Bucky Brooks
Monday December 10th, 2007

Plaxico Burress continues to dominate his matchup with the Eagles secondary, using his size and athleticism. The 6-foot-5 receiver towers over the Eagles' corners (Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown) and Eli Manning exploits the matchup by throwing the ball high when Burress is well-covered by either of the corners. Burress repeatedly came down with critical third-down receptions on an assortment of acrobatic grabs -- on his way to a seven catch, 136-yard performance, his fourth 100-yard receiving game against the Eagles since joining the Giants in 2004.

Antonio Cromartie's sudden rise to elite-corner status is surprising, considering his inexperience heading into the season. Regarded as one of the top athletes in the 2006 draft, Cromartie only started in two games as a collegian. And spent most of his rookie season contributing as a kick returner, while seeing limited action within the Chargers' dime package. But aided by a Drayton Florence injury, Cromartie has seen more playing time and responded with nine interceptions. His ball skills and awareness have been impressive, but his improved cover skills have helped the Chargers lead the league in interceptions.

• The Titans defense harassed Philip Rivers into a subpar performance without using the blitz. Keyed by Albert Haynesworth's domination inside, Jim Schwartz used an assortment of stunts/games to free up multiple rushers off the edges. Kyle Vanden Bosch responded with three sacks and provided constant harassment off the corner. Though the Titans were unable to finish the game, the success of their front four allowed them to blanket the Chargers' passing game by sitting in two-deep coverage.

• The Lions deviated from their typical "air-it-out" approach by establishing the running game early in the contest. Offensive coordinator Mike Martz handed the ball off to Kevin Jones and T.J. Duckett on 15 of the Lions' first 31 plays. And the surprising effectiveness of the running game allowed quarterback Jon Kitna to connect with Sean McHugh and Calvin Johnson off play-action. Forced to deal with a balanced attack, the Cowboys defense never had a chance to unleash their exotic blitz schemes against a Lions offense that has struggled in pass protection for most of the season.

• The Lions successfully defended the Cowboys' vaunted offense by using an assortment of two-deep coverages. By incorporating more man-underneath coverage out of their two-deep shell, the Lions were able to keep quarterback Tony Romo from finding his primary targets, in rhythm, for most of the game. But credit Romo for effectively attacking the weakness of the two-deep scheme by repeatedly targeting tight end Jason Witten (15 receptions for 138 with one touchdown) and Marion Barber III (10 catches for 61 yards and one touchdown) underneath the coverage. Romo has shown surprising poise as a second-year starter and the ability to settle for check-downs further illustrates that point.

Reggie Williams is starting to stake his claim on the Jags' receiving corps. The former first-round pick has hauled in 16 receptions for 363 yards (24.1 ypc) with four touchdowns in the past six games. And his ability to generate big plays in the passing game has given the Jags' offense an added dimension. With Jacksonville firmly entrenched in a playoff run, it will need Williams to continue to be a difference maker.

Fred Taylor is benefiting from sharing the load with Maurice Jones-Drew. With less wear-and-tear on his legs, Taylor has keyed the Jags' playoff run by racking up three consecutive 100-yard rushing days. But the surprising element to Taylor's rejuvenation has been the return of the big run. Taylor's 80-yard touchdown run was his third run exceeding 40 yards this season, after having one in each of the past two seasons.

• The Panthers made a concerted effort to get Steve Smith the ball by incorporating more bubble screens into their game plan. The "dink and dunk" approach got Smith more involved (six catchhes for 44 yards), but it wasn't enough to jump start the Panthers' anemic offense against the Jags.

Trent Edwards' insertion into the lineup continues to pay huge dividends for the Bills. Not only has Edwards led his team to a 5-1 record, but his ability to incorporate all of the Bills' offensive weapons, especially the tight ends (Robert Royal and Michael Gaines), opens up the entire field. And the running game is benefiting from the wide-open approach, as the Bills have averaged more than 117 rushing yards a game in Edwards' six starts.

• Despite using a ball-control passing game against the Raiders, Brett Favre continues to torch secondaries with the deep ball. Favre's 80-yard touchdown to Greg Jennings was the Packers' 16th completion of more than 40 yards and Jennings' fifth touchdown of 40 yards or more. With the Packers; running attack emerging behind Ryan Grant, they will continue to have plenty of opportunities to attack with vertical strikes.

• After watching opponents use a variety of zone blitzes to attack their offense, the Patriots used a multi-faceted strategy to combat the Steelers' zone blitz. Initially, the Patriots turned to their running game to temper the Steelers' aggressiveness. By handing the ball to Laurence Maroney, New England was able to force Pittsburgh into more conventional eight-man fronts, which sets up the vertical play-action passing game, highlighted by Randy Moss' 63-yard touchdown.

But the early emphasis on the running game was quickly replaced by a pass-only approach in the second half. The Patriots spread the field with more three- and four-receiver sets and used the quick, rhythm passing game to attack the Steelers' zone blitz. By spreading the field, the Patriots were able to incorporate more slants and quick-outs to take advantage of the open windows available against the zone blitz. The Patriots are notorious for attacking stout run defenses by spreading the field to throw exclusively, and their second half approach against the Steelers was another illustration of their adoption of a pass-happy mentality.

• The Browns offense is slowly transforming into a smash-mouth unit, led by the power running of Jamal Lewis. After watching Derek Anderson get off to another slow start, offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski called more running plays to Lewis to steady the offense. Lewis' steady pounding didn't produce big yardage initially, but persistent grinding eventually resulted in his three explosive runs (of at least 10 yards) in the second half. The Browns offense still possesses quick-strike ability, but the steady improvement of their running game is giving their offense the necessary punch to win tight games in inclement weather.

Mike Shanahan has a budding controversy developing at the running back position. Veteran runner Travis Henry is healthy enough to carry the load, but Selvin Young's emergence as a playmaker has made it difficult for Shanahan to take him off the field. Young's 156-yard rushing day is his second 100-yard performance of the year and his 5.6-yard average per carry (100 rushes for 561 yards) would land him among the league's top rushers -- if he had enough carries to qualify. The Broncos didn't expect to utilize a running-back-by-committee approach this season, with the presence of Henry. But the unexpected breakout season of Young has forced Shanahan to incorporate both runners into the game plan.

• Credit the Seahawks' John Marshall for taking advantage of the Cardinals' depleted offense by utilizing more blitzes. The increased use of five-man pressures allowed Patrick Kerney to feast off the edge on the way to a three-sack day. And the constant harassment of Kurt Warner in the pocket resulted in a five-interception performance from the former league MVP. The Seahawks have lived off the turnover this season, and the increased use of pressure has been a catalyst for their surge in takeaways this year.

• The Vikings' depth at running back allows them to handle the occasional subpar effort. With the 49ers focused on stopping Adrian Peterson, the Vikings changed the tempo of the game by working in Chester Taylor to attack the edges. Taylor not only broke off an 84-yard touchdown run, but his 104-yard effort on only eight carries provided enough balance Minnesota to overcome Peterson's pedestrian performance (14 carries for only three yards).

• The Vikings defense doesn't get enough credit for being one of the best in the league. Their rushing defense leads the league in yards allowed (70.5), and their penchant for creating turnovers has resulted in six interception return touchdowns. Coordinator Leslie Frazier has crafted a defense that uses pressure on early downs to put the offense behind the chains, which forces more throws against their ball hawking two-deep coverage. Though credit goes the Vikings' running game for keying a surprising playoff run, the defense has truly been the reason the Vikings are suddenly in playoff contention.

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