NFC East: Troy Polamalu
Feeling good: The Steelers' defense is not at full strength, as injuries continue to keep star safety Troy Polamalu out of action. The Redskins' offense is fast and complex and unlike anything the Steelers have seen this season, and Polamalu could have been an equalizer of sorts due to his instinctive ability to make plays on the ball at any spot on the field. The Steelers still have fearsome defensive players, but they're a bit easier to scheme for without the wild card that Polamalu represents. Washington's between-the-tackles run game behind Alfred Morris and the multiple threats represented by rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III should allow the Redskins to move the ball successfully against Pittsburgh.
Cause for concern: The Steelers are a much tougher team at home than they are on the road, and their quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, is the same kind of late-game magician as the Giants' Eli Manning, who beat the Redskins' shredded secondary late last week after Washington had taken a lead with a minute and a half to go. If the game is close in the fourth quarter, it's hard to imagine how the Redskins can make the stop they would need to make to keep Roethlisberger from breaking their hearts the way Manning did last week.
As Todd points out, there are plenty of people on the Cowboys' roster who can play linebacker:
Dan Connor would replace Lee in the starting lineup, and he earned praise from coach Jason Garrett for his work against the Panthers, which included a third-down stop of Cam Newton and a pass deflection, after taking over for Lee. Second-year linebacker Bruce Carter would become the defensive signal caller. The Cowboys have Orie Lemon and Alex Albright as backup inside linebackers on the 53-man roster but could look to add another inside linebacker.
However, in spite of the depth the Cowboys have at the position, Lee is not a replaceable player for them. Not only is he their defensive captain and one of their most important leaders, he has played consistently better this year than has any other player on their defense, including superstar outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware and either of their two new and very talented cornerbacks. Lee's instincts and playmaking ability cannot be replicated by players like Carter or Connor, no matter how capable they are.
When you've watched the Cowboys' defense this year, you've generally been impressed. And I believe they'll continue to cover receivers well with Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne, continue to rush the passer well with Ware and Jason Hatcher and continue to defend the run capably with the help of Anthony Spencer. They have more good players on defense at this point than they do on offense, and I think they will still play fairly good defense the rest of the way.
But Lee has been playing at a transcendent, superstar-type level -- one of the absolute best defensive playmakers at any position on any team in the league this year. The closest comparison of which I keep thinking is the Steelers' Troy Polamalu in his prime -- the way he was always able to be around the ball, whether it was due to speed, instincts, pre-snap positioning or a combination of everything. That's what Lee was delivering this year -- a player who at times made it look as though the Cowboys were playing with an extra man on defense. They simply don't have anyone else on the roster who can play football the way Lee has been playing it. Few teams, if any, do.
Feeling good: The Eagles have shown a great deal of toughness and resolve so far this year -- characteristics they appeared to lack during last season's disappointing start. So while Heinz Field is one of the least welcoming venues in the league, there's little reason to think this Philadelphia team can't handle the difficulties it and the Steelers present. So far this season, the Steelers' defense has just one interception and one forced fumble, which means they don't (so far, at least) appear to be a team poised to take advantage of the Eagles' biggest weakness. They aren't an easy team against which to move the ball this year, averaging 190 pass yards and 101 rushing yards allowed per game, but the Eagles have shown an ability to win tough, low-scoring games and should feel good about their chances to hang in as long as they can hold onto the ball.
Cause for concern: Any team stats the Steelers have put up this season have come shorthanded, as they've been without linebacker James Harrison and running back Rashard Mendenhall for their first three games and without star safety Troy Polamalu for the past two. All three of those players are expected back this week, which means the Steelers are getting healthy and should be well-rested coming off their bye week. The Eagles are still banged up on the offensive line, so if Harrison is going to boost the Pittsburgh pass rush, it could make life difficult for Eagles quarterback Michael Vick.
I'm going to start with the good news, Eagles fans. Ready?
LeSean McCoy looked really good, Jason Babin got a sack and Michael Vick made one heck of a tackle on Troy Polamalu after his third interception of the first half. Mike Kafka threw the ball extremely well in the fourth quarter after everybody stopped caring.
Oh, and the coaches now have a whole bunch of really awful-looking, mistake-riddled tape on which to base some real serious lessons this week in meetings and practice.
Other than that, pretty ugly. We can sit here and say everything we want to say about how it's only preseason, the games don't count, some teams devise game plans while others go vanilla and it's a bad idea to draw sweeping, upsetting conclusions based on preseason games. All of that stuff is true and must be said before we delve into what we saw. But the fact is that the Eagles looked bad, in almost every possible way, in Thursday night's exhibition loss to the Steelers. And since I am tasked with offering you an evaluation of what I saw, I have no choice but to detail the ugliness.
1. Bad matchup. The Eagles' new defense, under Juan Castillo and Jim Washburn, is predicated on aggressiveness, especially by the defensive line. This makes Ben Roethlisberger the worst possible quarterback for the Eagles to face. He dances through and around pressure, stays upright far longer than he's supposed to, keeps plays alive forever and generally feasts on defenses that don't show enough patience. All of this was on display Thursday, as Roethlisberger was three steps ahead of Castillo and the Eagles' defense at every turn. He drew them offsides with a hard count. He stepped up to avoid pressure. He pump-faked. He handed the ball off to Rashard Mendenhall and watched him gash the Eagles' backup defensive tackles and suspect linebacker corps. The Eagles helped him out, as when Asante Samuel guessed wrong on a route and Antonio Brown got past him and caught a 29-yard touchdown pass. And I'm willing to bet, when they gather for their defensive meetings in the coming days, the Eagles hear a little bit about how to control their aggressiveness a little bit better.
2. Casey Matthews may not be the answer. The Eagles' defensive play calling was very basic, perhaps because they're trying not to overtax their rookie middle linebacker. This is a key element of preseason evaluation. The Steelers looked as though they devised specific offensive plays to beat the Eagles, and the Eagles looked as though they did not prepare specifically for the Steelers. Happens all the time in preseason, and it's a big reason not to draw big conclusions from these games. But even with the basic play calling, Matthews looked slow and confused at times, and physically overmatched at others. The decision to start Matthews at middle linebacker is a surprising one by the Eagles, especially in light of all of the work they did to upgrade at other spots on defense. You wonder if the way he played Thursday might make them look around to see if there's a veteran on the market who can help, but on the other hand, they don't seem to be placing a very high value on the linebacker position in general. On one third down in the first quarter, they loaded up with three safeties and four cornerbacks, leaving Jamar Chaney as the only linebacker on the field. Their strengths are at corner and defensive end, so they'll lean on those. But when you have a back who can get through the line as quickly as Mendenhall can and it's up to the linebackers to make a play to stop him ... that's where Matthews and the Eagles look shaky.
3. Asante Samuel has to learn to play without Quintin Mikell. Samuel bit on a move and a fake that Brown and Roethlisberger didn't make on that 29-yard touchdown. It was a pure guess, and a bad one -- the kind that's worth taking if you know you have a responsible veteran safety backing you up. But the safeties were elsewhere on that play, and the new scheme plus the absence of the veteran Mikell (who signed with the Rams) could mean Samuel has to take more responsibility for playing the receiver he's covering instead of trying to jump a route to get an interception.
4. Vick was very, very, very not good. The bad throws were one thing, but the worse part was that he just didn't do a good job of reading the defense. He struggled against the blitz, which was supposed to be his area of focus this preseason. He never saw Ryan Clark on his first interception. He threw behind Chad Hall on the second. And the third was a bad decision -- he shouldn't have thrown the ball downfield after that play broke down as badly and as many times as it did. "Obviously, tonight, I didn't make the best decisions," Vick told Fox's Pam Oliver during a fourth-quarter sideline interview. That included the hit on Polamalu, which was very impressive but must have terrified his coaches. No reason for Vick to take a risk like that in a game whose outcome doesn't matter. He's too important to the Eagles to try something like that, and he's at least as lucky he didn't get hurt as the Eagles are that this game didn't count.
5. The defensive line misses its starting tackles. Antonio Dixon and Mike Patterson are out due to injury and illness, and that's part of why the run defense looked so vulnerable. I imagine the linebackers will look better once they're at full strength in the middle of the line. But if those guys are going to be out for an extended period of time (as is surely possible with Patterson, at least), this could continue to be a problem.
6. Ronnie Brown is going to be a huge asset in the backup running back role. He's a starting-quality running back whose role is to give the electrifying McCoy a rest. So, when McCoy is on the sideline, the Eagles are still going to be better at running back than many of their opponents are when their starting back is playing. Brown looks great so far this preseason, which brings up another as-yet unmentioned point: The work-in-progress offensive line didn't look too bad. Okay, so Point 6 wasn't really a bad-news point. But hey, it's true.
7. Can Howard Mudd really not coach from the press box? Poor guy really has a hard time getting around on those bad legs of his. Don't know why they wouldn't let him coach from up there. Unless he doesn't want to. I admit I don't know.
In conclusion, it's like this: As the Giants did Saturday, the Eagles looked lousy in almost all respects Thursday. So I point this out, as I did with the Giants on Saturday. What I am not saying here is that the Eagles are in trouble as a result of anything we saw Thursday. The sky is not falling. This game matters not at all, except as a potential learning opportunity. Did it point to some potential trouble spots? Sure. But it doesn't mean the team isn't as good as people thought it would be. It just means the Eagles had a bad night in August. Kind of like the Steelers had last week against the Redskins. And you saw how they bounced back from that.
Tom Brady or Peyton Manning? It's the debate of the moment in today's NFL. Which superstar quarterback is the best? Who, between that pair of excellent, future Hall of Fame signal-callers, would you pick if you had the choice? That's not the question that was asked of our Power Rankings panel this week, but it turned out to be the one we answered.
Yes, after weeks upon weeks of power-ranking everything we could think of in the NFL, we've decided to throw all qualifiers and designations out the window and make it very simple: Who are the best players in the league?
As was the case when our panel was asked to rank the league's top quarterbacks, Brady beat out Manning for the top spot in this week's power rankings. Six of the eight NFL bloggers polled ranked Brady No. 1 overall, and the two who didn't -- Mike Sando and Paul Kuharsky -- ranked him second behind Manning. The top four players in our rankings and seven of the top 10 (of the top 11, technically, since Michael Vick and Andre Johnson tied for the No. 10 spot) all play the same position -- quarterback -- which says a lot about the way we value that position.
"Quarterback is the most significant position on the field and can make the difference between a lopsided losing record and the playoffs," said AFC East blogger Tim Graham, whose ballot had quarterbacks in each of the first seven spots and eight of 10 overall. "It takes a truly special running back or defensive player to outweigh the importance of a quarterback. For example, Adrian Peterson is a sensational player. But without Brett Favre producing at quarterback, Peterson couldn't carry the Vikings to the playoffs."
So the question then became which quarterback was the best. The debate these days seems to be squarely between Manning and Brady, though two of our eight bloggers did rank Manning third on this week's list. We'll get to them in a minute. We'll start with the majority opinion -- that Brady is the best player in the league right now.
I was one of the six who ranked Brady in the top spot, and the main reason was that I think Brady has attained a level of excellence in New England that's beyond what Manning has been able to attain in Indianapolis. Brady's accomplishments in 2007, when he combined with Randy Moss to set all kinds of offensive records and went undefeated until losing the Super Bowl to the Giants, were all-time legendary. But what people may not realize (perhaps because of the ludicrous level at which Brady excelled that year) is that the past two seasons have been the second-best and third-best statistical seasons of Brady's career. If Brady hadn't hurt his knee in the first game of the 2008 season and missed the rest of that year, it's very possible he would be on the kind of run right now that would make a Brady-Manning debate seem silly.
After the Patriots traded Randy Moss in the middle of 2010, the question was whether they were giving up on the season. What they were doing instead was committing to a midseason overhaul of the offense that wouldn't have been possible without the confidence they had in Brady to manage it. All Brady did was muster the second-best completion percentage and second-highest touchdown-pass total of his career while throwing just four interceptions and winning at least 14 games for the fourth time.
Not everybody agreed, however.
"Manning is simply asked to do more than any player in the league is asked to do," Kuharsky said. "He's superb at it. I love Brady. But Manning can do more, is asked to do more, and has to do more. Jim Caldwell is an OK coach so far. Bill Belichick is an all-time great. The guy making up the gap in order to have the Colts stay in range of the Patriots is Manning."
But the Colts really weren't in range of the Patriots this year, and for that reason Manning's star has dimmed in the eyes of a couple of our panelists. NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert ranked Aaron Rodgers No. 2 and Manning No. 3. And NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas ranked Saints quarterback Drew Brees in that No. 2 spot ahead of Manning.
"I'm not trying to diminish Peyton in any way. He's going to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. But, if you look at his numbers and Brees' numbers over the last three or four years, they're similar and, in some ways, Brees' numbers are better," Yasinskas said. "Brees and Manning each have won one Super Bowl title. My argument is that, right now, Brees is even more valuable to the Saints than Manning is to the Colts. Times change and circumstances change. But right now I think Brees is the perfect quarterback for the Saints and is in the perfect situation with their offensive system and coaching staff. In fact, I considered voting for Brees No. 1 overall, but couldn't quite bring myself to rank him ahead of Tom Brady."
Steelers safety Troy Polamalu, who came in first in the defensive player power rankings, ranked fifth on the overall list. AFC North blogger James Walker ranked Polamalu fourth, and Seifert ranked him fifth. Walker's ballot was the most generous overall to defensive players, as he ranked Polamalu fourth, Cowboys pass rusher DeMarcus Ware fifth, Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis eighth and 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis ninth.
Walker and Kuharsky (who ranked him 10th) were the only ones who ranked Ware at all, and Kuharsky seemed a little chapped about it.
"If we rate these quarterbacks so highly, how can we not rate the guy we said was tops at disrupting quarterbacks highly too," Paul asked. "Makes no sense. I had him too low at 10. For six of you guys to leave him off entirely dents your collective credibility. Next I imagine you'll say the E Street Band isn't the all-time best backing band."
Paul is grouchy.
"I value pass-rushers, and no player has more sacks the past two seasons than DeMarcus Ware (26.5)," Walker said. "Getting to the quarterback is the best way to combat the league's increasing number of pass-happy offenses, and no one does it better right now than Ware."
The highest-ranked offensive player who wasn't a quarterback was Peterson, who came in sixth after being named on five of eight ballots. Sando, Walker and AFC West blogger Bill Williamson left the Minnesota running back off their ballots -- the third time in three tries that Williamson has ranked Peterson lower than most of the rest of us did.
"This is a quarterback league and that's how I built my top 10," Williamson explained. "There were only three non-quarterbacks on my top 10. After I constructed the quarterback rankings, I went to the best available non-quarterbacks, and the list was quite short. But to reiterate, this is the top 10. The best of the best. I think Peterson is probably a top-15 guy and that’s pretty good in a league of 1,800-plus professionals."
Pretty good indeed. But as Bill said, it's a quarterback league. And for that reason, the debate about the best player in the league came down, once again, to Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady.
Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers vowed to know where Polamalu was on every play. And his ability to whistle passes through tight windows actually made Polamalu look slow for much of the evening. The man who had seven interceptions this season tried to force the issue and started guessing in a frantic effort to make plays. It may have been one of the worst games of his career, and it couldn't have happened on a bigger stage in a 31-25 loss to the Packers in Super Bowl XLV.
Reporters offered the soft-spoken Polamalu a lifeline by bringing up the Achilles tendon injury that's plagued him throughout the season. He headed that off quickly, saying he simply ran into a quarterback who's on fire.
"It was the healthiest I've been," Polamalu said, "the best I've felt probably since the middle of the season."
Packers wide receiver Greg Jennings caught both of his touchdowns against Polamalu. Jennings said that on the first score the Steelers were in a Cover 2 scheme and Polamalu was forced to choose between covering two receivers running similar routes.
"He chose wrong," said Jennings, whose 21-yard touchdown gave the Packers a 21-3 lead in the second quarter.
The Packers didn't show much interest in the running game (11 attempts), in part because they didn't want Polamalu near the line of scrimmage. Because Green Bay constantly spread the field with four wide receivers, Polamalu rarely played close to the line.
"We wanted to keep him out in space," said Jennings. "If you can contain him in some ways and keep him on a guy that he's uncomfortable with, you have a lot better chance."
Polamalu was even more pensive than usual following the game. He took blame for both touchdown passes to Jennings and indicated that he put his cornerbacks in bad situations by trying to get too "creative." Rodgers connected with Jordy Nelson for a 38-yard pass early in the fourth quarter that set up the Packers to take a 28-17 lead. Polamalu also took the blame for the pass to Nelson and the subsequent 8-yard touchdown pass to Jennings.
He guessed that Jennings was going to run a post because he'd seen him do it so many times on film, but the wide receiver ran a corner route and scored easily.
"That was completely my fault," said Polamalu. "Earlier in the game, they ran Jennings down the middle and I was anticipating that same pass play and I guessed wrong."
Polamalu's given the freedom to freelance in this defense because he's such an instinctive player, but perhaps a more conventional approach would have served him better against Rodgers. The Packers made him uncomfortable throughout the game. Polamalu has told reporters in the past that he constantly fears getting beat despite his brilliant play. But on Sunday night, his fears were realized against a quarterback who can pretty much do anything he wants right now.
This isn't the first time this season the Steelers' secondary has looked vulnerable, but Polamalu often made up for its errors. In this game, he was the one making a lot of the mistakes. The Packers took the Steelers' most unique player and made him a liability.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was asked repeatedly about Polamalu's performance after the game. When someone asked whether he thought Polamalu made an impact in the game, Tomlin replied, "I'll let you be the judge."
It was one of those rare evenings when having one of the most versatile defensive players in the game didn't help the Steelers. Now, they have a lot of time to think about what went wrong. I guess Polamalu can be flattered the Packers were so worried about him.
But that won't bring much solace on this evening.
This week, Clark appeared on a Washington TV show called "Parker and Parker" and was asked about the differences between the Redskins and Steelers organizations. Dan Steinberg of the Post has the key quotes:
"I think the biggest difference is just the mentality of the area we're in," Clark said. "I think if you look at Pittsburgh, it's really just a town of hard workers, a town of blue-collar people, and they appreciate that in their team. They want to see hard work, they want to see you lay your heart on the line every week to try to win football games. And they take it probably harder than we do when we lose.
"I think in Washington you just have so much going on. You have such an organization built on putting people in the seats and finding extravagant ways to do things, instead of winning football games all the time. You know, I loved playing in Washington. It was a great place. And they just go about their business a little differently than the Pittsburgh Steelers do.
"I think right now, though, they may be on the right track. And hopefully they can get it on track, because I still have friends there. But I love being a Pittsburgh Steeler."
What do you guys think of that observation? I do believe the Redskins have a passionate fan base, but the Rooneys certainly have a much different approach than Dan Snyder. Both families have a desperate desire to win, but the Rooneys have been at this for a little while.
By the way, Steinberg notes that six percent of the Steelers' roster once played for the Redskins.
Stephen from Philadelphia is concerned with something I wrote about in Friday's Final Word column: Yeah, Jared Allen wore out Doug Free to the tune of ... one tackle over almost three quarters. I'm not pretending Free won't have problems -- I don't think Dallas can protect Tony Romo -- but the problem Dallas had in that game was Ray Edwards around the edge and both Minny's DTs DESTROYED the interior of the the Dallas OL (which I think they will do again), meaning Romo had no pocket to step up into. That was the problem, not Allen's one tackle, which actually came when Jason Witten was left one-on-one with Allen.
Mosley: The NFC East blog has taken a blood oath not to blame any sacks on Witten or Eagles tight end Brent Celek, Stephen. But seriously, Free did struggle in that game against Allen, and that's been confirmed by his offensive line coach, Hudson Houck. He was thrown into a tough situation, so I don't think we should hold that against him. And, yes, I agree that Ray Edwards was the bigger problem because he was racing around a gimpy Marc Colombo. The Cowboys must try to establish a running game early to neutralize the noise factor in the Metrodome. This may be one of the best home-field advantages in the league. I'd put Arrowhead No. 1 -- even with all the fancy new additions. (Shoutout to Chiefs coach Todd Haley, who reads this column religiously despite his frustration that I never mention the playoff-bound Chiefs.)
Jakeem from Atlanta wants to talk NFL trivia: Tony Dungy may be the only person in NFL history to make an interception and throw one in the same game. Do you know if this happened in the 1977 game against the Houston Oilers that you mentioned?
Mosley: That's exactly when it happened, Jakeem. Dungy, a former college quarterback, was forced into the game against the Oilers when Terry Bradshaw and his backup were both injured. Dungy was 3-of-8 for 43 yards and two interceptions. And, yes, he also picked off the Oilers in that game. That's a point that Wade Phillips forgot to make when he was belittling Dungy's playing career Friday. I like Wade, but that was not a good moment for him. Dungy's paid to analyze teams and players for NBC. If he questions Tony Romo's leadership, it's not that big of a deal. And honestly, I have no problem with Phillips defending Romo. He just crossed the line with his petty commentary about Dungy's game against the Oilers in 1977.
Andrew from Dallas has a Cowboys-Redskins related question: Why is it that when Dallas switched to the 3-4, Roy Williams (SS) was moved horribly out of position and never recovered, but Washington switches to the 3-4 and LaRon Landry, a very similar player, has a breakout year? I understand schemes are different, but shouldn't coaches adjust to the abilities of their better players?
Mosley: I think we all waited for Williams to develop into a John Lynch/Troy Polamalu type player, but he just didn't have the awareness to be that type guy. Williams really benefited from playing with Darren Woodson in 2002 and 2003. When Woodson was forced into retirement because of a back injury, Williams' game immediately leveled off. He certainly had his moments in Dallas, but his limitations in coverage were too much to overcome. And I'm not sure how much passion he had for the game when you really get down to it. Landry's always had the talent, but it looks like Jim Haslett has finally tapped into it on a week-to-week basis. Playing Landry close to the line of scrimmage allows him to be more physical. The guy is an absolute beast to deal with near the line and he seems a lot more engaged than ever. I'll never understand why former defensive coordinator Greg Blache had him playing so far off the ball. But the arrival of Haslett could turn Landry into a perennial Pro Bowl player. He's playing that way right now.
Greg B from Philly is trying to settle a dispute with friends: In regards to your post about [Eagles safety] Nate Allen, you referred to a Suplex tackle made by Brian Dawkins. I find it interesting because my friends and I were attempting to find out just last week who was on the receiving end of the tackle. We have two suspects, neither of which is James Thrash, who was on the Eagles at the time. But it is either 83 Cliff Russell or 87 Rod Gardner. If you could out who it was, that would help settle a large dispute we are having.
Mosley: Greg, I recently watched video of Dawkins using the Suplex on then-Redskins receiver James Thrash in an '08 game. But he's had several such tackles during his career, so I wouldn't rule out any "suspects' at this time. Based on my exhaustive Google research Thursday while preparing a column on Allen, I ran across at least five Suplexes/body slams. I believe that Dawkins uses the version popularized by the Texas-based Von Erich family in the 1980s. Fritz Von Erich's "Iron Claw" is still used to settle disputes in remote parts of Kaufman County, Texas.
Devin from Sydney, Australia, wants to know what's up with John Clayton and his Power Rankings staff: Matt, I've loved your analysis on the Power Rankings this year. Can you explain the rationale behind Houston -- on a two-game losing streak and looking worse in each -- having a higher ranking than the G-Men who are on a two- game winning streak, looking better each week and befuddled the Texans? It's time we get you on the panel.
Mosley: Devin, ESPN.com removed me from the voting process two years ago, in part, because I begged for two years to be taken off the panel. It's much more fun to write a post each Tuesday poking holes in John Clayton's voting habits. If the Skins beat the Colts on Sunday, I fully expect The Professor to move them into the top five. But thanks for your support. ESPN.com has looked into having my blog syndicated in Sydney. If it makes you feel any better, the Giants would likely rank No. 1 in my NFC East power rankings, which don't currently exist. I want to see how the Giants' linebackers play against Lions running back Jahvid Best tomorrow. I know Best has been banged up, but I think he'll still pose a serious threat. If this game's close, watch out for this Shayne Graham situation at kicker. He wasn't on his game last season for the Bengals (by his standards).
Thanks again for your wonderful e-mails and threats. I'm headed out to the Ballpark in Arlington to see if the Rangers can recover from last night's heartbreak. Then it's on to Minneapolis, where that Viking horn sound goes off every 15 seconds -- especially when the Vikes are playing the Cowboys.
"We are very encouraged by Brian’s progress, we believe that he has an excellent prognosis and we expect a full recovery,” Dr. Joseph Maroon and Dr. Michael Collins said in the joint statement. “We developed a comprehensive physical rehab plan for Brian, and we will repeat the detailed testing in the next two to three weeks."The doctors described Westbrook's second concussion against the Chargers as a "much milder concussion which was not related to loss of consciousness but associated only with dizziness and headache."
This is about the best news Westbrook could've hoped for. I'm still not sure whether he'll play again this season, but it looks like he'll be able to continue playing football at some point in the future.
The doctors also went out of their way to commend the Eagles on their "conservative" approach with Westbrook. Maroon is the longtime team neurosurgeon for the Steelers. He's dealt with Steelers safety Troy Polamalu, who's had numerous concussions during his football career dating back to high school.
- Paul Domowitch of the Daily News doesn't think the Eagles can make it to the playoffs without Westbrook in the lineup.
- Bob Brookover of the Inquirer catches up with Rich Gannon to talk about concussions. He also had an interesting conversation with a professor of neurology from the University of Pennsylvania. Asked about Westbrook's injury, Dr. Douglas H. Smith said, "It's not that you've just lost cognitive skills, but you've also increased the chances of having a worse problem later on in life. It's a very serious risk." It's important to note that Smith does not have direct knowledge of Westbrook's injury.
- Marcus Hayes of the Daily News caught up with former Giants defensive end Michael Strahan to talk about Westbrook's concussions. Here's how Strahan described what one of his friends from the league goes through on a daily basis: "One of my good friends takes Alzheimer's medicine right now to combat some of the issues with concussions," Strahan said. "The memory loss, and all those things. He's in his 30s. It's unfortunate to see that in such a young person."
- Reuben Frank of the Burlington County Times looks back at a story that was written about Troy Polamalu in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. There's apparently no magic number in terms of how many concussions can end a player's career.
- Brian Seltzer of ESPN 950 has an in-depth look at the sort of testing that Westbrook will undergo today.
- Here's what the Beast wrote about Westbrook on Tuesday evening.
|There are many memorable moments from the last 10 years to savor.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley
This decade has brought us some amazing moments in the NFL, many of which have been captured during ESPN.com's all-decade week. And if something remarkable happens in '09 (such as the Lions making the playoffs), we reserve the right to amend some of our results.
So far, you've read about the all-decade defensive and offensive teams for the years beginning with 2000 and ending with the '08 season. I spent a good portion of the NFL owners' meeting and my subsequent vacation trying to identify some of the most memorable characters and moments from the decade.
After consulting with coaches, scouts, media guides and fellow bloggers, I've compiled a list of things that stood out over a nine-year period. Please act responsibly as we continue to celebrate ESPN.com's all-decade week -- otherwise known as a blogger's summer oasis.
|John David Mercer/US PRESSWIRE|
|David Tyree's 32-yard circus catch kept the Giants' game-winning drive alive in Super Bowl XLII.|
Play of the decade: In Super Bowl XLII, New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning appeared to be going down for a sack late in the fourth quarter when he somehow escaped and hurled the ball in the general direction of reserve wide receiver David Tyree. Even with Rodney Harrison ripping at him, Tyree somehow trapped the ball against his helmet and came down with it. It was one of the greatest plays in league history -- and it gave Tyree the basis for his first book. There were a lot of memorable plays in the decade, but nothing could match the Manning-to-Tyree special.
Personnel man of the decade: Indianapolis Colts president Bill Polian is ranked pretty high, but everyone you talk to across the league mentions Scott Pioli first. Now the GM for the Kansas City Chiefs, Pioli joined Bill Belichick in building the team of the decade, the New England Patriots. According to one longtime scout, "No one in the league does a better job of scouting their own team, and Pioli was orchestrating all of that."
The Patriots have had the magic touch when it comes to reclamation projects such as Corey Dillon and Randy Moss. But much like the Baltimore Ravens, they always seem to know when it's time to say goodbye to a player. Pioli has a keen eye when it comes to projecting players in Belichick's defense. Now we'll see what he can do with the Chiefs.
Scandal of the decade: Let's stay with the Patriots on this one. The Michael Vick dogfighting story was stunning, but Spygate was bigger because it threatened the integrity of the league. There were so many different layers to the story and it cast doubt on a head coach and his team's remarkable run. Belichick is still regarded as the mad genius in New England, but his violation of league rules will have a lasting impact on his legacy -- unless you're a Patriots fan.
|Matt Campbell/AFP/Getty Images|
|Tom Brady's apparent fumble was overturned and the Patriots beat the Raiders 16-13 in overtime.|
Most memorable off
iciating call: We know what San Diego Chargers fans are thinking, but when thinking back over the decade, the "tuck rule game" has to be the signature call. It was Jan. 19, 2002, and it appeared Oakland Raiders cornerback Charles Woodson had just sealed a trip to the AFC title game by sacking Tom Brady and knocking the ball loose. Instead, Brady's fumble was overturned because of the little-known "tuck rule," which was quietly enacted in 1999. The rule still doesn't make a lot of sense. But it helped launch the Patriots' dynasty. Anyone remember New England's starting wide receivers in the game? That's right, David Patten and Troy Brown.
Best owner: Sort of hard not to give it to Patriots owner Bob Kraft, but let's give a lifetime achievement award to Pittsburgh Steelers co-owner Dan Rooney. After all these years, he's still perhaps the most respected voice in the room. But Kraft wins the all-decade award. He brought a fan's perspective to ownership, and that's what breathed life into the franchise. And he gave Belichick another head-coaching opportunity after a failed stint with the Cleveland Browns.
Best NFL commercial: Since Peyton Manning starred in 82.7 percent of all NFL commercials, it's hard to pass him over. His work for MasterCard stands above the rest. The one where he's doing some yoga with Brian Urlacher and Michael Strahan has stood the test of time -- at least in our minds.
Most prolific locks: The faux-hawk tried to make a comeback, but Troy Polamalu may be the most identifiable player in uniform because of his unwieldy look. Polamalu achieved it by not getting his hair cut this decade.
Funniest player: The NFL doesn't really have an answer to Charles Barkley, although Clinton Portis had a nice run a few years ago when he came up with several alter egos. Let's give it to one of Portis' teammates, tight end Chris Cooley. Occasionally he crosses the line (accidentally publishing a picture of his manhood on The Cooley Zone blog), but he's consistently funny. Still love that he walked out to midfield a couple of years ago and introduced himself to the opposing captains as "Captain Chaos." There's not enough of that type stuff going around.
Best touchdown celebration: Terrell Owens and Moss had their moments, but Chad Ochocinco is by far the best. He has played golf with the pylon (no longer allowed) and he has donned a replica Hall of Fame coat after a touchdown on "Monday Night Football."
|AP Photo/David Kohl|
|Chad Ochocinco had a number of the most memorable touchdown celebrations in the last 10 years.|
Best first-down celebration: No one celebrates a new set of downs like Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Roy Williams. He takes the ball and delivers an emphatic first-down signal. It's not as good as Ed Hochuli's "Guns of Navarone" approach, but Williams doesn't hold anything back.
The most troubled player award: Adam "Pacman" Jones became the poster child for Roger Goodell's tough stance on player (mis)conduct. Pacman is an "Outside the Lines" report waiting to happen.
Most feared player: Until the horse-collar rule put him out of business, former Cowboys safety Roy Williams was well on his way to winning this title. But his descent into mediocrity was steep. Rodney Harrison of the Patriots wins the award. He was regarded as a dirty player by some, but his presence definitely made receivers think twice about going across the middle. John Lynch was a feared player early in the decade, but Harrison eventually surpassed him. James Harrison is closing fast as we prepare to close the books on the decade.
Best assistant coach: It's a tie between two elder statesmen, Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson. We're all pulling for Johnson as he battles cancer. He's been remarkably consistent over the years and I put him and LeBeau just barely ahead of former Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin.
For most of the season, the NFC East seemed like the best division in football. That might not be the case anymore as we sprint toward the playoffs, but the Beast still has its fair share of legitimate MVP candidates.
At one point, Clinton Portis, DeMarcus Ware and Eli Manning were all making strong arguments. Ware and Manning remain in the conversation, but Portis' injuries and slippage in production has dropped him out of the running. But let's take a look at my MVP choice for each team in the division:
Dallas Cowboys, DeMarcus Ware, OLB
The Cowboys produced 13 Pro Bowlers in 2007, but they won't have half that many this season. Tony Romo is the biggest star on the team, but Ware's undoubtedly been the best player. He displayed immense talent from the start of his career, but a player taken after him in the draft, Shawne Merriman, was considered the more dynamic pass-rusher.
Things have changed dramatically. Merriman may be breaking down and Ware has 16 sacks with three games left to play. I've seen how my fellow bloggers voted in the ESPN.com MVP straw poll, and they completely blew it on Ware. Troy Polamalu and Albert Haynesworth are getting most of the love, but Ware should be right there with them.
New York Giants, Eli Manning, QB
The numbers won't blow you away (20 touchdowns, eight interceptions), but no quarterback in the league is more important to his team's success. Kurt Warner's the sexy pick (and he's earned the attention), but Manning's the player you want when the game's on the line. Everyone wanted to know what last season's breakout performance in the playoffs would do to Manning. Well, it made him even hungrier. He'll have to do it without Super Bowl hero Plaxico Burress the rest of the way, but I like his chances.
Giants general manager Jerry Reese believes Manning might be the smartest player in the league. He constantly puts the Giants in the right position. Give Tom Coughlin a ton of credit for helping this team overcome adversity, but it all starts and ends with Manning. Not long ago it seemed ludicrous to compare him to his older brother. But at this point, I think Eli will end up with more rings than Peyton.
This is a tough one. I'd like to give Donovan McNabb some sort of lifetime achievement award, but he hasn't been the best player on the team this season. Westbrook hasn't been himself because of injuries, but if the Eagles qualify for the playoffs, he'll be the one to get them there. He was brilliant in Sunday's upset of the Giants, and it looks like he's fully healed.
His numbers are down from last season, but he's still one of the best players in the game. The Eagles rewarded him with a lucrative extension in the preseason, and they'll reap the rewards for years to come. It's a little sad that he and McNabb won't win a Super Bowl together -- unless they stay hot right now. Let's give Darren Howard a little credit for his eight sacks.
Washington Redskins, Clinton Portis, RB
He was having a remarkable season before things went south in the loss to the Steelers. Pittsburgh stuffed Portis, and in subsequent weeks he's been plagued by injuries. Still, he's rushed for 1,260 yards and seven touchdowns. After a slow start in Week 1 against the Giants, he put together a remarkable string of 100-yard games.
Redskins head coach Jim Zorn has done a lot of things right in his first year, but picking a fight with his star player wasn't one of them. Portis has never been a great practice player. He's someone who shows up on game day, though, and lays it on the line. Questioning Portis' preparation in public wasn't the best way to go. Portis was coddled by Joe Gibbs, and the adjustment to Zorn hasn't been easy on him. He has a chance to finish strong -- especially since the Bengals are on the schedule. He's the third-ranked back in the league right now, and that speaks to the amazing start he had.
PITTSBURGH -- Marion who? Cowboys rookie Tashard Choice is putting on a show in the second half. His 50-yard catch put the Cowboys in position to make it 13-3 late in the third quarter. Romo dumped the ball off to Choice, who made Steelers safety Troy Polamalu miss before getting free down the right sideline.
The Cowboys' biggest concern with Choice was whether he'd be able to pick up the blitz. But as long as he has the ball in his hands, it's not much of an issue. I did see him do a great job in the first half when Steelers linebacker James Harrison tried to leap over him. Choice waited patiently and then delivered a blow to Harrison as he came down.
By the way, no one loves a challenge like Wade Phillips. He just won another one that changed an incomplete pass to an 8-yard sack by Jason Hatcher. End of the third quarter.
Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley
The last meeting produced a 36-31 win for the Giants, but the score was misleading. The Giants made a couple of big mistakes to allow the Eagles back into the game. Everyone's waiting to see what type of effect the Plaxico Burress incident and his subsequent suspension will have on the team. But the Giants have been overcoming adversity for the better part of two seasons now. It will take more than Burress' absence to derail their playoff hopes.
Now if something happens to middle linebacker Antonio Pierce, then we need to revisit this issue. But I'd surprised if Pierce is suspended before the end of the season. If anything he'll be disciplined heading into next season. I think Eli Manning will feast on an Eagles defense that has been banged up. Asante Samuel may return from an injury, but I'm not sure how effective he'll be. Against the Redskins, Manning was brilliant through the air in the first half. In the second half, the Giants banged away in the running game.
Both Derrick Ward and Brandon Jacobs are among the league leaders in runs of 10 yards or more. And Clinton Portis has shown that you can run against the Eagles. It's by the grace of the NFC West that the Eagles have even a glimmer of hope in the wild-card race. But a signature win over the Giants would breathe life back into the Eagles, and it would also turn up the heat on the Giants in the aftermath of the Burress situation.
This is a huge game for both teams, but it's pretty much a must-win for the Redskins. Jason Campbell has come under a lot of fire -- some of it deserved, some not -- in the wake of a 23-7 loss to the Giants. It's not Campbell's fault that receivers can't get open downfield, but he's made his share of mistakes in the Redskins' recent slide.
Campbell takes too many sacks, and the Ravens will be after him from the opening snap. It's important for the Redskins to re-establish what was one of the best running games in the league in the first half of the season.
On defense, the Redskins will try to confuse rookie quarterback Joe Flacco. Washington needs to force at least two turnovers to win this game. Flacco's shown the ability to drive the ball in poor weather, but the Redskins will try to make him hold it for too long. London Fletcher has been banged up, but he put up a courageous effort last week against the Giants. The Redskins need Fletcher, Andre Carter and Jason Taylor to make plays in this game. They need to watch out for Flacco, who's not afraid to take off and run. I like the Redskins in this game -- but then, I usually do.
The Cowboys' offense has finally hit its stride again, but the Steelers have the No. 1 defense in the league. Left tackle Flozell Adams, who has trouble hearing the snap, will have to go against James Harrison. If Adams can get his hands on a player, he can control him. But Harrison has the speed to go around him.
It will be interesting to see how the Steelers play Terrell Owens. The Seahawks and 49ers have both tried to play him one-on-one at times -- and have been burned. Troy Polamalu is one of the best safeties in the game, but he can't cover Jason Witten. Tony Romo uses Witten as a comfort blanket. I could see the tight end having an eight- or nine-catch game.
Wade Phillips doesn't seem concerned about the fact that it could be 25 degrees and muddy at Heinz Field on Sunday. I don't think he's prepared this team mentally for what it might face. And that's a shame, because he coached in Buffalo, where the weather was awful at times. As usual, the Steelers were out practicing in the mud in preparation for Sunday. I think the conditions could be a huge advantage for the Steelers. This team has flourished in cold-weather games, going 15-5 in December over the past five seasons.
As most of you know, the Cowboys have been awful in December. But a win over the Steelers would give them a lot of momentum heading into the final three games. Oh, and I looked it up. Romo has been a much better fourth-quarter passer than Ben Roethlisberger. This one's going to be close, so that could come into play.
|Chris Morrison-US PRESSWIRE and Rick Stewart/Getty Images|
|Tony Romo and Ben Roethlisberger meet in a highly anticipated game Sunday with playoff implications for both teams.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley and James Walker
In advance of the Cowboys-Steelers game Sunday at Heinz Field, NFC Beast blogger Matt Mosley and AFC North blogger James Walker agreed to discuss what this December showdown means to the league and the world in general. The Cowboys (8-4) could take a major step toward solidifying an NFC wild-card spot, while the Steelers (9-3) are fighting for a second consecutive division title and a first-round bye.
Mosley and Walker are both en route to Pittsburgh to cover what should be the best game of the weekend. Please enjoy the following discussion:
Both quarterbacks are banged up, but how will each fare in this marquee matchup?
James Walker: Ben Roethlisberger had a minor tweak to his right knee at the end of practice Wednesday, but the Steelers are saying it's no big deal. The larger concern in such a big game is Roethlisberger's shoulder, which has been an issue all season. The injury has gradually taken the deep-passing game out of Pittsburgh's offense. In the past three games, Roethlisberger's longest completion is just 37 yards. Most of his throws of late have been underneath to receiver Hines Ward and tight end Heath Miller.
Matt Mosley: Tony Romo is planning to play without a splint on his right pinkie for the first time in a month. At first, he felt some pain when he had to drive the ball on deep out patterns, but he's pretty comfortable at this point. He went back to his favorite target, Jason Witten, last Thursday against the Seahawks. And contrary to what No. 81 might say, Witten's the most important piece of the passing game. But since we brought him up, it's a great sign that Terrell Owens has made a significant impact in the past two wins. The Steelers will use press coverage and have a safety over the top in order to slow down T.O. The Cowboys will counter with some pre-snap motion, and this could also be a breakout game for Roy Williams. With Marion Barber (toe) banged up, the Cowboys might have to lean heavily on their passing game.
MM: If Barber can go, the Cowboys will try to feed him the ball early in the game. But the Steelers do a great job taking away the run. The Cowboys have a left guard (Montrae Holland) who's inexperienced in this offense playing next to a false start waiting to happen (Flozell Adams). The Steelers will exploit those matchups every chance they get. The Cowboys won't say it publicly, but they feel like they can make plays downfield against the Steelers' secondary. Romo does an excellent job sliding away from pressure, and he should have plenty of opportunities. When Romo came back, the Cowboys started playing at a faster tempo. They will try to keep the Steelers guessing. Look for third-receiver Patrick Crayton to have a nice game. Teams tend to forget about him on the backside and this is the type of game where he could end up with 80 yards and a touchdown. The Steelers will try to confuse Romo with a lot of different looks. I've watched all 11 players line up in a two-point stance before. They'll bring pressure from everywhere. It's up to Romo to quickly identify where the pressure's coming from and go through his reads at a rapid rate. Since that's one of his strengths, it shouldn't be a major problem.
JW: Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is very good at taking away what opponents do best, which gets teams out of their comfort zones. Last week, Pittsburgh took Randy Moss (four catches, 45 yards) out of New England's offense and quarterback Matt Cassel looked lost without his best weapon playing well. I expect the Steelers to do the same to Owens, who could be matched up most of the game with cornerback Ike Taylor along with help over the top from the safeties, Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu. But what's intriguing this week is Dallas has so many other offensive weapons that it could still pose problems for Pittsburgh. It will be an interesting chess match indeed.
Will the weather and muddy conditions at Heinz Field play a factor in this game?
JW: Pittsburgh is accustomed to playing on this surface, so it will be more of an issue for Dallas. The forecast is expected to be in the high 20s with a 40 percent chance of snow, so that's an advantage for the Steelers, particularly defensively. I've heard so many players around the league complain about Heinz Field this time of year and I think it gets in the head of some teams. Yet I've never once heard a Steelers player complain about playing in the mud. I expect the running games to be very important Sunday. Barber's injury status is huge in this game.
MM: Wade Phillips had his team practice indoors with a DJ when it was 70 degrees outside Monday. He did make the Cowboys practice in "the elements" when temperatures were in the low 50s. He coached in the inclement weather in Buffalo, and he's indicated this week that too much is made of the awful conditions at Heinz Field. Phillips thinks the mud would slow down both defenses, but as James pointed out, the Steelers are used to playing in the Heinz soup. The Steelers put down a new surface, but the fact that high school and college teams play on the field makes for a dicey situation. Romo played in poor weather at Eastern Illinois and he spent a lot of winters in Wisconsin. I don't think the cold weather will faze him. I think Phillips is underestimating how cold it will be Sunday evening -- and it might come back to bite his team.
Which team has more at stake in terms of playoff implications?
MM: The Cowboys have much more at stake in this game, but it's certainly not a must-win situation. The Cowboys will host the Giants and Ravens in consecutive weeks after the Steelers game. If they lose to the Steelers, they can beat the Ravens and then finish on the road in Philadelphia against a team that will likely be out of the playoff picture. If the Cowboys beat the Steelers, it could serve as the impetus for a strong December and push toward the playoffs. The Cowboys have much more to gain here than the Steelers, but I wouldn't dare go out on a limb and pick them to win.
JW: Dallas is more in danger of not making the playoffs, so it's hard to argue that this game isn't more important for the Cowboys. But the Steelers also have a golden opportunity here. They have back-to-back road games against the Baltimore Ravens and Tennessee Titans, who have a combined record of 19-5, and there is no promise that the Steelers will win either of those contests. So it's very important for Pittsburgh to take care of business at home. A win Sunday combined with losses by New England and the Miami Dolphins and the Steelers are in. There's no point for them to leave anything to chance in the final weeks of the regular season.
Prediction and score?
JW: Dallas struggles in December and has looked ordinary on the road with a 3-3 mark. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh thrives this time of year and is 15-5 in December since 2004. So the Steelers will win this game 24-20. Unless Owens has a huge performance, the Cowboys won't score many points. Romo should face a lot of pressure Sunday, and a turnover or two is all Pittsburgh needs to win at home.
MM: I'm shocked that "Big Game" James has the two teams combining for 44 points. I think the Steelers will win, 17-10. The Cowboys have plenty of weapons on offense, but they haven't seen a defense like this. Even Arizona's front completely baffled the Cowboys for most of the game, and the Steelers are a lot better than that defense. But if Barber's able to bang away at the Steelers' defense, you never know what could happen. Again, keep your eye on Patrick Crayton in this one. He'll be the unsung hero for the Cowboys if they pull off the upset. And though Phillips hates that we keep bringing it up, the Steelers have an advantage in the mud.