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Defenses get in on scoring act

It doesn't take the letter "D," of course, to spell "scoring." Good thing, too, because over the first five weeks of the season, there was little "Scoring D" around the league. In the first 74 games, defenses accounted for just 20 touchdowns, 14 on interception returns and six on fumble runbacks. Over the course of a full season, that would project to only 48 interceptions and 21 fumbles returned for touchdowns, 69 defensive-generated scores in all, well below the typical league standard. During the 2004 campaign, for example, there were 86 touchdowns on defense, 53 on interceptions and 33 on fumbles.

But, oh, how the defensive scoring drought ended with Sunday's games, huh? Thirteen games and seven touchdowns, four on interception returns and three on fumble returns. And that's not counting the blocked field goal attempt that Atlanta linebacker Demorrio Williams returned for a touchdown or the punt return for a score by Pittsburgh's Antwaan Randle El. That's nine non-offensive touchdowns in all Sunday, hopefully a breakout day of sorts for units that, in recent seasons, have prided themselves on scooping up loose or errantly thrown balls and taking them to the house.

With Sunday's action as a potential impetus, defenses that had been lax so far this year in authoring game-altering plays may need to plan an addition to the house. The biggest defensive score of the Sunday schedule came in overtime at Heinz Field, when Jacksonville cornerback Rashean Mathis (a guy ESPN.com has been touting since training camp) stepped in front of Steelers receiver Quincy Morgan, snatched Tommy Maddox's third interception of the afternoon, and raced 41 yards to give the Jaguars a dramatic victory.

Walk-off interceptions are few in any NFL season -- there had been only 15 before Mathis' score, in 379 overtime games dating back to 1974 -- but that one was a stunner to the Steelers, and maybe the catalyst the inconsistent Jaguars need to get jump-started on a long winning streak.

At the Alamodome, the Atlanta Falcons wouldn't even have been in position to get a gift-wrapped victory from the game officials (c'mon, guys, defensive holding on a game-winning field goal try?) had Williams not rumbled 59 yards with a blocked field-goal attempt against the displaced Saints and cornerback DeAngelo Hall not raced 65 yards with a fumble recovery.

For the first time since 1976, Detroit got two interception runbacks for touchdowns: a 34-yarder by linebacker Boss Bailey and a 64-yarder from strong safety Kenoy Kennedy. But not even those scores were enough to overcome another spotty performance from slumping quarterback Joey Harrington.

Cincinnati rookie middle linebacker Odell Thurman (30-yard interception return) and Tampa free safety Will Allen (33-yard fumble return) had game-saving touchdowns. And the human ball magnet, Kansas City strong safety Sammy Knight, whose 47 takeaways since 1997 are the most in the NFL in that stretch, scored for the first time since 2002 on an 80-yard fumble runback.

For a lot of years, Knight has been the master of creating disaster for opposition offenses, but he had yet to author his first takeaway in a Chiefs uniform until defensive ends Jared Allen and Carlos Hall combined to knock the ball loose from Washington running back Rock Cartwright.

"It's been a while," said Knight, whose touchdown was the fifth of his career.

Maybe, after Sunday, defensive scores will become contagious again.

Backup plans
It was a so-so day for substitute starting quarterbacks Sunday, with replacements splitting six decisions. Among quarterbacks who weren't supposed to be their teams' No. 1 guys at the outset of the year, Anthony Wright (Baltimore), Kyle Orton (Chicago) and Kelly Holcomb (Buffalo) were all winning starters. The three losers were Mark Brunell (Washington), Tommy Maddox (Pittsburgh) and Vinny Testaverde (New York Jets).

After six weeks, the record for backup quarterbacks in starting assignments is 10-13.

But how about relief pitchers Sunday? Well, that was a different story, especially if you were a team with a guy named Chris in the bullpen. Taking his first snaps in more than two full seasons, Carolina backup Chris Weinke, a quarterback who started 15 games as a rookie fourth-round draft pick in 2001, rallied the Panthers past the Lions, throwing a winning 3-yard touchdown pass to ol' reliable, wide receiver Ricky Proehl, with only 32 seconds remaining in the game at Ford Field. Weinke was subbing for starter Jake Delhomme, who tossed three interceptions before being knocked woozy.

And in Tampa, third-year veteran Chris Simms, the object of several trade inquiries (all denied, of course, by Bucs officials), played the final 2½ quarters of his team's victory over Miami, completing 6 of 10 passes for 69 yards and mostly handing off nicely to another reserve, tailback Michael Pittman, who rushed for 127 yards.

The Simms relief spot was especially meaningful since, if rumors are accurate, the Son of Phil Simms is about to be elevated to the starter's job. There is considerable suspicion, some of it from Tampa Bay veterans with whom we spoke late Sunday night, that the knee injury suffered by Bucs starter Brian Griese in the second quarter is a bad one. Let's put it this way: Don't be surprised if, at some point Monday, you hear the letters "M-R-I" and "A-C-L" associated with Griese and his "sprained" left knee.

If the worst fears of Bucs players are realized, and Griese is done for the year, it should make for an interesting dynamic in Tampa, given the love-hate relationship that seems to exist between head coach Jon Gruden and the southpaw Simms. Over the last couple seasons, Gruden has alternately believed that Simms was the second coming of his old man or little more than a career backup. Gruden better hope the first assessment is the correct one. The Bucs, at 5-1, have the best record in the NFC right now. Looks like they're going to need the guy who came out of the bullpen to earn a save on Sunday to become the ace of the staff. The Bucs have a bye week and will need it to ready Simms for the long haul, assuming Griese is bye-bye for the rest of this season.

In praise of punters
A good and longtime friend of ours who shall remain nameless, but who draws a pretty handsome NFL salary by participating in 6-8 plays per game, all of them in fourth-and-long situations, insisted a few weeks ago that we don't talk about punters enough in this space. Not true, I countered, since we peruse punting statistics every Sunday night through bleary eyes, and often cite outstanding performances. But this is a week for devoting an entire item -- pay attention, my anonymous friend, since it isn't apt to occur again anytime soon -- to guys who earn a living primarily based on the failure of their teams' offensive units.

There were several outstanding punting efforts Sunday, performances critical enough to merit, well, more than just the usual footnote.

But we're drawing the line at punters whose teams won Sunday afternoon. With that understanding, our paean to punters, and the roll call of outstanding efforts this weekend: Josh Bidwell (Tampa Bay) had seven punts for a gross average of 48.9 yards, a 38.9-yard net average, no touchbacks and five kicks inside the 20-yard line. Mike Scifres (San Diego) had a 42.6-yard gross average and 40.4-yard net average on seven punts, with no touchbacks and four punts inside the 20. Todd Sauerbrun (Denver) had seven punts for a whopping gross average of 52.3 yards and a net of 46.9 yards, no touchbacks and two kicks inside the 20-yard line. Brian Moorman (Buffalo) had four punts for a 42.8-yard gross average, a 32.5-yard net average and one punt inside the 20. Carolina's Jason Baker punted for a gross average of 37.8 yards and a 37.2-yard net average, no touchbacks and one punt inside the 20, on five kicks. Michael Koenen (Atlanta) had four punts for a gross average of 47.3 yards and a net average of 45.5 yards. And, finally, Dustin Colquitt (Kansas City) had five punts for gross and net averages of 33.6 yards, with two kicks inside the 20-yard line and three forced fair catches.


Call the Plummer
Jake Plummer might never shave again. Fact is, looking back, maybe the Denver Broncos quarterback should have grown that facial hair a few years ago. It might have helped him stave off the chilly Rocky Mountain winters and would have allowed him to be a tad more incognito during some of those tough weeks when Broncos fans were howling for his hide after one of those big-turnover games. But if he continues to play with the same efficiency and ball care demonstrated in the Broncos' first six games of the season, Plummer is going to make Denver a very difficult team to beat.

Coach Mike Shanahan, who had pretty much kept the wraps on Plummer until Sunday, relying on the characteristically productive running game and an unusually solid defense, turned his quarterback loose against the Swiss-cheese secondary of the New England Patriots, and got some big plays down the field. Plummer, who had completed just one pass of 30-plus yards entering Sunday's contest, hooked up with Rod Smith for 72 yards and Ashley Lelie for 55 yards in the 28-20 victory over the Patriots.

It was an impressively efficient outing for Plummer, mixing the deep ball in as kind of a new component, and also getting 114 rushing yards from tailback Tatum Bell, who went over the century mark for a second straight week. Plummer hadn't thrown for more than 150 yards in three straight weeks and some were beginning to question whether he could still chuck it down the field. He answered the skeptics Sunday and did so without throwing an interception, stretching to 17 quarters his streak without a pick.

Plummer has long been one of those quarterbacks who is just good enough to get you beat in big games. So far, this year, he's been a lot better than that. And that's helped to make the Broncos one of the most pleasant surprises of the season.


The other Moss
From a financial and salary cap standpoint, the offseason wide receiver trade of Santana Moss (to Washington) and Laveranues Coles (to the New York Jets) was the typical disaster for Redskins owner Dan Snyder. On the field, though, it's time to give credit to Snyder, or personnel chief Vinny Cerrato, or coach Joe Gibbs or Snyder consultants Sam Huff and Sonny Jurgensen, or maybe the George Michael Sports Machine for making the deal. Santana Moss now has twice as many touchdowns (four) as the Moss of the Randy variety, who gimped off Sunday, and could miss some time due to an injury.

Despite losing at Kansas City in the Geezer Bowl matchup of Gibbs and Weepin' Dick Vermeil, a game certain to make this week's AARP highlight package, Moss had 10 catches for 173 yards and two touchdowns, including a 78-yard scoring play. More than any other player in a Redskins uniform -- and, yeah, that's counting resurgent quarterback Mark Brunell -- it's Moss who has added much-needed verticality to the stodgy Washington offense. He now has 33 catches for 631 yards, a heady 19.1-yard average, and those four touchdowns. His average touchdown has been for 47.8 yards, a number made even more amazing when one considers that one of his scores Sunday came on a 4-yard reception. The other three trips to the end zone were strictly of the roaming-call ilk: 39, 70 and 78 yards.

To be fair, Coles has suffered from the dearth of quarterback consistency in New York, and has just an 11.1-yard average and one touchdown on 26 receptions. But if it's at all possible to eliminate the financial considerations, and that's always a difficult thing to do in the era of the salary cap, the Moss-Coles trade looks pretty lopsided right now.

The littler Moss is on pace for a 2,019-yard season. Only once in four previous seasons has he topped 1,000 yards. Heck, he's only surpassed 838 yards one time. If Santana can avoid his annual hammy injury, he could certainly earn himself a Pro Bowl berth.

Punts:
It's been a tough couple weeks for umpire Butch Hannah, who on Sunday sustained a sprained knee ligament when he collided with Baltimore tight end Todd Heap. Last week, Hannah was slugged in the eye by Ronde Barber when the Tampa Bay cornerback took a swing at New York Jets center Kevin Mawae and hit the zebra instead. Hannah figures to miss up to a month. … In his return to action following his self-imposed retirement, and then his four-game drug suspension, Ricky Williams had more catches than carries (6-5) and more receiving than rushing yards (22-8). That isn't what coach Nick Saban had in mind. In fact, the Dolphins' leading rusher in their loss at Tampa Bay was wide receiver Chris Chambers, with 25 yards on three carries. … Dallas linebacker DeMarcus Ware, the preseason favorite by a lot of pundits for defensive rookie of the year honors, is starting to come on strong. Ware now has a sack in four straight outings. … The Carolina defense posted six sacks Sunday, surpassing its production in the first five games combined. Left end Julius Peppers finally notched his first sack of the season. … The Giants are now 3-14 after a bye week. … It appears that Dallas No. 3 wide receiver Patrick Crayton will miss the rest of the season with a broken ankle. That could mean some playing time for Peerless Price, who has been on the field sparingly, and who was inactive for Sunday's game. … New England rookie left guard Logan Mankins, the team's first-round pick, was ejected Sunday after he punched Denver defensive end Ebenezer Ekuban, and will likely be fined. … New Orleans coach Jim Haslett will almost certainly draw a fine, too, after criticizing the game officials for a holding call that allowed Atlanta kicker Todd Peterson a second crack at a game-winning field goal. … Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward (hamstring) had his streak of 116 straight appearances snapped. Ward had never missed a game until he was inactive for Sunday's contest. … Jacksonville middle linebacker Mike Peterson quietly had a terrific game Sunday, with seven tackles, an interception and three passes defensed. … Cincinnati quarterback Carson Palmer had his ninth straight game with a passer rating of 100 or better, tying Indianapolis' Peyton Manning for the league record. Palmer posted a rating of 121.2 in Sunday's win at Tennessee. He has now thrown 148 passes without an interception. … Minnesota's three points Sunday were its fewest since the 2001 season finale. … The Jets have now lost five straight road games.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.