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Week 6 Observations
By Matt Horkman

Pittsburgh finally got its first win of the season, but they didn’t make it easy on themselves. Near the end of the second quarter, wide receiver Antonio Brown dropped a perfectly placed back-shoulder pass in the end zone from Ben Roethlisberger. The play forced the Steelers to settle for a field goal, costing them a much-needed touchdown.

Later in the game, however, Roethlisberger would connect with another Pittsburgh receiver. He hit Emmanuel Sanders for a 55-yard touchdown strike early in the third quarter. New York cornerback Antonio Cromartie bit badly on play action, leaving Sanders open for the score.

Green Bay fullback John Kuhn is a bit of a folk hero in Wisconsin, but the veteran made a costly mistake in the first half of Green Bay’s 19-17 victory in Baltimore. Backup tight end Ryan Taylor blocked a second-quarter punt and Kuhn nonchalantly went to pickup the ball prior to any Baltimore player having downed it. Kuhn muffed the ball, and Baltimore quickly pounced on it, taking away an excellent opportunity for Green Bay to put points on the board in a defensive struggle. 

Coaching strategy came into play during Green Bay’s second-half goal line stand. On third-and-goal, Baltimore running back Ray Rice broke his run outside, but the Packers prevented him from reaching the pylon. Even if Rice did score, the Ravens were holding on the play, so the touchdown wouldn’t have stood. Nevertheless, the penalty did put Green Bay head coach Mike McCarthy in an interesting predicament. McCarthy could’ve accepted the penalty, backing the Ravens up 10 yards, and giving them an extra down. Or he could’ve declined the penalty, setting Baltimore up with a fourth-and-goal situation from the one-yard line. He chose the latter, and on the ensuing play, backup running Bernard Pierce was stuffed. The goal line stand set the tempo for the remainder of the game.

A controversial hit delivered by rookie safety Matt Elam on Randall Cobb will sideline Green Bay‘s star receiver for at least six weeks. ESPN’s Tom Jackson insinuated the hit was a dirty play, but former Tampa Bay and Indianapolis head coach (and current NBC analysis) Tony Dungy deserves credit for seeing this type of play coming. For months, Dungy has rightfully pointed out that because the NFL is trying to ban hits to the head, defenders will begin to aim low on defenseless receivers. Because going high would’ve been a 15-yard unnecessary roughness foul, Elam made the only play he could. The league is right in attempting to deal with concussions, but you’ll never be able to regulate the violence in football. There’s going to be unintended consequences and Cobb’s injury -- which will sideline him six to eight weeks -- might be the first of many more to come. Don’t expect this storyline to go away anytime soon.

On Sunday, Green Bay running back Eddie Lacy ran for 121 yards on 23 carries, but his biggest contribution may have came on wide receiver Jordy Nelson’s 64-yard touchdown reception. While playing man coverage, Baltimore cornerback Lardarius Webb peaked into the backfield on an Aaron Rodgers play fake, leaving Nelson wide open. Consider this the Eddie Lacy effect. The second-round pick has legitimized Green Bay’s running game, leading to safeties cheating up to stop the run, and cornerbacks like Webb peering into the backfield.

Cincinnati wide receiver Marvin Jones had one of the most unheralded drives of the afternoon. On a pivotal third-and-8, Jones displayed excellent blocking on a short pass to wide receiver Mohamed Sanu. The play called for Sanu to run for the first down after the catch, and it wouldn’t have worked without Jones’ blocking. Five plays later, Jones did an excellent job of coming back to the ball, as quarterback Andy Dalton scrambled outside the pocket. Dalton found Jones for a 12-yard touchdown strike, giving Cincinnati a 24-10 lead.

A terrible second-quarter call nearly allowed New England to take full command of Sunday’s late game. On fourth-and-1, the Saints lined up to go for it with just over two minutes remaining. Drew Brees went to the hard count in an attempt to draw New England defenders offside. It worked, as a Patriot defensive lineman jumped into the neutral zone. When this occurs, most teams teach their offensive lineman to react to the defender’s movement. The Saints offensive lineman did just that and the referees threw the flag. However, they called the Saints for a fall start, forcing them to punt the ball. During the telecast, Fox commentator Troy Aikman immediately pointed out the error, but after the punt, he tried to steer the blame towards New Orleans. He was correct the first time. It was a bad call.

Right now, the three best cornerbacks in football are Brent Grimes, Richard Sherman and Aqib Talib. On Sunday, Talib continued his all-pro caliber season with excellent defense of New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham. Before leaving the game with a hip injury, Talib lined up against Graham on 17 passing plays, holding the all-pro tight end to zero catches.

Sunday’s narrative would look very different had New Orleans hung onto defeat the Patriots. In the big picture, however, the Saints’ defense deserves immense praise for their improvement in 2013. Yes, they had a bad final minute in NStevan Ridleyew England, but they were brilliant in the first 59. With that said, the Patriots may have exposed a weakness. The Saints had difficulties tackling Stevan Ridley. The bruising back ran for 96 yards on 20 carries. He also added two touchdowns. This could be a potential problem for Rob Ryan’s defense down the stretch, as his unit will likely have to contend with Green Bay, San Francisco, and/or Seattle to win the NFC. Those three team’s respective running backs (Frank Gore, Marshawn Lynch, and Lacy) all possess a bruising style comparable to Ridley.

Keenan Allen’s second-quarter touchdown was a slow developing play, so pass protection was the key to its success. Offensive tackle King Dunlap stonewalled Robert Mathis on the play, allowing Allen (Philip Rivers’ second look) time to come open. Rivers made a good throw, connecting with the rookie for a 22-yard score. It was the game’s lone touchdown.

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