Analysis  

 

Week 3: Cardinals, Falcons soar; Vikings' Christian Ponder a gem

Last week, NFL Films captured San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers describing San Diego's victory over the Tennessee Titans as "a good ol' fashioned rear-end whippin'." I'm not sure if Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan was miked up Sunday, but he could've used the same words to accurately describe his team's destruction of Rivers and the Chargers.

Atlanta's 27-3 victory was even more lopsided than the final score suggested. The Falcons moved to 3-0 behind a well-rounded offense and an aggressive defense, looking much faster than the Chargers on both sides of the ball. Ryan was also much sharper than Rivers. After averaging 30 points in their first two contests, the Chargers didn't reach the end zone a single time against coordinator Mike Nolan's defense.

While the Falcons were beating up on the Chargers in San Diego, another "whippin' " was taking place slightly farther east. The Arizona Cardinals proved that their Week 2 victory over the New England Patriots wasn't a fluke, physically dominating Michael Vick and the Philadelphia Eagles on their way to a 27-6 home win. The Cardinals' defense kept the NFL's top-ranked offense from scoring a touchdown while collecting five sacks and forcing three turnovers. One of those turnovers came right before halftime, when the Cardinals forced a Vick fumble and returned it 93 yards for a touchdown.

Former Eagles quarterback Kevin Kolb played far better than one-time teammate Vick, tossing two touchdown passes and avoiding any turnovers. Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald torched the Philadelphia secondary for the second year in a row, catching nine balls for 114 yards and a score. This game left little doubt that the Cardinals can give the San Francisco 49ers a fight in the NFC West.

The Falcons and Cardinals are the NFC's only remaining undefeated teams, which bodes very well for both squads' playoff chances. Since 1990, when the playoffs were expanded to include 12 teams, 75.7 percent of the teams that started 3-0 made the postseason. There is still a lot of football to be played, but the Arizona Cardinals and Atlanta Falcons have definitely made strong statements to begin the 2012 campaign.

Bills' defensive line shaping up

The Buffalo Bills failed to record a sack in a season-opening loss to the New York Jets, but their pass rush has been dominant for two straight weeks. After racking up five sacks in a Week 2 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs, the Bills collected four sacks in a 24-14 win over the Cleveland Browns.

Big-money free-agent additions Mario Williams and Mark Anderson consistently harassed Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden, combining for 2.5 sacks. However, after watching Buffalo's line closely for the past two weeks, it's very clear to me that the unit's best player is Kyle Williams. Always the Bills' quickest defender off the ball, Williams creates havoc by consistently penetrating the opponent's backfield. Williams has three sacks so far this season, and deserves to be recognized as one of the NFL's top defensive tackles.

Locker's big day

After passing for just 174 yards against the Chargers in Week 2, Tennessee Titans quarterback Jake Locker had a monster game in a wild 44-41 overtime win over the Detroit Lions. Locker completed 29 of 42 passes for 378 yards and two touchdowns, and rushed for a team-high 35 yards on just four carries.

Against San Diego, Locker struggled with indecisiveness and inaccuracy, but he had no such issues against the Lions, moving quickly through his progressions and consistently hitting his targets. Detroit has one of the NFL's better pass-rushing units, but Locker avoided taking a single sack on Sunday.

The Titans are going to need Locker to perform like that throughout the season, unless they can awaken their horrendous rushing attack. It's tough to win games in the NFL with a starting running back who averages 1.7 yards per carry, as Chris Johnson (14 carries for 24 yards) did Sunday.

Didn't see this coming

I could have mentioned several things in this space following an extremely eventful Sunday. However, the performance that surprised me the most was that of Minnesota Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder, who was outstanding in a 24-13 upset win over the 49ers.

I probably shouldn't have been surprised that Ponder played so well, given that he was very accurate and efficient in the first two games of the 2012 season. But I was convinced Ponder would struggle against San Francisco's dynamic defense. Well, he didn't; Ponder completed 21 of 35 passes for 198 yards and two touchdowns, adding 33 yards and another score on the ground. More importantly, he avoided throwing an interception, taking a sack or fumbling the ball. That is no small feat against the 49ers' violent unit.

Ponder's ability to create plays with his legs is strongly reminiscent of Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo. He excels at buying time while keeping his eyes downfield until his weapons uncover. He has also done a fantastic job protecting the football, and has yet to throw an interception this season. There aren't a ton of playmaking quarterbacks who protect the football. Fortunately for the Vikings, they seem to have one.

Impressive in defeat

Despite losing the game on the scoreboard, there were reasons for these teams to be encouraged in defeat:

» Detroit Lions: There is no sugarcoating the Lions' performance on defense and special teams. They were dreadful. However, there was one reason to be optimistic about Sunday's overtime loss to the Tennessee Titans. Running back Mikel Leshoure saw his first action of the season after serving a two-game suspension and looked great, rushing for 100 yards and a touchdown. Going forward, Leshoure should help take some pressure off of quarterback Matthew Stafford and the Lions' passing attack.

» Tampa Bay Buccaneers: This is another example of the glass being half full. The Bucs' offense struggled mightily behind the porous play of quarterback Josh Freeman (who completed just 10 of 28 passes for 128 yards), but their defense was outstanding in a loss to the Dallas Cowboys. After getting torched by Eli Manning and the New York Giants last week, the defense held Romo and the Cowboys to 16 points. Tampa Bay allowed just 38 rushing yards and also hit Romo repeatedly, collecting four sacks on the day.

» Indianapolis Colts: The Colts fell to the Jacksonville Jaguars, 22-17, but rookie quarterback Andrew Luck put together another solid performance, completing 22 of his 46 passes for 313 yards. Luck was intercepted once, but also threw two touchdown passes. He led a go-ahead scoring drive that culminated in a 37-yard Adam Vinatieri field goal with less than a minute to play. Unfortunately, just 11 seconds after that kick, the Colts' defense allowed Jaguars quarterback Blaine Gabbert to connect with Cecil Shorts III for an unimaginable 80-yard touchdown. Despite the crushing defeat, the Colts can rest assured that they have their franchise quarterback.

Three startling statistics

1) Vick and Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III were sacked 11 times total and coughed up a combined five fumbles in losses to the Cardinals and Cincinnati Bengals, respectively. Vick and RG3 are two of the most athletic quarterbacks in NFL history, but neither was able to avoid persistent pressure on Sunday. Some of those hits resulted from poor offensive-line play, but several came because Vick and RG3 held the ball too long or failed to identify a blitz.

2) Kansas City Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles rushed for 233 yards and one touchdown on 33 carries in a 27-24 overtime win over the New Orleans Saints. In Charles' absence last season, the Chiefs had a running back top 100 yards just once (against the Colts in Week 5, when Jackie Battle ran for 119). Kansas City looks much more formidable with Charles back to his old form; his 91-yard touchdown run proved he is truly capable of scoring from anywhere on the field.

3) The Patriots failed to record a sack in a 31-30 loss to the Baltimore Ravens. Coming off a season in which it posted 40 sacks, New England has just three sacks through the first three weeks of the 2012 campaign. Rookie defensive end Chandler Jones has been disruptive at times, but he needs some help from the rest of the group in order to get this pass rush rolling. Right now, he is a one-man band.

Follow Daniel Jeremiah on Twitter @MoveTheSticks.

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