Thursday, October 5, 2006
Rams face big test Sunday
By John Clayton
Editor's note: ESPN.com senior NFL writer John Clayton's "First and 10" column takes you around the league, with a look at the best game of the week, followed by primers for 10 other games. Here's his look at Week 6 of the 2006 season.
Seattle Seahawks at St. Louis Rams
Heading into the season, those who really study the schedule knew a team from the NFC West or NFC North could rise from obscurity to become a contender in divisions dominated by the Seahawks and Bears. Easy schedules have promoted worst-to-first scenarios in the NFL for years.
Coming off a 9-7 season, it wasn't too hard to make the Vikings a candidate. They were expected to be in the mix, particularly after getting their top choice as head coach, Brad Childress. At 3-2, Childress hasn't disappointed.
While some bet on the Lions or Cardinals to make a charge, the smart money should have been on the Rams. In 2003 they were a 12-win team, but the past two seasons have been tumultuous. Regardless of what happened over the past few years -- including the departure of Mike Martz -- the Rams still had a good core group of offensive players, giving them a chance to be a good team.
Sunday's game against the Seahawks will be a test to see if the Rams are actually ready to contend with the Seahawks in the NFC West. A win would put them a game-and-a-half ahead of the defending NFC champs. But a loss would hand the Seahawks firm control of the division.
First-year coach Scott Linehan has done a nice job so far with the Rams. Offensively, the Rams are taking fewer chances. Linehan vowed to give the ball more to powerful running back Steven Jackson, who is tied with Frank Gore as the NFL's leading rushing with 465 yards. Jackson has carried the ball 22-24 times in every game this season and that consistency has helped Marc Bulger's play-action passing game.
|Steven Jackson is poised for a big season in 2007. |
Bulger has thrown the ball 169 times this season without an interception and hasn't thrown a pick in 214 passes.
Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett has the Rams' defense running all over the field with an aggressive scheme that includes a lot of early-down blitzes. Though the Rams may give up a big play now and then, they have been flying to the football and wreaking havoc for opposing offenses. The Rams have forced 15 turnovers and lead the NFL in turnover differential at plus-12.
But the Rams can't get caught up in their 4-1 start and forget that the Seahawks are still the team to beat in this division. Coming off a bye week, Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren is trying to get his struggling offense healthy. Tight end Jerramy Stevens returns to the lineup after missing the first five weeks recovering from knee surgery. His presence could help Matt Hasselbeck and the struggling red zone offense.
Shaun Alexander is still a week away from recovering from his broken foot, so expect Holmgren to stay in three- and four-receiver sets to test the Rams' banged up secondary.
Are the Rams for real? We'll find out Sunday.
10. Carolina Panthers at Baltimore Ravens
Ravens wide receiver Derrick Mason grumbled following the Monday loss to the Broncos about some of the frustrations the receivers are having with the offense. Mason has 23 catches as Steve McNair's favorite receiver, and Mark Clayton has 20. Decent totals, but the Ravens aren't getting the ball downfield at all. The Ravens are 30th in the NFL in yards per attempted pass (5.52). Still, there can't be too much to complain about. The Ravens look to be the most improved team in the AFC thanks to the addition of McNair. They are 4-1 and lead the AFC North. But a loss to the Panthers could throw some of the offensive frustration over the top. The Panthers, picked by many to win the NFC, have rebounded from an 0-2 start without Steve Smith and are starting to gain some momentum. As it was Monday night in Denver, this figures to be a low-scoring game. Both teams have hard-hitting defenses that don't allow very many touchdowns. The Ravens' toughest challenge is trying to get their overmatched offensive line to handle the physical Panthers defensive line. Week 6 features six AFC-NFC games, and so far the NFC leads the competition, 9-6. That doesn't mean much this early, but we're starting to see the NFC catch up to the AFC.
9. New York Giants at Atlanta Falcons
|2006 SEASON STATISTICS|
The bye week allowed the Giants to regain their focus and allowed Tom Coughlin to stop the grumbling in his locker room. Coughlin said the press made too much of Jeremy Shockey's criticism of the coaching. Whether the comments were overhyped or not, the Giants came out of the bye week a different team. First, defensive coordinator Tim Lewis scaled back the defense. He used a simple 4-3 plan and blitzed less against the Redskins. Offensively, the Giants relied more on the run, which set up long, play-action passes for Eli Manning. But the Giants could slip quickly if they struggle against the Falcons' defense. Falcons coach Jim Mora hasn't gotten enough credit for what his defense has done this season. In four games, the Falcons, like the Broncos, have allowed only one offensive touchdown drive. That's amazing when you consider defensive end John Abraham and middle linebacker Ed Hartwell -- two of the team's biggest offseason acquisitions in the past years -- have been missing most of the season. But like the Broncos, the Falcons aren't getting enough done on offense. The running game has been great. Michael Vick has mixed in some of the spread-option offense that is popular in college. At 234 rushing yards a game, the Falcons are putting up incredible numbers. But they only have five touchdown drives in four games. Getting to the red zone hasn't been a problem, but getting touchdowns in the red zone has been a huge problem for the Falcons. They might wear out Morten Andersen's 46-year-old leg if they can't put more balls in the end zone.
8. Chicago Bears at Arizona Cardinals (Monday, 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)
While this will be a second national showcase this season for the undefeated Bears, all eyes will be on Cardinals quarterback Matt Leinart. He did well in his first start last Sunday. Leinart came out confidently against a good Chiefs defense and completed his first six passes. But the switch to Leinart didn't change the problems along the offensive line. Whether it's Leinart or Kurt Warner behind center, neither quarterback is getting enough time to throw the ball. Leinart was sacked five times by the Chiefs and it's only going to get worse this week. Edgerrin James is averaging 3.1 yards a carry because the holes aren't there. And what chance do the Cardinals have against a Bears defense that is giving up 76.2 yards rushing and holding opposing signal-callers to a horrible 59.3 quarterback rating? For Dennis Green, this is a critical game. While the future is now with Leinart running the offense, Green needs to start winning some games so he and Leinart can have a future together in Arizona. A loss would put the Cardinals at 1-5. Another 11-loss season could lead the Bidwill family to make another coaching change at the end of the season. That would be a mistake, but owners get impatient. It won't help that Larry Fitzgerald, one of the game's best receivers, is going to be out two to five weeks with a hamstring injury.
7. Kansas City Chiefs at Pittsburgh Steelers
Bill Cowher reminded the Steelers before the season that the Super Bowl was a distant memory and didn't mean anything in 2006. Now maybe they'll listen because the Steelers need to get moving if they want to make the playoffs this season. At 1-3, the Steelers' season is rapidly slipping away. The problem is on offense. The defense has allowed eight touchdown drives in 48 possessions, which is good considering the bad field position the offense has been putting it in with turnovers. The big problem for Cowher is finding a personality on offense. Without the presence of a big back such as Jerome Bettis, Ben Roethlisberger is throwing 34 passes a game. Bad things are happening with the ball in the air. Roethlisberger has seven interceptions and no touchdowns. He has been sacked 10 times. He has completed only 53.9 percent of his throws, and his average of 5.6 yards per attempt is one of the worst in football. Roethlisberger may look like Roethlisberger but he's not playing like the Roethlisberger of old. The Steelers can't take the Chiefs' defense lightly. Gunther Cunningham has taken advantage of speed at linebacker to put together a unit that is allowing only 13 points a game and surrenders just 254.3 yards a game, which is fourth in the league. Once again, it's another must win for the Steelers.
6. Philadelphia Eagles at New Orleans Saints
The Saints are the feel-good story of 2006. Just this week, the team started taking waiting-list requests for season tickets. The town is buzzing about Reggie Bush. Drew Brees is playing like a $10 million quarterback. After winning only three games in 2005, the Saints are 4-1, but starting Sunday, the schedule finally catches up with them. Following the Eagles, the Saints play the Ravens, Bucs, Steelers, Bengals and Falcons. It's not out of the question New Orleans could begin a five-game losing streak, but at least three of those games are at home. Bush leads the NFL with 34 receptions and is opening up big plays for everybody else on the offense; defenses overreact to him every time he touches the ball because he's so quick. The Eagles come to town with the league's hottest quarterback, Donovan McNabb, who could give Saints fans a bad dose of reality if he stays hot. But the Eagles are coming off an emotional victory over the Cowboys, so Andy Reid has to be concerned about a letdown.
5. Cincinnati Bengals at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Marvin Lewis needed a bye week to rest a banged up offense. The Bengals survived a brutal September schedule against physical teams. Receivers were banged up. The offensive line had injuries. And the defense started getting back into its bad habit of not stopping the run. Lewis deactivated wide receiver Chris Henry before the bye week for his off-the-field issues, and the league took him away for this week and next for violating NFL policies on conduct and substance abuse. Lewis has to hope the bye week allowed his offense the chance to recharge. The big emphasis will be trying to get the ball to Chad Johnson. Defenders have been more physical with Johnson this season. He leads the team with 18 catches for 201 yards but has only one touchdown catch. The Bucs are playing for pride now. At 0-4 in the competitive NFC South, their playoff chances are just about done. Rookie QB Bruce Gradkowski played well Sunday and gave the Bucs a chance to beat the Saints. Gradkowski adds some mobility to the quarterback position, but the one thing he can't be asked to do is get into a shootout with the Bengals.
4. Houston Texans at Dallas Cowboys
Terrell Owens put on quite a show during the Cowboys' loss to the Eagles. He pouted. He yelled at coaches and players. For a guy who is writing a children's book about sharing, Owens was quite the child. He questioned the triggerman of the offense, Drew Bledsoe, for not getting him the ball. Yet, 13 passes were thrown in his direction. The Texans' defense should allow a sense of normalcy to return to the Cowboys' offense. The Texans rank 32nd on defense and are giving up an NFL-worst 295.3 passing yards per game. Owens, Terry Glenn and others should all get their numbers in this game. There will be enough to go around. The Texans had a bye week to try to regroup on defense, but they don't match up well against the Cowboys. As bad as Owens' attitude can be, he causes matchup problems and creates single coverage for other receivers. Bill Parcells has spent the week working on better pass protection. For the Texans on offense, David Carr is quietly putting together a decent season. He's completed 73 percent of his passes and leads the league with a 108.9 quarterback rating. Though Carr has been sacked 15 times in four games, first-year coach Gary Kubiak has cleaned up a lot of the team's protection problems.
3. Oakland Raiders at Denver Broncos
|2006 SEASON STATISTICS|
The Raiders have been a disaster and are getting worse. The offense stinks. The defense gave up 34 points to the 49ers last weekend. Now they're 0-4 and they haven't even gotten into the really tough part of their schedule. The challenge for the Broncos is finding a way to score on offense. One key is getting off to a better start. The Broncos don't have a single first-quarter point. In four games, the Broncos have only four offensive touchdowns. But their defense is playing so well it doesn't matter. Coordinator Larry Coyer has the defense playing simple 4-3 schemes and beating opponents with talent instead of trickery. The Raiders, at 11.8 points a game, have the league's lowest-scoring offense, so don't expect Coyer to resort to trickery this week. The Broncos won't need it.
2. Miami Dolphins at New York Jets
Who would have thought that six weeks into the season Nick Saban would be trailing first-year Jets coach Eric Mangini by a game? Aside from the 41-0 meltdown against the Jaguars last Sunday, Mangini's Jets have exceeded expectations. Chad Pennington has done a nice job with the no-huddle offense. Leon Washington may end up getting more and more of the running opportunities after his strong showing against the Jaguars. The defense hasn't done a good job stopping the run, but the Jets really don't have a legitimate run-stopping nose tackle to anchor the defense. The Dolphins have not only been a disappointment, but they are becoming a newsworthy disappointment. Last week's practice explosion between Saban and Daunte Culpepper was unsettling. Culpepper fought hard to come back from triple knee ligament surgery and deserved better treatment than being yanked after what might have been his best game of the season. Now, the team has to rally around Joey Harrington. But if the Dolphins don't, they might suddenly thrust themselves into the Brady Quinn sweepstakes. That's a big fall.
1. Buffalo Bills at Detroit Lions
The first part of Dick Jauron's memory tour didn't go so well Sunday in Chicago. The former Bears head coach was blown away 40-7. Jauron did such a good job as the interim coach of the Lions last season that he was rewarded with the Bills' head coaching job. Jauron has done a nice job of tightening up a defense loaded with rookies. Despite last week's loss to the Bears, J.P. Losman offers hope at quarterback. As for the Lions, well, go Tigers. As long as the Tigers stay in the World Series race, Lions fans have an alternative. The defense started crumbling a couple of weeks ago. Now, injuries are mounting along the offensive line and at wide receiver. Jauron and the Bills couldn't be catching the Lions at a better time. Detroit fans may have to start reaching for their calendars to figure out when pitchers and catchers report in 2007.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.