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Sunday Six: Already handicapped, rookie QBs hurt by lack of prep time

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Many storylines emerge during a weekend of NFL games that tell the story of the NFL at this time. Here are my favorite six story lines and the ripple effect they may cause going forward:

1. Rookie quarterbacks

As I watched Sunday's games it became obvious that the reduction in real practice time hurt the passing game for the young QBs. As one offensive coordinator said, "All the walk-thru practices may keep players fresh and be adequate for some veterans but it serves little purpose in developing a passing game down the field for the inexperienced players. Young quarterbacks have to get reps against real defenses in real time or they just won't be able to react to the post-snap coverage reads."

There's no doubt the rookie quarterbacks outside of the great performance by Robert Griffin III suffered in Week 1 games with pressure in their face and coverage disguises down the field. The five rookie quarterbacks that started week one (RG3, Luck, Tannehill, Wilson, Weeden) were 1-4 with a combined for four TD passes, 11 interceptions, and 12 sacks. They also converted only 23 percent of their third downs and only 52 percent of all their passes. On Sunday Dan Marino said to me "starting opening day as a rookie QB is like riding on a roller coaster without a seatbelt on."

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I say it's a lot more dangerous than a roller coaster and more like racing down a highway on a motorcycle without a helmet on. At least the five youngsters didn't incur an injury while learning on the job. It may be a while before things get better for the rookie QBs.

2. Things I wonder about!

 Where was the Buffalo pass rush? The Bills spent tons of money on Mario Williams and Mark Anderson to go along with one of the best tandem of tackles in the NFL (Kyle Williams and Marcel Dareus). I was at their camp and they looked like they could get to any QB in the NFL -- especially a QB with a weak offensive line. They never got to Mark Sanchez. That better change soon, and I don't want to hear about the officials.

 Is Michael Vick really good enough to take a team to a championship? If Vick can stay healthy is one obstacle. But four interceptions, two sacks and two fumbles against the Cleveland Browns makes me wonder even more.

 The Saints -- without coach Sean Payton -- looked like a rudderless ship at times. I think the burden on Drew Brees to be all things is greater than it appears from the outside. The team is going to have to find a way to overcome the loss of Payton's game-day aggressiveness, game planning, team discipline, holding the defense accountable and his unique style of communicating with his players. Week 1 was some wake-up call.

3. High and low scoring

I talked with Bill Cowher on Sunday morning about the potential scoring, and he felt scoring would be down a bit from Week 1 last season because the defenses had time to install packages without a lockout complicating things this season. I agreed with him -- that last year's lockout probably hurt the defenses more than the offenses. However, scoring on Sunday was up -- not down. In nine of 13 games, scoring exceeded expectations. Only in the Eagles-Browns, Seahawks-Cardinals, Dolphins-Texans and Panthers-Bucs games was the combined scoring less than predicted. Why did the other nine games range from 72 points (Jets-Bills and Redskins-Saints) to 49 points (Jags-Vikings)?

Clearly, we have to adjust our thinking to what low combined scores will be this season. Last season, when it appeared offenses were exploding in Week 1 (averaging a combined 44 points vs. a combined 37 points in 2010), most of us were surprised because teams got ready without minicamps, OTAs and only limited preseason work. With two games left on Monday night, 2011 is off to a flying start -- averaging 50 combined points a game and that was with five rookie quarterbacks starting who on average generated only 20 points a game. My advice: Consider higher rather than lower when it comes to predicting scores this year. The scoring is going to continue to rise.

4. No Huddle is no joke

More teams have built an attack offense that doesn't require huddle time. Consequently, defenses are scrambling to stay up with them. The Patriots have led the way with the 12 personnel package, but the Broncos are taking things even higher. The Mile High altitude combined with the genius of Peyton Manning and his 12 personnel package was on full display against the Steelers -- the NFL's No. 1 last season. It really couldn't be stopped. The second quarter, a 12-play, no-huddle drive (five running plays, seven passing plays to five different receivers) covered 80 yards for a touchdown with only two third-down -- both third and 1. In the fourth quarter came another no-huddle drive, again for 80 yards and a touchdown -- this time with no third-down situations. Over those two no-huddle drives, Manning went 11 of 13.

5. Clean up the special teams

Early season special team problems are common. Last season, there were nine touchdowns scored on returns on the first weekend. There may not be as many as nine returns from punts and kickoffs this season, but there were blocked punts, blocked extra points, bad coverage units that led to big returns and a few touchdowns. Things may get worse before they get better as injuries already are starting to add up and that puts more inexperienced players in starting roles and weakens the already weak coverage and protection units.

6. Favorite coordinators this week

Every week there are coordinators who do an excellent job of game-planning. Here are my five coordinators for Week 1:  Kyle Shanahan, Redskins OC: It looked like an impossible task -- winning at New Orleans with a rookie quarterback in one of the NFL's loudest environments. The Saints averaged 40 points a game at home last season and no one gave the Redskins a chance to keep up. Shanahan didn't see it that way -- employing a nice blend of the things Robert Griffin III did at Baylor with the essentials of the Redskins offense. Add to the achievement of dropping 40 points on the Saints that a rookie running back (Alfred Morris) who rushed for 96 yards and two TDS and it's easy to honor Shanahan.

 Bill Sheridan, Bucs DC: Last season, the Bucs gave up 86 points to the Carolina Panthers in two games and they couldn't control Cam Newton (four rushing TDS, four throwing TDs). This time Newton was limited to one TD pass and the Panthers rushed for 10 yards on 13 carries. On top of limiting the Panthers to 10 points, Sheridan's defense sacked Newton three times, intercepted him twice and forced two fumbles. What a difference Sheridan made to this defense in only a few months.

Vic Fangio, 49ers DC: The 49ers went into Green Bay and limited an Aaron Rodgers-led offense that scores 41 points a game at home to 14 of the Packers' 22 points (Randall Cobb had 75-yard punt return). I feel bad for average offenses that have to go to San Francisco and line up against Fangio's defense.

Rob Ryan, Cowboys DC: Ryan was criticized for too much blitzing last season, especially considering his shaky secondary. Ryan now has better players and a better game plan. Limiting the Giants to 17 points in New York as well as sacking Eli Manning three times and forcing a fumble provides a glimpse at the Cowboys' new defense.

Dirk Koetter, Falcons OC: Koetter moved to Atlanta from Jacksonville and has made an immediate impact. The Falcons dropped 40 points on the Chiefs in their house. Right now the Falcons' base personnel group (21 personnel -- two running backs, one tight end and two wide receivers) creates such conflicts for the defense with a power run game and three receivers whp can beat any four-deep secondary.


Pat Kirwan has been around the league since 1972, serving in a variety of roles. He was a scout for the Cardinals and Buccaneers, a coach for the Jets as well as the team's Director of Player Administration where he negotiated contracts and managed the team's salary cap. He is the author of Take Your Eye Off the Ball: How to Watch Football by Knowing Where to Look, and the host of Sirius NFL Radio's Moving the Chains.
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