QBs forced to produce with less
Rodgers, Ryan among signal-callers coping with injury-plagued receiving corps
Ryan lost Julio Jones for the rest of the season and will be without Roddy White this week because of hamstring and ankle injuries. Rodgers has lost Randall Cobb for at least eight weeks and doesn't know whether James Jones will be able to play on a hyperextended knee.
The Packers, who have yet to play a full game without Cobb and Jones, are averaging 27.4 points and 450.2 yards. The Falcons talked Tony Gonzalez out of retirement and thought they had a Super Bowl-caliber offense. Now they are 1-4 and on the verge of being one of the league's biggest disappointments.
I can't remember a season when so many top quarterbacks have had to make do with depleted pass-catching units this early. The season is only seven weeks old, but the attrition rate has been remarkable.
Tom Brady might be 5-1, but his numbers are down. He has gone through the season without his five favorite targets from last year, and new addition Danny Amendola has continued his history of injuries.
The Patriots are scoring 14 fewer points a game than last season and averaging 79 fewer yards. The Baltimore Ravens traded Anquan Boldin to San Francisco, but the offense was hit hard when tight end Dennis Pitta went on injured reserve. Pressed for consistent weapons, Joe Flacco has seen Baltimore's scoring go down 2.5 points per game; the Ravens' yardage per game has dropped by 27.
The Boldin trade didn't give enough to the San Francisco 49ers' offense. Minus Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham, 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick has struggled in games when Boldin is covered and defenses do a good job of blanketing tight end Vernon Davis. Third and fourth options aren't up to par.
Leaguewide, passing yards and touchdown passes are at record levels, but a growing number of top quarterbacks are going to have to make adjustments.
Here are the 10 trends for NFL Week 7.
1. What do the Packers do if James Jones (questionable) can't play? Teams can adjust minus top slot receivers. The Seattle Seahawks, for example, have managed without Percy Harvin because Doug Baldwin is decent in the slot. Average slot receivers get about 10 or 11 yards a catch, so the Packers can get by at that position until Cobb returns in around eight weeks. The bigger problem is losing an outside threat. If Jones can't play Sunday, the Packers could have major problems against the Cleveland Browns. The Browns have a very good front seven along with a great coverage cornerback, Joe Haden. If Jones can't play and Haden blankets Jordy Nelson, Rodgers could struggle. The Packers can try more two-tight end sets and try to run the ball more. Where the Packers will be hurting is in coming up with big plays. This could mean a low-scoring game against the Browns. Packers coach Mike McCarthy will also need a solid effort from the defense, but that unit has had troubles. Nick Perry and Clay Matthews are out, and Brad Jones might not be able to play, so the 3-4 defense is down to one starting linebacker. This one won't be easy.
2. Adjustments in Atlanta: Coach Mike Smith has had a bye week to sort out the 1-4 mess of a start by the Falcons. It got messier when Julio Jones had his season end and White added a hamstring injury to go along with his high ankle sprain. Those injuries mean Ryan must rely more on Gonzalez and wide receiver Harry Douglas. But as bad as things are in Atlanta, the Falcons are fortunate to be playing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Bucs are 0-5 and can't get anything done on offense. Mike Glennon has taken over at quarterback for an offense that is averaging only 12.8 points and 290 yards a game -- both second-worst only to Jacksonville. Even if the Falcons start slowly, Ryan will have plenty of time to get something going. But the Falcons don't have a lot of time to turn around the season. They are four games behind the New Orleans Saints in the NFC South and have virtually no margin of error if they want to get into the wild-card race.
3. Still a great rivalry: Until the Seahawks and 49ers emerged as the league's best rivalry, Baltimore-Pittsburgh was the most anticipated matchup. The teams dislike each other and take out their anger on the field. A 1-4 start by the Steelers, though, has made Sunday's tilt the least talked-about Ravens-Steelers game in years. The Ravens have been fighting through injuries and shaky offensive line play. Everything has gone wrong for the Steelers. The offensive line has been terrible. Ben Roethlisberger is still struggling in Todd Haley's offense. Key defensive players aren't making big plays. Heck, the Steelers had to wait until a Week 6 matchup against Jets rookie quarterback Geno Smith to register their first turnovers of the season. But this game is in Pittsburgh and Steelers fans know this is a must-win. So do the Ravens. Should the Steelers lose, their season is all but over.
4. Quarterback transition: Houston and Minnesota are the hot spots for quarterback change. Houston coach Gary Kubiak is starting Case Keenum in place of Matt Schaub, who has a banged-up leg. The Texans have to go to Kansas City, which has 30 sacks in six games, so Keenum will be tested. The aggressive Chiefs defense pounded Raiders QB Terrelle Pryor last Sunday, which got Chiefs fans cheering loudly enough to set a world record for noise in an outdoor sports venue. Keenum will likely have trouble calling plays and avoiding delay-of-game penalties and false starts. For the Monday night game against the New York Giants, Vikings coach Leslie Frazier decided to go with Josh Freeman, which shouldn't surprise anyone. Freeman is a better athlete and has a stronger arm than the Vikings' other two options -- Christian Ponder and Matt Cassel. But what if the change doesn't turn around the Vikings' 1-4 start? Frazier is coaching to keep his job, and ownership might be losing patience. There is also a lot of pressure on Freeman, whose career dropped off quickly over the past two seasons in Tampa Bay. Freeman is a free agent after the season and is playing to see whether he's going be paid like a future starter.
5. Interesting reunions: Peyton Manning's return to Indianapolis is one of the headliners for the season. Manning made the Indianapolis Colts a playoff institution. The comments made by Colts owner Jim Irsay will make Manning more inspired to get a win, but the pregame ceremonies to honor him might be a problem. Manning is a perfectionist and doesn't like getting out of his routine. This week has already been a distraction for him. Under the radar is the reunion of Redskins coach Mike Shanahan and Bears QB Jay Cutler. When both were in Denver, Shanahan and Cutler thought they were headed for big things. Shanahan had built a talented offense around Cutler. All Shanahan had to do was build a decent defense, but he was fired after the 2008 season and Cutler was traded when Josh McDaniels came in as coach. As great as the Broncos are this season under Manning, you wonder how the team would have fared had it stayed with Shanahan and Cutler. Cutler is doing well in Chicago working with new coach Mark Trestman. Shanahan is patiently waiting for Robert Griffin III to get better each week coming off his knee reconstruction. Still, to this day, Cutler has high respect for what Shanahan taught him.
6. Contenders or pretenders? Heading into the season, many experts thought the Cincinnati Bengals could be the best team in the AFC North. Though a talented offense is underachieving to a degree by averaging 4.7 fewer points than a year ago, the Bengals lead the Ravens and Browns by a game in the division. They haven't disappointed. Over the next two weeks, the Detroit Lions have a chance to show whether they are true contenders in the NFC North. They host the Bengals this week and the Dallas Cowboys next week. A two-game sweep would put them at 6-2 and in great shape. Including those two games, the Lions have the easiest closing schedule in the NFL. The second half of the season has the Lions playing some of the league's biggest disappointments -- Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, Minnesota and the Giants. They've even shown an ability to win on the road, something that has been a struggle for them through the years.
7. Closing out the AFC East race: The New England Patriots play at the New York Jets, while the Buffalo Bills visit the Miami Dolphins. A Patriots victory, though, could put them in a position to lock up the division early. They would be 3-0 in the division with a victory this week and host the Dolphins next week. The Jets have played better than most people expected, and they are catching the Patriots at a good time. The Pats' defense has lost Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo for the season, and Tommy Kelly has a sore knee. The Pats could be vulnerable to a running attack. If the Jets can muster any type of ground game, the Pats could have some difficulties. The Dolphins' biggest problem is pass protection. Ryan Tannehill has been sacked 24 times in five games and the Bills have shown they can mount a decent pass rush on occasion. Tackles Jonathan Martin and Tyson Clabo have allowed a combined 11 of those sacks in five games. The Bills are staying with Thad Lewis at quarterback but are grooming Matt Flynn to fill in if there is an injury.
8. Figuring out the NFC East race: Elias has already determined this is the worst NFC East playoff race in more than a decade. The winner of the Philadelphia-Dallas game will have a 4-3 record and a one-game lead in the division. Elias noted that the last time an NFC East Division leader was only one game above .500 in sole possession of first place was 2001. That year the Eagles started 4-3 and finished 11-5 as the division winners. This is not to say the Eagles will win the division, but they have a decent chance of winning Sunday even with Nick Foles at quarterback. Chip Kelly's offense is putting up 449.8 yards a game. The Eagles are the first team since the merger to put up 1,600 passing yards and 1,050 rushing yards in the first six weeks of the season. The Cowboys probably will face Philadelphia without DeMarcus Ware, who has a groin injury. Dallas owner Jerry Jones invested heavily in the defensive line, but injuries have forced a lot of journeymen to fill out the four spots. For Kelly, this is an important game because the Eagles have a chance to end an eight-game losing streak at home.
9. Back to Jeff Fisher football: The Rams opened the season with a spread offense. They spent the first four games using three-receiver sets 46 plays a game. But a 1-3 start forced a change. Fisher, the Rams' coach, decided to go to more of a running type of offense. Over the past two weeks, the Rams spread the field with three receivers only 27 times. They've beaten the Jaguars and Houston Texans and have a chance to go over .500 if they can beat the Carolina Panthers. Sam Bradford has operated efficiently in a more conservative offense. Running against the Panthers might be tough, though. Carolina coach Ron Rivera has established a formidable front seven, and it's not like the Rams have a big, physical back to overpower anyone.
10. Enigmatic Chargers: Figuring out the San Diego Chargers is like figuring out the Cowboys. Both teams seem to be up one week and bafflingly bad the next. The Chargers might be turning the corner, though. Coming off an impressive win over the Colts to improve to 3-3, San Diego plays the winless Jacksonville Jaguars. Coach Mike McCoy has come up with smart ways to use Philip Rivers' throwing skills. Former coach Norv Turner had Rivers throw tough, long passes into tight coverage, and over the past couple of years, success was sporadic. This year, according to ESPN Stats & Information, Rivers is the league's best passer on balls that go at least 15 yards in the air. He's completing 53.3 percent of those throws; last year he was in the middle of the pack.
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