Unsung heroes: These coordinators' weekend plans worked out well

  • By Pat Kirwan
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Note: For nine years, I have written the Unsung Heroes column during the season to bring attention to the people behind the scenes that help make some of the extraordinary things happen in the NFL on any given weekend. At the end of the year, the Unsung Hero of the Year is presented a trophy made in the name of Chip Myers, a longtime NFL assistant coach and former player who passed away just days after he was elevated to his first coordinator position with the Minnesota Vikings. Chip was well respected by everyone in the coaching ranks and embodied all the virtues assistant coaches need to be successful. He was humble, a good teacher, a loyal friend and a tireless worker.

The NFL season is now three weeks old and teams are starting to show their true personality. Some teams are trying to outscore opponents and just hold on with defense, other teams hope their great defense can cover up a weak offense, and still others are balanced.

The truth is that every week some part of each team has to rise up and do something extraordinary to help put a win on the board. This week it wasn't hard to select six coordinators who put a plan together and got the execution necessary to get a victory. There were a few surprises where a performance was much better than expected and there was one performance where injuries had to be overcome to get the job done. This week's unsung heroes in the NFL:

1. MIKE SMITH, defensive Coordinator, Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jaguars were struggling on defense in the beginning of the season. Then they lost starting safety Gerald Sensabaugh and All-Pro defensive tackle Jon Henderson couldn't play this week. A trip to Denver is no easy task even when a defense is at full strength. The Jags had a great game plan: eliminate Travis Henry and Javon Walker and let Jay Cutler beat them with the other weapons. Henry and Walker combined for 13 touches and just 45 yards. Then Smith's defense forced three turnovers, recorded a sack and limited Denver to 14 points. The Broncos are one of the best running teams in the NFL and when they are held to 2.6 yards per carry at home, you better believe the opposing defense came ready to play. Smith deserves some credit for the day's work.

2. STEVE SPAGNUOLO, defensive coordinator, New York Giants
It has been a tough start for first-year coordinator. He brought in a new pressure defense from the Eagles and he moved former first-round selection Mathias Kiwanuka to linebacker from defensive end. The Giants gave up 80 points in the first two weeks and Kiwanuka looked lost. The first half of the Redskins game looked like more of the same as the Giants surrendered 17 points by intermission. Then Spagnuolo's defense came out for the second half and things changed. At one point well into the fourth quarter the Redskins had generated just 14 total yards in the second half. There was a great goal line stand to end the game after the Redskins had four shots at a touchdown and failed. At the end of the day, Kiwanuka had eight tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble. The Redskins finished with just 82 rushing yards and were just 5-of-16 on third down. Spagnuolo still has work to do with the defense but a road win with everyone doubting them was huge.

David Sherman / Getty Images
Cowboys defensive coordinator Brian Stewart has had two pretty good coaching mentors in Wade Phillips and Dom Capers.

3. BRIAN STEWART, defensive coordinator, Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys' offense against the Bears' defense stole center stage. But the Cowboys' defense had one heck of a night on the road without its starting nose tackle, Jason Ferguson. Stewart, now in his sixth year in the NFL and first as a coordinator after working with Wade Phillips in San Diego, has this Cowboys defense looking like the Chargers defense of 2006. Two sacks by DeMarcus Ware and another by Anthony Spencer resembled the Chargers' outside linebacker pressure scheme. The Bears went after the backup nose tackle with the inside running game but finished up the night rushing for just 75 yards at an average of 3.3 per carry. A defensive touchdown on an interception by cornerback Anthony Henry highlighted a defensive effort that had three interceptions and three forced fumbles. Stewart blends what he learned from Phillips with his first NFL experience under Dom Capers for a very sound philosophy.

4. MARTY MORNHINWEG, offensive coordinator, Philadelphia Eagles
When Mornhinweg took over the play-calling last year for the Eagles, the running game was emphasized more than in the past. Garcia averaged 29 passes a game compared to McNabb, who averaged 38 passes per game in his last seven starts. The Eagles exploded for 56 points on Sunday with 42 of them coming in the first half. At the end of the game, the Eagle run/pass balance was back. A mix of 34 runs and 26 passes produced 536 yards and eight touchdowns (four coming on the ground and four through the air). The Eagles scored touchdowns on four of their first five trips to the red zone and had 12 first downs with the run. Mornhinweg is taking advantage of the Eagles' big offensive line, and everyone in the NFL sat up and took notice of their attack this week.

5. GREG KNAPP, offensive coordinator, Oakland Raiders
The Raiders were close to winning two straight weeks prior to Sunday. In those two games, the offense handed the defense the lead, which it could not hold. On Sunday the Raiders broke an 11-game losing streak with a backup quarterback and a commitment to the running game. Oakland had a few great calls in this game. On fourth-and-1 in the third quarter at midfield they ran the ball to the left for the first down. Later in the drive, on a third-and-23 situation, Knapp called for a slip screen to LaMont Jordan and he went for 27 yards. At the end of the day the Raiders offense had 396 yards, ran the ball for 4.5 yards per carry and controlled the clock for close to eight more minutes than the Browns. Knapp deserves credit for the game plan; the work to prepare Duante Culpepper, who went 8-for-14 in his first game as a Raider; and an offense that doesn't look anything like the 2006 version. Lane Kiffin has a big influence over this offense but the blend of their two philosophies looks like a match.

6. MONTE KIFFIN, defensive coordinator, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Speaking of Kiffins, Lane's father, Monte, has retooled the Buccaneers defense and it sure looks like vintage Tampa Bay units. The last two weeks Tampa has been using very few calls and getting great execution. The Rams have offensive weapons but they were never allowed to hurt Tampa. Steven Jackson rushed for over 100 yards but the Buccaneers played the run with seven in the box in a bend-but-don't-break plan. Marc Bulger and the fast-scoring wide receivers never got on track as the Rams finished with just three points. Tory Holt and Isaac Bruce finished the game with eight receptions for 77 yards (9.6 per) and no touchdowns. Bulger was intercepted three times, sacked once and was just 3-for-12 on third down. Kiffin has developed new middle linebacker Barrett Rudd into the NFL's leading tackler and he has an undersized line closing off the running lanes.



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