Cullen: Week 7 NFL Preview

Scott Cullen

10/18/2012 2:21:55 PM

It's no secret that the NFL has become a passing league. It has been for a long time, in some respects, but as teams employ more multiple-receiver sets, the yardage just keeps going up and up. Scott Cullen takes a look at the passing evolution over the last decade before getting into the 13 games on the Week 7schedule.

When Drew Brees broke Johnny Unitas' record for most consecutive games with a passing touchdown, it was remarkable, not because Brees had thrown a touchdown in every game for three seasons, but because Unitas had done so in a league that wasn't nearly as friendly for quarterbacks.

In Johnny U's day, defensive backs mugged receivers without retribution and quarterbacks were subject to far more abuse when they dropped back to pass. Now, hand-checking on the perimeter draws a flag and quarterbacks are given extreme protection once they've gotten rid of the ball.

The result is a passer-friendly league that allows teams to score more points. It's not always the Greatest Show on Turf, like the St. Louis Rams, but there are more teams than ever before that are capable of putting up big yardage through the air.

Consider the number of quarterbacks averaging at least 280 yards per game.

Year QBs with 280+ Passing Yards/Game
2002 1
2003 0
2004 4
2005 1
2006 0
2007 1
2008 3
2009 5
2010 4
2011 6
2012 12

Of course, standard disclaimers about small sample size must be included because there is no guarantee that the dozen quarterbacks (Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Matthew Stafford, Andrew Luck, Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Matt Ryan, Andy Dalton, Carson Palmer, Tony Romo and Joe Flacco) will continue to average more than 280 passing yards per game for the rest of the season, but it's a rather striking evolution and that group doesn't even include Aaron Rodgers, who averaged 309.5 passing yards per game in 2011 and sits at 272.8 this season.

The predominance of passing in the NFL makes the quarterback position more important than ever before and, aside from injuries, it's the easiest way for a game to end up with a big spread. Mark Sanchez vs. Tom Brady? How can the Jets possibly keep pace?  Most of the lines this week aren't so outlandish, with the Jets and Patriots the only game with more than a touchdown spread, and five of the 13 games falling within a field goal margin.

Now, a look at the Week Seven matchups:

By all rights, this should be a low-scoring game, as its 37.5 total is the lowest on the board. Both the Seahawks and the 49ers have top five defences and there are questions about their offences. Seahawks rookie QB Russell Wilson had the best game of his career last week, throwing for 293 yards and three touchdowns against New England, but San Francisco's defence will be an even bigger test.

Furthermore, the Niners will be looking for a bounceback from their run defence, which allowed 100 rushing yards to Ahmad Bradshaw last week. Even after that, there are only five teams allowing fewer yards per carry than San Francisco's 3.6, which presents a challenge for Seahawks RB Marshawn Lynch. San Francisco's defence has been particularly ferocious coming off losses.

The running doesn't get any easier for San Francisco, however, as Seattle's run defence has been among the league's best, allowing 3.3 yards per carry and a paltry 70 yards per game. If Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter can't move the chains with the running game, that will force Alex Smith to pass more frequently.

Facing intense pressure from the Giants last week, Smith threw three interceptions in a game for the first time since Week Nine of the 2009 season and the Seahawks will have DE Chris Clemons and rookie OLB Bruce Irvin forcing Smith out of his comfort zone.

Both the Titans and Bills eked out field goal wins last week and there isn't a great deal to choose between them. Ryan Fitzpatrick and Matt Hasselbeck are below average starting quarterbacks and while the Titans have more weapons in the passing game, the Bills' running back depth (Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller are both starting-calibre backs) would appear to give them an advantage in that aspect of the game.

The wildcard is Titans RB Chris Johnson, who did run for 91 yards last week, but Johnson has had two productive games out of six, so it's hard to offer any guarantee that he's finally back on track. Going against a Bills defence that may be the league's worst against the run (allowing 5.8 yards per carry, 173.5 yards per game) will provide a measuring stick for Johnson -- if he can't run on the Bills, who will he be able to run on with any kind of success?

With RB DeMarco Murray out of the Cowboys lineup, Felix Jones will get the bulk of the touches in the backfield and Jones responded when given the chance at Baltimore last week (18 carries, 92 yards, 1 TD), so there shouldn't be a significant drop in talent/production.

Carolina's defence has been subpar to this point, which could pose problems against a Dallas offence that has a variety of weapons.

Coming off the bye week, the Panthers have to try and establish some offensive consistency against a decent Dallas defence. Since Dallas' cornerback play has been a strength and Carolina's passing game has been nothing to write home about, it may be abotu time for the Panthers to focus their offensive attention on the running back tandem of Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams. It's their best chance.

With the Texans reeling, after that humbling home loss to Green Bay on Sunday night, expect them to be fired up to face the Ravens, who may have the offence to engage in a shootout, but with injuries to ILB Ray Lewis and shutdown CB Lardarius Webb, the Ravens' defence may not be nearly as forceful as it has been in recent seasons. Even with Lewis and Webb, the Ravens' D has struggled somewhat this season, so it doesn't figure to be better with Dannell Ellerbe and Jimmy Smith, respectively, moving into those starting spots.

There is some talk that Ravens OLB Terrell Suggs, their best pass rusher, wants to play this week, which would be a very quick recover from the torn Achilles he suffered in April.

Having seen the Packers throw for six touchdowns against Houston, expect Baltimore to air it out and test the Texans' secondary. That means lots of opportunities for Anquan Boldin, Torrey Smith, Dennis Pitta and, possibly, Jacoby Jones in the Baltimore passing game.

From the Texans' perspective, they will expect more from RB Arian Foster, who rushed for 29 yards (with two touchdowns) on 17 carries last week, but the absence of Webb does improve the odds of Andre Johnson playing a significant role in the Houston attack.

Comnig off their first win of the season, the Browns are starting to develop into a more competitive team, in large part because of their rookies. QB Brandon Weeden is old to be a rookie (29!!) and he still nees to cut down on his turnovers, but he's averaged 253.2 passing yards per game, which ranks 15th among quarterbacks.

Not bad, and potentially good enough to take advantage of a Colts pass defence that, while not allowing a lot of total yardage, does allo 7.6 yards per attempt. Weeden has a new deep threat in rookie Josh Gordon, who has three touchdowns in the last two weeks and the running game is anchored by rookie Trent Richardson. If Richardson's ribs continue to give him problems, that means more of a role for Montario Hardesty, who was effective in relief last week.

Indianpolis was stomped by the Jets' running game last week, so the Browns also have the option to turn the game over to Richardson.

The Colts don't have the strongest running game, with Vick Ballard filling in for Donald Brown as the starter, which might allow Cleveland to get away with their below-average run defence. While the Browns' pass defence hasn't been great, it's better with CB Joe Haden in the lineup and if Haden could provide tight coverage on Reggie Wayne, that would force Andrew Luck to go to his secondary options -- Donnie Avery, T.Y. Hilton, Coby Fleener -- in order to move the ball.

After back-to-back losses in which they scored a total of 19 points and lost their quarterback to injury, the bloom is off the Arizona Cardinals' rose. John Skelton takes over and, while Skelton has had some moments, the Vikings don't present an easy matchup.

Only three teams are allowing fewer than Minnesota's 6.3 yards per pass attempt and, if the Cardinals turn to the running with William Powell, well the Vikings are above average against the run, too.

Minnesota is coming off a loss to Washington, in which the defence was exposed by Robert Griffin III, but Arizona doesn't have that kind of weaponry, so expect the Vikings' defence to fare much better.

Arizona's defence is no slouch, either, with a secondary that should present some challenges to the Vikings' passing game, but even if Arizona manages to shut down the Vikings' aerial attack, that still leaves the matter of stopping RB Adrian Peterson. It's Minnesota's improved offensive depth that gives them the edge in this matchup.

The vaunted Giants pass rush returned to form last week, harrassing San Francisco's Alex Smith and they'll try to do the same this week, only they'll be facing the most mobile quarterback in the league.

Robert Griffin III has rushed for 379 yards, 170 more than Cam Newton, and six touchdowns and it's that element of his game that makes him especially dangerous because even if the Giants secondary can keep Washington's mediocre receiving corps under wraps, that doesn't ensure that Griffin won't be the ultimate difference maker.

The challenge for Washington will be finding a way to slow down the Giants passing game. Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks are one of the league's best wide receiver tandems and they go up against a Redskins defence that has allowed a league-high 328.3 passing yards per game.

So, maybe RGIII can lead the Redskins to an upset on the road, but he's likely going to have to put up some points to get the job done.

We've been waiting for the Packers to look like the overpowering offensive juggernaut and they delivered last week at Houston. The St. Louis defence isn't an easy touch, by a longshot, and their secondary has been one of the league's best, but if Aaron Rodgers is on his game, it's hard to imagine the Rams having a chance to keep up.

In the last four weeks, St. Louis has scored a total of 56 points and it should go without saying that 14 points isn't likely going to be enough to match the Packers, who have been held to 14 points or less twice (in 22 regular season games) since the start of the 2011 season.

If the Rams are going to grind out a win, they can try to run the ball and keep the clock moving. If Steven Jackson and Daryl Richardson can help keep Rodgers and company off the field, maybe the Rams keep it close.

After the Bucs stomped Brady Quinn and Kansas City last week, they will be facing a different kind of challenge against Drew Brees and the Saints. While the Bucs' pass defence, generally, hasn't been good, allowing 8.2 yards per attempt, they have only surrendered four passing touchdowns.

If they can keep Brees under control that will give the Bucs a fighting chance because for all of their offensive fireworks the Saints' defence has been one of the league's worst this season (and even a potential return by MLB Jonathan Vilma isn't going to change that).

That could mean another big day for QB Josh Freeman along with wide receivers Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams, or maybe rookie RB Doug Martin will make the difference, but if the Bucs can keep the Saints' scoring to a mangeable level, they just might be able to compete.

N.Y. JETS (+10.5) at NEW ENGLAND
The Jets looked to be given up for dead before running over Indianapolis last week, a feat that doesn't seem as likely against a Patriots defence allowing just 3.4 yards per carry. While the Patriots' secondary is vulnerable, and was exposed by Seahawks rookie QB Russell Wilson, it's not easy to expect Mark Sanchez to suddenly cut loose and throw for 250+ and multiple touchdowns.

With three losses by a total of four points, the Patriots are missing on some of the fine strokes, but they have a multitude of weapons on offence and a strong enough overall defence that, based on talent, they shouldn't have much trouble with the Jets.

If the Jets need a miracle to pull this game out, maybe there will be a role for Tim Tebow to play in a depleted Jets backfield.

The Jaguars are coming off a much-needed bye week, having been outscored 68-13 in two home games before their break, so they'll need to regroup for their trip to Oakland. The Raiders' pass defence hasn't been great, so that's an area of vulnerability, except the odds are against Blaine Gabbert being able to take advantage of the situation.

With Laurent Robinson still feeling the effects of a concussion, this is a prime opportunity for rookie Justin Blackmon to raise his level of play, but he's been inconsistent at best, so if there isn't a viable passing game, that will leave a lot of the work to RB Maurice Jones-Drew, who has surpassed 20 carries just once in five games. That really ought to change.

Jacksonville's defence isn't blessed with playmakers so there will be chances for the Raiders to make big plays and, while he's not great, QB Carson Palmer is far ahead of Gabbert at this point and the Raiders have receivers, Denarius Moore and Darrius Heyward-Bey, that can get deep.

This feels like a huge game for the 2-3 Steelers, who have been a disappointment thus far. It should help to have RB Rashard Mendenhall, whose Achilles injury suffered last Thursday isn't expected to keep him out of the lineup and the Steelers have a prolific passing game, ranking eighth in the league with 297.4 yards per game.

However, Pittsburgh's defence will be tested. They rank fourth in the league, allowing 200.8 passing yards per game, but the Bengals rank fifth in passing offence with 299.8 yards per game. Pittsburgh doesn't have a shutdown corner that is capable of locking down Bengals WR A.J. Green (does anyone?), so they will need to keep consistent pressure on Bengals QB Andy Dalton, a task made easier with both LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison available to rush the passer.

Chicago's defence has been beastly, allowing a league-low 14.2 points per game (while scoring five touchdowns in five games), and they are coming off a bye week, so that is a tough matchup for the Lions.

Matthew Stafford, who has four touchdowns and five interceptions on the season, hasn't been at the top of his game this year and with the inconsistency of the Lions' running game, that leaves Detroit fighting uphill against the Bears.

Chicago's offence hasn't been consistent either, but Brandon Marshall has rolled up 282 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the last two games, so as long as he and Jay Cutler stay on the same page, they generate enough in the passing game to open up running room for Matt Forte and Michael Bush.

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