Our offseason Four Downs series continues with a division-by-division look at each team's biggest remaining holes and their most notable UDFA signings. In the NFC North, quality wide receivers and defensive backs are in short supply.
08 Nov 2004
By Russell Levine
The Pittsburgh Steelers have enjoyed as impressive a two-week stretch as any team in recent memory, posting back-to-back routs of the previously unbeaten New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles. The Steelers followed the same script in both games, imposing their will on the defense with a dominant rushing attack. Pittsburgh possessed the ball for almost 85 of 120 minutes in the two wins, and wasn't affected by the absence of Duce Staley against Philadelphia. Jerome Bettis proved there is still some tread left on the Bus's tires, rushing for 149 yards on 33 carries.
There were two other big stories coming out of this contest. One was the continuing emergence of Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who managed another outstanding game and is now 6-0 as the starter. The other was the image of Terrell Owens stalking Donovan McNabb up and down the sideline for the better part of minute, while McNabb did his best to completely ignore him after a failed Philadelphia possession.
There's already been a lot written and said about this scene, and there will be countless more articles and television features before next weekend. For a journalist, the scene was a perfect example of "low hanging fruit" -- in other words, a storyline that's too ripe and easy not to grab. Sportswriters were falling all over themselves to proclaim the arrival of the "Bad T.O." But I'm not convinced just yet. Things may go south for Owens and McNabb in Philadelphia at some point this season, but I'm going to give the Eagles the same benefit of the doubt that I gave New England after last week's loss to Pittsburgh.
The Eagles, and the McNabb-Owens connection in particular, dominated the NFC in getting off to a 7-0 start. It's not all going to fall apart because of one bad day in Pittsburgh. I'm even willing to buy that Owens may have been trying to pick McNabb up, as both said after game. We've seen what an angry T.O. looks like (think last year's sideline blowup on 49ers assistant Greg Knapp) and that's not the look I saw Sunday. For seven weeks, Owens was unstoppable. Let's see how the Eagles respond to their first real adversity of the season before we all proclaim the arrival of T.O. the Terrible.
* * *
As those of you who read Seventh Day Adventure probably know, it's not that often that I'm right about something, but I'll happily take credit for my prediction about the Patriots this week.
Coming off a one-sided loss to Pittsburgh and facing the potent Rams without both starting cornerbacks, Sunday's game in St. Louis appeared to be a tall order for New England. But the Patriots responded with one of their best efforts of the season in a 40-22 win.
I suggested last week that Bill Belichick may have been secretly pleased with the loss to Pittsburgh, knowing it would allow him to once again get his players' attention. It certainly focused Belichick's efforts, as he was in a coaching zone. The contest between Belichick and the Rams' Mike Martz turned out to be no contest at all, particularly on a fake field goal play in the third quarter. Belichick was able to sneak Troy Brown onto the field with the field goal unit. Brown wander in past the numbers, as the rules required, then turned around and appeared to be walking off the field. Only he stopped just short of the sidelines and set himself for the snap. When no Rams player came within 20 yards of covering him, kicker Adam Vinatieri had the easiest touchdown pass in football history.
That's the same Troy Brown who also made a key contribution as a cornerback in the Pats' injury-decimated secondary Sunday. At the risk of promoting the legend of Belichick's genius to insufferable, Derek Jeter-like levels, I'm pretty sure there isn't another head coach in the league who would put a receiver at defensive back in a close game against a potent offense. Congratulations to Sports Illustrated's Peter King and Don Banks, who correctly forecast back in preseason that Brown might see some meaningful snaps at DB.
The blowout of St. Louis was much more indicative of New England's abilities than last week's loss to Pittsburgh. That's not to suggest Pittsburgh isn't an excellent team; it clearly is. But if there is a Patriots-Steelers rematch in the AFC championship, expect the Patriots to put forth an effort like the one seen in St. Louis on Sunday.
* * *
Enough already about all these winning teams. It's time for the Bucs-fan portion of the program. Call me crazy -- you wouldn't be the first -- but Tampa Bay is a team that bears watching in the second half. The Buccaneers were written off after an 0-4 start, but are 3-1 since Brian Griese took over for an injured Chris Simms (who replaced an ineffective Brad Johnson) at quarterback. It speaks volumes about the progress of Tampa Bay's offense under Griese that the Bucs were able to win a 34-31 shootout with Kansas City Sunday. Griese is completing nearly 70% of his throws, has the second-highest QB rating in the NFL and even had the second-highest DPAR (Defense-Adjusted Points Above Replacement) this week.
Granted, it's a long shot, but Tampa Bay could still make the playoffs because of their schedule. The Bucs trail division-leading Atlanta by three games, but still play the Falcons twice (beginning this week in Atlanta) and still have two games left against 1-7 Carolina and another against San Francisco. Trips to San Diego and Arizona look tougher than they did when the schedule came out, but Arizona is definitely beatable as are the Chargers on a bad day. It may take a 7-1 second half to make it, but stranger things have happened.
As for Griese, he may have played himself into a contract extension. The deal he signed with Tampa Bay was essentially a one-year tryout, with huge escalators in year two, so the team will either have to cut him or give him an extension after the season. The way he's played, Jon Gruden and Bruce Allen (both of whom love veteran players) may try to keep him around for another year while Chris Simms continues to develop.
* * *
The coaching decision worthy of the Mike Martz Award doesn't always determine the outcome of a game. Sometimes it's just a coach that exercises a particular pet peeve of mine. This week, it was San Francisco's Dennis Erickson. His sin? Wasting a timeout while trailing in the second half.
Faced with a 4th-and-1 at the Seattle 13 and trailing by 11 points, Erickson elected to kick a field goal, which was the proper decision because it got his team within a touchdown and a two-point conversion. But before sending his kicker on the field, Erickson himself called a time out. Why? It's a 30-yard attempt! Just take the delay of game penalty! If a coach calls a timeout in that spot, he really has to go for it. There's no other reason to stop the clock. His decision didn't come into play in the final outcome, as Seattle added a defensive touchdown to win going away, but it doesn't lessen its boneheadedness, which earns Erickson this week's Martz honor.
* * *
Wasn't Halloween last week?
At least I thought it was, but I had to double-check the calendar when I saw the Bengals and Ravens decked out in new "alternate" jerseys on Sunday (kids, remind your parents -- only 48 shopping days until Christmas). The Bengals, who made subtle changes to their uniforms this season, turning an OK outfit into a hideous one, took the field in orange jerseys with white piping down the sides and black sleeves. These were complimented by black pants with orange piping. In other words, nothing matched. At least the Bengals played better than they looked in a rout of Dallas.
Then came the Ravens on Sunday Night sporting an all-black outfit for the first time. That's original. Nobody's tried that one before.
Is it just me, or are the Ravens on Sunday Night on ESPN every other week? The Baltimore Ravens -- the NFL's not-quite-ready-for-Monday-Night team. I think the regular appearances on the "sports leader" are starting to affect the announcing crew's objectivity. At one point during the broadcast, they threw the production to the booth to reveal Mike Patrick, Joe Theisman and Paul McGwire wearing identical black turtlenecks. Was it alternate jersey night for them as well?
* * *
The fog that rolled into Reser Stadium in Corvallis, Ore., Saturday night was a fitting metaphor for the Bowl Championship Series picture. If Saturday's events accomplished anything, they further muddled the BCS outlook, a week after several upsets helped to clarify it.
Four of the six remaining undefeated teams won on Saturday (BCS No. 3 Auburn and no. 12 Boise State were idle) but anyone who professed to know the identity of the nation's two best teams entering the day was likely scratching his or her head by Sunday morning. That's because the teams atop the BCS standings, No. 1 USC and No. 2 Oklahoma raised more questions than answers Saturday.
Conventional wisdom suggested that USC and Oklahoma simply had to win the remaining games on their schedules to reach the BCS title game, which will be played in the Orange Bowl this year. Coaches know better, however. The human pollsters that vote in the AP writers' poll and the ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll account for two-thirds of the BCS formula, and humans are easily impressed by "style points" -- factors such as margin of victory over an inferior opponent -- which are wholly excluded by the computer polls that make up the final third of the BCS formula (and are the subject of so much derision).
The voters noticed USC's performance in Corvallis, where the Trojans played in a fog, both literally and figuratively, for much of their contest against 17 1/2-point underdogs Oregon State. As a thick blanket of fog covered the stadium -- reminiscent of the memorable 1988 NFL playoff game between the Eagles and Bears at Chicago's Soldier Field -- Oregon State grabbed an early 13-0 lead. USC trailed until early in the third quarter when Matt Leinart connected on a 25-yard scoring pass to Dominique Byrd for a 14-13 advantage. That was the score early in the fourth quarter when USC's Mr. Everything, Reggie Bush, returned a punt 65 yards for a touchdown that put the game out of reach. USC would eventually win 28-20, but lost first-place votes in both polls.
Oklahoma, facing a tougher test on the road at Texas A&M, might have become the first team in history to surrender touchdowns on both a fake punt and a fake field goal and still win. The Sooners were able to prevail because of opportune turnovers -- A&M committed three in the first half of the third quarter, including two deep in its own territory that Oklahoma turned into touchdowns -- and a brilliant, 80-yard drive for the winning touchdown directed by quarterback Jason White, last year's Heisman Trophy winner, who is a candidate for the award again this year. Oklahoma's other Heisman candidate, freshman tailback Adrian Peterson, rushed for 101 yards on 29 carries, but suffered a shoulder injury late in the 42-35 victory.
After the game, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, who has a vote in the coaches' poll, proclaimed, "We're still no. 1 in my eyes."
Stoops may think so, but most of the coaches and writers disagree, keeping Oklahoma No. 2 in both polls, although the Sooners picked up additional first-place votes in each. They no doubt took note of an Oklahoma defense that has given up 70 points in back-to-back wins over Oklahoma State and Texas A&M. Voters also noticed that Oklahoma beat Texas A&M 77-0 last year, and that BCS no. 6 Utah had a much easier time in a 41-21 win over the Aggies back in September.
The biggest beneficiaries of the struggles of USC and Oklahoma were BCS No. 3 Auburn, which had a bye, and No. 5 Wisconsin, which scored on its first five possessions in a 38-14 rout of Minnesota that was not nearly as close as the final score would suggest.
Wisconsin has consistently been the lowest-ranked undefeated team from the BCS conferences, largely because its limited offense had not generated the scoreboard fireworks that generally get the attention of voters. But that may be changing. Quarterback John Stocco threw for 297 yards and accounted for three touchdowns (two rushing) to lead an attack that gained 525 yards and possessed the ball for 44 1/2 minutes against the Gophers.
The remaining schedule is a huge factor in determining which two teams will play in the Orange Bowl. Oklahoma will not have another chance to impress the voters against a quality opponent, as its remaining games are against Nebraska (5-4), Baylor (3-6) and either Nebraska again or Iowa State (5-4) in the Big XII championship game. Its strength-of-schedule, which is no longer a stand-alone component of the BCS standings, but is still a factor in the computer polls, has probably peaked for the year.
Auburn used its bye week to rest up for a date with 8-1 Georgia (No. 8 in the BCS) next Saturday. An impressive win over the Bulldogs could propel Auburn to an Orange Bowl berth. Assuming it remains unbeaten against Georgia and Alabama, Auburn will have another chance to impress voters in the SEC Championship game, likely against Tennessee or Georgia. Auburn benefits from the depth of the SEC, which, unlike the Big XII, has solid teams in both divisions.
Wisconsin's remaining games are against Michigan State and Iowa, good but not great teams, so the Badgers must continue to win by large margins to move up in the standings. Two wins probably means a berth in the Rose, not the Orange Bowl for the Badgers.
Wisconsin leapfrogged one-loss California, which entered the weekend ranked one spot ahead of Wisconsin in the BCS at No. 4, in the AP poll, and could be poised to do so in the BCS as well. Cal struggled to a one-point win over Oregon Saturday, a game it could have easily lost had Oregon's Keith Allen held on to a fourth-down pass in field-goal range in the final minute. Cal's remaining schedule -- games against lightly regarded Pac-10 foes Washington and Stanford as well as a makeup of a hurricane-delayed game against Southern Miss -- won't help it with the computers. The Bears are still a likely choice for the Rose Bowl if USC qualifies for the Orange, but have probably missed out on their long-shot chance for a berth in the national championship game.
The wildcard in the BCS standings is Utah. The Utes continue to destroy opponents on a weekly basis, the latest blowout coming by a 63-31 count against Colorado State, but were dealt a setback in the process. Utah fell to No. 7 in the latest BCS rankings, and only the top six spots are guaranteed BSC bowl berths. Utah, a member of the Mountain West Conference, could become the first team from a non-BCS conference to qualify for a BCS berth, but to do so it will likely have to regain the sixth spot in the standings. Working against the Utes is their strength of schedule, which will suffer in remaining games against Wyoming and BYU. However, as the team that is having the easiest time blowing out inferior opponents, voters may keep Utah in position to play in the Fiesta Bowl.
Should strength of schedule push Utah out of the top six spots in the BCS, next in line to grab an at-large invite would probably be Texas, which scored the last 49 points in a bizarre 56-35 win over Oklahoma State Saturday, or Michigan, which was idle. Both could finish 10-1 and are the type of schools that "travel well" -- they have huge alumni and fan bases that will both show up at the bowl site and watch on TV. Even in this age of complex BCS formulas, the simple economics of ticket sales and television ratings still factor into who plays where.
(Note: edited portions of this column also appear in Russell's article on this weekend's college football results in the Monday edition of the New York Sun.)