Welcome to Around the NFL, where Cale Berger of Steelers Now will recap early-week action and take a look ahead at some of the most important matchups from the Pittsburgh Steelers perspective.
AROUND THE NFL THIS WEEKEND
Tennessee Titans at Minnesota Vikings, 1:00 p.m., CBS Regional
After an abysmal performance last week in Indianapolis, quarterback Kirk Cousins is looking to bounce back in a big way this week when his Vikings host the Titans. Cousins went 11 of 26 for just 113 yards and three interceptions with no touchdowns against the Colts. He was also sacked three times.
Cousins has to be relieved to be returning to the friendly confines of U.S. Bank Stadium, where he has posted a passer rating of 100 or more in seven of his last eight starts. He has also won three-straight home games over AFC opponents.
While a bounce-back performance for Cousins may be in the cards for Sunday, the most intriguing storyline has to be the matchup between two of the NFL’s top running backs in Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook and Tennessee’s Derrick Henry.
Henry led the league in rushing yards (1,540) and rushing touchdowns (16) last season, while Cook’s 13 rushing scores were the third-most. Cook
Although neither team has defended the run well so far this season, the Vikings hold the fourth-worst in the league and lost linebacker Anthony Barr to a torn pectoral last week. Both backs should shine, but expect Henry to have the bigger day.
Henry and the Titans should savor Sunday’s opportunity while they can, as they will host the Steelers and their top-ranked rush defense on Oct. 4.
Cincinnati Bengals at Philadelphia Eagles, 1:00 p.m., CBS Regional
Beginning a stretch of three games in four weeks against AFC North opponents, the Eagles will start by hosting the Bengals on Sunday, with both teams still seeking their first win of the season.
Optimism abounds in Cincinnati, with No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow impressing just two games into his NFL career. The LSU product has tossed for 509 yards and three touchdowns, rushing for another.
There is significantly less positivity in Philadelphia, as franchise quarterback Carson Wentz has looked troublesome to start the 2020 campaign. He has thrown for 512 yards and just two scores with four interceptions, tied for the league lead. Wentz is only completing 58.8% of his passes and has been sacked eight times. He leads the league with 20 off-target throws, 15 of which came in a clean pocket.
Carson Wentz has made 20 off-target throws this season, most in the NFL.
15 have come inside a clean pocket (not pressured or under duress).
— Paul Hembekides (@PaulHembo) September 21, 2020
Philadelphia may be wise to turn rely on the run Sunday, lightening the load on Wentz’s shoudlers. Although he missed the season opener with an ailment, second-year running back Miles Sanders was great against the Rams last week, rushing for 95 yards and a touchdown. Facing one of the NFL’s worst rushing defenses in the Bengals, look for the Eagles to feature the Pittsburgh native.
In addition, former Steeler defensive tackle Javon Hargrave made his Philadelphia debut last week against the Rams, but failed to record a sack. The former third-round pick will be looking to make much more of an impact this weekend.
Dallas Cowboys at Seattle Seahawks, 4:25 p.m., WPGH-TV
Following Steelers-Texans, local football fans who flip over to FOX will be treated to a battle of NFC heavyweights when Russell Wilson and the Seahawks host Dak Prescott and the Cowboys.
Wilson has put on quarterbacking clinic through two weeks, already passing for 609 yards and nine touchdowns in two victories. Even more impressive, he has completed 82.5% of his passes. It is mind-numbingly insane Wilson has never received a single MVP vote over his eight-year career.
Prescott’s 716 passing yards are the fourth-most in the league, but the true offensive star of America’s Team has been running back Ezekiel Elliot. The former Ohio State standout has rushed for 185 yards and scored three touchdowns (two rushing, one receiving) already.
Elliot will face his toughest hurdle yet Sunday afternoon when he opposes the league’s second-best run defense in the Seahawks.
If Seattle is able to stifle Elliot, Dallas will have to rely on the arm of Prescott and his trio of talented pass catchers. Wide receivers Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup have combined for 32 receptions and 454 yards, but amazingly have scored no touchdowns. That will likely need to change Sunday at CenturyLink Field.
Kansas City Chiefs at Baltimore Ravens, 8:15 p.m. Monday, ESPN
Monday night’s clash between the Chiefs and Ravens feels like a monumental game in what is still a very young 2020 season. Both teams will enter the game at 2-0, and are led by two of the league’s most electric, dominant young players.
The quarterback duel between the last two MVPs will garner the bulk of the attention leading up to Monday night, and deservedly so. Fresh off a Super Bowl win in February, Patrick Mahomes amazingly looks even better starting his fourth season, having thrown for 513 yards and five touchdowns with no interceptions through two weeks. Last year’s phenom Lamar Jackson is off to a strong start as well, throwing for 479 yards and four scores with no turnovers.
Eye-catching as the two offenses are, Monday’s game will be decided by the defenses. Specifically, which unit is able to generate the ever-elusive takeaway off the opposing offense. The Chiefs have yet to turn the ball over, while the Ravens have just once.
Baltimore’s defense leads the league with five takeaways already this season, Kansas City has forced a passable two turnovers through two weeks.
In an explosive game that could very well be decided in the thirties, the club that steals a possession could be the one that snatches the win and the driver’s seat in the AFC.
REST OF THE SCHEDULE
Miami Dolphins 31, Jacksonville Jaguars 13
Chicago Bears at Atlanta Falcons, 1:00 p.m., FOX Regional
Los Angeles Rams at Buffalo Bills, 1:00 p.m., FOX Regional
Washington at Cleveland Browns, 1:00 p.m., WPGH-TV
Las Vegas Raiders at New England Patriots, 1:00 p.m., CBS Regional
San Francisco 49ers at New York Giants, 1:00 p.m., FOX Regional
Houston Texans at Pittsburgh Steelers, 1:00 p.m., KDKA-TV
New York Jets at Indianapolis Colts, 4:05 p.m., CBS Regional
Carolina Panthers at Los Angeles Chargers, 4:05 p.m., CBS Regional
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Denver Broncos, 4:25 p.m., FOX Regional
Detroit Lions at Arizona Cardinals, 4:25 p.m., FOX Regional
Green Bay Packers at New Orleans Saints, 8:20 p.m., WPXI-TV
Around the NFL: Championship Game Sunday Features four Star QBs
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Green Bay Packers, 3:05 p.m., WPGH-TV
It will be a Battle of the Bays in the early slot Sunday, as Tom Brady and the Buccaneers visit Aaron Rodgers and the Packers.
Tampa and their athletic defense got the better of Green Bay back in Week 6, winning handedly 38-10 and holding Rodgers to his worst performance of the season.
The Bucs’ relentless pass rush had Rodgers under constant duress, sacking to probable MVP four times and picking him off twice. Rodgers was also held without a touchdown pass for the only time in 2020.
As for Brady and the Bucs, he tossed for 166 yards and two touchdowns of his own. Tampa Bay running back Ronald Jones II had 113 yards and two scores on the ground.
Playing the best football of his career since that loss to Tampa Bay, Rodgers will assuredly be looking to avenge his poor performance back in October to reach his second Super Bowl. He carved up a stout Los Angeles Rams defense for 296 yards and three total touchdowns a week ago, and has tossed one interception over his last 210 pass attempts.
He will try to keep that unblemished streak alive against a Buccaneers defense that picked off New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees three times a week ago.
Tampa’s Tom Brady can reach his tenth Super Bowl with a win over the Packers. No stranger to performing in the elements, Brady will look to carve up the improving Green Bay defense with his patented surgical precision.
Buffalo Bills at Kansas City Chiefs, 6:40 p.m., KDKA-TV
While two legends are squaring off in the NFC, a pair of rising stars will go toe-to-toe in the AFC Championship game, as Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs welcome Josh Allen and the Bills.
Cleared from concussion protocol after leaving last week’s win over the Cleveland Browns, Mahomes is still battling a toe injury that could hamper his signature mobility. Luckily for Kansas City, Buffalo is 22nd in the league in pressure rate.
Even without his scrambling, Mahomes is still a threat from the pocket, coming off a season where he threw 38 touchdowns and just six interceptions.
The Chiefs offense will get a boost to take the heat off Mahomes on Sunday night as well, with rookie running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire set to make his return from injury.
Turning to the Bills, they are here behind an MVP-caliber season from Allen, who has made tremendous strides in his third season. His 45 total touchdowns this year are the most ever by a Buffalo quarterback, while he improved his completion percentage by 10.4 percentage points, now at 69.2%.
Allen has protected the football well this season with just ten interceptions, but he will have to be extra cautious opposing the safety Tyrann Mathieu and the Chiefs defense. The “Honey Badger” has five interceptions in his last six games.
Kansas City is looking reach their second-straight Super Bowl, while Buffalo is pursuing their first appearance since 1993.
Baltimore Ravens Sign WR Deon Cain to Reserve/Future Contract
The Baltimore Ravens have signed former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Deon Cain to a Reserve/Future contract, the club announced Friday.
We have signed WR Deon Cain to a Reserve/Future contract.
— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) January 22, 2021
Cain spent the last two seasons with Pittsburgh, spending the majority of the 2020 season on the practice squad. He appeared into two games this past season, including the season finale loss to the Cleveland Browns, but recorded no stats.
Cain saw more extended action in 2019, where he appeared in six games and made three starts. He tallied five receptions for 72 yards a season ago.
A star for the Clemson Tigers, Cain was selected in the sixth round of the 2018 NFL Draft by the Indianapolis Colts. He caught 130 passes for 2,040 yards and 20 touchdowns during his Clemson career.
Washington’s Alex Smith Beats Ben Roethlisberger for PFWA Comeback Player of the Year
Washington quarterback Alex Smith has been named the NFL Comeback Player of the Year by the Pro Football Writers of America, edging out Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
After suffering a significant leg injury in 2018 and subsequent infection that nearly took his limb, Smith made his unlikely return to the field in 2020, leading Washington to a division title and playoff appearance.
Smith passed for 1,582 yards and six touchdowns with eight interceptions, but led Washington to a 5-1 record in his six starts. He is the first Washington player to win the award since its inception in 1992.
Roethlisberger was also believed to be a worthy candidate for Comeback Player of the Year, leading the Steelers to a 12-4 campaign and AFC North title after missing the majority of 2019 with a season-ending elbow injury. The 38-year-old threw for 3,803 yards and 33 touchdowns with ten interceptions.
Running back Jerome Bettis (1997) and quarterback Tommy Maddox (2003) are the only two Steelers to have previously been awarded Comeback Player of the Year.
Smith was not the only quarterback recognized by the PFWA on Friday, as Buffalo’s Josh Allen was awarded Most Improved Player of the Year.
Allen made a remarkable jump in 2020, passing for 4,544 yards and 37 touchdowns with ten interceptions. He also accounted for eight scores on the ground.
Not only were his 37 touchdowns seven more than in his first two seasons combined, but Allen also completed a career-high 69.2% of his passes, a ten percentage-point increase from a season ago.
Allen will have another opportunity to demonstrate his jump in play Sunday when the Bills visit the Kansas City Chiefs for the AFC Championship game.
Two Steelers have previously been named the league’s Most Improved Player, quarterback Kordell Stewart in 2002 and running back Le’Veon Bell in2015.