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

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2011 Atlanta Falcons Preview

The 2010 season was a banner year for the Atlanta Falcon franchise.  Although it ended in disappointment, they came back to dethrone the defending Super Bowl champion Saints and reclaim the NFC South, as they won in 2008 also.  They have a nucleus of talent that is still young and growing, they just happened to run into a buzzsaw in Aaron Rodgers in the playoffs.  They were beaten in the playoffs by the Super Bowl Champion Green Bay Packers who made two herculean interceptions by Tremond Williams to turn the tide, one of which returned for a halftime touchdown, iced the game. Yet through the 2010 season we learned about this team. They were battle tested in facing Pittsburgh and Baltimore in the AFC, then the Eagles, Packers, Seahawks, and split with the Saints.  Thats right 7 playoff teams and thats before we bring up the season sweep of the 10-6 Tampa Bay Buccaneers that kept them from the playoffs.  This team has won 2 of 3 division titles in the toughest division in football, the NFC South.  So where do they go from here?? What do they do for an encore??

Quarterback: This team is set at quarterback for many years to come in Matt Ryan.  Not only does he pass the eyeball test, “Matty Ice” is going to be one of the faces of the NFL through his play over the next decade barring injury.  His third season was a fruitful one completing 357 of 571 passes for 3,705 yards, 28 TDs and only 9 interceptions.  If you only saw his playoff game and saw that late 2nd quarter interception that put the Falcons behind by two scores at the half, you’re short changing one of 2010’s best pressure qbs.  He led drives to take the lead in 7 games last year, most notably, games 3 and 4 in the upset win of New Orleans and San Francsico to get the Falcons season underway.  Then rose to the occasion to do the same in what many thought could be a Super Bowl preview against the Baltimore Ravens in week 9 on a Monday Night.  The 26-21 win with the last second touchdown pass to Roddy White will be the calling card of his career until he wins a playoff game or a Super Bowl.

Ryan has worked hard on his footwork within the pocket.  He always keeps his feet set for to throw and doesn’t throw off his backfoot which caused some balls to sail on him in his first two years.  Another quality he’s worked on is not staring down his receiver allowing the defender to get a jump on his throws.  The playoff interception was an aberration because he was scrambling to that half of the field with time running out and should have thrown it away. Little more improvement and we’re looking at a perennial NFC Pro Bowl quarterback.  Its just time for him to win a playoff game.  Clearly on the rise…Super Bowl quality

Offensive Backfield: One of the NFC’s best and most physical rushing attacks with Michael Turner and Jason Snelling.  They are still scratching their heads in San Diego over why they didn’t re-sign Turner who used to spell LaDainian Tomlinson in San Diego, opting for the undersized Darren Sproles…yet i digress.  Turner has been a constant force for this Falcons team since his arrival.  In 2010 he was 2nd in the NFC and 6th in the NFL overall with 1,371 yards rushing with a gaudy 4.1 yards per rush average.  Turner is only 3 seasons removed from a career year of 1,699 yards rushing and may be able to best that mark this year.  He’s not much of a threat as a receiver with only 12 catches yet with the Falcons play action passing attack he’s utilized more as a pass blocker.  He can push the pile and fall forward for the extra yards that sustain drives.

With Turner going into his 8th season there is a chance he could start slowing due to hits piling up on that body.  Enter Jason Snelling.  Most teams have a second running back that comes in with a slightly different running style than the starter, not here.  Snelling comes in with his 223lbs. and slashes into the hole and physically finishes off runs the same as Turner.  In his five years he has averaged 4.1 yards per rush and the Falcons can run for a tough 3rd and 2 attempt with either back.  A luxury many teams don’t have.  Running downhill is what this team does.

Rushing attack from time to time is too centered in power football and needs a little bit of wiggle.  Could see a third down back or a scat back to add to their arsenal of backs.  A draft could be used here to pick up a wildcard type of player to provide a little explosion to the mix.  Especially once the bruisers have softened up the underbelly of opponents defenses.  If they stand pat, still an impressive backfield.

Receivers: It all starts with Roddy White, the best receiver in the NFL.  He led the league with 115 receptions for 1,389 yards and 10 TDs.  A Pro Bowl starter and 1st team All pro performer that has a volatile streak is actually the emotional sparkplug for this team.  From time to time the coaches reel him in a little bit but they know they can’t turn him into a church-mouse.  His personality and fight permeates this team and propels his play and if you curb that, the team would go flat.  Coming off 4 straight 1,000 yard seasons this was no fluke.  White is in the prime of his career and should be catching Ryan passes the rest of the decade.  Michael Jenkins is a solid receiver who disappears at times during games. However he had 41 receptions and averaged 12.3 yards per receptions to keep the chains moving.  He only scored twice and needs to break more plays for the Falcons.  At receiver the Falcons could use a boost here in the draft..

Tony Gonzalez showed up as the all time leader in receptions for an NFL tight end and didn’t disappoint with a 70 reception season for nearly 700 yards and 6 touchdowns.  He gave Matt Ryan the safety valve necessary to stay calm in the pocket and get into a passing rhythm week after week.  The Falcons hope to coax another season out of Gonzalez that could propel both to their first Super Bowl victories.  At least that is the plan.  Receiver is great with a little room for improvement from Jenkins or a rookie to step in and help.

Offensive Line: Aside from C Todd McClure, the remaining 4 linemen have 5 years or less on their resume, with McClure entering his 11th.  Not one of the five starters for Atlanta missed a start in 2010 and their performance bore this out.  They were 3rd in the NFL with only 23 sacks allowed while paving the way for 497 carries and 1,891 yards and 14 TDs.  Although the rushing total was only good enough to rank 12th, only the New York Giants and the New England Patriots could boast more rushing yards and less than25 sacks allowed.

Lets face facts, this is a quality line whose cohesion and youth should serve them well in what will be a dogfight in football’s best division.  For the Falcons to reach Super Bowl XLVI this line will need another great year from this offensive line.  Sam Baker (T) and Justin Blaylock (G) man the left side and keep blindside blitzers off of Ryan.  Each one of them are entering only their 3rd year.  Harvey Dahl (RG) and Tyson Clabo (RT) are each entering only their 5th seasons.  This is arguably the best line in football and should continue to improve.  Coach Mike Smith knows his team wins or loses it in the trenches and the heartbeat of this team is the offensive line.  Super Bowl Caliber

Defensive Line: This defense had a decent year in the statistical sense but its totally misleading.  John Abraham had a good year with 13 of the 20 sacks garnered by the defensive line.  However they could use more force at defensive tackle and here is the dilemma:  Although the defense ranked 10th against the run, this team ranked 25th in yards given up per rush with 4.6.  Thats terrible.  Jonathon Babineaux and Corey Peters need to eat up those blockers yet not get pushed off the ball so much.  More pressure is needed from the defensive end opposite Abraham, Kroy Bierman’s 3 sacks is nowhere near enough for a starting defensive end in a 4-3 defense.  Could see several draft picks used on the defensive line although Peters at DT was a rookie.  Abraham is going into his 11th year and has had injury issues throughout his career.

This team’s defense relies on their offense running the ball after getting a lead and controlling the clock to keep them off the field. However as evidenced in the 48-21 divisional playoff loss to the Packers, if the defense can’t force teams off the field on their own the wheels can come off quickly.  This also happened in Philadelphia early in the season in a 31-17 loss.  Spend a couple draft picks to bolster this defensive line. Coaxing another year out of this line as it is wouldn’t be wise…not against up and coming Tampa Bay and the dangerous Saints in the division.  They have to get better. This defensive line is below average…they achieved through smoke and mirrors last year

Linebacker: Curtis Lofton had a solid 2010 at MLB and finished with a team leading 118 total tackles.  He was able to get 2 sacks and force 3 fumbles.  However too often opposing linemen were able to push through the Falcon front and gobble up the smallish linebacker (6’0 /244lbs.) which is a two fold issue.  He has to shed blockers a little better if the defensive front doesn’t improve.  He has good range but what most teams will do is run directly at the Falcon middle until they prove they can stop it.  Steven Nicholas has good speed and range and finished the season with 78 total tackles yet only 1 interception and no sacks.  Needs to make a few more plays like he did in the 1st quarter of the playoff loss when he chased Packer WR Greg Jennings down and forced a fumble 25 yards downfield.  An amazing play.  Solid and strong on the outside should get a few more interceptions facing tight ends.  Mike Peterson is going into year 12 and should give way to the younger Sean Weatherspoon, last year’s 1st round pick, who did start 5 games in place of Nicholas last year.  Either he or Nicholas needs to move in and replace an aging Peterson and get a little more athleticism on the field.  Falcon linebackers are solid but not spectacular…if Weatherspoon can get on the field and pan out…this could change.

Secondary: A funny thing happened here last year.  After making a splash with the free agent signing of CB Dunte Robinson, the play of CB Brent Grimes improved dramatically.  Grimes went to his first pro bowl after leading the Falcons with 5 interceptions, highlighted by a game clinching interception in a week 12 showdown with Tampa for first place. Grimes finished second on the team with 87 tackles showing he will support the run. Tremendous season for the other cornerback.  Robinson only finished with 1 interception and needs a better second season in Atlanta.  Of course the company line is he was getting used to the Falcon system yet was last seen struggling against the Packers.  He definitely needs a bounce back year and he should.  He’s only entering his 6th season and is a physical corner.  He gains some humility from watching Grimes become a prime time player could propel this team into having the best set of cornerbacks in the NFC.  Two young safeties in William Moore and Thomas McCloud have played solid but not spectacular.  Moore tied for the team lead with 5 interceptions.  A very good secondary and if the Falcons can muster a real pass rush can be Super Bowl quality.

Overall: This is the team that will make the pilgrimmage up north to take on the Green Bay Packers in Lambeau Field for the NFC Championship Game.  The Falcons were 13-3 last year yet they need to improve on the defensive lines and the other wideout needs to make a few more plays.  Yet how they play now it would bode well in Green Bay.  Aaron Rodgers isn’t going to throw for 400 yards in below zero weather outdoors as he did in last year’s domed playoff game.  Stranger things have happened and a piece of history to take with you is that in 2002 the Atlanta Falcons went to Green Bay and won a playoff game in the snow.  The first ever post season loss at Lambeau….ever.   Just sayin’….

Next: Baltimore Ravens

2011 New York Jets Preview

Twice to the AFC Championship Game and vanquished one game away from the Super Bowl.  Do they go the way of the 70s Houston Oilers or 80s Cleveland Browns who made it to the pinnacle of the conference only to fall back into obscurity. Or fulfill their promise like the ’94 49ers, after losses in ’92 & 93, then advance to a Super Bowl win?  Time will tell but as we go to press today, the Jets have released center turned tackle Damien Woody and are parting ways with DE/OLB Jason Taylor, NT Kris Jenkins, and OLB Vernon Gholston.  The loss of Jenkins and Taylor would hurt the team from a locker room standpoint yet Gholsten has underachieved to record levels.  Yet don’t be surprised when / if Jenkins or Taylor are brought back later.  I don’t see either being pursued  by other teams and no, Taylor is not going to go back to Miami.

The Jets have an ‘esprit de corps that permeates their roster yet they seem to be on borrowed time with a smaller window than most elite teams.  This is a veteran laden squad that really leans on veteran leadership to offset the bombast of Rex Ryan to keep the team on point.  There are moments where veteran players bridge the gap between Coach Ryan’s declarations and the work that needs to be impressed into the young players minds to make that happen.  Careful New York, don’t let too many of these guys get away.

Quarterback: Very young Mark Sanchez, whom former USC / present Seattle Seahawk  Head Coach Pete Carroll proclaimed wasn’t ready for the NFL.  (Cue laughter) This is the only quarterback in the NFL to defeat both Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in a single season playoff run.  Understand what you are seeing here and yes the Jets are a run first / pass second team.  Its a more traditional take on how to run offense yet no other quarterback in history was asked to defeat 3 consecutive Super Bowl winning quarterbacks in one post season run.  Yet he didn’t crack under the pressure and proved to be a leader on the rise until the bitter end.  After throwing for 5 TDs and only 1 interception in last year’s playoffs, Sanchez was seen rallying the troops on the sideline (most notably) on camera with Jerricho Crotchery that the cameras picked up in the waning moments of the AFC Championship.  This kid is the real deal.

Speaking of kid, its imperative that his brothers who run most of his business affairs, keep him from the pratfalls that could derail a tremendous career.  He’s a traditionalist in terms of finding a rhythm once the rushing game has established its dominance but hell Bart Starr played that way.  However look at the improvement Sanchez provided in year two: 17TDs to 13 ints v. 12 TDs to 20 ints in year one.  That same level of improvement, however unlikely, would be Mark throwing for 25TDs and only 6 interception and that I could promise you would be those of a Super Bowl champion.

Unlike Joe Flacco, Sanchez is improving as a quarterback.  His play in the second half of football games, AFC Championship included,  Sanchez has thrown for the go ahead touchdown on 4 occasions last year.  His improvement can be measured in the coaching staff asking him to throw more than his rookie season.  Although his completion percentage stayed the same (53.8 to 54.8) he threw for nearly 900 more yards.  He was asked to throw 507 times last year as compared to 364 times during his rookie year and he threw 7 LESS interceptions in his sophomore year.  Detractors of his play need to take a long look in the mirror because thats legitimate improvement.

Playing in the fishbowl that is the New York media, Rex Ryan has been brilliant at deflecting the heat of winning and losing onto himself allowing for his young quarterback to flourish with minimal pressure.  Mark Sanchize is on the rise.

Offensive Backfield: This backfield has one more season in its present state. Shonn Greene and Ladainian Tomlinson spelling each other allows the Jets to go with the hot hand during various games as well as share the pounding.  This allowed Tomlinson to have lively legs toward the end of the season.  But lets face it he came into the season with a chip on his shoulder to show that he can still play and came in in great shape.  This proud future Hall of Famer ran for 914 yards in his first season in Gotham, up from the 730 yards the season before, even though he ran 4 FEWER times than his last in San Diego.  He showed the burst that many thought he lost a few years back.  The Jets believe they can coax another season out of him and we believe so as well.  His locker room impact is even greater than his on field presence but his shelf life will run out after this season as a player.

As for Shonn Greene, he was asked to take on more of the heavy lifting at running back and had a decent second season.  However his averaged dropped to 4.1 per carry from 5.0 as a rookie.  Teams game planned for him more and were affective in slowing his production.  Greene has patient feet yet sometimes runs up the back of his blockers.  This can be seen as a positive or a negative depending on how the play ends.  One of the better plays came as he bounced out the game clinching touchdown run that sealed the Patriots fate in the playoffs.  Although he believes he can pound the football and move the pile, he can get thrown for an occasional loss.  Greene slip some of those solid hits and prolong your career.  He ran for 766 yards and may run for 900 this year.  Teams will plan for Sanchez to be better at throwing the football and allow for the Jets to run for even more yardage this year.  Greene will be the big beneficiary of that with LT taking more of a supplemental role earlier in this new season.  A draft pick should be spent at RB to prepare for LT’s imminent departure.

Receivers: Santonio Holmes and Braylon Edwards are a good match as a set of receviers.   Edwards handling the intermediate routes and Holmes as the game breaker. Uh…well not quite.  A closer look at the numbers shows that they were close in receptions (Edwards 53 rec. / Holmes 52 rec.) yet Edwards gained 904 yards to Holmes 746.  Their combined 13 touchdowns and yardage should be up with a maturing Sanchez.  With that being the case look for fewer catches for Jerricho Crotchery who caught 41 passes last year.  This year there will be more plays called for Holmes to get short passes in space and gain yardage after the catch.  This is a solid threesome at receiver.  They could use a draft pick here to obtain a speedy receiver who could double as a returner.

Offensive Line: This team just took a hit with the loss of tackle Damien Woody.  Hopefully there is a succession in place because this team may need to re-sign him if there is a drop in production.  For this was the 4th best rushing offense in football rushing for 2,374 yards and a lofty 4.4 yard average.  As a group this team tied for 7th giving up only 28 sacks so hopefully this a cap relief and resign move.  Nick Mangold, Matt Slauson, D’Brickshaw Ferguson, and Brandon Moore make up the nucleus of a solid line that will be a cohesive unit for years to come.  With Moore the only linemen who has more than 5 years experience.  Mangold is a Pro Bowler center and first team all pro, who is in the prime of his career.  A solid anchor that will make all the blocking audibles along this very solid front.  This line is Super Bowl ready.

Defensive Line: Shaun Ellis is entering his 11th year and is still stout against the run but slowing as a pass rusher.  Well partly, a 3-4 end usually is running twists and stunts to free linebackers and other blitzers to get to the quarterback.  Rex Ryan would be happy to get more than 4.5 sacks out of his starting end to keep him from blitzing.  The Jets parted ways with NT Kris Jenkins who has been hit with too many injuries as of late.  Age and injuries have slowed one of the best run stuffers in recent years.  Don’t be surprised if they bring him back as an insurance policy when the playoffs near. DE Mike Devito is adequate but not spectacular. This team could use a few draft picks on their D-line, this team needs a jolt when it comes to rushing the passer.  They haven’t replaced John Abraham as a top shelf pass rusher.  Could easily see the Jets draft several pass rushers as they did with Abraham and Shaun Ellis back in 2000.

Linebackers: Absolutely the heart and soul of the defense. There isn’t a better set of inside linebackers than Bart Scott and David Harris.  Scott is the emotional leader and a physical hitter with great tackle to tackle range.  Playing next to a great talent makes one either shrink or raise their level of play.  The latter is what has taken place with “Hitman” Harris, who was designated this year’s franchise tag to keep him from leaving via free agency.  He’s averaged 107 tackles and 3 sacks over his 4 years in New York and also provided the signature play in the AFC Divisional upset of New England.  His 58 yard interception return in the 1st quarter was the first hint that Tom Brady was about to have a long day.

The aforementioned Bart Scott is the soul of this defense.  His intensity and strong play is why Ryan brought him in from Baltimore the moment he got the head coaching job in Gotham.  In his two seasons in New York Scott has averaged 86.5 tackles and is still in his prime entering his 10th season.  Scott and Harris punish runners and smother tight ends on underneath routes.  Hopefully the Jets can get an injury free season from OLB Calvin Pace who no longer has Jason Taylor sharing time with him.  Taylor was released earlier this week yet maybe a cap insurance policy to be brought back later in the season.  Pace will need to produce the 10.5 sacks that he and Taylor combined for in ’10.  With Bryan Thomas coming in from the other side (6 sacks) this is as solid a set of linebackers in the NFL. Near Super Bowl quality.

Secondary: OK I was guilty of giving Darrelle Revis grief for getting beaten a few times early last year but lets face it, he didn’t get a proper training camp in and was back to his usual self when he rounded into game shape later in the season.  His 0 interceptions last year was an anomaly and he will be there from day one of camp and will return to the shut down corner averaging 5 interceptions per year.  Antonio Cromartie came through with a good season also.  He battled Randy Moss to a standstill in that early season matchup against New England.  His long arms throw off receivers when he gets physical and jams wideouts and not depend solely on his athleticism.  Revis and Cromartie are entering their 5th and 6th seasons respectively and remind me of the Hanford Dixon / Frank Minnifield pairing in Cleveland in the 1980s.  Do not be surprised if they both make the pro bowl and a strong interception total by Cromartie as teams throw away from Revis.   A 10 interception season by Cromartie is not out of the question.  Nickelback Drew Coleman is a solid 3rd corner and affective blitzer.

Jim Leonard is quietly one of the leaders of this defense and is affective in keeping the secondary together.  A coach on the field also doubles as the team’s punt returner.  The Jets missed him in the playoffs and for a Super Bowl run they’d be better served with their captain.  Pool and Smith are solid at the free safety position as well.  As a unit, this could be the best secondary in football, certainly in the AFC and they are Super Bowl quality.

Overall: This team is primed to reach Super Bowl XLVI, make no mistakes about it.  A friend of mine, Randy Davis was right about this team being the real deal last year and I wasn’t sure.  After that playoff run I am totally sold.  This isn’t just Rex Ryan talk either.  If you analyze this team as I have you’ll see that there are no obvious weaknesses.  A quarterback who is growing in stature and on the verge of a breakout season.  An organization with a signature playoff win against New England that has them brimming with confidence.  The key is for them to not get overconfident and remember that sick feeling they had as the time ticked away in Heinz Field last January.

I can’t say it enough but Mark Sanchez is on the cusp of super stardom.  He’s young, mobile and grew a thick skin during the ’10 playoff run.  With the NFL having played exhibition and a regular season game in Mexico, where American football has tremendous popularity, its befitting to see a rising Hispanic star come to the forefront.  Uh…Pete Carroll you missed, this kid is ready and he already has the NFL all time record for road playoff wins with 4.  He will improve even further and once this team gets home field advantage…yes this is going to be the AFC participant v. the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XLVI.  Move over Broadway Joe,  Mark Sanchize, Bart “Can’t Wait!” Scott, LT, David “Hitman” Harris and Rex Ryan are about to make a Super Bowl run.  Long suffering Jets misery should come to an end next February.