This is the state of defense in the NFL after three weeks in the attack mode: It's a surprise when blitzes aren't the focal point of the defensive package.
Everybody's blitzing, especially against the league's young and/or feckless quarterbacks. The Cleveland Browns' Tim Couch already has seen a wide array of blitzes. Same for Donovan McNabb of the Philadelphia Eagles, Trent Dilfer of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and even Randall Cunningham of the Minnesota Vikings.
Cunningham directed the highest-scoring offense in league history last season, averaging almost 35 points a game. Because teams didn't want to risk man-to-man coverage against all three of Minnesota's big-play receivers, the Vikings didn't see a lot of heavy blitzes.
That changed this year. In Week 1, the Atlanta Falcons, who don't normally like to blitz, attacked Cunningham and nearly pulled off their second straight upset of the Vikings. In Week 2, the Oakland Raiders used a middle blitz to come after Cunningham. They got to him and the Vikings for a shocking 22-17 win.
Then, in Green Bay's big 23-20 victory Sunday, the Packers went the other way and rarely blitzed Cunningham. Instead, defensive coordinator Emmitt Thomas opted to double cover Randy Moss with a cornerback at the line and a safety deep, and single cover Cris Carter and Jake Reed.
Reed had a big game (six catches, 108 yards), and Carter had four catches, but Moss, the NFL's 1998 Offensive Rookie of the Year, had just two catches for 13 yards and a touchdown. Last season, Moss scalded the Packers for 13 catches, 343 yards and three touchdowns in a two-game sweep.
"It's a nightmare dealing with the receivers they have," said Green Bay coach Ray Rhodes.
Even more impressive, the Packers did it with three rookies in the secondary -- first-round pick Antuan Edwards, second-round pick Fred Vinson and third-round pick Mike McKenzie. Edwards returned one of two Cunningham interceptions for a touchdown, and Vinson and McKenzie helped contain Moss.
For the most part, though, the blitz continues unabated in the NFL. Some teams are forced to alter their offense as a result. After Dilfer threw five interceptions in his first two games of the season against a big rush, he took seven sacks against the Denver Broncos -- but threw no picks.
Bucs coach Tony Dungy resorted to an ultra-conservative offense, asking Dilfer to eat the ball rather than turn it over. Dilfer completed 15 of 18 passes, but only five went to wide receivers. But the vanilla scheme worked in a 13-10 win over the Broncos, even if it drew boos from the Tampa fans.
Said Dungy: "We'll bore 'em to 15 wins in a row if we have to."
Brett Favre, still the most dangerous quarterback in the league, sent the balance of power in the NFC Central swinging back to Green Bay with the 15th game-winning drive of his career. His fourth-down touchdown pass to Corey Bradford -- with no timeouts left -- drew the following endorsement from Packers general manager Ron Wolf: "I don't know about comeback quarterbacks, but like I've said before -- and I'm going to say it again and I'm going to offend a lot of people -- but there hasn't been a greater player to play in Lambeau Field than Brett Favre."
The Packers are not back to where they were under then-coach Mike Holmgren when they went to consecutive Super Bowls in 1996-97. But with Favre, they are good enough to win a weakened NFC.
He threw three interceptions in the first half against Seattle, then got the hook from coach Bill Cowher, who got right to the point in his post-game critique.
"I thought our quarterback's performance was very poor," Cowher said.
"I told him to move around a little. He doesn't have to be planted in the pocket. He's got to be able to improvise. I was disappointed he didn't respond that way."
Because Cowher's only alternative is 36-year-old Mike Tomczak, Stewart will start in Week 4 against Jacksonville.
By the numbers
After watching Kansas City's Kimble Anders run up the middle for 143 yards against the Broncos the week before, the Bucs sent fullback Mike Alstott up the gut 25 times for 131 yards. Broncos tailback Terrell Davis has had three straight sub-100-yard rushing games, the first time that's happened since the end of the 1996 season. Aside from Tim Biakabutuka's touchdown runs of 62 and 67 yards, the Panthers gained 17 yards rushing on 16 carries against Cincinnati. Denver safety Eric Brown had 20 tackles against the Bucs. Teams that ran the ball 30 times or more went 5-2 Sunday. Teams that ran the ball fewer than 25 times went 2-7.
Will Broncos coach Mike Shanahan admit his mistake of rushing Brian Griese and turn to the more battle-tested Chris Miller, the best quarterback on Denver's roster?
With the easiest schedule in the league, and the worst collection of skill-position players supporting QB Tim Couch, will the Browns become the first team to go winless in a 16-game regular season?
What was it about RB Tyrone Wheatley that Giants coach Jim Fassel didn't like, anyway?
In a division lacking a clear-cut favorite or an elite quarterback, the Raiders have a shot at their first AFC West title since 1990, thanks to the Broncos' fall from grace.
What Tony Banks couldn't do, and what Trent Green wasn't given the chance to do, QB Kurt Warner apparently can do. That is, make the Rams playoff contenders in the NFC West. Warner has completed 65.2 percent of his passes for 591 yards and six touchdowns in two impressive wins over teams with good defenses (Ravens, Falcons).
Steelers QB Kordell Stewart will need more than new offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride to become a force again. He'll need to face the Browns every week.
The four teams that reached the conference championship games last season are off to miserable starts. The Broncos, Jets, Falcons and Vikings are a collective 1-11 so far after going 55-9 in the regular season a year ago. Much of the misery can be traced to quarterback.
The Broncos lost their way when they lost John Elway. The Jets were submarined when Vinny Testaverde's Achilles' tendon gave out. The Falcons can't win when Chris Chandler is hurting, and he has a gimpy hamstring. And the Vikings' Randall Cunningham isn't close to matching his Pro Bowl form of 1998, when he threw 34 touchdown passes and only 10 interceptions. This year, Cunningham has thrown four of each.
-- Ken Murray
Pub Date: 9/28/99