2013 New England Patriots Preview – Bill Belichick’s Greatest Challenge

How tortured was Bill Belichick when he watched a less talented team in the Baltimore Ravens finally get past his New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game?? He would have had a different game plan had he made the Super Bowl and faced Colin Kaepernick a second time. It’s been his history. He’s in the midst of rebuilding the Patriots defense with many young defensive players maturing. Here at Taylor Blitz Times, our CEO had this team picked to win last year’s Super Bowl. With a solid quiet off-season, who could possibly get in the Patriot’s way?? Uhhh…. did we say quiet??

Bill Belichick has to have aged with this offseason. This will be a coaching challenge unlike any other in recent memory for his Patriots.

Bill Belichick has to have aged with this offseason. This will be a coaching challenge unlike any other in recent memory for his Patriots.

For once the Patriots have had a tumultuous off-season and we have to see how this affects the team. In the past there were surprising cuts like Lawyer Milloy’s release just before the 2003 season opener. Yet that’s just it. That move was right before the season, where preparing for a regular season opponent kept players from dealing with it too much. Now TE Aaron Hernandez, who may have to step up if Rob Gronkowski is slow to recover from surgery, has been arrested for first degree murder. What will happen to his two TE offense now?? No Wes Welker to turn to as Belichick did last year when injuries hit the tight end position.

Do we know if there is lingering fallout from Welker’s departure?? How could one who produced so much for this organization be so disregarded at the negotiating table?? Now Danny Amendola is the big ticket receiver and he comes in with marginal credentials. Teammates are definitely looking at that. By the way, Gronkowski is laying on the table after surgery on his forearm and now another on his back. When will he come back?? Will we have the old Gronk when he does come back??

With this latest situation with Hernandez, it throws the offense for a complete loop personnel and practice wise. When Ray Lewis went through his arrest and trial it started in January and was over with by May. All of this after Belichick diffused the media situation when he signed Tim Tebow, now questions arise about where will he play. The Patriots completely cut ties and released a disgraced Hernandez. Now does this slow the decision to trade backup QB Ryan Mallett as many Patriot insiders believe??

Keep in mind, this isn’t 2003 where the Patriot locker room was a veteran laden group with Tedi Bruschi, Willie McGinest, Ty Law, and an in-coming Rodney Harrison. This is a young group and this will have some affect on the team overall. Sure they have Tom Brady, but we’re talking leaders within the rank and file of the Patriots. A soon to be 36 year old quarterback isn’t the same as a 36 year old Ray Lewis inspiring the rank and file of the Ravens. Not raising the physicality of his football team. Once you think about it, maybe the Patriots can learn something from those Ravens that beat them last year. This could be Belichick’s greatest coaching challenge.

The ace up his sleeve is future Hall of Famer Tom Brady. Yes, but for how much longer??

The ace up his sleeve is future Hall of Famer Tom Brady. Yes, but for how much longer??

Quarterback: Think back to the early part of this off-season. Tom Brady renegotiated his contract to offer the cap relief he believed would keep Wes Welker in the fold. At best they would be able to acquire a top notch receiver to go with the continuity they had at tight end. Now Hernandez is released, Welker is in Denver, Brandon Lloyd released, and Gronk still recovering. ESPN’s Numbers Never Lie put out a stat last week: Of the 346 receptions made by Patriots WR/TE, 91% were by players currently injured or no longer on the roster. Welcome to the summer of Tom Brady’s discontent.

To underscore the enormity of the situation, Brady is coming off back to back seasons of 5,235 yards with 39 touchdowns in 2011, and 4,827 yards and 34 touchdowns last year. The Patriots scored 513 points in 2011 then 557 last year. After a 3rd straight 500 point season, they equaled the 3 straight years of 500 point seasons of the St Louis Ram’s Greatest Show on Turf.

Now he has a short off-season to get to know a new bunch of receivers. With his place in history already secured, this could prove to be his greatest challenge as well. The key to getting to Brady has been to clog his underneath patterns and allow the rush to get to him. Once he’s hit in the legs he does look down at the rush. He’s going to need players making the right sight adjustments with him this year and there will be more breakdowns or playcalling will limit the offense. The Patriots are still Super Bowl caliber at quarterback but will his new personnel keep him from reaching that game itself??

Can Stevan Ridley carry the full load in  the Patriots backfield?

Can Stevan Ridley carry the full load in the Patriots backfield?

Offensive Backfield:  One position that is solid on this side of the ball is running back. Third year back Stevan Ridley proved to be an effective runner after a 293 attempts for 1,263 yards and 12 TD performance in 2012. The one thing he will have to do is pick up the receptions out of the backfield (40) that left with the release of Danny Woodhead. Yet let’s face facts, when Woodhead was in the game the Patriots were going to pass the football.

Going into 2013, most fans outside of the North east remember Ridley from that crushing hit taken in the AFC Championship Game from the Ravens Bernard Pollard. To that avail, Belichick traded for LeGarrette Blount formerly of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the heavy carries.  At 6’0 247 lbs, Blount is a heavy hitter between the tackles. Once you throw in a Shane Vereen and you can see the Patriots will be solid at running back. Or in our eyes playoff quality.

Of the two rookie receivers, Boyce presents a dangerous element to the Patriots receiver arsenal.

Of the two rookie receivers, Boyce presents a dangerous element to the Patriots receiver arsenal.

Receivers: Now with Wes Welker running routes for Peyton Manning 2000 miles away, Aaron Hernandez getting used to life on cell block B, Brandon Lloyd released, and Rob Gronkowski recovering who is Brady to throw to?? Well “The Hoodie” has brought in a few receivers in the draft in Aaron Dobson (2nd round) and Josh Boyce (4th round) to accompany Amendola to camp. These guys absolutely have to get in camp and develop their timing with Brady. Everything from audibles to sight adjustments to non-verbal communication to keep from slowing this offense down.

Amendola will play the slot in 3 receiver sets and will be the “Z” in traditional formations. Dobson and his 6’3 frame is thought to be the “X” and has decent speed (4.4/40). Boyce has great speed (4.38 / 40) and looks to play in multiple receiver sets unless he unseats Dobson as a starter.  He presents the deep threat that hasn’t been in Foxboro since Randy Moss departure. This has been an obvious weakness in recent years as teams sat on all the underneath routes in every one of their postseason defeats. If Dobson is slow to develop, Donald Jones should figure prominently or Michael Jenkins formerly of the Falcons. These would be steps back however.

To team with Gronkowski at TE will be Michael Hoomanawanui, Daniel Fells, Jake Ballard or possibly a move here with Tim Tebow. Or at least the competition will include these men. When in reality, Hernandez’s skill set can’t be matched by any of these players. None have even been long time starters and are all mediocre journeymen. Expect a slow descent on the use of the 2 TE offense or a huge drop in production if they try to stay with it. Receiver has dropped to below average in Foxboro.

Offensive Line:  This group won the John Madden award for the best set of protectors a few seasons ago and wasn’t too far off that performance in 2012. Last year they were 6th in sacks allowed with 27 and tied for 11th in quarterback hits allowed with 67. However if the receivers don’t develop outside, these numbers will go up. Brady isn’t that mobile and at 35 years of age, this would be the wrong time to take more hits. These numbers were made better by the ability to 1…2…3 quick pass to Welker, or Hernandez that may no longer be there.

Where this group is tremendous is their run blocking from passing formations. They paved the way for 2,184 yards and 25 touchdowns. Most of which came from running out of the shotgun and multiple receiver sets. However in power rushing situations on 3rd/4th and 2 or less, this group only converted on 56% of the time to the strong side. That isn’t enough. Although they re-signed RT Sebastian Vollmer, there are rumblings he is in for a battle with Marcus Cannon in this year’s camp. This is still a playoff level group.

A stronger defense will be needed with the offense scoring less this season. Chandler Jones can't afford a sophomore slump.

A stronger defense will be needed with the offense scoring less this season. Chandler Jones can’t afford a sophomore slump.

Defensive Line: For the last several years, Belichick has been getting by on schemes and situational juggling of personnel.  Vince Wilfork (the [[_]]) has been a mainstay (49 tackles/3 sacks) but aside from Rob Ninkovich (8 sacks), only rookie Chandler Jones (45 tackles /6 sacks) distinguished himself. Is Ninkovich a linebacker or a defensive end?? In the nickle, Dont’a Hightower produced 4 sacks yet should be unseated by 7th round draft selection Michael Buchanan out of Illinois. A long armed athletic pass rusher that should give Belichick more to tinker with.

One of the best things about the Patriots is they keep their opponents from keying in on their personnel on the line. At the same time it works against them in terms of becoming a top shelf defense. No one has been able to work to become dominant as they still haven’t found the replacement for Richard Seymour. Without a second strong lineman, this group has been in the bottom half of the league as they were 25th in defense in 2012, and 31st the year before that. This group gets by on using linebackers for much of it’s production for sack totals and has trouble stopping the run. Below average is the best we can give this group.

Ninkovich has been a the wild card on this defense. Teams don't know where he'll be coming from next in Belichick's schemes.

Ninkovich has been a the wild card on this defense. Teams don’t know where he’ll be coming from next in Belichick’s schemes.

Linebackers: How about the bounce back season of Jerod Mayo?? He made the Pro Bowl after registering 147 tackles, 4 forced fumbles, 3 sacks, an interception, and 3 passes defensed. Not quite his 175 tackle masterpiece of a few years ago but he was more of a factor against the pass. Only 26, he’s going to be Belichick’s defensive anchor for many years to come. Brandon Spikes was right with him with another 4 forced fumbles to go with 91 tackles, 7 passes defensed and a sack. These two accounted for 10 total turnovers. That’s getting the job done. Now throw in Hightower’s rookie performance (60 tackles / 4 sacks) and this is a Super Bowl caliber group.

Secondary: A full offseason with a re-signed Aquib Talib and bringing in SS Adrian Wilson should greatly benefit this defense. Kyle Arrington needs a bounce back year where he didn’t intercept a pass. Devin McCourty had a solid year with 79 tackles, 5 interceptions, 13 passes defensed and 2 forced fumbles. Was it us, or did he look comfortable at Safety??  He gives them a Charles Woodson type ability to face 3 and 4 receiver sets if he has to lock onto a receiver. If he stays there now that Patrick Chung is healthy.

We’ve said for a few years this group is set to mature into something special. With the addition of Wilson and Talib, expect this to be one of the top secondaries in football. Going into his 13th season, Wilson keeps himself in tip top shape and has been a Pro Bowl player 4 of the last 5 seasons. Over the last 5 years he’s collected 9.5 sacks playing so close to the line of scrimmage. A frequent blitzer. He automatically makes this group better. A playoff caliber group.

Adrian Wilson is an attitude player that brings thunder to the Patriot secondary.

Adrian Wilson is an attitude player that brings thunder to the Patriot secondary.

Overall: You have to realize we’re coming down to the end of Tom Brady’s career. At 35 years of age how much longer will he do this?? What type of toll will this season have on him if his receivers are slow to develop?? This will be a unique study as we make our way through this season. It could be the last with the Patriots being the clear cut best in the AFC East.

They will see trouble early on in weeks 3-6 when they host Tampa, go to Atlanta, to Cincinnati, then host the potent New Orleans Saints. A 3-3 record could be the situation  before ironing out issues and playing to a rocky 10-6 finish. Payback will be on the minds of  the Texans when they host New England in week 13. Back to back road trips to Miami and Baltimore in weeks 15 & 16, figure to be difficult as well. Last year being 100% healthy they lost 31-30 to the Ravens so expect a dogfight in that one. With their #1 offense, they barely escaped in Miami 23-16 and the Dolphins have improved their defense.

This is the case if Gronkowski comes back early and is 100% for the season. If he doesn’t this team could slip to 9-7 or 8-8. Don’t forget last year they had 3 games against division opponents where games were decided by 7 points or less. Bill Belichick may have to will this team down the stretch to another division title. It will not be the same as it’s been though. Depending on Brady’s frame of mind, the Patriots could be in a mode of complete transition in 2014.

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Green Bay Packers Release Linebacker Desmond Bishop

Bishop going in for a hit on Eli Manning.

Bishop going in for a hit on Eli Manning.

The Green Bay Packers part ways with one of their best linebackers in recent years with the release of Desmond Bishop. He missed all of 2012 on Injured Reserve. However in 2011, he was overshadowed by Clay Matthews III and A.J. Hawk, Bishop turned in a year worthy of defensive player of the year candidacy. Although he missed 3 games due to injury, he recorded 121 tackles, had 5 sacks and forced 2 fumbles. He should have gone to the Pro Bowl that year and was a starter when they faced the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLV.

The word on the street is he will visit the Minnesota Vikings and could battle for a roster spot to line up next to Chad Greenway. If he does sign with the hated Vikings he would be the second Packer to sign with the team this off-season. Time will tell but Desmond Bishop is no longer a Green Bay Packer.

2013 Minnesota Vikings Preview – Quarterback Maturation Expected Now

Diagram of new stadium.

Diagram of the new stadium.

One of the big disappointments of last year’s football season was the Minnesota Vikings having to go into the playoffs without Christian Ponder. It was as though the wild card game against the Green Bay Packers was tantamount to a little league forfeit. Joe Webb couldn’t complete a pass and all the while left many NFL fans, especially Viking fans lamenting: What would have happened had Ponder played??

After all, this was a team that had won 5 of their last 7 including 4 in a row to make the playoffs. They had just outlasted those same Packers 37-34 in the finale, and we’d never know what momentum and tactical advantages they would have taken into the wild card game. Then to turn around and watch with abject horror as Colin Kaepernick destroyed the Packers defense in the divisional playoff. How could Vikings fans not feel empty?? Especially when the Vikings had beat down the 49ers 24-13 during the regular season.

Yet Christian Ponder made it to a golf tournament the next week?? Much like the situation with Jay Cutler in the 2010 NFC Championship, many felt he should have given an effort. To think that had the Vikings been able to make it past the Packers & 49ers, they would have had 2,000 yard rusher Adrian Peterson face the 24th ranked defense of the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship.

Jared Allen stepped up the pressure when he stated Ponder needs to be "the guy" for the Vikings to make the next move. Fans and others within the organization will follow that thinking.

Jared Allen stepped up the pressure when he stated Ponder needs to be “the guy” for the Vikings to make the next move. Fans and others within the organization will follow that thinking.

Quarterback: Coming into the 2013 season, few quarterbacks have more pressure on them to show improvement than Christian Ponder.  Some of it has to do with the antics surrounding his questionable absence in last year’s wild card loss. However the other reason is the Vikings trading away a Percy Harvin and signing a polished receiver in Greg Jennings, formerly of the Packers. With the emergence of Pro Bowl MVP in Tight End Kyle Rudolph, he now has weapons to take pressure off of the running game.

Sounds like a lot to ask from a player starting just his second season, but the bar has been raised with the stellar play of fellow NFC first year starters in Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson, and Robert Griffin III. Ponder didn’t have a bad season as he completed 300 of 483 passes (62.1%) for 2,935 yards, 18 touchdowns & 12 interceptions. Yet without the fan fare, he led his team to a 10-6 record but a truer perception was Peterson carried the team.

One aspect of his game is his mobility. He has quick feet which helps him on waggles, play action roll-outs, and when he needs to evade the rush. Last year he escaped the pocket 60 times for 263 yards and 2  touchdowns. In all actuality he grew from the late game mistakes on the road early last season and finished winning the last two to propel the Vikings into the playoffs. If he hadn’t thrown the late game interception against Washington last year, or been efficient in the 4th quarter against the Colts, this team could have been 12-4 and a first round bye. With improved weapons he may graduate to a playoff caliber team. We’ll wait ’til summer to anoint that. Right now the Vikings are average at quarterback.

It's time to compare Adrian Peterson with the all time greats and not just his contemporaries.

It’s time to compare Adrian Peterson with the all time greats and not just his contemporaries.

Offensive Backfield: Adrian Peterson…enough said. This is a Hall of Fame running back in his prime. Has there ever been a better season than his 2,097 yard 12 touchdown performance in 2012?? He averaged 6 yards per carry when defenses knew he was coming. That is obscene!! He broke breathtakingly long runs week after week as he showed a miraculous recovery from his devastating knee injury suffered in 2011.

Out of the backfield he caught 40 passes for 217 yards and another touchdown. Amazingly he isn’t even 28 yet and could possibly become the first runner in history to have a second 2,000 yard season. Already the record holder of the single season rushing record with a 296 yard performance, Eric Dickerson’s 2,105 is definitely in his sights. Toby Gerhart (50 car./169 yds /1 TD) spells Peterson for short yardage and is used as a blocker. No question are the Vikings Super Bowl caliber at the position.

Jennings move to the Vikings should spice the already heated rivalry with the Packers.

Jennings move to the Vikings should spice the already heated rivalry with the Packers.

Receivers: Let’s be honest Viking fans, when Percy Harvin was traded to Seattle: How many of you saw the Vikings pulling a coup and signing Greg Jennings from Green Bay?? Now to keep teams from doubling TE Kyle Rudolph, here comes arguably the most complete receiver in the NFC North over the last five years…well sort of.  Before his injury plagued 2012, Jennings averaged 68.8 receptions for 1,107 yards and 9.2 touchdowns per season between 2007-2011. He is versatile enough to play either the X or Z  receiver. Jennings is a crafty, quick receiver that excels in getting up the seems. Turning 30, he has at least 4 more years at his present production level.

To further the point of surrounding Ponder with the best available weapons, the Vikings spent a 1st round pick on Cordarrelle Patterson out of Tennessee. Where he’ll pay immediate special teams dividends, Minnesota signed 5 other receivers to make sure Jennings has the right bookend when the season commences.

However the number one beneficiary from the departure of Harvin will be pro bowl tight end Kyle Rudolph. His production will rise above the 53 catches (493 yds/  9TDs) now the Vikings aren’t forcing underneath passes to Harvin. Look for a 90 catch season as they’re just scratching the surface with the 24 year old tight end out of Notre Dame. Along with Jennings and the stability of the running game with Adrian Peterson, this is a playoff caliber receiving corps. If Patterson develops, he can take the top off of the defense and this rating will go up. They did give him Randy Moss’ old jersey number too.

Offensive Line: After re-signing RT Phil Loadholt, the Vikings are bringing back an offensive line that had all five members play all 16 games in 2012. Although Peterson ran for more than 2,000 yards, how much was due to the line?? Did you know that last year in obvious power running situations (3rd/4th and 2 or less), the Vikings were 18th converting to the strong side (60%) and dead last or 32nd (36%) converting up the middle?? Did you know the Vikings were dead last in the NFL with negative rushing plays up the middle with 27?? Did you know they were also 7th in negative rushing plays to the strong side with 18?? Some improvement is needed here.

Keep in mind the Vikings drafted two Guards in later rounds, yet the incumbent Center and Guards, John Sullivan, Charlie Johnson,and Brandon Fusco may have some competition. All three were 6th round selections themselves. So there will be competition on the offensive line. Last year they ranked 11th in sacks allowed with 30 and 5th in hits on the quarterback with 64. However their inability to get push in obvious situations drops their rank to average. Many of Peterson’s best runs were bounce outs and second effort plays.

Jared Allen has been a force in the NFC North for several years.

Jared Allen has been a force in the NFC North for several years.

Defensive Line: Where have you gone Jared Allen?? Actually he hasn’t gone anywhere yet, but he is about to enter the last year of his contract.  One year removed from a 22 sack season, he followed that up with a 46  tackle, 12 sack performance. He was the focal point of every opponents blocking scheme, so a dip in production is understandable. Allen shows up in games at home as well as on the road. Case and point, when he beat Houston Texans’ All Pro and Pro Bowl Tackle Duane Brown for 2 sacks and incurred 2 penalties in a week 16 upset over the Texans on the road. Now he’s going to play for a new contract?? Watch out!!

With Allen as the focal point of the line, the Vikings can implement their first #1 draft pick in DT Shariff Floyd, without the pressure to “be the man” right away. This guy is a freakish athlete that can either learn at defensive tackle from 11 year vet Kevin Willams (31 tackles /2 sacks), or rotate with DT  Letroy Guion (31 tackles / 2 sacks). Imagine this 6’3 315 lbs. rookie known for his strength and quickness joining pass rushing DT Everson Griffen (8 sacks), DE Brian Robison (37 tackles / 8.5 sacks) along with Allen’s totals.

Although Robison and Allen are 30 and 31 respectively, Robison and Griffen are only 25 so they have a perfect blend of youth and experience. Keep in mind this group had 44 sacks last year. This number will go up this year. This is the re-birth of the Purple People Eaters and a Super Bowl caliber group.

Chad Greenway is the best linebacker in the NFC North and one of the best in the NFL.

Chad Greenway is the best linebacker in the NFC North and one of the best in the NFL.

Linebackers: Although Brian Urlacher retired from football, the best linebacker in the NFC North has been Chad Greenway for quite some time.  He is the equal to both Navorro Bowman and Patrick Willis in San Francisco. He’s actually a better linebacker than Willis and tracks down ball carriers and receivers from sideline to sideline. How can we say that?? Did you know over the last 3 years Greenway has averaged 147 tackles per year?? His 442 tackles dwarf Willis 353 in that exact same time frame.

The only knock on Greenway is he doesn’t force as many turnovers as the celebrated San Francisco duo. He recovered 2 fumbles during his 146 tackle, 3 sack, 1 interception 2012 campaign.  He is beginning to get the recognition he deserves nationally. However here at Taylor Blitz Times he’s been lauded as one of the premiere linebackers in football.

The other two linebackers are Jasper Brinkley ( 87 tackles / 3 forced fumbles) and Erin Henderson (79 tackles / 3 sacks / 1 forced fumble) are solid but may see some competition this summer. When management steps out and drafts two players at your position. They’re looking to push you and add to special teams quality. Fourth round selection Gerald Hodges and seventh rounder Michael Mauti are both from Penn St. This is an average group that may be playoff worthy behind a dominant rush.

White men can't jump huh?? Think again. Harrison Smith is a true talent at Free Safety. He should make the Pro Bowl in his second season easily.

White men can’t jump huh?? Think again. Harrison Smith is a true talent at Free Safety. He should make the Pro Bowl in his second season easily.

Secondary: The Vikings are hoping to strike gold, like they did with the success of FS Harrison Smith in the drafting of 1st round CB Xavier Rhodes.  Last year Smith showed range and had a good rookie season with 97 tackles, 11 passes defensed, along with 3 interceptions and two of those returned for touchdowns. In another year, those are Pro Bowl numbers. He should grab about 8 interceptions in 2013. At 6’2, 213 lbs, he has the range of the safeties from the golden era of the 1980s. Very angular with long arms, he is hard to throw over. For comparisons sake, future Hall of Famer Ed Reed had 85 tackles, 5 interceptions, and 12 passes defensed in his rookie years. Look out this might be the best Viking FS since Paul Krause.

Drafting Rhodes in the first round means they will plug him into the lineup right away. Don’t forget Head Coach Leslie Frazier is a defensive back coach at heart. Rhodes acquisition spelled the end for long time Viking Antoine Winfield.  In comes a 6’1 210 lbs corner that runs a 4.43 40. He’s physical in press coverage and he better decide to tackle against the run. Winfield was the second leading tackler on the team. If CB Josh Robinson ( 52 tackles / 2 interceptions) can improve, this is a playoff caliber group. Behind this pass rush they may be better than that by season’s end.

Head Coach Leslie Frazier may not be too far from an NFC Championship appearance. If Ponder can show some improvement..... hmmm??

Head Coach Leslie Frazier may not be too far from an NFC Championship appearance. If Ponder can show some improvement….. hmmm??

Overall: This team is the NFC version of the Kansas City Chiefs. No other team has put a team together where the quarterback just has to play adequately, and the playoffs are a reality. If Ponder can show the same improvement he did over the last two seasons, this team could crash the NFC Championship Game if Atlanta or Seattle stumbles.

They fit the formula of the modern day league champion. Young quarterback without a team crippling contract, a young improving defense with two players who are front runners as Taylor Blitz Times Defensive Player of the Year candidates. Now they have a receiving corps to take pressure off of future Hall of fame running back Adrian Peterson.

This team is equipped to win the NFC North and should do so with Ponder developing his quarterbacking skills. This year he has to read the defense instead of leaning on crossing routes to Percy Harvin. Throwing to Harvin was stunting his growth from a reading the defense and progression standpoint. They have given him a quality receiver while drafting another who can get deep. He should have some options. As Ponder goes….so goes the Viking season. This team is loaded with few holes.

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NEXT: 2013 Chicago Bears Preview.

Taylor Blitz Times new logo!!

Taylor Blitz Times new logo!!

2013 Denver Broncos Preview – One More Moment For Manning

Mannung delivered in year one as the Broncos finished 13-3 in 2012.

Manning delivered in year one as the Broncos finished 13-3 in 2012.

Last year the Mile High City was buzzing with the prospect of Peyton Manning taking over the quarterbacking duties for a team that had been 8-8 in 2011. He didn’t disappoint as he led the Broncos to a second straight AFC West crown. This time with a 13-3 record accompanied with a first round bye. However a 38-35 overtime loss to the Baltimore Ravens brought an abrupt end to a dream season.

The window for the Broncos to crash the Super Bowl with a 37 year old quarterback is a short one. This off-season they picked up ace slot receiver Wes Welker and made some key draft selections that should have the Broncos in the thick of things in the AFC West. Was it enough to allow Denver to maintain their status as the division’s best??

Quarterback: Now we did mention that Manning will be 37 years of age right? That is 259 in dog years and is an age that could prove difficult to make it through a complete NFL season. When you flash back to last year’s playoff loss to Baltimore, there were a few times his passes seemed to get away from him. Some sailed and some floated and the question had to be asked: Was Manning tired or was he struggling in the cold??

Although he was learning new receivers in 2012, it could be argued Manning had his best season. He completed 400 of 583 passes (68.3%) for 4,659 yards, 37 TDs with just 11 interceptions. During the early part of the season he would have to find his stride during the first quarter of games. Then his production would pick up for the latter 3 quarters. Keep in mind during their season ending 11 game winning streak, only 3 of the defenses faced finished in the top half of the league statistically.

Now the element of surprise is gone as teams have a complete season worth of film to study the Broncos offense. Last year the penchant for throwing only in the middle of the field was noticed by many teams. The saving grace is he has big receivers that are good space eaters. However as the season progresses he will wind up with a “sore” arm and defenses will crowd the intermediate pass routes under 20 yards. He won’t have as good a year statistically as it happened to Brett Favre in his second year with the Vikings & Joe Montana in his second year with the Chiefs.  He will still be playoff caliber at quarterback in what should be his last season.

Montee Ball fell to the Broncos late in the second round.

Montee Ball fell to the Broncos late in the second round.

Offensive Backfield:  Yes it’s true Willis McGahee (731 yds / 4.4 avg) was on  pace for 1,000 yard season before he fell to an injury, but that’s just it. At 32 years of age a running back is at the point of breaking down and needs to be replaced or spot duty at best. Enter draftee Montee Ball out of Wisconsin. The NCAA all time touchdown scorer (83) will have every chance to win the job outright. He’s played against tough Big Ten defenses and can take the pounding. Ball runs between the tackles and has decent speed.

The same can’t be said of Knowshon Moreno (525 yds / 3.8 avg) or Ronnie Hillman (327 yds /3.9 avg). Neither have shown the tackle breaking power consistent enough to sustain a starting assignment. In fact it was Moreno’s inability to sell his wares to the coaching staff that made Broncos’ brass sign McGahee in the first place in 2011. Moreno has missed 17 games in the last two years to injury and entering the final year of his contract. He will be cut this summer.

The Broncos need the drafting of Ball to pay off. If he comes in and either starts or splits time with McGahee this can be a playoff caliber backfield. However they will only run enough as a team to make them an average backfield.

Thomas and Decker are the best Bronco receiver tandem since Rod Smith and Ed McCaffrey.

Thomas and Decker are the best Bronco receiver tandem since Rod Smith and Ed McCaffrey.

Receivers: The equivalent of hitting the lottery happened to Demaryius Thomas (94 rec.1,434 yds 10 TDs) and Eric Decker (85 rec. 1,064 yds 13TDs) in 2012. They had career years with a quality passer in Manning with Thomas improving his receptions by 62 and Decker 41. Now they have perennial 100 reception season slot ace Wes Welker to add to the fold. All three will see their reception totals go down as there aren’t enough passes thrown to sustain those numbers.

Now they also add Georgia wideout Tavarres King with a 5th round pick. This team is really stacked before we get to TE Jacob Tamme. Who benefits from being a part of a talented receiving corps more than just his excellent physical gifts.

However defensive coordinators have to ask themselves; Which receiver do you gear your defense  to stop first?? Thomas and Decker with their size can go up and get the football over smaller corners. It’s de ja vu’ as they look like a bigger version of Rod Smith and Ed McCaffrey, yet like the aforementioned Bronco pair neither are burners. They can get deep in situational scenarios but both of them are big targets in intermediate routes and will continue to produce. This is a playoff caliber group and Thomas should have made the Pro Bowl in 2012.

At 6'6 315lbs., Clady has become the prototypical LT and has made the Pro Bowl 3 times in the past five years. He has a long career ahead of him as the Bronco blind side protector.

At 6’6 315lbs., Clady has become the prototypical LT and has made the Pro Bowl 3 times in the past five years. He has a long career ahead of him as the Bronco blind side protector.

Offensive Line: To underscore the difference between a Hall of Fame quarterback and a couple of substitute teachers… Do you realize in 2012 the Denver Broncos attempted 159 more passes than in 2011 yet had their sack totals drop from 42 to 21?? As we alluded to                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            last year, this offensive line was better than their sack totals showed. Now that they have a pro quarterback in Manning to get rid of the football whether completing the pass or throwing it away, this groups was second in sacks allowed (21) while allowing the fewest hits on the quarterback in the NFL with 46.

Again LT Ryan Clady from Boise St didn’t disappoint, as he garnered 1st team All Pro status and made his 3rd Pro Bowl in a brief 5 year career. He hasn’t missed a game in his career up to this point. One place where the line could use some improvement is in the running game. They had 46 negative rushing plays and on obvious power situations (3rd /4th & 2 or goal) they were only able to power for a first down 69% of the time up the middle, and 62% to the strong side. If they were to run the football more effectively they can rest Manning’s arm during the season’s stretch run. Until we see more out of the running game we have to give them a playoff caliber grade.

If Sylvester Williams shows up in Denver, the rest of the AFC West could be in trouble.

If Sylvester Williams shows up in Denver, the rest of the AFC West could be in trouble.

Defensive Line: Whatever you do, don’t bring up former DE Elvis Dumervil when it comes to the defensive line. The Broncos spent their first round draft pick this year on DT Sylvester Williams who should be in the rotation from day one. Then they drafted DE Quanterus Smith in the 5th round who is going to be given every chance to show that he’s recovered from a knee ligament injury last season. They have signed a DT free agent in Terrence Knightson along with re-signing DT Kevin Vickerson. Keep in mind this is a team that finished #2 in defense overall and #3 against the run.

Vickerson turned in a solid 2012 with 40 total tackles and 2 sacks. He and Justin Bannan (42 tackles /2 passes defensed) were there to keep offensive linemen off the middle linebacker. Adding Williams in the first round will add some explosion to disrupting opposing running games. Second year DE Derek Wolfe quietly contributed 6 sacks last year opposite Dumervil. Have they adequately replaced him?? No… not yet but this team is sitting at  Super Bowl quality against the run without him. Especially if Williams and Smith can come through as rookies.

The AFC's best linebacker will see more double teams unless someone can emerge to replace Elvis Dumervil.

The AFC’s best linebacker will see more double teams unless someone can emerge to replace Elvis Dumervil.

Linebackers: The conversation on who is the best Outside Linebacker in the AFC begins and ends with Von Miller. In 2012 his stat-line was NFL Defensive Player of the Year worthy with 68 tackles, 18 1/2 sacks, 6 forced fumbles and an interception. He’s only 24 years of age and has a lot of productive years left. With Dumervil gone look for teams to slide their protection to him until someone emerges on the other side. He did disappear in last year’s playoff loss to Baltimore and had to live with that all offseason. He will come into 2013 motivated to show he can play without Dumervil on the other side, but his production will go down.

One glaring hole is at Inside Linebacker where Joe Mays stands to inherit Keith Brooking’s spot. On many occasions he misdiagnosed plays and couldn’t disengage from blocks. Play from the line up front masked most of this. If he can’t unseat a 38 year old linebacker in Brooking, the Broncos have to look elsewhere.

Another season like last year and Wesley Woodyard could be on his way to the Pro Bowl as his speedy play from the weakside made up for the lack of production from Inside Linebacker. He led the Broncos with 114 tackles and had 5 1/2 sacks along with 3 interceptions. With this much production we’re not necessarily sure where free agent pickup Shawn Phillips fits in here. This is a playoff caliber group until they can improve more on the inside.

Secondary: This is the Achille’s Heel of this defense. No we’re not just talking about S Rahim Moore, who let Jacoby Jones get behind him with 1 minute left in last year’s playoff loss. With such a strong pass rush (52 sacks) they should have had more interceptions (12) as a secondary. Also exposed in last year’s playoff loss was grey beard Champ Bailey who could not stay with the Ravens Torrey Smith. Twitter and Facebook blew up with fans saying he needs to be moved to safety next year. To which Elway and Broncos brass assured that wouldn’t happen.

S Rahim Moore will be able to excorcise his demons when the Broncos host Jacoby Jones and the Super Bowl champion Ravens in week one.

S Rahim Moore will be able to excorcise his demons when the Broncos host Jacoby Jones and the Super Bowl champion Ravens in week one.

Time to face some facts, by the time we get to the latter stages of the 2013 season, Bailey will be a liability and need safety help. He will be 35 and the season will take it’s toll. The problem is this safety group is anemic against the pass. How does Rahim Moore and Mike Adams only snatch one interception between them on a 13-3 team that always played with a lead?? Behind one of the league’s best pass rushes that had 52 sacks? That’s pathetic. Now the rush may not be as strong without Dumervil and if they have to blitz to make up for it….uh oh.

The Broncos brought in Dominique Rogers -Cromartie to help solidify the corner and drafted  Kayvon Webster in the 3rd round. Many draft pundits considered Webster a reach which underscores how desperate they are to get their secondary together. Rogers-Cromartie’s play has been mixed in the last two seasons. This is a good tackling secondary but bad in coverage. This is a below average secondary.

Overall: Last year the Broncos feasted on patsies while running away with the division. At one point last year, they’re division brethren were mired in a 17 game losing streak late in the year. Fellow AFC West teams have geared themselves toward facing the Broncos offense with Peyton Manning. Expect other teams to be better prepared this year. In all actuality the Broncos let one get away and now will have to face a newcomer in Kansas City and Andy Reid within the division.

This year they finish the regular season with 3 of 5 on the road facing the Chiefs and Texans. That December 1st game with Kansas City will have AFC West title ramifications. Denver also lost to Houston at home last year and many feel the Texans are geared to make it to their first Super Bowl. That will also be a big game. Don’t forget they start by hosting the defending champion Ravens then travel to New York to face the former champion Giants. This is no easy schedule.

http://www.denverbroncos.com/news-and-blogs/article-1/2013-Denver-Broncos-Schedule/aff0d7d5-1726-48ab-8979-73e02b391f43

What about Peyton Manning going back to play the resurrected Colts with Andrew Luck in week 7 on Sunday night?? Remember they were a playoff team last year and the Broncos were 1-3 against playoff teams in 2012. The murderous stretch run in December is the reason they will finish 10-6 this year. A possible wildcard could be looming…at least that is where The Chancellor of Football’s crystal ball tells us for 2013.

Next up: Kansas City Chiefs

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2013 Houston Texans Preview – The Time Is Now

JJ Watt was a finalist for the Taylor Blitz Times Defensive Player of The Year

JJ Watt was a finalist for the Taylor Blitz Times Defensive Player of The Year

When you think of the 2012 NFL season, most football fans thought the Houston Texans were an imposter when asked if they were a legitimate Super Bowl contender. Although they had rushed out to an 11-1 record, they failed to capture the imagination of fans or pundits outside Houston.

Sure they had defeated the eventual champion Baltimore Ravens 43-17 in week 7. However mind numbing losses to Green Bay (42-24), and a Monday night massacre in New England (42-14) late in the season, cast doubt on their Super Bowl legitimacy as the playoffs neared. They did finish 12-4 winning a Wild Card game before losing in the AFC Divisional round to the Patriots. Yet the question remains… Who are the Texans?? Are they a team moving up to elite status or are they beneficiary of the AFC as a conference becoming weaker??

Texans QB Matt Schaub will turn 32 this season.

Texans QB Matt Schaub will turn 32 this season.

Quarterback: Caught in that same identity vortex is quarterback Matt Schaub. Twice in the last four years he has been a Pro Bowl performer yet he leaves you wondering. Coming into last year the team and it’s fans were buoyed with optimism after backup TJ Yates led the team to a Wild Card win the year before. The overall feeling was if they could make it this far without Schaub, they should be able to compete for a title with him being healthy for the playoffs. The fact that they didn’t advance any further raises doubt if they can win it at all with Schaub at quarterback.

Make no mistake this team is better with Schaub at the helm but this may be his make or break year with the Colts coming on strong. In 2012 he completed 350 of 544 passes (64.3%) for 4,008 yards 22 TDs with only 12 interceptions. The perception was he didn’t perform when he faced the league’s elite. To that there is some truth but early in the season he carved up the Denver Broncos with 4 TD passes in a 31-25 victory on the road. He had his chance to show the nation when they lost to New England on that December Monday Night 42-14. In that game he looked disengaged, not the leader you’d want at quarterback, and couldn’t make a play to turn the momentum.

For most, he sits in that abyss of good quarterbacks that aren’t thought of as championship signal callers. Right where Joe Flacco was last year and where Matt Ryan sits this year. This is Schaub’s make or break year. This will be his 7th season as quarterback of the Texans and 11th overall after coming over from Atlanta. Its ironic that he and Ryan are both in the same position. Had Schaub not signed with Houston, he would have taken over the Falcons after Michael Vick’s dog fighting conviction. Yet he’s still a good quarterback that has to prove he can be a championship one. The nucleus of this team is aging and at 32 when the season starts, Schaub will be right there with them. Houston is playoff calibur at quarterback until proven otherwise.

Arian Foster has been among the best running backs in football.

Arian Foster has been among the best running backs in football.

Offensive Backfield: Going into his 5th season, the Texans couldn’t be more solid at running back with Arian Foster leading the charge. Next to Adrian Peterson, no back in football has been more productive than Foster’s 4,264 yards and 39 TDs over the last three years. He isn’t the flashy runner breaking the huge play like CJ2K or Peterson, but he’s a steady performer that churns out important first down after first down as the Texans closer. This is a running back in the prime of his career and has a solid back in Ben Tate (4.3 yards per carry in 2012) to back him up. The offense runs through the one cut and go running game Foster brings to the table. In 3 of the Texans 4 losses last year, Foster failed to rush for 50 yards. Part of it was Coach Kubiak abandoning the run once they fell behind. The Texans are Super Bowl quality at running back and should get a 1,300 yards from Foster this season.

Receivers: A fascinating study is Andre Johnson. When you’re watching him on game film, he doesn’t look as quick as he did a few years back. He seems to only be explosive in spurts now and really gets by on guile.You do realize he’ll also be 32 years of age when the season kicks off. He was the prime target in this offense gathering 112 passes for 1,598 yards, yet only caught 4 touchdowns. What’s missing now is the big play element from the offense with Johnson and TE Owen Daniels (62 rec. 716 yds 6TDs) as the intermediate threats.

With 818 receptions for 11,254 yards in his career, Johnson's numbers are approaching all time great status.

With 818 receptions for 11,254 yards in his career, Johnson’s numbers are approaching all time great status.

It looks as though the Texans realize this and released WR Kevin Walter who was the intermediate receiver across from Johnson. What they need is exactly what they let go in 2011, a Jacoby Jones. Right now this offense is missing a home run hitter that can take the Safeties deep. Houston anointed 2nd year wideout Keshawn Martin to the starting line-up to be the X receiver but he’s unproven. Look for the Texans to add this element in the draft or a free agent signing to compete with Martin. If they can address this they can upgrade their ranking. As it stands they are playoff quality because teams know they can’t get deep and clog the routes 20 yards or under.

Offensive Line: In today’s NFL, the offensive line is measured by how well they can protect the passer by most pundits. However here we grade beyond that. This group allowed only 28 sacks last year which was good enough for 7th best in the NFL. Left Tackle Duane Brown was an All Pro while making the Pro Bowl with Center Chris Myers and Guard Wade Smith. However Smith and Myers will each be 32 by the time the season kicks off. They’re young at the tackles but older on the line’s interior.

One aspect of the game they could use some improvement is run blocking. How can we say that about a group that had 3 Pro Bowl members and a 1,000 yard rusher?? Very simple. Foster isn’t a back that dances. He takes the ball on “Belly” and “Stretch” plays, makes a cut and then goes up-field. However they are 30th in negative rush plays to the strong side with 20 and 31st to the weak side with 28.  Further evidence is when it’s 3rd or 4th and goal or less than 2 yards, this group only converted 57% of the time to the strong side which was 20th in the league. This team could only run up the middle where they did convert 75% of the time in obvious power situations. So it’s obvious they struggle with younger more athletic defenders. This will only get worse over time and lowers their ranking to average. 

Defensive Line: This group begins and ends with JJ Watt who is the premier defensive lineman in the game. The reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year had a career season with 81 tackles, 20 1/2 sacks, 4 forced fumbles, and 16 defensed passes. Sixteen?? That is an obscene number. One thing they should do is move him around more so he can’t be game planned out of being effective. That is what New England did and he wasn’t a factor in the playoff game or the 42-14 loss.

In Houston’s 3-4 the interior linemen are primarily space eaters to clog the line and allow the linebackers to make the tackles. The Texans were 7th in defense overall and 7th against the run. Earl Mitchell held down the point at Nose Tackle and weakside Defensive End Anthony Smith did move crash the pocket for 7 sacks. In this 3-4 he’s limited from a lot of outside moves because Defensive Co-ordinator Wade Phillips likes to send linebackers like he did with the departed Conner Barwin. Because of Watt’s presence this is definitely a Super Bowl caliber group. Twenty seven and a half sacks from a 3 man line?? Come on now…

If Cushing can have a bounce back year....watchout! Will he be inside or outside??

If Cushing can have a bounce back year….watchout! Will he be inside or outside??

Linebackers: We just mentioned the loss of Connor Barwin who signed with the Philadelphia Eagles. This team can hopefully get a healthy year out of Brian Cushing who could be moved back outside. In fact last year’s infirmary list included Cushing, Darryl Sharpton, Tim Dobbins, and Barrett Ruud missing a combined 27 games last year. This was the Achille’s Heel of the defense but that is understandable when you’re playing second string all year.

Bradie James was the leading tackler on this team with 76 stops and had 1/2 a sack. With so many players injured it’s almost impossible to gauge how effective this group will be. They do have pieces in place and we’ll have to see if they are going to draft an outside linebacker or what we believe… Brian Cushing will go back outside. If they can get their linebackers on the field we think they can be good. However since we haven’t seen them hit the field yet we have to grade them as below average.

If Ed Reed can hold up this season, he can transform this defense from a good one to a great one.

If Ed Reed can hold up this season, he can transform this defense from a good one to a great one.

Secondary: With a stout pass rush that produced 44 sacks and 11 forced fumbles, this group should have had more than 15 interceptions. CB Kareem Jackson was the leader in that department with 4, and Jonathon Joseph went to the Pro Bowl with 2 picks. The Texans needed to desperately improve their secondary that ranked 20th against the pass. They needed a spark… Enter Ed Reed.  We’ll see if Reed will make a huge difference. Had this been 2008, we’d immediately say yes. With him going into his 12th year, we’re taking a wait and see approach

Last year’s Free Safety Glover Quinn was second on the team in tackles with 85 yet intercepted just 2 passes. Now you know why the Texans went after Ed Reed. SS Danieal Manning will come up and make a hit but these guys are limited cover guys. This group is playoff caliber if Reed plays like he did in Baltimore. The Chancellor would like to see more out of this group when it comes to coverage. Could see another draft pick used on corner and safety as well. They need some insurance to keep coverage on slot receivers. With the addition of Reed this is now a playoff caliber group.

Overview: This team is on the verge of having to retool on the offensive side of the ball. They are at a collective age where a crash could happen at any time. Schaub, Johnson, and the center of the offensive line all being over 32 years of age?? Tight End Owen Daniel will turn 31 in November. You better believe the time is now for this group. They couldn’t pull past the Colts while Manning was there and now they have to put up with a completely new Colts regime. One that gained confidence beating the Texans in the finale last year 28-16.

In reality this has been the AFC South’s best team since 2010 yet they couldn’t get that landmark win to push themselves to the top of the conference. The Chancellor’s crystal ball sees more of the same as they won’t make it past the divisional round of the playoffs and may actually be a wildcard entrant. Look at the relative age of this team. Just remember the NFL is a long season for all these thirty somethings. This will be their last year as a playoff team as well…

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Taylor Blitz Times new logo!!

Taylor Blitz Times new logo!!

Shanahan Says RG III Will “Set A Record” For Recovery From Knee Surgery

Run, Griffin III, run!!

Run, Griffin III, run!!

It’s amazing how often people worry about how running quarterbacks will get injured. The complete truth is there is no safe spot on the football field for a quarterback. Of course a quarterback can slide at the end of the run to protect himself but that is really all that he has. Remember in the 2005 playoffs when Carson Palmer, when he was with the Bengals, was hit by Kimo von Oelhofen?? How about 2008 when Tom Brady was knocked out for the year?? What about when we go back to the first game of 1991 when Randall Cunningham was knocked out for the year after being hit by Green Bay Packer Bryce Paup?? All of these occurred in the pocket.
Or a more vivid picture was when Steve Young, a reckless running quarterback at times, was knocked out in 1999 by a blitzing Aeneas Williams on a Monday Night against the Cardinals. Remember that hit?? That also took place in the passing pocket. It was the concussion that ended Steve Young’s career. Of course the Washington Redskins should still utilize the “Read Option” and exploit the talents of Robert Griffin III. To eliminate that would take away his greatest weapon which right now is his dual threat capabilities.

If he’s making a speedy recovery go with it. It has always bothered our CEO when fans or coaches want to tell a mobile quarterback to not run. A mobile quarterback turns football into 11 on 11 when it comes to a running game. Defenses haven’t accounted for quarterbacks in over 60 years in the NFL. Under normal circumstances they hand the ball off and watch the play. It wasn’t until Brett Favre in the mid 1990s started carrying out a “fake pass” to retard the charge of the Outside Linebacker to the weakside, that returned it to 10 on 10 from a strategic standpoint. Other coaches started to run fake reverses away from the running play to trick defenders into staying home instead of pursuing the ball. This allows greater cut back openings for the running back as well.

Robert Griffin III along with Colin Kaepernick, and Russell Wilson and the Pistol Offense is the next evolution of football. Now the quarterback has to be accounted for on a running play. So let RG III run when he gets back.