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?
01 Oct 2005
by Aaron Schatz
In the NFL schedule lottery this year, no division drew a shorter stick than the AFC West, where each team will face both defending conference champions before the season is done. Two of those matchups highlight this Sunday's action.
Each of these teams is currently dealing with major injuries. For Philadelphia, the biggest questions revolve around quarterback Donovan McNabb, who has decided to play through a sports hernia rather than having surgery that would cost him four to six weeks. It's hard to tell how much the injury will limit McNabb, who was dominant in a five-touchdown game against San Francisco in Week 2, but had trouble completing passes in the season opener against Atlanta and a close win over Oakland last week.
With McNabb also dealing with lingering chest and leg ailments, the one thing we know is his mobility will be severely limited, since tucking the ball and taking off will mean a great deal of pain. It's part of the reason why he has rushed for all of eight yards on the season.
But while McNabb's injuries won't keep him off the field, kicker David Akers has no such luck. Last week, Akers's hamstring strain led to the strange sight of long snapper Mike Bartrum kicking off and backup linebacker Mark Simoneau attempting an extra point. The loss of Akers will be felt not only if replacement Todd France (NFL Europe's leading kicker this season) misses a field goal, but also in the field position advantage provided by Akers's long kickoffs.
Losing a kicker, however, is nothing compared to losing a starting offensive tackle. The Chiefs have a potent offense when running on all cylinders, but too many of those cylinders are old, and the biggest one is now broken. His name may not be as well known as those of Tony Gonzalez or Priest Holmes, but 35-year-old left tackle Willie Roaf has been the most important player on the Chiefs since he arrived in 2002.
Roaf injured his hamstring in the first game of the season and hasn't played since. Last week, Denver's defense took advantage of his absence and held the Chiefs to 74 total rushing yards. The Broncos manhandled Roaf's replacement, Jordan Black, who switched over from right tackle, as well as the players who replaced Black at right tackle, Chris Bober and Kevin Sampson.
Compounding the problem, 34-year-old right guard Will Shields is suddenly playing like an aged veteran instead of a regular Pro Bowl selection. As the holes disappear, so do the opportunities for Holmes and Larry Johnson to break long runs.
Philadelphia is a balanced team that can win with either offense or defense. But the Chiefs can't win if their offense doesn't perform. Looking back, Kansas City's opening day domination of the Jets seems more like the exposure of New York's flaws and less like the coming out party for a new and improved Chiefs defense. Defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham likes to blitz and trusts his cornerbacks to cover receivers man-to-man, a strategy that could prove fatal against the Eagles.
Two weeks ago, the Chiefs were burned by Randy Moss for a 64-yard touchdown. Is it likely they will have more success against Terrell Owens? Should the Eagles choose not to throw long, the best weapon against a blitzing defense is the screen pass, and that's a play where running back Brian Westbrook -- who has 235 receiving yards on the season, 110 yards more than any other running back -- and the strong Philadelphia offensive line can shine.
Oddsmakers have the Chiefs as favorites in this game, probably because Arrowhead Stadium is considered one of the hardest places in the NFL to win on the road. But a hurting McNabb is better than an absent Roaf, especially given Philadelphia's advantage on the defensive side of the ball.
When it comes to the impact of major injuries, we're never quite sure what to say about the New England Patriots. Despite injury after injury, they keep finding suitable replacements for even the most important players.
Once again, after the Patriots lost left tackle Matt Light and safety Rodney Harrison last week, the press is asking whether these are the injuries that will finally cause the Patriots to falter. And yet New England beat the Steelers without those players, as quarterback Tom Brady went 12-for-12 in the fourth quarter with rookie backup Nick Kazcur at left tackle, while the defense kept the Pittsburgh offense at bay despite the loss of their playmaking strong safety.
The Chargers will test the Harrisonless defense much more than they will test the Light-less offense. A 1-2 record masks the fact that, on offense, San Diego is even stronger than last year. LaDainian Tomlinson, the league's best running back, is once again healthy, and All-Pro tight end Antonio Gates has shown no ill effects from his preseason holdout. Taken in tandem, the Chargers' two stars will make the Patriots miss Harrison, who specializes in neutralizing tight ends and tackling in run support.
But while San Diego will score points on the New England defense, that won't stop the Patriots from scoring even more points against the Chargers' defense. San Diego's forte is stopping the run, which isn't good news for Patriots running back Corey Dillon. But the Chargers struggle against teams with diversified passing attacks: Dallas third receiver Patrick Crayton had a career-high 89 yards against them, and Eli Manning threw for at least 50 yards to five different receivers last week. New England's offensive line, even without Light, was able to give Brady plenty of time in the pocket against a muscular Pittsburgh front seven, and they shouldn't have too much trouble with San Diego's improved, but still mediocre, pass rush.
The resulting game should be high scoring and exciting, but it's hard to imagine that it will end any differently than the last 21 regular season and postseason games in Foxboro, each one a New England victory.
by Michael David Smith
Name an injury and you can bet it has afflicted Tennessee Titans quarterback Steve McNair. Last season, he injured his sternum and ankle. The year before it was his ankle, calf, knee, and finger. Past injuries have included his thumb, ribs, back, toe, shoulder, neck, and elbow.
McNair missed practice on Wednesday because of a sore foot, but that could be the least of his problems Sunday when the Indianapolis Colts come to Nashville. In three games, Colts defensive linemen have injured two quarterbacks -- Baltimore's Kyle Boller and Jacksonville's Byron Leftwich - and sacked Cleveland's Trent Dilfer four times. It's just another season at the office for Indianapolis defensive line coach John Teerlinck, the assistant coach NFL quarterbacks hate.
Teerlinck's sour relationship with opposing quarterbacks dates at least to 1996, when Commissioner Paul Tagliabue summoned Teerlinck, then with the Detroit Lions, to the league office. There, Tagliabue reviewed film with Teerlinck, detailing what he saw as dirty play by Detroit linemen. The following year, Sports Illustrated asked 150 NFL players to name the dirtiest player in the league. First among defensive linemen was the Minnesota's John Randle, and several players mentioned that Teerlinck was Randle's mentor.
Teerlinck calls his tactics rough but legal, and judging by the penalties called on his players, he has a point. In Teerlinck's four seasons in Indianapolis, Colts linemen have been flagged for only four roughing the passer penalties - Dwight Freeney, Raheem Brock, Montae Reagor, and Robert Mathis have had one apiece. Those four players have given the Colts 80 sacks in that time.
His players might not break the rules, but that doesn't mean Teerlinck shows any concern for opposing quarterbacks' health. He once told the coaching magazine American Football Monthly that one of his commandments to defensive linemen is: "Run through the quarterback. Use his body as a cushion to break your fall."
Many quarterbacks despise Teerlinck's tactics -- sometimes even including his own team's quarterbacks. Defensive linemen know that hitting the quarterback in practice is verboten, but with the Lions, quarterback Scott Mitchell accused Teerlinck's linemen of ignoring that protocol. (It's fair to say, however, that Teerlinck knows better than to let any of his linemen hit Peyton Manning.)
As unpopular as Teerlinck is with quarterbacks, head coaches want him on their staff, because his tactics work. He's a master of getting the most out of his linemen's skills, often by having them change positions. Last season, Brock recorded a career-high 6.5 sacks after being switched from end to tackle. The threat of Brock on the inside allowed Freeney and Mathis to get more one-on-one blocks on the outside, leading both to career highs totals in sacks.
Teerlinck teaches his players that a defensive lineman can gain a huge advantage over an offensive lineman by taking an effective stance. The Colts' linemen line up like sprinters in the starting blocks and take a hard first step up the field on every play. Teerlinck dislikes 350-pounders who take up space but lack quickness, and he doesn't teach his linemen to read and react. He wants them on the attack the instant the ball is snapped, which is why he gladly substitutes speed for size. Freeney weighs 268 pounds and Mathis weighs 235, which makes them the smallest pair of ends in football.
Opposing defenses have sacked McNair only six times in three games this year. Limiting the Colts to two sacks on Sunday would be a major accomplishment for the Titans. But it seems more likely the Colts will get to McNair, and Teerlinck's line will claim another victim.
These two articles appeared in Friday's edition of the New York Sun.
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