Jenkins' TD-saving tackle could be turnaround for Saints' season
If the Saints rally, Malcolm Jenkins' tackle of Vincent Jackson will be the spark
The Ravens have no hope in the playoffs if Joe Flacco doesn't start playing better
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If the Saints make something of this wreckage of a season -- with Sean Payton watching on TV from his place in Dallas, with the fate of their reputation in so many courtrooms and lawyers' offices in Washington and New York, with one interim/interim coach giving way to an interim coach this morning, with the new judge and jury in the case the savior of football in New Orleans -- they'll look back at a play every Pop Warner, junior high school, high school, college and NFL coach should show their players before practice today. They'll look at a trait that warms the heart of every fan, a trait so many of us think is missing all too often from the games we invest so much of ourselves in.
"I knew I had a long way to go,'' Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins said from Tampa after a scintillating 35-28 win over the Bucs. "I knew I just had to go."
"What was going through your mind?'' I asked. "What were you thinking?''
"Not much thinking,'' he said. "Just, 'Go as fast as you can.' ''
Let's describe what Malcolm Jenkins, and the Saints, faced with seven minutes to go in the third quarter Sunday afternoon at Tampa. The Saints led 28-21 and had the Bucs pinned at their 4-yard line. At 1-4, and 4.5 games out of first place in the NFC South, New Orleans faced a must-win game here to have any shred of playoff hope.
Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman lofted a throw to wide receiver Vincent Jackson between the numbers and the left sideline, and Jackson caught it at the 26 in full stride, having beaten two Saints defenders. Every Saint's heart sank. There was nobody between Jackson and the goal line, 74 yards away. It was a gimme touchdown.
I've looked up the dimensions of the NFL field, and ran the play over and over about 20 times on NFL Game Rewinds in the wee hours of this morning. This is what Jenkins faced as he turned from covering his man to look at Jackson catching the ball: He was at the far right hashmark on the other side of the field, precisely 27 yards across the field and three yards behind where Jackson was in full gallop. It looked impossible, but Jenkins said he didn't think of that. "Just, 'Go as fast you can.' ''
Right away, you could see he might have a chance. Jackson, who'd been limited all week in practice because of a calf strain, was running at tight end speed. Jenkins, who runs about a 4.47-second 40-yard dash, took a very good angle, from watching the replay over and over. It looked like he aimed to go on a straight line from where he began, at about the Bucs' 23, to the Saints' 20. Running at a bad angle here would have ruined him. If he aimed to catch Jackson near the goal line, he wouldn't be able to contact him in time.
"Vincent Jackson, he's not slow,'' Jenkins said. "I think what affected the play is we were in a regular Cover 2, and they quick-snapped the ball. Roman Harper went for the ball against Jackson, but they completed it, and then nobody's around. So the first thing is to just run and see what happens.''
When Jackson got to midfield, Jenkins was 10 yards to the side and six yards behind.
"I saw him start to slow down a bit,'' Jenkins said.
"I obviously wasn't 100 percent,'' Jackson said.
When Jackson got to the Saints' 30, Jenkins was three yards to the side and three yards behind. Jackson looked to his right and seemed to feel him gaining. At the 20, Jenkins was two strides from being able to touch Jackson. At about the 12, Jenkins, now behind him, reached out and contacted Jackson. At first touch, Jackson was at the 10. When Jenkins got both hands on him, Jackson was at the 7. Then it was a pigpile on Jackson, who contacted the earth, with Jenkins on his back, at the 1.5-yard line.
"That was a great feeling, to catch him,'' said Jenkins.
He wasn't the only one in pursuit. On his tail were linebacker Jonathan Casillas and corner Jabari Greer. Casillas picked up Jenkins and Greer was there to tell him what a wonderful human being he was. So this wasn't only one Saint who thought to try to do the impossible -- it was three who chased Jackson for 70 yards in what looked to be the impossible dream.
No time to back-pat. The ball was spotted at the 1.5-yard line, and the play clock started. Jackson went to the sideline and fresh troops came in for Tampa Bay, including a fresh running back, LeGarrette Blount. But Jenkins stayed in. The Saints stoned the Bucs on first and second down. Now it was 3rd-and-goal from exactly the 1. Jenkins was still huffing and puffing when he lined up outside the right end's shoulder. "Third down,'' Jenkins said. "No time to be tired, or to feel sorry for yourself. Not much being said at that point." At the snap of the ball, Jenkins evaded the scrum and shot past the line, driving and corralling Blount's right leg. No gain. And Freeman's weak try at a play-action rollout on fourth down was foiled by defensive end Cameron Jordan, who pushed him out at the 5.
"The defense really stepped up,'' said Jenkins, "and stoned 'em." Leave it to Drew Brees to take the Saints 95 yards the other way then, for what turned out to be the winning touchdown. Within minutes, the game that should have been a 28-28 tie turned into a 35-21 Saints lead.
"A 14-point swing in what could have been a tie game,'' said Jenkins. "That was huge.''
The Saints' problems aren't over. They're still adjusting to defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's new scheme, which de-emphasizes the endless blitzing former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams commandeered. It's not a great day for the defense when it gives us 28 points and 513 yards. But they won because they didn't give up the 514th yard. (And because, even though the rule needs to be studied because it can be abused, the Bucs' Mike Williams was pushed out of the end zone on a Freeman scramble on the last play of the game, meaning Williams wasn't able to return to the field as an eligible receiver.) They won because Jenkins hustled like he was taught back when he started playing football, like every young player is. The play's not over until it's over.
So the Saints have 10 games left. Maybe the wild card teams ahead of them beat each other up -- and defeat each other. It probably won't matter if the Saints don't grasp Spagnuolo's D and start rushing the passer better. But here's what they face: Peyton Manning Sunday in Denver, Atlanta twice, the Niners at home, the Super Bowl champ Giants on the road, and a charitable three-game season-ending stretch (Tampa Bay, at Dallas, Carolina). If the Saints can find a way to go 8-2 and save one of the strangest seasons in NFL history, every man in that locker room -- and the coach in exile, watching on TV -- will have Jenkins to thank.
Now for the rest of what's happening in a busy Week 7.
The Texans expose the Ravens. The chorus will be loud in Baltimore today. We had 59 offensive plays, and Ray Rice touched the ball on only 14 of them? Crazy! That's missing the point. If Joe Flacco isn't better than he was Sunday (21 of 43 for a pathetic 45.4 rating), and if he isn't better than he's been recently (53 percent passer over his last three games), the Ravens will have a very short postseason run -- if they have one at all.
On Sunday in Houston, outside linebacker Connor Barwin (11.5 sacks last year, none through six games this year) sacked Flacco for a first-quarter safety, then spent the rest of the day living behind the line of scrimmage. That is, when he and Brooks Reed, his bookend outside linebacker, weren't spying Rice to take him out of logical Flacco aim. "We knew they'd be throwing a lot, because they'd been throwing so much -- more than anybody except the Patriots coming in,'' Barwin said from Houston. "I think spying Rice helped. We did that on a lot of third downs because we knew Flacco liked to go to him so much on third down.''
Smart game-planning by defensive coordinator Wade Phillips -- and by the way, the Texans cannot allow Phillips to get away; the Son of Bum must retire in Houston as a proper circle-of-life move because he's so good at moving these excellent Texans puzzle pieces around -- and superb play by Barwin and friends. "I'd been on the schneid,'' Barwin said. "Everybody thinks about itwhen it's been this long [since I've gotten a sack].'' But Barwin's just too quick and instinctive, and he's surrounded by too many good players, to stay on the schneid. The Texans enter the bye week the no-doubt leaders in the AFC clubhouse.
Robert Griffin III leaves his mark in New Jersey. I always judge the mark of an incredible play in an NFL game by the reaction it gets in the NBC viewing room on the fifth floor of our Rockefeller Center building in Manhattan. And when Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III had a 4th-and-10 with 2:07 left at the Meadowlands, his team down 20-16 to the Giants, this is the sound I recall hearing from the likes of Rodney Harrison, Tony Dungy, Dan Patrick, Mike Florio and a score of other football wackos in the room as Griffin took the snap, looked for a receiver, found them covered, then rolled left, Giants chasing him -- "Getridofit! ... Noooooo! .... Whoaa!!! ... Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!!!!''
Sounded louder than "Born To Run" at a Springsteen concert. Somehow, some way, as the law was closing in, Griffin, stumbling forward, threw a low 19-yard strike to tight end Logan Paulsen. "Even though you don't know what's going to happen, you have some kind of feeling that something good is going to happen,'' RGIII said. "That's the way I try to play. No matter what's called I always feel like it's going to work. If it doesn't work, we will make it work some way or another.''
Watching this game, I kept thinking how glad I was that Mike Shanahan and Bruce Allen paid whatever it is they paid to deal for Griffin. And whatever it is, it'll be worth it. He's one of the great, special players to come into the league in the 29 seasons I've covered it. No play's ever over. Though he's running for his well-being on 10 or 12 plays a game, he still leads the NFL after seven games of his rookie year with a 70.4 percent completion rate. Once he gets the kind of protection Shanahan and Allen will build for him, he'll be better, and the Redskins will be competing for championships. That's right -- plural.
"I'm pretty mad at the football gods for putting him in the NFC East,'' Justin Tuck of the Giants said. "To face that guy twice a year is going to be a headache. He takes away from your enthusiasm for the game a little bit, when you play a play perfectly and he still has 4.3 speed to run by guys and make plays.''
Tuck's GM, Jerry Reese, has the right idea taking all those defensive linemen high in drafts. He shouldn't stop. They need to come in droves at Griffin, because he'll tire them out. Three plays after the miracle 4th-and-10 conversion, Griffin threw the go-ahead touchdown pass, a perfect 30-yarder right over Santana Moss' shoulder. I thought that was the ballgame.
And yet, there's Eli to win another game late. Eli Manning is decidedly the anti-RGIII, a pocket guy who can escape trouble but not make a living at it. What Manning does is precisely what he did after Griffin strafed the Giants: He threw a perfect arcing shot to Victor Cruz, splitting two Washington defenders, for a 77-yard winner. Manning is amazing. Fourth quarter after fourth quarter -- Patriots, Niners, Packers, Redskins, whoever -- it doesn't matter. There is no quarterback in the NFL in the same league as Manning when the game's on the line. And for a kid, Griffin's pretty clutch himself.
So get used to this. Manning's had a good rivalry with Tony Romo, and an OK rivalry with Michael Vick. But Manning-RGIII could really be special. Manning's 31. Griffin's 22. I hope Sunday was the first of about 20 meetings in the regular season and postseason between them.
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