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Yates becomes Texans' next man up

Shorts and Shells: Week 12

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Recent posts by Eric Edholm

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Posted Nov. 28, 2011 @ 4:30 a.m. ET
By Eric Edholm

In 1920, William Butler Yeats wrote his famous poem "The Second Coming" as an allegory of things falling apart in post-war Europe.

In 2011, the collarbone injury to Matt Leinart might have the Texans and their fans thinking that their universe is in shambles.

Yeats, meet T.J. Yates, fifth-round rookie out of North Carolina.

Here's an excerpt from the famous poem:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand. ...

Now, I was an English major in college, and I probably knew more of what the poem meant 15 years ago. But it's not hard to tell that Yeats is painting a dim picture and yet also is opening up the possibility for good things to happen in the end.

With Leinart likely to miss the rest of the season, the Texans will have their third starting QB in as many games when they take on the Falcons in Week 13. As for Leinart, you do feel badly for the kid. This was his chance to change his career. Now what?

"I said, 'Not again,' " Leinart said. "This was a great opportunity for me, playing well and feeling good. It's unfortunate, but I'm not going to give up. It's not in my nature. I'm just going to keep moving forward, figure this out and move one step at a time.

"We have the utmost of confidence in T.J. Yates to get the job done. That's why he's here, but it hurts pretty bad."

Although Yates did not embarrass himself in replacing Leinart (8-of-15 passing, 70 yards), the Texans once more have to pick up the slack with another key player out. Call it the Third Coming — from Matt Schaub to Leinart and now to Yates — if you believe in putting positive spins on things.

The loss of Mario Williams has been absorbed. The team found ways to generate yards with Andre Johnson out of the lineup for five games, and he caught only two passes for 22 yards in his return on Sunday. Losing Schaub was big, very big, but the Texans spent the past two weeks preparing and talking up Leinart.

"It's kind of crazy how we're losing players, but somehow we keep finding a way to overcome," Johnson said.

If any team is used to hitting the reset button, it's the Texans. If nothing else, successful teams typically have to overcome adversity, usually of the major variety. Ask the Packers, who lost more man-hours to injury last season than any other team and still won a title. The difference? They did not lose Aaron Rodgers, Greg Jennings, Clay Matthews and Matt Flynn. There is not as big a gap between those players and the Texans' lost starters as you might think.

"This team knows how to deal with adversity," Yates said. "We've taken an injury almost every single game of the year, and the team has rallied around each other and really found a way to win."

Second-guessing the Texans' decision not to put in a claim for Kyle Orton is misplaced. One, the Chiefs (by virtue of their worse record) would have gotten Orton no matter what. Two, there's no way they could have known Leinart would go down on a freak injury like that, even if it's the second time in his career he has suffered a broken collarbone. The first was in 2007, when a guy named Kurt Warner took over for the next two-plus seasons and established the back end of what might turn out to be a Hall of Fame career.

Without trying to connect the dots too much, both Warner and Yates were completely unheralded when they got their shots. Both earned their chances to start (Warner twice) by a starter's injury. Both are tough and smart.

From PFW's 2011 Draft Preview book, here's the scouting report from PFW draft analyst Nolan Nawrocki on Yates coming out of North Carolina, where he played for former NFL head coach Butch Davis and former NFL coordinator John Shoop:

"Positives: Very good size. Smart, tough and has shown improved poise in the pocket. Comfortable working from under center. Can lob the fade with touch and put some air underneath the ball. Fine short accuracy.

"Negatives: Has a rag arm — balls tend to hang up in the air. Limited athletic ability. Inconsistent footwork diminishes accuracy, and it really wanes outside 15 yards. Streaky, plays too hot and cold and confidence issues have shown in his play. Heavy-footed, cannot escape the rush and has been slowed by injuries.

"Summary: Regained his confidence and came on strong as a senior but has limited upside to develop and will only fit into a short-to-intermediate, West Coast passing game as a game-managing reserve."

A four-year starter at North Carolina who broke many of Ronald Curry's passing records, Yates had something of an up-and-down career. But it ended in shocking fashion with a last-minute bowl win that will go down as one of the wildest finishes in college football history. Explaining what happened in the final 30 seconds of regulation of the 2010 Music City Bowl against Tennessee would take up the bulk of this week's "Shorts and Shells," so watching this should give you the picture.

(In a nutshell, Yates drove the Tar Heels into position to kick a game-tying field goal and send the game to overtime after a running play as time ticked away. Initially it was ruled that the clock had run out before he could spike the ball, but the replay showed there was one second left, and the Tar Heels made the subsequent field goal. In overtime, Yates scored in the first OT, and UNC won it in the second OT with a field goal.)

On his bio page from the UNC media guide, Yates noted that he recently had read Jack London's "Call of the Wild." Not to overdo the English-major thing, but the symbolism here is also fantastic. In the book, the main character, the sled dog Buck, goes from a sheltered life living in sunny California to being thrown into the brutal and unforgiving clime of the Arctic. It's there that Buck's feral instincts take over and he becomes a true pack leader.

Going from clipboard holder as a No. 3 QB to getting thrown into a playoff race probably has a similar feel. We'll see if Yates can make what would be a shocking transformation in Houston.

 

Controversial call of the week

Reports have surfaced that Lions DT Ndamukong Suh will be fined heavily and suspended (at least) two games for his Thanksgiving Day stomp of Packers OG Evan Dietrich-Smith.

The hit from the commissioner's office should not be shocking. Neither should the act Suh committed itself.

Others have chimed in on this, but Suh is just following in the footsteps that have been laid out by head coach Jim Schwartz, who has tried to put together a team of tough players and asked them to continue the tone he has set. We know from the end of the 49ers-Lions game that the tone includes trying to intimidate the opponent.

Plus, there's the matter of how Suh handled the situation, which further proves he doesn't get it. After the game, Suh said he did nothing wrong — and that he had seen the replay. The Lions followed that up the next day with a statement excoriating their star player's actions. Suh responded not by issuing a team-released response, but with a post on his Facebook account.

Because Suh is a smart and well-spoken kid, he comes off as intelligent. Most of the time it's deserved. But this was stupid. Instead, he looked immature, acting on his own playbook.

CBS' Shannon Sharpe made some smart observations on the entire process and how Suh failed to handle it.

"I'd also feel better about (the situation) if he apologized to the guy that he committed the offense against," Sharpe said. "Apologize to your teammates. Apologize to this organization. I don't think he's learned his lesson. I think what happened, somebody got in his ear and said, 'Look, you sounded ridiculous saying what you said; you need to make an apology.' But you do that publicly. Everybody doesn't have a link to your Facebook page. Do it publicly."

Instead, Suh will sit. He hurt his team, which is fighting for a playoff spot. This might be what it takes for him to figure it out.

 

The wow factor

This week's edition goes out to the hidden factors for the 6-5 Broncos:

"Deafening silence from haters right now. We're living on Tebow time." — @BobLeyESPN on Twitter

It's true that Tim Tebow is 5-1, and the Broncos are a better team with him under center. But the reasons for it are not as clear as everyone makes them out to be.

Not only is Tebow hard to prepare for, but he also has another gift: He has made the rest of the team better around him.

Did anyone watching Sunday's game notice the kind of time that the Broncos' offensive line afforded him to throw? Several times the fivesome of Ryan Clady, Zane Beadles, J.D. Walton, Chris Kuper and Orlando Frankin, with help from the backs and tight ends, gave Tebow a five-Mississippi to survey the field. Even though Tebow tends to lock in on one receiver or look to his primary read, the line was outstanding in its pass protection.

It was equally so in its run blocking. Running a college-themed scheme is tricky, based on timing and repetition, so it's amazing that this group has jelled the way it has so quickly. Also, when it has gone to more of a straight-ahead run series, Willis McGahee has been given chances to succeed.

Also impressive of late has been the Broncos' defense. In the past three games, the Broncos have allowed 258, 318 and 344 yards, holding the Chiefs, Jets and Chargers to 10, 13 and 13 points, respectively.

Credit coordinator Dennis Allen for getting his team in order. This secondary looked completely out of sorts at one point this season, but it has not allowed any one receiver to go for more than 64 yards in the past three games. The pass rush has been cranked up a notch with Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil, and it has allowed Allen to play more sophisticated and complex coverages.

Interesting to note that the Eagles and Broncos both wanted Allen, somewhat of an unknown at the time, to take their defensive coordinator job. Allen, then the Saints' secondary coach, chose Denver. The Eagles turned to Juan Castillo. We know how that has turned out.

 

Entertainers and icons

A tip of the cap to perhaps the most entertaining early game in Week 12, between the Jets and Bills:

Still can't figure out the Jets.

The Bills, well, their effort was commendable after losing S George Wilson and RB Fred Jackson this week and being without their three best players — Jackson, NT Kyle Williams and C Eric Wood.

It was Ryan Fitzpatrick's best game since signing his extension, and he needed that kind of game to quiet his critics. What they didn't need was a game of histrionics from Stevie Johnson, who absolutely ate up Jets CB Darrelle Revis like few men ever have but sullied the effort with a 15-yard celebration penalty that hurt his team and a crucial drop in the final minute.

Don't forget, Johnson is trying to get a new contract. Bad way to show you have earned it.

But this is more about the Jets, who make it fun and interesting always but have a way of making you question what you see.

You see Mark Sanchez throwing a career-high four TDs, but you know your eyes didn't fool you in the first half, when he was missing passes and making shaky decisions.

You see Shonn Greene running hard but then leaving the game with an injury and leaving paper-thin depth behind him.

You watch the defense seal the game at the end with a few close-out plays, but you have to remember the open receivers and lack of juice in the first three quarters.

Most of the elements of a great team are there. They just are not there at all times. The Jets are still in the race. We've learned previously not to count them out. It's just that ...

For every big offensive play, they go three-and-out the next possession. For every big defensive series, they give up inexplicable chunks of yards. If Plaxico Burress doesn't make that one-handed catch, do the Jets even win this game? Clutch is one thing; hanging on a high-wire act is quite another.

Rex Ryan has resorted to a questionable game of cat and mouse with Sanchez, threatening him and dangling his job out in front of him, with the fear of being replaced by Mark Brunell serving as the motivation. Bad call and a sign of desperation.

And on defense, they used way more cover-zero, an all-out blitz, than usual against the Bills and way more than Ryan has ever run in New York. It's not a baseline coverage; it's something you run as a change-up to get more pressure. You know when a team is leaning on it heavily, it's a sign the team can't generate a regular pass rush.

The Jets say they need to close out 5-0. They certainly are capable. And it's going to be fun to watch how it all unfolds. But you just get the feeling that the many holes on this team are going to come back to haunt the Jets and leave them just short.

 

Ten takeaways of the week

Here are 10 things I took from Week 12 as we start in earnest the playoff run:

1. Three big-name receivers — Stevie Johnson, DeSean Jackson and Dwayne Bowe — are looking for big-name contracts. But they have a funny way of showing it sometimes. Johnson's antics and horrible drop did not help his team Sunday. Neither did Jackson, who was benched by the Eagles in the fourth quarter of their blowout loss to the Patriots. Bowe had a few big catches in the loss but didn't put forth the best effort on the game-ending interception as the Chiefs were driving to beat the Steelers. Receivers and their agents tend to trumpet the numbers when it comes time to talk turkey. But teams are more than happy to bring up the intangible elements in those situations. That's why these three players might not break the bank the way they hope or expect to.

2. I can tell you that when word surfaced of an "unidentified team" being interested in Terrell Owens, I immediately thought Patriots. And then Sunday, when I saw agent Drew Rosenhaus, who just happens to represent the unemployed T.O., on the Patriots' sideline, it only made my thoughts on the matter harden. Whether Owens could help the Patriots, given that we don't know his health status, is a matter of conjecture. But we do know that the Patriots lack a quality deep threat, even after their big win over the Eagles, and could sign Owens in the next two weeks for the stretch run.

3. Julian Edelman is becoming the next Troy Brown. On defense, anyway. On a 2nd-and-8 play from the New England nine-yard line in the third quarter, he covered DeSean Jackson brilliantly on a double move, staying with the slinky receiver, and then came up to stop Vince Young on a QB scramble, keeping him from making the first down. Later, Edelman crushed Young on a blitz, forcing the Eagles to punt after the overthrow. No coach gets more out of his talent, and knows how best to use it, than Bill Belichick. He finds an Edelman capable of pulling double duty every few seasons when needed.

4. Really questionable call by Chan Gailey onside-kicking from his own 20 after Stevie Johnson's Plaxico Burress "leg shooting" celebration and subsequent 15-yard penalty. It helped turn the game. It's as if Gailey had decided to go for it before the penalty and refused to reconsider after having the kickoff start 15 yards farther back. Horrible call. It started the comeback for the Jets, who were down 14-7 and had only 111 yards of offense before they got the ball back. Three plays later, they tied the game, and on their first possession of the second half, the Jets took the lead. It might have cost the Bills a game they fought hard to win.

5. After the Chargers missed a field goal early in the fourth quarter, Qualcomm Stadium's cannon operator still fired the weapon, leading to some groans in the crowd. Those groans grew louder when the Chargers were on the losing end of a 16-13 OT game, their sixth straight defeat. No playoffs — And whom are we kidding? They are not making it — means no more Norv Turner. It has been a long run, and one during which he often received the unfair brunt of the criticism. But this team has underachieved for too long, and Philip Rivers (healthy or hurt) is having his worst season. A change of atmosphere is likely coming. Have to wonder if the Chargers regret the decision not to replace Turner with Ron Rivera, although Rivera is a very noble guy and might not have wanted to leapfrog his former head coach like that.

6. The number of close games in the NFL is pretty amazing. Even if games are not exciting — take Seahawks-Redskins, for instance — they are ultracompetitive. Through Week 11, there had been 79 games that were decided by seven points or fewer, which was two off the all-time mark of 81 back in 1988. In Week 12, there were nine more such games, with Panthers-Colts still a one-score game in an eight-point contest.

7. Interesting to note that of the 10 previous teams to start the season 11-0, only half went on to win Super Bowls. Three of the past four — the 2009 Colts, the '07 Patriots and the '05 Colts — fell short, with only the '09 Saints going the distance in the past 13 seasons. That said, the Packers eliminated one dangerous opponent, the Lions, on Thanksgiving and just keep getting it done. Two of the five remaining opponents en route to the pursuit of 16-0 are likely to have replacement quarterbacks, with the Chiefs (Kyle Orton?) and Bears (Caleb Hanie?) in Weeks 15 and 16. The Packers will face the Lions again in Week 17, and it will be a tough one. But watch out for the Raiders in Week 14. They are far from a perfect team, but the rushing combination of Michael Bush and Darren McFadden (if he's healthy) could be dangerous, Carson Palmer is heating up and the Raiders' defensive front is a top-10 unit.

8. How good were the kickers and punters in Oakland on Sunday? The Bears are regarded as having the best special teams in the NFL, but Sebastian Janikowski set a personal mark with six field goals and Shane Lechler was the player of the game with his nearly 50-yard net average, which included a booming 80-yarder and a coffin-corner kick that kept the ball out of Devin Hester's deadly hands (and legs). Adding to the show was Bears PK Robbie Gould, who nailed a 53-yarder right down the pike. But the Raiders were overall a leg up on the Bears on Sunday. Throw in the Raiders' kicking game as a realistic reason why they could end Green Bay's unbeaten run.

9. The Chiefs would be a very good football team if they had a quarterback. Maybe they will next season — Matt Cassel vs. Kyle Orton is shaping up as the best early QB battle for 2012 — but they do not right now. For all of Tyler Palko's moxie and athleticism, he just can't throw accurately from the pocket. Todd Haley is a good play-caller, and the Chiefs have enough playmakers to be effective. Defensively, Romeo Crennel has this team playing at a high level. They have an excellent kicker, punter and return units. Expect the Chiefs to be the division favorites next year, even if this streaky season has slipped away from them.

10. The Titans are a tough team to figure out. But that doesn't mean they are not still in the race. They have a fierce offensive line, a feisty secondary and a dangerous return game that provides good field position and occasionally breaks a long one, like Sunday's razzle-dazzle reverse kickoff to Tommie Campbell for a TD. The problem seems to be that the offense yings and yangs too much, with the run game and passing game seldom clicking on the same day. That was the case Sunday when Chris Johnson shined (we'll stop short of saying he's fully back yet) and Matt Hasselbeck mostly struggled. But with the Texans suffering yet another key injury, you can't count this Titans team out, not at 6-5 and not with three very winnable games left on the schedule against the Bills, Jaguars and Colts.

 

Top five, bottom five

My top five and bottom five NFL power-ranking votes this week:

1. Green Bay: Three of the final four games are at Lambeau Field, where the Packers have won 10 straight and are 16-1 since the end of the 2009 season.

2. San Francisco: The "HarBowl" in the rearview mirror, the Niners now can focus on getting the offense back on track next week against the Rams.

3. Pittsburgh: Dominated the game against the Chiefs in every category but the scoreboard. Can't read too much into it past that, though.

4. New Orleans: Zach Strief quietly has done a nice job since entering the starting lineup.

5. Baltimore: No way to overstate the importance of the job Jameel McClain and Albert McClellan have done in replacing Ray Lewis. Two undrafted free agents replacing a Hall of Famer. Unreal.

28. Carolina: Young, growing team ended long road losing streak but still has lots to improve upon.

29. Jacksonville: Have themselves a tricky situation with Blaine Gabbert struggling, but they pretty much had to pull him against the Texans.

30. Minnesota: Percy Harvin did his best to carry the team on his back.

31. St. Louis: Becoming harder to picture Steve Spagnuolo surviving this season if improvements don't come very quickly.

32. Indianapolis: Blame game should continue. Path to 0-16 never looked clearer.

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