OAKLAND, Calif. – JaMarcus Russell(notes) dropped back to pass, set his feet and uncorked a picturesque spiral toward the middle of the end zone, where wideout Todd Watkins(notes) was headed on a streak pattern. Thanks to a pair of turnovers by the struggling quarterback, the Raiders already trailed the Jets by two touchdowns late in the first quarter of Sunday's 38-0 defeat at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, and this was Russell's shot at getting his team back into the game.
Watkins went up to get the ball, but before the receiver could make a play, Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis(notes) closed quickly from the outside and soared up over him to make a lunging grab. A cascade of boos ensued, but in this particular case Russell shouldn't have been the object of criticism.
Instead, Raiders fans should have begrudgingly cheered Revis, a third-year cornerback from Pitt who made the Pro Bowl last season and will probably turn that into an annual habit. His 10th career pick was that good.
"I was just trying to go out there and make a play," Revis said afterward, downplaying his accomplishment. "It's just an interception."
(As Revis spoke, I looked above his locker and saw a hologram of The Fonz shaking his head incredulously: "And I suppose your mother was 'just a mother.' " But I digress.)
Revis can shrug off his awesomeness all he wants, but Sunday was the first time I've seen him play in person, and he made a huge impression. In a game that featured the man widely considered to be the NFL's best cornerback, the Raiders' Nnamdi Asomugha(notes), I'm not so sure we weren't witnessing Nos. 1 and 1a.
The reality is that great defensive-back play has been on display all season in stadiums across America. More than at any point since Prime Time was in his prime, cornerbacks and safeties are stepping up and assuming starring roles.
Think about it: Recent glamour positions on defense like pass rusher and middle linebacker are in a bit of a slump, devalued by retirements (Michael Strahan(notes), Warren Sapp(notes)), age (Ray Lewis(notes)) and injury (Brian Urlacher(notes)). Even on offense, with quarterbacks as the obvious exception, there's a distinct dearth of comparable buzz; it can be argued that running backs and wideouts aren't overwhelming the football world with legions of breakout stars as much as in recent years.
Instead, it's an era of safety first – Ed Reed(notes), Troy Polamalu(notes), Adrian Wilson(notes) and Brian Dawkins(notes) led their respective teams to conference-title games last season – and lots of action at the corner of Shut and Down.
Look at the season's first seven weeks, and the primary reason for a team's success almost always comes back to its secondary:
• Wondering why the Bengals (5-2) have already won more games than they did all of last season? Carson Palmer's(notes) return to health and Chad Ochocinco's(notes) renewed focus are big reasons, but the play of cornerbacks Leon Hall(notes) and Johnathan Joseph(notes) has been just as huge.
• Earlier this season I wrote that the Broncos' acquisition of Dawkins had made the biggest impact of any offseason free-agent signing. Certainly, Dawkins has played a major role in Denver's 6-0 start and No. 1 ranking in scoring defense. However, I'd now have to concede that the Saints' signing of former Vikings (and Packers) safety Darren Sharper(notes) was equally significant. With his third interception return for touchdown on Sunday – and the 11th of his career, one shy of Rod Woodson's NFL record – Sharper did two things: Bolstered his Hall of Fame credentials (he's definitely got a shot) and became the early frontrunner for NFL defensive player of the year honors. Oh, and New Orleans is also 6-0, and in a familiar place on our weekly list of queries.
• The defending champion Steelers suffered their only two defeats while Polamalu was sidelined by a knee injury. Coincidence? I think not. Meanwhile, the NFC champion Cardinals' recent revival has been keyed by Wilson, a perennial Pro Bowler; Antrel Rolle(notes), a failed cornerback who, having been converted to safety, is playing much better football than most people realize; and second-year cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie(notes), an athletic wonder who is an emerging star.
• The Vikings, who started 6-0 before losing at Pittsburgh on Sunday, faced the Steelers without their most accomplished cornerback, Antoine Winfield(notes), who reportedly has a fractured right foot. Winfield, a ferocious tackler despite his slight (5-foot-9, 180 pounds) frame, claims he might play in Sunday's NFC North showdown with the Packers at Lambeau Field, though some reports peg his likely absence as four-to-six weeks. Even though the hype is about Brett Favre's(notes) return to Green Bay, trust me, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers(notes) is a lot more concerned about the prospect of facing Winfield than he is his legendary predecessor.
As for Revis, he has some talented counterparts in the Jets' secondary, including fifth-year safety Kerry Rhodes(notes), a big hitter with star potential. With all of its talent in the defensive backfield, Rex Ryan's team might be able to endure the season-ending knee injury suffered by nose tackle Kris Jenkins(notes) and make a playoff run.
In the meantime, the Jets are staring up at 14 teams in our terrific-to-horrific list, and if you have questions after reading it – hey, welcome to my world:
2. Indianapolis Colts: Of all the amazing things Dwight Freeney(notes) has accomplished in his eight-year career, is his current streak of seven consecutive games with at least one sack the most impressive?
6. Cincinnati Bengals: Could Sunday have gone any better for Cedric Benson – and will the NFL's rushing leader keep making Bears fans sick for years to come?
9. Green Bay Packers: Will Brett be booed at Lambeau – and, more important, will the Pack's revived defense make him feel unwelcome?
15. New York Jets: Think Rex Ryan, brother of former Raiders defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, shares current Oakland defensive coordinator John Marshall's opinion that Tom Cable has "Hall of Fame" coaching qualities?
18. San Francisco 49ers: Has a quarterback picked No. 1 overall ever completely washed out, then resurrected his career with the very team that drafted him – and if Alex Smith pulls this off, how crazy of a story will it be?
23. Carolina Panthers: Yo, Marty Hurney – can you remind me again why you didn't go out and acquire another quarterback over the offseason?
31. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Is it true that Wayne Rooney will soon be lining up in the Wildcat offense – and if he does, will the Glazers (and their employees) still try to pretend that they're not cutting costs?
32. St. Louis Rams: Will Steven Jackson ever find the end zone again – and if he does, will he ditch his signature dice-rolling celebration for a Nic Cage falling-through-a-glass-table "Leaving Las Vegas" homage?