|Winslow Townson / Associated Press|
|Defensive coaches better compile a list of backs who can throw the ball as well as Ronnie Brown did on Sunday.|
Week 3 action in the NFL brought a number of issues to the forefront and reinforced a few more things that appeared to be festering around the league.
With two games of in-season tapes to watch, coordinators developed game plans that were problematic for opponents. Weaknesses are being found, and teams now get a week to fix leaks or they will get hit with them again next week.
Here are the things that struck me about Week 3:
The "Arkansas" package
There will be lots of names for what the Dolphins did to the Patriots when Ronnie Brown lined up as the shotgun quarterback, scoring four times on the ground and throwing a touchdown pass. I went to 16 NFL camps this summer and at least half of the clubs were working on some form of that package. Raiders rookie Darren McFadden ran with Felix Jones in the backfield at Arkansas. Right after Brown ran for his third touchdown, I turned to former Houston GM Charlie Casserly and predicted that the next time the Dolphins were in that formation he's going to throw a touchdown. And he did.
The first thing every defensive coordinator should do this morning is find out how many teams have running backs that were high school quarterbacks; they should watch them throw in pregame warmups. McFadden was a good high school quarterback and the Raiders' version of the Arkansas package will be as dangerous as the Dolphins' was Sunday. It was only a matter of time before this offensive scheme got popular in the NFL.
About five years ago, the concept of having a two-headed backfield started to become popular. Fading was the concept of a true bell-cow back and the idea of two backs splitting the touches became the way to go. As soon as teams had two good backs, the "Pony" backfield concept was developed, where both would be on the field at the same time and the fullback would be eliminated from the package. New Orleans had the Deuce McAllister/Reggie Bush package; Tampa Bay had its version of the "Pony" backfield, as did others. It was only a matter of time as teams tinkered with the "Pony" concept that it would lead to the "Arkansas" package.
Defenses do not get a key that the "Arkansas" package is happening because in the huddle, with a QB and two running backs, it is a "Pony" alert. The quarterback can't go in motion in the NFL, so when the huddle breaks the QB usually lines up as a wide receiver and the two backs configure a shotgun with an offset back. The Dolphins destroyed the Patriots defense with the package ... but they were not alone in running it this week.
I watched Atlanta use it with Jerious Norwood in the gun. The Raiders have it. And it can't be long before we see a team like New Orleans line up Reggie Bush in the gun and Pierre Thomas as the offset, or Adrian Peterson taking the snap for Minnesota and riding Chester Taylor into the line. Keep in mind, even the slowest of quarterbacks, when lined up as wide receivers, have to be covered and will occupy a defensive back. The team that presents this package from the three wide receiver/two running back set will really spread the defense out and the inside keeper off the dive could be a big open-field play. Now, all the defensive coaches have to dedicate a lot of game prep time to the "Arkansas" package or they might look like the Patriots did against the Dolphins.
AFC up for grabs
While the NFC is being led by the Dallas Cowboys, and some could make a strong case for the New York Giants, too, when you mention the AFC to most observers it is hard to identify the true leaders. The AFC just seems to have too many warts right now. The Denver defense has already given up 84 points, the Titans are playing with their backup QB, the Steelers can't protect Roethlisberger, the Bills are too young to jump on the bandwagon just yet, and the Patriots lost Tom Brady; who knows where they are headed. The Colts and Chargers aren't winning enough to get any votes right now. The AFC is up for grabs just like the NFC was for the past few years.
The "mug" look on defense
The more you watch NFL games on TV, the more you are going to hear about the "mug" look on defense. It looks like an old split-six, where there are two defensive tackles on the outside shoulder of the guards in a three-technique look and the inside linebackers step up into the gaps on either side of the center, as close to the line of scrimmage as possible. The 'backers threaten blitz and on some occasions they do bring the pressure. The offensive line has to count these 'backers as defensive linemen because they are so close -- and it forces changes in protections. The Bears -- a traditional 4-3, Tampa 2 defense -- came out in Week 1 against the Colts and played the "mug" look with great success. The Colts had injuries on the line and struggled with the look. There's no way a running back or fullback lined up behind the QB can block one of these linebackers if they blitz.
In Week 2, I witnessed a number of teams using the "mug" look, and some offenses struggled with it. In Week 3, I saw a number of offenses build an audible system for the "mug" and it was contained by the offense. Eli Manning checked to an off-tackle run play and all the linemen had good angles to block the linebackers up tight at the line of scrimmage. Another team checked to the quick toss and the linebackers, because they were way up on the line, were unable to scrape and flow to the outside run.
The "mug" has its place in passing situations, but any team that sees it in run/pass situations appears to be ready to check to some form of an outside run.
Three time zones still a killer
Last year, teams that traveled west to east through three time zones went 2-15 in those games. This year seems to be just as bad. With three weeks in the books, teams that have gone from the Pacific time zone to the Eastern time zone for a game are 0-3; Oakland was the latest victim, falling at Buffalo on Sunday. Based on the last three years, teams that make such a trip have a 30 percent chance of winning.
Every NFL player on an 0-2 team this past week heard the stats about the probability of making the playoffs if his team went 0-3. Not one team in 2006 or 2007 made the postseason after an 0-3 start and not one team even had a winning record in the past two years. It's only September, but there was a sense of urgency.
The Bengals and Raiders may have slipped to 0-3 this week but they played their hearts out and almost won tough road games while playing their best football of the year. The Dolphins shocked the football world with a resounding win over the Patriots. The Vikings, Seahawks and Jaguars were all preseason playoff contenders that got off to terrible starts but all got it done under tough circumstances. Those three teams allowed just 44 points and got back on track.
Week 3 Unsung Heroes
Note: For 10 years, I have been highlighting the NFL's Unsung Heroes -- bringing 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.
1. Dan Henning
Offensive coordinator, Miami Dolphins
The Ronnie Brown package stole the show in Week 3, and any time a single player scores four times and throws for another, there is a great plan behind the player. Beyond the heroics of Brown, Chad Pennington completed 17 of 20 passes for 226 yards, and the Dolphins offense finished with 461 yards and 38 points on the road against a Patriots team that had won 21 straight regular-season games.
2. Jim Johnson
Defensive coordinator, Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles had a short week of practice after a long trip home from the Monday night loss in Dallas. Coach Johnson had his guys ready to play, as evidenced by 9 sacks, 2 interceptions, and 2 forced fumbles. Holding the Pittsburgh offense to two field goals, this had to be the defensive game plan of the week.
3. Gregg Williams
Assistant head coach, defense, Jacksonville Jaguars
Going on the road to play the Colts isn't easy for any team. Indianapolis lost its home opener but had not lost back-to-back regular-season games at home since 2001. The Colts had also won six of their last seven at home against the Jags. Center Jeff Saturday and tight end Dallas Clark were back in the lineup and everything pointed to a win for the Colts. Coach Williams' defense responded to the challenge with a defensive touchdown, and held the Colts to just one touchdown in the second half.
4. Brian Stewart
Defensive coordinator, Dallas Cowboys
Wade Phillips gets all the credit for the Cowboy defense, but Stewart is his right-hand man and gets lost in the shuffle sometimes. The Dallas defense had five sacks of Aaron Rodgers, and forced Green Bay to settle for field goals rather than touchdowns until the fourth quarter, when it was too late for the Packers.