Bears aim to lean on running game
Green Bay at Chicago, 4:15 p.m. ET
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: Well, after Mike Martz called 52 passes out of 63 offensive plays last Sunday, one would figure that the Bears will be running Matt Forte a little more against the Packers. Chicago’s offensive line continues to be a work in progress and it does make sense for Jay Cutler, who was sacked six times and hit 16 other times last Sunday against the Saints, to keep his eyes on Forte and toss dump passes and bubble screens to him. Forte has averaged more than 1,400 scrimmage yards in his first three seasons, and he has the juice to turn a short pass into a long gain.
The Packers have juggled their safeties, returning Charlie Peprah to a starting role opposite Morgan Burnett with Nick Collins out for the season. The Packers simply haven’t been getting to the quarterback this season, especially when blitzing. They’ve allowed 367 yards after the catch in the first two games and cornerbacks Tramon Williams and Sam Shields must play better. Still, the Packers won the NFC Championship Game here last season and knocked Cutler from the game. However, Packers QB Aaron Rodgers also was knocked woozy in that game, and you have to figure that the Bears will turn up the heat.
CZAR’S SCOOP: Packers Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins plans to keep visiting neck specialists about his disk injury, hoping that surgery can correct the problems and allow him to continue playing football. Collins, who had a big interception in the Super Bowl, was a great playmaker on the field but also commanded respect on the field as a team leader right behind Charles Woodson.
CB Tramon Williams is still debating whether or not to wear a restrictive harness on his bruised shoulder. He practiced this week with and without the harness. Mike Neal, who will miss his third straight game, was supposed to be the player that would allow the Packers absorb the loss of Cullen Jenkins, who signed with the Eagles.
With all the heat on Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz for abandoning the running game, which is typical, you have to wonder why Lovie Smith didn’t simply step in and demand an offensive switch. Smith is the head coach!
With Packers GM Ted Thompson signed through 2015, you can bet that rivals may pursue some of his valuable lieutenants such as cap guru Russ Ball and college director John Dorsey. You can count Rodgers among opposing players who hate the grass in Soldier Field.
Arizona at Seattle, 4:15 p.m. ET
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: The Seahawks are very good at stopping the run, so the big news for them is whether or not Arizona RB Beanie Wells (hamstring) plays or not. If Wells can’t go, it means Arizona will be forced to rely on Chester Taylor, ideally a third-down back, and Alphonso Smith. There’s a chance of wet conditions, too, and that could prove to be a factor.
Seattle is hoping that expensive WR Sidney Rice, who will be seeing his first action of the season, can generate some big plays as the third receiver. The Cardinals have struggled in pass defense, and new coordinator Ray Horton has been dialing back his packages and coverage schemes in order to prevent being gashed by the big play.
CZAR’S SCOOP: The situation is never good when you are 0-2, but Pete Carroll shouldn’t be blaming GM John Schneider for the offseason moves that have failed to produce positive results. Remember, Matt Hasselbeck still would be here, but he wanted a two-year contract, something the Seahawks didn’t want to do. Yes, guard Robert Gallery is still out because of a hamstring pull, but Rice is expected to play despite a torn labrum.
This is a huge NFC West game for both teams, considering the Seahawks are the defending champs. The Rams still may have the best quarterback in the division, but they won’t play a division game until Nov. 6. The Seahawks are one of four NFL teams that opened the season with two road games.
Atlanta at Tampa Bay, 4:15 p.m. ET
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: In two games, the Falcons have surrendered 15 plays of 20 yards or more. The good thing for Atlanta is that Buccaneers QB Josh Freeman doesn’t have the speedy weapons that the Bears and Eagles do. The Bucs still want to run first with LeGarrette Blount and then open it up for Freeman’s play-action passes to TE Kellen Winslow and deep to Mike Williams and Preston Parker.
The Falcons have won five straight against the Bucs, and they want QB Matt Ryan to start opening up the offense. They know that the Bucs like to double cover Roddy White, so it’s time for Julio Jones and others to step up. TE Tony Gonzalez is coming off one of his better games for the Falcons, including a super one-handed scoring catch. Atlanta is well-balanced with Michael Turner running the ball, and the Bucs better put some pressure on Ryan or it’s going to be a long, muggy afternoon for them.
CZAR’S SCOOP: The Falcons added DE Ray Edwards in free agency from Minnesota to help with the pass rush. Edwards has played the run well but does not have a sack.
Believing that field position would be even more important this season, because of the new kickoff rule, the Bucs signed kicking specialist Michael Koenen away from the Falcons for $19.5 million over six years. Koenen has had two kickoffs returned for 17 yards in two games.
Eight of Freeman’s 14 wins have come in the fourth quarter or overtime, yet he hasn’t been able to rally his team against the Falcons. In the last meeting, CB Brent Grimes intercepted Freeman at the Atlanta 19-yard line to preserve the win for Atlanta.
The Bucs have promoted rookie MLB Mason Foster and now have him handling the defensive play calling. One of the best matchups in this game will be between two 15-year veterans, Bucs nickel CB Ronde Barber vs. Gonzalez.
Jacksonville at Carolina, 1 p.m. ET: Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio made his third quarterback change in 15 days, deciding to match his first-round pick, Blaine Gabbert, against Carolina’s No. 1 Cam Newton, who has passed for 854 yards in his first two games. Newton has accounted for all of Carolina’s touchdowns, passing for three while running for two more. Jags WR Mike Thomas expects Gabbert to take more downfield chances than the benched Luke McCown did.
Houston at New Orleans, 1 p.m. ET: The Texans have never been 3-0, making this visit to the Superdome something of a hump game. You have to believe new Houston defensive coordinator Wade Phillips will want to pressure Saints QB Drew Brees, trying to reduce his decision-making ability. The Saints demolished Chicago’s offensive line last Sunday, but Houston’s line is better, plus WR Andre Johnson and TE Owen Daniels are major targets for Matt Schaub. The Saints do get pass-rusher Will Smith back after his two-game suspension. RB Ben Tate makes his first start for Houston as Arian Foster rests his hamstring.
New England at Buffalo, 1 p.m. ET: The Patriots have won 20 of the past 21 over the Bills, including seven straight in Orchard Park. The Bills have been outscored 214-43 in those seven straight home losses and the amazing Tom Brady is 17-1 against them. But Buffalo does have the NFL rushing leader in Fred Jackson (229 yards), and his 43-yard touchdown run sparked the Bills’ comeback against the Raiders. Harvard’s own Ryan Fitzpatrick has thrown as many TD passes (seven) as Brady this season.
Miami at Cleveland, 1 p.m. ET: The winless Dolphins had a 6-2 road record last season, and they’ve been getting booed at home (losers in 11 of past 12). The Browns, though, may be an opponent they can beat because of Cleveland’s commitment to Peyton Hillis and the running game. Miami has been torched for 373 passing yards a game while Colt McCoy is averaging only 212 yards while relying on his two tight ends, Ben Watson and Evan Moore. Miami’s players are rallying around Coach Tony Sparano, but even a Jason Taylor pep talk to his teammates may not be enough to save his job for next season.
Denver at Tennessee, 1 p.m. ET: Last year, Broncos QB Kyle Orton called the Titans a bunch of cheap-shot artists. Titans CB Cortland Finnegan definitely took offense. It will be interesting to see if anyone takes a shot at Orton, who gets WR Brandon Lloyd back. The Titans still haven’t gotten Chris Johnson untracked as Matt Hasselbeck has proven to be a big upgrade over Kerry Collins. Denver pass rusher Elvis Dumervil is expected to play, but he will have his hands full with Michael Roos. Hasselbeck has been sacked only twice in 78 dropbacks.
N.Y. Jets at Oakland, 4:05 p.m. ET: The Raiders sold out their home opener, but QB Jason Campbell is still minus receiving threats Jacoby Ford and Louis Murphy. This game figures to be a slugfest with Darren McFadden averaging 131 yards from scrimmage, while the Jets would love to get their running game untracked (Shonn Greene has only 75 yards on 26 carries). Greene did run for a career-high 144 yards against Oakland two seasons ago. For the Jets to win, though, QB Mark Sanchez has to buy time and pick apart the Oakland secondary — one that collapsed in the second half against Buffalo.
Kansas City at San Diego, 4:05 p.m.: The Chiefs are coming off their worst back-to-back defeats in club history (79-point differential) and now they face the Chargers having lost RB Jamaal Charles (torn ACL), the NFL’s No. 2 rusher last season. Kansas City must regroup and find a way for Matt Cassel to compete with Philip Rivers. Cassel is already without TE Tony Moeaki and No. 1 pick, WR Jon Baldwin. The Chiefs plan to run Thomas Jones as much as possible and keep the ball away from San Diego, who will be minus two defensive starters and TE Antonio Gates.
Baltimore at St. Louis, 4:05 p.m.: The Rams’ brutal schedule continues and they must figure out how to improve (one TD in five trips) their red-zone offense. Sam Bradford outplayed Eli Manning on Monday night, but without RB Steven Jackson (quad and unlikely to play again) the Rams were forced too many times to settle for chip-shot field goals. The Ravens are hurting in the secondary and could be susceptible to Bradford’s no-huddle offense as long as WR Danario Alexander can play half the snaps. Jackson will test his quad in pregame, but Cadillac Williams figures to start. No truth whatsoever to Rams owner Stan Kroenke giving coach Steve Spagnuolo an earful after Giants’ loss. If fact, it was Spags who initiated the meeting.
Pittsburgh at Indianapolis, 8:20 p.m. ET: The Steelers would love to get their running game and Rashard Mendenhall untracked against the winless Colts. Remember, the Indy defense is built around its pass rush and its ability to protect a lead, something that has been missing with Peyton Manning out. Kerry Collins is a 51 percent passer right now and he has more turnovers (four) than TD passes (two). Veterans on the Colts are preaching patience with Collins, but you have to wonder if this team wouldn’t be better off with Curtis Painter, who knows the offense.