Top Week 2 du­els: Can Bron­cos’ Miller throw off Cow­boys’ at­tack?

Jerusalem Post - - SPORTS - PRE­VIEW By MICHAEL MIDDLEHURST-SCHWARTZ

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.

(Reuters)

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.

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