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Recent posts by Nolan Nawrocki
Call it the legend of Pete Rozelle. Parity is alive and well in the National Football League in 2011.
The Lions and Bills, regarded as perennial bottom-dwellers just a few years ago, are sitting atop the league's standings undefeated, as two of the league's biggest surprise teams thanks to explosive, quick-strike offenses that were able to rally from significant deficits over the Vikings and Patriots, respectively.
Less than three years ago, Matt Millen moved on after running the Lions into the ground, fielding one of the worst rosters in football and producing the only winless season in modern-day NFL history. The Lions' problems were compounded by Millen's inability to stabilize the coaching staff, which cycled between systems and changed the type of players the team sought, from Marty Morhinweg to Steve Mariucci to Rod Marinelli.
Enter Jim Schwartz, and the Lions had a structured plan and much-needed vision. The defensive line would be dominant, the offense would feature explosive elements and the team would have a tough, physical identity much like the defense Schwartz fielded in Tennessee.
Chan Gailey has had less time to make over the Bills, with Ralph Wilson cycling through more personnel chiefs and head coaches in recent years than even the unpredictable, impatient Al Davis. From Tom Donahoe to Marv Levy to Russ Brandon to current GM Buddy Nix, instability has been the most defining characteristic of the Bills' franchise in recent years, further marked by a switch back and forth between 4-3 and 3-4 fronts last season.
Now that key pieces needed to run the defense are in place following another draft and another year of free agency, Gailey finally has been able to complete the shift to his preferred front and has the offense humming behind the efficient play of QB Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Both teams have very cerebral quarterbacks who are still viewed as being unproven — Matthew Stafford, because of his fragility, and Fitzpatrick, because of his physical limitations. What Schwartz is to the Lions' defense, getting by with a marginal secondary that's reliant on aggressive pressure packages, Gailey is to the Bills' offense, concealing the deficiencies of weak pass protection by designing a quick-developing passing attack and creative run game.
But where both teams are most similar is in the confidence that has been instilled from the attitude and intelligence of their head coaches. For the first time in more than a decade, the two teams are playing with purpose and believe they can win, finding ways to get the job done. While double-digit wins might be too unrealistic this season, it is very clear that great strides have been made in a short time and that both the Lions and the Bills have caught up to their much more accomplished divisional peers. After an embarrassing decade of futility, the blue-collar cities of Detroit and Buffalo both could be watching their teams play in the postseason for the first time since 1999.
• Rams CB Justin King displayed 4.31 speed in the 40-yard-dash when he was exiting Penn State and could flat out fly in a straight line. On the surface, it would appear he would have no problem matching up with the speed of Ravens blazing rookie WR Torrey Smith. But when it comes to playing the ball in the air, King long has struggled, lacking downfield ball skills, and he greatly struggled to replace the injured Ron Bartell in the lineup in Week Three. The Ravens strategically exploited King's downfield deficiency to the tune of a 21-0 lead in the first quarter before the Rams could adjust. Smith's emergence is critical for the Ravens' offense, as the Titans were able to sit on Anquan Boldin too much in Week Two and Lee Evans' foot injury has created a need for another vertical threat.
• The Texans have been handcuffed by the inopportune, bad decisions of QB Matt Schaub in pressure situations for years. They were present in the first two games, although a dominant defense and weak schedule against the Manning-less Colts and struggling Dolphins helped camouflage his errors. In the Texans' first true test of the season on the road in the Superdome, Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams dialed up enough pressure to rattle Schaub into a funk when the Texans needed him most to sustain drives in the fourth quarter. The Texans are the clear front-runner in a down division, but until Schaub can perform under pressure or the team lands a more resilient-minded passer, Gary Kubiak's offense will be restricted.
• Two notable rookie plays that stood out in Week Three came in the trenches. While being double-teamed, Bills DLE Marcell Dareus was able to tip a Tom Brady pass into the waiting hands of Drayton Florence, who snared the deflection and returned it for a go-ahead score against the Patriots. On the flip side, the Colts were tied at 13 when OLT Anthony Castonzo could not handle the explosive burst and bend of Steelers OLB James Harrison and allowed Curtis Painter to be blind-sided, fumbling the ball into the hands of Troy Polamalu for a score that allowed Pittsburgh to take control of the game late.
• The Colts' DE tandem is the most explosive in the league when Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis are crashing the corners. They manhandled a heavy-footed, frequently grabbing Steelers offensive line that got away with too many holding calls, and kept the Colts in the game. Indianapolis' defense is the fastest in the league on its home turf.
• The inability of Chad Ochocinco to catch an over-the-shoulder pass midway through the fourth quarter was just another indication of how slow the Patriots' receiver's development has been to perform in a new environment where structure is not optional.
• Long-limbed CB Chris Cook did a fine job of matching up with Calvin Johnson in the first half, but the inability to contain Johnson in the second half contributed largely to the Vikings' troubles in a 26-23 overtime loss. Similar to Randy Moss, Johnson is proving that he must be bracketed and double-covered or he will disarm defenses deep.
• Matt Ryan's uniform said it all at the end of the Falcons' 16-13 loss at Tampa Bay. Very disheveled and lined with field-marking chalk, having clearly spent a lot of time on the ground, Ryan once again was on the run as the youngest defensive line in football continually disrupted and pressured the beleagured passer. Buccaneers rookie DRE Adrian Clayborn had a very solid showing against Falcons OLT Sam Baker.
• The loss of WR Kenny Britt could greatly cripple the Titans' offense. When they were without him for a stretch last season, they went out and signed Randy Moss to add an explosive, big-play threat. The Titans still could add another weapon off the street, but it's more likely offensive coordinator Chris Palmer will look to find ways to open up ascending TE Craig Stevens, who showed he can split the seam and keep defenses honest on his one catch, which went for 58 yards and set up the game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter. Many times, team will look outside for answers when the best solutions are staring them in the face.
• The 49ers caught a lot of flak in the offseason after not chasing big-name free agents with the same fervor that the rest of the NFC West did, not heavily opening up the checkbook. GM Trent Baalke and Jim Harbaugh were more patient and measured in their approach, waiting for the market to subside and trusting their draft picks. In spite of heavy criticism for bringing back QB Alex Smith, the Niners are off to a solid start atop the division, winning behind the strength of a very fast, stingy run defense and a functional, ground-oriented offense that has been able to grind out ugly wins.
• Heavy rain detracted from the showdown of Cam Newton and Blaine Gabbert, as the run game became a big factor in Carolina's 16-10 win over Jacksonville. TE Greg Olsen continues proving to be a very valuable addition for the Panthers, with NFL evaluators commending Carolina for making one of the best trades of the offseason.
• For the Patriots, Jets and Falcons to get back on track after Week Three losses, they need to be able to better establish the run. Jets RB Shonn Greene struggled to find lanes behind a beat-up offensive line as did Falcons RB Michael Turner. The Patriots' multiback approach also had trouble finding room to run against Buffalo.