’88 Cincinnati Bengals: What Is A Champion?? What Does One Look Like??

1988 AFC Championship Ring: Bengals 21-10 over Buffalo

Are you a champion only because you won the championship over your competition? Can there be another definition for one?? Are you to tell me that before 1985, Walter Payton wasn’t a champion? I remember Aeneas Williams firing up his Arizona Cardinals sometime around 1999, when he gathered his team and said “Champions aren’t born in the ring, they’re (only) recognized there”.  Why do I ask these questions, I think there are other definitions of a champion.  To show a champion’s will to win.  To not concede to the onslaught of another team even when you’re hopelessly behind. The greatest efforts of championship teams gone by weren’t games they won they were games that they lost.

On multiple occasions I heard Michael Irvin, Troy Aikman, and Emmitt Smith speak with the most pride on how they handled the ’94 NFC Championship Game.  They fell behind 21-0 in the last game before trying for the elusive Super Bowl 3-peat. Against the 1993 Pro Bowl defense (6 defensive signees) geared to stop them they fought on and came within a controversial call of coming back in that game, losing 38-28.

Jack Lambert and the Late Art Rooney Sr. spoke reverently of their beloved 1976 Steelers who did not win the Super Bowl.  This defense was the reason that the rule changes of ’78 took place to open the passing game. In an 8 game stretch to finish the ’76 season, the Steelers gave up only 28 points and shut out 5 of their last 8 opponents to catch the Bengals and make the playoffs. They lost in the AFC Championship Game to the Oakland Raiders 24-7 because BOTH Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier, who each rushed for 1,000 yards in ’76, missed the championship game. Many including the Steelers themselves hold this team with a greater degree of pride than the 4 teams that did win it.

What are we getting at here? A champion is defined by the magnificence of their effort no matter the odds.  Our society loses sight of this from time to time.  Please don’t misunderstand this as though winning it all isn’t the ultimate, just saying that there are even greater stories of those who put in a monumental effort only to come up a tad short.  Yet they maximized all they could give…which is what we all teach to kids all over. Give all you can and that is all you can do… so without further adieu we bring you a story of one of those great champions in the 1988 Cincinnati Bengals.

SUPER BOWL XXIII RUNNER UP 1988 CINCINNATI BENGALS <————-CLICK LINK (Word 2007 Document)

This story is from an upcoming book.

Thanks for reading,

**TOMORROW’S ARTICLE: 2011 Minnesota Vikings preview**

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2011 Kansas City Chiefs Preview

What produces a good team?  Is it based upon the accumulation of top shelf talent or can you coach a lesser talented team with top shelf coaching?  Head Coach Todd Haley put together a staff with 3 former head coaches with multiple Super Bowl rings from the 00’s Patriots and 1980s New York Giants. Did you know that current defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel has 5 Super Bowl rings?  Yet is overlooked when it comes to credit in formulating defensive gameplans and getting the most out of moderate talent.  The Chiefs lost Charlie Weiss, who went back to the college ranks with the Florida Gators.  Yet the offense he leaves behind was the sparkplug that powered this team to a 10-6 record and the AFC West Divisional Crown.  Haley, who was the former offensive coordinator for the 2008 NFC Champion Cardinals, should have more of a hand in the play calling.  Can the Chiefs improve on the rapid rise and improvement shown in 2010?  Has the talent on this team developed enough to take the next step?

Quarterback: Time to enter the confessional: How many of you were thinking Matt Cassel was the second coming of Scott Mitchell or Rob Johnson? Quarterbacks who filled in for an injured starter, played well, parlayed it into a big free agent contract, then faltered with his new team. Well after a lukewarm 2009 in which Cassel tossed 16 TDs and 16 interceptions, he improved dramatically in his single season under Weiss. Cassel tossed 27 TDs with only 7 interceptions while moving his passer rating to a respectable 8th in the NFL. His improvement from 69.9 in 2009, to 93 was the best turnaround in all of pro football.  These numbers even top his 2008 campaign when he filled in for Tom Brady and led the Patriots to a surprising 11-5 season, which included a 5 game winning streak to conclude the season. Going into his 7th season,, he is entering his prime as a signal caller. One way to get to Cassel is to rush him from his front side.  He seems to throw the ball away or pull it down prematurely at times when he has a split second to complete the throw.  Even though he’s intelligent enough to know when to throw it away, this contributed to his ranking of 18th in passing yards per attempt (6.9yd avg.) along with his dumpoffs. He’s a little quick to move his feet from a throwing position.  So time your front side overload blitzes and jump his short routes when you do.  The Ravens were affective with this in last year’s wildcard playoff loss. Otherwise he can play action pass the Chiefs to efficient drives and to narrow wins. Arrowhead stadium has its most effective quarterback since Len Dawson and quarterback is good in Kansas City.

Offensive Backfield:  This team is set at running back with the continued development of Jamaal Charles. Entering his 4th season he is averaging a whopping 6.0 yards per carry over 3 seasons. His 1,467 yards last year was 2nd in the NFL while snaring 45 receptions for another 468 yards, scoring 8 times overall. His yards per reception average of 10.4 shows you can’t discount Charles in the passing game.  You had better bring some healthy, in shape linebackers to  play Kansas City or you might be in for a long day. At 5’11 199 lbs., it was thought by some that Charles may not be tough enough between the tackles, coming into the NFL.  Last year showed his 1,100 yard season in 2009 was no fluke. He started only 5 games last year and the Chiefs are doing the right thing playing him with 2 backs sharing the workload otherwise Charles might break down.  This keeps Charles fresh and allows him to break big plays once the Chiefs opponents start to wear down. Many good years ahead for this talent from Texas.

One thing we can’t come to grips with at the Taylor Blitz Times is why teams have let Thomas Jones go when he has been so productive? The last two stops he was let go by teams fearing he’d get old on them and not perform which is nuts if you see this guy out of uniform.  In his last year with the Bears in 2006, he led the Bears to the Super Bowl rushing for 1,210 yards. He even ran for 112 yards in Super Bowl XLI, which was the first time since Thurman Thomas in Super Bowl XXV to do so. In his last year with the Jets in 2009, he rushed for 1,402  yards and 14 TDs, leading the Jets to the AFC Championship game.  Then released after those two years?? Are you kiddin’ me? Its no coincidence that Jones physical running style embodied the attitude of his team’s offense on a 3rd successive team that made the playoffs.  Last year was the first time in 6 years Jones didn’t cross the 1,000 yard threshold finishing with 896.

First glance at his 3.7 yard average per rush, you’d think he was slowing down when in reality he carried the ball in all obvious running situations.  The Chiefs may benefit themselves by not telegraphing that they are always going to run when Jones is on the field.  Make no mistake that Jones is in the twilight of his career. Yet this is an extreme physical specimen who keeps himself in great shape with a body weight lifters could be proud of. So even at the age of 32 we expect him to have at least two good years left in him with the current situation.  With teams focusing a little more on Cassel, WR Bowe, and first round draft pick in Pitt wideout Jonathon Baldwin, expect him to cross the 1,000 yard threshold yet again.  As a matter of fact the Chiefs may post the first 1,000 yard rushing tandem in AFC West history.  Rushing the football over 500 times last year, yikes. At running back, Kansas City is Super Bowl quality…better bring some linebackers with “big boy” pads on to play them too.

Receivers: The Chiefs wanted to ensure that teams couldn’t concentrate solely on Dewayne Bowe last year by running effectively, and this year by drafting him a running mate in Pitt’s Jonathon Baldwin.  As for Bowe, he had an explosive year pulling in 72 receptions for 1,162 yards and 15 TDs.  A physical specimen at 6’2 221lbs with good speed, is only going into his 5th season and should be there for the Chiefs for years to come.  With a strong running game to force more 8 man fronts Bowe had a field day against undersized DBs. With the addition of 6’4 228 lbs Baldwin, the Chiefs will field one of football’s largest set of receivers. They will be a team that can move the chains yet we have to see how Bowe comes back after this lockout.  If he’s worked out fiendishly so that his hamstrings hold up, he will be the deep threat with Baldwin the itermediate target. With wideouts this big Oakland had better think twice about Namedi getting out of town as a corner.

The Chiefs are serviceable at TE with Leonard Pope and Tony Moeaki combining for 57 receptions and 5 TDs. Its hard to think of that being productive after Tony Gonzalez manned this spot for so long but these guys are better blockers.  Also 3rd down back Dexter McCluster ate into some of this group’s production running the up and under routes that the tight end would usually run.  With some of the division’s defenses in flux, this should be a good receiving group in Kansas City.

Offensive Line: After leading the NFL in rushing attempts (556), rushing yards (2,627), and finishing tied for 4th in rushing attempts with a 4.7 yards per carry average, this team comes off the ball with consistency.  The seven man sled is alive and well in Kansas City practices.  This team had 72 runs of over 10 yards or more and pushed for first downs on 3rd or 4th and 2, 73% of the time up the gut. Coach Haley has to love that!  How they only had one Pro Bowl lineman in LG Brian Waters is embarrassing.  As always it takes the league 1 year after a performance to recognize emerging talent.  With a heavy dose of running the football, you have to say RG Ryan Lilja and RT Barry Richardson are getting the job done.  They are in their 7th and 3rd years respectively and should be able to maintain their level of play for the foreseeable future.

One of the ways to get after the Kansas City offensive line is to get on top of this team by 7 or more points.  Since they are a heavy run offense they aren’t conditioned to come back or protect the quarterback for extended drives consisting of a majority of passing.  This team ranked 12th in the NFL allowing 32 sacks, and 18th allowing 74 hits on the quarterback.  So they are better suited in pushing off the ball than they are at protecting the passer.  With this line I’d definitely overload blitz in the face of Matt Cassell who gets the ball out a tad early which couples with the tendency that he gets hit a lot on dropbacks.  All told this team has a lot of leads and stays committed to the run so they don’t fall too far behind.  Offensive line is superior in Kansas City and may be a shade better than New England.

Defensive Line: Surprisingly the Chiefs aren’t getting the return they had originally envisioned in DE Glenn Dorsey out of LSU.  This is partially the team’s fault for drafting a 3 technique 4-3 tackle then converting to a 3-4 defense the next season.  He got caught in the middle, just ask former Green Bay Packer DE Aaron Kampman.  Now that isn’t an excuse for an anemic showing with only 2 sacks in nickle situations when they employ 4 man fronts, but he isn’t effective as a DE.  The Chiefs should trade him to a team committed at a 4-3 defense like Chicago, Minnesota, Atlanta, or home to New Orleans and getting something in return.  His build is conducive to be a “rooter”, to shove the middle of a pass pocket and not come from the additional 3 yards away at DE. Since the Chiefs are 14th in rushing yards allowed and average with 1,764 and 4.3 respectively they could use more help on this line.

The combined 5.5 sacks amongst the front 3 needs to be higher, especially for a defense that should be that rested on a team that ran the most in the NFL. DT Ron Edwards and DE Shaun Smith are decent players yet could improve as pass rushers.  The issue is that in year’s 9 and 6 respectively, this is as good as they will be and play for the aging Edwards could slip. To that avail the Chiefs drafted specimen Allen Bailey from Miami to help with that interior push.  The question is where will they play him.  He seems suitable to rush from the inside on nickle and dime packages with his explosion and strength. He should be able to play special teams to keep him engaged in games but again his body type doesn’t lend to a DE, maybe part time DT. He could be disruptive if he learns to fight better with his hands.  The defensive line is slightly below average yet it could make a few strides this season if Bailey disrupts on 3rd down.

Linebackers: The Patriots flat out gave Scott Pioli and the Chiefs brass a gift when they traded Mike Vrabel to them.  A heady linebacker who’s veteran leadership and 3 Super Bowl rings give him the locker room clout to have the ear of his younger teammates. He has shown invaluable in helping the Chiefs grow up fast under Romeo Crennel’s watch.  He is showing signs of wear in not making any splash plays but he just made the right ones yet father time may be catching this 14th year vet. Star of this defense is Tamba Hali closing in at the right side OLB spot.  The Chiefs were hoping he’d improve on his 2009 and he didn’t disappoint charting 14.5 sacks (1st in AFC) and second in the league to DeMarcus Ware with 15. Hali forced 4 fumbles, recovered 2 and knocked down 3 passes and should have been to the Pro Bowl.  He’s only 27 years of age and has steadily improved with now 3 years with over 8 sacks.  Only going to get better.

Inside linebacker Derrick Johnson #56 led the team with 120 combined tackles and returned his only interception for a TD.  He gets to the football and along with Jovan Belcher’s 84 tackles this may be the best younger set of inside ‘backers in all of football.  Combined they had 2 sacks and 4 forced fumbles bringing some thump with their tackles.  Belcher was a rookie and Johnson is only entering his 6th season.  Couple that with the ages of the Jets and Raven’s inside tandem and this could be the AFC’s best within a year or two.  Linebacker is really good in Kansas City.

Secondary: Of all the playoff teams out of the AFC last year, the Chiefs were fair larsonists with 11 interceptions between their starters. They had solid play out of free safeties John McGraw and Kendrick Lewis who combined for 5 interceptions and benefitted from teams throwing away from Pro Bowl SS Eric Berry.  In 2010 Berry had 4 interceptions while making 87 tackles.  Of his 4 interceptions he did take one back for a pick 6 from 54 yards out.  This guy is a playmaker.  At the corner position, high draft pick Javier Arenas could only make the field in obvious passing situations as a nickle back. Why?? Ask the Chiefs brass about the play of corners Brandon Flower with 14passes defensed, and Brandon Carr’s 23.  An active group.  Now throw in Arenas’ 7 passes defensed and 1 interception to go along with the 2 Brandon’s 3 picks and teams had better not throw into this secondary.  With their top three corners all being 24 years old or less, this is the best secondary fielded by the Chiefs since the million dollar secondary of Kevin Ross, Albert Lewis, Lloyd Burrus, and Deron Cherry of mid to late 80s fame.  Superior is the only grade to be given out here and if this team can get another pass rusher to force more errant throws….yikes!!

Overall: Still the best in the AFC West, and if they could take something from the intensity they faced in the wild card round against Baltimore, this team could be headed to the AFC Championship Game or beyond.  Last year early on the question was were they as good as their 3-0 record. They weren’t.  They were better as evidenced by their 5-2 stretch to win the division crown when the pressure was on at the end of the season.  As strong as they are in the phases of running the football and defending the pass, if they get a lead its curtains.  They are well coached and they could make a conference splash this year if age shows up in Pittsburgh and Baltimore.  A team with no obvious weaknesses that has to see Head Coach Haley scout himself and not get pass happy with another big target opposite Bowe. He could get flashbacks to his offensive co ordinator days with the Arizona Cardinals and take to the air.

Careful Coach Haley, you have a good thing building in Kansas City and this team could make a Super Bowl run in these next two seasons.  One of the chances for this team to see growth is in week 10 with a Monday night matchup in New England.  Kansas City comes through with a win there in a championship building block game, this team could be the AFC’s sleeper.  I know that sounds crazy to say of a possible two time division champion, but they are not the sexy pick and most pundits would list them as the 5th or 6th best AFC team. They should finish with a record of 11-5 or 12-4 with another AFC West Title. Plenty of bar-b-que and handwarmers come playoff time in Kansas City.

2011 Indianapolis Colts Preview

Even though it doesn’t feel like it, the Colts had a successful season.  After coming up short in Super Bowl XLIV, they did come back and win the AFC South and battled until the bitter end:  a wild card loss to the New York Jets.  Peyton Manning masked so many deficiencies that the Colts were convinced they were formidable, yet a closer look reveals a pro football team that needs to be rebuilt.  The Colts won 115 games in the decade of the 2000s and the constant low picks have loaded the roster with decent talent, not top shelf talent.  Once injuries hit this group, a legitimate chance at returning to the Super Bowl was reduced to that of a puncher’s chance.  The Colts held off the rest of the AFC South last year but lets face it the entire division regressed or imploded.  Can they stave off the Houston Texans who seem to be the heir apparent in becoming the division’s most dominant team??

Qarterback: The Colts trigger -man going into his 15th season is one of the league’s elder statesmen in Peyton Manning.  We forget to think of him in terms of tenure until you realize that in Manning’s rookie season he was handing the ball off to Marshall Faulk before being traded and the Greatest Show on Turf was even in existence.  Yet here we are with Faulk retired and elected to the Hall of Fame and Manning is still throwing bombs in Indianapolis.  Last year Manning had to institute a short passing game to offset the Colts inability to run consistently and had a good year.  Throwing for 450 completions on 679 attempts for 4,700 yards, 33TDs and 17 interceptions was good enough for 10th with a 91.9 rating.  His ability to audible and read what a defenses true intentions were have aided the offensive line and he was only sacked 16 times.  He led the league in completions and attempts while ranking second behind Drew Brees in completion percentage with 66.3%.   All things must come to an end and how long can Manning continue to play at such a high level?

So what is the book on defending Peyton Manning? Many teams have tried and had success in disguising their intentions until under 10 seconds left in the play clock and then sending exotic blitzes at him.  Thus robbing the QB of adequate time to audible.  Defenders are jumping on the short routes without any Colts burners to throw the ball deep to.  The Ravens and Jets have carried on this approach against Manning after the Patriots used it for much of the decade of the 2000s to deny him Super Bowl trips.  If you can get some hits on Manning early, he will get happy feet and uncharacteristically will force a throw.  He relies on the receivers having the same sight adjustments and occasionally has to take the gamble that his receiver will get there.  See the Tracy Porter interception that sealed the Colts fate in Super Bowl XLIV against the Saints as evidence of this.

That withstanding,  he is a future Hall of Famer and has a couple years left in his prime before he sees his skills diminish any.  Right now he is the only serious weapon in the Colts arsenal.  Can he play well enough that he can continue to mask the team’s other deficiencies?  The window may have closed on that….Still Super Bowl quality at quarterback in Indy.

Offensive Backfield: Remember the perennial 1,000 yard seasons from Edgerrin James (The U) that gave the Colts a formidable rushing attack?? Seems like a distant memory now that for the last several seasons its been a committee carrying the load in Joseph Addai, Dominic Rhodes, Mike Hart, and Donald Brown out of UConn.  This group underperformed in 2010 and thrust the pressure onto the passing game.  Colts backs rushed for a total of 1,440 yards on 383 carries for an average of 3.7 yards where league average is 4.0.  Not good enough.

This group couldn’t stay on the field and were bitten by the injury bug repeatedly during the season.  Starter Joseph Addai may be better served as a change of pace running back.  He doesn’t seem to have the heft to take the pounding of an every down back and has missed games during the last few seasons.  However he averaged 4.3 yds on his carries gaining 495 yards during the 2010 campaign.  If he were spelling another back these would be satisfactory numbers.  As a lead back this isn’t enough seeing that others had to carry the load on the other 267 Colt rushing attempts.  Going into his 6th season he looks like injuries are slowing him some and this team needs a Grade A running back to do the heavy lifting.

Donald Brown filled in admirably and ran for 471 yards yet ran in a more mechanical fashion.  He didn’t run as instinctual as he had back at Connecticut and ran up the backs of his blockers, or arrived too early to where the hole was going to be.  He only averaged 3.7 yards on his 126 carries once Addai went down.  He seemed to turn a corner late in the season against Jacksonville when he rushed for a season high 129 yards on 14 carries.  Javarris James, Edgerrin’s nephew, played well as a 3rd down back and rushed for 6 of the Colts 13 rushing touchdowns usually out of passing formations.

We should see the Colts go for their first marquee running back in this months draft since picking Faulk and James two decades ago. This team needs a true every down back that Addai can compliment, who can run with power between the tackles, pick up the blitz, and catch passes out of the backfield.  Everyone has their eyes on Mark Ingram of Alabama but he may not be around in the latter part of the 1st round.  However there are several backs in this year’s draft that should do the trick.  After all he wouldn’t be keyed on with #18 standing next to him to run play action passes anyway. The very success of the Colts 2011 season will wrest on the move they make here.  Need a marquee runner….running back is very below average.

Receiver: On the opposite end of all those throws were Manning’s receivers Reggie Wayne, Pierre Garcon, Austin Collie, Anthony Gonzalez, and TEs Dallas Clark, and Jacob Tamme.  Again injuries were the story at this position also that had Tamme see significent time replacing Clark.  Blair White and Austin Collie emerged with the loss of Anthony Gonzalez and came through with respectable seasons.  White emerged as an up and coming intermediate receiver with 36 catches for 355 yards and 5 touchdowns.  He was a first down maker that Manning threw open on many a third down.  Austin Collie had 58 receptions for 649 yards and came through with 8 touchdowns.  Collie has a tremendous upside and can stretch the middle of the field better than White can.  Each are smaller receivers, better suited to the slot where a bigger corner isn’t able to manhandle them and throw off their routes.  Collie can get deep but can’t quite stretch the field like Anthony Gonzalez could yet injuries robbed him of the 2010 season.

Pierre Garcon had a solid season in 2010 yet will forever be linked to his dropped slant in Super Bowl XLIV that would have sent him off to the races and broken a 17-17 4th quarter deadlock…yet I digress.  He pulled in 67 passes to tie for second on the team with Jacob Tamme and to only outgain the unheralded tight end in yards (784 to 631) and touchdowns (6 to 4) illustrates another receiver who can’t get deep.  Manning is passing into a phone booth and its surprising he didn’t throw for more than 20 interceptions. Garcon is a young version of Wayne in the fact that he is a solid receiver with size and decent speed.

However there is Reggie Wayne, the veteran receiver from Miami who’s numbers are starting to reach those of a player who could receive  Hall of Fame consideration with a few more productive seasons.  The 2010 season wasn’t his most spectacular yet his production was tremendous.  With 111 receptions, 1,355 yards and 6 touchdowns, the successor to Marvin Harrison was the portrait of consistency.  Entering his 11th season, Wayne isn’t a threat to stretch the field beyond 40 yards yet has the moves to get open on most intermediate routes.  Never having blazing speed to begin with he can be caught by younger cornerbacks while the ball is in the air on fly patterns.  He needs to really set up a corner with a jab step to get deep on most corners.  For his career Wayne has gobbled 787 catches for 10,747 yards and 69 touchdowns.  If he duplicates his 2010 season he’ll have 900 catches, 12,000 yards, and will be right on the threshold of joining the likes of Jerry Rice, OSU’s Cris Carter,  and Notre Dame’s Tim Brown with over 1000 catches in their careers. A savvy veteran with another 3 prime years left.

Receiver is average in Indy yet they need a speed receiver to make them good again.  We don’t know how Anthony Gonzalez is going to recover and if any of his speed will be diminished upon his return.   Robert Irsay and the boys may want to think of a bigger receiver with speed also.  Too many smallish receivers that can be thrown around as we saw in last year’s playoff loss to New York.  Teams like the Jets with athletic, physical corners can take away Manning’s outside threats and allow the safety to help in the running game or squeeze off routes less than 25 yards downfield.  They need speed to scare free safeties deep.  A Julio Jones of Alabama could do the trick with their second round pick.

Offensive Line: Its amazing how a playoff loss in microcosm showcases a team’s deficiency that has plagued them all year.  You’ve read the aforementioned facts that this team allowed just 16 sacks for the season while only averaging 3.7 yards per carry rushing the ball.  In that 17-16 loss to the Jets, this line couldn’t sustain the running game for anytime during the game.  On 27 carries the Colts gained just 93 yards for an average of 3.4 yards per carry while being thrown for a loss on 4 of them.  They only allowed 1 sack in the game yet Manning threw the ball away numerous times before the pressure got to him.  Where are we going with this?

Jeff Saturday is an undersized center who made the Pro Bowl and along with fellow lineman LG John Detwiler, LT Charlie Johnson, RG Mike Pollack, and RT Ryan Diem are solid pass blockers who influence block too high to get movement on opposing defenses.  Since they are always in a passing stance this team can’t really get down and make a hole when it needs to.   This team tied for 16th with only 13 rushing touchdowns while only rushing for 28 1st downs all year.  The good new is with a synergy type existence between quarterback and center, the play audibles and blocking audibles have meshed to have Manning sacked the fewest times with 16 and 2nd with being hit with 47.

This line plays too high and depends on influence blocking too much.  Its great to have a Hall of Fame passer but get on the 7 man sled and let this team toughen up by coming off the ball.  We still don’t know if they were adequate in replacing Tarik Glenn at left tackle from a few years back.  His replacement, 5th year pro, Charlie Johnson seems to be holding up.  Yet could you imagine where this line would be without Manning’s alert audibles and checks??  Its still a smallish line that could use some size and draft picks right here.  Offensive Line is average…

Defensive Line: This unit begins with Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis as the bookend pass rushers who accounted for 20.5 of the team’s 28 sacks.  These two on turf are lethal and are really the singular reason this team was able to run the “Tampa 2” for so many years.  The pass rush generated by these two allowed the Colts to drop 7 on a majority of the pass plays where they didn’t have to blitz to apply pressure.  Last year we saw Mathis outplay Freeney and finish with 10.5 sacks (team lead) and 59 total tackles which was good enough for 4th.  Are injuries starting to slow down the former All Pro End from Syracuse? He played through some nicks and bruises and had 10 sacks but his meager 23 tackles weren’t enough.  Yet both DEs landed in the Pro Bowl. The Colts may want to put a draft pick here to allow for a situational platoon deployment of Freeney who is undersized anyway.

The DTs Fili Moala and Daniel Muir are going into their 2nd and 4th seasons respectively and need to improve at the point of attack and not allow linemen to get on the smallish Gary Brakckett at MLB.  This is the anchor to the defense and yet without a real strong showing here helped the Colts to an overall ranking of 20th and 21st in 1st downs given up per game with 19.6.  This has to be attributed to a defensive line that needs a bigger anchor in the middle.  Teams have been rushing the football on the Colts for sometime.  A couple defensive picks could be used here to bolster the defensive tackle spots or one to spell Freeney and / or Mathis.  Defensive Line is average at best.

Linebackers: Colt linebackers could use a few more instinctive players and it starts with MLB Gary Brackett, who missed several games last year, yet finished second on the team with 73 tackles.  Rookie Pat Angerer played fairly well and had a tag team rookie partner Kavell Conner manned the other linebacker spot.  They were out of position several times yet finished with 72 and47 tackles respectively.  These players are young and developing where there is room for improvement, don’t draft here. Yet improvement is necessary here.  Linebackers are little below average, right now not very instinctive and this year they’ll see what they have.  In reserve is Clint Session and Terrence Hagler, hard hitting special teamers that lead the Colts special teams downfield.

Secondary: Hard to give a grade to a unit when the best member was on the field for only a few games. Former NFL Defensive Player of the Year Bob Sanders, who was finally let go, was the fire starter to this defense. Yet we have to cover the players that remain: First there is cornerback Kelvin Hayden who played solidly with 58 tackles and only 2 interceptions.  Just two? This is the ball hawk who replaced Nick Harper in Super Bowl XLI and ran an intercpetion for the game clinching touchdown against Chicago and he only had two interceptions?  Not enough…although he defensed 8 passes.  Justin Tryon and Jacob Lacey only recorded 1 interception between the two of them at the other cornerback spot.  Once you put in Antoine Bethea’s one interception, you realize that 8 interceptions overall on a defense is pathetic.  They have been rushing the passer well enough for an alert secondary to intercept a few more passes than that.

This is where they miss a Sanders who would play the game at 100% full speed and instinctual at supporting the run and adept enough to knock down plays 25 yards downfield.  Antoine Bethea did finish with the team lead in tackles with 105.  Too many plays are getting beyond Colt linebackers also. This team has been pushed around on defense since that 2005 season.  Without the enforcer in Bob Sanders forcing turnovers where do they go from here? Secondary is poor and needs an overhaul now….

Overall: In all seriousness this team should have been overtaken by one of the up and coming teams in the AFC South yet they weren’t.  They went as far as they could with a roster that equaled Super Bowl Champion Green Bay with 16 on the Injured Reserve.  The Colts needed to be healthy to compete in the playoffs and very few teams are healthy at that time of the year.  Yet we’re supposed to be talking of 2011…. Its imperative that they use 2 of their first 3 picks on a speed receiver and an every down back. With Manning there to keep defensive pressure off of a resurgent running game this team could get out to twelve wins again.  They cannot throw the football 679 times again in the upcoming season, eventually he will be hit and in his mid 30s can be hurt.

Manning’s situation in 2011 reminds us of San Francisco’s Steve Young’s in 1999.  The team had deteriorated through age around him yet as he mastered the craft of quarterbacking, the team won (3-1) and everything seemed fine until a late reaction to an Aneas Williams blitz and …………  We hope that doesn’t happen obviously yet one can only go to the well so many times.  A good running back and receiver and this team is 12-4 with a solid performance.  If Manning were to get injured this team wouldn’t go 4-12, he’s that valuable to this team.  If they stand pat this team should miss the NFL playoffs for the first time since 2001 and their Super Bowl window with Manning will close.

2011 Baltimore Ravens Preview

Well, well, well…. How much did a forced fumble alter the course of the Baltimore Ravens franchise??  It was late in the fourth quarter and the host Ravens were up 9-3 in a tough, tough football game.   It was week 13 with the AFC North on the line during a Sunday night tilt with their hated rival, the Pittsburgh Steelers.  A win would lock up the division and probably the number 2 seed in the AFC playoffs, setting themselves up for a legitimate Super Bowl run.  With less than 7 minutes left in the game; Flacco drops back and doesn’t read the blitz,  Troy Palamalu comes unblocked and….

Quarterback: There are reservations about Joe Flacco.  There were some points of improvement but there are times he just doesn’t pass the eyeball test in the big games.  I’ll have to go back to that fumble by Joe Flacco no matter how hard it pains Ravens fans.  That was one where he needs to read the defense and get rid of the football within 3 steps.  In his 3rd season, all as a starter, he should been able to detect a blitz as the Steelers were getting into desperate times.  That fumble could have been the difference between this team playing in Super Bowl XLV and watching it.

Going into his 4th season, Flacco has improved steadily each year and in  2010 was the 7th rated passer in the NFL.  He completed 62.6% of his passes for 3,622 yards, 25TDs and only 10 interceptions.  He did have a game winning throw to T.J. Houshmanzadeh against Pittsburgh in week 4 but let face a few facts:  Against playoff teams in 2010, Flacco had a 2-4 record against playoff bound teams.  In 3 of those games the offense could only muster 10, 14, and 10 points while averaging 17.5 points against playoff teams.  With the signing of Anquan Boldin and Dontae Stallworth a little more firepower from Flacco was expected during these games.  He showed up in games against Buffalo with a 3 TD performance in an overtime win yet could only throw for 1 TD against the Steelers in both games.  He disappears too often against  strong competition and needs to show he can win games and not just rely on the defense. Has to become a leader.

His game lacks confidence and has to go downfield and use his receivers more.  Too many check down throws to Ray Rice.    Quarterback in Baltimore is average at best.

Running Back: The Ravens parted ways with Willis McGahee who has slowed down in recent years.  Ray Rice could use some help with the overall workload yet had an outstanding year.  The fireplug ran for 1,220 yards on 307 carries and was also second on the team with 62 receptions and another 556  yards.  With nearly 370 touches could only reach the endzone 6 times (5 rushing / 1 receiving) and could burn out like Wilbert Montgomery from overuse.  Although he is a willing warrior it would be in his best interest if the Ravens drafted some help here for him.  There could be additional carries for LeRon McClain #33 who is a straight forward running fullback.  He may have to step in and replace the 6 touchdowns McGahee ran in from short yardage.

Right now Ray Rice is a chain moving first down machine who averaged 4.0 yards per carry. If Flacco doesn’t develop further, teams can gang up on him and the mounting hits could slow him down.  Its imperative that they get him some help and possibly more of a break away threat.  Ravens are solid at running back

Receivers: Last year they brought in Anquan Boldin and Dontae Stallworth to bolster this position which produced minimal returns.  Although Boldin led the team with 64 receptions, his 837 yards and 7 touchdowns, were less than Raven fans had hoped for.   A physical and tough receiver who will catch the tough passes over the middle had too few passes thrown his way.  Stallworth was a disappointment in only catching 2 passes in an injury plagued year.  Yet Derrick Mason was there to pick up the slack with 61 receptions for 802 yards and 7 touchdowns to match Boldin.

The Ravens need a boost in the arm here and needs a deep threat at receiver to stretch the field.  The departed Houshmanzadeh, Stallworth and incumbent Boldin and TE Todd Heap are all intermediate threats.  This allowed teams to gang up on all pass routes 20 yards and under which was one of the reasons the ball was checked down so much.  Definite upgrade needed to develop as an offense and there has been talk that the team is going after Santonio Holmes.

Offensive Line: A mixed review for the offensive line in 2010.  For a running team this team had problems pushing the ball into the endzone with only 11 touchdowns on the season, which ranked 18th in the NFL.  Further issues arise when you look at the numbers for Flacco’s passing. Although Flacco ranked 13th in passing attempts with 489, he was sacked 40 times and hit 79 times.  Each of those numbers ranked 23rd in the NFL and they need to improve on those clearly.  Compare that to Peyton Manning who passed 679  times and was only sacked 16 times or rookie Sam Bradford who threw 590 times and was sacked just 34 times. The question is: What does this line do well??

When it comes to power rushing plays on 3rd /4th and 2 or fewer?  This team converted less than 50% of the time running to the left or the right.  They were able to plow forward for the 1st down 75% of the time going up the middle.  The line gets blame for this because if the blocks are performed up front, even a marginal back should get 3-4 yards where the good back can get beyond that.  Matt Birk, is the elder statesman of this line entering his 13th year and anchors the Ravens at center.  At LG and LT is Ben Grubs and Michael Oher respectively, each need to play lower to get more push in the running game.  The same can be said for RG Chris Chester and RT Marshall Yanda who being on the strong side need to provide the impetus to convert those 3rd and 2s coming off tackle.

This line is young with every player on the line aside from Birk all with less than 4 years in the league.  Yet the coaching staff need to get these guys on the 7 man sled and get low and root out the opposing defense.  They play too high which tells us at Taylor Blitz that they spend most of their practice time passing the football.  With a little luck, Harbaugh will push his offensive line to get more in the running game and rest a Super Bowl quality defense.  Offensive Line is slightly below average right now.  Could see a draft pick or two coming to light a fire under these players.

Defensive Line: Lets face it, in the 3-4 defense its these men that have to hold their ground and not be pushed off the ball allowing the inside linebackers to make most of the tackles.  Mission accomplished with Ray Lewis and Jameel McClain combining for an astounding 236 tackles. It starts up front with 6’0, 310 lb. Kelly Gregg at NT.  He ties up blockers with his low play allowing the aforementioned Lewis and McClain to scrape into punish ball carriers.  Ends Haloti Ngata and Cory Redding are also hard to move off the ball aiding in the Ravens overall ranking of 10th in the NFL and 5th against the run.  Redding and Ngata also combined for 8.5 sacks also. At 6’4 and 335 lbs., Ngata is in his prime, has made the last two Pro Bowls along with the distinction of being voted 1st team all pro.

Now don’t forget this team last year drafted 6’4 370lbs. Terrence “Mount” Cody from 2009 National Champion Alabama.  He played some during his rookie year and I expect to see him hit the field even more this year to spell Gregg.  In two years at Alabama they were ranked 2nd in the nation against the run! If he replaces Gregg that gives the Ravens 700 lbs of immovable object in he and Ngata…yikes! Ray Lewis could chase down runners another 5 years behind that.


Linebackers:
Again the heart and soul of the defense is Ray Lewis, from the U, is the NFL’s best ever Middle Linebacker.  Although he is going into his 16th season, he has shown exceptional range in the passing game as well as defending the run.  The majority of it is he rarely takes a false step and his exceptional film study has him a step ahead of the offense.  Amazingly he is still the emotional sparkplug of the defense which is a rarity in a player who is an elder statesman.  Again he led the Ravens with 145 tackles, had 2 sacks and 2 interceptions.  He forced 2 fumbles and recovered 3 more.  The only question is when is this future Hall of Famer going to slow down.   He has to be on borrowed time…How long can he play at such a high level??

Which brings us to Terrell Suggs. The Ravens pass rushing ace once again led the team with 11.5 sacks and was terrorizing Ben Roethlisberger with 3 sacks and a forced fumble in the playoff loss to Pittsburgh.  The heir apparent to Lewis’ emotional leading mantle for Baltimore is in the prime of his career and is in perfect position to mentor young Sergio Kindle from Texas.  Suggs is entering his 9th season, has made the Pro Bowl 4 times, is second in all time sacks for the Ravens franchise with 68.5.  He could benefit with another strong pass rusher on the other side and not command so many double teams.  If Kindle can come in and provide that, a 15 -18 sack season for Suggs isn’t out of the question.

Which brings us to Sergio Kindle…Kindle missed his entire rookie season due to injury.  At 6’3 and 250lbs, Kindle could give the Ravens the best set of outside linebackers this side of Pittsburgh if he can rush the passer.  He was a defensive end in college so the transition should be a smoother one with Suggs to show him the ropes.  Kindle was a 5 star blue chip recruit going into Texas yet has had a few injuries.  He was the Texas Longhorns defensive star in the 2009 National Championship Game opposite Alabama’s Cody.  If, and thats a nice sized if, he can hit the field running this team can really bolster its pass rush.  Not to be pushed aside is Jameel McClain #53 at the other inside linebacker spot, who was a solid tracker and recorded 91 tackles in a breakout season in 2010.  Throw in a developing Dannell Ellerbe #59 and you have Super Bowl quality linebackers as they are.  Improvement with Kindle will turn this group into a special unit.

Secondary: Sigh… How in the hell do you give up a 59 yard bomb in the 4th quarter of a playoff game when the Steelers are facing 3rd and 17?? Would like to see the Ravens use a few draft picks here.  Dominique Foxworth, Chris Carr, and Fabian Washington at corner.  Improvement is needed here for the defense that ranked 21st against the pass and get a jam on the receiver on 3rd and 17!!  This team is still hasn’t replaced Jim Leonard who moved on with Rex Ryan to the Jets.  Dawan Landry is a faster and stronger SS yet doesn’t get any interceptions.  He is stout against the run as evidenced by his 111 tackles which ranked 2nd on the team to Lewis, yet didn’t pick off a pass.   He defensed 3 passes but couldn’t corral 1 interception.  That number needs to improve and should with an improved pass rush.

Which brings us to future Hall of Famer, former NFL Defensive Player of the Year, and former NFL Defensive Rookie of the year Ed Reed (from The U).  This tremendous talent missed 6 games and still led the league with 8 interceptions and is creeping up on the all time interceptions list with 54.  He is 46 interception return yards from breaking the all time record by Rod Woodoson with 1,483 yards. He has tied or broken 5 NFL records including the two longest interception returns in league history with 106 and 107 yard returns. A seven time Pro Bowler who is going into his 10th season is getting better with age.  He is cagey and fools quarterbacks into throwing into regions that look uncovered and Reed swoops in and turns those plays into instant offense for Baltimore.  As for 2010 he finished with 39 tackles along with his 16 passes defensed and 1 forced fumble.

As a secondary there should be improvement in Landry’s third season as a starter yet this team needs to get their hands on a few good cornerbacks.  They need to play the younger corners and see what they have or draft a few more.  Weak at the corner and monster at the safety makes this an above average secondary as long as Ed Reed can make plays.  Although the wear and tear is mounting on Reed who had hinted at retirement before the season.

Overall: A golden opportunity slipped away last January in the form of Antonio Brown’s 59 yard reception late in the fourth quarter in the playoffs.  This team had a few key drops by their recievers in Boldin and the 4th down drop by Houshmanzadeh.  The offense couldn’t run the ball with consistency against Pittsburgh.  These issues manifested themselves clearly in the playoffs.  Improvement is needed in these key areas for this team to return to the AFC elite.  They have another year where they are among the top definitely, but this is the last year for this team to get Ray Lewis another ring.  Belichick is about to rebuild on the run with 6 draft picks in New England and this team along with Pittsburgh should fall behind the Jets also this year.

Offensive firepower is needed to offset this tremendous defense in case there is a slip in Reed or Lewis’ play.  What is interesting is that in 2010 there was a youth movement with 10 rookies that made the team as compared to 1 in ’09.  Yet much of that talent is unproven including Sergio Kindle and Terrence “Mount” Cody.  Well we shall soon see what they do with next months draft.

Next Up: Philadelphia Eagles

2011 New England Patriots Preview

Somewhere in Massachusetts the question is still being asked; “What happened?” A Patriot team that re-invented itself on the move, by going back to the more conservative offensive approach that brought three championships earlier in Tom Brady’s career. Brady finished the season on an 11 game streak without throwing an interception.  A young defense that seemed to be jelling as the playoffs neared.  Jerrod Mayo led the league with 175 tackles while the Patriots held 4 of their last 5 opponents to 7 or fewer points.  Only 5 weeks removed from a 45-3 beatdown of division opponent New York, and here they were going into the rematch in the Divisonal playoffs…uh “What did happen?”

Will the Patriots march to another 14-2 record? What will Bill Belichick address with his stockpile of picks going into this year’s draft?  Did the New York Jets tilt the balance of power in their favor and did they gain a psychological edge over their divisional opponent?  Things to keep an eye on as this season unfolds.

Quarterback: There isn’t a quarterback in the NFL that rates as high as Tom Brady.  He won the MVP for 2010 unanimously for arguably the best of his 11 career seasons.  With a pedestrian receiving corps and series of backs, he threw for 36TDs and only 4 interceptions.  At midseason, we were unsure how Brady and the Patriots offense would fare after moving Randy Moss.  Tom made Julian Edelman, an older Deion Branch, and TEs Gronkowski and Hernandez look like seasoned pros as the Patriots moved to more of a possession passing game.  After setting the record for most pass attempts without an interception at 335, Brady set another career record for touchdown-to-interception ratio at 9.0. It seems time to remove Brady from contemporary comparisons and focus on his place in history.  He has an overall record of 125 wins and only 37 losses to go along with his 3 Super Bowl wins.

However there is a book on Brady as there is on every other quarterback, you have to hit Brady early and get him to look down at the rush.  This happened in Super Bowl XLII against the Giants and the camera caught Brady with that same flustered look in the loss to the Jets.  We have to remember that Brady is going into year 12 and his mobility is limited and seems to wince when someone is going to hit him in the legs.  This has become more evident since his 2008 knee injury.  When a team can get to him physically Brady can throw errantly as he did to David Harris of the Jets in the first quarter which set the tone in last year’s playoff loss.  Of course this is easier said than done yet Brady is going into the stage of being one of the game’s elder statesman and the question has to be asked;  How much longer can he play at such a high level?  At least another four years in our opinion.  Quarterback is Super Bowl quality in Foxboro

Offensive Backfield: This backfield is in need of an upgrade.  Danny Woodhead and Ben Jarvus Green-Ellis are marginal at best.  Woodhead played commendably during the second half of the season, rushing for 579 yards total.  Green-Ellis ran for 1,008 yards and 13 TDs and did not fumble over the entire season.  They ran for many yards out of passing formations and won’t be affective when game planned for.  When push came to shove and the Patriots had to run in the playoff game they couldn’t, as evidenced by their 5 for 16 effort in converting 3rd or 4th downs against the Jets.  If Belichick can get his hands on a solid, physical running back like Ryan Williams of Virginia Tech,  or Mikel Leshoure of Illinois.  With six of the first 33 picks in this year’s draft, its conceivable they could select both of these guys and return to having a real power back like a Corey Dillon.  Woodhead and / or Green-Ellis would be better served as 3rd down backs then they could release Kevin Faulk who is long in the tooth.  Woodhead was a great story and is this team’s version of Rudy which is nice but Rudy won’t run this team to the Super Bowl.  Serviceable to below average if they stand pat.

Receivers: Wes Welker is the best slot receiver in football and is as elusive a player there is in the NFL.  His numbers were down in 2010 with 86 catches for 848 yards v. the 123 catches for 1,348 he garnered in ’09.  It was the move to a possession offense that brought down his numbers with many of the receptions that he would have seen now being thrown to rookie TEs Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. In fact Gronkowski set a team record for TDs by a TE with 10 while catching  42 receptions and 546 yards for the season.  Hernanadez caught 45 passes for 563 yards and 6 more TDs.  The 2 tight end alignment became more prevalent after Randy Moss’ departure and the short passing game offset the rushing game.

Brad Edelman is a Welker clone and is serviceable but can’t get deep.  Deion Branch played several games like the Branch of old and may benefit after a full training camp. The new deep threat is Brandon Tate who is a burner yet needs to learn a few set up moves to get himself deep.  There are nuances a receiver uses to set up a cornerback to get behind them and Tate will be a better receiver once he learns them.  Its conceivable to see the Patriots address the receiver position as well with Branch going into his 11th season and Welker his 9th.  Injuries are starting to add up and there is a chance for these receivers to be tightly covered without any serious burners.  As a group these receivers are serviceable.

Offensive Line: Remember earlier when it was said that the best way to get to Brady was with a pass rush?  Well here comes the problem. This veteran line  was among the best at protecting Tom Brady coming in 3rd in fewest quarterback hits with 52, and 3rd in fewest sacks allowed with 25.  Starts up front with Matt Light at LT who takes on the best blindside rushers and keeps Brady upright.  A solid tackle whose fellow linemen G Logan Mankins, C Dan Koppen, G Dan Connolly, and fellow tackle Nick Kaczur may be the best offensive line in the biz.  They also paved the way for 1,973 yards and 19 TDs.  There were several times where this offensive line couldnt get a push on a critical third and two yet the Patriots make the most with astute play calling and short throws to the TEs to offset this.  The week of the Super Bowl the Patriots offensive line won the second annual Madden Most Valuable Protectors  Award for the most outstanding offensive line. This is a Super Bowl caliber offensive line and along with Tom Brady made some marginal RBs and WRs look like stars.

Defensive Line: The beef upfront starts with Vince Wilfork, the immovable DE / DT from “The U”.  As we go to press this week the ink is drying on the free agent contract for Marcus Stroud formerly of Buffalo.   Wilfork has been joined by Gerard Warren in clogging the middle of the Patriots line allowing for linebackers to make tackles unselfishly.  Evidence of this?? The leading tackler in the NFL in 2010 was Patriot ILB Jerrod Mayo with 175.  Thanks in large part to Warren and Wilfolk tying up blockers.  Mike Wright and 2nd year DE Ron Brace need to stay on the path to improvement that led to such a strong defensive finish.  However the Patriots could use 1 or 2 of those first 6 picks here to improve a pass rush that relies on ‘backers to get to the quarterback and not it’s D-Line. Thirteen sacks by the D-Line is not enough.  Steady up front but not spectacular.

Linebackers: This group begins and ends with the stellar play of Jerrod Mayo, who was a first team All Pro selection after leading the league in tackles with 175.  Following him along the Belichick learning curve is Brandon Spikes from Florida.  Entering his second season watch for teams to try and fool him out of position as they did early in his rookie season to no avail.  No one has been teaching excellent linebacker play over the last couple of decades like Bill Belichick, expect him to round these two into shape and anchor his defense for the next decade. If there is an injury that robs either of time, there is special team ace Gary Guyton to fill in nicely.  Decent set of linebackers with room to grow.  Throw in second year linebacker Jermaine Cunningham and you can see Belichick has much to tinker with.

Secondary: This was the area the youth movement on defense made some strides that may come to benefit the Patriots entering 2011.  Rookie Devin McCourty picked off seven passes on his way to his first pro bowl.  Brandon Merriweather the starting FS from Miami has to reel in a sometimes undisciplined approach that saw him gain notoriety from a head to head shot on Ravens tight end Todd Heap last season.  Aside from that this was a Pro Bowl safety with a penchant for making big plays in the secondary once teams made it past the linebackers.  Merriweather tied twin strong safeties Patrick Chung and James Sanders for second on the team with 3 interceptions.   There should be a spirited battle between former 1st round pick Darius Butler and Kyle Arrington for one of the corner spots.  This is a young, aggressive secondary.  One with two pro bowlers on it and with continued improvement could grow into the best in the NFL. With 3 quality corners and safeties, Belichick can turn them loose in very exotic dime packages to confuse rival passers.  A good secondary with a chance to be really good this year.

Overall: If you detected a pattern of looking back to the AFC Divisional loss to the New York Jets during this article, there was a reason for it.  This is the only team that stands in the way of the Jets playing in that elusive Super Bowl.  It will be the Jets v. these Patriots for the AFC Championship Crown.  A little improvement in the running game will benefit this team greatly.  Once teams realize Brady can’t get deep on them they will have the intermediate routes fully clogged with defenders to smother his hot routes and crossing plays.  If the Patriots stay pedestrian in the running game they will continue to lose during the playoffs and not get back to the Super Bowl and excorcise the demons of Super Bowl XLII and subsequent back to back home playoff losses.  Take some of the pressure off of Tom Brady and they can overcome the Jets, without that pressure, the Patriots pedestrian receivers will doom them against superior Jets corners again.  Thanks to the Jets winning last year, let it be known that a rivalry has been born.  Hatfield v. McCoys for the AFC Championship.  Rex Ryan said, in one of his rookie press conferences, that he wasn’t ‘brought in to kiss Belichick’s rings’ … What you going to do about it Bill??  A good draft by the Patriots can tilt the balance of power back in their favor. Can the Patriots match their 14-2 record??  I think there will be a slip from that to maybe 11 or 12 wins but they will be there battling in the end.

Next: 2011 Chicago Bears Preview