Defenses taking air out of NFL passers

Scoring, total offense down across the league, prompting QB carousel

October 18, 2003|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

Donovan McNabb, a three-time Pro Bowl quarterback, is under fire in Philadelphia for his complicity in the Eagles' 2-3 start.

Jay Fiedler, who has a .702 winning percentage through 47 regular-season starts in the NFL, hears the wolves at his Miami door, despite the Dolphins' 4-1 start.

In Chicago and Atlanta this week, Kordell Stewart and Doug Johnson already lost their starting jobs, a byproduct of too few wins and too many mistakes.

It's business as usual in the NFL, with one curious twist. A season after quarterbacks threw for prodigious totals and teams scored at prolific rates, passing and scoring through six weeks of this season are down from the same point last year.

So is rushing, but not by as big a margin.

This year, defense has answered the rise of spread offense and empty backfields with more cover-2, two-deep zones to take away big plays. The result represents a swing back to normality for the defense.

Six-week averages show that total offense is down 14 yards per team this year, and passing accounts for 10.8 of those yards. A year ago at this point, quarterbacks enjoyed 35 300-yard passing games. This year, the total is 23.

More symptomatic of the subtle swing back to defense is scoring. Teams are averaging 26.7 fewer points this year and 3.7 fewer touchdowns - not insignificant drop-offs.

Obviously, the Ravens aren't the only team having problems in the passing game.

Even some teams that were successful passing a year ago have hit hard times. The Oakland Raiders have fallen from AFC champions to AFC also-rans, and quarterback Rich Gannon from league Most Valuable Player to the 10th-rated passer in the AFC.

In Pittsburgh, quarterback Tommy Maddox threw 20 touchdowns last season when the Steelers abandoned their traditional power running game in favor of the spread offense. This year, Maddox has thrown eight interceptions, and the Steelers are languishing at 2-4.

San Francisco quarterback Jeff Garcia has been under scrutiny from within his team and outside it. With the 49ers struggling, Garcia is the NFC's 10th-rated passer with seven interceptions.

Still another example is the New Orleans Saints. Although quarterback Aaron Brooks' numbers are OK, the team's big-play production has dropped off the table. After six games last year, the Saints had eight plays of 40-plus yards. This year, they have one.

Nowhere is the problem more pronounced than in Philadelphia, however. The worst slump of McNabb's five-year career has sent the Eagles spiraling to 29th in pass offense, down from 19th a year ago.

Worse yet, a team that reached the NFC championship game the past two years is suddenly in playoff jeopardy going into tomorrow's game against the New York Giants in the Meadowlands.

Despite several media and fan pleas to bench McNabb, Eagles coach Andy Reid hasn't wavered on his quarterback. Reid continues to insist that McNabb "is going to be fine."

"It's not about one guy," Reid said in a news conference this week. "I think when you talk to the players you understand that everybody has a piece of the pie."

Indeed, Eagles receivers have been guilty of their share of drops, and the team's pass protection has been spotty at best. But McNabb has also played horribly.

He has completed 49.1 percent of his passes, worst among NFL starters. He ranks 15th - and last - in NFC passer efficiency with a rating of 54.2. And he hasn't thrown a touchdown pass to a wide receiver yet.

Last week, McNabb acknowledged he's been playing with a badly bruised right thumb since a Week 4 injury in Buffalo. In a conference call with New York reporters, he addressed his personal five-game slide.

"It is a mix of everything," he said. "People game-plan obviously to try to stop the things that we do - and yes, the whole accuracy thing stands out, but just as a unit, we haven't been able to put things together like we did early on last year."

In Miami, the Dolphins are winning and Fiedler is still taking heat for the inability to produce a downfield passing game. His passer efficiency rating of 74.2 ranks 12th in the AFC, and the Dolphins rank 28th overall in pass offense.

Presented with the option of healthy backup quarterback Brian Griese, coach Dave Wannstedt emphasized this week that he wouldn't bench his starter in response to the perceived shortcomings of the offense.

Fiedler, meanwhile, said the offense is playing with confidence nonetheless.

"We're going out there, and even though we haven't made a few plays that we'd like to, we're still making the plays that we have to make," he said. "When it comes to crunch time and we need the play, we're going out there and getting it done."

Neither Johnson nor Stewart was getting it done, so both will take a back seat this week.

Johnson, who has thrown an NFL-high 10 interceptions, was replaced by second-year quarterback Kurt Kittner for the Falcons.

Stewart, who completed just 52.1 percent of his passes with the Bears, has been supplanted by veteran Chris Chandler.

The Bears actually announced Stewart's demotion as an injury change. After 18 sacks and 42 rushes, Stewart has a sore left leg.

But coach Dick Jauron declined to say whether Stewart would have started tomorrow in Seattle if he were healthy.

Year of the `D'

Through six weeks of the season, offensive numbers are down from the same point last season. Statistics are NFL averages per team.

Category 2002 2003 Net diff.

Points 142.8 116.1 -26.7

Touchdowns 16.5 12.8 -3.7

Total yards 332.8 318.8 -14

Pass. yards 218.7 207.9 -10.8

Rush. yards 114.1 110.9 -3.2

TD passes 9.1 7.0 -2.1

300-yard

pass games 35 23 -12

100-yard

rush games 50 38 -12

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