The National Football League is on pace for its highest-scoring season ever. Even defensive players are high-stepping into the end zone for their 15 seconds of touchdown celebration fame!
Never—in league history—have defensive scores been more ubiquitous in a single game than during the Week 4 matchup between the New York Jets and Baltimore Ravens.
A remarkable five return touchdowns (four on fumbles/interceptions, one on a kickoff return) highlighted Baltimore's 34-17 home victory on Sunday night. Naturally, three of the five contributed to the Ravens total.
If nothing else, return touchdowns reflect athleticism. The ability to secure the football is a given, but a runback amid 11 angry opponents is not so run of the mill.
Take Joe McKnight's 107-yard kickoff return, the longest play in New York Jets history. Sure, a pair of his blockers opened up a comfortable hole when McKnight was still accelerating. That allowed him to go untouched for the bulk of the play.
However, his speed and stamina showed deep in Ravens territory. An opposing pursuer dove at his ankles as McKnight crossed the goal line. Mere inches separated his record-breaking return from a less memorable run.
The quartet of defensive plays that went all the way were products of poor quarterback play. Mark Sanchez and Joe Flacco were obviously uncomfortable and out of sync.
Sanchez (11-for-35, 119 YDS, 0 TD, 1 INT) was particularly ineffective, in large part because veteran center Nick Mangold was inactive after suffering a high ankle sprain. His struggles on Sunday weren't surprising, considering the pressure he faced without Mangold in Week 3 (sacked four times in a 34-24 loss to Oakland).
The third-year passer lost three fumbles and threw a "pick-six." Each of those turnovers, though, occurred within a couple seconds of the snap! It's tough to blame Sanchez when he had such little time to make decisions.
Flacco (10-for-31, 163 YDS, 0 TD, 1 INT) had slightly better protection. His performance was even more disappointing because of his reputation as an accurate passer.
So, what conclusions can be drawn about these 2010 playoff teams at this point in 2011?
New York (2-2) is arguably the best .500 franchise in the AFC despite this mess. The Jets have found a suitable replacement for all-purpose player Brad Smith in Joe McKnight. Their pass defense remains a strength, but their own attack needs its usual man in the middle. Luckily, Mangold is on track to return for their next game.
Baltimore (3-1) is aging gracefully (if at all) on defense. Three of its four efforts this season have been awe-inspiring. Running back Ray Rice is an emerging MVP candidate and Flacco will surely bounce back after the Raven's Week 5 bye. Baltimore will resume play on October 16 as the leader of the AFC North division.