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October 7, 2004 Edition > Section:  Sports

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Martin Powering Jets' Fast Start

BY SEAN LAHMAN
October 4, 2004

The Jets are 3-0 for the first time since the 2000 season, and the biggest reason is Curtis Martin. He leads the AFC in rushing and has averaged 142 yards per game -- 25 more than any other player. 
These numbers are in stark contrast to what the slow  starting Martin has done in the early part of the last few seasons. In 2002, Martin only had 54 rushing yards and didn’t score a touchdown in his first three games. After three games last year, he had gained just 133 yards and hadn’t scored. This year, he’s off to his best start ever, with 425 yards and four touchdowns in his first three games.

The improved play of the offensive line is the main reason that Martin is running the ball so well. Playing against a tough Miami front seven, the interior line did a good job of run blocking and driving the defenders off the line of scrimmage. That was best illustrated on Martin’s 1-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, when Kevin Mawae and Pete Kendall exploded through the Dolphins’ line to clear a path to the end zone. 

The line helped Martin top 100 rushing yards for the 50th time in his career, and he moved into 10th place on the NFL’s all-time rushing list with 12,094 yards. He needs just 645 yards to pass Tony Dorsett and become the fifth-leading rusher in pro football history. 

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The unsung hero in the Giants’ 3-1 start has been defensive coordinator Tim Lewis. After a poor showing in the opener, his defense has dominated three straight opponents. That first loss to the Eagles skews the statistical rankings for the season, but over the last three weeks the defensive unit has been one of the best in the league. 

It starts with the pass rush, which has exerted consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks and helped create opportunities for the defensive backs to make plays. Yesterday, the Giants didn’t register a sack, but they forced each of the three Packers quarterbacks into some bad decisions. The defense picked off one Brett Favre pass, and had another interception against Doug Pederson. That gives the Giants seven for the season and an NFL-leading 13 turnovers.
 
The Giants have also become ferocious against the run. They have shut down two of the league’s best running backs, holding Washington’s Clinton Portis to 69 yards two weeks ago and Green Bay’s Ahman Green to 58 yards yesterday.The revamped front seven still has not allowed an opponent to score a rushing touchdown. 

The secret is what Lewis calls "UFC" -- unidentified fronts and coverage. They disguise their formations, making it very difficult for the offense to figure out what they’re doing. It’s hard to tell whether a blitz is coming, or whether the Giants are playing man coverage on the receivers. It makes it tough for the opposing quarterback to know when he should call an audible, or to know where the pressure will come from. 

Lewis also likes to run stunts with his linemen, which creates matchup headaches for the offense. The guys on the opposing team’s offensive line have a hard time figuring out who they’re supposed to block. 

Lewis spent four years as the defensive coordinator in Pittsburgh, where his defense ranked in the top 10 each year. Twice they ranked no. 1 against the run, using the same sort of aggressive schemes that he has brought to New York. 

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Speaking of the Steelers, it’s nice to see them returning to the running game that has served them so well in the past. Under coach Bill Cowher, Pittsburgh has finished with a top-10 rushing offense 10 times in 12 years,but they got pass happy last year, finishing 31st in rushing and missing the playoffs. This year they’ve made the ground game a priority again, and that’s one of the main reasons why they’re alone in first place in the AFC North. 

Duce Staley, whom the Steelers added during free agency, is among the league leaders with 372 rushing yards. Jerome Bettis is no longer able to carry a heavy load, but he has been converted to a short yardage specialist. He has only 18 carries for 22 yards but leads the league with five touchdown runs. 

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If I had told you before the season that Michael Vick would be averaging less than 150 passing yards per game, you would never have guessed that the Atlanta Falcons would be undefeated after four games. Last year the team fell apart without their superstar quarterback. This year, other elements of their team have become so dominating that they aren’t relying on Vick to lead them to victory. 

The defense, led by OLB Keith Brooking and DT Patrick Kerney, is giving up just 62.8 rushing yards per game, the second lowest total in the NFL. They’ve also got the top ranked rush offense, with the zone blocking schemes of new line coach Alex Gibbs creating huge holes for Warrick Dunn and T.J.Duckett. Gibbs was the architect of the successful ground attack in Denver, and he appears to be working the same magic in Atlanta. 

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