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Defensive prowess has been the real key for Colts and Saints

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For years, there have been many attempts at debunking the theory that defense wins championships, but the surprising paths taken by the Indianapolis Colts and New Orleans Saints this season to undefeated heights has provided little evidence to help move the argument forward.

While both are typically feared because of their high-octane offenses, it has been the stellar play of their defenses that has made each unbeatable.

Colts, Saints on NFL Network
The Colts look to go to 14-0 as they play the Jaguars Thursday night on NFL Network, while the Saints try to remain undefeated when they host the Cowboys on Saturday night. Follow both games with live look-ins on NFL.com  More ...

The Colts boast the league's second-best scoring defense (16.7 points per game), and their allowance of only 33 plays of 20 yards or more ranks as the fewest "explosive" plays surrendered by a defense.

Although questions surrounded the Colts' defense prior to the season due to the presence of a new defensive coordinator (Larry Coyer), the unit has silenced the doubters with their outstanding performance. Coyer has diversified the Colts' scheme, and the addition of more exotic pressures to their Tampa-2 system has been problematic for opponents.

Led by Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, the Colts rank 12th in the league in sacks (30), and the persistent pressure off the edges has resulted in the team forcing 24 turnovers. While that total may not sound impressive initially, the fact that their injury-ravaged secondary has come up with 15 interceptions is a result of ferocious pressure up front.

The Saints have also pillaged their opponents with a blitz-heavy scheme. Gregg Williams' troops lead the league in takeaways, and the unit's eight return touchdowns rivals the scoring output of some of the league's worst offenses.

Additionally, New Orleans has forced opposing quarterbacks into a dismal 64.8 passer rating, third-lowest in the league.

Although a series of injuries in the back end have contributed to the Saints allowing an average of 404.3 yards per game in their past three contests, the unit has consistently come up with big plays in critical moments. Jonathan Vilma's late interception and fourth-down stop against the Falcons on Sunday typifies the kind of pivotal playmaking that the veteran-laden defense has been coming up with throughout the season.

The Colts and Saints unexpectedly find themselves on the path to perfection, but it is their surprising defenses that are blazing their trail.

What's wrong with Palmer?

Passing for fewer than 200 yards in three of his last six games, including 110 and 94 in Weeks 12 and 14, it's apparent Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer is out of sync.

Although Palmer's statistics (60.8 completion percentage with 17 touchdowns and 10 interceptions) are respectable for a starting quarterback, he has not had a 300-yard game this season, and has failed to surpass the 200-yard mark in five contests. In addition, Palmer has averaged only 6.9 yards per attempt, and that number has fallen to 5.4 over the past three games.

Those numbers are not indicative of an elite quarterback, but rather a passer failing to push the ball down the field. The Bengals have amassed only 31 completions over 20 yards, and the lack of big plays has allowed defenses to suffocate the Bengals' passing game.

Part of Palmer's reluctance to take deep shots can be attributed to the loss of wide receiver Chris Henry. The fifth-year pro was the team's fastest receiver, and his ability to get behind defenses opened up the field for Chad Ochocinco and Laveranues Coles. Henry's nine career receptions over 40 yards forced opponents to respect his big-play ability at all times. Without that threat, corners are increasingly jumping the Bengals receivers on the outside and Palmer is finding it difficult to squeeze the ball into tight windows.

While Henry's replacement, Andre Caldwell, and Coles are solid players, neither is considered a game-breaker, and their inability to separate from tight coverage has forced Palmer to settle for checkdowns (dump-offs to running backs) underneath coverage. Although those completions help the Bengals stay on schedule, the dink-and-dunk tactic rarely results in points.

Consequently, the Bengals have scored 18 or fewer points in five of their last six games.

In addition to settling for checkdowns, Palmer has also started to succumb to the pressure in the pocket. He has been sacked nine times in the last four games, and his hesitancy to deliver the ball to open receivers has led to the increase in takedowns.

With his franchise quarterback struggling to find his rhythm and confidence in the pocket, Marvin Lewis has increasingly relied on his team's sixth-ranked rush attack to carry the load. Although a powerful one-dimensional approach can lead to victories over inferior teams, winning in the postseason will require the Bengals to utilize a more balanced approach.

Cincinnati has risen to the cusp of title contention, but without a productive aerial attack, its playoff appearance could be another one-and-done showing.

Is Moss shutting it down?

The controversial comments regarding Randy Moss that emerged from the Carolina Panthers' locker room on Sunday created quite a buzz around the league, but those criticisms are way off base.

Although Moss suffered through one of the worst games of his career against the Panthers (one reception for 16 yards, drops, fumble), the series of blunders appeared to be concentration lapses rather than miscues forced by the opposition, as Carolina CB Chris Gamble testified. Moss' fumble early in the game was a failure to tuck the ball away properly prior to contact, and his pair of drops over the middle of the field can be characterized as a receiver failing to look the ball in while in traffic.

Sure, Moss' slumping body language during the contest should be a little concerning for the Patriots, but the nature of the position leads me to believe that he is becoming increasingly frustrated by his diminishing role in the offense. Moss has just six receptions in the past three games, and his lack of involvement in the offense makes it difficult for him to maintain focus throughout the game.

Throw in the fact that his counterpart, Wes Welker, is enjoying a scintillating stretch where he has tallied 10 or more receptions in three of the past four games, the subtle sulking from the perennial Pro Bowler is not surprising.

A playmaker needs to touch the ball to make an impact, and his inability to receive quality touches in recent weeks has undoubtedly irked one of the most prolific players in league history.

Elite receivers are diva-like by nature, and they are prone to pouting when the game doesn't run through them. Just look at the demeanors of Pro Bowlers Steve Smith, Chad Ochocinco, Brandon Marshall and Terrell Owens when they don't receive touches early in the game, and Moss' silent brooding would fall in line with their behaviors.

Although the Panthers' boldly proclaimed Moss "shut it down" after experiencing their aggressive tactics, it is more likely that the star's performance is another case of a high-strung receiver sulking about his diminishing role in his team's offense.

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Orakpo on the rise

Many draft observers raised an eyebrow when the Redskins took Brian Orakpo with the 13th pick of the first round last April and immediately listed him as an outside linebacker in their 4-3 scheme. But after watching the rookie emerge as one of the league's top sack artists, the Redskins' plan now looks brilliant.

Orakpo, who leads all rookies with 11 sacks after getting four against Oakland on Sunday, plays strong-side linebacker on early downs, and shifts to defensive end in rush situations. While his success as an edge rusher is not a surprise given his exceptional collegiate career at Texas, his effectiveness as an outside linebacker is and has given the Redskins' defense an added dimension.

"He has a lot of maturity," said Redskins LB London Fletcher. "He doesn’t carry himself like a rookie, doesn’t play like a rookie. When I say carry himself like a rookie, he is focused. A lot of rookies, when they come in they don’t necessarily have the focus that you need to be successful in this league. When he is in the building, he is all about football, studying his opponents, understanding what he needs to do to improve week in and week out."

With Orakpo capable of rushing off the edge or from various blitz locations, the Redskins are capable of bringing pressure from all angles. The multiplicity of their scheme has yielded big results, as the Redskins' 36 sacks rank fourth in the league and their defense has quietly emerged as one of the NFL's top units.

Undersized college defensive ends are often pegged as hybrid 3-4 rushers, but the Redskins' varied deployment of Orakpo may lead others to copy their tactics.

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