Top Week 2 duels: Can Broncos’ Miller throw off Cowboys’ attack?
Von Miller has gone five consecutive games without a sack, but there’s little doubt about the threat the Denver Broncos’ star pass rusher still poses.
If anything, the drought might serve as a reminder of the lengths opposing teams will endure to prevent Miller from bending a game to his will.
The double teams, chips and other tactics that Miller is likely to face should come as no surprise Sunday. But his presence still has far-reaching effects for a Denver defense looking to reassert itself against Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott and the Dallas Cowboys’ formidable attack.
“He’s one of those guys who is a real difference-maker,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said this week. “He’s one of those guys who has affected games probably since he was growing up here in South Dallas. He’s an incredible athlete. He has a great feel for rushing the passer. He’s quick. He’s fast. He’s explosive.”
Right tackle La’el Collins will have the primary responsibility of fending off Miller. Collins handled New York Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul last week, but shutting down a player with 38½ sacks the past three seasons is an entirely different challenge.
Prescott might be forced to make quick decisions, especially with cornerback Aqib Talib set for a matchup with Dez Bryant and Chris Harris Jr. holding down the slot. But the second-year standout has been difficult to rattle, and he likely will become the first quarterback in NFL history to throw five or fewer interceptions in his first 500 pass attempts.
The true test for Miller and Denver’s defense, however, might be in how it handles Elliott. Operating behind a line that Broncos coach Vance Joseph called “the best in football,” the NFL’s leading rusher in 2016 could dictate the tone of the game against a defense that finished 28th against the run last season. Here are four other matchups that will define Week 2 in the NFL:
Atlanta Falcons RB Devonta Freeman vs Green Bay Packers DT Mike Daniels
Matt Ryan and the passing attack did the heavy lifting for Atlanta in each of last season’s wins over Green Bay, but scheme adjustments should yield a greater emphasis on the ground game on Sunday night.
The Packers’ new go-to “nitro” package – a nickel variation that uses just two defensive linemen and rolls safety Morgan Burnett to inside linebacker – yielded impressive results last week in a 17-9 win over the Seattle Seahawks. Designed to put speedier players on the field and provide more flexibility in coverage, the defense was still formidable against the run. Outside of two Russell Wilson runs for 40 yards, the Seahawks gained just 50 yards on 16 carries.
Atlanta’s shift in Week 1 didn’t go as smoothly, as last year’s top-scoring offense never fully found its footing in coordinator Steve Sarkisian’s debut. Freeman and fellow running back Tevin Coleman combined for just 53 yards on 20 carries in a 23-17 win over the Chicago Bears. With the rest of the offense yet to click, expect Sarkisian to emphasize the ground game early to open up play-action opportunities.
Daniels is Green Bay’s key to running “nitro” without leaving the defense exposed up front given its 31st-place finish against the run last year. After racking up seven tackles, four quarterbacks hits and 1½ sacks against the Seahawks, he’ll be looking to generate similar disruption against Freeman and Ryan.
Pittsburgh Steelers WR Antonio Brown vs Minnesota Vikings CB Xavier Rhodes
Brown and Rhodes both attended the same high school in Miami, and the two still train with one another in the offseason. Now their matchup could be one of the early season highlights with a 2-0 start at stake.
In a 21-18 win against the Cleveland Browns last week, Brown hauled in 11 catches for 182 yards and provided the latest reminder of how confounding he is to cover. With Le’Veon Bell still looking to find his form after sitting out training camp and preseason, Ben Roethlisberger and Pittsburgh likely will depend on Brown to set the tone for the offense again.
Rhodes put himself on the map last season by flustering Giants star Odell Beckham Jr. and earning his first Pro Bowl berth.
A hip injury left Rhodes limited in practice this week, and he is listed as questionable for Sunday. Rhodes should find himself shadowing Brown if fully healthy, but Tramaine Brock and Terence Newman could be forced into larger roles if Minnesota has to turn to Plan B.
New England Patriots WR Brandin Cooks vs New Orleans Saints’ secondary
In a weekend with several notable coaches and players facing their former teams, Cooks’ return to New Orleans stands out as the biggest story line. But there are more pressing issues for New England after a stinging 42-27 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in the season opener.
With Danny Amendola sidelined by a concussion, the Patriots have just three healthy receivers available in Cooks, Chris Hogan and Phillip Dorsett. Though Rob Gronkowski and the running backs should figure prominently into the game plan, this is a chance for Tom Brady to attack on the outside after a 16-of-36 outing last week. Cooks hauled in a 54-yard reception in the opener, but he still has to establish himself as a reliable target.
New Orleans, meanwhile, saw its defense undone once again in Week 1 by an overwhelmed secondary. Vikings receivers Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs combined for 250 yards and two touchdowns on 16 catches as they easily outmaneuvered Saints cornerbacks in a 29-17 win.
Any team facing the Saints in New Orleans has to be ready for a shootout, and Drew Brees holds a 3-1 record and 123.3 passer rating against the Patriots in his career. With the defense still looking vulnerable, Cooks and New England might need to provide a lot of firepower to make this game comfortable.
Kansas City Chiefs RB Kareem Hunt vs Philadelphia Eagles’ front seven
The third-round rookie became the breakout star of Week 1 with a 246-yard debut against the Patriots. Keeping up such a pace is likely untenable, but Hunt remains a threat as the Chiefs’ featured back.
Known primarily as a between-the-tackles runner, Hunt surprised many with his 78-yard touchdown catch and 58-yard touchdown run in the opener. But after being recorded at a league-best top speed of 20.84 mph in Week 1, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, he might give Kansas City the next gear it has desperately needed (beyond wide receiver Tyreek Hill).
Eagles coach Doug Pederson said Hunt was one of the players the team was considering in the draft, though Philadelphia would end up with Donnel Pumphrey in the fourth round. Now it’s up to Pederson and his defensive front to keep Hunt contained on Sunday.
Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham provide the Chiefs’ offensive line with plenty to handle. But Kansas City thrives on balance, and continued success from Hunt could keep Philadelphia from unleashing the full wrath of its pass rush against Alex Smith.
IN HIS first NFL start, Houston Texans rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson (left) ran 49 yards for a second-quarter touchdown and led the Texans’ depleted offense to a late clinching field goal in a 13-9 road victory over the Cincinnati Bengals on Thursday night to kick off Week 2 action.