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What we learned in Week 3

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What we learned in Week 3

Fans, fantasy players and competition committee members alike are getting their wish -- for the third week in a row, scoring in the NFL is up. Life as a defensive coordinator gets harder each week. They are working longer hours, seeing more formations and defensing more passes.

Last year in Week 3, teams averaged a combined 43 points per game. This year, the Week 3 average going into the Monday night game was 47.

Big returns on investment

Four kicks were returned for touchdowns on Sunday. Aside from Yamon Figurs' 75-yard punt return TD in Baltimore's win over Arizona, teams are doing a much better job of defending punt returns -- it's the kickoff returns where most of the damage has been done.

Why is that? For starters, there are simply more athletic and speedy kick returners than ever before. There are a few reasons why punt returns are down. Punters are getting more hang time and they're getting better at their directional punting. Also, some punters are becoming adept at the art of punting the ball end over end, which makes the ball very hard to field cleanly. Mat McBriar did this for Dallas Sunday night and it successfully rendered Devin Hester useless returning punts. I'm not sure he's tried it yet, but Steelers rookie Daniel Sepulveda can do this as well.

What's up with the Big Four?

For the third week in a row, any fantasy owner who had one of the top four picks in his or her draft is probably a little frustrated. That's because the "big four" -- LaDainian Tomlinson, Larry Johnson, Steven Jackson, and Frank Gore -- rushed for a combined 258 yards on Sunday. The only one of those players who topped 100 yards was Jackson (115), and it took him 30 carries to do it. More importantly for those players and their real-life teams, Johnson's Chiefs were the only ones to come away with a victory.

Two things have happened here. For starters, these backs have simply gotten fewer opportunities to carry the ball. Part of it is that their teams might be trying to mix things up a bit. But more than that is the fact that these teams -- the Chargers, Chiefs, Rams and 49ers -- have been trailing for a good chunk of their games, and thus passing more.

Things may average out as the season progresses, as they get more opportunities when the team is ahead.

Thou shalt pass

While we lament the slow start of top running backs, it should be noted that the NFL has really become an all-out passing league. The top statistical passing teams in the NFL are usually peppered with teams that put up big passing yards in losing efforts. But the top five passing teams in the league right now -- New England, Dallas, Detroit, Indianapolis, Cincinnati -- have a combined record of 12-3.

Teams are passing more to set up the run and passing more on first down. By my count, while games were still in question on Sunday, teams passed the ball on first down 64 percent of the time.

Jamie Squire / Getty Images
Chiefs QB Damon Huard had reason to smile after Kansas City abandoned the ground game and started throwing more in its win over Minnesota.

Whether it's impatience or shrewd strategy, more teams are abandoning that old adage about "sticking with the running game." If a team is having trouble running the ball, they no longer hesitate to air it out.

The Chiefs realized they couldn't run on Minnesota on Sunday, so Damon Huard started passing more and led Kansas City to a win through the air. The Patriots wisely came out throwing last week against San Diego's run-stuffing defense and it worked. So Green Bay followed suit in Week 3. The Packers usually prefer a more balanced attack, but Brett Favre attempted 45 passes against the Chargers. That's about 10-15 more attempts than they'd prefer, but it worked.

Dallas started the second half of a 3-3 game against the Bears from Chicago's 11-yard line and came out throwing.

Tight ends letting loose

The tight ends are becoming more of a factor than in previous years. Yesterday there were 10 TD passes to tight ends. Two players were big factors in their games -- Jason Witten, who caught six passes for 90 yards and a score in Dallas' victory, and Antonio Gates, who dominated Green Bay with 11 catches for 113 yards, only to watch as the defense couldn't hold the lead.

In just three weeks, 19 different tight ends in the NFL have at least one TD receptions, icluding three from the Steelers alone -- Matt Spaeth, Heath Miller, and Jerame Tuman.

Look out for Pittsburgh

Speaking of the Steelers, it's safe to say they have supplanted San Diego as the third-best team in the AFC behind New England and Indianaplois. It seems as if the Chargers are not playing with the same passion as they were last year, basically with the same players.

Pittsburgh, on the other hand, is doing a very good job throwing the ball more, which has in turn opened up the running game. Willie Parker quietly leads the NFL in rushing and Ben Roethlisberger is spreading the ball around to a multitude of targets. With the combination of defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and head coach Mike Tomlin, the defense is showing different looks and playing very aggressive.

Two-headed Cardinal

While the Cardinals came away with a last-second loss to the Baltimore Ravens, the use of backup quarterback Kurt Warner may be a move that pays dividends as the season progresses.

Arizona head coach Ken Whisenhunt used Warner as a situational substitution for starter Matt Leinart. Whisenhunt was expected to bring innovation to the Cardinals offense, and this one will help. Leimart might be the better quarterback when the team is calling plays in the huddle, but Warner can be more dangerous running a no-huddle attack.

More importantly, the mere notion of rotating Leinart and Warner will force opposing defenses to prepare for two different players and two different schemes. And when you have to prepare for two, you are only half as prepared as you could be for one starting quarterback.

Give Dallas credit, but…

… maybe we need to re-evaluate the vaunted Chicago defense.

Seriously, give Dallas credit for making good adjustments at halftime. And Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo had an outstanding game. But could it be that the Bears' defensive reputation is not entirely deserved?

Including the 2006 postseason, Chicago has allowed 21 or more points in seven of its last 10 games. And you have to take into consideration the rest of the NFC North last season. The Bears got to play four games against the Vikings and Packers, which certainly helped the defensive numbers.

This was a big statement game for Dallas, but I don't think Chicago's defensive effort can be viewed as an aberration. It's something to keep an eye on as the season continues.

Extra points

As we congratulate Packers QB Brett Favre for tying Dan Marino's career TD mark of 420, here's another interesting bit of Favre trivia: The first completed pass of his career was to… himself. He caught a deflected pass in Week 3 of 1992… The Eagles wore throwback uniforms -- replicas of the uniform they wore in 1933, when the team scored 77 points the entire season. They almost equaled that mark in their 56-21 win over the Lions. Back in '33, Philadelphia was shutout by the Portsmouth (Ohio) Spartans, who went on the become the Detroit Lions… So which of the four winless teams -- the Rams, Falcons, Dolphins, Bills -- has the best chance to turn their season around? Normally, I'd say it would be the team with the best quarterback. But the Rams' Marc Bulger is hampered because his offensive line has been decimated with injuries. So my guess here would have to be the Atlanta Falcons, whose loss to Carolina on Sunday was much closer than the final score indicated. They'll win a few games the rest of the way.

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