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Mike Tannenbaum: Week 3 Matchups to Watch

Here are five Week 3 matchups we’ve got our eyes on:

1) Bengals have a real chance to upset Steelers

The Steelers are dealing with injuries to five starters on defense as they prepare for the Bengals this week. Defensive lineman Tyson Alualu was placed on Injured Reserve after fracturing his ankle on the first defensive series against Las Vegas in Week 2. Alualu started 10 games for Pittsburgh in 2020 and appearing in 15 games overall. Linebackers Devin Bush, T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith, along with CB Joe Haden, are all dealing with groin injuries. While Bush is back at practice, Watt has not practiced yet this week. The 2020 sack leader and NFL’s highest-paid defensive player is already off to a great start with 3 sacks and a 15.8% pressure rate.

On the offensive side, the Raiders pressured Ben Roethlisberger on 31.0% of his dropbacks (his second-highest pressure rate in a game since 2020), per Next Gen Stats (NGS). Big Ben, who has a left pectoral injury, will need better protection moving forward. According to NGS, he already has the lowest time to throw in the NFL at 2.41 seconds.

Bengals QB Joe Burrow threw interceptions on three consecutive pass attempts in Week 2 against the Bears; however, if he takes care of the ball against Pittsburgh, I think the Bengals could pull off the upset against their divisional rival.

2) Travis Kelce vs. Derwin James

In a game filled with superstar talent, including QBs Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert, the best individual matchup of the week could be Chiefs TE Travis Kelce and Chargers S Derwin James. James missed the 2020 season with a torn meniscus, but he had success defending Kelce prior to that. He has twice held Kelce to PFF receiving grades in the 40s, and in Week 1 of the 2018 season, Kelce only had 1 catch for 6 yards against the Chargers. Thus far in 2021, both Kelce and James are the highest-graded players at their positions according to PFF (92.2 for Kelce and 89.9 for James).

3) New Orleans at New England

Head coach Bill Belichick is known for double-teaming the opponent’s best WR or offensive weapon. In this case, look for the Patriots to do everything they can to minimize RB Alvin Kamara’s impact in both the passing game and running game. In Week 2, the Panthers held Kamara to just 5 rushing yards on 8 carries and 4 catches for 25 yards. QB Jameis Winston was actually the Saints’ leading rusher with 19 yards in their 26-7 loss to Carolina.

As for the Saints defense, I think defensive coordinator Dennis Allen should change the spacing of his defense and crowd the line of scrimmage. This will force Patriots QB Mac Jones to push the ball downfield, which he has not done this season. According to PFF, he is 22nd in yards per attempt at 7.0. He is also 31st in average depth of target at 6.2 yards, so he is primarily throwing short passes.

4) Tampa will double-team Aaron Donald

I fully expect the Buccaneers to double team Aaron Donald throughout the game, forcing one of the Rams’ other pass rushers to step up. Either Leonard Floyd or A’Shawn Robinson will have to make a play, which is a daunting task given how well the Buccaneers pass protection has been. Their line has been the best in the NFL with a PFF pass blocking grade of 78.2. In terms of coverage, Jalen Ramsey and Darious Williams are one of the best CB duos in the NFL, but Tampa’s litany of weapons presents a matchup nightmare. Safety Jordan Fuller is a good player but not great in space. Look for Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski to exploit that.

5) Packers and 49ers meet again on SNF

The 49ers have hosted the last three previous meetings with the Packers, and they will do so again this week for Sunday Night Football. Jimmy Garoppolo is 2-0 in his career vs. Green Bay, including a 37-20 victory in the 2019 NFC Championship Game. Last season, however, Nick Mullens started in place of an injured Jimmy G, and the 49ers lost to Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, 34-17. San Francisco had success against Green Bay running the ball; Jimmy G has only thrown for 330 yards in two wins against the Packers. Even with a banged-up backfield, I anticipate Kyle Shanahan will have a balanced offensive attack this Sunday.

Grant Reiter contributed to this story.