Defensive scoring up this season
The Lions may have overspent in acquiring CB Dre' Bly, but his penchant for scoring makes him a valuable commodity.
When the Detroit Lions signed unrestricted free agent cornerback Dre' Bly to a five-year, $25.5 million contract this spring, salary cap managers around the NFL gasped and some general managers mumbled a string of obscenities under their breath.
And, by extension, another dubious move by Lions team president Matt Millen.
Seven months after the deal, the monetary ramifications of the Bly contract still remain a subject of debate around the league, but no one can question the wisdom of adding to the Lions secondary a player who is certainly in step with one of the NFL's most burgeoning trends -- defensive players scoring touchdowns.
Ever since his freshman season at North Carolina, where he established the ACC record for career interceptions before departing to the professional ranks, Bly has known what to do with a football when it lands in his hands.
"I've never felt like (offensive players) were the only ones on the field allowed to score," said Bly. "There's nothing in the rules that says defenses can't score touchdowns. I have always been a big-play guy. I mean, that's just my nature, you know?"
One of the few bright lights in Detroit in another dismal season, Bly has already scored two times this season, once on an interception return and last Sunday on a 67-yard fumble runback. Of his 18 career interceptions, Bly has brought four back for touchdowns, all on returns of 48 yards or longer. No one can deny that Bly knows the way to the end zone.
Through seven weeks of this season, even though defensive scoring hasn't received as much attention as it has merited, defensive players certainly are following Bly to paydirt. It's as if there has been a Pied Piper turned loose on defensive units leaguewide, and he is magically leading a parade of non-offensive touchdowns, and at a record pace.
There is no shortage of irony here, since special teams scores have been so universally highlighted in 2003, despite the fact kickoff and punt return touchdowns are well below the 10-year average for this juncture of the season. But if the number of defensive scores continues at the current pace, it's going to be hard to ignore the rate of turnovers, and the fact so many are being turned into touchdowns.
It's hardly a classic in-line skirmish, or the individual matchup of a speed-rushing defensive end against a technically proficient pass protector, but one encounter to watch Sunday is the battle between Denver center Tom Nalen and Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis. It stands to reason that, with their top two quarterbacks out of the contest with injuries, the Broncos will have to rely even more on slashing tailback Clinton Portis and the running attack, in an effort to insulate Danny Kanell. So that means Nalen and Lewis will be swappin' plenty of helmet paint in their collisions. Nalen is a multiple Pro Bowl performer, a player with great methods, a blocker well-schooled in the chop techniques Denver has employed for years. But if the Broncos get too one-dimensional, and ignore the passing game, this could be one of those 20-tackle games for Lewis.
With a game against the similarly-woeful Chicago Bears on Sunday afternoon, at the refurbished Soldier Field, the Detroit Lions have a chance to snap their ugly 19-game road losing streak. Only four teams in league history have lost as many, or more, road games in succession. Here's the list: Team Years Losses
Oilers '81-84 23
Bills '83-86 22
Bucs '83-85 19
Falcons '88-91 19
Stat of the Week
He may be on the endangered species list but, of the 14 current NFL head coaches who have coached at least 80 regular-season games, an embattled Jim Fassel of the New York Giants is the only one who has never experienced a four-game losing streak. The team is in the midst of its seventh three-game losing streak since Fassel arrived in 1997. The odds of halting the skid Sunday aren't good, since the injury-ravaged Giants face the Vikings at the Metrodome.
Stat of the Weak
Six weeks ago, quarterback Danny Kanell was at home in Florida, working out with his high school alma mater's football team. On Sunday, he becomes the third different starter for the Denver Broncos this season, when the team plays at Baltimore. Kanell has just 22 career starts. But that's still five more than the combined starts of the entire Ravens quarterback contingent of Kyle Boller, Chris Redman and Anthony Wright.
The Last Word
There were 46 interceptions returned for touchdowns in 2002 and 24 fumble returns that resulted in scores. Since 1990, the average number of interception returns for touchdowns is 50. The average for combined scores via takeaway in that stretch is 79.3 and the league is on pace for 103 in 2003.
"Coaches have always preached about (defensive) scoring," said Patriots cornerback Ty Law, who has one of three New England touchdowns on interception returns. "It just seems like more players have that big-play mentality now. The message has sunk in. You get a 'pick' and head for the end zone. Everybody wants a piece of the action now."
Notable is that 8.6 percent of the 477 touchdowns scored in 2003 have been by either an interception or fumble return. That is the highest ratio, to this point in the campaign, since the 1995 season.
The Patriots have four scores on takeaways and four teams have three touchdowns on either interception or fumble returns. Just nine defenses have failed to score a touchdown off a takeaway. Not surprisingly, those nine teams have a combined record of 18-38. The only team among that group with a winning record is Carolina.
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Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.