NFL Week 9 picks: Will the Vikings’ offense thrive in the post-Norv Turner era?
The dream is that it all works out just like it did for the 2012 Ravens.
The eventual Super Bowl champions that year, Baltimore canned offensive coordinator Cam Cameron following back-to-back losses in Weeks 13 and 14, and replaced him with Jim Caldwell. Improvement did not happen overnight—Baltimore lost two of its final three games in the regular season, averaging 22.3 points—but the Ravens were a machine once the playoffs started. A 439-yard offensive outburst to take down Indianapolis, 479 yards at Denver the following week, 28 points in the AFC title game at New England and, finally, a 34-point outburst (aided by Jacoby Jones’s 108-yard kick return) to capture the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
Sometimes teams make in-season coordinator changes out of desperation, as was the case with Buffalo earlier this year. Sometimes those seismic shifts are forced upon them, which is how it went down in Minnesota this week when Norv Turner stepped aside.
The Vikings, like the Ravens four seasons ago when the Cameron-to-Caldwell transition happened, sit in first place. And also like that Ravens team, Minnesota has to be concerned that its offense will keep it from its ultimate goals.
The Caldwell case, though, is an outlier. Often, the outcome is similar to what happened in Miami last season: the coordinator goes first, then the rest of the staff follows him out the door eventually. The Dolphins sent packing their interim coordinator in 2015, Zac Taylor, along with coach Joe Philbin when the season ended.
If a shake-up even works well enough to maintain some status quo, that’s a minor victory—Detroit (with Jim Bob Cooter) and Indianapolis (with Rob Chudzinski) are in that boat right now. The Lions’ offense, in particular, came to life a bit after a coordinator switch, leading the front office to give everyone another go-round.
The Vikings find themselves fighting history a bit, although Pat Shurmur’s ascension to the O.C. role was not the exact plan. They are the fourth team to face that situation in 2016, behind Jacksonville, Buffalo and, yes, Baltimore. The Ravens fired Marc Trestman after a Week 5 loss; they have not won since, going 0–2 with Marty Mornhinweg calling plays.
So, we’ll see. There are limited options available during the regular season for teams hunting for a spark. Swapping out a coordinator is on that list, but the Caldwell-esque success stories are few and far between.
With that, the Week 9 picks:
A quartet of players who could be key to this week’s matchups:
1. Darren Sproles, RB, Eagles: His 15 carries and 22 total touches vs. Dallas point toward him grabbing hold of the No. 1 RB role. At 33, Sproles is still incredibly elusive with the ball in his hands. The Giants have been rather stingy to running backs, both through the air and on the ground.
2. Percy Harvin, WR, Bills: Rex Ryan has yet to reveal if Harvin will suit up Monday, mere days after ending his retirement to join the Bills. No doubt Harvin would love to get on the field against his old team, Seattle, and there remains a good chance he gets that shot. So, what can he do? Expect a very limited role, especially out of the gate, but he likely will be what he always was—a playmaker defenses don’t want to let into the open field.
3. T.J. Ward, S, Broncos: Ward tossed some bulletin-board material up for the Raiders this week, saying of Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree, “I feel like they have two good receivers. I don’t feel like they have two elite receivers.” There will be extra attention on Ward’s performance because of that. Recent indications are he’s up to the task. He had a pick and a sack vs. San Diego last week.
4. Wesley Johnson, C, Jets: Nick Mangold’s lingering ankle injury forced Johnson into the starting lineup at Cleveland last week. He could be back there again Sunday, with Ndamukong Suh waiting. The Jets must keep Ryan Fitzpatrick clean in the pocket, and that goal starts with preventing a Miami push up the middle.
• Last week: 7-5-1 overall (76-43-1 season), 3-9-1 vs. the spread (60-58-3 season).
• Best pick in Week 8: Panthers 31, Cardinals 24 (actual score: Panthers 30–20).
• Worst pick in Week 8: Vikings 24, Bears 10 (actual score: Bears 20–10).
Let me get this straight real quick … Minnesota offensive coordinator Norv Turner walked away before a matchup with Detroit’s defense? That’s like running 26.1 miles of a marathon and then saying, “Nah, I’m good,” and going home. The Lions proved yet again last week against Houston that they cannot cover tight ends, even a little. That’s great news for Minnesota TE Kyle Rudolph, and it also should bode well for Pat Shurmur, the Vikings’ new coordinator. When he was with Sam Bradford in Philadelphia last season, TE Zach Ertz caught 75 balls, and the RBs added 115 more receptions. The ball should be out of Bradford’s hands faster this week than we’ve seen, both because of scheme and Detroit’s weaknesses. Detroit does probably see this game as a winnable opportunity, right before its bye. But who knows what you’ll get from the Lions. They look like the most .500 team in football, and not just because of their record.
Watchability index (out of 10): 7. There should be genuine intrigue to see the Vikings’ post-Turner offense—this is still a first-place team with a great defense, after all. A Lions win would turn the NFC North into utter chaos.
Jacksonville defensive coordinator Todd Wash’s explanation for his unit’s Week 8 meltdown in Tennessee: “I told the group, ’I don’t know what the hell happened.’” Oh. Well, that’s no good. That Thursday game did leave the Jaguars a couple extra days to prep for their visit to Kansas City, but they had a ton of ground to cover just to make this one competitive. The Chiefs do not have a power-run game to match the Titans’ (214 yards on 43 carries vs. Jacksonville), but they can show a balanced attack. Their big news comes at QB, where Nick Foles is in for an injured (??) Alex Smith. Foles was great in spot duty against Indianapolis, hitting 16 of 22 attempts for 223 yards and two TDs. TE Travis Kelce will be a go-to, as usual, but Foles offers the Chiefs a little more freedom to stretch the field vertically.
Watchability index: 3. Jacksonville is operating with a new offensive coordinator, too, after firing Greg Olson and promoting Nathaniel Hackett. Blake Bortles is still an INT waiting to happen in this matchup.
As of the writing of this sentence, about 96% of “experts” are picking the Cowboys this week, according to NFLPickWatch.com. That means 4% have the winless Browns knocking off the NFC’s current top seed. And if you notice the scoreline above, I get it … to an extent. Dallas will be missing CB Morris Claiborne (sports hernia), while the Browns are getting back rookie WR Corey Coleman (and QB Cody Kessler). The Coleman-Terrelle Pryor duo is physical and fast and will be tough to handle Sunday. Even huge days from them, though, may not be enough to cover that Cleveland cannot stop the run. Its last three opponents have averaged 193 yards on the ground, topped by Cincinnati’s 271 two weeks ago. Ezekiel Elliott, currently sitting on 799 yards for the season, could be a 1K back by the time this is done.
Watchability index: 6. This could be a sneaky-good game, at least for two or three quarters.
The Jets have won two straight. The Dolphins have won two straight. Do those mini-win streaks mean the AFC East has two more playoff contenders, or were they just happenstance? This is a fork in the road for both teams—even if the Jets won out (highly unlikely) after a loss here, a 10–6 record might not cut it in the AFC; the Dolphins play five of their next seven away from home. Muhammad Wilkerson (ankle) and Darron Lee (ankle) are questionable for the Jets, which could open the door a bit for Jay Ajayi. He’s coming off back-to-back 200-yard outings, but New York has the league’s top run defense. More likely, this one will come down to which quarterback, Ryan Fitzpatrick or Ryan Tannehill, can exploit the opposition’s suspect secondary. The Dolphins took substantial strides forward there before their bye, holding three straight opponents to 200 passing yards or fewer.
Watchability index: 5. A must-have game for two division rivals. It has the potential to be ugly, though.
Neither of these offenses have been all that good of late—the Giants produced just 221 and 232 yards, respectively, in Weeks 5 and 7; the Eagles haven’t hit 300 yards their past three outings. There still are reasons for each defense to worry. For Philadelphia, the obvious potential headache comes in the form of Odell Beckham Jr., who is averaging 15.8 yards per reception. If the Giants’ line can give Eli Manning any time against the Eagles’ aggressive pass rush, Beckham will find enough space. Both Dez Bryant and Antonio Brown topped 100 yards receiving vs. Philadelphia, and Alshon Jeffery just missed. The Giants’ pass-defense problems, meanwhile, mainly lie at safety. Darian Thompson (foot) suffered a setback this week, and his team is just 2–3 without him in the lineup. New York is particularly vulnerable over the middle of the field, so Carson Wentz can keep his eyes focused on leading receiver Jordan Matthews in the slot.
Watchability index: 7. The stakes are high in the NFC playoff race. The quality of this game might not match those standards, unless the offenses find life.
No official word yet on the status of Ben Roethlisberger (knee) for Sunday’s game, but Baltimore’s Terrell Suggs is quite certain he’ll be out there. “Don’t fall for that,” Suggs said this week. “I saw this movie before. He’s gonna act like, ’Oh, I don’t know’ … and then he’s gonna walk his big a– out there.” The initial, reported expectation was that Roethlisberger would miss four to six weeks following meniscus surgery. He’s at just two now, so even if he does suit up—and Suggs is right, it’s usually safe to assume Big Ben will be out there—it remains to be seen how well he can move. While Baltimore’s pass rush has not gotten home as much as it would like, it still is dangerous because of guys like Suggs and rising rookie Matt Judon. The real problem for the Ravens is that, on both sides of the ball, they’ve been unable to close out games. They’ve had a second-half lead in every single one of the four straight games they’ve lost. Even a hobbled Roethlisberger can get it done in the clutch.
Watchability index: 8. This isn’t a classic, all-timer in the Steelers-Ravens rivalry, especially if Roethlisberger sits. However, with the Steelers clinging to a one-game lead in the AFC North it’s a critical one.
Just what Todd Gurley needs: a matchup against a top-five run defense. Gurley is averaging just 57.6 yards per game (and a meager 3.0 yards per carry) during his frustrating sophomore season. As has been the case too often for Los Angeles, its fate likely rests with Case Keenum on Sunday. And … well, that might be OK here. Carolina unnerved Carson Palmer last week, but it still has serious questions in the secondary. Even though Keenum’s actually been much worse at home (one TD, six INTs), he should find Kenny Britt and Brian Quick in favorable matchups. Cam Newton’s Carolina offense has been hot of late, topping 30 points in three of four games. The Rams also have just 10 sacks this season. They are, though, willing to lay the lumber when they get a chance—Gregg Williams is running the show. How will Newton respond if the refs keep their flags in their pockets again?
Watchability index: 4. Is Carolina ready to charge after its Week 8 win? Maybe. But neither team looked like a playoff contender in the season’s first half.
By far the best news to come out of San Francisco’s bye week is that starting RB Carlos Hyde is ready to go again, after missing Week 7 with a shoulder injury. Despite that absence, Hyde remains on pace to top 1,000 yards this season—no small feat on a bad offense. The Saints’ run defense has had some bad weeks, too, like when Atlanta rolled up 217 yards. Maybe, just maybe, Hyde creates enough problems between the tackles that Colin Kaepernick can take a few chances vs. New Orleans’ shoddy secondary. The 49ers could put up a little resistance to Drew Brees’ passing attack, although teams have not even tested them through the air all that much because they’re a disaster up front. Tim Hightower just ran up 102 yards against Seattle’s D, and Mark Ingram also is still in the mix for the Saints. San Francisco is going to have a hard time finding stops.
Watchability index: 2. Should be fairly back and forth, thanks to the paces these teams like to maintain. That’s only an inviting proposition if the 49ers are scoring points, too.
The Titans’ run game against the Jaguars’ front seven last week was like watching one of those Looney Tunes episodes where Wile E. Coyote gets run over by a truck. It won’t be as easy Sunday against San Diego. Joey Bosa’s Defensive Rookie of the Year-worthy presence has upgraded the pass rush, of course, but it’s also added another stout playmaker vs. the run. Where to really keep an eye on DeMarco Murray is in the passing game—San Diego has allowed 66 receptions by RBs for 501 yards, both tops among all defenses. On the other side, the entire game comes down to turnovers. Philip Rivers has proven to be almost defense and/or teammate-injury immune. San Diego, though, has turned it over multiple times each of the past six games. Will the seemingly inevitable miscues come early or late?
Watchability index: 7. The Chargers, with their constant entertaining and close games, are the best thing the NFL has going right now in terms of a TV-ready product.
Here’s the thing about the Colts: They’re not very good. They still host all three AFC South teams, so that division title is within reach, but on the whole they simply do not have a well-constructed roster. A visit to face a suddenly rolling Aaron Rodgers doesn’t help, either. The Packers’ receivers still are not winning a lot of those one-on-one isolation routes, but the team’s lack of healthy running backs has forced it to attack the field more horizontally. And it’s working. Davante Adams is racking up catches (12 last week) and Ty Montgomery (if he plays through injury) is a growing weapon. Rodgers should pick Indianapolis’ linebackers apart inside. The Colts’ upset chances, as usual, lie with Andrew Luck. CB Quentin Rollins is back for Green Bay. Otherwise, that secondary remains banged up, which Matt Ryan exploited last week (288 yards, three TDs).
Watchability index: 7. The quarterback matchup is up there, and the Colts have the offensive weapons to hang around. Their defense is just so mediocre.
How long have Raiders fans been waiting for a game of such magnitude? Oakland was in the playoff hunt in 2011, but not since ’02 has this much been on the line for a home game this deep into the season. For the Raiders to pull off the prime-time victory, they’ll have to keep protecting Derek Carr as they have—he’s been sacked on fewer than 3% of his dropbacks this season (nine total). They’ll also have to keep the Broncos from awakening their run game, which briefly found a spark vs. Houston in Week 7 but tumbled back to Earth last Sunday vs. San Diego. An X-factor is Aqib Talib’s health. The SI midseason All-Pro is questionable with a back issue. If he cannot go, the scales tip in favor of Carr, Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree, even though what remains in a Talib-less secondary is impressive.
Watchability index: 10. The NFL could use a Sunday night gem, and these teams are itching to provide it.
Anytime now, Russell Wilson. The Seahawks’ QB, who has had to deal with an ankle and a knee injury this season, is working on a three-game touchdown drought. Nowhere are his 2016 struggles so evident as in his rushing stats: Wilson has 25 attempts for 45 yards this season, after averaging 701 yards rushing the previous two years. He’s been reduced to more of a pocket-passer role this season, often appearing uncomfortable when moved off his spot. Buffalo will come after him, more so if Lorenzo Alexander (hamstring) and Marcell Dareus (leg) can go. The Bills are crossing their fingers that LeSean McCoy (hamstring) can go, too. He has been dazzling when healthy this season, although Buffalo did chalk up 167 rush yards last week in his absence.
Watchability index: 8. Save for the hapless 49ers, the Seahawks have not really mopped the floor with anyone this year. Rex Ryan has a habit of getting his teams to show up when you least expect it.
Surprise star of Week 8: Dontrelle Inman, WR, Chargers. As already mentioned, Philip Rivers just keeps slinging the ball, regardless of which receivers he has available. And this week, he could be without Tyrell Williams and Travis Benjamin (knee issues, both), which would thrust Inman into a larger role.
Upset of the week: Rams (+3) over Panthers. Carolina looked last week more like the defending NFC champs. Not buying all the way back in until it happens two or three times in a row.
College upset of the week: Texas Tech (+3.5) over Texas. The Longhorns were the (correct) pick here last week, over Baylor. But on the road, against a team that can light up the scoreboard? Pass.