Wide receiver Lee Evans, who led all rookies with nine touchdown catches a year ago, has snapped out of his sophomore jinx in a big way.
Evans had just one touchdown catch in his first eight games this season. But over his last four games, Evans has 17 catches for 287 yards (17.5 average) and five touchdowns. He has 35 catches for 531 yards and six touchdowns on the year.
In Sunday's 24-23 loss at Miami, Evans was on fire early, catching three touchdown passes from J.P. Losman in the first quarter that covered 46, 56 and 4 yards.
Evans is the eighth Bill to have three touchdowns or more in one game, but he's the first to score three touchdowns in one quarter.
Against the Dolphins, he out-jumped or out-maneuvered three different defensive backs for his scores, including a nice move on free safety Travares Tillman, an ex-Bill, when Evans came back for the ball and spun away free and into the end zone.
"For me, it's just about learning the game, being confident in myself and doing what I know I can do," said Evans, who finished with five catches for 117 yards, his first 100-yard game of the year. "It's coming slowly; it's still a work in progress. But making plays helps along the way."
Evans' 56-yard touchdown was the sixth scoring reception of his young career to go over 50 yards.
The Dolphins will be forced to try and stop San Diego tailback LaDainian Tomlinson without their top run-stuffing defensive tackle in Sunday's game, as defensive tackle Keith Traylor underwent surgery Tuesday to debride his right knee.
Coach Nick Saban declared Traylor inactive for last Sunday's 24-23 victory over Buffalo because he awoke that morning "with his knee as bad as it's been all year." Traylor wasn't on Miami's pre-game injury report but didn't practice Friday because Saban said he wanted to give the 16-year-veteran some additional rest.
"The medical staff (felt) that if we took a chance and played him that he may play two or three plays and not be able to play anymore," Saban said in his post-game news conference. "It makes a big difference for us up front when he's not in the middle. He eats us two blockers a lot. I think that affected us early in the game in terms of our ability to stop the running plays."
Buffalo tailback Willis McGahee had seven first-quarter rushes for 27 yards en route to a 27-carry, 81-yard outing. But the Dolphins will be facing an even bigger threat in Tomlinson, who has 1,172 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns.
Jeff Zgonina, who had six tackles against Buffalo, is likely to start his second consecutive game in place of Traylor. Traylor's absence also means rookie Manny Wright should see action in his second NFL game. A 2005 fifth-round supplemental draft pick, Wright had two tackles, including one sack, against the Bills.
"Manny did a nice job," Saban said. "We have talked about the improvement that he has made throughout the course of the season. He is in a little better shape now and can sustain better. He plays with good effort, has good quickness and is a big man that did a nice job in pass rush on a couple of occasions. He didn't make a mental error. He shows ability to play hard, be physical and execute what you are supposed to do."
First-year Patriots defensive coordinator Eric Mangini has had a lot to deal with in 2005. First, an offseason stroke and last-minute retirement cost him his starting veteran inside linebackers, Tedy Bruschi and Ted Johnson respectively, before training camp even kicked off. Then once the season began Mangini lost key contributors like Rodney Harrison, Tyrone Poole, Duane Starks and others to injured reserve. A few others like All-Pro Richard Seymour have missed chunks of time.
All told, Mangini's defense has been a work in progress each week based on the personnel that's been available. And that has led to a lack of both consistency and success over most of the first 12 games of the season. New England has allowed more points than it has scored (282 to 259), given up big plays in the passing game with nauseating consistency and hasn't made any real plays of its own with just 18 sacks and only six interceptions on the season.
For most of the year Patriots defenders appeared to be struggling to play even base defense. That inconsistency left the defending Super Bowl champs playing vanilla schemes all too often. And it wasn't working.
But last Sunday in the team's win over the Jets there was a discernable change in the team's game plan. Facing their struggling, offensively challenge division foes from New York the Patriots defense finally went on the offensive. New England blitzed more, pressuring quarterback Brooks Bollinger on a regular basis, while playing stout, confident run defense in holding Curtis Martin to just 29 yards on 15 carries. It may have been the now 2-10 Jets the Patriots were taking on, but the production wasn't something the team previously been able to put up even against the lowly likes of the Dolphins and Saints. Regardless of the opponent, it was a positive defensive step.
"Defensively I thought we were more aggressive (against the Jets)," Seymour said. "We played more aggressive and the calls were more aggressive. That just gave us the attitude to go out and take the fight to them rather than sitting back and reacting and waiting on things to happen. As a defense you always want to be aggressive. The game was called that way and we tried to go out and execute that way."
Apparently that aggressive change is something the players themselves have been hoping for.
"Obviously what we were doing wasn't working. So something had to change," Seymour added. "We just couldn't continue to sit there and continue to let the same things happen. I think if you want different results you have to do different things. It was good to see that happen. It is what it is. We still have to get better as a team. We definitely are not where we want to be. We just kind of go from here."
Now the question that remains is whether the Patriots can go from here and take this new found fight and aggressive style to a better opponent like Tampa Bay on Dec. 17 or its opponent New England gets to the postseason as the division leader in a dismal AFC East. Only time will tell, but as Seymour said it doesn't really matter because everything else the team had tried this season certainly wasn't working.
As Curtis Martin trudged off the field after yet another wasted Sunday, several Patriots came up to him after the end of the game and offered their condolences on the Jets' sorry state. He appreciated it one level, but it bothered him on another.
"That's not the position you want to be in," Martin said Sunday. There was no player availability Monday at the Jets' training complex.
"Part of that is pride," Martin continued. "You have to play with a certain attitude. You don't want to be the one on the team that people are coming up to almost feeling sorry for you."
There are reasons to feel sorry for Martin, and not merely the woeful Jets' 2-10 record. Entering the Jets' 16-3 loss to New England, the 32-year-old Martin still was on pace to become the first player in NFL history to rush for at least 1,000 yards in each of his first 11 seasons in the league.
After a 15-carry, 29-yard performance against the Pats, Martin fell off the pace. With 735 yards in 12 games, he's averaging 61.3 yards per game. If he continues on that trend, he would finish with 980 and fall agonizingly short. Worse yet, a published report Tuesday said that a source indicated that Martin may need surgery in the offseason on his aching right knee, which hasn't been close to 100 percent since he was first injured against Miami in Week Two.
And of course, if the Houston Texans would oblige and win a game or two, the Jets could be eyeing USC standout Reggie Bush in the 2006 NFL draft, as Martin will be 33 by opening day next season. But for now, he still is the No. 1 option for the Jets' struggling running game.
"We've got to get (Martin) going, because that always helps you," Jets coach Herm Edwards said Monday in reviewing the loss to New England. "It's hard when you're playing against the clock. They had a couple of long drives in the second half and controlled the clock. You can't sit there and run the ball when you have to score touchdowns."