Work in Progress
Though it showed some spunk against the Raiders, the Colts'
defense has a ways to go
The biggest upset at the RCA Dome on Sunday night was not that
the Raiders stole the game the way a very good team like it
usually does, nor that normally infallible Colts quarterback
Peyton Manning threw a bad interception while trying to drive
for the winning touchdown with a minute to play. The biggest
surprise came in the aftermath of Oakland's 23-18 win, when
Indianapolis coach Jim Mora, who has been known to lash out at
his team after a disappointing loss, stepped to the podium and
said, "I thought we played by far our best game of the season.
I'm not upset with how we played. I have nothing but admiration
for the effort we put forth."
Maybe Mora has changed, though those around the Colts say that's
not so. It's more likely this: Mora knows his offense will be
all right. He knows his kicking game is one of the best in the
league. Now he thinks that he finally has the makings of a
competent defense as well. Mora hasn't had a solid D since
taking the Indy job in 1998. In his first three seasons the
Colts finished 29th, 15th and 21st, respectively, in total
defense, and only once in 54 games has Indy held an opponent to
single digits in scoring. Mora knows that without a good
defense, Manning is destined to become the Ken Griffey Jr. of
his sport, a guy who puts up tremendous numbers year after year
but never has the supporting cast to win the big one.
"Everyone wants to know if the defense can hold up," Colts
linebacker Mike Peterson said after Sunday's game. "Everyone's
asking, 'Can you guys do your job?' It's pretty embarrassing."
The matchup with the Raiders was a perfect barometer to gauge
the progress of a defense that is playing with six new starters.
In Week 2 last year Oakland came to Indianapolis and won a 38-31
shootout. The Raiders ran for 152 yards and five touchdowns
while piling up 359 total yards. Most disconcerting was that
Oakland, after falling behind 24-7, put together five scoring
drives in the last 26 minutes. On Sunday the Colts held the
Raiders offense to 16 points. (Free safety Anthony Dorsett
returned an interception 39 yards for a touchdown.) They held
the Raiders to 101 yards on the ground and a respectable 317
overall. Four fewer touchdowns, 51 fewer rushing yards, three
more sacks. That's progress.
However, down 20-18 midway through the fourth quarter and
needing the ball back, Indianapolis couldn't make a stop when it
needed one most. Oakland chewed up nearly seven minutes on a
14-play, 61-yard drive that ended with a field goal. Still, the
Colts earned praise from Raiders coach Jon Gruden. "They were
more physical than last year," he said. "They came with a lot of
blitzes we hadn't seen and really tried to shut down our run."
"What I sensed out there was more respect from them," said
Peterson, a third-year outside linebacker from Florida who leads
Indy in tackles. "They knew if they hit us in the mouth, we
would hit them right back."
In jettisoning aging veterans like linebackers Cornelius Bennett
and Dwight Hollier and safety Jason Belser, the Colts have
gotten younger and faster. Peterson, a fluid 232-pounder who
floats between the middle and the outside, and Marcus
Washington, a second-year linebacker out of Auburn (who sacked
Rich Gannon twice), give Indianapolis an excellent pair of
sideline-to-sideline playmakers. Defensive coordinator Vic
Fangio rotates seven or eight linemen, including a pair of
run-pluggers picked up by way of free agency: Christian Peter
(Giants) and Mike Wells (Bears). Free safety Idrees Bashir, the
lone rookie starter, is a roamer with a big upside.
Nevertheless, improvement needs to come faster for 2-2
Indianapolis. The Colts are ranked 22nd in the league in total
defense. That's not good enough. In their quiet locker room
players were encouraged by the words of their coach, but as
Peterson said, "We need wins. Around here one play usually
shatters our day on defense. By the end of the season I think
we'll be able to hold our own."
Even Mora seems to believe that day is coming--though it can't
come soon enough for him.
Rams D on Fast Track
Under Tender Lovie Care
Two mornings after the Rams had blanked the Lions on Monday
Night Football for their first shutout since 1994, defensive
coordinator Lovie Smith was not altogether pleased while
watching the game tape with his players. Smith has an important
stat category that he calls "loafs." A player gets a loaf on any
play in which he's found to be not running full speed when he
isn't being blocked. So even though the Rams had humbled the
Lions 35-0 on Oct. 8, and though Smith recognized that the
defense was making excellent progress, he couldn't stand the
minimal effort on some plays. "We had more than 10 loafs in this
game," he says, "and great defenses can't afford to do that."
The emphasis on hustle is paying off. With the Rams clinging to
a 15-14 lead in the final minute of Sunday's win over the
Giants, rookie safety Adam Archuleta popped wideout Joe
Jurevicius at the end of an eight-yard completion, forcing a
fumble that defensive end Grant Wistrom plucked out of the air.
"We have 11 guys working as hard as the next guy, on the same
page, flying to the same place," said cornerback Dexter McCleon.
In the first five games last year St. Louis, under the
bend-but-don't-break scheme of coordinator Peter Giunta, allowed
36, 34, 24, 20 and 31 points yet won all five. Enter Smith, who
spent the last five years as an assistant with the Bucs. This
season the 5-0 Rams have surrendered 17, 26, 10, 0 and 14
points. "When we were in the market for free agents," says
Smith, "one thing we asked was, 'How do you feel about running
to the ball like a rookie?'"
An upgrade in talent has helped too. Wistrom, McCleon and middle
linebacker London Fletcher are the lone holdover defensive
starters. Five rookies are playing significant roles, including
Archuleta and outside linebacker Tommy Polley, a second-round
pick out of Florida State who is a playmaker. Cornerback Aeneas
Williams was named a captain soon after arriving in a trade with
Arizona. ("He practices every day like it's a game," says
Smith.) Chidi Ahanotu, a salary-cap casualty in Tampa Bay, has
been a better all-around end than the departed Kevin Carter.
They are all in lockstep with their leader--who happens to have
an unusual first name. Although not quite a boy named Sue, the
43-year-old Smith was named after his great aunt LaVana, and he
likes his first name just fine, thank you. "I don't think it's
ever had an effect on me getting a job," he says. "If anything,
it makes you remember me more than a guy named Jim or Peter."
Butch Davis's Challenge
Browns Come Back to Earth
Butch Davis's Browns had just suffered an embarrassing 24-14
loss to the Bengals, and they looked more like the expansion
team of 1999 than the up-and-coming squad of 2001. However, when
he addressed his players in the locker room under- neath Paul
Brown Stadium, the Cleveland coach didn't rip them or put a fist
through the blackboard. "This is one week," Davis said calmly.
"This is one sixteenth of the season, so we don't want to
overreact. But we can't lie to ourselves, and we won't. When we
lose, we have to figure out why. All losing does is magnify your
deficiencies. It illuminates what we have to improve on."
To judge by the Browns' performance on Sunday, there's plenty of
work to do. Cincinnati piled up 400 yards while limiting
Cleveland to 211 yards, including only 34 on the ground. It was
hardly the kind of performance that Davis expected from a team
that had won three straight.
Still, Davis, in his first season with the Browns after six
years at the University of Miami, will undoubtedly find
something positive to draw from this game. He has been very big
on attitude, employing a sports psychologist and bringing in
motivational guru Zig Ziglar to speak to the team. Davis has
told players that nothing great has ever been accomplished
without passion. He has also quoted that great philosopher Jimmy
Johnson. "Jimmy was big in Pygmalion theory," Davis says. "You
know, if you treat people as you hope they'll be, then they'll
become that," he says. "We're treating these players, on and off
the field, like winners."
My Two Cents
Bob Stoops to Dallas? Forget It
1. No sooner had rumors started that Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops
was bound for Dallas than Cowboys owner Jerry Jones vowed that
coach Dave Campo would return for a third year in 2002. Jones
admires Stoops, but there are two problems: Butch Davis set the
market for hot college coaches moving to the NFL last January
with his deal for $3 million a year, an amount Jones would never
pay for a rookie NFL coach; and Stoops would want far more
control over personnel than Jones would consider giving up.
2. It's easy to look at Steve Mariucci and think: great
cheerleader. But given Mariucci's performance in leading the
49ers back into contention, what should come to mind when his
name is mentioned is this: great coach.
the football Beat
With the Cowboys' Emmitt Smith, the No. 2 rusher of all time
SI: Cowboys' plight.
Smith: I don't accept that we're as bad as our record. There's
no way we shouldn't be running the ball better than we are.
SI: Rushing record.
Smith: I came into the league wanting to be one of the best
ever. As I've gotten older and accomplished things, I've come to
realize it's more of a [shared honor], not only with the
Cowboys, who've helped me get there, but with Jim Brown, Walter
Payton, Barry Sanders, Eric Dickerson. It's an honor to be
mentioned with those guys. Holding the record would be an honor.
I'd carry the torch until some kid from the next generation
breaks the record. Then we'd all walk with him.
Smith: I love golf, but I'm enjoying the business world too.
Anything to expand the Smith family empire.
Smith: I have none. I'm secure in my faith in God. I cast my
cares with Him.
SI: Osama bin Laden.
Smith: I do fear him. He has that power over me, but that's
something I can't control.
Smith: Hated to lose. Left footprints.
Eagles right tackle Jon Runyan versus Giants defensive end
It's a brawl whenever this blood feud plays out. Last January
the Giants won their ninth straight game over the Eagles, in the
NFC divisional playoffs, 20-10, with a big assist from Strahan.
The league's highest-paid defensive end, Strahan (four years,
$32 million) twice beat Runyan, one of the highest-paid right
tackles (six years, $30.5 million), for sacks. What happened
that day still stings Runyan. "That guy [Strahan] gets about
four times as much money as I do to make plays, and he made a
couple," Runyan says. "I was out of position, late coming off
the snap, and he beat me and threw me on my back. It doesn't
help when John Madden's playing it back 69 times on TV."
Oct. 18, 1987: The strangest game of Lawrence Taylor's career
One season after winning their first Super Bowl, the Giants were
0-4 and faced a must-win situation in the third and final game
featuring replacements for striking NFL players. Four veteran
New York players, including linebacker Lawrence Taylor and
quarterback Jeff Rutledge, crossed the picket line to play in
Buffalo. For Taylor, the game degenerated into a wrestling match
with tackle Rick Schulte, who kneed the All-Pro in the helmet
once; all told the Bills were flagged for holding seven times.
On a third-quarter play away from the action, Taylor got Schulte
on the ground, jammed his fist against his throat and snarled,
"How do you like that, sucker?" Late in the fourth quarter of a
3-3 game, with New York driving for a potential winning score,
coach Bill Parcells inserted Taylor at tight end. Rutledge spied
him alone in the end zone and threw a perfect spiral. Taylor
cradled his arms, waiting for the ball. However, Giants running
back Kaulana Park leaped out of nowhere to try to catch the ball
and deflected it from Taylor. "I was wide open!" Taylor howled
at Park. Buffalo won 6-3 in overtime. The Giants finished the
shortened season 6-9.
Important trades are rarely made in the NFL, and none are likely
before the Oct. 23 deadline. The Browns, a surprising 3-2, have
taken leading wideout Kevin Johnson off the market, and Broncos
coach Mike Shanahan won't deal for Patriots wideout Terry Glenn.
Denver demands that its receivers excel at blocking, a skill
Glenn has never mastered.... The offense has taken a lot of heat
for Tampa Bay's 2-2 start, but the Bucs' highly touted defense
hasn't been up to snuff either. It ranked last in the league in
third-down stops (50%) going into Sunday's game against
Tennessee, then proceeded to allow eight of 16 such conversions
in the Titans' 31-28 overtime win. Tennessee's offense had been
the worst in the league on third down, having converted only
seven of 42 chances.... An awesome display of arm strength at a
workout last week prompted Dallas to sign Ryan Leaf to a
three-year deal. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is envisioning a
competition between Leaf and Quincy Carter for the starting job
next summer.... The Panthers have lost four straight games under
coach George Seifert, who in his previous 10 seasons, with
Carolina and San Francisco, had never dropped more than two in a
row.... Last year the Seahawks permitted a player to run for at
least 100 yards eight times. This season no back has run for
more than 52 yards against Seattle's revamped defense.