Point 1: The Miami Dolphins will be keeping a close eye on Dallas Clark this Monday night.
With the Colts' No. 2 wide receiver, Anthony Gonzalez, sidelined with a knee injury, it makes sense that Colts quarterback Peyton Manning will lean more heavily on his top receiver, Reggie Wayne, and tight end Dallas Clark when Indianapolis plays in Miami. Behind those two top-notch targets, the team has a pair of talented, but still young and developing receivers--second-year player Pierre Garcon and rookie Austin Collie. Indianapolis also added former Eagle Hank Baskett to the mix this week.
But in addition to Clark clearly being the second-best receiver on the team right now, all you had to do was take note of Miami head coach Tony Sparano's comments during his Friday press conference to realize that the 30-year-old tight end is clearly on Miami's radar this week.
"I spent a lot of time with Dallas when he came out as a player, out of college. I was coaching the tight ends at the time," Sparano said. "I thought the guy was a very smart football player, but more importantly, this guy is just a football player. I mean, really likes it, likes the game. (He's) curious about it, likes lifting weights. Just a football junkie, one of those types of guys.
"I think his strengths are his hands, number one. His route-running ability detached from the formation, I think the guy is outstanding out in space like that. I think he is a much better blocker than people give him credit for. I think the way you have to prepare to handle him is similar to the way you have to handle a Tony Gonzalez type of player."
Sparano's Dolphins allowed Gonzalez to roll up 73 receiving yards and score a touchdown during a disappointing 19-7 loss to the Falcons. They hope to rebound with a win over the Colts, who held off the Jacksonville Jaguars by a count of 14-12 last Sunday.
Point 2: Jets safety Jim Leonhard says that head coach Rex Ryan doesn't coach effort.
Jim Leonhard has helped get the Jets up to speed on Rex Ryan's defense.
Nick Laham/Getty Images
An undrafted free agent who made the 53-man roster in Buffalo back in 2005, Leonhard really began to hit his stride in Baltimore last year under the tutelage of defensive coordinator Rex Ryan. While also working as the team's punt returner, Leonhard posted a career-high 69 tackles. And then he showcased his ability as a playmaker during the 2008 playoffs with an interception, a forced fumble, and two fumble recoveries.
When Ryan left the Ravens to become the new head coach of the Jets, Leonhard was thrilled that his former defensive coordinator wanted him to sign-on with the Jets as well--largely because the 5-foot-8, 186-pound safety admired Ryan's approach to coaching.
"Most coaches distance themselves from players, and they kind of make it seem like they are above the players, but Rex makes it feel like he's truly one of the guys." the 26-year-old defender explained. "He's going to coach the hell out of you, and you're going to get done everything you want to do. But he actually cares about his players, he actually enjoys being around his players, and his entire staff is the same way."
I asked Leonhard about a phrase that Ryan had mentioned at the NFL Combine earlier this year--"Plays like a Jet"--and asked him to tell me what that meant from a player's point of view.
"I think the main thing he tried to get across is just playing with passion," he said. "You saw that with Baltimore. You always talked for years about how hard they play, that they actually look like they care about each other, they actually look like they want to win for each other.
"I think that's where it starts, with a certain level of competitiveness that you don't always see players have. He demands that. He won't coach effort, it's not going to happen. If he has to coach effort, you're not going to be there. "
The Jets safety was clearly excited about this weekend's huge divisional matchup against the New England Patriots.
"To go against Tom Brady--who's making his comeback and is trying to prove to the entire league and to a lot of fans and doubters that he is 100-percent back--you have to like that challenge. And we're going to give him everything we have," he said.
Point 3: The Minnesota Vikings have created another smokescreen.
You may not have noticed, but there was a very odd development in Minnesota over the last few weeks. The Vikings have thrown up a smokescreen that is almost as good as the one that we saw before they signed Brett Favre back in August.
Is Tarvaris Jackson really on the same level as Sage Rosenfels?
Jeff Gross/Getty Images
Minnesota have Tarvaris Jackson and Sage Rosenfels listed as their No. 2 quarterback on their depth chart, apparently with the hope of raising Jackson's perceived value before the NFL trading deadline.
If you don't believe that Jackson's current slotting on the depth chart is simply shrewd posturing, don't forget that prior to Favre's arrival there was little doubt that Rosenfels would be the team's starter--with Jackson anointed as the first-string clipboard holder. But after Favre arrived, Rosenfels injured his ankle. And when he returned, he supposedly had fallen into a tie on the depth chart as the regular season opened.
If Rosenfels wasn't clearly the No. 2 quarterback in Minnesota, the Vikings should have cut the former Texans quarterback loose when they made their final roster cuts. Rosenfels has already banked a $1.4 million signing bonus, but the team could have more than offset that cap hit by relieving themselves of his $2 million salary. Instead, that salary is now guaranteed. So does it seem reasonable to you that Minnesota just committed a total of $3.4 million to a possible third-string talent? Meanwhile, Jackson is in the final year of a deal that pays him a $535,000 salary. His salary cap hit is $205,000 higher due to prorated bonus money.
Add it all up, and it just doesn't make sense. The team even squirreled away John David Booty, their third quarterback from last year's roster, to the practice squad--for now.
By the Tuesday following Week Six, the deadline for trades, I fully expect to see Jackson as a member of one of the clubs who are already sensing they may have serious problems at the quarterback position. Carolina, Oakland, and Jacksonville quickly come to mind as potential destinations for him.
Point 4: There are four must-watch matchups that I'll be keeping a close eye on this week.
It's a good thing that the Jets play their home games outdoors, because the buzz and emotion in that stadium this weekend would likely bring the roof down on that stadium if they had one.
Mark Sanchez squares off against Tom Brady for the first time, and if he manages to win that matchup--especially after a very good opening day performance against the Texans--no one will think of him as a rookie again. Jets safety Kerry Rhodes has stated that the defense will hit Brady at least six times, and talked about his desire to embarrass the Patriots, bringing an end to their eight-game winning streak at New York.
These teams simply don't like each other. Every play in this contest is going to count.
Ravens DT Haloti Ngata will have an edge against a banged-up Chargers offensive line.
Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images
Although the Bears-Steelers contest should be fun to watch, I'll be surprised if Chicago keep pace with the Steelers, so during the late-game slate of action, I'll be keeping a closer watch on the Ravens at the Chargers. Neither team looked as sharp as I expected during their respective season openers. The Chargers barely slipped by the Raiders, and the Ravens didn't pull away from the Chiefs until late in the game--even though Kansas City had Brodie Croyle at quarterback instead of Matt Cassel. That had to be a wake-up call for both teams, so it'll be interesting to see how they react with a more formidable opponent on tap this week.
On Sunday night, the Giants are at Dallas. Prior to watching last weekend's action, I would have given the Giants a solid edge in this one, but Dallas showed that they have to potential to put a more balanced offensive attack on the field than I thought they would this season. Quarterback Tony Romo looked as sharp as ever as the team rolled over Tampa Bay, putting a dent in preseason speculaion that Dallas would have to rely more heavily on their rushing attack this year. This should be a contest that goes down to the final seconds.
While I already talked a bit about Monday Night's Colts-Dolphins matchup, this game is huge for both teams. Indianapolis has sole possession of the AFC South after Week One, but their offense isn't exactly clicking yet. Although Reggie Wayne turned in a league-best performance last week with 162 receiving yards, the Colts need more than just Wayne and tight end Dallas Clark to really open up this offense. Running backs Joseph Addai (2.5 yards per carry) and rookie Donald Brown (3.0 yards per carry) need to show that they can be more productive if Indy's polished play-action passing game is going to be effective.
The Dolphins are a team that should be competing for the AFC East title, so they can't afford to go 0-2 out of the gate. While many thought that the AFC East would be a two-team race between Miami and New England, the Bills and the Jets showed that they are very capable of being in the mix. By the end of this week's action, either the Patriots or the Jets will be 2-0, so Miami can't afford to still be in search of their first win as they pack their bags for San Diego next week.
Although all four games are toss-ups, I'm giving a slight edge to the Jets--who will be playing their game with a Super-Bowl pitch of emotion, the Ravens because their defense should have a slight edge over the Chargers offense, the Giants due to their running backs against a questionable Dallas rush-defense, and the Colts--simply because the Dolphins offense looks even more out of sync than Indy's offense so far.
Point 5: Last week's top targets weren't consistently the top performers.
Santonio Holmes caught nine of 11 passes thrown his way for 131 yards.
Pittsburgh's Santonio Holmes, Indianapolis' Reggie Wayne, Green Bay's Greg Jennings, New England's Randy Moss and Cardinals running back Tim Hightower logged more than 100 receiving yards as their team's top targets during the first week of NFL action. But there were some noteworthy receivers who were the intended target of passes at least ten times last week who didn't finish with 100 yards or as the team's top receiver.
Atlanta's Roddy Whilte had ten passes thrown his direction, but he and quarterback Matt Ryan connected on just half of those attempts for 42 yards. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco tried to complete ten passes to Derrick Mason against the Chiefs, but they were successful just four times for 47 yards.
The worst ratio was shared by two of the league's most respected wide receivers. The Panthers' Steve Smith tried to pull in 13 balls from a trio of quarterbacks--Jake Delhomme, Josh McCown, Matt Moore--but was only able to snare three of them for 21 yards. And the Lions' Calvin Johnson was only able to grab three of the 13 passes thrown by rookie quarterback Matthew Stafford during Detroit's loss to the Saints.
The blame for the miscues don't belong solely to the quarterback or the receiver in these cases, but it's worth keeping an eye on all of these pairings this week to see how last week impacts how frequently they attempt to hook up--and their success when they do.
Point 6: During this week's game against the Broncos, we'll get a much better read on Cleveland quarterback Brady Quinn.
During Cleveland's season opener, Quinn wasn't able to have much of an impact on the game and was sacked five times. His only touchdown pass, along with nearly half of his 205 passing yards, came during a shotgun drive with roughly three minutes remaining and the Browns trailing by 21 points.
But that was against the Vikings, who have one of the top defensive units in the NFL. And although Denver's defense won't be a pushover by any means, Quinn should have a bit more time to throw this week.
Brady Quinn needs to improve on last week's performance.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
That said, the third-year player will still have to be particularly wary of veteran cornerback Champ Bailey before he releases a pass from his fingertips. And if he wants to keep his receivers healthy, he'll need to make sure he's aware of Brian Dawkins' proximity to his targets.
While he addressed reporters on Friday, Browns offensive coordinator Brian Daboll made note of how dangerous the pair of defensive backs can be.
"Dawkins, he will knock your head off if you're not careful," he said. "Champ Bailey is a ball-hawk. He has great speed, good quickness, good eyes on the quarterback."
Another challenge that Daboll has spotted is how Denver has deployed their 3-4 defense under the leadership of defensive coordinator Mike Nolan.
"The 3-4 scheme, sometimes they hit the gap. Sometimes they play two gap. Sometimes they go ahead and mix the fronts up," he explained.
If Quinn can put together a stronger performance this week than he did against Minnesota, there'll be reason for optimism in Cleveland. But if he falters badly and can't move the team effectively through the air for the second week in a row, Cleveland's fans may get antsy and start calling for Derek Anderson with the Ravens on the schedule next weekend.
Point 7: One of the most overlooked passing statistics is percentage of throws for a first down.
Talk about NFL quarterbacks with most people and they rattle off touchdowns, passing yards, interceptions, and occasionally completion percentage. They rarely talk about one of my favorite passing statistics--the percentage of a quarterback's throws that resulted in a first down.
I think that's a truly significant measurement when you evaluate quarterbacks. Since teams pass more often on third down than first down, your quarterback better be able to connect with a receiver beyond the chains to keep drives alive. Just ask the Arizona Cardinals, who opted to pass on all 14 of their third-down opportunities, including three of them in which they needed two yards or less to move the chains.
Last week, seven of the league's eight passers whose first-down percentage was higher than 40 percent led their team to victory--Seattle's Matt Hasselbeck (47.2%), New Orleans' Drew Brees (47.1%), Baltimore's Joe Flacco (46.5%), Pittsburgh's Ben Roethilsberger (41.9%), the Jets' Mark Sanchez (41.9%), Atlanta's Matt Ryan (41.7%), and New England's Tom Brady. The only exception was Washingon's Jason Campbell (46.2%).
At the other end of the spectrum, just one quarterback out of the five who converted less then 25 percent of their passes for a first down ended up with a win last week. Minnesota's Brett Favre (19.0%) was lifted to a win by Adrian Peterson's spectacular rushing performance and a stingy Vikings defense. But the Texans' Matt Schaub (21.2%), the Rams' Marc Bulger (19.4%), the Lions' Matthew Stafford (18.9%) and the Jaguars' David Garrard (14.3%) weren't as fortunate.
If you missed my Quarterback Power Rankings for this week--that include first-down percentage as one of the factors in the rankings--click here to check them out.
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