NFL's aerial fireworks show continues unabated

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By ARNIE STAPLETON, Associated Press

With last year's lockout a distant memory, defenses had a full offseason to better prepare for the league's high-octane offenses. Yet, the NFL's mighty scoring machine roars on.

Teams have combined for 1,556 points so far, the most ever scored over a two-week span in league history.

"I guess it's good for people's fantasy teams," said Detroit Lions defensive end Cliff Avril.

Last year, there were 1,502 points scored over the first two weeks on the heels of the lockout that ended just in time for a crash course in training camp. This year, teams had all offseason, if fewer padded practices, to gel.

Not that it's paid off for defenses.

The rules and regulations that govern pro football have long tilted toward offense, resulting in an aerial fireworks show that's good for ratings — of both the television and quarterback variety.

Add to that an eruption this season of spread offenses and the no-huddle and you get panting pass-rushers and mismatches with smaller defenders trapped on the field to face towering tight ends and taller receivers who no longer think twice about going over the middle, certain they'll get the ball or the call.

Delivering those pinpoint passes are ever sharper quarterbacks. Six passers so far own a completion percentage of 70 percent or better, led by Minnesota's Christian Ponder at 75.8 percent, and four more quarterbacks are within an eyelash of that lofty new benchmark.

The overall completion percentage so far is 62.6 percent. The NFL record for a season is 61.2 percent, set in 2007, according to STATS LLC.

"What this league has turned into is a spread 'em out passing league," said New York Jets defensive lineman Mike DeVito.

Three yards and a cloud of dust is out.

Now, it's more like 15 yards and move the chains.

"That's what fans want to see: 'Oh my God, he had 187 receiving yards.' They don't want to see, 'Man, the defense held them to 67 yards the whole game,'" said Chiefs cornerback Stanford Routt. "They want to see running backs and wide receivers dancing in the end zone."

Defenses simply got too good for their own good.

"The three yards and a cloud of dust philosophy is much harder to make work because you can put guys in the box and make it really hard to get those three yards," Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel said. "So offenses are saying, 'Rather than beat our heads against the wall, let's spread it out where maybe I can get a matchup that's more space for one guy to work against another guy, and now if I make a play, that three yards becomes 15.'

"And it would have taken me four plays to get that. Now I can get it in one."

With four receivers running downfield and six men blocking, "the quarterback has all day to throw," Broncos safety Mike Adams said. "And then you've got freak athletes like Calvin Johnson now. They blow it up."

When receivers are covered downfield, the quarterback is checking down to the running back who used to make a living pounding the ball between the tackles but now catches a break sometimes by hauling in the short, high-percentage passes for bigger gains and less punishment.

The proliferation of points really starts with the almighty dollar, suggests former NFL player and head coach Herm Edwards, now an ESPN analyst.

"You're not going to pay a quarterback $15 million and tell him to turn around and hand the ball off," Edwards said. "You're not going to play the left tackle $8 million to run block.

"So, let's not lose sight of the math."

Or the replacement officials, for that matter.

There have been 45 pass interference flags thrown so far, compared with 31 through two weeks last year, 24 in 2010 and 18 in 2009, according to STATS LLC. So, drives are staying alive.

Even though they're throwing plenty of flags, the replacements are also letting a lot of contact go, Edwards said.

"It's great. I love watching it because they're letting them play football," he said. "They're hitting receivers downfield a little longer, they're holding onto to them, the receivers are pushing, corners grabbing a little bit. That's how the game used to be played."

Other players point to the dearth of flags for offensive holding, although Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh isn't so sure the regular officials would do things any differently.

"Holding has always been a part of this game and I've known that since an early age. At this level, as well as the college level, it's seldom called," Suh said. "It's just a part of the game."

Nobody seems to expect the scoring will slow down anytime soon.

Las Vegas casinos predict this weekend's NFL games will be the highest-scoring ever thanks to the replacement officials. Oddsmakers say casinos are changing their expectations as the rookie officials add new variables to the game, changing its pace and the approaches taken by players and coaches alike.

Gambling expert RJ Bell of Pregame.com says casinos expect an average of 46.1 points per game for Week 3 — the highest projected total ever for Las Vegas casinos.

Edwards said this offensive explosion is bound to slow down eventually. He noted that defenders are just starting to build up their stamina after playing sparingly in the preseason, and they'll adjust.

And when the weather changes, the game will, too, he said.

"When the leaves fall off the trees and it gets a little colder, it slows down," Edwards said. "Guys get banged up and it's a long season. Early now, if you play spread offense, you've got a chance. Guys aren't in condition, keep the defense on the field. But it's like anything else, the great thing about football, we all adjust."

Denver defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio isn't so sure the pendulum will ever swing all the way back.

"The way some of the rules have been put in place, I think they're definitely there with the idea of making the game a little more exciting and to create some scoring," Del Rio said. "But we're going to do all we can to battle that."

The league has changed the rules over the years to protect the quarterback and his receivers, making it illegal to hit them in certain areas. That's made it harder for defenses to do their thing.

"It's hard to get your hands on people, you can't touch people," Broncos safety Jim Leonhard said. "And then you see with the spread, and getting athletes and big receivers, if you can't touch them, they always have the advantage, whereas you used to be able to get up and get physical.

"There used to be a fear coming across the middle, whether it was receivers, whether it was tight ends. You had to think twice about throwing it in there," Leonhard said. "Now, you don't."

Of course, not all the news is bad for defenses.

They've actually contributed to this scoring surge, collecting a half-dozen interception returns for touchdowns and two fumble returns for scores to go with two blocked punts that resulted in TDs.

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AP Sports Writers Dave Skretta, Chris Duncan, Joe Kay, Joseph White, John Wawrow, Larry Lage, Dennis Waszak Jr., Teresa Walker, R.B. Fallstrom, Associated Press Writer Oskar Garcia and AP freelancer Scott Held contributed to this story.

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Follow AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Melendrez Stapleton on Twitter: http://twitter.com/arniestapleton

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