Edwards stepping up in Buffalo

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Will Trent Edwards become the league's next great quarterback? That's what some scouts are pondering after watching the rapid development of the former Stanford passer whom many of them whiffed on in the 2007 draft. The third-round selection has taken his game to another level, and the Bills' surprising 4-0 start can be largely attributed to his growth.

"He is a really good player," said a longtime NFL defensive coach whose team faced Edwards last season. "He has good physical tools and manages the game well. But I think that his football intelligence is his most impressive attribute."

Edwards has a 9-4 record as a starter, completing 65.5 percent of his passes and sporting an impressive 93.5 passer rating, both better than his 2007 numbers of 56.1 percent and 70.4, respectively. Moreover, he has thrown four touchdowns passes and only two interceptions this season. A year ago he had seven TD throws and eight interceptions.

While it would be tempting to attribute Edwards' success to a conservative game plan that rarely incorporates deep throws, the fact is Edwards' yards-per-attempt (7.8) ranks seventh in the league. Last season the Bills completed 33 passes over 20 yards. Through four games, they already have 14 completions over 20 yards, and the increase in explosive plays has helped boost their scoring average to 27.2 points a game, up from 15.8 last season.

Most offenses attempt to protect young quarterbacks by featuring an assortment of short-and-intermediate routes in their game plans. The strategy allows inexperienced passers to compile gaudy completion percentages, but the lack of downfield throws encourages defenders to clamp down on underneath throws and often leaves the quarterback with tighter windows in which to complete passes. Therefore, completing the long ball is essential for any offense that wants to move the ball consistently.

"You want to have those explosive plays, and in order to have those plays you have to throw it deep down the field and be accurate with it," Edwards told The Buffalo News earlier this season.

Although Edwards is proving to be an accurate deep ball passer, his confidence and leadership skills are his most impressive qualities. In leading the Bills to come-from-behind wins in three of their victories, he displayed unflappable poise in the pocket, making timely plays in crucial situations. On the go-ahead drive against the Jaguars, he connected with Lee Evans for 37 yards on third-and-six and later tossed a seven-yard touchdown to James Hardy for a 20-16 win. The following week he completed 14-of-19 passes for 187 yards in the fourth quarter on the way to three consecutive scores in a 24-23 victory over the Raiders.

With Edwards displaying the qualities of a franchise quarterback, league observers are wondering how he slipped into the third round.

"He was a very athletic kid," said an NFC Personnel Director. "He moved well, had a fairly strong arm and was capable of throwing all of the NFL-type throws with good accuracy and touch. But there were questions about his durability in college. He spent a lot of time on the sidelines nursing injuries."

Edwards, a four-year starter at Stanford, spent parts of three seasons sidelined with injuries, including missing the last four games of his senior season with a broken foot. In addition, he also played on a team that didn't win many games (14-31 during his tenure, and 10-20 when Edwards started). Scouts wondered if he had the leadership skills necessary to lead a winner.

However, Edwards has addressed those concerns, and is beginning to make front offices regret passing on him in favor of Brady Quinn, John Beck and Drew Stanton. Edwards' play and production has even exceeded that of the No.1 overall selection in that draft, JaMarcus Russell.

"Every scout will say that they had a first-round grade on him now," said an NFC scout. "But the fact that he slid down to the 92nd pick means that several teams bypassed a very good quarterback."

In a league where quality quarterbacks are hard to find, it appears that the Bills have found the right guy to lead them back into playoff contention.

What's wrong with Ryan Grant? The Packers running back ran for 929 yards in the last 10 regular season games of 2007, but has only amassed 186 rushing yards on 55 attempts (3.4 avg.) this season, and has yet to score a rushing touchdown.

"He doesn't look like the same player this year," said a long-time NFL defensive coach. "Defensive coordinators have spent time studying his tendencies over the offseason, and he hasn't responded to the way that defenses have adjusted to his game."

Although Grant had a solid performance in the season opener against the Vikings (12 carries for 92 yards), he averaged a measly 31.3 yards per game in the past three games, and only mustered 2.2 yards per attempt during the same span. Some league observers wonder if his decline is directly tied to Brett Favre's departure.

With the future Hall of Famer Favre under center, defenses were reluctant to commit eight defenders to the running game for fear of leaving their cornerbacks vulnerable in man coverage. Thus, the Packers were never outmanned in the running game, and Grant was able to find huge seams between the tackles. However, with Aaron Rodgers at quarterback, defenses are stacking extra defenders at the line and daring the Packers to beat them with the pass.

"You can game plan differently with Favre no longer in the lineup," said a long-time NFL defensive coach. "As long as [Favre] was there, you had to respect the deep ball, and you were reluctant to sell out to stop the run. But with Aaron Rodgers in the game, you put the emphasis on stopping Grant and challenge Rodgers to make clutch throws to beat you."

The Packers' last two opponents (Bucs and Cowboys) crowded the line with eight-man fronts and used an assortment of pressures to batter Rodgers in the pocket. Based on Rodgers' performance in both games (he completed 56 percent of his passes against the Cowboys and only 51 percent against the Bucs), the approach appears to be a successful one, and others will surely follow it.

Although Terrell Owens complained at length about not receiving the ball enough in the Cowboys' 26-24 loss to the 'Skins last week, the Cowboy who should be most upset is Marion Barber III. The Pro Bowl back carried the ball eight times in the loss, and the lack of balance allowed the 'Skins to focus exclusively on coverage on their way to the upset victory.

Offensive coordinator Jason Garrett said of the Cowboys' one-sided game plan, "The style of defense was forcing us to do other things. We have to execute better in those other areas to get back to some of those things that you want to do. You have to aggressively take what the defense gives you."

Though his sentiments ring true, the deviation from the running game has been an alarming trend in Cowboys' losses over the past two seasons. In Dallas' past four regular-season defeats, the team averaged slightly less than 15 rushing attempts a game while attempting almost 37 passes a game. Therefore, the loss to the 'Skins was not surprising considering the unbalanced game plan.

While the Cowboys' star-studded offense features Pro Bowlers at each skill position (Owens, Jason Witten and Tony Romo), it is the effective running of Barber that sets the table for the offense. With Barber finding running room between the tackles, defenses are forced to pick their poison between using eight-man fronts to slow down the ground game while leaving Owens and Witten in single coverage or playing two-deep zone to take care of the explosive pass attack while playing short-handed against the run. Thus, it's essential that the Cowboys remain persistent with the running game to create the difficult dilemma for defensive coordinators.

With the NFC East shaping up as the league's toughest division, it will be interesting to see if the Cowboys find a way to keep Barber involved to help the league's most explosive offense maximize its potential.