Morning After: Defensive points
Defenses got into the scoring action Sunday, and all six franchises that scored on defense won.
After three weeks of basically hiding out on the side of a milk carton, the defensive touchdown was back in vogue on Sunday, with three interceptions returned for scores and three fumbles also run back into the end zone. Uh, hey, guys, it was about time. Through the first three weekends of regular-season play, there were only 11 defensive touchdowns (six via interception and five on fumbles), far below the pace set a year ago. Heading into the Kansas City-Baltimore matchup on Monday night, the four-week defensive scoring is still behind the '03 mark of 22 touchdowns via interception (18) or fumble (four) returns, but maybe Sunday will serve as a catalyst for aggressive, ball-hawking defenders to start taking it "to the house" again with some degree of regularity.
Sure, he's got a ton of game balls, but this might be the last time Emmitt Smith gets a chance for another one. In his best performance since Thanksgiving Day 2002, the NFL's career rushing leader slashed his way to 127 yards on 21 carries Sunday, contributing in a huge way to the Arizona Cardinals' first victory of the season and the first for head coach Denny Green with his new club. The game marked the 77th time Smith has gone over the century mark, tying him with Walter Payton for the most in NFL history. There aren't many 35-year-old tailbacks, folks, who rack up 100 yards. And to top off the day, on the first aerial attempt of his storied career, Smith connected with Obafemi Ayanbadejo on a 21-yard touchdown pass.
Comments on the weekend's games from one NFL scouting director, one AFC scout and one former league scout:
|Heard in the pressbox|
The Cowboys signed tight end Mikhael Ricks last week to replace injured Dan Campbell, but he has always been more blocker than receiver, and won't really give coach Bill Parcells the same element. So look for the Cowboys to add yet another tight end to the roster this week, someone who is a better blocker, a guy with some in-line toughness. The name we're hearing is Brett Pierce, who is currently on the Baltimore practice squad but could move to the Dallas active roster. The former Stanford star, who started 26 games and had 38 catches for 391 yards and three touchdowns, was signed by the Ravens as an undrafted free agent in the spring. He's a solid blocker who, at 6 feet 5 and 252 pounds, could help the Dallas running game a bit. ...
Just in case you're missing the trend here, we'll bludgeon you over the head with it: All six franchises that scored on defense Sunday won their respective games. All six defensive scores either broke open the games in which they occurred or helped to secure the victory. "It's a backbreaker," said Miami quarterback Jay Fiedler, speaking in general terms of defensive returns for touchdowns. "It's one of the worst (momentum) swings you can have, really." Fiedler could, of course, address the issue from firsthand experience on Sunday, since Abraham's 66-yard theft-and-run was the signature play in a victory that permitted the Jets to go to 3-0 for just the third time in club history. The nine-year veteran corner made a perfect read on Fiedler's pass attempt for fullback Rob Konrad in the right flat, jumping the pattern, making the "pick" and then racing down the sideline.
So why haven't we witnessed more of those kinds of electrifying defensive plays in the first month of the 2004 campaign? In part because, while coordinators have been blitz-crazy in the opening four weeks, that mode of aggression has not carried over much to the defenders in the "back end," where cornerbacks in particular have been way too cautious. Three veteran corners to whom we spoke last week suggested the new emphasis on illegal contact has turned some secondary players timid. Noted one cornerback: "Let's just say some guys have become (sissies). And the coaches haven't helped a lot, either, to tell you the truth."
But, apparently, the defensive backfield fraternity must have dispatched a memo to all loyal and dues-paying brothers before this weekend's slate of games. For the first time all season, judging from the replays, defensive backs were gamblin' and ramblin'. And it was nice to see. Last year, there was clearly a scoring mind-set among defensive players and everyone wanted to get into the touchdown act. Maybe that philosophy was rekindled some on Sunday. Through four weeks, defenses are suddenly on pace to notch 74 touchdowns. That is just a tick below the 77 defensive scores of a year ago. But the pace for interception scores is currently only 39, far below the 58 interception runbacks for touchdowns in 2003.
The fumble runbacks this season, it should be noted in fairness, are up dramatically. At the current pace, there would be 35 fumble runbacks for scores, nearly double the 19 from the '03 season. In that vein, maybe the neatest score of Sunday came from Seymour, who scooped up a fumble forced by linebacker Tedy Bruschi and lumbered (there really is no other verb that so precisely described it) to his first-ever touchdown. "I thought that I was going to die," Seymour said of the touchdown that clinched the Patriots' record 18th win in a row.
One more note on the turnover touchdowns: The Dolphins quarterbacks have now thrown more touchdown passes to the opposition than to their own receivers.
Yeah, we know, we doth gush a little too much about Peyton Manning in this spot at times. So, yes, guilty as charged. But guess what? We're probably not going to stop any time soon. The latest object of our admiration for the Indianapolis Colts star is one that has been cited several times during his career, and that is his ballhandling acumen. But let's give it a bit of a twist because, while everyone else writes about Manning's brilliant play-action fakes in the Colts' passing game, we think his legerdemain contributes mightily to the Indy running attack, as well.
There was perhaps no better example of that than on Sunday, as the Colts gashed what is maybe the NFL's best defense against the run to the tune of 117 yards. Now that might not sound like much real estate pounded out by the Colts runners, unless one considers the Jacksonville Jaguars entered the critical AFC South showdown with a reputation for jamming up everything between the tackles. And, in a sense, therein lies the key. Much of Indianapolis' ground yardage came on the staple running play of the Tom Moore-designed offense, the "stretch" play. It is a play, always run well by Edgerrin James, that does just what it suggests: It stretches a defense horizontally and permits James to find the soft spot in the front seven, then turn decisively up the field.
So what does Manning's sleight of hand have to do with the success of the "stretch" play, you say? Well, because Manning sets up the play by running so much of the Indianapolis passing paradigm off action similar to the "stretch" run. "He just has the ability to freeze you," said Jacksonville middle linebacker and former Colts standout Mike Peterson. "I mean, I've seen it for years, and it's still hard for me to tell if he has the ball in his hands or if he has given it to 'Edge.' That split second of hesitation he plants in your mind makes a big difference."
In fact, it made a huge difference in the Colts' game-winning, 74-yard touchdown drive. Indianapolis ran eight times in the 13-play march, and 25 of the 36 rushing yards on the possession came on the "stretch" play. Unofficially, nearly two-thirds of James' game-high 83 yards came on the signature running play, and most of that was set up by the illusion Manning creates. A great master of detail, the Colts quarterback really has revived a lost art with his ballhandling skills. Manning has closely watched video of some of the game's best play-faking quarterbacks -- Boomer Esiason, Steve DeBerg, Dave Krieg -- and he is now clearly in their league.
By the way, the play-fakes have served Manning pretty nicely in the passing game, too, of late. In the last two games, both of which we covered and charted, Manning completed 24 of 35 passes off of play-action, for 355 yards, with five touchdown passes and one interception. It is a skill, the play-fake, that other quarterbacks in the NFL just ignore. But when Manning is just dangling the ball out there, teasing and tempting the defense as if the pigskin were some kind of carrot on a stick, it's tough for the opposition not to bite.
Congratulations to the Houston Texans organization, and in particular to general manager Charley Casserly and head coach Dom Capers, for finally cobbling together the franchise's first two-game winning streak. It took 36 games, the longest ever for a modern era expansion franchise to achieve back-to-back wins, but they've got to be feeling a tad better about themselves in Houston right about now.
Uh, yes, we know that this means quarterback David Carr can now get a haircut after about 12 months of letting his onetime buzzed 'do grow out like a rat's nest. That angle has been overplayed so, with that scant mention of things coiffure-related, let's bury it.
More interesting to us than what figures to be the most scrutinized shearing since Delilah took the scissors to Samson's potent locks was the manner in which Capers and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio got back to their blitzing roots. We have been a bit critical in this space over the lack of a Texans pass rush, particularly considering that the Capers 3-4 blueprint had historically been one that "schemed up" sack opportunities. Well, from the get-go on Sunday, the Texans were out to get Oakland quarterback Kerry Collins by going after him more aggressively.
The upshot: Collins, taking over for the injured Rich Gannon, tossed up three interceptions (including a pair to Houston first-round cornerback Dunta Robinson) and also lost a pair of fumbles. The last four Oakland offensive series of the game, in fact, concluded in turnovers.
So while they are celebrating the modest two-game winning streak down in Houston, we're celebrating the return of the blitz to the Texans' defense. And, maybe, the return of Jonathan Wells to the starting lineup on a regular basis. The team's starter in his rookie year, and Houston's inaugural season, Wells lost his job to Domanick Davis in '03. But with Davis nursing a sprained ankle, and having fumbled four times in the first three games, Wells got a start Sunday and powered his way for 105 yards. Wells isn't as physically gifted a back as Davis, but he dusted off the cobwebs some last week when the Houston starter was injured, then dusted the Oakland defense Sunday afternoon.
In our heart of hearts, we could feel it coming, honest. So when the franchise that arguably handles prosperity worse than any other in the league laid an egg in the Arizona desert on Sunday afternoon, we weren't altogether shocked. With a chance to go to 3-1, and pretty much narrow the NFC South chase to themselves and the archrival Atlanta Falcons, the New Orleans Saints authored a pretty predictable pratfall.
And so we are now making it official: We love the Saints' talent, we like their front office and coaching staff, but we are permanently off the bandwagon. If tradition holds true, that means the Saints will probably rip off about an eight-game winning streak, but even that feat would not be sufficient to get us back on board. The NFL team in New Orleans, let's face it, is an even bigger tease than the ladies who do the stroll on Bourban Street. Fool us 101 times and shame on you. Fool us 102 times and, well, you know. There can be no viable excuse from New Orleans players for what transpired in Sun Devil Stadium.
On the flip side, congrats to coach Denny Green on his first victory with the Cardinals, and to Emmitt Smith for his first career pass attempt, which went for a touchdown.
Our final thought on the Saints: That was a lot of manure quarterback Aaron Brooks was shoveling when he cryptically suggested that he was sick of his team's inconsistency and that changes might have to be made. He was certainly right about the last part. Maybe it's time the Saints brass, which has been flirting with the idea of a contract extension for Brooks, tries to find a better option at the position once this season ends.
Just a suggestion but, if the Kansas City Chiefs want to have a chance at Baltimore in the Monday night game, they need a Priest, or at least more of him. It's often forgotten that, in 1999, a year before Jamal Lewis arrived on the scene, Priest Holmes salvaged the Ravens' running game by rushing for 1,000-plus yards. When the Ravens chose Lewis, they didn't try to keep Holmes around, and he signed with the Chiefs almost as a free agency afterthought.
The point is that the prideful Holmes, a real warrior, is apt to be pretty passionate about the prime-time matchup with his former employers. Much has been made of the perception Holmes isn't getting as many "touches" from scrimmage this season. In truth, he has more rushes this season through three games (74 for 351 yards) than he did at the same point in the '03 campaign (62 carries for 296 yards). Where the Chiefs perhaps haven't gotten Holmes the ball nearly enough is in the passing game. He has only five receptions this year for 14 yards, with a long catch of just 6 yards. This time a year ago, Holmes had 13 catches for 171 yards.
Much of the thrust of the Chiefs' passing game in recent seasons, when the wide receivers were just about as invisible as they are now, was getting the ball to Holmes in the flat. He is a splendid receiver, a guy who can make the first defender miss when out in space and turn a swing pass into a long gain. Time to get back to that formula, it seems, if the Chiefs are going to get back to the business of winning.
Oakland kicker Sebastian Janikowski missed a 35-yard field goal try Sunday. Remarkably, he had converted 40 straight kicks from inside 45 yards. ... Indianapolis kicker Mike Vanderjagt suffered a strained groin in Sunday's game and, at one point, was replaced on kickoffs by punter Hunter Smith. Had the Colts needed to try a field goal from more than about 35 yards, it is doubtful Vanderjagt could have done it. Indy may have to sign another place kicker this week as insurance. ... Philadelphia defensive end Derrick Burgess notched a sack Sunday. If that doesn't seem like much, consider this: It was his first full sack since his '01 rookie season. Burgess played in just one game in 2002-03 because of foot injuries that nearly ended his career. He had a half-sack earlier this season, but got an individual quarterback kill in the victory over the Bears. ... In his emotional return to Tampa Bay, where he played 11 seasons before being cut, Denver strong safety John Lynch had seven tackles in the win over the Bucs. ... Although the Jaguars chose not to make any hasty pronouncements on the knee injury suffered by Mike Pearson, the starting left tackle is done for the year with at least one torn ligament. That means veteran Ephraim Salaam, the former Atlanta and Denver starter signed in the spring as an insurance policy, becomes the starter. ... Texans linebacker Jamie Sharper had a standout performance Sunday with 10 tackles, one sack, a forced fumble and a 16-yard touchdown return of a recovered fumble. ... Miami cornerback Patrick Surtain on the team's miserable 0-4 start: "Things aren't going how we expected them to go, and 0-4 around here is taboo. If we don't stand together, we might as well give our helmets to the United Way." ... Pittsburgh tailback Jerome Bettis now has 18 carries for just 22 yards, but five rushing touchdowns. His scores, after notching two more touchdowns Sunday, are for 1, 1, 1, 2 and 1 yards. Bettis' longest carry of the season is for 7 yards. Of his 18 rushes, 11 are for 1 yard or less. ... The new coaches have a combined record of 12-15 so far, and Jim Mora (Atlanta) and Tom Coughlin (New York Giants) have seven of the wins between them. ... Falcons defensive end Patrick Kerney had two more sacks Sunday, giving him a league-high seven through four games. The Falcons, by the way, are 4-0 for the first time since 1986. ... New England quarterback Tom Brady now has at least two touchdown passes in nine straight road games. ... Tampa Bay has lost 10 of its last 13 games. ... Filling in for injured Steve McNair (sternum), Billy Volek completed 39 passes for Tennessee but averaged just 7.1 yards per completion.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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