Chicago Bears -1 & Dallas Cowboys -2
Who Can Protect?
What's going to make it a long day for both units is not only the questions up front, but also who will be rushing the passer. Henry Melton, Julius Peppers, and to a lesser extent Shea McClellin will be comin' hard on Sunday. St Louis will counter with the likes of Robert Quinn and Chris Long.
I have to give credit to the big men for the Rams because they performed much better than anyone thought vs the Redskins, and managed things well vs a more imposing Lions rush. The problem is the Bears present much more of a challenge because of their ability to maintain coverage down the field. If that O-line has to block for more than 3 seconds, Bradford could be in for a long day.
Making matters worse is the questionable status of Steven Jackson. He's dealt with injuries before, but if he can't go they'll be relying on rookies Daryl Richardson and Isaiah Pead.
I like Bradford and think he has an underrated set of receivers, but he'll need to play mistake-free ball this week and continue hitting with the short-passing game to grind out a straight up win.
Ready for the Next Step?Another glaring thing that stands out to me after two weeks has been the Rams production in the red zone. The mark of a good team is one that limits drives to field goals, and punches it in when they get inside the 20. Thus far, St Louis has struggled on both sides of the ball. That isn't about to get any easier vs a stout Bears defense that is fully healthy. They will also need to contend with Michael Bush now that Matt Forte is out. This was an underrated offseason pickup and it should start to pay immediate dividends this weekend.
I really like the improvements the Rams have made this year, but this will be the second time that I pick against them in a teaser. With guys like Cortland Finnegan and Janoris Jenkins holding things down on the outside, they might be able to hang around and make a game of it, but it's asking a lot for them to waltz into Chicago and beat the Bears on grass. This will be their first test outside of a dome, but I don't like how their offense matches up.
Misleading Box Score?Part of the reason I liked the Bucs last week was because of their secondary. Yet, when Eric Wright left the game in the second half it was Brandon McDonald who got abused on the outside for a bunch of yards. Give the Giants credit for taking him to town, but I don't think the final score was a total indictment of the Bucs defense overall.
If Tampa expects to win this game they'll need a much better pass rush from their front four and much better coverage from their linebackers. DeMarco Murray and Jason Witten should have much better opportunities than Miles Austin and Dez Bryant. It could also be another feature game for Kevin Ogletree. At the same time, if the Bucs can't contain the run game or limit Witten's ability underneath, the pressure on the secondary could prove to be too much. I like the additions of Mark Barron and Lavonte David, but they have a tall task on Sunday.
New Secondary Gets Another Test
Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne have done a great job through two weeks. They frustrated Eli Manning all day and forced Russell Wilson to play efficient ball. This week they'll have a beast of a task trying to slow down Vincent Jackson. Josh Freeman is doing his best Philip Rivers impersonation and just throwing up a lot of jump balls for VJ, and he's coming down with the ball more times than not.
The issue here is how long that will continue. It's going to help that Gerald SenseBaugh is likely out, but Freeman will need to resist the urge to throw up the 50/50 balls given how smart and athletic the Cowboys corners are. Freeman is also going to have a challenge staying upright with DeMarcus Ware coming off the edge on third and longs. So far this season the Bucs haven't done very well on third down and they've been even less successful in the red zone.
I don't think the Bucs are going to win these key battles on either side of the ball this week, but they might keep it close. Ultimately, I like the Cowboys to bounce back this week and get back on track in front of the home fans.
NFL Pick: CHI -1 & DAL -2.
The rest of my Week 3 predictions are here, or you can find all my 2012 predictions on the home page main menu.