Weekend Notes: Harris and Woodson must be physical

Will the Packers’ corners be allowed to play their style of football tomorrow at Lambeau Field against Brett Favre and the Vikings? That is the question I have, and that is the key to this entire ballgame and the Green Bay defensive game plan from my perspective.

Al Harris and Charles Woodson have the ability to lock down receivers when they are given some leeway from the refs. They are physical, they use their hands well, and when they can play press without having to worry about seeing a flag, they are one of the better—if not the best—combos of man-to-man corners in the league. As we talked about yesterday here in the NFP Press Coverage Podcast, both Harris and Woodson will have to play a physical brand of football for this Packers defense to stick to their game plan and pressure Favre tomorrow. In the first meeting of the season, Favre had an enormous amount of time to throw the football, the Packers had some busted coverages in the secondary, and we know the rest of the story—as Favre looked almost perfect.

But, I can’t see Dom Capers going into the game tomorrow without a game plan that forces the issue on defense and is one that is purely based off of multiple pressure packages. However, Woodson and Harris need to be able to play their game, because with any pressure package, the production is based off the play of the corners. In saying that, we should know early in the first quarter if the refs are going to let Al and Chuck play some ball. When these two can play physical, they can be dominant.

The Lions host the Rams at Ford Field tomorrow, and despite the jokes about the empty seats and the combined records of these two teams (1-12), this is a must win for Jim Schwartz and Detroit. We talk all of the time about this Lions team becoming more competitive, staying in games and looking like a football team that is gaining confidence and experience. But, the sign of a well-coached team that is getting better is their ability to win the games that they are supposed to win. Detroit is a much more talented football team, and with Matthew Stafford looking to play, this is a game they should win—and need to win.

Can the Eagles model the pressure packages that the Saints and the Cardinals used in the Giants’ last two matchups, where Eli Manning and this offense took a step back? From my perspective, the Cardinals’ game plan on defense was exactly what it takes to frustrate a quarterback like Eli. They showed multiple looks, but more importantly, it was the situations where Arizona showed pressure and then dropped into coverage, with Eli finding himself forcing the ball into tight windows where Cardinals players were waiting to make a play. Philly does have the ability to pressure, but it will be the times that they drop into coverage where I see them making plays in the passing game. With Brian Westbrook a game-time decision for Philly, Donovan McNabb and the Eagles will most likely rely on the big play once again on offense. But it will be their defense that will have to set them up with short fields and easy scoring opportunities.

Reports are saying that Andre Johnson is expected to play when the Texans travel to Buffalo to take on the Bills tomorrow at The Ralph, which will lead to some big plays for Houston once again—but the game plan can’t change for the Texans. Right now, they are becoming a more complete offense that doesn’t rely on the quick strike play of QB Matt Schaub, and when RB Steve Slaton gets up around 20 carries a game, they are able to control the clock and work the ball down the field, which sets up those big plays that they’re known for in the passing game. I don’t see the Bills scoring a ton of points against anyone right now, and Schaub cannot give them field position by being careless with the ball, as Buffalo has intercepted nine passes in their last two games. Control the ball, control the clock and Houston should control this game.

I like Denver’s ability to score points in Baltimore because of their matchups on the outside. The Ravens’ defense has suffered because of the play of their corners. They still are a team that uses pressure to force opponents to get rid of the ball quickly, but their secondary—outside of Ed Reed—isn’t making enough plays on the football. Right now, the Ravens are sitting at 23rd in the league as a defense against the pass, giving up over 241 yards a game. That’s not what we are accustomed to seeing from a Ravens defense and the exact reason why I like the idea of Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal of the Broncos winning their one-on-one matchups outside the numbers—especially against press man coverage.

The Dolphins should have new packages installed in their wildcat offense for their matchup with the Jets tomorrow. In their first meeting, Miami was able to run their power running plays out of the wildcat formation because they were better than the Jets up front, and I expect them to test the New York front seven again tomorrow early in the game, but to also add some new dimensions that cause confusion and force the Jets to play both the run and the pass out of this offense. To do that, however, Miami must utilize the talents of QB Pat White, who could end up giving the Dolphins some positive plays. I like Miami because of this reason. Get him involved and let him make some plays for this Miami offense. It seems like the wildcat has been labeled a gimmick offense in every pro city except Miami, because the Dolphins use this as a lead package while other teams sprinkle it into their game plan.

If the Titans win at home with Vince Young as the starting quarterback, does Jeff Fisher come under fire for not playing the former first-round pick earlier? I don’t see it playing out that way, because neither Young nor former starter Kerry Collins had anything to do with a Titans defense that has unraveled over the last couple of ballgames. If the Titans get their first win tomorrow, it will be because of their defense’s ability to limit the big plays of Jags RB Maurice Jones-Drew and their secondary play on third downs. Young will get the credit, but the defense will be the deciding factor.

Tommie Harris returns to action tomorrow at Soldier Field against the Browns and I am anxious to see what type of production he has after head coach Lovie Smith basically benched him last week. Harris has the talent to make this Bears defense stronger up front, and he is a key member of their front seven when the Bears play their Tampa 2 schemes on first and second downs because he has the ability to penetrate gaps and keep blockers off the Bears linebackers so they can run freely to the ball carrier. Does he show up tomorrow, or is this the gradual end of his time as a Bear?

Can Cowboys WR Miles Austin continue his emergen ce as Tony Romo’s new big-play threat against the Seahawks on Sunday? Romo has been playing his best football of the season over the last two weeks because he has an outlet that can catch the football and run after the catch in Austin, something that fellow WR Roy Williams cannot provide. I expect Romo to look for Austin again on the outside and for Williams to continue to catch passes in his new role—in the intermediate passing game.

Walter Payton will be honored at Soldier Field during halftime of tomorrow’s Browns-Bears game, marking the 10th anniversary of his passing. For me personally, I will be glued to the TV, because just like any kid growing up in the Chicago area, Payton was an icon, an idol and a hero. I went to my first pro game in 1985 with my old man to see the Bears take on the Colts. I was stuffed in an end zone seat in a complete snowsuit to combat the December weather, and I will always remember the “Walter” chants when Payton broke the 100-yard mark in another Bears winner. He was bigger than MJ, bigger than Ditka and bigger than any baseball player in this town, and, in my own opinion, the greatest football player of all time.

Enjoy the games tomorrow.

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