7 Points: In The Zone

Larry Fitzgerald (C.Graythen/Getty Images)

The most dangerous red zone receiver in 2009 isn't Larry Fitzgerald...Two keys to the Browns-Packers game and two common denominators to the Ravens and Titans problems on defense...STATS analysis regarding the Broncos, Vikings, Colts, Jets and much more in Ed Thompson's 7 Points.

Point 1: The top red zone target in the league isn't Larry Fitzgerald.

Ask those who follow the NFL who they think the league's top red-zone threat is in 2009 and a high percent of them would likely pick Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald. That would be a valid and intelligent guess. 

But wrong. 

Entering Week 7, Fitzgerald is second with ten passes thrown in his direction once the Cardinals are inside their opponents' 20-yard line. But no receiver has had more balls tossed his way at that end of the field than Chicago Bears tight end Greg Olsen, who has been targeted 12 times. Both players have caught half of those attempts and have each caught three of those passes for touchdowns. 

But you could easily make the case that the Pittsburgh Steelers' Heath Miller has been the most dangerous and successful red zone target through the first six weeks of the NFL. While he's only had nine balls thrown to him in the red zone, he's snared eight of them and scored four times. 

As for the receiver who has the most red zone touchdowns to date this year, it's the Minnesota Vikings' Visanthe Shiancoe. He's caught five of six passes inside the opponents' 20-yard line with all five resulting in scores.

Point 2:  Washington Redskins head coach Jim Zorn was placed in a win-win situation this week.

When the Redskins announced that Zorn was being relieved of offensive play-calling duties after last weekend's loss to the Chiefs, the team put him in a spot that should take a ton of pressure off of him and the club.


Jim Zorn will benefit from the team's recent decision.
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Think about it. If Sherm Lewis somehow finds a way to get the Redskins offense rolling, it doesn't reflect poorly on Zorn's abilities as a head coach. It points out that having him play a dual role was a mistake.  

And if the Redskins continue to struggle offensively even with Lewis calling the shots, the focus will shift from Zorn to the players--where the blame likely belongs anyway. 

Let's face facts. Jason Campbell has been less than inspirational at the quarterback position, the aging offensive line isn't executing, and Clinton Portis isn't the dominant runner that he used to be.

Executive vice president of football operations, Vinny Cerrato, appeared to further close the book on the raging debate over the leadership of the team this week by stating, "Jim Zorn is the head coach of the Washington Redskins and will be for the rest of this season, and hopefully into the future."

And that's the smart play. 

If Washington wants to make their seventh head-coaching change since 1999--including one interim head coach--now is not the right time to do it. By committing to Zorn for the balance of the year, the team removes a major distraction and puts itself in position to select from a much more robust menu of coaching talent that will not only include former head coaches, but successful offensive and defensive coordinators who are currently under contract elsewhere. 

Point 3: To keep up with Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers, the Cleveland Browns defense must minimize big plays and the receivers have to stop dropping catchable balls.


Another long day is in store for the Browns if they allow Rodgers to make big plays.
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Cleveland has been burned for 30 runs of 10-plus yards--nearly 15 percent of their opponents' rushing attempts--and has surrendered 10 pass plays of 25-plus yards this season. And defensive coordinator Rob Ryan realizes that those big plays, especially the ones through the air, are a big concern this week. His unit has been preparing to face Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers just one week after a similar type of quarterback--Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger--notched five of those 25-plus-yard completions.

"Last week, we struggled on giving up big plays and that's not a characteristic of our defense and what we want to be. I thought we'd do much better, but they made some big plays," he said. "When you look at the body of work, we ought to be a much better defense than statistically we are. It's disappointing. We have to play better."

If Ryan's defense can't minimize big plays by Rodgers, the Browns will be forced to put more emphasis on their passing attack to keep pace. And that's a problem since Cleveland leads the league with 21 dropped passes. 

Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll acknowledged that the drops are hindering the team's ability to sustain drives and score points, but refused to lay the blame solely on the receivers. 

"Dropped passes aren't fun, but I think the throws could be a little better too. The concentration has to improve," he said.

Daboll's emphasis on concentration will be even more important for the Browns' receivers this week. They'll be working against the Packers' Al Harris and Charles Woodson--a pair of physical, veteran cornerbacks. 

"They're going to be grabbing, they're going to be putting their hands on you and you're going to have to match their physicalness," Daboll said that he told his receivers.

Rodgers enters the game ranked first in the league in completions of 25-plus yards (16), 12th in the league in completion percentage (64.6 percent), and ninth in total yards (1,456). 

Point 4: Brett Favre and Kyle Orton are getting more help from their receivers than any other quarterbacks in the league.


Orton and the Broncos receivers are getting the job done in Denver.
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

That point isn't meant to disparage the really good work that both quarterbacks have done this season for their teams. In fact, you could argue that they're simply exploiting the talent of their receivers and running backs who are highly-skilled at rolling up yards after making the catch. 

And it's somewhat surprising that they don't go deep more often. Both quarterbacks are completing 30 percent of the passes they've thrown at least 21 yards downfield to reach their receivers. That mark puts both players in the upper half of the league in that category.

But the fact of the matter is that heading into this weekend, Favre and Orton have the lowest average passing yards at the point of the catch among quarterbacks who have averaged at least 14 passing attempts per game. Their 5.3 yards per throw lags well behind the league's leaders--the New York Giants' Eli Manning (8.7) and the New Orleans Saints' Drew Brees (8.0).

With the Broncos, Vikings and Saints still undefeated, and the Giants sitting at 5-1, you have to give a nod of appreciation to the receivers and running backs of both the Broncos and the Vikings for what they've been able to do with the football after they've caught the pass. 

Point 5: The Jets defense is really going to miss Kris Jenkins.

When the news hit this week that the Jets' starting nose tackle was lost for the season with an ACL injury, head coach Rex Ryan summed it all up with a simple phrase.

"There's not many Kris Jenkins' playing in this league," he said.

And Ryan acknowledged that it will be a major challenge for the Jets to recover from the loss of the four-time Pro Bowler.


An ACL tear brought Jenkins' 2009 season to an abrupt halt.
Mike Stobe/Getty Images

"I have a lot of confidence in the guys we have behind him--Sione [Pouha] and Mike DeVito. We'll add Howard Green back. I have confidence in these guys, but to think that they are going to come in and play like Kris, that's not realistic," he said. 

None of the reserves can eat up space like the 6-foot-five, 360-pound Jenkins. And they don't have the ability to push the interior line back with the force and strength that the nine-year veteran does, shrinking the size of the pocket and increasing pressure on the quarterback. The loss of Jenkins will also require interior linebackers Bart Scott and David Harris--who have played well and taken full advantage of the way Jenkins commands attention at the line of scrimmage--to play even smarter and faster to help the team avoid problems defending the run.

Pouha will take the lead role in filling the gap. As a fifth-year pro, he's started just five games and has just half a sack on his resume. In six game appearances this year, the 6-foot-3, 325-pound lineman has been a solid contributor against the run, logging 19 tackles. 

But he's no Kris Jenkins. 

And the timing of the loss of talent couldn't be worse. Over the past three weeks, the Jets have allowed opposing offenses to run an average of 55 plays, 15 more than they averaged the first three weeks of the season. And while they held all of their first three opponents to less than 300 yards of offense, they've been on the opposite side of that threshold for three consecutive games.

The Jets' head coach understands the gravity of being forced to place Jenkins on the injured reserve at a time when his team is reeling a bit after a fast and exciting start in September.

"We are all going to have to step up our game to make up for his loss," he said.

Point 6: Peyton Manning's outstanding play isn't the only major factor in the success of the Indianapolis Colts.


Manning has everything under control in Indy.
Harry How/Getty Images

While Manning is putting up impressive numbers and deserves major accolades for speeding up the development of second-year receiver Pierre Garcon and rookie Austin Collie, there's another good reason why the Colts offense is on a roll. The Colts offense leads the league in avoiding negative-yardage plays, allowing them to keep shrinking the distance needed for a first down rather than compensating for setbacks.

Indy's offense has snapped the ball 251 times in five games, with just 17 of them resulting in a loss. Fifteen rushes have resulted in a loss of just 33 yards and Manning has only been sacked twice for fifteen more. The resulting 48 lost yards translates to less than ten yards per game and is even more astonishing when you consider that the average NFL team has racked up 33 negative plays for 126 negative yards. 

Point 7:  The struggles of the Tennessee Titans and the Baltimore Ravens defenses have two common denominators.

The 2008 version of the Titans defense allowed just 14 points per game, but this year's defensive unit is the worst in the league, allowing an average of 33 points per game. And even prior to last week's abysmal performance during a 59-0 loss to the Patriots, the Titans defense was allowing 28 points per game--twice as many as they did last year.

Meanwhile, the Ravens defense isn't as scary as it used to be either. They're currently ranked 23rd in points allowed, surrendering nearly 21 points per game. And opponents have scored at least 24 points in four of the Ravens' six contests this season.

If you compare the current depth charts for both teams compared to mid-October of last year, you won't see lots of different names listed in the starting lineups. For Tennessee, Albert Haynesworth is now in Washington and defensive end Jevon Kearse has been demoted to a reserve role. In Baltimore, linebacker Bart Scott is playing for the Jets, cornerback Chris McAlister's contract was terminated back in February, and the other starting cornerback--Samari Rolle--is unlikely to return this year and may consider retirement after suffering a neck injury during the preseason. The Ravens actually got a boost to their defensive lineup when nose tackle Kelly Gregg returned after missing last year due to a knee injury. So you could make the case that their net loss of starters is also just two players.


The Titans miss the playmaking ability of Cortland Finnegan.
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

One common denominator for both teams is that they are struggling to stop the pass and have cornerback issues. The other is that they have new defensive coordinators.

Tennessee is a bit banged-up in the secondary. Playmaking cornerback Cortland Finnegan has missed his last three starts due to injury and veteran cornerback Nick Harper broke his forearm during Week 5 action against the Colts. Baltimore benched starter Fabian Washington last week in favor of Frank Walker, but is expected to return this week. Domonique Foxworth has had his problems as well at the other cornerback spot.

The results have been disastrous for both clubs. The Titans are ranked 29th in giving up pass plays of 20-plus yards with 23 plays that have covered an average of 33 yards per catch--including nine for touchdowns. The Ravens are tied for 27th with 22 catches allowed for an average gain of 35.2 yards. The Titans have given up a league-worst 1,955 passing yards while Baltimore is currently ranked eighth with 1,546.

Neither team is really struggling with stopping the receivers after the catch is made--both rank near the middle of the league in yards allowed after the catch. But the Titans are last in air yards--the point at which the receiver catches the pass from the quarterback with 1,044 and the Ravens are ninth with 791.

Complicating the situation for both clubs is that they both have new defensive coordinators, a change that many NFL fans ho-hum during the offseason, but is highly significant to a team's success, even if they largely have the same players and scheme in place. The Titans' loss of Jim Schwartz and the Ravens' loss of Rex Ryan are arguably more significant than any player the teams lost from their starting lineups last season.

Tennessee's new coordinator is Chuck Cecil, who has plenty of NFL coaching experience, but is in his first stint as a defensive coordinator. And although Baltimore's Greg Mattison, has 11 years of experience as a defensive coordinator in the college ranks, he has just one year of NFL coaching experience under his belt. Both men are responsible for developing the defensive game plan each week and then putting their players in the right position to make plays before each snap of the ball.

Based on both team's results to date, it appears both men are still searching for the right formula for success as rookie defensive coordinators in the NFL. 

You can follow Ed Thompson on Twitter. A member of the Pro Football Writers of America, Ed Thompson's player interviews and NFL features are published across the Scout.com network and at FOXSports.com.

Statistics referenced in this article are provided by STATS, LLC. Copyright 2009 by STATS, LLC. Any use or distribution of such Licensed Materials without the express written consent of STATS is strictly prohibited.

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