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Week Nine “Three and Out”


It’s the 13th anniversary of PFT. What better way to celebrate than to bang out three questions and answers for each of the 11 games to be played on Sunday?

OK, there are probably better ways to celebrate. If West Virginia beats TCU today, the celebration may or may not include the deliberate ignition of an elongated piece of stuffed rec room furniture.

So before I’m charged with arson, I should probably publish what could be the last “Three and Out” feature for 3-5 years.

Jaguars at Bengals

1. How much will A.J. Green play?

The smart play would be to take it easy. For starters, the Bengals are playing the Jaguars, a team with one win. Also, Mohamed Sanu continues to develop nicely, becoming much more than a complement to Green. Then there’s the fact that the Bengals face the Browns on a short week. Cincinnati will need Green to be ready to play the whole game on Thursday night.

But Green isn’t wired to hold himself back. If he’s able to go, he’s going to go, fully and completely.

Regardless, don’t expect Green to be as dominant as he’s been in past years. He has said he won’t be 100 percent all year long, due to the sprained toe that caused him to miss three games.

2. What happened to Toby Gerhart?

He started the first five games of the season, averaging 2.3, 1.1, 3.6, 3.2, and 2.3 yards per carry. An injury knocked Gerhart out for two weeks, which first gave Storm Johnson and then gave Denard Robinson a chance to take over the job.

Robinson made a very strong case in Week Seven. But then, with Gerhart healthy and the Jaguars supposedly planning to split reps between Robinson and Gerhart, Gerhart got only four carries for 10 yards. Robinson gained more than 100 again.

To date, Gerhart has 52 carries for 133 yards, which averages out to 2.6 yards per carry. In contrast, Robinson has 88 carries for 395 yards, an average of 4.5 yards per attempt.

3. Can Cincy afford to keep their weapons?

Eventually, probably not. Green remains eligible for a new contract, and he’ll make $10.176 million in 2015. After next season, Green, Sanu, and Marvin Jones will each become free agents. Also in the pipeline will be tight end Tyler Eifert (a first-round pick in 2013) and running back Gio Bernard (a second-round pick in 2013).

The Bengals will have some tough decisions to make -- and former Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden may be in position to lure one or more of those guys to Washington.

Buccaneers at Browns

1. Are Manziel’s frustrations hurting the team?

If he’s freelancing on the scout team and not running the plays that the defense will be facing, that potentially hurts the Browns. The goal of the scout team is to help prepare the defense for the coming week’s offense; unless the opposing quarterback plays like Manziel, Manziel isn’t helping the cause by playing like Manziel when he should be playing like the next quarterback the defense will face.

2. Why have the Bucs dumped half of the secondary?

Coach Lovie Smith wants personnel who will run his defense the way he wants it to be run. Darrelle Revis plays cover corner; Smith’s defense needs corners who’ll play a lot of zone -- and who’ll provide support when it comes to stopping the run. Mark Barron prefers to play more aggressively; the Tampa Two defense requires safeties who’ll keep things in front of them, forcing defenses to methodically move down the field without making mistakes or otherwise stalling.

So both had to go. And both will eventually be replaced with guys who better fit the system, through free agency or the draft.

3. Can Ben Tate turn things around?

He believes he can. However, Tate doesn’t remember having back-to-back bad games since he was eight years old. Against the Jaguars, Tate had 36 yards on 16 carries. Facing the Raiders, it was 10 fewer yards on only one fewer try.

The struggles come in large part from the lack of running lanes, due to a determination by opposing defenses to take away the rushing attack. Tate thinks that can be overcome.

It’s all in how we play,” Tate said this week. “Teams can come in with the mindset of stopping the run and you can still run for 200 yards on them. It’s Xs and Os but it still comes down to beating that man in front of you. That’s just what I believe.”

Cardinals at Cowboys

1. What can DeMarco Murray do about his fumbling?

For starters, he can -- as Emmitt Smith says -- know when the journey is over. Fighting for that extra yard exposes the player to another defender who will inevitably try to extricate the ball from the running back’s grasp. So it’s not about being lucky; it’s about being smart enough to know when to hit the deck.

Over the years, plenty of players with fumbling issues have learned how to cure them. Murray needs to realize that it’s fixable, and then he needs to fix it. Until he does, he’ll be even more of a target.

2. Should Cowboys fans panic if Brandon Weeden starts?

Probably, but not as much as they think. Tony Romo hasn’t practiced on any Wednesday this season, and he had a pitch count in training camp and the preseason. That meant extra work for Weeden, who’ll be better prepared than he otherwise would have been if Romo had been 100 percent all year.

It’s not clear how much that will matters once the Cardinals begin to swarm around a first-round pick who washed out of Cleveland in only two seasons, but it definitely puts Weeden in a better position than he would have been in if Romo had been getting as much work as he did in past years.

Regardless, the signs currently point to Romo not playing. So regardless of whether Weeden is ready, he’ll likely be the guy who goes on Sunday.

3. Does Fitzgerald’s big play mean he’s staying next year?

Um, no. While Fitzgerald’s long catch and run against the Eagles conjured memories of his performance in Super Bowl XLIII, that $23.8 million cap number for 2015 remains, and it won’t be shrinking unless Fitzgerald takes less money. If he won’t, he’ll be elsewhere next year. Regardless of what he does for the rest of this one.

Eagles at Texans

1. Will Todd Herremans play with a torn biceps?

Apparently, yes. He’s listed as probable, which means it’s a virtual certainty he’ll play.

For some, a torn biceps becomes a season-ending situation, because without fairly prompt surgery the muscle may never get back to where it was. For others, it’s another bit of adversity that needs to be overcome during an NFL season full of challenges and obstacles.

With Herremans intent on trying to play and center Jason Kelce ready to return from a sports hernia, the Eagles’ offensive line could be in great position to provide the kind of blocking they’ll need to keep J.J. Watt and company away from Nick Foles.

2. Will it be a homecoming for an Eagles defensive player?

No. It’ll be a homecoming for two of them. Linebacker DeMeco Ryans and linebacker Connor Barwin previously played in Houston, and it’ll be their first game against their former team.

“I don’t know exactly what it means but I’m excited to go back and play against a lot of my former teammates, see a lot of my good friends in that organization,” Barwin said this week.

Ryans knows it means a challenge for the offense, given the presence of J.J. Watt.

“It hasn’t surprised me the career J.J. is having now because when he first came in as a rookie I could just tell from his work ethic and some of the things that he did at practice -- like you just step back and are like, wow, this guy is really special,” Ryan said. “It hasn’t surprised me the way he’s played.”

3. Which former Texans player is Arian Foster looking forward to facing?

Definitely DeMeco Ryans.

“Meco, man, he was one of my first welcome-to-the-NFL hits,” Foster said this week. “He smacked me. He smacked me in pregame warmups, too. Maybe I get to pay him back.”

Ryans will have his hands full with Foster. Though he’s not getting the same kind of national buzz as his Texas counterpart, Foster ranks second in the league in rushing, with 766 yards. He’s also averaging 5.2 yards per carry.

Not bad for a guy who missed a game and who didn’t do much in one other game. If Ryans and the Eagles can’t slow him down, the Eagles could see that 5-1 start disintegrate to 5-3.

Jets at Chiefs

1. Is G.M. John Idzik on the hot seat?

Only owner Woody Johnson knows for sure, but Idzik’s Hail-Mary play for Percy Harvin, coupled with surprisingly strong support for coach Rex Ryan and agreement with the decision to bench Geno Smith for Mike Vick suggest that Idzik knows he needs to win a few more games to avoid being run out the door.

With only one victory with through eight games, a final record of 2-14 or 3-13 could get Idzik fired without the opportunity to hire his own head coach. All because Johnson fired G.M. Mike Tannenbaum and didn’t fire Rex Ryan.

This time, Johnson’s best play could be a clean sweep and a fresh start. Some Jets fans would suggest that the clean sweep include a new owner.

2. Can the pupils beat their teacher?

Doubtful. When Jets quarterback Mike Vick and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg square off against Chiefs coach Andy Reid, it’ll be a reunion of three guys who had a decent amount of success together in Philly. But the edge clearly goes to Reid, in large part because he has the better talent -- and because he’s smart enough to know what will work in response to plays called by Mornhinweg and run by Vick.

3. Will Brad Childress and Percy Harvin hug it out?

Highly unlikely. Childress and Harvin repeatedly were at odds in Minnesota, with the two reportedly having to be separated in 2010 after Childress suggested Harvin was embellishing an ankle injury to avoid practicing. While it was Childress who took a chance on Harvin in the first round of the 2009 draft, Harvin’s talent ultimately was outweighed by his temperament. If Childress hadn’t been fired late in the 2010 season, Harvin surely wouldn’t have lasted in Minnesota.

So when they’re in the same building on Sunday, don’t expect any interactions involving anything but middle fingers and/or four-letter words.

Chargers at Dolphins

1. Why is Mike Wallace upset?

Last week, the Dolphins beat the Jaguars fairly easily. But receiver Mike Wallace wasn’t happy, claiming that “our offense was [expletive].”

The problem is that he wants to catch more deep balls -- and that quarterback Ryan Tannehill isn’t comfortable throwing them. It was, for example, a big deal when Tannehill threw long passes on consecutive plays at Jacksonville, one of which was completed to Wallace for a 50-yard gain.

It’s become a common theme for Wallace, who seems to be more concerned about his own numbers than winning games. If that doesn’t change, the team eventually will need to find a new No. 1 receiver.

2. Is Dan Marino making a difference?

The Hall of Fame quarterback’s first stint in the team’s front office didn’t go well, with Marino clearly not suited for or interested in grinding away like a scout. His return better fits his skill set, because in part he’s helping tutor the team’s quarterbacks.

Dan has been great,” starter Ryan Tannehill said this week. “He’s been around a lot as of recent. Watched tape with him. He’s been in the QB room. He’s a great resource to have around, just his knowledge of the game [and] obviously the success that he had during his career.”

Hopefully, his influence will rub off on the current team. Perennial contenders during Marino’s time in Miami, the Dolphins have missed the playoffs in 11 of the last 12 seasons.

3. Will Donald Brown finally return to action?

Most likely. Barring a return of concussion symptoms, the free-agent acquisition who suffered a head injury four weeks ago will play. He contends it was his first concussion; if so, it was a doozy.

Given the position he plays, concerns regarding another will be enhanced. But the running back rotation will benefit from Brown’s return to action, especially since the Broncos may have exposed undrafted rookie Branden Oliver a bit in Week Eight.

Washington at Vikings

1. Who has the edge in this Bengals assistants reunion?

When former Cincinnati defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer faces former Cincinnati offensive coordinator Jay Gruden on Sunday as the coaches in Minnesota and Washington, respectively, the edge arguably goes to Zimmer. Older and more experienced, Zimmer also did more with less overall talent with the Bengals.

Zimmer also seems to have more talent on his current defense than Gruden has on his current offense, especially with Robert Griffin III coming back from a dislocated ankle rusty and still learning Gruden’s attack. Ultimately, it may have been better for Griffin to wait until after the bye.

Colt McCoy probably is in better position to win this one, given the confidence boost he carried away from Dallas on Monday night. Of course, the added confidence from beating Minnesota could make it even harder for Griffin to re-establish himself as the starter after the bye.

2. Does Anthony Barr feel the rookie wall coming?

Nope. He told PFT Live earlier this week that he feels great after eight starts. Of course, that may change after a few more. But the converted running back and defensive end said that the NFL hasn’t seemed much faster than the college level, so the transition has gone very smoothly. As the total games played match and exceed anything he experienced at the college level, maybe it will go just as smoothly for one of the top rookies on a team that has experienced plenty of bumps and bruises.

3. Why is it important to play Robert Griffin III?

Washington has made a huge investment in Griffin, giving up three first-round picks and a second-round pick to get him in 2012. They need to know what they have before his third NFL season ends, since he becomes eligible for a new contract in 2015.

Even if Washington decides to wait on a new deal, a decision must be made on his $15 million-plus fifth-year option. While it would be a surprise if they pass, Griffin playing in as many games as possible this year gives Washington the greatest amount of information before the May 3 deadline rolls around.

Rams at 49ers

1. When could we finally see Marcus Lattimore?

Possibly soon. Lattimore has been activated to practice, two years removed from a torn ACL in college that knocked him out of the first round of the draft. The Niners took a flier on Lattimore, and offensive coordinator Greg Roman recently praised him.

The 49ers are now in the 21-day up-or-out window for putting Lattimore on the roster. With Frank Gore and Carlos Hyde struggling to churn up yards on the ground, the Niners could use the help.

2. Is Vernon Davis’ stock falling, literally?

Yes, literally. His shares through Fantex, which opened at $10 each, have plummeted to $6.60.

Ankle and back issues have hampered his effectiveness this year, which in turn will make it harder to get that new contract Vernon Davis covets.

But there’s hope as the Niners emerge from the bye week. Davis is healthy and ready to have the kind of impact he has had in the past.

“He’s gutted his way through it,” offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. “I think he’s got a very focused glare when it comes to what he wants to accomplish from here on out.”

Folks who bought his stock at $10 per share probably have a glare right now, too.

3. How will Mark Barron be used by the Rams?

His new coach knows, but he’s not saying.

“I’m not going to speculate the roles and things like that,” Fisher said. “We got a good player. I’m gonna spend some time with him, and talk about where and how he fits at some other point.”

So strong or free, no one will know until the Rams line up against the 49ers on Sunday.

Broncos at Patriots

1. Is this really about Brady vs. Manning?

No, it’s not. It’s about Peyton Manning vs. Bill Belichick. The best ever combination of quarterback and on-field coach facing one of the great defensive masterminds in the history of the game.

Playing in New England, Belichick has won seven of nine of these full-contact chess matches against Manning. Even though Manning once again has the better team on paper, only one stat matters on Sunday: Points scored versus points allowed.

Last year at Gillette Stadium, Belichick found a way to outscore Peyton. It won’t be a surprise if it happens again.

2. Are Belichick and Welker still mad, bro?

They claim they’re not, but how can there not be lingering ill will after Belichick’s harsh, unsolicited criticism of Welker for applying a hit to former New England (now Denver) cornerback Aqib Talib that wasn’t dirty or illegal?

Whether it came from residual hostility toward Welker for leaving the Patriots or an effort to curry favor with Talib, who was approaching free agency, Belichick went over the line in insisting that Welker went over the line. Both are presumably treading lightly with their words; that probably will change when it’s time to play.

3. Who’ll cover all of the Denver weapons?

Now that the Pats have committed to putting Darrelle Revis on the opponent’s best receiver, who precisely will that be? Receiver Demaryius Thomas, tight end Julius Thomas, receiver Emmannuel Sanders?

Each is dangerous. Revis can take only one of them away. One of the other two can be doubled. The third will face single coverage.

The best approach for Belichick would be to mix it up and confuse Peyton with pre-snap looks that conceal the manner in which the play will develop. For Manning, inducing the defensive backs to begin to move toward their post-snap position with hard counts and Omahas could be the key to cracking the code, one play at a time.

Raiders at Seahawks

1. Should the Seahawks be concerned about Derek Carr?

Based on what he did to their first-string defense in the preseason, probably.

“He hit everything,” coach Pete Carroll told reporters this week. “He tore us up, came in boldly and they didn’t just kind of dink it around; they showed that they had some belief that he could be a down the field guy. They certainly have gone that way. Their receivers have been on fire. We saw him move, we saw him throw the deep ball, we saw him throw some timing. Quick stuff underneath, and he just show a lot of poise. He’s demonstrated that now. He’s got good numbers right now.”

Cornerback Richard Sherman, who throws compliments even more reluctantly than Ryan Tannehill throws long passes, has called Carr a “gunslinger.”

Safety Kam Chancellor wasn’t as effusive. Asked what he remembered about the preseason game against the Raiders and Carr, Chancellor said, “I remember it was preseason.”

2. Didn’t Pete Carroll learn from the Earl Thomas Punt Return Experiment?

Nope. With regular punt returner Bryan Walters injured last week, Carroll tabbed Richard Sherman over Doug Baldwin. Carroll has said that Sherman may end up doing it again.

The good news for those concerned about Sherman being exposed unnecessarily to injury? Walters (concussion) is probable for Sunday’s visit from the Raiders.

3. How well is Khalil Mack doing as a rookie?

Pretty well. While the sacks aren’t yet piling up, he has 8.5 tackles for loss this season.

Regardless of any stats, he’s making an impact.

He jumps off the film,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll said this week. “Every one of our coaches, when they break up and start looking at the Raiders and taking seriously what they’re doing well, everybody comes back talking about him. He’s almost unblockable and he’s got a great motor. He’s fast, he’s tough, he’s instinctive. We think he’s an obvious factor.”

The coach of the team the Raiders most recently played agrees.

“Khalil Mack, I think, is a special player,” Browns coach Mike Pettine said. “We knew that in the draft process, and he’s shown that he was very deserving of being picked when he was picked. You’re just looking for the respect you don’t have to take it from me. Just ask our guys that went against him. I think he’s a future star in this league, if not one right now.”

So, basically, that black cloud threatening to deliver an 0-16 storm in Oakland has at least one thin silver lining.

Ravens at Steelers

1. Could this one end up being a shootout?

Possibly. Despite the 13-10s and the 19-16s and the 13-10s of recent years, an explosion could be coming. For starters, the Steelers offense has embarked on a Snoop Dogg-approved run of success, with 522 passing yards and 51 points last week. And with the Steelers giving up more than 400 yards against the Colts a week ago, there’s a chance Sunday night’s game will be something other than a black-and-blue, clock-draining, low-scoring encounter.

2. How is Martavis Bryant progressing?

Very well, which means that Ben Roethlisberger finally has that tall receiver for which he’s been lobbying. (To the chagrin of Hines Ward.)

Inactive for the first six games of the season, Bryant exploded with a pair of touchdowns last week against the Colts. He added another one in his Week Seven debut against the Texans.

With Antonio Brown getting so much attention, the big receiver has an opening to continue to pile up big numbers.

3. What will the Ravens do on defense without Jimmy Smith?

On the surface, the absence of Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith (foot) should make it easier to attack the Ravens defense. The problem for the Steelers is that, without Smith available, it’s not clear how they’ll defend the Pittsburgh passing attack.

We don’t know what they’re going to do, whether [Smith being out] means more zones, more pressures, more man-to-man [coverage],” Ben Roethlisberger said this week.

The best advice for the Ravens? Don’t do whatever the Colts did.