D Lite in BigD
Don't celebrate just yet, Cowboys—that supercharged Wade Phillips defense stillneeds a jolt of energy
This is an article from the Sept. 17, 2007 issue
WADE PHILLIPS'Sfirst camp as coach of the Cowboys sometimes seemed more Boy Scouts thanJunction Boys. There was so little hitting—or yelling—that the Dallas mediabegan referring to the 16-day stint in the antiseptic, air-conditioned confinesof San Antonio's Alamodome as Camp Cupcake. Still, Cowboys players said,Phillips's placid demeanor (his volatile predecessor, Bill Parcells, "waslike a mafioso, and everyone else was a foot soldier," says nosetackleJason Ferguson) belied a dogged commitment to getting more aggressive andunpredictable on defense. Parcells's 3--4 scheme, which called almostexclusively on outside linebackers to rush the passer, produced a middling 34sacks last season, and opponents racked up an average of 419 yards of totaloffense over the final five regular-season games. "Now we got a shot,man," third-year defensive end Marcus Spears said of his unit last Friday."[Opposing offenses] have to account for everyone pass rushing now. We'llsee who the cupcakes are when the games start getting played."
The Cowboys'games started getting played two nights later against the Giants, and while theDallas defenders weren't exactly crummy, the grand unveiling of Phillips's 3--4appeared to be troublingly half-baked in. But thanks to an explosive TonyRomo--led offense that produced eight plays of more than 20 yards and piled up478 total yards (43 more than the Cowboys had in any game last season), Dallaswon a 45--35 shootout better suited to the Big East than the smashmouth NFCEast.
The defense'sstruggles began just 78 seconds into the action, when Giants wideout PlaxicoBurress burned cornerback Anthony Henry on a deep post and snagged an EliManning pass in stride for a 60-yard touchdown, and didn't end until the finalwhistle. The Cowboys executed little of the dynamic, attacking defensivephilosophy Phillips has espoused and refined in his 30 years as an NFL coach,the past three as the Chargers' defensive coordinator. Dallas yielded 144 yardsand three touchdowns to Burress, who seemed to get open at will. It allowedrunning back Derrick Ward—who totaled 123 rushing yards in three previousseasons—to gain 89 yards on the ground and 27 more through the air, even thoughWard didn't get his second touch until a sprained knee sidelined starterBrandon Jacobs midway through the second quarter.
The Giantsoffense had only one three-and-out series and punted just twice. The oneinterception thrown by the much-maligned Manning came when Burress slipped onthe Texas Stadium turf and the ball sailed into the hands of corner JacquesReeves. Perhaps most disquietingly of all for the Cowboys, they put littlepressure on Manning (312 passing yards and four touchdowns) and had only onesack.
Amid the postgameeuphoria generated by a Week 1 victory over a division rival on nationaltelevision, few Dallas players were in a mood to focus on anything negative,and several attributed New York's offensive showing more to Manning's successthan to their own failings. "Eli was smart enough to get rid of the ballquick," said inside linebacker Akin Ayodele, who finished with seventackles. "A couple of times when we did blitz, he'd just throw it into theflat. He's definitely maturing—he has all the skills and all the talent to beone of the best quarterbacks out there." Added free safety Ken Hamlin,"It's a win. I feel good about a win. There are things we've got tocorrect, but at the same time: We won."
Phillips was morerealistic, saying, "We know we can't give up 35 points every game andexpect to win." His defense should soon be bolstered by the return ofshutdown cornerback Terence Newman, the man primarily responsible for holdingBurress to fewer yards (137) in two games combined against Dallas last seasonthan he had on Sunday. Newman was a late scratch because of a partially tornright plantar fascia but said last Friday that his injury has progressed fromfeeling as if there were "a long thumbtack sticking into my heel" withevery step to bothering him only when he bumps it.
As Phillipswatches tape of Sunday's game, however, he might begin to wonder whether hisfront seven has anywhere near the level of talent he directed to such greateffect in San Diego. While the Cowboys do feature DeMarcus Ware, a starpass-rushing outside linebacker in the Shawne Merriman mold, they don't have aproven 'backer opposite him to equal the Chargers' Shaun Phillips (rookieAnthony Spencer, starting for the injured Greg Ellis, had one tackle); nor dothey have a quarterback-hungry defensive end like San Diego's Luis Castillo(starters Spears and Chris Canty combined for three stops and no sacks) or arunning-lane-clogging nosetackle akin to two-time Pro Bowl selection JamalWilliams (especially now that Ferguson is most likely out for the year with atorn biceps tendon suffered in the first quarter).
Phillips joinedBarry Switzer and Chan Gailey to become the third Cowboys coach to win in hisdebut, and afterward owner Jerry Jones presented him with the game ball. "Ihope Wade is really the most valuable player on the team, as he was in SanDiego as the defensive coordinator," Jones said. But if Phillips, calmly orotherwise, doesn't get better performances out of his new defense—and soon—hewon't have to clear out space for many more game balls in his trophy case.
ONLY AT SI.COMPeter King's Monday Morning Quarterback.
Lately the Titans have given the Super Bowl-championColts a better game than the Patriots have. Indianapolis has beaten fellowconference strong boy New England three straight but only split its last twomeetings with Tennessee, which hasn't had a winning season since 2003. Inlosing to the Colts 14--13 in Week 5 last season and then beating them 20--17eight weeks later, the Titans relied on a mashing running game—214 and 219yards, respectively—and a physical pass defense that gives up the underneathstuff but not the home run.
Nothing's the same from one year to the next in theNFL, however, and Tennessee may find that out when the two teams hook up againon Sunday in Nashville. Indy's run defense is much improved over last year's,with more speed and with upgrades at three positions: strong safety (BobSanders, healthy again), strongside linebacker (Rob Morris) and corner (MarlinJackson). The presence of the aggressive, sure-tackling Sanders enablesdefensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis to rush the passer hard even onrunning downs. The Colts held Saints backs Reggie Bush and Deuce McAllister toa combined 76 rushing yards last Thursday. "That was scary," Tennesseeoffensive coordinator Norm Chow says. "I had to turn the TV off. It wasmaking me sick."
Likewise, Indianapolis will throw new looks at theTitans' secondary. "When [the Colts] drafted Anthony Gonzalez this year, Ifigured he'd slide into the slot and they'd play mostly three-wide sets,"Tennessee defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz says. "But they played [tightend] Dallas Clark in the slot a lot the first game, which makes them moremultidimensional."
Still, Tennessee's offensive line is more physicalthan New Orleans's, so the Titans will be more patient and try to sustain theground game. If they rush for 175 yards and bleed the clock with Chris Brown(above) and LenDale White, Indy will have a tougher time than expected gettingto 2--0.
Dr. Z's Foreacast
The Patriots are gearing up for their Super Bowl runwith the best group of free agents money can buy. They put on a dazzling showagainst the Jets on Sunday. The Chargers are approaching the 2007 campaign in adifferent way: They left the squad alone but brought in a new coach. Now we'llfind out who had a better off-season, because on Sunday night New England andSan Diego renew their struggle from last January's divisional playoff.
Let's talk about one of the Patriots' less obviousacquisitions—Kyle Brady, one of the NFL's bigger tight ends at 280 pounds andpretty close to the position's best blocker. The Pats went "heavy"against the Jets at times, with Brady as a second tight end, or they loaded upeven more, with 330-pound tackle Ryan O'Callaghan as still another tight end.This beefed up the running game and also helped put an impenetrable wall aroundTom Brady. The Pats will max-protect a lot against the Chargers, which meansthey won't be afraid to throw in one-wideout alignments. The theory is, giveBrady (above) as much time as he had against the Jets, and the one wideout,Randy Moss, will run away from everyone as he did on his 51-yard TD on Sunday.As for the Patriots' other additions, Wes Welker is everything they wanted in apossession receiver, and I counted four occasions in which linebacker AdaliusThomas fouled up Jets receiver patterns. The Chargers are good, the Patriotsare scary. New England wins at home.
Baltimore at home will be too much for theshell-shocked Jets. I'll take the Niners over the Rams when they meet in SanFrancisco in November, but St. Louis is my pick in the Jones Dome. Tennessee'srun game posed a threat to the 2006 Colts, but Indy's firmer now; Indy to winit. Ditto the Giants, on the rebound, over Green Bay, but if Eli's shoulderisn't O.K., all bets are off. I like Detroit over Minnesota and, in theMonday-nighter, Philly over Washington.
Last week 7--1