THE NFL / BILL PLASCHKE : Defenders Learning to Turn the Corner

A daring cornerback, whose first name appropriately begins with D, will swagger onto a field in a Southern city this weekend with the ability to change a game in one glance, one jerk, one pick.

Deion Sanders?

No, Darryll Lewis of the Houston Oilers.

Another fearless cornerback, whose first name appropriately begins with D, will swagger onto a field this weekend intending to haunt a run-and-shoot quarterback until he crashes and burns.

Deion Sanders?

No, Donnell Woolford of the Chicago Bears.

Sanders is indeed back Sunday, joining the Dallas Cowboys in Atlanta against the Falcons in the opening parade of a 15-week circus.

But Sanders' impact has been felt all season as cornerbacks and defenses have emulated his skills and turned their position from grit to glamour.

As long as there have been passes, cornerbacks have had interceptions. But this season, running with those interceptions has become an art.

Every week, it seems, somebody is dancing into an end zone with the opposing team's momentum stuck to his cleats.

So far this year, one of every 262 passes has been intercepted and returned for a touchdown.

Last season, before Sanders had won a Super Bowl, one of every 397.5 passes was intercepted and returned for a touchdown.

The explanation for this startling difference is simple: Everybody is trying to be like Deion.

"Cornerbacks aren't jealous, we love Deion. He's the best," said the Oilers' Lewis, who could be headed to his first Pro Bowl as he is tied for the league lead with five interceptions, one of which he returned 98 yards for a touchdown last week in Chicago.

"Deion can take control of a game like nobody else," Lewis said. "That's what all cornerbacks are trying to do these days."

And their coaches are helping them by running drills in which the quarterback passes to a cornerback, then defensive linemen block for that cornerback as he runs upfield.

"It's one of those trends," said Tony Dungy, Minnesota Viking defensive coordinator. "There was a time when cornerbacks didn't have great hands. Now, they all have great hands, and we spend a lot of time working on catching the ball and running with it."

Game breakers? Check out five of the 29 interceptions that have been returned for touchdowns this season:

--Sept. 10, St. Louis: Todd Lyght's 29-yard scoring interception return breaks open a close home opener for the Rams against the New Orleans Saints, winning over the new fans who have since grown louder.

--Sept. 17, Kansas City--James Hasty of the Chiefs stokes a rivalry by beating the Oakland Raiders with a 64-yard interception return in overtime.

--Oct. 1, Pittsburgh--Steelers Willie Williams and Alvoid Mays return interceptions 63 and 32 yards for touchdowns in the first quarter to begin a rout of the still-shaken San Diego Chargers.

--Oct. 22, Cleveland--Mickey Washington's 48-yard return for a touchdown for the Jacksonville Jaguars against the Cleveland Browns leads to Vinny Testaverde's benching this week.

--Oct. 22, Washington--Darrell Green's pick and seven-yard touchdown return for the Redskins beats the Detroit Lions in overtime, and probably seals Lion Coach Wayne Fontes' fate.

MIDWEST SUNDRIES

On Tuesday, Bengal Coach Dave Shula said of Barry Foster: "The guy's a worker." Twenty-four hours later, the guy was a quitter.

Believe what you want, but Foster didn't return a $300,000 check and walk away because he didn't feel he could play. It was because he didn't feel wanted. And he wasn't.

"I don't want to disturb the chemistry here," Foster said before leaving. "Harold Green and Eric Bieniemy are running hard."

Earlier this season, Shula pushed hard to sign Foster. But that was before near misses against the Miami Dolphins and Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the victory at Pittsburgh last week.

Considering that only three of their remaining nine games are against teams with winning records--and they get the Raiders, Bears and Vikings at home--the Bengals have a legitimate chance at an AFC Central title. Even with the league's 19th-ranked rushing offense, Shula worried that Foster's presence would foul that up.

This is assuming, of course, that the Bengals can beat the war-torn Browns on Sunday. And why not? Knowing this could be the loss that finally clinches the firing of Coach Bill Belichick, the Browns could tank it.

After all, Brown owner Art Modell, who does not exchange Christmas cards with Bengal owner Mike Brown, fired Sam Rutigliano the day after a loss in Cincinnati in the middle of the 1984 season.

And Belichick, after the embarrassing loss to the Jaguars, is ripe to be plucked. Why?

--Belichick has benched Testaverde in the middle of Testaverde's best season. Testaverde ranked fifth in the AFC in passer ratings at 89.7, more than 20 points higher than his career average.

Belichick said he made the change from Testaverde to Eric Zeier because he wanted to juice things up.

Instead, he ripped things apart.

The difference between this benching and the release of Bernie Kosar in 1993 is that Kosar had struggled most of the season and was on the decline. Testaverde's star has never been higher.

--Belichick has failed to communicate with wide receiver Andre Rison, a $17-million barker who is not only dropping touchdown passes but forgetting to show up for meetings.

--Belichick has allowed a defense to get old and tired. He let Michael Dean Perry walk to Denver, where Perry has become one of the Broncos' inspirational leaders, while linebackers Carl Banks and Pepper Johnson are suddenly playing like two old guys with a combined 22 years' experience.

WESTERN DO-DADS

Remember Rod Smith, the Bronco wide receiver who caught the game-winning, 43-yard touchdown pass from John Elway against the Washington Redskins on the last play of one of the most dramatic games this seasons? That was Sept. 17, Week 3.

Smith is still waiting to catch another pass. Heck, he's still waiting for Elway to autograph the ball.

"It seems like almost a year ago," Smith said.

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After eight games last season, Joe Montana of the Chiefs had thrown for 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions. After eight games this season, his replacement, Steve Bono, has thrown for 15 touchdowns and four interceptions. Montana ran for no touchdowns. Bono has run for three. Montana was 5-3. Bono is 7-1.

We aren't saying Bono is better than Montana. But so far, Bono is certainly the best quarterback in the quarterback-heavy AFC West.

The worst? No competition. The Seattle Seahawks' Rick Mirer, who has been benched this week for the first time in his career. And we mean career, including the sandlots of Indiana.

The Seahawks' new offense, which was supposed to spotlight Mirer, has instead smothered him. In his last three games he has thrown eight interceptions that have been converted into 40 points.

"I felt he needed to step back," said Dennis Erickson, the Seahawk coach who is barely treading water himself.

How far back? If Mirer is still on the bench on Dec. 15, could the Seahawks think twice about giving him a check for $3.334 million, which would be due on that date to ensure his presence on the team through the 1997 season? If they don't pay, he becomes a free agent. What would you do?

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The More Things Change . . . At the game in Oakland last weekend between the Raiders and Indianapolis Colts, a woman mooned the crowd.

From a luxury box.

QUICK KICKS

* AS IF HE WOULD KNOW? Warren Sapp, Tampa Bay Buccaneer defensive tackle, said scoring his first NFL touchdown on an interception return last week was "like having a child."

* AT QUARTERBACK, THE REV. SUN MYUNG MOON: In a bizarre promotion at halftime of last week's game in Tampa between the Buccaneers and Atlanta Falcons, 202 couples were scheduled to be either married or repeat their vows on the field.

In typical Buccaneer fashion, 30 couples got cold feet and split.

* THANK YOU, JOHN ROBINSON: Because Notre Dame beat USC last weekend, former Trojans Tony Boselli and Rob Johnson paid off a bet by wearing Fighting Irish caps in the Jacksonville locker room all week.

This was after they gathered Monday at the locker of Golden Domer Steve Beuerlein and sang the Notre Dame fight song.

* BAD TIMING: After three consecutive losses, four Miami Dolphins "regrouped" by chartering a plane to Cleveland on Tuesday's day off to watch Game 3 of the World Series.

Terry Kirby, whose brother Wayne plays for the Indians, arranged for tickets for O.J. McDuffie, Keith Byars and Eric Green.

The plane returned to Ft. Lauderdale at 4:30 a.m., about four hours before the players were scheduled to show up at the team's practice facility.

If looking for evidence that perhaps Don Shula has grown too soft, begin your survey here.

* THE PRESENT AND FUTURE JERRY RICE: With 73 yards receiving against the New Orleans Saints on Sunday--he'll get that practically on the first drive--the 49ers' Jerry Rice will become the NFL's leader in receiving yardage with 14,005, breaking the mark set by James Lofton.

With 150 yards receiving in Philadelphia, Isaac Bruce of the St. Louis Rams will become the first player in NFL history to record four consecutive games at that level or better.

* BUT NEVER THE TWO SHALL MEET: Last week, Todd Kinchen of the Rams said that he thought Bruce was better than Rice.

This week, Kinchen reportedly stood up in front of his team and apologized.

* OK, SO NOT EVERY DB RESPECTS HIM: James Washington, Washington Redskin safety, said this upon returning to the field this week after sitting out four games because of a strained groin.

"I haven't hit anybody in four weeks. I kind of feel like Deion Sanders."

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