Tag:Ben Roethlisberger
Posted on: October 24, 2011 2:00 am
Edited on: October 24, 2011 2:31 am
 

Sorting the Sunday Pile: Week 7

Posted by Will Brinson


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 7 podcast review below as well and feel free to subscribe via iTunes.


1. He's Just a Winner
For the second time in three weeks, we lead the Pile with a story about Tim Tebow, thanks to Denver's 18-15 win in Miami on Sunday. And for the second time in three weeks, we lead the Pile with a story that was going to involve the phrase "Tim Tebow is a bad quarterback." And for the second time in three weeks I fully expect to be thrashed in the comments for not giving Tebow enough credit because he's a "winner."

This is fair, because Tebow did win. But it's unfair because Tebow looked unlike anything resembling an NFL quarterback for the majority of the game. Ask anyone who watched the game and they'll agree with you. My colleagues Pete Prisco ("looked lost," "isn't close to being a good quarterback") and Josh Katzowitz ("a mirage," "terrible," "horrendous," "no idea what he was doing") threw down lines on Tebow that belong on the back of the straight-to-DVD cover for the latest Adam Sandler movie.

To sum up everything about this game, let's watch the two-point conversion when Denver tied the game at 15. Before you click play, though, I want you to imagine you're a Dolphins defender and you know the Broncos only need two yards.


OK, presuming you played along, that video got McFly'd, because it never happened. Since, you know, anyone with a modicum of football sense saw the quarterback draw from Tebow coming on the play and snuffed it out. Somehow, the Dolphins failed to do this.

There's plenty of blame to go around, of course. Everyone on Miami's defensive coaching staff should be embarrassed for not knowing that was coming. And everyone on the Dolphins defense should be embarrassed for not recognizing what was happening, regardless of the playcall. Tony Sparano should be embarrassed after he went for a two-point conversion at the beginning of the fourth quarter with the Dolphins up 12-0; an extra point would have rendered this entire discussion moot.

In case you don't believe me, just look at the rollercoaster that is the win probability for the Broncos over the course of Sunday's game, courtesy of AdvancedNFLStats.com:



I realize that knocking on Tebow after he led a comeback on the road (well, kind of) in the face of adversity makes me a jerk, especially when that adversity includes a) a coach who might not want him to succeed, b) no real help at the other offensive skill positions and c) lacking the appropriate skills to play quarterback in the NFL.

But you know what he does have? The best attitude in the NFL.

"It's a good stadium," a smiling Tebow said after the game. "I enjoy playing here. Sometimes you have to find a way and keep believing and keep fighting."

That's classic Tebow, even if he had no business winning the game. I like what I heard on Twitter Sunday -- that Tebow is everything his critics say he is and yet, at the same time, everything his fans say he is -- because it's true. Tebow's a mechanically flawed, imperfect quarterback for the NFL, but he's fantastic young man who works his ass off and has such an improbably high level of faith in a higher power that he's automatically a lightning rod for discussion and/or controversy.

Look, I like Tebow and I don't necessarily enjoy taking the side of the argument where I have to dog the guy. I don't, I swear. But so very much about the Broncos victory in Miami was about the Dolphins inability to operate as a successful football team, and so very much of the Broncos victory was not about Denver's ability to dominate offensively.

But pick a side -- you have to, of course! -- and call me a jerk in the comments either way. Just remember that if you're the one screaming about how he's a winner you're on the same side as Skip Bayless and and LeBron James.

2. A Hue, Tiny Mistake
On the bright side, Tebow only cost the Broncos one first-round draft pick. Carson Palmer might, depending on how Oakland finishes the season, cost the Raiders two of them. Although if Palmer plays like he did on Sunday afternoon, it's pretty unlikely, since throwing three picks in one half isn't a great formula for making it to the AFC Championship.

Palmer did just that on Sunday, helping Kansas City blowout the Raiders 28-0 in Oakland. Oh yeah, it's awkward, and we'll get to that. But real quick, let me say I'm sorry, personally, to my colleague Matt Moore (not the guy who stinks for the Dolphins; and no, that never gets old) for consistently ripping the Chiefs over the past few weeks. They've now won three-straight games and next week they're playing the Chargers to determine who'll be in first place in the AFC West. Yes, the NFL is as insane as you think.

Back to the Raiders: for the most part, Hue Jackson's done a nice job with this team so far in 2011 but he's shown an ability to botch a decision or two. And he botched a big one on Sunday, waiting until 10 minutes left in the third quarter to bring in Palmer for Kyle Boller, who was the first quarterback in Raiders history to throw three picks in the first half of a single outing.

It's not that Hue should have yanked Boller more quickly, or that Hue should have left Boller in. It's just that he went into the game with no idea of how to handle the Palmer situation and by bringing in Palmer -- who obviously wasn't ready, because otherwise he would have started, right? -- for part of the second half, he not only offered up a pile of doubt for Raiders fans to judge Palmer on, but he put his would-be franchise quarterback out there for injury.

"Uncertainty at quarterback is not what led to interceptions or anything like that," Jackson said on Sunday, instead chalking up the lack of a clear-cut decision and the uncertainty at quarterback to "some gamesmanship."

Jackson was in a bad situation, because Darren McFadden was injured and Boller looked miserable, but if you're coaching this team and you're the guy who pulled the trigger on the Palmer trade, you need to have a plan locked in and stick with it regardless of how poorly things are going.

3. Elsewhere in the AFC West ...
For such a seemingly shoddy division, the AFC West is slinging some Week 7 storylines -- we've got Tebow, the Raiders controversy and the Chiefs getting back into the race. Oh yes, and the Chargers losing a "shoulda won" game against the Jets on Sunday, falling 27-21 in New York on a day that, instead of establishing the Chargers as one of the elite teams in the AFC, exposed them as having the same flaws they've always had.

"We can sit here and think of a bunch of reasons why," Philip Rivers said after the game. "The bottom line is that we came out playing really well. We just didn't finish off the game."

The Bolts came out white-hot -- on the fourth play from scrimmage, Donald Butler stripped Dustin Keller and took a "fumble" to the house to give San Diego an early lead. The Chargers caught a break on a Nick Mangold holding call that led to a Mark Sanchez interception and turned it into an Antonio Gates touchdown.

Gates return was the early key for San Diego, who appeared to solve their red-zone woes with the future Hall of Famer in the starting lineup.

But Brian Schottenheimer and Sanchez figured out that the Chargers had a bigger problem -- they don't have anyone that can matchup man-to-man with Plaxico Burress who, just a few months removed from being in prison, caught three touchdowns in the Jets win.

There's another problem for Norv's team, too, and it's Rivers playing poorly. I'm not sure whether or not the two-minute drill they ran at the end of the game was Turner's doing or Rivers' work, but it was one of the most mangled series of plays I've seen in a long, long time.

After holding the Jets to a field goal and a six-point lead, the Chargers started their final drive with 1:29 on the clock. They then proceeded to run five plays, move the ball a whopping 25 yards and burn 1:18 off the clock, meaning that in the most dire of circumstances, one of the most high-powered offenses in the NFL moved the ball a quarter of the field at a snail-like pace of 3.12 seconds per yard.

Can you imagine how hot Turner's seat would be if the Chargers had coughed up a couple of their September squeak-by victories?



4. Quite Unprobable
It's a shame that Emmitt Smith's no longer dropping knowledge bombs on television, because I'd love to hear what the Hall of Famer would say about rookie third-rounder DeMarco Murray breaking his single-game Cowboys record for rushing yards in a game after piling up 253 yards on 25 carries.

As I wrote in this space after Week 2, "the former Sooner is a highly-talented receiver out of the backfield, and has the potential to be a serious threat." That was based on what I'd seen from Murray in very limited action through the first two weeks and, clearly, it was an understatement.

The Cowboys still didn't fire on all cylinders, but it doesn't take a maximum effort to beat up on the Rams, even to the point of a 34-7 whipping. Murray won't run like that every week but, man, even if you take away his first-quarter, 91-yard touchdown run, Murray still averaged 6.75 yards per carry against St. Louis.

Having talent, though, is typical of the Cowboys. Using it to maximize their success on gameday's the bigger issue. But with Seattle, Buffalo, Washington, Miami and Arizona on the schedule over the next six weeks, it's hard not to want to double down on their chances of winning the NFC East.

5. Six Or One-Half Dozen
One of the reasons to love the Cowboys? The Redskins are in the middle of a freefall. And it's all on the Jekyll and Jekyll combo that Mike Shanahan is rolling out under center this year.

Honestly, what would it take for Shanahan to admit that he made a mistake coming into 2011 with Rex Grossman and John Beck as his starting quarterbacks? Because before the season started, it was an indefensibly ridiculous gamble, the kind that seemed just bat-poop crazy enough to work but obviously wouldn't anyway.

Yet after four weeks, the Redskins were 3-1, held sole possession of first place in the NFC East. Sure, the end of the world was nigh, but at least Shanny seemed smarter.

Now, after John Beck's performance -- 22/37 for 279 yards, a passing touchdown, a rushing touchdown and a pick -- on Sunday in a 33-20 loss in Charlotte, it's really impossible to imagine that they'll be a mathematical contender for much longer.

"I think overall John played very well first time out," Shanahan said Sunday.

Beck's numbers weren't that terrible, but he didn't look particularly adept at running Washington's offense and whether or not he's the answer for the Redskins shouldn't even be a question any more: he's not.

Adding to the problems for Washington is a report that running back Tim Hightower has a torn ACL (which would obviously put his season in jeopardy) and that receiver Santana Moss will miss 3-4 weeks with a broken hand. Oh yes, and Rex Grossman has pneumonia, so he's unlikely to be available any time soon.

Like I said on the podcast before Week 7, I'll pull a reverse Rex right now and guarantee that the Redskins finish in the basement of the NFC East. That's a better bet than them winning the division at this point.

6. Everyone Off This Bandwagon!
Those first five weeks were sweet for Lions fans, and as Mike Freeman wrote from Detroit on Sunday, it's not panic time yet, but it's getting close.

That's mainly because in Detroit's 23-16 loss to Atlanta on Sunday, their flaws as a team were really on display. With Jerome Harrison out for the season and Jahvid Best potentially sidelined for the year, this team has zero running game -- Maurice Morris led the way with nine carries for 50 yards.

They can't stop the run either; Detroit ranks 28th in the league in rushing yards allowed (129.4 yards per game) and Michael Turner carved them up on Sunday, ensuring that Matthew Stafford didn't get another shot at a comeback.

Getting a look Sunday might not be the biggest concern for Stafford either, because a bad result from the MRI he's reportedly undergoing Monday could spell for doom for what appeared to be a magical season. Stafford might be fine and then the passing game isn't a concern.

But if the Lions can't run the ball and they can't stop the run, they're going to struggle to win games against teams later in the year.

And all that swagger we've been talking about? Somehow it's backfiring. Last week it was Jim Schwartz' fiery tirade towards Jim Harbaugh; this week Lions defensive players were supposedly taunting Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan after he suffered an injury.

The Lions have enough talent to keep winning, and the future is bright in Detroit. And none of the things happening to them are, in an individual sense, devastating. But them all together and it's a quick recipe for the wheels coming off.

7. And Back on This One!
I was pretty sure the Texans would cover on Sunday. Win? Maybe. But it would be close. After all, Houston's been pretty putrid on offense since Andre Johnson injured his hamstring two weeks ago, managing just 39 points in losses to the Ravens and Raiders.

Needless to say, then, I wasn't prepared for the 41-7 smackdown that Arian Foster and company laid on the Titans. Foster piled up 234 total yards and three touchdowns, Matt Schaub missed on only five passes and the Texans defense stifled the Titans, holding them to 148 total yards on Sunday.

Chris Johnson, who said afterwards that his play is "not an issue," was, um, the biggest issue, rushing for just 18 yards on 10 carries.

"It's just a situation I got to continue to say I can't do nothing but keep working hard, running hard and doing what I can do for this team," Johnson said.

The problem is that Johnson's not running hard. Ask anyone who's watched him play this year and it's pretty apparent that he's not the same guy who deserved the big contract he held out for prior to this year. He's not showing any burst through the hole, he's got happy feet at the line and he looks like a running back who might be really fast but doesn't know how to run.

That's unfortunate for the Titans, obviously, but I'm not sure it would really matter in an AFC South race that's already wrapped up for all intents and purposes. The Texans showed on Sunday that despite their flaws, their still head and shoulders above the Jaguars, Titans and Colts. They might be second only to the 49ers when it comes to odds for making the playoffs, and with two matchups against the Jaguars, one against the Browns, one more against the Titans and a trip to Indy still on the docket, nine wins seems like a shoo-in.

Which means so is the division title; everyone else in the South is just that terrible this year.

8. Recent Super Bowl Rematches
I thought it was kind of interesting that we had a pair of matchups from the last three Super Bowls this year in Week 7, as the Colts and Saints squared off on Sunday night and the Steelers and Cardinals played during the day.

I also thought it was interesting that the teams who lost those Super Bowls are terrible -- the Colts remain winless and got absolutely whooped 62-7 by New Orleans Sunday night. I'm as guilty as anyone of discussing how important Peyton Manning is to Indy's chances, and I think they'd be a .500 team with him this year.

But they'd still be bad, because the dude doesn't play defense, and he certainly isn't responsible for Drew Brees throwing five touchdowns and only four incompletions in a single game.

As for Arizona/Pittsburgh, man does that Kevin Kolb trade look awesome or what? Kolb had a 73-yard touchdown, but it's poppycock to give him too much credit, since it was basically a five-yard drag route that LaRod Stephens-Howling turned into a long score.

I used this analogy in the podcast, but it's like the Cardinals are Netflix and Kolb is Qwikster, only the parent company doesn't have the option of hitting the reset button.


9. No Offense But ...
No offense. Like scoring and points and stuff -- there wasn't much of it during the early portion of the day games. Dolphins-Broncos, Redskins-Panthers, Browns-Seahawks; all were field-goal contests for at least the first half and, in some cases, longer.

There were plenty of scores (49, according to NFL Network's Red Zone, during the "day" games) but clearly offensive output was down from previous weeks. Brees blew up and Aaron Rodgers blew up and Ben Roethlisberger blew up, but those guys were the only quarterbacks to go over 300 yards on Sunday.

By contrast, four guys went over 400 yards in Week 1 (and 14 went over 300). Nine went over 300 yards in Week 2. 11 over 300 in Week 3. 10 in Week 4. Six quarterbacks crossed 300 yards in Week 5, and just six again in Week 6.

To me, this represents the point in the year where the defense finally caught up with the high-octane offenses in the NFL.

That doesn't mean the NFL's not a passing league any more, because it certainly is. Instead, a combination of the lockout, the reduced offseason workouts, the reduced in-season contact and rules designed to protect wide receivers and quarterbacks really set defenses back for the first few weeks of the 2011 season.

Lots of dudes could still break Dan Marino's record -- Aaron Rodgers is on pace 5,421 yards, Tom Brady's on pace for 5,768 yards -- but we've said that before only to see cold weather, injuries and improved defenses slow down incredible passing numbers.

It might just be happening again right now.

10. On Another Planet
When we see great athletes succeed, sometimes it's difficult to see just how dominant they are, because the game moves so slowly and looks so easy for them. This is often called "the zone."

Aaron Rodgers isn't just hanging out in this space -- at the beginning of the 2010 playoffs, he paid cash for about 30 acres of land in the zone and he's been living there ever since.

His level of play in his first three years running the Packers offense was incredibly impressive, but what he's doing in 2011 is absolutely phenomenal and, without being crass, watching him carve up defenses with precision is like football porn.

Rodgers has a combination of skills -- a lightning quick release, rapid movement through his reads, the ability to look off defenders, quick feet, to name a few -- that make him as deadly and precise a quarterback as we've seen in the NFL in a long time.

That's not a knock on Tom Brady or Peyton Manning, because Rodgers is different. And right now he's better -- it seems like every single drive he makes a throw that knocks your socks off and seems virtually impossible.

If Rodgers keeps up his current pace, he'll become the first player in NFL history to throw for more than 4,000 yards, complete more than 70 percent of his passes and throw less than 10 interceptions. (Drew Brees accomplished the first two in 2009 but threw 11 picks.)

There are things that could go wrong, of course, but if you look back at 2010, Rodgers didn't even really get hot until November and holy hell did he get hot.

Just remember that when you're deciding what to watch over these next few weeks.

Muffed Punts
Leftovers from Sunday's action ...
... Olindo Mare made three-straight field goals, each five yards longer than the last (35, 40, 45) because of two-straight Panthers offensive
... Brian Robison apologized for kicking T.J Lang in the groin and said it was an accident. The GIF below disagrees. Thankfully, Lang says his groin is fine. In case you care.
... Will Indy remember Sean Payton eating a hot dog the next time they play the Saints?
... The Broncos first third-down conversion on Sunday came with 4:22 remaining. In the third quarter.
... Calvin Johnson became the first wide receiver in Lions history with 10 or more touchdowns in three seasons on Sunday. That still doesn't mean Matt Millen should have drafted all those guys.
... Big ups to Tony Gonzalez for becoming the NFL's second all-time leader in receptions.
... Mike Wallace now has six-straight games with a reception of 40 yards or longer.
... The Packers are just the fourth team in NFL history to start the season 7-0 after winning a Super Bowl.
... Cam Newton extended his own streak -- only player in NFL history with seven or more rushing and passing touchdowns through seven games.
... Newton also tied Vince Young's record for rookie rushing touchdowns by a quarterback, with seven. Something tells me he breaks it.

Worth 1,000 Words



Jim Irsay Pop-Culture Referencing Tweet That's Sure to Drive Colts Fans Insane of the Week
"There's a lot of things,that can kill a man..a lot of ways 2 die...and some already dead,that walk besides me"

Ray LaMontagne probably couldn't have imagined the grizzly death that went down on Sunday night.

GIF O' THE WEEK
That the referee -- who quite clearly saw Brian Robison kick T.J. Lang in the man-region -- didn't throw Robison out for this is absolutely impressive. Even Roman Harper thinks this is cheap.



Hot Seat Tracker
It's totally worth noting that Todd Haley isn't on this list. Impressive move by him.
  • Jack Del Rio -- Some kid asked Rashean Mathis when JDR was getting fired. I texted my aunt in Jacksonville asking if it was one of her sons. She said it wasn't but that she was wondering the same thing.
  • Jim Caldwell -- Just because Indy's going to ride him out doesn't mean his job is safe.
  • Tony Sparano -- Adios, amigo.
  • Steve Spagnuolo -- The Rams are crushed by injuries but the bad losses are piling up. They need a good close to the season.
  • Ken Wisenhunt -- He's got the Cards practicing on their off day during their bye week. Might be feeling some pressure.
  • Norv Turner -- That two-minute drill against the Jets was a borderline fireable offense on its own.
  • Mike Shanahan -- What happens if the Redskins finish 4-12?
Chasing Andrew Luck
This is a heated race, folks. Certainly more interesting than the AFC South.

Colts (-500): Is point differential a tiebreaker? Because that would be good -- er, bad for the Colts.
Dolphins (-450): Their schedule is also quite bleak. At least their fans are happy?
Rams (-350): The NFC West schedule should keep them from landing the top pick, but it's not a guarantee.
Cardinals (-225): Wouldn't this be something after they traded for Kevin Kolb?
Jaguars/Vikings (-200): There sure are a lot of teams on this list who already invested heavily in quarterbacks.

MVP Watch
As I noted above, Rodgers is doing unholy things right now. There might be some sort of interesting, half-hearted argument at the end of the year, but if Rodgers keeps doing what he's done through seven weeks, he'll win in a landslide.
Posted on: October 12, 2011 9:43 am
Edited on: October 12, 2011 10:51 am
 

Eye on Football NFL Awards: Week 5



Posted by Will Brinson

Every week, our NFL experts will hand out the Eye on Football hardware to the best of the best from the NFL week that was.

Week 5 NFL Awards
Expert Offense Defense STeams Coach
Freeman     Cutler  Rogers  Janikowski  Harbaugh
Prisco     Best  Wilson  Novak  Jackson
Brinson Green-Ellis  Allen  Janikowski  Frazier
Katzowitz  R-berger  Wilson  Janikowski  Harbaugh
Wilson  R-Berger  Barnett  Janikowski  Schwartz
Week 5's in the books and so are our ballots -- let's recap exactly why people won what they won.

Jay Cutler got a vote because even though he lost, the Bears offensive line is embarrassing. But Ben Roethlisberger, who plays behind an inept line as well, got more votes for his ability to play through injury and do what Ben do.

On defense, beating the Eagles is still considered impressive apparently, because George Wilson (and Nick Barnett) were mentioned the most and pick up our Eye on Defense awards.

Sebastian Janikowski, aka the Polish Cannon, was nearly a unanimous selection for Eye on Special Teams -- he was one Nick Novak vote away from sweeping the award this week, and it's understandable given he bombed three fifty-yard field goals.

For Eye on Coaching, things were much different -- Hue Jackson was the emotional favorite heading in, but Jim Harbaugh's business-like beatdown of the Bucs garnered him enough support to pick up the award.

Leave your votes in the comments below or scream angrily at us on Twitter @EyeOnNFL.

Eye on Offense Award
Mike Freeman Ryan Wilson
Jay Cutler Jay Cutler, QB, Bears
He didn't the win game. His statistics weren't great but it's rare to see a quarterback get the living hell beat of him like that and keep fighting. Fighting. That's not a word commonly associated with Cutler especially since half of league went on Twitter and trashed his toughness during that debacle of a playoff game last season. The only guy I saw get beat up more was Mark Sanchez against Baltimore. Cutler and Matt Forte almost single-handedly kept the Bears in the game.
Darren McFaddenBen Roethlisberger, QB, Steelers
It took a sprained left foot to the franchise quarterback and injuries up and down the roster, but the Steelers' offense -- and Roethlisberger -- looked crisp and efficient against the Titans. Big Ben finished with five touchdowns, and 24 of 34 passing, with many of the completions coming on three-step drops. Funny how that works.
Pete Prisco Will Brinson
Jahvid Best Jahvid Best, RB, Lions
Best ran for163 yards on 12 carries, including an 88-yard touchdown run against the Bears Monday night that helped give the Lions a 21-10 win. He averaged 13.6 per carry. Best has big-play ability that compliments the Lions' wide-open passing game.
BenJarvus Green-EllisBenJarvus Green-Ellis
"The Law Firm" was supposed to lose carries to Stevan Ridley heading into the Jets game. So much for that -- Ellis won on summary judgment against Rex Ryan's defense, running for 136 yards and two TDs on 27 carries, using a punishing physicality to help the Patriots seal a crucial division victory.
Josh Katzowitz
Ben RoethlisbergerBen Roethlisberger, QB, Steelers
We got word that Roethlisberger and his bad foot were limping around the locker room before the game. But after throwing for five touchdowns in Pittsburgh’s blowout win, Roethlisberger was either faking or it was just another “too tough to know any better” performances. He also did a nice job of adjusting in order to make up for a beat-up offensive line.
Eye on Defense Award
Freeman Wilson
Carlos RogersCarlos Rogers, CB, 49ers
He returned a Tampa Bay interception 31 yards for a touchdown. It was a good play but the truth is that entire 49ers defense deserved the award. They gave up just three points and you can see the 49ers start to take on the no-nonsense personality of the coach. This is what the 49ers had hoped to do when the organization hired Mike Singletary.
Nick Barnett Nick Barnett, LB, Bills
He intercepted Vick twice, including a pick-six. Of course, beating the Eagles isn't quite as prestigious as it was a month ago, but given the Bills' recent history, I'm guessing they won't quibble.

Prisco Brinson
George WilsonGeorge Wilson, S, Bills
Wilson doesn't get a lot of due, but he should. He was all over the field against the Eagles. He had 11 tackles, three passes defensed, an interception and a tackle for loss. He was everywhere in the Bills upset of the Eagles.
Jared AllenJared Allen, DE, Vikings
Allen did what he's done all year -- disrupt the passer. But this time, the Vikings finally won. Allen harassed Kevin Kolb into an absolutely horrible game, sacking him twice, picking up three tackles, three QB hits and recovering a fumble. Give Minny's D credit for finally holding a lead.
Katzowitz
George Wilson George Wilson, Nick Barnett, Bills
The Bills just keep on winning, and Sunday’s victory was a credit to their D. Wilson was all over the field with 11 tackles and a pick, and Barnett returned a Vick interception for a TD and then picked Vick again in the fourth quarter as the Eagles were driving for a potential game-tying touchdown.
Eye on Special Teams Award
Freeman Wilson
Sebastian JanikowskiSebastian Janikowski, K, Raidersy K
Janikowski tied an NFL record with three field goals of 50 yards or more. Not bad for a former fat boy party dude. Few players not named Vick have improved their public image over the years better than Janikowski. He's always had a strong leg but these days he's more disciplined and his accuracy and ability to boot long kicks makes him a terrific scoring threat.
Sebastian Janikowski Sebastian Janikowski, K, Raiders
He was 4 for 4 on field-goal attempts, none closer than 42 yards. Janikowski also converted from 55, 54 and 50. We almost expected him to run on the field and intercept Matt Schaub in the end zone on the last play of the game, too.
Prisco Brinson
Nick NovakNick Novak, K, Chargers
When the Chargers lost Nate Kaeding for the season on opening day with a knee injury, there was great concern about the kicking game. Novak has alleviated those fears. He made all five of his field goals against Denver and hasn't missed this season.
Sebastian JanikowskiSebastian Janikowski, K, Raiders
As awesome as the Polish Cannon's headshot is, I might just name him special teams player of the week every week from here on out. But he deserved it in Week 5, accounting for 13 of the Raiders 25 points with a 4-4 day, including three field goals longer than 50 yards each.
Katzowitz
Sebastian Janikowski Sebastian Janikowski, K, Raiders
He kicked a 54-yard field goal and followed that up with a 55-yarder. Then, one from 50 and one from 42. It was fitting on this day in particular because he had been selected in the first round of the 2000 NFL draft. By Al Davis.
 
Eye on Coaching Award
Freeman Wilson
Jim HarbaughJim Harbaugh, 49ers
The 49ers are 4-1. Repeat: the formerly sorry ass 49ers and their formerly sorry quarterback Alex Smith are 4-1. Harbaugh has been able to make Smith into a viable quarterback threat. Repeat: Alex Smith is good. How'd that happen?: Harbaugh, that's how.
Jim SchwartzJim Schwartz, Lions
The Lions are 5-0, including Monday night's win over the Bears in their biggest game in more than a decade. For some perspective, Detroit won five games in a season or fewer six times during Matt Millen's eight-year reign of terror.

Prisco Brinson
Hue JacksonHue Jackson, Raiders
With the death of owner Al Davis hanging over this team, Jackson got his team ready to upset a good Houston team on the road. That takes keeping the focus. The Raiders are playing much better this season, and Jackson deserves the credit.
Leslie FrazierLeslie Frazier, Vikings
Good on Frazier for holding onto a lead and winning his first game as a full-time head coach in Minnesota -- Frazier's tenure with the Vikings started off ... interestingly, with the Vikings blowing a slew of double-digit leads. Sunday was a critical win for Frazier and the Vikes.
Katzowitz
Jim Harbaugh Jim Harbaugh, 49ers
I thought about giving this award to Hue Jackson, just because of the emotion of the weekend with Al Davis’ death, but the 49ers are 4-1 and coming off a 48-3 destruction of pretty decent Buccaneers squad. You read that right: 4-1 and 48-3. That’s on Harbaugh.
 

Posted on: October 10, 2011 1:25 am
Edited on: October 15, 2011 12:36 pm
 

Sorting the Sunday Pile: Week 5

Posted by Will Brinson


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 Billboards Worked!
When John Fox decided to bench incumbent starter Kyle Orton at half for would-be Denver football messiah Tim Tebow, it seemed like a pretty good excuse for Fox to let the fan-favorite quarterback struggle his way to a miserable second half, giving Fox has a totally justifiable excuse for refusing to answer any Tebow-related questions and instead just glaring at whoever asks them with a stern, judgmental look.

Then Tebow scored on a rushing touchdown that was a designed quarterback draw.

Then Tebow threw a screen pass to Knowshon Moreno, a ball so blessed by Tebow's hand that Moreno used its powers to break several tackles, cross the goalline and bring the Broncos inexplicably within two points.

So, um, we have a quarterback controversy, right? Rich Gannon and Marv Albert certainly think so.


Fox agrees, I think. Maybe. Possibly.

"I think Tim Tebow sparked the team today," Fox said. "We haven't had a chance to watch the tape. We haven't had time to watch the film. I think at this point we've got a bye week. We do need to improve offensively. And it will all be up for discussion."

Right. We definitely do. Although it's pretty arguable that Tebow, despite his shortcomings, should be starting for the Broncos. Kyle Orton will be a free agent after this year, and would still have trade value to a few teams (ahem, Miami).

Tebow, as Fox noted, managed to make the Broncos play harder, even if his own personal play was lacking. Yes, he ran for a touchdown. Yes, he threw for another. And, yes, he gave the Broncos a shot at winning a game in which they had no business having a shot to win. But he still finished 6 of 13 4 for 10 for 34 79 passing yards (28 came on the Moreno touchdown) and played so poorly up until four minutes left in the game that at least one dork fired up Photoshop and created fake, apologetic billboards.

(Ed. Note: Had Orton's stats in there. My bad. Note strikes. Still doesn't make Tebow's stats "good.")



Doh. And, yeah, I literally put this on Twitter 10 seconds before Tebow scampered in for his first touchdown.

Look, I'm prepared to take a ton of flak from Broncos fans in the comments for even begin to suggest that going to Tebow isn't the smart move. But from a perspective of "putting the best player under center" it isn't. Orton's still better. But the Broncos are bad and won't sniff the playoffs this season, so perhaps rolling the dice with Tebow now and at least seeing what he can is the play.

He apparently inspires the team, and that's great. But the reality is that he's a below-average quarterback with a limited skill set who just about helped his pretty awful team pull off a come-from-behind victory against a much better team at home.

And failed.

Yet, we're still talking about Tebow. And that's OK. But there's a whole lot of chatter about Tebow being "the guy" in Denver. And even though the statistics and the tape show that he wasn't all too productive -- though the statistics can't measure heart, not yet anyway! -- that chatter won't stop until Fox caves and names him the starter.

Which should make the next two weeks (the Broncos are on the bye) of speculation super-duper fun.

2. The Snooze Button Is Broken

Leading up to the Eagles's Week 5 matchup with the Bills, Michael Vick made sure the media knew that Philly no longer saw themselves as "the Dream Team." Unfortunately for him, we already knew that. It comes with the territory on a 1-3 start.

After a 31-24 loss in Buffalo, the Eagles are 1-4, and with all due respect to the very-much-for-real Bills, it's not even that hard to fathom. Sure, Andy Reid's team "won the offseason," but as their NFC East compatriots the Redskins know, that means nothing in the regular season.

"No. 1, there's nobody to blame but me," Reid said after the game. "That's how I look at it. I take full responsibility for it. It's my team."

And that's fine, because the Eagles are an incredibly sloppy team right now. If you need more proof than Vick's four interceptions -- he had six all of last year -- just look at the way each half ended. With the Eagles in the Bills territory, Vick took to long to throw the ball away and chunked the rock through the end zone as time expired. In Philly he might have gotten a second, but on the road, that clock's ticking, and the Eagles didn't got a shot at three points.

The worse crime came on a fourth and one with 1:23 to go and the Eagles down seven -- the Bills somehow managed to draw Juqua Parker offsides, grabbed a free first down and took knees to move their record to 4-1.

Buffalo is the real story, because it's absolutely improbable that they're a legit playoff contender. But the Eagles, clear-cut preseason favorites to win their division, are quite the nice juxtaposition to a Buffalo team that's well-coached, scraps for everything and plays sound football en route to winning games.

On the bright(ish) side, there have been seven teams since 1978 to make the playoffs after starting the season 1-4. So Philly's got that going for them.

3. Just Win, Baby

Since Al Davis died on Saturday morning, there were any number of very impressive, very emotional and very deserving tributes for one of the all-time great figures in NFL history.

But the best tribute of the weekend? Oakland figuring out how to just win in Houston, in what was clearly an emotional game for everyone on the Raiders payroll.

"I know he's looking down on this team," Raiders coach Hue Jackson said Sunday. "And he's with us every step of the way."

As Clark Judge noted Sunday, Oakland is indeed finding ways to "just win" and most of the season, they've looked better than their AFC-West counterparts the Chargers, despite sitting a game back in the standings of their division foes. They're still just 2-2 outside the division, but those two wins equal the number they had outside the AFC West in 2010.

If they can replicate their in-division success, 2011 could be a special year. And it probably won't hurt that Oakland has three-straight games at home starting in Week 6 -- you can bet that the Black Hole will be especially dark, which is exactly how Al Davis would have wanted it.

Real quickly, if anyone that's as "young" as I am (30; I'm using the term loosely) is confused by the heartfelt tributes to Al Davis over the weekend, take some time to read about his history in the AFL and NFL and watch some of the offerings the NFL Network is putting out there right now.

The stereotype that my generation takes from Davis is that he ran the Raiders into the ground with his obsession for speed and athleticism. This is because the Raiders last Super Bowl win was in 1983 and since they moved back to Oakland from Los Angeles in 1995, they've made the playoffs just three times.

Reality is that while some of those stereotypes do apply, Davis helped spark the rise of the NFL that we know today, he broke down serious barriers when it came to minority hiring in the NFL, and while he owned the team, the Raiders became the only franchise in NFL history to make a trip to the Super Bowl in four consecutive decades.

That's sustained success by any measure, and throughout it all, there really was only one constant: Al Davis.

4. Meanwhile, Across the Bay ...
The San Francisco 49ers are 4-1 after taking Tampa Bay to the woodshed 48-3 on Sunday afternoon in San Francisco.

Improbably, Alex Smith threw three touchdowns as San Fran's offense, with the help of a second-straight 125-yard rushing game from Frank Gore, carved up the Buccaneers defense. Vernon Davis found the end zone twice, and the 49ers used the all-around dominant performance to vault themselves to 4-1, as they maintained firm control over the NFC West.

What Jim Harbaugh is doing with San Francisco (and this is the second week in a row I've written this) is absolutely phenomenal, even if allowing a wide receiver to suffer a potentially serious ankle injury with four minutes left and up 41-3 deserves some flak.

Everyone felt confident believing that the Niners needed better coaching to really utilize their talent. That might be true.

But they're a miraculous comeback -- and just three points -- away from being undefeated, and it doesn't really matter who they've played against. Because, frankly, their schedule doesn't get that much tougher. Not counting NFC West games, San Francisco has games in Detroit, versus Cleveland, at Washington, versus the Giants, at Baltimore (Thanksgiving), and versus Pittsburgh.

No one's going to confuse them for the most dominant team in the NFL, even if their win Sunday looked that way, but even if they win the rest of their division matchups and lose the rest of their games (the latter's harder to fathom than the former, by the way) , they'd still end up with nine wins.

They're squarely in the driver's seat for a playoff game at home come January, Alex Smith's got the keys and everyone seems alright with this.

5. Paint it Blonde
I asked this like 12 times on Twitter Sunday, but no one could give me a good answer, so I'll ask again: How is that Reggie Wayne was the only person in the entire Colts organization that knew Curtis Painter was better than Kerry Collins?

Because Wayne knew -- he knew so much that he told us twice that Painter could compete. Unfortunately for Wayne, the newest Manning brother (Curtis!) actually prefers Pierre Garcon when it comes to touchdown passes ...


Don't get me wrong -- even Jeff George would have found Garcon on that play, so terrible was Brandon Flowers coverage. But it's pretty obvious at this point, even with Indy sitting at 0-5, that Painter gives them a better shot at winning than Collins, even if they're now 0-5 after a 28-24 loss to Kansas City.

So why did it take three games and a Collins concussion to figure that out? It's a great question and it probably involves someone(s) on the coaching staff or the front office not being as in-tune to the roster as Wayne is.

For Chiefs fans (read: my good friend and colleague who runs Eye on Basketball, Matt Moore): let's not get too frisky just yet. Your two wins are squeakers against teams that are a combined 1-9. But Todd Haley's seat is cooling at least.

6. Come on, It's All Ball Bearings These Days!
Actually, if you're the Vikings, it's simpler than anything Irwin M. Fletcher ever suggested: just give Adrian Peterson the ball.

Through four games -- all losses -- Peterson was "only" averaging 20.3 carries per game. This isn't to suggest Leslie Frazier should have run him into the ground as soon as he got the head coaching gig in Minny, but if you're leading by double digits at halftime, there's nothing wrong with a healthy dose of AP.

Frazier finally figured that out, and let Peterson loose against a suddenly hapless Cardinals team. Peterson ended the day with 29 carries for 122 rushing yards and three touchdowns; all the scores came in the first quarter, making AP just the fourth running back in the last 20 years to find the end zone three times in one quarter.

The obvious gameplan led to an obvious result: Frazier's first win as a (non-interim) head coach.

Now he's got a bigger problem to solve -- what to do with his quarterback situation. Donovan McNabb struggled again, completing just 10 of 21 passes for 169 yards against a Cardinals secondary that doesn't begin to qualify as "competent." The oft-maligned QB was pelted with "We want Ponder!" chants from the crowd at the Metrodome, and it's probably time for Frazier to perk his ears up and listen.

Could Ponder have produced the same stat line as McNabb? Absolutely. And he certainly could have handed the ball off 29 times, with the potential upside of actually letting Frazier find out if he's a legit franchise quarterback.

7. When the Circus Comes to Town
Victor Cruz of the Giants now holds the (unofficial) NFL record for ridiculous, luck-based catches. Unfortunately for the Giants, he canceled out his big-top performance against Seattle with two absolutely back-breaking turnovers that eventually cost New York the game.

His final statline? Eight catches, 161 receiving yards, a touchdown, a rush for three yards, a terrible fumble and a tipped pass with just over a minute left that the Seahawks Brandon Browner returned 94 yards for a game-clinching pick six.

The catches are nice and the acrobatic entertainment is fun to watch (see: below). But you absolutely can't miss a catch near the goalline that results in the ball being tipped up to a crowd of defenders and gets intercepted.

Eli Manning and Co. could have won even if they probably shouldn't have, given that they were pretty much outplayed from the get-go. Instead, the Redskins are all alone atop the NFC East, which is exactly what Rex Grossman predicted, the Seahawks finally won a game on the East Coast and it's perfectly acceptable to go running for your bomb shelter right now.

8. Clock Mismanagement
Speaking of circuses, whoever spiked the collective Kool-Aid of NFL coaches with Andy Reid's Jamba Juice probably won a lot of money in their pick-em league this week -- the final two minutes of the early games featured a series of incredible gaffes, many of them game-changing.

The Panthers, for instance, lost by three. You think calling a timeout with two seconds left as the Saints scrambled to set up for a field goal, which they eventually made after the pause in action, helped New Orleans? Yes it did. The Saints won by three.

We chronicled the Eagles mistakes -- in each half, no less! -- above. This is nothing new to an Andy Reid-coached football team. But it's still inexcusable.

The Raiders probably appreciate the Texans going incomplete-incomplete-sack with three timeouts to close out the first half, instead of utilizing their clock-killers to get good field position and a shot at some points. The Raiders didn't score, and Jacoby Jones probably deserves some fault, but you can't give the ball back to the other team that quickly.

The Vikings and Giants also behaved in a manner unbefitting of quality teams near the end of the first half, and both Mike McCarthy and Hue Jackson made poor decisions to go for a two-point conversion at an inexplicably early time.

Just sloppy decisions all around. On the bright side, maybe this Les-Miles-to-the-NFL thing could work out after all!



9. Best Team's Best Win?
Perhaps the most impressive thing about the Packers march to the Super Bowl in 2010 was their resiliency amid tons of injury. Well, that and their ability to adapt when things weren't going their way. It's what great teams do, and it's what the Packers did once again on Sunday night, despite getting down early to a sharp-looking Falcons team and, most devastatingly their stalwart of a left tackle in Chad Clifton.

Bryan Bulaga was already out on the right side, but it didn't matter -- Mike McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers adjusted their gameplan and spent the second half doing their best General Sherman impersonation, piling up a whopping 25 unanswered points on Atlanta's defense en route to a convincing 25-14 win that puts the Packers at 5-0 for the first time since 1965.

"We just stayed patient," Rodgers said afterwards. "It was a tough game -- I took a lot of shots. I had to move around a lot. [The offensive line] did a great job. The rhythm wasn't there all the time, but we just stayed with it, stayed patient and knew the big plays were going to come."

Rodgers threw for 296 of his 396 passing yards after the half and completed passes to a franchise-record 12 receivers. That's even more impressive considering that the Packers seriously stalled after Clifton went out, as the Falcons were actually able to get some pressure on Rodgers.

It was a brief period in neutral, though, as Rodgers -- who's established himself as the best quarterback in the NFL at this point, and I hope you're alright with that -- and the Packers got rolling and ended up winning in near-blowout fashion.

If they continue to adjust when adversity hits as they have this season (and last), Mike Freeman's note earlier this week about the Packers going undefeated doesn't seem remotely far-fetched.

And as long as No. 12 is under center, neither does another Super Bowl.

10. The Old Don't Bury 'Em Yet Game
High-quality teams that are struggling, like the Steelers, always bust out this old chestnut, randomly ripping into an opponent and reminding us that they're not dead yet.

So we come not to bury the Steelers, but to praise them, on the heels of a 38-17 beatdown of the Titans on Sunday that happened despite a weakened Steelers offensive line, an aging Steelers defense, a surging Titans offense and a busted-up Ben Roethlisberger.

"I told ya, I was just faking it," Roethlisberger said. "I'm a wimp."

Ben, obviously, is the complete opposite of a "wimp," mainly because pain either a) doesn't effect him or b) makes him better. Or something -- the dude was limping like crazy in pre-game warm-ups, and I felt pretty good about my Steelers pick.

Then all 350 pounds of Max Starks managed to rejuvenate the Pittsburgh offensive line who bullied an underrated Tennessee front four, giving Jonathan Dwyer his first career 100-yard rushing game, only allowed Roethlisberger to get sacked once, and protected like a unit capable of helping a team get to the Super Bowl.

Oh yeah, the defense was OK too -- LaMarr Woodley made it quite clear early on that Pittsburgh was going to have a statement game, recording an interception and 1.5 sacks, one of which was one of the most beasty sacks I've seen in a while -- Woodley fought off a blocker after briefly getting his hands on Titans quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, and just forcing his way to the takedown.

Pittsburgh's still tied with the Bengals (right?), but they're both just a half-game back of the Ravens now, and in case you thought the Steelers would just limp off into the sunset, you were clearly wrong.

Worth 1,000 Words



Muffed Punts
Leftovers from Sunday's action ...
... What the hell was Matt Schaub thinking on the final play of Raiders-Texans??? Just a horrible pass.
... When Antonio Cromartie picked off Tom Brady to end the half in the Jets-Patriots tilt, it was the first red-zone interception that Tom Brady has thrown at home. Ever. In his career. Say what you want about cherry-picking stats, but that's absolutely insane.
... Comebacks continue: the Chiefs stormed back from 17 points down, making it the seventh time an NFL team has done so this season, the most in NFL history.
... Cam Newton became the first player in NFL history with more than five passing and five rushing touchdowns in the first five games of his career Sunday. Yes, they lost. Whatever.
... Speaking of that Panthers game, what it's gonna take for the NFL to let an official eject someone? Because what Roman Harper did -- needlessly cheap-shotting Steve Smith after Smith made it to the end zone Sunday -- was about as close as it came, and nearly sparked a brawl. Not to wussify the sport further but how about we make a statement before we get Auburn Palace 2.0.

Jim Irsay Pop-Culture Referencing Tweet That's Sure to Drive Colts Fans Insane of the Week
"Take a bottle,drink it down...pass it around"

This is what you want the owner of your football team saying shortly before Curtis Painter gets second career start to try and get your team the first win of the season. Obviously.

GIF O' THE WEEK

Courtesy of the fine mustachioed fellas at SB Nation, Victor Cruz' insane circus catch.



Hot Seat Tracker
  • Jack Del Rio: He called his team's performance "crappy" and no amount of blame-shifting by Maurice Jones-Drew is going to save his gig at this point. Bye-week tracking engaged.
  • Tony Sparano: He's making it through the bye week and, hey, might make it the whole season, if only so Stephen Ross can chase Jon Gruden.
  • Jim Caldwell: The Colts are frisky right now, but they're sure not winning. If they land Andrew Luck, won't they want someone that can groom him?
  • Andy Reid: Welcome aboard, sir! Although he could just throw Juan Castillo over the side to cool his seat.
  • Tom Coughlin: Premature? Probably. But I'm just trying to get ahead of the inevitable surge from angry New Yorkers.
  • Ken Wisenhunt: What happens when you trade a bunch of stuff for a quarterback and then spend $63 million on said quarterback but still stink? I'm just asking questions.
Chasing Andrew Luck
Colts (-400) -- It occurred to me today ... if Andrew Luck is really patient and wants to enjoy life and learn things and go about things the smart way, wouldn't he want to end up sitting behind Peyton Manning for two or three years? He'd be like Aaron Rodgers on play-calling steroids after that time frame.
Dolphins (-250) -- Presumably, Luck is part of Ross' package to Gruden.
Rams (+150) -- One would think they'd trade the pick for a lot of wide receivers.
Jaguars (+250) -- Another team with a franchise passer, huh?
Vikings (+300) -- Boy, it's a good thing they didn't rent McNabb for just one year ...
Broncos (+400) -- But, but ... Tebow!
Cardinals (+500) -- Wouldn't this be awkward? "Hey, Andy ... Do you do refunds?"
Panthers (+750) -- Also a very serious "trade the pick" candidate.
Eagles (+1000) -- Are their odds of getting Luck better than their odds of making the Super Bowl? So. Awkward.

MVP Watch
Last week, I pointed out that Aaron Rodgers easily eclipsed anyone else with his performance against the Broncos. (Stafford and Tom Brady got honorable mention and still do.) With stiffer competition on the road, Rodgers again stepped up in a big way. We're only five weeks into the season, so it's a touch silly to speculate on votes, but he'd win unanimously right now.
Posted on: October 5, 2011 2:37 pm
Edited on: October 6, 2011 4:52 pm
 

Film Room: Steelers vs. Titans preview

Posted by Eye on Football Analyst Andy Benoit


The Tennessee Titans are off to a 3-1 start under first-time head coach Mike Munchak. Are they for real? The Titans have had the good fortune of facing the Jaguars, Broncos and Browns this season – all teams that run a bland 4-3 and suffer from a dire lack of weapons in the passing game. The Titans did, however, defeat a Ravens team that humiliated the Steelers in Week 1.

Which brings us to the next question: how are the Steelers right now? They’re 2-2 but have looked hardly “Steeler-like”. Ben Roethlisberger (sprained foot) is expected to play Sunday, but James Harrison (fractured orbital bone) is out. How serious of a test do the Steelers pose to this minimally tested Titans club?


Here are five keys of the matchup.

Run powers struggling
1. Titans run offense
The natural assumption is that Chris Johnson held out for virtually all of training camp and has therefore been rusty early in the season. An examination of the film reveals that ... this is exactly the case.

Johnson has not shown his usual initial quickness or burst out of the backfield. He’s had a tendency to stop his feet at the first sign of trouble, which is why he’s not creating his own space. These issues were apparent even in his 101-yard performance against the Browns last week.

The fourth-year running back is not the lone culprit for Tennessee’s anemic ground game. Interior linemen Eugene Amano, Leroy Harris and Jake Scott have been inconsistent at times, and right tackle David Stewart seems to have lost a bit of the power that once backed-up his nastiness.

Also, fullback Quinn Johnson is no Ahmard Hall. Hall’s return from suspension this week will be most welcomed – he has great feel and recognition in this Titans offense.

2. Steelers run defense
It ranks 22nd and has looked downright feeble in both losses this season (Week 1 at Baltimore, Week 4 at Houston). The Ravens and Texans both feature a stretch zone rushing attack, which the Steelers have been uncharacteristically poor at defending. James Harrison, coming off back surgery, has not played with the same physicality as past years.

He’s out this game; replacement Lawrence Timmons has superb athleticism but, as a run defender, he’s better equipped for his customary inside position, where he can chase down ball-carriers in either direction. This week, Timmons will have to be an edge-setting outside ‘backer, and against arguably the game’s steadiest left tackle in Michael Roos.

There’s too much history of success to think the Steelers run defense will continue to struggle (though the film through four weeks has often supported the wide-held notion that the Steelers are getting old fast). They have the ultimate X-factor in Troy Polamalu, but the real key to turning things around is at defensive end.

The Steelers’ secret to success is that they’ve always had incredibly active ends who can create chaos in the trenches and allow the linebackers to play downhill. But those ends – Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel, who’s been out the past two weeks with a strained PCL – along with stalwart nose tackle Casey Hampton are also well into their thirties.

Creating big plays: natural vs. manufactured
3. Steelers passing offense (natural)
The Steelers are a pass-first team. It’s been that way for several years now. And it will remain that way as long as Mike Wallace is around. The third-year sensation is the most lethal big-play receiving threat in the game today. He’s DeSean Jackson only with a longer stride.

The Steelers have done an excellent job of designing their route combinations around Wallace. His lifting of the safety is often what allows Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown to get open in the 18-25-yard range. But not everything about Pittsburgh’s passing attack is done through design.

There’s a lot of natural talent driving the force. Much of the production comes from Ben Roethlisberger’s incredible ability to not only extend the play, but make accurate throws downfield off that extension (there isn’t a better off-balance, improvisational passer in all of football).

The key to stymying Big Ben’s improve is to get to him with multiple pass-rushers. It’s hard enough getting just one pass-rusher to a quarterback, but the Steelers’ offensive line is porous right now. The Texans swarmed Roethlisberger by blitzing inside, which crowded his sight lines (thus making him break down earlier than usual) and forced shaky offensive tackles Trai Essex and Marcus Gilbert to work one-on-one.

4. Titans passing offense (manufactured)
A bulk of Matt Hasselbeck’s passing yards have stemmed from big plays that were well-crafted and called against the perfect defensive look (the best of many examples: receiver Damian Williams setting a pick against Cleveland’s man coverage that left Nate Washington wide open for a 57-yard game).

These kinds of plays are fine – it’s what good coaching and preparation are all about – but they can only carry you so far. At some point, you need a threat like Mike Wallace to build around. The Titans had such a threat before Kenny Britt tore his ACL.

5. Injuries impacting outcome
If the Titans can’t find their run game, they’re in trouble. The Steelers, even without James Harrison, have a far stronger pass-rush than the Jaguars, Broncos or Browns. The Titans handled the Ravens’ potent pass-rush well in Week 2, but they were able to build their aerial attack around Britt. Britt’s replacement, Nate Washington, isn’t that type of receiver – especially against a top-tier cover corner like Ike Taylor.

Running the ball could be equally important for the Steelers. With Roethlisberger less than 100 percent and the front five hurting, Pittsburgh’s best bet might be to challenge the Titans inside. Defensive tackle Jurrell Casey has been outstanding against the run, but center Maurkice Pouncey has the technical aptitude to temper Casey’s raw power. On Pouncey’s left, guard Chris Kemoeatu is arguably the best pulling blocker in the game. The Steelers should relish opportunities to get him on finesse middle linebacker Barrett Ruud.

Of course, putting a dent in Pittsburgh’s ground game is the fact that Rashard Mendenhall left last week’s contest with a hamstring injury. Isaac Redman, the spotlight could be on you.

So who will win? Check our NFL Week 5 expert picks for all the games

Follow @Andy_Benoit on Twitter or contact him at Andy.Benoit-at-NFLTouchdown.com.
Posted on: October 5, 2011 11:17 am
Edited on: October 6, 2011 4:59 pm
 

Film Room: Panthers vs. Saints preview

Posted by Eye on Football Analyst Andy Benoit



The Saints are 3-1 but it’s the 1-3 Panthers creating most of the chatter. Or, Cam Newton creating the chatter. Through a quarter of his rookie season, the No. 1 overall pick is, in a word, sensational. But obviously not perfect. The Panthers are still dwelling in the basement of the NFC South.

Here’s a comprehensive look at Newton and his club as they head into their first divisional showdown of the season.



1. How good is he, really?
Through four games, Newton has far exceeded all expectations. Remarkably, this includes expectations about his physical talents. We knew the 6’5”, 245-pound Auburn Tiger was an athletic monster, but rarely are quarterbacks still athletic monsters once they reach the NFL. Newton has been a productive runner, both with power and speed.

He’s a poor man’s Vick when it comes to eluding tacklers and a poor man’s Roethlisberger when it comes to shedding them. That’s a rich combination considering no other quarterback truly exhibits any of these traits (save for maybe Josh Freeman shedding defenders).

Most impressive, however, is that Newton has not leaned on his athleticism. Operating almost exclusively out of shotguns, he’s been a willing and poised statuesque passer who willingly works through his progressions from the pocket. His decisions are usually capped off by a bullet either downfield, outside the numbers (he has the uncanny arm strength to stretch the field both horizontally and vertically) or, if need be, underneath.

For the most part, Newton’s decisions have been good. He has faced an aggressive blitzing defense in Arizona, a classic 3-4 press defense in Green Bay (playing without Tramon Williams, the Packers kept Charles Woodson outside and blitzed far less often than usual that game) and, most recently, a classic Cover 2 defense in Chicago. He posted a legit 370-plus yards passing against all three of them.

The proof that it’s not all daisies and roses is that Newton also threw crucial interceptions in all three games and came away with a loss. He’s still a rookie and still prone to the occasional blunder. The blunders have been far less frequent than anyone expected, but they’ve been costly nevertheless.

2. Panthers dual tight ends
We assumed that with tight ends Jeremy Shockey and Greg Olsen, Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski would craft a dink-and-dunk, run-first system. Indeed, the Panthers have kept two tight ends on the field a majority of the time, but often, at least one of them (usually Olsen) has split out, serving essentially as a No. 3 receiver.

This poses serious personnel issues for defenses. Leave your base three-linebacker unit on the field and risk getting burned through the air (Shockey and Olsen have been superb downfield route runners the first four weeks). Use your nickel personnel and you risk getting run on by a team that always has a top-10 running back on the field.

The Saints are one of the few defenses that have an answer for this: strong safety Roman Harper. He is their second best run defender (behind Jonathan Vilma) and a demon in the box. He’s versatile enough to play press man coverage (he’s not particularly good at it, but Gregg Williams feels comfortable using him sporadically in this capacity) or blitz (3.5 sacks on the season).
 
Expect the Panthers in Week 5 to continue to be pass-first with their tight ends. And expect the Saints to not simply react to this, but rather, to attack by changing up what they do with Harper throughout the game in order to get Newton thinking.

3. Running Impact
Newton is the first quarterback since Vick to pose a veritable threat as a runner (Vince Young can’t be counted as a running threat quarterback because he was such a limited passer that defenses could get away with putting nine in the box against him; not a chance that happens against Newton). Having a running threat under center does wonders for your rushing attack.

The Panthers have all the resources to pound teams on the ground – DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart are an excellent duo, center Ryan Kalil can lock defenders at both the first and second level, left tackle Jordan Gross is a Pro Bowler and right tackle Jeff Otah flashed his old power against Chicago last week. But for whatever reason, Chudzinski has not gone in that direction. Carolina is averaging 25.5 rushing attempts per game, tied for 18th in the NFL.

Chudzinski would be wise to change this. The threat that Newton poses really opens things up. We saw this on the third play of the game against Chicago last week:


4. What Newton will see from Saints D
The Saints have one of the most aggressive defenses in football – both in terms of execution and presnap disguise. That has a lot to do with the trust Gregg Williams has in his secondary. Jabari Greer is one of the best ball-man corners in the game. Patrick Robinson had a rough Week 1 at Green Bay but has come on the last few outings (he was phenomenal at Jacksonville).

Playmaker Tracy Porter was eased back into action last week – he missed two games with a calf injury – and should see more snaps Sunday. When you factor in free safety Malcom Jenkins’ range, the Saints clearly have the resources to handle a Panthers’ wide receiving corps that is underwhelming outside of Steve Smith.

Dealing with the tight ends might be an issue, but Roman Harper’s versatility could cause Newton to question that matchup at times. How will Newton react when he sees Harper leave Olsen or Shockey and blitz? The simple answer would be, “He’ll throw to Olsen or Shockey”. But if you and I can predict this, so can Gregg Williams.

The Saints are one of the best green dog blitzing defenses in the league. (A green dog blitz is when a linebacker has a running back man-to-man, sees that the running back is staying in to pass protect and so he goes after the quarterback in response.) These blitzes can be hard to recognize because they come unexpectedly and late in the action.
 
When blitzing is not involved, Carolina’s offensive line can contain a Saints pass-rush that has been hit-or-miss early this season (the return of end Will Smith certainly helps). Thus, expect Gregg Williams to go after Newton and get him guessing before the snap. Many of Williams’ blitzes come out of nickel personnel packages. The Saints used their nickel later in the game against the Texans to counter the receiving impact of Houston’s two tight ends (Owen Daniels and James Casey). Don’t be surprised if they refer to their nickel early against the Panthers’ two-tight end offense.

5. The other side of the ball
The Saints have remade their offense this season. It now runs through Darren Sproles and Jimmy Graham. Sproles has been better for the Saints than Reggie Bush ever was (much better, in fact). That could be in part because Sproles doesn’t yet draw the attention that Bush drew. But more than anything, it’s because he has lightning quick feet and an understanding for how to create and exploit spacing in both the run and pass game.

Graham is the dynamic athlete we all knew he’d be after his 2010 debut. It just so happens that the ex-power forward is developing much quicker than expected. He’s a mismatch for any linebacker, has the size to out-position defensive backs and has better hands than Robert Meachem (who is now the fourth option in this pass offense, behind Sproles, Graham and, when healthy, Marques Colston).

Panthers strong safety Charles Godfrey has been stellar in coverage this season and can compete with Graham, but the Panther linebackers (who are really missing Jon Beason) will have trouble with Sproles. Carolina’s best hope is to get pressure on Brees early in the down.

Defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy are capable of embarrassing New Orleans’ athletic but grossly unreliable tackles Jermon Bushrod and Charles Brown. But Brees knows this and is also capable of adjusting.

So who will win? Check our Week 5 NFL expert picks for all the games

Follow @Andy_Benoit on Twitter or contact him at Andy.Benoit-at-NFLTouchdown.com.
Posted on: October 5, 2011 12:05 am
Edited on: October 5, 2011 12:07 am
 

Starks could return to Steelers for depth

M. Starks was cut by Pittsburgh before the season for being overweight (US Presswire).Posted by Josh Katzowitz

With the Steelers offensive line continuing to struggle amid injuries and with Ben Roethlisberger dealing with a foot injury that forced him to use crutches after last Sunday’s game, Pittsburgh is beginning to get desperate to fix the offensive front.

That’s why, according to NFL.com’s Jason La Canfora, the coaching staff worked out former Steelers tackle Max Starks, and according to the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, he’s expected to be signed. But the plan for now is for Starks not to be an immediate starter, and instead, he mostly will be used for depth.

Starks, of course, is the same guy who started at left tackle for Pittsburgh last year before a neck injury knocked him out for the season, reported overweight to camp this season and got axed by the Steelers before the beginning of the year. Apparently, he’s lost 60 pounds since he was cut.

Now, the man who replaced Starks last year, Jonathan Scott, is injured, and if the Steelers re-sign Starks, he very well could return to his old position. But it also sounds like Scott, who missed the Houston game because of an ankle injury, could be back this week.

Which is good news for the Steelers, because, as the Beaver County Times points out, Pittsburgh is 11-3 when Scott is in the lineup.

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Posted on: October 4, 2011 12:30 pm
Edited on: October 4, 2011 12:55 pm
 

Harrison out with orbital injury, Ben might play

James Harrison won't play against the Titans, and he may be out for a while. (US PRESSWIRE)

Posted by Ryan Wilson

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin gets points for honesty. During his weekly Tuesday press conference, he pretty much laid it out there: "We're gonna need the support of our fans."

He mentioned this in reference to the team's slow start, but also fresh off the news that the Steelers will be without outside linebacker James Harrison, who suffered a right orbital fracture around his eye socket in the loss to the Texans (it may have happened on the play in the video below), for "a number of weeks." It gets worse: Harrison's backup, 2010 second-round pick Jason Worilds, is listed as doubtful with a quadriceps injury.

So the plan, at least for now, is to move inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons into Harrison's position and have veteran Larry Foote start inside next to James Farrior. Tomlin also said that rookie Chris Carter and second-year linebacker Stevenson Sylvester could also see time. 

We've previously documented that the offensive line is in shambles, so much so that last Sunday quarterback Ben Roethlisberger left Reliant Stadium in a walking boot and on crutches. If there's a silver lining, it's that X-rays on Roethlisberger's foot showed that it wasn't broken, just sprained.

"It may limit him early in the week but we expect him participate in this football game," Tomlin said.


Given how the first month of the season has unfolded, and under the current circumstances, having Roethlisberger on the field might be the Steelers' best chance at winning, even at Heinz Field. The problem, of course, is that if the offensive line goes pass-blocking optional, Big Ben might leave the game in pieces.

If the Titans are one of the early surprises of the 2011 season, the Steelers are certainly one of the most disappointing, and some of that can be traced to injuries. But as Lou Holtz once said, "Don't tell people your problems -- half of them don't care and the other half are glad you got 'em."

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Posted on: October 3, 2011 3:20 pm
 

Roethlisberger has sprained ankle, to try to play

Posted by Will Brinson

On Sunday afternoon, Mike Tomlin told everyone that Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger sprained his ankle in Pittsburgh's loss at Houston.

So it's great news that the ankle's not broken. Which is what ESPN is now reporting to contradict ESPN's report. Or something.

Everyone knew Roethlisberger's ankle was sprained -- again, Tomlin told us that. But on Monday morning, ESPN decided to report that there was a chance that Roethlisberger suffered a fracture in his ankle and that it could be broken but that the MRI wasn't conclusive.

Then, ESPN decided to report that the ankle wasn't broken, and reported that it was sprained. Which is what we knew.

Whatever, the point being is that Roethlisberger is going to try and play despite the injury.

"If I can be out there, I'm going to be out there," Roethlisberger said, per Scott Brown of the Pittsburgh Tribune. "If I have to cast it up — we saw I had to do that last year — I cast up my foot for the last half of the year. If we have to do it, I'll do it."

Ben will likely "have to do it" and he will likely "have to do it" with limited mobility behind a line that is coming under increasing scrutiny because of their inability to keep opposing defenders out of Roethlisberger's grill.

Colleague Ryan Wilson and I discussed this further on today's podcast, and though Ryan's made good points about the Steelers line in the past (to sum up: if you have weapons for Ben, you don't need as much protection), it's safe to say that even he's concerned with Pittsburgh's ability to protect its most precious commodity.

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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