Week 12 Countdown to Kickoff
The Philadelphia Eagles may not be the Monsters of the Midway and may not have a safety who hits like Brian Dawkins did 10 seasons ago, but Sean McDermott’s defense has been pretty opportunistic lately. Philadelphia’s defense leads the NFL with 26 takeaways and also ranks ninth overall in fewest yards allowed in the NFL this season.
It’s a pretty good combination and something McDermott hopes to build on. The 36-year-old defensive coordinator is in the middle of his second season after replacing the late Jim Johnson two training camps ago. With Dick Jauron, a former head coach, running the secondary, there was an ESPN report more than a month ago that McDermott could be in jeopardy of losing his job.
The report was false, and there’s no question Andy Reid has confidence in McDermott’s abilities. In fact, McDermott is one of those coaches known to do sleepovers in his office preparing his next game plan.
Still, after the Eagles were run over by the Redskins for 169 rushing yards in Week 4, the game in which Donovan McNabb got his revenge, McDermott made some very necessary changes to his defensive front. He benched strong-side linebacker Akeem Jordan and installed Moise Fokou, a second-year player, and ironically inserted an ex-Redskin, Antonio Dixon, at defensive tackle for Brodrick Bunkley. Both players are stronger and stouter against the run.
The results since those roster changes have been startling. After allowing 4.4 yards per carry in the first four games, the Eagles have held their past six opponents to 3.6 yards per carry. They were gashed for 22 runs of 10 yards or more in the first four games, but only nine since. But the major thing is that only five of Philadelphia’s defensive starters can even claim they’ve been starters for a full season.
Against the Bears today, the Eagles will be minus their great cornerback Asante Samuel, who leads the league with seven interceptions. He has a sprained medial collateral ligament and has to be upset because Bears quarterback Jay Cutler has been known to force passes into coverage.
McDermott loves the takeaways, but doesn’t want to operate a defense like last year’s Super Bowl champion Saints. Those Saints led with their turnovers, but ranked in the bottom third of the league when it came to yards and points allowed.
“I’m a little more in-between than maybe some other defensive guys,” McDermott said this week. “I want us to be fundamentally sound. I know offensive coaches. All they care about is, ‘Hey, get the ball back for us.’ But when you look at the two Super Bowl defenses last year — the Saints and the Colts — both were ranked in the 20s (in total defense). My gut can’t handle that. I want to be an aggressive defense. But I also want to be fundamentally sound at the same time.”
Last week against the Giants, the Eagles stuffed New York’s running game and also created five turnovers. Their play helped secure the win and put the Eagles in first place in the NFC East. The defense will start two rookies today — free safety Nate Allen, a starter since Week 1, and first-round pick Brandon Graham, who goes for injured left defensive end Juqua Parker.
McDermott was never concerned about this job status, saying he has been proving people wrong his entire life. He believes his defense has gotten fundamentally better each game and that good chemistry is starting to build. The Eagles have an aggressive, attacking defense — the reason for all those takeaways — and one that stays in its lanes and applies the heavy hits.
Is this defense good enough to win a Super Bowl?
Yes, when you compare it to the Saints and Colts.
This defense isn’t as talented as the Jets or Steelers, but it is definitely good enough to escort Michael Vick and his offensive buddies to Dallas in February.
NFL on FOX games: Philadelphia at Chicago, 4:15 p.m. ET
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: Eagles QB Michael Vick has yet to throw an interception this season in 191 pass attempts and actually has a streak of 220 passes without a pick dating back to 2006, when he played for the Falcons. He did fumble twice Sunday against the Giants, losing one of them. The Bears have the NFL’s top scoring defense — allowing 14.6 points per game — while they butt heads with the NFL's No. 2-ranked offense. The Giants did an excellent job of preventing Vick from rolling or escaping to his left, where he is far more dangerous. He has two of the best young receivers in football, led by DeSean Jackson, who had eight catches for 107 yards and one TD vs. the Bears last season. Jackson has seven catches of 40-plus yards this season. Jeremy Maclin has 35 catches in the last six games, including nine for 120 yards in last week’s win over the Giants. The Bears’ secondary plays a lot of Cover-2 and tries to keep the ball in front of them, but Chicago will be at a speed disadvantage the longer Vick extends the action.
The improved play of Chicago’s offensive line has helped the running game and also reduced pressure on Jay Cutler. Chicago has won three straight and in all three of those wins, the Bears ran the ball for more than 100 yards — plus Cutler was sacked just five times after going down 19 times in his previous three games. After calling only 30 runs in the previous two games, offensive coordinator Mike Martz called at least 30 runs in each of the last three games. “I think the offensive line is coming together,” Bears general manager Jerry Angelo said. "Obviously that’s critical.”
CZAR’S SCOOP: There has been much debate in Chicago about allowing Devin Hester to focus on his return game and making Johnny Knox and Earl Bennett to be the starting receivers. “The No. 1 receiver is overrated,” Angelo said. “We’re a receiver-by-committee and that’s a good thing because anybody on any given game could be the guy. So we’ve done a good job of getting all the guys integrated into the offense.” The share-the-wealth, spread-the-ball-around philosophy is working fairly well for the Bears, with five players having between 27 and 38 receptions. But Knox, not Hester, is the team’s best deep threat. He has 672 receiving yards this season, more than twice as many as any other Bear. That alone makes him the clear-cut top dog. Knox's 18.2 yards per catch ranks eighth in the NFL among players with 20 or more receptions. Knox is on pace to finish with 1,075 yards, which would make him the first Bear to crack the barrier since Marty Booker.
The Eagles and Vick both seem content to see how the season plays out and also what happens with the NFL's CBA talks before talking long-term contract. But you can bet that Vick will seek a contract in the range between fellow star QBs Philip Rivers and Tom Brady.
Tampa Bay at Baltimore, 4:15 p.m. ET
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: Bucs QB Josh Freeman is 9-4 over his last 13 starts and has won six of his last seven games even though his team starts seven rookies, led by WR Mike Williams — who has six TD receptions, one shy of the Michael Clayton’s rookie record. The Ravens’ once-impenetrable run defense is allowing 4.2 yards per carry and look for the Bucs to give RB LeGarrette Blount and Cadillac Williams plenty of early cracks at the front seven. Freeman doesn’t want the Ravens to be able to line up constantly in blitz formations. Freeman hasn’t thrown an interception in five of his past six games, but no one is better at baiting quarterbacks young and old into mistakes than Ravens FS Ed Reed, who has four picks in his last four games.
Likewise, Baltimore doesn’t want QB Joe Flacco forced into attacking CBs Aqib Talib and Ronde Barber (eight combined interceptions). The Ravens, despite the influx of new receivers, still don’t seem to have an offensive identity with Ray Rice their main running threat. The Bucs give up 136.5 yards per game on the ground, although rookie S Cody Grimm is getting better weekly while largely playing in the box. The Bucs are 0-3 against teams currently with winning records.
CZAR’S SCOOP: The Bucs were already the youngest team in the NFL and played 12 rookies in the game at San Francisco, where the defense enjoyed their most complete game of the season. Tampa Bay not only recorded its first shutout on the road since 2003, but sacked 49ers QB Troy Smith six times, including the first by No. 1 pick Gerald McCoy. That total was significant considering that the Bucs entered the game last in the NFL with only eight sacks through nine games. The Bucs released Ryan Sims because Al Woods, a rookie signed off the Steelers’ practice squad, played so well against the 49ers.
The team has full confidence that Williams, charged two Fridays ago with driving under the influence, is innocent. Williams gave the organization the results of a urine test taken with an independent agency Friday morning to help prove his innocence. Williams was charged after failing a field sobriety test with a blood-alcohol level below the legal limit of 0.08. He voluntarily took a urine test with law enforcement officials, and Morris said this week that he also went through an independent agency in order to show the team the results by Friday morning. “We’re very pleased with the results that we got,” Morris said. “We’re confident that he’s completely clean, and we’ll let our law enforcement do their due process.”
Ravens coach John Harbaugh said that there are no lingering issues after he internally handled a sideline argument between wide receiver Derrick Mason and Flacco during the Ravens’ 37-13 win at Carolina.
St. Louis at Denver, 4:15 p.m. ET
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: The Rams are still in the NFC West playoff race with a 4-6 record, but the Broncos will miss the playoffs for a fifth straight season. Denver hasn’t won consecutive games since last Thanksgiving and the offense simply hasn’t been consistent enough. The Broncos enter with the league’s second-worst run defense (allowing 143.5 yards per game) and that is good news to Rams RB Steven Jackson. The defense, a group with seven starters at least 30 years old, is giving up far too many big plays. Safety Brian Dawkins seems to hit the end of the line. Jackson hasn’t had over 100 rushing yards since Week 7. While rookie QB Sam Bradford lacks great experience in his receiving corps, Denver has allowed 40 completions of 20-plus yards.
Denver's offense has gone with far more two-tight end sets of late to improve pass protection for Kyle Orton and also to aid the ground game. Broncos WR Brandon Lloyd is the first player since Dallas’ Michael Irvin in 1992 to break 1,000 receiving yards through 10 games while averaging at least 19 yards per reception.
CZAR’S SCOOP: Well, Josh McDaniels apparently isn’t operating the Broncos like Patriots West. If he was, he would have checked out that six-minute version of 49ers’ walk-through practice that was filmed by his video guy when the two teams were in London a month ago. Instead, McDaniels and the club alerted the NFL about the incident, one that ended up costing the young coach a $50,000 fine and obviously Steve Scarnecchia, his video guy, will never work again for a NFL team. The only major question is why did McDaniels keep the incident a secret for eight days? The Broncos aren’t explaining why that happened and that’s why the league had no choice but to fine McDaniels even if they believe he didn’t look at the practice tape.
There is still plenty of second-guessing in St. Louis over offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur’s bonehead call of a shovel pass at the 2-yard-line last Sunday against the Falcons with 3:31 left. Bradford went into a roll to the right, and then fired a shovel pass up the middle. The major problem with the play was it required guard Adam Goldberg, possibly the team’s worst offensive lineman, to make a great block. Instead, he got blown up on the play. That allowed rookie TE Michael Hoomanawanui to cross in front of Bradford. The tight end never made it to his spot because Goldberg was shoved backwards, but Bradford tossed the ball anyway, anticipating Hoomanawanui to be there. The foolish pass was intercepted by the Falcons. Had the Rams scored on that series they would have closed to within two points of Atlanta. Considering their receiving corps, the Rams should have made a stronger push for T.J. Houshmandzadeh, whose salary was guaranteed by Seattle this season.
After last Sunday’s game, Rams owner Stan Kroenke caught a flight to Toronto where his Colorado Rapids beat FC Dallas 2-1 in overtime for the Major League Soccer title.
Other Sunday games
Miami at Oakland, 4:05 p.m. ET: The Dolphins want to be more balanced on offense and maybe that’s why coach Tony Sparano is leaning toward starting QB Chad Henne while also using more of the Wildcat offense. If the Dolphins keep losing, Sparano could be in trouble with owner Steven Ross. Miami has won four straight in Oakland, but the Raiders are trying to win their fourth straight home game, something they last did in the 2002 season. It looks like Tom Cable is benching QB Jason Campbell again in favor of Bruce Gradkowski, believing he is better equipped to handle the Miami pass rush. Oakland averages 152 rushing yards a game.
Kansas City at Seattle, 4:05 p.m. ET: The Seahawks are short-handed on the defensive line, and that is bad news against the Chiefs’ physical offensive line and No. 1-ranked ground game. The Chiefs have also only turned over the ball seven times this season and are on pace to break their own NFL record of 12 set in 1982. The Seahawks will look to spread out the Kansas City defense. Seahawks QB Matt Hasselbeck has consecutive 300-yard passing games, but he will be minus big threat, WR Mike Williams (strained foot), today. Chiefs WR Dwayne Bowe has caught a TD pass in a team-record six consecutive games.
San Diego at Indianapolis, 8:20 p.m. ET: The Chargers are 2-1 against the Colts in the postseason and have won four of the last five meetings. The Colts, though, are 4-0 at home this season. The key to the game could be San Diego’s offensive line against the fierce Colts’ pass rush. In four games, Dwight Freeney has two sacks and two forced fumbles on Philip Rivers while his running buddy, Robert Mathis, has three sacks and one forced fumble in three games. Look for the Chargers to try to run Mike Tolbert with the Colts allowing 137 rushing yards per game. The Colts’ Jacob Tamme, who replaced the injured Dallas Clark, leads all NFL tight ends with 31 catches in November.