Secondaries Finally Bite Back

Charles Woodson wasn't the only defensive back getting a measure of revenge. By scoring in record number in Week 4, Len Pasquarelli writes that defense finally had its day against pass-happy schemes that played bully the first three weeks of the season.

With 11 career interception returns for touchdowns, only one behind record-holder and Hall of Fame member Rod Woodson for the most in NFL history, it isn't exactly earth-shattering news when Green Bay cornerback and 14th-year veteran Charles Woodson picks off a pass and takes it to the house.

But when there are eight interceptions run back for scores, as was the case in Sunday's 15 contests — including one, of course, by Woodson — well, that is the stuff of headlines.

In a 2011 season that has featured so much aerial activity that the league might well consider adding air traffic controllers to the press box crews, defensive backs have been regularly toasted and roasted. On Sunday afternoon and evening, beleaguered secondaries earned some degree of revenge.

Over the first three weeks of play, there had been four pick-six plays. On Sunday, there was twice that many.

"At some point," said Woodson, who in the first quarter of the Packers' 49-23 rout of Denver jumped a Kyle Orton mistake and returned it 30 yards, "you've got to fight back, you know? You can't just sit back and allow (offenses) to have their way."

Woodson reacted the way he has so often in the past, but he had plenty of company in the Sunday games.

OK, if the sudden spate of interception runbacks wasn't quite a TKO, the pickoffs at least provided a jab to the passing games that have been so dominant at this early point of the season. And they provided a much-needed reminder that defenses are allowed to score once in a while, too. Torched to the point that some franchises might have thought about hiring a coroner to identify the charred remains of their secondaries, defensive backs conversely burned quarterbacks instead in Sunday's 15 games.

For at least one day, the old Darrell Royal nugget — that when you put the ball in the air, three things can happen, and two of them are bad — was recalled. Every mutt has his day. On Sunday, defensive backs who had been dogged by pass-happy attacks to this juncture of the year, bit back.

In the first three weeks, quarterbacks had pretty much operated with impunity. But in Week 4, they finally absorbed some punishment.

"There comes a point, when enough is enough," said Detroit cornerback Chris Houston, whose 56-yard return of a poorly timed Tony Romo "out" pattern helped to fuel the undefeated Lions' comeback at Dallas. "You have to kind of take things in your own hands."

In fact, according to reports, Houston actually "called" his interception, telling his teammates in the defensive huddle that he was going to read the next "out" route that Romo threw his way, pick it off and return it for a score. His touchdown, combined with a 34-yard return for a touchdown by linebacker Bobby Carpenter, were essentially the key plays in the Lions' improbable comeback.

The five other players with touchdown returns: Chicago's D.J. Moore (20 yards), Bryan Scott of Buffalo (43 yards), Jonathan Babineaux of Tennessee (97 yards), Baltimore's Lardarius Webb (73 yards) and the New York Jets' David Harris (35 yards).

For the early portion of the season, defenses had been aggressive in rushing the passer, with sacks on the rise and defensive coordinators intent on attacking the pocket. But for the most part, defensive backs appeared tentative under the barrage of so much passing. This week, though, defenders cast aside their seeming passivity.

"I mean, we're allowed to make (big) plays, too," said Webb, one of four players on Sunday who scored for the first time in their careers on interception returns. "We talk about it all the time."

This week, at last, talk turned to action.

Over the past five seasons, there has been an average of 51.6 interceptions returned for touchdowns. The league might struggle, even with so much passing, to reach that average in 2011. On Sunday, though, defensive units might have served some notice that they don't intend to just be foils for the passing games for the rest of the year.


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Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.


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