by Rick Venturi

On the eve of the 2011 season, with the exhausting collective bargaining agreement winding down, the focus of our attention goes to the field where games are actually won and lost. For all of us, Sunday afternoons and Monday nights define the game. The most important day of the week is game day, but to a coach, the second biggest day of game week is Tuesday. Tuesday is the day coaches ponder over game tape, computer reports, and verbal discussions in the construction of a game plan.
It is also the day you determine which of the opponent's players are the difference makers and which players demand special game-plan considerations. When a player demanded my special attention on Tuesday, he inevitably caused me to lose sleep that night. These players fell into a special category I referred to as Ambien players. As we know, Ambien is the popular sleep medication that helps people get to sleep when they can't do it on their own.
In my three-decade career in the NFL, four individuals and one offense formed my "Hall of Fame" Ambien Tuesday night team. The four players were Mike Vick, John Elway, Randy Moss and Barry Sanders, with the offense being the Rams' terrific "Greatest Show on Turf." These five entities all kept me sleep deprived because they demanded special plans and great execution to stop them.
If I were preparing to coach in the NFC West in 2011, I would be creating a list of sleep deprivers. To begin the list, our hometown Rams have two guys, Sam Bradford and Steven Jackson. Bradford is a great young player who can make every throw. His football IQ is off the charts, so he will only grow as a dissector of defenses. What makes Bradford the bigger problem is his ability to throw on the run, which allows him to extend plays, and stresses the defense beyond normal limits. Jackson's strength, power, and explosiveness are really tough on defenses, particularly when he gets breakouts into under-matched defensive backs.
The one player not on the list, an honorable mention and guy to watch, is defensive end Chris Long. With his move to the left side and vastly improved play in 2010, he needs watching. He is much better equipped to overmatch the normal weaker right tackle, and could take off in 2011.
San Francisco brings the three impact guys to the party. Middle linebacker Patrick Willis is a force on tackling alone, but his ability to blitz and intercept puts him on another level. You don't want him near the ball at crunch time, or you will lose it. Vernon Davis is a rare combination of speed, size and athleticism. He creates a matchup problem for linebackers and safeties. Any coverage you play will take adjusting to Davis or you have problems. The third player is running back Frank Gore. Gore runs with an unusual low center of gravity and forces your defensive line and linebackers to play with an unusual low pad level. The separating factor with Gore is he can still break it, so you can never be sloppy on your cupping mechanism on breakouts.
Seattle is a team without a lot of skilled players, but they have three dangerous men. The most dangerous is kick returner Leon Washington. He can score from anywhere on the field and demands total attention on special-teams coverage. Running back Marshawn Lynch's performance in the Seahawks' playoff game against New Orleans defined his immense ability. He can be a monster, and embarrassed the proud Saints secondary. Prepare your big-boy pads when you get ready for him in 2011. The third Seahawks player is their emerging star safety Earl Thomas. Thomas is the best safety ballhawk to come out of college in years, and had an early impact on their defense. In clutch situations, you must be careful with the ball in his area. You must look him off to slow down his jump on the ball.
Arizona's wide receiver, Larry Fitzgerald, is right at the top of the impact players in the entire league. In 2010, he was handicapped with a lingering knee issue, and lacked a reliable arm to get him the ball. When at full strength, this nightmare is a huge matchup problem. He is literally impossible for a small corner to handle, and demands double coverage in key third-down and red-zone situations. Safety Adrian Wilson brings impact blitzing and ball-hawking ability to the Cardinals. You must identify and account for him on every play. The third Cardinal, defensive tackle Darnell Dockett, can ruin a game for an offense. Though inconsistent at times, this guy can overmatch most guards in the league with his rare combination of speed, power, and explosiveness. With his ability to rush the passer, your third-down pass protection problem must include providing help on Dockett.
As you prepare to watch the approaching battles in the NFC West, keep your eyes on these 11 guys and how they impact the 2011 season. Oh! And check out the Tuesday morning Ambien sales in St. Louis, San Francisco, Seattle, and Phoenix.