Throwing more not just a passing fancy

40 or more passes tried by 8 teams, 64 by Raiders

Week 2 in review

Pro Football

September 17, 2002|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

Empty backfields, hurry-up offenses, nonstop passing.

The new NFL?

It's a bold new world out there this season, where the pass is prologue. Everyone, it seems, is throwing the ball more, not just the Washington Redskins' passing wizard, Steve Spurrier.

Oakland quarterback Rich Gannon threw a dizzying 64 passes Sunday night at Pittsburgh. Buffalo's Drew Bledsoe heaved 49 against Minnesota. Even Gus Frerotte of Cincinnati and Trent Dilfer of Seattle, two quarterbacks not known for prodigious passing figures, kept busy with 47 passes apiece.

Altogether, seven quarterbacks and a total of eight teams threw 40 or more passes on Sunday. In Week 1, the numbers were six quarterbacks and seven teams. Tampa Bay's Brad Johnson led the parade that week with 52 throws.

It's a feeding frenzy that has its roots in the classic chess match of offense vs. defense. A lot of teams are going to the spread formation - and empty backfield - to neutralize the prevalent blitzing schemes on defense. Some teams are going to the no-huddle to limit defensive substitution in this age of specialization; it creates more favorable matchups in the passing game.

And then some teams, like the St. Louis Rams, are quicker to give up on the running game, whether they've been stopped or not. Sometimes, it's just a choice.

Here's something else to remember: Of the eight teams that threw 40-plus passes on Sunday, only two won - the Raiders and Bills, with Gannon and Bledsoe.

So it's not for everybody. Teams that are behind always throw more passes and usually lose. But when it works, it really works.

Take Oakland's 30-17 victory in Pittsburgh on Sunday night. Gannon threw passes on the Raiders' first 10 plays, 17 of their first 18, and 42 of 47 in the first half. The Raiders threw 20 consecutive passes at one point. That was five shy of the 25 consecutive throws by the New England Patriots' Tom Brady in Week 1 against these same Steelers.

Obviously, there's a connection. It lies with the Steelers' zone-blitz schemes.

Raiders coach Bill Callahan said afterward that he determined the Pittsburgh game plan in the offseason because of the proficiency with which the Steelers play their blitz scheme.

"We thought we could spread them out, open up the eight-man box," Callahan told reporters. "If you do that, you neutralize the blitz."

Gannon took quick drops and threw short to mid-range passes, the standard in the West Coast offense. The Raiders had only three pass plays longer than 20 yards.

In Oakland, it's working. In Week 1, the Raiders rushed for 221 yards against Seattle. That's what Steelers coach Bill Cowher expected - a heavy dose of running backs Tyrone Wheatley and Charlie Garner. Instead, he got his secondary picked apart for the second straight week. He can expect more of the same until the Steelers rectify the problem.

Meanwhile, the Raiders have 887 yards in total offense and 61 points after two weeks.

The Patriots, another team that endorses the spread and no-huddle, has 775 yards and 74 points through two weeks.

It's conceivable these two teams will play in the AFC championship game. If they do, it should be quite a passing show, even in the snow.

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