Some quick thoughts on Monday night's too-close-for-comfort 24-17 victory by Tampa Bay over the Colts, then thoughts on three big players to play catch-up ball with from Sunday's action.
About last night:
• That winning 35-yard run by Bucs running back LeGarrette Blount showed why it's a great idea to give good players second chances (kudos, Mark Dominik and Raheem Morris). No one wanted Blount, who had been virtually blacklisted by NFL teams after he punched out a Boise State player in his final year at Oregon. After the Titans dropped him in September 2010 and didn't add him to its practice squad, the Bucs gave him a shot. He responded with a 1,000-yard season last year, and with a game-winning play Monday night.
Interesting look at Blount today on NFL.com by Jeff Darlington (what a great hire that was, by the way) from the postgame locker room early this morning. Blount tells Darlington that the 2009 punch sent him into "a depression for a long time. I was at a point where I didn't come out of my house for a month. Literally didn't walk outside. I might have let five people into my house during that whole month after the incident. I wasn't embarrassed to show my face or anything, but I just felt like everybody was against me."
• Nice work by the young Tampa defensive line. Gerald McCoy, Michael Bennett and Adrian Clayborn combined for four sacks and two more tackles for loss.
• Big moment in the game: 16 minutes to play, Colts up 17-10, Bucs with a fourth-and-one at the Indy 24. Morris eschews the field goal. Sends backup quarterback Josh Johnson in the game. Johnson slithers/sprints for eight. First down. Three plays later, Josh Freeman throws the tying touchdown pass. That's a smart way to use your roster. I wonder if the Broncos' staff was watching right about then.
• Colts quarterback Curtis Painter deserves another start Sunday against Kansas City, even if Kerry Collins is ready to return after his concussion. The 13-of-30 part wasn't terrific, but he looked confident and had some presence we hadn't seen. Good chemistry with Pierre Garcon and Reggie Wayne, from the looks of it.
Justin Smith continues to be a vital player for the Niners.
San Francisco's become an interesting team because of the intelligent intensity of Jim Harbaugh, the new coach. But this isn't a team, or a coaching staff, that had to start from scratch. There were some good players in place when they took over, and those good players have led the 49ers to a surprising 3-1 start.
Defensive end-turned-tackle Justin Smith continues to be an impact player for the Niners, and I credit him more than any single player for the Niners coming out of Philadelphia 3-1 instead of 2-2. With 2:15 left in the game and the Niners up 24-23, Michael Vick threw a pass across the middle to Jeremy Maclin, and Maclin turned upfield around the Niner 40 to make a juking run around the San Francisco defense. Smith, coming from four yards behind, caught Maclin, which is a good feat in and of itself. Maclin has flanker speed. Smith has the speed of a 295-pound man. But Smith also has intelligence ... and desire.
"From our film study,'' Smith told me, "I noticed when they ran upfield they were a little loose with the ball sometimes. So as I got close to him, I'm thinking, Strip."
Smith swung his arm into the crook of Maclin's arm, toward the ball, and popped it out. Dashon Goldson, a 49ers safety, pounced on it at the San Francisco 31. One first down later, the 49ers ran out the clock on a one-point win.
"I know a tackle wouldn't have done any good, because they already had the first down,'' Smith said. "We needed a turnover.''
The 49ers enter Week 5 as the clear team to beat in the NFC West. Joke about what a bad division it is (and it is the NFL's worst, easily), but winning a division gives a team a home playoff game. And as Seattle showed last season against the defending Super Bowl champion Saints, that can be a huge edge.
The Niners have a two-game lead over Seattle and Arizona, with Tampa Bay (home) and Detroit (road) on the horizon before the Week 7 bye. "This win's great,'' said Smith, "because it puts us in the driver's seat in the division. It's still a week to week deal.''
Even if the 49ers fall to 3-3 in the next two weeks, the schedule is favorable to them in the last 10 weeks. There's only one game that looks like a loss -- at Baltimore on Thanksgiving night. And that, of course, being the Harbaugh Bowl, could have some interesting emotion to it, and who knows?
Washington looks legit.
Speaking of surprising 3-1 teams ...
Washington's Jim Haslett would be the leader in the clubhouse if we gave a defensive coordinator of the year through a quarter of the season. The Redskins are having a terrific season against the pass, and are proving the adage that a good pass defense is coverage plus rush -- not just great coverage. The 'Skins secondary isn't one of the league's best, yet their pass-rush has been outstanding. The 6.01 yards per pass play allowed is third-lowest in the league; their rate of sacks per pass attempt is a gaudy 10.64%, second in the NFL
The 'Skins had 29 sacks all last season, when outside rusher Brian Orakpo got the bulk of the attention from opposing offenses. With the addition of tireless bookend rookie Ryan Kerrigan from Purdue, who plays like the Energizer Bunny with a good spin move, the Redskins now have two legitimate rush threats. There's a reason Washington has allowed only 53.6 percent completions against a respectable group of quarterbacks so far (Eli Manning, Kevin Kolb, Tony Romo and Sam Bradford), and it's because every time you look up the pass rush is getting the passer off his preferred spot. That matters in a league of rhythm and timing passers.
Kerrigan's the defensive rookie of the year after four weeks. The makeover of this team through the draft and relatively low-cost free agency (now there's a change) is working -- and that's not only because the team is 3-1. Washington is playing smart on offense and suffocating on defense. It's only four games, but I wouldn't be surprised if the team remains a contender until at least a tough December dawns (Jets, Patriots, at Giants).
Now for your mail:
THE WASHINGTON NICKNAME STORY. "Interesting note in your column about the Redskins mascot. I agree with the concerns about the sensitivity of non-Indians using Redskins as a mascot, but here's an interesting twist on that debate when an Indian community itself chooses Redskins as their mascot. The remote community of Red Mesa, Ariz., is entirely Navajo, yet they proudly call their high school team the Redskins, with the emblem of a proud warrior.'' -- Mark Pearson, Durango, Colo.
That is interesting, and surprising to me. I guess the way I see it is this: The name is offensive to some Native Americans and some non-native Americans. And if Washington, let's say, somehow lost the team to Los Angeles (this is absolutely not going to happen, but follow my thread here) and got another team to replace in six years, I can guarantee you that the team in Los Angeles would not be named the Redskins -- and the next team in Washington would not be renamed the Redskins either. The name has outlived its time, if it ever had a time, and should be changed.
ON MICHAEL VICK. "I am not an Eagles fan but I found Mike Pereira's statements about the Eagles and Mike Vick to be off-base. Pereira said there isn't any evidence that Vick is treated differently than other QB's and yet I can point to a Jason Jones hit on Kyle Orton (9/25/11) that is identical to Canty's hit on Vick. Jones was flagged and fined. Canty? Neither penalized nor fined. Is that not evidence (anecdotal, yes)?
"OK, so instead of Pereira's juvenile response of "ridiculous," why not review and see if the borderline non-calls are going against Vick and the Eagles or, if they have already done so, why not reveal their findings? In any case, I hope Jason Jones uses the Canty no-call as evidence in trying to avoid the $15,000 hit to his wallet.'' -- Doug, Nashville.
For nine years as the NFL officiating czar, Pereira examined every borderline hit on every quarterback in the NFL. Every one. Now he looks at every close play in the league for FOX. Unless you're calling him a liar, which I do not think you are, how can you think you know more about whether Vick has been cheated out of more than his share of late and illegal hits? You're right about one thing -- your use of the word "anecdotal.'' We can look at any single play and say it was called incorrectly. Vick's complaint is that he is treated differently and unfairly by the officials and those in the league office monitoring hits on the quarterback. And so when Pereira calls the charges ridiculous, I give him more credibility than any analyst out there. Because he's seen every hit on Vick.
ON MARK SANCHEZ. "I am fairly anti-East Coast coverage and anti-snap judgment, so I am loathe to even ask this question. However, after watching Mark Sanchez I was just wondering what his ceiling will be. I usually say not to make a judgment of how good a quarterback will be until his third year. To me, it seems as though he hasn't really progressed. A lot was made of Pete Carroll's press conference shenanigans when Sanchez announced he was going pro. Do you think that staying in school might have better prepared Sanchez to keep growing as an NFL quarterback?'' -- From Andrew T., Rockford, Ill.
I think Sanchez, like his draft-classmate, Josh Freeman, is still a work in progress. It's hard to have a job at such a young age and being micro-analyzed every week. Sanchez has played well enough to get the benefit of a few poor games. To win four road playoff games in your first two seasons -- whether or not it was the quarterback as the most important player in them -- cannot be thrown aside. I thought, particularly at San Diego two seasons ago and at Indy last year, his poise in the biggest moments of the game was something you can't teach. I still believe Sanchez is going to be a good to very good quarterback in the league for a while.
ON CALVIN JOHNSON. "Thanks for your column. It's not officially Monday for me until I've read it. Here's my question: Calvin Johnson was certainly unstoppable yesterday. I'm wondering why, on goal-line plays, coaches don't occasionally defend big receivers like Johnson with a big receiver from their own team? Doesn't somebody like Dez Bryant have a better chance of beating Johnson on a "jump ball" pass?'' -- Ryan Reed, Bowling Green, Ky.
Thank you for the kind words, Ryan. I hadn't thought of that strategy, but you could be right. In a Houston-Detroit game, for instance, I'd love to see Andre Johnson as the deep safety on a big play at the end of a game, to battle Calvin Johnson on a deep throw. I know coaches would shy away from it for a number of reasons, including fear of injury, but on the biggest play of the game, why not do it?
ON CAM NEWTON. "I love your columns and read them religiously every week! However, when taking into account that the only bottom line number that counts on the field in the NFL is wins, how can you say Cam Newton is having an impact. Say he is putting up great, even historic, numbers for a rookie QB. Say that it is amazing that a rookie QB can do this with no offseason workouts. Say he is the franchise QB that Carolina can build around, but Carolina is 1-3, and the only game they've won was Newton's worst statistically.
"I would love to have Newton on my fantasy team where the stats count for something, but this is a perfect example of how stats can lie. He isn't winning games with his numbers, so I don't call that an impact. I am not criticizing you specifically, every football writer I've read is going nuts over Newton's numbers, every number except wins, which seems to get lost in the praise, but you are the most open in terms of hearing what your readers think and publishing those opinions.'' -- Harry Cohen, Jerusalem.
Harry, sometimes progress doesn't show up just in wins and losses. Last year the Panthers were hopeless on offense and went 2-14. Lost to Atlanta twice by 21, lost by 31 to New Orleans, lost by 17 to Seattle, for God's sake. Their passing game has been bad for years. Newton has lost three of four, yes. But unlike last year, the Panthers have been close late in every game. They were driving for the tying touchdown at the end of the seven-point loss to Arizona. They lost by seven to Green Bay. They manhandled a more-than-respectable Bear defense. Do you want to hear an interesting stat: The 543 yards Newton and Carolina put on Chicago is the most the Bears have allowed in this century. So I'm going to continue to say Newton's having tremendous impact on his team, and on this league.