<
>

Thursday NFL preview: Tracking injuries to star players

NFL Nation reporters look ahead to what Thursday has in store for each team.

AFC EAST

Buffalo Bills: The Bills are likely to have at least three offensive starters back for Sunday's game against the Dolphins: quarterback Tyrod Taylor, guard John Miller and tackle Seantrel Henderson. It's also possible that wide receiver Sammy Watkins will return; he was limited in Wednesday's practice. It's looking less likely that Percy Harvin, who did not practice Wednesday because of a knee injury, will be available for Sunday's game. -- Mike Rodak

Miami Dolphins: The Dolphins continue to explore ways to replace four-time Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Wake, who had seven sacks in seven games before suffering a season-ending Achilles injury. Backup linebacker Chris McCain, who has natural pass-rush skills, said he was moved full-time to defensive end this week by coaches. The committee of Derrick Shelby, Terrence Fede and McCain will try to replace Wake's lost production. -- James Walker

New England Patriots: Tom Brady was surprised when a reporter complimented him on his deep-ball passing, turning to a golf analogy and saying he feels like he's done a better job with the wedge than the driver. While that may be true, it's hard to ignore that Brady has improved statistically on passes of 20-plus yards. He's completing 50 percent of such throws this season (tied for second overall) after having a 28.3 percent completion rate in 2014 (28th). The Patriots worked on that specific aspect of the game Wednesday. The Redskins are allowing 18.1 yards per attempt on deep throws this season, third worst in the NFL. -- Mike Reiss

New York Jets: The Jets hope to get starting wideouts Brandon Marshall (toe, ankle) and Eric Decker (knee) back on the field on Thursday. Both are expected to play Sunday against the Jaguars, but too much missed practice time can hurt the chemistry in the passing game. QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, who will start on Sunday with an ailing thumb, has thrown 46 percent of his passes this season to Marshall or Decker. -- Rich Cimini

AFC NORTH

Baltimore Ravens: Joe Flacco's biggest challenge of the bye week is to get familiar with his wide receivers, especially after the loss of Steve Smith Sr. to a season-ending Achilles injury. The longest-tenured receiver is Marlon Brown, an undrafted rookie who joined the Ravens two years ago. Of the seven wide receivers on the 53-man roster, four weren't on Baltimore's roster on Oct. 1. "The thing is to bring them up to speed and get them comfortable with everything that we're doing," Flacco said. "From there, will come comfort between myself and them." -- Jamison Hensley

Cincinnati Bengals: Thursday night's game against the Browns is all about one thing for Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton: legitimacy. Nearly a year to the day after Dalton turned in the worst Total QBR of his career (3.0) in a 24-3 Thursday night loss to Cleveland, he will be out to prove it was a fluke. The importance of this particular week's game is magnified by the fact that it kicks off a string of three straight prime-time games for the Bengals. The world will get to see just how good this 2015 version of Dalton really is. -- Coley Harvey

Cleveland Browns: Johnny Manziel threw for just 80 yards in a 30-0 loss to Cincinnati in his first start as a rookie. Manziel gets his second start this season tonight against the same Bengals, on the road. But he said this time he feels "much more confident in my abilities." While Manziel added that his experience last season against Cincy should help, he'll get a big test against a defense that ranks second in the league in Total QBR allowed. -- Pat McManamon

Pittsburgh Steelers: If your fantasy tight end is on a bye week and you need a good replacement option, pick up Heath Miller. The Steelers feel Miller's passing-game role increases with the return of Ben Roethlisberger. The numbers bear this out. In three full games with Roethlisberger, Miller has 20 catches for 204 yards. In five games with other quarterbacks, Miller has seven catches for 69 yards. The way the Bengals played the Steelers last week was revealing, running safeties to the sideline in what coach Mike Tomlin calls "umbrella" coverage and leaving the middle of the field open. Though the Raiders could employ a different game plan, things should be open for Miller. A little Miller vs. Charles Woodson matchup in the red zone would be a ton of fun. -- Jeremy Fowler

AFC SOUTH

Houston Texans: Texans receiver DeAndre Hopkins got off to a very hot start this season (870 yards on 112 targets in eight games), but that's led to more attention from opposing defenses, which has opened the door for veteran receiver Nate Washington. Washington has led the Texans with 201 yards over the past two games. Receivers coach Stan Hixon said Washington's chemistry with quarterback Brian Hoyer has been instrumental in his production. Though he did suffer a hip injury catching a touchdown pass last weekend, Washington shouldn't miss any games. It helps that the Texans have 15 days between their last game and their next one. -- Tania Ganguli

Indianapolis Colts: Colts coach Chuck Pagano compared Denver's top-ranked defense to the 1985 Chicago Bears' and 2000 Baltimore Ravens' units. He said Denver's defense is like a scary movie. The Broncos lead the NFL in fewest yards allowed (261.1), points (16.0) and most sacks (29). The last time the Colts played a defense of this caliber was in Week 5 of 2013 against a Seahawks squad that led the league in points allowed and won the Super Bowl. Indy beat Seattle 34-28 on that day -- perhaps a positive memory for Andrew Luck & Co. to draw upon as they try to break a three-game losing streak. -- Mike Wells

Jacksonville Jaguars: After being benched following the Jaguars' loss to Houston, CB Davon House is back in the mix to be a starter. Coach Gus Bradley said that House, Dwayne Gratz and Demetrius McCray will compete to start opposite Aaron Colvin. Jacksonville's DBs will need to be at their best against Ryan Fitzpatrick, who ranks third in Total QBR this season (78.4). -- Mike DiRocco

Tennessee Titans: No Titan has carried the ball more than 16 times in a game this season. But if Tennessee is able to get the run game going in Mike Mularkey's debut as interim coach Sunday in New Orleans, Antonio Andrews could top that number. "I think Antonio is the workhorse as we speak right now," Mularkey said. "... If we were going to force it, it would be to Antonio right now." -- Paul Kuharsky

AFC WEST

Denver Broncos: Vernon Davis has participated in just one practice with his new team, but it's crystal clear that the Broncos still plan to get him involved in some way for Sunday's game in Indianapolis. Coach Gary Kubiak believes if the Broncos use two-tight end sets more moving forward, opposing defenses will have to respond with more base looks and that "will settle the game down some,'' Kubiak said. -- Jeff Legwold

Kansas City Chiefs: Despite getting six TDs in seven trips inside the Lions' 20 on Sunday, the Chiefs still lag in red zone offense. They're 21st in scoring red zone TDs at about 52 percent. If the Lions' game was a sign of things to come in this regard, the Chiefs have reason to be optimistic in the second half. -- Adam Teicher

Oakland Raiders: Safety Larry Asante played most of the game against the Jets on Sunday as the Raiders used an extra defensive back. Coach Jack Del Rio said it was game-plan specific, but he added that since Asante played well, the Raiders could use a similar look moving forward. -- Bill Williamson

San Diego Chargers: After missing two games with a groin injury, Chargers All-Pro safety Eric Weddle returned to practice on Wednesday. It was Weddle's first time missing a game since 2009, and the Chargers missed their defensive co-captain in the secondary, giving up an average of 304 yards and four passing touchdowns in Weddle's absence. "It was a walk-through practice, so I was able to go out and do a walk-through -- nothing more than that," Weddle said. "I don't know if I'm playing yet. So I don't want everyone to get all excited." -- Eric D. Williams

NFC EAST

Dallas Cowboys: Darren McFadden is the Cowboys' lead RB for better or worse now that Joseph Randle has been released. The backups lack experience. Christine Michael has 12 carries on the season and has not had more than five carries in a game. Rod Smith's only carries this year have come for Seattle (two carries, 5 yards). Trey Williams was signed off Washington's practice squad as a change-of-pace back. If something were to happen to McFadden -- who has had 49 carries in the past two games and has an injury history -- the Cowboys will be truly banking on their offensive line to carry the running game. -- Todd Archer

New York Giants: All eyes will once again be on Jason Pierre-Paul on Thursday as the Giants work to get him ready to play Sunday, one week ahead of the original projected return date. Pierre-Paul said Wednesday that he wants to play and thinks he can convince the medical staff to let him. "I know for a fact I'm the same JPP. If I couldn't do it, I wouldn't be here right now." -- Dan Graziano

Philadelphia Eagles: Quarterback Sam Bradford laughed at a report that he turned down a four-year contract from the Eagles. "That must have got lost in the mail," Bradford said. That may be, but the Eagles are almost halfway through the one season they have to evaluate Bradford before his contract expires. He currently ranks last in Total QBR, so whether or not he improves in the second half of the season could determine his future in Philly. -- Phil Sheridan

Washington Redskins: The Redskins' defense knows it has to find a way to slow down the Patriots' offense, something that nobody else has been able to do this season. The good news for Washington is that it appears corner Chris Culliver will return from knee inflammation and linebacker Ryan Kerrigan is optimistic about playing with a broken right hand (he'll see the surgeon Thursday to determine the likelihood). The problem is that the Redskins rank 27th in allowing 6.02 yards per play while the Patriots' offense ranks second at 6.30 yards per play. They hurt teams by moving personnel around. "Everyone does it, but the level they're doing it at the last couple years is unparalleled," Redskins corner DeAngelo Hall said. -- John Keim

NFC NORTH

Chicago Bears: San Diego is the perfect opponent for RB Jeremy Langford. With Langford's role about to increase in the aftermath of Matt Forte's knee injury, the rookie will go up against the Chargers' 27th-ranked rushing defense (124.4) on Monday night. San Diego has allowed four tailbacks to rush for more than 100 yards through eight games -- James Starks, Le'Veon Bell, Adrian Peterson and Giovani Bernard. The Bears have gone out of their way to publicly praise Langford this week, despite the rookie playing just 73 snaps in seven games. Offensive coordinator Adam Gase begins installing the game plan for San Diego on Thursday. It would be a surprise if Langford carries the ball fewer than 20 times on Monday in Southern California. -- Jeff Dickerson

Detroit Lions: The Lions are off for the next four days as they rest up before the final eight games of what has been a disappointing season. For Detroit fans, though, it's a chance to wonder whom the Lions might take with their first-round pick in this spring's NFL draft. Since Detroit is in line for a top-five pick, some names to watch this weekend will be Ohio State DE Joey Bosa, Florida State DB Jalen Ramsey, a pair of Notre Dame stars (LB Jaylon Smith and OT Ronnie Stanley) and a trio of Ole Miss stars (OT Laremy Tunsil, DT Robert Nkemdiche and WR Laquon Treadwell). -- Michael Rothstein

Green Bay Packers: Either the Packers' receivers know they need to get open more or they're sick of being asked why they're not getting open -- or perhaps both. When James Jones walked by a group of reporters talking to fellow receiver Davante Adams on Wednesday, he shouted "Get open." That's what happens when Aaron Rodgers throws for only 77 yards, like he did in Sunday's loss to the Broncos. -- Rob Demovsky

Minnesota Vikings: The two linebackers who play the most for the Vikings -- Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks -- both missed practice Wednesday with lower back and rib injuries, respectively. If the Vikings are without either one on Sunday, they could have a difficult time containing Rams RB Todd Gurley, especially with Sharrif Floyd working his way back from injury. The Vikings are allowing an average of 4.4 yards per carry this season (25th overall), and could get gashed by Gurley if their two fastest linebackers aren't ready. -- Ben Goessling

NFC SOUTH

Atlanta Falcons: The Falcons somewhat downplayed a report out of San Francisco about the 49ers wanting to save new starting quarterback Blaine Gabbert for a home start against their weak defense. Falcons coach Dan Quinn refused to bite on the whole bulletin board material talk, while cornerback Desmond Trufant said the defense will let the play between the whistles do all the talking. Receiver Roddy White spoke up for the defense and wished Gabbert "good luck," while going on to say the defense should get two turnovers on Gabbert. The Falcons have been opportunistic, forcing 12 turnovers this season, while Gabbert has 10 interceptions and a fumble lost in his past six NFL starts (2012-13 with Jacksonville). -- Vaughn McClure

Carolina Panthers: It's starting to look like Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil will miss his second straight game with a sprained ankle. He arrived at Wednesday's practice wearing a boot on his right foot and riding in a golf cart. The good news for Carolina is Fernando Velasco was solid as Kalil's replacement on Monday night. It was also a good sign that rookie linebacker Shaq Thompson (knee) was a full participant in practice on Wednesday. His speed on Sunday against Green Bay could be pivotal in pressuring Aaron Rodgers. -- David Newton

New Orleans Saints: The Saints will have to expect the unexpected on Sunday since they're facing the Titans in their first game since firing coach Ken Whisenhunt and replacing him with Mike Mularkey. "You know there will be some wrinkles. There will be some things we haven't seen. Just like there are every week," said Saints coach Sean Payton, who pointed out that Mularkey comes from an offensive background, like Whisenhunt did. "I'm sure there will be some things he wants to do offensively." That's a given, considering the Titans rank 31st in the NFL in both yards and points this season. -- Mike Triplett

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The death of linebacker Kwon Alexander's younger brother last Friday continues to be a topic of conversation among the Bucs. Quarterback Jameis Winston, left guard Logan Mankins and coach Lovie Smith have spoken about how the event -- as tragic as it was -- showed how close Tampa Bay's locker room can be. Alexander said he'll dedicate the rest of the season to his slain brother. He plans to attend the funeral Saturday in Alabama and return in time for the Bucs' game Sunday against the Giants. -- Andrew Astleford

NFC WEST

Arizona Cardinals: Cardinals coach Bruce Arians kicked off the bye week by canceling Wednesday's practice after the team photo, taking a tongue-in-cheek approach to describing the day: "The team picture can always be very, very difficult but our guys participated well. They gave a good effort," Arians said. The players don't have to return until Tuesday. -- Josh Weinfuss

St. Louis Rams: The Rams see a lot of themselves when they look at the Vikings. The statistics show two teams that are evenly matched in almost all major categories and even some minor ones. Which means it could be a slugfest. Either way, the Rams are eager to see how they fare against a good team on the road as they search for a third consecutive win for only the second time since Jeff Fisher took over in 2012. -- Nick Wagoner

San Francisco 49ers: While Blaine Gabbert is the 49ers' new starting quarterback, coach Jim Tomsula would not commit to him beyond this weekend's home game against the Falcons. So when might Colin Kaepernick regain his spot? Following the Falcons game, the 49ers have their bye week and then travel to Seattle, but it's hard to see Kaepernick coming back against the Seahawks, who have owned him. Then the Niners play host to the Arizona Cardinals, who picked him off four times, including a pair of pick-sixes, and beat the Niners by 40 points in Week 3. After that? A jaunt to Chicago, and a test against the Niners' old defensive coordinator, Vic Fangio. Maybe this goes until Dec. 13, at the Browns. Unless, of course, Gabbert plays well enough to not give up the gig. -- Paul Gutierrez

Seattle Seahawks: The Seahawks have struggled to get Marshawn Lynch going consistently this season. He's currently averaging 3.64 yards per carry, which ranks 40th out of 50 qualifying players. That's a big drop-off from last year when Lynch averaged 4.7 YPC. Considering he turns 30 in April and is coming off of four straight seasons of 280-plus carries, Lynch's performance in the final eight games is worth keeping an eye on. -- Sheil Kapadia