Today we offer a lesson in NFL mathematics.
Question: When does one plus one not equal two?
Answer: When two defensive backs are trying to cover Randy Moss.
The Buffalo Bills will wrestle with that problem tonight when they face Moss and the undefeated New England Patriots in a nationally televised game at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
"I don't like any matchup with Randy Moss," said Bills defensive coordinator Perry Fewell. "Randy Moss is playing lights out. You can take the best corner in the league, and he can't hold his own with Randy the whole day. But I think that if we pick our spots we can come out on the good end of it."
The 30-year-old Moss has been reborn in his 10th NFL season. After a dismal season in Oakland in 2006, he has 56 catches through nine games for 924 yards and 12 touchdowns. He's on pace for a season total of 21 touchdowns, which would be one shy of Jerry Rice's all-time record. His projected total of 1,642 yards would be the best of his career.
Just as impressive as those numbers is the way in which he has dominated. The defense can be in what seems like the perfect call, but Pats quarterback Tom Brady still connects with Moss for a big play.
Take the Pats' 49-28 win at Miami a month ago. Moss beat good double coverage for touchdowns of 35 and 50 yards.
Teammate Donte' Stallworth compared Moss to "a dog going up to catch a Frisbee."
"I kind of get a kick out of a couple ones he had against Miami," said Pats linebacker Mike Vrabel. "The guys were draped all over him and then he goes up and makes the catch. He's just really good with the ball up in the air and it's just fun watching him play."
Patriots coach Bill Belichick expounded this week on how, at times, double coverage can be overrated.
"The concept of double coverage isn't quite what it maybe sounds like it is," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. "You take players like Lee Evans or whoever is being doubled. Depending on what the route is, the receiver's really only working against one guy. So if you want to play in and out [inside and outside], and he's running an inside route, the outside guy doesn't really have him. He's working against the inside guy."
"Or they play short and deep and you're running a deep route," Belichick said. "Then you're working against the deep guy. The short guy isn't really a factor because you're not running a short route. He gives a little bit of help, but essentially you're still running the route on one guy."
Of course, the presence of short and deep bracketing of a receiver usually discourages quarterbacks from throwing in that direction. That's particularly true when the short, or underneath, defender gets good depth on his retreat into coverage. The quarterback knows that, at best, it's going to be a 50-50 ball that has a fair chance to be intercepted.
Brady, however, knows that in Moss he has a 6-foot-4, 210-pounder who is one of the most exceptional talents ever to enter the NFL. After all, this is a player who former college coach Lou Holtz once called "the greatest high school athlete I have ever seen - a bigger Deion Sanders."
"You've got receivers and you've got ball-getters," said John Guy, the Bills' director of pro personnel. "He's a ball-getter. Throw it out there and he'll get it. He can accelerate when the ball's in the air."
Another good example of Moss beating double coverage was on a 51-yard TD against the Jets in the season opener. The Pats came out in a run formation, with Moss lined up wide right.
Moss ran a deep crossing route and outran the safety and cornerback to the ball on the far left side of the field.
That's a pass Brady has hit often in his career.
"He ran all the way across the field on that one," said Bills safety George Wilson. "It's all about being in the right position, having the right leverage, playing the entire play, not taking a lazy step. That lazy step can be the difference between Randy catching the ball and you breaking it up."
Says Bills defensive backs coach George Catavolos of that coverage: "Sometimes as a defender when you're breaking on him, if you let him cross your face it's hard to come back and play the ball. You've got to take the right angle and play the ball at the interception point. That's hard to do when a guy like him is coming at you full speed and you have a quarterback who's got that strong of an arm."
No one was talking about Moss' invincibility a year ago, when he had just 42 catches for 553 yards with the Raiders. He was acquired for only a fourth-round draft choice.
Oakland's offensive coordinator from last year, Tom Walsh, told the Boston Globe, "Randy Moss is a player whose skills are diminishing, and he's in denial of those eroding skills."
"His whole game in Minnesota was outside the numbers," Walsh said. "For him to run shallow crosses and in-routes was new for him. Initially, he showed all the interest but later on . . . I don't know."
There's no question about Moss' interest level this year, as the Bills are likely to find out tonight.
NFL all-time receiving TDs
1. Jerry Rice 197
2. Cris Carter 130
3. Marvin Harrison 123
4. Terrell Owens 122
5. Randy Moss 113