Mark Sanchez's most impressive attribute; 10 things to watch for
Must-watch pregame interview: Jim Mora grilling his former QB, Michael Vick
After the stunning departure of Pryce, the pressure's on Ravens DL Cory Redding
Bill Belichick has to fix a bad Patriots D, while Carson Palmer has to fix himself
Before I get to my column on what Mark Sanchez has been doing consistently better than Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Drew Brees (what a tease!), a few words about what a powerful thing the National Football League is. Is this league a steamrolling ATM or what? The ratings, the interest, the hype, the stories ... Never ceases to amaze me. Latest case in point: NFL Network sending Jim Mora (the son) to interview Michael Vick. Brilliant idea. Vick dogged it under Mora, and if Mora did his media job the right way, he just might get him to say something really good. Well, Mora did his job, and Vick played his part. The chunk of the interview, airing Sunday on the network's pregame show, that seems most compelling:
Vick: "... My whole life was a lie, Jim, you know, everything from A to Z.''
Mora: "Were you a good person with some bad decisions or were you connin' me?''
Vick: "Now I think about it a lot, coach. I was, you know, selfish in some aspects. I didn't dedicate myself. I didn't listen. And you -- you know, y'all was only trying to help me in, in so many ways.''
Mora: "Did you ever just go, 'What am I doin'?' "
Vick: "I was thinkin', 'Hey, man, look, I'm Mike Vick.What's the worst thing that's gonna happen to me?' ''
The NFL invented NFL Network to help hype its product. Think of the hype already on the table for Donovan McNabb's return to Philadelphia, and then add the Vick-resurgence storyline, and the talking heads talking about it all through the pregame shows, particularly with this very strong interview. Does anyone even know the Yankees and Rays are tied for the division lead with three games left in the baseball season, or that the NHL is on the verge of starting? Amazing machine, this NFL.
Now on to the column. Let's talk ball security for a few paragraphs. (Ooooh! Wheeeee! Exciting!) I maintain that's what Mark Sanchez and his offensive coordinator have been doing since he arrived in New Jersey. And it's paying off for the 2-1 Jets heading into their division game (walkover?) Sunday at Buffalo.
Over the last eight games (including playoffs), here's how the three best quarterbacks in football rank against Sanchez in terms of protecting the ball:
|* "Plays'' is pass attempts plus sacks taken.|
** "Fum/Lost'' is total fumbles/fumbles lost.
Think about that for a minute, a rookie quarterback in the playoff race, and then the following season, in the first three games of a highly anticipated, Hard-Knocks-laden season, turning the ball over two times in eight games. With zero fumbles. In his first three games this season, Sanchez hasn't thrown a pick or fumbled. For a player who started 16 games in college and who will start his 22nd pro game this week, that kind of ball protection is remarkable.
"And I'd point out,'' Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer told me Thursday, "that one of those turnovers was a tipped interception against the Colts in the championship game last year.'' The other was a pick at San Diego, in the divisional playoff game, a game in which Sanchez put up mediocre numbers (12-for-23, 100 yards, one TD, one interception) but managed it well and won.
"A lot of it, quite honestly, is the ability to sit down with Mark after games and show him the result of each decision he makes in games,'' Schottenheimer said. "We all know interceptions are going to happen. But we talk about two kinds of interceptions -- bad-throw interceptions, which every quarterback who's ever played is going to have, and bad-decision interceptions. Those are the ones we've concentrated on. We put on the film and I'll show him an interception, and I'll say, 'What did you think of your decision here?' And we talk about the power of completions. It's OK to check down.''
That can be a dirty phrase -- "checking down'' to a running back -- to some quarterbacks. And at times, critics of Sanchez have thought he was doing it too much, particularly in the opener this year against Baltimore, when Sanchez steadfastly passed on throwing downfield against a weak Ravens secondary and kept throwing the ball short. But Schottenheimer won't knock him for it, and he didn't after the game, even though the Jets were terrible on offense all night and lost, 10-9.
"I'll take some of the rap for that,'' Schottenheimer said. "What happened that night is not a short answer. When you have six months to prepare for a game, sometimes you have a tendency to over-analyze. We had some calls in there where we send Mark to the line with two plays, and he runs a play dependent on what defense he sees. That didn't go too well that night. When we were analyzing the game afterward, Mark said to me, 'Hey Schotty, can we eliminate those kills?' [A 'kill' is the play you eliminate to go to the other play called.] He just wanted to have a play called and let him execute it. I said, 'Sure, Mark.' And that's what we've done.''
Schottenheimer and quarterback coach Matt Cavanaugh have stressed to Sanchez, however, that he needs to be comfortable with the safety of the offense.
"We did a study in the offseason looking back over the top five offenses in the league over the last five years. And we took the average number of balls the top running back for each team caught each year. The average turned out to 47, 48 catches. These are great quarterbacks -- Brady, Manning, Brees, [Matt] Schaub -- being willing to say 'uncle' and check it down. I think Mark was kind of floored by those numbers, and how involved the backs were in each one of those passing games.
"This year, we've said to him, 'You can check it down to a future Hall of Famer [LaDainian Tomlinson] or to one of the top young backs in the game [Shonn Greene]. Let them help you.' ''
Sanchez is still working to form a bond in the pass game with Green (he's targeted him only three times), but he's thrown to Tomlinson 15 times so far -- and Tomlinson has played only about half the offensive snaps. Dustin Keller (24 targets) is clearly Sanchez's favorite so far, most often on safe, intermediate routes.
I expect Sanchez (six touchdowns, no picks) to be better throwing downfield when he has the twin threats of Braylon Edwards and Santonio Holmes intact starting next week; Holmes returns after a four-week substance-abuse suspension in time for a game against Minnesota.
Schottenheimer told me he estimates Sanchez has at least 90 percent of the offense down pat now. The comfort is showing. When quarterbacks are throwing touchdowns and not erring, that's comfort. It's a good sign for a team that's going to have a top-five defense, and I'd be surprised if the Jets don't make the playoffs in large part because of Sanchez's safe, and successful, play.
Cory Redding, DL, Baltimore
The 6-foot-4, 292-pound Redding and hybrid pass-rusher Paul Kruger will play a big role in trying to fill the hole left after defensive lineman Trevor Pryce's stunning signing by the New York Jets on Thursday. Pryce was cut this week by the Ravens but told he'd be re-signed next week, before the Ravens' game against Denver.
A little background here. Baltimore had been disappointed with Pryce's run defense, and the Ravens got gashed by the Browns last Sunday, when Cleveland chose to run on some logical passing downs. I checked the play-by-play from the game. Cleveland ran on nine "sub'' package down-and-distance plays (second-and-eight or more, third-and-five or more). Peyton Hillis ran on seven of those -- for 12, 5, 2, 7, 2, 48 and minus-1 yards. Cleveland gained 19 and 4 on the other two. That's nine rushes for 98 yards, a 10.9-yard average. In essence, the Ravens thought teams, starting with Pittsburgh Sunday, might start to think they could run on long-yardage downs. It's up to Redding now -- and starters Haloti Ngata and Kelly Gregg -- to make sure they can't.