- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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The Redskins' defense couldn't compensate. Their best lineman, Charles Mann, played hurt. Marshall was a bust. Both cornerbacks missed games with injuries. The effects were contagious, and the champions stumbled home with a 7-9 record.
Denver was an easier read. The Broncos were too small last season. The Redskins gave everybody a 1988 game plan to use against Denver when they ran that counter-gap play down the Broncos' throats in the Super Bowl. Denver had to address its size deficiencies either through the draft or by making a trade or two. It's not impossible to deal for big, sturdy run stoppers. A lot of good ones are around. It's the pass rushers who command a premium. The Broncos looked for help in the draft but made a big mistake with nosetackle Ted Gregory of Syracuse, who had a bad leg and wound up being traded to New Orleans for defensive end Shawn Knight, the Saints' No. 1 pick in 1987. Knight was strictly a reserve player.
When Denver's best run stopper, inside linebacker Karl Mecklenburg, went down with a broken thumb, the Broncos collapsed. Nine different backs rushed for more than 100 yards against Denver.
John Elway and the shoot-out offense couldn't bail out the Broncos. The Three Amigos were banged up. Troubled by various ailments, Elway wasn't right. He used to sprint away from the rush, stop and complete a pass 20 yards downfield. This season he was heaving flutterballs as the pursuit closed in. Tony Dorsett was imported to juice up the ground attack, but the Broncos ran for 18 fewer yards per game than they did last season. Last year's offensive coordinator, Mike Shanahan, became coach of the Los Angeles Raiders in the off-season, and Denver coach Dan Reeves assembled the largest staff in NFL history—17 assistants, including part-timers. "Next year there will be 11," said Bronco owner Pat Bowlen last Saturday. The housecleaning began on Sunday with the firing of all five defensive coaches.
Right now our pick to go all the way is San Francisco. In the preseason, we thought the Niners would meet Cleveland in the Super Bowl. The 49ers still might face the Browns, if Cleveland can get by Houston again on Saturday and if Kosar and running back Kevin Mack, who also has an injured knee, recover in time to play at Buffalo the following week.
The 49ers look formidable because of their defense. Forget what you saw in their 38-16 loss to the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday night. That game was L.A.'s Super Bowl; for the Niners it was a tune-up. The San Francisco defense has a bunch of players you don't hear much about, guys like linebackers Charles Haley, Bill Romanowski, Mike Walter and Riki Ellison, if he's healthy. They all play every down as if it were their last. In the 49ers' most important game of the regular season, against New Orleans two weeks ago, the defense kept making big plays until the offense settled down. The Niners alternate a lot of linemen to keep their legs fresh for the late going. With a week of rest, San Francisco should come out of the box flying.
Minnesota is another team with an exceptional defense. It is spearheaded by defensive coordinator Floyd Peters's multiple-stunting front four. Peters's outstanding foursomes of the past—the 1976-77 Gold Rush in San Francisco and the 1978-81 Silver Rush in Detroit—displayed a common trait: They had agile people who could run loops and end-tackle games. That's what Peters has now in tackle Henry Thomas, a finesse player who often will line up over the center on a shifted four-man line; in Keith Millard and Chris Doleman, who are pass rushers with speed; and even in veteran Bubba Baker, who has replaced the injured Doug Martin and hasn't forgotten how to rush from the outside.
Behind that group are linebacker Jesse Solomon, who's talented at single coverage, cornerback Carl Lee and strong safety Joey Browner, each of whom had the best year of his career. (To see what other players Dr. Z thinks had exceptional years, turn to page 135 for the rundown on his All-Pro team.) Together, they form a formidable defensive package.
The Bears will be tough to size up until it becomes clear who their quarterback will be. Still, they can win with defense, as they did in a 10-9 Monday nighter against the 49ers in October. That was perhaps the best NFL game in five years. When Chicago's defense plays with intensity, it can dominate a game. If the intensity is missing, the Bears are vulnerable. Offensive failings have knocked them out of the playoffs two years in a row.
The AFC seems to be a home-and-road show. The Bills are impregnable in Buffalo, as are the Bengals in Cincinnati. Buffalo opened the season by saying it was going to run the ball and win with defense. The Bills did win, even though their running attack suffered when right guard Tim Vogler hurt his knee early in the season and other linemen were forced to play out of position. Vogler came back and Buffalo started putting up serious rushing-yardage numbers again—until he hurt his knee once more. He is out now for the remainder of the playoffs.