Week 7 action once again reminded us that in this league anyone can beat anyone, there are no "superpowers," and backups are more important than ever. As we go forward, there also are some interesting parallels to look at.
1. Create an extra gap
Offenses want to create as many advantages as possible to move the ball against the type of defenses they face week in and week out. The coaches are constantly rotating personnel groups to create matchup problems for the defense, using motion to identify coverages, audibling plays at the line of scrimmage when a defensive weakness is identified, and going no-huddle when they catch a defense in the wrong personnel. This fall there is also the desire to create an extra gap.
Week 7 unsung heroes
Interim head coach, St. Louis Rams
Rarely do I put head coaches in the Unsung Heroes department, but Haslett was the defensive coordinator two weeks ago and has now led the Rams to wins over the Redskins and Cowboys. This past week, all the post-game press conferences were centered on the Cowboys and what went wrong. How about this angle: Haslett had his Rams ready to play and beat the 'Boys in all phases of the game.
OL coach, Tennessee Titans
The undefeated Titans are the team no one even knows. They live under the radar screen as a team, and the offensive line is even lower. Munchak played for the franchise when it was in Houston and is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He has been coaching NFL football for 15 years and is really the essence of an unsung hero. This week, the Titans broke the franchise's single-game record for rushing with 332 yards, and didn't give up a sack. You wouldn't recognize Munchak or any of his linemen walking around a shopping center. But that doesn't mean they're not good.
Defensive coordinator, Carolina Panthers
The Saints know how to score points. They came to town with Drew Brees, Reggie Bush, and Jeremy Shockey, and went home with 7 points and a loss. Trgovac is in his 14th year of NFL coaching and had a tremendous game plan for the New Orleans attack. Ten different Saints receivers caught passes but not one of them got in the end zone. The Panthers forced two turnovers and took down division-rival New Orleans.
*Note: For nine years, I have written the Unsung Heroes column during the season to bring 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.*
Creating an extra gap is nothing new, but it's popular right now as things that were once popular come back around again. An extra gap is when the offense can create one more running lane than the defense can soundly defend without an adjustment. If a defense doesn't recognize that an extra gap has been created, it will struggle to stop the run. There were three extra-gap principles that stood out as I watched over the weekend. For the most part, surprisingly, offenses got away with these formations when defenses didn't immediately recognize what was in front of them. Here's what we saw:
Tackle over: Simply put, one tackle comes out of the huddle and lines up next to the other tackle. The Rams came out of the huddle and had left tackle Adam Goldberg line up on the right side next to right tackle Alex Baron. The Cowboys didn't bump down the defensive line to the tackle over or rearrange their linebackers or safeties to compensate for the look when it was used. As a result, Steven Jackson had a good day running the ball. By no means was the tackle over the mainstay of his 25 carries for 160 yards and 3 touchdowns but it was a useful tool.
Extra tight end wing set: This is an old favorite of coaches who always liked the Ron Erhardt running game. A team comes out in a two tight end, two running back and one wide receiver personnel group. The second tight end doesn't line up on the opposite side of the first tight end but rather lines up next to the first tight end, creating an extra running lane between them. Most defenses are built to handle four gaps to each side of the center; this configuration creates a fifth gap to the side with two tight ends.
The Wildcat: This formation has only two people in the backfield, with the quarterback lined up as a wide receiver. Like it or not, someone has to cover that QB. Depending on how the offense aligns the other eight players, it can leave the defense short on a flank. The Ravens seemed to put the Dolphins' Wildcat formation in its place for now, but not everyone has a Ray Lewis-led defense.
2. Backup blues
We all know how important the quarterback is in football but the drop-off from the starter to the backup seems worse than ever. Maybe the offenses are so complicated that backups with little practice time can't operate. Maybe there just isn't enough development at the position. Remember back to the days when Jeff Hostetler came off the bench for an injured Phil Simms and led the Giants to the Super Bowl in 1990? Right now, it doesn't feel like anyone has a Hostetler on their team. Week 7 games were a case in point.
3. Third road game was the charm
Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco were handed the starting QB jobs on opening day of their rookie seasons. There have been growing pains for both young men, who will be compared with each other throughout their careers. Both kids struggled on the road early this year, but Ryan got his first road win against the Packers on his third try. Flacco also found his first road win on his third try, as Baltimore won Sunday in Miami. Both players have thrown 2 touchdowns to 3 interceptions away from home and both guys led their team to 27 points in their third road game.
4. Review of the perfect storm
On Friday, I listed four players who appeared to be in a perfect position to have a great day Sunday. They were running backs Mewelde Moore (Pittsburgh), Marion Barber (Dallas), Chris Johnson (Tennessee) and Steve Slaton (Houston). Their teams needed to emphasize the run, they all seemed healthy, and the defenses they were facing looked like they could be run on. These four players combined for 84 touches, 508 yards and 6 touchdowns, with each scoring at least once. Three of the four played on winning teams. Hopefully next week I can find four more as good as last week.
5. Scoring on defense
Last week I noted teams that get a score from the defense, whether it is a touchdown or a safety, came into Week 7 with a 24-10 record. Things were even better this week as the Bears, Packers, Giants and Ravens all got defensive scores and won. We now stand at 28-10, which means a team that scores on defense has a 73.6 percent chance of winning the game.
6. What if?
As a smart man once told me, there's a reason a rearview mirror is a lot smaller than a windshield. Don't look back as much as you look forward. While that's true, I can't help but ask a few "what if" questions. Like this one:
What if Kyle Orton had never left the starting lineup in Chicago after he led the team to the division title in 2005? In 15 starts that year, he had a 10-5 record, threw for 1,898 yards and 9 touchdowns. As I watched him lead the Bears to a 48-41 win over the Vikings in which he went 21 for 32, 283 yards and two touchdowns, I couldn't stop thinking about where he would be today if he didn't sit on the bench in 2006 and 2007. He didn't throw a single pass in '06, then came off the bench late last season and went 2-1 as a starter. As the starter now, he has thrown 10 touchdown passes in his last 5 games. Orton is 16-9 as a starter.