As we continue the 2019 NFL regular season, NFL Network analyst and former Super Bowl-winning executive Charley Casserly provides five storylines to watch heading into Week 4.
The Cowboys' fourth-ranked scoring defense stands in the way of Teddy Bridgewater's second straight win as the Saints' starting quarterback. Protecting Bridgewater could be the most important aspect of this game, and making sure DeMarcus Lawrence is double-teamed is key. Bridgewater has not been much of a deep passer since taking over for Drew Brees, averaging fewer air yards per attempt and per completion than the veteran. He has attempted just one deep pass this season as 75.4 percent of Bridgewater's passes have traveled 10 or fewer air yards. Throwing deep against the Cowboys could pay dividends as cornerback Chidobe Awuzie has been beaten with double moves and speed cuts and Cowboys safety Byron Jones has at times had trouble making plays on the ball.
The Saints will have their hands tied with the Cowboys' dynamic offense but can limit Dak Prescott and friends by executing assignments and winning matchups on the line of scrimmage. Along the line of scrimmage, look for the Saints to beat right tackle Landon Collins with quick moves and left guard Connor Williams with strength in the run and pass games. In terms of stalling the Cowboys, it all starts with containing Ezekiel Elliott. The Saints' defensive linemen need to set the edge and stay disciplined in their lines inside to prevent Elliott from big plays on cutback runs. Taking away the ground game forces Dak Prescott to beat you in the pocket. He's been much better from the pocket this season than in the past but is much more dangerous outside of it where he thrives as a runner and passer. The final member of the Cowboys new triplets, Amari Cooper, is an exceptional route runner so tackling the catch is huge in this game.
If the Cowboys want to stay undefeated, they must take down the Saints in a hostile environment at the Superdome. Both offenses are potent so this one could come down to one defensive stop late in the game. There are several things offensively that will help the Cowboys avoid falling behind on the road. Ezekiel Elliott has proven during his career that he can be productive against any defensive front, and he can keep his career pace up Sunday by running away from one guy -- Cam Jordan. The Saints defensive leader is a beast against the run and pass and can wreak havoc at any point. Dallas must double team Jordan, who has 27 sacks since 2017, on pass plays to give Dak Prescott time to look downfield.
Prescott's improvement as a passer has the Cowboys ranking in the top five in several major offensive categories. Look for him to pick on cornerbacks Marcus Lattimore, Eli Apple and PJ Williams in Sunday's contest. Lattimore has had spurts of being a shutdown corner but needs more consistency. Amari Cooper can win this matchup by using double moves if Lattimore is playing off, and by using a stutter step or beating him off the line of scrimmage on deep routes. And I like Michael Gallup (if he's healthy) and Randall Cobb's chances against Apple and Williams, who can be undisciplined.
The Chicago Bears have one of the best defenses in the NFL, but there is one vulnerable area: the cornerbacks. Buster Skrine, who was often penalized as a member of the New York Jets last season, isn't as instinctive as others in this secondary and can be beaten with quick moves -- look for Vikings receivers Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs to take advantage of him with their precise route running. Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara can fall victim to sudden moves as well, and the latter has had problems playing the deep ball. Minnesota's run game led by Dalvin Cook should give Kirk Cousins several chances against this Bears' secondary, if his offensive line can hold up against Chicago's ferocious pass rush.
The Carolina Panthers may have shown the rest of the league how to fluster Kyler Murray, who completed 30 of 43 pass attempts but for just 173 yards (4.0 yards per target). Carolina kept Murray uncomfortable all day by pressuring Murray from both the inside and outside. The Panthers were able to sack the rookie quarterback eight times in that game by using a mix of defensive coverages. Blitzing from the inside often forced Murray out of the pocket where teammates on the edge waited to feast, as six of Carolina's eight sacks came from outside linebackers.
Murray has at times been able to limit pressure this season by getting rid of the ball quickly. But when under pressure, Murray's been sacked on 66.7 percent of his dropbacks (more than double the NFL average), according to Next Gen Stats. Now with Carolina providing a blueprint for how to rattle the young passer, I'm interested to see if the Seattle Seahawks, who rank tied for 21st in sacks, can get their lacking pass rush going in a big divisional bout.
5) Will winless teams turn seasons around?
Seven teams have yet to earn a win entering Week 4, and one of those teams, the New York Jets, must wait another week for a chance to get in the win column due to the bye week. Throughout my time in the NFL, I've watched many teams have rough starts only to turn things around and finish with successful seasons. In observing and talking to a number of people around the league, I want to share how several teams and coaches have handled a poor start.
It starts with the head coach, who must stay positive and stick to the plan. Chuck Noll is a perfect example of this. In his first year as head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1969, Noll won the season opener but lost the next 13 games to finish 1-13. Well, you know the story. Noll went on to win four Super Bowl titles. Head coaches are hired for a reason. They have a vision and aren't easily swayed. By sticking with the plan -- long- or short-term -- the kinks get worked out more often than not.
Staying the course might not be the best option in some cases, in which struggling teams will start to adjust what they do if the initial game plan doesn't fit the personnel. After Joe Gibbs started his career 0-5 with the Washington Redskins, he transformed from a wide-open offense he ran in his previous job as OC of the Chargers to a one-back power offense. The team went 8-3 the rest of the way and the following year, the Redskins won the Super Bowl with Gibb's one-back power offense.
These are just two philosophies but teams can right their seasons with any number of tactics. My hope is that we see several winless teams turn their fortunes around starting Sunday.