Tuesday, September 15, 2009
Offenses still shaking off the cobwebs
By Len Pasquarelli
Not surprisingly, defenses are significantly ahead of the offenses at this very early juncture of the NFL season.
In baseball, the pitchers generally own an immediate edge over the hitters in early exhibitions. In the NFL, however, it's the hitters -- albeit of another ilk -- who enjoy a notable advantage.
These hitters try to make the most of that temporary edge.
"It usually takes offenses a while to get the timing and [precision] down pat," said 11th-year veteran Atlanta Falcons linebacker Mike Peterson, who forced two fumbles and had an interception in his team's Week 1 victory over the Miami Dolphins.
"Defenses, on the other hand, are more about playing on emotion and being physical. The offenses eventually get more in line as the season goes on and they develop their timing.
So [the defense] around the league has to take advantage of the situation when it can."
For most games during the opening weekend of play, defenses led the way. Over the first 16 games, teams averaged a combined 40.56 points per contest, well below the rate of 44.05 points scored per game during the 2008 regular season. The average was just 39.71 points before the Week 1 "Monday Night Football" doubleheader. Games have averaged 40.42 points or more every season in this millennium, and that probably will be the case again by the time the 2009 regular season ends.
After all, points scored during the opening weekend are normally at a premium. Week 1 games have averaged about 11 percent less (a high of 16.5 percent differential in 2006, and a low of 7.24 percent in 2005) than the full-season average for the past five years. But in each of those years, the season-long average was 41.23 points or higher, so offenses have a way of eventually catching up and compensating for their early deficiencies. For more than 10 seasons now, in part because of competition-committee rules that enhanced scoring, 40 or more combined points per game has pretty much been the standard.
That was barely the case, though, for the first week of 2009 regular-season play, in which offenses were largely substandard. Until the Monday night games -- 49 points in the New England Patriots' 25-24 victory over the Buffalo Bills and 44 in the San Diego Chargers' 24-20 win over the Oakland Raiders -- league defenses frequently had their way.
"It just takes a while for [an offense] to get rolling," Miami linebacker Joey Porter said. "You like to jump on them early if you can, because they're going to execute a lot better the deeper you get into a season. We feel like this is our time."
There were nine games in which the teams combined for 40 or fewer points, and five games in which the combatants tallied a total of fewer than 30 points. Seventeen franchises, more than half the league, scored 20 points or fewer. Only five clubs scored more than 30 points, and the explosive New Orleans Saints were the lone team to exceed the 40-point mark.
The 32 teams combined for just 4.19 offensive touchdowns per outing. Thirteen teams, including both 2008 Super Bowl finalists, scored one touchdown or fewer apiece. Three clubs -- the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Denver Broncos and the New York Giants -- won their respective matchups on the opening weekend despite scoring just one offensive touchdown each. Throughout the league, there were 19 occasions in which an offense moved into the red zone, but settled for a field goal.
The Broncos' Kyle Orton and the Cincinnati Bengals' Carson Palmer both fell just short of the 250-yard mark passing, yet their teams combined for only 19 points -- and the game was decided by a fluke play.
The Pittsburgh Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger threw for 363 yards and completed 33 passes, yet the Steelers had to squeak out an overtime victory. Indianapolis Colts passer Peyton Manning had 301 yards passing, and the Colts still won by only two points. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers notched only 12 yards fewer than the Dallas Cowboys (462-450), and the Bucs still lost to the visitors by 13 points. Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner flirted with the 300 yards passing, yet the defending NFC champions still went down.
On the defensive side, three units surrendered fewer than 200 total yards each to their opponents, and all of them won. The Philadelphia Eagles sacked Carolina Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme five times. Despite five new starters, Atlanta had four takeaways against the Dolphins. The Dolphins coughed up the ball only 13 times in all of 2008, tied for the lowest mark in the league. The revamped Seattle Seahawks defense pitched a shutout.
There were five 300-yard individual passing performances and six 100-yard rushing games; only the New Orleans Saints and Baltimore Ravens had one of each.
Miami linebacker Jason Taylor noted that a defense "always likes to make a statement." The statement the units made this weekend was that they are ready to get out of the chute quickly and set the early-season pace.
Defenses gave up some yards, but they surrendered touchdowns only grudgingly.
"We went up and down the field and certainly had our chances, but we just couldn't get it in [the end zone]," Tennessee Titans quarterback Kerry Collins lamented after the overtime loss to the Steelers. "They deserve a lot of credit.
But we've got to take a lot of blame ourselves, too. We had chances, but every time we did, their defense seemed to make a play."
The other thing that winning defenses accomplished was to collect takeaways. The weekend's 16 winners averaged 2.25 takeaways apiece. In addition to five sacks and limiting the Panthers to 169 yards (the low output for the weekend), the Eagles' defense forced six turnovers. Twelve teams that either tied or held the edge in turnover/takeover differential won their games.
"You always stress [takeaways], but they seem especially bigger when you get them earlier [in a season]," Atlanta safety Erik Coleman said. "They can set the momentum for a whole season."
Len Pasquarelli, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.