Ed Reed once again proves the value of playmaking safeties

Ed ReedWhen Ed Reed intercepted five passes and made 85 total tackles as a rookie for the Baltimore Ravens in 2002, he changed the way NFL teams view safeties in terms of the draft. He was a true playmaker that could not only blanket the field in coverage, but also erase potential mistakes and be a force against the run.

Since then, more safeties like the Colts’ Bob Sanders, the Steelers’ Troy Polamalu and the Redskins’ LaRon Landry have been taken in the first two rounds of the NFL draft (or in the cases of Polamalu and Landry, the top 20 of the NFL draft), because teams have come to realize just how much of an impact safeties could have in the right defensive scheme.

In the Ravens’ 27-9 playoff victory over the Miami Dolphins on Sunday, Reed once again demonstrated what a dynamic playmaker at the safety position could do for a defense. He intercepted Chad Pennington twice, one of which he returned 64-yards for a touchdown, and helped blanket Miami receivers for four quarters.

It’s only fair to note that Reed’s first interception was a poorly under thrown pass by Pennington, but the touchdown return essentially turned the momentum of the game in the Ravens’ favor. And Reed’s second interception in the second half (in which he jumped an underneath route in the red zone), put a dagger in the Dolphins’ comeback hopes. He changed the momentum of the game with just two plays and he’s a huge reason why Baltimore now has a date with No. 1-seeded Tennessee next weekend in the Divisional Round.

While establishing solid offensive and defensive lines and having a quality quarterback still remain the focal points for teams, enlisting a playmaker at safety should continue to be a top priority for playoff contending teams. Unfortunately getting their hands on one isn’t as easy as picking up toilet paper at the local grocery store, but it seems that the teams that have top safeties are the ones often making the playoffs on a consistent basis.

The Ravens-Titans game next weekend will feature two of the better safeties in the NFL with Reed matching wits with youngster Michael Griffin. Both teams played outstanding defensively this year and with the way the Ravens handled veteran Chad Pennington on Sunday, it’ll be interesting to see how Kerry Collins fares next weekend. What a great defensive battle that game will be.

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Turnovers, costly mistakes doom Dolphins

Chad PenningtonThe Miami Dolphins’ blue print for success in 2008 was rather simple when you think about it: Play good defense, keep opposing teams off-balance and don’t turn the ball over. Those three facets helped the Fins go from 1-15 to 11-5 in just one offseason and propelled them to their first playoff appearance since 2001.

The last time the Dolphins were in the playoffs, they were stifled by a Baltimore Ravens team that held them to only three points in a 20-3 loss in the Wild Card round. Déjà vu struck for the Dolphins again on Sunday, as the Ravens’ defense once again played a huge role in shutting Miami down in their 27-9 Wild Card victory.

The Dolphins did just two of the three things that helped get them to the postseason. They limited the Ravens to just 286 total yards, but five turnovers and one costly mistake by second-year receiver Ted Ginn Jr. doomed them over the course of the game.

Chad Pennington was at the center of Miami’s turnover parade, tossing four interceptions – one of which was returned for a 64-yard touchdown by Baltimore safety Ed Reed. It looked as if Pennington was trying to erase the perception that he lacks arm strength by throwing the ball down field and forcing passes into coverage. His fourth and final interception came in the red zone while the game was still somewhat close at 20-3 late in the third quarter. Patrick Cobbs also fumbled early in the second half, which led to an 8-yard Le’Ron McLain touchdown, while Ginn fumbled the hand off on an end-around and while he eventually recovered the mistake, it eventually killed a potential scoring drive midway through the fourth quarter.

This was a frustrating loss for the Dolphins because they played so out of character. It’s hard enough to beat the Ravens, let alone beat them when you turn the ball over five times. One bad loss doesn’t erase what a great season Pennington or the Dolphins had, but this was a game that highlighted the team’s need for more playmakers on offense. Ginn, Ronnie Brown and Davone Bess can make plays in the open field, but the Dolphins will need to keep adding more pieces to their offense before they can move any further.

Still, what an amazing ride for Miami. Nobody expected this team to be in the playoffs this year and it’ll be interesting to see what they do in the offseason in efforts to keep improving. It’ll also be interesting to see whether or not Bill Parcells stays with the team, or returns to the sidelines like rumor has it.

Falcons outplayed and out coached in playoff loss to Cardinals

Michael TurnerIn my recap of the Cardinals’ 30-24 playoff win over the Falcons on Saturday, I wrote that Arizona played their best game of the season. If that’s the case, then the Falcons played their worst.

Atlanta turned the ball over three times (leading to 14 points), committed six penalties and had their game plan shoved directly up their asses. They clearly didn’t have a plan for what would happen if Michael Turner got shut down (which is exactly what happened) and it was absolutely inexcusable for the coaching staff to use Jerious Norwood as little as they did.

The three times Norwood touched the ball, he gained 12 yards on 2 carries and caught a huge 28 yard pass that kept the game alive in the fourth quarter. Every time he was on the field he did something positive, yet Mike Smith kept him tucked away on the sidelines like they were saving him for next week. It was ludicrous why Norwood wasn’t more involved in the offense, especially since Turner was so ineffective. I realize you have to feed the horse that got you there, but clearly the Cardinals were executing their game plan to stop Turner to perfection, so Atlanta should have adjusted.

This loss can’t solely be pinned on the coaches though, because the Falcon players were brutal, too. For the first time all season, Turner tiptoed around defenders instead of bowling them over, while Matt Ryan’s two interceptions were out of desperation in trying to force the action. Not that you can fully blame Turner and Ryan though, because Atlanta’s offensive line was absolutely abused by the Cardinals’ defensive front the entire game. They acted like a revolving door to the Falcons’ backfield and really, Ryan was the only reason the game was close in the end because he led the Falcons on a couple of nice drives.

Defensively, the Falcons didn’t play that bad. But where was John Abraham? I know he wasn’t 100%, but 90-year old Mike Gandy made him invisible. And how bad did veterans Keith Brooking and Lawyer Milloy (I know he wasn’t 100% either) look? Milloy took a horrible angle on a 71-yard Anquan Boldin touchdown in the second quarter, while Brooking dropped an easy interception and simply blew his assignment on the most crucial play of the game when Kurt Warner found tight end Stephen Spach for a 23-yard first down conversion that allowed Arizona to run out the remainder of the clock. The Falcons’ three top defensive players were non-existent and the team has a huge decision to make on whether or not Brooking and/or Milloy will be back next year, despite the outstanding leadership that they proved such a young defense with the entire season.

But regardless of the way the season ended, this was a great season for the Falcons. Nobody expected them to be playing in the playoffs at the start of the year and if Matt Ryan continues to develop, we’ll be seeing him in more playoff games in the near future. They have a solid offensive core in Ryan, Turner and Roddy White, a great young coach in Mike Smith, and a couple of young, emerging defensive players like middle linebacker Curtis Lofton, Jonathan Babineaux and Chris Houston (if he can ever put it all together). In the offseason, GM Thomas Dimitroff will hopefully focus on the defensive side of the ball (they lack major depth at corner, could use a playmaker at safety and might need two new outside linebackers) and get Ryan a big receiving target at tight end.

It was a great season for the Falcons and they truly have something great brewing in Atlanta. It was just a bad ending to such a fun ride.

To read the Cardinals’ recap, click here.

Cardinals use big plays to beat Falcons in Wild Card win

Ken WhisenhuntThe big question entering the Arizona-Atlanta Wild Card matchup Saturday is what Cardinals team would show up at kickoff – the one that breezed to an 8-5 record, or the one that collapsed over a team game stretch in the final month of the regular season.

That question was answered quickly, as Kurt Warner hit Larry Fitzgerald on a 42-yard flee-flicker touchdown on Arizona’s second possession of the game, as the Cardinals beat the Falcons 30-24 in Glendale.

The keys to Arizona’s victory are pretty easy to spot. The Cards absolutely dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, didn’t make nearly as many mistakes as the Falcons did, and finally got a contribution from their running game.

The Cardinals essentially had two good offensive drive this entire game. They had a 14-play, 76-yard, 7:43-minute drive near the end of the third quarter that was capped off by a Tim Hightower 4-yard touchdown to give Arizona a 28-17 lead, and they had a great drive at the end of the fourth quarter to milk the clock and put the game away. That’s it. Their other touchdowns came from big plays, including 27-yard fumble recovery by Antrel Rolle, which was returned for a touchdown at the start of the second half.

Arizona spent the rest of the time shutting down Michael Turner, creating massive pressure on rookie Matt Ryan, and opening up enough running lanes for Hightower and Edgerrin James to keep the offense balanced. The Cards played with more fire for four quarters and essentially dominated the game on both sides of the ball. This was easily their best showing of the year and the win was a nice treat for a fan base that hasn’t seen a lot of winning from this franchise over the past 61 years.

It was also great to see such a standup guy in Kurt Warner play great. His lone mistake wasn’t his fault, as the receiver let the ball bounce off his shoulder pads and was intercepted. Warner made some incredible throws and kept the Cards moving all day.

Now the true test. Can this team go on the road and win in Carolina or New York? They haven’t all season and it’s highly doubtful the Panthers or Giants play as bad next week as the Falcons did Saturday. Whatever – the Cards (and their fans) can enjoy the feeling for a couple days before worrying about the next round.

To read the Falcons’ recap, click here.

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