Week 8 is close to the halfway mark in the 2008 season and I don't know about you, but the year seems like it's flying by and before you know it, we will be talking playoff scenarios.
Here's a look at the stories that shaped the Week 8 action, and how it may have a ripple effect on the rest of the season.
1. Zero ... the big goose egg ... a big part of Week 8
Kirwan's unsung heroes
This week it is time to honor a few of the line coaches around the league who got extraordinary performances from the guys up front. Three line coaches whose schemes and coaching prevented a single sack of their quarterback in winning efforts can't go unnoticed, while another coach saw his men open holes for the biggest rushing day of the weekend.
Offensive line coach, New York Giants
Flaherty has been an NFL line coach for nine years and has developed a terrific line in New York. A road win in Pittsburgh against the defense with the most sacks in the NFL coming in is no easy task. Eli Manning threw 32 passes and was not sacked once by the Steelers. Keeping James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley off of Manning when they came into the game with 16 of the team's 25 sacks wasn't an easy task.
Offensive line coach, Baltimore Ravens
Matsko came to the Ravens as they lost LT Jonathan Ogden to retirement and the team was going with a rookie quarterback. That is a formula for disaster. Matsko leaned on his 17 years of NFL line coaching experience to help build a new line in Baltimore. This week, in the 29-10 win over the Raiders, young QB Joe Flacco wasn't sacked and the Ravens ran the ball for 192 yards. Baltimore is a surprise to many at 4-3 and Matzko's offensive line has something to do with it.
Offensive coordinator, New Orleans Saints
Marrone also wears the offensive coordinator's hat in New Orleans but his main focus is the offensive line. Blocking a 3-4 defense can be tough and playing in London without his starting center makes it even tougher. Drew Brees was without his favorite dump-off target, Reggie Bush, and that meant the protection had to hold up even better against San Diego. Brees threw 41 passes and wasn't sacked.
*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.*
Eli Manning was sacked zero times by the No. 1 pass rush in the NFL on the road. Jason Campbell of the Redskins has still thrown zero interceptions for the season. The Buccaneers' defense has still given up zero rushing touchdowns. Bill Belichick's Patriots had zero penalties. The Bengals and Lions still have zero wins. The Panthers have zero loses at home. And, the most interesting way the big goose egg surfaced this week appeared to be the zero tolerance some coaches have for player behavior. Plaxico Burress missed a treatment and missed the first quarter of the Steeler game. Mike Singletary truly demonstrated zero tolerance for Vernon Davis, when he told the young tight end to go take a shower and watch the rest of the game from the stands.
2. Eli vs. Ben
Manning and Ben Roethlisberger were in the same draft class, both quickly won a Super Bowl and the debate about which one is the better of the two will continue as long as both are playing pro football. It is amazing that the other two quarterbacks from 2004, Philip Rivers and Matt Schaub, are having pretty good years, too, but no one seems to care about those comparisons.
Heading into the Giant-Steeler matchup, I would say Roethlisberger was leading the comparison poll at a two-to-one pace. Every day last week on my Sirius radio show, the issue of Manning vs. Roethlisberger found its way onto the show. Clearly, more Steelers fans felt compelled to spell out all the reasons Roethlisberger is far superior to Manning. The fans of Manning are a lot like Manning himself and preferred to not engage in the debate and let the game do the talking and that's just what happened.
Both quarterbacks came into the matchup with 61 career starts. Manning had 85 touchdown passes to 68 interceptions, while Roethlisberger had 93 touchdowns to 57 interceptions. Roethlisberger had a slight advantage but the Manning fans were quick to point out that Eli was only sacked 99 times to Roethlisberger's 164 sacks. Steelers fans countered with Roethlisberger's 14 come-from-behind wins as compared to Manning's 10 game-winning drives. Manning supporters responded with Manning's Super Bowl performance as compared to Roethlisberger's game. It all made for a great debate, but nothing could substitute for the head-to-head matchup of Week 8.
Roethlisberger came into the game being sacked once per nine pass attempts, while Manning had a much stronger once per 32 pass plays. The game was a fair test, as both defenses were ranked one-two in sacks by a defense.
Roethlisberger was at home but still was sacked five times compared to zero for Manning. Manning didn't throw an interception while Roethlisberger threw four. On third-down situations, Manning led his team to conversions on 6-of-17 attempts (35.2 percent), while Roethlisberger went 1-for-10 (10 percent). Each quarterback threw one touchdown pass, but in the end, Manning led his team to a win. For now, the Manning backers have a victory in the debate, but these two will meet again, maybe in the Super Bowl and the debate will continue.
3. Backup quarterbacks
It's no secret that winning with a backup quarterback is hard to do in the NFL. Week 8 had six backup signal callers pressed into duty and they came out of the action 3-3, which is all you can realistically hope for these days.
Brad Johnson (Dallas), Seneca Wallace (Seattle) and Matt Cassel (New England) delivered wins. Still, there were admirable efforts in loses from Tyler Thigpen (Kansas City), Dan Orlovsky (Detroit) and even Ryan Fitzpatrick (Cincinnati). All in all, the group completed 121 of 194 attempts for a 62.3 percent completion rate, 1,269 yards, seven touchdowns and just four interceptions.
It looks like all six will go again next week and another 3-3 performance would be more than satisfactory. Expecting more than an even split in wins and loses from a guy off the bench is unrealistic in 2008.
4. Risk and reward
I love when coaches take chances to win games. Sometimes they work, and sometimes they fail. It's easy to criticize risk-reward calls when they don't succeed, but any attempt to gain an edge, win a tough road game or stay up with a superior opponent should be appreciated.
The Ravens' decision to execute a throwback pass to Joe Flacco was great football. The fake field goal by Arizona right before halftime didn't work out, but the Cardinals were battling the road demons that have plagued the organization for years and coach Ken Whisenhunt was determined to break the cycle. Those coaches traveling west to east, three time zones, have to figure out how to win because they are now 0-14. It may take some extra tricks in the play calling to break the streak because there are still nine games left on the schedule for teams traveling across the country from the West Coast.
5. Some praise for April decisions
We all are aware of the Falcons' decision to draft quarterback Matt Ryan and how the long range looks bright for Atlanta. The Ravens' decision to take Joe Flacco looks just as good at this time, but there were other draft-day decisions that were either controversial or unnoticed that have started to pay big dividends and the Week 8 games brought them more attention.
St. Louis was reported to be in heavy debates back in the spring about drafting Chris Long. Long had two sacks this week and now has four for the year, along with leading the Rams in tackles for the defensive line with 33. Their second-round pick was also an eyebrow raiser when they made Donnie Avery the first wide receiver off the board in the draft. Avery caught six passes for 163 yards and a touchdown this week. He has 21 catches for 347 yards and is on pace for about 50 receptions and 800 yards.
The Eagles have been struggling all year to keep a healthy group of receivers on the field but the one constant has been rookie DeSean Jackson. This week, Jackson had three receptions for 72 yards and already has 32 catches for 505 yards in seven games. Everyone seemed to criticize the Eagles last spring for not signing Randy Moss or drafting a "big" receiver. Tiny Jackson is on pace for about 70 receptions and 1,050 yards. He also has 23 returns for 260 yards and barring injury should deliver close to 1,650 yards of total yardage.
Finally, Steve Slaton was a running back at West Virginia that got mixed reviews in the draft process. Slaton was the 11th runner chosen when his name was called at the 89th pick. He scored a late touchdown in Houston's win over Cincinnati on Sunday but the fifth-ranked offense in the NFL counts heavily on the young back. To date he has 126 touches for 601 yards and six touchdowns. Slaton is on course for nearly 1400 yards and 14 touchdowns on a Texan team that has won three straight games.