Don't forget the D
Defenses key in dominant starts for Dallas, Indy
Posted: Wednesday October 3, 2007 4:03PM; Updated: Wednesday October 3, 2007 5:16PM
When you think of the Colts, you think of Peyton Manning dropping back, snap after snap, and firing to Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne waiting in the end zone. And when you think of the Cowboys, you think of Tony Romo ducking in and out of trouble before turning a broken play into an improbable touchdown pass to Terrell Owens or Jason Witten.
We knew the Cowboys and Colts would be racking up yards and scoring points at a furious pace, and they are. Dallas is averaging a league-leading 37.8 per game and Indy is third-best at 32.8. However, the huge surprise is the way their defenses are shutting down opponents as both head into Week 5 undefeated. And the better those defenses continue to play, the more Manning and Romo will be on the field. Now that's a scary thought.
The Cowboys haven't ranked in the top five in the NFL in both offense and defense since 1995. Coincidentally, they also haven't gotten off to a 4-0 start or won more than 10 games in a season since '95 as well.
The Cowboys aren't quite in the top five in D this year, but they are up to 11th in the league in scoring defense a year after ranking 20th. That figure will keep improving as this defense plays together more and gets more comfortable under Wade Phillips. They allowed four TDs on the Giants' first 11 drives on opening day but have given up just three TDs on 38 possessions since.
They've done so while undergoing some personnel changes and dealing with injuries, notably to nose tackle Jason Ferguson, cornerback Anthony Henry and defensive end Greg Ellis. But the Cowboys are making big plays, getting consistent pass pressure from DeMarcus Ware and Ellis, now healthy again, and they lead the NFL in interceptions.
As for the Colts, even on their way to the Super Bowl last year, they were only 21st in the NFL in total defense and 23rd in scoring defense. They got better in the postseason after Bob Sanders returned from his knee injury. But during the regular season they gave up 44 in Jacksonville, 31 in Denver, 28 to the Jets and 27 in Houston. When they won, they often found themselves in shootouts. When they lost, it was because the offense got little help from the defense.
This offseason, the Colts got younger and faster on defense, moving four first-, second- or third-year players into the lineup -- 2005 draft picks Kelvin Hayden and Marlin Jackson at cornerback, 2006 draft pick Freddie Keiaho at weak linebacker and undrafted Penn State alum Ed Johnson at defensive tackle.
Those moves are paying off. The Colts have given up only six TD drives this year, one of them just 15 yards. They'll certainly miss linebacker Rob Morris, out for the year with a torn ACL. But they're good enough to remain one of the league's best units. And as they seek a second straight Super Bowl title, the Colts, for a change, have more than one way to win games.
Both teams have a showdown looming in the next few weeks against the Patriots, another offensive powerhouse with a vastly underrated defense. Thankfully, the way this season is shaping up, those games will be showcases for three great teams, not just three great offenses.
By the Numbers
The Patriots are the first team in 87 years to win their first four games by 20 or more points. The Buffalo All-Americans opened the 1920 season by beating West Buffalo 32-6, All-Buffalo 51-0, the McKeesport Olympics 28-7 and the Toledo Maroons 38-0.
Bucs QB Jeff Garcia has thrown two interceptions in his last 284 attempts (six attempts with the Lions in 2005, 188 with the Eagles in 2006, 90 with the Bucs this year). Garcia has thrown 107 consecutive passes without an interception since the second quarter of his last game with the Eagles, at Dallas last December.
The Eagles became the first NFL team in 34 years to score 56 or more points in one game and then score three or fewer in the next. Last time a team went from 56 or more to three or fewer was in September 1973, when the Falcons beat the Saints 62-7 before losing to the Rams, 31-0.
All 10 running backs who've rushed for 130 or more yards this year are from the AFC. After four games, nobody in the NFC has rushed for more than the 128 yards Edgerrin James had against Seattle in Week 2.
Reuben Frank is a sports writer with the Burlington County Times in Willingboro, N.J.