Game Previews: MIA-TB, NE-DEN, BAL-CLE
by Aaron Schatz
In the AFC East, just one game in the standings separates all four teams. While the Jets and Bills face each other in Buffalo, their division rivals each must take to the road to face a surprising 4-1 team.
MIAMI (2-2) AT TAMPA BAY (4-1)
The biggest storyline of this game is the return of Dolphins running back Ricky Williams after a yearlong "retirement" and a four-game suspension for drug use that he had to serve in order to restart his NFL career.
Nobody can really guess how good Williams will be in his return. Will he be the broken down Williams of 2003, who managed just 3.5 yards per carry? Or, with a year of rest and recovery, will he once again be the powerful Williams of 2002, who set a franchise record and led the NFL with 1,853 yards on the ground?
The answer is likely somewhere in between, but Williams probably won't add much to the Dolphins offense because rookie Ronnie Brown has already resuscitated the ground game. That's the real story of this game: the battle of two great run defenses and two talented rookie runners who were teammates at Auburn just one year ago.
After struggling to just 92 yards in his first two games, Brown put together games of 123 and 97 yards against the Panthers and Bills, averaging 5.7 yards per carry.
Meanwhile, his college backfield partner, Carnell "Cadillac" Williams flew out of the gates to start the season, becoming the first running back in history to begin his career with three 100-yard games. But Williams hurt his foot at the end of his third game, and then was limited to just 13 yards in 11 carries by the Lions in Week 4. A hamstring pull kept him out of action last week, but he's expected back to face Miami.
Making the Brown-Cadillac match up even more interesting is the fact that these teams rank one-two in stopping the run so far this season. Both have allowed just 2.9 yards per carry, nearly half a yard better than any other defense.
If you don't enjoy defense and teams that grind out yards on the ground, this is not the game for you. Football Outsiders' Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) ratings -- which break down each play of the season and compare it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent -- rank Tampa Bay and Miami as the league's 22nd and 24th best pass offenses, respectively. Bucs quarterback Brian Griese and Dolphins quarterback Gus Ferotte both have a reputation for making mistakes at exactly the wrong time.
Tipping the scales in favor of Tampa: Miami tends to of allow big plays by speedy receivers like Carolina's Steve Smith and Buffalo's Lee Evans; Tampa's Joey Galloway -- who has replaced Michael Clayton as Griese's favorite receiver - fits the same mold.
NEW ENGLAND (3-2) AT DENVER (4-1)
This game features a showdown between two once-strong units that have fallen on hard times in 2005: New England's secondary and Denver's receiving corps.
DVOA ratings ranked the Patriots pass defense third in 2003 and 11th in 2004. So far in 2005, that ranking has slipped to 26th. The problems go beyond the season-ending injury to safety Rodney Harrison. Starting cornerback Randall Gay is also injured, and the veteran cornerbacks brought in to provide depth, Duane Starks and Chad Scott, have been wretched replacements. (Scott has been declared out for the year in what can only be called a mercy killing.)
On the other hand, Denver's passing game ranks 20th in DVOA this year after ranking 10th last year. A big reason is Ashley Lelie, whose third-year breakout has become a fourth-year breakdown. Last year, Lelie caught 53% of passes thrown to him, averaging 20.2 yards per reception (22.7% DVOA, 18th out of 84 WRs). This year, he is catching just 31% of those passes, and averaging just 10.2 yards per reception (-50.4% DVOA, 63rd out of 66 WRs). Veteran receiver Rod Smith and tight end Jeb Putzier have also seen noticeable drops in yards per reception. Unable to gain yards through the air, Denver is depending on its running back committee of fast, shifty Tatum Bell and strong, steady Mike Anderson, who are combining for 116 yards per game on the ground.
But while the Broncos will look to run, the Patriots will look to pass. For the third straight year, Denver has a top 10 run defense. The Patriots finally were able to move the ball on the ground against Atlanta last week, but running back Corey Dillon is nicked up once again, while his backup, Kevin Faulk, is out entirely.
With their defense and running game in peril, quarterback Tom Brady has the fate of the Patriots in his hands more than ever, and he should be able to make some big plays against the Broncos.
Last year, Denver had a top pass defense, but with a strange split: They shut down passes to tight ends and running backs, but gave up big gains to wide receivers. This year, Denver is still having problems stopping wide receivers, meaning they'll get a healthy dose of Super Bowl MVP Deion Branch. But now they're having problems with tight ends as well. Giving up yards to San Diego's Antonio Gates can be excused, but last week the Broncos let Washington's Chris Cooley catch eight passes for a career-high 92 yards and a touchdown. Given that the Patriots finally got tight ends Ben Watson and Daniel Graham involved in the offense last week, the Broncos secondary could be in for a long day.
So Denver can run, and New England can pass. If Jake Plummer can avoid mistakes and get the passing game going, the Broncos will add a win over the defending champs to their growing resume. But better passing teams usually beat better running teams, so if the New England defense can straighten itself out, the Patriots will head into their bye week at 4-2.
|Denver DVOA vs. Types of Receivers, 2004-2005|
|TEAM||vs. #1 WR||vs. #2 WR||vs. Other WR||vs. TE||vs. RB|
Five Years Later, Dilfer Returns to Baltimore as the One Who Got Away
by Michael David Smith
Of the 39 teams that have won a Super Bowl, only one -- the 2000 Baltimore Ravens -- informed its quarterback after the season that his services were no longer needed.
That quarterback, Trent Dilfer, will lead the Cleveland Browns onto the field against the Ravens Sunday, starting in Baltimore for the first time since that championship season. For Ravens fans, Dilfer's presence will be a bitter reminder that their team threw away a competent quarterback in a futile effort to find a star, wasting draft picks and millions of dollars in the process.
Since 2001, when the Ravens signed Elvis Grbac to a five-year, $30 million contract, Baltimore quarterbacks have played so poorly that, even with one of the NFL's best defenses, the Ravens haven't finished better than 10-6. Grbac left after one disappointing year, and the Ravens' other starters have been a mishmash of washed-up veterans and disappointing youngsters: Randall Cunningham, Jeff Blake, Chris Redman, Kyle Boller, and Anthony Wright.
Dilfer, meanwhile, spent the last four seasons as a backup in Seattle before joining Cleveland this year. He has started 12 games since Baltimore let him go, performing much the same as he did in the Super Bowl season: far from great, but certainly capable -- and available for far less salary cap space than Baltimore's subsequent quarterbacks. If they had kept Dilfer, the Ravens could have used the money spent on quarterbacks to retain valuable free agents like running back Priest Holmes, center Jeff Mitchell, safety Kim Herring, and linebacker Edgerton Hartwell.
A first-round draft choice of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1994, Dilfer was inept early in his career, throwing five touchdowns and 24 interceptions during his first two seasons. After a slight but steady improvement -- including a respectable passer rating of 82.8 in 1997 -- the best deal he could find after his Tampa Bay contract expired was a one-year pact to back up Tony Banks up in Baltimore in 2000.
Dilfer started 2000 on the bench, but when Banks proved ineffective, Dilfer took the helm halfway through the year and led Baltimore to seven straight wins to end the regular season, then three playoff wins, and a Super Bowl victory over the Giants. Only two players have quarterbacked their teams to the championship after entering the season with a career resume as unimpressive as Dilfer's -- Jeff Hostetler, who took over for an injured Phil Simms and led the Giants in 1990, and Kurt Warner, who went from ex-grocery store clerk to league MVP with the Rams in 1999. Both players were awarded the starting job the following year.
But Ravens coach Brian Billick wasn't satisfied winning the Super Bowl behind a great defense. Billick had come to Baltimore with a reputation as an offensive mastermind, and he wanted a quarterback who could excel in his system. After Grbac, Billick used draft picks on Redman and Boller, but despite all his efforts, he has consistently presided over some of the worst offenses in the league.
After four games in Cleveland, Dilfer looks like a great fit for a rebuilding team. Cleveland won't be playing in January, but at 2-2 the Browns have played better than most expected. Dilfer deserves a lot of the credit. His completion rate of 66.7% is excellent, and his average of 7.5 yards per pass is better than that of Donovan McNabb, Brett Favre, and Drew Brees. (He's done this against a difficult early schedule, and currently ranks eighth in the league in DPAR, or Defense-adjusted Points Above Replacement.)
The Ravens would kill for numbers like that from their quarterback. They drafted Boller out of Cal in the first round in 2003 largely because of his arm strength, but he rarely puts that attribute to use in throwing downfield, preferring instead to dump short passes to covered receivers. In three seasons, Boller has 20 touchdowns, 21 interceptions, and an average of only 5.6 yards per pass. After Boller went down with a hyperextended toe in the season opener, Wright hasn't performed any better.
On Sunday, the Ravens will have the superior star power at most positions; linebacker Ray Lewis, safety Ed Reed, running back Jamal Lewis, and left tackle Jonathan Ogden are among Baltimore's Pro Bowlers, while Cleveland's roster is devoid of such big names. At quarterback, however, Dilfer gives the advantage to Cleveland.