Week 4: The injury factor
Injuries played more of a role Sunday than at any point this season.
For the 12 Sunday games, including the late game between the Atlanta Falcons and New England Patriots, 52 starters were declared inactive, mainly because of injuries. In the first three weeks, the average was 40.
What was amazing was how well some teams dealt with adversity.
The Seattle Seahawks were down thee starting offensive linemen, including Pro Bowlers Russell Okung and Max Unger, and were somehow able to beat the Houston Texans 23-20 in overtime. They did it even though the Texans' defense dominated them at the line of scrimmage.
The San Diego Chargers were down three starting offensive linemen. Nevertheless, the Dallas Cowboys sacked Philip Rivers only three times while Rivers was able to throw for 401 yards in a 30-21 victory.
On the negative side, the New York Giants were missing three starters on the offensive line and lost to the Kansas City Chiefs 31-7. The Cincinnati Bengals were missing three starters in a 17-6 loss to the Cleveland Browns.
Injuries are playing a key role in most games this year, and the trend is going to continue next week. The Tennessee Titans don't know where they stand with quarterback Jake Locker, who suffered a hip injury. Terrelle Pryor (concussion) might be back for the Oakland Raiders.
Here's what we learned in Week 4:
1. Sherman calls his shot: During Friday's practice, Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn installed a defensive play that was designed to give Texans QB Matt Schaub trouble if he rolled right and tried a lob pass under pressure to one of his tight ends. Cornerback Richard Sherman predicted to his teammates that he would turn such a play into an interception for a touchdown, and he did just that late in the fourth quarter.
"I baited him into that," Sherman said afterward of his game-tying 58-yard pick-six. He did. The Texans had a third-and-4 at the Seahawks' 40-yard line, leading 20-13. All they needed was a short gain to set up a game-clinching field goal or a first down that would help ice the game. Quinn called a zone in which Sherman and the defensive backs blanketed defensive backs across the field. Safety Kam Chancellor blitzed to put pressure on Schaub. From watching tape, Sherman knew Schaub's tendency to make that throw, in this case to tight end Owen Daniels. Schaub took the bait. Sherman said he faked the notion he was going to follow Daniels downfield while his main mission was to jump the route.
"The key was making sure my teammate [Earl Thomas] had him deep," Sherman said. "I knew he wasn't going to let me down."
The Seahawks are 4-0. Sherman's an early top candidate for defensive player of the year. On the flip side, something isn't clicking in the minds of the Texans (2-2). Schaub has thrown three pick-sixes in three consecutive games and Houston's ability to play well with a lead has diminished.
2. Bucs' QB switch ill-conceived: Bye weeks are for reflection. That's why the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' bye week is going to be so tough. Head coach Greg Schiano opted to yank Josh Freeman from his starting job before the bye week to give the team some film to reflect upon until its fifth game. Bad move. Although Mike Glennon provided a little bit of an early spark, a bad interception down the stretch cost the Bucs the game, put them at 0-4 and could put Schiano on the hot seat even though he's only 20 games into his tenure as head coach.
The Bucs entered the fourth quarter leading Arizona 10-0. All they needed to do was establish the running game and close out the victory. That didn't happen. Glennon fumbled on a first down and the Cardinals turned it into a field goal. Two series later, he was intercepted by Patrick Peterson at the Bucs' 11, setting up a game-tying touchdown. With three minutes left, Glennon had a three-and-out, giving the Cardinals field position to put together the game-winning field goal drive. Freeman was struggling, but it's hard to imagine him faltering that badly down the stretch.
The first problem was that Schiano let the Freeman situation become too much of a distraction. Too much was played out in public, such as the loss of Freeman's captaincy. It seems like dethroning Freeman was more important than winning. Well, Glennon got his start and the Bucs are 0-4.
"I know this team will stay together," Schiano said. "These first four [games] don't count any more than the next 12, so we'll take them one at a time. We've got good football players, a good team, we're just not playing very well right now, so we've got to get it corrected, and we will."
Will they? That's debatable. Coming out of the bye, safety Dashon Goldson could be facing a suspension for making another controversial hit. Despite placing three linebackers on injured reserve this week, the Cardinals focused everything on stopping the run and forcing Glennon to win the game, and he couldn't. The Bucs rushed 31 times for 80 yards. Glennon had a Christian Ponder-like performance, throwing short. He completed 24 of 43 passes for 193 yards, not even at the 6-yard-an-attempt level of Ponder.
3. It's all but over for the Giants and Steelers: As both proud franchises try to figure out what went wrong in their 0-4 starts, one big thing has become apparent: Both franchises have become too dependent on the successes of their quarterbacks.
Let's start with the Giants. It's pretty clear they lack the offensive line and running game to meet Tom Coughlin's standards of success. David Wilson did adequately in Sunday's 31-7 loss at Kansas City, gaining 55 yards on 13 carries, but there is no consistency with the runs. Eight times, Eli Manning was asked to convert plays of third-and-9 or worse. That's too much for any quarterback. Clearly, the Giants' organization let the offensive line get too old. The Giants entered Sunday missing starting guard Chris Snee and center David Baas; they had David Diehl active but didn't play him. Last week, the Giants lost by 38 and Manning barely had enough time to release passes. Against the Chiefs, Manning was 18-for-37 for 217 yards. Manning remains one of the game's best fourth-quarter quarterbacks, but that doesn't matter when you're being blown out. The Giants have been outscored 146-61. Embarrassing.
Le'Veon Bell made his NFL debut for the Steelers Sunday, but he rushed for only 57 yards on 16 carries. That's not bad, but it's not good enough for a Steelers team that wants to establish itself as a running team. The lack of a running game and playing from behind most of the game forced Ben Roethlisberger to pass 51 times in a 34-27 loss to the Minnesota Vikings. The Steelers were behind 34-17 going into the fourth quarter. Like the Giants, when do you remember a Steelers team that trailed by that much going into the fourth quarter? Pittsburgh's defense is usually better, but Matt Cassel, the Vikings' backup QB, was able to generate that type of a lead.
In addition, Big Ben has lost some of that fourth-quarter magic. He got down to the Vikings' 11 in the fourth quarter and settled for a field goal. With 19 seconds left, Roethlisberger was at the Vikings' 6 on a third down and he fumbled, ending the game. Both the Giants and Steelers know they can only look to the draft to help out their rosters. Unfortunately, wait until next year is the buzz for the Giants and Steelers.
4. Things aren't so dreary along Lake Erie: Go back to Week 1. Joe Thomas has been around so many fourth-place seasons with the Browns that he can laugh at adversity. All four teams in the AFC North lost in Week 1, and Thomas joked how nice it was to be tied for first. Well, four weeks into the season, the Browns are tied with the Bengals and Baltimore Ravens for first with a 2-2 record. And they've earned it, beating Minnesota on the road in Week 3 and the Bengals 17-6 on Sunday.
A lot of people have wondered if Bengals QB Andy Dalton was good enough to take perhaps the most-talented offense in football deep into the playoffs. Dalton wasn't good enough Sunday. For example, he targeted A.J. Green 15 times, hitting him for only seven completions for 51 yards. That yard-per-play average was less than what the Bengals got rushing Giovani Bernard 10 times for 37 yards, a 3.7-yard per attempt average. On the flip side, Browns QB Brian Hoyer was able to work the play-action passes more successfully. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Hoyer completed 8-of-11 play-action passes for 64 yards and a touchdown, just enough to get Cleveland the victory.
The Bills' 23-20 victory over the Baltimore Ravens was the upset of the day. Buffalo won a weakness-versus-weakness game. The Bills' weakness was a questionable secondary that was missing starting cornerbacks Leodis McKelvin and Stephon Gilmore and safety Jairus Byrd. During the game, safety Aaron Williams injured a shoulder. The Ravens entered the game missing wide receivers Brandon Stokley and Jacoby Jones and tight end Dennis Pitta. With a depleted crew of skilled pass-catchers, Flacco suffered, throwing five interceptions. According to Stats & Information, Flacco was 4-of-14 on throws of 15 yards or more through the air.
But you have to give the Bills credit. Despite injuries in many key areas, the Bills are 2-2 and doing well at home.
5. The NFC Least: Well, it's official. The NFC East isn't as good as the AFC West. The Washington Redskins scored a 24-14 win over the Oakland Raiders Sunday, but it was the division's only win against the AFC West. The Giants lost to the Chiefs, the Eagles were dismantled in Denver (52-20) and the Cowboys lost in San Diego (30-21). The AFC West is 7-1 against the NFC East as this interconference matchup reaches the halfway mark of these meetings.
"It should burn, it should hurt," Eagles quarterback Michael Vick said about the loss to the Broncos. "We have to find a way to get that enthusiasm back and realize we still control our own destiny."
As it stands, the NFC East looks like a two-way race between the Redskins and Cowboys. That the Cowboys aren't running away with this is their own fault. They simply aren't consistent. The Redskins are trying to climb out of a hole created by poor defense and Robert Griffin III's slow start. The Giants are all but finished and the Eagles don't have the defense to match their offense. All in all, it's a disappointing start for the NFC East.
The saddest news of the day was the passing of former Steelers defensive end L.C. Greenwood, who was one of my favorite Steelers. I was lucky enough to start covering the team when I was in high school. Greenwood was one of the most gracious in letting a young kid hang by his locker and ask questions. Greenwood lived a great life, but I still believe it should have been better by being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He is under consideration for future years by the senior committee. … It was an emotional scene when Jake Locker was carted off the field with a hip injury. Titans coach Mike Munchak said the hip didn't pop out. But Locker was playing well in the Titans' 38-13 win over the New York Jets. … Some people in San Diego projected that at some point Danny Woodhead might overtake Ryan Mathews as the starting halfback. Woodhead is making that move. He averaged 6.4 yards a rush and 10.8 a completion in the Chargers' win over the Cowboys. … The Chiefs became only the second team to win two games the previous year and get off to a 4-0 start. The only other team to do that was the 1980 Detroit Lions. … In his first 20 games as a Bronco, Peyton Manning has thrown for 53 touchdowns and 6,129 yards. The Broncos are now averaging 44.8 points a game. Incredible. … As expected, Trent Richardson had his first 20-carry game for the Indianapolis Colts. Don't worry that he only gained 60 yards. The Colts are still down a couple offensive linemen. … I'm starting think the Jaguars might be one of the worst teams in NFL history. They have been outscored 129-31 in their 0-4 start and Blaine Gabbert's return didn't improve things much. … Matt Flynn started for Terrelle Pryor, who was out because of a concussion. Raiders coach Dennis Allen said after the 24-14 loss to Washington that Flynn didn't see the field well. He was sacked seven times. No wonder. … Reggie Bush, according to ESPN Stats & Information, ran for 121 yards on 13 carries between the tackles in Detroit's 40-32 victory over Chicago. … It should be a week of criticism in Chicago. Jay Cutler converted only one of 13 third downs in the loss to the Lions.