In the always-fascinating chess match that is pro football, it's worth noting that even turnovers -- which would seem to be hard to control -- have become a consideration in practice. Three years ago, I recall visiting NFL training camps and learning that defensive coordinators throughout the league were working on ways to create turnovers. This summer, the chess match moved to the other side -- the defenses still work on taking away the football, but offenses now are spending more time working on ball security.
Every team has drills designed to protect the football. Additionally, offensive coordinators and QB coaches are working with their passers to get them to throw away the ball rather than force throws that lead to interceptions. The plan seems to be working.
Entering Week 5, there had been an average of 3.05 takeaways per game -- which is on pace to be the lowest turnover rate since 1933. Prior to Sunday's games, teams were on pace to throw 459 interceptions, which would be 75 fewer than the total in 2007 (534). In no season since 2000 has there been a total of fewer than 506 interceptions. This trend is due to a combination of better ball-handling and good coaching. Quarterbacks are getting bether at making pre-snap reads.
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Of course, just because overall turnovers are decreasing around the league doesn't make the ones that due occur any less devastating. You can even look at the college ranks, where Vanderbilt is one of the nation's big surprise stories. Vandy ranks 114th in the nation in total offense and 116th in passing offense. But they lead the nation in turnover margin at plus-9, and they are undefeated.
Here's a quick look at some of the key matchups from Week 5 in the NFL that demonstrate the critical role played by turnovers:
Tennessee 13, Baltimore 10
The Ravens held the ball for 8:56 longer than the Titans and outgained them by 75 total yards. They seemed to have the game under control when they stopped Tennessee on a third-down play with 6:07 left in the fourth quarter. But a roughing the passer call against Baltimore kept the drive alive and the Titans scored two minutes later to take a 13-10 lead. It's not a turnover in the true sense, but that penalty had the same effect. And when the Ravens got the ball back, Tennessee forced a turnover of its own to preserve the road win.
Indianapolis 31, Houston 27
There is no better example of the value of turnovers than this game. The Texans held a 27-10 lead after scoring with 8:18 left to play, and the Colts bench looked defeated. Peyton Manning then led Colts on an 11-play, 4:04 drive to make it a 10-point game. The Texans took over with 4:14 left to play and on their third offensive play, Sage Rosenfels lost the ball on a scramble to his left. Gary Brackett returned it 68 yards for a touchdown.
Houston got the ball back again, leading 27-24 and needing to take 3:36 off the clock. On the third play of that series, a hustling Robert Mathis came from the backside to force a fumble. This is a perfect example of the new defensive philosophy: Defensive players used to be coached to "hold their ground," but now they are trained to run to the football. So instead of sealing off his side of field, Mathis came across from his left end spot to chase down Rosenfels and knock away the ball from behind.
Dallas 31, Cincinnati 22
The Cowboys showed more fight after this game than some members of the media thought they showed on the field during the game. A member of the media asked Dallas coach Wade Phillips why they "stunk" after jumping out to a 17-0 lead in the second quarter. Phillips wasn't happy about that question, understandably. As he was walking from the podium, past the person who asked the question, he could be heard muttering under his breath, "You stink, too."
Down by just one point in the fourth quarter and having executed a successful onside kick, the Bengals had momentum with a first-and-10 at the Dallas 37-yard line. Chris Perry had the ball knocked out of his arms by Tank Johnson and it was recovered by Anthony Spencer -- like Mathis, coming from the backside. Two plays later, Tony Romo threw a 57-yard TD pass to Terrell Owens.
Cincinnati scored on its next possession and appeared to have a great matchup for the two-point conversion attempt that could have tied the game. Tight end Ben Utecht lined up as a receiver and forced coverage by third-team safety Keith Davis, who is about seven inches shorter than Utecht. It was a good plan, but it didn't work, as Carson Palmer couldn't connect with Utecht.
Atlanta 27, Green Bay 24
Atlanta won its first road game since Nov. 11, 2007 -- only its second road win in the last 11 tries. The Falcons needed an interception from Michael Boley with 4:40 left in the game to preserve the win. That said, the interception was more a great play by Boley as opposed to a bad pass by Packers QB Aaron Rodgers, who deserves a good deal of credit. Rodgers was playing with a sore shoulder and, as late as Friday, had a hard time just raising his right arm. He completed 25 of 37 passes for 304 yards and three TDs. The Boley interception was the only takeaway by either team.
It's safe to say that Tennessee has become the team to beat in the AFC. Defense wins championships, and Tennessee looks the part. The Titans are the only undefeated team in the conference, and their defense has now held its opponents to 17 points or less in nine consecutive games.
They've got two cornerbacks that are really playing well. The biggest plus is that they both tackle well in addition to playing the pass. I had an opportunity to talk with defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz on Friday. He made this point about CB Cortland Finnegan, who has four INTs this season: While an interception is usually the result of good pass defense combined with a good pass rush, Schwartz noted that two of Finnegan's picks were solely the result of great plays by Finnegan.
So now the question is this: After Tennessee, who in the AFC comes next?
I think my answer at this point would be New England. They haven't been dominant, but they have just one loss. They still have so many good players on the roster, especially at the skill positions. Matt Cassel will get better with each game. The offense is now very balanced. That will continue, and the defense looks to make turnovers.
Panthers on the prowl
The fact that Carolina held Chiefs running back Larry Johnson to a mere two yards on seven carries Sunday should come as no surprise. The Panthers have yet to allow a rushing touchdown touchdown this season and they have not had a running back gain 100 yards on them. That's impressive -- but it's really impressive when you look at the five running backs they've played:
Five of eight division leaders -- Chicago, Carolina, Arizona, Buffalo, Denver -- were not in the playoffs last year. … New England got its first-ever win in San Francisco (they were 0-4). … Through four weeks, Monday night games have produced an average of 59.2 points per game. Previously, the highest-scoring season of "Monday Night Football" came in 1997, when teams combined for 52.8 points per game. … One week after passing for a career-best three TDs, Chicago QB Kyle Orton passed for a career-best 334 yards (with 2 TDs) against Detroit. … The New York Giants had a team-record 342 yards from scrimmage in the first half of their 44-6 win over the Seahawks. Eli Manning, in three games versus Seattle, has 886 passing yards and seven TDs. … Quirky stat from the Titans-Ravens game: each punter had four punts for exactly 156 yards. … Tom Cable of the Raiders and Jim Haslett of the Rams are the 68th and 69th interim head coaches in NFL history. … David Akers of the Eagles has missed nine consecutive field goals of 49 yards or more. In 2004, when the Eagles went to the Super Bowl, Akers made 17 field goals of 40 or more, which was an NFL record at the time. … Carolina played with backup OTs against Kansas City but still ran for 205 yards and three TDs. … Tony Gonzalez broke the NFL record for career yardage by a tight end with three minutes to go in first quarter. … Congratulations to Steve Young, who had his No. 8 jersey retired by the 49ers. It couldn't happen to a nicer person.