Commentary

Week 8: Pretenders unmasked

Jets, Chargers, Eagles unlikely to contend; Steelers run into a good plan

Originally Published: October 28, 2012
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

The Dallas Cowboys couldn't get a prayer answered when Dez Bryant's hand landed out of bounds in the end zone on what could have been the game-winning play against the New York Giants. Replay officials overruled the touchdown call, tough to do in the Cowboys' home. The Cowboys are now 0-4 in their new stadium against the Giants.

That wasn't the only home loss this week. The Tennessee Titans lost in overtime to the young Indianapolis Colts. The New York Jets were blown away at home by the Miami Dolphins. The Oakland Raiders continue to make Arrowhead Stadium look like home field with yet another win over the Kansas City Chiefs. The Atlanta Falcons easily handled the Philadelphia Eagles in Philadelphia. The St. Louis Rams were called the home team in London, but the New England Patriots blew them out 45-7. On Thursday, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers handed the Minnesota Vikings a 36-17 loss in Minneapolis.

As a result, the Giants have a 2½-game lead in the NFC East and the Falcons have a four-game lead in the NFC South.

Here is what else stood out in Week 8. ...

1. Pretenders unmasked: The Jets looked pathetic in their 30-9 loss to the Dolphins. "To say I never saw this coming … that's an understatement,'' Jets coach Rex Ryan said.

The San Diego Chargers came out of a bye week knowing their game against the Cleveland Browns could turn around the season, either positively or negatively. Their 7-6 loss puts the Chargers at 3-4 and in the pretender category. They've lost three in a row, blowing leads against the New Orleans Saints and Denver Broncos and not showing up against the Browns. "We've put ourselves in an extremely challenging situation," Chargers coach Norv Turner said. That's another understatement.

Then there are the Eagles. The Dream Team is dreaming to think it solved its problems by simply firing the defensive coordinator, Juan Castillo. Eagles coach Andy Reid had been 13-0 coming off the bye week until Sunday's 30-17 loss to Atlanta. The defense was lifeless and uncompetitive. "'This is pathetic," Eagles play-by-play announcer Merrill Reese said of the defense. You have to start wondering if Reid is losing this team.

Quarterback Philip Rivers blamed the rainy conditions for the Chargers' lack of offense, but a 265-yard, two-field-goal effort against a young team that can't score isn't acceptable. Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie called Miami running back Reggie Bush a punk after New York's loss. Wide receiver Chaz Schilens said, "It's humiliating, but I don't think they're a better team." The Jets and Dolphins split their two-game series, but the Dolphins are trending up. The Jets are trending down. You can't write off the Jets (3-5), Chargers (3-4) or the Eagles (3-4) just yet, but they continue to make life miserable for themselves and their fans.

2. Winning by plan and by accident: The Pittsburgh Steelers dismantled the Washington Redskins 27-12 with a defensive scheme that contained what they planned and a running attack that has come together by accident.

Third-string halfback Jonathan Dwyer rushed for 107 yards on 17 carries for a running attack that features running between the tackles. Thanks to Dwyer, who excels in getting yards after first contract, the Steelers have refocused their running plan. Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman have been out for two consecutive games because of injuries. But Dwyer's style fits what the Steelers' offensive line does best.

[+] EnlargeJonathan Dwyer
AP Photo/Don WrightSteelers running back Jonathan Dwyer, elevated to the lead role because of injuries, has back-to-back 100-plus-yard games.

Tackle Max Starks says the Steelers do their best when they use combinations of man and zone schemes that are simple and powerful. Mendenhall tends to bounce runs to the outside. Redman and Dwyer power their way through holes between the tackles. But sometimes it becomes difficult for linemen to block consistently when different types of backs are used during the same series. The Steelers rushed for 140 yards in persistent rain Sunday. Bruce Arians lost his offensive coordinator job in Pittsburgh because he wasn't committed enough to the running game. New offensive coordinator Todd Haley is.

As for winning by plan, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau coached up a scheme to try containing Robert Griffin III between his tackles. The plan was basic. The outside linebackers shaded a little more outside the tackle box. If RG3 slipped to the outside, the outside linebackers tried to keep him inside the numbers. It was Lawrence Timmons' job to tackle him on plays inside the tackle box. In sub packages in which linebackers are playing like defensive ends and only two linebackers are playing in true linebacker positions, it's the job of the defensive tackles to push the pocket and cause chaos. Griffin rushed for only 8 yards and passed for 177, but it didn't help that his Redskins teammates dropped numerous passes.

"We weren't perfect," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "They test you, really. Dive, quarterback pitch, some of those things. They got some plays on us." But not enough to make a difference.

3. Cutler wins Body Language Bowl: It's amazing to think Jay Cutler can sometimes be so unpopular among fans while leading the Chicago Bears to a 6-1 start. Cutler said teammate Brandon Marshall told him that he was being booed during Sunday's 23-22 win against the Carolina Panthers.

"I'd boo us, too," Cutler said. "I told those guys it was a boo-worthy performance. It was pathetic offensively what we put out there."

Cutler did just enough to win, though. He put together a nine-play, 55-yard drive capped by Robbie Gould's game-winning 41-yard field goal as time expired.

Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, who like Cutler has been criticized for his sideline demeanor, had preceded that with a 53-yard drive for a field goal that gave the Panthers a 22-20 lead. Somehow, Cutler wins games and Newton doesn't. The Bears are averaging 26.4 points a game, but that number is inflated by six defensive touchdowns, roughly six points a game. Newton runs an offense averaging 18.3 points. The biggest difference is Cutler comes out with wins.

"That's why you want that type of quarterback," Marshall said. "We were down 22-20, and Jay gets up after a play smiling. I'm sitting there shaking a little because of the cold weather and from being a little nervous. He put me at ease."

Newton threw for 314 yards Sunday, but he's struggling on short passes. He was 11-for-20 on passes that went 5 or fewer yards downfield, according to ESPN Stats & Information, including a fourth-quarter pick-six that put the Bears ahead 20-19.

[+] EnlargeColts
Don McPeak/US PresswireAndrew Luck (left) and Vick Ballard celebrate after the Colts improved to 4-3 with an overtime victory against the Titans.

4. Dolphins, Colts set for AFC surprise showdown: The Dolphins' Jeff Ireland entered the season as the general manager on the hottest seat in the league. He traded Marshall from a team that even he admitted didn't have Nos. 1, 2 and 3 receivers. It didn't sound as though they were ready to turn the offense over to rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill.

In Indianapolis, general manager Ryan Grigson's team has a 53-man roster with 33 new players. It's also making the tough conversion from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense and, like Miami, is breaking in a rookie quarterback, Andrew Luck.

One of these teams will be 5-3 after they meet at Lucas Oil Stadium in Week 9. The Dolphins blew out the Jets 30-9, and the Colts came from behind to beat the Tennessee Titans 19-13 in overtime.

What was so remarkable about the Dolphins' win was that Tannehill missed more than a half with a quad and knee injury. The injury isn't considered serious, but he will undergo an MRI on Monday to determine the extent of it. You figure Tannehill should be back as the starting quarterback next week, but backup Matt Moore played well. He completed 11 of 19 passes for 131 yards and a touchdown.

Luck, meanwhile, proved he could win on the road. He hit on 26 of 38 passes for 297 yards and a touchdown. The rookie beat veteran Matt Hasselbeck in a close one. Who would have thought?

5. Cowboys' formula for defeat: Sunday's 29-24 loss to the Giants is another example of why the Cowboys are such a tease. Sloppy play let them fall behind 23-0 just minutes into the second quarter. Tony Romo brought them back to take the lead temporarily and had the Cowboys within a drive of winning the game.

But once again, Dallas coach Jason Garrett's play-calling baffled everyone. On fourth-and-1 with 1:14 remaining, Garrett had Romo do a deep drop that broke down when the Giants had great penetration in the middle. Everyone knows the Cowboys' interior line is a problem. Former Cowboy Chris Canty, who just came off the physically unable to perform list, gave Romo problems all day. As Romo retreated, he ended up throwing an interception to Stevie Brown.

Amazingly, Romo got another chance, and there was the tease again. Bryant had an apparent touchdown catch with 10 seconds left, but his hand touched the back of the end zone before his body hit the ground. Replay officials overruled the call. You wonder why, on the play before Brown's interception, Garrett called a third-and-1 to Kevin Ogletree, who had been struggling. You wonder why he tried a pass in the middle of the field to Miles Austin, who didn't reach up enough to catch it, in the final 10 seconds. It's amazing to think the Cowboys were still in the game after suffering six turnovers.


SHORT TAKES


Give Browns coach Pat Shurmur credit for motivating rookie halfback Trent Richardson. Seeing Richardson struggle with sore ribs last week, Shurmur benched him after the first half. He bounced back with 122 yards on 24 tough carries in the Browns' 7-6 win over San Diego. … Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden, a former top draft choice of the New York Yankees, got off a funny comment: "[A final score of] 7-6 reminded me of a game against the Royals in 2006." …

The Chiefs are now historically bad. They are the first team since 1940 to go through seven games without having a single play in which they had the lead. … The Bears unveiled a 3-4 look in some early passing situations in which rookie Shea McClellin played defensive tackle, used a two-point stance and then dropped into coverage. …

As bad as Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall blew up at an official in his team's loss to the Steelers, you have to wonder if he pushed it to the point of being suspended. He touched head linesman Dana McKenzie, kept yelling and was ejected. Considering how thin the Redskins are on defense and how many yards they give up, Hall's selfish act could make life worse for the Redskins. …

The Raiders have won six consecutive game in Arrowhead Stadium. … Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Aqib Talib is serving a four-game suspension, which he said is for not revealing to the team or the league he was taking Adderall, a banned substance that is allowed if prescribed. Now, cornerback Eric Wright might be facing a similar suspension for the same reason. Why the secrecy? Adderall is typically prescribed to treat narcolepsy and attention deficit issues. …

The Patriots started four rookies on defense in their victory over the Rams: defensive end Chandler Jones, linebacker Dont'a Hightower, cornerback Alfonzo Dennard and safety Tavon Wilson. …

The Titans' opponents have scored on their first or second possession in every game this season. … Aaron Rodgers threw two touchdown passes in the Green Bay Packers' 24-15 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars, giving him 21 in eight games. Last season, he had 24 at the midway mark. No other quarterback in league history has had back-to-back seasons with 20-plus touchdown passes through the first eight games.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer