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Tag:Lovie Smith
Posted on: November 8, 2011 12:24 am
 

Impressive Bears have turned around their season

B. Urlacher tackles L. McCoy (AP).Posted by Josh Katzowitz

For a second there, the Bears looked like they were in trouble. The Bears had dominated the early part of the game, taking a 10-point lead, and with Jay Cutler playing well and Matt Forte showing why he deserves to sign a large contract extension, Chicago was simply playing tougher than the Eagles.

But with Forte losing two fumbles -- he hadn’t put the ball on the ground in more than a calendar year -- the Eagles scored 14 points off those miscues, and though the Bears seemed tougher, Philadelphia took a touchdown lead after LeSean McCoy’s 33-yard rushing touchdown. Suddenly, Cutler was atrocious and the Bears couldn’t do anything right.

And yet …

And yet, the Bears 30-24 comeback victory showed us something important. That Chicago, in one of the toughest divisions in the league, is good enough to be a playoff team. That, when Cutler gets plenty of time to throw by his offensive line -- which allowed Cutler to get smashed repeatedly earlier this season but didn’t allow a sack tonight -- he perhaps can be one of the NFL’s elite quarterbacks. That, the Bears can compete with the Lions, Cowboys, Falcons and, yes, the Eagles to grab one of those NFC wild card spots.

In the NFC North this year, you tend to forget about the Bears, considering you’ve got the all-world Packers at 8-0 and the uprising Lions at 6-2. But after tonight’s win, the Bears are 5-3 and after pounding the Vikings and beating the Buccaneers in London, they're on a three-game winning streak. And showing plenty of toughness.

Chicago isn’t the most talented team in the division. Forte is one of the best backs around, but Cutler runs hot and cold and the receivers are less than stellar (except for Earl Bennett, who returned tonight after missing the past five games and caught five passes for 95 yards and a touchdown). The defense features Brian Urlacher, Julius Peppers and Israel Idonije. But it’s also ranked 25th in the league, and the Bears have allowed at least 24 points on four occasions this season.

And yet …

And yet, tonight the Bears made Jeremy Maclin and DeSean Jackson -- who also fumbled a punt return that led to Bears points -- irrelevant, contained Michael Vick and only allowed 330 yards, a season low for the Eagles.

Four weeks ago, the Bears were going nowhere at 2-3, and some of us wondered if coach Lovie Smith’s job was in danger. But now they’re one of the hotter teams in the NFC, though not as hot as Green Bay, and they’ll get one more shot at the Lions and the Packers. Both squads beat Chicago earlier this season.

And yet …

And yet, this might be a different Bears team. A Bears team that has the playoffs squarely in its line of sight.

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Posted on: October 28, 2011 5:23 pm
Edited on: October 28, 2011 5:32 pm
 

Lions claim Chris Harris off waivers

Chris Harris faced the Lions in Week 6. On Friday, he joined them. (US PRESSWIRE)

Posted by Ryan Wilson

On Thursday morning, the Bears released safety Chris Harris. A day later, he's been claimed off waivers by the Lions, according to his agent Albert Elias.

Incidentally, it was Harris' performance against Detroit in Week 6 that led to his benching. After sitting out the Vikings game, he was back on the field last Sunday in London, when Chicago beat Tampa Bay.

In Detroit, Louis Delmas and Amari Spievey will remain the starting safeties, but Harris will add depth to a secondary that lost Erik Coleman to injured reserve earlier this month, and Vince Fuller met the same fate Friday afternoon.

Harris, who led the Bears with five interceptions last season, hasn't been as productive this season and that, in part, led to his release.

“It’s the body of work,” Chicago head coach Lovie Smith said, via the Chicago Sun-Times, “and just not one thing. Then it’s just a gut feeling, as a head football coach. I felt like we needed to go in a different direction. …

“We don’t all of a sudden wake up one morning and just say, ‘Hey, we’re going to go this direction.’ It’s a pattern,” Smith said, “and I feel good about the decision we had to make. It is a business and, for us, it’s about production. We felt like we had some other options that we felt pretty good about, at the safety position.”

To Harris' credit, he took it all in stride, spending much of Thursday accepting well-wishes from the Twitterverse, and even he managed to get off quite possibly the best job-related tweet ever. (Upside: at least Harris wasn't stealing boxes.)


If you don't get the reference, then shame on you -- and here's a handy video clip (naughty language alert).

By claiming Harris on waivers, the Lions assume the remaining $644,000 on his contract this year. And in case you're wondering, the Lions face the Bears on November 13. 


Tim Tebow was impressive last week in his first start which led to an overtime win. Can the Broncos repeat as they prepare to take on Matthew Stafford and the Detroit Lions this week? NFL.com's Pat Kirwan and Jason Horowitz preview this game.

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Posted on: October 21, 2011 7:59 pm
 

Local cuisine hampers one Buccaneer

B. Urlacher practices cricket in London (AP).Posted by Josh Katzowitz

When the Bears and Buccaneers meet this Sunday in London, there’s a decent chance that one or both teams will still be suffering from jet lag (from the long airplane ride to the UK and from the five-hour (Tampa Bay) or the six-hour (Chicago) body clock change).

The other day, we touched on the Bears decision to arrive in London a scant two days before the game and that Lovie Smith said his team surely be fine: “For us, we wanted to keep a regular game-week routine in place and that's what we're doing. As far as getting acclimated, you can bog your mind down with all of that talk. We're going to go there. We'll be there Friday. We're leaving Thursday from here. That's plenty of time."

I wrote, however, that the previous two years have showed that the team that arrives in London first -- whether it’s 17 hours or three days -- has had the easier time adjusting* and also, perhaps not coincidentally, won the game (that hasn’t stopped three of the five CBSSports.com Expert Pickers  from taking Chicago in this one).

*I’ll admit that I’m not sure how playing too much cricket (as you see from Brian Urlacher in the photo) affects your ability to play football.

Well, here’s one caveat to that opinion. Local foods can wreak havoc with your digestive system, and that apparently has what’s happened to Buccaneers defensive end Adrian Clayborn.

According to the Tampa Tribune, Clayborn had a meal of fish and chips after arriving with his teammates Monday night. It did sit quite right.

“It didn't sit well with me at all,” Clayborn said. “It messed up my stomach bad. It won't keep me from playing, though.”

So, the counter to jetlag is food poisoning apparently. Unfortunately for the Bears, just about everyone on their team could be jetlagged. Probably not everybody from Tampa Bay will have stomach issues.

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Posted on: October 20, 2011 9:08 am
Edited on: October 20, 2011 12:46 pm
 

Bucs should have advantage with early trip

SmithPosted by Josh Katzowitz

Last year when the 49ers met the Broncos in London, it was clear to then-San Francisco linebacker Takeo Spikes that arriving in England a few days before Denver made a big difference.

“I think it helped (to leave early),” he told me in a Five Questions (or more) interview. “To be honest, we got there Monday morning, and we didn’t recover until that Thursday. That’s when everybody’s bodies were back on schedule. I can’t even imagine doing what Denver wanted to do and expect them to feel well-rested and alert. I know for us, even on Wednesday, I still couldn’t go to sleep on time. … I talked to them when they got off the plane on Thursday, and they said they felt fine. But damn, it must have been tough.”

Apparently, Bears coach Lovie Smith still believes the Broncos approach can work for his squad. Although the Buccaneers, who play Chicago this Sunday in London, left for the UK on Monday, Chicago won’t hop on a plane until Thursday, arriving in London on Friday. That means the Bears will have only two days to get their bodies acclimated before playing Sunday.

Smith doesn’t see a potential problem.

“For us, we wanted to keep a regular game-week routine in place and that's what we're doing,” he said, via the Tampa Tribune. “As far as getting acclimated, you can bog your mind down with all of that talk. We're going to go there. We'll be there Friday. We're leaving Thursday from here. That's plenty of time."

Tampa Bay has tried to have a normal work week as well. The Buccaneers took Tuesday off, like they normally would, to sight-see around London and then got ready to have normal practices Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

"Getting our players here early and getting them acclimated to the city, letting them have the day off here (on Tuesday) to do whatever they want kind of takes the angst away from coming in at the end of the week,'' Bucs coach Raheem Morris said from England.

Another key reason for the early travel schedule. Getting the team acclimated to the Wembley Stadium turf.

"That's why we came here on Monday,” Buccaneers general manager Mark Dominik said. “Because the Wembley field is just like that. It's slipperier than what you expect, so it's important for our guys to be able to practice on it and with the right cleats on.''

The Buccaneers tried the Smith approach two years ago, and they were easily beaten by the Patriots 35-7. New England had arrived 17 hours before Tampa Bay -- which, granted, isn’t a big difference, but it is something. And with the 49ers easily beating the Broncos last season -- when San Francisco got to town three days earlier -- you’d think the Bears would be paying attention to the mini-trend.

But you’d be wrong.

"You can get as much rest as you need," Smith said. "We're going to end up playing the game at 12 o'clock, Chicago time. I don't think that's an issue at all. I think normally when you go overseas, I think the best football team normally wins. It's as simple as that. That's what will happen this time around."

Maybe, or perhaps jet lag will play a big part in a Tampa Bay win.



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Posted on: October 17, 2011 11:30 am
 

Cutler 'shocked' anyone would kick to Hester

Look familiar, Bears' opponents? Please quit kicking to Devin Hester(US PRESSWIRE)

Posted by Ryan Wilson

It's amazing what Jay Cutler can accomplish when he isn't constantly running for his life. Against the Vikings Sunday night, the Bears quarterback was 21 of 31 for 267 yards, with two touchdowns and no interceptions. He was a big reason for Chicago's 39-10 victory over a hapless Minnesota team. Also helping: the Vikings' insistence on kicking to Devin Hester, a Hall of Fame returner if there ever was one.

Hester had a 98-yard kick return in the third quarter, a 27-yard punt return, and for good measure, a 48-yard touchdown reception.

“I think the shocking part for us is that people still kick to him because he’s such a threat,” Cutler said after the game. “And we know he is taking a shot, he might take one to the house, so it’s fun.”

And that's the thing: why do teams keep kicking to Hester? What rational explanation could there be? Two weeks ago, the Panthers were reminded of just how dangerous Hester is. We brought it up during Week 4's Coach Killers column but apparently it bears repeating: Did we learn nothing from Mike Shanahan, or Tony Dungy or, more generally speaking, Tom Coughlin and Matt Dodge?

The Panthers might've beaten the Bears if not for two bone-headed special teams miscues that involved kicking or punting the ball right to Hester. The Vikings still would've gotten blown out Sunday night, but the point remains: it doesn't take any talent to kick (hey, having Chicago start at the 40 is better than the alternative) or punt the ball out of bounds.

“It’s exciting when you’ve got a guy back there you know is a difference-maker and if you get your block and if everybody gets their blocks, he can make guys miss and make things happen,” tight end Matt Spaeth said Sunday night, according to ChicagoBears.com. “It’s exciting to be out there.”

Yeah, we bet.

Coach Lovie Smith added: “There’s never been anyone like him. ... We're all kind of witnessing history every time he touches it.”

And that's the truth. PFT's Michael David Smith points out that "Hester has 11 punt return touchdowns, five kickoff return touchdowns and one missed field goal return touchdown in his NFL career."

No one has done that, and it's why Hester will likely one day end up in Canton sporting a spiffy yellow blazer.

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Posted on: October 12, 2011 11:30 am
Edited on: October 14, 2011 9:43 am
 

Film Room: Bears vs. Vikings preview

Posted by Eye on Football Analyst Andy Benoit



Few people are excited about this week’s Sunday Night game. The 1-4 Vikings and 2-3 Bears look like non-contenders in an NFC North division housing a pair of 5-0 clubs. This Film Room post is not about the Bears-Vikings game. We’ll touch on the matchup towards the end simply because it’d be weird not to. But the main point here is to examine why the Tampa 2 defense – which both these teams run – is on its death bed.



1. Tampa 2: What it is
The Tampa 2 (aka Cover 2) is a classic zone scheme. Four pass-rushers up front; three linebackers underneath; a left and right cornerback outside; and, as the "2" refers to, two safeties over the top.

Against the pass, as the illustration to the right (click to enlarge) shows, the safeties each cover half the field deep. The linebackers and cornerbacks each cover 1/5th of the field underneath. The middle linebacker is responsible for any vertical routes inside. Up front, the linemen shoot the gaps. There’s no blitzing.

The advantages are that all pass defenders have straightforward responsibilities and the action (for the most part) always takes place in front of them. As for the disadvantage ...

2. Run Defense
In football there are two traditional ways to stop the run: have a defensive line that wins battles in the trenches or have a strong-tackling safety drop down as an eighth man in the box. A Cover 2 naturally misses on both of these. The defensive linemen are instructed to rush the passer first and play the run if it’s convenient along the way.

Defensive line penetration is great for stopping the run, but it can be hit or miss (especially if the offense knows that the defensive linemen are trying to penetrate on every play). The safeties must stay back and cover deep. If they step forward, they run the risk of biting on play-action (which is a great way to get beat deep).

Because of this, Tampa 2 defenses rely on their linebackers and cornerbacks (yes, cornerbacks) to stop the run. More on this in item 4.
Worth noting is that not all Tampa 2 defenses are bad against the run. In fact, the Vikings and Bears have been spectacular in run defense over the years. That’s a product of phenomenal personnel.

The Vikings have had the Williams Wall at tackle (and Pat Williams actually played a nose tackle role, which is a twist on a traditional Cover 2 front) and the Bears have had star linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs. But Tampa 2 teams without top-echelon run-stuffers (like the Colts) are very susceptible to the run.

3. Tampa 2 vulnerabilities
Cover 2 defenses are vanilla by nature. That was fine in the late 90s and early 2000s when the scheme was still new and offenses weren’t spreading the field every down. But complex, motion-oriented offenses have an easy time creating mismatches against a Cover 2.

Heck, even basic offensive formations can create mismatches. For example, something the Eagles do against a Cover 2 is line up their speedy receivers in minus splits (close to the formation).

Because Cover 2 cornerbacks always line up outside, this formation dictates that DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin run their routes against linebackers and safeties. Talk about a mismatch.

There are other avenues for mismatches. For a long time, Cover 2 defenses did not have No. 1 and No. 2 corners, but instead, left and right corners. If the left corner stunk, offenses would simply align their best receiver over there. Mercifully, most Cover 2 defenses (the Bears and Vikings included) have recently shown a willingness to at least move their corners from one side to the other based on where they expect certain receivers to be.

That still doesn’t mean a defense will get the corner-on-receiver matchup it desires. This past Monday, Calvin Johnson ran what amounted to a slant-and-go against the Bears’ Cover 2. Charles Tillman stayed with Johnson for about 15 yards. He should have jammed Johnson in an effort to reroute him. Instead, he played the basic Cover 2 technique, which meant he let Johnson go once Johnson went inside towards safety Chris Harris’ deep zone. That left the most athletic wideout in the world matched up on a strong safety. The result was a 73-yard touchdown.

Besides matchup issues, there are natural voids in the Cover 2 that everyone knows about. The gaps 15-20 yards downfield outside the numbers are the main ones, though the voids behind the linebackers in the seams can be enticing too. Really, Cover 2 is the new Prevent Defense. And because the Cover 2 became such a popular defense in the early 2000s, every offense in the NFL has a special chapter in its playbook specifically designed for beating it.

4. Stringent personnel needs
Obviously, a Cover 2 is not a completely hapless defense. If it were, nobody would run it. With the right personnel, the scheme can be quite viable. A great defensive line can sometimes be enough; look at the 2011 Lions or previous years’ Colts, for example (But keep in mind, great defensive lines are going to make any scheme look good.)

Because of the Cover 2’s simplicity and NFL offense’s familiarity with it, the “right personnel” has gone from being “strongly recommended” to “absolutely required”. And the bar for the “right personnel” has risen considerably.

In a Cover 2, you must generate a pass-rush with only four defensive linemen. Thus, you need top-notch speed rushers and defensive tackles with outstanding initial quickness. Those types of players are usually found only in the first rounds.
 
Because the cornerbacks only defend the first 10-15 yards outside, and because the safeties are aligned so deep, Cover 2 cornerbacks are counted on as part of the run defense. Thus, they need to be good tacklers. This is why Antoine Winfield is so potent in Minnesota’s D. Or why, in part, Ronde Barber has stuck around for so long in Tampa Bay. Or why Indianapolis always brings in firm-tackling corners.

It’s also why you’re always hearing about Tampa 2 teams needing fast linebackers. Yes, the linebackers need speed in order to play the pass (especially the middle linebacker, who must run with any targets running vertically between the numbers). But really, Tampa 2 linebacker speed is needed for stopping the run. With the cornerbacks lined up along the front, the defensive linemen are told to shoot the gaps and force runners to that help outside. It’s up to the linebackers to chase them down along the way.

Finding quality Cover 2 type players is certainly not impossible. Problem is, if you don’t have the right guy in every spot, offenses can easily punish you. If a team like the Packers has a weak spot on D, they can use disguises and zone blitz concepts to cover it. If a team like the Bears or Vikings have a weak spot, they can only hope that their defensive ends reach the quarterback before the quarterback exploits it.  

5. Studs and Duds
The star defensive players for both teams have lived up to their end of the deal. For the Bears, middle linebacker Brian Urlacher has moved with more quickness and fluidity than in any of the past three seasons. Monday night’s game aside, Lance Briggs has been the fierce hitter he always is. Julius Peppers has only two sacks, but he’s been a force in bits, if not chunks. Opposite him, Israel Idonije, who has great movement skills and a real feel for executing moves based on the situation, remains one of the most underrated ends in the game.

For the Vikings, Jared Allen has recaptured his 2008/2009 form. End Brian Robison has been fast and tenacious. In fact, he’s having a much better season than Ray Edwards is having in Atlanta. As usual, defensive tackle Kevin Williams has shown his uncommon mobility/power combination. Cornerback Cedric Griffin has been stout in coverage, and E.J. Henderson, while not always great versus the pass, remains a smart, assertive downhill force against the run.
 
The problem is both teams have had a propensity to give up big plays, in part due to iffy play at safety. It’s worse with the Bear than the Vikings. But, on the flip side, the Vikings’ offense has been worse than the Bears’. We could write a thousand posts explaining what’s wrong with both offenses. In short, neither has a good line nor the receivers necessary for their respective systems.

Perhaps this is the week that these offenses find their rhythms through the air. After all, both will be facing plenty of Cover 2 looks.

So who will win? Check our NFL expert picks for all Week 6 games

Follow @Andy_Benoit on Twitter or contact him at Andy.Benoit-at-NFLTouchdown.com.
Posted on: October 3, 2011 12:43 am
Edited on: October 3, 2011 1:36 pm
 

Sorting the Sunday Pile: Week 4


Sorting the Sunday Pile takes all of Sunday's NFL action and figures out the most important storylines for you to digest. Send your complaints, questions and comments to Will Brinson on Twitter.Make sure and listen to our Week 4 podcast review below as well and feel free to subscribe via iTunes.



1. The bandwagon rolls on
On Sunday, the mojo disappeared for the Lions and they fell 24 points behind the Cowboys in Dallas, until Tony Romo decided to drag Detroit back from a lockjob of a defeat with a pair of pick-sixes that sparked a rally in which Matthew Stafford hit Calvin Johnson for two touchdowns and the Lions stunned Dallas 34-30 at Jerry Jones' palatial estate.

There are two ways to look at this. One, Romo is a choker again (more on that in a second) and Dallas stinks. Or, two, the Lions are very much for real. I'm inclined to believe the second narrative. So is Cowboys fan LeBron James.


I'm including this mainly because I find it absolutely hysterical that Ohio native James is a Cowboys fan. I'm sure it has nothing to do with bandwagons. But I'm also including it because James is right -- the Lions do "got swag right now."

This was mentioned after Week 2, when the Lions slammed a beatdown on the Chiefs, and it makes sense to mention now.

That's primarily because the Lions are 4-0 for the first time since 1980 and became the fourth team to start a season 4-0 a year after starting the season 0-4 since 1990. (The impressive nature of that turnaround aside, what a statement on the NFL's parity, huh?)

Take it back even further, and count preseason games and the Lions are on a 12-game winning streak, and once, again, appear to develop some of this attitude from their head coach.

"I'm glad the third best wide receiver on the Cowboys is on our team," Jim Schwartz said after the game.

Naturally you'll recall that Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan had some comments about the skills of Dez Bryant and Miles Austin versus Calvin Johnson before the game.

Schwartz' comments are a straight burn, of course, but it warrants mentioning that Dez did look otherworldly earlier in the game. But Megatron did some dirty things on his two touchdowns to the Dallas defensive backs. On the first catch, he went up in triple coverage and grabbed a ball that probably never should have been a score.

And on the second -- and most important -- score, Johnson scored when he was isolated in single coverage against Terrence Newman. Based on Ryan's theory, Newman's practice against Bryant and Austin should have prepared him for a one-on-one matchup at the goalline.

Unfortunately, Megatron's the biggest freak of nature in the NFL, arguably the best wideout in the league and slicing up some well-deserved humble pie for Ryan after the Lebowski look-a-like tried to put him in man coverage.

2. Hands on Necks
Obviously the Cowboys loss is going to be classified as a chokejob. And it should -- there's no way to classify it as anything other than that, especially when Romo packaged a pair of touchdowns and mailed it the Lions way.

"The games turn, obviously, on turnovers," Romo said. "It's the most important stat in the game. That's why you protect the ball. That's my No. 1 job and I didn't do a well enough job of that today."

The weird thing about the loss is that Dallas is now 2-0 in games where they were "gritty and tough and found a way to win" and 0-2 in games where "Romo peed his pants and threw terrible picks." Or something like that.

The point is that, yes, the Cowboys choked, but it wasn't even the worst choke on Sunday. And perhaps only the third worst -- Dallas was at least playing a very dangerous team in the Lions and even if the game was at home, we've seen Detroit do this before.

There's no real excuse for Buffalo, who was leading 21-3 against the Bengals on Sunday, to lose on a last-second field goal by Mike Nugent. Sure, it was in Cincy and, sure, it was the Bills and we should have seen something coming after buying in so heavily. But losing like that to a Bengals team with a rookie quarterback is just bad news Bears.

And yet it wasn't even the most embarrassing choke of the day. The Eagles deserve some, um, credit for their inability to hold off the 49ers in a home game where they led 23-3 as late as midway through the third quarter.

The Bills and Cowboys can at least hang their respective hats on records that aren't below .500. The Eagles have no such excuse and it's becoming increasingly clear why "offseason winners" isn't always such a nice thing to say about teams in the NFL.



3. Super Bowl champs remain under the radar

Thus far, the Packers have beaten the Saints, the Panthers, the Bears and the Broncos. It's not exactly a murderer's row of great NFL teams, but it's not the four-worst teams in the league either.

And they've looked outstanding on offense, compiling a league-high 148 points en route to a 4-0 record, and giving plenty of folks justification for selecting the Packers to repeat as Super Bowl champions in 2011.

Yet ... no one wants to talk about the success they've had this year.

This is partially because of the other storylines that are permeating the NFL this season, and partially because after last season's late run, we've come to expect this out of Aaron Rodgers and his outstanding teammates.

"Trust me, we don't have it all figured out as a football team," Mike McCarthy said Sunday. "We're 4-0, but we're very in tune with what we need to improve as a team."

The biggest issue is defense, clearly. While the Packers have arguably improved their running game from last year (James Starks looks like a legit back for their system, especially when it comes to melting the clock with a lead), the defense isn't the championship-winning caliber that showed up in the playoffs last year.

Both Kyle Orton and Cam Newton posted big numbers against Green Bay, and though there were some fantastic moments from the defenses in those games, it's difficult to justify any claim that the Packers defense is better this year than it was last year.

Having said all that, this team did a pretty good job of gelling at the right time last year, and they're off to a much better start in 2011. We should all take notice.

4. Hope you sick people are happy now
2011 has been a tough go for anyone who supports Arian Foster, whether it be Texans fans, fantasy owners or just, you now, nice people who care about other humans.

Fortunately, those people got some good karmic returns for their Foster love on Sunday, as he and the Texans took some punches from the Steelers and punched right back, eventually beating Pittsburgh 17-10 on Sunday afternoon. As my man Mike Freeman points out, everything about the win at Reliant Stadium on Sunday goes against the typical stereotype of Texans football.

More on that in a second, but first, Foster. When Gary Kubiak said he was going to bring Foster back against the Steelers, I thought he was insane. After all, the Steelers are (well, were) a top-10 rushing defense.

But Foster looked fantastic. He broke long runs, he showed tremendous burst through holes, when he got around the corner he was able to cut back upfield and pick up big yards and in general he looked like the 2010 version of himself.

"I go into every contest thinking that I'm the go-to guy," Foster said. "When the flow of the game starts going, we need certain things, and you've got to be there for your team."

Hamstrings are tricky, of course, and there's no guarantee that Foster's going to roll to another rushing title or anything. Plus, the Texans offense sputtered a bit (OK, a lot) after Andre Johnson left with a hamstring injury that really looked like a knee injury in the second quarter and that could be problematic going forward.

But at least for now, there's reason to think that the Texans offense can hop back up on Foster's back and ride him to a division title.



5. Sunday night monstrosity
The Ravens opened up on fire to begin the Sunday night game against the Jets, jumping out to a 27-7 lead before eventually winning handily. But, um, well, you see ... that was ugly.

Real ugly -- Joe Flacco limped his way to a 10 for 31 performance that generated 163 passing yards and an interception.

It would have been the ugliest performance on the field, but Mark Sanchez took full advantage of Nick Mangold's absence, and fumbled four times, three of which were lost, two of which were taken to the house by Ravens defenders and also threw a pick-six.

Things got so bad that, at one point, Rex Ryan called a timeout just to scream at the officials. It actually seemed to work, or it at least confused the Ravens and Cam Cameron, who took a 20-point lead with just a few minutes remaining in the second quarter and desperately tried to let the Jets back in the game.

That didn't matter, but it didn't make the performance of Sanchez, Flacco and their respective teams any worse or weirder. There were five defensive and special teams touchdowns in total during the game, most in NFL history and Sanchez' final pass (he finished 11 of 35, ugh) went off the heel of a defender.

What perplexes me isn't the Jets struggling, because, frankly, they were kind of due to regress a bit. I'm sure they'll start getting better, and they might start stopping the run (although I'm sure Cameron won't figure that out!) and running the ball better. They almost always do, just in time to claw their way into the playoffs.

The bigger concern is how the Ravens came out in Week 4, continuing the metronome-like performance for Flacco through a few weeks. At times (against the Steelers and the Rams) he's looked like an elite-level quarterback. And at others (Sunday and against the Titans), he's looked absolutely lost.

If he wants to truly "make the jump," he's going to need to find some consistency.

6. Goin' out east
There was no shortage of different predictions for the team that would win the NFC West. Well, except for the Seahawks. No one predicted that. The typical favorites were the Rams and Cardinals, mainly because of their quarterback play.

The 49ers should have gotten more love, but Alex Smith held them back, and Jim Harbaugh, in his first stop as an NFL head coach, is showing exactly why. His team managed to storm back against the Eagles on Sunday and move into first place in their division, with a firm command of the typically crappy NFC West.

San Francisco's 3-1, the Rams are 0-4 and the Seahawks and Cardinals are 1-3.

None of the teams out there have, unsurprisingly, looked very good. And the 49ers are the only squad with a positive point differential, which should tell you just how bad this division is. Again. But maybe Harbaugh is the difference -- look no further than his decision to house his team in Ohio for half a week in between their Week 3 game against the Bengals and Sunday's win in Philadelphia.

"Thanks Youngstown, you've been good to us," Harbaugh said in deference to Ohio. "That's as good a win as I can ever remember being a part of. I'm really proud of our players. They never flinched in a tough environment here, and there was no moment or circumstance that made them nervous in this ballgame. We kept fighting, made adjustments -- a great team victory for us."

Frank Gore gashed the Eagles for 127 yards, and Alex Smith played pretty inspired football, going 13 of 17 for 201 yards and two touchdowns in just the second half.

It's a surprising turnaround for a surprising team that stunk the joint out last year. Given the dearth of talent for Seattle, Arizona's inability to close out, and St. Louis' rough schedule ahead, Harbaugh might have this team -- surprisingly -- poised to take over their division.

7. Remember the Titans

Unless Tennessee has something to say about that anyway -- Mike Munchak picked up his third-career win on Sunday afternoon as the Titans vaulted themselves into a first-place tie with Houston in the AFC South

On The NFL Today, Charley Casserly mentioned that Matt Hasselbeck was drawn to Tennessee because of two things: Munchak's commitment to protecting the quarterback with strong line play, and Munchak's commitment to protecting the quarterback's ability to throw deep by leaving in more blockers.

This has paid tremendous dividends for Hasselbeck, who's eighth in the NFL in passing yards, sixth in passing touchdowns, third in yards per pass and first in pass plays of 40-plus yards.

"We thought he had a lot left in the tank from watching him in the playoffs last year," Munchak said. "We didn't bring him here to retire quietly. We brought him here to do exactly what he's been doing."

And he's casually doing all of this while playing for a team that doesn't have a viable No. 1 wide receiver because of Kenny Britt's season-ending injury last week.

Chris Johnson finally managed to get going a little bit in the Week 4 win over Cleveland, and provided the Hasselbeck can stay healthy (which is somewhat of a stretch, but possible), the Titans might be the surprise playoff team that no one's talking about.



8. Pay the man!
Just like 2010, Mike Martz refused to run the ball until the Bears met up with the Panthers early in the season. And just like 2010, Martz got enough criticism for his playcalling that he ran the ball a ton against Carolina. And just like 2010, Matt Forte went HAM.

Last year it was 166 rushing yards on 22 carries with two touchdowns. This year it was a career-high 205 rushing yards on 25 carries and a touchdown in the Bears 34-29 win.

This is interesting for a couple of reasons. One, the Bears are 9-0 when Forte rushes for 100 yards or more. Yet ... they don't like to run. Two, the Panthers defense is absolutely terrible. I could put up a hundo on them, and it shouldn't be too huge of a shock to see him go key largo against Carolina's beat-up defense.

That being said ... three, Forte wants a new contract, has wanted a new contract but can't get the Bears to even talk to him about getting more money.

The result, predictably, is a running back who appears to be playing with a great deal of intensity and a desire to be highly productive. Of course, for all of Forte's success against the Panthers, there wasn't that much to love about the way Chicago played. Just don't tell Lovie Smith that.

"We’re not apologizing at all about this win," Smith said. "We feel really good about it."

They shouldn't, even if this year suddenly looks like last year in terms of figuring out to run the ball and not get Jay Cutler killed. Cam Newton did a lot of damage to the Bears defense, though he made some rookie mistakes, and the Panthers were able to run pretty easily on Chicago.

Anyone can score on the Panthers, and do it at will, given the lack of depth they have on the defensive side of the ball right now. That being said, it sure does seem like the Bears might have saved themselves some money if they'd gotten Forte some cash before the season rather than waiting.

As my college football colleague Tom Fornelli likes to say, "Pay the man, Chicago."

9. Review Controversy
Could the NFL's current replay system be any less controversial? As you likely know, all scoring plays are reviewed by a booth official. That sounds simple, but it's not at all -- we've already had plenty of problems with plays that seemed like obvious needs for reviews that weren't scrutinized further by the officials.

Sunday, we saw two more examples. First, there an issue in the Chiefs and Vikings game.

With 5:01 remaining, Michael Jenkins caught a one-yard touchdown pass from Donovan McNabb. It appeared, pretty clearly, that he only got one foot inbounds. Fox didn't show any replays of the catch, and the officials at the game never reviewed it. Ultimately, it didn't matter, because the Vikings lost.

But it could have mattered and there wasn't anything Todd Haley or the Chiefs could do to get the play looked at. If Haley had thrown a challenge flag, he'd have been flagged for a delay of game penalty.

Another less controversial instance occurred during the Packers-Broncos game when Aaron Rodgers rushed for his second touchdown of the day on a third down. Rodgers was ruled down at the one-yard line, though replays showed he broke the plane of the goal line.

Mike McCarthy challenged and the Packers were given a touchdown that locked in their win against Denver. Here's the problem: "a scoring play" is only defined as a play in which the officials subjectively rule that a touchdown has happened. If that subjective ruling occurs, then the play is automatically reviewed.

If it doesn't happen, coaches are required to use a challenge.

I realize that the league can't challenge every single play that gets close to the end zone, but it seems to me that these two plays aren't that different. Something was botched by the refs and the booth wasn't available to make sure the right call was locked in. Ironically, in the non touchdown scenario, the coach has more freedom to help out his team with a red flag.

Even if the booth doesn't believe that a call should be looked at by the ref -- and in a close game like that, who's hurt by double-checking? -- there should be an option for a coach to take a stab at having a call overturned as well, if he's really adamant about what happened.

And, of course, there's the whole mess that went down in Arizona with Victor Cruz giving himself up and/or pulling the old stumble-->fumble disaster combo.

That actually seems like it was interpreted correctly, as it relates to the rule book.

"Official shall declare ball dead when a runner declares himself down by falling to ground or kneeling and making no effort to advance," reads Rule 7, Section 2, Article 1(e) of the NFL Rule Book.

In other words, it's a subjective call by the guys who look like zebras. If they believe Cruz gave himself up, then he gave himself up and that's the end of it.

10. Maybe they ARE the NFL's Heat

Whenever something good or bad happens in sports, reporters inevitably ask athletes how they feel. No, I don't know why it happens all the time either, but it rarely produces a good result.

It got a decent reaction out of Eagles quarterback Michael Vick on Sunday, though, as he expressed a high level of frustration at the fact that the Eagles just choked away a huge lead against the 49ers -- at home, no less -- that eventually led to a 24-23 loss to San Francisco.

"Do I really have to explain how I feel right now sitting here at 1-3?" Vick asked. "It's frustrating. It's tough. I can't put that in words. I take sole responsibility. Maybe it's a lot of things I can do better. And I gotta figure it out.

"It's frustrating. I'm not going to continue to use that word, but, yeah, it's tough."


That's the thing with the Eagles, though. It's not all Vick's fault.

Is some of it? Sure, of course. But he was 30 of 46 for 416 yards and two touchdowns Sunday. A bigger problem is that he led the team in rushing, with 75 yards on eight carries. When you have a weapon like LeSean McCoy, it seems silly not to utilize him more.

Then again, the lack of a good push from the offensive line causes that too.

And when you can't stop other teams from running the ball, none of it really matters. Frank Gore gashed the Eagles for 127 yards on just 15 carries and Kendall Hunter picked up 38 on nine.

The Eagles might have some really, really talented players at a couple positions, but they're also really, really weak at other positions, and their depth just isn't that impressive at all.

So, come to think of it, maybe they're more like the Miami Heat than any of us could have ever known.

Muffed Punts
Leftovers from Sunday's action ...
... What the hell was Ronnie Brown thinking? He's not even a quarterback, so trying to throw the ball while being tackled at the goal line doesn't even work as a random logical excuse.
... Johnathan Joseph had two -- TWO! -- touchdowns nullified by stupid penalties by the Texans. First there was the ridiculous block in the back by Danieal Manning when Joseph took a blocked punt to the house to end the half. And then there was the pick six he grabbed to close out the game that was negated by a J.J. Watt penalty. Welcome to Houston!
... Speaking of picks, Vince Wilfork now has two on the season after his second career INT against the Raiders.
... Just for trolling purposes: Nnamdi Asomugha only has one interception on the year.
... In one of the more insane things ever, Rex Ryan used a first-half timeout on Sunday night just to yell at the officials.

Worth 1,000 Words



Jim Irsay Pop-Culture Referencing Tweet That's Sure to Drive Colts Fans Insane of the Week
"I woke up in a So Ho doorway ... a policeman knew my name."

"Who Are You" is actually a pretty good thing to ask the Colts quarterback, no?

GIF O' THE WEEK



Hot Seat Tracker
  • Tony Sparano: It would almost be an upset if he made it past the bye at this point.
  • Jack Del Rio: Very impressive that JDR figured out a way to make Maurice Jones-Drew completely ineffective during the first half of a game that was pretty closer during the first half.
  • Leslie Frazier: It might only be his first year, but looking terrible against a terrible Chiefs team ain't helping his cause. 
  • Todd Haley: Can Minnesota visit every weekend?
  • Juan Castillo: New guy for the Eagles, their defense is a leaky ship and someone needs to take the fall.
Chasing Andrew Luck (All odds mine)
We have a new entrant in the usual suspects who are searching for the answer to their franchise woes -- the St. Louis Rams! Heretofore unlisted in this space, the Rams are 0-4 and now squarely in the hunt for Luck, even though they could get to 0-7 and somehow still win their division, based on how easy their schedule is.

What I find fascinating about this is that the Rams and Vikings, my two current faves for Luck, both drafted a "franchise quarterback" in the past two years. Would the Rams consider acquiring Luck if they got the No. 1 overall pick again? Or is Sam Bradford just that much better? Would both they and the Vikings just absolutely trade the pick to whoever was desperate enough for Luck? Because I'm not so sure.

Vikings (2:1) -- Can't imagine they actually feel like Christian Ponder's better than Luck. Right?
Dolphins (2:1) -- As AJB points out below, Miami definitely deserves inclusion here. My bust. Was too worried about Sparano's job.
Rams (3:1) -- So spicy if they get it.
Colts (3:1) -- They'd be the favorites if/when they lose to Tampa on Monday.
Broncos (4:1) -- Stanford, everyone!
Panthers (5:1) -- Fairly confident that the Panthers would acquire some assets for that pick.
Eagles (10:1) -- Andy Reid does love quarterbacks ...

MVP Watch
Stafford, my leader up to this point, did some nice things Sunday. But after Rodgers did the dirty things -- six touchdowns! -- that he did to Denver and helped propel the Packers to 4-0, it's hard not to sit up and take notice and admit that right now he's the best quarterback in the NFL.
Posted on: September 29, 2011 7:29 pm
 

Martz: 'We have to run the ball and we will'

Does Cutler have faith in his pass protection? 'I don't have a choice.' (Getty Images)

Posted by Ryan Wilson

Worry not, Bears faithful. Offensive coordinator Mike Martz wants you to know that not only is he committed to the running game, he plans to make it work, too. That's good news considering Chicago could only muster 13 yards on the ground last Sunday against the Packers.

‘‘We have to [run the ball], and we will,’’ Martz said after practice Wednesday, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. ‘‘That’s one thing we can do — we can run the football. We’ll get that right."

Martz most recently came under fire after he called pass plays on 52 of Chicago's 63 offensive snaps in a lopsided loss to the Saints. Quarterback Jay Cutler was sacked six times and spent the afternoon getting slapped around. When asked after the game if he could survive the season with weekly beatings like the one he endured in New Orleans, Cutler needed just three words to get the point across: "I don't know."

On Wednesday, Cutler was asked if he had confidence in Bears' pass-blocking schemes.

‘‘Yeah. I don’t have a choice,’’ he said. ‘‘Those are the guys we’ve got to go with, and we’ve got to get them ready and I’ve got to believe in them. So at the end of the day, they’re going to do the best possible job they can for me.’’

Which brings us back to Martz. Every season, players, fans and media inevitably question the pass-happy offensive football he favors. And following the Saints debacle two weeks ago, head coach Lovie Smith joined the chorus, admitting that "I know the balance as far as running/pass wasn't there. All I can say is we'll get it better. You can't win football games with that type of balance."

But Smith hired Martz. Shouldn't he be the one to insure that Martz isn't getting their best player maimed? Well, it's complicated. But ProFootballTalk.com's Michael David Smith broke down Smith and Martz's relationship during a recent visit to the Pick-6 Podcast.

"It's important to remember that Mike Martz was the guy who gave Lovie Smith his big break in St. Louis. Smith was not a very well known position coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Martz, as head coach of the Rams, liked what he saw of the Buccaneers secondary, offered Smith the defensive coordinator job.

"Lovie Smith has recently said that 'Mike Martz is the reason I am a head coach today.' So because of that, Martz now has a boss who respects him and admires him, and is going to give him a lot of leeway."

And unless something changes, that's bad news for Cutler. Upside: Chicago goes three-and-out on 41 percent of their offensive possessions. While not particularly helpful in terms of scoring points, it does improve Cutler's odds of survival.

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The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of CBS Sports or CBSSports.com