Take 5: Key Week 3 matchups
Coming off a two-game suspension, Reuben Foster won’t be ramping up slowly in his return to the 49ers on Sunday. Instead, he’ll be at the center of San Francisco’s attempt to halt the hottest player in football, Patrick Mahomes, in the Kansas City Chiefs’ home opener.
Mahomes and coach Andy Reid have set opposing defenses on fire so far.
Reid has used misdirection and Tyreek Hill’s incomparable speed to create chasms in zones, and Mahomes has capitalized with his eyes, accuracy and touch to maximize yards after the catch for his targets. He found a rhythm with Travis Kelce in Week 2, picking on Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Jon Bostic for several chunk plays, including an indefensible, dropped-in-a-bucket throw up the middle of Tampa-2 coverage for 31 yards.
Foster is no Bostic, however. Despite his issues off the field, the 2017 31st overall pick has a combination of size, movement skills, physicality and instincts that only a handful of other NFL linebackers possess. The instincts (to diagnose plays amid a series of fakes and jet sweeps) and speed (to make up for when he diagnoses incorrectly) will be particularly crucial on Sunday.
Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh’s Cover-3-heavy scheme comes from the same tree as Gus Bradley’s, which the Chiefs torched in Week 1 in a 38-28 win over the Los Angeles Chargers. Reid is a master at getting a wide receiver — usually coming from the inside slot of a trips formation — on a vertical route against a linebacker in Cover-3, which is just one way Foster will be tested. It would certainly aid Foster’s fortunes if DeForest Buckner (3.5 sacks, second in NFL) continues his red-hot start as a pass-rusher.
–Joe Haden must help clean up Steelers’ secondary
As great as the Chiefs’ offense was last week, the Steelers’ defense — and particularly the secondary — aided its own undoing. With Haden out nursing a hamstring injury, replacement Cameron Sutton was exploited in a variety of zone assignments, both deep and underneath. Free safety Sean Davis was a beat late reading and reacting throughout the game, and defensive coordinator Keith Butler appeared to scale back his disguises and blitzes somewhat, as if he didn’t trust the group in Haden’s absence.
Like Foster against Kansas City, Haden will be given a major challenge in his return, as the Steelers visit the red-hot Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Monday night. New Bucs play-caller Todd Monken and quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick have adeptly dismantled the New Orleans Saints’ and Philadelphia Eagles’ defenses, which finished last season ranked 10th and fourth, respectively, in points allowed. Last week, Tampa Bay took advantage of Philadelphia’s zone-heavy approach, including on a 75-yard TD to DeSean Jackson — who already has five gains of 25-plus yards this year — on the game’s first play.
Haden’s hamstring must be ready to run on Jackson’s deep routes when Butler calls Cover-3 and Cover-4, and he’ll be tasked with taking away deep corners and outs to Mike Evans (17 grabs, 230 yards and two scores this year) when playing Cover-2. We should also see more wrinkles and blitzes from Butler, which could force Fitzpatrick into a turnover or two.
Haden’s return won’t fix all of Pittsburgh’s woes on defense, but he should help eliminate some of the busts and big plays that cost the Steelers in last week’s shootout loss.
–Mind games abound in Philadelphia
Carson Wentz’s return highlights the Sunday meeting between the Indianapolis Colts and Philadelphia Eagles, but just as intriguing will be the matchup of head coaches, as former Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich meets old friend Doug Pederson.
The familiarity theoretically should benefit the Colts more, as Reich was fully versed in Eagles’ offense — the foundation of which likely hasn’t changed much over the past seven months — while Pederson hasn’t seen Reich’s full playbook with the Colts. Reich also should have an excellent feel for what defensive schemes Wentz doesn’t like to see, which should be incorporated heavily into defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus’ game plan.
But perhaps Pederson can turn the tables on Reich, showing looks he expects the Colts to recognize — such as a condensed formation suggesting a mesh concept, which features crossing routes from both sides — before running misdirection off of it — like turning those crossers into whip routes (a shallow route that breaks inside before pivoting back out). It’s also possible Pederson has kept new ideas for Wentz on the backburner, in the same way he tailored special plays for Nick Foles during his time as the starter.
With sizable advantages in the trenches on both sides of the ball, the Eagles are rightfully heavy favorites. We’ll see if Reich’s intel can level the playing field or if Pederson will get the better of his former pupil.
–Can Melvin Ingram harass Jared Goff?
With Joey Bosa (foot) apparently not close to a return, the burden of the Chargers’ pass rush continues to fall on Ingram, who is tied for second in the NFL with six QB hits. With opponents keying on Ingram, those hits have turned into just 1.5 sacks, but any type of pressure is helpful for a team whose sack leader is currently a defensive back: rookie safety Derwin James (two).
The Los Angeles Rams’ Andrew Whitworth and Rob Havenstein are two of the league’s most reliable tackles, and Sean McVay’s heavy use of play-action and screens inherently slows down opposing pass rushes, but Ingram could pose a few problems.
The springy edge rusher moves so explosively in every direction that the Chargers line him up all over the place (even at safety on occasion, believe it or not). Often in a two-point stance, Ingram is regularly deployed on twists and stunts, allowing him to use his lateral agility to pick on overmatched guards or centers. He also has the stop-and-start quickness to get pressure against play-action, even when initially stymied while preparing to play the run.
McVay’s offense hasn’t cooled off thus far in Year 2, while the Bolts have allowed 58 points in two games (tied for 25th) without Bosa after allowing just 17.0 points per game in 2017 (third). Ingram’s ability to get to Goff is the Chargers’ best chance to even the playing field on Sunday.
–Trench warfare in Baltimore
The Denver Broncos’ offensive line, nearly as complicit as the quarterbacks in a disastrous 5-11 campaign last season, has quietly been excellent during the team’s 2-0 start.
Despite adding just one new full-time starter (right tackle Jared Veldheer), the group has taken major strides, especially in the run game, where Denver ranks second in yards per game (157.0) and fourth in yards per carry (5.2). Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave’s expansive approach — mixing in inside zone, outside zone, power, counter, trap and jet-sweep variations — has been a key factor, and the execution has been excellent.
Back at his preferred left guard spot, Ron Leary is destructive on double teams, especially working in tandem with left tackle Garett Bolles, who looks much stronger after a full year in an NFL weight room.
Matt Paradis remains steady at the pivot, while 2016 fifth-round pick Connor McGovern looks much sharper on second-level blocks, as he showed last week in springing rookie Phillip Lindsay for 53 yards. Veldheer had stopped the revolving door at right tackle before sustaining a concussion last week, but veteran Billy Turner held up just fine in his stead.
Sunday’s trip to Baltimore brings a whole new challenge. Ravens defensive tackles Brandon Williams and Michael Pierce are among the nastiest and hardest-to-move pluggers in football, and Chris Wormley plays with excellent discipline and leverage. Even approaching age 36, Terrell Suggs remains a ferocious edge setter.
However, though ranked No. 1 in yards per play (4.0), the Ravens’ defense is just 14th in yards per carry (3.8) through two games, and Pierce (foot) and linebacker C.J. Mosley (knee) could join backup defensive tackle Willie Henry (abdomen) on the sideline. Given Case Keenum’s shakiness (tied for the league high with four INTs) even with a good running game, the Ravens would hold a major edge if they can shut down Lindsay and Royce Freeman on the ground.
–David DeChant, Field Level Media