Six from Sunday: Rookie QBs dazzle, desperate teams win on the road

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Week 6 in the NFL was full of big statements. Here's the Six from Sunday:

Rookie QBs deliver

Talk about a big weekend for rookie quarterbacks. The only loser of the five starters was Andrew Luck on the road vs. the Jets. The other four were at home, and all led their teams to a win. Brandon Weeden (Cleveland), Ryan Tannehill (Miami), Russell Wilson (Seattle) and Robert Griffin III (Washington) delivered like veterans on Sunday. The four combined for eight passing touchdowns and two rushing TDs and were intercepted only twice.

Wilson made the biggest statement with three touchdown passes in a win over New England to leave his team with a 4-2 record. Two weeks ago people were calling for his benching. Coach Pete Carroll wasn't listening.

RG3 dazzled the Washington crowd with his 138 yards and two rushing touchdowns; Ryan Tannehill continues to amaze the football experts with his poise and leadership for a guy with 19 college starts at QB. A former GM said to me as Tannehill was walking off the field in victory, "That guy was a college wide receiver a year ago today."

Brandon Weeden celebrated his 29th birthday convincing Brown fans his age is insignificant and his arm is what counts. There's a chance at least two of these five rookie quarterbacks will throw for more than 4,000 yards this year, something only one rookie has ever done. With a little luck it could be three or four cracking the 4,000 mark, which is sending a very powerful message to NFL decision makers. The message, according to my GM friend, is this: Don't be afraid to take a rookie QB in the draft next spring and play him right away. These performances offer great hope for the future of each of the five franchises that are starting these rookies, as well as teams on the outside looking in who have to do whatever it takes next April to move up in the draft and get a rookie QB.

Desperate teams on the road

Only one team last year at the six-game mark had a losing record and made the playoffs. The 2-4 Broncos were lucky to win a division with an 8-8 record. Last year at the end of six games this is how the 12 playoff teams stood.

Playoff teams last season
Team 6-game mark
Green Bay 6-0
New England 5-1
Detroit 5-1
Giants 4-2
Baltimore 4-2
Pittsburgh 4-2
Cincinnati 4-2
New Orleans 4-2
Atlanta 3-3
Houston 3-3
Denver 2-4

As you can see, not a lot of room for teams with two wins if the playoffs are in their plans. The Packers and the Lions were 2011 playoff teams on the road looking at the possibility of slipping out of the playoff race with a loss. I have been around teams that have a desperate sense of urgency and they can create a powerful force.

The Lions were down 10 points with 5:18 to play. Matthew Stafford went 12 for 18 for 161 yards and a touchdown in the remaining minutes and overtime to lead his team to a "stay alive" win. Aaron Rodgers and his Packers played like the 2011 15-1 Packers and the six touchdown passes he threw served notice the NFC North race is far from over.

Next week sets up for more 2011 playoff teams with their backs to the wall. Keep an eye on the Steelers, Saints, and once again the Lions that simply have to find a way to win. Don't underestimate what is going on in those locker rooms and practice fields this week.

Steelers defensive woes

It's tough for Steelers fans to watch the 2012 Pittsburgh defense. It seems like the dominating Steel Curtain is gone, but it shouldn't come as a surprise. In the last 22 games covering all of 2011 and 2012 the Steelers are giving up 100 yards a game on the ground and 48 times they have surrendered a run of 10 yards or more.

Even the embarrassing postseason loss to the Broncos, when Denver rushed for 131 yards, shouldn't have come as surprise. In the seven games leading up to that loss that knocked them out of the playoffs the Steelers run defense gave up 104 yards a game on the ground.

James Farrior was getting old and everyone saw it was time for a change. Now the run defense continues to underperform and the pass defense has sprung a big leak, giving up nine touchdown passes in five games after giving up just 15 all of last season.

It isn't all the absence of Troy Polamalu, even though the Steelers are below .500 when Polamalu is out. Ike Taylor looked like a liability last week and teams will continue to go at him in the coming weeks. Pittsburgh is going to have to protect Taylor with more safety help in cover 2 schemes according to one former defensive coordinator I spoke with Sunday night. The ripple effect of that help will mean less ability to blitz linebackers and safeties.

The disappearing act is over

Three teams that are built to rush the passer without blitzing spent lots of money on their front four and were starting to wonder where their investment had gone. The New York Giants, Detroit Lions and the Buffalo Bills expect their defensive line to hunt down opposing quarterbacks.

Recently there have been concerns about where these guys were hiding. Last week in New York the local newspaper had a picture of the Giants' front four on the back page with a big question mark as to their whereabouts.

Well, in Week 6 all three defensive lines showed up and each was a driving force in all three winning efforts. For sure, the three teams sprinkled in some blitz calls to increase production, but I can tell you that quality defensive linemen do not like linebackers and defensive backs taking their sack production away. It often creates a sense of urgency among the front four. The end result was six sacks and 10 hits on the 49er quarterbacks by the Giants, five sacks and eight hits on the QB by the Buffalo Bills, and three sacks and 11 hits by the Lions.

Jason Pierre Paul (Giants), Mario Williams (Bills), and Cliff Avril (Lions) all came into the Week 6 game with 1½ each for the season and all three men got two sacks and three hits each on the QB. It was a very good day for the three teams that expect big things from their front four.

The Cushing effect

Brian Cushing is the defensive captain of the Texans and beyond that the leading tackler, an excellent pass rusher and, as one Texans player pointed out to me, the signal caller on the nickel and dime defenses. The Packers personnel groupings drove Houston into more sub packages, and that put the focus on the loss of Brian Cushing.

The New York Jets are starting to come out of their adjustment period from the loss of Darrelle Revis. I wonder how long it's going to take the Texans after giving up 42 points to the Packers. I went back to 2009 and couldn't find a game in the last 56 games where the Texans defense gave up 42 points, and that's how long Cushing has been a Texan. The next three games are against Baltimore, Buffalo, and Chicago, and all three teams can and will use offensive packages that will force Houston into sub defenses.

The Wildcat's time has passed

Living in New York, all you heard since the Tebow trade was the Jets had a special Wildcat package that was going to keep defensive coordinators up at night. Sanchez was on shaky ground all this week and the speculation was the Jets would unleash the Tebow Wildcat. One pass and four runs for seven yards later and the Jets' Wildcat is a dud.

That isn't a surprise to me or others that defend this novelty offense. Tebow has touched the ball as a passer or runner 21 times this year and doesn't have a touchdown. Opponents don't seem fazed by his presence on the field. The 49ers and the Bills still have little Wildcat packages for Kapernick and Smith, but unless they are throwing a deep ball against the tightened-down, nine-in-the-box defenses that show up against these Wildcat offenses, they really have seen better days. I still think the most interesting Wildcat package was the one in Miami with Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams when no one was really prepared for it. Those days are long gone.


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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