With apologies to The Favre Bowl and Ravens-Patriots (I'm guessing they'll get over it), my favorite game this weekend is Jets-Saints in New Orleans. Two 3-0 teams. Drew Brees against Rex Ryan. And Broadway Sanchez with another chance to add to a growing legend.
All along, I've been thinking this was all about whether Brees, the hottest quarterback in the game, could figure out what defensive weirdness Ryan was throwing at him. And there's something to that, to be sure. The last time Brees faced a Ryan-led defense, in 2006, the Ravens bushwhacked New Orleans 35-22, and he threw two pick-sixes. But studying this game this week, I've come to the conclusion it's as much about what strange brews Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams will concoct for the Jets and young Mark Sanchez.
Gregg Williams and Rex Ryan. Strange bedfellows. Williams was on Buddy Ryan's defensive staff with the Houston Oilers in 1993, and when Buddy Ryan got the Cardinals coaching job in 1994, he wanted Williams as his defensive coordinator. "Buddy was going to have his sons [Rex and Rob] on the coaching staff with the Cardinals, and he wanted me to come to sort of mentor them,'' Williams said Thursday from New Orleans. "But I had two years left on my contract in Houston, and they wouldn't let me out. It would have been a lot of fun, but my wife had a good job in Houston, and I think it probably worked out for the best.''
Williams and Rex Ryan, then, have lots in common, and it will be on display in the Superdome Sunday.
"This is the kind of game where doing a lot of studying can actually hurt you,'' Jets linebacker Bart Scott told me. "What you do one week is not what you do the next week. Everybody says about us, 'Study the Ravens,' because that's where Rex was. But even if you study the Ravens' tape, you won't know who matches up with who in our defense now. We don't let you learn that. I could be one thing one snap, then [linebacker] David Harris could be that guy the next snap.''
Same thing with Williams' defense. The Saints are a base 4-3 defense, but in 61 defensive snaps against Buffalo last week, they ran zero 4-3 plays. Williams used three defensive lineman, sometimes in a base 3-4, and sometimes not, for three reasons: to cause confusion for a Buffalo line playing three first-year starters, to be more multiple against the Bills' no-huddle offense, and to be prepared to max-cover the Bills' downfield passing game. On 25 snaps, he used three down linemen with only two linebackers and six defensive backs. "I think we could have played eight quarters and Buffalo wouldn't have scored [an offensive touchdown],'' Sean Payton said this morning. New Orleans won 27-7, the only Bills' points coming on a touchdown pass on a fake punt.
"Now don't go making Williams a rock star,'' Payton said, chuckling over the cell phone. "But he's been such a great addition. There're two things he's done a great job at. We've got [an NFL-best] nine takeaways. And we're top five in the league in fewest big plays allowed. Those two things have been our Achilles' heel on defense around here, and Gregg's come in and put a priority on them.''
The Saints have been terrific against two shaky offenses, Buffalo and Detroit, holding them to 243 and 231 yards, respectively. But the Eagles showed some chinks in the Saints defense, with four drives of at least 65 yards, mixing some big plays with eight security-blanket throws to Brent Celek. The Jets could do the same. Jerricho Cotchery is the deep threat Sanchez has found most often, and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer designs a heavy presence of second-year tight end Dustin Keller in every gameplan.
"We've been able to do well,'' Jonathan Vilma said, "because we've all bought into the system Gregg's brought. The perfect example is third-and-long. Last year we sat back in quarters coverage [four defensive backs spread evenly across the back end, maybe 15 yards behind the line of scrimmage]. But this year, we're getting after it. If we blitzed the last play, we're not just going to sit back because the book says to just get off the field. We might blitz again.''
I asked Vilma who was coming the most. "It's everyone,'' he said. "Just watch our tape. He's blitzing everyone. We might call the same guy blitzing four plays in a row.''
I mentioned to Williams that he's calling defense the way Bill Belichick gameplans. No two games are ever the same, and no two gameplans are either. "Exactly,'' Williams said. "That's why I admire Bill so much. The one thing I don't think you can do as a coach is tailor what your players do to what you want to do. You have to look at your players, see what they do best, and go from there.''
In New Orleans, the Saints don't have a DeMarcus Ware -- a top rush end or outside linebacker. So Williams, like Ryan in New York, pressures from different places on the line. That kind of pressure, from both teams, is why this game is going to be such an interesting chess match. I like Brees to figure out the Jet fronts a little bit better than Sanchez figuring out what Williams is throwing at him. But I have a feeling Leon Washington and Reggie Bush, quick backs playing on the rug, could be bigger factors in this game than the quarterbacks. Whatever happens, this is the game of the week.
I can't leave this game without flashing back to July. Payton was one of the Monday Morning Quarterback subs in the four weeks I took off this summer, and I told him the same thing I told the others: Say something. Or don't be afraid to say something, at least. And the following is what he wrote in that column:
"History has told us there will be four to six new playoff teams this season. If I had to choose one non-playoff team from last season that has a chance to make it into the 2009 postseason it would be the New York Jets. Rex Ryan will do a great job of creating a culture that lends itself to winning. I also love Mark Sanchez as a young quarterback prospect.''
Coach, you've got a future in this business.
Jason Campbell, QB, Washington.
It almost doesn't seem to matter how Campbell plays. Half of America -- including my new BFF, Rodney Harrison, at NBC -- is taking for granted that the Redskins will whack Campbell after the season and look for the next Mr. Goodbar at quarterback. What would you say, however, if I told you Campbell was on pace to throw for 4,229 yards, with only 11 interceptions? Maybe it's not hopeless. But this is the kind of game, against a terrible Tampa Bay team, that Campbell simply has to excel, because he'll need a police escort out of FedEx Field Sunday evening if he doesn't beat the Bucs.
1. Jay Cutler will have the kitchen sink thrown at him. He's 12-0 when he's efficient -- when he has a passer rating over 100 -- and Detroit's secondary isn't good enough to sit back and hope he implodes. The Lions will take chances with their pass rush, because if they sit back, their secondary will get scorched.
2. London Fletcher continuing yet another Pro Bowl season that goes unrecognized. Who leads the NFL in tackles after three weeks? Right. Fletcher, the middle linebacker of the Redskins, with 43. Over the past 10 years, Fletcher leads all NFL players in tackles, yet he's never made the Pro Bowl in his previous 11 seasons. I don't care how bad Washington might stink this year, if Fletcher leads the league in tackles again, he's got to be recognized.
3. Whether Denver can keep it up. The Broncos have had the most stunning defensive start of any team, surrendering 16 points in three games. What I really like is how many explosive plays they've had on defense -- sacks, interceptions, forced fumbles. Eighteen in three games, including 10 sacks. They stay on that pace, and I don't care if Kyle Orton has a slump to beat all slumps, the Broncos will make the playoffs.
4. Chad Henne's starting debut. On draft weekend 2008, the Ravens split hairs between Henne and Joe Flacco and picked Flacco. But Cam Cameron would have been thrilled with Henne. Now we'll see if Henne can live up to Tony Sparano's grand expectations, with Chad Pennington gone for the year.
5. Bye week teams seething. Leaves haven't even started to turn, and Arizona, Carolina, Philly and Atlanta are sitting out. I have railed on this and will continue to -- Week 4 is competitively unfair for a bye week because no team wants its bye when 85 percent of the roster is absolutely healthy.
6. Whether the Ravens can continue to be road warriors. Last year, they beat Miami, Houston, Dallas, Miami (in the playoffs) and Tennessee away from home; 12 days ago they whacked the Chargers at Qualcomm. It won't be easy to win at Foxboro against a team regaining its legs.
7. All Favre, all the time. After all the media mayhem -- I expect Jon Gruden to pepper Favre on why he didn't push for a trade to Tampa Bay 14 months ago in his ESPN interview -- there will be a football game, reportedly, Monday night pitting Brett Favre's new team, the Vikings, against his old team, the Packers. Just a hunch, but this will be more Adrian Peterson's game than Favre's.
8. Whether the Bengals can win a game that any team wanting to be taken seriously should win. No excuses if they lose at Cleveland. None.
9. Whether Glen Coffee can become America's new fantasy hero. The Rams should expect nothing less than 28 touches from Coffee, the rookie from Alabama, as he subs for Frank Gore. I don't think there's going to be much of a drop off from Gore to Coffee.
10. A compelling matchup between two stars of the 2004 draft. Could be a pitcher's duel Sunday night at Heinz Field between San Diego's Philip Rivers (fourth overall pick) and Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger (11th pick). Unless the Steelers have a great day playing the deep ball from Rivers, I like San Diego.