Game of the weekend: New England at Denver. Intriguing player of the weekend: Elvis Dumervil.
Who is he? Where'd he come from? How can the Sam Mills of pass-rushers (5-foot-11, 245 pounds) be leading the NFL in sacks through one-quarter of the season? How can he be so good and so under-the-radar at the same time?
First, an illustration of Dumervil's Tazmanian Devil approach to rushing the passer. Dumervil, for the first time in his college or pro career, is playing outside linebacker because new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan has switched to the 3-4 and 245-pound guys would get eaten alive against the run at end in the 3-4. But in passing downs, Dumervil moves to a hand-down defensive end in Nolan's 4-3.
In the Dallas-Denver game last week, on a passing down, Dumervil lined up to the outside of mountainous left tackle Flozell Adams. On game tape, the matchup looked a little like Muggsy Bogues against Yao Ming. Adams is eight inches taller and 95 pounds heavier than Dumervil. At the snap of the ball, Dumervil, rushing low, took a hard outside rush, and Adams flexed out his arms to try to push him outside. Like Elastic Man, Dumervil stopped with both feet planted and leaned back, then shot inside Adams and smothered Tony Romo in the pocket. It's a move you'd probably have to see to believe, but trust me, it wouldn't matter how big Adams was -- there's no way he was ever going to stop that rush.
"I want to be known as relentless, a game-changer,'' Dumervil said on the phone from Denver. "I want to be known as one of the good pass-rushers in the league.''
Here's the thing you notice about Dumervil: His size actually helps him. Rushing is a game of leverage, on each side of the line, and Dumervil can get so low that it's hard for big tackles to get underneath him and leverage him backward. Heck, from watching Dumervil rush, it's hard for the linemen to get their hands on him, period, because of his quickness and simply because he's hard to locate. "I think I benefit from them having to play at my level,'' Dumervil told me. "Playing that low has been something I've done all my life, so it's hard to get your hands on me when I'm rushing that low.''
All his life, his size has been questioned. How interesting now that it's actually turning into a benefit -- at least the way he sees it.
"What's the big deal?'' he said. "I'm a football player. But sometimes out there, I do feel like I'm invisible.''
Born to Haitian parents in the gang-riddled Liberty City section of Miami, Dumervil benefited from the Florida football craze as a kid. He never wanted to play basketball or other sports. "We played street football three, four hours a day, 12 months a year,'' he said. "Not tackle football. But it was great for me because it was all quickness.''
At Louisville, he started slowly; it still haunts him that three times in a game against Miami of Ohio, a burly quarterback named Ben Roethlisberger shook off three Dumervil sack attempts and riddled the Louisville defense. "He probably doesn't remember, but I sure do,'' said Dumervil.
As a senior, he burst onto scouting reports with a 20-sack season, but his size pushed him down to the fourth round in the 2006 draft. After 21 sacks in his first two pro seasons, he slipped to a five-sack season last year. "I never thought it would be so hard to rush with a broken finger,'' said Dumervil, whose right pinky was busted. "I got it casted up, but I learned how valuable my hands are to rushing the passer.''
When Nolan told him he'd be moving to outside linebacker, he lost 10 pounds and worked on quickness throughout the offseason. Now it's showing, with eight sacks in the past three games. With Tom Brady on the horizon, Dumervil realizes how important he is to what the Broncos must do on Sunday to win.
"You can't just sprint at [Brady],'' Dumervil said. "He's not a fast guy, but he's elusive in the pocket. I'm a big fan of his. Great player, great leader. I know how valuable he is to everything they do. I've never sacked him before, but he's one guy I'd really like to have under my belt.''
A couple of Dumervil sacks would go a long way to Denver continuing the most unlikely season in the NFL. I'm picking New England 23-17, with lots of quick slants and curls from Brady so he can avoid Dumervil. I expect the Patriots to give their left side some chip help with a tight end or back Sunday, but a couple of opportunistic rushes from Dumervil outside left tackle Matt Light's left shoulder, and this could be a different game.
Julius Peppers, defensive end, Carolina
I've been tough on Peppers recently because I think a player who occasionally has been called the best defensive end in the game ought to average more than 10 sacks a year. His impact has been closer to Justin Smith than Reggie White.
This week, linebacker Jon Beason said he was going to have a talk with Peppers about his slow start -- one sack and six tackles in three games -- and if he does, this is what he should say: "Dude, you're making a million bucks a week, and we need some impact for that, and we're 0-3, and you're facing Chris Samuels on Sunday, and he's beatable.'' Or something like that. The Panthers have to win this game if they don't want to be playing out the string for the last three months, and it's time for Mr. 16.7 Million to start playing like it.
1. Tony Romo vs. his not-so-adoring public. Romo's on pace to throw for 3,960 yards, which is fine -- but with 16 touchdowns, which is not fine, and for a completion average of 58 percent, which also is not fine. After a 10-point outing at Denver, Romo's popularity rating is sinking faster than Eric Mangini's in Cleveland . "Last week doesn't make us waver in our belief of what we can accomplish this season,'' he said Thursday.
2. Troy Polamalu's recovery. Don't play him in Detroit, you say; save him for another week, because they can beat the Leos without him. One problem with that logic: Mike Tomlin is the one making this decision, and he doesn't care if this week's game is against Montclair State -- if Polamalu's knee is healthy enough to go, he'll go.
3. Braylon Edwards to say something, anything, nice about the coach and GM who granted him his fervent wish. It's fascinating Edwards has thanked the owner who drafted him, the coach who used to coach him, his teammates and the wonderful fans of Cleveland. By not thanking the coach (Eric Mangini) and GM (George Kokinis) who dealt him to a playoff contender, he looks very small.
4. A new football league kicking off. It's a strange four-team loop, this United Football League. I wanted to watch the first 40 minutes in United Football League history last night (I won't lie; last night in my house was Sox-Angels at 9:40), but DirecTV has blacked out Versus in a contract dispute. I would have settled for the coaching rematch of the 2000 NFC Championship Game streamed live on my MacBook Air, but that was on the fritz too. So Denny Green's California Redwoods had to fall to Jim Fassel's Las Vegas Locomotives 30-17 without me. (Two TD passes for J.P. Losman, and 14,209 in the house. Not a very good turnout.) New York-Orlando is Saturday night.
5. How closely the refs call roughing the passer. It's human nature to feel the media and public heat, and the league's 17 referees have to be wondering what roughing is anymore. I can tell you this: Touching a quarterback in the helmet will always be called, and diving at a quarterback's knees, no matter when the QB is brushed by the rusher or smashed by him, will be called. Lots of grays areas in between.
6. The Niners tormenting Matt Ryan -- or trying to. San Francisco's underrated pass-rush has already put some black-and-blues on the torsos of Kurt Warner, Matt Hasselbeck and Brett Favre. Wear the flak jacket, Matt.
7. Andy Reid to take the wraps off Michael Vick. Snaps in game one: 11, with two passes and one run. Snaps this Sunday against toothless Tampa Bay: 18, with four passes and five runs.
8. The Underrated Big Ten Alum Bowl in Denver. Tom Brady (Michigan, 199th pick in the 2000 draft) versus Kyle Orton (Purdue, 106th pick, 2005), and Brady's not the lone efficient one playing a mile above sea level Sunday. Orton's 25-12 as an NFL starter. Let's see if Brady can solve this incredibly well-playing D.
9. Tom Cable's schedule. Cable can breathe easy, for now. Contrary to reports, there will be no meeting this weekend with Roger Goodell while Cable's across the Hudson River for the Raiders-Giants game. Now, the commish likely is going to have to interview the coach at some point this season to determine whether to punish Cable for his alleged role in a training-camp brawl that left the jaw of assistant Randy Hanson broken. My feeling is Goodell is going to let the legal case run its course before doing much with Cable -- unless he's convinced it was Cable's fist that did the jaw-breaking.
10. Rex Ryan defending lots of the Wildcat. With Miami quarterback Chad Henne making his second career start against the multi-faceted Jets defense Monday night, I'm expecting 15 or so snaps of the Wildcat from the Dolphins. Miami has to hope it learned from 2008, when the Dolphins scored 22 points in eight regular- and postseason quarters against Ryan's Baltimore D.