Seven storylines from wild Week 7
Pittsburgh's defense rises to the occasion against the Vikings
Miles Austin is making people forget about Roy Williams in Dallas
Three unbeatens lead Fine Fifteen, plus 10 Things I Think I Think
Football Insiders: Check out Stewart Mandel's College Football Overtime column.
NEW YORK -- Seven storylines for a weird Week 7, when rock-bottom teams found a way to get worse, England hosted New England, the Saints blew away what I thought was a good defense, Norv Turner survived, the amazing Miles Austin carried the Cowboys again, the Cardinals beat back that East Coast thing ... and the Steelers continued their quest to build a defense without peer:
1. That, readers, was a Steelers Sunday right there.
I think we've all gotten spoiled by the defense of the Steelers. Three times in the past five years, Pittsburgh's finished with the best defensive numbers in football, including last season, when it had an unheard-of sub 4.0 yards-per-play defensive average. (The league average is usually around 5.3 yards per defensive snap.) You get a number like Pittsburgh's 3.90 last year by the kind of D the Steelers played Sunday against one of the game's explosive attacks. The Vikings can pass (Brett Favre), run (Adrian Peterson) and return (Percy Harvin) as a combo platter better than any other team in football. That's why this game was such a great chess match -- the diverse offense against the defense that's shut down most everything over the years.
From the start Sunday, the Vikings knew Dick LeBeau was going to take the run away, and so Favre began probing the secondary to see what was there. And time after time, the shiny new Minnesota toy, Harvin, got his clock cleaned by the Pittsburgh safeties. On four third downs, Favre went to Harvin. Four times Troy Polamalu or Ryan Clark, or both, hit the kid like they had anvils in theirs shoulder pads. Polamalu covers so much area, and Clark's an underrated sideline-to-sideline guy, and they set the stage for what happened in the last half of the final quarter.
The Steelers have had 40, 50, who knows how many, of these games over the years. Tight in the fourth quarter, and the defense just does something. Or more than one something. Minnesota had a sure touchdown nullified midway through the fourth quarter when Vikings tight end Jeff Dugan roll-blocked a Steelers rusher and was called for tripping. I thought it was a bad call. In the NBC viewing room, Rodney Harrison and Tony Dungy were apoplectic. The Vikings, instead of taking a 17-13 lead, now had to come back to try to score again.
Pittsburgh led 13-10. The Steelers were in a position they'd been in twice this year -- ahead in the fourth quarter, only to lose. "Championship teams don't do that,'' LeBeau had told me Thursday. "We have to stand firm. And the other thing we've got to do if we're going to be a great defense is start forcing more turnovers.''
On third-and-goal from the eight, Favre got strip-sacked by left end Brett Keisel, and in rushed linebacker LaMarr Woodley and seven of his closest defensive friends. "When I first saw the ball on the ground,'' Woodley said via the cell phone Sunday night, "I figured, 'OK, just pick it up and see how far you can go.' But we've got this thing in practice every day when the ball's turned over, our main thing is just find somebody to block. It's drilled into us, day after day after day.''
Woodley swerved downfield. Favre got disposed of early, then a couple more offensive players got lost in the wash of the seven-man convoy downfield. Woodley scored, covering 77 yards. But Harvin answered, scoring on a kick return to make it 20-17 Pittsburgh. Later, Favre drove the Vikes downfield again, threatening another of his thrilling finishes. He tossed a screen pass to Chester Taylor that bounced off Taylor's hands into those of sub linebacker Keyaron Fox. He rumbled 82 yards. Another score. And that was it: 27-17 Pittsburgh. Finally, a win for the defense.
Back home Sunday night, Woodley sounded content, as if the team had finally played a complete game against a good team. It had -- with a little help from an official's call and a little more from the slippery hands of Taylor. But that's football. Mistakes happen. What are you going to do when they're made?
"The statement we made today,'' he said, "is that the Pittsburgh Steelers will no longer be a team that gives up the lead in the fourth quarter. We're going to make plays in the fourth, not let plays happen to us.''
This is one dangerous two-loss team if the Steelers can keep it up.
2. Miles Austin is one good reason football's such a great game.
The past two Sundays Dallas has played, Austin has led the NFL in receiving. A 250-yard day on Oct. 11 and, after the bye, a 171-yard day against Atlanta on Sunday. He's an undrafted free agent from Monmouth (N.J.) University. His quarterback's an undrafted free agent from Eastern Illinois, Tony Romo. Together, along with a little pass-rush, they've saved Dallas' season.
Now, the Cowboys might be completely back and they might not -- but what I like is that Romo is playing like you have to play sports. He's playing with his thought on only one thing: getting the ball to the open receiver, regardless of jersey number or salary or pedigree. And Austin gets open. If Terrell Owens were in Dallas now, the team would have to figure a way to tiptoe around him and keep him happy. Romo eventually may have to do a little of that with Roy Williams, The Invisible Man in the Dallas offense (more on this in Stat Of The Week). But all Romo cares about, from watching him, is set up, survey the field, find the open guy. That's it. And as long as that continues, Dallas is going to play well on offense.
One other thing about the Cowboys: Is it just me, or do they look like they're having more fun on offense? Maybe that comes from winning. But the enthusiasm of Austin is contagious. It's amazing how much can get done when no one cares who gets the credit.
3. I'm tired of taking San Diego's temperature. Every loss, Norv Turner's getting whacked. Every sackless game, Shawne Merriman's finished. Every one-yard gain, LaDainian Tomlinson's done. Following a Monday night loss to Denver, it looked darkest, then Rivers threw for three touchdowns -- one to 6-foot-5 Vince "Kobe'' Jackson -- and the Chargers skated over the Chiefs, 37-7.
"We've had a strong negativism outside the building for a few years at times,'' Turner said afterward, "but the guys have been unaffected. We had a real disappointing loss to Denver Monday night, but we came back in on Wednesday and had our best practice of the year. After the practice, I told them, 'There's some people leaving you for dead out there, but you're not leaving yourselves for dead.' Then we came out today and played well.''
Rivers has a little bit of a pushing motion on his longball, but it works. He hit Jackson five times for 142 yards Sunday, once on a beautiful throw in the corner of the end zone that was spot on. His two partners high in the 2004 draft, Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning, have won three Super Bowls between them. I still think Rivers will get one.
Will Turner be around to see it? You never know. "I never let that get to me,'' he said. "I can't coach for people outside the team. That story's been written twice a year for the last three years, and it doesn't concern me. I think we're on our way to being pretty good.''
As usual, they'll have to survive some bumps in the schedule. After Oakland at home this week, they're at the Giants, home to Philadelphia and at Denver. When this stretch is done, when a good three-game stretch of challenging football happens, that's when I'll take their temperature.
Why not now? Because I want to give Shawne Merriman every opportunity coming off knee surgery and a sore groin muscle to regain his pass-rushing form. And I don't want to be too harsh on the running game, particularly when stalwart center Nick Hardwick (who's really missed in goal line and short-yardage situations) is out for the next month due to injury.
This is a flawed team, as many are, but when I look at them I still believe the Chargers are a playoff team capable of beating anyone in January -- the way they've beaten the Colts two Januarys in a row.
4. Something's gotten into Cedric Benson.
What an interesting day the Bears' castoff had against his old team Sunday in Cincinnati. Eight carries for 70 yards in the first quarter, 12 for 28 in the second, 8 for 54 in the third, 9 for 47 in the fourth. Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski has always wanted to base his offense on getting four and five yards from a running back on first down (what offensive coordinator doesn't) and it looks like he's found the right man in Benson. He's not particularly shifty and he doesn't have Adrian Peterson speed, and he doesn't have fullback power. But he's running with an intensity no one has seen before, in large part because he feels he was so trashed as a failure in Chicago.
It's easy to be mystified by these Bengals, particularly after they were so lousy against Houston two Sundays ago. But if they have an efficient back and Carson Palmer at 90 percent of classic Carson, this is going to be a team to be reckoned with down the stretch.
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