Some need to get in gear before wheels come off

At season's midpoint, contenders must address problems now or miss out

NFL Week 9 in review

November 04, 2003|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

No weakness goes unnoticed in the NFL, no flaw untested. At the halfway point of the season, all teams have issues, but several playoff contenders are conspicuously vulnerable.

For all their offensive might, the Minnesota Vikings are beginning to resemble a sieve on defense. Sunday night's 30-27 loss to the Green Bay Packers, in which both teams raced up and down the field at will, was a prime example.

Despite the presence of the NFL's defending rush champion, the Miami Dolphins' offense in general and Ricky Williams in particular have hit the skids. In his past five games, Williams is barely averaging 3 yards a carry, and in Sunday's 23-17 loss to the Indianapolis Colts he carried only 13 times.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the Vikings have dropped two straight games and the Dolphins have lost two of their past three.

As November dawns, these problems will become exacerbated unless corrected. A 6-2 start, as in the case of the Vikings, doesn't guarantee a spot in the playoffs, as the Denver Broncos, San Diego Chargers and New Orleans Saints all discovered last season.

December's stretch run beckons, but for now, let's look at five contenders facing serious issues in the second half.

Carolina Panthers

Critical flaw: Passing game. Quarterback Jake Delhomme hasn't played poorly, but he should be able to generate more big plays in the passing game because of the presence of running back Stephen Davis.

Implications: In the one game the Panthers couldn't run, they got pounded by Tennessee. Once Carolina falls behind, it's in trouble. Rodney Peete is the only alternative to Delhomme, and that's not the direction the Panthers want to go. They have to hope Delhomme finds a rhythm and Davis doesn't break down.

Green Bay

Critical flaw: Pass defense, lack of pressure on the quarterback. The Packers' secondary has been torched, giving up four 100-yard games to individual wide receivers. In addition, they've held only one quarterback under 200 yards passing, and that was in a season-opening loss. They gave up a 400-yard passing game to Kansas City's Trent Green.

Implications: The Packers have lost two of three, but it's not for lack of offense. They've averaged 421 offensive yards in their past three games. In the playoffs last season, they were too beaten up and too slow to handle Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick. They might be headed down a similar path.

Miami

Critical flaw: Offense shutting down. Fans wanted quarterback Brian Griese, and while he has thrown the ball well in two starts, he hasn't liberated Williams. The workhorse running back hasn't been the same since the Giants mugged him in Week 5 (22 carries, 39 yards). Could it be an injury?

Implications: Last week, Williams complained that coordinator Norv Turner wasn't calling enough passes on first down. Throwing on first down didn't help against the Colts, who held Williams to 36 yards rushing. If Williams doesn't run, the Dolphins can't pass.

Minnesota

Critical flaw: Pass defense, overall defense. The Vikings' revamped defense held up well through the first three weeks, but in the past five games, opponents have averaged 406.8 yards. The Vikings allowed 450 yards to the New York Giants and 451 to the Packers the past two weeks.

Implications: Although the Vikings have enough firepower to win any shootout, they are probable losers against a team that can control the ball and the clock. They have overcome the problem for now with 20 takeaways, but they'll need much better defense to survive.

Tampa Bay

Critical flaw: Run defense, fat heads. The Bucs spend a lot of time telling the world how good they are and not as much time proving it. The defending champs still haven't won back-to-back games this season, and at 4-4, they are in jeopardy of missing the playoffs.

Implications: This is not a shutdown defense anymore. They have given up 455 and 458 total yards to Indianapolis and San Francisco this year, and they've surrendered 100-yard running games to three backs. If they have a switch to turn on, they'd better hit it soon because inconsistency will eliminate them.

Best and worst

Highlights and lowlights from Week 9:

Best relief effort: Alex Spanos, Chargers. The Chargers owner on Friday donated $1 million to the fund for victims of the wildfires in Southern California.

Best iron-man performance: QB Brett Favre, Packers. Despite a broken right thumb and a 2-9 record at the Metrodome, Favre didn't beg off the Sunday night game in Minneapolis. He threw for 194 yards and three TDs in a 30-27 win.

Biggest defensive impact: DE Dwight Freeney, Colts. He had three sacks and two forced fumbles in a big win at Miami.

Worst impersonation of a playoff team: Bucs. They committed six turnovers against the Saints and lost their third home game in four tries.

Worst debut as starter: QB Marques Tuiasosopo, Raiders. He fumbled twice and threw an interception before suffering a knee injury that likely will end his season.

Best debut as starter: QB Tim Rattay, 49ers. Filling in for injured Jeff Garcia, Rattay threw for 236 yards and three TDs as the 49ers thumped the Rams.

Most revealing rant: CB Charles Woodson, Raiders. Woodson said last week and reiterated on Sunday that coach Bill Callahan is losing the team because he won't listen to the veteran players.

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