NFL Sunday Brunch: Pre-kickoff storylines for Week 4

Week 4 is the last full slate of games before the bye weeks start, and for teams entering the bye, a chance to make something positive to build on for the next two weeks of practice. This week’s games is another odd one, like Week 2, with no conference matchups in it. (The schedule makers are having some fun with conference games this year, with the Rams not facing their first conference opponent until Week 9, a bizarrely long time.)

So we have a lot of teams facing unfamiliar opponents, making for some unique matchups.
Coverage Maps

Here in St Louis, we will get the Rams-Redskins matchup early, and Denver-Green Bay late. However, that Rams home game will knock out the competing game on the network sked — Pittsburgh-Houston — the one game that most of the country will see at least a part of. (What’s playing in your area? Full Week 4 NFL coverage maps here.)

Game of the week: Steelers-Texans

This is an intriguing matchup of old world / new world teams. Newly muscled-up challengers attempting to knock off a mythical bunch of bullies. These franchises have only played three times previously, the last time in 2008 (a loss). And surprisingly in the cross-pollinated world of the NFL, there is almost no crossover between franchises in coaches or players. Each team might be more closely connected to Kevin Bacon than to each other. Two different worlds are literally coming together in this one.

The Steelers’ once-vaunted run defense has been surprisingly leaky this season, and will be put to the test against Gary Kubiak’s resurrection of the old Denver Broncos powerhouse running game that made 1000-yard stars out of whoever happened to be first in the rotation. The streak that joined Touchdown Terrell Davis to Olandis Gary to Mike Anderson to Clinton Portis has finally been continued in Houston by Arian Foster. And while Foster nurses a tender hamstring, his backup Ben Tate is jumping into the fray.

However, the often untold story of the Steelers is the deep-passing daring and efficacy of Ben Roethlisberger and Mike Wallace. While the black and yellow is known for trench warfare, the passing game is a big-risk big-play offense capable of gobbling up chunks of yardage and helping a weak offensive line get on the downhill slope toward the end zone. Houston’s pass defense is much-improved over a year ago, but got exposed in a 40-33 shootout against New Orleans last week. While Houston’s passing offense gets the pub, the Steelers’ air game is actually producing 30 more yards per game.

If there’s a weakess in Pittsburgh, it’s their run offense, which has been surprisingly stagnant. This has not helped them become a good road team, sas they struggled to pull out a win against a severely undermanned Colts team in Indianapolis last week. It shapes up to be a very intriguing game that should start really clicking in the second half. Keep your clicker handy.

More untold stories from the early games

CAR @ CHI: Ron Rivera returns to Chicago for a reunion with his former boss, Lovie Smith. And he extends the considerable Tony Dungy coaching tree, of which Lovie is the longest-tenured part. Amazingly, he’s been coaching the Bears since 2004.

BUF @ CIN: Call this the “We don’t need Vick” bowl. Both these teams had reported interest in Vick, until Roger Goodell steered him away. While Vick’s Dream Team struggles, both the Bills and Bengals are showing spunk.

TEN @ CLE: Any pregame stories will be overshadowed by the sharply-felt loss of Mike Heimerdinger. It feels too soon to think of him as a “former coach” of the team, since he just stopped his duties to fight his sudden cancer diagnosis in November of 2010. Expect an emotional one here.

DET @ DAL: Matt Stafford wasn’t sacked in the first two games, but his charmed life ended in a big way last week as he was laid down 5 times by Minnesota. Amazingly, nothing broke. The line has to protect him, but Stafford also has to prove that he’s durable enough to let his team make occasional protection mistakes without fear of losing the season.

NO @ JAC: The weather put a damper on Blaine Gabbert’s debut, but his end-of-half touchdown bomb showcased a strong part of his game – he isn’t afraid to throw the deep ball. That fearlessness was learned from his mentor, Chase Daniel, the undersized but fearless Missouri quarterback now backing up Drew Brees.

MIN @ KC: This entire game might be better off as an untold story. You have to think the seat will be awful hot for whichever of these two coaches doesn’t come away with a victory.

SF @ PHI: While Frank Gore and the offense scuffles, the San Francisco defense is finding new parts to succeed. Much was made of their decision to let key players go — notably Aubrayo Franklin and Takeo Spikes — but with Patrick Willis possibly the best defensive player in the game, they haven’t missed a beat. Expect more punishment for Vick.

WAS @ STL: These two teams have met a lot in recent years, despite being non-conference opponents. St Louis has taken three of the last four, and covered the spread in each. 

Late Game untold stories

NYG @ ARI: Not much of a pipeline connects these two teams, but Kurt Warner used New York as his recovery ward before escaping to Arizona and leading them to the Super Bowl.

ATL @ SEA: Seattle looked like a new team with Sidney Rice in the offense last week. There are still more problems than solutions, but Pete Carroll will keep this team competitive. The play of oversized cornerback Bryan Browning — matched up on Mike Wallace and Larry Fitzgerald in the last two weeks — will be key.

DEN @ GB: John Fox is struggling to put his stamp on this Denver team. Of course, what that stamp is aside from mediocrity is difficult to determine. Maybe he’s already done it.

NE @ OAK: The New England pass defense, already the worst in the league, will be without a three key contributors, but hard-hitting safety Patrick Chung hopes to play a week after suffering a finger injury that required surgery. His presence as an enforcer could help make the young Oakland receivers more gun-shy.

MIA @ SD: As we pointed out in our Fantasy MIA column, the emergence of Ryan Mathews could mean a less prolific passing offense for San Diego, which could keep this game surprisingly close.

NYJ @ BAL: Rex Ryan returns to Baltimore, but his decision to live or die with Mark Sanchez will be put to the test against a suddenly effective Baltimore pass rush led by Terrell Suggs.

Suggested Recipe: Bloody Mary and Deviled Eggs, Oakland style