Publish date:

Inside The NFL


Reverse Field
Offensive-minded coach Mike Shanahan can thank his deep,
cat-quick defense for the Broncos' 3-0 start

Trailing 14-7 with just under two minutes left in the first half
on Sunday in Denver, Bills quarterback Drew Bledsoe, who on his
previous drive had directed an 80-yard touchdown march, took
charge at the Buffalo 20 following a Broncos punt. The way he had
thrown this season, Bledsoe seemed perfectly capable of driving
the Bills to a tying touchdown, especially with momentum on his
side. But on first down left end Trevor Pryce shot through a
tackle-guard gap and forced Bledsoe to throw the ball away before
he got leveled. On second down Bledsoe tossed a screen pass to
fullback Larry Centers, who was pancaked by linebacker John
Mobley for a three-yard loss. On third down Denver sent the
house, blitzing a corner and a linebacker. Nickelback Bertrand
Berry sacked Bledsoe for a nine-yard loss. So much for momentum.

"Drew was one score away from taking over the game, and we
couldn't let that happen," Broncos linebacker Al Wilson said
following Denver's 28-23 win. "In the huddle, it was like, 'It's
on us to control this game!'"

For the first time since the Orange Crush ruled the AFC West in
the mid-1970s, Denver's defense is winning games for its poorer
offensive cousin, which has sputtered through a 3-0 start. The
front seven is as deep and as fast as any in football. The
acquisition of 306-pound free-agent tackle Lional Dalton
(formerly of the Ravens) enabled Denver to switch Pryce from
tackle to his more natural end position. Now the line has speed
at end and bulk in the middle, with Dalton alongside 334-pound
tackle Chester McGlockton. The Broncos didn't make a serious
effort to re-sign cagey linebacker Bill Romanowski because they
thought third-year man Ian Gold was ready to play. They were
right. According to Bledsoe, Gold, Mobley and Wilson are so fast
that they could play in the secondary for most teams.

Denver has shown not only defensive speed but also backbone in
wins over the Rams, 49ers and Bills--no offensive slouches there.
Over a postgame beer on Sunday night, coach Mike Shanahan, who
built his reputation on his offensive acumen, was asked about the
difference between this year's Broncos and last year's. "We're
playing defense," were the first three words out of his mouth.

Millen's Mess in Detroit
How Low Can The Lions Go?

Last Sunday should have been one of the great days in Detroit
sports history. The Lions, who had played in the northern suburb
of Pontiac since 1975, returned downtown for their first
regular-season game at new Ford Field. But the Lions walked away
with their tails between their legs. With the 37-31 loss to the
Packers, the two-season regime of club president Matt Millen and
coach Marty Mornhinweg set a dubious mark: No Detroit team in the
last 51 years has been as bad (2-17) over a 19-game span as this
team. What's more, other than promising rookie quarterback Joey
Harrington, there is little reason to feel optimistic about the
future. "In my 26 years on the beat," said Mike O'Hara of The
Detroit News, "I've never seen the fans so angry."

Things could get even worse. Before this season Millen decided
that it would be best to address the team's salary-cap problem
over two or three years--gradually weed out players and replace
them with low-cost free agents--rather than cleaning house in one
year. Millen spent good money on a handful of free agents
(wideout Az Hakim, most notably) and waited too long to release
quarterback Charlie Batch ($4.9 million) and wideout Herman Moore
($4 million), who will eat up 12% of the projected cap in 2003.
Throw in the combined $23.3 million (32%) due good-but-not-great
players Robert Porcher, Luther Elliss and James Stewart, and the
Lions have a cap mess on their hands next year.

Last week Millen said he would honor his five-year contract, that
he wouldn't fire Mornhinweg and that he wouldn't move his family
north from Hokendauqua, Pa. Callers to Detroit talk shows have
called Millen a carpetbagger for leaving town every week to spend
time with his family. "I don't think it's had any effect on the
job I've done," Millen says. "I leave Thursday after practice,
and I'm back Saturday afternoon. Am I wrong to do that? I don't
think so."

What's Wrong in Pittsburgh?
Offense Could Give D a Break

The biggest reason for the Steelers' 0-2 start is the defense's
inability to stop the pass. The Patriots and the Raiders passed
Pittsburgh silly, but the seed for such an attack was planted
last Dec. 30 when the Bengals threw 68 times against the Steelers
in a 23-20 overtime win. The Raiders went to school on that game,
which is why Oakland's Rich Gannon threw 63 times (for 403 yards)
in a 30-17 win over the Steelers on Sept. 15.

So what can the Steelers do to counter the air assault? For
starters they can play better on offense. Last season Pittsburgh
led the league in time of possession, at more than 34 minutes a
game, but this year the offense has controlled the ball an
average of 26 minutes. In 27 possessions the Steelers have turned
the ball over 10 times. If quarterback Kordell Stewart struggles
early this Sunday against the Browns, don't be surprised to see
coach Bill Cowher turn to backup Tommy Maddox.

Defensively, Pittsburgh needs to put more heat on the
quarterback. The Steelers have only seven sacks in 115 dropbacks,
and opposing quarterbacks have a healthy 67% completion rate
partly because they haven't been pressured. Outside linebacker
Jason Gildon, who led the team in sacks last year with 12, has
yet to get to the quarterback.

"Coach Cowher says we play better with a chip on our shoulder,"
safety Lee Flowers says. "We have to play with that meanness, and
we haven't been." The good news for Pittsburgh fans: Only one of
the Steelers' next 12 foes--the rebuilding Ravens--was a playoff
team in 2001.

Brady Earns Chiefs' Respect

The Patriots' Tom Brady didn't see two of his four touchdown
passes in a career-best 410-yard passing day against the Chiefs,
because he was drilled into the ground the instant he threw.
"I've got a ton of respect for that guy," said Chiefs linebacker
Mike Maslowski after New England's 41-38 overtime win. "A few
times we hit him as hard as you can, but it didn't seem to affect
him."... Bills defensive end Chidi Ahanotu is living in Toronto
and has hired a driver at $5,000 per month to take him back and
forth to Buffalo (a 90-minute commute each way), so he can live
in an internationally diverse city. "I wanted to see what there
was in this world other than the American view of things," says
Ahanotu, a California native.... Panthers defensive coordinator
Jack Del Rio says the Vikings' Randy Moss "may be causing
defensive staffs to spend more time game-planning than any player
in the history of the league." Ten of Daunte Culpepper's 30
attempts in Minnesota's 21-14 loss to Carolina--including three of
four interceptions--were intended for Moss, who had four catches
for 16 yards.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGHMobley didn't let Bledsoe down easy on a first-quarter sack of the Bills' quarterback.

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO Lions fans partied for all the wrong reasons in the regular-season opener at Ford Field.