ESPN- What the Fuck Happened To You??

ESPN,

Yes I asked the question and meant it in the language I used. Why am I upset? Well I have been a fan since the channel’s inception in 1979. You see, Columbus, Ohio was one of those first test cities for ESPN making it’s first foray into cable television. If my mom wasn’t watching something or it was my turn to channel surf, boom ESPN was on in our house. Now many of the old NFL stories you used to play on holidays is why I’m a historian on the sport now.

All you had were experts in terms of former players, former coaches who would talk strategies and insight to what the casual viewer could learn. Now I turn on your network and all I see are Jen Sterger eye candy types regurgitating what someone teleprompts her to say.

Half the time they can’t get into an indpth discussion on most of the topics and when they cross reference something there are TEN better references that could have been used! Damn! Does it really have to go to the lowest common denominator like most channels?? You don’t have to sexy up football, men have watched the NFL for 92 fuckin’ years. It didn’t start from an MTV spinoff

You want to know how long I go back with you…First off in 1980, you would start showing football in the third week of July when you would show the Super Bowl highlight from the previous season. I would be buried in the TV listings looking for it because from that point on you’d dabble in historical pieces until the season would start. You had no football shows to speak of but you got the juices going.

By 84′ you’d have Jim Simpson hosting these shows. He’d come on and speak for a few minutes before the Yearbook (they weren’t called that at that point) of the ’73 Dolphins and the ’74 Steelers (which i taped) or a Super Bowl highlight as these shows were dotted across a television viewing day. I always had tape running in those days.

Can remember wanting to hear what ESPN would say about a game on SportsCenter and can remember Chris Berman’s on the field report after “The Catch” following the ’81 NFC Championship with San Francisco knocking off Dallas 28-27. Same thing for the ’82 NFC Championship as the crowd stormed the field in RFK. CBS wouldn’t get down IN the celebration where you guys did. Gave it more feeling than reporting from the booth.

Then every holiday before real games were played you’d show something of yesteryear that added history to the tradition. Can remember on Thanksgiving ’85 taping yearbooks for the ’68 Jets, ’69Chiefs, ’70 Raiders, and ’73 Buffalo Bills. Then on Christmas Day the ’71 AFC Divisional Playoff Highlight to Ed Podolak’s spectacular 350 yard game where the Dolphins beat the Chiefs 27-24 in the longest game ever. Then you played the ’77 AFC Divisonal Playoff of the Super Bowl Champion Raiders beating the Colts in double overtime 37-31.

Up to that point you let the game and the sounds do all the talking, yet in ’86 you started to sprinkle in some good shows. Namely Monday Night Theater (predecessor to my Taylor Blitz Times Theater on Facebook) where you would highlight great games of the past relevant to the two teams playing. Then the coup de’ gras…Monday Night Matchup.

I can still remember the good old days on that show with Ally Sherman, Steve Sabol of NFL Films, and a young Chris Berman. It was the best television show ever covering the X’s and O’s on the sport and I wouldn’t miss it.

With that show’s success you decided: Why not have our own pregame show for the Sunday games?? NFL Gameday and NFL Primetime hit and I was watching from that first episode in ’87. You snatched up the late Pete Axthelm from NBC to go with Chris Berman and a just retired Tom Jackson and I haven’t watched a full pregame broadcast from the regular networks since.

Berman came off the television, just like us. A huge fan, who just happened to be up close to express it and ask the questions we zealots would had we switched places with him. Then you introduced the Sunday Night Games and I thought Mike Patrick was the best play by play announcer next to Dick Enberg. He made the games feel like an event. Can still remember the Sunday Night Matchup with the Cleveland Browns with CBs Frank Minnifield and Hanford Dixon against the Forty Niners and WR Jerry Rice. That game was treated like a Super Bowl and that game dwarfed all others that day and the folllowing Monday.

You were elevating the game with your coverage and shows and literally my television wasn’t off ESPN by this time at all. Throw in college basketball, NFL,  and the NBA’s televised drafts?? Man, I can remember a six way phone conversaton when the Boston Celtics selected Len Bias in the ’86  draft. We all hated the Celtics so we were in a complete shock as you broadcast his selection. Then broadcast on SportsCenter and subsequent shows of his death two days later. Being a high school teenager at the time, man this was big news. Then being on your station following up Bias one week later was the death of Cleveland Browns safety Don Rogers from a cocaine overdose. Where regular news spoke of this for a few minutes and moved on, you gave it hours and depth. Especially one from the black community, I looked at that as a sign of respect not afforded by the regular networks. To many of us, the perception was if something happened to a black celebrity it wouldn’t be afforded the coverage of that of a white one. That was extremely important to me.

At that time and beyond you were the sports information universe outside of what else I was reading on my own. Yet in the late 90’s you started to change into something more commercial, more sinister, more tabloid. Gone was the respect of the athletes you covered and you seemed to sensationalize items that didn’t need to be. Yes, the ignorance and tragedy of Ray Carruth’s murder/ attempted murder of his fiance should be covered, but every time someone gets a speeding ticket or a DUI doesn’t have to be. Any argument at a team’s practice facility was now on the air 24 hours a day. All of a sudden you were in a race to leak every off the field incident and to me started to seem more like TMZ than ESPN.

Just know that  power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. It was exactly at the turn of the century where you became aware of your own pull and started to act as though you owned or governed the leagues you covered. The corporate dumbing down of your shows started and the proliferation of eye candy blondes took the place of former players and writers. Whether they’d be asking silly ass questions on the sideline during games or slowing down topics discussed on shows, I kept asking why??

Then to make matters worse is you are even now a tabloid to those who work / worked for you and started to eat your own young. From the Sean Salisbury incident ( which was totally wrong in our estimation) to Erin Andrews being peeped on while dressing on the road, to Jalen Rose’s DUI a few months back.  Instead of hearing about a trade on Sports Center we’re listening to some report on Erin Andrews?? Please stop! Where the hell did my favorite station go?? What the fuck is this nonsense??

Get back to doing what you had done to become a sports giant. Be there for the fan and offer the best talent and the best coverage a fan can ask for based on information and insight they can provide. You don’t see Fox News getting rid of Greta Van Susteren for an eye candy strumpet with a blouse full do you?? No because the viewer is tuning in for the news and want to hear it from a credible source. Sports is in the same boat and we zealots would tune in anyway. Listen, there were over 80 million viewers that tuned in for Super Bowl X and a reported 120 million for Super Bowl XX, and the sideline reporter for the latter was Bob Griese. Certainly not eye candy. We’re going to tune in. Some outlets don’t need the sex sells dogma that has infiltrated every other aspect of advertising and entertainment.

But alas, we know this is falling on deaf ears but needed to be expressed. Like our government you’re too big to listen and too far gone to reverse your tactics. I thank the NFL for realizing this and building their own network based upon your prior model in the NFL Network. If it weren’t for Chris Berman and Tom Jackson, I wouldn’t turn to your channel. Yet for the few times a week I’m around a television, I tune to you inadvertently and leave a few minutes later disappointed.

So at this time I have to break up with you and I’ll miss my friends Chris and Tom but it isn’t the same. Trey Wingo doing NFL Primetime makes me want to throw a brick through my television and I paid too much for my 47″ 1080P LG. That move along with the bimbo eye candy was the last straw for me and I won’t turn on your channel ever again. From a historian and writer who aspires to make this blog and subsequent website, radio shows, and internet television shows in the spirit an old ESPN could enjoy… This is goodbye.

Chancellor of Football from the Football Offices of Burbank, California

Sincerely Yours,

Jef A Taylor

Chancellor of Football

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What I Did With My NFL This Summer by Little Jeff Taylor

Dear Mrs. Goodell,

How did it come to this? Greed, pure and simple.  Now I’m not connected nor have a pipeline into the NFL offices, yet I will just look at it objectively from an 11 year old’s perspective. The owners have locked the players out which is completely different than the players going out on strike which happened in ’74, ’82, and ’87.  What, you don’t remember the strike that took place off season back in the 70s? Ahh…whatever. We can only speculate on what we think is going to happen.  The very first thing that comes to mind is the dishonesty in the owners not wanting to open their books when it came to fair negotiations. Players and owners are fighting over the final $1 billion out of the $9 billion that the league makes. The owners are claiming that they are losing money and its simply not true.  The act of super glueing the books closed in light of negotiations was testament of that.  Had they been losing money and their ledgers reflected this, would we be here??

Lets take a serious look at things: The NFL that Pete Rozelle and company structured had the leagues revenue sharing policies to where network money and the stadium gate be divided among the teams.  So if there was a game between the Chicago Bears and the Minnesota Vikings in Soldier Field in 1979, the gate was split 65/35 by the teams.  With the home team having the bigger slice of that pie and that went on for decades.  Then the teams discovered loopholes to screw each other and came up with luxury boxes with revenue they could keep to themselves.  Think back to that middle ring that went around Texas Stadium.  Now I know they weren’t the ones that initiated this move but it’s the easiest set of boxes for all of us to remember in the mind’s eye.   So add to that stadium naming rights and exclusive deals with Nike and Pepsi, initiated by Jerry Jones in 1995, and teams had other ways to raise non-shared revenues along with concessions.  So at last count for a home game a team keeps 65%  gate revenue, concessions, jersey sales, alcohol, and parking.  All this before the $10.678 million per game from television. *number from the 2009 season*

So for emphasis, and to show the lower case scenario, try this one on: I attended the Oakland Raiders v. Seattle Seahawks on Halloween last year.  The tickets were $96, parking was $33, and I lost count of the tequila shots in Raiderville yet I digress… This was in a 45 year old stadium with few luxury boxes.  So just to attend that game its $129 at least and thats before the $8 nachos along the mezzanine in the far endzone. Off the record the nachos were huge and had a ton of meat and cheese yet I can easily tell you that of the $280 I spent that day aside from the ticket, Oakland and not Seattle was keeping that money.  How much are things in JerryWorld in Dallas, Lucas Oil in Indianapolis, or the New Meadowlands in East Rutherford, New Jersey?? Tickets??  Losing money?? Really??

Having a tequila and chat with former Raider fullback Marv Hubbard

Furthermore there is a difference between the players not wanting to play the 18 game season and stay with a 16 game season.  The bulk of the players that have passed on recently with attention on head trauma.  The league is completely full of shit when it wants to legislate blows to the head on the field, then increase the number of games at the same time.  You can’t call it a money thing because the league’s television contracts wouldn’t change.  Furthermore there needs to be something done to insure former players.  While at that game I had the chance to sit and talk with former Oakland Raider Marv Hubbard about the former players plight.  The majority of players that have physical issues and the inability to receive insurance due to pre-existing conditions.  At what point does the league assist those in need and protect the present day player. Its disgraceful.

As for the lockout its different than the strikes that happened in the 1980s, namely 1987.  The owners are not in the same situation as they were in 1987.  Of the 28 teams only the Miami Dolphins and Indianapolis Colts had new stadiums.  Aside from the Bills (’73), Saints (’75), and Lions (’75) the rest of the league had 20 year old stadiums with nothing to pay off or were in leases. Now we have fourteen teams with stadiums less than 10 years old with another 7 within 4 years of that.  There are a bunch of teams that have bond payments and financing to pay off these new palaces.  Why do you think JerryWorld has hosted more boxing matches than the MGM Grand??  Can you say payments??  If this lockout were to go into the season those financial obligations wouldn’t go away.  If you were to calculate the cost of missing the new season at $5.5 billion, add up the attorney fees and trust me the networks would motion for rebates or may even take the league to court for not having a product.  It would take the league over 5 years to break even for a missed season.  Thats why they will play.  These are businesses with ownership groups and not singular owners that will get nervous as the lack of revenue draws near.  This time the owners will be as nervous as the players where back in 1987 they could outlast the players easily.

So this summer I didn’t worry about things Mrs. Goodell because I knew that they’d come to an agreement. Right now its posturing and nothing more.

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 Philadelphia Eagles Preview

That Andy Reid can come out smelling like a rose can’t he? First he exiled the franchise’s best ever quarterback for the heir apparent in Kevin Kolb.  Kolb proved ineffective during the preseason and was replaced after injury by a rejuvenated Michael Vick who played some of the most electrifying football seen in years.  Fast forward one year later and Vick wins the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year in a landslide and Kevin Kolb is being dangled as trade bait after the 2010 season.  The Eagles fell to the eventual Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers in the playoffs yet seemed poised to terrorize the NFC East with maybe the division’s most explosive offense ever.  With the Redskins and Cowboys foundering on rocky waters, all that remains is the enigmatic Giants to keep them from reclaiming their division crown.  The question for the Giants is: ” Have they sought help for the nightmares from DeSean Jackson’s punt return that flipped their season on it’s ear?”  So a little over a year removed from rumors that Reid may step down, followed by a press conference and possible wife induced decision to stay on, he comes into the 2011 season retooled and loaded for bear.

Quarterback: The “Michael Vick Experience” hit the City of Brotherly Love like a storm last year.  It was the perfect elixir for an underachieving Kevin Kolb who was outplayed by both Vick and rookie Mike Kafka from Northwestern in the preseason.  With the release of Donovan McNabb, the keys to the kingdom were turned over to Kolb.  So once conventional wisdom had Kolb start the season, with new contract in tow,  his play was marginal and then he went down with an injury.  Enter Michael Vick, who went on to have the best season of his career.  He ranked 4th with a passer rating (100.2), while throwing for 3,018 yards, and the best touchdown to interception ratio of his career 21 to 6.

His ability to supplement the running game with 676 yards and 9 touchdowns, made the Eagle offense the scourge of the league at the midseason point.  His feet have improved as a quarterback, he’s constantly on balance and ready to throw.  He showed a penchant to keep his head up and find receivers when he was evading the rush, and not always running it. Yet its this threat to do so that causes defenses to approach with a caution that is borderline fear.  As showcased when he danced through the New York Giants while leading the miraculous 4th quarter comeback that doomed the Giants season in game 14.  That 38-31 win kept Vick in the hunt for the NFL MVP Award, however it was his transcendent performance against Washington in a 58-29 blowout that started it.  That night was one of the greatest offensive performances ever and was exactly what Vick followers expected him to mature into.

Kevin Kolb came back and played well once Vick came off the field due to injury, yet his fate was sealed. He threw for 1,197  yards, 7 TDs, and 7 ints. which was not the best but he did respond once his job was threatened.  Andy Reid has a quarterback to trade and should get a number one and a second round for him.  He figured it would be Vick until the season began and now they have a quarterback in Kolb who could start for at least 10 other teams.  At quarterback the Eagles are Super Bowl quality at the moment…they have to keep Vick healthy.  Could use a draft pick here to prepare for the imminent departure of Kolb who should be traded by the regular season.

Offensive Backfield: Now statistics show you the Eagles have a strong rushing attack.  They ran 428 times for 2, 324 yards and 18 TDs which ranked 5th in the league for rushing totals. These numbers are skewed because of the Michael Vick factor.  Although he didn’t run as frequent as in year’s past he accounted for half of the teams rushing touchdowns with 9 and his 6.8 yards per attempt on 100 carries swelled the Eagles stat as a team to 5.4 per rush. In fact Vick was second on the team in rushing for 38 first downs to McCoy’s 48.  Yet they can run the ball effectively with LeSean McCoy who accounted for 1080 yds and 7 touchdowns.  Without Vick to contain teams honestly, bootlegs away from the flow of the play, McCoy doesn’t gain that type of  yardage.  Its like the Brian Westbrook saga all over again.  He can catch and run but can only do so in space without resorting to gimmicky plays like shovel passes, draws, and sprint draw plays out of 3 and 4 receiver sets.  Yet he was the Eagle’s leading receiver with 78 receptions for another 592 yards.  Many of which were plays where Vick began to scramble and found him on scat routes once the defense squared up to attack the QB.

This teams goal line offense is bootleg pass options with Vick. The Eagles would do themselves a service if they drafted another half back to provide some power between the tackles at times.  It would prove fruitful in the long run for both the Eagles ability to convert on short yardage and goal line, but also minimize the wear and tear on McCoy over a long season. At running back average at best yet superior totals adding Vick’s ad-libs.

Receiver: These guys are growing by leaps and bounds and should be better with a full pre-season to get accustomed to Vick as the starter.  This will be the Greatest Show on Turf East, with so many explosive weapons on the flank. DeSean Jackson, going into his 4th season, has emerged as one of the best deep threats in the league.  Once out in the open forget catching this lightning bolt from behind.  His 47 catches for 1,056 yards and 6 touchdowns were enough to make the Pro Bowl despite missing a game and a half due to a concussion.  In fact he became the first player in NFL history to earn his way onto a Pro Bowl roster at two different positions in the same year.  He made it as a receiver,and punt returner, while causing 80,000 in the New Meadowlands anguish with a punt return touchdown with no time on the clock.  Over his 3 years in Philadelphia,  Jackson has averaged over 47 yards on 26 career touchdowns including 14 from over 50 yards.  If he gets on top of your safety forget it.  The Redskins found this out on a Monday Night when he scored on a 91 TD on the Eagles first offensive play.  Going to be a deep threat for many years to come.

On the other side is Jeremy Maclin, who provides a similar skill set yet has the bigger body (6’0 and 198 yards) to go over the middle for the intermediate catches. He had 70 receptions for 964 yards and led the Eagles with 10 TDs.  Brent Celek is an emerging tight end who chimed in with 47 receptions.  By the time we put in Jason Avant from Michigan and his 51 receptions, this gives the Eagles 5 receivers with 40 or more receptions.  Who do you game plan for in stopping this passing game?  We feel this is the year that teams over play Jackson’s deep ball and Maclin has his breakout season with a 1,200 yard season and his first Pro Bowl berth.  Receiver is pro bowl caliber in Philadelphia and they should terrorize the NFC East this year as well.  All are in their prime and getting better…just dangerous.

Offensive Line: Hmmm, kind of mixed reviews here and hard to gauge this line in terms of their affectiveness.  Although this team is running a west coast offense where the staple is to get the ball out of the quarterback’s hands quickly, Eagle quarterbacks were hammered all year.  You do remember they got Kevin Kolb knocked out of game 1 which got Vick on the field in the first place, right? Even with Vick’s elusiveness, only 3 teams gave up more sacks than the 49 this Eagle line gave up last year….yikes! Couple that with a twin ranking of 29th in Philly QBs being hit 95 times and you see why Vick missed time last year as well as Kevin Kolb.  No wonder this team called a lot of half rolls off play action fakes.  They needed to slow down the opposing defense.

The numbers are better for this unit in the running game but again this comes with an asterisk.  The final stats show the Eagles ranked fifth with 2,324 yards rushing and 18 TDs which is ranked 4th.  Terrific, until you dissect this a little further.  Take away the 676 yards and 9TDs that came from Vick scrambles and the output plummets to  1,648 yards and only 9 TDs which would have ranked 20th and 24th respectively.  The lone offensive lineman that performed with distinction in 2010 was LT Jason Peters who made the Pro Bowl.  It wouldn’t be surprising if the Eagles put a few draft picks here to light fires under several of their lineman.  Another season like this and they could get their quarterback hurt and derail their 2011 season.  With that…this team is below average and needs to have better push on running plays.  They play too upright and need to get their knuckles in the dirt and fire off the ball.  This comes back to the coaches spending 80% of their practice time in passive pass blocking stances.  It shows on 3rd and 2 when you can’t power off tackle with regularity and the Eagles just don’t pass the eyeball test when it comes to running the football traditionally.

Defensive Line: One of the most enigmatic groups among the elite teams in all of football.  You here every NFL coach start off every press conference with stopping the run.  This group can be pushed off the ball and ranked 15th against the run giving up 1,766 yards and over 4.2 yards per carry.  Yet this front finished with 23 of the team’s overall 31 sacks which included 19 from the defensive end position.  Trent Cole accounted for 81 tackles and 10 sacks from the weakside, but can be run on and is smallish at 6’3 , 270lbs by today’s NFL standards.  Lets be honest, these DTs, Mike Patterson, Antonio Dixon, and Broderick Bunkley have to play more stout and quit getting shoved in the face of their linebackers.  They need to come off those blocks better as well…

This team relies on the offense getting a lead and allowing this defensive line to tee off on the opposing quarterback.  If they have to “sit in” and play honest against both the run and the pass this team can be overpowered.  They rely on exotic blitzes to force turnovers and missed blocks to mask their line deficiencies.  The Eagles should grab a DT or two in the draft and free agency since they are below average in holding their ground.  Teams will run at them to keep them off the field.

Linebackers: The Eagles starters are Ernie Sims, Stewart Bradley, and Moise Fokou who are marginal at best. They accounted for 4 sacks and only 1 interception.  Sims is an athletic defender who sometimes lacks instinct and gets gobbled up by blockers once he’s diagnosed the play.  An original 1st round draft pick by the Detroit Lions finished with 68 tackles and 5 passes defensed.  His play has slipped since his 1st two seasons with Detroit where he had 82 and 96 tackles.   Stewart Bradley was second on the team with 88 tackles yet made too many 5 yards down field. The linebackers suffer from the D-Line not holding up.  However this linebacking group is functional and not really instinctive. The Eagles would serve themselves well with a free agent pickup and or a few draft picks here.  The fact that they were running blitzes similar to those of the late Jim Johnson, this crew should have made more splash plays.

Secondary: This is one of the better secondaries in football.  These guys take chances yet have to stay solid with the defense sending blitzes in many situations.  The signing of Asante Samuel at corner has paid off handsomely.   The all time playoff interception TD return leader in NFL history has made several plays since his arrival from New England.  In 2010, he went to his 4th straight Pro Bowl after leading the NFC with 7 interceptions with 8 passes defensed.  Some have been critical of his not being a solid tackler in the running game and he only had 28 tackles….eh there could be something to that.  Yet this guy is a ballhawk and leads the league in interceptions since 2006 with 36 interceptions, which is what the Eagles really signed him for.

The other star in this secondary is S Quentin Mikell from Boise St.  Yes Melinda and Ray that same Boise St.  One of the Eagles that should have made the Pro Bowl after the 2010 season.  In fact he made the Pro Bowl in 2009, and last year still garnered 2nd team All Pro distinction with his play for a 3rd straight year.  Last year he led the Eagles with 111 tackles, defensed 14 passes while intercepting 3 passes.  This is the force member of the secondary on running plays along with the other cornerback in Dimitri Patterson who recorded 55 tackles and 4 interceptions.  Yet this is a solid tackling group.  Secondary is excellent however if we ran an opposing offense:  run sweeps and bubble screens on Samuel and force him to tackle more.  Try to get behind him with double moves afterward for he will gamble on intermediate (10-15 yard) routes where he jumps passes and gets most of his interceptions. The key is to get hits on his legs and make it easy to pass on him later.

Overall: In facing this team the first thing to remember is this team can definitely be run on and they will give up points.  Astoundingly this Eagle team isn’t as strong as defenses in recent years during the Andy Reid era.  Last year they gave up 377 points which ranked 21st in the league which was 3rd from the bottom of all playoff teams.  Although the Colts were missing Bob Sanders and linebacker Gary Brackett, their best players, and the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks who shouldn’t have been there.  This team  almost wins inspite of their statistics whether we look at the offensive line, defensive line, linebackers or defense as a whole which ranked 12th in yardage given up.  Stay to the ground as the Vikings did in defeating them in game 15; 24-14, feeding them Adrian Peterson for over 100 yards.

The key to playing them is to not become impatient and fast-break with them.  Run on this defense and keep Vick and that offense sitting on their hands and take them out of rhythm.  Even in the Giants game where they came from behind to win in the Meadowlands, they were cold for much of the game.  The Giants became deer in the headlights once Vick got going.  If the Eagles get into a rhythm on offense you could be dead in the water.  Keep your rushing attempts high and force a low scoring game and avoid the “Michael Vick Experience”.  How did he not get a single vote for league MVP?  Sigh…another subject for another day.  This team should repeat as NFC East division champion.

Next Up: Indiannapolis Colts

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