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Inside the NFL
By Peter King
Posted: Wed October 13, 1998
If not for the Broncos, the Patriots might be the team to beat in the AFC
"Kansas City and Denver were supposed to be the lead dogs in the AFC," said New England cornerback Ty Law, whose club lost its season opener to the Broncos 27-21 but manhandled the Chiefs 40-10. "We showed we're a big dog when it counts."
The game turned in the first quarter on two plays that revealed which team had the most guts. Trailing 7-0 and facing third-and-one at its 47, Kansas City sent its 232-pound bowling ball of a back, Donnell Bennett, behind center Tim Grunhard. Bennett ran into a wall of bodies and didn't gain an inch. With the home crowd at Foxboro Stadium roaring, Chiefs coach Marty Schottenheimer made an emphatic first-down motion with his right arm, signaling his offense to play on. This time 232-pound fullback Tony Richardson made a charge behind Grunhard. But defensive tackle Chad Eaton submarined Grunhard and slowed Richardson enough to allow an avalanche of Patriots to come down on him. "That was the game," Eaton said.
"After that," said New England linebacker Chris Slade, "they quit."
The next six Patriots possessions ended with a field goal, a touchdown, a touchdown, a field goal, a touchdown and a field goal, giving New England a 37-0 lead after 41 minutes. Here are three reasons to like this 4-1 club:
1) Rookie running back Robert Edwards is shaping up as a solid replacement for the departed Curtis Martin. In his last three games Edwards, the first-round draft pick from Georgia, rushed for 92, 97 and 104 yards. On Sunday he ran for one score and caught a pass for another. Judging by his punishing style, Edwards looks as though he will be a more effective back in cold weathera key to New England's late-season and playoff successthan Martin was. Against the Chiefs the 218-pound Edwards ran hard between the tackles, and although he has few of Martin's outside moves, he might be better suited to getting the tough yards. Edwards is averaging 4.3 yards per carry, while Martin, a restricted free agent who signed with the Jets in the off-season, has a 3.5-yard mark and missed Sunday's game against the Rams with a bruised thigh.
2) Drew Bledsoe is a better passer than he was a year ago. New offensive coordinator Ernie Zampese has helped Bledsoe develop a quicker release, make more precise drops and eliminate careless throws. Bledsoe has completed 60% of his attempts with eight touchdown passes and only three interceptions. "Ernie demands precision from the receivers too," Bledsoe says. "They're almost always exactly where I think they'll be." It's more than that. At 26 Bledsoe is more mature and better able to make good things happen amid the chaos.
3) Law is a corner who can shut down top receivers. In the off-season Law talked coach Pete Carroll into letting him cover the opponent's best receiver each week. On Sunday, when the Chiefs' Elvis Grbac dropped back to throw 33 times, wideout Andre Rison didn't get a sniff against Law, predominantly in man coverage. Rison's one reception went for five yards and came when Law was on the opposite side of the field. For the season Law has held the opponents' top wideouts to a total of 13 catches and has not given up a touchdown pass.
He attributes much of his success to the six-week off-season training session he had with track coach Bob Kersee. "Deion Sanders and Dale Carter always take the best guy, and I want to be in their league," says Law, a 1995 first-round draft pick who leads the AFC in interceptions, with four. "Training with Bob helped because I believe it gave me the deep-ball speed I lacked. I already thought I could play with anybody, and now I'm sure of it."
When they hired Kevin Gilbride to be their coach 21 months ago, the Chargers thought they were getting an imaginative offensive mind who could build confidence in his players. That's the kind of coordinator Gilbride had been in Jacksonville and earlier in Houston, where quarterback Warren Moon and a group of free-spirited receivers led by Haywood Jeffires were inspired by Gilbride's positive thinking.
In San Diego, however, Gilbride has been a dour, glass-is-half-empty guy, and he almost certainly won't make it out of a tailspin that has seen his team lose 12 of its last 14, including a horrendous 7-6 decision to the undermanned Raiders on Sunday. Chargers quarterbacks Ryan Leaf and Craig Whelihan combined to complete 10 of 24 passes for 97 yards with three interceptions. San Diego lost to a team that, playing without quarterback Jeff George, connected on 31% of its passes and rushed for 18 yards.
Afterward Chargers strong safety Rodney Harrison was asked if the players still had confidence in Gilbride. After a 20-second pause Harrison said, "Put it like this: We still have confidence."
"We still have confidence," Harrison said.
The expansion draft to help stock the Cleveland franchise will be held on Feb. 9 at the Civic Center in Canton, Ohio, down the street from the Pro Football Hall of Fame, instead of in a sterile hotel ballroom near league offices in New York City. That means Browns followers will be able to fill the place. "Cleveland fans are as loyal as any team's, and they'll show it that day," says Otto Graham, one of the original Browns.
Each of the league's 30 established clubs must leave five signed veterans unprotected, and the Browns must take from 30 to 42 players (no more than two from any club). This process did not exactly yield a treasure trove of talent for the Jaguars and Panthers in '95. Only Carolina's wideout Mark Carrier and nickel back Rod Smith are still making significant contributions.
After the Jets beat the Patriots at the Meadowlands last October, New York coach Bill Parcells walked up the tunnel with struggling New England wideout Terry Glenn and asked him, "What the hell is wrong with you?" A stoked-up Glenn caught seven passes for a career-high 163 yards the following week against the Packers, then stunned Parcells by writing his former coach a thank-you note. "He's really a good kid," Parcells says of his former whipping boy.... Rams running back Amp Lee, the team's MVP in '97, is having another outstanding season. On Sunday, during a 30-10 win over the Jets, Lee carried nine times for 53 yards and two touchdowns and caught six passes for 62 yards. Among running backs, only Arizona's Larry Centers (362 receptions) has more catches than Lee's 260 since the start of the '94 season.
Raiders running back Napoleon Kaufman,quarterback Jeff George, strong safety Anthony Newman, defensive end James Harris, defensive tackle Grady Jackson and kicker Greg Davis have missed up to three games in '98 with strains or tears of the groin. "It's the year of the groin," says Newman.
1. O'Donnell's Revenge In the last three years, the Steelers have chosen Kordell Stewart and the Jets have chosen Glenn Foley and Vinny Testaverde to play quarterback over Neil O'Donnell. On Sunday, O'Donnell took the Bengals 93 yards in 1:36, ending the drive by outfoxing the Steelers with a fake spike before throwing the winning last-minute touchdown pass. O'Donnell completed 20 of 26 passes for 298 yards and three scores, with no interceptions. Sunday's numbers for the three who ran O'Donnell out of town: 49% passing, one touchdown pass, two interceptions and a pair of fumbles.
2. Rare Birds What two teams have the best record in the NFL over the last 11 regular-season games? A clue: Both have employed Brett Favre. The Falcons and the Packers are 9-2. Atlanta, which faces the Saints, the Jets and the Rams in the next three weeks, is a heavy favorite to grab a wild card.
3. Parcells-Patriots III On Sunday, eight days before this season's first Jets-Patriots showdown, vendors were selling can the tuna T-shirts outside Foxboro Stadium. Jets coach Bill Parcells returns to his old stomping ground, and this time he brings former New England running back Curtis Martin with him. "Bill coming back, Curtis coming back, Monday night, division game," New England quarterback Drew Bledsoe said. "This is turning into Red Sox-Yankees."
Like it or not, the Giants' Michael Strahan is getting the star treatment
"I've seen tackle-guard, tackle-tight end, tackle-back, tight end-back and, worst of all, tackle-tight end-back," Strahan said last Friday as he prepared to dig into a plate of barbecue. But talk of double- and triple-team blocking curbed his appetite, so Strahan handed the still full dish to a teammate before continuing. "This year against the Redskins, Raiders and Chargers, I'd go outside of the tackle and find a tight end waiting. So I'd go inside of the tackle, only to find a back waiting."
The tactic that gives Strahan the most trouble is when a team assigns a sort of hidden assassin to lie in wait. Instead of stepping up to assist the tackle just after the snap, this player moves in only if Strahan starts to gain an advantage over his primary blocker.
For Strahan the key going into Sunday night's game against the Falcons was to identify that extra blocker. "They'll be starting a rookie tackle [Ephraim Salaam] against me, so [right guard] Gene Williams will probably be keeping an eye on me," said Strahan. "This week I've studied how the tackle will try to block me so that I can find a way to deal with him while still keeping an eye out for the other guy. The hardest thing is to rush against a player and turn your body so that the other guy can't hit you."
Sure enough, the Falcons slid Williams over to help Salaam throughout their 34-20 dumping of the Giants. Strahan was double- or triple-teamed on 20 of Atlanta's 29 pass plays, though he did pick up a first-quarter sack by lining up at left defensive tackle and blowing past a surprised Williams. "Someone was always watching to make sure that Salaam wasn't alone," Falcons offensive line coach Art Shell said. "It's a part of the game for me," said Strahan, who is tied for third in the league with seven sacks. "A bad part."
Issue date: October 19, 1998
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