Commentary

Bleak state of affairs in Pennsylvania

The Steelers and Eagles are enduring early struggles; these numbers tell the story

Originally Published: October 7, 2011
By Adam Schefter | ESPN.com

Pittsburgh won last season's AFC Championship, and Philadelphia won this summer's free-agent championship. Yet the state of Pennsylvania is in a state of NFL shock.

No state -- not California, not New York, not Florida -- has provided more surprises and disappointment than Pennsylvania.

The Steelers and Eagles have combined for a 3-5 record, but worse than the record is the way they have done it.

Pittsburgh is playing un-Steelers-like football. It is -- and this is hard to imagine -- the only team in the league yet to intercept a pass. It has lost six fumbles, more than any other team in the league. That is why, a season after the Steelers finished second in the NFL with a plus-17 in turnover margin, they rank last in that category at minus-10.

The 31st-ranked team in turnover margin happens to be their in-state neighbors, the Eagles. Philadelphia has been unable to hold on to the ball, losing 10 fumbles, or fourth-quarter leads.

For the first time in Andy Reid's tenure, the Eagles have lost fourth-quarter leads in three straight games. They were outscored 36-0 in the fourth quarter of those games.

It's now losses in six of the Eagles' past seven games. A loss in Buffalo on Sunday would give Philadelphia its first four-game losing streak since 2005 and nearly doom its playoff hopes; under the 12-team playoff format established in 1990, only five of the 100 teams to start 1-4 have reached the postseason.

It is all odd, new, unexpected. Yet there are parallels in Pennsylvania.

Both Pennsylvania teams have offensive lines that struggle to protect their quarterbacks. Both teams have quarterbacks who have suffered injuries that are difficult to play through. Both teams have lost Pro Bowl defensive players for extended periods -- Pittsburgh's James Harrison has a fractured orbital bone, Philadelphia's Trent Cole a calf strain. Both teams play surprising teams Sunday, with Pittsburgh hosting Tennessee and Philadelphia traveling to Buffalo.

And both Pennsylvania teams are in a state of anxiety.

On to this week's 10 Spot:

1. Unprecedented offensive excess: As Week 5 prepares to kick off, this season has produced an unparalleled explosion of offense, and that's just the way the league office likes it. The first four weeks of this season have produced the four highest single-week passing-yardage totals in NFL history, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Week 2 had 7,946 passing yards, ahead of Week 4 (7,886 yards), Week 1 (7,842) and Week 3 (7,772).

It's amazing to think that no other week in no other NFL season ever has produced the passing yards that the first four weeks of this season have. It's offensive coordinators and quarterbacks gone mad -- with no signs that it will let up anytime soon. NFL games have turned into fantasy football shootouts and the closest thing to video games that we've seen. Ever.

2. Tight-knit Lions: It has become a Friday night ritual this season in Detroit. Lions guard Rob Sims, one of the most underrated players in football, has hosted his teammates at his house for a night of bonding and pampering. Sims has hired chiropractors, cooks and masseuses to take care of his teammates before their upcoming game.

Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson has attended, as has running back Jahvid Best, and some believe the Friday night gatherings have contributed to the team's successful start.

Now, few people would have guessed it, but the NFL's last two unbeaten teams are the Green Bay Packers and Lions. The fact that they are the last two unbeatens, and competing for the NFC North title, will make a great holiday even better. The Packers and Lions play on Thanksgiving Day, which means Sims will have to move up his Friday night gathering that week.

[+] EnlargeVince Wilfork
AP Photo/Charles KrupaPatriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork has two INTs, and that's more than nine of the 10 CBs who played in last season's Pro Bowl.

3. New Patriots ballhawk? Whatever the Jets do Sunday, they cannot throw at Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork. This season, Wilfork has been an interception machine. Wilfork already has two interceptions, more than nine of the 10 cornerbacks who played in last season's Pro Bowl.

Wilfork has been such a pass-defense force that he actually has more interceptions than Pro Bowl cornerbacks Darrelle Revis, Champ Bailey, DeAngelo Hall, Devin McCourty and Tramon Williams combined. The downside: That Wilfork has more interceptions than McCourty might help explain why the Patriots rank 32nd in total defense and 32nd in pass defense.

4. Lockout aftershocks: Take note, NBA rookie coaches and players. Effects of the lockout, as the NFL has seen, have been greatly exaggerated. Good coaches are good coaches. Good rookies are good rookies. No matter how much time is missed. The lockout was supposed to stunt the speed that Jim Harbaugh could install his system in San Francisco and Mike Munchak in Tennessee. Yet the 49ers are 3-1 with a two-game lead in the NFC West and the 3-1 Titans are tied with Houston for first place in the AFC South.

Panthers quarterback Cam Newton wasn't supposed to grasp Carolina's offense quick enough to start, but he's not just starting, he's starring. Newton now has 1,386 passing yards, 268 more than any other quarterback has had in his first four games since the merger. Bengals rookie quarterback Andy Dalton already has become one of Cincinnati's leaders, and Minnesota soon might ask quarterback Christian Ponder to do the same.

Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones is proving to be the player Atlanta thought it was getting. He has more than 100 receiving yards in his last two games.

Like the idea that an elite running game is necessary to win, the perceived effects of the lockout are myths.

[+] EnlargeDarren Sproles
Matt Stamey/US PresswireDarren Sproles' stats this season show that height isn't a necessary ingredient for success in the NFL.
5. Little big men: Since 2007, the NFL leader in all-purpose yards is not Adrian Peterson, Chris Johnson or Andre Johnson. It's none other than Saints running back/receiver/return man Darren Sproles. Since 2007, Sproles has 8,978 total yards, including 716 this season. He has turned out to be a better Reggie Bush for New Orleans than Reggie Bush.

New Orleans has him return kicks, line up as a receiver, play running back and do anything he can to provide an offensive spark. And at 5-foot-6, Sproles has been an inspiration to short people everywhere.

One of the signatures of this season is that little big men are standing tall. Despite being 5-9, Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker is catching passes at an unprecedented rate. He already has 40 catches for 616 yards, putting him on pace for 160 catches for 2,464 yards. Marvin Harrison holds the season record for receptions with 143, set in 2002,Jerry Rice owns the mark for yards with 1,848 (1995).

6. King of the fourth quarter: In August, Giants quarterback Eli Manning compared himself to Tom Brady. "I consider myself in that class," Manning said on The Michael Kay Show on ESPN New York 1050. "I think now he's grown up and gotten better every year, and that's what I'm trying to do. I kind of hope these next seven years of my quarterback days are my best."

At the time, many questioned or scoffed at Manning's remarks. But in the past few weeks, Manning has justified them. In the fourth quarter of the Giants' last two games, he has led come-from-behind wins at Philadelphia and Arizona. In those games, Manning has completed 20 of 24 passes for 265 yards and four touchdowns. Now, the three highest-rated quarterbacks are, in order, Aaron Rodgers, Brady and Manning.

[+] EnlargeAaron Curry
Kim Klement/US PresswireLinebacker Aaron Curry, a former No. 4 overall draft pick, may have worn out his welcome in Seattle.
7. Adding some Curry: One week after benching linebacker Aaron Curry, a former fourth overall pick in the draft, Seattle is listening to offers for him, according to a source familiar with the process. The same source said the Seahawks already have spoken to "a number of teams about him" and are willing to take a mid-round pick for him.

The signs continue to point to the end of Curry's time in Seattle. Shortly after the lockout, the Seahawks restructured Curry's contract. Last week they benched him. And now they are open to dealing him in the right situation for a fair price before the Oct. 18 trade deadline.

Two teams this week said that, in the right system, Curry, 25, still could salvage his career and turn into a superb linebacker.

8. The price is wrong: The longer the Bears wait on a new contract for Matt Forte, who is in the last year of a deal that pays him $550,000 this season, the more money it looks like it's going to take to re-sign him.

Forte is proving to be as valuable to the Bears as Peterson is to the Vikings or Johnson is to the Titans, and those running backs cashed in before this season kicked off. The Bears need Forte to produce the way he did Sunday (205 yards on 25 carries), when he had more yards than any Chicago running back has had in a game since Walter Payton's 275 in 1977.

But each time Forte plays that way, his price goes up.

9. Permanently sidelined: Chargers safety Bob Sanders, who was placed on injured reserve last week, is not expected to play again, according to a league source. The condition of his knee has deteriorated to the point where he is unlikely to undergo more surgery or play football again.

Losing Sanders could have been a bigger blow to the Chargers were it not for safety Eric Weddle, whom San Diego signed to a five-year, $40 million deal after the lockout ended. At the time, the contract seemed huge, but now it seems like a good value.

Weddle has turned in the types of plays that Sanders once did, clinching each of the Chargers' past two victories with interceptions in the closing minutes. Now, normally slow-starting San Diego is off to a quiet 3-1 start. No one is noticing, or talking about, the team that is used to struggling at the start of the regular season and flourishing at the end of it. But if San Diego can win in Denver on Sunday and take a 4-1 record into its bye week, the Chargers could be poised to take back the AFC West.

10. No lead is safe: Were the Broncos not 1-3, this would be the type of season that John Elway, the Comeback King, would love. On each of the past two Sundays, two teams have fought back from deficits of at least 20 points to win, something that hadn't been done in the NFL since Sept. 12, 1999. But even smaller leads have not been safe. A deficit of at least 10 points has been wiped out 16 times this season, and a deficit of at least 14 points has been wiped out nine times, including four last Sunday when the Lions, Bengals, 49ers and Giants did it.

Part of the reason no lead is safe is because defenses aren't tackling well. Another reason is that offenses are not geared to run the ball and protect a lead. The NFL has become a passing league, which is reflected in the crazy numbers we've seen. But with these comebacks, the message is clear and simple: If a team is down double digits Sunday, do not leave the game, do not shut off the TV. Just sit back and enjoy.

The Schef's specialties

•  Game of the week: Green Bay at Atlanta -- Packers are trying to become the first 5-0 defending Super Bowl champion since the 2007 Colts, while the Falcons are trying to avoid falling below .500.

•  Player of the week: Texans WR Jacoby Jones -- Time for someone to try to help replace injured Houston wide receiver Andre Johnson.

•  Upset of the week: Carolina over New Orleans -- The Panthers already proved they could play with the Packers at home; it will be equally challenging for New Orleans to win in Carolina.

Adam Schefter is an ESPN NFL Insider.