If the voting for NFL defensive player of the year were held today, one could make a strong case for Atlanta's John Abraham. The three-time Pro Bowl defender leads the league in sacks with six, and his dominance off the edge has helped the Falcons to a surprising 2-1 start.
Abraham finished in a tie for 15th in sacks last year, amassing 10 to run his career total to 73.5. He opened this season with three against the Lions, one against Tampa Bay and two against Kansas City, putting the ninth-year veteran on pace to easily surpass his career high of 13. In fact, whenever Abraham's played a full 16-game schedule, which has occurred four times in his career, he's registered at least 10 sacks.
Playing as the Falcons' designated pass rusher in Mike Smith's cover-two style defense this season, Abraham is being used all along the line to take advantage of favorable matchups. It's not unusual to see him at either defensive end spot.
"We're going to do whatever works,'' Abraham told reporters on Monday. "We had a rookie tackle this week [Brandon Albert] but we felt like I could do better against [Damion] McIntosh. It's all about matchups with us. If the matchup is better on the other side, I'll go to the other side. It's not about whether you're a rookie or a vet. It's about where the best matchup is.''
So far, so good, for Abraham and the Falcons.
1.John Abraham, Falcons(Last week's rank: 4).
2. Cortland Finnegan, CB, Titans (5): The Titans' nearly impenetrable defense has been bolstered by the blanket coverage provided by Finnegan. The fourth-year pro helped limit Andre Johnson to only two receptions last week, and Finnegan's 99-yard interception return for a touchdown sealed a 31-12 victory.
3. Albert Haynesworth, DT, Titans (5): He had five tackles and a sack against the Texans as the Titans harassed Matt Schaub into a forgettable 17-for-37 passing day that included three interceptions and three sacks.
4. Marcus Stroud, DT, Bills (2): He made six tackles and helped the Bills limit the Raiders' third-ranked rushing attack to only 98 rushing yards.
5. London Fletcher, LB, Redskins (NR): The oft-overlooked playmaker is off to a terrific start in his 11th season. His 31 tackles rank fourth through three weeks.
1. Jay Cutler, QB, Broncos (Last week's rank: 3): The Broncos' third-year sensation continued his scintillating start by connecting on 21-of-34 passes for 264 yards and two touchdowns against the Saints. Though he relinquished his spot as the league's top passer, Cutler engineered the Broncos to another victory, and a surprising 3-0 record.
2. Donovan McNabb, QB, Eagles (1): In leading the Eagles to a hard fought 15-6 victory over the previously unbeaten Steelers, McNabb completed 24 of 35 passes -- including his first 15 in a row -- for 196 yards and one touchdown. He was intercepted once. Through three games, McNabb has completed over 66 percent of his passes. He sports an impressive 5:1 touchdown/interception ratio.
3. Tony Romo, QB, Cowboys (2): He continues to overcome his early game blunders with strong second half performances. He threw for 260 yards against the Packers, connecting with Miles Austin on a pair of deep strikes that helped slam the door.
4. Eli Manning, QB, Giants (NR): The Super Bowl MVP has completed 60 percent of his passes for 765 yards and connected on four touchdown passes while leading the Giants to a 3-0 record. Although his numbers aren't eye-popping, Manning's poise and leadership skills have keyed the world champions' strong start.
5. Trent Edwards, QB, Bills (NR): The second-year pro's is on the list after back-to-back clutch performances. In the Bills' come-from-behind win over the Raiders, Edwards rallied the team to 17 fourth-quarter points, including two scores in the final 6:23. Edwards has quietly completed 67 percent of his passes and thrown three touchdowns in guiding the Bills to a 3-0 start.
(For those readers who have commented about possible MVP candidates being considered as NFL Offensive Players of the Year, I will eventually consider MVP candidates for both awards. In the meantime, I'll continue to shed light on more players.)
1. Philip Rivers, QB, Chargers (Last week's rank: 4): The fifth-year pro is having a sensational season, and his hot start continued with an outstanding performance against the Jets (19-of-25 for 250 yards with one interception). Rivers efficiently distributed the ball to eight receivers and added three touchdown tosses to push his league-leading total to nine.
2. Kurt Warner, QB, Cardinals (1): The Redskins' limited Warner's deep ball opportunities, but the savvy veteran still connected with Larry Fitzgerald on a 62-yard score. His 192 passing yards pushes his season total to 750, and his 111.7 passer rating leads the league.
3. Brandon Marshall, WR, Broncos (5): The Broncos' top target followed up his astonishing 18-catch regular season debut with another outstanding performance. Marshall has been nothing short of spectacular, and his six-catch, 155-yard performance keyed the Broncos' 34-32 victory over the Saints.
4. Drew Brees, QB, Saints (NR): Although he couldn't lead his team to a win on the road, Brees torched the Broncos' for 421 passing yards. He leads the league in passing yards (980) and has five touchdowns passes on the season.
5. Michael Turner, RB, Falcons (NR): The Falcons'workhorse bounced back from a disappointing Week 2 performance to top the 100-yard mark against the Chiefs. The speedster added three touchdowns en route to taking the lead in rushing with 366 yards.
1. Dick Jauron, Bills (Last week's rank: 1): The Bills' 3-0 start is their first since 1992, and they are in sole possession of first place in the AFC East.
2. Jeff Fisher, Titans (5): The Titans defense battered another opponent en route to a third victory. With the offense playing better under Kerry Collins' direction, the Titans have emerged as one of the top teams in the AFC.
3. Mike Shanahan, Broncos (NR): The Broncos' gutsy leader should have made the list last week after going for two at the end of regulation, but he clearly deserves a mention this week for guiding the Broncos to their undefeated start. Though his defense has underperformed at times, Shanahan's top-ranked offense has been rolling.
4. Tom Coughlin, Giants (NR): The defending world champions have weathered a series of offseason losses and key injuries to start 3-0. Though their stern leader rarely gets credit for a job well done, he certainly deserves kudos for this year's terrific start.
5. Mike Smith, Falcons (NR): The Falcons' 2-1 record is a testament to the outstanding coaching job that Smith has done in his first season. If the Falcons continue to play solid on both sides of the ball, they may continue the "worst-to-first" trend in the NFC South.
1. Matt Forte, RB, Bears (Last week's rank: 3): The standout rookie pounded a formidable Bucs defense for 89 rushing yards, and added 66 receiving yards on seven receptions with a score. Despite his inexperience, Forte has been the Bears' most consistent offensive player and the main reason they have been competitive in every contest.
2. Chris Johnson, RB, Titans (1): The dazzling rookie led the Titans with 77 rushing yards against the Texans. Though he didn't add a score, Johnson's running this season has helped Titans to their first 3-0 start since 1999.
3. DeSean Jackson, WR, Eagles (2): The flamboyant rookie had a quiet game against the Steelers (five receptions for 40 yards), but his big play potential has opened up the field for the Eagles' other receivers.
4. Matt Ryan, QB, Falcons (NR): The composed rookie effectively managed the Falcons' offense in their 38-17 win over the Chiefs. He completed 12 of 18 passes for 192 yards, including a 70-yard strike to Roddy White.
5. Felix Jones, RB, Cowboys (NR): The sensational multi-purpose threat tallied 76 rushing yards on only six carries, and his spectacular 60-yard touchdown run in the second quarter put the Cowboys ahead for good. Despite only receiving a handful of carries each week, Jones has put the ball in the end zone three times, including a 98-yard kick return touchdown in Week 2.
1. Jerod Mayo, LB, Patriots (Last week's rank: 2): After watching the rookie rack up 12 tackles in the team's blowout loss to the Dolphins, I'd say it's apparent that Mayo has the talent and instincts to become a star in the Patriots' hybrid defense.
2. Antoine Cason, CB, Chargers (3): The instinctive cover corner didn't get his hands on any balls, but provided solid coverage on the Jets' receivers throughout the night.
3. Keith Rivers, LB, Bengals (1): He finished with only two assists and failed to make a significant impact against the Giants' formidable rush attack. Still, one bad game out of three isn't bad.
4. Curtis Lofton, LB, Falcons (NR): The rookie linebacker has quietly become one of the key players on a surprisingly tough Falcons' defense. With 18 stops on the year, Lofton ranks fourth among all rookies, and is fifth on his team in tackles.
5. Charles Godfrey, S, Panthers (NR): The unheralded playmaker has been solid as a first year starter. His six tackle, one-sack effort against the Vikings was his best game and could be the first of many standout performances from the former Hawkeye.