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NFL Quick-Hits: 10 Observations from Week 3

1. No sense debating the Lions’ fourth down gaff – it wasn’t supposed to happen.
One of the hot topics around your water cooler this morning will be the Lions’ decision to go for it on fourth-and-1 in overtime instead of attempting a game-tying field goal from the Titans’ 7-yard line. But there’s no sense debating the decision because the play was never supposed to happen. Following the game coach Jim Schwartz said that Detroit was trying to draw Tennessee offsides. Whether or not the Lions would have still gone for it had the offsides attempt not worked is unknown, but the most controversial play of the day wasn’t controversial at all. Shaun Hill (who came into the game after Matthew Stafford suffered a leg injury) and the Lions just blew the task at hand. The bigger worry for Schwartz should be the fact that his team has yet to play well. The Lions arguably should have lost Week 1 to the Rams, were dominated by the 49ers in Week 2, and allowed 44 points to a Titans team that had been outscored 72-23 coming into Sunday’s action. For a team coming off a postseason berth a year ago, the Lions look every bit a sub-.500 team.

(For what it’s worth, I thought the Lions should have gone for it on fourth down in that situation. Their defense and special teams were brutal all afternoon and they were playing on the road. But you don’t put the ball in the hands of Hill with the day Mikel Leshoure was having.)

2. So far the NFL’s gamble hasn’t paid off.
One of the biggest reasons why Roger Goodell and the NFL hasn’t given in to the demands of the locked out officials is because the league assumed that the replacements would get better each week. But just six nights after the replacement officials contributed to a first quarter between the Broncos and Falcons that took over an hour to complete on “Monday Night Football,” this was the scene on Sunday night: Baltimore’s Ladarius Webb throwing his helmet in disgust, New England’s Vince Wilfork screaming at an official in the end zone following Justin Tucker’s game-winning field goal, and Bill Belichick angrily chasing down line judge Esteban Garza and yanking his arm as he tried to run off the field. Following the game, you had linebacker Brandon Spikes tweeting, “Can someone please tell these f****** zebras foot locker called and they’re needed Back at work !!!!” It wasn’t just the Baltimore-New England game either. The Detroit-Tennessee contest was a mess as well, as the replacement officials gave the Titans an extra 12 yards following a penalty in overtime (which eventually led to the game-winning field goal). Is this the vision that Goodell has for his league? The fans, which allow the NFL to be the most popular game in America, deserve better than this. It’s not like the regular officials don’t blow calls, make mistakes, or factor into wins and losses. But the NFL has become a punch line because of these replacements.

3. The jury is still out on the Cardinals, but not their defense.
Are the Cardinals for real? Even after they crushed the Eagles 27-6 on Sunday, skepticism remains. They’re essentially two plays away from being 1-2 instead of 3-0, so let’s wait a few weeks before we assume we misjudged Ken Whisenhunt’s team in preseason. But one thing’s for sure: The Cardinals’ defense is for real. Players were confused and often caught out of position when Ray Horton took over as defensive coordinator last season. He runs the same defensive scheme that Dick LeBeau uses in Pittsburgh, which means every player has a specific role that must be executed or the entire defense may struggle. But in Year 2 of Horton’s scheme, his defenders have a firm grasp on what their responsibilities are and at least three through weeks they’re thriving in their roles. They held Michael Vick to just 217 yards passing, sacked him five times and forced three fumbles on the day. Daryl Washington is becoming a star, Patrick Peterson is on the fast track when it comes to his development, and Calais Campbell, Darnell Dockett and Kerry Rhodes are steady veterans. The offense remains a huge concern thanks to one of the worst offensive lines in football, but Horton’s defense is going to keep Arizona in most games going forward.

4. The Vikings’ upset of the 49ers was easier to spot than you think.
The biggest shock of Week 3 came in Minnesota where the Vikings upset the 49ers, 24-13. The Vikings, who barely got by the Jaguars at home in Week 1 and who were beaten by rookie quarterback Andrew Luck in Week 2, were 7-point home underdogs against a San Francisco team that was regarded as the class of the NFC – if not the entire NFL. But the 49ers were also coming off wins against the Packers and Lions and were due for a letdown. Their offense is also very methodical and lacks explosion, so once they get behind by a couple of scores they’re not prone to stage comebacks. Now, did I see Christian Ponder completing 21-of-35 passes for 198 yards with three total touchdowns (two passing, one rushing)? No. But his ability to scramble proved to be a major weapon against a stingy San Francisco defense, which couldn’t limit the big play. Throw in the fact that Minnesota won the turnover and time of possession battle and it all adds up to one of the bigger upsets of the year thus far.

5. The Texans and Falcons look like the class of each conference.
With all due respect to the 3-0 Cardinals, the Texans and Falcons look like the class of the AFC and NFC through the first three weeks of the season. Houston has outscored opponents 88-42 and its first trip out West proved to be a successful one, as the Texans beat Peyton Manning and the Broncos 31-25 on Sunday. The Falcons, meanwhile, are 2-0 on the road and had no trouble with previously unbeaten San Diego despite coming off a short week of rest and preparation following their Monday night win over Denver. No quarterback has been more efficient than Matt Ryan through the first three weeks of the season and Mike Nolan has transformed Atlanta’s defense into a top 10 unit. One other thing the Falcons have done well is blend Mike Smith’s philosophy on ball control and Dirk Koetter’s desire to throw the ball vertical. Atlanta’s offense is still very methodical but the difference now is that the scheme is built around Ryan and the no-huddle, compared to Michael Turner and the ground-and-pound philosophy that Mike Mularkey implemented the past four years. Both Atlanta and Houston play keep-away better than any team in the league, with the only difference being that the Texans have a legit running game to compliment their passing attack. Both defenses are also built to confuse opposing quarterbacks and force turnovers, which the Falcons and Texans have been able to do thus far.

6. The Ravens come up huge.
The Ravens exacted a small measure of revenge last night on the Patriots, who beat Baltimore in the AFC title game just a few months ago. The replacement officials marred an otherwise terrific night for the heavy-hearted Torrey Smith, who played less than 24 hours after the death of his younger brother. He caught six passes for 127 yards and a pair of touchdowns, including a beautiful 25-yard grab in the second quarter. Joe Flacco also impressed one week after struggling against the Eagles, as he completed 28-of-39 passes for 382 yards and three touchdowns. The win was huge on a couple of different levels for Baltimore. First and foremost, the Steelers lost to the Raiders earlier in the day so the Ravens and Bengals are now tied atop the division at 2-1. The victory also guaranteed Baltimore a leg up against New England when it comes to tiebreakers at the end of the year. Even though they’re 1-2, Bill Belichick’s Patriots will bounce back and be in the playoff mix at the end of the year. So it’s huge for the Ravens to have a head-to-head win over a team that they always seem to meet in the postseason.

7. There’s a good chance the Saints will head into their bye week winless.
I guess we all should have seen this coming. No team could have gone through what the Saints did in the offseason and now suffer any residual affects. Not only was New Orleans marred in the bounty scandal, but don’t forget that Drew Brees missed significant offseason time while battling with the front office over his contract. In losing Sean Payton the Saints not only lost their head coach but their playcaller as well. Talk all you want about Pete Carmichael being a reliable fill-in but through three weeks the Saints’ offense has yet to develop consistency. The biggest problem, of course, might be on the defensive side of the ball as Steve Spagnuolo’s scheme has yet to sink in. In their 27-24 victory on Sunday, Kansas City was able to play keep-away with Jamaal Charles, who rushed for over 200 yards on the maligned New Orleans defense. Through three weeks Spagnuolo’s unit has allowed 40 points to Washington, 35 to Carolina and 27 to Kansas City. And with Green Bay and San Diego coming up, there’s a very realistic chance that the Saints will be 0-5 heading into their Week 6 bye.

8. The Steelers’ defense is getting exposed.
We’ve reached a point when it’s no longer surprising that Pittsburgh’s defense allows a 100-yard rusher, isn’t able to generate pressure, and allows big plays when one of Dick LeBeau’s zone blitzes backfires. The problem is that James Harrison and Troy Polamalu can’t stay healthy. The bigger problem is that the Steelers haven’t drafted well on that side of the ball in a long time. Younger players have failed to step up and there’s no new wave of brilliant Pittsburgh defenders coming down what used to be an endless pipe of production. The unit is old, tired and now, underperforming. The Steelers’ defense used to dictate games and now opposing quarterbacks are outsmarting them, even aging signal callers like Peyton Manning and Carson Palmer. If you’re expecting the Steelers’ defense to all of a sudden flip the switch and go back to being the dominate force that it’s been for over a decade, you might be waiting awhile. Re-enforcements are not on their way.

9. The Jets are in trouble.
A team source told Jason Cole of Yahoo Sports! that Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis “probably” has a torn left ACL. If “probably” turns into “confirmed,” New York is in major trouble. Revis means everything to Rex Ryan’s defense, so much so that the Jets’ entire season could be lost without him locking down one side of the field. Mark Sanchez completed 21-of-45 passes for 306 yards with one touchdown but his numbers are misleading. Against Miami’s weak pass defense, Sanchez routinely missed open receivers, struggled under pressure and threw two interceptions. If Revis is indeed lost for the season, the Jets will quickly find out what they have in Sanchez, who doesn’t handle pressure very well (on or off the field). It could wind up being a long year in New York.

10. Cowboys once again disappoint.
They may have earned a hard-fought victory but the Cowboys didn’t exactly send fear into the hearts of the NFC elite with their 16-10 win over the Bucs on Sunday. Dallas only racked up 297 yards of total offense, which featured six false start penalties and a couple of Jason Witten drops (including one would-be touchdown). Credit Tampa Bay’s defense for coming to play but 2.1 yards per carry out of DeMarco Murray isn’t going to cut it either. Through three weeks the Cowboys have one impressive performance (the opening win against the Giants), one dud performance (the Week 2 loss at Seattle) and one blasé performance (Sunday vs. the Bucs). We’ll find out a lot about Jerry Jones’ team when it hosts Chicago next week before visiting Baltimore following a bye in Week 6.

Follow the Scores Report editors on Twitter @TheScoresReport. You can also follow TSR editor Gerardo Orlando @clevelandteams and @bullzeyedotcom, and you can follow TSR editor Anthony Stalter @AnthonyStalter.

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2012 NFL Free Agency: Breaking down the Quarterbacks

Green Bay Packers quarterback Matt Flynn takes a moment in between plays during the second half of their NFL football game against the Detroit Lions in Green Bay, Wisconsin January 1, 2012. REUTERS/Darren Hauck (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

Free agency in the NFL begins on March 13 and leading up to that date I’ll go position by position while highlighting the best players, best bargains, as well as the riskiest investments. Let’s start with the quarterbacks.

Best in Class: Drew Brees, Saints
While his agent Tom Condon is “baffled” by how slowly long-term contract negations have been going with the Saints, Brees is highly unlikely to land outside of New Orleans this offseason. In addition to breaking Dan Marino’s single-season passing record with 5,476 yards, Brees also set league records for completions (468) and completion percentage (71.2 percent) in 2011. If he were to hit the free agent market, there would be a mad scramble of teams willing to break the bank for his services. But again, all indications are that he’ll wind up back in New Orleans, ready to terrorize NFL defenses again in 2012.

The Biggest Risk: Matt Flynn, Packers
Flynn completed 31 of his 41 pass attempts for 480 yards with six touchdowns in just one start last season versus the Lions, which understandably turned some heads. But was his performance a product of the offense that he was running or is Flynn a bona fide starter that deserves a chance to shine? Everyone looks good driving a Cadillac but 480 yards and six touchdowns is 480 yards and six touchdowns. Quarterbacks don’t put up those kinds of numbers by accident, I don’t care what defense they were playing against. The Dolphins seemingly make the most sense to sign Flynn because they hired former Green Bay offensive coordinator Joe Philbin as head coach. But with Mike Sherman now the OC in Miami, the Dolphins could lean towards prospect Ryan Tannehill instead. (Tannehill was Sherman’s quarterback at Texas A&M the past few years.) Either way, there are plenty of quarterback-starved teams that could be interested in Flynn’s skill set. Which team will take the risk is the question.

The Best Value: Jason Campbell, Raiders
Given the ransom that former head coach Hue Jackson parted with in order to acquire Carson Palmer from Cincinnati last year, it’s highly likely that Campbell will be searching for his third home in the last three years. But at 30 he still has plenty left in the tank. A broken collarbone limited him to just six games last season but he had resumed throwing again back in December and will be completely healthy by the time OTAs start. While he’s never been a quarterback that can win on his own, surround Campbell with enough talent and he’s more than capable of getting the job done. At 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds, he’s got great size and has always thrown a nice deep ball. He was also on his way to having one of his best seasons in the pros before he was injured last season. The biggest question is whether or not he can stay healthy moving forward because if he can, he’s proven that he can be productive in the right environment.

The Rest…
David Garrard would be worth a look as a backup and Kyle Orton fits the same mold as Campbell in that if a team surrounds him with enough talent, he can be productive. I wouldn’t touch Chad Henne with a 10-foot pole but he’s available, as is Detroit backup Shaun Hill, who like Henne does have starting experience. Vince Young is perhaps the biggest wildcard on the market but if no team wanted him as a starter last year, he’ll find it tough sledding again this offseason. While he’s likely to wind up back in San Francisco with a new deal, Alex Smith is a free agent as well.

Matthew Stafford to avoid surgery?

DETROIT - SEPTEMBER 02: Matthew Stafford  of the Detroit Lions talks with offensive coordinator Scott Linehan during the preseason game against the Buffalo Bills at Ford Field on September 2, 2010 in Detroit, Michigan. The Lions defeated the Bills 28-23. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

Following a controversial 19-14 loss to the Bears on Sunday, the Lions feared that starting quarterback Matthew Stafford may have to miss up to six weeks following a shoulder injury that he suffered in the first half. But according to beat writer Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press, Stafford will not need surgery.

If Stafford can avoid surgery, he’ll likely be able to return at some point this season. But that doesn’t help the Lions’ present situation, as Shaun Hill now becomes the starter for the immediate future.

Hill completed 9-of-19 passes for 88 yards and an interception after replacing Stafford yesterday in Chicago and while his numbers would have looked much better had the touchdown to Calvin Johnson counted, the fact remains that his arm strength is a major issue. Jim Schwartz says that he won’t change the offense under Hill, but it may have to eventually because the former Niner has never been successful throwing the ball vertically.

Stafford not having to have surgery is a plus for Lion fans, but having to watch Hill for the next couple of months is unfortunate. Of course, the fan base is used to unfortunate.

Alex Smith gets second life in San Francisco

The 49ers didn’t get a win in Houston on Sunday, but they may have found their new quarterback in a familiar face.

It appears that the stagnant play of Shaun Hill is finally over, as former first overall pick Alex Smith started the second half of the Niners’ 24-21 loss to the Texans in Week 7. Hill was just 6-of-11 passing for 45 yards in the first half and a very Shaun Hill-like 6.1 YPA. Smith came in and immediately sparked San Fran’s offense, marching them down the field and capping the drive off with a 29-yard touchdown pass to tight end Vernon Davis. Smith then found Davis twice in the fourth quarter, including on a 23-yard score that cut the Texans’ lead down to 24-21 with less four minutes remaining.

The 49ers want to be a team that dominates opponents on the ground, which is fine. But with Hill, they couldn’t move the ball vertically through the air and teams like the Falcons and Texans took advantage of that the past three weeks. At some point, Mike Singletary and Jimmy Raye had to realize that their offensive approach wasn’t going to work as long as Hill was under center.

Smith might not have won the starting job in preseason, but he took it today. Will he be the key to getting the Niners to the playoffs? Maybe not, but at least he can complete passes further than 6.1 yards. It’s also nice to see that he developed a great connection with Davis, another one of San Fran’s former top 10 picks.

For the Texans, this was a nice win because they haven’t been very consistent this season. They’ve now won back-to-back games for the first time this year and their defense is starting to play better. Matt Schaub (20 for 30, 264 yards, 2 TDs) was excellent once again and tight end Owen Daniels (7 receptions, 123 yards, 1 TD) was damn near unstoppable today.

If Houston can continue to play well defensively, the Texans will make a playoff push in the second half.

Falcons expose Shaun Hill, 49ers

Brady

Up until their 45-10 loss to the Falcons in Week 5, Shaun Hill and the 49ers felt pretty good about how they started their 2009 season. Hill wasn’t setting the stat book on fire, but he kept the chains moving by making smart decisions and taking care of the football.

But on Sunday, Atlanta jumped out to a sizable first half lead and forced Hill to beat them through the air. What proceeded was a nasty performance highlighted by off-the-mark throws and inconsistency. He didn’t get much help from the running game, but he never got into a rhythm passing and his limitations as a quarterback were on full display. He struggled mightily with the intermediate and deep passes today.

That said, the Niners won’t be making a switch any time soon. It’s not like Mike Singletary didn’t know that Hill wasn’t Peyton Manning in preseason and Hill still beat out Alex Smith for the starting job. The bottom line is that San Fran will struggle this season when it can’t run the ball and the defense doesn’t step up.

Speaking of the Niners’ defense, Matt Ryan and Roddy White absolutely took them to school today. Ryan threw for 329 yards and two touchdowns on 22 of 32 passing, while White had his best outing of the year with eight receptions for 210 yards and two touchdowns. White, who had gotten off to a slow start this season, found holes in San Francisco’s defense and as he often is, Ryan was accurate with his throws.

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