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Defenses Are Picking Up With Pickoffs

September 28, 2003|LONNIE WHITE

"Fast and furious."

That's the phrase that sums up the style of defense played by the NFL's top teams in the first three weeks of the season.

In today's pass-happy league, undefeated teams such as Kansas City, Seattle and Minnesota have been able to turn things around with an attack-first attitude on defense.

Not only do they try to shut down opposing offenses, they try to get touchdowns every time opponents pass.

The Vikings lead the NFL in interceptions with eight, followed by the Chiefs, Seahawks and defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. with seven each. The 3-0 Denver Broncos are tied for seventh in the league with four.

By playing more aggressive cornerbacks and applying pressure schemes, defenses have been able to catch up with the offenses that dominated the league the last few seasons.

A decade ago, teams were hooked on defensive backs who tested well on paper. They wanted players with size who ran well, jumped high and lifted weights.

That's why the Oakland Raiders and Washington Redskins made Patrick Bates and Tom Carter the first defensive backs selected in the 1993 draft. Both players were busts and are no longer in the league.

Over the years, defenses' philosophies have adapted to spread offenses and mobile quarterbacks by looking for competitive all-around athletes. So instead of seeking players who simply looked good, teams are taking aggressive defensive backs who can make plays.

That's how "unknown" players such as Minnesota's Brian Russell, a second-year safety from San Diego State and a former standout quarterback for La Puente Bishop Amat High, have become key starters on upstart defenses.

Russell, who probably would not have been on the field 10 years ago, has made the most of his opportunity after joining the Vikings' roster last season after a year on the practice squad as an undrafted rookie in 2001. He not only ranks among the league's leading defensive backs in tackles with 19, but he also co-leads Minnesota in interceptions with three.

Yet teams are no longer satisfied with simply getting interceptions. They pride themselves on turning mistakes into touchdowns. It's the double-bang theory.

Under Coach Dick Vermeil, the Chiefs have become kings of the big-play turnover.

Kansas City already has returned two interceptions for touchdowns this season, Jerome Woods taking one back 46 yards and Shaunard Harts returning his 39.

When Vermeil coached St. Louis to the 2000 Super Bowl title, the Rams returned seven interceptions for touchdowns in six games and won all six.

Since 1990, teams that returned an interception for a touchdown have won 73.1% of their games (432-159).

"It's a tremendous confidence boost for the defense," St. Louis veteran safety Aeneas Williams told league reporters this week. "The offense is drained because they're down seven points. They've made an error, and sometimes for quarterbacks, it's hard for them to get it out of their mind."

There have been 17 interceptions returned for touchdowns this season, the most before Week 4 since the league began playing 16 games in 1978. In the 15 games this season in which only one team scored an interception touchdown, the record is 14-1, interceptors.

Williams is one of the NFL's best at turning interceptions into touchdowns. In 13 seasons, he has accomplished the feat eight times, which ranks third in league history.

"Every time I intercept the ball, all I think about is returning it for a score," he said. "My mind-set was changed after college, when I was thinking about just making an interception.

"When I got in the pros, I understood the dynamic impact on a game of running an interception back. It feels great and it feels like it changes the complexion of the game."

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