The Arizona Cardinals? They're playing much more like the club that stumbled through the final month of the 2008 season rather than the one that caught fire in the playoffs and pushed the Steelers to the brink in Super Bowl XLIII. Finishing 9-7 last year, the Cardinals weren't widely viewed as a favorite to repeat as NFC champions, so maybe their struggles aren't a major surprise. Still, rallying again to win their division, the NFC West, hardly looks impossible.
An NFL scout and a former team executive have some ideas, based on what they've studied on videotape.
The biggest problem they see with the Steelers is an offense that, despite running back Willie Parker's season-best 93 rushing yards against Cincinnati on Sunday, relies far too much on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to make plays with his arm and improvisation. The approach, they say, is putting more stress on the team than it can handle, especially without the defensive dominance of a year ago.
"They did better Sunday, but I think it's an offense that has lost its balance," the scout said. "And I think, no matter how good your quarterback is at improvising and making plays outside the scheme, it's very difficult to live like that and be consistent. Now their defense has traditionally, and in recent years, been so strong that Roethlisberger's inconsistencies as a precision player could always be camouflaged and compensated for. And, therefore, when he made his three or four 'Roethlisberger plays' a game, it would often be enough. But for the most part, it's not an offense that has any real flow or precision to it, and the defense isn't always there to bail it out.
"If you watch the Colts' offense, you will see (it function like) a computer chip. There's precision, there's structure. Everything happens within the rhythm of the down and the rhythm of the offense. When you watch the Steelers' offense, you get very little of that. They live off of improvisation and randomness, and it's very hard to succeed in the NFL week in and week out playing that way, on either side of the ball."
The former club executive, whose team faced Roethlisberger on multiple occasions, believes the Steelers' coaches find his playmaking skills "so intoxicating," they tend to go with a spread offense more than they should. What they're overlooking, he said, is that the vast majority of Roethlisberger's success in hitting big throws has come late in games.
"I always kind of breathed a bit of a sigh of relief in the first half when they would want to spread out and throw, because I didn't think we could match their physical toughness," the executive said. "They would throw it and keep us in the game because of a tipped ball here or a sack or whatever."
The Steelers' defense isn't generating anywhere near the level of pressure it did on a consistent basis last year. Outside linebacker James Harrison, the NFL's 2008 Defensive Player of the Year, didn't get his first sack of the season until Sunday. The Steelers generally have not produced much heat from the outside, which made things far too comfortable for Chicago's Jay Cutler and Cincinnati's Carson Palmer to make enough plays to beat them in consecutive weeks.
They've also been guilty of coverage breakdowns and other assignment errors against the run. Although Cincinnati's running back Cedric Benson finished with only 76 rushing yards, 58 of them came in the second half, including a 23-yard touchdown.
"I don't have a brilliant tactical reason (for the defensive problems); my guess is that (defensive coordinator Dick) LeBeau's not doing anything differently than he's done before," the scout said. "But Harrison and (fellow outside linebacker LaMarr) Woodley have not made the individual plays that they made last year. It seemed that there were three or four plays a game last year, whether it was Woodley and/or Harrison, where they made a tremendous individual play, and you're not seeing that."
One obvious shortcoming is the absence of safety Troy Polamalu, who has been sidelined since suffering a knee injury in the season-opening victory against the Tennessee Titans. There is a substantial drop off in talent between him and his replacement, Tyrone Carter. The Steelers also aren't utilizing Carter the way they did Polamalu.
"The first thing you (notice) when you pop on a Steeler tape without Polamalu is you don't see movement before the snap," the scout said. "Carter is in the same place, whereas Polamalu was moving around. Sometimes he's on the line of scrimmage, other times he's back, sometimes he's in the deep middle. He was distorting the offense's view of what the Steeler defense was going to do on a given play. Now they don't have that distortion. They're easier to figure out before the snap of the ball."
The Cardinals' season has unfolded a little differently. After being stymied, 20-16, by the more physical San Francisco 49ers in Week 1, they cruised to a 31-17 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars and all seemed fine with their prolific offense. But then came Sunday night's 31-10 loss to the Indianapolis Colts.
There has been speculation that the offense misses the guidance of former coordinator Todd Haley, who departed to become coach of the Kansas City Chiefs. Pinpointing that as the main reason quarterback Kurt Warner and the NFL's most dangerous group of receivers have been less prolific is difficult, but there are some trends the scout and former executive have seen on videotape that indicate a shift in approach.
"My sense is they're not designing or orchestrating down-the-field plays the way they did last year," the scout said. "Their pass game has become very constricted, which leads me to believe that somehow, in their design of it, it's lacking. One of the things that I thought they did extremely well last year was design intermediate to deeper plays. My guess is Warner has thrown very few balls this year, as compared to last year, over 10 yards in the air from the line of scrimmage.
"And I never buy the argument that the defense is taking it away, because that's a copout. You can always -- through formations and movement and shifting and motion and route combinations -- create what you want to create."
Like the Steelers, the Cardinals have struggled to consistently generate pressure, something they were able to do last year and did effectively in the Super Bowl. A coaching change on this side of the ball, with Billy Davis replacing Clancy Pendergast as defensive coordinator, has been cited as a possible cause. But that's difficult to pinpoint.
What is clear, though, is that opposing quarterbacks are generally comfortable in the pocket and able to pick apart the zone coverage that Davis likes to employ.
"I think they're a little too reactive defensively," the scout said. "I think they've got to blitz a little more. I understand the way Billy Davis is thinking, so it's not a knock on him. But when you can't rush the quarterback with any consistency with your down four, and you play a lot of zone, it's really a tough go. Because every zone has voids and if the quarterback has time, he's going to find the voids."
» It's fair to say that Brett Favre brings a dimension to the Minnesota Vikings that they didn't previously have -- a quarterback capable of deciding a game with his arm when the feet of running back Adrian Peterson aren't enough or the defense can't carry the day. Now, perhaps it isn't realistic to think that Favre could make too many more of those last-second throws that end in spectacular catches for the winning touchdown (even if he has done so a few times in his illustrious career). But the fact he did so in only his third game with the Vikings is saying something.
Yet, in the NFC North, there are at least two other quarterbacks who give their teams the same dimension -- Aaron Rodgers of the Packers and Cutler. We'll see what the kid, Matthew Stafford, is able to do with the Detroit Lions, but even he has displayed a little bit of magic in that 21-year-old arm.
This division has the makings of being as competitive and as wild as any in the NFL. Stay tuned.
» Maybe it's finally starting to click for Aaron Kampman in the Packers' new 3-4 defense. He seemed out of place as an outside linebacker through the first two games after spending the previous seven seasons as a defensive end in a 4-3 alignment. But in the Packers' victory against the St. Louis Rams on Sunday, Kampman had his first sack of the season. No, it did not come against an exceptionally talented offensive tackle. In fact, tackle Adam Goldberg, whom Kampman beat to dump quarterback Marc Bulger and force a fumble that defensive end Johnny Jolly dived on to recover, was filling in for injured first-round draft pick Jason Smith. But after two weeks of being pretty much a forgotten man, Kampman did what a veteran should do against an overmatched opponent. That also was the play on which Bulger suffered a shoulder injury that would eventually knock him out of the game.
» This is how a former NFL executive described what has gone wrong with the hapless Cleveland Browns: "They had some priority areas to address. They had to replace (tight end Kellen) Winslow (whom they traded to Tampa Bay). They had to find a replacement for (aging) Jamal (Lewis at running back). And what do they do? They get a benign center in the draft (Alex Mack) and a bunch of stiffs from the New York Jets." As valid as those points might be, it also would help if the Browns had one decent quarterback between Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson.
» It's still hard to believe that three NFL quarterbacks could throw the ball as poorly as Anderson, Quinn and Tampa Bay's Byron Leftwich did on Sunday.
» Two words describe the Buffalo Bills: Dull and uninspired. This is not the team Ralph Wilson had in mind when he agreed to fork over $6.5 million to get receiver Terrell Owens. At the core, Wilson is an American Football League guy. He wants his offense to be explosive, piling up all kinds of yards and points the way teams regularly did in the AFL. A performance such as the one the Bills gave in their 27-7 loss to the New Orleans Saints, against whom Buffalo's only touchdown came on a fake field goal, drives him absolutely crazy. But that is the kind of game you're going to have when your team simply isn't conditioned or built to have a consistently dynamic offense. Dick Jauron isn't that kind of coach and it is becoming fairly clear that quarterback Trent Edwards, whose cautious tendencies with the ball are looking less reversible all the time, is not that kind of quarterback.
They've got answers ...
» The Bengals, because they proved, once again, they can overcome adversity in rallying to beat the Steelers. For the longest time, the Steelers had pushed around the Bengals. This win could have long-lasting benefits to the Bengals' psyche (which figured to be rocked by that bizarre, season-opening loss to Denver), not to mention their chances of competing for the AFC North crown.
» The Lions, because besides finally putting an end to their marathon losing streak, they showed some grit by overcoming multiple injuries on defense and preventing the Washington Redskins from doing much damage on third down (the Redskins were only two of 10) and limited running back Clinton Portis to 42 rushing yards.
» The New England Patriots, because when they had to lean heavily on their running game for the first time this season. When running back Laurence Maroney was forced out early by a thigh injury, 12-year veteran Fred Taylor -- whom they acquired in the offseason after he was released by the Jacksonville Jaguars -- responded by carrying 21 times for 105 yards and a touchdown.
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They've got questions …
» The Miami Dolphins, because not only have they reportedly lost starting quarterback Chad Pennington to a season-ending shoulder injury, they sustained an additional blow with the hamstring sprain suffered by linebacker Joey Porter. Charlie Anderson and Cameron Wake took turns replacing him against the San Diego Chargers, but neither can fully pick up the slack for the Dolphins' best pass rusher.
» The Seattle Seahawks, because despite having seemingly already determined to give Olindo Mare the boot in a blistering postgame tirade over his two missed field-goal attempts against the Chicago Bears, coach Jim Mora decided not to change kickers after all. Some might see that as a motivational play, but it appears to have greater potential for causing damage to Mare's psyche and could prove costly going forward.
Four intriguing games for Week 4
Top five teams
1. N.Y. Giants: They have proven, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they can win without receiver Plaxico Burress. In fact, they look stronger than the team he helped to win a Super Bowl two years ago.
2. Baltimore: Quietly, John Harbaugh has this Ravens team looking like the one that won the Super Bowl nine years ago, even though linebacker Ray Lewis is the only one remaining from that roster.
3. Indianapolis: We know quarterback Peyton Manning is great. But how does this team go from getting pushed around on defense all night in Miami, traveling all the way home, and then traveling all the way to the desert in a short week and shutting down the explosive Cardinals?
4. New Orleans: The Saints can win with more than Brees' golden arm. They can run the ball effectively and put tremendous heat on the opposing quarterback, as they did vs. the Bills.
5. N.Y. Jets: Their dominant defense and dynamic quarterback legitimately put them among the NFL's elite.
Top five offensive players
1. Peyton Manning, QB, Indianapolis: The steady and reliable one keeps the Colts' offense humming, even with guys like Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie catching passes.
2. Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans: He remains one of the most dominant players in the league despite not throwing a touchdown pass vs. the Bills.
3. Philip Rivers, QB, San Diego: Even after a slow start, he ended up with 303 passing yards vs. the Dolphins.
4. Reggie Wayne, WR, Indianapolis: Lesser-known receivers are coming up big for the Colts, but Wayne remains the primary difference-maker among Manning's targets.
5. Randy Moss, WR, New England: He has played a tremendous role in helping quarterback Tom Brady to find his groove again.
Top five defensive players
1. David Harris, LB, N.Y. Jets: He has gone from someone who was rumored to be on the trading block to becoming one of the primary catalysts of the Jets' attack-style defense.
2. Elvis Dumervil, LB, Denver: He had two more sacks vs. the Raiders, again proving that he is natural fit in the Broncos' 3-4 scheme.
3. Patrick Willis, LB, San Francisco: He is a constant disruptive force.
4. Dwight Freeney, DE, Indianapolis: He was unstoppable vs. Arizona, although he reportedly will miss the next two weeks with a quadriceps injury he suffered in the game.
5. Darren Sharper, S, New Orleans: He has three interceptions, including one he returned 97 yards for a touchdown vs. Philadelphia.
Top five coaches
1. Tom Coughlin, N.Y. Giants: He has the flexibility, and the personnel, to use whatever it takes to win. A heavy dose of power running and a strong defense took care of the hapless Buccaneers.
2. Rex Ryan, N.Y. Jets: He continues to demonstrate that his coaching prowess goes beyond his defensive brilliance. He's excelling at one of the toughest parts of his job, which is keeping his team focused.
3. Lovie Smith, Chicago: He deserves plenty of credit for getting his team back on track after a brutal, season-opening loss that cost him the services of one of his best players and raised questions about whether Cutler truly was an upgrade.
4. Bill Belichick, New England: He did an excellent job of regrouping his team after a crushing loss, and leading the way to victory against a top-flight opponent.
5. Josh McDaniels, Denver: Amazing how a 3-0 record drowns out all of that offseason talk about this guy destroying the Broncos.