Can the Packers protect quarterback Aaron Rodgers on Monday night? Because from my perspective, the key to the Packers’ ability to make big plays down the field is the time Rodgers will get to throw in the pocket.

As we have talked about before, the Vikings are a core Tampa 2 team, and they would love nothing better than to be able to rush four and drop seven into coverage against the offensive weapons of Green Bay. The key is Minnesota defensive end Jared Allen. For the Packers to be able to exploit the weaknesses of this Cover 2 defense—which I will diagram in a new “Scheme Session” this Monday—they will have to adjust their protection and provide help, especially on third downs, in blocking Allen. Look for Green Bay to use a running back to chip to Allen, or to use six-man protection with the line sliding to Allen and using the back to scan to backside protection—providing a nice pocket for Rodgers to throw in.

Sure, there are plenty of aspects about the Monday night matchup that can lead to a victory for either Green Bay or Minnesota, but the Packers have struggled running the football all season with Ryan Grant, and they will need to convert some big plays down the middle of the field against that Vikings secondary—but Rodgers will need time to do it. Can the Packers protection stand up to the Vikings four-man rush?

The fact that Clinton Portis is already going into Sundays as a “game-time decision” is not good news for a franchise that is stuck in a downward tailspin after their road loss to the Lions last week in Detroit. Portis tired in the second half of the ’08 season after a big start, and all signs are once again pointing that his midseason decline is happening earlier this season. I expect Portis to play on Sunday, but the Redskins should start to reduce his workload as soon as possible by getting backup running back Ladell Betts more involved in the game plan. Last week, QB Jason Campbell was able to produce some big plays in the passing game, but they won’t survive in the NFC East without production from the running back position—and it starts with Portis. Washington needs to keep him healthy.

The Patriots game plan better than anyone for opposing offenses under Bill Belichick, and as we saw last week in their win over Atlanta, they are very good at taking away key weapons. In their victory over Atlanta, TE Tony Gonzalez was held to 16 yards on one catch—and the rhythm of the Falcons offense was thrown off.

But, with Baltimore coming to town, what do the Pats game plan against? QB Joe Flacco has put questions about his development in his second year to rest. He has thrown for 839 yards and 6 TDs through the first three weeks of the season and has a QB rating of 101.4—huge numbers for a second-year guy. However, if I am the Patriots I still put the Ravens offensive game plan squarely on his shoulders by bringing an eighth defender into the box, limiting Ravens RBs Ray Rice and Willis McGahee, and forcing Flacco to make the throws to beat me. Flacco is playing at a high level right now, but 3rd and 7-plus situations are tough for any QB. If New England can force the issue in the run game, they will have a chance to slow this offense down.

As good as Peyton Manning has been in his career, I still think he is playing the best football of his career this season—and he is doing it with new weapons. Through three games, Manning has a rating of 117.7 with 7 TDs and almost 1,000 passing yards. But what is more impressive is that he has only been sacked twice—and that can be attributed to his ability to get the ball out of hands quickly and to adjust to pressure looks at the line of scrimmage. No one is better in the NFL at reading coverage’s, and no one is better at producing in pressure situations right now than Manning.

Without a doubt, he is the MVP of the league so far—and the Colts are rolling on offense.

The Broncos aren’t getting the credit they deserve for their 3-0 start, but a win tomorrow at home against the Cowboys can put that criticism to bed. And the way Denver is playing defense against the run, don’t be shocked if Dallas has trouble putting points on the board.

Losing Felix Jones is bigger than we think, because outside of the downhill attack of Marion Barber—who is expected to play—and Tashard Choice, Jones produced that big- play ability that Dallas has not found in the passing game. The Cowboys clearly have the best rushing attack in the league when Jones is in the lineup, but how will this backfield look without him? Mike Nolan’s defense in Denver is ranked No.1 in the league right now, and Dallas will need to find the big play without Jones to get out of town with a win.

The Jets should face their biggest challenge as a defense tomorrow in New Orleans, because as the Saints showed last week, they are capable of winning games when Drew Brees isn’t putting up fantasy football numbers. New Orleans RB Pierre Thomas had a huge second half in Buffalo, but the key matchup to watch is how the Jets handle Reggie Bush when the Saints align him out of the backfield. Remember, the Jets are a pressure team, and with that brings man coverage principles in the backend, so someone will have to come down out of the secondary and cover Bush with limited help. If I am the Saints, I use Bush in a variety of different ways, align him out of position and look for that one big play that could be the difference in this game.

LaDainian Tomlinson is expected to play tomorrow night in Pittsburgh, and because of that I like this Chargers team on the road. As we have seen in LT’s absence, the Chargers have become one-dimensional on offense—relying solely on the production of Philip Rivers. That’s a game plan that has trouble written all over it against Dick LeBeau’s defense in Pittsburgh.

The Chargers have to get production in the run game, and they have to find a way to score touchdowns in the red zone. Without LT, teams have been able to drop six and seven players into coverage against San Diego inside the 20-yard line. But with Tomlinson back, the offensive options increase for the Bolts. Expect to see a different team with LT in the backfield.

If I am the Texans, I load the box the entire game against Raiders QB JaMarcus Russell—until he shows that he can beat me. The Texans have been awful in terms of tackling on defense this season, and I expect the Raiders to come off the bus running tomorrow. But if the Texans do stop the run, I don’t see Russell making enough plays to win. He hasn’t done it yet this season, and until he shows us that he can produce enough in the passing game, I take away what works best for that Oakland team—and play man coverage in the back end.

Rashard Mendenhall has been a disappointment for the Steelers since they selected him in the first round of the ’08 draft, but with Willie Parker most likely out for Sunday, it is time for him to step up as a pro. He was basically benched last week in the Steelers loss to the Bengals because he struggled in practice, and that is just unacceptable for this level of football. It is one thing to struggle on Sunday against good competition, but it is another to show the coaching staff that you aren’t even prepared to play. You can’t be a rookie forever Rashard.

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