Point 1: Sacks are sexier, but knockdowns and hurries take a toll on a passer as well.
So far this year, no one has been a more consistent pest to quarterbacks than the Colts' Dwight Freeney. With 14.5 knockdowns and 10.5 hurries, his combined total of 25 is the best mark in the NFL after eight weeks.
Freeney is followed by Rams defensive end Leonard Little (13.5 knockdowns, 8 hurries), Eagles defensive end Trent Cole (16.5 knockdowns, 4.5 hurries), linebacker James Harrison of the Steelers (15.5 knockdowns, 5.5 hurries), and Vikings defensive end Ray Edwards (15 knockdowns, 5 hurries).
Only Freeney and Harrison rank in the top five in sacks with eight each. Cole has 6.5 sacks, Little has five, and Edwards is currently sitting at 3.5. But none of them should be overlooked when people talk about players who really know how to put pressure on a quarterback.
Point 2: The New York Giants may be down, but they're definitely not out.
Boley joined the Giants after rolling up huge career tackle numbers in Atlanta.
A. Messerschmidt/Getty Images
I talked to linebacker Michael Boley this week, who's on the verge of returning to the starting lineup after suffering a knee injury earlier this season.
And that's really good news for the Giants, a previously 5-0 team that has lost their last three games, including a 40-17 thrashing by the Eagles last weekend.
Boley, quite simply, is a tackling machine who can provide some immediate help from the weakside linebacker spot. As he's watched the defense struggle over the last few weeks, he's well aware of the problem that New York must overcome.
"We have done good in some areas, but for us, we really need to focus on one area--scoring defense," he said.
And he's right. When you look at the numbers, the Giants defense isn't performing poorly overall. They're third in the league in forcing three-and-out drives, second stingiest in allowing third-down conversions, third in net passing yards allowed and are roughly at the league average in rushing yards allowed.
But they're in the bottom fourth of the league in points allowed.
One factor contributing to that problem is turnovers that create a short field between the defense and the goal line.
"I continue to say that the turnovers are just hurting us terribly and putting us in real bad situations," head coach Tom Coughlin said this week. "It is something that we have not had. We have done a good job of that, and now to be in this situation--in terms of turning it over--just is very, very inconsistent with the type of team that I'm trying to tell you week-in and week-out that we are."
Based on what the former Falcons linebacker has learned about his teammates since joining them as a free agent back in February, Boley is confident that the skid will promptly come to a halt.
"This is a defense that doesn't accept failure," he said. "We've got too many guys on defense who are about to excel, so I see us getting better over the next couple of weeks."
Point 3: Don't overlook the Saints receivers when you heap well-earned praise on quarterback Drew Brees.
If you've been keeping an eye on the New Orleans Saints this year, you've likely noticed the improvement in their wide receivers that's helping make a very dangerous quarterback just outright frightening.
The Saints' pass-catchers are showing some real intelligence in finding soft spots in the defensive schemes of their opponents. And when they can't shake their shadowing defender, they are leaping, contorting their bodies, and simply snatching the ball out of the air.
It's an aggressive type of poise that you don't see very often from a group of receivers.
Marques Colston is moving the chains at a torrid pace for the Saints.
Chris Graythen/Getty Images
So far this season Marques Colston has 36 catches for 551 yards, six touchdowns and is averaging a healthy 15.3 yards per catch. Over 83 percent of his catches are providing the Saints with a new set of downs.
Tight end Jeremy Shockey is finally having the kind of season that the Saints had hoped for after adding him to the offense last year. His 31 catches in seven games is putting him in position to challenge his career-best 74 receptions that he posted during his rookie season. And his three touchdown catches in seven games matches his total during 18 starts over the previous two seasons.
Devery Henderson hasn't caught more than 32 balls in any of his previous five NFL seasons, but he's already snared 23 with nine games to go. And both Lance Moore and Robert Meachem are contributing nicely in reserve roles.
These receivers are collectively making Brees' job a bit easier in 2009--and that's bad news for the rest of the NFL.
Point 4: The biggest threats to break a big run currently play for teams that really need that spark.
When you look at running backs with at least 100 carries this season and their percentage of runs that result in a gain of ten-plus yards, the Panthers' DeAngelo Williams, the Titans' Chris Johnson and the Rams' Steven Jackson are players who can keep defenses on edge.
Williams creates a big play for his team 17.2 percent of the time he carries the ball. Johnson is close behind at 16.8 percent while Jackson is at 15.2 percent. Jackson is arguably the most impressive since he's earned a spot in the top three despite carrying the ball at least 35 more times than the other two backs. The hard-charging Ram has a total of 25 big-play runs after eight games.
Out of the running backs who are just under 100 carries so far, the Giants' Ahmad Bradshaw is the most explosive of the bunch, hitting a big run on 16.9 percent of his 89 carries.
Daniels was Matt Schaub's second-favorite target this year.
Bob Levey/Getty Images
Point 5: The loss of tight end Owen Daniels is really going to impact the Texans' ability to move the chains.
The 6-foot-3, 250-pound receiver is just one of eight receivers in the NFL who has caught 30 or more passes for a first down this year. But an ACL injury has both derailed his brilliant start and ended his season.
Daniels was on track to eclipse his career-best 70 receptions in 2008 by ten catches, with 40 already amassed after just eight starts. And with 519 receiving yards, he was on pace to log his first 1,000-yard season. With five touchdown receptions at the season's midpoint, the fourth-year player had already tied his career-best single-season mark that he set as a rookie in 2006.
To put it bluntly, the loss of Daniels couldn't come at a worse time for the Texans. They trail the AFC South-leading Colts by just two games and will be heading to Indy this weekend for a pivotal contest. And Schaub will be missing a favorite target. He's attempted 58 throws to Daniels this year, second only to his 80 tosses in Andre Johnson's direction.
And in a touch of irony, the Texans will be forced to face the NFL's leader in first-down catches--not just one of the top eight--in Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne, who has already notched 39.
James couldn't get on a roll in Seattle.
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images
Point 6: It looks like Edgerrin James' career may end in the same year as Marvin Harrison's.
Years ago, many referred to the Colts' Peyton Manning, Edgerrin James and Marvin Harrison as "The Triplets" as the Colts offense frequently rolled over opponents and the three talented players matured together in the NFL.
While Manning looks as good as ever, the last time Harrison caught an NFL pass was on January 3, 2009 in a playoff loss to the Chargers. And with James' release this week by the Seattle Seahawks, and subsequently clearing waivers, it appears likely that he may have carried the football for the last time as an NFL running back.
After the Arizona Cardinals released him earlier this year, James didn't find a suitor for some time. But then the Seahawks offered him a contract that, according to an NFL source, included a $1 million salary, a $500,000 signing bonus, and a $500,000 roster bonus that was being paid out on the basis of the number of games that he was on the active game day roster--roughly $31,000 per game.
After James averaged just 2.7 yards per carry on 46 attempts, was stuffed six times and didn't break a run for more than 10 yards this season, Seattle evidently decided they no longer wanted to keep the meter running and rack-up more salary and roster bonus charges.
While I had high hopes that James would go through a re-birth of sorts in Seattle after muddling his way through three seasons in Arizona, it just didn't happen. In fact, once James left the company of "The Triplets" for a huge free agency payday with the Cardinals back in 2006, he never broke the 4.0-yards-per-carry mark again over the course of a season. And he rushed for just 16 touchdowns over the past four years.
If it's the end of the NFL line for the running back from Immokalee, Florida, who the Colts chose with the fourth pick overall back in the 1999 NFL Draft, he can be proud of his accomplishments. He rushed for 12,246 yards over 11 seasons, averaged 4.0 yards per carry and scored 80 rushing touchdowns. He made 433 catches for 3,364 yards and scored 11 more times. And in 135 starts and 148 game appearances, he only lost 24 fumbles.
Point 7: Despite the black cloud the Raiders have been living under this season, there are a few silver linings.
Sure, Tom Cable is under fire due to new allegations of physically abusive behavior. And the Raiders are still wasting a ton of money on quarterback JaMarcus Russell, who has thrown just two touchdowns against nine interceptions this year.
But if you look closely at the Oakland Raiders, there are a couple of players who are managing to stand on top of the rubble of what's left of Al Davis' team, putting up numbers that are noteworthy.
Tyvon Branch has been a standout player in his second NFL season.
Otto Greule, Jr./Getty Images
Tyvon Branch has the lowest burned percentage (31 percent) of any cornerback in the league that has been targeted at least 25 times. And he's second on the team in tackles with 57 takedowns. That's good stuff, especially from a second-year defensive back.
Tight end Zach Miller has caught seven third-and-long receptions of eight-plus yards, putting him in a tie for fourth-place in that clutch category.
Kicker Sebastian Janikowski has successfully converted all 12 of his field goal attempts and all six extra points.
Linebacker Kirk Morrison has made 70 tackles through eight games, giving him a shot at topping his career-high 137 that he posted last year. And defensive end Richard Seymour is on pace to match his career-best eight sacks in a single season.
It may not be much, but during lean times you need to look for the positives where you can find them. And those players obviously aren't letting the team's struggles keep them down.
You can follow Ed Thompson on Twitter. A member of the Pro Football Writers of America, Ed Thompson's player interviews and NFL features are published across the Scout.com network and at FOXSports.com.
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