Defensive Coordinator Monte Kiffin has Derrick Brooks and company looking like one of the league's top defenses again in 2005
*(by Pat Kirwan, NFL.com Senior Analyst)
(Editor's note: For eight years, I have written the Unsung Heroes column during the season to bring attention to the people behind the scenes that help make some of the extraordinary things happen in the NFL on any given weekend. At the end of the year, the Unsung Hero of the Year is presented a trophy made in the name of Chip Myers, a longtime NFL assistant coach and former player who passed away just days after he was elevated to his first coordinator's position with the Minnesota Vikings. Chip was well respected by everyone in the coaching ranks and embodied all the virtues assistant coaches need to be successful. He was humble, a good teacher, a loyal friend and a tireless worker.)*
It's only Week 2 in the NFL season, but injuries have stressed some teams. Other teams have spent tons of money in the offseason on unrestricted free agents and are hoping for results before the owners start asking questions about the new millionaires on their team. There were a few assistant coaches who distinguished themselves last week with these issues or simply got the job done on the field.
I know the head coaches get most of the recognition and most of the blame, which is the way it should be. But the coordinators I picked this week did one heck of a job in getting the game plan together, the players ready to play and to follow through with good decisions during the game.
1. Paul Alexander, assistant head coach/offensive line and Bob Bratkowski, offensive coordinator, Cincinnati Bengals: The Bengals stand at 2-0 and are averaging 32 points and 462 yards per game and may have the most exciting offense in the NFL right now. Bratkowski has been calling the game aggressively and the 70-yard bomb from Carson Palmer to Chad Johnson on the second play of the game was just the start of the fireworks in the Bengals' 37-8 win over the Vikings. Ten different receivers have caught passes in the two games. The offense has generated 52 first downs and it all starts up front.
Alexander's offensive line did not give up a sack to the Vikings and has only given up two so far, which isn't bad when you consider 80 pass plays have been called in the two games. The running game is averaging 4.4 yards a carry and the Bengals now have lots of ways to get after defenses. Last year, the Cincinnati offense ranked 18th, but 2005 has top five written all over it. An excellent start for Bratkowski, Alexander and the rest of the offensive coaching staff.
2. Maurice 'Mo' Carthon, offensive coordinator, Cleveland Browns: Anyone who follows professional football knows the Browns are in a building phase, but that's no excuse for Romeo Crennel and his longtime friend Mo Carthon. Last year, the Browns only won one road game, a meaningless end-of-the-season game in Houston. Cleveland's win at Lambeau Field on Sunday saw the Browns put 26 points on the board, which was better than seven of the eight road games last year. People wondered what Trent Dilfer had left when the Browns signed him, but with Carthon calling the plays it looks like Dilfer has found the fountain of youth. In two games, Dilfer has completed 47 of 75 passes with four touchdowns and just two interceptions. He has not been sacked in 80 pass plays called. He has three explosive plays of 40 yards or more and Carthon has developed a package of plays that keeps opponents guessing. Against the Packers, Carthon had to deal with the fact that Brett Favre and his offense marched down the field and scored first to go up 7-0. Cleveland scored the next four times to gain control of the game. The Browns will have their ups and downs in 2005, but a road victory in Green Bay goes a long way toward building the credibility of their young offensive coordinator.
3. Ron Meeks, defensive coordinator, Indianapolis Colts: Whenever anyone talked Colts football for the past few years, it was always about the offense and Peyton Manning. Why not? Indianapolis was the No. 1 scoring team in the NFL in 2004. The story seems to be that the Colts won't go anywhere in the playoffs if they don't get home-field advantage. My suggestion is take a longer look at the defense Ron Meeks has assembled and you may change your mind.
The Colts defense has given up just 10 points in two games. It has not surrendered a rushing touchdown, has the second-highest sack total in the NFL with nine and has forced four turnovers. The unit is young and aggressive -- the top seven tacklers on the defense average 25 years of age. And because of Meeks and his staff, it is playing with an attitude.
The Colts offense had their hands full two weeks ago in Baltimore and the Jaguars shut them out well into the fourth quarter on Sunday. But the defense kept the team in the game, which I thought I might never write in Manning's playing career. If Meeks can keep up the intensity and the defense holds opponents to under 20 points a game (it is averaging five per game right now), it can snow all it wants in January because the Colts can and will win outside.
4. Monte Kiffin, defensive coordinator, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Kiffin has always been considered one of the finest defensive coaches in all of football. But last year it was rumored that the Bucs didn't have the talent anymore and that they couldn't stop the run. Gone were Warren Sapp, John Lynch and other All-Pros, but so far in 2005 the death of the Bucs defense has been grossly exaggerated. On Sunday, the Bucs moved to 2-0 after everyone had picked them to be a last-place team. All the Bucs defense ever wanted was some points from the offense. If the Bucs had scored 21 points a game, they would have been 10-6 last season.
Kiffin got what he needs inside on the defensive line with a healthy Anthony McFarland and a hungry Chris Hovan -- a Vikings castoff. He has the players who can disrupt blocking schemes.
The wins over Minnesota and Buffalo produced five sacks, three interceptions, no play over 20 yards, allowing just 40 yards rushing and 157 yards passing per game. With the offense generating over 20 points a game behind Cadillac Williams, the Bucs defense might be back -- not that the defense ever left in the first place with Kiffin running the show.
5. Ron Rivera, defensive coordinator, Chicago Bears: The Bears played a great game in the 38-6 victory over the Detroit Lions on Sunday. They scored the most points since 1993. With the young, inexperienced QB Kyle Orton under center, the defense is expected to do more and it came through in a big way. Rivera's group intercepted Joey Harrington five times, returned one for a score, sacked the quarterback two times and basically dominated the Lions.
In two games, the Bears defense has given up just 15 points, credited with five sacks and six interceptions. As Orton and the offense gets better, a little less may be expected from Rivera's defense. But the way the unit plays, don't expect any letdown.