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Mark Sanchez's most impressive attribute; 10 things to watch for

Before I get to my column on what Mark Sanchez has been doing consistently better than Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Drew Brees (what a tease!), a few words about what a powerful thing the National Football League is. Is this league a steamrolling ATM or what? The ratings, the interest, the hype, the stories ... Never ceases to amaze me. Latest case in point: NFL Network sending Jim Mora (the son) to interview Michael Vick. Brilliant idea. Vick dogged it under Mora, and if Mora did his media job the right way, he just might get him to say something really good. Well, Mora did his job, and Vick played his part. The chunk of the interview, airing Sunday on the network's pregame show, that seems most compelling:

Vick: "... My whole life was a lie, Jim, you know, everything from A to Z.''

Mora: "Were you a good person with some bad decisions or were you connin' me?''

Vick: "Now I think about it a lot, coach. I was, you know, selfish in some aspects. I didn't dedicate myself. I didn't listen. And you -- you know, y'all was only trying to help me in, in so many ways.''

Mora: "Did you ever just go, 'What am I doin'?' "

Vick: "I was thinkin', 'Hey, man, look, I'm Mike Vick.What's the worst thing that's gonna happen to me?' ''

The NFL invented NFL Network to help hype its product. Think of the hype already on the table for Donovan McNabb's return to Philadelphia, and then add the Vick-resurgence storyline, and the talking heads talking about it all through the pregame shows, particularly with this very strong interview. Does anyone even know the Yankees and Rays are tied for the division lead with three games left in the baseball season, or that the NHL is on the verge of starting? Amazing machine, this NFL.

***

Now on to the column. Let's talk ball security for a few paragraphs. (Ooooh! Wheeeee! Exciting!) I maintain that's what Mark Sanchez and his offensive coordinator have been doing since he arrived in New Jersey. And it's paying off for the 2-1 Jets heading into their division game (walkover?) Sunday at Buffalo.

Over the last eight games (including playoffs), here's how the three best quarterbacks in football rank against Sanchez in terms of protecting the ball:

Think about that for a minute, a rookie quarterback in the playoff race, and then the following season, in the first three games of a highly anticipated, Hard-Knocks-laden season, turning the ball over two times in eight games. With zero fumbles. In his first three games this season, Sanchez hasn't thrown a pick or fumbled. For a player who started 16 games in college and who will start his 22nd pro game this week, that kind of ball protection is remarkable.

"And I'd point out,'' Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer told me Thursday, "that one of those turnovers was a tipped interception against the Colts in the championship game last year.'' The other was a pick at San Diego, in the divisional playoff game, a game in which Sanchez put up mediocre numbers (12-for-23, 100 yards, one TD, one interception) but managed it well and won.

"A lot of it, quite honestly, is the ability to sit down with Mark after games and show him the result of each decision he makes in games,'' Schottenheimer said. "We all know interceptions are going to happen. But we talk about two kinds of interceptions -- bad-throw interceptions, which every quarterback who's ever played is going to have, and bad-decision interceptions. Those are the ones we've concentrated on. We put on the film and I'll show him an interception, and I'll say, 'What did you think of your decision here?' And we talk about the power of completions. It's OK to check down.''

That can be a dirty phrase -- "checking down'' to a running back -- to some quarterbacks. And at times, critics of Sanchez have thought he was doing it too much, particularly in the opener this year against Baltimore, when Sanchez steadfastly passed on throwing downfield against a weak Ravens secondary and kept throwing the ball short. But Schottenheimer won't knock him for it, and he didn't after the game, even though the Jets were terrible on offense all night and lost, 10-9.

"I'll take some of the rap for that,'' Schottenheimer said. "What happened that night is not a short answer. When you have six months to prepare for a game, sometimes you have a tendency to over-analyze. We had some calls in there where we send Mark to the line with two plays, and he runs a play dependent on what defense he sees. That didn't go too well that night. When we were analyzing the game afterward, Mark said to me, 'Hey Schotty, can we eliminate those kills?' [A 'kill' is the play you eliminate to go to the other play called.] He just wanted to have a play called and let him execute it. I said, 'Sure, Mark.' And that's what we've done.''

Schottenheimer and quarterback coach Matt Cavanaugh have stressed to Sanchez, however, that he needs to be comfortable with the safety of the offense.

"We did a study in the offseason looking back over the top five offenses in the league over the last five years. And we took the average number of balls the top running back for each team caught each year. The average turned out to 47, 48 catches. These are great quarterbacks -- Brady, Manning, Brees, [Matt] Schaub -- being willing to say 'uncle' and check it down. I think Mark was kind of floored by those numbers, and how involved the backs were in each one of those passing games.

"This year, we've said to him, 'You can check it down to a future Hall of Famer [LaDainian Tomlinson] or to one of the top young backs in the game [ShonnGreene]. Let them help you.' ''

Sanchez is still working to form a bond in the pass game with Green (he's targeted him only three times), but he's thrown to Tomlinson 15 times so far -- and Tomlinson has played only about half the offensive snaps. Dustin Keller (24 targets) is clearly Sanchez's favorite so far, most often on safe, intermediate routes.

I expect Sanchez (six touchdowns, no picks) to be better throwing downfield when he has the twin threats of Braylon Edwards and Santonio Holmes intact starting next week; Holmes returns after a four-week substance-abuse suspension in time for a game against Minnesota.

Schottenheimer told me he estimates Sanchez has at least 90 percent of the offense down pat now. The comfort is showing. When quarterbacks are throwing touchdowns and not erring, that's comfort. It's a good sign for a team that's going to have a top-five defense, and I'd be surprised if the Jets don't make the playoffs in large part because of Sanchez's safe, and successful, play.

Cory Redding, DL, Baltimore

The 6-foot-4, 292-pound Redding and hybrid pass-rusher Paul Kruger will play a big role in trying to fill the hole left after defensive lineman Trevor Pryce's stunning signing by the New York Jets on Thursday. Pryce was cut this week by the Ravens but told he'd be re-signed next week, before the Ravens' game against Denver.

A little background here. Baltimore had been disappointed with Pryce's run defense, and the Ravens got gashed by the Browns last Sunday, when Cleveland chose to run on some logical passing downs. I checked the play-by-play from the game. Cleveland ran on nine "sub'' package down-and-distance plays (second-and-eight or more, third-and-five or more). Peyton Hillis ran on seven of those -- for 12, 5, 2, 7, 2, 48 and minus-1 yards. Cleveland gained 19 and 4 on the other two. That's nine rushes for 98 yards, a 10.9-yard average. In essence, the Ravens thought teams, starting with Pittsburgh Sunday, might start to think they could run on long-yardage downs. It's up to Redding now -- and starters Haloti Ngata and Kelly Gregg -- to make sure they can't.

Or it may not. Devin Hester's punt-return line against the Giants:

Punts fielded: 3.Punts out of bounds: 3.Punts fair caught: 2.Punts returned: 1, for 6 yards.

In other words, I expect the Giants to kick high and out of bounds to the dangerous-again Hester, who will be well-remembered by Giant fans for his 108-yard return of a missed field goal in his last game against the Giants in New Jersey.

Frank Zombo, OLB, Green Bay (No. 58)

Zombo's zoomed past Brad Jones on the Packer depth chart at the linebacker opposite Clay Matthews, and he'll start his second straight game against Detroit Sunday. He's an undrafted free agent from Central Michigan who's impressed defensive coordinator Dom Capers with his instinctive play. Already he's had two sacks. He should benefit from the attention given to Matthews. Coach Mike McCarthy is a results coach, and I wouldn't be surprised to see the 6-3, 254-pound Zombo -- a college defensive end well-suited body-wise to the 3-4 scheme Green Bay runs -- keep the job once Jones is healthy enough to play.

1. The return of the prodigal Donovan McNabb. What's left to say? Other than "BOOOOOOOOOOOOOO.'' (That's unfair, of course. All McNabb ever did was play hard, even if in an unfulfilling way, for these fans.) One more thing to say in the faceoff of very famous quarterbacks: I like Vick to outplay McNabb.

2. Jim Mora's interview of Vick. Though I work for one of them, I'm not held captive by the NFL pregame shows. But I'll be sure to have the TV on to see the body language, and words, of a man who cost another man his job in Atlanta.

3. The best rivalry in the league ... turning nice?Ray Lewis said on Wednesday: "Hines Ward is a true professional.'' Huh? What's going on here? All I know is this: No two teams go at each other more viciously than the Ravens and the Steelers. It's the physical equivalent of three normal games. That's how sore these teams are going to be next Monday, after Sunday's meeting at the ketchup bottle.

4. Bill Belichick to figure out some way to fix a bad defense. Pats' average game score through three weeks: 30.0-27.3. The Browns are surrendering 19 a game, the Chiefs 12.7, the Rams 16.3. The Pats are young, but that's no excuse for the way that defense has been playing.

5. Carson Palmer. He was a major question heading into the season. He still is. It's time for Palmer to play like the franchise quarterback he's paid to be, starting Sunday at Cleveland. If Seneca Wallace starts for the Browns (possible with Jake Delhomme questionable), Palmer will be the inferior QB based on 2010 stats. Wallace leads in completion percentage, 61.8-56.6, and passer rating, 86.2-71.3. Palmer has too many weapons to be playing like this.

6. Garrett Hartley. I don't even know if Sean Payton is going to play his kicker Sunday against Carolina, or if he'll yank Hartley and kick the ancient John Carney instead. If Hartley plays, and he's anything but perfect, it'll be his last game as a Saint.

7. Steve Smith's anger. Last week, Smith yelled at Jimmy Clausen on the sideline and tossed a cup of Gatorade angrily. That's the way to make a quarterback feel comfortable in his first start. This week, you can be sure the Saints will send the house at Clausen.

8. Stephen Williams, Max Komar, Andre Roberts. Those are the rookie receivers who will take the field with Larry Fitzgerald and the Cards in San Diego. Undrafted free agent, undrafted free agent and third-round pick, respectively. That's some amazing inexperience. Derek Anderson is not the most accurate quarterback, but for the Cards to have a chance, he has to develop a quick chemistry with the kids.

9. The Lions stinking it up in Wisconsin. Yo, Vegas: Leos have lost 19 straight to the Packers on the road -- by an average of 12.9 points. Shaun Hill's playing quarterback for the visitors. Life goes on, maddeningly.

10. Sam Bradford maturing before our eyes. "Sometimes you see defining moments with young players, and I think one was the other day with Sam,'' offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur said. The Redskins went up 16-14 in the third quarter, and Bradford took the Rams 74 yards in 12 plays to a lead they wouldn't relinquish. I see more progress Sunday against Seattle.

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