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THE NFL / BILL PLASCHKE : Defenders Learning to Turn the Corner

October 28, 1995|Bill Plaschke

A daring cornerback, whose first name appropriately begins with D, will swagger onto a field in a Southern city this weekend with the ability to change a game in one glance, one jerk, one pick.

Deion Sanders?

No, Darryll Lewis of the Houston Oilers.

Another fearless cornerback, whose first name appropriately begins with D, will swagger onto a field this weekend intending to haunt a run-and-shoot quarterback until he crashes and burns.

Deion Sanders?

No, Donnell Woolford of the Chicago Bears.

Sanders is indeed back Sunday, joining the Dallas Cowboys in Atlanta against the Falcons in the opening parade of a 15-week circus.

But Sanders' impact has been felt all season as cornerbacks and defenses have emulated his skills and turned their position from grit to glamour.

As long as there have been passes, cornerbacks have had interceptions. But this season, running with those interceptions has become an art.

Every week, it seems, somebody is dancing into an end zone with the opposing team's momentum stuck to his cleats.

So far this year, one of every 262 passes has been intercepted and returned for a touchdown.

Last season, before Sanders had won a Super Bowl, one of every 397.5 passes was intercepted and returned for a touchdown.

The explanation for this startling difference is simple: Everybody is trying to be like Deion.

"Cornerbacks aren't jealous, we love Deion. He's the best," said the Oilers' Lewis, who could be headed to his first Pro Bowl as he is tied for the league lead with five interceptions, one of which he returned 98 yards for a touchdown last week in Chicago.

"Deion can take control of a game like nobody else," Lewis said. "That's what all cornerbacks are trying to do these days."

And their coaches are helping them by running drills in which the quarterback passes to a cornerback, then defensive linemen block for that cornerback as he runs upfield.

"It's one of those trends," said Tony Dungy, Minnesota Viking defensive coordinator. "There was a time when cornerbacks didn't have great hands. Now, they all have great hands, and we spend a lot of time working on catching the ball and running with it."

Game breakers? Check out five of the 29 interceptions that have been returned for touchdowns this season:

--Sept. 10, St. Louis: Todd Lyght's 29-yard scoring interception return breaks open a close home opener for the Rams against the New Orleans Saints, winning over the new fans who have since grown louder.

--Sept. 17, Kansas City--James Hasty of the Chiefs stokes a rivalry by beating the Oakland Raiders with a 64-yard interception return in overtime.

--Oct. 1, Pittsburgh--Steelers Willie Williams and Alvoid Mays return interceptions 63 and 32 yards for touchdowns in the first quarter to begin a rout of the still-shaken San Diego Chargers.

--Oct. 22, Cleveland--Mickey Washington's 48-yard return for a touchdown for the Jacksonville Jaguars against the Cleveland Browns leads to Vinny Testaverde's benching this week.

--Oct. 22, Washington--Darrell Green's pick and seven-yard touchdown return for the Redskins beats the Detroit Lions in overtime, and probably seals Lion Coach Wayne Fontes' fate.

MIDWEST SUNDRIES

On Tuesday, Bengal Coach Dave Shula said of Barry Foster: "The guy's a worker." Twenty-four hours later, the guy was a quitter.

Believe what you want, but Foster didn't return a $300,000 check and walk away because he didn't feel he could play. It was because he didn't feel wanted. And he wasn't.

"I don't want to disturb the chemistry here," Foster said before leaving. "Harold Green and Eric Bieniemy are running hard."

Earlier this season, Shula pushed hard to sign Foster. But that was before near misses against the Miami Dolphins and Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the victory at Pittsburgh last week.

Considering that only three of their remaining nine games are against teams with winning records--and they get the Raiders, Bears and Vikings at home--the Bengals have a legitimate chance at an AFC Central title. Even with the league's 19th-ranked rushing offense, Shula worried that Foster's presence would foul that up.

This is assuming, of course, that the Bengals can beat the war-torn Browns on Sunday. And why not? Knowing this could be the loss that finally clinches the firing of Coach Bill Belichick, the Browns could tank it.

After all, Brown owner Art Modell, who does not exchange Christmas cards with Bengal owner Mike Brown, fired Sam Rutigliano the day after a loss in Cincinnati in the middle of the 1984 season.

And Belichick, after the embarrassing loss to the Jaguars, is ripe to be plucked. Why?

--Belichick has benched Testaverde in the middle of Testaverde's best season. Testaverde ranked fifth in the AFC in passer ratings at 89.7, more than 20 points higher than his career average.

Belichick said he made the change from Testaverde to Eric Zeier because he wanted to juice things up.

Instead, he ripped things apart.

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