wait for Miles Austin’s hamstring to improve, Beasley’s role has increased. At 5-foot-8, and listed at 180 pounds, he has found a role in a big man’s game.

“Football players find a way to play no matter what,” Romo said. “Yes, he would’ve been able to play [in the NFL 10 years ago]. It’s different ways going about winning and losing and moving the ball. You just have to take advantage of different people’s skills and we are doing that.”

Bryant and Johnson have the obvious physical skills with their speed and strength. Beasley’s skill is his quickness and feel. The Cowboys use him in space the way San Diego uses running back Danny Woodhead or even how the Lions use Reggie Bush.

They create mismatches for the defense.

“He gives you the dimension of quickness and agility and the guy can change direction in the slot and do multiple things,” offensive line coach/offensive coordinator Bill Callahan said. “You can isolate him on different guys and different locations, so I think that’s a real advantage to have a guy like him, kind of Wes Welker-ish in a sense. He gives us that dimension. He gives us a lot of flexibility in terms of his route tree and the things he can do to get open.”

Beasley also knows what he isn’t. He knows he can be compromised by his size, so space becomes his friend.

“Teams are going to adjust, I think, eventually,” Beasley said. “I mean right now they’re just kind of doing the same things and letting me work. So until they adjust we’re going to take advantage of what they give us. But they’ll adjust and when they do we’ll go somewhere else, I’m sure. That’s what good teams do. These are good coaches and they’ll see it, and right now I’m just doing what I’m told.”

Redskins' D can learn from Colts

October, 24, 2013
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ASHBURN, Va. -- The supposed blueprint was revealed Sunday night when the Indianapolis Colts shut down the Denver Broncos. They made quarterback Peyton Manning look bad.

There's just two problems: The Colts did do a terrific job, yet the Broncos still scored 30 points and had the ball with a chance to drive the field for the lead. And Manning, while more mortal than other games, still managed 386 passing yards and three touchdown passes.

Still, the Colts held Denver to a season-low point total in their 39-33 victory. In the first six games Denver had scored 40 or more points four times -- and more than 50 twice. Manning has thrown 25 touchdown passes and only three interceptions.

“He's one of the best, if not the best, that ever played the game,” Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett said.

[+] EnlargeRobert Mathis
Thomas J. Russo/USA TODAY SportsRobert Mathis and the Colts were able to sack Broncos QB Peyton Manning four times on Sunday.
Still, the Colts beat him. Here's what the Colts did well:

Be physical with the receivers

The Redskins have done a solid job in recent weeks at disrupting the timing of receivers. At times they'll jam immediately off the line. Other times they'll let them run a couple yards then get their hands on them. That's what Indianapolis did Sunday. The Colts did not play press coverage the whole game, but they did cover well most of the night; downfield passes were always contested with tight coverage.

That's why Redskins corner DeAngelo Hall said one key is to “try to win one-on-one matchups.”

It'll help if Washington can at least apply solid pressure with its four-man rush. With safety Brandon Meriweather suspended and safety Reed Doughty likely questionable because of his concussion, the Redskins will be thin at that spot. To put one safety deep in this situation would be difficult, though E.J. Biggers' speed allows him to cover a lot of ground -- which is why they'll use the corner at safety, likely with three other corners.

Indianapolis also did a good job being disciplined in coverage and tackling after the catch. Also, the corners understood where their help was on plays, something that could be trickier for Washington if it must incorporate inexperienced safeties.

The coverage ploy worked great for three quarters Sunday. But it's hard to stop this offense all game. Of Denver's top seven plays in terms of yards gained, six occurred in the fourth quarter and represented 186 of their 429 total yards.

Keep disguising coverages

It's obviously difficult to confuse Manning, one of the smartest quarterbacks in history. But it can happen.

On a second-and-10 in the first half, the Colts showed a two-deep look and what appeared to be man coverage. That's not surprising; it's a look they showed often. The left outside linebacker covered tight end Julius Thomas off the line with the left corner playing off on receiver Eric Decker. Then Decker broke inside and, as Manning readied to throw, the Colts revealed zone coverage with the linebacker, Jerrell Freeman, breaking off Thomas and deflecting the pass.

"If he sees something and it looks different he can find a weakness," Redskins corner DeAngelo Hall said. "But if we're showing the same thing and we're playing a bunch of different things out of it, hopefully we can fool them a couple times. Indy did the same thing. They attacked with their front and in the back end everything looked the same.”

Field position

Denver had 17 drives against the Colts, but 11 were from their own 20 or worse. And six were inside the 20. The Broncos scored only 10 points on these drives 11 drives while 23 were scored when they started a drive outside their own 35-yard line.

That, of course, means the Redskins' special teams would have to perform better than they have the past two games when they've allowed two punt returns for a touchdown and a 90-yard kickoff return.

In the past two games combined, the Redskins' opponents have had 23 possessions; nine have been at their own 35 or better with eight at the 20 or worse.

Pressure

It's not just about hitting Manning or sacking him. Both can be difficult because of how quickly he delivers the ball. In the first half Sunday, the Colts did a good job of pinching the pocket, more often than not using four-man rushes. They'd send the occasional blitz, or stunt the outside linebackers to the middle. But, mostly, it was about four rushers (who also did a good job against the run, using some stunts to offset being forced into six-man boxes because of the three-receiver sets).

Indianapolis applied pressure inside, too, preventing Manning from stepping into his throws -- and leading to passes losing steam in the end.

“You don't want him to step up and put everything into his throws,” Redskins linebacker Ryan Kerrigan said. “You don't want him to have a comfortable pocket to sit in either. So getting that collapse and getting a good push, especially from the interior guys, will be key.”

But be warned: Manning twice in the fourth quarter stepped up into the pocket, through a gap in the rush, and completed a 49-yard pass to Demaryius Thomas and, two plays, later a 31-yarder to him for a touchdown. Manning is not a running quarterback; he's also not a statue.

Still, as Wilson said, “You don't let Peyton sit there and pick you apart. You have to move him around. He doesn't like to do that.”

Linebacker Robert Mathis had two sacks and four quarterback hurries. On one of his sacks, he just beat left tackle Chris Clark with speed around the edge, with Manning using play-action. Another time, out of a two-point stance, Mathis launched into Clark's chest and drove him back for a pressure. He also tried some spin moves inside as Clark occasionally set too wide despite having help from the back. Redskins linebacker Brian Orakpo will need to take advantage.

“The Colts did a good job of getting some pressure on him,” Haslett said. “That's the key to the game. That [and] stopping the run.”

Hankerson sidelined with foot injury

October, 23, 2013
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ASHBURN, Va. -- Washington Redskins receiver Leonard Hankerson did not practice Wednesday after hurting his foot playing with his kids on Tuesday, coach Mike Shanahan said. He did not go into detail on the severity of the injury. Nor is it known whether Hankerson will return to practice Thursday.

If Hankerson can't play, Josh Morgan would return to the lineup as the starting Z receiver. Neither player has been a consistent threat, so it wouldn't be a big drop-off from one to the other.

Defensive end Stephen Bowen was limited because of his torn posterior cruciate ligament. Bowen played with a similar injury two years ago in his other knee, and is hopeful that he'll play Sunday. Safety Reed Doughty (concussion) and backup nose tackle Chris Neild (calf) also were limited in practice. When asked whether he still had symptoms from his concussion, Doughty would only say he'll see how he's feeling Sunday.

For Denver, cornerback Champ Bailey (foot), receiver Eric Decker (toe), quarterback Peyton Manning (ankle), tight end Joel Dreessen (knee), tackle Orlando Franklin (ankle), guard Chris Kuper (ankle), defensive end Shaun Phillips (hamstring), receiver Wes Welker (ankle) all did not practice. Defensive tackle Mitch Unrein (groin) and linebacker Wesley Woodyard (neck) were limited.

Lack of dime defense hurting Cowboys?

October, 10, 2013
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IRVING, Texas -- One of the reasons cited when the Dallas Cowboys decided to fire defensive coordinator Rob Ryan after last season was that he tried to do too much. In addition to a scheme switch, the Cowboys wanted a more simplistic approach and went to Monte Kiffin.

But are they too simple?

Kiffin
Kiffin
The Cowboys are one of a few teams that do not employ a dime defense -- six defensive backs -- and perhaps it’s hurt them the last two games in which San Diego’s Philip Rivers and Denver’s Peyton Manning threw for more than 400 yards. Athletic tight ends have hurt the Cowboys the past two games with Antonio Gates and Julius Thomas going off for more than 100 yards receiving. The Broncos’ spread look also created some favorable matchups on linebackers. On a second-and-17 play in the fourth quarter of the Denver loss, Ernie Sims was matched up on Wes Welker, who came up with a 16-yard catch.

The Washington Redskins will spread the field with three receivers, which means a nickel defense, but have not had huge production from their tight ends and backs so far.

“Just philosophically, we’re in the nickel world a little bit more with this defensive system,” coach Jason Garrett said. “We’ve used dime in the past, and that’s something we can look at. Really, what you want to do is evaluate why you think things aren’t as successful as you want them to be and make the appropriate changes, make targeted changes that you think are going to help you get better. We certainly had discussions about that. We just want to make sure any changes we do make to shore up our secondary and our pass defense are changes for the right reasons. We’ll keep evaluating that as the week goes on.”

DeMarcus Ware and the pass rush

October, 7, 2013
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IRVING, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys compiled 13 sacks through the first three weeks of the season but just two in the next two games which has raised concerns about the pass rush.

In those last two games, quarterbacks Philip Rivers and Peyton Manning get rid of the ball quickly which frustrates defensive linemen who are a second or two from getting to the quarterback.

The box score of Sunday's game against the Denver Broncos did not credit any Cowboys' player with a quarterback hurry. However, Manning was knocked down several times and DeMarcus Ware forced a hurry during an interception.

"It's frustrating when we're not being able to make plays at the right time especially on third down," Ware told ESPNDallas on Monday. "I think they were 9-13 on third down plays. You got to be more effective at that time."

What is also troubling is the secondary play. The defensive backs and linebackers at times, are struggling to combat quick throws underneath and down the field.

Calling blitzes also helps the defense but even that is off. The Cowboys like to send cornerback Orlando Scandrick on a blitz off the edge, but he was needed to cover slot receiver Wes Welker more in coverage on Sunday. So the Cowboys rushed four and sometimes five at Manning. He still maintained his pocket presence. He completed 33 of 42 passes for 414 yards and four touchdowns.

"We just haven't been fundamentally sound," linebacker Sean Lee said. "It's on us as players to make more plays and we haven't made enough plays and we haven't been able to get off the field. We haven't executed enough and it's squarely on us as players to find a way to get better."

Added Ware: "It's always a team effort that's how it is. We're talking from a defensive standpoint. If the offense scores 48 points, we got to be able to win the game."

Upon Further Review: Cowboys Week 5

October, 7, 2013
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A review of four hot issues from the Dallas Cowboys' 51-48 loss to the Denver Broncos:

[+] EnlargeCole Beasley
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsCole Beasley scored the first touchdown of his career and finished with four receptions for 47 yards.
Empty it out: The Cowboys broke out their empty package against the Broncos and had great success. Unoffically, quarterback Tony Romo completed 10 of 13 passes for 235 yards when the Cowboys left the quarterback alone in the backfield. Only one of Romo’s four sacks came in an empty look. That was one of the bigger changes the Cowboys used to attack the Broncos and Romo made it work. Romo’s 79-yard throw to receiver Dez Bryant came out of an empty look, but Bryant’s fumble came when the Cowboys motioned to an empty look. Romo’s shortest completions in the 01 or 02 package were a pair of 10-yarders.

Finding the weakness: As head coach Jason Garrett says, every defense has a weakness and the opponents have found the Cowboys’ in their 4-3 scheme. San Diego completed 20 passes for 238 yards to running backs and tight ends. The Broncos completed 18 passes for 221 yards. They have given up back-to-back 100-yard games to tight ends in Antonio Gates (136) and Julius Thomas (121). With Minnesota’s Kyle Rudolph, New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham, Chicago’s Martellus Bennett and Green Bay’s Jermichael Finley left on the docket, the Cowboys better figure out how to defend the tight end better.

Playing to its level: The Cowboys are realizing just how valuable defensive end Anthony Spencer is to this defense. Perhaps nose tackle Jay Ratliff too. With Spencer out for the year and Ratliff on the physically unable to perform list for at least one more game and possibly a lot longer, the Cowboys' defensive line is getting exposed. Defensive end DeMarcus Ware and defensive tackle Jason Hatcher are the only players in the roles that were set before the season started. The rest of the line was hardly expected to make the roster. For as well as defensive end George Selvie and defensive tackle Nick Hayden have played at times, they were still out of work this summer and not on a team last season respectively. Defensive line coach Rod Marinelli was lauded for his work the first three games, but in the past two games the Cowboys have one sack.

Filling a role: It’s too easy to compare receiver Cole Beasley to Wes Welker. The Cowboys have found a role for Beasley in the slot. Beasley caught four passes for 47 yards and had his first touchdown, a 4-yarder in the fourth quarter. He looked positively Welker-like on his 23-yard catch, working the middle of the field with his quickness on the defensive back. He will be limited as an outside receiver, but his effectiveness underneath and the trust Romo has in him will make Beasley a factor on the offense, especially if the Cowboys continue to roll out their aforementioned empty package.

Pressure's on Eagles' offense, too

September, 25, 2013
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PHILADELPHIA – The focus on Peyton Manning and the Philadelphia Eagles defense makes sense in the same way that hurricane warnings focus on the vulnerable towns where the storm will make landfall.

But it is not the Eagles' defense that will determine whether they have chance Sunday against the heavily favored Denver Broncos. It is the Eagles' offense.

Put simply, the defense isn’t going to stop Manning, Wes Welker, Demaryius Thomas and the rest. Michael Vick, LeSean McCoy and DeSean Jackson are going to have to score. And score. And score some more.

[+] EnlargeMichael Vick, Mike DeVito, Tamba Hali
AP Photo/Matt RourkeMichael Vick and the Eagles offense need to eliminate turnovers to have a chance of keeping up in Denver.
“I have a lot of confidence in our offense,” McCoy said. “I think we’ll put points up. Once you punt the ball to Peyton Manning, you’ve got to count that as 7. Peyton and his offense, they’re smoking, they’re rolling, they’re scoring. So we’ve got to score.”

It’s not as if there’s some magic number of points the Eagles need to hit to have a chance. And it’s not as if they can press a button and score more quickly or efficiently.

“Every time we go out there, the goal is to score a touchdown,” wide receiver Jason Avant said. “If you go out and try to do more because of (Manning), you’re not going to play well.”

The Eagles scored 33 points before shutting it down, perhaps too soon, in their opener at Washington. They scored 30 despite misfiring early in a loss to San Diego. It was only in their most recent game, a 26-16 loss at home to Kansas City, that they weren’t able to light up the scoreboard.

“In all three games, the only time I think we’ve been stopped is when we’ve shot ourselves in the foot,” center Jason Kelce said. “Missed opportunities, penalties, turnovers were a killer for us last week. As long as we take care of the football and do what we’re supposed to do on each play, this offense is very dynamic. There’s a lot of playmakers in it. We should be able to take advantage of any defense we play.”

It is not in coach Chip Kelly’s DNA to slow his offense down and try to keep Manning off the field. He is trying to build an aggressive mindset here, and that transcends the particulars of this one game. So expect the Eagles to run their offense as quickly as they can.

One thing they can’t afford to do is fall behind by more than a score or two early. That’s always difficult, but it will be especially tough for this offense to protect Vick if the running game is eliminated as a viable option.

That’s the reason the Broncos have the No. 1 rushing defense in the NFL, with just 43.3 yards allowed per game. Opponents, forced to play catchup, have only tried to run the ball against them 57 times. That’s the second-lowest number in the league.

“It’s hard to run the ball when you’re down,” McCoy said. “You can’t look at it that way.”

Everyone knows there will be a high-powered offense operating at Mile High on Sunday. For the Eagles to have a chance, there have to be two.

Eagles defenders, Manning have history

September, 24, 2013
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PHILADELPHIA -- They know he can be beaten because many of them have actually done it.

Cary Williams was playing cornerback for the Baltimore Ravens when they defeated Peyton Manning in the AFC playoffs earlier this year.

Connor Barwin was on the Houston Texans defense that went to Denver a year ago and defeated Manning and the Broncos.

And yes, the Eagles actually managed to beat Manning once during his years with the Indianapolis Colts. It was three years ago. Outside linebackers Trent Cole and Brandon Graham and safeties Nate Allen and Kurt Coleman are the only defensive players who are still on the roster from that game.

[+] EnlargeWes Welker
Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsWith Wes Welker among his potential targets, Denver QB Peyton Manning is off to a sizzling start.
“I think I hit him a few times,” Cole, who had one of the Eagles’ three sacks in that 2010 game, said Tuesday. “I can’t give you the secret, but I know we were jumping on him.”

“He’s human,” Williams said.

So they know firsthand it can be done. They also know firsthand just how good Manning is.

“I remember we were getting back there and we were hitting him,” Cole said, “but he was just getting the ball off so fast. I remember him being back there, reading the whole [defensive] backfield. I could see his eyes flicking back and forth. It was crazy.”

“He’s the best,” Allen said. “He’s looking guys off. He’s putting safeties right where he wants them, then he’s going back the other way. He’s top of the line.”

The Eagles’ Asante Samuel intercepted Manning twice in that game. Michael Vick was in the middle of his 2010 hot streak, and the Eagles were able to beat Manning and the Colts, 26-24.

That’s ancient history, though. Manning is now in Denver. He is throwing to Wes Welker, among other terrific receivers. And Manning is off to one of the greatest starts in NFL history: 12 touchdowns, zero interceptions, 73 percent completion rate, 1,143 yards and a 3-0 record.

The Texans beat the Broncos, 31-26, in Manning’s third game after missing a season due to neck surgery. He threw for two touchdowns in the game, but was not as sharp as he’s been ever since.

“Some guys you play, you make some mistakes and some quarterbacks don’t find it,” Barwin said. “This guy, you make a mistake, he’ll find it. It’s important we do what we do really well. You need to go in against Peyton and play a very, very clean defensive game. There’s no magic formula.”

Williams was on the winning side in the only game Manning has lost in the past 11 months. The Broncos got two special-teams touchdowns and Manning threw for three TDs in the Ravens’ 38-35 victory. Baltimore did pick off two passes, including one that Corey Graham returned 39 yards for a TD.

“It changes every year,” Williams said. “He has some more weapons, and he has more of a rapport with the guys he had there from before. They’re a great team. He’s a great quarterback. He’s going to get his yards. You just have to play your game, go out there and compete.”

It is not an encouraging matchup for the Eagles, to say the least. But it’s also an opportunity. If they are able to compete with the undefeated Broncos, they can draw confidence from that as they proceed to winnable games against the Giants and Buccaneers. And if they can catch Manning off guard somehow, they can deliver a major statement.

“It’s an awesome challenge,” Williams said. “It’s an opportunity for us to go out there and shock the world.”

And maybe even themselves.

Double Coverage: Broncos at Giants

September, 12, 2013
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For the third time in their careers, brothers Peyton Manning and Eli Manning will oppose each other as the starting quarterbacks in the same NFL game. Peyton's Denver Broncos travel to East Rutherford, N.J., to take on Eli's New York Giants at 4:25 p.m. ET on Sunday at MetLife Stadium. Both of these teams have dreams of playing in the Super Bowl in that very same building in February. But while Denver looked the part of the contender in its Week 1 rout of the defending champion Ravens, the Giants turned the ball over six times in an ugly opening-week loss in Dallas. Broncos team reporter Jeff Legwold and Giants team reporter Dan Graziano break down this week's Battle of the Brothers.

Dan Graziano: So yeah, Jeff, I don't know if you were able to dig this up on your end, but my research does indeed confirm that the two starting quarterbacks in this game grew up in the same house with the same parents. I wonder if others will catch on and ask some questions and write some stories about that angle this week. I don't expect Eli Manning to admit that he's looking for revenge after his big brother beat him twice while he was with the Colts, but I'm sure there's some element of that going on. I have two little brothers myself, and personally I'd be pretty annoyed if I ever lost an NFL game to either one of them. Do you think this game means a little something extra to Peyton Manning?

Jeff Legwold: Dan, I wasn’t planning to ask about this ... but OK, I'm in. I've been around Peyton since my time in Nashville and his at the University of Tennessee, so I'm fairly certain Peyton isn't a big fan of this from a personal perspective. Plenty of his friends said after the Colts released Peyton they didn't even think he would go to an NFC team, let alone the Redskins (pre 2012 draft, of course) because there was far more potential to face Eli if he did. They’ll talk this week, but there won’t be any football on the phone. From a football standpoint Peyton is in regular-season mode, which is intense, focused and running the show. The Broncos didn't show all of their changes on offense against the Ravens last week -- they have another gear they can hit in the no-huddle they didn't use against Baltimore -- but Peyton has plenty of places to go in the passing game. How do you think the Giants' revamped defensive front will approach all of that?

DG: Yeesh. Another gear? The rest of the league can't be excited to hear that. The most positive and effective change the Giants made on defense this offseason was at defensive tackle, where they believe they've beefed up and are better suited to stop the run than they were a year ago. But while that sounds nice and useful, the plain fact is that the Giants' defense needs a dominant pass rush from the front four in order to be effective. The linebackers are terrible, and Dallas' short-range-passing game plan Sunday night showed that it's not hard for the rest of the league to figure that out and take advantage of it. The cornerbacks are just so-so, and if Prince Amukamara is out with a concussion (still unknown at this time), that unit becomes a liability. The key will be Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul generating pressure on Peyton from the edge. Pierre-Paul looked rusty and didn't play a full game Sunday as he was coming off of June back surgery and missed the preseason. If he can take a big step forward this week in terms of conditioning and practice time, that would help. He's the difference-making player in their defensive front -- the one who has the ability to take over a game if he's 100 percent. They need him as close to that as possible if they're going to pressure Peyton Manning enough to limit the time he has to take advantage of all of those options.

Peyton's brother has his share of options as well. Three different Giants receivers had more than 100 yards in the opener, including big second-year wideout Rueben Randle. With Victor Cruz in the slot and Randle and Hakeem Nicks on the outside, how are the Broncos equipped to cover the Giants' receivers?

[+] EnlargeJason Pierre-Paul
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezJason Pierre-Paul and New York's pass rush may be the key to containing Peyton Manning.
JL: It is an issue for the Broncos, especially if Champ Bailey (left foot) isn't ready to go. He was jogging early in the week, but did not take part in Monday's practice. He has been in for treatment every day, including Tuesday, and still hopes to get himself back in the lineup. The Broncos signed Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in the offseason because they believed he could take his game to another level and that they could help him do that. He played like the former Pro Bowl pick (2009) he was in the opener and shut down Torrey Smith and showed plenty of athleticism. But take Bailey out of the mix and the Broncos are small when they go into the nickel. When Bailey doesn't play, the 5-foot-10 Chris Harris starts and the 5-foot-9 Tony Carter then comes in for the nickel. Without Bailey that puts Harris in the slot and Carter on the outside and quarterbacks tend to go after Carter in that situation. If Bailey plays -- and he's made no secret he wants to -- that gives the Broncos better matchups. Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio likes to mix it up overall and uses a lot of people, and if they get the right down-and-distance situations, he likes to even break out a seven-defensive back look and the rushers come from everywhere in the formation.

When Del Rio is looking at the Giants' running game, what will he see?

DG: Oh, yes. The run game. Better known as "The Only Thing I've Been Writing About Since Sunday Night." I still think the answer to your question is second-year back David Wilson, though his much-publicized pair of fumbles (and his less-publicized issues in pass protection) have the Giants tweaking last week's plan to give Wilson a full starter's workload. They had a bunch of veteran backs in for workouts Tuesday and ended up signing Brandon Jacobs, but Wilson is still the former first-round pick and the big-play threat who's likely to get the bulk of the first-down and second-down work as long as he doesn't fumble anymore. They had planned to use Andre Brown as the passing-downs back and the goal-line back before Brown broke his leg in the final preseason game, and after Wilson's tough opener, it looks as though Jacobs has been brought in to fill Brown's role. But Wilson's still their best running back, and assuming they throw him right back in there, he's someone for whom the Broncos will have to account. When he does hold on to the ball, he's impressive to watch run.

One guy who obviously stood out for the Broncos in their opener was the tight end, Julius Thomas. The Giants had no answers for Jason Witten on Sunday and, as I mentioned earlier, don't have anyone in their linebacking corps to really cover tight ends. So was Thomas a one-game wonder, or is this a serious candidate for a major role in the passing game?

JL: Dan, the Broncos and Thomas waited two years to see what folks saw last Thursday night. Since the Broncos took the former Portland State basketball player in the fourth round of the 2011 draft, he offered glimpse after glimpse on the practice field of what the potential was. But he suffered an ankle injury on his first NFL catch -- in the second game of his rookie season -- and wasn't the same after. He had surgery to repair the ankle before last season and spent much of the year simply being a game-day inactive. But coming down the stretch last season, players kept talking about what Thomas was doing in practice, and in training camp this summer he consistently ran away from defensive backs. He's great at getting the ball in a crowd and the Ravens did what most defenses figure to do, rotate coverage to the likes of Wes Welker and Demaryius Thomas, and leave Thomas with just one defender. Thomas is still raw in some of his route running -- he is in just his fourth year of football after just one season's worth in college -- and sometimes will drop one he shouldn't, but the guy is a matchup problem for defenses, especially since Peyton Manning trusts him enough to throw it to him in almost any situation.

Opposing tight ends did plenty of damage against the Broncos' defense last season with 81 receptions for 948 yards and 11 touchdowns as a position group. They've seen Brandon Myers plenty in previous seasons, how does he fit in an offense with so much output at wide receiver?

DG: Yes, Myers was kind of the forgotten man Sunday night with all of the wideouts going nuts. And as long as those three wideouts are healthy and productive, I wouldn't be surprised to see that continue. Myers is the Giants' fourth different starting tight end in four years. And over the past five years, the Giants' leading tight end has averaged 40.6 catches per season. Martellus Bennett's 55 catches last year were the most by a Giants tight end since Jeremy Shockey caught 57 in 2007. So while Myers was a big receiving threat in Oakland, I doubt he'll threaten 70-80 catches this year as a Giant. They just don't use their tight end as a weapon in the receiving game the way a lot of teams do. Now, might they pick a matchup, such as this one, in which you say the team hasn't been strong against tight ends, and throw it to him more in such a game? Entirely possible. Myers looked like a significant part of the offensive game plan in training camp practices, so there are definitely some packages in which they'll throw to him. But right now, with injuries on the offensive line and the problems they're having in general with pass protection, I believe they need Myers to stay in and block more.

Speaking of protection, and getting back to what I think is one of the key points at least from the New York end, what's the state of the Denver offensive line in front of big brother Manning? Are the Giants' pass-rushers in for a challenging day?

JL: That was THE story in the preseason for the Broncos. Two of their starting linemen -- right tackle Orlando Franklin and left tackle Ryan Clady -- had offseason surgeries and Clady didn't play in the preseason. They lost center Dan Koppen to a torn ACL in training camp and spent much of August signing veteran linemen to address depth issues, before finally bringing two of those signees -- John Moffitt and Steve Vallos -- onto the final 53-man roster. They want the three-wide set to be their base formation on offense -- they ran their first 20 plays from scrimmage out of it against the Ravens -- but can't play it if they can't protect. Their first target in free agency, because they felt like they surrendered far too much pressure up the middle, was guard Louis Vasquez, who got the longest deal (four years) the Broncos gave to any player they signed in the offseason. They had some bobbles early against the Ravens, went to a two-tight end set briefly in the second quarter to reset things and kept themselves together when they went to three-wide after that. Center Manny Ramirez is the key; when he plays well, the Broncos can stay in that three-wide look and they can consistently pressure defenses out of it.

Rushing a Manning is something the Broncos have to consider as well. What do the Giants think of a pass rush without Von Miller in it for another five games?

DG: I'm sure they wish he was coming back in time to face the Eagles in Week 4 and the Cowboys in Week 5. But as a Week 2 development, the Giants will take it. Preseason injuries shook up the Giants' line. They have rookie first-rounder Justin Pugh starting at right tackle, which wasn't the plan. They have left guard Kevin Boothe playing center and backup tackle James Brewer playing left guard for the first time in his life. Add in the blocking downgrade at running back, and Eli Manning's protection is one of the major issues the Giants are having right now. Like his brother, Eli has an insanely quick release, so he doesn't need a Hall of Fame line in front of him in order to be successful. But he does need some level of comfort back there, because he's not at his best when he has to move his feet. George Selvie and a cast of backup rushers had success against the Giants' line Sunday night and helped rattle Manning into three interceptions, so it's not as though the Broncos necessarily need Miller to get the job done. What are they doing with their pass rush to overcome that significant loss and the loss of Elvis Dumervil to the whims of a fax machine?

JL: With Dumervil now in Baltimore and Miller suspended for five more games for violating the league's substance-abuse policy, the Broncos are missing 29.5 sacks from last season's defense that tied for the league lead (52) last season. The Broncos talked to plenty of veteran pass-rushers in the offseason and, after deciding John Abraham and Dwight Freeney wanted too much money, they signed Shaun Phillips during the draft weekend. And it's Phillips who is going to have to be the biggest part of the solution in the pass rush until Miller comes back. He was up to the challenge with 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble against the Ravens. Del Rio likes plenty of pressure packages when the Broncos get the lead and will rush players from anywhere in the formation The Broncos are particularly aggressive and creative out of their dime looks as well as the seven-defensive back look. They still have to show they can win one-on-one matchups in the rush when the game is tight, however. The rush didn't really kick in against the Ravens -- Flacco was largely untouched in the first half last Thursday -- until the Broncos had built the lead and the Ravens had to open things up some.

The Giants will be one of three NFC East teams the Broncos will play over the next four weeks, so do the Giants believe the Broncos' no-huddle look will be an kind of preview for what's to come with the Eagles?

DG: Good question. The Cowboys showed some no-huddle Sunday, and obviously the Giants are going to have to expect it from the Eagles, so perhaps these are some good early tests for them. Makes me think it really would help if they had some better all-around instinctive playmaker types in the linebacking corps. But they don't prioritize that position, and they think if they can get to the quarterback they can make up for deficiencies there and in the secondary. We'll see. It's a lot to ask of Tuck and Pierre-Paul, but they've both been great players at times in the past.

Anyway, I think that about covers it. Should be a fun one Sunday at the Meadowlands. See you there, Jeff.

Cruz
PHOENIX -- Interesting New York Giants-related nugget from the first day of the owners meetings here Sunday. Co-owner Steve Tisch, talking about restricted free-agent wide receiver Victor Cruz, was asked if he thought the two-year, $6 million contract slot receiver Wes Welker signed with the Denver Broncos was a benchmark.

"I think Victor will get higher than that," Tisch said.

Which is the ultimate in self-fulfilling prophecies, right? I mean, if the team thinks he should get more than Welker, that would certainly seem to indicate he ultimately will. It's extremely doubtful that the agent would hear something like this and start negotiating downward, insisting that Cruz make less than Welker.

Anyway, the whole thing backed up my belief that the contract dispute between Cruz and the Giants breaks down along philosophical lines regarding what kind of receiver he is. If the Giants view him as a slot receiver and are willing to pay him more than Welker, who's the best slot receiver of his generation and a player on whom Cruz has said he modeled his game, then you can see why the Giants think they are being generous with their offer. But if Cruz is looking to cash in on his two huge seasons with top-receiver money based on the idea that his production stacks up with that of the top receivers, then it's unlikely the Giants are going to move up into his ballpark.

Round and round it goes. I still think it gets done eventually.
The surprising free-agent news of the day is that former Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker has left to join the Denver Broncos on a two-year, $12 million contract. This is AFC news, of course, but there is one specific way I think it touches on the NFC East, and that's the extent to which it pertains to the New York Giants' current situation with restricted free-agent wide receiver Victor Cruz.

Cruz
Welker's deal is not going to help Cruz get what he wants from the Giants. Sure, you can argue that Cruz is five and a half years younger than Welker and insist that they're not comparable cases. And that might end up mattering when it comes to the length of the deal. But in terms of money, I don't see how Cruz has a case to make more money than Welker, who's the preeminent slot receiver of his generation and someone on whom Cruz has said he models his game. Cruz is much younger, but Welker is much more accomplished, and I think those two arguments kind of cancel each other out.

What the sides are left with, then, is a Welker contract that sets the market for slot receivers. And that hits at the source of the current conflict between Cruz and the Giants. Cruz wants to be paid on production -- as a No. 1 wide receiver who's led the team in catches each of the past two seasons and ranked among the league leaders in receptions and receiving yards during that time. The Giants, who tried to use Cruz outside more last year but ended up moving him back inside in favor of rookie Rueben Randle later in the season, seem to view him as a slot receiver, and to be of the opinion that quarterback Eli Manning can help make a slot receiver a star. (Steve Smith's 107-catch 2009 season in the same role works as evidence in their favor.) So the sides have not been able to reach a deal. And if the Giants insist on painting Cruz as a slot receiver in negotiations, Welker is the comparison to which they will justifiably cling. It's not a helpful one to Cruz's case. If their current offer to Cruz is for more than $6 million per season, they can ask him, "Why should you make more than Welker?" if it's less, they can ask him, "Why should you make as much as Welker?"

Cruz and the Giants have been trying for months to get a long-term contract extension worked out. The Giants would like to have it done so they can move ahead with other plans, including a new deal that will need to be done by this time next year for Hakeem Nicks (whom they do consider a true No. 1 wideout). Cruz would like to have it done because he wants to cash in on two straight excellent years and also stay in New York, where he and Manning have had so much success together.

But it is not done. And while the Giants have tendered Cruz at a first-round level and are unlikely to lose him in free agency, there remains clear frustration from both sides. Giants coach Tom Coughlin and owner John Mara have both voiced frustration within the past couple of weeks over the refusal of Cruz to accept what they feel is a generous offer. Cruz has changed agents, which of course indicates dissatisfaction with the way negotiations were going.

The Welker news will force both sides in this dispute to re-evaluate the landscape. And when they do, whether this is fair or not, I think the Giants will be happier with the extent to which it's helped their case.

Eagles could use help at wide receiver

February, 7, 2013
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Zach Berman is going position-by-position with the Philadelphia Eagles' roster, and today's focus is on wide receiver. The Eagles have talent there with DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin, but in spite of all of their skills neither has proved to be as reliable a performer as the Eagles have long hoped they would be. Could they both snap back to form, stay healthy all year and form one of the top wideout duos in the league? Possibly, but it's unlikely the Eagles can base an offseason plan on that hope, especially since they don't currently know who the quarterback is going to be:
Look for some new additions at both wide receiver and tight end. It’s a loaded free agent class, but the Eagles would need to pay big money to land Dwayne Bowe, Mike Wallace or Wes Welker. Victor Cruz is a restricted free agent who would cost the Eagles a pick based on his tender. Danario Alexander would be an intriguing option because of his size if he does not garner a high tender.

A big-bodied wide receiver would give the Eagles something they’re missing. Don’t expect the Eagles to spend a first-round pick on a receiver. Virginia Tech’s Marcus Davis is a big receiver who could be taken in a middle round. If the Eagles are looking for the versatile receiver to be used in different roles, few are better in the NFL than West Virginia’s Tavon Austin. Of course, he would require a pick late in the first round or early in the second round.

Much of this of course depends on new coach Chip Kelly's plan for his offense. If Jackson is going to be used, as he himself suggested last week, in a role similar to the one running back DeAnthony Thomas filled for Kelly at Oregon, then it's possible the Eagles could be looking for a more traditional big-target wideout on the outside. They'll need to focus most of their offseason energy and resources on rebuilding the defense, especially the secondary. But if they do something big on offense other than quarterback, wide receiver could indeed be the spot.
This week's edition of "The Huddle," starring your favorite division blogger as well as Ashley Fox and Mike Sando, examines three of the hot topics making news this week in the NFL.

The first one is the new set of rules the Dallas Cowboys have made for receiver Dez Bryant, and the team's motivation for putting those rules in place. You know where I come down on this. I think the Cowboys are doing what they feel they need to do to protect and maximize an investment, but they're also following through on the responsibility they took on when they drafted Bryant with full awareness of his off-field issues. You can listen to more from me, Ashley and Mike on this.

We also talk about Seattle's decision to start rookie Russell Wilson at quarterback and the Patriots' decision to give a contract extension to Aaron Hernandez but not Wes Welker. Check it out, and enjoy.
New York Giants fans don't much care what kind of fantasy football quarterback Eli Manning is, because as a real-life quarterback he delivered them two Super Bowl titles. But it's Friday of fantasy week here on the NFC East blog, and so we're going to look at Manning purely as a fantasy option for 2012. Fortunately, as you may have come to expect by now, there's a roundtable video our fantasy experts did on that very topic.

[+] EnlargeMike Sullivan
AP Photo/Julio CortezHow will QB Eli Manning, now with two Super Bowls under his belt, fare in fantasy drafts this season?
Manning is an enigmatic fantasy quarterback. He's ranked sixth among quarterbacks by our experts in their preseason rankings. But according to the average draft position data on this site, he's the ninth quarterback being taken in early mocks and not going until the middle of the sixth round. In the video, Matthew Berry points out that Manning's pass attempts over the past four years have been, in order, 479, 509, 539 and 589. Once you get past the weird fact that all of those numbers end in nine, you realize that Manning is meeting one of the key criteria for a fantasy quarterback: He plays in an offense that throws the ball a ton.

He also threw for nearly 5,000 yards in 2011. He has two top-10 fantasy receivers, complete job security, the absolute trust of the coaching staff and has never missed a game since becoming the Giants' starter in 2004. What's not to like?

The issue, from a fantasy standpoint, is touchdowns. As Christopher Harris points out, the 10 quarterbacks who've thrown for more yards in a season than Manning did last year have averaged 40.9 touchdown passes in those seasons. Manning threw only 29 last year. This isn't likely to change much. The Giants like to run the ball at the goal line, which means the thing that deflates Manning's value is the very thing that inflates Ahmad Bradshaw's. Manning will throw a lot, and he'll throw deep, and he's not likely to kill you with interceptions the way he did two years ago. But when you strip fantasy football down to its most basic elements, you want guys who score touchdowns. And there are quarterbacks who are going to throw more touchdowns than Manning will.

Now, if you've really killed it in the first five rounds of your draft -- you came up with two stud running backs, Rob Gronkowski and a couple of wide receivers you love -- and Manning is sitting there in the sixth, you're going to be pretty fired up to take him. The guy that won the regular-season points title in my main league last year had Manning, and no one could touch him until the playoffs (when yours truly pulled an Eli Manning of his own and went on a dream run to the title). This guy also had LeSean McCoy, Gronkowski, Darren Sproles, Wes Welker ... you get the idea. He was loaded, and Manning was more than enough quarterback for a team like that.

I always say the only thing that matters in fantasy sports is value. And if Manning's going to last that long in drafts, he may not be the best quarterback in your fantasy league this year, but he might offer the most value.

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