As the 2019 NFL regular season rolls into Week 8, NFL Network analyst and former Super Bowl-winning executive Charley Casserly provides five storylines to watch on Sunday.
This week, we get our first glimpse at what Mohamed Sanu and Emmanuel Sanders will look like with their new teams. Earlier this week, the New England Patriots traded a second-round pick to the Falcons for Sanu, before placing Josh Gordon on IR later in the week. The Patriots will likely line Sanu, who has 33 receptions for 313 yards and a score this season, up in the slot in an effort to move Julian Edelman outside when they don’t use four-wide sets. According to Next Gen Stats, Sanu has aligned in the slot on 77 percent of his snaps this season, and his 3.7 yards of separation per target allows Josh McDaniels to use the veteran receiver in a variety of ways. Sanu strengthens an already solid pass game that thrives inside the hashes.
On the other coast, the undefeated 49ers sent a third- and fourth-round pick to Denver in exchange for Sanders and a fifth-rounder in a trade earlier this week. This was a great move for the 49ers as they’ve needed a WR1 who can beat man-to-man coverage both in the slot and on the perimeter when teams load the box to stop a top-tier rushing attack. With more receiving touchdowns than any 49ers player this season, Sanders gives the offense a second pass catcher (with George Kittle) that defenses must game plan for in the pass game. However, when I watched Sanders this season, I saw a player who still had good quickness but did not show the explosive deep speed he had before his Achilles injury. He also struggled in press coverage, so we’ll see how Kyle Shanahan plans to use him.
Christian McCaffrey is one of the most versatile offensive players in the NFL. Period. He’s a home-run hitter from anywhere on the field and possesses the skill set to be a full-time receiver, as he leads the league with 153.8 scrimmage yards per game. McCaffrey will find ways to have success no matter the opponent, but the San Francisco 49ers‘ second-ranked defense has the assets to limit him this weekend. By playing an eight-man front and setting the edge, the 49ers‘ defensive line can overpower Carolina’s O-line to disrupt timing of the run and linebackers, if disciplined, should be in good position to handle a cutback. On pass plays, the 49ers boast a good cover linebacker in Fred Warner, who I believe the 49ers think can match up with McCaffrey. The dynamic Panthers pass catcher will get his catches but the 49ers must gang tackle, limit McCaffrey’s yards after the catch and disrupt his route at the line of scrimmage. San Francisco can keep its win streak going if the defense limits this one player.
The Bears‘ defense has struggled since losing defensive tackle Akiem Hicks to an elbow injury, allowing more than 20 points the last two games after giving up no more than 15 in Weeks 1-4. Hicks is an instrumental player for the defensive line as he occupies two blockers on almost every snap and dominates against the run. When he wasn’t double-teamed, which wasn’t often, he consistently disrupted any play that came to his side. Without Hicks, teams have targeted his replacements, who has struggled to hold up in the interior. Hicks also forced double-teams in the pass game often pressuring quarterbacks as an excellent pass rusher — averaging eight sacks per season the last two years. The Bears‘ pass rush has been less productive without Hicks on the field; thus, teams have been able to exploit weaknesses in the secondary. Hicks, who was placed on IR earlier this month, is “very optimistic” he can return in his seven-week timetable, but until then, who will step up for Chuck Pagano’s unit? Whomever it is better surface soon because the rest of the NFC North is pulling away.
4) Is Jacoby Brissett really this good?
Jacoby Brissett had perhaps the best game of his career last week when he threw for a career-high four touchdown passes and no interceptions against the Houston Texans. In that game, Brissett was impressive with his decision-making, executing quick throws, showing patience and reading through his progressions to get to his second and third options. If no one was open, he was smart to throw the ball away or run for a positive gain. My question is: Can Brissett continue to play this well? With Frank Reich’s excellent play-calling and creative play designs, there’s a chance that Brissett’s career performance becomes a regularity. But we’ll get our answer this weekend when the Colts host the Denver Broncos, who have underachieved at 2-5 but have a defense that ranks in the top five in several categories, including third against the pass and in the red zone, fifth on third down and big plays and fourth in total defense.
5) Can Bills ride defense and favorable schedule to playoffs?
The Buffalo Bills are 5-1 for the first time since 2008 — when they finished 7-9 — and they’ve made the playoffs four of five times with a 5-1 record or better since 1990. Of course, the Bills made the Super Bowl in three of those years in the early 1990s. My question surrounding the Bills right now is: Are they a playoff team? I think they absolutely can be. Two things that play into Buffalo’s favor are its upcoming schedule and stout defense. Sean McDermott’s squad has a real opportunity to inch closer to the postseason over the next month with five games against teams that have losing records entering Week 8 (vs. Eagles, vs. Redskins, at Browns, at Dolphins and vs. Broncos). When taking a closer look, just three of the Bills‘ remaining 10 games are against teams currently .500 or better (Week 13 at Dallas, Week 14 vs. Baltimore and Week 16 at New England).
The Bills‘ defense has been the strength of the team this entire season, ranking in the top five in most defensive metrics. Even in their one loss to the Patriots in Week 4, the Bills allowed just 16 points. They have playmakers at every level with a pass rush led by Jerry Hughes and Ed Oliver, a versatile, young linebacker in Tremaine Edmunds and ballhawks in the secondary in Tre’Davious White and Micah Hyde. With questions still circling Josh Allen and the offense, the defense and favorable schedule can get this group to the playoffs, it starts this weekend against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Follow Charley Casserly on Twitter @CharleyCasserly.