NFC North: Felix Jones

W2W4: Bears at Steelers

September, 21, 2013


7:30 p.m. CT Sunday at Heinz Field on NBC

Survival of the least inept

October, 17, 2010
E.J. HendersonAP Photo/Andy BlenkushE.J. Henderson's two interceptions were key in the Vikings' unlikely win over the Cowboys.
MINNEAPOLIS -- If you like to watch football, every NFL weekend is living art. If you like to see football played well, I'm sorry. You're out of luck.

I'm starting a new blog policy. Yes, I'm going to stop pointing out how ugly some of the NFC North's so-called marquee matchups have been this season. And no, it's not just because the Minnesota Vikings were the beneficiaries in Week 6 of one of the dumbest approaches I've ever seen an NFL team take. Maybe we need to recalibrate our expectations for what qualifies as a winning performance in this league.

Let's face it. The Vikings took a 24-21 victory over the Dallas Cowboys for three reasons:

  1. Percy Harvin returned the second-half kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown, pulling the Vikings even after the home crowd booed them off the field at halftime.
  2. Middle linebacker E.J. Henderson, a strong run-stopper still rounding into shape after having a titanium rod inserted into his left leg last winter, doubled his career interception total by stepping in front of two Tony Romo passes. Those interceptions set up the Vikings' mostly anemic offense for 10 of its 17 points.
  3. The Cowboys criminally ignored their receivers' mismatch against the Vikings' injury-depleted secondary, dumping 10 passes to tailback Felix Jones. Even Vikings players admitted they were surprised. According to ESPN's Stats & Information, 24 of the Romo's 32 pass attempts traveled five yards or fewer downfield. In-ex-plicable.

In a year when "parity" is a euphemism for "no one is any good," maybe that's all it takes to win: A kickoff return, a linebacker catching two passes and an opponent unable to get out of its own way. I give some credit to coach Brad Childress for recognizing the wholly unaesthetic nature of the day's proceedings.

"It's close to migrant work," Childress said. "You go where it is every week. So we bought one more week. There is parity. All you've got to do is look."

That's pretty much all Henderson did on his interceptions. In 97 career games over nine seasons, he had managed a grand total of two interceptions. Both came in 2006. For about half of his career, the Vikings have removed him in obvious passing downs because they thought he was slow in coverage.

His first interception Sunday came after Romo bounced a pass off defensive tackle Kevin Williams' helmet. The ball sailed high in the air, where Henderson grabbed it at its lowest point and returned it to the Cowboys' 16-yard line. Even a Vikings offense that would finish with 188 total yards couldn't avoid capitalizing, driving all 16 yards for a touchdown that tied the game at 7 on the final play of the first quarter.

I don't mean to diminish Henderson's performance, especially when you realize the fractured femur he suffered last December could (and maybe should) have been career-ending. Henderson isn't an emotional person, but it was still heart-warming to see him skip off the field after a second interception that was not only a smart play but also put the Vikings in position for Ryan Longwell's game-winning 38-yard field goal.

Henderson fooled Romo into thinking tight end Jason Witten would be open, taking several steps toward the line as if he were about to blitz. Recognizing the play all along, he peeled off late and snatched Romo's pass out of the air.

"Just stepped back and he threw it over the middle," Henderson said.

Said Childress: "He's a smart, smart, smart football player."

You couldn't say that about anyone in Cowboys' colors Sunday, be it player or coach. Romo threw two touchdown passes to receiver Roy E. Williams and a third to rookie Dez Bryant. Nickel back Lito Sheppard appeared to be the victim in each instance.

Were it not for injuries to cornerbacks Cedric Griffin and Chris Cook, Sheppard might not have even been active for this game. But even with Sheppard playing nickel and former dime back Asher Allen in a starting role, the Cowboys refused to capitalize on the mismatch.

Romo targeted Williams three times, Bryant twice and Miles Austin five times. They finished with a combined six catches. Tailback Jones, meanwhile, had 10 passes thrown his way. He caught all 10 for 61 yards.

I realize the Vikings hit Romo a few times on their opening possession. In fact, Vikings defensive end Jared Allen said: "You saw them change their game plan literally in the first series after we hit him about three or four times." But come on. You give up on your best weapons for large stretches of the game because of a couple early hits?

Vikings players seemed incredulous but thankful.

"That was fine with me if they didn't want to go upfield," nose tackle Pat Williams said. "They're trying to dump and throw screens and run draws. No problem here."

"I can't say we were prepared for that," defensive tackle Kevin Williams said. "We hadn't expected that."

Of course they didn't. What team in its right mind would throw all day to Felix Jones when it had Roy Williams, Miles Austin and Dez Bryant matched up against an opponents' No. 3 and No. 4 cornerback??!! I'm fired up not because the Cowboys did just as much to lose this game as the Vikings did to win it. It's that the oversight seemed outrageous even in this year's NFL. I'll leave the NFC East commenting to colleague Matt Mosley, but let's just say I would consider it a fireable offense if it were the other way around.

The Vikings were far from perfect themselves, and their offense seemed stuck in lethargy for far too long Sunday. Normally, I would say I saw few encouraging long-term signs from this victory. But in the NFL circa 2010, a winning performance consists of making fewer mistakes than your opponent. That, and three big plays, were enough to send Childress' "migrant workers" home happy after a full day's work.
Continuing our efforts to bring you the best of ESPN’s fantasy department, let’s eavesdrop on this discussion between Christopher Harris and Matthew Berry on this question: If given the choice between Detroit Lions running back Jahvid Best and the Dallas Cowboys’ Felix Jones, who would you take?

I don’t know anything about anything when it comes to fantasy, but I will agree with Harris on this point: Best seems a lock for 20 touches a game. That’s a good thing, right?

Black and Blue all over: Speed kills

September, 22, 2008
Posted by's Kevin Seifert

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Is it a bad thing when you roll into your hotel and the next day's newspapers are already stacked in the lobby? Last night was a late one here in the Fox River valley, especially after dropping Mosley off at his hotel somewhere near the shore ... of the Pacific.

During my drive back, I kept returning to one thing: How noticeably faster the Dallas Cowboys were during a 27-16 victory over Green Bay. The Packers have some speed on their roster, but it seemed no one could keep up with the likes of Felix Jones, Miles Austin and the entire Cowboys defensive line.

Part of speed is positioning and alignment, and I'm sure that when the Packers look at the film they'll see more than a few occasions where they lined up wrong and exacerbated the Cowboys' advantage. But you can't coach players to run faster, and if there is a postseason rematch between these teams, the Packers will need to focus more on offensive ball control to help out both their own defense and their offensive line.

The Packers used eight running plays and 14 passing plays in the first half Sunday night. Swapping that ratio, while out of character for coach Mike McCarthy, would have left the Cowboys' speedy offense on the sideline longer and given the Packers' offensive line an opportunity to wear down Dallas' pass rushers.

Instead, the Cowboys had possession of the ball for 18 minutes, five seconds in the first half and 32:12 overall.

We'll have our takes on all four NFC North games later today. For now, here are some snippets to chew on for a while from around the division:

  • Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel outlines the plan Green Bay employed to stop Cowboy receiving stars Terrell Owens and Jason Witten. In short, cornerback Charles Woodson took Owens and fourth linebacker Brandon Chillar played extensively against Witten.
  • Tom Oates of the Wisconsin State Journal saw the Packers get dominated on both sides of the line of scrimmage.
  • "Fire someone." That was the unsolicited advice from the Chicago Tribune's RosenBlog following the Bears' 27-24 loss to Tampa Bay.
  • Bears cornerback Nate Vasher opened the game on the bench, with rookie Corey Graham starting. According to the Tribune's Vaughn McClure, the Bears preferred to match up Graham against one of the Bucs' tight ends when they ran a one-receiver personnel set.
  • Bears cornerback Charles Tillman claimed he was defending teammate Adewale Ogunleye when he drew a critical personal foul in overtime. But the Bucs player Ogunleye was tussling with said he didn't start anything. "[They] grabbed me in places they shouldn't have grabbed me after the play and that's what started the whole thing," Bucs right tackle Jeremy Trueblood said, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.
  • It's time for Bears coach Lovie Smith to make a statement, writes Mike Mulligan of the Sun-Times: "Fear is a wonderful deterrent. And the time has come for Bears coach Lovie Smith to put some fear into his team..."
  • Minnesota had never used the blitz package that ultimately resulted in Antoine Winfield's game-changing touchdown in the second quarter of Sunday's 20-10 victory over Carolina. Winfield normally blitzes from the slot, according to the Star Tribune's Chip Scoggins, but this time he blitzed from the cornerback position and the Panthers never saw him.
  • Vikings coach Brad Childress said he quoted George Orwell during a Saturday night speech to his players, giving Star Tribune columnist Jim Souhan plenty of material. I can't claim to be an expert in such matters, but Souhan researched the origin of Childress' quote and called the reference "bogus." Orwell scholars, we'd love to hear from you.
  • Minnesotans must be well-read. Or something. Bob Sansevere of the St. Paul Pioneer Press compares Vikings tight end Visanthe Shiancoe to George Bailey of "A Wonderful Life." Something about how none of Sunday's events would have happened were it not for Shiancoe's past mistakes.
  • Drew Sharp of the Detroit Free Press calls the Lions "the worst they've been in the Matt Millen era." That's saying something.
  • Tom Kowalski of offers Lions coach Rod Marinelli a script for saving his job: Emulate former coach Wayne Fontes. "[Marinelli] has to find a very delicate way of separating himself from the failures of the past and attaching himself to the hope of the future." Of course, that's probably not in Marinelli's makeup.
  • Lions quarterback Jon Kitna on his sprained knee: "It feels pretty bad right now."