What did the Redskins, Saints, Cowboys and Cardinals have in common in Week Eight? Besides featuring offensive-minded head coaches with strong reputations for their play-calling abilities in the NFC, what stood out most was how much the offensive lines of the aforementioned teams were manhandled, outquicked and overpowered on a suprising Sunday.
Injuries played a role. With Redskins OLT Trent Williams and OLG Kory Lichtensteiger out against Buffalo, not to mention TE Chris Cooley, a Bills' defensive line that entered the game buried at the bottom of the league in sacks, looked like the 1986 Giants. Bills NT Marcell Dareus regularly planted Redskins C Erik Cook in the backfield and collapsed the pocket, giving QB John Beck no chance to win his first game as a starter. He was under siege all game as the Bills racked up nine sacks and seemingly dropped Beck on every drop, sucking the life out of Mike Shanahan's offense and leaving him scoreless for the first time in his head-coaching career.
What happened to the Saints' offense has been more gradual. Two years ago, Jonathan Stinchcomb and Jammal Brown were among the two most reliable bookend tackles in football. Knee injuries drained both of their careers, as Brown was dealt to Washington last year and Stinchcomb retired. With a strong interior line, all Zach Strief and Jermon Bushrod need to do is protect the inside and be able to run any pass rusher wide, with Drew Brees one of the best in the league at feeling pressure, stepping up and releasing it quickly.
Nonethetheless, Strief and Bushrod both have struggled mightily. Not only did Strief go down early in the season, his replacement Charles Brown also left the Rams' game with a knee injury, forcing the overmatched Pat McQuistan into the lineup. Throw in the abrupt departure of Olin Kreutz, and the Saints' line has quickly deteriorated. Rams DE Robert Quinn has struggled to make an impact as a rookie, but he was a terror screaming off the edge against the Saints' challenged line, even blocking a punt, and beating Bushrod with an inside move for his second career sack. Chris Long oppositely had a field day, matching his season sack total with three on the day, powering through the line with ease.
The Cowboys' defensive line was supposed to be the most vaunted in the Sunday-night matchup — and DeMarcus Ware quietly rang up four sacks — but it was the disruptive inside presence of Eagles DTs Trevor Laws and Mike Patterson that didn't show up on the stat sheet, along with the high motor of Jason Babin and return of Trent Cole, that made the greatest difference against the Cowboys. OGs Montrae Holland and Kyle Kosier and C Phil Costa looked like swinging gates, consistently unable to handle the quickness and energy of the Eagles' front in a four-TD loss.
The Cardinals, thanks to a 21-point, five-minute burst in the second quarter, had a rookie highlight with the punt return that Patrick Peterson ran back 82 yards for a 24-3 halftime lead. But the Ravens were able to set a franchise record by overcoming the 21-point deficit by rattling Kevin Kolb in the second half, as Terrell Suggs easily whipped OLT Levi Brown and ORT Brandon Keith from both sides. OLBs Jarret Johnson and Paul Kruger also had their way with the line from the start, as Johnson forced a fumble and Kruger came through the line unblocked on an inside stunt. Even when Kevin Kolb had a strong line in Philadelphia, he would crumble with the first hint of pressure, and nothing has changed in Arizona. Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm need to employ more max protection if Kolb is going to have any chance of becoming a confident triggerman.
• Encouraging for the Cardinals was the edge burst of OLB O'Brien Schofield, whom the Cardinals nabbed at a value price in the fourth round in 2010 after he blew out his knee at the Senior Bowl. He ran right past Ravens OLT Bryant McKinnie and made his presence felt off the corner. The run strength of Peterson, who diced through arm tackles of TE Dennis Pitta, LB Jameel McClain and S Haruki Nakamura on his second punt-return TD of the season, also stood out.
• When elite coaching candidates are discussed, talk turns to Bill Cowher and Jon Gruden, but the freshest coaching heavyweight in football not currently on the sideline is former Titans boss Jeff Fisher, who was fed up with an overinvolved owner and mutually agreed to walk away from Tennessee in the offseason after a very solid run. Until Jim Harbaugh's emergence this season, Fisher was the most prominent former Chicago Bear to emerge from the Mike Ditka era. Despite not receiving a lot of fanfare and consistently being regarded as an underdog, his Titans' teams were consistently competitive in a division that Peyton Manning owned until this year.
• Two other Ditka coaching descendants, Leslie Frazier and Ron Rivera, squared off for the first time as head coaches, with Rivera's former LB mate Mike Singletary also across the field as Frazier's assistant head coach. Ironically, in a game that features two former great linebackers now on the sidelines, the Panthers lost two more 'backers, as Jason Phillips and Thomas Williams both departed and did not return. The Panthers' defense has really struggled to recover from the loss of its emotional leader, Jon Beason, and has been forced to cycle through much of its defense because of injuries.
• Few coaches are as even-keeled and able to brush off pressure and criticism as well as Andy Reid. Despite four consecutive early-season losses and increased scrutiny on defensive coordinator Juan Castillo, the Eagles' defense has shown considerable improvement against Washington and Dallas. Much like the Chiefs, who pulled themselves out of an 0-3 start, the Eagles have regained confidence after a tough four-game skid against the Falcons, Giants, 49ers and Bills — three of whom are atop their respective divisions. And Atlanta could be tied with the Saints next week after visiting the winless Colts in Week Nine.
• The addition of WR Brandon Lloyd provided immediate dividends for Josh McDaniels' offense, with scheme familiarity clearly factoring, but it was the powerful running of Steven Jackson and the opportunistic play of an unheralded young secondary, much of whom did not begin the season with the Rams, that sparked St. Louis' first win of the season. CB Josh Gordy, SS Darian Stewart and CB Marquis Johnson made plays on the ball and helped take away Drew Brees' security blanket, TE Jimmy Graham — a key to slowing down the Saints' multifaceted offense.