The Dallas Cowboys' gradual ascension to the top of the NFC East has been largely credited to the effective play of Tony Romo and the offense. But it has actually been a defensive uprising that has keyed the improved performance in Big D.
Led by the sensational play of DeMarcus Ware, the Cowboys' defense has been the catalyst to the team's four-game winning streak. Ware has tallied five sacks in those games, and persistent pressure off the edge has helped the team produce negative plays on a more consistent basis.
Ware has not been alone in sparking the team's pass rush, as Pro Bowl DT Jay Ratliff has continued to be a dominant force in the middle.
Ratliff, who has four sacks on the season, tallied two quarterback takedowns against the Eagles and is emerging as one of the league's premier interior players in his fifth season. His dominance in the middle of the line is forcing opponents to double-team him, which has allowed the Cowboys to incorporate more interior blitzes from their linebackers to get sack production.
Keith Brooking has tallied two sacks in the past two games, and his penchant for getting to the quarterback has made it difficult for opponents to determine which way to slide their protection.
Given the havoc that the Cowboys' pass rush has wreaked on the past four opponents, it is not a coincidence that the team's takeaway totals have surged in recent weeks. The Cowboys have collected seven turnovers during their four-game winning streak, and the team's much-maligned secondary has contributed four interceptions to the total during that span.
Mike Jenkins has led the effort by grabbing two picks in the past four games, and he has teamed with Orlando Scandrick and Terence Newman to provide improved coverage on the perimeter. And safeties Ken Hamlin and Gerald Sensabaugh have eliminated the big plays that have plagued the secondary in the past. With fewer balls flying over their heads, the Cowboys have held their last four opponents to 20 or fewer points in each contest.
The Cowboys have quietly assumed the perch atop of the NFC East, and their vastly improved defense will continue to be the key to a potential drive for the division crown.
Have defenses caught up with Orton, Broncos' offense?
Kyle Orton's dismal performance against the Steelers leads me to believe that defensive coordinators have finally figured out the Broncos' offense. Orton struggled for the second consecutive week, and the Broncos have only scored 10 points on offense in those two games, albeit against the Ravens and Steelers -- two of the league's toughest defenses.
But the putrid output of the Broncos' offensive attack falls squarely on the shoulders of Orton. Although he has completed 61.4 percent of his throws against those formidable defenses, Orton has only averaged 4.97 yards per attempt and the lack of vertical throws has allowed defenses to suffocate the team's passing game.
The Ravens and Steelers exploited Orton's reluctance to throw the ball down the field by crowding the line of scrimmage with a host of defenders and daring the Broncos' signal-caller to go deep against their aggressive defenses. The Ravens and Steelers also attacked Orton with an assortment of exotic five-man zone pressures that forced him to get rid of the ball quickly or take a beating in the pocket. The hectic nature of facing such an intense rush quickened Orton's clock in his head, leading him to hurry some throws into the waiting arms of defenders dropping into coverage.
Of course, all of Broncos' offensive woes can't be pinned on the play of Orton, because he has received little help from the team's rushing attack the past two weeks. Knowshon Moreno and Correll Buckhalter have been non-factors in recent weeks, and the lack of offensive balance has allowed teams to gang up on Orton in the pocket.
Given the success of the Ravens and Steelers, it is very likely the Broncos will continue to face such tactics from future opponents and their counter to the strategy will ultimately determine if the team can hold onto their lead in the AFC West.
Are the lights back on in San Diego?
After watching Shawne Merriman flash his dominant pass rushing skills the past two weeks, it is readily apparent he has fully recovered from his knee injury. Merriman has tallied two sacks in each of the last two weeks, and is exhibiting the power and explosiveness that propelled him to an astonishing 39.5 sacks in his first three seasons.
Merriman's reemergence as one of the league's most feared pass rushers has sparked a revival of San Diego's pass rush. The Chargers have recorded five sacks in three straight games, giving them 22 on the season, tied with Indianapolis for fifth most in the league. The team's pass defense is giving up 179.6 yards per game, the fifth-fewest in the league.
Merriman's return to prominence has also created more opportunities for his teammates to feast off one-on-one blocking in pass protection. Shaun Phillips, in particular, has benefitted from opponents adjusting their pass protection to take care of Merriman off the edge. Phillips has recorded five sacks over the past three weeks and has been an explosive complementary rusher on Merriman's backside.
Throw in defensive coordinator Ron Rivera's willingness to maximize Merriman's talents by using more exotic pressures to create favorable one-on-one matchups along the line, and it was only a matter of time before Merriman reminded the rest of the league that he remains one of the most feared pass rushers in the game today.
VY helping Titans rediscover winning ways
The reinsertion of Vince Young into the starting lineup has not only energized Tennessee's offense, but it has helped the offensive coaching staff rediscover the formula that led to a league-best 13 wins a season ago.
As a Tennessee source told me, the Titans had gotten away from their smash-mouth identity because the team was supremely confident in Kerry Collins' skills as a passer. But the pass-heavy approach didn't mesh well with the team's offensive personnel. When Young took over, the coaching staff wanted to protect him, which meant the team would rely more on its running game.
In Young's two starts, the Titans have called 83 runs vs. 38 passing plays. That run-heavy approach pales in comparison to the pass-happy formula used while Kerry Collins was at the helm; the titans passed 65 percent of the time with Collins as their quarterback.
The renewed commitment to the run has led to extraordinary production from Chris Johnson in consecutive weeks (49 carries for 363 rushing yards and four scores), and the Titans' offense has enjoyed tremendous success relying on the smash-mouth formula.
Additionally, Young has played exceptionally well in the conservative game plan designed to have a formidable rushing attack to support his game. Youg has connected on 73 percent of his throws for 297 yards with two scores. Although he hasn't completed a lot of sophisticated throws in the Titans' re-tooled offense, he has efficiently orchestrated the play-action pass attack and provided enough playmaking from the pocket to balance the team's offense. More importantly, he has avoided turnovers, and the lack of negative plays has been a critical factor in the Titans' two-game winning streak.
Young may lack some of the passing skills of the game's elite quarterbacks, but with a 20-11 career record, it is hard to dispute the fact that he is a key ingredient in the Titans' winning formula.
» Dwight Freeney is quietly on a sizzling hot streak as a pass rusher. The four-time Pro Bowler has recorded a sack in nine consecutive games, and with another quarterback takedown in his next game, he could tie Ware's league record of 10 straight games with a sack.
» While rookie receivers Percy Harvin and Michael Crabtree have garnered a lot of attention for their immediate contributions to their respective teams, the surprising performance of the Steelers' Mike Wallace merits a mention. The rookie star is averaging 17.5 yards per reception, which ranks fourth in the league (among players averaging at least two receptions a game) and gives the Steelers' passing game an explosive element with his blinding speed. Wallace has tallied three receptions over 40 yards and three touchdowns in eight games.
» The Miami Dolphins may have discovered a counter to the blitz tactics that teams are using to defend the "Wildcat" formation. They used Pat White as the triggerman in the scheme against the Patriots, and his presence nullified the extensive use of secondary blitzes due to the presence of a conventional QB in the backfield. Although White has yet to complete a pass in his career, he poses enough of a threat as a passer that defenses will not leave receivers unattended with the ball in his hands. Additionally, White's ability to run the speed option gives the Dolphins' offense an added dimension. Miami used the tactic extensively with outstanding success on each of its two touchdown drives against the Patriots. Expect to see more of White in the backfield as the Dolphins' offensive attack continues to evolve.
» The New Orleans Saints' offense currently ranks as the league's highest scoring unit, but their defense has scored as many or more touchdowns than three teams' offenses have this season. The Saints' seven defensive scores (five interception; two fumble recoveries) surpass the Raiders' (six touchdowns) and Browns' (five) offensive units, and ties the Rams' offensive output for the season.