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October 15, 2004 Edition > Section:  Sports

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NFL Secondaries Contribute Quietly

BY SEAN LAHMAN
October 15, 2004

When asked to describe the pressure of being a relief pitcher, the Mets' John Franco compared it to being an air traffic controller. "A successful effort rarely warrants notice," he said, "and a failure is considered a full-scale disaster."

The same can be said of an NFL secondary, and you saw that sort of disaster if you watched the Green Bay Packers last Monday Night. Titans quarterback Steve McNair dissected the Packer secondary, taking advantage of overmatched cornerbacks Michael Hawthorne and Ahmad Carroll. A good QB finds those weaknesses and exploits them, which is exactly what Kurt Warner and Peyton Manning did to the Packers in the previous two weeks.

It's easy to see a secondary fall apart, but how can we measure one that is playing well? The NFL rates pass defenses by how many yards they give up, but that's terribly deceptive. Some defenses face a lot more pass plays than others.

If a team has a lousy run defense, offenses won't try to throw the ball as much. That's why the Chiefs are only facing 27.3 pass plays per game, while the Chargers, with one of the best run defenses, see an average of 42.2 pass plays. Even though the Chargers give up fewer yards per pass than the Chiefs, they'll end up allowing more passing yards.

Game situations also dictate play calling. Teams that are behind are usually forced to throw in the second half. Teams like the Colts and Eagles that score a lot of points face a lot of passes in the second halves of their games. Because teams like the Dolphins and Bengals haven't had many leads, their opponents tend to run the ball in the second half.

A pass defense shouldn't be rated by how many pass plays it faces, but rather by how well it performs. But how? The NFL's passer rating measures a quarterback's ability to do the things he is supposed to do - complete passes, gain yards, avoid interceptions, and score touchdowns. The defensive secondary is supposed to repel those efforts, and we can use the same method for rating their performance.

By calculating a passer rating for the defense's cumulative statistics, we can accurately assess which teams are doing the best job of defending the pass. The Packers secondary, for example, has surrendered 12 touchdown passes and only made three interceptions. That gives them a rather plump 107.7 passer rating, the worst in the league.

Meanwhile, the teams that have fared particularly well against the pass this year have done it with established secondary units. While the Dolphins' offense has been in turmoil, their veteran secondary continues to excel. Cornerbacks Sam Madison and Patrick Surtain have been starting together since 1999, and their familiarity with each other is one reason why Miami has consistently had one of the best pass defenses in the league.

Cornerbacks Brian Kelly and Ronde Barber have been playing together in Tampa Bay since 1998. Baltimore's young core of Chris McAllister, Ed Reed, Gary Baxter, and Will Demps is in their third year together. Both secondaries also benefit from a solid pass rush, which means opposing quarterbacks can't find enough time to hit the soft spots in their zones or exploit mismatches in man coverage.

One of the teams that has upgraded its pass defense this year is the Jets. In recent years, they have lacked playmakers. To improve on a dreadfully low 11 interceptions last season, the Jets completely rebuilt the secondary in the off-season, replacing three of the four starters from the 2003 squad.

The additions of free agent cornerback David Barrett and safety Reggie Tongue have made the Jets secondary much tougher and more physically aggressive. Rookie safety Erik Coleman is in the same mold, and he's been pushed into a starting role because of Jon McGraw's abdominal injury.

A solid pass rush helps takes pressure off of Barrett and fellow corner Donnie Abraham, who can be vulnerable if the opposing quarterback has time to throw deep. The Jets also have remarkable depth with veteran cornerback Terrell Buckley and third-round draft pick Derrick Strait. When a shift to a nickel or dime package is required, those guys do a tremendous job.

Other NFL teams have made similar improvements with their pass defense this year. Over the last few seasons, Pittsburgh's secondary has been their weakest spot. They addressed the problem with high draft choices each of the last three years, and those picks are starting to show dividends. Cornerback Ricardo Colclough and safeties Troy Polamalu and Chris Hope form the core of an aggressive young secondary. Their ability to prevent opposing teams from making big plays has helped take pressure off rookie QB Ben Roethlisberger and boosted the Steelers into first place.

To make a playoff run, a team has to be able to protect a lead, and more often than not, that job falls on the shoulders of safeties and cornerbacks. That's one reason to be concerned about a team like the offensive-oriented Minnesota Vikings, who have allowed nine touchdowns but haven't intercepted a single pas. Their 98.8 defensive passer rating ranks 29th in the league.

The St. Louis Rams (92.5) and Indianapolis Colts (91.1) are two other playoff hopefuls whose pass defenses have been too porous. If they can't tighten up the coverage, they'll probably end up watching an opponent run away with their title hopes.

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