Colts winning with defense
The offense still isn't clicking, but the Colts are undefeated and flying high behind a defense that is allowing less than six points per game.
Only five weeks into the season and the NFL has just one unbeaten franchise remaining. Actually, it isn't all that unusual. There have been only 30 undefeated teams at the five-game mark since 1990, a surprisingly anemic average of just two per season, and in a half-dozen of those years there was just one. There were three unbeaten teams at the five-game measuring post in each of the past two seasons, but only one in each of the two seasons before that.
In a game the Buffalo Bills desperately needed to win to stay in the AFC East race, standout cornerback Nate Clements made a ton of plays, registering seven tackles, one interception and two passes defensed, and then forcing a fumble to secure a 20-14 win over the pesky Miami Dolphins. A five-year veteran and former first-round draft pick, Clements is a superb two-way defender, aggressive in run support and very physical in coverage as well. The Bills may have to use the "franchise" marker on him to keep Clements off the unrestricted free agent market next spring.
Observations on the Week 5 action from two NFC pro scouts, and one AFC "area" scout:
• "It's hard to ignore his three interceptions, but I felt like [Arizona quarterback Josh] McCown threw the ball with authority again. He's better than a lot of other starters in the league right now. And, while he was supposed to be a great route-runner in college, [Cardinals wideout Larry] Fitzgerald wasn't as polished as people said. He's matured a lot this year, though, is working harder, and knows how to get open now."
• "Five weeks into the season and [Carolina defensive end] Julius Peppers doesn't have a sack yet? He's running into blockers, seeing double-teams even when they aren't out there. He's too good an athlete not to break loose, but it looks like he's getting frustrated, and his mechanics are breaking down. He's fighting too hard to get off blocks that aren't even there and making it harder than it has to be."
• "Hard to tell whose safeties were worse on Sunday, the New England or Atlanta guys. And I'll tell you what: The Falcons wasted a lot of money last year on [cornerback] Jason Webster. Your guy [DeAngelo] Hall wasn't very good, and he always seems to have trouble with those smaller, clever wideouts. But Webster was awful. The Falcons panicked [in 2004] when all those corners went off the [free agent] market early, and they went and jumped on Webster because he had played for Jimmy Mora [in San Francisco]. He just isn't very good at all. And, please, don't tell me how tough a guy he is. He can't be the toughest guy around but, if you can't cover, so what?"
• "I know he rushed for 100 yards, but [New England] tailback Corey Dillon looks slow to me."
• "The [Lofa] Tatupu kid continues to play well [at middle linebacker] for the Seahawks. I thought they took him way too high in the second round, but he's real active, and had another nice game [nine tackles, one interception, one pass defensed] on Sunday."
• "The Rams' loss aside, Torry Holt is an exceptional receiver. The subtle stuff he does, when you break it down, is remarkable."
• "[Detroit defensive end] Kalimba Edwards is getting more playing time, especially with the injury to James Hall, and is showing some upfield pass-rush skills. He always had a quick first step but never used his hands well, and just thought he could sprint by the tackle all the time. He's started to mature and mix things up some and the results have been good for him."
• "If he keeps growing up, [Cleveland] wideout Antonio Bryant could get some pretty nice action as a free agent next spring. He's been productive since being traded to the Browns last year, and he seems to have a nice thing going with [Browns quarterback Trent] Dilfer right now."
• "People still aren't on to him, it seems, but [Jets defensive tackle] Dwayne Robinson is really starting to play. He had two sacks Sunday and is starting to toss people around inside, even though he isn't 100 percent physically."
• "Let's give your buddy [Dan] Snyder credit for when he does something right. He got the better of the Laveranues Coles-Santana Moss deal. Moss is playing huge for the Skins, making a lot of plays."
• "Based on his play Sunday, you would think Kelly Holcomb would keep the starting [quarterback] job in Buffalo for the foreseeable future. But his history is that, if you play him long enough, he's going to get hurt and [abdicate] the top of the depth chart."
|Heard in the press box (in Atlanta)|
|Hard to believe Atlanta did nothing of substance to shore up the safety position in the offseason. The Falcons signed guys like Ronnie Heard and re-signed Keion Carpenter. Meanwhile, they could have had a guy like Marlon McCree, who is starting in Carolina, for the veteran minimum salary. McCree is playing with abandon since replacing first-round pick Thomas Davis in the lineup, and he had 10 tackles, two interceptions and two passes defensed on Sunday against Arizona. ... The Philadelphia Eagles will not be able to re-sign tailback Brian Westbrook to a contract extension. And they definitely will not use the "franchise" tag to retain his rights. ... St. Louis coach Mike Martz considered taking a month-long leave of absence from the team to deal with the bacterial infection affecting his heart, but decided against it. ... The Rams gave general manager Charley Armey, whose contract was set to expire in January, a one-year extension. But in one of the league's most dysfunctional front offices, with considerable in-fighting still being waged, the extension doesn't necessarily mean Armey will be around next season. It just means he's assured of being around long enough to prepare for, and execute, the draft. ... As first reported by ESPN.com in July at training camp, Cleveland tight end Kellen Winslow, who is said to be doing well in his rehabilitation, will sign a one-year contract extension. ... If quarterback Josh McCown keeps playing well for Arizona -- he threw for 394 yards on Sunday, the second straight week he has established a career best, but also had three interceptions -- the Cardinals will try to keep him with a long-term deal. Under such a circumstance, Kurt Warner, who is working on a one-year contract, would be allowed to leave. ... The Ravens might be starting to get away from coach Brian Billick. They played with no poise on Sunday, had 21 penalties, and let their emotions get the better of them. Billick needs to restore order or he's going to be in trouble at the end of the season. ... Cap problems could force the Jets to release some veterans next spring and offensive tackle Jason Fabini could be one of them. ... There are several teams that would love to try to salvage (Washington linebacker) LaVar Arrington, but his contract makes him untradeable. When he's cut at the end of the year, though, he'll get action in the market.|
The Colts, who next face the entertaining but frequently self-destructive St. Louis Rams next Monday night, are winning with defense. It is a term in Hoosier-dom formerly associated largely with Bob Knight-coached teams, not Tony Dungy-led squads. Time was, for the loyal followers of the city's NFL franchise, when defense was just a semi-intriguing diversion between those stretches in which Peyton Manning was playing pitch-and-catch with his receivers. Through five games of the '05 season, however, the Colts are scoring an average of 10.6 fewer points per outing than at the same juncture of the 2004 campaign. No big deal, however, since Indianapolis is allowing 15.4 fewer points per contest.
OK, right about now, one (probably more like a million-and-one) of you wise-guy readers is muttering: "Sure, but look at who they've played!" No argument from this quarter. In stomping the likes of Baltimore, Jacksonville, Cleveland, Tennessee and San Francisco, the Colts have dominated offenses that, on average, ranked 23rd statistically entering the weekend. Four of the offenses were rated 22nd or lower and only the Browns, at No. 12, were in the top half of the league. But, hey, Indianapolis didn't make the schedule and, last time we checked, you can only play the team that's next to your name on the calendar in a given week.
Rest assured, things will get considerably tougher for the Colts' defense, starting with Monday's prime-time game against a Rams passing game that can fling it around pretty good. But chew on this one for a while: The Colts' defense currently is on-pace to surrender 93 points in 2005. Sure, those "on pace" and "projected to" statistics are always dicey ones, because they can grow meaningless in a hurry. Still, we're talking 93 points! The record for fewest points allowed in a 16-game season is 165 points, established by Baltimore in 2000, when the Ravens rode their stifling defense to a Super Bowl XXXV title. Indianapolis could give up 12.3 points per game over the rest of its schedule, more than double the allotment it is currently allowing, and still break the record.
The Colts presented a rude debut for San Francisco rookie quarterback Alex Smith, making his first start on Sunday, sacking him five times (all, as usual, by linemen) and forcing the top overall selection in the '05 draft into five turnovers.
Suddenly, with opposition defenses doing just about anything they can to keep Manning from throwing a half-dozen or so touchdown passes, it's chic to play defense in Indianapolis, and the emphasis on that side of the ball could be what puts the Colts over the hump in 2005.
Since the Atlanta Falcons elevated Michael Vick to the top of the depth chart in 2002, there have been 41 quarterbacks who started all 16 games in a season. And none of them, alas, was named Michael Vick. His Elusiveness-ness isn't about to go the distance in '05, either, having sat out Sunday's loss to the New England Patriots with a strained right knee that, apparently, got worse the more treatment it received during the week. At least that's the impression that can be gleaned from the fact that Vick was officially listed as "probable" much of the week, downgraded to "questionable" on Saturday, and then "out" on Sunday morning.
We're not buying into the conspiracy theory that Falcons coach Jim Mora tried to outfox the master of misinformation, New England head coach Bill Belichick, who treats injury reports as if they were actually the listings of military troop strength in Kabul. But there was definitely something hinky, to steal an old David Letterman term, about the way the Vick injury situation was handled. Imagine Vick's description of Sunday's decision going something like this: "I got to the stadium on Sunday morning," Vick related, "and Coach said, 'OK, will the guy who is starting for us at quarterback today, please take one step forward. Uh, not so fast there, Michael.' It was weird." All right, so the quote was made-up. Guess what? It seems the Falcons made up some stuff, too, about Vick's injury status for part of the week.
To keep things civil, let's call it a little prevarication. Vick claimed on Sunday that, even though his knee hadn't responded as quickly as he had hoped to treatment that continued late into Saturday evening, he thought he would start. The Falcons' brass, it seems, had other plans. Plans that Vick, he of the phat $130 million contract, said were "frustrating." There were rumors about a knee brace -- Vick not wanting to play with it and the Falcons' brain trust not anxious to put him in harm's way without it -- but those were fairly vague and no one addressed them afterward. We do know that people close to Vick alluded during the week to his lack of comfort with a brace. Other quarterbacks, Daunte Culpepper for one, have found braces to be a constraint.
Whatever the case, or the brace perhaps, the Vick saga on Sunday was a mysterious one. There have been times in the past, most notably when he was rehabilitating from a broken leg in 2003, when Vick has not exactly been his own best friend in addressing injuries. He is prone to say things like (paraphrase alert): I'm not going out there unless I'm 100 percent. I know my body and I don't want to hurt the team. Truth be told, Michael, that is not the kind of rhetoric that induces teammates to begin diving onto grenades. Players like to hear a quarterback say corny stuff such as: "They're going to have to cut off my arm to keep me off the field." Oops, Chad Pennington of the New York Jets actually said those exact words two weeks ago and darned if they didn't cut into his arm again.
Still, players want quarterbacks who want to play, whose competitive instincts mandate they get out onto the field, even if that means locking a reluctant head coach in a broom closet before the game begins. Vick hinted on Sunday he was just such a player, and his nose did not grow when he said it. It was, for sure, the strange wrap-up to a strange week for the NFL's most breathtaking playmaker.
By the way, tough, week, too, for Vick's boss, Falcons owner Arthur Blank. His rich fraternity brothers shot down, for the second time in six months, his bid to have the Georgia Dome host a Super Bowl game. His team lost a tough game to the defending Super Bowl champions when the guys he pays to make the tough football decisions played hocus-pocus with his pricey quarterback. And then the middle linebacker he prodded the team to sign this spring, Ed Hartwell, limped off on Sunday with an apparent season-ending Achilles injury. Triple ouch.
For whatever reason, Dallas Cowboys coach Bill Parcells is often portrayed, even by some knowledgeable people around the league, as intractable. Nothing could be further from the truth and Parcells demonstrated again on Sunday, when his team dismantled the Philadelphia Eagles, 33-10, how surprisingly flexible he can be.
Anyone know who holds the league record for most pass attempts in a season? It's Drew Bledsoe, who heaved it up 691 times in 1994, when he was playing in New England and the head coach was (a moment of anticipation here, please), Bill Parcells. OK, so Bledsoe wasn't quite transformed into a wild bombardier again on Sunday at Texas Stadium. But he did throw the ball 35 times, completing 24 passes for 289 yards, three touchdowns, and maybe most important, zero interceptions against an Eagles defense pretty accomplished at jumping on the waywardly thrown aerial.
The last few years, in trying to protect quarterbacks like Bledsoe and Vinny Testaverde, keep them out of harm's way and stop them from authoring killer turnovers, Parcells has grown increasingly fond of the running game and seemingly of a scaled-down playbook. But opponents would do well to recall this long-ago learned lesson on Parcells: He will, historically, do whatever it takes to win. Sure, the chameleon has lost some of its ability to change color, but Parcells hasn't lost his mind, or his ability to heed the advice of his veteran players.
The Cowboys' offensive veterans spent much of last week griping, sometimes publicly and sometimes not for attribution, about the stolid game plans of the season's first month. Bledsoe used the term "proactive" as a suggestion for what the offense needed to become, and others adopted some stronger language. The message, it appears, got through. Bledsoe threw early and he threw often, mixing in some excellent play-action fakes to freeze the always-aggressive Philadelphia defense, and the result was a stunningly facile rout.
Not even a sideline contretemps between Bledsoe and Keyshawn Johnson, after the wide receiver coughed up a fumble that was returned for a touchdown, could spoil the fun. The Cowboys' top three receivers -- Johnson, fellow wide receiver Terry Glenn and tight end Jason Witten -- combined for 20 catches, 245 yards and a pair of scores.
The performance might provide Parcells sufficient confidence in the passing game to loosen things up some more. He isn't apt to allow Bledsoe to wing it the way he did in '94, when both the coach and his quarterback were a little younger. But at this point in his career, Parcells, a good listener and far more flexible than people think, just wants to win football games. If that takes throwing early in the game, throwing on first downs and challenging secondaries, look for more of all those things from Dallas and from the Parcells offensive design.
The Washington-Denver game was billed all last week as a battle between Redskins tailback Clinton Portis and Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey. The two were the major components in the March 4, 2004, megatrade in which the Broncos got a defender some people in the NFL considered the league's best all-around cornerback and the Redskins got a back who had twice rushed for over 1,500 yards. Turns out, unfortunately, that the much ballyhooed Portis-Bailey meeting never occurred on Sunday, because the Denver corner sat out the game with an injury. Funny thing, though, how it's sometimes the third piece of the puzzle, the overlooked element of a transaction, that becomes a big key in what are supposed to be high profile tete-a-tetes. That was the case on Sunday as Broncos reserve tailback Tatum Bell out-Portised the Redskins' star back, rushing for 127 yards and two touchdowns on just a dozen carries as Denver held off Washington, 21-19, securing the victory when linebacker Ian Gold knocked away a two-point conversion try. Portis, by the way, carried 20 times for 103 yards in his first trip back to the city where he began his excellent career.
But what does Tatum Bell have to do with the Portis-Bailey trade? Uh-huh, therein lies the twist, dear readers, that makes for some nifty intrigue. Remember how all the naysayers, in analyzing the deal, insisted that the Redskins gave up way too much for Portis, even given his first two brilliant NFL seasons? Well, Bell, as it turns out, was part of the "way too much." In addition to Bailey, a perennial Pro Bowl player at a high-premium position, the Redskins also included a second-round choice in the 2004 draft in the package they shipped to the Broncos to land Portis. Now, if you've been paying attention, you can pretty much figure out the player the Broncos selected with that extra second-round pick. If you guessed Tatum Bell, well, you win a cheroot. Denver snatched Bell with the 41st overall pick in 2004 and, while the former Oklahoma State star has been inconsistent and often disappointing, he was arguably the difference in Sunday's postponed Portis-Bailey clash, scoring on runs of 34 and 55 yards.
Bell is kind of a low-slung slasher, a runner the Denver coaches privately contend is their best back, but who often needs a kick in the behind to get him motivated. The Broncos made Mike Anderson the starter in training camp, in part at least, to try to light a fire under Bell. Not until Sunday, though, with Anderson struggling, did Bell ignite the Broncos' run game. In the first 18 games of his career, Bell ran for 550 yards and three touchdowns on 108 attempts. His performance against a pretty tough Washington defense, a unit that once again totally ignored linebacker LaVar Arrington, accounted for 18.9 percent of his career production. Not bad.
Oh, by the way, the Redskins apparently don't acknowledge the second-round pick that was part of the Bailey-Portis deal, and certainly Bell, as part of the big swap. In the Portis biography, on page 134 of this year's Redskins media guide, it notes the fourth-year runner was "acquired in a trade with the Denver Broncos in exchange for cornerback Champ Bailey." Seems the Redskins forgot about the second-round choice they threw into the deal. Too bad, based on Sunday's results, they didn't forget about it when they made the trade, huh?
Honest, we're not trying to stoke the embers under Dom Capers' office chair. But in a week when Mike Tice got a respite from the hot seat, courtesy of the Minnesota Vikings' bye, the Houston Texans' coach had to feel the flames starting to lap up around him. As was noted in the "Tip Sheet" lead item on Friday, there really is little or nothing to be gained from firing a coach in-season. Interim and replacement coaches, the item noted, have an aggregate winning percentage of just .314 since 1970.
Houston owner Bob McNair, though, can't be happy with having his team seemingly in reverse in this fourth season of the expansion franchise's existence. Two weeks ago, reaching for a panic button a little early by anyone's standards, Capers dumped offensive coordinator Chris Palmer and replaced him with offensive line coach Joe Pendry. So, Dom, how's that move paying off? Well, the efficiency rating of embattled quarterback David Carr, a puny 47.8 in the two games Palmer was coordinator, is a respectable 85.6 under Pendry.
But Carr, who keeps insisting he feels more comfortable in the Pendry offense, keeps saying it while picking himself up. Sacked 13 times the first two games, he has been dumped 14 times the last two. And, say, isn't pass protection the bailiwick of Pendry, the offensive line coach?
The Texans have scored more points the past two games than they did in the first two (30-14), have more first downs (32-28) and lots more yards (511-341). But they've got just two offensive touchdowns under Pendry, the same number they had in two games under Palmer's stewardship.
The picture is nearly as bleak on the defensive side of the ball. Once upon a time, the Capers' 3-4 deployment used to create sacks and turnovers. Amazingly, Houston hasn't a single takeaway this season. And the Texans have only four sacks. Since the beginning of the 2003 season, the Houston defense has only 47 sacks, the fewest in the league in that period.
In his first time around as coach of an expansion franchise, Capers took the Carolina Panthers to the conference title game in only their second season, but was pink-slipped two years after that. This is his fourth year in Houston, and the Texans haven't so much as sniffed a winning record, let alone a playoff berth. That can't bode well for Capers' future.
The broken ankle suffered by Green Bay tailback Najeh Davenport on Sunday, a season-ender, could cost him a lot of money. Davenport can become an unrestricted free agent next spring and, even with the slow market for runners that was demonstrated this year, he would have been in demand. Now he faces a long rehabilitation and teams will look at him a lot differently. ... The Packers' 52-3 victory over New Orleans was Green Bay's most one-sided win since a 56-3 shellacking of Atlanta in 1966. ... Arizona dual threats Anquan Boldin (10 catches, 158 yards, one touchdown) and Larry Fitzgerald (nine catches, 136 yards, one score) became the first wide-receiver tandem in club history to have consecutive 100-yard games. The two combined for 15 receptions, 218 yards and a pair of touchdowns last week as well. ... Unfortunately, the Cardinals' running game is going nowhere. The leading rusher Sunday was Josh McCown, with 29 yards, and that marks the second time in five games that a quarterback was the team's top rusher. ... With five catches for 103 yards, Brian Finneran became the first Atlanta wide receiver in 32 games to post an individual 100-yard performance. ... Subbing for injured starters Darrell Jackson and Bobby Engram, wideouts Joe Jurevicius and D.J. Hackett had a solid game for Seattle in its victory over the Rams. The two combined for 14 receptions, 180 yards and one touchdown. Jackson and Engram average 14 catches and 173 yards per game. Jurevicius posted nine receptions and 137 yards. ... Seattle snapped a four-game losing streak to the Rams. ... Tough day Sunday for the league's zebras: Two Ravens players were ejected in the third quarter for making contact with officials, and Tampa Bay cornerback Ronde Barber inadvertently smacked umpire Butch Hannah when he took a swipe at Jets center Kevin Mawae and missed. ... Detroit's Dre 'Bly, one of the most active corners in the league, rang up five tackles, two interceptions, two passes defensed, a forced fumble and recovery. ... Peyton Manning was finally sacked for the first time all season on Sunday. San Francisco linebacker Andre Carter sacked the Colts quarterback in the second quarter on his 127th "dropback" of the season. ... Troy Walters, the Colts' No. 4 wide receiver, had one catch on Sunday. That equaled the total catches by all the 49ers' wide receivers for the day. ... Buffalo kicker Rian Lindell on Sunday converted his first field goal of more than 44 yards since 2002. ...Washington has just one more point through four games this season than it did at the same point of the 2004 season (62-61). And it's got the game number of touchdowns, six. But the Skins, who were 1-3 in 2004 and are 3-1 now, have averaged 51.5 more yards per game, are converting a much higher percentage of third downs and aren't turning the ball over as much as a year ago. ... Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher earned his 100th career victory Sunday. ... Titans linebacker Keith Bulluck had a monster game, with 15 tackles, one sack and a pass defensed. ... Miami, which lost at Buffalo, is 1-9 in its last nine road games. ... Philadelphia had just nine rushes for 19 yards.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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