By PAUL NEWBERRY, JOE KAY, TOM WITHERS KRISTIE RIEKEN, STEVEN WINE AND DAVE CAMPBELL
The Associated Press
Saturday, October 13, 2018
ATLANTA CINCINNATI CLEVELAND HOUSTON MIAMI MINNEAPOLIS -- Pittsburgh and Cincinnati renew their AFC North rivalry; San Diego visits a resurgent Cleveland squad; Buffalo heads south to Houston in a battle between two young gunslingers; Khalil Mack and the Bears defence have their sights set on shutting down the Dolphins offence; while Larry Fitzgerald has a homecoming when Arizona travels to Minnesota, The Associated Press reports
BUCCANEERS AT FALCONS The Tampa Bay Buccaneers must be licking their chops for the chance to go up against the Atlanta defence.
Then again, the Falcons offence is surely just as pumped to get on the field against the Bucs.
A fan of stingy defences?
You've come to the wrong place.
The scoreboard at Mercedes-Benz Stadium figures to get a workout on Sunday in the matchup between NFC South rivals. Tampa Bay (2-2) has surrendered more points a game than any team in the league (34.75), while the Falcons (1-4) are right on their heels with an average of 32.6.
The Bucs' defensive woes have put the heat on coordinator Mike Smith, a former head coach of the Falcons. Smith's boss, Dirk Koetter, has resisted calls to make a change.
"Every week, every game, it's way bigger than any one guy," the Tampa Bay coach said. "It's never all one person's fault and it's never all one person's credit."
Smith said he's confident the Bucs can turn things around.
"We did some things in the first three games that you can look forward and say, 'Gosh darn, those guys, they've got a chance to do some things well,'" Smith said. "We've been an inconsistent group, and really that's frustrating as a coach because you don't like to put the inconsistencies out on the field."
The Falcons are on the defensive about their defence, as well. For the first time since 1987, Atlanta has given up at least 37 points in three straight games.
It would be easy to point to a rash of injuries to key players. Safeties Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal are both out for the season, linebacker Deion Jones will miss at least eight games and tackle Grady Jarrett sat out last week's contest with a sprained ankle.
Tampa Bay will be looking to strike quickly. In each of the past three weeks, the Falcons have surrendered long touchdown drives on their opponent's first possession.
"They've been marching it down on us pretty easy," defensive end Takk McKinley moaned.
STEELERS AT BENGALS Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick knows what it's like to think that victory is only a few seconds away, only to watch the Pittsburgh Steelers rally for another improbable win and run off the field as thousands of their fans twirl towels in the stands.
Many of Kirkpatrick's teammates haven't been on the sideline for those blow-to-the-gut finishes, which might work to the Bengals' advantage on Sunday as they revisit a rivalry that's more of a horror story for Cincinnati.
The Bengals (4-1) have their youngest team in coach Marvin Lewis's 16 seasons as they get ready to welcome the Steelers (2-2-1). Nineteen of them are in their first or second season - virtual newcomers to the one-sided series.
"It's kind of good that some of these guys haven't experienced it because we're trying to go in with clear minds, clear everything," Kirkpatrick said.
"Just going out there and playing our game and not [remembering] nothing that happened two or three years ago, or last year."
The Steelers know their history.
Pittsburgh has won six straight in the series, including an 18-16 victory in the first round of the 2015 playoffs that included a historic meltdown by the Bengals. The Steelers have won nine of 10 and 14 of 17 against their AFC North rival, getting the better of games that have often turned nasty.
"Yeah, you get amped up there," Steelers linebacker Bud Dupree said. "It's their house. They're trying to be so tough."
Some of the main figures in the most memorable games are gone. Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict is back after sitting out the first four games on his latest NFL suspension, but cornerback Adam (Pacman) Jones left after last season. Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell is holding out.
"Many of the significant contributors don't play for us [anymore], they don't play for them," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said.
CHARGERS AT BROWNS Empty seats. Anemic football. Bad vibes.
Home field hasn't meant any advantage in recent years for the Browns, who entered this season with three wins in their past 27 home games at FirstEnergy Stadium, dubbed "The Factory of Sadness."
Madness has been the norm so far this season.
The Browns (2-2-1) have played two overtime games already at home and rallied to win a nationally televised Thursday-night game to end their 19game winless streak and breathe life into a fan base that couldn't take much more misery.
Lifeless for years, the Dawg Pound is howling once more, and Browns coach Hue Jackson begged Cleveland fans to bring the noise for Sunday's game against the Los Angeles Chargers (3-2).
"I want them to be as loud as they have ever been," Jackson pleaded. "This week our players will need that. We need that assistance for them. They have been outstanding, but boy, we need a little bit more from them this week, too. " Jackson's hoping a roaring crowd will make things tougher on Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, who is off to one of the best starts of his 15-year NFL career. Rivers has thrown 13 touchdown passes and two interceptions, and Jackson believes Cleveland's crowd can be as disruptive as any of the Browns' 11 defenders.
"He's one of the best that have played the game," Jackson said. "It does not look like he is slowing down at all. He is one of the top quarterbacks in this league, bar none. We need 12 people when they are on offence, and the 12th person is going to be our crowd."
Rivers often resets his offence before the snap, changing the plays after taking a look at how the defence is aligned. The Browns experienced that last season in a 19-10 loss to the Chargers.
"We've just got to do a better job of bogeying and disguising and making it harder for him to do that," Browns linebacker Joe Schobert said. "I think being at home this year, where it will be harder for him to make checks if we have a loud crowd, will be an advantage to us. It will be harder for them to change every single play that will be perfectly what they want." BILLS AT TEXANS Everyone agrees Deshaun Watson took far too many hits last week against the Dallas Cowboys.
That doesn't mean Houston's quarterback is going to change the way he plays on Sunday when the Texans (2-3) welcome the Buffalo Bills (2-3).
Many of those hits against Dallas came on runs when he simply refused to slide, something he won't apologize for.
"If you put [me in] that same situation in overtime and it's fourth-and-one and we need a touchdown and the ball is in my hands, you're going to want me to get in that end zone," Watson said. "It's a fine line. You've got to pick your spots and pick your situations."
Coach Bill O'Brien doesn't blame his young quarterback for trying to make plays, but he is looking for ways to limit how many blows Watson takes.
Many running quarterbacks have had their production - and careers - curtailed by getting hit too hard too often.
"Two of the plays where he took a hit [came when] he was trying to score touchdowns," O'Brien said. "So, very competitive guy and does a great job of moving. Sometimes the ball can come out a little bit quicker, sometimes the play can be better, but we're all working hard to improve every area of the offence."
The repeated hits from the Cowboys left Watson a bit banged-up this week, but he insisted he's fine and won't be limited against Buffalo. He was asked if this was the sorest he's ever been after a game.
"I've been sore plenty of times," he said. "It's part of the game, able to take some shots and just regroup and keep moving forward."
Buffalo coach Sean McDermott said he spent some time with Watson before he was drafted last year and raved about him as a person and a player.
He knows a key for his team on Sunday will be finding a way to limit his dynamic plays.
"He's a headache ... the way he plays, he makes plays with his arm, he makes plays with his feet," McDermott said.
BEARS AT DOLPHINS Last week, the Miami Dolphins resorted to eightman pass protection, so desperate were they to slow an onslaught against quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
And now they have to block Khalil Mack.
That will be a daunting task when Miami faces the Chicago Bears on Sunday in a matchup of firstplace teams headed in opposite directions.
The Dolphins (3-2) are trying to patch up an injury-depleted offensive line and rebound from consecutive ugly losses. The Bears (3-1) are well rested after a bye, riding a three-game winning streak and alone atop the NFC North for the first time since 2013.
Newcomer Mack has led the Bears into first place by dominating on defence. The two-time All-Pro end has five sacks and is tied for the NFL lead with four forced fumbles. He has at least one sack and forced fumble in each game. And the Dolphins might have to confront him without left tackle Laremy Tunsil, sidelined last week by a concussion.
No team this season has been able to keep Mack off the quarterback.
"He's just playing at a different level than anybody that I've seen," Miami coach Adam Gase said.
Now Mack faces a team staggered by season-ending injuries to two starters in the offensive line, followed by the loss of Tunsil. He was badly missed last week, when Tannehill was hit 11 times in the second half as the Dolphins blew a 17-point lead at Cincinnati. The Bengals' pass rush was so overwhelming, Miami had almost everyone on offence blocking, and even that didn't work.
Mack is well aware a harried Tannehill committed two turnovers that were returned for touchdowns.
"You watch the film," Mack said. "You also know that he's a good athlete and he makes a lot of plays."
But in each of the past two games, the Dolphins' offence has scored only one touchdown, and Tannehill has thrown for fewer than 200 yards.
"He's getting hit too much," Gase said. "I've got to find a way to get the ball out of his hands, get guys open quicker, or figure something else out." CARDINALS AT VIKINGS Adam Thielen wasn't even in high school yet when Larry Fitzgerald entered the NFL in 2004 with Arizona with the acclaim of the third overall pick in the draft.
Nine years later, Thielen needed a rookie tryout camp with Minnesota just to earn a roster spot. It took a season on the practice squad and two more years spent mostly on special teams to set him up to break out as one of the league's best wide receivers - and underdog stories.
With Fitzgerald's impeccable career with the Cardinals (1-4) winding down, Thielen's has just begun to take off with the Vikings (2-2-1). Although they play the same position and won't actually face each other on the field, the matchup on Sunday has created an opportunity for these Minnesota-raised pass-catchers and summer golfing pals to reflect on their paths to success. And their admiration for each other.
"Being born and raised in Minnesota like him, it just makes me so damn proud to see him doing the things he's doing, but not just on the field. The way he carries himself, the constant professional, the teammate he is," said Fitzgerald, who will decide this winter whether to come back for a 16th season next year. "Being around him at different events, the guy is class personified, and it just makes me so, so happy to see somebody like that be rewarded."
Fitzgerald, as a teenage ball boy for the Vikings in the late 1990s, befriended Cris Carter and Randy Moss, and was able to glean up-close tips he used to develop into one of the most well-rounded and well-conditioned players at this glamorous position. He has missed only six games in 15 years.
Thielen grew up watching Carter, Moss and eventually Fitzgerald on TV.
"I just know how hard he works and how successful he's been," Thielen said, "and I've really tried to emulate what I've done from him."
Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Dirk Koetter
Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick
L.A. Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers
Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson
Chicago Bears linebacker Khalil Mack
Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald