Week 5 was full of twists and turns, but there are patterns starting to surface and the good teams are starting to rise to the top.
No-huddle running attacks take off
Teams like New England, Baltimore, Green Bay, and New Orleans are always willing to throw the ball 45-50 times, and they are looking to keep their offense in one-back sets with some form of a spread offense. The Patriots always seem to be ahead of the curve when it comes to the development of their no-huddle offense and how to commit to the run game from the no-huddle shotgun.
This week they played at the fastest pace I've seen yet, and the run game, not the passing game, dominated their play calling. In the win over the Broncos they ran the ball from the no-huddle shotgun package 24 times for 136 yards at 5.66 yards a carry. It didn't matter which running back was in the game, they all got a shot at it and it seemed like the Patriots were not going to let any defense come out in a sub package defense on first down in anticipation of the no-huddle and be ready to match up with the spread pass attack.
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Defensive coordinators would like to say they would rather see the run game than the Brady pass game from the no huddle, but after the last two weeks, they may have to make an adjustment to that thinking. Last week in the no-huddle shotgun run against Buffalo the Patriots ran the ball nine times for 59 yards. In two weeks the Patriots have exploded as a running team with the running backs accounting for 89 carries for 496 yards and five touchdowns. Thirty-three of those rushing attempts for 195 yards came from the no-huddle shotgun at 6.0 a carry. The other teams looking to attack in the no huddle will study these two game films for the next phase of the offense.
NFC West is best
Ask any football fan back in August what was the toughest division and the answers would range from the NFC East to the AFC North and maybe another division or two, but no one could foresee the strength of the NFC West. After five weeks it's clear the NFC West is a division to be reckoned with. Which division has the most wins? The NFC West with 14, and the next closest is the NFC North with 11. Which is the only division where every team has scored more points than it gave up? The NFC West, of course. Which division as a whole gives up the fewest points per game? You guessed it -- the NFC West gives up 15.5 points a game. Which is the only division with a perfect home record? That's right, the NFC West is a perfect 10-0 at home.
Rookie QBs get road wins
Starting from day one as a rookie quarterback is a big challenge. Starting games on the road is even more challenging. The five starting rookie quarterbacks came into Week 5 with a combined road record of 2-8, and both of those wins were by Robert Griffin III. Ryan Tannehill (Miami), Russell Wilson (Seattle) and Brandon Weeden (Cleveland) took to the road this week all with 0-2 road records and two of them came back winners.
It wasn't always pretty for either player, but getting that first road win as a rookie was a big step for Wilson and Tannehill. Weeden was actually the most productive of the three road warriors, throwing two touchdown passes and not being sacked once, but his two interceptions led directly to touchdowns which turned out to be the 14-point difference in the game.
Last year's rookie starting quarterbacks went 11-17 on the road, which really wasn't bad. This year's class is up to 4-9, and Andrew Luck has only been on the road once so far.
Finally, the defense is catching up
We all witnessed four weeks of unprecedented scoring in the NFL. The 2,986 points scored and the 327 touchdowns in the first four weeks were the most points in any four-week stretch in NFL history. Games were averaging 46.7 points a game and I was wondering when the defenses would slow things down.
Well, Week 5 finally witnessed the first big drop in scoring as game point totals dropped to 36.5 points per game. A combination of things helped the defenses catch up. The ability to break down four game films is critical to defenses to game-plan and play fast. The result was more pressure on quarterbacks (62 sacks in 13 games), 23 lost fumbles, and 23 interceptions that ended drives and slowed down scoring. There will always be a few high scoring totals, like the 57 points in the Packers-Colts game, but there will be a lot more 16-12 games like we witnessed in Carolina. If you like defensive football, your time is approaching.
Never discount power of emotion
Every so often there is an emotional game that grabs your heart and just inspires fans across the country. I was involved in one such game when I was with the New York Jets in 1992 and I will never forget it. Dennis Byrd broke his neck the week before, and was in Lenox Hill Hospital paralyzed. No one knew if he would ever walk again, and we had the task of going up to Buffalo to play the Jim Kelly-led Bills. There was no way we could go home after that game without the game ball for Dennis. We weren't very good, but we found a way in an emotion-driven game to get the job done.
To this day I can recall just about every play of that game. Watching the Indianapolis Colts do the same thing for their beloved coach, Chuck Pagano, brought back all those memories and reminded me of just how powerful an emotionally-driven football team can be.
People will never really know how those Colt players and coaches felt when that game ended Sunday, and more importantly how much strength and courage the already tough Chuck Pagano got from that team effort. It was a very special day in Indianapolis to help Coach Pagano fight his fight.
This year's Aldon Smith or Von Miller
In 2011, two marquee pass rushers burst on to the scene as rookies. Aldon Smith of the 49ers finished up year one with 14 sacks and Von Miller closed out the season with 11½. Both were first-round picks that met the high expectations that came with the section.
This past draft saw what some would say was the most controversial first-round pick when the Seahawks selected Bruce Irvin from West Virginia. Many claimed he was no better than a third round talent, and undersized.
Pete Carroll came on my radio show the day after the draft and said they did an extensive film study, and felt Irvin had Von Miller skills. In training camp he did not distinguish himself, and was to some unimpressive in preseason games. The Seahawks organization saw things differently, and were quietly excited about the progress he was making.
This past weekend left little doubt about why Seattle grabbed Irvin in the first round as he finished up the Panthers game with two sacks, two more hits on the quarterback, a tackle for a loss, and the forced fumble on Cam Newton to end the game. After five games Bruce Irvin has 4½ sacks. At the same point in their rookie seasons Von Miller had 5 sacks and Smith had 3½. It looks to me like Bruce Irvin is on his way to a double-digit rookie season.