NFL Week Three: Pressures, Hurries, and Knockdowns
Welcome to the first of what will be a weekly column of mine, in which I describe pressure situations in the NFL in the Pressures section, make quick hit points in the Hurries section, and express my thoughts regarding previous truths that have subsequently been disproved or are on shaky ground in the Knockdowns section.
For any members of the Raider Nation wondering why there is no mention of our beloved Silver and Black, I will be doing a separate Raiders version of the column on Saturdays.
John Fox, Carolina Head Coach
Previously one of the most insulated men in the business after taking Carolina to a SuperBowl in just his second season back in 2003. Fox has had an inconsistent run since then, at times under-performing with talented teams. He's now hitched his wagon to a quarterback who's better days seem to be behind him, and, with a team expected to be better than their current 0-2 record, the pressure is mounting.
Carolina followed up their SuperBowl appearance with a disappointing 7-9 season in '04, but bounced back to return to the NFC Championship game in '05. In '06, they had high hopes and were heavily favoured to represent the NFC in the SuperBowl, but, in a pattern that has maintained throughout Fox's tenure dating back to '02, the team failed to post back-to-back winning seasons, and, at 8-8, missed the playoffs.
Another Panther squad touted as SuperBowl contenders disappointed in '07, finishing below .500 at 7-9. They once again bounced back last season, riding a strong and versatile run game and stout defense to an impressive 12-4 record and a spot in the playoffs against Arizona.
Unfortunately for Carolina, the Cards were in the early stages of a magical run and the Panthers went out mewling in a debacle of a divisional round game at home behind quarterback Jake Delhomme's five-interception, one fumble self-destruction that was as hard to watch as it was mesmerizing.
Delhomme figures heavily in the pressure that is now on John Fox. Despite the fact that Delhomme has never joined the upper echelon of quarterbacks in the league, and despite the fact that he had a terrible season opener in which he nearly mirrored his '08 playoff performance with another four interceptions and a fumble, he was given a vote of confidence by the coach.
This after the team gave him a rich extension this past offseason ($42.5 million over five years with $20 million guaranteed), at the behest of Fox.
His clinging to Delhomme, who has always been a good quarterback who until recently was somewhat careful with the ball, has lead the team away from drafting a quarterback of the future and left the position somewhat of a question mark. It's not to say Delhomme can't bounce back and put up serviceable numbers, but at this point, it hasn't boded well for him this season; which doesn't bode well for Fox.
Fox's teams are also usually known for stout defense, but currently sit 24th in total defense and 26th against the run. With the real possibility of 0-3 looming in the form of a trip to Jerryworld in Dallas on Monday, this team is in danger of falling into a deep hole in the tough NFC South, and it's tough to see them or Fox surviving the fall.
New England Patriots
I'm not ready to throw the towel in on the Patriots by any means. We counted them out last season after losing Tom Brady, one of the best quarterbacks in the business, and they narrowly missed the playoffs, posting an impressive 11-5 record on the arm of a quarterback who hadn't started since High School. This team is well coached, and well managed, and always has a chance in every game. I don't like them, but I have to give credit where it is due.
The "Is Brady the same?" storyline has been played up enormously, and it is a huge factor in the pressure the Patriots are feeling to right a ship that's usually on a steady course. The offense is struggling; the offensive line is struggling; and, subsequently, Brady is struggling. Well, as much as he does anyhow.
But the issue with the Patriots now, one that can't be fixed in practice or with film study, is that their big-bad-bullies of Boston mystique is all but gone.
The Giants began eroding the myth in 2007 at SuperBowl XLII, where they repeatedly broke through the previously impenetrable Patriots offensive line and put constant pressure and pain on quarterback Tom Brady. The Patriots were still just a couple plays away from winning that game, but the Giants provided a blueprint for rattling Brady that proved effective again last week when employed by the Jets.
The Jets took the final shine off the Patriots aura last weekend and The Patriots have been the bullies of the AFC East in the 2000's, especially against the Bills whom they've now beaten 12 straight times, and the Jets, against whom they have a 10-2 record since '03.
The Jets-of-recent-years have lacked the confidence to stand up to a Patriots team that was often dominant. Coach Eric Mangini, like a good father does when his charge is being bullied, decided to take the conservative approach and tell the authorities. He ratted out his former team for using illegal taping techniques, leading to the horrifying cliche "Spygate" and all the bombast that went along with it.
This approach wasn't successful, and the Patriots continued their dominance of the Jets through the Mangini era, while a formerly warm coaching relationship was fractured forever. There is no way the new Browns coach will ever again be acknowledged by the Hood.
Enter tough Uncle Rex Ryan. Instead of telling the Jets to just sit back and take what comes, he instead told them to take charge, to tell the bully to their face they weren't afraid of them. He further dared them to punch them in the nose with everyone in the NFL watching.
This was surprising to say the least, as with the exception of '02, when you made statements like that about Patriot teams between the years of 2001-2007, they usually beat you by multiple touchdowns just to send a message: You don't talk smack about us.
The Jets, however, weren't intimidated and they took their coaches' words to heart.
They came out with a hard-hitting, pressure-packed performance on defense and got enough from Mark Sanchez and the offense to pull off an impressive 16-9 victory in front of the football world. By first calling them out and then following through, the Jets served notice that the bully wasn't to be feared any longer.
With that game, the Patriots' psychological advantage of presence intimidation is officially over. The Patriots are so used to being heavily favoured in most games and getting in their opponents heads before the game is even played that it'll be interesting to see going forward how things will play out.
At 1-1, the season is very much alive and the Patriots do not panic, nor should they. They still have a great team with a savvy coaching staff. And most bullies are still big and strong; it's just when they're exposed when the aura of fear is gone and people look at them differently.
With Atlanta coming to Foxborough this weekend looking like a very strong team, and with both Wes Welker and Randy Moss possibly shelved for the contest, 1-2 is distinctly possible. In a division where the Jets are playing great football, the Bills look like they could possibly contend, and the Dolphins are better than their record, it won't be as easy as it's been in the recent past.
And now, teams who felt hopeless before will truly believe they can beat them every single week.
We're seeing some great individual pass rushing displays this early season, with the Broncos Elvis Dumervil getting four against the Browns and the Bengals Antwan Odom rocking Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers five times last Sunday.
I don't usually feel bad for Jerry Jones or the Cowboys, but you had to feel a little bit sorry for him when the 'Boys non-existent pass rush and an erratic Tony Romo choked the life out of the amazing spectacle he'd created. Didn't you?
I'm not surprised Mario Manningham is playing well for the Giants. The kid was a big-play maker at Michigan, and I thought the Giants got a steal when they nabbed him in the third round of the '08 draft. He didn't see the field much last season, and it looked as if he might not this season either with the emergence of rookie Hakeem Nicks. But Nicks is hurt, and now Manningham is making the most of his opportunities. With Manningham and Steve Smith performing lights-out this season, and Nicks and fellow rookie Ramses Barden showing great flashes of potential, along with the ever-underachieving Sinorice Moss, the Giants suddenly have a very young, very talented core of receivers that could prove to be exceedingly dangerous.
Does Detroit get their first win this weekend when they host the offensively-challenged Redskins? It's the sexy pick of the week, but I can't pick the Lions until they win one. This may be their best chance in a while though, because their next three games before their Week Seven bye are: Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Green Bay. If they don't get it on Sunday, they will have another excellent chance, being rested and ready after the bye, in Week Eight when they host the Rams.
A Good Running Game and the Time of Possession Battle Win Games
This truth was shattered to pieces this past Monday night, as the Indianapolis Colts were run all over by the Miami Dolphins, and held the ball for less than 15 minutes yet came away with a 27-23 victory on the shoulders and fingertips of Peyton Manning.
Manning threw a touchdown pass on his first attempt, a nice 80-yard catch and run by Dallas Clark that left the Miami crowd stunned. But the Dolphins went into leech mode, trying to bleed the Colts out with constant pressure on the ground and keeping their defense tired and on the field. The Dolphins put up more than 230 yards on the Colts with a variance of the Wildcat and straight running that kept them off-balance the entire game.
This one game cannot debunk the truth of the statement that if you have a good running game and win the time of possession, you stand an excellent chance of winning the game.
That is still true. However, a good passing game is more valuable than ever.
Look around. Though it would take too long to do a proper statistical analysis (if anyone knows a good place to go for NFL stats, please let me know) it certainly seems as if teams are throwing the ball a heck of a lot more this season.
Sometimes it's out of necessity (Kevin Kolb), sometimes it's because they're so, so good at it (Drew Brees), and sometimes it's for on-the-job training (Matt Stafford, Mark Sanchez). The league has changed on offense from the conventional one back, No.1 receiver offense where only a couple guys could burn you at any time.
Teams now have multiple threats to go the distance at any time, as athletes get bigger, stronger, and faster all the time, and want to get the ball in the hands of their playmakers as often as possible. This usually means passing to them, like converted punt returners Devin Hester of the Bears and Josh Cribbs from the Browns.
More dangerous athletes mean more home-run hitters, and throwing them the ball on short routes like bubble screens and slant patterns can pay huge dividends. For that reason, expect teams to continue passing to their big play guys.
The Houston Texans are Ready for Prime-time
Everyone's favourite darlings in the preseason for the past two seasons, the Houston Texans somehow always come out of the gate misfiring and then have an uphill climb just to get to .500, which is exactly how they've finished in those two seasons.
This season was no different. Every expert and many fans decided it was the Texans year, and there was no two ways that they were going to the playoffs. Heck, Sports Illustrated and others even picked them to evict the Colts from their long-tenured penthouse stay in the AFC South.
But then they came out against the New York Jets and laid an absolute egg in their home opener. Outwitted, outplayed, and outgunned by a rookie quarterback and head coach, Gary Kubiak and his Texans looked to be heading on to another down slide early in the season that would portend doom for their playoff hopes.
They bounced back in a big way against Tennessee last week, putting up 33 on a supposedly good defense (almost in the pressures section, the Tennessee D has not impressed thus far) and doing just enough to win a very rowdy game in which they gave up multiple huge plays to the fastest guy in the NFL, Titans back Chris Johnson.
At 1-1, the season is not over. My point is that the Texans have done nothing this season other than lower their expectations. Nobody really though the Jets would win that first game, let alone in such a dominant fashion. The Jets showed last weekend against the Pats that their Week One play was no fluke, but still, Houston simply cannot be trusted until they string together two or three good performances in a row.
Conventional wisdom would say that they have an excellent chance to do so as they host the Jaguars this Sunday and the Raiders next Sunday. As a Raider fan, I respectfully disagree with conventional wisdom and say we beat the Texans in their own house. But that's for another time.
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