Game Plan (cont.)
Fred Taylor, RB, New England
When's the last time a strong playoff contender relied on a 34-year-old back as its primary ballcarrier? That could be the case now that the Patriots have traded the underachieving Laurence Maroney to Denver and will go to a running-back-by-committee, led by the veteran Taylor. Relying on Taylor sounds very risky, unless you consider his odd situation. The last time he was a regular back getting the bulk of his team's carries was 2007; Jacksonville started Taylor in 2008 but gave 54 more carries to Maurice Jones-Drew that year. In 2007, Taylor was 31. In the last five games of the '07 season, Taylor ran for 104, 104, 132, 147 and 111 yards. In his 19 games since, Taylor has had 20 carries or more in a game twice -- and in both of those games, he topped 100 yards. So maybe he's got more left in the tank than a 14-year back has any right to have.
"The big thing about how I feel now,'' Taylor told me last night, "is how I prepared with a bunch of young guys in the offseason -- Frank Gore, Kevin Smith, Julius Jones, Thomas Jones, Maurice Jones-Drew. We trained down in Miami. I outran a good friend of mine, [cornerback] Lito Sheppard. I ran -- unofficially -- a 4.3 40. In football age, I'm old, of course. But I'm prepared for whatever coach [Bill Belichick] hands to me. If I can get 20-plus carries, and I have no idea if that will happen, and average four to five yards a pop, that's easy.''
If Matt Moore had been his usual, accurate self against the Giants last week, Brandon LaFell, the third-round rookie from LSU, could have had a starry debut against the Giants. Moore targeted the tall kid he's learning to trust eight times, but only completed two of the throws. This week, with Tampa Bay's strong interior line play, Moore will have to throw to move the chains. So here's LaFell's projection versus Tampa Bay:
Jason McCourty, CB, Tennessee (No. 30)
"It'll be a pleasure facing Hines Ward,'' the less famous of the McCourty cornerback twins told me on Sirius NFL Radio this week. "I have much respect for him.''
Be careful what you wish for. The starting cornerback opposite Cortland Finnegan is going to get some action in this game, even with Dennis Dixon playing quarterback for the Steelers, because Tennessee is going to load up to stop the run and challenge the Steelers to win by throwing it. McCourty has shown ability to cover speed receivers, which he'll need to do when he's on Mike Wallace, and he's going to need to bring his big-boy pads for the downfield jousts with Ward.
1. Arian Foster to have tougher sledding, but to top 100 yards again. Two career starts: 350 yards, five rushing touchdowns. The Redskins know he's coming. Might be time for Albert Haynesworth to decide to be a factor.
2. The Michael Vick show. Coach Andy Reid wants him to be a pocket quarterback Sunday -- assuming Vick plays instead of the concussed Kevin Kolb. I think that's a good blueprint. But he was at his most dangerous by scrambling in Week 1 against Green Bay, not throwing. He has to run to be good.
3. Action on the Vincent Jackson front to heat up, now that teams know he'd be available in Week 5. The Chargers don't want him, which is the worst-kept secret in the NFL. Vikings do. Second-round compensation is too high because of the cost of his contract and the risk of dealing for a guy who could be suspended for a year with one more NFL conduct violation. This trade facilitator says: Take a third-rounder, A.J. Smith, and move on. And get Marcus McNeill signed, by the way.
4. Chapter 2: The Manning Bowl. For the Giants to win, Justin Tuck or Mathias Kiwanuka has to be the hero, not Eli. Because the only way the Giants win is to rattle the older brother.
5. The kinder, gentler Jets. Haven't heard a peep out of the Hard-Knockers all week, after they spit the bit in an awful show against Baltimore. Now the Patriots are coming to town, and all we hear is respectful clichés. Where's Joe Namath when you need him?
6. Who takes charge in the Green Bay backfield. Though it looks to be Brandon Jackson taking over for the injured Ryan Grant, don't be surprised to see John Kuhn, the 250-pound short-yardage back, stealing carries (and fantasy points) from Jackson. And don't be surprised to see GM Ted Thompson deal for a Fred Jackson in the next few days, particularly if the running game struggles against Buffalo, which shouldn't happen.
7. The Vikings to struggle again. I expect the Fightin' Favres to benefit from no place like dome Sunday against Miami, but they'd better protect the grandfather QB. Last week in Buffalo, the Dolphins' new three-pronged pass-rush (Cameron Wake, Koa Misi and Karlos Dansby) had a sack apiece.
8. Jimmy Raye and Alex Smith to get it right. The Niners' offensive coordinator can't always get the plays called into Smith's helmet on time. Inexcusable. As is Smith's 52.5 passer rating. Here come the Super Bowl champion Saints to town -- with their send-the-house defensive coordinator Gregg Williams -- for a nice little Monday night home-opener. Not much pressure there.
9. What Mike Pereira has in store for us. One of the best innovations in NFL TV in recent years made an impressive Week 1 regular-season debut, with Pereira telling America, like it or not, that Calvin Johnson's catch, by rule, wasn't really a catch -- right in the middle of the Lions-Bears replay review on FOX. Now FOX has to hope for a very controversial call or two again this weekend ... in NFC games, of course. By the way, Pereira loves his new life. Instead of getting reamed by coaches and GMs over the phone at his NFL office Monday, his first year outside of NFL employment is much more pleasant. He played 18 holes Monday in Los Angeles.
10. Philip Rivers to be on his best behavior against the Jags at home. I like Rivers the player and person a lot, and I can see a quarterback getting testy with his linemen for screwing up. But over and over again? And kicking the football in anger on the field? Talk to him, Norv. That stuff's not helping him win.
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