Tag:Cameron Wake
Posted on: October 27, 2011 11:39 am
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Keep an Eye On: Week 8's finer points of analysis

Posted by Eye on Football Analyst Andy Benoit



Giants vs. Dolphins
One of the more confounding issues with the Dolphins this season has been the decline of their pass-rush. After recording 39 sacks in 2010 (tied for 10th best in the NFL) Miami entered last week’s game against Denver with just eight. They wound up recording seven sacks in the game, but that was in part because of Tim Tebow’s inability to make quick reads or get the ball out.

The Giants’ reshuffled offensive line has been hit or miss in pass protection thus far (more “hit” than “miss”). At Arizona in Week 4, their brilliant protection practically won the game. But the next week it waffled against Seattle’s underrated D-line (Chris Clemons rather enjoyed facing left tackle Will Beatty).

The Dolphins have one of the game’s best all-around edge-rushers in Cameron Wake, the reigning AFC sack leader. His leverage and tenacity give him strength that’s much better than his size indicates. Wake has been oddly quiet in non-two minute situations this season, though he abused Denver’s somewhat lumbering right tackle, Orlando Franklin, last week.

Giants right tackle Kareem McKenzie is more polished than Franklin but has slower feet. He’ll need help. On the other side, Miami may have an under-the-radar pass-rushing talent in Jared Odrick, who somewhat resembles a thicker Jason Taylor.

Ravens vs. Cardinals
The Ravens offense owes everyone a good performance after ruining one of our 17 precious Monday night games. They should be able to get on track against a Cardinals defense that has struggled to generate a consistent pass-rush despite aggressive blitzes from new coordinator Ray Horton.

The intrigue is on the other side of the ball. Roughly two months after the trade and $20-million-plus investment in Kevin Kolb, some Cardinal fans are actually wondering if the 27-year-old quarterback should be benched. That’s the kind of ridiculous thinking that those who don’t actually contribute any skin in the game can get away with. Ken Whisenhunt knows that he’d never get another coaching job if he were to bench Kolb for John Skelton.

Kolb hasn’t been great, but he’s hardly the problem. Arizona’s “non-Fitzgerald” receivers have not been able to get open. General manager Rod Graves may deserve some heat for letting Steve Breaston get away this past offseason, though Graves’ logic was understandable at the time. Third-round rookie Andre Roberts showed intriguing potential as a speedy slasher last season.

Roberts looked like a future starter, and he cost a fraction of what Breaston would have cost. So Graves banked on him. Roberts has responded by failing to reach 40 yards receiving in every game this season. The good-looking prospect prior to Roberts, Early Doucet, has been equally ineffective.

Teams can sometimes get away with having only one quality wide receiver, but not if their offensive tackles stink. And there’s no denying that Levi Brown and Brandon Keith – two heavy-footed lumberers with inconsistent technique – stink.

So far Kolb has been awful when throwing off-balance. It’s doubtful he’ll get to be on balance much against a staunch Ravens D.

Bills vs. Redskins
Don’t pick the Redskins this week. It’s a matter of principle, if nothing else. No team should have expectations placed on it after making a change at quarterback and losing its top wide receiver, running back, tight end, left tackle and left guard in a two-week span. This will look like a preseason version of the Redskins. How will they cope?

It helps that Mike Shanahan’s system runs more fluidly with John Beck than it does with Rex Grossman. Beck is smoother reading the field and much better at play-action rollouts and bootlegs than Grossman. Accuracy is a bit of a concern, however. As for the other injuries and replacement ...

RB Tim Hightower (knee – out for season) had found his niche in this zone-run scheme, but he’ll be missed most in the passing game. Ryan Torain is a decent upright power-runner with a spring in his step, but he can’t stick pass-rushers the way Hightower could.

WR Santana Moss (hand – out 5-7 weeks) was Washington’s only creator on offense. He could generate his own space and turn an underneath catch into a 60-yard scamper. Either Niles Paul or Anthony Armstrong will replace him. Both have flashed at times, but neither is completely trustworthy. And, unlike with Moss, defenses won’t have to even ponder the possibility of double coverage.

TE Chris Cooley (finger, knee – out for season) was trending down and losing his role to Fred Davis prior to get hurting. Davis can fill Cooley’s receiving shoes. But the Redskins are now down a good in-line blocker in the run game. With Cooley and Davis, Washington had the benefit of balancing its formation with a viable pass-catching tight end on each side. This often compelled defenses to stay in basic front seven looks. New backup tight end Logan Paulsen won’t command that kind of respect.

LT Trent Williams (high ankle sprain – out 0-4 weeks) has missed most of the last two games. Pretty easy to identify the impact of his absence: backup Sean Locklear is experienced but much slower than Williams all-around.

LG Kory Lichtensteiger (knee – out for season) was one of the unheralded heroes for this team down the stretch last year and prior to going down in Week 6. Center Will Montgomery moved one spot to the left to fill Lichtensteiger’s void. Montgomery is interchangeable that way, but his replacement in the middle, Erik Cook, a seventh-round pick in ’10, was a noticeable downgrade coming off the bench. He had issues snapping the ball and was overwhelmed by defensive tackle Mike Peterson on a few plays. The Redskins can only hope those were Cook’s jitters working themselves out.

So who will win? Check our NFL expert picks for all Week 8 games

Follow @Andy_Benoit on Twitter or contact him at Andy.Benoit-at-NFLTouchdown.com.
Posted on: October 25, 2011 11:03 am
Edited on: November 1, 2011 2:39 pm
 

Dolphins were in wrong defense on Tebow score

How to be 0-6 without really trying: look shocked when Tebow runs a QB draw. (Getty Images)

Posted by Ryan Wilson

This goes a long way in explaining a) why the Dolphins are 0-6, and b) why they seemed like the only people surprised when Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow ran the Tebow Sneak on the game-tying two-point conversion late in the fourth quarter (Hint: you don't have plays named after you unless you have previously done something to make them famous. In Tebow's case, he ran some variation of the quarterback draw approximately two billion times in college.): On the game's most important play, Miami was in the wrong defense.

In case you missed it, the video evidence:


Denver Quarterback Tim Tebow capped off a miraculous 4th quarter comeback by sending the game to overtime, with this 2 point conversion in the final seconds of regulation against the Miami Dolphins on Sunday.

After the loss -- one that saw the Broncos score 15 points in the final minutes -- Dolphins defensive end Kendall Langford admitted that "everyone in the stadium knew he was going to run it." Everyone, it seems, except head coach Tony Sparano and defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. On that fateful, game-tying play, Miami had five defensive backs, three linemen and three linebackers on the field, apparently under the impression that Tebow, who had amassed a whopping 24 passing yards midway through the third quarter, was going to throw the ball.

The Palm Beach Post's Brian Biggane notes that "Run-stoppers Langford, nose tackle Paul Soliai and defensive end Randy Starks typically are on the field in Miami's goal-line defense. But all three were on the sideline in the scheme defensive coordinator Mike Nolan used against the Denver formation that employed four wide receivers."

Defensive lineman Tony McDaniel, who played nose tackle on the play, was more succinct: "We had the wrong personnel on the field, to be honest. They spread us out and ran it up the middle."

He then echoed teammate Langford. "I always knew (Tebow) was going to try to run the ball when they got in the red zone. He just found a way, made a play and they got a win."

And just in case it wasn't clear, Langford reiterated the point one last time.

"We weren't in a goal-line package," he said. "Everybody at home watching knew what the call was. That was obvious."

Obvious to everyone but Nolan. Which brings us to this: what happened? Nolan got the 49ers head coaching gig in 2005 after coordinating up the Ravens' defense. He lasted three years in San Francisco and spent a season with the Broncos before landing in Miami.

The Sun-Sentinel's David Hyde points to a string of "wait, what did he just do?" decisions by Nolan in 2011:

1. Karlos Dansby wasn't on the field for Cleveland's game-winning touchdown drive.
2. Cameron Wake was asked to cover Santonio Holmes, which resulted in a touchdown.
3. The aforementioned two-point Tebow conversion

If you're looking for a silver lining, this is the best we can do: there's only 600 minutes left in the Dolphins' season.


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Posted on: October 19, 2011 4:21 pm
 

Keep an Eye On: Week 7's finer points of analysis

Posted by Eye on Football Analyst Andy Benoit

Saints vs. Colts
New Orleans’ two new weapons
The Saints have redefined their passing attack. It now runs through Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles. Graham has been far and away the best tight end in football this season. All onlookers could observe last season that the former Hurricanes power forward possessed considerable raw talent, but few could have predicted he’d polish it this quickly.

Graham has a natural feel for gaining positioning against pass defenders (insert obligatory “like a rebounder” comment here) and, best of all, he’s a hands-catcher who snags the ball away from his body. This makes him nearly impossible to defend, given his size and elevation abilities. Helping the cause is that the Saints align Graham all over the formation, which gives defenses fits in deciding what personnel package to use (most, including the Bucs this past week, have been going with nickel and treating Graham like a slot receiver).

Graham is Brees’s go-to guy. Sproles might be Sean Payton’s.

When the Saints are trying to dictate the tempo of a drive, they often look to get Sproles the ball underneath. The key is putting him in positions to run after the catch. This could mean screens, though often it has meant short outs and ins on spread plays where wideouts run deep to lift the coverage. Sproles has remarkable quickness and elusiveness, amplified by a rare-found ability to start and stop. He’s been much better in this offense than Reggie Bush ever was.

So how will the Colts defend the two new weapons? They’re a zone-based defense with fast linebackers. That helps against Sproles, but it does little for containing Graham. If the Saints can find ways to pass protect long enough to run vertical routes outside, that’ll prevent the Colts safeties from running under and over Graham’s routes. This would spell a fifth-straight 100-yard game for the rising star.



Dolphins vs. Broncos
Tebow’s limited resources
You couldn’t ask for more favorable conditions for a new starting young quarterback: two weeks to prepare, a game at Miami (where the weather is nice and the crowd is irrelevant) and facing a defense that, even with a beast like Cameron Wake, has for some reason completely forgotten how to rush the passer.

Trading your No. 1 receiver just days before the game might not seem favorable to a young quarterback, but that receiver was unenthused about playing with Tebow and hadn’t been getting open in Denver’s new ball-control offense anyway. Plus, he was liable to leave after the season, and his spot is ready to be filled by a now-healthy (hopefully) Demaryius Thomas.

Thomas is a possession target, whereas Brandon Lloyd was more of a vertical threat (though not a burner). The Broncos already have a litany of possession targets, such as Eric Decker, Matt Willis and, when healthy, Eddie Royal. This lack of vertical speed compresses the field and narrows throwing lanes, which isn’t good with a slow-reading young quarterback who has a long windup and prefers to improvise outside the pocket.

The Dolphins are healthy at cornerback again; with no downfield threats to worry about, don’t be surprised if this is the week they finally figure out how to reach the quarterback.

Bears vs. Buccaneers (London)
Forces up front
When playing well, these teams offer two of the faster defensive front sevens in football. The Bucs defensive ends – vastly improved Michael Bennett and explosive rookie Adrian Clayborn – feasted on the shoddy Saints tackles last week and should be licking their chops for J’Marcus Webb and Lance Louis (a guard by trade who has taken over for the overwhelmed Frank Omiyale on the right side).

Linebacker Geno Hayes played with instincts and speed against the Saints, which hasn’t always been the case this season. He’ll have a big say in whether the Bucs can contain Mr. Do It All, Matt Forte.

For Chicago, the mission will be attacking right tackle Jeremy Trueblood. Julius Peppers, bum knee and all, is a force who can matchup with Donald Penn on the left side. Same goes for underrated Israel Idonije. But over the years, when it’s rained on Trueblood, it’s poured. He’s the guy to go after.
The Bucs don’t have a backfield star like Matt Forte to build around, though Earnest Graham is a productive receiver who, as he showed last week, can add a dimension of surprising (though subtle) inside quickness and elusiveness.

Don’t be stunned if Graham becomes a bigger component in the run game even after LeGarrette Blount gets healthy. Graham, however, is facing a much greater challenge this week than he faced last week; Chicago’s linebackers are just as fast as New Orleans’ but a lot more physical.

So who will win? Check our NFL expert picks for all Week 7 games

Follow @Andy_Benoit on Twitter or contact him at Andy.Benoit-at-NFLTouchdown.com.
Posted on: September 12, 2011 9:06 pm
Edited on: September 13, 2011 1:14 am
 

Pats C Dan Koppen breaks ankle

Posted by Will Brinson

The Patriots won their season opener against the Dolphins in Miami but it came at a cost: center Dan Koppen, who left just before halftime, has a broken left ankle, according to the Boston Herald's Ian Rapoport.

"The team will run more tests tomorrow to see whether there is more damage to the ligaments or the surrounding portions of his leg," Rapoport wrote early Tuesday morning. "But, the early returns are that it may not be a complicated break. In fact, don’t rule Koppen out for the season just yet."

Koppen suffered what the Patriots called a left ankle injury at the time when Karlos Dansby fell on his leg as Koppen blocked for a Tom Brady sneak on third down late in the first half.

He screamed in pain and lay on the ground for a few minutes until a cart was brought out -- as Koppen was leaving, cameras picked him up mouthing something that didn't exactly look, um, optimistic to the medical staff. He was also seen leaving the medical room on crutches and said "We'll see" when asked about the extent of his injury.

The injury is particularly devastating for New England, as they signed Thomas Welch from the practice squad just to get to seven offensive linemen for the Monday night game.

The Dolphins Jason Taylor also suffered an ankle and/or foot injury during the first half when it appeared someone stepped on his foot; he returned to the game in the second half.

Perhaps coincidentally, as soon as Koppen left and Dan Connolly slid over to center, Wake immediately drew a holding call against rookie lineman Nate Solder and then on the next play, recorded a sack on Tom Brady.

Not coincidentally, Wake/Taylor against New England's thinned-out line was our top matchup to watch tonight. And, as we expected, the Pats have been using the heck out of two tight end sets -- they had Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski on the field for nearly every single play in the first half.

Expect to see plenty of them in the second half as well, since the loss of Koppen will require increased assistance for an extremely thin offensive line.

For more NFL news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnNFL on Twitter and subscribe to our RSS Feed.
Posted on: September 12, 2011 4:35 pm
Edited on: September 12, 2011 4:47 pm
 

7-Point Preview: Dolphins vs. Patriots

Posted by Will Brinson


1. Miami Dolphins (0-0) vs. New England Patriots (0-0)
Rumblings started to form on Twitter Monday that the Dolphins are taking a look at David Garrard. Even if this doesn't happen, it is perfect, because the Dolphins are in the middle of their 15th quarterback controversy of the year, and they haven't even played a game yet.

It's a mess in South Beach, theoretically, but there's reason to be hopeful. I continue to believe that Chad Henne can evolve into a good NFL quarterback. He's been freed from the shackles of Dan "Third and Draw" Henning and has been given "full reign" by new OC Brian Daboll to call audibles at the line of scrimmage.

Last season's game in Miami is viewed as a blowout. That's because the Patriots won handily, 41-14. But what folks don't remember is that without a Miami special-teams implosion, this game was actually pretty close.

The Patriots scored on a 103-yard kickoff return from Brandon Tate (no longer with New England) and a Kyle Arrington 31-yard blocked field-goal return. To dump a pound of salt in the wound, Patrick Chung also took a pick 51 yards to the house to finish off the rout. Take away those three touchdowns (I know, I know but just play along) and it's a much closer game in which Henne was respectable before getting pressed into throwing the ball in bad situations.

Add in the fact that he's got more versatile weapons (read: Reggie Bush) than 2010, and it's not unreasonable to expect an alright game out of Henne this evening. Brady, as you may know, is capable of doing damage to other teams.

2. What the Nerds and Degenerate Gamblers Say:
This is kind of amazing: according to Sportsbook.com, 94 percent of the public's money is on the Pats -7. If we were talking about the Pats money line, that's one thing. But we're discussing a seven-point road favorite playing a division rival who's beaten said favorite a bunch of times when they come down to Florida.

Things could go either way, really -- Tom Brady over the last six years (we're going six instead of five since he missed 2008) has vacillated wildly in Miami. In 2006 he went 12 of 25 for 78 yards and no touchdowns or interceptions. In 2007 he went 21 of 25 for 354 yards, six touchdowns and no interceptions. In that time, though, he's only 3-2 in Miami.

"He’s human, right?" Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake asked of Brady Sunday, per Omar Kelly of the Miami Sun-Sentinel. "He has two eyes and red blood? If you cut him, will he bleed? He puts his pants on one leg a time."

He may actually put his pants on differently and HOW DARE YOU TALK ABOUT TOM'S EYES, SIR? Er, wait, sorry. Yes, Brady is human. He's been vulnerable against the Dolphins in the past and he'll be vulnerable now.

There's no real logic why everyone's slamming their money after New England favored by a touchdown on the road even if they could easily cover, other than "the Patriots are always awesome, win games and usually manage to be flashy and smart while the Dolphins are typically the opposite and quite boring and therefore will lose."

3. Key Matchup to Watch
The aforementioned defensive end, Cameron Wake, is one of the scariest players in the NFL. Were it not for the Dolphins lacking relevance in 2010, Wake probably would have gotten pub as the Defensive Player of the Year in the NFL.

With Wake and Dolphins-turned-Jet-turned-dancer-t
urned-Dolphin Jason Taylor lining up to terrorize Brady, the Patriots offensive line has a serious task on its hands -- both left tackle Matt Light and right tackle (and rookie) Nate Solder, replacing starting right tackle Sebastian Volmer, will require additional help in doubling up on Wake.

Fortunately for the Patriots, they have a pair of tight ends who are capable receiving options and pretty good blockers in Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, so don't be shocked to see lots of two tight end formations out of New England as they look to bolster their pass defense.

If Wake and Taylor crank up the pressure on Brady, the Patriots could be in a for long day, especially considering they aren't typically the type of team that counters quarterback pressure by pounding the rock. Their answer is a dynamic short-passing game that chews up clock and wears opponents down.

It's much harder to pull off if Brady's ending up on his ass every two or three plays and/or doesn't have time to get through his progressions. And when Brady slows his progressions down, the Patriots aren't pushing the tempo and the defense has more time to adjust and, generally speaking, a much better chance of stopping New England.

4. Potentially Relevant YouTube

So, this weekend some ridiculous bizness went down with the Notre Dame-Michigan game, in which roughly 735 points were scored in 10 seconds. Or something like that -- Denard Robinson (he of sure-fire future NFL Draft scrutiny!) led the Wolverines to a stunning victory. He then jumped in the crowd and a weirdo fan decided he need to rub Robinson's arm and share the magic with the world.

In case you're scratching your head, both Tom Brady and Chad Henne went to Michigan and they will need magic from their arms to win tonight. Do you see? (Via Spencer Hall's Alphabetical)



5. The Patriots will win if ...
They can protect Brady and give him time to get the ball in the hands of his playmakers and subsequently control the tempo against the Dolphins. The Patriots passing game was fine in the preseason, but Chad Ochocinco was a bit underwhelming (to say the least) and having him step things up in Monday night's would be pretty typical of how the Pats role with respect to bringing wide receivers and sandbagging their production before the season starts.

6. The Dolphins will win if ...
Reggie Bush makes the most out of his 20 touches. Well, he's supposed to get 20 touches anyway, and it's hard to imagine that if he's successful that this game won't be close. Bush not only can break off explosive plays, but his ability as a passcatcher out of the backfield will be tremendous for Henne -- he provides a safety valve and will keep the Patriots secondary honest and not able to double-team guys like Brandon Marshall.

7. Prediction: Patriots 24, Dolphins 17

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Posted on: December 13, 2010 2:25 am
Edited on: December 13, 2010 4:41 pm
 

10 stories worth your attention Week 14

Posted by Andy Benoit

Want more Week 14 review? Hit up our podcast

T. Brady (US Presswire)1.) Goodness!

For the second week in a row, the New England Patriots took center stage on the NFL’s headline game of the week and gave viewers an entire second half of garbage time. The garbage time is almost worth it, though, because watching the Patriots obliterate opponents in the first half has become like watching Picasso paint, Sinatra sing or Rosie O’Donnell eat. New England’s latest masterpiece took place at Soldier Field, where the Patriots were the only people who refused to be bothered by a little frozen rain. (You could almost hear the Bears saying down on the sidelines, “Hey what the hell? I thought we agreed beforehand that the weather was going to have a significant impact on this game!)

Tom Brady, the unquestioned MVP of 2010, has 19 touchdowns and 0 interceptions over his last eight games. Thanks in part to the frost-bitten fingers of the Bears linebackers, Brady has thrown 268 passes without an interception (18 behind Bernie Kosar’s all-time record). The last time Brady was this brilliant (2007), opponents at least knew where he wanted to go with the football (Randy Moss over the top; Wes Welker underneath). There’s no figuring out THIS version of Brady. A great illustration of this would be Deion Branch’s improbable 59-yard touchdown on the final play of the first half. Yes, that play was aided by the Bears’ coverage mistake, but Brady lulled the Bears into that mistake.

None of New England’s receivers or running backs would be surefire starters on a typical NFL team (not even slot master Wes Welker). But Brady has made viable weapons out of all of them. You already knew that, though. We all know that the Patriots are versatile and balanced. What we didn’t know is that a “versatile and balanced” formula can yield five straight games of 30 points-plus.

Even more surprising is that the Patriot defense has been nearly as dominant as the offense recently. The Pats have allowed just 10 points over their last two games. This season, the lineup has consisted of Vince Wilfork at nose tackle, Jerod Mayo at inside linebacker, Devin McCourty at cornerback and a mixture of players rotating at the other eight positions. The “fluidity” of the lineup made for ugly inconsistency at times early this season. But now Bill Belichick has broken-in his rookies and found niches for all his ancillary players. The Patriots rank near the bottom against the pass and on third down, but they also lead the AFC with 20 interceptions. Consider this proof that the best way to hide your weaknesses defensively is to play with a lead (something this club knows how to do).

 



2.) One game where the snow was too much

By now you’ve probably seen the footage of the snow crashing through the torn roof of the Metrodome. What’s the rule of political correctness with this one? Do we have to leave it at “Scary sight, lucky no one was hurt”? Or are we allowed to mention how cool it was? (Absolutely positively no pun intended.) Metrodome (US Presswire)

The Vikings may not be thrilled about the snow damage…right now. It turned their Week 13 home game into a glorified road contest. But in the big picture, you have to figure that a collapsed roof can’t hurt Zygi Wilf’s leverage for getting a new stadium.

When the history books are written, the Giants-Vikings game will probably be remembered for something other than the “awesome but only because nobody was hurt” Metrodome roof collapse: it’s entirely possible, maybe even likely, that Brett Favre’s consecutive starts streak is coming to an end. We include it in this piece – which is normally a review of Sunday’s action – because, predictably, during the hours of 7:00 am to 1:00 pm Sunday we got new Favre quotes and updates every three to four minutes. Even with no game being played, or perhaps because of no game being played, Favre was a dominant story Sunday. The last update was that Favre’s shoulder is a multi-week injury, and an extra 30 hours wouldn’t make that much of a difference in his recovery. Thus, it’s likely Favre sits. (Of course, Leslie Frazier refutes this, so perhaps yet another extensive Favre piece could be for naught.)

Obsessive compulsive Favre fans will find themselves dry-heaving if the legendary streak stops not on the nice round 300, but rather, on 297, which is not prime number but on first glance, sure looks like one. (If you’re counting playoffs, Favre’s streak is at 321.)
Whether you love Favre or love to ride around on your high horse and tell everyone how you can no longer stand the guy (even though you still watch all his games, perk up during the SportsCenter and Pardon the Interruption segments about him, listen to his press conferences and click on every Jenn Sterger story you Googler, errr, “happen to come across”), there’s no denying that the end of the streak is a big deal.

But you know what? It won’t be that big a deal for long. Peyton Manning, who at 34 years old has started all 205 regular season games of his career, needs to play six more years to pass Favre’s mark. No guarantees, certainly, but Manning will probably do that. If he does surpass Favre, the moment will feel like an enormous let down. Favre has battled bumps, bruises and full-on injuries his entire career. And, to everyone’s pleasure and chagrin, he’s always been very public about them (the Ed Werder reports throughout this past week confirm that). Manning, aside from a broken jaw in 2001 that most people don’t remember and a bursa sac issue late in the ’08 preseason, has never been hurt. That makes his streak far less sexy, even if its smoothness is yet another testament to his brilliance.



3.) Jags


The Jaguars-Raiders provided the best 60 minutes of action we got Sunday. The story of the game was once again the effectiveness of Maurice Jones-Drew and the Jaguars rushing attack. MJD had 101 yards on 23 carries (his sixth consecutive triple-digit-yard rushing performance); backup Rashard Jennings – who, if you haven’t seen him, is essentially the AFC’s version of Ryan Torain – came in and capitalized whenever the Raiders showed signs of fatigue. One instance of this was Jennings’s 74-yard touchdown run that was part of Jacksonville’s 21-point third quarter.

Two of Jacksonville’s touchdowns were set up by big plays on special teams: Montell Owens’ recovery of Jacoby Ford’s kick return fumble in the third quarter and rookie Deji Karim’s 65-yard return late in the fourth. Jacksonville needed to make plays on the third side of the ball Sunday because, aside from a few effective play-action passes and drag routes to blossoming tight end Marcedes Lewis, David Garrard and the passing game had no answer for Oakland’s vastly underrated defensive line.

At the end, however, the Raiders looked like the 6-7 team they are when Jason Campbell was forced to make plays in obvious throwing situations. It’s too bad Campbell, who was asked to hand the ball off and get out of the way at San Diego a week ago, struggled down the stretch. He had been fantastic early on, completing 11 of his first 14 passes for 212 yards and two touchdowns. He evaded the rush and consistently hit his second and third reads. But when the Raiders were compelled to be one-dimensional, Campbell began staring at the pass-rush and gyrating unnecessarily in the pocket. He took an awful sack on the second to last play of the game and then somehow topped that mistake by throwing in the middle of the field to Jacoby Ford, which caused the game clock to expire.
M. Jones-Drew (US Presswire)
At the end of the day, the better team won this game. With this victory, the Jaguars ensure that they won’t reproduce last season’s disappointing collapse (0-4 finish after 7-5 start) and they put themselves in position to clinch the AFC South with a win over Indy next week.

But don’t get too giddy, Jags fans. Your team’s defense has a glaring weak spot that Peyton Manning will ruthlessly attack. That weakness is named Sean Considine. The backup safety who already lacks speed in the worst of ways put on a tackling-missing clinic Sunday. If regular starting safety Courtney Green does not return from a separated shoulder suffered against Tennessee, the Jags are in trouble.



4.) Following up on the run

Last week we talked about how, lately, teams have been winning games by dominating on the ground. Nine teams in Week 12 and five teams in Week 13 outrushed their opponents by 150 or so yards. It's an interesting trend, and we promised we’d check in on the running game again this week. So how’d it look?

After San Diego got underrated inside linebacker Stephen Cooper back and predictably stifled the Brodie Croyle-led Chiefs offense. The Chiefs were held to just 48 yards rushing. The Chargers, meanwhile, racked up 207.

Kansas City still has the No. 1 rushing offense in football, though the Jaguars are less than eight yards per game behind them now. Jacksonville gashed Oakland for 234 yards (the Raiders, spurred by Darren McFadden’s ability to accelerate, rushed for 153 yards).
The Panthers totaled 212 yards against the Falcons, but of course, only the Panthers would know how to convert 212 yards rushing into a 21-point loss. The Cardinals got 211 yards, 79 more than the Broncos.

Overall, teams are continuing to win on the ground. Again, this isn’t to say that a rushing attack is more important than a passing attack. But the data does seem to say that a rushing attack is more important this year than last year. Of the top 10 rushing offenses in 2009, five made the playoffs. Of the top 10 rushing offenses this season, seven are playoff bound (the three that aren’t are Oakland, Minnesota and Houston).



5.) Changes needed in Cincy

Another week, another loss for the Bengals. This time it was on the road to a Pittsburgh team that Cincy played close on a Monday night back in November and beat twice in 2009. Terrell Owens once again expressed his frustration in the postgame press conference. The 36-year-old has actually been one of the few bright spots on the Bengals this season, but there are questions about whether he’ll be back once his contract expires after the season. Ditto head coach Marvin Lewis.
C. Palmer (US Presswire)
But the man whose future in Cincy needs to seriously be questioned is Carson Palmer. He is not the same player he was prior to his ’08 elbow injury, and he’s certainly not the same player he was prior to his ’05 knee injury. Palmer threw two more pick-six’s Sunday – one to his close USC friend, Troy Polamalu, and another to LaMarr Woodley. Like Palmer’s three previous pick-six’s this year, these were gimme interceptions resulting from a blatant misread.

Palmer insists that he’s healthy; perhaps he is. But his bizarre accuracy issues and decisions from the pocket suggest something is awry. More troublesome is that the Bengals have become a team that expects – and is expected – to lose each week. That’s partly the product of ownership’s willingness – nay, eagerness – to bring in every underachiever and character-flag guy under the sun. But it’s also a product of poor leadership. As the immensely-compensated franchise quarterback, Palmer shoulders a chunk of the leadership burden.
 
Insiders around the league complain that Palmer is too nice – that he’s too willing to turn the other cheek and endure an earful of criticism from teammates (i.e. Chad Ochocinco). The dynamic of the quarterback-receiver relationship in Cincy has become the most defining aspect of this team’s identity. And now we’re talking about the identity of a team that’s lost 10 straight.

The problem is Palmer is under contract until 2015, and it’s doubtful that owner Mike Brown, who has a reputation for caring more about dollars than victories, will be willing to take the bath he’d need to take in order to make a change under center.



6.) The Jets are “struggle-ling”

From one struggling USC quarterback to another, what’s up with Mark Sanchez? He was awful against Miami – and that’s putting it kindly. Sanchez completed 17 of his 44 passes Sunday, threw an interception (along with a handful of “near interceptions”) and fumbled four times (losing just one). His two early turnovers led to Miami’s only 10 points. Ten points wound up being three more than what was needed to beat a Jets team that has now gone nine straight quarters without an offensive touchdown.

Time to panic in New York? Yes and no.

We’ll start with the “no” first. The Jets, at 9-4, are two games up in the AFC Wild Card race with three to play. They hit a slump last season, still got in at 9-7 and went on to the AFC Title Game.

But the “yes” part is that the ’09 slump came earlier in the year, and from Week 1 through Week 17, the ’09 Jets were one of the league’s best rushing teams. The ’10 Jets seem to be hitting a wall on the ground. LaDainian Tomlinson looks more like what we thought he’d look like all along: a savvy third-down back but not a 20-carry-a-game star. Shonn Greene has been little more than a flaky flirt this season. After 17 yards on eight carries againsM. Sanchez (US Presswire)t the Dolphins, Greene has averaged fewer than four yards per rushing attempt in four of his last five outings (granted, this could be in small part because the Jets prefer to use his bruising body in short-yardage situations).

It’s not just the offense. Coming into Sunday, there were concerns about New York’s pass defense. As the NFL Matchup Show pointed out, teams are max-protecting against Rex Ryan’s complex blitzes more this season and finding ways to exploit the safeties and linebackers in coverage. However, it’s hard to gripe about the pass defense this week, considering the Jets held Chad Henne to 5/18 for 55 yards (those are his final stats – not first, second, third or fourth quarter stats).

But defensive dominance is only valuable if you have an offense that can at least control tempo. The Jets controlled tempo last season by running the ball some 60 percent of the time. This season, they’re running less than 48 percent of the time. In other words, they’ve hitched their wagon to their second-year Trojan horse, and now that Trojan horse is showing iffy footwork, jittery pocket presence and questionable decision-making skills under pressure. Sanchez is capable of bouncing back, but it looks like it will take more than a well-publicized lunch meeting with the head coach to make that happen.



7.) P.S. from Jets-Fins game


The late window of games was surprisingly futile Sunday. The Bears got devoured by the Patriots. The Seahawks went to San Francisco and pulled another one of their maddening inept masterpieces out of their…ears. The Rams looked like an upstart but overmatched club facing the defending World Champions on the road. The Chiefs gave the type of performance that had to make Matt Cassel, who was watching at home, sick to his stomach all over again. And, out of principle, I boycotted the Broncos-Cardinals game (the poor Sunday Ticket-less folks in my hometown of Boise, ID got stuck with this as their CBS afternoon game). So I have no idea what happened there, though I heard the Cards won by a lot.

The only late-window contest that was close was the Jets-Dolphins. And, let’s be honest, that game was only close because neither team knew how to play offense in a driving rainstorm.

But we can’t be sour about an entire late afternoon of football. So, in an effort to give a toast with a glass that’s half full (half full for these next few paragraphs, anyway…can’t be half full too long because we still have an NFC West story on the way), I present to you Dolphins outside linebacker Cameron Wake. The former CFL superstar entered Sunday’s game with an NFL-best 12 sacks. He secured a Dolphins victory by increasing that total to 14 on the final two plays of the game.

Everyone has been touting Clay Matthews as the 2010 Defensive Player of the Year. But until Sunday at Detroit, the Packers outside linebacker had been somewhat quiet the past month-and-a-half (quiet for DPOY standards, that is). Wake has been a beast week in and week out. As quick as he is off the edge, the 250-pounder takes on blocks remarkably well. This vast array of skills has made him one of the premiere run-defending outside linebackers in the game (did you see the fourth down stop he had on Shonn Greene in the second half?).

Consider this bit here an effort to get Wake’s name where it belongs: in the forefront of the DPOY discussion.



8.) The NFC West: You’re kidding, right?


It looks like the NFC really is going to have a sub-.500 team in the postseason this season. The Rams and Seahawks both got dismantled Sunday, falling to 6-7. St. Louis is a young team; Seattle is just downright irritating. When they lose, they sure like to get their money’s worth.

Both the Rams and Seahawks will be underdogs in Week 15. The two square off for what could be a “win and you’re in” game in Week 17. (The league wouldn’t dare make that the Sunday night game, would it?)

We could debate all day about the merits of a 7-9 playoff team. There are two sides to the debate: the side that says “division title or not, you can’t let a sub-.500 team in and screw over a likely 10-6 team” and the side that says “a division title is a division title, let ‘em in – even if it means screwing over a likely 10-6 team.” The problem here is that, both sides can agree, a 10-6 team, or ever a worthy 9-7 team, is going to get screwed over.

The NFL needs to use common sense and change the playoff regulations after this season (the suggestion here is only guarantee a playoff spot to ABOVE .500 teams AND re-seed all playoff teams by record). If the league can’t find the motivation to fix this soon-to-be embarrassing mess on its own, maybe FOX can provide encouragement. The playoff games represent a significant chunk of the NFL television package’s value. It’s not fair that FOX, which forks over the GDP of a small country for the right to broadcast NFC games, gets stuck with a pathetic Wild Card matchup simply because the NFL refuses to amend its outdated playoff system.



9.) The Real McCoy

How is it that LeSean McCoy plays for one of the most prominent franchises in professional sports, records over 120 yards in offense four straight games yet does not come up in most discussions involving the top echelon of running backs in the NFC? McCoy was quiet throughout most of the first two-and-a-half quarters against Dallas Sunday night. Then, midway through the third, he burst up the middle for a 56-yard run (left guard Todd Herremans was spectacular all night, and particularly in getting to the second level on this play). In the fourth quarter, McCoy had runs of 13, 6, 12, 19, 13 and 6 yards. He finished with 16 carries for 149 yards, leaving him with 972 yards rushing on the season. L. McCoy (US Presswire)

Because he has become arguably the best screen pass weapon in the game, McCoy leads the Eagles with 67 receptions on the season (534 yards). Prior to DeSean Jackson’s 210-yard outburst – highlighted by an NFL-long 91-yard touchdown catch that was nearly as stunning as his fall-into-the-end-zone celebration was clever – Philly’s leading receiver in terms of yardage was Jeremy Maclin. In short, the Eagles are rolling behind Michael Vick and three bona fide stars with a combined four years of experience coming into this season. The key is that all four players have lethal speed, which forces defenses to play more zone. Safe but simple zone looks has given these young Eagles easier reads to make.

Speaking of Vick, if Andy Reid was displeased about the amount of hits he was enduring prior to this game, he must now be downright irate. That’s one thing the Eagles must be concerned about moving forward.



10.) Quick Hits

***Donovan McNabb once again looked pretty good running that super complex two-minute offense in Washington. When the Redskins botched the extra point snap (actually, the Redskins didn’t botch the extra point snap – only long snapper Nick Sundberg and holder Hunter Smith did), it marked the second time this season that McNabb’s successful two-minute drive at the end of regulation was ruined by the field goal unit. (The other was against the Titans in Week 11.)

***The game in Buffalo managed to be as poor as the weather. Would you believe it was two Jake Delhomme turnovers in the fourth quarter that helped seal the loss for the Browns?

***Two defensive ends who stood out in the Jaguars-Raiders game: Jeremy Mincey for Jacksonville and Lamarr Houston for Oakland. Both can pressure the passer but also play the run.

***Raise your hand if you had Andre Whitworth, Troy Polamalu and LaMarr Woodley in the touchdown pool for the Bengals-Steelers game.

***Did you see the way Dick LeBeau censured Polamalu after the safety inexplicably tried to pitch the ball back on his second interception? How many assistant coaches would grab a superstar by the pads like that and read him the riot act? And how many superstars would go up to that coach afterwards for an apology hug? It’s a special culture in Pittsburgh.

***I realize the Lions’ surprising win over the Packers probably deserves more than an afterthought mention in the quick hits like this, but really, what is there to say? I watched a majority of this game and I can tell you, in all honesty, nothing happened. Well, there was the Aaron Rodgers injury, of course. But we’ll be talking about that all week anyway. As far as everything else goes, this was a game in which neither team converted a third down until midway through the third quarter. The Packers lost because of unfortunate first half turnovers

***The Bucs front seven looked disinterested in run defense in the first quarter. Unable to shed blocks, the Bucs surrendered 121 yards to Ryan Torain (the most rushing yards in an NFL first quarter since Tiki Barber against the Raiders in 2005). Torain had just 51 yards the rest of the game, though.

***Somehow, the Redskins actually got more out of Albert Haynesworth this Sunday than they got in any other game since Halloween.

***The Saints got Pierre Thomas back after his nine-week absence with a left ankle injury. (Thomas had 39 yards on 12 carries against the Rams.) This team is rolling. Reggie Bush is once again healthy and in top form. Gregg Williams’ defense has been extra effective with safety blitzes in recent weeks. On Sunday, bourgeoning free safety Malcom Jenkins intercepted Sam Bradford (who, for a lot of this game, was rattled by New Orleans’ pass-rush) and returned it 96 yards for a game-swinging interception touchdown late in the first half. How is it that no one is really buzzing about the 10-3 defending World Champions?

***Good idea to paint the lines red on Chicago’s snowy field.

***The Chargers rediscovered their rushing attack Sunday (big time). Mike Tolbert had 66 yards on 16 carries. That was one more yard than rookie Ryan Mathews had on the same number of attempts. Darren Sproles, who came into the game with only 36 rushing attempts, produced 53 yards on six carries.

***Sean Smith is a somewhat limited cornerback in terms of fluidity and physicality, but he was tremendous Sunday. Smith was credited with four pass breakups, though it felt more like 12.


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Posted on: December 9, 2010 12:43 am
 

Top Ten With a Twist: Non-Brady MVP votes

M. Ryan would be the top MVP candidate in the league right now if it wasn't for a guy named T. Brady (US Presswire). Posted by Josh Katzowitz

This week, seemingly everybody is proclaiming Patriots QB Tom Brady as the player who should be named MVP – including his former teammate, Troy Brown, who I talked to for this week’s Five Questions (or more) segment. After watching Brady dissect the Jets on Monday, that’s hard to argue.

But we’ve still got four weeks of regular-season NFL football, so Brady can’t be named the Most Valuable Players quite yet (I think that’s actually in the rules). That said, there are a number of players who have done quite a bit to help their respective teams this season that also must be in the conversation for MVP. What happens, after all, if Brady throws 10 interceptions in the final four games and the Patriots go 0-4 in that stretch?

Thus, this Top Ten With a Twist pays homage to those who are having hellaciously good years for teams good and bad and could creep into a voter’s conscience (assuming he/she doesn’t simply write Brady’s name in every possible space on the ballot). I’m not saying most of these guys should win; I’m just saying they should be considered.

10. Julius Peppers, DE, Bears: In his first season in Chicago, the defense, ranked as the third-best in the NFL, is a huge reason why the Bears are 9-3, lead the NFC North and own the second-best record in the conference (tied with the Saints). He’s recorded seven sacks and a very strong six passes defended and he’s forced three fumbles. You could also make a case for Brian Urlacher in this spot.

9. Drew Brees, QB, Saints: So many other quarterbacks have made big headlines this season – some for good reasons (we’ll get into those candidates later) and some for bad reasons (ahem, Brett Favre) – and it seems like Brees has been slightly ignored. That’s also because he isn’t the top quarterback in his division at this point and because the Saints are in danger of not winning the NFC South (more on the Falcons below). But the fact is that Brees is statistically the most-accurate quarterback in the league, and the Saints are 9-3 with a chance to return to the Super Bowl. That’s not too shabby.

8. Clay Matthews, LB, Packers: Remember how amazingly fast Matthews started the season, recording six sacks in the first two games? Well, he’s slowed considerably since then, and even Miami’s Cameron Wake has surpassed him for the league lead (Wake has 12 sack to Matthews’ 11.5). Matthews only has one sack in the past three games, but he’s still got a good shot at defensive player of the year (along with Julius Peppers, Steelers LB James Harrison, Eagles DE Trent Cole and Bills NT Kyle Williams), and he’s still having one heck of a year. 

7. Jamaal Charles, RB, Chiefs: Coming off a sophomore season in which he averaged 5.9 yards per rush and finished 2009 with 1,120 yards and seven TDs, Kansas City rewarded him by going out and getting (gulp!) a legitimate RB in Thomas Jones. In his first two games of the season, Charles averaged 11 carries and 70.5 yards per contest, leaving some of us to wonder what was going on in Kansas City. But Charles has been awesome for the resurgent 8-4 Chiefs, averaging a ridiculous 6.2 yards per carry while gaining 1,137 yards.

6. James Harrison, LB, Steelers: You’d be forgiven if, the other day when Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin was defending Harrison in another laborious discussion about fines, you would have scoffed when Tomlin said Harrison was having an MVP-type season. But look at the plays he’s made and the numbers he’s produced. Harrison is third among linebackers with 10 sacks, he’s defended six passes and produced two interceptions, and he’s forced six fumbles, best among LBs. And he does it for a top-five defense which could help the Steelers to a deep postseason run. He's the MVP of NFL fines, but he might be the MVP overall as well.

5. Aaron Rodgers, QB, Packers: You’ve got Matthews on defense, and now you’ve got Rodgers as the catalyst for an offense ranked in the top-10, despite a dreadful running game. Rodgers has been so impressive (a 65.4 completion percentage, 3,243 yards, 23 TDs and nine INTs) without the benefit of Ryan Grant and having to play with very little support in Brandon Jackson and John Kuhn (they rank 30th and 50th in rushing in the league, respectively). His MVP candidacy obviously will ride on whether he can get Green Bay into the playoffs.

4. Philip Rivers, QB, Chargers: A week ago, I might have picked Rivers a little bit higher, but he’s coming off a bad, bad home loss to the Raiders that dropped San Diego two games behind the Chiefs in the AFC West. Not that Rivers played poorly, because he wasn’t bad. But it’s tough to get excited about a QB leading a 6-6 squad who very well could miss the playoffs, even if he is the guy who’s led his team to all six of those wins.

M. Jones-Drew has made himself a strong MVP candidate in the past five weeks (US Presswire). 3. Maurice Jones-Drew, RB, Jaguars: What would you say if I told you that Jones-Drew has rushed for at least 100 yards in his past five games and helped Jacksonville win four of its past five to take over first place in the AFC South? Would you say that man would be an MVP candidate? I would.

2. Michael Vick, QB, Eagles: Yes, he’s missed three games because of injury, but other than that, Vick is, bar none, one of the best quarterbacks in the league and he’s having a career season in a year in which he wasn’t supposed to be the starter (you might have forgotten about a guy named Kevin Kolb). He could, throughout his career, always change the game’s dynamic with his running ability (and he’s got 467 rushing yards, a 6.3 average and six scores this season), but he’s showcased his arm this year as well (63.8 completion percentage, 2,243 yards, 15 TDs, two INTs). He is absolutely a complete quarterback and absolutely an MVP candidate.

1. Matt Ryan, QB, Falcons: The “Matty Ice” moniker has already worn thin – unlike the “Pocket Hercules” nickname for Jones-Drew – but there’s no question that it’s reflective of his playing ability. Even when he doesn’t play altogether well – an example would be last week in Tampa Bay – he still somehow finds a way to lead Atlanta to a win. At this point, the Falcons are the best team in the NFC, and Ryan is the biggest reason for that. If Brady falls off in the last month of the year, my vote at this point would go to Ryan.

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Posted on: December 6, 2010 4:19 am
 

10 stories worth your attention Week 13

Posted by Andy Benoit

1.) Panic in IndyP. Manning (US Presswire)

The story here is that this was the top story last week. The Colts lost at home because they couldn’t run the ball against a 3-4 defense (San Diego’s) and Peyton Manning threw four picks, two of them for touchdowns, thanks to a handful of uncharacteristic misreads. No one expected to see a rerun of this disaster, but that’s exactly what Indy produced Sunday.
And so now the Colts, having lost four of five, are 6-6 and on pace to miss the playoffs for the first time since Jim Mora’s famous rant. Panic time? Not really.

The Colts still controls their own destiny. Their remaining four games are: @ Tennessee (Thursday night), vs. Jacksonville, @ Oakland and vs. Tennessee. If the Colts win out, they’ll finish 10-6. Even if the currently-first place Jaguars finish 10-6, the Colts would win the tiebreaker because they’d be 4-2 in division games (like Jacksonville) and one game better than the Jags against common opponents.

The Colts are losing primarily because of Manning’s mistakes (both pick-six’s against the Cowboys were his fault). Eleven interceptions have the active legend coming off arguably the worst three-game stretch of his career. But to bet against the Colts would be to bet that Manning continues to blow it. Is that a bet you really want to make?



2.) The AFC’s new best running back

We can thank one guy for giving us a great divisional race in the AFC South this year: Maurice Jones-Drew. On Sunday, not only did Jones-Drew’s Jaguars put away the now also-ran Titans (aka The Team That Allegedly Signed Randy Moss), but Jones-Drew officially catapulted himself ahead of Chris Johnson in running back pecking order of the AFC. M. Jones-Drew (US Presswire)

Jacksonville’s 5’7” bowling ball outrushed Johnson 186-53. The 186 marked a career-high and extended Jones-Drew’s 100-yard streak to five games (another career high). If not for our understandable infatuation with quarterbacks, Jones-Drew would garner serious MVP consideration. It is not a hyperbole to say he has Michael Turner’s tackle-breaking ability, Darren McFadden’s acceleration, Steven Jackson’s vision, Ray Rice’s hands, Frank Gore’s heart and Clinton Portis’ pass-blocking prowess. Because of his often unheralded contributions on third down (blocking, decoy routes, etc.), Jones-Drew means more to the Jaguars offense than any non-quarterback means to any other offense in football.

This has actually been the case the past few years. The difference this season is that Jones-Drew is not doing it utterly alone (at least not lately). Experience has afforded backup running back Rashad Jennings a much better feel for the speed and angles of the pro game, and the youngster is now good for about 40 yards a week off the bench. Tight end Marcedes Lewis has sprouted into a consistent intermediate receiving weapon, which has forced linebackers to worry about more than just Jacksonville’s backfield. And finally, the Jaguars offensive line has gelled as a run-blocking unit, despite a few personnel changes (namely Ebon Britton being out at right tackle and Vince Manuwai moving back to left guard and replacing Justin Smiley).

But take MJD out of the equation and none of the players mentioned above would be thriving. And, thus, neither would the first-place Jaguars.



3.) Running Power

While we’re slurping the ground game, have you noticed the number of lopsided rushing performances we’ve had lately? Take a look at what has transpired the past two weeks.

Week 14:

Jaguars outrush Titans 258-57 and win

Vikings outrush Bills 210-84 and win

Giants outrush Redskins 197-74 and win

Raiders outrush Chargers 251-21 and win

Cowboys outrush Colts 217-40 and win (by the way, it probably would have been fair to Manning if these 217 yards had been mentioned in the opening section about the Colts’ struggles…)

Week 13

Steelers outrush Bills 206-74 and win

Jaguars outrush Giants 207-135 but lose (only 61 yards in second half for Jags)

Vikings outrush Redskins 137-29 and win

Texans outrush Titans 188-24 and win

Dolphins outrush Raiders 186-16 and win

Chiefs outrush Seahawks 270-20 and win

Chargers outrush Colts 129-24 and win

49ers outrush Cardinals 261-13

Jets outrush Bengals 170-46

Don’t mean to pull a Stevie Johnson and go all caps on you here, but LOOK AT THOSE NUMBERS!!! Look how many games these past two weeks have been decided by teams that have utterly DOMINATED on the ground. We’re not talking about teams merely establishing the run and controlling tempo – we’re talking about teams outrushing opponents by 125, 180, even 200-plus yards!

Look, it could just be an aberration. Seriously, it could. If we’ve learned anything over the past five seasons or so, it’s that the NFL is a quarterback-driven league and that the teams that win are the teams that make plays through the air. Two weeks of startling run statistics don’t overturn five years of rock-solid passing evidence. But these running numbers are certainly something to keep an eye on. We’ll check back on it next week.



4.) The secret favorites of the NFC…?

Sorry Bears fans, this bit isn’t about your team (though for the record, I’ll admit that your team’s offense has figured out its pass protection issues and all the individual offensive players seem to have found their niche in Mike Martz’s system). This bit is about the New York Giants.
B. Jacobs (US Presswire)
The Giants were able to run at will against a Redskins defense that seemed to a.) Have 11 Albert Haynesworths on the field Sunday and b.) Probably missed the services of their actual Albert Haynesworth

The Giants hope to get wideouts Steve Smith (pec) and Hakeem Nicks (lower leg procedure) back in Week 14. Left tackle David Diehl (hamstring) is also nearing a return. All three will be joining a team that is 8-4 and running the ball with tremendous effectiveness. Ahmad Bradshaw got 25 carries Sunday and went over 1,000 yards on the season. And though Brandon Jacobs’ return to a starting role appears to be only titular – Jacobs carried the ball just eight times Sunday – the 265-pound freight train looks reinvigorated. Jacobs produced 103 yards and two scores against Washington; last week he gained 87 yards in a win over Jacksonville.

Jacobs evokes memories of another running back from New York: Shonn Greene in ’09. The Jets elevated the role of their bruising runner late last season and watched the rookie punish defenses that simply couldn’t match his freshness. The Giants appear to be in a position for similar results with Jacobs.

On the other side of the ball, New York’s four-man pass-rush is clicking. Justin Tuck continues to play like an All-World force. Osi Umenyiora has cooled from his torrid early-season pace (Umenyiora’s sack against Washington was his first since Week 6) but rookie Jason Pierre-Paul now fills almost any void. The über-athletic long-armed first-rounder has posted two sacks in back-to-back games.
We know better than to hang our hats on the Giants when expectations are high (Tom Coughlin is never more than two weeks away from a hot seat), but all evidence suggests that this soon-to-be-healthy team is peeking.



5.) Slugfest!

On Saturday night, I was explaining to a friend why American Gangster is my favorite movie of all time. Because of the star-studded cast of characters (Denzel, Russell Crowe, directed by Ridley Scott), R rating (which, let’s face it, is a MUST if you’re going to make a veritable gangster movie) and naturally compelling storyline (a true story about innovative Harlem drug dealerB. Roethlisberger (US Presswire) Frank Lucas) I went into that movie with dangerously high expectations. The type of expectations that can only be fulfilled by being surpassed. Remarkably, American Gangster did just that. (How it wasn’t even nominated for Best Picture in ’07 is still a mystery.)

The Ravens-Steelers game Sunday night was the American Gangster of NFL games. It was a primetime game that more than lived up. We got the fist fighting chess match we all expected. We got the tight finish driven by big plays. And, like with Denzel and Crowe, the stars showed up.

Ben Roethlisberger’s foot seemed to get healthier as the night unfolded (which is odd because, from what I hear about painkilling shots, they tend to wear off over time). How great was Roethlisberger’s throwaway on first-and-10 late in the fourth quarter when Terrell Suggs had him in the grasp? Almost as great as Cris Collinsworth said it was (which means it was a 9.9/10). Suggs was phenomenal the entire night, once again proving he’s the best playside run-defending OLB in football and impossible for guys like Steelers backup-turned-starting left tackle Jonathan Scott to contain on passing downs.

The Roethlisberger throwaway play was originally made possible by Troy Polamalu’s forced fumble on Joe Flacco. It was Polamalu’s second individual play in the backfield that night (he had an impressive stop on Willie McGahee in the first half) and second consecutive game-changing performance in the closing minutes of a close contest. Polamalu’s late-game brilliance at Buffalo and Baltimore highlight the difference between star and superstar.

Of course, if Joe Flacco doesn’t short-arm the final fourth-and-two pass to Ed Dickson, we might be talking about how Baltimore’s third-year quarterback has orchestrated two game-winning touchdown drives against the vaunted Steeler defense this season. (Think that might have accelerated Flacco’s rise to the top quarterbacking echelon in the court of public opinion?)

Tough loss for the Ravens, though in a game like this, you have to first say “great win for the Steelers.” Before we move on, a few more quick notes from this one:

**Fans can be quick to criticize Steelers cornerback Bryant McFadden. On Sunday night he was, in a word, awful. But don’t rush to the conclusion that the sixth-year pro can’t play. Overall, McFadden is one of the soundest No. 2 corners in the game. He’s always had trouble regaining his traction when things start to slip – that’s why the Cardinals gladly let him return to Pittsburgh – but that doesn’t mean he slips very often.

**Rashard Mendenhall has been fantastic this season (in this game he became the eighth rusher this season to surpass the 1,000-yard mark) but he needs to be called out for his alligator arms on the pass in the flats where Terrell Suggs was bearing down on him. Those weren’t even alligator arms – they were snake arms. Hard to blame a guy for not wanting to take a shot from Suggs (especially when Suggs, at the time, was bleeding profusely from the mouth and almost literally looking rabid). But Mendenhall will be blamed – did you see Roethlisberger’s reaction to Mendenhall’s snake arms?

**You have to believe that Haloti Ngata is the best defensive lineman in the NFL simply because that’s what every single announcer says every single week.

**The Ravens were just 4/13 on third down, but two of those four conversions were on 10-plus-yards-to-go situations on their first half touchdown drive.



6.) Bengals-Saints

Say what you will about Marvin Lewis’ club, but that’s a group that knows how to give. And that group hasn’t just started giving because of the holidays. No, that’s a group that has been giving all season long. Did you see the way they gave the Saints a ninth win on the season Sunday? (By the way, that’s two weeks in a row now that Drew Brees has led a game-winning last second comeback drive on the road. He’s not exactly beating teams known for their mettle and heart, but in the NFL, a win is a win – especially on the road.)
C. Palmer (US Presswire)
One play from this game in particular stood out (think you can probably guess which one). The Saints, trailing by three, had fourth-and-two on Cincy’s seven-yard line with 34 seconds left. They lined up for one of those “try to get the defense to jump offsides” plays in which the defense never jumps offsides. Except this time Bengals defensive tackle Pat Sims DID jump offsides. Saints defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis, apparently unaware of the federal law prohibiting all players from saying anything real or the least bit honest about an opponent after a game, couldn’t help but talk about the gaffe. "What is that guy doing”, Ellis asked rhetorically. “You have to be smarter than that."

Yup, you do. Otherwise, you put your team behind in a position to fall behind (the Saints followed through on the inevitable by scoring a go-ahead touchdown immediately after Sims’ mistake) and you give your quarterback a chance to make a major error in clock management.

That’s the part of this equation that might get overlooked. After the Saints pulled ahead, Bernard Scott put the Bengals in good field position with a solid kick return. Carson Palmer completed a short pass to fullback Brian Leonard for 14 yards, leaving the ball at New Orleans’ 37. That’s where the Bengals needed to use their final timeout with 13 seconds left (and note to broadcasters worldwide: that would not have been the Bengals “burning” their final timeout; it’s not “burning” a timeout if you’re using it to preserve precious seconds on a final drive). But instead of calling timeout, Palmer tried to line the offense up to spike the ball. It took five seconds before he realized that was a terrible idea.

So the Bengals burned not their final timeout, but rather, five crucial seconds before using their final timeout. Then during the timeout they set up the perfect play to allow Saints safety Roman Harper to blitz clean and end the game with a sack.

All in all, this game was a classic case of one team knowing how to win and another knowing how to lose. And, afterwards, we finally got some postgame gripes from the league’s most targeted wide receiver: “Dude, it doesn’t matter if I’m 46 (years old) or 47, I ball when I’m out there,” Terrell Owens said in a tone that seemed to say don't you understand??? “(Me saying this) is not a distraction. All I want is opportunities…The film don’t lie. The film don’t lie. Watch it. Watch it.”



7.) The story we just can’t shake

It’s not fair – by virtue of them playing the Bills, we were supposed to get a break from all Vikings stories (and thus all Brett Favre stories) this week. Instead, Favre took a nasty blow on the third play of the game, injured his shoulder and didn’t return. There’s probably some complicated-sounding name for whatever injury Favre has. And he’ll probably be questionable for the upcoming Giants game. And now we’ll probably be forced to talk about the streak and the concept of the Vikings building for the future, etc.

What makes this week’s story particularly irritating is that we got to see Tarvaris Jackson play. Whether you like Jackson or not is irrelevant. The problem is that by Jackson playing, we now have actual footage of the young quarterback (who, in his fifth season is not actually young) taking snaps for the 2010 Vikings. This means there is actually something to talk about with Jackson. Which means we’re going to have “Favre or Jackson” debates all week.

We can debate whether Jackson’s three interceptions (including that ugly pick-six to Drayton Florence) are a sign that he’s nowhere near ready to replace Favre or a sign that he’s so ready to replace Favre that, look!, he practically IS Favre. We can hold the same debate about the athleticism Jackson flashed in making sandlot plays to Sidney Rice (two touchdowns).

In the end, we’re still talking about an over-covered 5-7 team that’s all but out of playoff contention. Except now, that 5-7 team is 2-0 under interim head coach Leslie Frazier and is technically NOT out of playoff contention. So we might get to talk about Minnesota’s playoff chances, as well. Can’t wait.



8.) How the NFC West will be won

Instead of “how the West will be won”, perhaps a more appropriate headline would be something along the lines of “how one team will technically not lose the West”. Let’s hope the team that doesn’t lose the West is either the Rams or Seahawks. Both of those clubs won on Sunday. The Rams beat Derek Anderson and the hilarious Cardinals (who may now have to hang their hat on rookie quarterback John Skelton moving forward), while the Seahawks swarmed Jimmy Clausen and the putrid Panthers. Both clubs are 6-6.
St. Louis (US Presswire)
The Rams and Seahawks both have a game left against the hapless 49ers (who, by the way, verified in their loss at Green Bay that their quarterback can only throw what he sees and can only make simplified reads like on screen passes or play-action bootlegs). If both teams can beat those Niners, then the worst-case scenario we’d have in the West would be the 7-8 Rams and 7-8 Seahawks squaring off in a “win and you’re in” Week 17 showdown. That would ensure at least a .500 division winner.

But should the Niners beat either the Rams or Seahawks in the next few weeks, we’ll probably get the 7-9, or perhaps even 6-10, division champion that we’re dreading. Then the discussion will be a clash between two sides of common sense. One common sense side will say that a 7-9 team should never be in a tournament in which a 10-6 team is left out. The other common sense side will say that the NFL cannot rewrite its playoff rules on the fly simply because it doesn’t like what those rules produced.

The latter common sense side will win, of course. This entire mess has come about because the league didn’t fix this problem when it had a chance. In 2008, the 8-8 Chargers stole a playoff spot from the 11-5 Patriots by virtue of the Chargers winning the pathetic AFC West. In the ensuing offseason, the league should have decreed that only teams with winning records have their playoff spots guaranteed. (Or, the league could have at least ruled that no .500 or below team gets in the playoffs at the expense of a team that is three games better in the standings).

Instead, the league sat idly by and essentially said, “This scenario doesn’t happen often anyway. And besides, those 8-8 Chargers wound up knocking off the Colts that year, so you can’t say they didn’t deserve it.”

Problem was, those Chargers DIDN’T deserve it. To say they deserved a chance based on their playoff performance is to say that the regular season is basically insignificant. Let’s hope the Rams or Seahawks don’t get a chance to suggest that the regular season is insignificant.



9.) The Chargers may not deserve it now, either

A funny thing happened on San Diego’s way to the postseason Sunday. The Raiders went into Qualcomm Stadium and completed a season sweep of the Chargers. It was a September-esque performance from the Chargers: turnovers early and a few special teams gaffes (Darren Sproles muffed punt, Nate Kaeding missed 50-yard field goal…which probably isn’t a GAFFE, per se, but whatever, it helps the storyline).

If you picked this game corJ. Charles (US Presswire)rectly, then congratulations, you know nothing about pro football. There’s no way anyone could have intelligently predicted the Raiders to win going in. The evidence just wasn’t there. Darren McFadden had rushed for 16 yards on 18 carries the previous two weeks. Facing the league’s top-ranked defense, he gained 97 yards on19 carries. Backup Michael Bush added 95 on 23 carries. Oakland’s unforeseeable rushing success was the difference Sunday.

For San Diego, the loss was their first in 18 December games. They’re now 6-6 and two games back of a Chiefs team that they could have been battling for first place next week.

And say, how about those Chiefs? Three weeks removed from getting tagged for 49 points by the Broncos, Kansas City’s defense holds Josh McDaniels’ men to two field goals. Outside linebacker Tamba Hali renewed his ownership of normally-outstanding offensive tackle Ryan Clady. Unheralded corner Brandon Carr stifled the league’s leading receiver, Brandon Lloyd. (Though he didn’t shut Lloyd out the way Champ Bailey shutout Dwayne Bowe).

On the other side of the ball, Kansas City got more stellar play from Matt Cassel (he’s now up to 23 touchdowns on the season and still has just four picks) and was able to lean on the explosiveness of Jamaal Charles (his 116 yards on 15 carries left him third in the NFL in total rushing on the season leaving Sunday). Worth noting is that a big reason Charles is averaging nearly 95 yards per game on the ground and 6.2 yards per carry (the all-time single season record is 6.4, held by Jim Brown) is because he often enjoys big-play springing edge blocks from wide receivers and tight ends. That fundamental excellence goes a long way towards creating a consistent attack.

We can’t talk about this game without overhyping McDaniels-Todd Haley Handshake II. Haley surprised McDaniels by going in for a full hug after the game. It was the same tactic Bill Belichick pulled on Eric Mangini a few years ago. Annoyed by the media distraction that their icy relationship caused, Belichick used a warm hug to essentially douse cold water on a hot feud. It worked for him and it will probably work for Haley. No one will bring up his relationship with McDaniels again this season. And perhaps not next season, either, as McDaniels, now 5-17 in his last 22 games, may not be around.



10.) Quick Hits

**Falcons kick returner Eric Weems deserves heavy Pro Bowl consideration. His touchdown return against the Bucs was not only spectacular, it changed the tenor of the game. Lat week, Weems had a big return to set up Atlanta’s game-winning drive against the Packers.

**The Bucs-Falcons game was a good one, too. Matt Ryan was his usual cool self late. Josh Freeman continued to flash star potential. And the Bucs as a whole, though once again coming up short against a plus-.500 team, proved that they’re not a fluke. Tampa Bay has improved in the trenches on both sides of the ball.

**The early window games were slim pickings. It was the kind of schedule where I chose what game to watch on my main TV based on what uniforms I thought would look best on the field together. I picked Packers-Niners….only to discover that Green Bay was busting out some hideous blue and brown throwbacks.

**Would you believe that Jeff Fisher’s Titans led the league in presnap penalties coming into Sunday?

**And would you believe that the Saints’ stud right guard, Jahri Evans, leads the league with eight holding penalties?

**Didn’t mention Knowshon Moreno in the Broncos-Chiefs write up above. The second-year running back had by far his best game as a pro (161 yards on 23 carries). His juke moves had the exaggerated effectiveness of the juke moves on the Madden video game from about six or seven years ago.

**I didn’t like Drew Stanton’s touchdown dance. I didn’t like the dance itself (hope it’s okay to say this: it wasn’t a dance designed for white guys) and I didn’t like that he even did it. Quarterbacks pump their fist or spike the ball out of raw emotion all the time (see Brady, Rodgers, Roethlisberger). But none of them dance. It’s just not kosher – especially when you’re a second-round bust who is serving as a third-stringer on a two-win team.

**Cameron Wake had a big sack on Jake Delhomme late in Miami’s heartbreaking loss against Cleveland. Unfortunately for Wake and the Dolphins, the problem with sacking Delhomme is that it’s the only way to ensure that he doesn’t throw an interception.

**Going back to the Falcons-Bucs game real quick: hopefully for Brent Grimes people were watching this one, because if they were, the athletic and highly underrated Falcons cornerback probably punched his ticket to Hawaii.

**How’s this for salt in the Cardinals fans’ wound: Kurt Warner was in the broadcast booth for the St. Louis-Arizona game.

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