Thursday, January 10, 2008
Hey, look, there are other ways to score!
By Len Pasquarelli ESPN.com
Marcus Trufant's 78-yard interception return helped seal the Seahawks' wild-card win over the Redskins.
In last weekend's wild-card round, the eight participating teams combined to score 170 points -- with 47 of them, or slightly more than 25 percent, coming as the result of turnovers. Another 40 points were tallied following big special-teams plays.
That means more than half the points in the first playoff weekend can be attributed to resourcefulness and opportunism, with scoring chances created in manners unrelated to the offensive side of the ball.
"Those are 'bonus' points and they're always great to get," Jacksonville cornerback Rashean Mathis said. "They're big anytime. In the playoffs, though, they're huge, man."
Mathis should know. He intercepted two passes, returning one for a touchdown, in the 31-29 win at Pittsburgh. In fact, 24 of the Jags' points came off defensive takeaways and long kick returns.
Indeed, the aggregate takeaway/turnover differential for last weekend's four winning teams was plus-6. Not surprisingly, every team that advanced to the second round either won or tied in the turnover battle. Seattle, the only winning team not on the plus side of the turnover ledger, got two interception returns for touchdowns and scored another 13 points after long returns or other standout special-teams plays.
One might assume that in the upcoming divisional round, with the four best teams in the league now entering the mix after last weekend's bye, that nonoffensive scoring would be reduced, right?
Don't count on it.
Seven of the final eight teams playing this weekend ranked among the NFL's top 10 defenses in takeaway/turnover differential during the regular season. That includes the San Diego Chargers, at a league-best plus-24. The only club not in the top 10 in one of the NFL's most critical categories was the New York Giants, who defied the odds by securing a wild-card spot despite a minus-9 differential.
To take it one step farther, more than 30 percent of the 3,518 points which the eight teams collectively produced in 2007 came after takeaways. Paced by New England and San Diego, with eight apiece, every remaining team had three or more fumble, interception or kick returns for scores.
Clearly, the potential exists for outcomes to be determined by a nonoffensive touchdown.
"If you can give your offense a 'short field' in the playoffs, it's a big boost," said Seattle cornerback Marcus Trufant, one of two Seahawks to score touchdowns on fourth-quarter interception returns in last week's 35-14 win over the Redskins. "If you can score yourself, take it all the way to the house, that's even better. Scoring chances in the playoffs are hard enough to come by. So when a defense creates a few more of them, it really does give you an edge."
The divisional-round matchups feature a half-dozen players who each scored two or more touchdowns on returns in 2007. No fewer than 21 defensive players accounted for three or more takeaways each during the regular season, including:
• Chargers cornerback Antonio Cromartie, who not only led the league in interceptions but scored touchdowns on interception and fumble returns and on a 109-yard runback of a missed field goal, the longest scoring play in NFL history.
• Green Bay cornerback Charles Woodson, who scored once each on fumble and punt returns.
• Giants linebacker Kawika Mitchell, normally not regarded as a big-play defender, who registered fumble and interception returns for scores.
Meanwhile, in the kicking game, San Diego's Darren Sproles and Nate Burleson of Seattle both had one kickoff return and one punt runback for touchdowns.
Both of Sproles' touchdowns, an 89-yard runback on the opening kickoff and a 45-yard burst on a second-quarter punt return, came in the Chargers' 23-21 victory over Indianapolis on Nov. 11. The two teams meet again Sunday in the RCA Dome, with a spot in the AFC Championship Game on the line.
Recall that all 23 points scored by San Diego in that November win were the result of special-teams plays or defensive takeaways. The Chargers intercepted Peyton Manning six times, including three pickoffs by Cromartie in the first half. Manning certainly is not careless with the ball, but Indianapolis' special-teams coverage units have been a notable area of deficiency the past few seasons.
All of the teams in the divisional round would do well, of course, to limit turnovers and to reduce the number of big plays in the kicking game. With so much at stake, surrendering cheap points could prove costly to a franchise's Super Bowl aspirations.
Of course, on the flip side, it can turn a defensive player or return specialist into a star.
"If you get the ball in your hands now," said New England cornerback Ellis Hobbs, who scored on a fumble recovery and a 108-yard kickoff return this season, "you're definitely thinking 'touchdown.' Everybody wants to see himself on 'SportsCenter.' There's just a big-play [mentality] all over the league now.
"People want to put the ball in the end zone any way they can."
Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.