Top matchup for each Week 3 NFL game

By Vincent Frank

Week 2 of the NFL season provided us with very little drama. Nine of the 16 games were decided by more than one score. The Denver Broncos and Oakland Raiders in the AFC West absolutely demolished their competition. Meanwhile, other teams put up some horrible efforts.

This doesn’t mean that there weren’t some really competitive one-on-one matchups. Antonio Brown taking on Xavier Rhodes was one prime example.

Heading into Week 3, we take a look at the top matchup for each game on the slate. It includes rookie running back Leonard Fournette taking on a dominant Baltimore Ravens defense and Rhodes himself tasked with going up against another top end receiver, Mike Evans. Here’s a look at those two matchups and more.

Los Angeles Rams at San Francisco 49ers: Aaron Donald/Robert Quinn vs Joe Staley

Aaron Donald is one of the NFL stars next in line for a huge payday

Aaron Donald might not have been happy with his performance in his first game since returning from a holdout. But man, he has a juicy little matchup against a dreadful 49ers offense in Santa Clara to kick off Week 3. Through the first two games of the season, San Francisco is averaging six points and 232.5 yards of total offense. Yuck.

One thing working in San Francisco’s favor is how well its tackles have played this year. At right tackle, All-Pro caliber youngster Trent Brown has not allowed a single quarterback pressure in two games. Meanwhile, veteran Joe Staley upped his performance big time against Cliff Avril and the Legion of Boom in a narrow loss to Seattle in Week 2. If Staley can somehow hold the fort against the likes of Donald and Robert Quinn, then Brian Hoyer will have an actual opportunity to succeed through the air.

Baltimore Ravens at Jacksonville Jaguars: Ravens run defense vs Leonard Fournette

We focused a bit on how the Jaguars went away from their Week 1 success this past Sunday. Instead of relying on Fournette in what was a close game through the first 32 minutes against Tennessee, Jacksonville went back to its old ways. Blake Bortles attempted 33 passes and turned it over three times. Meanwhile, following a 100-yard performance in his debut, Fournette saw the ball just 14 times in a 37-16 loss to Tennessee.

This simply cannot repeat itself if the Jaguars want to even have a chance to succeed against the league’s most-dominant defense on Sunday. Through two games, Baltimore has yielded a total of 10 points while forcing 10 turnovers and getting to quarterback eight times for sacks. Obviously, with the mistake-prone Bortles under center, going pass-heavy would lead to disaster for the Jags.

Denver Broncos at Buffalo Bills: Trevor Siemian vs Bills pass defense

Trevor Siemian Broncos

It’s amazing that we can look to this matchup and conclude both of these areas are strengths for their respective teams. Siemian earned the Broncos’ starting job in camp primarily due to the struggles of Paxton Lynch. He has responded by putting up seven total touchdowns and two interceptions while completing 65 percent of his passes through two games. It’s not a coincidence that Denver is averaging 33 points per game.

On the other hand, Buffalo’s pass defense has been surprisingly hawkish thus far on the young season. In games against Josh McCown and Cam Newton, this unit has yielded a 68.7 quarterback rating and has yet to allow a touchdown through the air. That’s primarily due to the play of rookie first-round pick Tre’Davious White, who has graded out as a top-10 corner by Pro Football Focus through two weeks.

Pittsburgh Steelers at Chicago Bears: Ryan Shazier vs Tarik Cohen

Likely one of the best inside linebackers in the game when it comes to dropping back into coverage and limiting yards after the catch, Shazier will have his hands full in Week 3 against a dynamic young Bears running back. Through two games, Cohen has caught a whopping 16 passes on 21 targets. Sure they’ve been of the short variety, but he continues to act as a safety valve for the struggling Mike Glennon.

With Pittsburgh unlikely to ask safety Mike Mitchell to cover Cohen one-on-one out of the backfield, how Shazier provides support underneath will play a big role here. Considering just how poorly Glennon played in Week 2, we could easily envision a couple game-changing plays from this vastly underrated linebacker.

New Orleans Saints at Carolina Panthers: Saints pass defense vs Cam Newton

Cam Newton

It seems to be an exercise in futility for the Saints’ pass defense in attempting to stop anyone through the air. This unit is bad. Historically bad. In its first two games, New Orleans has yielded an average of 389 passing yards to go with six touchdowns and zero interceptions for an opposing quarterback rating of 141.4. That’s gross.

Cam Newton’s struggles could be just the tonic the Saints’ defense needs. He’s led Carolina on just two touchdown drives in two games and has thrown for less than 400 yards during that span. Newton is also coming off a Week 2 game in which he was sacked six times en route to having to leave for a bit due to an ankle injury.

This matchup is the case of two struggling units looking to turn it around. For our part, even money has to be on Cam overcoming his struggles of the first two weeks.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Minnesota Vikings: Mike Evans vs Xavier Rhodes

We couldn’t be more excited about this individual matchup. Both Evans and Rhodes have been at the top of their games to start the 2017 season. For his part, Rhodes helped limit Steelers receiver Antonio Brown to five catches for 62 yards on 11 targets last week. He was covering Brown for just three of those receptions. That comes on the heels of the All Pro caliber corner limiting Saints receiver Michael Thomas to two catches for 22 yards in Week 1.

On the other hand, Evans seems to have upped his game even more with DeSean Jackson running routes opposite him in Tampa. In the Buccaneers’ first game of the season — a blowout over Chicago in Week 2 — Evans caught 7-of-9 targets for 93 yards and a score. Simply put, Jameis Winston is not having to force the ball to his No. 1 receiver with Jackson in the mix. That could come into play Sunday, as the turnover-prone quarterback looks to limit his mistakes against one of the best covers guys in the league.

Cleveland Browns at Indianapolis Colts: Duke Johnson vs Malik Hooker

Now that Corey Coleman is out with a broken hand, we can fully expect Duke Johnson to be utilized more as a wide receiver than a running back moving forward. Heck, the talented former Miami (F) star has put up five caches compared to four rush attempts in two games. Sure that doesn’t seem like an impactful stat line. But Johnson has proven himself capable of making the eye-opening big play throughout his career.

On the other hand, Hooker is already standing out as a potential Pro Bowler as a rookie. This interception of Carson Palmer in Week 2 is a prime example. A true center fielder in every sense of the word, look for the Colts to lock up Cleveland’s most-talented receiving option with their best true cover guy. Should that happen, Indy might earn its first win of the season.

Miami Dolphins at New York Jets: Laremy Tunsil vs Muhammad Wilkerson

In his first game as a full-time left tackle last week against the Los Angeles Chargers, Tunsil anchored a unit that saw Jay Cutler get sacked just two times. Considering this offensive line was going up against the likes of Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa, that’s a tremendous accomplishment. Add in the fact that Cutler is among the least-mobile quarterbacks in the NFL, and that’s magnified further.

In order for the Jets to have any chance of stopping Miami’s passing game, Wilkerson will need to put consistent pressure on Cutler. If that doesn’t happen, the likes of DeVante Parker and Jarvis Landry will eat big time against a disastrous corner group in New York.

Houston Texans at New England Patriots: DeAndre Hopkins vs Stephon Gilmore

Now that the Patriots have two top-end cover guys to work with on the outside, they can play corner coverage. It worked out last week in limiting Saints receivers but was a bit of a struggle in Week 1 against the high-powered Kansas City Chiefs. Now set to take on a rookie in Deshaun Watson, we’re expecting the same type of philosophy.

For his part, Watson relied a bit too much on Hopkins in Houston’s Week 2 win against a bad Cincinnati Bengals team. A total of 13 of his 24 targets went to Hopkins. Houston’s No. 1 receiver caught seven of Watson’s 15 completions for over half of the Texans’ receiving yards in the game. Continued reliance here could force the rookie quarterback into multiple mistakes.

Atlanta Falcons at Detroit Lions: Julio Jones vs Darius Slay 

After struggling in Week 1 against Chicago, Jones was back up to his old tricks. He treated Packers corner Davon House like a rag doll throughout the Falcons’ blowout win on Sunday night. All said, Jones caught five passes for 108 yards. It’s definitely a connection between Matt Ryan and Jones that we expect to keep growing with the latter being limited throughout the summer to injury.

Surprisingly, the Falcons face a stout Lions defense in Week 3 that has yielded an average of 16.5 points and has forced five turnovers in two games. It’s been led by the amazing progression we’ve seen from Slay over the past year or so. He’s quickly turning into one of the top cover guys in the NFL, as evidenced by this play on Giants receiver Brandon Marshall Monday night. This one matchup promises to be pretty darn elite on Sunday.

New York Giants at Philadelphia Eagles: Jason Pierre-Paul vs Lane Johnson 

While Pierre-Paul may no longer be the Giants’ best pure pass rusher, he’s definitely picked his games up through the first two weeks. After being a distraction for Dak Prescott in Week 1’s loss to Dallas, this former Pro Bowler put up a sack and multiple pressures on Lions quarterback Matthew Stanford on Monday night. Teaming up with Olivier Vernon, he has a chance to help lead one of the top pass-rushing defensive lines in the game this season.

On the other hand, Johnson and his fellow offensive linemen struggled to do anything of substance to protect Carson Wentz in last week’s loss to Kansas City. All said, Wentz was pressured 15 times and sacked a total of six times in the 27-20 loss. If the Giants can put that type of pressure on the youngster, they stand a good chance of winning their first game of the season.

Seattle Seahawks at Tennessee Titans: Earl Thomas vs Delanie Walker

Walker remains one of the most underrated football players in the entire NFL. The veteran tight end has caught 11-of-13 targets for 137 yards through two games. That comes on the heels of him recording 800-plus receiving yards in each of the past three seasons with a combined 65 percent catch rate. Needless to say, he’s helped Marcus Mariota’s progression under center for the Titans.

It’s going to be most difficult to repeat this success against the best safety in the entire NFL. Returning to full health after a leg injury last season, Thomas is back up to his old tricks. Consider this: tight ends have caught eight passes for 80 yards with a 45 percent reception rate in two games against the Seahawks this season. If Thomas and Co. find a way to continue this domination, Seattle might very well go into Nashville and pull of a good road win. If not, the team’s early-season struggles could continue.

Kansas City Chiefs at Los Angeles Chargers: Kareem Hunt vs Chargers run defense

Kareem Hunt continues to dominate early in his NFL career.

Not only is Hunt the obvious early-season favorite for Offensive Rookie of the Year, he might very well be the most-impactful offensive player in the NFL through two weeks. Here’s a guy that’s put up 355 total yards and five touchdowns in two games. He’s leading the NFL in both categories while topping all running backs in yards on the ground. He’s also caught all eight of the passes thrown in his direction for 126 yards.

Now set to take on a Chargers run defense that ranks in the bottom six of the NFL this season, Hunt could be in for a big game. He’ll definitely have to perform at a high level in order to help Kansas City’s offensive line fend off Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa in the face of an improved Alex Smith under center.

Cincinnati Bengals at Green Bay Packers: Andy Dalton vs Packers pass defense 

Despite putting up a solid performance in a Week 1 win over the Seahawks, Green Bay’s pass defense remains an utter mess. It ranked 31st in this category last season and has since been forced to move rookie Kevin King to the outside while former first-round pick Damarious Randall mans the slot. While King performed well in Week 2 against Atlanta, the Packers still allowed 34 points in a lopsided loss.

Week 3 could very well be a get-right game for this unit. After all, the Pack are taking on a Bengals offense that is averaging 4.5 points and has yet to score a single touchdown in two games this season. For his part, Andy Dalton is completing less than 55 percent of his passes with four picks on the young season. In a game between two struggling units, we fully expect Green Bay’s pass defense to get back on track here.

Oakland Raiders at Washington Redskins: Amari Cooper vs Josh Norman

It must be noted that Cooper has struggled with drops for an otherwise dominant Raiders offense through two games. He’s actually let three balls hit the ground during this span. That has to be of utmost concern for the Raiders, especially considering Cooper boasts just a 50 percent catch rate on the year. For comparison’s sake, Derek Carr has completed 86 percent of his passes to other Raiders pass catchers.

It won’t get any easier Sunday night against a cornerback in Josh Norman that has allowed a 32.7 quarterback rating in coverage this season. Sure Michael Crabtree should eat on the other side, but the Raiders needs this Carr-to-Cooper connection to take off as the season progresses. Norman stands in the way this week.

Dallas Cowboys at Arizona Cardinals: Dez Bryant vs Patrick Peterson

Bryant has been godawful thus far this season. He’s caught just 9-of-25 passes for 102 yards and a score in two games. That’s just over four yards per target. Even more so than that, he had an inexcusable drop in Dallas’ Week 2 blowout loss to the Denver Broncos. Simply put, Bryant needs to up his game for young quarterback Dak Prescott. If that doesn’t happen, the Cowboys’ passing offense will be in trouble.

Obviously, it won’t be anywhere near an easy task against a corner in Peterson that allowed single-digit yardage against Detroit in Week 1 and dominated T.Y. Hilton to the tune of less than six yards per target this past Sunday. Despite Arizona’s struggles on offfense, Peterson could help lead the team to an upset win on Monday night with a stellar performance against Bryant.