NFL Late Games Preview: Players to Watch

Tony Romo's Cowboys and Aaron Rodgers' Packers are among 14 teams preparing to duke it out in the NFL's slate of late games on Sunday. Senior NFL Analyst Ed Thompson takes a look at the players who are hot, and a few who are not, as those teams gear up for Week 3 NFL action.

Sunday Night Matchup: Cowboys (2-0) at Packers (2-0)

Tony Romo: Dallas' offensive leader is currently ranked third in completion percentage at 72.6 percent and in total passing yards with 632. Romo's 10.2 yards per pass attempt is currently second-best in the league, bolstered by his nine 20-plus-yard completions that are matched only by San Diego's Philip Rivers. The Cowboys' offensive line has done a fine job of protecting Romo, as evidenced by the fact that he's the only two-game starter who hasn't been sacked.

Jason WittenHe leads all tight ends with 13 receptions and has three catches for 20-plus yards. He's been a hot target between the Dallas 21- to 50-yard lines, catching more than half of his passes in that area of the field.

Felix JonesThe rookie made the nation take notice during the Cowboys' Monday night game against the Eagles by scurrying for a 98-yard touchdown on a kickoff return. Jones is averaging a league-best 38.1 yards per return on seven kickoffs, with all seven returned for at least 20 yards.

Kevin Burnett The fourth-year linebacker out of Tennessee has made six solo tackles on special teams, nearly half of the Cowboys' 15 coverage tackles during the first two contests.

Aaron Rodgers: The Packers quarterback is no stranger to the Cowboys, having stepped in last year during the regular season for Brett Favre after he was injured early in the game. Rodgers has done an admirable job so far, throwing four touchdown passes, rushing for one and only taking one sack. His 117.8 passer rating is fifth-best in the league. Heading into Sunday night's game, he hasn't thrown an interception.

Greg Jennings: The 5-foot-11, 197-pound Jennings is averaging 23.5 yards per catch while establishing himself as the league leader in receiving yardage with 258 on 11 catches. When the Packers are inside the red zone, keep an eye on Jennings as he's yet to catch a pass once Green Bay gets that close to the goal line.

Aaron KampmanWith 2.5 sacks in his first two games, Kampman will undoubtedly be pinning his ears back in hopes of recording the first sack of the season on Romo.

Charles Woodson: He's defended eight passes and returned one of his two interceptions 41 yards for a score. And both interceptions were made in the opponent's half of the field. That's a fine start to the 2008 season for the 11th-year veteran.

Sunday Afternoon Late Games

Steelers (2-0) at Eagles (1-1)

Willie Parker: With 53 carries already this season, Parker's had more opportunities to roll up yardage than any other running back. Currently ranked third in rushing yards with 243, he trails the league leader, Minnesota's Adrian Peterson, by just 20 yards.

QB Ben Roethlisberger
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Ben Roethlisberger: The Steelers quarterback heads into cross-state rival Philadelphia as the league-leader in completion percentage (76.5) and passer rating (133.5).

James Harrison:  With 13 tackles, three sacks and a forced fumble already this season, offenses have to be aware of Harrison's presence on every snap.

Troy Polamalu: He's off to a good start in 2008 with seven tackles, five passes defended and a pair of interceptions.

Donovan McNabb: Currently second in the league with 642 passing yards, McNabb is mobile in the pocket, throwing well and dangerous once again. He's thrown four touchdown passes and no interceptions.

DeSean Jackson: Currently fourth in receiving yards with 216, Jackson has emerged as a deep threat, catching four balls already for 20-plus yards. He would have scored his first touchdown of his NFL career last week if he had waited until he had actually crossed the goal line to dispose of the football. It's unlikely that the talented rookie will make that mistake again after watching the game film this week. Jackson is also contributing well on special teams, averaging 10.9 yards per punt return.

Steve Rocca: The Eagles punter is second in the league in net punting average at 44.6 yards per punt. He's placed three of his seven punts inside the opponent's 20-yard line.

Asante Samuel:  He nabbed his second interception as an Eagle on Monday night against the Cowboys. The former Patriot has also been credited with four passes defended during his first two games.

Saints (1-1) at Broncos (2-0)

Tracy PorterThe scrappy rookie out of Indiana is third on the team in tackles (12) and has been credited for two passes defended. Even though he got burned by Santana Moss last weekend for a 67-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter, his coverage skills overall have been sound. And his speed and field smarts have been a welcome addition to a Saints secondary that needed an infusion of talent. 

LB Jonathan Vilma
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Jonathan VilmaHis comeback from a devastating knee injury should serve as inspiration to others who are trying facing a long road to recovery from their injuries. Vilma currently leads the NFL with 25 tackles.

Drew Brees: With four touchdown passes, Brees is tied for fourth-place in the league in that category, but his three interceptions puts him near the bottom of the pack. But his 69.2 percent completion rate has helped keep the Saints offense rolling, and his 96.9 passer rating is 11th-best in the NFL. 

Reggie Bush: While his rushing results have once again been mediocre, Bush has been a legitimate threat as a receiver, averaging 11.7 yards per catch on his 15 receptions in 2008. But the Saints really need him to become a pro running back at some point. 

Jay Cutler:  After just two games, the Broncos QB has already completed 52 passes for a league-leading 650 yards. His six touchdowns against just one interception shows how much Cutler has matured since last season (20 touchdowns, 14 interceptions).  Just as impressive is his consistency, completing 70.8 percent of his passes in the first half of play and 69.2 percent in the second half. One oddity is that during their first two games, the Broncos have thrown a total of just seven passes in the third quarter.

Brandon Marshall: Denver's top wide receiver hauled in 18 catches in his first game of the 2008 season last weekend after serving a one-game suspension for bad behavior off the field. That's more receptions than any other NFL receiver caught in two games this year. If the Saints put too many defenders on Marshall this week, it will open up opportunities for rookie Eddie Royal and veteran Brandon Stokley. Pick your poison, New Orleans.

Eddie Royal: While everyone was being wowed by Marshall's top-notch performance, the Broncos rookie pushed his two-game total to 14 catches for a team-best 183 yards, including two scores. 

Nate Webster: In his ninth NFL season, outside linebacker Nate Webster is on a roll, leading Denver with 14 tackles, ten of them solo.

Jaguars (0-2) at Colts (1-1)

Fred Taylor: There's been nowhere to run and nowhere for Taylor to hide behind a patchwork offensive line. His 2.91 yards per carry puts him in a tie for 38th in the league. Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew have to hope that the absence of Bob Sanders will make their jobs a bit easier this weekend, providing they find a hole to run through at the line of scrimmage from time to time.

QB David Garrard
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David GarrardThe Jaguars' quarterback has already been sacked nine times in his first two games behind his injury-riddled line. And things don't get easier for him this week as he faces the rush and wrath of Indy's speedy defensive ends, Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis.

Brian Witherspoon: The rookie out of Stillman College has averaged 34.8 yards per return, with all six of his returns going for at least 20 yards.

Josh Scobee: Out of the NFL's kickers with at least eight kickoffs, Scobee has come up short during the first two games, averaging just 54.1 yards per kickoff and no touchbacks. In both 2005 and 2006, Scobee forced at least 20 touchbacks.

Peyton Manning: Without any running game behind a badly banged-up offensive line, Manning has been forced to throw more pass attempts (91) than any other quarterback in the league. Fortunately for Indy, Manning has completed a league-best 56 passes for a fifth-best 284.0 yards per game. But the Colts have only scored two touchdowns through the air, and Manning's been picked-off twice. He's kept the chains moving for Indy with 30 passing first downs, putting him in a tie for first place in that category. But his passer rating of 77.5 is very un-Manning-like, placing him 19th out of the league's 32 starters.

Reggie Wayne:  Wayne used to be referred to as the Colts' "1B" receiver rather than their No. 2 receiver behind Marvin Harrison out of respect for his level of play. But after Wayne caught 104 passes during an impressive 2007 season, and in light of his current team-leading 15 catches &mdash including a pair of touchdowns &mdash it appears that the torch has been passed in Indy. Harrison has nine catches so far for just 92 yards and none for 20-plus yards this season. The Colts have been creative with Wayne this season, moving him to the slot at times and taking advantage of his more physical style of play.

Anthony Gonzalez: The second-year player out of Ohio State has pulled in 14 catches already, including 11 that resulted in a first down. Averaging 13.2 yards per catch, Gonzalez is showing great quickness and precision in his route-running.

Freddy Keiaho:  The Colts weak-side linebacker is healthy and playing faster than ever. He leads the Colts' defense with 20 tackles (15 solo).

Browns (0-2) at Ravens (1-0)

Derek Anderson: What's happened to Derek Anderson and the Browns? After leading his team from the brink of disaster early in the year to a playoff contender, the Browns QB is off to a slow start with a 51.8 percent completion percentage, just one TD pass and a pair of interceptions. His 57.1 passer rating is 29th in the league.

LB D'Qwell Jackson
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D'Qwell Jackson:  The inside linebacker made 101 tackles last season and currently leads the Browns with 18 after two contests, including 12 solo tackles. 

Kellen Winslow:  He's caught a team-leading 12 passes, but has just 102 yards to show for it. Winslow hasn't grabbed a 20-yards-plus pass yet this season, but he has scored the team's only offensive touchdown.

Dave Zastudil:  The Browns' punter has a net punting average of 43.9 yards, third-best in the league.

Joe FlaccoIt's undeniable that the Ravens' rookie quarterback has the arm strength to play in this league, but does he have the accuracy and consistency to succeed? It's way too early to tell, but two of Flacco's top four receivers in Week 1 were running backs, and he didn't complete a pass for more than a 15-yard gain. But it'll be interesting to watch the rookie develop as he strives to get his timing down and his spirals on target. Right now, it's tough to tell whether the Ravens finally have their franchise quarterback of the future or the next Jeff George &mdash a naturally-gifted thrower who will periodically wow the fans with some amazing throws, only to befuddle them with missed opportunities and inconsistency. 

Le'Ron McClainDuring his rookie season, the former Alabama power-back only got to run the ball eight times and averaged 2.3 yards per carry. But with Willis McGahee sidelined during Week 1, he averaged 4.5 yards per carry splitting reps with rookie Ray Rice, another runner who isn't easily knocked off his feet. While the rookie only averaged 2.9 yards per carry in his NFL debut, he's playing with confidence and has developed nicely since the start of training camp. This week, Willis McGahee, who has recovered from a knee injury, is expected to join the attack against the Browns, adding a quicker, more experienced and agile back to the mix.

Sam Koch: If he can keep up the net punting average of 46.0 yards per punt that he posted in the Ravens' opener, Koch should be made an honorary member of the Ravens defense.

Lions (0-2) at 49ers (1-1)

Kevin Smith: The rookie running back is averaging just 3.4 yards per carry after two games, but he's only averaging 13 carries per game since Detroit has been forced to play catch-up through the air. We won't get a real look at what Smith has under his hood until he gets a couple of games where he can carry the ball 20-plus times.

DE Dewayne White
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Dewayne White:  The sixth-year defensive end has tallied a pair of sacks, and he's the only Lions defender to drop the opponents' quarterback during the first two games.

Jon Kitna: The Lions' passing game has struggled with Kitna being sacked eight times and throwing a league-worst four interceptions. He has thrown for 538 yards, the eighth highest total in the league, but his passer rating is a mediocre 17th-best at 78.6.

Calvin Johnson: The best news out of Detroit these days is that it appears that Calvin Johnson won't suffer a sophomore slump. Boasting an 18.2 yards per catch, Johnson's 236 total receiving yards is second-best in the NFL. He's caught two TD passes and has a league-leading five catches of 20-plus yards.

Patrick Willis:  After storming onto the NFL scene as a rookie with 135 tackles and four sacks, linebacker Patrick Willis is proving that it wasn't a fluke. He's leading the 49ers defense with 13 tackles, three passes defended and an interception that he returned for a touchdown.

Frank Gore:  The bruising running back is averaging 4.8 yards per carry, but didn't have a strong showing in Week 2 against the Seahawks, averaging just 3.2 yards per rush. But he's scored twice and continues to be a factor in the passing game with nine catches during the first two weeks.

J.T. O'Sullivan: I still can't figure out what to make of Sullivan outside of the fact that he's a dramatic improvement over Alex Smith. He's completed 65.4 percent of his passes and has only thrown one interception. But he's been battered while taking 12 sacks for a loss of 61 yards and has just one touchdown pass. Are the 49ers better off with him behind center? Absolutely. Is he their quarterback of the future? Maybe not.

Isaac Bruce Even though he has just four catches, they're the kind that make defenders nervous. Bruce is averaging 38.3 yards per reception, giving O'Sullivan an experienced deep-ball threat that the 49ers desperately need to keep opponents from crowding the line of scrimmage. 

Rams (0-2) at Seahawks (0-2)

Marc Bulger: The Rams quarterback has problems of his own to deal with as he's taking a beating yet again this season, suffering ten sacks in his first two contests. He's thrown one touchdown pass and one interception while completing 58.6 percent of his passes.

RB Steven Jackson
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Steven Jackson: Did his holdout for a new deal end up hurting Jackson and his team? In the early going, it would appear so. The usually bullish Jackson hasn't broken a run for longer than 15 yards, and is sporting a lackluster 3.4 yards per carry. He has been valuable in the passing game, grabbing ten passes for 71 yards, but the Rams need more help from the fifth-year player on the ground if they're going to have more success in the passing game.

Josh Brown: He's the only kicker to convert a pair of 50-plus-yard field goals this year, hitting both of his attempts.

James Hall:  The ninth-year defensive end leads the team in tackles with 16 (13 solo). That's more than double his 3.5 average during his 15 starts last season.

Matt HasselbeckWith so many injuries to his receiving corps, Hasselbeck is struggling to get his timing down with his receivers. Although he's attempted 77 passes during the first two weeks of action — the second-highest total in the league — his completion average of 45.5 percent is the lowest among NFL starters.  

Jon Ryan:  After the season opener, Seattle booted Ryan Plackemeier when he posted a net average of just 30 yards on 11 punts against the Bills. They replaced him with Ryan, a two-year punter for Green Bay, who had a punt blocked in his debut as a Seahawk, finishing the day with a 24.3 net average.

Patrick Kerney: The Seahawks' 10-year veteran is providing a welcome sense of consistency on defense while his team's offense is reeling. Kerney is once again terrorizing quarterbacks, notching three sacks over the past two weeks.

John Carlson: The rookie tight end out of Notre Dame has been Hasselbeck's safety net and one of the few bright spots on the offensive side of the ball, catching ten passes for 130 yards so far. 

A member of the Pro Football Writers of America, Ed Thompson's player interviews and NFL features are published across the network and at You can contact him by email through this link. Top Stories