PASS OFFENSE: A -- Drew Brees was this close to losing his job, and possibly being released. But he rebounded from the team's 1-2 start to be the NFL's second-highest ranked quarterback. He's playing with the confidence, which comes from taking snaps behind a front line, which is affording him the protection -- just 12 sacks -- to often find his second and third receivers. The receivers, too, have stepped up. TE Antonio Gates has turned into a monster -- eight receiving touchdowns -- and the addition of WR Keenan McCardell has been huge. It's amazing how much this part of the team has flipped.
RUN OFFENSE: B- -- Funny, that any unit with LaDainian Tomlinson wouldn't rate a higher grade. But Tomlinson hasn't been right this year -- strained groin -- and has rushed for 100 yards but twice in nine games. That's more a reflection on his injury, as he's unable to hit the seam with his usual burst. The run-blocking has been steady -- left guard Toniu Fonoti has become a force -- with five new starters up front. That's proven when backup Jesse Chatman gets in. He's averaging 7.2 yards per carry. The biggest upside here is Tomlinson could be getting healthy again after the bye.
PASS DEFENSE: D -- Something still isn't right here. The pass rush has been spotty -- although Steve Foley has a career-high six sacks -- which has been reflected in the inconsistent play on the back end. The pass defense is ranked 27th, with CB Sammy Davis wearing the biggest bull's eye. CB Quentin Jammer, the other corner, doesn't get tested enough because everyone is always picking on Davis. Because of that a frustrated Jammer often picks up pass interference calls which are costly. The safeties are playing decent, especially Terrence Kiel, the strong safety who is finding his feet in his second year. The big thing is the pass rush. It must improve if the cornerbacks are going to have a chance of sticking with the receivers.
RUN DEFENSE: A -- The defense hangs its hat on this part. It's ranked No. 1, allowing but 81.1 yards per game. DT Jamal Williams has been a force in the middle, making the offensive line use two guys to block him. By doing that, it frees up the linebackers to swoop in and get the tackles. Igor Olshansky, the rookie end, is getting better with every game -- that's a big plus. ILB Donnie Edwards has picked up the 3-4 scheme just fine -- he leads the team with 75 tackles. Few complaints, here.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A- -- There was a concern about breaking in two new legs in one season. But rookie K Nate Kaeding has missed but one of 13 attempts and is kickoffs, for the most part, have been long enough. P Mike Scifres, in his first year as a starter, is fifth in the NFL with a net average of 38.2 yards. His 15 punts inside the 20 is seventh-most in the NFL. KR Tim Dwight leads the league's top kickoff team with a 26-yard average, which is fourth-best in the NFL. The coverage units have been above average all year.
COACHING: A -- Marty Schottenheimer figured to be lucky to make the bye week, what with a 12-20 mark in San Diego coming into the season and head coach in waiting in Wade Phillips on the staff. Instead, Schottenheimer has run with his us-against-the-world mantra and the results have been astounding. The players have bought into it. Also, Schottenheimer has shown some flexibility in ditching his tired Marty Ball approach, and opening up the offense by leaning more on the passing game. Credit should also go to Phillips, for revamping a terrible defense and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. The spotlight always finds the veteran Schottenheimer, but the work these two guys have done can't be overlooked.
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