Panic setting in for some teams
Cowboys, Eagles and Chargers among those looking for turnarounds
Inside the Huddle with John Clayton
Panic is setting in for some franchises as the NFL approaches midseason.
Heading into a bye week, Philadelphia Eagles coach Andy Reid dismissed defensive coordinator Juan Castillo and served notice to his players, including quarterback Michael Vick, that changes could be coming if they continue to perform at a .500 level. This team, in his eyes and others', should be better than 3-3.
In Carolina, owner Jerry Richardson let his team know that its drop-off to 1-5 is unacceptable. He fired general manager Marty Hurney. That move served notice to head coach Ron Rivera that he's in trouble if the team doesn't start turning close losses into victories.
There may not be panic in laid-back San Diego, but Norv Turner and the Chargers know pink slips await many if the team continues to blow games in the second half, as it did in losses to the New Orleans Saints and Denver Broncos.
Romeo Crennel reflected on his troubled quarterback situation and decided Brady Quinn would serve better than struggling and banged-up Matt Cassel, particularly knowing that the Chiefs are playing in front of some fans who cheered Cassel's concussion.
In Dallas, it's difficult to tell what Jerry Jones is thinking, talking about Super Bowls for a team that seems stuck at .500. His team has underachieved to a degree, but injuries also are pulling the talent level closer to an average team. How that affects the future of head coach Jason Garrett is unknown, although Jones wants to stay with him. Of course, he wanted to do the same with Wade Phillips.
Here are the trends for NFL Week 8:
Mike and Mike in the Morning
ESPN NFL Insider John Clayton comments on Lions-Bears, Jay Cutler, Ndamukong Suh, the injuries to Charles Woodson, Maurice Jones-Drew and Blaine Gabbert and more.
But isn't it ironic that Vick will be facing his former team, the Atlanta Falcons, at what might be the crossroads of his career? The Falcons are on a tour of the NFC East, and the next two weeks are critical. The Eagles and next week's opponent, the Cowboys, are playoff contenders, but if Atlanta beats one or both of those teams, the Falcons might not have to worry about facing them in January. For the Eagles, it's a desperation game.
2. Pressing quarterback story No. 1: Detroit Lions head coach Jim Schwartz has come to the defense of his quarterback, Matthew Stafford. The organization points out that his yardage numbers and completion percentage aren't that much different from last year, when the team won 10 games and Stafford threw for 5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns. But something doesn't add up. He has five touchdown passes in six games, and his yards per attempt average is down from 7.6 last year to 6.7 this year.
It doesn't help that the Lions play host to perhaps the league's best secondary this week when the Seattle Seahawks come to town. The Seahawks stress press man-to-man coverage, but they will be tempted to use some zone against the Lions. Because the Lions' ground attack scares no one, zones have compressed Stafford's passing offense. Zone schemes take a safety away from the line of scrimmage to be used to double Calvin Johnson. Zones prevent Stafford from hitting on deep passes. Stafford has hit on seven passes that went at least 21 yards in the air, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The impact on intermediate passes has been bigger. Stafford is hitting on only 49.1 percent of his passes that sail between 11 and 20 yards. His 9 yards per attempt figure for those passes ranks toward the bottom of the league.
3. Pressing quarterback story No. 2: Most people around the league don't think Philip Rivers looks like Philip Rivers. He's pressing. He pressed at the beginning of last season but snapped out of it in the second half. But his quarterback rating in the fourth quarter of his first six games is a subpar 57.3. He's thrown four fourth-quarter interceptions and is averaging only 5.88 yards an attempt in the final period. Part of the problem is not having Vincent Jackson; Rivers is trying to adjust to a new group of receivers who may not be as talented.
The other problem might be the types of plays he runs. Even though the Chargers have used an undrafted rookie -- Michael Harris -- at left tackle, Turner is still calling for a lot of seven-step drops. The Chargers head to Cleveland hoping to refine their passing offense. At least this is the type of winnable game that could spin a more positive feel for this season. The Chargers have games coming up against Kansas City and Tampa Bay and have a chance to get to 6-3 if they can win these next three games before they meet the Denver Broncos again.
4. Pressing quarterback story No. 3: Cam Newton asked for input for the team's suggestion box after Carolina's 1-5 start. The owner slipped in a pink slip for the general manager who drafted Newton. But the Panthers' problems go beyond Newton. They've lost their persona on offense. Former general manager Hurney provided Rivera three running backs on contracts worth a potential $89 million. But DeAngelo Williams was on the field for only five plays last Sunday. Newton has almost as many running attempts as Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert combined. Stewart has only 35 carries. The coaching staff tries to mix some Newton read-option plays with the regular offense, but you wonder if the Panthers will just try to run conventional NFL plays this week. They face a Chicago Bears Cover 2 defense that is tops in the league in interceptions and turnovers.
5. Third-down alert: The combination of Todd Haley's play calling and Ben Roethlisberger's talents has enabled the Steelers to convert 53.8 percent of third downs. Roethlisberger has completed 46 of 71 passes on third downs for 621 yards and five touchdowns. Only Aaron Rodgers tops his 116 passer rating on third downs. But the Steelers' defense has been bad on third downs, allowing 47.2 percent of opponents' plays to be first downs. The key in Week 8 will be keeping Robert Griffin III in third-and-long situations and containing him to prevent big plays. The Redskins have a hot offense, so defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau faces a tough challenge in this game.
6. Revenge game for New York Giants: The Giants have recovered from their season-opening loss to the Dallas Cowboys. Tom Coughlin wants to avoid the first Cowboys sweep since 2007. Where is the home-field advantage in this series? Since Jerry Jones opened his new stadium in 2009, the Giants have won all three games there. But the Cowboys are desperate. If they lose, they would fall 2½ games behind the Giants, almost conceding the division. The pressure will be on Tony Romo and Jason Garrett. The Cowboys have shown plenty of flaws in close games, and this game figures to be close.
7. Secondary concerns a primary problem: The Green Bay Packers face the league's No. 32 passing offense, the Jacksonville Jaguars, at a good time. Safety Charles Woodson is out for six weeks with a broken collarbone, which affects the team's youth movement in the secondary. Rookie Casey Hayward has moved into the starting lineup at cornerback and has made an immediate impact. He ranks with the best in a strong rookie class of cornerbacks. With Woodson out, more will be asked of rookie safety Jerron McMillian, who has worked as the team's third safety. Both looked to Woodson for on-field advice. Despite the influx of youth, the Packers rank last in passing defense, giving up 342 yards per game.
Meanwhile, Joe Vitt returns as the interim coach in time for the New Orleans Saints to test their problems in the secondary against Peyton Manning and the Broncos. Opposing quarterbacks have a stunning 106.6 passer rating and are averaging 8.9 yards per attempt against the Saints.
8. Was it wise to sacrifice a home game? The St. Louis Rams gave away a home game to promote their brand internationally. They agreed to play Sunday's game against the New England Patriots in London, giving them only seven games in the Edward Jones Dome. At one point, the team was willing to commit to three London games, but its efforts to secure a better stadium deal led to that opportunity passing on to Jacksonville. The Rams have been 3-1 at home. For whatever reason -- perhaps the increase in the number of Thursday games -- home-field advantage is bigger than ever. The 61.5 home winning percentage is on pace to be the sixth best since the merger in 1970. The Patriots showed in Seattle that they can struggle on the road. Now, Tom Brady gets to go against Jeff Fisher's defense on a neutral site, which plays to Brady's advantage.
9. Exploiting problems at tackle: San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh will be trying to rush the Arizona Cardinals from the edges Monday night, knowing that tackles Bobby Massie and D'Anthony Batiste have given up a combined 21 sacks. The Cardinals want to be a three-receiver team, but that's tough to do because of the tackle problems. The Cardinals' line has surrendered 29 sacks on 218 dropbacks this season -- and a league-worst 35 sacks overall -- according to ESPN Stats & Information. Because Ken Whisenhunt likes to flex the tight end away from the tackles, the Cards try to block opposing pass rushes with only five, and that often leads to disaster.
10. Sorting out challengers in three AFC divisions: Tennessee, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Oakland, Miami and the New York Jets may not rank among the AFC elite, but all six teams face important games. Can any of these teams step up and contend for playoff spots in the weak AFC? The Dolphins have the most to gain. Ryan Tannehill has done well throwing out of the no-huddle offense and faces a four-game stretch in which he plays the Jets, Colts, Titans and Buffalo Bills. This stretch could define Miami's season. If the Dolphins can take advantage of this four-game stretch and come out with a 7-3 or 6-4 record, they can think about the playoffs. Rex Ryan hasn't protected home turf against the Dolphins, who have won three of the past four meetings at the Meadowlands.
Despite bad defense, the Titans have climbed back to 3-4 with two consecutive victories, thanks to Matt Hasselbeck's ability to rally the team from behind. The winner of their game against the Colts can think about a wild card. The Titans would be at .500. The Colts would be at 4-3 with four wins at home. And for the Kansas City Chiefs, their game against the Oakland Raiders is their season. They are 1-5 and have switched to Brady Quinn at quarterback. It didn't make sense to bring back Matt Cassel at quarterback when the restless fans don't respect him. The Chiefs have lost five consecutive games at home against the Raiders. Losing a sixth could cost them some of their fan base.
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