Morning After: Jags getting it done
Their offense still looks like as though it could be a problem, but the Jaguars are simply finding ways to win.
See, we told you the Jacksonville Jaguars couldn't keep winning while scoring just one offensive touchdown per game. In their victory at Tennessee on Sunday -- and what an absolutely huge road win for coach Jack Del Rio and his staff -- the Jaguars needed all of two touchdowns to top the Titans, who could be in really big trouble if quarterback Steve McNair misses significant time because of the bruised sternum he sustained late in the game.
Entering the weekend, fifth-year veteran Aaron Stecker had rushed for 443 yards and totaled 695 combined yards from scrimmage in 57 regular-season appearances. Pretty ordinary stuff, right, even though Stecker has been much admired as a solid No. 2 back. But in replacing injured Deuce McAllister for the New Orleans Saints, and in just his third career start, Stecker carried 18 times for 106 yards, and had four receptions for 20 yards, in an overtime victory at St. Louis. Hard-working Stecker bristled afterward at having been labeled a "journeyman," but, hey, he had never rushed for more than 174 yards in a full season. Stecker already has 147 rushing yards this year. Much more important, he perhaps provided the Saints with some confidence that they can compete until their offensive centerpiece returns from his ankle injury.
Comments on the weekend's games from one former NFL pro scouting director and one current AFC scout:
|Heard in the pressbox|
The acid test for Del Rio and his fast-emerging bunch could be next Sunday, when the Jaguars host Indianapolis, which has moved the football with frightening efficiency in its last six quarters. But we're not about to suggest Jacksonville can't defeat the explosive Colts, move to 4-0, and take a two-game lead in the AFC South.
We're still trying to figure out, though, how the Jaguars continue to do it. Quarterback Byron Leftwich hasn't exactly lit it up and remains inconsistent, but he seems to heed every fourth-quarter wake-up call. Tailback Fred Taylor hasn't yet hit stride.
Sure, the run defense is exemplary (we'll take a bow for that training camp feature touting Marcus Stroud and John Henderson as the best young tackle tandem in the NFL), but we keep wondering how Jacksonville continues to cover up what appear to be deficiencies in other areas. This is a team with little pass rush, one that released its two best "edge" threats, Tony Brackens and Hugh Douglas, in camp. The Jags have just three sacks in three games. Their starting ends on Sunday, Rob Meier and rookie Bobby McCray, are both onetime seventh-round draft picks who have four sacks in 70 appearances between them.
The defense has just four takeaways, only one on interceptions, in three contests. One starting cornerback, Dewayne Washington, was all but run out of Pittsburgh, where he frequently resembled some flambé after-dinner treat. Strong safety Donovin Darius, who spent much of the offseason on the trade block, has never been a great cover guy. Can this bunch, so dubious on paper, stanch the mighty Colts and an offense that, with Reggie Wayne having developed into a superb receiver, now has one of the league's truly diverse arsenals?
At this point, we're not going to bet against a team that has surrendered only 28 points in three outings but has found a way to get to 3-0 despite an average differential of just 2.3 points.
We can't even begin to tell you how close we came, when the boss ordered us to file our annual predictions, to choosing the Kansas City Chiefs to go to the Super Bowl. Mostly because we absolutely knew that all our best buddies would once again chastise us for toeing the "chalk" -- translation: picking New England as AFC champions -- we really did agonize over the selection. Nah, taking the Pats over the Chiefs wasn't quite a coin flip. But the choice did provide considerable pause and uncharacteristic deliberation in such matters.
So, man, did we dodge a bullet, huh? This 0-3 start by the Chiefs is enough to make a grown man (OK, we'll let you insert the name of any 67-year-old head coach who leaps to mind) cry a river. In fact, all of that weeping and gnashing of teeth in Barbecue Country is more than the usual alligator tears, that's for sure.
No way the Chiefs could have lost to a Houston team that had been so offensively offensive in the first two weeks of the season, right? But then Texans quarterback David Carr tossed only one "pick" and the Houston staff yanked tailback Domanick Davis (10 carries for 12 yards) before he could put his fifth fumble of the year on the ground, and the expansionists' receivers came up with some huge catches.
And, oh, yeah, Chiefs quarterback Trent Green, who finally shook his funk and threw three touchdown passes, also put one in the hands of Texans free safety Marcus Coleman. A career cornerback until this season, no one had to point Coleman toward the opposite end zone, which is precisely where he arrived 102 yards later. Instead of a two-touchdown edge, which the Chiefs likely would have had if Green had simply handed the ball again to the marvelous Priest Holmes (32 carries for 134 yards on a bum leg), the game was tied at 14-14. And the Chiefs, whose rabid and enviable booster group is known for its bright red blazers, were left with red faces as they fell to 0-3.
Footnote here: Since 1990, just four teams that began a season 0-3 bounced back to earn a playoff berth.
Another footnote: Second-year tailback Larry Johnson, the subject of a ridiculous brouhaha last week, when coach (Weepin') Dick Vermeil noted it was time he advance beyond the diaper stage, dressed for the game but didn't make it onto the field. It marked the 12th time in his 19 games in the NFL that the Chiefs' top pick in the 2003 draft didn't play. Tough to get potty-trained when the coaches won't let you get up onto the commode, isn't it?
Anyway, we've still got some faith (although it is slowly going to embers) the Chiefs possess enough talent to still be around come the playoffs. Then again, take a gander at the schedule, and that could rattle your faith if you are a Chiefs loyalist. Let's face it, K.C. faces no sunshine band of games coming up, and the road back begins in a tough place, at Baltimore next Monday night. Then comes a merciful bye week, following by a game at Jacksonville, then home contests against the Falcons and the Colts. On the last matter, with the Chiefs suddenly vulnerable now at Arrowhead Stadium, the situation is perilous.
Maturity is an underrated commodity in the NFL and we posit two examples here of guys who, through three weeks, seem to have grown up enormously this season. The first is New Orleans left defensive end Charles Grant, a three-year veteran, and former first-round draft choice, who too frequently permitted his emotions to get the better of him in his first two seasons in the league.
The former University of Georgia star has been known in the past to take a cheap shot or two at opposition quarterbacks, has been flagged for at least seven personal fouls in two seasons, and was inconsistent because he could not keep his temper in check. But he had three sacks Sunday in the Saints' overtime victory at St. Louis, has four sacks for the season and looks like a solid Pro Bowl candidate. He kept running around Rams right tackle Grant Williams as if the veteran blocker were a human turnstile and used a variety of moves to keep harassing quarterback Marc Bulger. Grant has always had super intensity, and played with a chip on his shoulder, and he is now beginning to channel those energies into productivity.
The second player we want to note might force you to reach for the nearest chair as your knees buckle, but Randy Moss is definitely outgrowing the me-first ways of his past. OK, we agree, the odds of a pending explosion still might be pretty good, but nothing like they have been in past seasons.
You want some remarkable stats (OK, maybe they're just mediocre numbers, but we crunched 'em and we like 'em) for Moss through three contests? He is averaging just 11.3 yards per reception, pretty pedestrian for a receiver whose previous low came in 2002, at 12.7 yards. Moss has only two receptions for more than 20 yards, just one catch of 40-plus yards. And we have yet to witness a classic Mount Moss eruption. Here's the best stat: Moss has five touchdowns in three games, but his average scoring catch, no joke, is 2.6 yards. He has touchdowns of 3, 1, 4, 3 and 2 yards. At his current pace, Moss would catch 101 balls, for "just" 1,147 yards, but would score 27 touchdowns.
Give credit to the often vocal Moss. He hasn't gone deep very often yet, but hasn't really gone off the deep end, either.
In the spring, a fairly notable periodical conducted a poll of NFL players and, among the many queries was to name the league's "worst" coach. Not the coach for whom you least wanted to play. Not the most difficult guy with whom to deal. Not the biggest martinet, or pain in the butt, around. Not the coach you least respected. Uh-uh, the category was the worst coach, plain and simple. The winner (or maybe loser), in a tally that once again indicated that many NFL players simply don't understand English or don't know much about their own game, was Tom Coughlin.
So c'mon now, guys, really, Coughlin as the worst coach in the league? Get real. The guy is a lot of things -- people in New York are quickly finding out that "winner" is among them -- but there is no way in Hell's Kitchen the guy is the worst coach in the league. Yes, the Giants appeared pretty inept in a season-opening loss at Philadelphia. Agreed, the modest two-game winning streak they have now posted did not come against big-time opponents. But, hey, his team knocked off the much-ballyhooed Washington Redskins and franchise savior Joe Gibbs, didn't it?
The skinny is, folks, Coughlin can coach. And you can bet these last two wins, fashioned at a time when some insurgents were attempting to undermine the new regime, strengthened the belief of Giants ownership and management that he was the right man to come in and lay down the law. Granted, the whole Clock Gate thing was a tad silly, but you know what you are getting with Coughlin and the players understood the rules. Hey, it's just three weeks into the campaign and New York already has half as many victories as it posted for the 2003 season.
No, the Giants aren't going to the playoffs, and they may not even finish at .500 in the first season of the Coughlin Era. But it is a team playing better than some skeptics felt it would, with a quarterback flicking his arthritic thumb at some of the naysayers, and part of Kurt Warner's performance is attributable, at least a little, to some pretty good coaching. Warner has just one touchdown pass in three games. More notable, though, is that he hasn't thrown an interception yet. He once again managed the game, and the offense, pretty nicely in the victory over the depleted Cleveland Browns on Sunday afternoon. Don't you think some antsy folks in the Miami front office now wished they had maybe waited for the Rams to jettison Warner instead of making that silly trade for A.J. Feeley, who had three turnovers Sunday night?
One final thought on the G-men: Kudos to defensive end and intramural manure-stirrer Michael Strahan for his tour de force performance against the Browns -- he collected six tackles, a couple of sacks and two fumble recoveries. Wonder if Strahan, who has bristled at Coughlin's strident manner, has decided to get in line.
Way back in training camp, sitting in the dorm room of Jim Mora, the first-year coach of the Atlanta Falcons allowed that his defense might be skill-challenged in some spots but added that the unit would not lack for aggressiveness. Three weeks into the season, and with the Falcons suddenly at 3-0 after a rather grotesque 6-3 win over Arizona, the rookie coach is looking pretty good.
Kerney, who was wasted in the 3-4 scheme Atlanta had played the past few seasons, has five sacks for the year, and Atlanta has 14 as a team. At this rate, the characteristically sad-sack Falcons would finish the year with 75 sacks. The league record is 72. Pretty good bet, we're thinking, that Atlanta won't top the 1984 Chicago Bears for the record. But the Falcons are playing pretty staunch defense and, on Sunday when Michael Vick proved mortal and kept trying to gift wrap the game for the Cardinals, it was defense that prevailed.
Congrats are in order for ol' friend Clark Judge of CBS SportsLine. What, for the birth of his daughter (and that of his lovely wife Leslie Hammond), Charlotte, two months ago? Well, yeah, since we've been negligent in mentioning it previously. But also for Clark's preseason prediction that this would be the season in which the NFL's most remarkable streak, the San Francisco 49ers' stretch of 420 consecutive games without being shut out, would come to an end with a thud. It happened Sunday in Seattle, where the Niners failed to score for the first time since a 7-0 loss to Atlanta on Oct. 9, 1977. Nice call, Clarkie, nice call. ... Despite a second straight loss, Tennessee second-year tailback Chris Brown continues to demonstrate why the Titans didn't ante up more money to keep Eddie George around. Brown had 101 yards, becoming the first first-time starter to open a season with three 100-yard games since Stump Mitchell in 1981. ... Ravens tailback Jamal Lewis has now played against the Cincinnati defense seven times and has run for 100 yards or more on every occasion. He had 18 rushes for 186 yards and one touchdown Sunday, raising his total to 157 carries for 948 yards and seven scores versus the Bengals. ... As poised as Bengals' first-year starting quarterback Carson Palmer has been, the bottom line is that Cincinnati has zero offensive touchdowns in the past two games. ... You want to talk about making the most of your chances? Philadelphia deep snapper and erstwhile tight end Mike Bartrum scored on a 1-yard catch Sunday. In fact, Bartrum, one of the NFL's best, and best-paid, deep snappers rarely lines up at tight end anymore, but had two receptions for 18 yards. For his career, the 11th-year veteran now has six catches for 32 yards. But the touchdown, his first since 2001, was the fourth of his career. Bartrum's end zone celebration, for anyone who missed it, consisted of, you guessed it, deep-snapping the ball. ... Often-injured cornerback Tom Knight, released by the St. Louis Rams in camp, plans to file an injury grievance against the team. ... The Ravens keep winning despite the uninspiring performances from Kyle Boller. The second-year quarterback had two fumbles Sunday and completed just 11 passes. The Ravens had just one receiver, Randy Hymes, with more than two catches. ... Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper didn't turn the ball over Sunday, but he did have a pair of fumbles, giving him 71 in 61 appearances. ... In case anyone is keeping score, Oakland defensive end Akbar Gbaja-Biamila now leads older brother Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila of Green Bay in sacks, 1-0. ... The Rams' overtime loss to New Orleans snapped a home winning streak of 15 regular-season games. ... Punting in adverse conditions, Chris Gardocki of Pittsburgh had a superb game Sunday night. He posted a 44.8-yard gross average and a 41.5-yard net, had three kicks inside the 20-yard line and no touchbacks. ... Miami has scored just 23 points in three games, is 0-3 for the first time since 1969 and could be making another quarterback switch.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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