Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
03 Nov 2005
by Michael David Smith
Each week in Every Play Counts, I take a look at one particular aspect of a team throughout a single game. But I watch a lot of football during the season, making it my goal to see every team play a couple of times, and I notice a lot of little things that don't make it into Every Play Counts â€” or any other column on the Web, for that matter. Little issues that don't get covered in the highlights but have an impact on wins and losses. So a couple of times during the season, Every Play Counts becomes Every Team Counts, my notebook of all the little things I've noticed throughout the past few weeks.
New York Giants: Fullback Jim Finn and left guard David Diehl deserve more credit for the quality of the running game. They're both very powerful blockers on inside runs.
Giants defensive ends Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora did a number on Redskins tackles Chris Samuels and Jon Jansen.
Washington: With the exception of the atrocious performance against the Giants, Santana Moss fits perfectly in Joe Gibbs' offense. Moss plays the same role Gary Clark played for Gibbs in his first stint in Washington â€“ he's small, fast, and able to gain yards after the catch.
I like what I've seen of rookie cornerback Carlos Rogers. He's extremely aggressive when helping out in run support.
Dallas: Left tackle Torrin Tucker really struggled against Arizona's Bertrand Berry. With Flozell Adams out for the season, Dallas is going to go through the rest of the year with Tucker and rookie Rob Petitti as their offensive tackles. That's not a playoff-caliber pair.
Philadelphia: Kickers get to hear praise for their toughness about as often as astronomers get to see Halley's comet, so let's give rare credit for toughness to David Akers, who booted a game-winning field goal in Week 3 despite a severely injured hamstring. Philadelphia desperately needs a healthy Akers to make another playoff run.
Chicago: The best defensive tackles often make an impact not by tackling the opposition themselves, but by freeing up linebackers to do it. Ian Scott didn't have a single tackle against Detroit, but his strength and quickness in the middle of the line often forced Detroit to devote two blockers to him, which allowed Brian Urlacher to finish with a game-high nine tackles.
Detroit: Unless you've watched the Lions regularly, you don't understand just how bad their offensive play calling is. There are many examples, but here's one: In overtime against Chicago, Detroit had one series that consisted of three complete passes: one for no gain, one for a one-yard loss, and, finally, a seven-yard gain on third-and-11. You're just not supposed to have to punt after three consecutive completions, but Detroit did. That was the fifth time Sunday that Detroit punted after a complete pass. The Lions have also been terrible at the hurry-up offense. Despite being involved in several close games, they're the only team that hasn't scored in the final two minutes of either half.
Kenoy Kennedy is the best strong safety in the league. If you don't want to take my word for it, just take a look at Detroit's defensive DVOA, No. 1 against tight ends, the position the strong safety usually covers. Last year, when Kennedy was in Denver, Detroit was terrible against tight ends, and Denver was No. 2 in the league.
Minnesota: The Vikings really miss guard David Dixon. I still can't figure out why he retired.
Green Bay: Al Harris is having one of the all-time heroic NFL seasons. A lot of players would give up when all around them is breaking down, but Harris is dominating the receiver he covers week in and week out. If he doesn't make the Pro Bowl this year, it's an outrage. Harris was shutting Chad Johnson down all day on Sunday, giving up a few short completions underneath but nothing more. Then Ahmad Carroll covered Johnson, and Carson Palmer promptly hit him for 38 yards. (Carroll was called for pass interference on the play, but Cincinnati declined.)
Just curious: What ever happened to Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila? He took a lot of plays off against Cincinnati, and when he did play he wasn't effective. Aaron Kampman has been a much better defensive end this year.
Atlanta: I like linebacker Ike Reese in special teams coverage, but he struggles when he tries to keep up with tight ends. New England's Daniel Graham and Ben Watson are bigger and faster than Reese, and they combined for six catches, 152 yards, and two touchdowns against Atlanta.
Carolina: Steve Smith is one of the most productive receivers in the league even though everyone knows he's Carolina's only real threat. Last year Muhsin Muhammad was one of the most productive receivers in the league even though everyone knew he was Carolina's only real threat. What I can't figure out is why the two of them weren't the best pair of receivers in 2003, when Carolina had both of them on the field at the same time.
Tampa Bay: I like strong safety Dexter Jackson. Arizona gave him way too much money as a free agent after he won the Super Bowl MVP, but he's doing nice work now that he's back in Tampa Bay.
New Orleans: Center LeCharles Bentley is having a great year. He's the quickest center in the league, able to snap the ball and get to the middle linebacker in an instant.
Seattle: I loved watching Mike Holmgren's offense against St. Louis. In an effort to stop Shaun Alexander, St. Louis used eight in the box, with safety Adam Archuleta near the line of scrimmage. But Seattle countered that tactic by motioning a receiver out of the backfield, spreading out the formation and forcing Archuleta to cover the extra receiver. Alexander carried 25 times for 119 yards and two touchdowns. Seattle left tackle Walter Jones and left guard Steve Hutchinson both had big days.
St. Louis: The offense has been a lot better than you'd expect with Marc Bulger, Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce and Mike Martz all out. I don't think Bruce has much left in the tank, but I still love Holt, so when he gets back the Rams should be even better offensively. Seattle's Marcus Trufant tried to use press coverage on him, and Holt consistently blew past him, finishing the game with eight catches for 126 yards.
Rams right defensive end Anthony Hargrove has improved considerably in his second year, picking up some of the slack for Leonard Little.
San Francisco: You've got to like Cody Pickett. When was the last time someone made a tackle in punt coverage one week, as Pickett did last Sunday, then was the starting quarterback the next week, as he will be this Sunday?
Tony Parrish just isn't getting the job done at strong safety.
I'm amazed at how well Bryant Young is playing at age 33. I think you can make a pretty good case that Young is a Hall of Famer. Don't forget how good he was in the â€˜90s, and now he's having a huge comeback in Mike Nolan's defense.
They gave left tackle Jonas Jennings a fortune and he's missed most of the season with a shoulder injury. But I like what I've seen of his replacement, Anthony Clement. He had a solid game against Tampa Bay.
Arizona: So much for this team's getting better under Dennis Green and maybe even competing for a playoff spot. But I watched the terrible offensive line looking for something positive to say, and you know what? I found something. Fred Wakefield, the right tackle who made the switch from defensive end, is showing promise. It's obvious he's still learning the position â€“ on some plays he looks awkward and is too high getting out of his stance â€“ but if he can stay healthy I think he can be very good. At 6-foot-7 and 312 pounds, he almost looks skinny.
New England: For all the talk of the defensive injuries, the player New England misses most is Matt Light. The left side of the offensive line is a mess right now.
Miami: Jason Taylor is having another really good year. He doesn't get as many sacks as he used to, but that's more because of the way he's used in Nick Saban's defense -- he stays at home rather than engaging in all-out pursuit of the quarterback, and the result is that he's knocked down five passes and played well against the run.
Buffalo: Quarterbacks coach Sam Wyche has always encouraged quarterbacks to use their cadences to draw the opposing defense offside, and that tactic has worked for both J.P. Losman and Kelly Holcomb. Losman drew Houston linemen offside four times in Week 1 and Holcomb drew Miami linemen offside six times in Week 5.
New York Jets: The quarterback injuries are the most obvious problem, but there are others. Among them, they just don't have anyone on the defensive line who's as effective as Jason Ferguson, who left as a free agent. James Reed gets pushed around too much in the middle of the line.
Pittsburgh: Ben Roethlisberger is a very good quarterback, but the way to beat Pittsburgh is to take away the running game and force Big Ben to pass. That's what New England did, with a strategy that called for the defensive linemen to maintain gap discipline and clog the line of scrimmage, rather than rush upfield and risk letting Willie Parker get past them. It worked. Parker gained only 55 yards on 17 carries and Roethlisberger completed only 12 of his 28 passes.
Safety Troy Polamalu had an unnecessary roughness penalty and a roughing the passer penalty against Jacksonville, but he also played a big role in Pittsburgh's defense that day. Coaches get furious when players pick up penalties, but Polamalu demonstrates how calls often go against the most aggressive players. Having a safety like that is worth a few 15-yard penalties.
Andre Frazier, who had that big special teams hit on Monday night, is the latest good-looking young linebacker in Pittsburgh. Frazier is an undrafted rookie. How do the Steelers keep finding good linebackers?
Cincinnati: Guard Eric Steinbach is a very important part of this offense. It was surprising when he lasted until the second round of the 2003 draft, and ever since he's shown that he was a steal.
Rookie receiver Chris Henry had that big drop in the end zone against the Steelers, but he looks like a talented player. Cincinnati is loaded with talent at receiver.
Linebacker Brian Simmons, the longest tenured Bengals defender, has been through a lot, but he's playing well, making tackles and showing he's one of the fastest pursuit linebackers in the league.
Baltimore: On Monday night Chris McAllister had his hand on three Ben Roethlisberger passes and didn't intercept any of them. Dropped interceptions can really hurt a defense. On the positive side, I liked linebacker Bart Scott (normally just a special teams player) when the injury to Ray Lewis put him into the defensive lineup.
It seems like every time I see Baltimore throw a pass to a receiver near their sideline, Brian Billick is standing right where the receiver's route ends. It makes sense that when he calls a play for a receiver to run a route somewhere on the Baltimore sideline he'd want to stand where he can see his receiver, but you have to think the opposing cornerback playing on that side has noticed that Billick is tipping his hand.
I like Justin Green, the undrafted rookie fullback from Montana. He's a lot quicker than you'd expect a 251-pounder to be. If he'd spend more time blocking for Chester Taylor and less time blocking for Jamal Lewis, the Ravens offense would be a lot better.
Cleveland: Strong safety Chris Crocker is playing well. Romeo Crennel has a lot of work to do on that defense, but having Crocker in place is a nice start. Inside linebacker Andra Davis also seems to be fitting in nicely in Crennel's 3-4.
Indianapolis: Middle linebacker Gary Brackett, who entered the league as an undrafted free agent two years ago, is excellent in pass coverage.
Defensive tackle Larry Tripplett has lost weight and is noticeably quicker.
Jacksonville: Defensive tackles Marcus Stroud and John Henderson are having another solid year, but teams are starting to learn that running to the outside against Jacksonville is an effective strategy. I love seeing Stroud and Henderson line up at tight end in short-yardage situations. They're dominating run blockers, and I'm just waiting to see Byron Leftwich launch a high pass into the end zone that the 6-foot-7 Henderson or the 6-foot-6 Stroud can jump up and catch.
Tennessee: Kyle Vanden Bosch is one of those players who must make Cardinals fans shake their heads. He did nothing in three years in Arizona. Now he's in Tennessee and he's having a phenomenal year. Kudos to Titans defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz for finding the right way to use Vanden Bosch. He's a real terror on passing downs.
Houston: With so much discussion of the offensive line, it's been little noted how bad the defensive line is. Rookie Travis Johnson might be a good player some day, but he's not close yet.
Denver: I've been in awe of center Tom Nalen for a decade. He's an incredibly sound and consistent player. I don't know if any of the Denver running backs in the past 10 years have had enough sustained excellence to make it to the Hall of Fame, but Nalen should.
Kansas City: Jared Allen had what might have been the best game of any defensive end all season against the Redskins. He sacked Mark Brunell three times and on two of the sacks he forced Brunell to fumble, then recovered the fumble to boot. He's good against the run, too.
I still have problems with the Chiefs' linebackers, though, especially in pass coverage. Kendrell Bell is lousy. That promising young player we saw in Pittsburgh isn't around anymore. Against Philadelphia rookie Derrick Johnson covered Brian Westbrook and put a good hit on him, but Westbrook held onto the ball. Johnson needs to learn that you don't get up and celebrate when you've just been beaten for a first down.
San Diego: Shawne Merriman is a beast. He's not an every-down player yet; the Chargers still take him out at times, but he's going to be a good one.
I like backup running back Michael Turner. He'll never get much time on offense with LaDainian Tomlinson in front of him on the depth chart, but he plays well when he gets the chance, and he's good in special teams coverage: he caught Dante Hall from behind on Sunday.
Oakland: Jarrod Cooper is a good punt gunner. He laid a vicious (but clean) hit on San Diego punt returner Eric Parker.
59 comments, Last at 08 Dec 2005, 11:58pm by e