The Notebook: Seeking balance

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

If balancing the run and pass is such a basic premise, why are teams like the Saints and Steelers struggling with it? Retired Buccaneers defensive end Stephen White also tackles the Dallas defensive line and find an almost perfect comparison for Alex Smith in this week's Notebook.

After nine weeks, the Kansas City Chiefs stand alone as the only remaining unbeaten team in the NFL. Who'd have thunk it? I was pretty confident that the Chiefs would be good enough to make the playoffs this year, but I don't think anybody could have predicted they would be this good.

I know what some of you are thinking right now, "Well exactly how good are they?" This Chiefs team may have the most skeptics of any 9-0 team in the history of the game. The primary reason for that skepticism is also one of the primary reasons for their turnaround this season: quarterback Alex Smith. I, too, was quite skeptical for awhile, but the last few weeks I have started to believe in this Chiefs team.

Why you ask?

Because once I really started thinking about it Alex Smith's situation, limitations and all, reminded me of another quarterback who led his team to a Super Bowl appearance.

That quarterback? Steve McNair.

It's at this point that I will direct some of you to reread everything you just read carefully so that I don't get a gazillion comments chastising me for something I did not say. I am not saying Smith = McNair; that's silly talk.

What I am saying is that while Smith may be a game manager as a passer, he has also made teams pay this year with his legs. And that style of short passing game, the occasional shot down the field, and when everything else fails take off for a first down, is exactly the kind of thing the Tennessee Titans did with McNair in 1999.

I am a defensive guy, but I know quite a bit about offensive schemes as well. What shifted my opinion on the matter was a combination of the two -- understanding the Chiefs' scheme and trying to devise a way to stop it. The easy answer is you tighten up the coverage underneath and dare Smith to throw the ball deep down the field. The problem with that approach against Smith, and of course back in the day against McNair, is most of the coverages will also leave you vulnerable to a mobile quarterback who can avoid the rush and then take off and run. The alternative is to play normal, so to speak, and allow the "game manager" to pick you apart with the underneath routes. That puts defensive coordinators in more of a quandary than you might imagine.

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(via)

Statistics don't tell you everything, but if you think this notion is far fetched consider this: in 1999 McNair completed 56 percent of his passes, rushed for 337 yards and threw for 2,179 yards with 12 touchdowns against eight interceptions in 11 games. This year Smith has completed almost 60 percent of his passes, rushed for 265 yards and thrown for 1,919 yards, with nine touchdowns against four interceptions.

All of the stats are somewhat similar, but it was the rushing stats that opened my eyes. After 1998 McNair never rushed for more than 440 yards in any season. Smith is set to eclipse that well before season's end at this rate. And it isn't just that Smith can run for first downs, he is also elusive enough (though not to McNair's level) to avoid the rush and extend the play before he hits his receiver for a completion. On Sunday with 11:10 left in the first half and the Chiefs facing a third-and-4 at the Buffalo Bills' 35 yard line, Smith avoided two blitzers, one of them unblocked, before he threw a strike to Dwayne Bowe for six yards and the first down.

Want more?

In 1999 the Titans' starting running back and top two tight ends caught a total of 142 passes on the season. This year the Chiefs' starting running back and top two tight ends have caught a total of 76 passes.

Let me reiterate: I am not saying Alex Smith is Steve McNair. But I am saying that Smith has a good head coach, a great defense, a very good running game, a short-to-intermediate passing game to work with, and the mobility to make something happen when either the protection breaks down or the opposing defense tries to take away the short routes. All he really has to do is make smart decisions, take care of the ball and take what the defenses give him.

When you really sit and think about it, doesn't that sound familiar?

Alex Smith may be a game manager, but he is one with a good set of wheels. What he can do with his legs (in addition to what he can do with his arm) has made me consider the Chiefs legit Super Bowl contenders this season. There's still a lot of football left to be played, but I no longer expect the Chiefs to "come back down to earth." I expect them to continue churning out wins, and Smith will be a big reason why.

I can say that because we have seen this movie before--even if we hadn't realized it 'til now.

Shotgun Steelers

I know that a lot of the talk about the Steelers this week will be about the 50-burger their defense had shoved down its throat by Tom Brady and the New England Patriots' offense -- as it should be. However, I want to talk about a Steelers offense that looked as if it had a split personality on Sunday.

It looked like the Steelers wanted to reach back into their past and go back to running the ball like the Steelers of old. The problem is they aren't the Steelers of old, and maybe it's time they accepted it and went to more of a shotgun attack like Peyton Manning has in Denver.

It wasn't like the Steelers tried to run every play. But when they weren't running the ball they seemed to be doing gadget plays or going shotgun with five wide receivers, and there didn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to the play calls. Moreover their running game seems to lack diversity, and there is only so much any running back can do when you just keep telling 'em "just run into the line and see what happens."

The first four drives went fumble, punt, interception from their own end zone, and turnover on downs at the Patriots' 32 yard line. By the time they got the ball back for their fifth drive, they were already down 14-0.

The Steelers suddenly go to a no-huddle shotgun spread type of offense. With their quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in full command, they drive down for a field goal.  They then scored a touchdown on their next drive. I'm thinking, hey they might have something cooking now! The second half comes and Roethlisberger and the offense are still on fire. The next two drives end in touchdowns, the second of which ties the score at 24.

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Roethlisberger's 8-yard touchdown pass to Cotchery ties the game at 24-24 in the third quarter (via).

The offense was up and down after that, but they did manage to score another touchdown to put 31 points up on the day. The problem is they spotted the Patriots a lead and after the defense held for awhile, it finally fell apart late in the second half.

The question I have is: what might have happened if the offense we saw from the fifth drive on had been the offense that started the game off for the Steelers?

Don't get me wrong, I love a good running game, probably more than the average cat. That just isn't who the Steelers are anymore. But what they can do is spread you out and pick you apart, and every once in awhile gash you with a run from shotgun as well. To me, that is who they are today, and who they should try to be the rest of the year. It's a new day in Pittsburgh, and it's about time they fully embraced it.

Imbalance

Who in the hell is going to bite on a play-action fake if you haven't shown a willingness to run?


Anybody else think it was odd watching Drew Brees go through a play-action fake so many times on Sunday against the Jets, considering the Saints' tailbacks only carried the ball 10 times combined? I understand the Jets are hard to run the ball against; I don't understand not even trying. Brees throwing 51 times and Pierre Thomas and Mark Ingram only getting six carries and four carries respectively is just too much of an imbalance. It is the exact same kind of imbalance the Saints had early on last year when their head coach Sean Payton was suspended, and they struggled to win any games.

I don't care how great the Saints' skill players are; you have to run the ball to keep defenses, especially good defenses, honest. Who in the hell is going to bite on a play-action fake if you haven't shown a willingness to run the ball? Payton is a certified genius when it comes to offense, but I just don't understand what he was thinking on Sunday.

Remember Ryan Matthews?

Anybody seen Ryan Mathews? Is he on the side of a milk carton?

I'm sure I saw him several times on Sunday running the ball reasonably well for the Chargers against Washington for most of the game. He came up missing at the end of the game, however, when the Chargers got the ball down to the Washington 1-yard line for a first down with 21 seconds to go in the game, down three points and holding two timeouts.

Mathews, who had rushed seven times for 34 yards to that point, wasn't even in the game on first down. Instead the Chargers decided to run Danny Woodhead into the middle of the line for no gain. But hey, they still had another time out and at least two more downs to let Mathews try to run it in to win on the road, right? Right?

Nope.

They decided to try two passes instead. When that failed the Chargers decided to kick the field goal and take their chances in overtime. Yes, with that second timeout still in their back pocket.

I was about ready to call 911 to find out who had kidnapped Mathews from the game!

A few weeks ago I talked about football karma; the Chargers losing after Washington scored a touchdown on the first drive of overtime is yet another prime example of that. I will never understand coaches who make simple things complex, like running the ball in from the one with your best running back.

Brent Grimes' wild ride

- Dolphins corner Brent Grimes had to feel like he was on a crazy roller coaster of fate last Thursday night playing the Bengals. At the beginning of the game, it looked like he was playing on a Slip 'n Slide the way he kept falling down trying to cover Bengals standout wide receiver A.J. Green. He more than made up for that with 7:52 left in the third quarter when he jumped an out route by Marvin Jones, picked off Andy Dalton's pass from his own 4-yard line and took it back for six.

Just when Grimes might have been feeling good about himself, with his team holding a seven-point lead in the fourth quarter, that roller coaster took another big dip. Bengals running back Giovanni Bernard was nice enough to make sure that Grimes would be on the highlights all week not once, but twice. He broke Grimes' tackle at the line of scrimmage, reversed field, juked about five other Bengals, took the party back up field and then, right before he hit paydirt, made Grimes miss him again.

Sometimes you're the hammer, sometimes you're the nail. As Grimes showed on Thursday sometimes you're both.

Anonymous Cowboys

Everette Brown. Drake Nevis, Jarius Wynn, George Selvie. Any of those names sound familiar? If you follow college football you probably remember most of those names, but you may not have any idea where these guys are now. They are Dallas Cowboys. All of them. And they aren't just on the team, they are playing meaningful snaps.

One of the under-the-radar feel-good stories this year is how my former defensive line coach Rod Marinelli has taken so many guys off of the proverbial scrap heap and molded them into the world's biggest band-aid to cover for the many injuries that prominent Cowboys defensive linemen have sustained.

Everette Brown wasn't even in the league last year. Nevis didn't have a job to start the season and was picked up after the first few games. Wynn was released from the Chargers during this season, and Selvie didn't even make it to training camp with the Buccaneers. Collectively, these guys, and others, are covering for injuries to all-world pass rusher Demarcus Ware, Anthony Spencer and back up defensive end Tyrone Crawford. They're also covering for the recent release of former Pro Bowl nose tackle Jay Ratliff.

Not only are they holding down the fort, these guys are playing their tails off. Selvie in particular won a starting job out of training camp, and after posting a total of three sacks in his first three seasons he has already notched six sacks so far this year. That includes a sack that fumble in the end zone against the Vikings on Sunday that the Cowboys recovered for a touchdown. I might also point out that he has two more sacks than all of the defensive ends on the Bucs' roster have ... combined.

Brown was just signed recently and also flashed several times on Sunday, including notching a sack of his own on the Vikings' final drive to help close the win out for the Cowboys.

Anybody can coach a roster of All-Stars; a certified bad-ass takes guys nobody else wanted and turns them into animals. That is what Marinelli is doing yet again in Dallas, and having been one of those scrap heap guys he helped turn around, I expected nothing less.

Trust in Jason

I've been pointing out coaching mistakes at the end of games the last couple of weeks, but this week I wanted to just highlight some decisions made by the Browns at the end of their win over the Ravens because ... hell, I'm not sure whether to applaud them or shake my head.

First off lets get this part straight: the Browns were leading by three points with 3:12 left in the game at the Ravens' 43-yard line. I feel like I had to say that explicitly because I kept checking the scoreboard when I saw that the Browns decided to go for it on fourth-and-1 in that scenario. Its not like the Ravens were beating down their defense or something and if they don't convert, the Ravens would only have to get like two first downs to get into field goal range to tie the game.

So ... I thought it was a curious move to be sure. Then I saw the actual play they ran.

WOOOOOOOO BOOOYYYYY

The Browns decide to go shotgun and then seemingly decided not to block any of the guys rushing quarterback Jason Campbell. Thankfully for them, Campbell wasn't about to sit there and allow himself to become a crash test dummy. He rolled to his right and then ... then ... threw back across his body to Devone Bess.

Yes, the same guy who effectively blew the game for the Browns last week, that guy.

Somehow Bess caught it and and the Browns moved the chains.

Again, remember the Browns are up three and they are now at the Ravens' 40-yard line with about 2:17 left before they have to snap the ball. The Ravens have all their timeouts by the way. Which they proceed to use around the 2 minute warning, of course.

You figure, hey run the ball three times and try to get a first down so you're in field goal range. At the very least you get the Ravens to burn all their timeouts, right?

Not if you're the Browns.

If you're the Browns and Campbell you get in shotgun again on second down with 2:13 left on the clock, you stare down a blitz, and throw a strike to your back out of the backfield who has run a route over the middle to beat man coverage. That play takes you down to the Ravens' 20-yard line, more than close enough for a field goal. Surely now you run it three times and kick it, I mean come on, man.

Second and 13 with two minutes left at the Ravens' 23-yard line with the Ravens still holding onto their last timeout and what do the Browns come out in?

Say it with me folks, SHOTGUUUUUN!

And they weren't bluffing either. Campbell dropped back to pass, couldn't find anybody, then kind of shuffled a pass to his running back again for a dump off that ended up going for, you guessed it, 14 yards. Add on the yardage for a horsecollar penalty on that tackle, and now the Browns have first-and-goal just inside the five with 1:51 left and the Ravens have to use their last timeout after the Browns' first down play.

For the last time, the Browns were UP three this whole time. That they put so much trust in Campbell to make the right decision with the ball three times on that drive when most folks would have taken it out of their journeyman quarterback's hands says a lot about what they think about him, in my opinion.

Week 9 'want it' plays

I saw two monster "want it" plays on Sunday by offensive guys who would not be denied a touchdown. The one everybody has probably seen by now is the Adrian Peterson's, when on fourth-and-inches from the Cowboys 11 with 5:49 left in the fourth quarter and his team down seven points, that cyborg decided to drag damn near the whole Cowboys defense into the end zone with him after being met squarely at the 5-yard line by safety Jeff Heath.

Impressive indeed.

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The one you might have missed was late in the Patriots' win over the Steelers. If there was a play that appeared to "break" the Steelers once and for all it was Legarrette Blount's touchdown with 2:41 left in the game. Blount took the handoff at the 5-yard line, was stopped at the four first by big defensive end Ziggy Hood, and then a host of other Steelers. Just when it appeared they had him stopped, Blount kept squirming ahead and then burst up out of the pile backwards into the end zone.

All that was missing was Blount jumping in Hood's face and screaming, "That's my bike, punk!"

Etc.

- I'm not sure what got into Greg Little Sunday but he finally showed off the ability most of the folks who have been watching him always knew he had. He still had some drops and the dumb taunting penalty but I think the Browns would take anything close to seven catches for 122 yards if they can start getting it on a consistent basis.

- After watching the TV copy of the Eagles' game against the Raiders, lets just say I'm not ready to anoint Nick Foles a Hall of Famer quite yet. Why the Raiders would elect to play so much zone and then not at least blitz to force the ball to come out fast is beyond me. Between the zone coverage and cornerbacks inexplicably falling down while in said coverage, I'm sure Foles felt like Sunday was just an extended session of seven-on-seven.

- So the Bucs allowed the biggest comeback win in Seahawks history on Sunday? You don't say?

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