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Stepping into gear

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Is the Washington Redskins offense for real? Putting up big numbers against the Texans defense is one thing but doing it against the Jaguars is something else.

Coordinator Al Saunders' offense is built around an explosive running back to set the tone. The return of Clinton Portis has been huge as his quickness to the edge has camouflaged some problems at offensive tackle. He also gets through inside run creases as quick as anybody in the league.

Being able to play ahead of the chains by minimizing third-and-long situations has fueled the Redskins' passing attack. Saunders is able to use his layered-passing concept, beginning with the quick-hitting, short-passing game that emphasizes hitting receivers in stride and using their run-after-catch skills. There is no more dangerous receiver after the catch than Santana Moss. He is a threat to take it the distance every time he touches the ball. He not only has tremendous speed but also quickness, body control and balance which make him very adept at adjusting to the ball and making defenders miss in the open field.

H-Back Chris Cooley continues to be a threat down the seam on shallow crossing routes. He is a strong runner after the catch, repeatedly picking up key first downs. The rest of the receiving corps is benefiting from all the rolled coverages against Moss and as a result is getting open with greater frequency.

The comfort level that Mark Brunell and the rest of the offensive unit have developed in Saunders' system is evident. It is predicated on a lot of formation variations and pre-snap movements, things that tend to take a while for players to adjust to and develop a comfort level.

Is Rex Grossman the only reason that the Chicago Bears look better than last year?

No, but the progress he has made as a decision maker has been significant and his confidence has grown as a result. The running game has been slow in starting this season but got on track Sunday evening against the Seahawks. With the slow start, more of the offense has been placed into Grossman's hands, and he has come up with some big throws under pressure.

His development has coincided with the development of the receiving corps. Bernard Berrian has vertical stretch speed and has been an outstanding complement to Muhsin Muhammad. Desmond Clark is an underrated down-the-seam receiving tight end. Clark and John Gilmore give the Bears a formidable two-tight end set, which they use frequently.

Although it's not widely realized, the defense has gotten even better. Defensive tackle Tommie Harris has gone from a very good emerging star in the league to a dominating force that requires double-team attention play in and play out. He is playing the old Warren Sapp position in the Bears' version of the Cover 2 defense, and his efforts have made their stunt package even more effective and their stellar linebacker play even more difficult to block.

In addition, the Bears greatly have improved their nickel package. Teams will try and get the Bears out of their base defense by employing three- and four-wide receiver sets. The offseason signings of Ricky Manning Jr. and Dante Wesley have boosted their ability to match up against multiple wide receiver sets.

The win over the Seahawks was more than a statement. In the race for home-field advantage, the Bears now have an important edge provided they continue to improve and develop throughout the season. This is significant as the Bears are playing closer to their potential than some other NFC teams that surely will make a run at them.

How were the New England Patriots able to shut down the Bengals' explosive offense?

The Patriots do a great job of defending the pass by creating a lot of different looks in both their fronts and coverages along with developing an aggressive blitz package. If you can defend the big play from the Bengals, stay in the game early and stay committed to the running game yourself, you can beat them. It's easier said than done, but the Patriots dominated this game at the line of scrimmage.

They forced Cincinnati quarterback Carson Palmer to hold the ball a little longer with tight relay coverage. They played a mixture of zone coverages with man underneath where they jammed the receivers at the line of scrimmage and re-routed them into safety help. Every route was challenged but with particular emphasis on prevention of the deep ball with double rolled coverages and deep middle drops by the linebackers.

The blitz pressure as well as the four-man rush was significant to shorten the routes of the Bengals, but the tight Patriots' coverage prevented them from gathering any rhythm.

When you can stay in the game on the defensive end, it allows you to patiently work your running game. By pounding the lead draw with Laurence Maroney and Corey Dillon, the Patriots controlled the ball, wore out the Bengals' defensive front and worked the crossing routes very well in the passing game. The Patriots' biggest plays came from broken tackles in the running game against a worn-out Bengals defense that could not wrap up.

Does Steve Smith really make that much difference to the Carolina Panthers?

He really makes a huge difference in both the passing and running games. In the passing game, there always is safety help on Smith's side. This takes coverage pressure away from Keyshawn Johnson, Keary Colbert and Drew Carter, who all are capable of handling single coverage.

Because the safeties focused on coverage with Smith in the three-wide formation, it eliminates a safety on the play side in run support, making the quick-hitting inside running style of DeShawn Foster and outside burst of DeAngelo Williams even more effective.

Through the first quarter of the season, what teams have been the biggest surprises to you?

You need not go further than the AFC East. The Buffalo Bills are doing a great job defensively and on special teams of creating field position for the offense and doing a nice job with quarterback J.P. Losman, keeping him on the move and giving him simple half-field reads.

The New York Jets are doing an outstanding job with their up-tempo offense led by quarterback Chad Pennington. Wide receivers Laveranues Coles and Jerricho Cotchery have made big plays in the passing game for the offense. On special teams, they also are very sound in their coverage units and explosive in their return games.

On the negative side, the Dolphins have major protection issues that are not just because of the offensive line but also a result of a quarterback Daunte Culpepper holding the ball too long. It's virtually the same offensive line that Gus Frerotte operated under last year. The lack of production and inability to sustain drives have resulted in more defensive snaps for a Miami defense that is struggling to play well into the fourth quarter.

The Dolphins were not a nine-win team last year personnel-wise and are not this year, either. The difference is that last year they protected the football better, made fewer pre-snap mistakes and did a better job of coverage recognition from the quarterback spot. Every team Nick Saban has coached, starting at Toledo, has improved as the season progresses, and so will this one. Whether it can get to nine wins is debatable. Miami really needs to work a lot of bunch formations and passes into its offensive package and use the quick release, three-step drop to get the ball out of the quarterback's hands quicker and into the hands of playmakers like Chris Chambers. This will slow down the rush pressure and open up things for a running game that is not getting a lot of run creases.