Three weeks into the season we already have teams starting to position themselves for playoff runs with perfect starts, and teams who have yet to pick up a win, already putting themselves in a big hole and making their chances of reaching the postseason unlikely. And then you have the teams that have started the year looking good at points, and struggling at others.
We see two of those teams, in the San Diego Chargers and Dallas Cowboys, square off this week, with the Cowboys looking to stretch their lead at the top of the NFC East and the Chargers hoping to claw back against the high flying Denver Broncos in the AFC West.
It’s a battle between two teams who have been disappointments over the past few years but both will be looking to end the first month of the season with a win. So with that in mind, let’s take a look at the three key areas to focus on.
Freeney vs. Smith
The good news for the Cowboys, and quarterback Tony Romo, is that right tackle Doug Free is off to a fantastic start to the year, surrendering just a sack and four quarterback hurries from 130 pass blocking attempts so far. The bad news? That’s unlikely to help them much against Dwight Freeney (+5.4) who does the vast majority of his work from the opposite side. Instead, that job falls to Tyron Smith (-0.3), who hasn’t looked awful, but hasn’t looked any better than average either, allowing two hits and six hurries on the same number of pass blocks as Free.
Freeney is coming off the worst game of his short spell in San Diego so far, registering just two hurries against the Tennessee Titans. His work against the Houston Texans and Philadelphia Eagles, however, was good enough that he is still ninth amongst all outside linebackers with a Pass Rushing Productivity rating of 13.1. That shows that, even with his advancing years, he still represents a threat to opposing offenses on his day and has the potential to give the Cowboys’ offense nightmares if they aren’t careful.
The Resurgence of Philip Rivers
A year ago it looked like Philip Rivers’ (+8.6) career might be on a very steep decline, with the signal-caller finishing a season looking at a negative grade for the first time in the PFF era. With a collection of poor performances, and a reliance on throwing the ball away, in 2012, it was fair to question. Fast forward to 2013, though, and he looks like the Philip Rivers of old under a new head coach.
His best performance so far has been against the Philadelphia Eagles, who he sliced open for 419 yards and three touchdowns, but he certainly hasn’t played poorly in either of his other two starts. Taking account of things like drops and throwaways, Rivers has an Accuracy Percentage of 81.1%, trailing only Denver’s Peyton Manning through three games. Taking advantage of the middle of the field, where he has completed 13 of 16 passes for 218 yards and a touchdown, Rivers looks to once again be, quietly, in the group of the best quarterbacks in the league.
Slowing Down DeMarco
After a slow start to the year, in Week 3 DeMarco Murray (+5.7) did what he does best: run on the St. Louis Rams. After seeing Murray hit the highest rushing total of his career as a rookie in 2011, when he rushed for 253 yards, the Rams found themselves at his mercy again last week, as he broke seven tackle on his way to 175 yards and he second-highest total of his career. Murray poses a problem for opposing defenses because he has the ability to run around you or straight through you, with 10 missed tackles forced already this year. Add to that his 10 missed tackles forced as a receiver, and his average of 2.88 Yards After Contact Per Carry, and it’s not surprising to see him at the top of our Elusive Rating rankings this early in the year, with an ER of 77.8.
Avoiding missed tackles will be key for the Chargers, with them missing 23 as a team through three weeks. The primary player at fault in that regard so far has surprisingly been Eric Weddle, with the safety playing more often near the line and already missing eight tackles after missing nine in all of 2012. The problem the Chargers have is that they lack a good run defender in their front seven with their three highest snap-getters on the defensive line particularly struggling. If players like Corey Liuget aren’t able to offer much resistance against the run, it allows opposing running backs to get to the second level and, with a player like Weddle going through a rough patch, getting to the second level could mean bad things for the San Diego defense. The Philadelphia Eagles and LeSean McCoy showed how much damage a good running back can do, and if the Chargers aren’t careful, they may see a repeat performance on Sunday.
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