Thursday, January 29, 2009
January 27, 2009
by Matt Pawlikowski
It's no secret that Steelers offensive coordinator Brice Arians loves to utilize his tight ends. On Sunday, with the potential existing that Hines Ward will not be playing, they could become huge factors in the Super Bowl.
Arians infatuation with utilizing a two tight ends instead of the traditional I back is a reason that in 2007, the team surprised many when they drafted Matt Spaeth, who won the John Mackey award winner as the nation's top tight end that fall. The Steelers already had Heath Miller, but in adding Spaeth to the equation, it allowed Arians to diversify the Steelers offense even more.
"He is big, tall and fast. He can block; he is an outstanding, prototypical tight end," Arians said of Spaeth. " At 6'7", he can help stretch the field and he can also handle the point of attack. He gives us good flexibility to take Heath and move him around a lot more.
"I like having three tight ends on the field a lot of times. It gives us a good personnel group, with two tight ends that can stretch the field and all three guys can block the point of attack."
Asked if he was surprised when the Steelers called his name in the third round, Spaeth, who was selected behind Greg Oleson ( Chicago, #31) and Zach Miller ( Oakland, #38) said he wasn't sure what would happen.
"I didn't really know what to expect in the draft process, you have inclinations and I think that is the best way to go into it," Speath said. "But its been unbelievable here, especially when it comes to fan support. Coming from Minnesota, its not like this at all."
Although Spaeth has seen a lot of action since his rookie year, with Miller nursing a high ankle sprain against the Colts earlier this season, he emerged as a favorite target of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger catching six passes for 53 yards in the game.
"I'm just trying to do what I can in there," Spaeth said. "Heath is our go to guy, I was trying to step in and take advantage of the opportunity and leave us some underneath stuff. Every day, I've taken some extra time to study film and different things like that."
That he has become being a quick study of the game should come as no surprise. His father Ken played the same position at Nebraska, and was drafted by Buffalo. Being able to catch the ball also should not be unforseen.
Despite being 6-7, 270 pounds, he has 4.7 speed and at Minnesota his senior year, he had 47 receptions for 564 yards. In 2008 he had 17 grabs for 136 yards and last year, of the six passes he caught, four were for touchdowns.
"Everyone loves to catch the ball," Speath said with a smile. "Last year, It seemed that a lot of my stuff came in the red zone. If you're open, Ben will find you. If you're not, he's going to find the open guy."
But there is another reason Spaeth has become a viable part of the offensive scheme, his blocking ability. When he is in the lineup, the team not only has another lineman for protection, but an extra player to clear the paths for Melwelde Moore or Willie Parker.
"The NFL game is a lot more complex in the things you learn, and I'm still learning as everyday in practice there is something new that comes up," Spaeth said. "So its a constant learning process. My main focus ever since I was in college, was to have a great game blocking and whatever opportunities come and present themselves in the passing game, to go out and take full advantage of them."
Tuesday, January 27, 2009
January 19, 2009
By David Fox
The path to this season's national championship game began almost as soon as Florida and Oklahoma closed their 2007 seasons with embarrassing bowl losses.
Oklahoma came within nine points of the school scoring record with freshman quarterback Sam Bradford in 2007, but Bob Stoops wanted more out of the offense. He tasked coordinator Kevin Wilson with reviving the no-huddle offense he ran in a previous stop at Northwestern.
DeMarco Murray was one of two 1,000-yard rushers for Kevin Wilson's offense in 2008.
At Florida, coordinator Charlie Strong didn't need to tweak any schemes. His young defense was torched for 524 yards by Michigan in the Capital One Bowl, and Strong's task was to repair the confidence of his defense and prepare it to keep up with the Gators' high-powered offense.
Though Strong would come out on top in Florida's 24-14 win for the BCS title, both coordinators succeeded wildly during the 2008 season, earning Rivals.com National Coordinator of the Year honors.
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR OF THE YEAR: Kevin Wilson, Oklahoma
Barry Switzer used to brag about hanging half a hundred on opposing defenses. Wilson isn't as boastful, but his offense had no problem reaching that plateau.
In the Big 12, the best offensive league in the country, the Sooners stood above the pack. Sam Bradford, Oklahoma's fifth Heisman winner, helped the Sooners score 716 points - the most in college football's modern era. The Sooners were the first team to score at least 60 points in five consecutive games and were the first team to have a 4,000-yard passer (Bradford) and two 1,000-yard rushers (Chris Brown and DeMarco Murray).
Oklahoma returned the makings of a potent offense. Bradford led the nation in passing efficiency as a redshirt freshman. Despite losing senior Allen Patrick, Brown and Murray would make up a deep backfield. Three of the top four receivers returned, including standout tight end Jermaine Gresham. The offensive line would be one of the most experienced in the nation. Still, Stoops wanted an additional edge. He wanted the offense to push the tempo of the game.
An assistant to the late Randy Walker at Miami University and Northwestern, Wilson had experience with the no-huddle offense. The Sooners had tinkered with it in past seasons, but it never stuck. This season, with nine returning starters, Oklahoma's offense was ready for the tweaking.
"With returning players it gave us a comfort level," Wilson said. "We were taught this when we first did this – kids learn what you could teach. If you can teach it, they can learn it."
Wilson and his staff taught it well.
The Sooners led the nation with 79 offensive plays per game, averaging nearly 10 more than they did in 2007. Despite the eye-popping numbers – the Sooners led the nation with 51.1 points per game and were third with 547.9 yards – Oklahoma protected the football and protected the quarterback.
The Sooners gave up only 11 turnovers, tied for the fewest in the nation with Baylor, which played two fewer games than Oklahoma.
Oklahoma also was third in the nation with just 0.93 sacks allowed per game. The teams ahead of the Sooners were Air Force and Navy – two option-based teams.
"We're more proud of the fact that we played sound and clean," Wilson said. "We didn't talk about style points with these guys. These guys were having fun and heaving success, and it kept snowballing."
Past offensive coordinators of the year
2007: Dave Christensen, Missouri
2006: Gus Malzahn, Arkansas
2005: Al Borges, Auburn
Annual All-Joe team: Honoring those who won little acclaim
By Larry Weisman, USA TODAY
The 17th annual All-Joe team honors the overlooked, the overachievers, the hard-working guys named "Joe" (but not the Plumber) who don't grab the headlines.
AFC ALL-JOE TEAM
• OT: David Stewart, Tenn. Nicknamed "Big Country." No missed starts since jumping into the lineup in 2006; Jared Gaither, Balt. Huge figure who can shut down top pass-rushers; Ryan Clady, Den. A No. 1 pick who stepped right in and gives line hopes of a return to greatness.
• OG: Bobbie Williams, Cin. A team captain who hasn't missed a game since 2006 appendectomy; Brad Butler, Buff. Bills' ground game faded when he went out, perked up (150 yards in three of four games) when he returned; Mike Brisiel, Hou. Texans run to the right side a lot. Helped clear the way for star rookie RB Steve Slaton.
• C: Jason Brown, Balt. At the heart of a sound run-blocking line that also protected a rookie QB; Justin Hartwig, Pitt. Steadying influence inside with first-year starters flanking him at both guard spots.
• TE: Marcedes Lewis, Jac. Growing into sound receiver, had most receiving yards by a Jaguars TE in eight years; Dallas Clark, Ind. Dependable receiver who can run in the open field; Heath Miller, Pitt. Excellent blocker on the edge who takes shifts on kickoff, punt and field goal special teams.
• FB: Ahmard Hall, Tenn. Former U.S. Marine was undrafted, now a three-year starter for a run-loving team; Vonta Leach, Hou. Takes on LBs so Slaton can hit the holes.
• RB: Sammy Morris, N.E. Old plugger overcame injuries and helped the Patriots' ground game do the same; Maurice Jones-Drew, Jac. Topped all RBs in receptions and receiving yards.
• QB: Matt Cassel, N.E. Who knew? Passed for 400 yards in consecutive games, which Tom Brady never did; Kerry Collins, Tenn. Another rebirth for ancient head.
• WR: Vincent Jackson, S.D. First Chargers receiver to surpass 1,000 yards since 2001; Kevin Walter, Hou. Became a clutch receiver but Texans love his downfield blocking; Dwayne Bowe, K.C. Rips through tackles. Most catches and yards in first two seasons of any Chiefs player in history.
• K: Phil Dawson, Cle. Last player left from the '99 expansion Browns, set club record for FGs this season; Rob Bironas, Tenn. Tremendous accuracy, plus power on kickoffs.
• KR: Ellis Hobbs, N.E. Explosive returner who is also a starting cornerback; Joshua Cribbs, Cle. Only player in NFL the last two years to lead his team in kickoff return yards, punt return yards and special teams tackles.
• Off. coord.: Dan Henning, Mia. Coached power running in the past, now big on guile and trickery.
• Coach: Bill Belichick, N.E. Might have been his finest coaching job, with no playoff berth to show for it.
NFC ALL-JOE TEAM
• DE: Trent Cole, Phi. Plays in the opponent's backfield; John Abraham, Atl. Had nearly half (16.5) of Falcons' 34 sacks; Aaron Kampmann, G.B. Solid, steady, rock-like presence.
• DT: Jonathan Babineaux, Atl. Penetrator who makes tackles for losses, becoming a sound inside pass-rusher; Barry Cofield, N.Y. Giants. Underrated run stuffer overshadowed by marquee pass rushers; Mike Patterson, Phi. He and Broderick Bunkley anchored the inside for a defense that allowed 92.5 rushing yards a game. A shared honor here.
• ILB: London Fletcher, Wash. Has missed one start in last 10 years, always leads his team in tackles, never makes the Pro Bowl; Barrett Ruud, T.B. "Never comes off the field," former coach Jon Gruden said of his leading tackler; Gerald Hayes, Ariz. Active guy with three consecutive seasons of more than 100 tackles.
OLB: Thomas Davis, Car. Second on Panthers in tackles with career-high 136, nine for loss; Chad Greenway, Minn. No sacks in '07, 5.5 in '08. Back-to-back seasons with more than 100 tackles; Danny Clark, N.Y. Giants. Moved in after Mathias Kiwanuka returned to DE.
• CB: Chris Gamble, Car. Five-year vet is second on Panthers' all-time list with 20 picks, had career-high 103 tackles; Sheldon Brown, Phi. Seven-year vet has played in 96 consecutive games, third-most as his position among active players; Corey Webster, N.Y. Giants. Led team in passes defensed and tied for team lead with 3 INTs.
• S: Kevin Payne, Chi. Missed most of rookie season with broken arm, bounced back to lead Bears with four INTs. Tanard Jackson, T.B. "A relentless worker," says new head coach Raheem Morris. Quintin Mikell, Phi. Now the equal of backfield mate Brian Dawkins.
• P: Donnie Jones, St. Louis. Gross punting average of 50 yards ranks second in NFL history; Chris Kluwe, Minn. Six punts of 50 or more yards … in one game.
• PR: Will Blackmon, G.B. Scored twice on returns; Reggie Bush, N.O. Three TDs on punt returns despite limited playing time.
• ST: Kevin Burnett, Dal. Team's leading special teams tackler also plays MLB in nickel and dime coverage schemes; Garrett Wolfe, Chi. Smallest guy on the team became special teams force.
• Def. coord.: Jim Johnson, Phi. Crafty old blitzer restored Eagles defensive intensity.
• Special teams: Dave Toub, Chi. Bears remain masters of blocked kicks, field position and directional punting.
• Long snapper: Chris Massey, St. Louis. One bad snap in eight years and also gets downfield to make tackles on punt coverage team.
Friday, January 16, 2009
January 12, 2009
Kudos to ...
There's plenty of crummy stuff to talk about. Let's start with some of the good things, though.
• Terrell Thomas: A brilliant special teams play to down a ball inside the 5-yard line, and a couple of quarterback pressues while blitzing. It appears that GM Jerry Reese struck gold with Thomas, his second-round pick in 2008.
• Run defense: Gotta give it up for what the Giants did in this department, basically making Brian Westbrook (18 carries, 36 yards) a non-factor. I didn't think that was possible, but the Giants did it. I also didn't think it was possible to do that and still lose, but the Giants did that, too. Michael Johnson and Antonio Pierce, in particular, had excellent games defending the run. It was a total team effort, though.
• Brandon Jacobs: Gained 92 yards on 19 carries, and should have had a huge day. The only problem Jacobs had is the Giants simply did not give him the ball nearly enough. The big fella ran really well. Now, the Giants need to pay the free-agent to-be and lock him up for the next few seasons.
• Ahmad Bradshaw: A game-opening 65-yard kickoff return, and some nice efforts on a couple of other run backs. Only one question, Ahmad. Where has that been? That was the Bradshaw we expected to see all season -- and that we need to see next season.
• Justin Tuck: The All-Pro defensive end gave everything he had, creating a safety and making five tackles while playing on one healthy leg. Tuck needs more help next season, which he should get with the return of Osi Umenyiora.
Thursday, January 15, 2009
by Tony Grossi
January 13, 2009
These rankings are unscientific and reflect my opinion of the players who had the best season in 2008. They are not based on potential, athletic ability or draft status, but on actual production versus opportunity and role, with some consideration given to past performance and to intangibles. (Note: Players who were active for two or fewer games are not ranked.)
1. NT Shaun Rogers: Better than advertised. Shame his outstanding effort didn't have a domino effect.
2. KR-WR Josh Cribbs: He might have more impact as a third-down back or safety.
3. PK Phil Dawson: Had overall finest kicking year in Browns history.
4. LS Ryan Pontbriand: One of the top five snappers in the NFL.
5. LT Joe Thomas: Tougher opponents resulted in more sacks allowed.
6. RB Jamal Lewis: A bad year for him is 1,002 yards, 3.6 average and 4 TDs.
7. ILB D'Qwell Jackson: 191 tackles, 3 interceptions, 2 sacks and 5 pass breakups.
8. LG Eric Steinbach: A heady, reliable blocker when healthy; missed two games with injuries.
9. RB Jerome Harrison: Averaged 8 yards every time he touched the ball.
10. P Dave Zastudil: Top 10 in NFL in gross and net average.
Tuesday, January 13, 2009
By Chris Brown
January 5, 2009
It was by no means a season that met expectations, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t some memorable plays and performances in 2008. We run down the obvious and the obscure, but all were deserving of Brown’s Best this past season.
BEST DISPLAY OF TOUGHNESS WEEK 2: Donte Whitner – After losing his helmet and making a tackle Whitner’s left eye was almost completely swollen shut and needed three stitches, but he came back in the game and finished tied for second in tackles.
BEST HIT WEEK 16: Donte Whitner – His crack on Brandon Marshall separated the receiver from the football and the turnover led to a field goal.
Tuesday, January 06, 2009
December 29, 2008
By Steve Reed
CHARLOTTE - Carolina Panthers coach John Fox called this year's offense the best he's had since taking over as head coach in 2002.
"I think there's no doubt it's the best offense we've had since I've been here as a head coach, if you look at the production level," Fox said. "And a lot's gone into that.
We injected quite a bit of talent into that group that I think has worked out well, and they've worked out well. There are no guarantees in personnel acquisitions, but (the players) have blended well. I think (offensive coordinator) Jeff Davidson and the offensive staff has done a terrific job. We've been able to maintain the balance that I think is important."
The Panthers have run the ball 504 times this season for 2,437 yards and 30 touchdowns. They've attempted 434 passes (if you include sacks allowed) for 3,288 yards and 15 touchdowns.
They scored 414 points, the most in the Fox era and the second-most in franchise history.
When asked if the running game has exceeded expectations, Fox said, "We're not done yet. I think that we have goals and we're into that second season. So it's hard to even reflect a little bit on the regular season. We've still got a lot of work to do and hopefully we're not done for a while."
December 26, 2008
By Phil Richards
Versatile tight end Dallas Clark has been referred to as the "X factor" in the Indianapolis Colts offense.
That's selling him short. He also plays the "Y," the "H" and the "Z."
Permit him to clarify.
"The Z is always towards the Y. Z and Y are on the same side," Clark offered hopefully.
If the designations are as murky as alphabet soup, so can be the task of covering him. Tennessee comes to Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday and the Titans might find Clark in tight formation (Y), in the backfield or the slot (H) or split wide to either side (X and Z).
With defensive substitutions made difficult by the Colts' no-huddle offense, it's often likely that a linebacker might get the assignment of covering Clark without help, which begets a more lucid sequence of letters:
"He'll win one-on-ones against DBs, against cover corners and nickel," said Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher, who rates Clark's blocking as an unheralded strength. "He just creates a lot of mismatches and he just knows where to go, where to get to. And clearly he and Peyton (Manning) are on the same page. Their production and results speak for themselves."
Clark and Manning have connected on 71 passes for 789 yards and six touchdowns this season, and you know a tight end is stepping out when the records he is breaking are his own and those of larger-than-life Pro Football Hall of Fame member John Mackey. Clark's reception total is a club record for tight ends, 13 better than the standard he set a year ago. He needs 41 yards Sunday to surpass Mackey's 1966 season record of 829 yards.
Clark is on a tear. He caught 12 passes for 142 yards and a touchdown against Detroit two weeks ago, then came back with eight receptions for 105 yards and a touchdown at Jacksonville. No Colts tight end had ever caught as many as 10 passes in a game. No Colts tight end had ever managed consecutive 100-yard games.
Mackey played 10 seasons, nine with the Colts from 1963-71. Clark is in his fifth season. Appropriately enough, the last honor he was accorded at the University of Iowa after his 2002 senior season was the John Mackey Award, presented annually to college football's preeminent tight end.
Until Mike Ditka came into the league in 1961, tight ends were regarded as a sixth lineman, a third tackle.
They blocked, and that was all.
Then Ditka caught 56 passes for 1,072 yards and 12 touchdowns as a rookie and Mackey came along two years later.
The NFL had never seen such a superior athlete at the position. As a 6-2, 224-pound rookie, Mackey returned nine kickoffs for an average of 30.1 yards. In 1966, six of his nine touchdowns covered 51 yards or more. Mackey had get-deep, breakaway speed. He could catch. He could make tacklers miss. He was the prototypical modern tight end.
Clark and others used like him -- Colts coach Tony Dungy fingered Kansas City's Tony Gonzalez, San Diego's Antonio Gates and Philadelphia's L.J. Smith -- are descendants in Mackey's line.
Clark has never met Mackey. He hasn't even seen video, but he would have made Mackey proud last Thursday at Jacksonville.
With the Colts trailing 24-14 late in the third quarter, Clark set up wide right, at the "Z." He streaked the sideline past Jaguars cornerback Brian Williams, stretched to make a deft fingertip catch of Manning's strike, then held on despite safety Reggie Nelson's jarring hit. He picked up 33 yards to the Jacksonville 48.
Line up wide. Beat a corner. Get deep. Make the catch. Take the hit. It was a play that exemplified Clark's many assets. It was the play that triggered the Colts' 31-24 comeback victory.
"Boy, there aren't many tight ends in the history of the game that can just simply flat-out run by a cornerback in the NFL," NBC television analyst Cris Collinsworth observed at the time. "Dallas Clark, pretty special."
Man on the move
Clark is 6-3, and 252 pounds. He is deceptively fast, a smooth, long-striding glider with sub-4.5 second speed in the 40-yard dash. He is faster than most linebackers, bigger and stronger than safeties and cornerbacks. By moving him around, the Colts try to create mismatches, but Clark cites offensive coordinator Tom Moore's cautionary:
"It's not a mismatch until you beat him."
That's Clark's job, wherever he sets up. The options are:
Y -- The traditional tight end. Aligns in tight formation alongside the tackle to either side. Can be employed as a run blocker, pass protector or receiver.
H -- In the Colts' system, aligns in the slot, just off the line of scrimmage between the wide receiver and the offensive line, or as a second back in the backfield primarily with protection responsibilities.
Clark's skinny: "Slot is a chance to be more of a receiver and a lot of times a linebacker will come out and cover you and a lot of linebackers aren't very comfortable out in space like that. They like to be in the box and kind of know where they are."
Z -- Often called flanker. Split wide to the Y, or tight end, side and set just off the line of scrimmage.
X -- Often called split end. Split to the side opposite the tight end and set on the line of scrimmage. If Clark is at Z or X, the normal Z or X to that side, wide receiver Reggie Wayne or Marvin Harrison, moves into the slot.
Clark's skinny: "The Z and X are a lot of fun. That's where you really get to try to run routes and make plays like Reg and Marv."
Of course, there's a crucial strategic element involved in Clark lining up at Z or X.
"The season's so long I think the coaches kind of get bored," he said.
That's typical of Clark's dry humor, which more often than not is directed at himself.
Home or Honolulu
He is a self-effacing homebody who still calls Livermore, Iowa, (population 368) home. He likes hanging out with his wife, Karen, with whom he is expecting a first child in March, and their dogs, Indy, a black labrador, and Jersey, a yellow lab. Cards and board games like Scrabble are favored pastimes, but a February trip to Honolulu would be a welcome diversion.
Clark is the AFC's first alternate at tight end for the 2009 Pro Bowl. Fans, players and coaches voted him third, behind the perennial pair, Gonzalez and Gates, although he has 14 more catches and 134 more yards than the latter.
Clark would go were injury or circumstance to take out Gonzalez or Gates, but he didn't feel good about the prospect until he chatted with Wayne, who will make his third consecutive appearance.
"I kind of felt like I wouldn't belong or something, or I'd take somebody else's spot," Clark said. "But like Reggie told me, you go over there and people don't know who the alternate is. There's not a special table to eat lunch or, 'the alternates are over there.' Talking to him really helped me look at the positives."
Whether it happens this time or a future February, the dilemma will be the coaches,' not Clark's.
Where do they line him up?