There was much for any football fanatic to savor in the Saints' thrilling comeback win in Miami last Sunday. The game could not have been more entertaining to an impartial observer, and the offensive fireworks and tug-of-war nature of the game made it an instant classic. But, as has often been the case this season, some of the best work of New Orleans' vastly improved defense went overlooked.
Beyond the interceptions and two defensive scores, the Saints' thrived at something few teams have this season -- shutting down the Wildcat. And, with Rex Ryan's Jets getting their second shot at the Dolphins this week (after getting shredded by Miami's offense in the first meeting) there are lessons to be learned.
New Orleans took an overly-aggressive approach to the Wildcat, according to those who broke down the game film, perhaps establishing a template others will follow. Miami, which came into the game dominating opponents on the ground and in terms of time of possession (with Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams both on pace for well over 1,000 yards from scrimmage), averaged just 2.2 yards per play in the Wildcat, and primary Wildcat field general Ronnie brown gained just 48 yards on 16 carries. Of their 15 runs from the Wildcat, the Dolphins were stopped for negative yardage four times and eight of those runs went for fewer than 3 yards.
The results were even more striking considering the Dolphins rode a lead for much of the game, with the standard thinking that once the Dolphins get up they become one of the toughest teams to rally against, as they slam their power running approach down your throat. So, how did the Saints do it?
A lot of it had to do with team commitment, pristine execution and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams' willingness to attack the ball carrier on virtually every down. According to someone who scouted the game, New Orleans came with pressure on 62 of its 74 defensive snaps, often bringing corners and safeties to run blitz. "Miami had no answer for it," the scout said.
Many teams approach the Wildcat with a two-gap mentality, trying to play it laterally, worried about getting gashed. The Saints remained very tight and compact in the middle of the field, and did everything they could to force the ball carrier to make a decision in the backfield, sticking nine defenders in the box (sometimes 10) and daring Chad Henne to beat them (especially with super-safety Darren Sharper playing at an All-Pro level and feasting on young QBs).
The Saints are a team that often stunts in the run game, but they discarded that for the most part, especially in the second half. If the Dolphins had been able to get their Wildcat game going with the lead, it would have been lights out, even for a team as offensively gifted as the Saints. New Orleans made some mistakes -- particularly on a pitch to the outside and one long pass play -- but the attention to detail stood out against the Wildcat.
Saints players say their coaches made stopping the Wildcat a portion of special-situation practice sessions going back to spring OTAs and minicamps. With so many teams embracing elements of the scheme now, it was something the Saints studied. Not every team has the personnel to be as effective as New Orleans was last Sunday, but the approach bears duplication.
Both Gregg Williams and Ryan are disciplines of Buddy Ryan, Rex's defensive-minded father, but Rex's 3-4 defense with the Jets is coping with the loss of nose tackle Kris Jenkins for the season -- a huge loss -- and one the Dolphins will surely look to exploit. And while Henne was negated by the Saints' defense, he had a marvelous outing against the Jets a few weeks back.
As for the Saints, they have proven they can win on both sides of the ball. Much attention is going to their scoring pace, superior to that of the record-setting 2007 Patriots, but much of that also has to do with the defense, which leads the NFL with 34 point scored, 20 more than any other team. The Saints lead the league with 18 turnovers and 72 points off the miscues (New England had 103 points off turnovers in all of 2007). The Saints already have seven interception returns of 20 yards or more -- tops in the league -- including a league-leading four returned for touchdowns.
Those type of plays change games and alter field position, giving a boost to an offense that usually won't need it anyway. If this keeps up, Sharper is going to be in the running for Defensive MVP. He's thriving in that deep, deep safety role Sean Taylor used to man for Washington under Williams, and is responding to Williams' tough love in the same way. Sharper's ability to goad the quarterback, anticipate and react has given the team an element it sorely lacked before, while Williams is also giving veterans like Sharper latitude to gamble and make pre-snap checks and calls based on what they see.
Thus far, it's been a perfect marriage. Just ask the Dolphins.
Johnson's days in K.C. are numbered
I can understand why the Chiefs would opt to suspend perpetually malcontent tailback Larry Johnson, rather than cut him, for financial reasons. Saving about $560,000 in this climate (the two game checks Johnson will lose through suspension for using a gay slur), is real money. And by not cutting Johnson they also keep him from cashing out on the $2.7 million left on his guaranteed contract, plus any new money that would come in if he signed with a new team.
I get all of that.
But for the Todd Haley-Scott Pioli regime, one based on discipline and a hardline approach, I'm surprised that they wouldn't just go ahead and get this cat out of the building, just as I was stunned they didn't hasten his departure in the offseason.
A 30-year-old back averaging 2.7 yards per carry with this much baggage is not something I would want to be bridled with as I try to rebuild a franchise. I wouldn't want to have to deal with his actions, or address questions about him. Just let him move on. Set to make $5 million next season, with a $2 million roster bonus, there is no way LJ was going to remain in Kansas City for much longer, even before this latest fiasco.
Sure, it might be fun to deactivate him from time to time down the stretch, or let him languish on the bench without getting a snap. But for what should be an increasingly young team, the chance to play out that scenario, and send a message with those tactics, isn't as important as merely showing everyone there that if you are not a part of moving this team in a positive direction, then you're gone. Simple as that.
Take the good with the bad
This is indeed the golden era of quarterbacks, with a record number of passers on pace to top a 100 rating, and each draft class in recent years adding more elite passers to the league. But it's also telling when the bottom quarter of the NFL is embroiled in some sort of QB controversy.
It leads to the old chicken or egg debate -- do the teams stink because they can't get the QB position straightened out, or is the struggling passer holding back the entire team? Regardless of the reason, there is no shortage of bad quarterback play on display.
Seven clubs have legitimate QB revolving doors, where a change has been pondered or made for performance issues: Cleveland, Oakland, Carolina, Washington, Tampa Bay, San Francisco and Tennessee. Heck, the Bucs are on their third starting QB -- with injuries not even a factor. In St. Louis, the injuries to Marc Bulger and Kyle Boller haven't helped, but the play has been suspect no matter who has been behind center. Throw in Kansas City, where Matt Cassel has been erratic (and Haley spoke about perhaps benching Cassel in September), and the potential for a quarterback implosion is high.
You can't blame the guy throwing the ball for the plight of these clubs. Most of these teams have little to no go-to options at other skill positions. The problems are deeper than any one individual. But when JaMarcus Russell has this much company among guys completing fewer than half of their passes, it can't be a good thing, either.
Et cetera ...
» It was only one game, but the Eagles' acquisition of linebacker Will Witherspoon looked like a masterstroke Monday night. Sure, he was going up against what could be the worst offensive line in football, and a reeling and inferior opponent in Washington, but he was dominant. He helped solidify the run defense and was making plays out in space as well, running around like a demon. Going from a team that has lost 17 straight regular-season games to one with Super Bowl aspirations will ramp up the motor, for sure, but if he can make this sort of impact at a position where injuries have been crippling, it bodes well for the Eagles' hopes. Philly's offensive line and overall fluidity on offense remain troubling, however.
» The play of Philly's next opponent, the New York Giants, has certainly dropped since their schedule toughened up. You have to wonder if Eli Manning's foot is bothering him. He has completed just 53 percent of his passes the past two weeks, with four interceptions and a 57.3 rating.
» For all of the hand-wringing about whether or not Jake Delhomme would remain the starter in Carolina, the idea of him going anywhere anytime soon makes no sense. The way Delhomme's contract extension is structured, he is going to make $12.675 million from the Panthers in 2010, whether he stays or goes. That's a huge chunk of change for any team to swallow, much less a smaller-market club like the Panthers. Delhomme has always been streaky, and yes, this rut has been about as prolonged as it gets, but ultimately they aren't out of it yet, and coach John Fox believes Delhomme's experience and savvy give the club its best shot against the Cardinals this week over backup Matt Moore. Don't underestimate the impact that losing quarterback coach Mike McCoy has had on Delhomme, either. Should he have another clunker, though, Fox could well sit him for a week or two to collect his thoughts and take a breather while Moore gets a shot.
» Went 9-4 last week, 19-8 over the last two weeks, so we're on a roll. This week, give me the Packers, Ravens, Saints, Eagles, Dolphins, Colts, Cardinals, Seahawks, Titans, Texans, Bears, Lions and Chargers.