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Youthful vet fuels fierce Miami D

By ERNEST HOOPER

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 10, 2000


Have a conversation with Trace Armstrong and you immediately get the impression he could run for senator. When you hear him articulate issues as president of the NFL Players Association, it's easy to apply the label "elder statesmen."

But perhaps you should take away "elder." True, Armstrong is 35, but with 10 sacks he's playing like a youthful defender. On Sunday, Armstrong had 31/2 sacks against Buffalo, a team for which he always gears up.

"Whenever we play Buffalo, I always think about that playoff game in 1995 when they pounded us," Armstrong said. "That's why you savor a game like (Sunday's). As you get near the end of your career, you appreciate it all the more."

Armstrong has 92 sacks in 12 seasons, 50 since being traded from Chicago to Miami by current Dolphins coach Dave Wannstedt. But he's not alone. Armstrong is part of a rotating six-man line that is giving opponents fits. Defensive ends Kenny Mixon and Jason Taylor and tackles Tim Bowens and Jermaine Haley play primarily on run downs. Armstrong and Rich Owens come in on passing downs. Haley, a rookie, has negated the loss of Darryl Gardner.

The combination doomed any chance Buffalo had of winning. The Bills managed to complete six passes of 20 yards of more, but what a price they had to pay: Starter Rob Johnson was so banged up he couldn't finish. For the day, Bills quarterbacks were sacked six times.

The defensive line also led a unit that returned a fumble for a touchdown and came up with an interception. Bills running backs were held to 32 yards on 17 carries.

Overall, the defense has produced 24 sacks, 6 fumbles and 10 interceptions while allowing a paltry 51 points in five games. Miami appears to be in a position to challenge for the AFC East after most people thought this would be a transition year with a new coach in Wannstedt and a new quarterback in Jay Fiedler.

Linebacker Zach Thomas was quick to remind reporters the Dolphins were 5-1 last season before ending 8-8.

"We did the same thing last year, starting fast, and we know it all fell apart," Thomas said. "Coming into the season with no (Dan) Marino, no Jimmy Johnson, nobody thought we'd be where we'd be.

"I didn't understand how people would say we'd be terrible. It's early and we know what we've done in the past, so let's not do it again. We're not going to get too happy."

WE WANT DOUG?: Rob Johnson played valiantly against the Dolphins, but the bottom line is the Bills are 2-3. With the running game struggling and protection becoming a major problem, it might be time to turn to Doug Flutie.

Johnson has a stronger arm, throws the better deep ball and is nimble enough to lead the Bills in rushing. All that said, you can't ignore the fact that Flutie always has found ways to pull out victories for Buffalo. It's the one ability Johnson has not shown.

PUNCHLESS PACKERS: A year after firing Ray Rhodes in part because he finished 8-8, Green Bay appears well on its way to another 8-8 season. Or worse. After Sunday's loss to Detroit, the Packers are 2-4 with two games left against both Minnesota and Tampa Bay, plus Miami, Indianapolis and Carolina outside the NFC Central.

That isn't to say new coach Mike Sherman is doing a bad job, but it is to say that perhaps the Packers' problems go beyond coaching. Offensive line woes have plagued Green Bay all season. The team struggles to run, and Brett Favre has been sacked 17 times. Detroit sacked him four times and hit him twice as many times.

Injuries are a factor, but the truth is the combination of free-agent departures and questionable offensive line selections in the draft has left Green Bay in a world of trouble.

Center Adam Timmerman and guard Aaron Taylor are making a living elsewhere. First-round pick John Michaels didn't develop and is gone.

Supplemental draft pick Mike Wahle is struggling at offensive tackle and guard Marco Rivera had problems containing defensive tackle Luther Elliss on Sunday. It may get worse before it gets better: guard Ross Verba may leave in free agency after this season, center Frank Winters isn't getting any younger and tackle Earl Dotson's back injury is potentially career threatening.

Ron Wolf's recent drafts have not yielded as many impact players as you might expect. His lower picks have proved fruitful, but the high picks have been average, at best.

It all adds up to too much pressure on Favre. It's clear Favre can no longer win games on his own, and it's quite possible that as long as running back Dorsey Levens is out, so are the Packers.

KUDOS: To Richard Williamson, the new play-caller for Carolina who rejuvenated the Panthers with what coach George Seifert called "basic plays that we've had in our arsenal." ... To the Giants' Jason Sehorn, who had his best game of the season against former roommate Danny Kanell. Sehorn had his first interception of the season and broke up five passes, including a desperate toss by the Falcons' Kanell at the end of the game.

-- Information from Times wires was used in this report.

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