As the playoff race begins to heat up, several contenders are facing the prospect of playing pivotal make-or-break games with their top defenders on the sidelines.
The Green Bay Packers, Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens have lost Pro Bowl defenders in recent weeks, and the lengthy recoveries expected by the all-stars are bound to affect the performance of their respective defenses. The Packers, in particular, are expected to suffer the most with Aaron Kampman and Al Harris sidelined for the remainder of the season.
Kampman, a two-time Pro Bowler with 54 career sacks, was the team's top pass-rushing threat off the edge, and his penchant for getting to the quarterback will undoubtedly be missed. Although he has struggled at times while transitioning from defensive end to outside linebacker in the Packers' new 3-4 scheme, his presence on the outside still drew the attention of opposing offenses. With Kampman out, the Packers will need rookie Clay Matthews to provide more playmaking off the edge. Matthews has quietly recorded four sacks this season, and is starting to pick up some of the nuances of the pro game. Additionally, the team will also rely on veteran Brady Poppinga to provide some playmaking off the edge. While neither can be expected to play at Kampman's level, they can collectively replace his production with solid play.
In replacing Harris, the Packers are turning to Tramon Williams. On the surface, this move would appear to be a drop off, but closer examination suggests that Williams is a capable replacement. The third-year pro tallied five interceptions a season ago, and some people inside the Packers' organization believe that he may be a better player than Harris at this point. With Williams being more adept at playing zone coverage, the move may actually fortify the Packers' secondary.
The five-time Pro Bowl selection is the heart and soul of the unit, and the team is unable to replace his energetic presence in the line up. Polamalu acts as the team's enforcer in the middle of the field, and his ability to deliver teeth-rattling hits sets the tone in the back end. Additionally, Polamalu's ball-hawking skills are the ideal complement to the Steelers' ferocious pass rush. He has recorded 10 interceptions in his last 21 starts, and no one on the team's roster is capable of replacing his exceptional playmaking skills.
Though veteran Tyrone Carter has performed admirably throughout his career while filling in as a starter, he simply lacks the pizzazz that Polamalu brings to the position. With their star defender out of the lineup, the Steelers sport a 2-3 record and look nothing like the menacing defense that has terrorized opponents for years. With Polamalu out, the Steelers have to find an effective remedy immediately to remain in the hunt in the AFC North.
The three-time Pro Bowler has racked up 3.5 sacks on the season, and his exceptional pass-rush skills command double-team attention from the offense. With opponents routinely sliding their protection to account for Suggs, Jarret Johnson and others have feasted from the backside. Johnson, in particular, has undoubtedly benefitted from seeing a host of one-on-one attention, and leads the team with six sacks.
Although Johnson is highly regarded as a high-motor player, he simply lacks the skills to be a difference maker on his own merit and needs Suggs on the field to be an effective rusher. With the Ravens' defense built on the premise of pressuring opponents into mistakes, the team needs Jameel McClain to play at an exceptionally high level in spite of his inexperience.
The fate of playoff hopefuls often comes down to the contributions of a few role players, and the plight of these three preseason favorites will ultimately hinge on the play of their unsung backups.
Gone in a New York minute
However, the Jets quarterback has failed to sustain the momentum generated during his scintillating start and his play is starting to undermine the Jets' playoff aspirations. In the past seven games, Sanchez has only completed 48.9 percent of his throws and tossed a whopping 14 interceptions. Additionally, he has compiled a dismal 48.9 passer rating and led the team to a 1-6 record during that span.
When Sanchez got off to his sensational start, he was lauded for his unflappable demeanor and his lack of experience (only 16 collegiate starts) was summarily dismissed. But closer examination of the rookie's play suggests that the lack of game-like experience has been one of the biggest reasons for his inconsistent play. Sanchez has struggled adjusting to the complex coverages that opponents have started to use against the Jets offense, and his inability to quickly diagnose the blitz has led to numerous turnovers in the pocket. In addition to Sanchez's 16 interceptions, the rookie has fumbled the ball nine times with three of those fumbles recovered by the opposition.
In speaking at his Monday press conference, Ryan said, "There's a reason we named him the starter. ... I thought that he gave us the best chance to win, and I still think that."
Of course, part of the reason Ryan may have been so quick to thrust the rookie into the lineup was based on his experience in Baltimore last season with Joe Flacco at the helm. Flacco helped lead the Ravens to an 11-5 record and guided them to a postseason appearance as a rookie. With a strong running game and menacing defense to support him, Flacco was able to act as a game manager for the better part of the season.
Although Ryan's intention was to have his rookie star do the same in his first season in New York, Sanchez has been unable to effectively thrive as a game manager and the Jets' free fall has been a direct result.
With Sanchez suddenly struggling under the bright lights of the big city, maybe Pete Carroll wasn't so far off base when he suggested that the former Trojans QB needed another year of seasoning on the college level.
Stafford's defining moment
If Matthew Stafford goes on to enjoy a legendary pro career, his record-breaking performance against the Cleveland Browns will unquestionably stand out as one of his defining moments. Not necessarily because of the NFL rookie-record 422 passing yards or the rookie record-tying five touchdowns (matching Ray Buivid's five touchdown passes in a game played in 1937), but for the guts and courage that he displayed while leading the team back from 24-3 deficit.
In leading the Lions to their second-largest comeback win since 1950, Stafford completed 26 of 43 passes and tossed the winning touchdown with no time remaining on the clock. While those occurrences seemingly happen in the league on a weekly basis, the fact that he carried the team to only their second victory in the past 27 games against insurmountable odds should not be underestimated.
While most of the focus on quarterback emphasize the physical traits for the position, it is the mental characteristics that set the great ones apart. Mental toughness, confidence and leadership are the primary traits needed for success, and Stafford exhibited all of those qualities against the Browns. And his decision to take the ball on the last play of the game with an ailing shoulder showed his teammates that he had the requisite toughness and moxie to be the leader of men.
The Lions still have a long way to go before the transformation of their downtrodden franchise is complete, but it looks like the team has finally found the right quarterback to lead the turnaround.
The more things change ...
The Baltimore Ravens entered the season hopeful of transforming their offense into an explosive scoring machine led by an improving Joe Flacco, but after watching the Ravens fail to score more than 16 points for the third consecutive week, it is apparent that the 2009 unit is following the path of its predecessors.
Although the Ravens got off to a sensational start this season by scoring 30 or more points in five of their first seven games, the offense has bogged down in recent weeks and is struggling to score points despite consistently reaching the red zone. Last week, the Ravens settled for field goals on four red-zone possessions, and that continues an alarming trend of the team failing to score offensive touchdowns when given opportunities. The Ravens have only scored two offensive touchdowns in the past three weeks, and that ineptitude is part of the reason the team has only converted 28.5 percent of their red-zone chances during that span.
Playoff picture further muddied
While the Ravens' red-zone woes have contributed to their offensive slump, it has been the lack of explosiveness in the passing game that is ultimately killing the team's offensive output. Although the Ravens rank among the middle of the pack in explosive passing plays (completions of more than 20 yards), the team has only completed four passes of more than 20 yards in the past three games, and Ray Rice's 35-yard catch-and-run against the Bengals accounts for one of those plays.
Additionally, Rice's emergence as the team's leading receiver underscores the problem with the Ravens' passing game. Though Rice is arguably the team's most explosive weapon, the fact that he is carrying the team's aerial attack indicates that the Ravens' receiving corps is coming up short in the playmaking category.
The Ravens were hoping to get away from their three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust offensive attack in 2009, but after stumbling to a 5-5 start behind a pop-gun passing game, the team may be better served to go back to the smash-mouth game plan that carried them into the postseason a year ago.
» If the Carolina Panthers fail to make the playoffs this season, they can point to questionable playcalling as the problem. Although the Panthers boast the league's third-ranked rushing attack and sport a 4-0 record when Jake Delhomme has 25 or fewer pass attempts this season, the team continues to ask their streaky signal caller to carry the offense with his right arm. Delhomme finished with 42 pass attempts in the 24-17 loss to the Dolphins, which is the team's fifth loss of the season when he has tossed the ball 30 or more times. In fact, the Panthers have a 7-27 record since 2004 when Delhomme finishes the game with 30 or more attempts.
» The Chargers' rise from the ashes has coincided with the resurgence of their team's rushing attack. The team has rushed for 100 or more yards in four of the last five games after being held to fewer than 100 yards in their first five games. Although LaDainian Tomlinson's 100-yard game drought has reached 16 games, the former Pro Bowler has scored five touchdowns in the last four games and seemingly regained his red-zone magic.