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.

Updated: September 28, 2004, 10:58 AM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

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.

Game ball
Stecker
Stecker
Aaron Stecker, Saints RB
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.
Scout's take
Comments on the weekend's games from one former NFL pro scouting director and one current AFC scout:

  • Wilson
    Wilson
    "Looks like there are two really good rookie strong safeties in New York. (Erik) Coleman has been terrific for the Jets, but I got a chance to watch the Giants on Sunday, and really liked what I saw of that Gibril Wilson kid, who filled in for (Shaun) Williams. He had a 'pick,' played real aggressively and was in on a bunch of tackles (eight). He looked like a steal for a guy who, like Coleman, was picked in the fifth (round)."

  • "I know someone mentioned this to you last week, but I'm starting to wonder what's going on with (running back T.J.) Duckett in Atlanta. He dressed but didn't play on Sunday, and he isn't getting many touches (12 in three games) at all. (Warrick) Dunn has the ball a lot more (with 56 "touches" so far) than I thought he would. But, hey, he's playing well in that offense. The only thing is, and I think their coaches are aware of it, you don't want to wear Dunn down physically, and have him fade on you in December, you know?"

  • "I know the strategy behind it, but, I'm telling you, I always hated those squib kicks at the end of the game. And damned if one didn't come back to haunt St. Louis on Sunday. They score late on a (Marc) Bulger touchdown, with something like 25 seconds left (actually 28), then use the stupid squib kick and the Saints return it to their own 42-yard line. All of a sudden New Orleans kicks a field goal to send the game into overtime and the Rams lose. Geez, you practice kickoff coverage all week. Kick the damn thing long and go down and cover it!"

  • "I still think Seattle has holes on defense, but (coordinator) Ray Rhodes has done a very good job in getting that bunch to play a lot sounder football."

  • "Man, that Roy Williams (Detroit rookie wide receiver and first-round pick) is the real deal. Hey, I loved Larry Fitzgerald coming out, and still do, but Williams might be one of the best young wide receivers to come into the league in a long time. Great explosiveness in and out of his cuts, very fluid, and has flypaper for hands. The guy is an incredible acrobat, and has absolutely great feet."

  • "How about somebody explaining to (Jeremy) Shockey that the Giants are using him at H-back in some sets to help him get better matchups. For a player who has been pretty fragile so far in his career, you'd think he would welcome the chance to avoid all that in-line (traffic)."

  • "The big controversy with the officiating this year was supposed to revolve around the emphasis on the 'jam' rule, right? Well, from what I see, the bigger stink ought to be on these guys calling touchdowns on plays that clearly are not touchdowns. It looked like they made a big mistake on a Terrell Owens (score) last Monday night. And then (on Sunday), they give Tiki Barber a touchdown on a play where he clearly is out of bounds before he gets in the end zone. Of course, shame on the (opposition) coaches for not (requesting a replay) in both cases."

  • "I know Chicago lost at Minnesota, but I keep being impressed by (tailback) Thomas Jones and how hard the guy runs. I mean, how did he suddenly become such a good player after being such a first-round bust his first three seasons? And I also like the (moxie) of Bears quarterback Rex Grossman, although I don't know how bad he injured his knee. That kid might never have great numbers, but he competes, and he's going to win games for them."

  • Nice call, and nice timing, with your story about (Colts wide receiver) Reggie Wayne last week. It's about time you got one right. He is having a real breakout season.
  • Heard in the pressbox
    Couch
    Couch
    Green Bay officials still have not received the injury grievance that ESPN.com reported quarterback Tim Couch filed against the club last week. Could be that the paperwork is not yet completed. But the Packers are curious as to the grounds of the grievance, since they say Couch insisted in camp that his arm was only sore, not injured, and never requested an MRI exam. ... Indianapolis coaches are thrilled with the play of a pair of offensive linemen chosen in the 2001 draft. Former guard Ryan Diem (No. 4) has emerged as a very solid right tackle. At left guard, Rick Demulling (No. 7) is also playing at a very high level. ... The Kansas City Chiefs tried hard last week to deal second-year tailback Larry Johnson, even though they were uncertain about the physical status of Priest Holmes. The Chiefs got basically no nibbles for their 2003 first-rounder, a player coach Dick Vermeil really didn't want to choose last season. ... Coordinator Larry Coyer is doing a nice job in Denver and is getting more than most people felt he would from some aging defensive linemen. The venerable Marco Coleman, for instance, had nine tackles Sunday. ... The lopsided loss to Philadelphia aside, Detroit is going to be a good team even quicker than most observers think. ... With Isaac Bruce nearly 32 years of age (in November), and holding a fat contract, you wonder how much longer he will be around in St. Louis. But the veteran wideout is playing great so far this year and posted a third straight 100-yard game Sunday. Over the last few years, he has fallen behind teammate Torry Holt, but he has come back strong so far this season.
    OK, so we're growing increasingly close to convert status when it comes to the Jags, who are 3-0 despite scoring just four touchdowns. We readily acknowledged in training camp that, yeah, this was an improving team on the rise, but one that was probably still a year away from being a viable playoff contender. But here we are, three weeks into the season and with just four 3-0 teams, and Jacksonville is among that elite subset now, thanks to another last-minute win. These new Kardiac Kids keep it up and we're going to have to grudgingly credit ol' friend Peter King of Sports Illustrated for being first aboard the Jaguars bandwagon (we think he relented since picking the Jaguars to go to the Super Bowl back in the spring), in contending that Jacksonville could be the first franchise to play a Roman-numeraled NFL title game in its home stadium. Going into the weekend, we admittedly were among the skeptics who still felt the Jags were more pretender than contender. But you whip the Titans in their home park, where they are exceedingly difficult to beat, and people (even us) take notice.

    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.

    Kansas City barbecued

    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 matters

    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.

    Coughlin can coach

    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.

    It's the defense

    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.

    Patrick Kerney
    Defensive End
    Atlanta Falcons
    Profile
    2004 SEASON STATISTICS
    Tot Ast Solo FF Sack Int
    15 14 1 0 5 0
    Mora and defensive coordinator Ed Donatell have done a very nice job to date as the Falcons are off to their best start since '86. Yeah, so the latest win was against the offensively inept Cardinals, who have only two touchdowns in three games, a dismal reality that must be driving Denny Green bonkers. So what? In years past, Sunday's game was one the Falcons would have found a way to lose, and, indeed, they sure kept looking. But end Patrick Kerney and "under" tackle Rod Coleman paired up for five of Atlanta's six sacks.

    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.

    Punts:

    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.