Thursday, September 24, 2009 Updated: September 25, 11:49 AM ET
First & 10: Advanced studies for Ryan
By John Clayton ESPN.com
Conventional NFL logic says Matt Ryan, the former Boston College quarterback, goes back to New England this weekend for a humbling postgraduate class headed by Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.
Ryan is the pupil. Brady is the teacher, a future Hall of Famer who had to be an inspiration to any tall quarterback honing his craft in New England. Although conventional logic says the Falcons will have a tough time against the Patriots, this is September, and crazy things happen in the first few weeks of the season.
Brady is off to a shaky start, which is understandable considering he missed a year of football after blowing out his knee last September, and his technique is a little off because he spent more time rehabbing the knee than working on his throwing mechanics. Brady has completed 62 percent of his passes, but he has thrown only two touchdown passes, and New England's offense is averaging only 17 points a game. If not for a great comeback in the final couple of minutes of the season opener against the Bills, the Patriots might be 0-2.
Even though his left knee has recovered perfectly from surgery, Brady is still a little hesistant to extend his left leg when players are near him. Most quarterbacks coming off ACL repairs are like that. They can function well, but it takes until the second season after the operation before they feel fully comfortable.
Ryan, on the other hand, is very comfortable. He's 2-0 after consecutive home victories, and his confidence couldn't be better. He's completing 68.3 percent of his passes with five touchdown passes and a 108.5 quarterback rating. It's good to be "Matty Ice." Management went out and got him tight end Tony Gonzalez, who's averaging six catches and 72 yards a game; Gonzalez is one of Ryan's main targets in the red zone.
Both defenses are vulnerable. The Patriots haven't found their defensive personality after trading Richard Seymour and Mike Vrabel and losing Tedy Bruschi and Rodney Harrison to retirement. They've also revamped their cornerback corps -- again. They've been switching between a 3-4 scheme and a 4-3 while trying to find more linebackers to help with the transition.
The Falcons suffered a huge blow this week when they lost defensive tackle Peria Jerry (knee), their first-round draft pick, for the season. Head coach Mike Smith is trying to replace five starters on defense. Despite their two wins, the Falcons rank 22nd in the league on defense after giving up an average of 349.5 yards a game and 120 per game on the ground.
Another interesting player to watch is halfback Michael Turner. He's the workhorse of Atlanta's offense with 50 carries, most in the league. Defenses have ganged up on him, limiting Turner to 170 yards and a modest 3.4 yard per carry average. He had 376 carries last season, and most backs with that many carries struggle the next season.
1. Tennessee Titans at New York Jets: The Titans remember the Jets' 34-13 victory in Nashville in November 2008. It was a wake-up call. The Jets, at 8-3, felt they were on top of the world after that game. Brett Favre was completing better than 70 percent of his passes. The Jets were physically dominating and totally confident. Then Favre's biceps muscle wore out, nose tackle Kris Jenkins wore down and the Jets lost four of their next five games and missed the playoffs. With new coach Rex Ryan, the Jets walk with a swagger and talk boldly.
The Titans, meanwhile, need more than a wake-up call. They need cardio shock treatment. No team has made the playoffs after an 0-3 start since 1998, and the Titans face the possibility of being 0-3. They lost only three games all last season. Losing defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth has affected the Titans in a different way than expected. You'd figure his loss would hurt the run defense, but the Titans are giving up 49.5 yards a game on the ground and 1.9 yards a carry. The impact has been more on the pass rush. They miss his ability to collapse the pocket. Opponents are completing 70.7 percent of their passes against the Titans and getting 339 yards a game through the air.
With Pittsburgh's running game struggling, the pressure is on Big Ben to deliver.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals: You'd like to call this a rivalry because these teams get under each other's skin. But it's hard to call it a rivalry because the Steelers have won the past five games. Bengals players still remember Steelers receiver Hines Ward's hit last season that broke the jaw of linebacker Keith Rivers and ended his season. The Bengals rebounded from their opening loss to the Broncos with a strong victory over the Packers on the road. It was good test for Carson Palmer and the Bengals' offense, which got a strong performance from RB Cedric Benson.
Speaking of rushing, the Steelers still can't generate a ground game. Willie Parker is averaging 2.4 yards a carry, and Pittsburgh's rushing offense pretty much gives up after about 22 or 23 attempts, putting all the pressure on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to win games.
3. Indianapolis Colts at Arizona Cardinals: The Sunday night matchup between Peyton Manning and Kurt Warner should be fascinating. Manning knows how to manage a game when the odds are against him. He knows the Colts' defense is vulnerable to the run (Indy is giving up 176.5 rushing yards a game), so he has to manage long, time-consuming drives to allow his defense to rest. He's been doing that for years.
Warner, however, loves to just sling the ball. He's a master of waiting until the last minute before taking a hit and firing out a completion for big yardage. Warner is coming off a 24-for-26 performance against the Jaguars, finally getting Arizona's passing offense back in rhythm. Neither team has been able to get its running offense going consistently. With Manning going up against Warner, that might not happen until next week.
4. Carolina Panthers at Dallas Cowboys: The Panthers are giving up an average of 168 rushing yards a game. Defensive tackle Louis Leonard became their second defensive tackle lost for the season because of injury. They know what to expect this week: The Cowboys will try to run them into oblivion. Of course, this is a desperation game for the Panthers. They are 0-2 and know an 0-3 start could pretty much cripple their chances for a playoff run. They are pleased that QB Jake Delhomme bounced back from his horrible opener to play a decent game in Week 2 against the Falcons. Still, the Panthers lost, and their season is in jeopardy.
Cowboys coach Wade Phillips and QB Tony Romo probably won't have to get fancy in this game. Despite Marion Barber's quad injury, the Cowboys will try to run the ball as much as possible with Felix Jones and Tashard Choice. The only thing that has to stop is Romo's interceptions. He has three so far and is completing only 51.8 percent of his passes.
5. Chicago Bears at Seattle Seahawks: The Seahawks have a hospital ward set aside for this game. They may not have QB Matt Hasselbeck (cracked rib), linebackers Lofa Tatupu (hamstring) and Leroy Hill (groin), cornerback Josh Wilson (ankle), tackles Walter Jones (knee) and Sean Locklear (ankle), defensive tackle Brandon Mebane (calf) and fullback Justin Griffith (knee). The fire department might cite their training room for being over capacity.
The Seahawks will have to rely on their loud home crowd to cause enough false starts and confusion to hold back Jay Cutler and the Bears. Cutler was a little rattled in Chicago's opening loss in Green Bay. Maybe it was the crowd. Maybe it was the Packers' pass rush. Either way, he settled down in Week 2, when he gutted out a last-minute victory over the Steelers. Seattle coach Jim Mora Jr. needs a good defensive effort to make things easier if Seneca Wallace starts at quarterback.
6. Miami Dolphins at San Diego Chargers: The Chargers figured they'd run away with the AFC West -- unless they suffered a lot of injuries. Well, San Diego enters Week 3 with plenty of health concerns. The Chargers are struggling to stop the run with nose tackle Jamal Williams out for the season. The interior of the offensive line is a mess and got worse when center Nick Hardwick had ankle surgery. (He'll be out until December.) Running back LaDainian Tomlinson is still slowed by an ankle injury. And LB Shawne Merriman can't generate big plays because of his recovering knee.
The Dolphins know their playoff hopes could be dashed if they lose this tough game. They also know San Diego QB Philip Rivers studied the pass plays that worked for Peyton Manning on Monday night. Rivers likely will try to work those same routes.
Running room might be hard to come by for San Francisco's Frank Gore this weekend.
7. San Francisco 49ers at Minnesota Vikings: Mike Singletary will find out whether his 49ers are for real in this interesting game in the Metrodome. The 49ers know it will be hard to rush Frank Gore as successfully as they did against the Seahawks with Pat and Kevin Williams anchoring the Vikings' defensive line. They know Adrian Peterson will test their defense. What they don't know is what Brett Favre will do. So far, he's been content to play it safe, averaging 7.3 yards a completion. In Week 2, he completed only one pass that sailed longer than 10 yards. But Sunday is Favre's first home game as a Viking. He might want to try to entertain the crowd with a few long throws.
8. New Orleans Saints at Buffalo Bills: Despite a fired offensive coordinator, a released left tackle and a season-ending injury to right tackle Brad Butler, Buffalo QB Trent Edwards is off to a good start. He's completing 64.3 percent of his passes and has a 104.9 quarterback rating. But this matchup against Saints QB Drew Brees has to be scary for Bills coach Dick Jauron. The Bills still play a bend-but-don't-break defense. In two games, their defense has been on the field 32 more plays than their offense. If that trend continues against Brees, who has nine touchdown passes and is completing 75 percent of his throws, the Saints might score 45 points.
9. Jacksonville Jaguars at Houston Texans: Last season, the Texans ended a three-year stint at the bottom of the AFC South by moving ahead of the Jaguars with their 8-8 record. The Texans need to secure this home game to make sure they don't slip back into the cellar. Houston has won its past three home contests against the Jaguars, who come in with an offense averaging only 14.5 points a game. It's a game Texans coach Gary Kubiak must and should win.
10. Kansas City Chiefs at Philadelphia Eagles: Figure Michael Vick to get about five or six Wildcat plays. Eagles coach Andy Reid tested out some of the Wildcat's possibilities in a lopsided loss to the Saints in Week 2, and it averaged 5.7 yards a play. Vick should help the Eagles in short-yardage situations and with these specialty plays. The Chiefs, who are 0-2 and in rebuilding mode, are a good team on which to test things because they don't figure to win many road games.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.