New kids on the block

Win just 43 percent of your games in the NFL, the consummate results- and production-oriented league, and you’re apt to be regarded as a failure. But even with an aggregate record 10 games below .500 at this point of the season – not counting Andy Reid, the lone “retread” among the “new” coaches in the league for 2013, first-year sideline bosses are 31-41 – it’s probably not appropriate to characterize this year’s freshman class as unsuccessful.

It’s at least, it seems, premature.

Including Bruce Arians of Arizona, who led Indianapolis to a remarkable 9-3 record as interim coach for ailing Chuck Pagano last season, there are seven first-time/full-time coaches in ’13. Two members of the fraternity, Philadelphia’s Chip Kelly and Marc Trestman of Chicago, have the Eagles (6-5) and Bears (6-4) either leading or tied for the lead in their respective decisions. Arians and the Cardinals (6-4) are in the middle of a thick group of NFC wildcard contenders. Only Jacksonville’s Gus Bradley (1-9), who inherited an awful situation with the rudderless Jaguars, has a truly abysmal record. And not even Bradley, who figures to require at least three seasons to reverse the franchise’s dismal fortunes, has appeared overmatched, even if the wretched Jaguars often have.

OK, so it’s inarguably too small a sample size to declare any of this year’s rookies the next Don Shula, George Halas, Bill Walsh or Chuck Noll, right? But based on what has transpired to this point, the Class of 2013 could be a credible one. Doug Marrone in Buffalo (4-7) has turned the Bills into a defensively proficient team. Cleveland’s Rob Chudzinski has the Browns competitive, despite having used three different starting quarterbacks. Even with three straight defeats, by an average of just six points, San Diego has more direction under Mike McCoy, who has helped to resurrect the career of quarterback Philip Rivers, than it did with predecessor Norv Turner.

Marc TrestmanTrestman has guided the Bears to a 6-4 record and share of the NFC North lead.

Asked to rate the rookie coaching class on Sunday night, a veteran and prominent executive from a team that has faced multiple first-year guys in 2013 assessed the group as “pretty solid.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement, to be sure, but a passable one. Washington’s Mike Shanahan, in his third incarnation as a head coach, has had four games against first-year coaches (two losses to Kelly and victories against McCoy and Trestman), and termed the teams “well coached” after each of the four encounters. An unemployed coach who still hopes to work again acknowledged on Monday morning that the collective work of this year’s rookies “will probably keep (owners) from looking at new guys.”

And that, perhaps, is part of the point. The trend in the league, once the ultimate good ol’ boys network, has veered dramatically in recent seasons from what once was viewed as convention when seeking a new coach. Not all that long ago, the accepted norm in the NFL was to import more retreads than a used tire outlet. Those who still embrace that popular methodology probably point to second-time coaches such as Reid or the currently infirm John Fox of Denver and suggest that the past hiring practices are still valid. But the numbers certainly indicate recycling, while not extinct, is diminished.

Part of the reason is that some former coaches who have been considered for NFL openings—ssuch as Tony Dungy, Bill Cowher and John Gruden—have rebuffed all the overtures from owners interested in them. But the other part of the equation is that owners prefer now to flip the script. “Fresh faces and supposedly fresh ideas . . . that seems to be the perception,” former coach Steve Mariucci of The NFL Network said.

Of the 32 current coaches, all but seven are in their first jobs as NFL bosses. Six of the past 10 Super Bowl championships were claimed by teams with coaches who were in their second jobs, but in the last five, Tom Coughlin is the lone “retread” winner. In a league that has all but embraced fresh faces, it’s the new guys who are most in demand anymore.

Even if the new guys are actually old guys sometimes.

Arians is 61 and had been an assistant in the NFL 20 seasons before the Cards, in part because of last year’s interim success, tabbed him to replace Ken Whisenhunt. “His ideas,” said Arizona wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, “aren’t old.” Kelly was seen as a bit of a nonconformist during his five-season tenure at Oregon, and there were scores of skeptics who felt his hurry-up offense wouldn’t translate to the NFL very well. Indeed, there have been occasions this season when the transitioned seemed to be doomed, but the Eagles are suddenly in first place. And despite the critics, Kelly was actually pursued by multiple teams after the 2012 campaign.

“What’s the old saying about how, ‘It’s still just football?’ “ Kelly said after a game earlier this season. True enough, but it’s a new age as well, and owners seem to be inclined to try something new to excite the fan bases. There’s another old adage about the game – “There’s nothing new under the sun” – that’s being laid to rest by the skew toward first-time coaches. Indeed, there are plenty of new guys, and the relative success of the Class of ‘13 could ensure there are even more for 2014.

NFP Sunday Blitz

His underwhelming 2013 season aside, South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney remains the favorite, at least at this point, to be the top overall pick in the 2014 draft, it seems.

“Obviously, a lot’s going to depend on who’s (the team at) the top of the draft, if they need a quarterback or maybe even a (left) tackle . . . but I think the consensus is that (Clowney) is still the top guy,” one AFC general manager, who’s team is not in the chase for the No. 1 pick, told NFP. “He might not necessarily be the first one picked, because of circumstances, but he’s still the best prospect. Clearly, he hasn’t had the season everyone projected, but the feeling about him hasn’t really changed.”

After that, the general manager said, the “safest guy is probably (Texas A&M tackle Jake) Matthews. He’s a ‘plug and play guy, not doubt.”

Jadeveon ClowneyUS PRESSWIREWith the world watching, Clowney has recorded just two sacks in 2013.

NFP spoke to seven general managers or personnel directors last week, and five cited Clowney as the top prospect, despite pedestrian statistics (18 tackles, seven tackles for loss, only two sacks) this season. A poll by NFL.com produced similar results on the top prospect.

“He’s maybe not as clean a prospect as he was before the season,” one executive told NFL.com, “but I still think he’s going to be a stud in the NFL.”

Personnel officials, of course, are precluded by rule from discussing underclass prospects for attribution. One of the several elements that intrigue scouts about Clowney is that, while he’s regarded as a pure 4-3 end, there are teams that feel he can possibly play a “five technique” position at end in a 3-4 front as well.

Unlike a few years ago, when the draft featured an unusually healthy number of “five technique” ends, there seems to be a dearth at the position for 2014. Some of the 3-4 teams are studying college defensive tackles to see if they might be able to project to end in the pros.

+AROUND THE LEAGUE

*The resurgence of the Carolina Panthers, who have won five straight games and garnered newfound respect after last Sunday’s victory at San Francisco, points out just how dangerous it is to project coaches on the proverbial “hot seat” at early junctures of the season. When the Panthers opened 1-3, and looked sloppy at the outset of the year, there were quick prognostications that coach Ron Rivera would be in trouble. Some pundits even predicted he might not last through the season. But with the Panthers suddenly in the thick of the playoff chase – the team’s schedule, starting with the San Francisco game, is markedly more difficult over the second half of the slate – Rivera is being lauded. He faces a difficult matchup on Monday, of course, facing New England and Bill Belichick, but Rivera has strong support in his own locker room.

Ron RiveraRivera's Panthers are red hot, having won five straight.

“I think even when things started slow,” outspoken wide receiver Steve Smith said, “people in here believed he was the guy to get it turned around. He’s a good football man, very steady, really (candid) with us.”

Over the past few weeks, the Charlotte media has taken to referring to Rivera as “Riverboat Ron,” for the perception he is gambling much more now, but several players to whom NFP spoke last week insist the coach hasn’t changed dramatically. Said one veteran lineman: “I keep hearing (stuff) about how he started taking more chances because maybe his job was on the line, but that’s not true at all.”

*San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh isn’t quite counting the days until wide receiver Michael Crabtree returns from an Achilles injury that has sidelined him for the entire season so far – there’s a chance the fifth-year veteran will play at some point this month – but the 49ers believe their disappointing passing game will get a “huge boost,” as one coach termed it, from his comeback. Said the coach: “(Crabtree) isn’t the burner a lot of guys are, but he’s so precise (with his routes) and so smart as a receiver. He gives (Colin Kaepernick) a comfort zone.”

Obviously, Kaepernick’s struggles have been big news, not just in the Bay Area, but nationally as well after his 2012 performance. But much of the inconsistency has come from the lack of quality at wide receiver, with the injuries to Crabtree and Mario Manningham, the latter of whom only returned last week. Offseason pickup Anquan Boldin, who hasn’t been the same receiver since his strong opening-game performance, when he caught 13 passes, simply can’t get off coverage anymore, as NFP noted just a few weeks into the season. Outside of Boldin, who has 41 catches, no wide receiver on the current 49ers’ roster has more than three receptions (since the team released Kyle Williams, who had a dozen receptions), and Kaepernick doesn’t really have a vertical threat beyond tight end Vernon Davis.

Manningham was on the field for 42 of the team’s 52 offensive snaps against Carolina last week, and looked rusty at times. Plus, as we’ve pointed out in the past here, Manningham isn’t a speed guy. “They’ve got to be one of the slowest (wide receiver) groups in the league,” one NFC pro scout, who has seen the 49ers in person twice this season, told NFP. The 49ers have caught some private criticism around the league for not addressing the wideout situation when it was obvious neither Crabtree nor Manningham would be available at the start of the regular season.

*Much has been postulated about how teams are better defending against the zone-option quarterbacks that have become prevalent in the league the past few years, and the fact so many defensive coordinators spent time with college staffs in the offseason – gleaning ideas about how to stop the dual-threat quarterbacks – is certainly one reason for the improvement. But one thing that hasn’t had to change much is that running quarterbacks tend to get sacked more than pure pocket passers. In fact, of the 10 quarterbacks who have absorbed the most sacks so far in 2013, four are signal-callers who would be considered among the league’s most mobile players at the position – Geno Smith, Russell Wilson, Terrelle Pryor and Cam Newton.

The propensity for mobile quarterbacks to take sacks isn’t exactly a new one. For most of his career, Michael Vick has taken way too many sacks, and has traditionally ranked among the NFL’s worst performers in terms of ratio of sacks per “dropbacks.” Last week, after taking a terrible sack in which he was run out of bounds behind the line of scrimmage on a play where he held the ball interminably and should have simply thrown it away, Wilson told NFP: “I think there’s probably a little downside (to the mobility) as well. You see it around the league. The guys who can run have a (subconscious) mentality they can get away from anything. You’re always thinking, ‘I can make a play out of this.’ Sometimes you can’t.”

In the years he had
Vick, coach Jim Mora The Younger regularly referred to his quarterback having what he characterized as “athletic arrogance.” That’s probably a good term for it.

Percy HarvinHarvin returns to action Sunday to face his former team in Minnesota.

*San Francisco’s division rival, NFC West leader Seattle, figures to get a bump in the passing game when the Seahawks face Minnesota on Sunday, because of the return of Percy Harvin, whose hip surgery has kept him off the field to this point. Harvin has said he is “anxious” to return, but it will be interesting to see how Seattle coaches utilize him in his comeback. A couple Seattle assistants, looking ahead to Harvin’s return, told NFP after last week’s game in Atlanta that the versatile player may be on a “pitch count” for his comeback until he knocks off some rust. The package of plays designed by offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell might not be quite as extensive as it will be later in the season, or as ambitious as it was when the two were together in Minnesota for two seasons.

“Some of it will be feel,” Bevell said. In the absence of Harvin from the lineup, Golden Tate has been the big-play outside threat for the Seahawks, but the fourth-year wide receiver insisted to NFP last week that he’ll have “no trouble” abdicating that role. “It’s only going to make me better,” Tate said. “Defenses can’t concentrate on everybody, right?”

*Tennessee third-year defensive tackle Jurrell Casey registered only one tackle in Thursday night’s loss to Indianapolis, but the former Southern Cal standout is being noted as one of the NFL’s most improved players for 2013. A third-round pick in ’11, Casey had 5.5 sacks his first two seasons, but is tied with Dallas’ Jason Hatcher for most sacks by an interior lineman (seven). Casey is the rare inside defender who can stay on the field for three downs, and combines strength and explosiveness. “He might not be unique, because (Geno) Atkins (the injured Bengals’ star) can do a lot of the same things, but there aren’t many like him,” Tennessee defensive line coach Tracy Rocker said.

*With some extra work-time because of the Thursday night game, Indianapolis coaches will dig in over the next few days to pore over the club’s running attack and particularly the calls for tailback Trent Richardson. Acquired from Cleveland for a first-round pick in the 2014 draft, Richardson has been a disappointment for the Colts, averaging an anemic 2.8 yards per carry, and with a long run of only 16 yards. Donald Brown, who was no great shakes for the Colts in four previous seasons, and had never rushed for more than 645 yards and averaged just 460.0 yards after being a surprise first-round pick in 2009, has been a much better option.

Trent RichardsonRichardson has been a total bust since landing in Indianapolis.

“We’ll break everything down – schemes, calls, situations, you name it – to try to get (Richardson) going,” one assistant coach said of the running game. “We have to get (Richardson) untracked.” The coach reiterated that the staff was resoundingly in favor of acquiring Richardson and that the genesis for the trade wasn’t from owner Jim Irsay, who has been known in the past to take a role in personnel decisions. The one component of Richardson’s game that has pleased the Colts has been in his pass protection, which is better than the club anticipated.

*The Kansas City-Denver matchup on Sunday has been dissected from just about every way possible, but here’s one unusual angle that hasn’t been much discussed. The AFC West matchup will include the punting Colquitt brothers, nine-year veteran Dustin from the Chiefs and Britton of Denver, a five-year veteran. It will mark the seventh head-to-head (foot-to-foot?) meeting of the two and, while the outcome doesn’t figure to be decided by the pair, both teams have strong special teams and good punt-return games.

“It’s not something you want to overlook in a big game like this,” said Dustin Colquitt, one of Kansas City’s best unheralded weapons in 2013. “You always want to do your part.” Britton Colquitt holds a 4-2 edge in the win-loss column, but his older brother has a statistical advantage in the matchups. In the six previous games, Dustin Colquitt punted 39 times for a gross average of 45.7 yards and a 40.3-yard net average. He’s had 19 punts inside the 20-yard line and only five touchbacks. Younger brother Britton has kicked 32 times, with a 43.4 gross average and 37.8-yard net average. A dozen of his punts have been inside the 20, and he’s had two touchbacks. The brothers, both of whom played at the University of Tennessee, are the sons of former Pittsburgh punter Craig Colquitt, who won a pair of Super Bowl rings with the Steelers and the nephews of onetime NFL punter Jimmy Colquitt.

*Last week in the “Sunday Blitz,” we noted that the league has had a “different” starting quarterback every week since the second weekend of the season, and that quirkiness will continue Sunday, with former undrafted free agent Scott Tolzien slated to start for Green Bay. The Tolzien start will bring to 47 the number of individual starters this season (Josh Freeman has started for two teams, Tampa Bay and Minnesota, but only counts once), which will equal the number for the entire 2012 campaign. The number will rise to 48 when Oakland is forced to go with rookie Matt McGloin in place of the injured Terrelle Pryor. And there are still six weeks left in the 2013 season. Actually, despite the perception, and rumors that the competition committee will consider measures to further protect quarterbacks (bubble wrap, anyone?) in the future, the body count at the position has been reduced a bit. For the 12-season stretch 2000-2011, the average number of “unique” starters was 56.5. There were 62 as recently as 2010, and 56 in 2011. The 47 starters last year was the lowest number since the millennium and, while this season could top that, it’s not expected to reach the 56 level of ’11.

+SHORT YARDAGE

*If Atlanta tight end Tony Gonzalez is unable to play Sunday at Tampa Bay because of a toe injury, he’ll be replaced by youngsters Levine Toilolo and Chase Coffman. The two have 12 career receptions between them. During his 17-year career, Gonzalez has three individual games of 12 or more catches. . . . There was no immediate word Saturday about the status of Atlanta reserve tailback Jason Snelling for Sunday’s game. Snelling was arrested early Friday for alleged marijuana possession. The versatile back, who plays fullback at times, is a key part of an Atlanta offense that has mostly sputtered on the ground this season. . . . Talk about the third tine being a charm: The leading rookie sacker in the NFL going into this weekend’s game isn’t any of the “edge” performers chosen in the draft to provide an outside pass rush for teams. Instead, it’s New England tackle Chris Jones, who is with his third team. The former Bowling Green standout was a sixth-round pick of Houston in April, but was rele
ased by the Texans. He was claimed by the Bucs and then waived again within 10 days. Jones has been a godsend inside for the Pats, with injuries to Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly. . . . Another terrific pickup of a rookie who was cut in the summer was Kansas City’s addition of cornerback Marcus Cooper, who was jettisoned by San Francisco after having been a seventh-round choice. The former Rutgers star has been outstanding as the Chiefs’ No. 3 corner, with 14 passes defensed and two interceptions. Given the problems the Niners have had with “sub” corners, releasing Cooper sure looks like a big mistake now. . . . The performance by Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins on Thursday night against Georgia Tech (five catches, 104 yards, two touchdowns) reminded again that most of the top wideout prospects in the 2014 lottery are underclassmen. At this point in the evaluation process, the top five or six receiver prospects are all underclass guys. Then again, that’s been the case of late. In the past five drafts, all but four of the 18 wide receivers chosen in the first round were underclass prospects. . . . Seattle wide receiver Doug Baldwin, a former Stanford teammate of Jonathan Martin, and a guy who has exchanged text messages with the Miami offensive tackle, to NFP on the ugly situation: “What hurts me is that there are people who are degrading Jonathan, as if he did something wrong. The whole ‘breaking the code’ stuff, or stuff about him being soft, is bull. He’s no crybaby, so it must have been (a) bad (situation).” . . . Chiefs’ quarterback Alex Smith has lost only eight of his past 30 starts, and hasn’t dropped a start in over 13 months now. . . . In terms of fumbles lost this season, the top 21 offenders are all quarterbacks. All but one of the top 25 players in fumbles lost are quarterbacks, and St. Louis rookie first-round wide receiver Tavon Austin (with four) is the only non-quarterback to lose more than three fumbles. . . . With Thursday night’s start by Ryan Fitzpatrick of Tennessee, the Colts had faced three straight backup quarterbacks and were 2-1 in those contests. Indianapolis had earlier matchups against Case Keenum (Houston) and Kellen Clemens (St. Louis). Barring injury to Arizona’s Carson Palmer, the streak will end next Sunday, although the Colts will see Fitzpatrick again on Dec. 1. . . . People who have watched video of Andy Dalton over the past few weeks agree the Cincinnati quarterback has regressed in his decision making. There has not been a breakdown in mechanics, they say, but Dalton seems more hesitant in the pocket. The numbers – six interceptions and two sacks the past two weeks – seem to back that up. . . . One big reason for the record scoring pace in 2013 is that teams are averaging 130.5 offensive snaps per game, also on pace for an NFL record. The pace can’t all be blamed, either, on Philadelphia rookie coach Chip Kelly. There are 13 clubs that are averaging more snaps than the Eagles (65.7 per game), and five have averaged 70-plus offensive plays. The best, not surprising, is Denver, at 71.2 snaps. . . . Texans coach Gary Kubiak, who returns to the sideline Sunday after his mini-stroke, will work from the box rather than the sideline. The Texans have allowed that the setup will be “really unusual” for Kubiak, who prefers to be close to the action and calls most of the team’s plays, but is a necessary precaution. The belief is that Kubiak will go back to the sideline shortly. . . . The aforementioned Boldin, traded by Baltimore during the offseason, was used as an example by one AFC personnel executive in discussing how Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome doesn’t often miss in evaluating players and what they’ve got left in the tank. So was safety Ed Reed, who had zero meaningful plays for Houston before being released by the Texans last week. A few coaches and scouts were surprised that there were actually a few teams, notably New England and the New York Jets, who quickly courted Reed after he cleared waivers. . . . A rookie that NFP touted earlier this year as perhaps the best raw pass-rusher from the 2013 draft, Green Bay first-round end Datone Jones, is starting to come on. Jones has three sacks now, and is beginning to get pretty consistent penetration. The onetime UCLA star isn’t in the mold of the Packers’ usual 300-pound run-stuffing line monsters, but offers a different dimension for offensive lines to worry about.

+BY THE NUMBERS

*More than one-third of Kansas City’s points this season (78 of 215) have come as a result of takeaways. Not too surprising, since the opportunistic Chiefs lead the league in takeaways (23), fewest turnovers (eight) and, obviously, turnover differential (plus-15), while scoring six defensive touchdowns. On the flipside, Denver is minus-2 in turnover differential and minus-31 in points that result from turnovers. Only three teams have more turnovers than the Broncos, who have lost a league-high 12 fumbles, and only three teams are worse in point differential from turnovers.

Making his mark

Asked following the Seattle Seahawks’ dismantling of the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday about the identity of the league’s defensive player of the year at this juncture of the season, the guy who many now consider the NFL’s premier man-to-man coverage defender didn’t even blink before simply nodding to his right.

“There’s the guy,” Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman, with nary an inkling of the level of fiery rhetoric which sometimes approximates his ability to hang with the NFL’s best wide receivers, replied without hesitation.

Two locker stalls down, free safety Earl Thomas, strangely devoid of the kind of media horde that usually surrounds a player of such burgeoning pedigree after a game, sat alone, flicking through the e-mails and tweets on his cell phone. Based on just the numbers alone – a season-low one solo tackle along with one pass defensed, and that’s it, on the defensive stat sheet – one might surmise the four-year veteran had a pretty ordinary performance. But just like with Twitter, where you’re limited to only 140 characters to articulate your point, Thomas can make an impact by seemingly doing a little.

Not that he has – done a little, that is – for the 9-1 Seahawks in 2013.

“He leads the team in tackles, he’s tied for the (league) lead in interceptions (actually, one behind Detroit linebacker DeAndre Levy now), he can play close to the line, back off in coverage, and he’s so smart,” Sherman said. “You name it, he does it.”

Thomas, just 24, has 72 tackles, four interceptions, seven passes defensed, and a pair of forced fumbles. There is no more subjective stat in the NFL than tackles but, according to the league’s website (somewhat ironic, since the stat isn’t even an official one), only Dallas’ Barry Church has more tackles among safeties. A two-time Pro Bowl defender, Thomas is a stat-sheet stuffer, for sure, with four games so far with double-digit tackles.

Earl ThomasThomas' five interceptions currently trail only Detroit's DeAndre Levy (5) and Tennessee's Alterraun Verner (5).

A good portion of the Atlanta offensive game plan for Sunday afternoon revolved around keeping the ball away from Thomas. The expectation of the Falcons, and of many pundits examining the game beforehand, was that Seattle would match up Thomas with Matt Ryan’s go-to receiver, tight end Tony Gonzalez, much of the time. In fact, it was strong safety Kam Chancellor, often viewed as a coverage liability, who drew Gonzalez more often than not. That freed Thomas to do what he does best, which is a little of everything, against the run and the pass. And if his game was relatively quiet, his presence, Falcons players acknowledged, was not.

“He’s one of those guys,” said Atlanta wide receiver Harry Douglas, “who you’re always aware of, you know?”

Thanks to a bit of recent push from a few television analysts, Thomas—who plays for a team that doesn’t garner a ton of national attention and which still isn’t very well know outside of the Pacific Northwest, despite its record—is gaining newfound celebrity. He isn’t nearly as outspoken as secondary partner Sherman and, at 5-feet-10 and 202 pounds, not especially physically imposing, like Chancellor or corner Brandon Browner. But the former University of Texas standout, the 14th player chosen in the 2010 draft, clearly is making a name for himself these days. Just as the Seahawks’ profile is beginning to rise a little, so, too is his.

“To even be mentioned with some of the great defensive players, to have guys on our (unit) talk so well about me, it’s (gratifying),” Thomas said. “All I can do is keep working hard and hope it all comes together.”

Hard work seems to be what Thomas is all about. He is typically among the first Seattle players at the team facility on most days, and there have been occasions on which he has requested additional video from the tape crew, like a high school kid asking for periodicals from the librarian when doing a term paper. It’s probably hyperbole to suggest Thomas peruses as much tape as a quarterback, but he might come close.

Said Thomas in a “knowledge is power” kind of admission: “You want to know as much about (an opponent) as you can. Almost as much, I guess, as they know about themselves.”

What opponents seem to know about Thomas is that he can affect a game in a lot of different ways. On the Falcons’ opening possession Sunday, he didn’t record a tackle on tailback Steven Jackson’s first two rushing attempts, not even an assist, but shut down possible cutback gaps on both plays, demonstrating great discipline. On third down, he jumped in front of Ryan’s dump-off attempt for Jackson and knocked it away. The seemingly mundane plays set the tone for Seattle’s day-long dominance.

“We’re a physical team,” Sherman said, “and (Thomas) is a physical player. I mean, the guy is a banger. Any way you want to play it, he’ll play it that way. You want to go in the alley and rumble? He’ll be right there.”

There was a time, Thomas suggested, when he wasn’t viewed league-wide as being very physical. But he made himself a better tackler – no small feat in a league that frowns on contact during the week and where speed is tough to simulate with so many unpadded practices – more with brain than brawn.

“It’s a mindset, plain and simple,” Thomas said. “You’re right. Even as physical as we like to think we are, you can’t practice it much. You just have to do it. Now, I don’t think people can (pigeonhole) me anymore. I don’t think they can say, ‘Well, he can do this, but not that.’ I want to be able to do it all. Whatever comes with that, fine.”

Whether a defensive player of the year honor comes with it, time will tell. In the 42 seasons in which The Associated Press has presented such an award, safeties have won it only five times. And there are other deserving candidates this season, among them the NFL’s sack leaders and some standout linebackers and corners.

But there is this, too: In the last 10 seasons, three safeties – Ed Reed (2004), Bob Sanders (2007) and Troy Polamalu (2010) – have claimed the award. The safety position is being better recognized, as is Earl Thomas.

NFP Sunday Blitz

New Orleans had eight completions of 40 yards or more in its first eight games of the season – only four clubs had more – and splendid New Age tight end Jimmy Graham accounted for three of those long balls. The identity of the only other New Orleans player with more than one, fast-improving (emphasis on the “fast” part) rookie wide receiver Kenny Stills, might surprise some people.

But not the New Orleans coaches and personnel officials, who took a chance on the former Oklahoma standout in the fifth round over six months ago, and may have unearthed the kind of long-speed dimension that they had arguably lacked since the departures of Devery Henderson and, to a bigger extent, Robert Meachem.

Make no mistake, starting wideouts Marques Colston and Lance Moore are terrific receivers, and Graham is a matchup nightmare for opponents. But during his season-long “Bountygate” banishment in 2012, head coach Sean Payton had the opportunity to view the Saints through a different, more dispassionate, prism. And he surmised the Saints needed to add a deep-ball threat if they could, a guy who could burn vertically, and clear out mid-range seams for the other receivers, while constituting an occasional boundary threat in his own right. And so Stills, regarded by some scouts as an erratic route-runner with iffy hands in college, but a guy who could “take the top off a secondary,” in the vernacular, became part of the solution after suffering through some problems as a collegian.

Not the only part, because New Orleans took some other measures as well, but clearly the most conspicuous one.

Drew BreesICONBrees and the Saints are back on top of the NFC South…and rookie Stills has had a hand in helping them get there.

The Saints actually felt they were developing such a player already in Joseph Morgan, but he tore up his knee in a summer scrimmage. Stills, admittedly an enigmatic player while at Oklahoma, and a prospect to whom some teams weren’t attracted despite a 4.38 time at the combine, stepped up. He’s averaging a gaudy 22.6 yards on 16 catches and forces opposition secondaries to honor his speed and not sit inside as much on Colston (who is superb in the middle of the field) and Moore (a consummate technician).

“Just him being out there creates more space,” Moore acknowledged. “There’s more room to work.”

But as noted, Stills was only one component utilized in the speed upgrade. He isn’t used as much, but second-year veteran Nick Toon has sneaky speed. And the return of the prodigal Meachem, quickly re-signed after he was cut by San Diego following a disappointing season with the Chargers in 2012, has helped as well. Meachem is the only other wide receiver with a 40-yard catch in the first eight games. So the speed story, in the bigger scheme of things, is more about a team generally upgrading an area most observers felt couldn’t get a whole lot better. Those sentiments aside, the Saints’ passing game, if possible, is even more explosive now.

It’s no great secret that New Orleans has been a big run-after-catch team since Payton’s arrival in 2006. In the first seven seasons of his tenure – even counting 2012, when the offensive design was his, despite Payton’s absence from the sideline – the Saints ranked in the top nine in YAC (yards after catch) every year. They were either first or second in five of the seasons. True to form, New Orleans ranked No. 5 so far this season entering this weekend’s action.

Because of the nature of the Saints’ passing game design, with so many screens, they are probably always going to rank high in the yards-after-catch category. They throw a lot of five- to seven-yard screens that turn into big gains, thanks to the running skills of tailbacks Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles, and to Graham, who is also a healthy part of the screen game. But as good as the passing game was – and it has never ranked statistically lower than No. 4 under Payton, and has been first in four of seven seasons – the coaches decided it could get better. And with Stills and the other additions, and the speed they add, it has.

+AROUND THE LEAGUE

*As noted in the “Sunday Blitz” a few weeks ago, early draft rankings are only helpful to a point right now for several reasons: The rankings typically rate senior prospects only, change dramatically once the underclassmen are added, and there remains a ton of evaluation to do in general. Still, it’s never too early to dredge up some draft info, particularly in a few of the league’s woebegone precincts. So this nugget courtesy of several teams’ scouts:

There are probably less than 20 prospects who technically had the equivalent of first-round grades in early discussions. The ones most prominently mentioned were: CB Antone Exum (Virginia Tech), LB Dee Ford (Auburn), OT Seantrel Henderson (Miami), OT James Hurst (North Carolina), OG Gabe Jackson (Mississippi State), DE Jackson Jeffcoat (Texas), DE DaQuan Jones (Penn State), OT Taylor Lewan (Michigan), OT Jake Matthews (Texas A&M), LB C.J. Mosley (Alabama), DE/LB Trent Murray (Stanford), OG Cyril Richardson (Baylor), DT Will Sutton (Arizona State) and QB Logan Thomas (Virginia Tech).

Matthews is the son of Hall of Fame offensive lineman Bruce Matthews, and Jeffcoat is the son of onetime Dallas standout defensive lineman Jim Jeffcoat. Not too surprisingly, some of the assessments for a few of the players originally pegged as potential first-rounders have already changed – Exum, for instance, has battled injuries most of the season—and the deck will continue to be shuffled as the process wears on. The one thing that might not change: It looks like another big year for offensive tackles.

*On the subject of the draft, amid recent suggestions from some unnamed league scouts that Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston would probably be the first overall player chosen in the 2014 draft if he was eligible for the lottery, there were some quiet rumblings in the rumor-verse last week that the Florida State star might actually consider challenging the NFL’s “three-year rule.” Sources inside the FSU program and close to Winston adamantly insisted to NFP that the speculation was totally unfounded.

Jameis WinstonIs Winston considering a challenge to the NFL's draft rules?

The rule, which simply states that a player has to be three years removed from high school before he can petition for inclusion in the draft, hasn’t been tested since the ill-fated challenge by then-Ohio State tailback Maurice Clarett in 2004. Winston, of course, has been scintillating in leading the Seminoles to an undefeated season to date, and a possible spot in the national championship game, especially after Oregon’s loss at Stanford on Thursday night. Winston has 24 touchdown passes and just six interceptions, and is on pace to break Sam Bradford’s record for best completion percentage by a freshman, with a 70.3-percent hookup rate entering the Wake Forest game. But the Bessemer, Ala., native is said to have told friends and relatives that he still has a way to go in his development and enjoys the college game. That said, no one seems ready to rule out the strong likelihood that Winston will be in the 2015 draft.

*With all the attention afforded the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin situation of late, the recent health scares for coaches John Fox of Denver and Houston’s Gary Ku
biak sort of took a back seat in the public’s consciousness of NFL matters. But there are a group of former coaches who want some of their past colleagues – men like Bill Parcells and Mike Ditka, who experienced persistent heart problems, and Dan Reeves, who underwent quadruple bypass surgery late in the ’98 season – to become more proactive in delivering the message to their successors about the health risks seemingly inherent to the profession. The discussion last week among the former coaches was how that could best be done. Reeves in particular has been very outspoken about preventive care and not ignoring warning signs.

“Guys just don’t pay attention to their bodies,” Reeves said. “Something happens and they tell themselves, ‘I’ll take care of it later, maybe during the bye (week).’ You just can’t downplay this stuff; it’s critical to get help.”

Coaches typically have physical exams yearly, but the in-season stresses can exacerbate a situation. So some of the former coaches are pushing for more regular checkups. NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth recently suggested a “7-to-7” rule, in which club facilities would not be allowed to open before 7 a.m. and had to close by 7 p.m. That might be a bit extreme for many of the workaholics in the profession, but the incidents with Fox and Kubiak may have highlighted the need for some type of action.

*New England has three defensive starters on injured reserve (not counting safety Adrian Wilson, who might not have been a starter anyway had he not sustained a hamstring injury before the season), and there’s no denying the impact of the losses of tackle Tommy Kelly and linebacker Jerod Mayo. But the effect of the season-ending Achilles injury that defensive tackle Vince Wilfork suffered at Atlanta on Sept. 29?

“Not having the big man, if it’s (bad), will really make a huge difference for us,” cornerback Aqib Talib told NFP the night Wilfork was hurt, before anyone knew the severity of the injury.

That was a prophetic assessment. At least according to the raw statistics – it’s impossible to gauge the intangible absence of the respected 10-year veteran and five-time Pro Bowl defender– the loss has been pretty significant. In the five games the Pats have played without Wilfork in the lineup, during which time the Pats are 3-2, the New England defense has allowed an average of 146.8 rushing yards and had three games in which it gave up 150 or more yards. Opponents have averaged 4.4 yards per carry, scored three touchdowns, and had four attempts for 20 yards or more. In the four contests in which Wilfork started, the Patriots were 4-0 and surrendered only 105.0 rushing yards per game. They allowed an average of 4.1 yards per rush, gave up only one touchdown on the ground, and the longest run by a back (not counting quarterback scrambles, the longest of which was for 19 yards) was for only 13 yards. During Wilfork’s career, the numbers are fairly similar to those for 2013. Since he became a full-time starter in 2005, Wilfork has started 126 regular-season games and missed 11 contests. In the games Wilfork has started, New England is 97-29 (.770) and has allowed 103.7 rushing yards per game. In the 11 he hasn’t, the Pats are 8-3 (.727), and have surrendered 133.2 rushing yards per game.

*Every franchise claims to hate penalties, but some seem to grudgingly tolerate them a little more than others. “Sometimes (the penalties) are kind of a reflection of how tough and physical you are,” one veteran Seattle front-seven defender told NFP last week. “I mean, look at the Raiders in their heyday. They were probably the most ‘flagged’ team in the league for a lot of those years, but they were among the best, most physical teams. They didn’t take any (stuff) from anybody. I actually think the penalties were like a badge or something for them. Our coaches (complain) at us all the time, especially about the pre-snap stuff . . . but they also seem to know some of the penalties are a part of who we are.”

Seattle has been penalized the second most times in the NFL (71) and leads in penalty yards (649), but the Seahawks are 8-1. The team is tied for the most defensive pass interference penalties in the NFL (nine) and the defender said that “only adds” to the perception of the Seattle secondary as a physical bunch. Surprisingly, four of the top 11 clubs in terms of penalties (there is a tie for the 10th spot) currently have winning records.

*Maybe his release by San Francisco last week, with the 49ers needing to clear a roster spot for cornerback Eric Wright, who was activated from the non-football injury list, didn’t end the career of 11-year veteran Nnamdi Asomugha. But an NFC personnel director, who had pored over video of Asomugha’s last couple years before taking our call, claimed there are “maybe three or four” cornerbacks on his “emergency list” he would think about signing before considering the onetime Pro Bowl defensive back. That’s not to say some club desperate for an experienced corner or a veteran presence at the position won’t bite. “(But) it’s just not there,” the personnel director said. “His speed is down, he can’t play the slot, he’s not nearly as physical a presence as he was a few years ago. And I don’t see him moving inside (to safety).”

Game changer?

Talk about the NFL’s most inaptly named guy. After the events of the past few days, which culminated with Richie Incognito’s indefinite suspension by Miami officials late Sunday for conduct detrimental to the franchise, the Dolphins’ veteran guard has a pretty incongruous surname, doesn’t he?

Incognito, which the dictionary defines as “disguised, undisclosed or unidentified,” is anything but. Unless he can successfully clear his name in the matter involving the alleged hazing/bullying of second-year offensive tackle Jonathan Martin, who last week left the team and whose agents have now filed an official complaint that the league and the NFLPA appear to be taking very seriously, the often troubled guard might well be known as much more infamous than incognito.

By nature, offensive linemen historically were once supposed to be anonymous, no-name players who labored at thankless positions. The upward spiral of big-money contracts, especially at tackle, has smashed that model. But the Incognito and Martin situation, no matter how it plays out in the next few weeks, has elevated blockers well beyond faceless in a manner that has little involvement with dollars and a lot more to do with sense. The ordeal certainly has obliterated the lineman stereotype.

For now, fair or not, Incognito is the face of the neighborhood punk, the kid who laid in wait on the street corner and picked a fight with every pale-faced classmate on the way to school. And Martin, unwittingly, is the kid who timidly coughed up his lunch money and never told his mother about why he desperately wolfed down a snack the minute he walked in the door at the end of the school day. Perhaps those perceptions will be altered following what figures to be a thorough investigation, but it’s just as likely the damage is irrevocable for both men.

It’s just as likely, too, the situation will at least slightly alter the manner in which NFL teams assess off-field character. Or at least hopefully so. “We do so much (homework) on guys, spend so much money and human resource, that you wonder how much more you can (legally) do,” one AFC personnel director said to NFP late Sunday night. “But, obviously, we need to do more, I guess. It’s ironic, isn’t it, that the biggest ‘head’ problem we thought we had as a league was concussions. Turns out, we need to do more to look inside a (player’s) head beyond the physical stuff.”

Richie IncognitoBoth Tony Dungy and Scott Pioli stated they would not have drafted Incognito. But how many other teams felt the same way at the time?

In defense of the league, franchises invest six- and seven-figure budgets on the draft, and part of that is directed toward apprising a player beyond his on-field profile. If you’ve ever seen teams’ dossiers on players, particularly those with any kinds of character warts, you’d probably be stunned by the completeness. Now the files may have to challenge the thickness of the Manhattan telephone directory. Then again, even with the warnings – and the problematic Incognito had a United Nations-worth of red flags as a prospect in the 2005 NFL draft – clubs roll the dice. There were questions, too, about Martin’s general toughness before the 2012 lottery. That’s not to suggest that he could have been thicker-skinned in the matter of the alleged bullying at the hands of Incognito and other Miami players, but he may, in hindsight, have handled it differently.

The upshot, in the wake of the allegations, is that the league and its member teams will have to revisit how it handles such situations. And individual teams may not be as inclined to think they can salvage a player with character issues. In a week that included serious physical issues for a pair of coaches, the real world collided with the NFL in a serious way. But with apologies to John Fox and Gary Kubiak, not even their respective medical setbacks figure to impact the NFL to the same degree the Incognito/Martin story will.

Again, in the end, Incognito may be exonerated of all allegations. But until he is, you have to wonder how he even made it nine seasons in the league. This is, after all, a player who was dismissed by a pair of colleges, one for which he never even got onto the field, and who had self-admitted issues that went way beyond the knee injury he sustained at the 2005 combine. He was cut by St. Louis after drawing 38 penalties in 44 games (seven of them for personal fouls or unnecessary roughness) and left to depart by a Buffalo team desperate for blockers. Yes, Incognito in 2012 was voted as the Dolphins’ “good guy” by the reporters who regularly cover the club, attended the league’s prestigious offseason business management program, and has taken an active role in championing the cause of service veterans. But it appears there was a darker side, too, and someone missed it, or ignored it, along the way.

In an interview not long ago, Incognito acknowledged he was “not a choirboy” and that may have been an understatement. Over the past day, former NFL coach Tony Dungy and onetime personnel chief Scott Pioli insisted they would not have drafted Incognito nor wanted him on their team. Apparently, other teams either didn’t get or didn’t see the memo or the warning signs.

The same personnel director cited above said the Incognito incident will force teams to be a lot more cognizant and diligent about the culture in their locker rooms. He recalled the September suicide of teen Rebecca Sedwick, who tossed herself from a Tampa-area water tower after alleged bullying by classmates. “Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t the same, but there might be some of the same markers, and we’re going to have to look for those indicators,” he said.

“We can’t let some of these people go—pardon me for saying this because I’m not making light of the situation—incognito anymore.”

NFP Sunday Blitz

Last week wasn’t exactly a good time to be a former Atlanta quarterback. Of course, some would suggest that for current Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, coming off a loss at Arizona and suffering through what some statistical services have assessed as the worst 300-yard game ever played (four interceptions, four sacks absorbed and an anemic 4.93 yards per attempt), it wasn’t particularly good, either.

But at least Ryan, the face of the Atlanta franchise, will have a job in 2014. The same type of vocational security isn’t assured for former Atlanta signal-callers Michael Vick of Philadelphia and his onetime backup, Houston’s Matt Schaub.

At least for one more week, Schaub will sit behind Case Keenum, a onetime undrafted free agent, whom coach Gary Kubiak chose to be the starter against the Indianapolis Colts. That despite the fact Schaub insists he is healthy again after missing a week to an ankle injury. Given his disappointing season, along with that of the Texans, and the growing sentiment that Schaub is a “systems” quarterback who has trouble succeeding when the blueprint breaks down, one has to wonder about his long-term viability with the franchise that signed him to a $62 million contract extension in 2012.

But back to Vick for a minute: It sure looks like Philadelphia made a prudent offseason move in restructuring the contract of Vick, who, from the remarks made by Eagles owner Jeff Lurie last week, clearly won’t be back in 2014. Lurie suggested last week that the club’s “No. 1 (offseason) priority” would be to find a franchise quarterback. And he mentioned “health” as a prerequisite, which might not have been an intentional and well-aimed volley at Vick – who hasn’t played in 16 games since 2006, an eon ago in NFL years – but certainly hit close to home.

Back in February, with the situation still unsettled because no one seemed to know exactly what new coach Chip Kelly was seeking in a quarterback, the Eagles revisited Vick’s contract, essentially reducing it to a one-year, incentive-laden deal worth roughly $10 million-$11 million, but also voiding the final two years, the 2014 and 2015 seasons. The maneuver saddled the Eagles with about $8 million in “dead money” for this season, but took them off the hook for future years. So, basically, Philadelphia can walk away from Vick after the season, when he will be an unrestricted free agent, and suffer no penalties moving forward.

Michael VickVick has appeared in just six games for the Eagles this season, with a QB rating of 86.5.

One doesn’t have to read between the lines very much, or be a master cryptographer, to decipher Lurie’s remarks and conclude that’s exactly what the club plans to do. From Vick’s standpoint, his camp told NFP that the quarterback, who will be 34 years old in June, hasn’t even remotely begun to think about the future. One would have to assume, though, that the big paydays are over. The Eagles, by the way, haven’t chosen a quarterback in the first round since grabbing Donovan McNabb with the second overall pick in 1999.

As for Schaub, well, as the NFP’s Joel Corry pointed out in an NFL column Oct. 7, his deal provides the Texans with some degree of relief if they choose to take it. If they make Schaub a post-June 1 cut in 2014, the Texans can avoid nearly $37 million in base salaries for 2014-2017. There will be some “dead money” accrued – about $3.5 million in ’14 and $7 million in ’15 – and that would be a tough swallow. But it’s a hard pill, as well, to stick with a quarterback in whom a franchise doesn’t believe any longer.

There figure to be some hard swallows, too, in precincts such as Cleveland, Minnesota and Jacksonville, all of whom chose first-round quarterbacks in recent drafts. Those teams selected the quarterbacks thinking they offered a long-term solution. Now they’re all likely to be back at the drafting board again, choosing another passer in the first round, and hoping for better results. The situations aren’t quite the same in Chicago or Arizona, but both franchises could be in need of a new starter, if the Bears permit Jay Cutler to go into free agency and the Cardinals decide that mistake-prone Carson Palmer isn’t their answer.

It figures to be another topsy-turvy offseason for quarterback depth charts – something few might have predicted a year or two ago – and it extends beyond just guys who once played in an Atlanta uniform. But for Vick and Schaub, the future looks especially murky.

+AROUND THE LEAGUE

*To be clear, there were no hard-and-fast promises made to Osi Umenyiora when the veteran defensive end signed with Atlanta in March as essentially the designated pass-rush replacement for the jettisoned John Abraham. But people close to Umenyiora, who prefaced their remarks by insisting they are not making excuses for the play of the 11-year pro (and we believe them), tell us there were implicit suggestions that the team would try to add another big piece to the defensive line puzzle. And that the name of free agent Richard Seymour was kicked around, which makes some sense.

Seymour, who played at the University of Georgia, resides in the Atlanta area, has a son who plays high school football there and will end up in Athens once he gets his academics worked out, and wanted to finish his career with the Falcons. Makes sense, too, since most of Umenyiora’s best seasons with the New York Giants came when he had a big, space-eating tackle playing inside him. And definitely when he wasn’t the lone sack threat, as he’s been in Atlanta, where he has only four sacks in seven games.

In the three seasons in New York in which Umenyiora registered double-digit sacks, the Giants always had another defender with 10-plus sacks. When Umenyiora posted 11.5 sacks in 2010, Justin Tuck matched that total. Umenyiora had 13 sacks in 2007, and Tuck had 10. And in 2005, when Umenyiora had a career-high 14.5 sacks, the rush was supplemented by Michael Strahan, with 11.5 sacks. There is no doubt Umenyiora, 31, is a class act and still has a little gas left in the tank. But he is not, by nature, a take-charge locker-room presence, the kind of veteran who will call teammates out in private. The Falcons, who lack some toughness, may need some of that. As history has indicated, Umenyiora also hasn’t been the kind of player who’s posted strong sack numbers without some help. To their credit, the Falcons may have assessed Seymour correctly, since no one ever signed the seven-time Pro Bowl lineman. What they didn’t gauge nearly as accurately was how much help Umenyiora would need to be a viable force.

*Of the three rookies recently waived by Houston for an unspecified infraction of team rules (reported in some media outlets as alleged marijuana use), the player who is most tempting to league personnel men is former LSU defensive end Sam Montgomery. A third-round pick, Montgomery has already visited with a couple clubs, and at least three or four more have inquired about him, but there is a definite “caveat emptor” sense about the talented but enigmatic defender.

Montgomery, who never played a single regular-season snap for the Texans, was probably drafted a round below where ma
ny teams had him rated a month or two before the lottery. Part of that was because it was hard to project Montgomery into a clear position, either end or linebacker. At 6-feet-3 1/8, 262 pounds, and timed at 4.81 at the combine, he could fit either slot. But Montgomery was a little stiff-hipped during workouts and that didn’t help his case. Neither was he aided by the fact he turned off some NFL scouts, one of whom termed him “a different dude,” in interviews. Someone who believes in reclamation projects (Oakland?) may take a chance on Montgomery, because he has talent, even if he could be an underachiever who never quite understands what it takes to play in the league.

Cam NewtonCam Newton and the Panthers look to put the nail in Atlanta's coffin this weekend.

*It might not get too much attention on Sunday, since one of the teams ranks as among the league’s biggest disappointments at the midway point of the season, but the Carolina-Atlanta game in Charlotte could be worth watching. At this point of the year, the franchises are headed in opposite directions. But there are definitely hard feelings between the two teams, even if players attempted to downplay them during the week leading up to the contest.

The two franchises have never really liked each other very much, even though the “I-85 Feud” the league envisioned when it placed an expansion franchise in Charlotte, only three and a half hours from Atlanta, hasn’t developed quite as planned. But the bile peaked last year when, after a 30-28 comeback win at the Georgia Dome, fashioned by one of those improbably Matt Ryan-led, last-minute comebacks, the Falcons quarterback woofed openly at Panthers players and told them to “get the (expletive) off my field.”

Carolina players used that as a rallying point in the second meeting, beating the Falcons 30-20 in Charlotte 10 weeks later, and defensive end Greg Hardy screamed for Atlanta to get off his field as well. Kicker Matt Bryant responded to Hardy that the Panthers could have fun watching the Falcons in the playoffs. Again, players from both teams rebuffed talk about the bad blood in speaking to NFP last week, but it definitely exists, and figures to be pretty obvious on Sunday afternoon. The Falcons are down at 2-5, and the Panthers would take great pleasure in helping dig the hole a bit deeper.

*The first-year player arguably commanding the most attention in Arizona last week was third-round cornerback Tyrann “Honey Badger” Mathieu, who was chosen as the NFC’s defensive rookie of the month. But the other rookie a lot of people were talking up, in the wake of his huge game against Atlanta, was tailback Andre Ellington, who came up big in his first start, including an 80-yard touchdown run.

The Cardinals privately feel they might have hit a home run with the former Clemson star, who is averaging 7.7 yards per carry. Some have compared the undersized Ellington to New Orleans’ Darren Sproles, but Arizona coaches told NFP that Ellington probably has better “long speed” and “instant explosiveness,” and is a little different kind of player than the Saints’ do-it-all star. Ellington almost certainly can’t be a workhorse because of his size, but he’s a player, like Sproles, who can get 12-15 touches per game, and make something happen.

“We want to get him the ball in space, let him do his thing, and we’re looking for more opportunities,” first-year coach Bruce Arians said. Getting the “Honey Badger” in the third round – where he fell because of off-field concerns – was probably a steal. Landing Ellington in the sixth round might have been a heist. The Cards are (as it seems they have been for years) still looking for a heavy-duty back, and it looks like the experiment with former Pittsburgh starter Rashard Mendenhall, brought in because he knew Arians and his offense, won’t last into 2014. But Ellington can be an intriguing change of pace runner and provides a nice piece of the puzzle. And the Cardinals, by the way, also feel that fifth-round rookie back Stepfan Taylor of Stanford can be a quality runner in time.

*New England, which has experienced more than its share of problems with dropped passes this season (see the “Short Yardage” item below), will get a good look at a player who might have helped assuage that shortcoming on Sunday, when the Pats host the Pittsburgh Steelers. Remember, the Patriots signed then-restricted free agent wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders to a one-year offer sheet worth $2.5 million last spring – a move that could have cost the team a third-round draft choice as compensation—but Pittsburgh matched the offer and retained the wideout.

Tom BradyICONBrady's Patriots currently rank second in the NFL in dropped passes.

Sanders has 31 catches for 396 yards in his first season as a full-time starter, and has only two drops. After battling foot injuries the first three years of his career, it appears Sanders is over the chronic condition. League sources said they are uncertain if the Pats, who have basically cast their lot with younger receivers after not landing Sanders, will pursue him as a free agent next spring. That could be determined by how well the young guys such as Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson perform over the second half of the campaign. In a sense, though, Sanders will be auditioning in front of New England personnel men. By the way, the player the Patriots chose in the third round with the pick they would have forfeited to the Steelers had Pittsburgh not matched the restricted free agent offer sheet, is safety Logan Ryan. The former Rutgers standout has played in all eight games, started two, and become an increasing presence in nickel situations. He has 12 tackles, 1.5 sacks, two passes defensed and an interception returned for a touchdown.

*Some things you don’t forget, even if you sometimes forget to write them on time. But better late than never, right? The 13th anniversary of the Oct. 24, 2000, death of longtime NFL writer Steve Schoenfeld, a good friend to many of us old-timers still in the business, recently passed. “Schoney” was one of a kind, a gadfly, for sure, but a guy who cared about getting things right, a good and dogged reporter who sweated the details, who treated people fairly and valued relationships, both personal and professional. Anyone who knew Steve—killed at just 45 by a hit-and-run driver as he crossed a Tempe, Ariz., street, after attending a lecture by former White House reporter Helen Thomas – fondly recalls him forever flitting around and kibitzing in press boxes and media work rooms, a personality like no other. He and his wife Robin, since remarried, are still in the thoughts of a lot of people.

*In case anyone is wondering, the overtime sack Cameron Wake had on Thursday night to win the game over Cincinnati, 22-20, was the third game-ending safety in NFL history, but really the first time one occurred on which a quarterback was actually sacked for the two points. The first overtime safety was in Minnesota’s 19-17 win over the Los Angeles Rams on Nov. 5, 1989. In that game, Vikings linebacker Mike Merriweather blocked a Dale Hatcher punt out of the end zone for the safety. In the other, Chicago’s 23-21 victory over Tennessee on Nov. 14, 2004, the play was a bit stranger. On a third-and-14 fro
m the Tennessee five-yard line, Bears’ defensive linemen Alex Brown and Adewale Ogunleye combined to sack Tennessee quarterback Billy Volek, who fumbled into the end zone. The fumble was recovered by Chicago tackle Fred Miller, who was tackled by Ogunleye for the safety.

*There have been a lot of unsung heroes for the undefeated Kansas City Chiefs this season, but one of the guys who probably doesn’t get enough credit, particularly given the way the team plays, is punter Dustin Colquitt. The nine-year veteran is key to the team’s methodology – play a conventional game based, in part, on field position, turnovers, takeaways and the running game – and is having a standout season. Despite the Chiefs’ unbeaten status, Colquitt remarkably leads the NFL in punts (49) and, while he ranks low in net average, he is No. 1 in punts inside the 20-yard line, while only four punters have forced more fair catches. Maybe outside the Kansas City locker room, Colquitt hasn’t gotten much attention, but he certainly is appreciated by his teammates.

+SHORT YARDAGE

*It might be easy to look at his 4.5 sacks and conclude that Houston defensive lineman J.J. Watt isn’t having the kind of season he did in 2012, when he notched 20.5 sacks. But the pro scouts who have watched Watt say he’s every bit as good, and certainly just as intense, as a year ago. . . . A lot of league observers are surprised that New England ranks second in the league in most passes dropped, with 24. But the Patriots have been among the top 10 “dropsy” offenses in three of the past four seasons and in the top 12 in four out of five. They had 41 drops a year ago, according to Stats. Inc., and other statistical services. New England has three wide receivers with at least five drops each – Thompkins (seven, tied for the league lead), Dobson (six) and Julian Edelman (five) – and is on pace for the worst season since Stats, Inc., began maintaining “drops” statistics in 1992. . . . There are only five current NFL coaches who have been with their present franchise for five seasons or more and have yet to go to a Pro Bowl: Marvin Lewis of Cincinnati (11th season), Gary Kubiak of Houston (eighth), Atlanta’s Mike Smith (sixth), the New York Jets’ Rex Ryan (fifth) and Jim Schwartz of Detroit (fifth). . . . The first Hall of Fame ballots, reducing the preliminary list from 126 nominees to 25 semifinalists, were due in Canton on Friday, and once again some choices were difficult. Selectors likely found that some positions – such as wide receiver, offensive line and defensive back – were top-heavy with possibilities. On the other hand, it figures to be another year in which there are no quarterbacks among the semi-finalists. . . . With just nine sacks so far this season – only Chicago has fewer – the Steelers are considering bringing in a pass-rush tutor to work with players, especially “edge” defenders, in the offseason. Club officials, including coach Mike Tomlin, who realizes that the lack of pressure has resulted in a dearth of takeaways, recently spoke to a pass rush “mentor” about working with some of the team’s defenders. . . . The aforementioned Hardy and bookend partner Charles Johnson could wreak all kinds of havoc on the Atlanta offensive line Sunday, but the Falcons privately fear that Carolina first-round tackle Star Lotulelei, who’s been up and down so far in 2013, could be trouble for their inside linemen. . . . Among the most disappointing units in the league has to be the Dallas secondary, an area of priority for the club in the offseason, but one where poor play and injuries have the Cowboys ranked dead-last against the pass, the lone club in NFL history to have surrendered four 400-yard games (already). The breakdowns have been across the board, basically at every position, although in Sean Lee, the Cowboys do have one key component of a Monte Kiffin “cover two” scheme, a linebacker who can run deep to the middle and cover. . . . On the flipside, the Cowboys and line coach Rod Marinelli haven’t gotten enough credit for resurrecting the career of end George Selvie, a former seventh-round pick (St. Louis in 2010), who had been released by three teams before Dallas plucked him off the scrap heap in the offseason. Selvie has five sacks, after notching only three in his first three seasons, and has given Dallas a presence off the edge that’s been missing some because of the injury to sack star DeMarcus Ware. Marinelli also deserves credit for the play of tackle Jason Hatcher, who leads all interior linemen with a career-best seven sacks. . . . Signed to be the replacement for the released Michael Turner, tailback Steven Jackson has been a disappointment so far in Atlanta, both in terms of production and an inability to stay on the field. But the Falcons’ coaches haven’t lost faith in the former St. Louis standout, and seem to assign more of the blame for the team’s running woes (ranked last in the NFL in rushing offense) on a line that can’t seem to move anyone. Jackson hasn’t looked as plodding as Turner did last year – anyone notice that no one signed Turner after the Falcons released him? – but the fact remains that, aside from a 50-yard breakout run in the season opener at New Orleans, he is averaging 4.3 feet (that’s right, feet) per attempt, and that 15 of his 23 runs have been for one yard or less. . . . With the season-ending ACL injury to defensive tackle Geno Atkins on Thursday night, Cincinnati coordinator Mike Zimmer may be forced to change some of the Bengals’ pass-rush schemes, since he won’t have such an inside presence. One possibility is using more of his “speed” guys at the same time, instead of rotating them. Zimmer likely won’t go to the so-called “NASCAR” rush used by some clubs in the past, featuring four ends on the field at the same time on third down, but he’ll make some adjustments. . . . In a statistical rarity, three of the defenders tied for the lead with four interceptions are linebackers – Kiko Alonso (Buffalo), Sean Lee (Dallas) and DeAndre Levy (Detroit).

+BY THE NUMBERS

*For six seasons, Atlanta coach Mike Smith has preached a “start fast” gospel, and the good news for the Falcons is that, for the most part, they have heeded that message. In only one of Smith’s first five seasons with the franchise, 2010 (and then only by six points), was Atlanta outscored by its opponents in the first quarter. Over that five-year stretch, the Falcons held a plus-38.8 advantage over their opponents in the opening quarter. This season, the Falcons have again outscored opponents in the first quarter, 44-3. That 41-point edge is the largest disparity in the NFL in the opening quarter, even more than that rung up by the prolific Denver Broncos (plus-22). Yet the Falcons are 2-5 entering Sunday’s game at Carolina largely because they’ve been outscored in each of the other three quarters – 50-81 in the second, 21-40 in the third and 51-60 for the fourth. The Falcons have been so dominant in the first quarter that they’ve allowed opponents only a dozen possessions. Eight ended on punts, two on turnovers, and one on downs. The lone first-quarter points against Atlanta came on a 22-yard field goal by Nick Folk of the New York Jets on Oct. 7, in the fifth game of the season.

The wrecking ball

Even though the season hasn’t officially reached the midway point, there is mounting sentiment that the NFC’s representative in Super Bowl XLVIII will be either New Orleans or one of two teams from the NFC West. But the Green Bay Packers, at 5-2 and atop the NFC North after Sunday night’s dominating victory at Minnesota, might actually be countering such conventional wisdom in what for them is a relatively unconventional way.

With a running game.

Yeah, we know. The mere concept of being able to effectively run the ball is about as anathema to the folks in Frozen Tundraland as is a December morning that doesn’t begin with shoveling out the driveway before heading to work. But the Packers, who haven’t featured a 1,000-yard rusher since Ryan Grant in 2009, demonstrated again in the 44-31 victory over the Vikings that an infusion of new blood has provided the long dormant running attack a pulse.

Rookie Eddie Lacy, a second-rounder beginning to look more like a Brink’s heist than just your typical draft steal, lugged the football 29 times. It was a ponderous workload, the former Alabama standout suggested, that was unprecedented in his football career, even including high school and pee-wee ball. Lacy netted 94 yards for the evening, averaging only a pedestrian 3.2-yards per attempt, and his long run was for 17 yards. In fact, nearly half of Lacy’s 29 rushes (26) were good for one yard or less and five of them were negative-yardage runs.

There is little doubt, though, that Lacy leaned on the Vikings and helped to erode the will and gumption of the Minnesota defense.

“When you pound that big body in there that many times,” said Green Bay right tackle Don Barclay, “it’s going to make a difference; it has a (cumulative) effect.”

Indeed, Lacy, who is listed at 230 pounds but is probably something north of that (he certainly runs even harder that his ascribed weight), produced just 31 yards on 13 first-half carries. On the Packers’ first series, just one of his six rushes netted more than two yards. But as the night wore on, he wore out a Vikings’ defense that was geared more toward stopping quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

Lacy amassed 63 yards on 16 second-half rushes. That’s again below, but just slightly, the usual NFL standard of at least 4.0 yards per carry. But his importance to the Green Bay offense can’t be measured only in statistics, players from both the teams acknowledged after the game. And Lacy, who has now carried 97 times in the past four outings, and no fewer than 22 times in that stretch, suggested he relishes the healthy workload. Prior to the Monday night St. Louis-Seattle matchup, the NFL had produced just 33 games with a back getting 22 or more carries, and Lacy had four of them.

Eddie LacyDespite appearing in only six games so far this season, Lacy currently ranks 13th in the NFL with 112 rushing attempts.

Said Lacy, only the fourth running back chosen in the draft: “(Twenty-nine) is a lot of carries, but I like having the ball in my hands. I tend to get stronger.”

Make no mistake, the Packers are still principally about Rodgers, and his ability to throw the ball almost unerringly despite a wide receiver corps that would make a M*A*S*H unit appear robust by comparison. Rodgers was surgically precise again on Sunday night, even though even the most ardent fantasy football players might not have recognized any of his receivers outside of Jordy Nelson. Rodgers’ accuracy, and his remarkable ability on third down in particular, was the story of the game. But Lacy provided an important chapter, too, and is increasingly doing so.

While Rodgers’ stiletto strikes are still the Green Bay calling card, coach Mike McCarthy frequently is dialing up Lacy’s number these days. And while we’ve long contended that you don’t necessarily have to run the ball to win in the league anymore, the second half of the premise is that, if you can run, it allows you to do almost anything you want.

Facing Rodgers and the Green Bay offense, that has to be a scary thought.

Not since 2004, when Ahman Green was still in his heyday, has Green Bay finished a season ranked among the top 10 in rushing offense. Under McCarthy’s stewardship, which commenced in ’06, the Packers have never statistically been above No. 14 and just twice rated in the top 20. After finishing 17th and then 14th in rushing in Rodgers’ first two seasons as the starter, the club has been 20th or worse the past three years. Little wonder that Rodgers – the only quarterback in league history to twice pass for 4,000 yards in seasons in which he was sacked 50 or more times – has championed the club’s upgraded running attack.

Once a last resort, the Green Bay ground game has become no day at the beach for opposition defenses. Lacy is the kind of wrecking ball that Miley Cyrus wouldn’t sing about, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t singing his praises. None of the three backs chosen ahead of him in April – Giovanni Bernard (Cincinnati), Le’Veon Bell (Pittsburgh) or Montee Ball (Denver) – has had as big an impact.

“They’re probably more balanced than they’ve been,” Minnesota defensive end Jared Allen said of the Packers. “The big guy (Lacy) gives them another dimension.”

Green Bay has now accumulated 100 or more rushing yards in six straight games. In three of those contests, the Packers ran for 180 yards or more. With 446 yards, Lacy is close, in less than half a season, to the team-leading 464 yards that Alex Green (no longer with Green Bay) posted in 2012. Lacy has only one attempt for more than 20 yards, but his value isn’t necessarily in the big play. Instead, he gives Green Bay a chance to methodically bludgeon opponents with a blunt instrument, something that has been lacking with the Packers for several years now.

NFP Sunday Blitz

In the 12-season period of 2000-2011, there was an average of 51.8 interceptions per year returned for touchdowns, and never more than 59 “pick six” plays in a single campaign. Last season, though, the NFL established a record for a 16-game season, with 71 touchdowns on interception returns.

And despite Thursday night’s Carolina-Tampa Bay matchup, in which there were no interceptions at all, let alone any returned for touchdowns, the league remained on pace—with 30 interceptions for scores in 108 games—to tie that record.

So maybe the late Darrell Royal was onto something, huh, when he noted many years ago that there are three things that can happen when you throw the football, and that two of them are bad. Especially when he was alluding to interceptions. Interceptions, of course, are the worst of the outcomes, Royal suggested, when the ball is in the air. Interceptions returned for touchdowns? Well, probably the worst of the worst.

There seems to be a stretch in every NFL season in which there is an unusually high number of interceptions run back for scores. This season, though, the spate has continued through the first half of the season, not just for a week or two. Teams are attempting more passes than ever before, and it seems that frustrated defenders have just about had enough. Actually, maybe not quite enough of what suddenly has become a pretty good thing.

The first seven weeks of the season represented a veritable handful of riches for those defenders who relished visiting the end zone.

“You can never get enough of (intercepting) the ball and taking it back all the way,” said Atlanta cornerback Asante Samuel, who has scored on six of the 50 pickoffs he has collected in his 11-year career, last week. “It’s about the best individual feeling you can have. This year, the hunted has definitely been the hunter.”

“It seems like about every week anymore, you turn on the highlights and guys are bringing back interceptions for touchdowns, you know?” said Chicago cornerback Tim Jennings, the only league defender with two returns for scores. “It’s nice to see a little payback.”

Asante SamuelSamuel has run back six interceptions for touchdowns during his career.

Last weekend, analysts from virtually every network made a big deal of the fact that the Week 7 slate of games featured five “pick six” touchdowns. Yet while the five scores tied a season high for such plays (there were also five in Week 5), it’s been somewhat overlooked that there have been at least four interceptions returned for touchdowns in every week of the ‘13 season so far. That’s more than happenstance; it’s become fairly accepted now that part of the typical risk of throwing the ball so often is that the wrong team is going to score, too, every once in a while. It’s just that, in 2013, “once in a while” has become more frequent.

Twenty-two teams each have at least one interception return for a touchdown. There are five defenses with multiple “pick six” steals, and three teams – Chicago, Kansas City and Washington—have three apiece. There are 13 clubs that have yet to have an interception returned against them for a TD, but Jacksonville and St. Louis both have permitted three touchdowns on interceptions. And, of course, Houston has had five, remarkably one each in five straight outings. Four of those came against beleaguered starter Matt Schaub.

“It’s pretty deflating,” a Texans offensive veteran acknowledged to NFP last week. “It’s hard enough to win in this league without (surrendering) ‘gimmes.’ But, for a while there, it was like a guy with the wrong color uniform was running to the end zone every time you looked up. It gets kind of disheartening. For the other guys, I’m sure it’s an uplifting thing.”

Take the Seahawks’ 23-20 overtime victory at Reliant Stadium on Sept. 23. Houston led 20-13 with just under three minutes to play, and it appeared the Texans were about to put the game away. But on a third-and-four play from the Seattle 40-yard line, Schaub, under a heavy rush, flicked an ill-advised, wobbly pass toward tight end Owen Daniels. The resourceful Richard Sherman intercepted and sprinted 58 yards down the left sideline to tie the score.

Said the loquacious Sherman afterwards: “I wouldn’t say we were buried, because we never feel like we’re out of a game. But some people were calling for the shovels, I’m sure. We kicked off the dirt.”

There are plenty of reasons for the “pick six” spree, not the least of which, as was mentioned above, are the number of passes thrown this season. Running plays per game are at an all-time low pace, and, in a league that has skewed toward the pass the past several seasons, some games in 2013 could perhaps have employed an air traffic controller to police the skies. Players from every level of the defense have joined in the scoring action; everyone wants in on the act. The touchdowns have come from 10 safeties, eight cornerbacks, nine linebackers, and even two linemen.

“I think there’s a mentality now that, ‘Hey, we’re allowed to score, too.’ You want the ball in your hands. And when you get it there, you just naturally want to get the ball to the end zone. We can be part of the (scoring) act, too,” said Tampa Bay third-year middle linebacker Mason Foster, who had an 85-yard touchdown return against New Orleans on Sept. 15.

Added Chiefs’ safety Eric Berry, who has one of the team’s three scores for a club that leads the NFL in turnover differential (plus-11), is tied for the league lead in takeaways (19), and tied for third in interceptions (10): “It gets a little contagious, you know? The coaches really stress the importance of (turnovers) and, if you’re going to get one, why not score? It’s not like you’re (consciously) thinking about it but when it happens, you react. And the reaction here has been good. It’s become a second-nature thing for us.”

That may be true, but it isn’t second nature yet for some players. Atlanta end Osi Umenyiora, for instance, went 68 yards against St. Louis on Sept. 15. But on the first interception of his career, which came on a zone-blitz when he dropped into the flat and grabbed a deflection, he seemed almost stunned. And even when he began running, he held onto the ball tightly with both hands. “The next time,” Umenyiora laughed, “I’ll try to be a little smoother. I mean, it just happened.”

It is happening, though, with greater regularity. And perhaps one reason, which hasn’t been widely discussed, is that teams aren’t hitting as much in practice now (as regulated by CBA rules), and are working a little more on non-contact seven-on-seven type drills. Defenders see more passes in practice, as well as in games, these days. In a tote board-type league, where the scoring numbers have skyrocketed, the coaches emphasize more than ever the potential for defensive touchdowns of all kinds, but especially by interception return.

“I’ve always wanted the ball in my hands,” said Washington cornerback DeAngelo Hall, who has four career interception returns for touchdowns, including one this season. “It’s a dream for (defenders) to show what they can do with the ball.”

And, this year, the dreams are coming true at a record rate.

+AROUND THE LEAGUE

Hakeem NicksWill the Giants trade WR Hakeem Nicks before the deadline?

*With the NFL trade deadline arriving on Tuesday, there again figures to be plenty of speculation about players who could change teams before 4 p.m. (ET). But even with the deadline having been nudged back by two weeks last year, most personnel guys in the league will be surprised if there’s much action. “Lots of talk but, as usual, the only ones who get rich are the (long distance telephone) carriers,” one AFC general manager said. Indeed, over the past 20 years, the league has averaged fewer than two “deadline deals” per season. There was some action the past few weeks in advance of the deadline, like the swaps of tackles Eugene Monroe (Jacksonville to Baltimore) and Bryant McKinnie (Baltimore to Miami), but no blockbusters, as is usually the case in other sports. It’s not surprising that most of the rumors have involved wide receivers – guys like Justin Blackmon (Jacksonville), Kenny Britt (Tennessee), Josh Gordon (Cleveland) and Hakeem Nicks (New York Giants) – because the feeling is they can fit quicker into an offense.

“It’s more an individual position than just about any other place on the field,” one assistant coach said on Friday in discussing possible moves. “But there are always circumstances that make it dicey – contract stuff, temperament, things like that.” Historically, it seems like a lineman or two always gets traded at the deadline, but usually a spare part to a team seeking to improve depth.

*Dallas defensive lineman and former Grambling standout Jason Hatcher used the term “embarrassing” and “nonsense” to describe the recent situation at his alma mater, where players last week skipped a game against Jackson State because of a number of grievances. League scouts who had visited Grambling for a number of years, and saw firsthand the deteriorating conditions there – not to mention the shrinking talent base – were even stronger in their assessment. They called the situation deplorable and saddening in discussions with NFP.

But while the Grambling situation may not mirror the conditions at all of the historically black college and university (HBCU) programs, it is indicative of the plight of most of the schools, which once represented a significant “feeder” system for the league. There was only one prospect from an HBCU school selected in the 2013 draft, the fewest ever. In the past five years, there have been only 13; the last time the HBCU schools reached double-digit draft choices was 2000, and not since 2008 (Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie by Arizona) has there been a first-rounder. In part because of integration in the college game, particularly with the SEC schools, the HBCU programs, most of which are located in the South, can’t compete anymore for the top talent. Because kids that once went to Grambling, Jackson State, Southern or Alcorn State aren’t restricted now, they’re recruited by Alabama, Georgia, Auburn or LSU.

“All things being equal . . . well, you just can’t afford to be equal,” said Indianapolis cornerback Greg Toler, from St. Paul’s (Va.) University, an HBCU school. Added Detroit cornerback Rashean Mathis, from Bethune-Cookman: “Progress is great and you sure don’t want to turn back the clock. But the (black) schools probably have paid a price for the progress.” Grambling, which can boast four of the 25 HBCU players in the Hall of Fame, certainly has. Hatcher, chosen by the Cowboys in the third round in 2006, is the last Grambling player selected in the lottery. Over the past 20 drafts, the school has had just 20 players taken, with three of those in the seventh round.

*Carolina quarterback Cam Newton has tried mightily to spread the credit for the team’s current three-game winning streak – the Thursday night victory at Tampa Bay moved the club over .500 for the first time since 2008 – to his teammates. But while the Panthers are playing well, have scored more than 30 points in each of their three straight wins, and are performing stoutly on defense, people in and outside of the organization agree it’s the third-year quarterback who’s made the big difference. There have always been insinuations that the former Heisman Trophy winner and top overall choice in the 2011 draft needed to improve his work habits. Even some of his staunchest supporters in his hometown of Atlanta, where I live, privately hinted that Newton needed to buckle down and spend more time in film study. Team sources concede he’s done just that, and that, despite the “Superman” act that was on display again Thursday, he’s significantly matured.

Cam NewtonNewton has quietly put together a terrific 2013 campaign.

“You didn’t see him around here as often (in the offseason),” an old friend from Newton’s days at Lakeside High School told NFP last week. “I think he must have been (concentrating) more on the football stuff.” The numbers indicate that’s the case. His rating of 131.3 over the past three games, which features six touchdown passes and no interceptions, certainly hints of that. His completion percentage for the season – 64.9 percent, versus 58.8 percent for Newton’s first two years in the league – clearly is indicative of his growth. Newton strung together a five-game streak last season in which he did not have an interception, and threw 10 scoring passes, but he seems to be playing even better now. And ever-candid wide receiver Steve Smith, who suggested last week the quarterback has graduated from “checkers to chess,” is making better decisions.

Newton still takes way too many sacks (he is on pace to get dumped a career-worst 48 times), but he’s not bolting from the pocket as quickly (his 523-yard rushing pace is below the 723.5-yard average of 2011-2012), and seems more comfortable in the pocket. There are a lot of reasons why the Panthers – who face an upcoming three-game grind that will probably demonstrate if they are contenders or pretenders – have played better. But Newton is chief among them.

*Other than the Greg Schiano-related drama, there isn’t a whole lot worth watching when it comes to the Bucs. But if they’re on in your area – and there’s absolutely nothing else on the tube – you might want to devote a few minutes to eyeballing weakside linebacker Lavonte David, No. 54. The second-year veteran, a second-round pick in 2012, is more than just a solid player who jumps out because he’s surrounded by so many bad ones. The former Nebraska star can flat-out play.

“He can run and he can hit,” Tampa Bay general manager Mark Dominik told NFP. “He’s the real deal.”

Indeed, we’ve now seen David in his last two games, one in person, and, despite his team being out of both contests, he was still going hard. He’s easily the best Tampa Bay player on the field. As a rookie, David led the Bucs in tackles (139) and added two sacks, five passes defensed and an interception. He’s on pace in 2013 for 137 tackles, already has five sacks, five passes defensed, and a pickoff. He’s virtually buried on a bad team, at least in terms of national recognition, but he’s worth watching, because his game is so well-rounded.

“I didn’t know much about him,” Atlanta tight end Tony
Gonzalez said last week, “but having seen him firsthand, he can play.”

*We’re not much into fantasy football and, in fact, know very little about it. But if you’re looking for a good “play” this week, you might want to consider Gonzalez, who figures to bounce back at Arizona from arguably his worst outing of the year. In seven games, the Cardinals have allowed opposing tight ends 44 receptions for an average of more than 15 yards, and eight touchdowns. The interior of the secondary, hardly a strong point to date, figures to have its hands full with the future Hall of Fame tight end. In last week’s game, the Atlanta coaches cleverly went away from Gonzalez, who had only two catches and was targeted a season-low four times. Instead, they focused on wide receiver Harry Douglas, who had a career day, and on screen passes (which was predicted in this spot last Sunday), and the results were excellent. But with such potentially easy pickings, expect Matt Ryan to get back in a big way to Gonzalez on Sunday afternoon.

Chip KellyFormer Oregon boss Chip Kelly is still looking for his first home win.

*Something’s got to give, right? Philadelphia is 0-3 at home under first-year coach Chip Kelly and hasn’t won a game at Lincoln Financial Field in more than a year. The team’s last home triumph was against the NFC East-rival New York Giants, whom it ironically hosts on Sunday, a 19-17 victory on Sept. 30, 2012. Heck, even former Philadelphia coach Andy Reid, now in Kansas City, owns a win at The Linc this season. On the flipside, the Giants have lost eight straight on the road, and haven’t won an away game in nearly a year, since beating the Cowboys at Dallas last Oct. 28. The Eagles have lost nine straight home games dating back to last season and have been outscored by an average of 10.4 points in that stretch, with four of the defeats by 13 points or more. The nine-game drought more than doubles the previous longest home losing streak for the Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field, which opened in 2003. That was four games, on two occasions, and both of them stretched over portions of two seasons – in 2005-2006 and 2010-2011. Philadelphia is 5-5 against the Giants at The Linc. In its eight-game road losing streak, New York has been outscored 247-102, three times lost by 20 points or more, and twice been shut out.

*His team never won a Super Bowl, but late Tennessee owner Bud Adams deserves credit for the foresight that will spare his family a ton of money in estate taxes. The league for years has regularly convened estate-planning seminars for owners at its annual March meetings, and Adams clearly paid attention in determining the future fate of a franchise valued at just over $1 billion. His grandson, Kenneth Adams IV, is likely to be the family member most involved in the daily activities of the club moving forward. But many in the league believe that son-in-law Tommy Smith, who once played a prominent role, especially in negotiating contracts and legal issues, will get involved again in club matters.

*The de-emphasis of the running back position could be tricking down to the college game as well, and that might mean another draft shy of backs, particularly at the top of the lottery. According to what I'm hearing from scouts, the top-rated senior runner is Ben Malena of Texas A&M, and his grade basically equates to that of a third-rounder. Three other backs, Arizona State’s Marion Grice, DeNarius McGhee of Montana State and LaDarius Perkins of Mississippi State, all are close behind. It’s believed that the grades are similarly bleak all around. Of course, the combines have assessed only the senior prospects for the 2014 draft. But word is that the underclass crop isn’t especially exciting, either. Over the past three years, there were just four runners chosen in the first round – and three of those were in 2012, with none this year – and that trend definitely could continue.

+SHORT YARDAGE

*The Arizona coaches have begun to feel that former first-rounder Michael Floyd might finally provide the Cardinals the complement to the great Larry Fitzgerald the team has been seeking for years. The second-year veteran is said to be playing with much more confidence. . . . One non-youngster who is making a bit of a late splash is Ted Ginn Jr. in Carolina. Yeah, the seven-year veteran had a bad drop on a deep ball Thursday night, and inconsistent hands have always been a bugaboo. But Ginn is on pace for 46 catches (which would be his most since 2008) and a career-best 816 yards, and is at least taking some of the heat off Steve Smith. Ginn, who can still take the top off a secondary, is playing on a one-year contract, and could make himself some money in the free agent market if he continues to play well. . . . On the subject of the HBCU programs, discussed above: The problem isn’t just about integration; it’s clearly economic as well. LSU, which is only about two hours from Grambling, had $115 million in sports-related revenue in 2012. Grambling took in about $6 million. The aggregate athletic revenues from what are historically the five most prominent HBCU schools in terms of athletics was just over $40 million for last year. . . . The Steelers made a wise move last week in re-doing the contract of cornerback Ike Taylor, basically a simple restructure. The move gives the club a little breathing room under the cap, but also makes it easier to keep Taylor in 2014. Although he’s never made it to a Pro Bowl, Taylor is a quality corner. Venerable coordinator Dick LeBeau believes that if Taylor had better hands – he has dropped dozens of potential interceptions over the years – he would be regarded as one of the NFL’s top players at the position. . . . Tampa Bay officials reiterated to NFP last week that they welcome any league investigation about who leaked word of former quarterback Josh Freeman’s ADHD problems, and his use of Adderall. They will never say so publicly, but Bucs’ officials believe the leak originated from the Freeman camp and was part of what they feel was a strategy to get the former first-rounder out of Tampa Bay. . . . The Panthers’ three-game winning streak will take some of the heat off coach Ron Rivera, who’s done a nice job bringing the club back from a poor start, but people in the league still insist it’s hard to get a read on the plans of general manager Dave Gettleman. . . . Carson Palmer is the seventh different quarterback who has started for Arizona since the retirement of Kurt Warner after the 2009 season, a span of only 55 games. Little wonder first-year coach Bruce Arians, who would like to develop some sense of stability at the position, has stuck by Palmer so far. . . . It’s probably too early yet for the Giants to offer an extension to recently-acquired middle linebacker Jon Beason. But if the seven-year veteran continues his strong play – 21 tackles in the two starts he’s made for New York since being acquired from Carolina for a seventh-round draft pick – expect the team to at least approach him about an add-on. Beason’s gaudy contract with the Panthers was reduced to a $1 million base for 2013, and three seasons were voided, making him eligible for free agency in the spring. The lure of free agency might be too much to ignore, but the rejuvenated Beason has drawn rave reviews in New York, and the team could make overtures about keeping him.

+BY THE NUMBERS

*OK, it’s only three games, but winless Jacksonville hasn’t scored a home touchdown all season. In 35 offensive possessions, the Ja
guars have 20 punts, three field goals, six interceptions and six series that either terminated at the end of a half/game or on downs. They also have one safety, are on pace to score 174 points (which would be the sixth worst total since the 16-game schedule was implemented in 1978), and haven’t gotten to the end zone at EverBank Field since a three-yard pass from Chad Henne to Justin Blackmon in the first quarter of a loss to the Patriots last December 23. In their last 20 home games, Jacksonville has scored more than two offensive touchdowns only three times.

Not so unstoppable after all

The good news for Denver – relatively speaking, since the Broncos dropped their first game of the season Sunday night, a 39-33 defeat in Peyton Manning’s emotional return to Indianapolis – is that the team is still on pace to obliterate the NFL’s single-season scoring mark and its four-time MVP quarterback figures to make a mockery of most one-year passing records.

The bad news: To advance deep into the playoffs, and possibly to a berth in Super Bowl XLVIII, the defensively deficient Broncos might need every bit of that glittering offensive output to overcome their shortcomings.

Only five times since 1978, the season in which the NFL implemented a 16-game schedule, has a franchise gone to the playoffs while allowing 400 or more points. After Sunday’s debacle, in which the defense permitted 37 points (you can’t blame the unit for the safety the Colts scored) despite surrendering its second fewest yards of the year, Denver is on pace to give up 450 points. Among the playoff qualifiers since ’78, only the St. Louis Rams, who surrendered 471 points while winning a wild card spot in 2000, were more generous.

It didn’t seem to matter that Indianapolis netted “only” 334 yards in the victory. We say “only,” because just Oakland, with 293 yards in a Sept. 23 loss to the Broncos at Sports Authority Field, had fewer. In fact, the Raiders were the only one of Denver’s six victims in ‘13 to generate less than 360 yards. Two opponents – including Dallas, which rang up a monstrous 522 yards in the Broncos’ 51-48 shootout victory just a couple weeks ago – had 450 yards or more. Even winless/hapless Jacksonville, the lone opponent to score fewer than 20 points this season versus the Broncos, had 362 yards.

Colts quarterback Andrew Luck had an efficient but not great outing, throwing for 228 yards. No Indianapolis back rushed for more than 37 yards. Yet the resourceful Colts seemed to bully the Denver defense, made plays when they had to, and kept drives alive. Sure, the Colts’ defense deserves plenty of kudos for holding Denver to so many field goals, but the offense set a physical tone as well, and that should be worrisome to the Broncos’ defense.

Champ BaileyCornerback Champ Bailey returned to action in Week 6 only to suffer another setback.

“Way too many mistakes,” lamented safety Rahim Moore after the Broncos’ first loss of the season. “We’ve got to be better than that.”

Indeed, the defense does, at least if Denver plans to play for the championship.

For the first six weeks of the season, when the Broncos were undefeated, their high-octane offense likely camouflaged some of the defensive problems. But following the loss at Lucas Oil Stadium, there was no hiding the Broncos’ defensive lapses, which were certainly exposed in front of a national television audience. It might be tough for opponents to easily duplicate the Indianapolis defensive effort against Manning, to employ as a template the aggressive man-to-man coverages and solid pass rush versus an injury-ravaged Denver offensive line, to hold the Broncos and all their explosive pieces in check. But there figures to be other games in which the offense doesn’t casually score 40 points, or in which Manning stumbles a bit, and the defense will need to pick up the slack.

On Sunday night, when its problems were conspicuous, the unit seemed incapable of handling that chore. Said one front seven player, who acknowledged Monday to NFP that the defense played too soft: “We can’t count on (the offense) to win games for us every week. You can’t be just half a team in this league. It wasn’t like Sunday was the only game where there have been problems (with the defense). But when you win, it covers up a lot of stuff.

”On Sunday, though, a lot of scabs were ripped open.”

In fairness, it should be pointed out that the Broncos played the first six games of the season without edge rusher Von Miller and cornerback Champ Bailey. But in his return against the Colts, Miller appeared rusty and Bailey limped off with what appeared to be a reoccurrence of the left foot injury that had sidelined him. Middle linebacker Wesley Woodyard, arguably among the most underrated defenders in the league, did not suit up and he was missed.

Miller may play himself back into shape, but Bailey is 35 now and the 12-time Pro Bowl cornerback might finally be in decline. The Broncos might need some other players to step up and, frankly, must play sounder overall. Denver right now is a prime example that pure statistics don’t always matter. After all, the Broncos have nine interceptions and only five teams have more. They have permitted opposing quarterbacks a completion rate of fewer than 60 percent and a passer rating of 89.7, and neither is particularly bad.

But the Broncos also are on pace to allow 5,118 passing yards, which would be a new NFL worst. And after surrendering only 38 completions of 20 yards or more for the entire 2012 season, they’ve given up 40 such plays already. Those are, it seems, conspicuous numbers that do count.

It’s somewhat ironic that one loss, even to a team as solid as Indianapolis, could make a team’s problems stand out so much more. But the defeat to the Colts kind of unmasked some of the Denver deficiencies, and they are areas that need addressed by coordinator Jack Del Rio and his staff.

Sunday night’s hiccup notwithstanding, Manning has been a stallion for the Broncos. The defense against the Colts, though, looked like glue-factory nags at times. And if the Broncos want to be true thoroughbreds, and finish the season in the winner’s circle, it’s got to get a lot better.

NFP Sunday Blitz

In preparation for Sunday afternoon’s game at Tennessee, the San Francisco 49ers got four players – wide receiver Mario Manningham, cornerback Eric Wright, and rookie defensive linemen Tank Carradine and Quinton Dial – back on the practice field last week. Standout wide receiver Michael Crabtree, who caught 85 passes a year ago, might return to practice in a few more weeks.

There have been reports that Seattle wide receiver Percy Harvin, arguably the club’s most notable offseason addition, could start workouts next week. Ditto New Orleans inside linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who probably will be cleared for work after this week’s bye. Kansas City rookie defensive back Sanders Commings, expected to give the Chiefs another solid secondary piece, returned to practice last week. Denver starting center J.D. Walton, who hasn’t appeared in a game yet for the undefeated and high-scoring Broncos after follow-up ankle surgery, is said to be getting closer to coming back to the team. There is a good chance that New England tailback Shane Vereen might be ready to strap on the pads in a couple weeks.

So, the NFL’s equivalent of an in-house/in-season “care package” for the not-so-needy, right? Well, sort of. But there are also some franchises with poorer records, too, ready to bring back injured players from some of the league’s various reserve lists, now that the sixth week of the 2013 season has passed.

Michael CrabtreeThe eventual return of Michael Crabtree should provide a big boost to the San Francisco offense.

With the sixth week of play in the history books, players from several of those lists – those on the physically unable to perform (PUP) and non-football injury (NFI) lists, and some of those who were placed on short-term injured reserve (designated for return later in the season) – are eligible to start practicing, and some have. They will be joined by others in the next few weeks and months. For some teams, it will mean a timely infusion of players with presumably fresh legs at a juncture of the season when there are historically fewer ambulatory bodies. So the passing of the sixth week of play last weekend held some real significance.

“They’ve still got to demonstrate that they’re ready to be back among the 53 (active players) . . . but it certainly could be a bonus,” acknowledged San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh of the potential returnees.

It hasn’t been that often in recent seasons that players who began the year on the PUP or NFI rolls have returned to dramatically enhance a team’s fortunes. The 2012 campaign was the first for the short-term I.R. list, a new rule that allowed a team to designate one seriously injured player for return to practice following a six-week hiatus, and to play in games after eight weeks of being idle. In its initial season, the short-term injured reserve rule didn’t really generate a lot of big-time late-season contributors. But there are 21 clubs (the latest Minnesota, which on Friday moved safety Harrison Smith to the designated-for-return list) that utilized the short-term designation in 2013 and some of them could gain significant relief and a late-season boost from players coming back from time off to heal.

The eligibility for return depends, of course, on when a player was originally placed on the short-term I.R. list. But half of the short-term designees, who were on the designated-for-return list in the first week of 2013, were eligible to get back to the practice field last week. And a few of them – like the Chiefs’ Commings, Cleveland guard Jason Pinkston, tailback Andre Brown of the New York Giants, Tampa Bay cornerback Danny Gorrer and running back Montell Owens of Detroit – began to practice at the earliest possible date.

“I definitely think I can step in and help this team,” said Commings, a fifth-round choice from the University of Georgia who has been recovering from a broken collarbone, and for whom Kansas City coaches seem to have plans in defensive “sub” situations. “I’m anxious to get going.”

In addition to the 20 players on short-term injured reserve, there are 22 players on the PUP list and about another 15 on NFI. Those players, who had to be placed on the lists by the start of the season, were eligible to begin practicing after the sixth week of the year was completed. Once they begin practicing again, the clock starts running on a three-week window to add them to the active roster, sit them for the remainder of the season, or release them. The PUP list includes some significant players such as Manningham, Harvin and Crabtree; fellow wide receiver Kevin Walter (Tennessee); Walton; Carolina running back Jonathan Stewart; Washington defensive lineman Adam Carriker; and linebackers Jameel McClain of Baltimore, San Diego’s Melvin Ingram and Victor Butler of the Saints.

Some of the players, including a few listed above, won’t make it back at any point in 2013. But the possibility of being able to practice and potentially play again is a tempting carrot to dangle. One player for whom the opportunity is particularly appealing is Pittsburgh linebacker Sean Spence, a third-round choice in 2012 whose entire rookie season was wiped out by a gruesome left knee injury, and who some suggested would never play in the league as a result. The former University of Miami standout still might not make it back on the field for a game this season, but the Steelers now have three weeks to evaluate him with an eye toward his future.

Another is Green Bay tackle Derek Sherrod, who hasn’t played since 2011 because of a grotesque broken leg suffered his rookie season. The former first-rounder began practicing last week and, while there is no guarantee he will return from the PUP list, he allowed there is “no gimpiness” left in his repaired leg. A Sherrod return would be a huge bonus for the Packers, who are starting a pair of young tackles.

The trade deadline arrives in just over a week, on Oct. 29, and so there remains time to make a swap. But the NFL isn’t exactly a “deadline deal” league, to say the least, averaging fewer than two trades per year at the cutoff date over the past 20 seasons. The majority of the trades haven’t been meaningful. So relief generally has to be internal, and this year teams could find some quality reinforcements in their own locker rooms and from the reserve lists.

Maybe more so than in recent seasons there might be some mid- or late-season help for a few teams, courtesy of the reserve lists.

Aaron RodgersICONQuarterback Aaron Rodgers looks forward to the possible return of Derek Sherrod.

“Just looking at the (reserve) lists,” one AFC general manager told NFP last week, “the rich clearly could get even richer in some cases.”

That’s for sure.

Imagine if the 49ers, an already strong team but one struggling at wide receiver, get Manningham and Crabtree (both PUP) back on the field in the next month or so. And perhaps the sometimes-troubled Wright (NFI) to possibly supplant a declining Nnamdi Asomugha? Or how about the specter of Harvin (PUP) teaming up with Sidney Rice, as was originally planned before the former’s hip problems, for the powerful Seahawks. Coach Pete Carroll allowed that Harvin “looks fast and (is) moving at a good clip,” and that the former Minnesota star is “really close.” With a receiving corps that might add Harvin to Rice, Golden Tate and Doug Baldwin, the Seattle passing game could really be flying. The Seahawks might also get back Pro Bowl left tackle Russell Okung (I.R.) at some point at about the three-quarter pole of the season, although his return is likely more problematic.

Although hardly the same player he once was, Vilma (short-term I.R.) could bolster a New Orleans defense that has improved significantly under coordinator Rob Ryan. The slumping Atlanta Falcons could use linebacker Sean Weatherspoon (I.R.), the unit’s top player and the defensive captain and signal-caller, back for the final two months. And the Green Bay stretch run in the final three games of the year could conceivably include electrifying wide receiver Randall Cobb, who last week was placed on short-term I.R. after sustaining a fibula injury against the Baltimore Ravens. Vereen, who practiced some at wide receiver in training camp, would add another much-needed playmaker to the rollercoaster Patriots’ offense.

It’s not like the potential returnees are akin to the cavalry riding over the hill, but the prospective charge provided by the players coming off the reserve lists could make a real difference for several franchises this season. Now that the sixth week of the season has passed, it’s definitely an element that can’t be overlooked.

+AROUND THE LEAGUE

*With the aforementioned Cobb on short-term I.R. and James Jones dinged as well, and Green Bay perilously thin at wide receiver, it seems like an opportune time for the Packers to crank up a running game that has sometimes seemed an afterthought for the high octane Aaron Rodgers-led offense. But the ground game in general, and rookie Eddie Lacy more specifically, has really emerged for the Packers and given the club a timely dimension. The good part for the Pack: It’s not as if the awakening of the running game came as a result of the diminishing body count at receiver, but more simultaneously. “It isn’t as if we forced it,” Rodgers said.

Lacy, it seemed, finally became comfortable with the run-game model and his role and, after going for just 51 yards on 15 attempts his first two games, has carried 23 times in each of his last two, for 219 yards, a healthy 4.8-yard average. The result is that Green Bay, one of just three teams in the league in the top 10 in both rushing and passing yards (and the lone offense in the top five in both categories), has become much better balanced. Rodgers, who had averaged 40.7 pass attempts the first three games of the season, has averaged 31.0 the last two. And young tackles David Bakhtiari (rookie) and Don Barclay (second season), who some suggested might be solid run-block linemen, haven’t had as much pressure on them. Lacy has looked like a load and there have been times the past two outings when the former Alabama star has virtually exploded through holes. Several Baltimore defenders remarked after last week’s loss to the Packers that Lacy possesses both the power and the surprising short-area quickness to be a very productive back.

*On the subject of another former Crimson Tide tailback: Make no mistake, the Cleveland Browns dealt Trent Richardson to Indianapolis last month for strictly football reasons. The new Browns’ football regime simply didn’t feel Richardson, the third overall choice in the 2012 draft, fit their model anymore and jumped at the opportunity to grab another first-round pick in a 2014 lottery in which they figure to nab the franchise’s quarterback of the future. There were, of course, also some injury concerns for a player at a position whose significance has diminished in the league in recent seasons. But Cleveland and NFL sources told NFP this week that a secondary factor in the decision to trade Richardson to the Colts was a concern that the second-year veteran, they felt, had some outside distractions that the Browns suggested needed addressed.

Nothing sinister, mind you, just a need to perhaps rid himself of some hangers-on and family members who were perhaps a bit too close to him. It’s not known if those alleged components have contributed to Richardson’s slow start in Indy, but the tailback has been a disappointment so far in his new uniform. Richardson has carried 61 times for only 191 yards in four appearances, an anemic 3.1-yard average. Of his 61 rushes, more than half (32) have been for two yards or less and 23 have netted one yard or less. Even subtracting Richardson’s pair of one-yard touchdown runs – on which he couldn’t have gained any more than a yard – the numbers are bad. He’s got only three rushes for more than 10 yards and his long run is for 16 yards. Not exactly what the Colts thought they were getting in Richardson and, with Ahmad Bradshaw now sidelined for the year by a neck injury, not nearly what they need from him. When the Colts acquired Richardson, we lauded the deal in the “Sunday Blitz.” It’s not important that we may have been wrong. It’s a ton more significant if the Colts were.

Greg SchianoSchiano and the Bucs need a win in the worst possible way.

*It’s always a little dicey to begin identifying coaches “on the hot seat” before a season even reaches its halfway point. But one guy whose name keeps popping up as a potential victim at the end of the season is Tampa Bay’s Greg Schiano. The history of the NFL isn’t exactly replete with head coaches who didn’t make it into their third season with a franchise. But in his second year with the Bucs, there continue to be rumblings that Schiano hasn’t connected well with his players. He dumped the guy who was supposed to have been the team’s franchise quarterback, Josh Freeman (who will start for his new team, Minnesota, on Sunday), although the former first-round pick’s regression was startling, and the change may have been justified.

There have been unsubstantiated rumors that Schiano leaked reports of Freeman’s attention deficit problems, which has prompted an NFLPA investigation. And recently, Schiano told suffering Tampa Bay fans that the team eventually will be good. No one in the ticket-buying public seems to be buying that, and the players may not have bought into their coach, either. It’s hard now to see how Schiano got the job in the first place. In 11 seasons at Rutgers, he was just one game over .500, at 68-67. Granted, the Rutgers job was a difficult one, but he was still 20 games under .500 (at 28-48) in the Big East. And he never won a championship in what might have been the BCS’ weakest conference. Tampa Bay officials, including good-guy general manager Mark Dominik (who could also be in some trouble), apparently had opted to go the college route in replacing Raheem Morris. But the Schiano choice never quite rung true with a lot of people and, in hindsight, might not have been a prude
nt one. The Bucs wanted to change the culture, but not much has changed at all. Since a surprising 10-6 record in 2010 – clearly a mirage that belied a lack of locker room leadership – Tampa Bay is just 11-26. Only Jacksonville has a worse record in that stretch. Schiano, who is 7-14 in his second season, might end up walking the plank of that crazy pirate ship in the Raymond James Stadium end zone.

*One of the best under-the-radar stories in the league to this point in the season has been the San Diego Chargers, who are only 3-3, but playing with considerable verve, as demonstrated with last Monday night’s victory over Indianapolis, and who seem to be much improved under rookie coach Mike McCoy. And one of the best stories surrounding the Bolts is the resurrection of the career of quarterback Philip Rivers, who ought to gain some early consideration for Comeback Player of the Year honors. Odd, but when he had only one guy inside his head, former coach Norv Turner, the 10-year veteran wasn’t particularly good the past couple seasons, throwing 35 interceptions and turning the ball over 47 times. Now with McCoy, coordinator (and former head coach) Ken Whisenhunt and onetime NFL quarterback Frank Reich combining to counsel him, Rivers actually seems far less confused.

The message, despite coming in three-pronged fashion, actually seems more resonant with Rivers. The trio has simplified things and, while maintaining Rivers’ status as one of the best yards-per-attempt passers in the league – he averaged 7.5 yards or better in five of his previous seven seasons as a starter and is up around the eight-yard mark again – has him making much safer throws. Throwing the ball shorter at times has, in turn, increasingly opened up things downfield for Rivers. Despite the funky delivery with which he entered the NFL, Rivers was always considered a pretty accurate passer; despite vertical emphasis, his completion rate as a starter was 63.7 percent. But it’s 72.6 percent this season, and Rivers has the NFL’s second best rating, at 108.7. Assessed one AFC personnel man: “He was a guy who everyone thought was sliding, but now he looks completely different, really confident in what he’s doing. A lot of people who had written him off would love to have him now.”

*Ask most quarterbacks and, if they’re candid, they’ll concede they’d love to spread the field and throw 40 passes a game. For St. Louis’ Sam Bradford, though, less has been more. At least in terms of formations with three and four wide receivers. Bradford has now thrown three touchdown passes in three straight contests – he did so while putting the ball in the air only 16 times last week – and a big part of his recent success has been that Rams’ coordinator Brian Schottenheimer has gotten a lot more basic with alignments. Yeah, Bradford still has a sub-par completion rate and St. Louis is still a bit too much dink-and-dunk, as evidenced by Bradford’s pedestrian yards per attempt. But the four-year veteran appears to be a lot more relaxed now and the results have been encouraging.

*We’d never suggest in this space – and nobody probably would in any other space, either – that perhaps it’s time for Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau to retire. At age 76, when most guys are in rocking chairs, the Hall of Famer and father of the zone-blitz concept is still going strong, conjuring up 3-4 schemes and looking more vital than a lot of us 15-20 years his junior. It would be heresy to suggest that LeBeau is in his football dotage. It is fair, though, to wonder if the rest of the league has finally caught up to a man whom many consider the best defensive coordinator of this era. And fair to wonder if the defense has become predictable. Of course, it’s probably also fair to note that the Steelers’ defense has gotten old and slow, too. But the truth is that Pittsburgh, which used to pressure teams mercilessly, and take the ball away, isn’t sacking quarterbacks with any kind of regularity these days, and certainly isn’t generating takeaways. Last week, in the fifth game of the season, the Steelers finally managed their first takeaways of the year.

It’s always difficult to extrapolate takeaways because, as Steelers’ free safety Ryan Clark reiterated, they tend to come in bunches. But at its current pace, the Pittsburgh defense would produce just 6.4 takeaways in 2013. The record for a full season is 12, established by Washington in 2006. The Steelers had just 35 takeaways total the past two seasons, well below the league averages, 24.9 last year and 25.3 in ‘11, and the ramifications for the offense have been disastrous. The Steelers have had 59 possessions in 2013 and, amazingly, only one started in opposition territory. And that was actually after a punt, not a turnover. The average starting point for the Pittsburgh offense has been its own 22.5-yard line, with 34 series starting at the 20-yard line or inside of it.

Tony GonzalezWith Jones and White injured, it's up to Tony G to carry the Atlanta passing attack.

*Even before the season-ending foot injury to Julio Jones and a hamstring tweak that exacerbated the situation for Roddy White (who was already playing through a high ankle sprain), the Atlanta Falcons had increasingly turned toward future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez as the focus of their passing game. Now with Jones gone and White unlikely to play Sunday, the role for the 17-year veteran figures to be further increased. But how much more can Gonzalez, who at age 37 has beaten back Father Time, really do? In the past two games, Gonzalez has been targeted 28 times and has 22 catches for 246 yards. Not since the final two outings in 2004, when he was in Kansas City, has Gonzalez had more catches in consecutive games. Only twice has he posted more yards in a two-game stretch. The disappointing Falcons are going to have to get some outside help from young and inexperienced wide receivers such as Drew Davis, Kevin Cone and Brian Robiskie (signed off the street last week), and from a running game still missing Steven Jackson. Look for the Falcons to employ a lot more two-tight end formations, with rookie Levine Toilolo (who, at 6-feet-8 has started to become a “red zone” presence) joining Gonzalez. And look for more screen passes to Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling in an effort to maintain a cleaner pocket for Matt Ryan.

*Latest example of the squeaky wheel being oiled: Atlanta coach Mike Smith complained to the league after his team’s loss to New England about the manner in which the Patriots and other teams were defending Gonzalez – not only double-teaming him but holding him up at the line and double-checking him within the five-yard zone, much in the manner teams do with special teams “gunners” – and has gotten favorable results. The Jets were flagged for holding Gonzalez two weeks ago. And the NFL has essentially instructed officials to make it a point of emphasis, not just in cases involving Gonzalez, but all receivers, to penalize the defenders for employing similar tactics.

*Not that it is any consolation to the sputtering Steelers, but the organization’s decision to release linebacker James Harrison in the spring, after he rejected a reduction that would have cut his base salary by about 30 percent (to roughly $4.7 million), looks like a good call. Harrison, 35, has basically been a non-factor for Cincinnati, wh
ich signed him to a two-year contract
that could pay him $3 million for 2013, and one has to wonder if he’ll be back next season. A 3-4 linebacker and “edge” rusher for his entire career with the Steelers, there was always a question of whether Harrison could transition to the strongside spot in Mike Zimmer’s 4-3 front. The indication so far is that he can’t. That’s why Harrison languished so long in the free agent market before the Bengals bailed him out with a deal. In six games (four starts), Harrison has only nine tackles and one sack, and definitely has struggled with the scheme. Even in a supposed “down” season with the Steelers in 2012, Harrison still registered 70 tackles and six sacks. It’s doubtful he can reach those kinds of numbers for the Bengals. Then again, his replacements in Pittsburgh, Jason Worilds and rookie Jarvis Jones, have one sack between them.

+SHORT YARDAGE

*The opinions run hot and cold on A.J. McCarron, but there are still a lot of scouts who feel the Alabama star is the best senior quarterback in the country. Better even than Clemson’s Tajh Boyd in terms of decision-making, some insist. . . . Michael Vick has a real chance of losing his starting job long-term to Nick Foles if the second-year veteran has another good outing against Dallas on Sunday. Vick is fighting through a hamstring injury, but there are some “I told you so’s” emanating from the folks in Philly who insisted in the preseason that, despite not being nearly as elusive, Foles could operate coach Chip Kelly’s offense. . . . The Atlanta defense has been the league’s worst in terms of getting off the field on third down, allowing opponents a 50-percent (33 of 66) conversion rate. But where the unit had really been dismal is in situations of third-and-eight or longer. The Falcons have allowed 10 of 22 conversions in such situations. . . . Cleveland’s Joe Haden is gaining some “cred” as one of the top cornerbacks in the league, according to scouts. The Browns still have some offensive limitations, but the defense has made terrific progress and Haden is one of the catalysts. . . . A few weeks ago in this space, we noted that, under new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, the Saints were blitzing their safeties as much as in the past. But Ryan recently has turned loose free safety Malcolm Jenkins, who has developed into a superb rusher out of the slot, and the veteran has rung up 2.5 sacks now. It’s not quite the same as when strong safety Roman Harper had 7.5 sacks a few years ago under Gregg Williams’ tutelage, but it’s something now for which opponents must increasingly prepare.

+BY THE NUMBERS

*The Cincinnati front four gets plenty of credit for the team’s defensive performance of the past few years, and the plaudits are clearly deserved for the stout unit. But the club’s secondary has been pretty good, too – perhaps, in part, because of a terrific pass rush — as evidenced by the fact the Bengals haven’t surrendered a 300-yard passing performance in 20 straight games now. Despite facing prolific passers such as Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Philip Rivers, Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger (three times), Tom Brady, Tony Romo and Jay Cutler, the Bengals have permitted an average of only 212.9 yards to starters in that 20-game stretch. Opponents have passed for fewer than 250 yards nine times and less than 200 yards on six occasions, during the streak, and their cumulative passer rating is just 75.2. The last starter to throw for more than 300 yards versus the Bengals was Cleveland’s Brandon Weeden, who totaled 322 yards, on September 16, 2012. Not quite as impressive, but still pretty good, the Bengals have gone 15 straight road games without surrendering a 300-yard outing. On Sunday, they travel to Ford Field in Detroit to face the Lions’ Matthew Stafford, who has nine 300-yard games in his past 20 starts.