NFL Week 3 Preview: Carolina at Houston, Chicago at Cleveland, Cincinnati at Pittsburgh

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This column previews three Week 3 matchups: the Carolina Panthers at the Houston Texans, the Chicago Bears at the Cleveland Browns, and the Cincinnati Bengals at the Pittsburgh Steelers.

All spreads and totals are provided by DraftKings.

Carolina at Houston (CAR -8, Total 43.5)

As impressive as the Carolina offense has been with quarterback Sam Darnold at the helm, the Phil Snow-coordinated defense has arguably been the more dominant unit in Carolina.

Carolina’s development is the net result of simultaneous gains made through three avenues: internal development, free agency, and the draft. Homegrown players such as defensive tackle Derrick Brown, edge rusher Brian Burns, safety Jeremy Chinn, and corner Donte Jackson have gotten off to strong starts, rookie corner Jaycee Horn stepped in and immediately played at a high level, and free-agent defensive tackles DaQuan Jones and Morgan Fox have made their presence felt inside, while edge rusher Haason Reddick has paired with Burns to form a dangerous pass-rush tandem.

On the offensive side, Darnold is coming off two strong games that have shown a notable improvement in the quarterback’s decisiveness. Darnold’s offensive line struggled against the Saints, with defensive end Cam Jordan getting the best of stud right tackle Taylor Moton several times and rookie defensive end Payton Turner causing chaos against the talent-deficient left side of the line. It speaks to Darnold’s development that the pressure didn’t derail him and that he continued to find receivers despite having defenders around him in the pocket. Carolina has plenty of talent at the skill positions and it is exciting to imagine what this offense could be next year if they build out the line, but for the time being, the group is pretty good.

The Texans’ offense had also looked good until quarterback Tyrod Taylor exited Sunday’s game after pulling a hamstring on a touchdown run that put the Texans ahead of the Browns 14-7. Taylor is now on IR and rookie Davis Mills will start on Thursday. Mills had a few good moments Sunday, but there were also signs of confusion, such as turning the wrong way for a play fake on two occasions. Mills would have benefitted from a full week of preparation before his first start, but that’s not Houston’s situation and the rookie will have to lead the Texans against this strong Carolina defense on short preparation. Houston needs the defense to step up, but despite safety Justin Reid’s outstanding performance against Cleveland, Lovie Smith’s defensive unit may not have the talent to slow down the Panthers.

Model Projection: Carolina 25.96 – Houston 18.44 


Chicago at Cleveland (CLE -7, Total 46)

The main topic of discussion regarding Bears quarterback Justin Fields on Sunday was the late interception the quarterback threw that allowed the Bengals back in the game, but a closer review of his game showed more positives than negatives.

Fields showed the ability to attack at all levels of the field and should have had significantly more passing yards, but there were several drops on well-placed passes to receivers at the intermediate and deep levels. Fields also immediately transformed the Chicago run game with his legs and the schematic options that opened up, a welcome development for an offensive line that has struggled through two weeks. 

The interception Fields threw can’t happen in that situation, but in his defense, Cincinnati had a well-designed scheme on that play. The Bengals put most of their defenders up on the line in a “show blitz” look and had the secondary lined up to play Cover 0 (man-to-man with no safety) from an “off” alignment. Cincinnati sent the pressure, which hit home, but they also dropped out linebacker Logan Wilson to undercut a drag route coming from the other side of the field and Wilson intercepted Fields on the play. The defensive tactic worked flawlessly enough to assume that defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo identified a tendency on how Matt Nagy and the Bears offense would respond to that particular blitz look; Fields will learn from those moments and have a better chance to recognize such situations in the future.

The defense may be able to support Fields as he learns, as the front had a dominant day headlined by edge rushers Khalil Mack and Robert Quinn. Safety Eddie Jackson forced a key fumble and corner Jaylon Johnson shut down his side of the field, disrupting multiple passes before he picked off Joe Burrow on the quarterback’s second interception. Burrow’s first interception, which was returned for a touchdown, went to linebacker Roquan Smith when Burrow lost track of Smith dropping under in coverage. Smith was all over the field in this game and his inside linebacker partner, Alec Ogletree, had the hit on Burrow that caused the quarterback’s third interception.

Chicago still has issues in the slot with Duke Shelley and at the outside corner spot manned by Kindle Vildor. Both gave up too many plays throughout this game. The Browns may need to come up with creative ways to attack these players, as receiver Jarvis Landry went down with an injury early against Houston and will not be available this week, while fellow receiver Odell Beckham has yet to suit up this season. The Browns still have their dominant run game and a deep group of targets at tight end, but it would be preferable if they had a receiver who could take advantage of either Shelley or Vildor because there are quality defenders across the rest of Chicago’s unit.

The Cleveland defense struggled against Houston quarterback Tyrod Taylor last week until Taylor was injured and Fields presents some similar challenges, though he lacks the experience of Taylor and may produce big plays for both the offense and defense. Fields’ presence at quarterback certainly adds an element of excitement, but this is a tough matchup to try to pick up his first NFL win as a starter.

Model Projection: Cleveland 24.28 – Chicago 18.14


Cincinnati at Pittsburgh (PIT -3.5, Total 43.5)

Despite Las Vegas picking up a key win on the road, the flight home had to have been somewhat unpleasant for left guard John Simpson, as his soul is in a jar on the shelf of Cam Heyward’s locker.

Heyward, one of the game’s elite defensive linemen, led the Steelers front in an utterly dominant performance against the Raiders. Former Charger Melvin Ingram and T.J. Watt, who left with a groin injury, gave rookie right tackle Alex Leatherwood fits as they beat him with inside and outside moves, but the most emphatic play of the day came late in the 4th quarter when Heyward ran Simpson back several yards into Raiders running back Peyton Barber for a stop on a third and three. It was an exclamation point on a day that saw Heyward wear out the Raiders interior line, and Simpson in particular, throughout the game. Raiders quarterback Derek Carr was able to overcome his line’s shortcomings by hitting throw after throw despite the pressure and Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow will likely need to do the same in his upcoming matchup with the Steelers, as the Cincinnati offensive line went from bad to dreadful in their second outing of the year.

As good as Ja’Marr Chase has been at receiver for the Bengals, their decision to pass on an offensive lineman has had a negative impact equal or greater to Chase’s positive contribution. The interior of left guard Quinton Spain, center Trey Hopkins, and right guard Xavier Su’a-Filo has turned in two bad performances, an unsurprising outcome given how overmatched Su’a-Filo has been in any playing opportunities during his journeyman career. The tackle tandem of Jonah Williams and Riley Reiff got by to some degree against the Vikings in Week One but struggled against edge rushers Khalil Mack and Robert Quinn in their most recent game. They will have to hope T.J. Watt isn’t available, but even without him, a reinvigorated Melvin Ingram and second-year edge rusher Alex Highsmith are enough to give the Cincinnati tackles problems, and the interior is almost certain to struggle against Heyward and company.

The positive for Cincinnati is that Pittsburgh’s offensive line problems are equally as bad. Rookie running back Najee Harris has shown off an intriguing combination of power and explosive burst, but despite his epic stiff-arms and dives for the pylon, his production has been limited by the fact that he faces defenders in the backfield on what seems like half his carries. Pittsburgh’s offensive line play has also negatively impacted quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the passing game. Roethlisberger lacks the athleticism to evade defenders and did not perform nearly as well as Carr from tight platforms in their matchup last week. The Pittsburgh offensive line faces a Cincinnati defensive line that has turned in two strong performances, and as his offensive line is unlikely to improve in a week, it will be on Roethlisberger to elevate his game if this passing attack is going to start clicking.

Cincinnati quarterback Joe Burrow is coming off a day that saw him throw interceptions on three consecutive passes against the Chicago Bears, an unfortunate sequence for a quarterback who had thrown 199 pass attempts without an interception before the inglorious streak. Burrow’s track record suggests he will bounce back, a critical factor this week, as this game may come down to which quarterback makes fewer mistakes behind their leaky line.

Model Projection: Pittsburgh 23.66 – Cincinnati 21.29


Conclusion

This article previewed three NFL matchups for the coming week. For more content from The Professor, including the rest of his game previews and his fantasy content, check out BeerLife Sports!

About the author:

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Steven Clinton, better known as "The Professor", is a former D-1 Quality Control Assistant (Northwestern, Toledo) who holds a B.A. in Economics and M.S. in Predictive Analytics from Northwestern University. He maintains an end-to-end NFL game projection model and is a film junkie who breaks down the tape of every NFL game.

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