2013 NFC North Predictions

Welcome to the kickoff of the 2013 NFL season where we begin our prognostications for teams vying to get to Super Bowl XLVIII. Who will make it to New Jersey?? Well that comes in a couple articles but for now there are division races to settle first. We begin with the old black and blue division…

minnesota_vikings_wallpaper_5-normal2013 NFC North Predictions

Minnesota Vikings 11-5 *

Chicago Bears 10-6 #

Green Bay Packers 9-7

Detroit Lions 5-11

Now of course there are Christian Ponder detractors going into the season yet no one remembers how he improved as last season progressed. There isn’t a quarterback in the NFL who can lean on a Hall of Fame rusher as he can with Adrian Peterson. This season watch for the Vikings to learn the full range of what their front office put together on offense and defense. Jared Allen is in a contract year and Peterson will become the first runner in NFL history to have two 2,000 yard seasons.

The Chicago Bears are a year away from fully coming into their own as they transition into an offensive team. There will be some growing pains as Jay Cutler learns to spread the ball around to Jeffery and his other receivers more. The defense will be fine in Chicago as they still boast the best set of cornerbacks in the NFL in Jennings and Peanut Tillman.

Up in Green Bay there will be more pressure on Rodgers to keep outscoring the opposition. However his receiving corps is in a youth movement and neither the offensive or defensive lines look like they will hold up the entire season. Watch for the Packers to slip from playoff contention for the first time in several years as they struggle to incorporate the run in their pass happy offense.

The Chancellor hates to say it but expect more of the same from the Detroit Lions. Reggie Bush will provide some sizzle on plays out in space but they will telegraph what they will run with whoever is in the backfield.

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2013 Washington Redskins Preview – RGIII In Camp On Time

All eyes on Robert Griffin III as he returns from off season knee surgery.

All eyes on Robert Griffin III as he returns from off season knee surgery.

Think back to that dark January evening, when Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III, fell awkwardly fumbling the football on his last play of the game. More than the Redskins faithful held their collective breath as he was helped to the sideline. It initially looked like the Redskins had lost more than a wild card playoff game to Seattle, for a period it lost faith and trust in head coach Mike Shanahan as well. Why would you risk your injured star quarterback and jeopardize his career??

Clearly RG III is one of the most electrifying talents the NFL has had in more than a decade. His jersey has been among the most popular sold during the 2012 NFL season. When it was learned that he would have to go through another knee reconstruction, the NFL fan base held their collective breath. After months of what sounded like wishful thinking, Griffin III made it to pre-season camp on time to run one play with a knee brace before coaches sent him in to get it. The sigh from Redskin fans could be heard nationwide, and now we have to assess this team moving forward. How will the Redskins fare defending their NFC East title?? For the first time since 2000, the Redskins are the team to beat in the NFC East, this time based from on-field performance.

Quarterback: We just covered the importance of Griffin III’s return.  Although he and Andrew Luck were compared throughout the 2012 season, it was RG III’s performance that gained momentum as the season progressed. Forgotten amid his off season recovery is the fact the Redskins ended the season on a 7 game winning streak after a 3-6 start. The NFL’s fifth best offense was powered by a QB who completed 65.6% of his passes (258 of 393) for 3,200 yards 20 TDs and only 5 interceptions. However it was the stretch plays using the read option that saw Griffin explode for 815 yards and another 7 touchdowns.

Yet there is more to talk about than meets the eye. He made his teammates believe they could win every game. The Redskins broke a 9 game losing streak at home when they topped the Vikings 38-26 in week 6. Now they come in with a 4 game winning streak at home and more important, come in with a 5 game winning streak within the division. In a winner take all game against the hated Dallas Cowboys in the finale, RGIII outperformed Tony Romo in a 28-18 win.

As long as he retains his ability to keep plays alive and stretch them with the “read opion” from The Pistol, right now defenses don’t have an answer. The beauty in the mechanics of the play are linebackers are slow to get in position to defend intermediate passes. Griffin showed the touch to make those throws as much as he deftly handed the ball off, or took advantage of a defensive end crashing down. He does need to slide more when the hit is inevitable or run out of bounds. As for defenses against him, expect teams to crash the front part of this play and delay blitz on the outside. They will have to take this play away and make him a pocket passer only. He’s showed the ability to be ahead of defenses at this point which keeps him a playoff level performer at this point.

Can Morris repeat his great rookie season??

Can Morris repeat his great rookie season??

Offensive Backfield: The biggest beneficiary of RGIII was obviously first year back Alfred Morris. His 1,613 yards and 13 touchdowns were among the NFL’s best. His patient feet are key to the read option. He sets up blocks well when he gets the ball and carries out his fake well when he doesn’t get the ball. However lets face it, this will be an interesting season for him if RG III misses some time.

He does break some arm tackles but can he stay so productive if he’s the focal point of the offense?? It didn’t go unnoticed the running game disappeared when Griffin III left the wild card tilt with Seattle. Morris keeps the running game Super Bowl level as long as the quarterback stayed healthy. Yet don’t be surprised if his rushing totals dip to 1,200 yards this season.

Hankerson needs to show improvement this year. He had a great one handed catch for a TD in preseason action last night.

Hankerson needs to show improvement this year. He had a great one handed catch for a TD in preseason action last night.

Receivers: Looking to improve at receiver, Mike Shanahan brought in 6 guys this off-season. The most notable are veteran free agents Donte Stallworth and former New Orleans Saint Devery Henderson. However when was the last time these two were top tier performers?? Returning is second year pro Leonard Hankerson who needs some more polishing after a 38 catch 543 yard 3 touchdown campaign. He’s still learning the pro game but lacks burst out of his cuts running routes.

Oops, the Redskins just released Henderson. They must have been proofreading this article and asked themselves the same question.

Pierre Garcon (44 rec/ 633 yds / 4TDs) and slot receiver Josh Morgan (48 rec / 510 yds / 2TDs) were solid but have limitations as well. The player that bonded with RGIII and was the most productive was grey-beard Santana Moss. He led the team with 8 touchdowns on his 41 receptions, However he will be 34 years of age and could slip due to age and the Redskins need to be prepared. Truth is the Redskins should have drafted another receiver. Shanahan must have doubts in Hankerson and Garcon or he wouldn’t have signed so many receivers this spring. They need to get better on the outside and ranks as a bad receiving group.

Offensive Line: Did we see a return of The Hogs?? The Redskins dominated upfront when it came to blowing open holes for the running game. Only the Minnesota Vikings had a better per rush average than Washington’s gaudy 5.2 yard team average. They were the #1 rushing team in football and showed no nonsense power in obvious rushing situations. When it came to 3rd or 4th and short/goal, they earned the first down or touchdown 65% of the time to the weakside and 75% up the middle. Couple this with posting NFL highs in 1st downs rushed for both weakside (67) and strongside (51), you can see why the focus was to stand pat and re-sign their guys.

The flip side of having a dynamic quarterback who can keep plays alive is in the times he gets hit and sacks allowed. This year Shanahan will emphasize throwing the ball away to keep from getting hit 80 times while back to pass. Far too many since that ranks 23rd in all of football. Yet the team only allowed 33 sacks which ranked 13th. A majority of these happened on impromptu scrambles which will improve in the latter stages of the season. When measuring a Super Bowl level line you have to take in consideration what the emphasis of the offense is. When you can run efficiently to both sides and power up the middle, you keep the defense off balance.

Defensive Line: When a team transitions to a 3-4 defense, that first year is a wash as the linemen adjust to eating up space where in most 4-3’s, they’re going after the quarterback first. Surprisingly this defense collapsed to 28th overall. This shouldn’t happen when your offense is one of the best at running the football and time of possession. The good news is the triumvirate of NT Barry Cofield, along with DEs Jarvis Jenkins and Stephen Bowen started 46 out of a possible 48 starts between them in 2012.  Right now Cofield is nursing a few injuries and leads an average line.

The defense is held together by the ageless London Fletcher.

The defense is held together by the ageless London Fletcher.

Linebackers: Holding down the middle is 16 year pro London Fletcher. Someone please get our CEO some of what he’s drinking. Are you serious?? Football is a young man’s game and at 37 years of age he had 141 tackles, 3 sacks, 5 interceptions, and 11 passes defensed. Again he looks in great shape but how long can he perform at this level?? Washington hopes at least another season.

Depth won’t be a problem now they have signed LB Nick Barnett.  He makes the team he will back up Fletcher and youngster Perry Riley. Last year, he garnered 125 tackles, 3 1/2 sacks, and 7 passes defensed. This team was active in the preseason match-up with the Steelers the other night. Experience and youth are serving in the middle.

The real need is to have Bryan Orakpo back to be the trigger man for the Redskins pass rush. In a perfect world he’d have a bounce back year with 12 or more sacks. He should be fresh after missing most of last season. If Fletcher and Orakpo can perform as they have in the past, this is a Super Bowl caliber group.

Rookie Baccari Rambo will get every opportunity to start for the Redskins.

Rookie Baccari Rambo will get every opportunity to start for the Redskins.

Secondary: There could be major wholesale change on the back side of this defense. Mike Shanahan had to face the fact that Reed Doughty and Madieu Williams are limited safeties. They combined for 1 interception and 7 passes defensed. In the 4th and 6th rounds the Redskins picked up Phillip Thomas from Fresno State and Bacarri Rambo from Georgia. Couple this with their top pick being cornerback David Amerson of North Carolina State, this team could field 3 rookies in the secondary.

Think not?? Why else would you re-sign DeAngelo Hall other than help mentor a young secondary. Did you notice they waived two safeties a couple weeks ago?? These rookies are going to stick and their development will dictate if they’ll start or not. Although they have SS Brandon Merriweather starting right now, keep your eye on them this preseason.

Hall turned in a decent year with 90 tackles, 1 sack, 4 interceptions and 14 passes defensed. However he is about to turn to the dark side (30 years of age) where a player can lose his prime in an individual year. When you come in 28th on defense, although you’re one of the best time of possession teams that leads the league in rushing?? You’re a bad secondary and have to take drastic measures.

Overall: This team didn’t win with smoke and mirrors last year. They had an equation no one really had an answer for offensively. Let’s not forget this team was up 14-3 early in their playoff loss to Seattle. However teams have studied RG III’s tendencies and should have a better grasp of what they have to do to slow him down. That is until he breaks the pocket, then all bets are off. In all probability we will get the same RG III when it comes to spontaneous play. He can’t change who he is. However the maturation has to come from his knowing when to slide to protect himself from the bigger hits that occur downfield.

What will be challenging for this team defending their NFC East Title is a much rougher schedule down the stretch. In weeks 10-15, Washington is on the road to Minnesota, to whom they nearly lost to last year. On the road to Philadelphia, home to San Francisco, the New York Giants, and the Kansas City Chiefs. Then they travel to Atlanta to play a Falcon team who will be vying for home field advantage. The Giants and 49ers are the last two NFC Champions who have Super Bowl aspirations as well. How they do in this stretch is how they’ll fare for the season.

Last year the Redskins swept the Cowboys and the Eagles and split with the Giants within the division. With Bryan Orakpo back to bolster the defense, they should stay with the Giants who will battle them for NFC East supremacy in 2013. This team isn’t ready to repeat the playoff run they had last year due to a much rougher schedule. The Chancellor sees the Redskins finishing at 9-7 or 8-8 this year.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Taylor Blitz Times new logo!!

Taylor Blitz Times new logo!!

2013 Indianapolis Colts – Skill or Luck In First Season Under Andrew??

Lucas Oil Stadium with championship banners hanging.

Lucas Oil Stadium with championship banners hanging.

Not a bad first season in Indianapolis without Peyton Manning playing the lead at Lucas Oil Stadium. The light and sound stage that Andrew Luck commanded saw the most unlikely of scenarios that played out in the 2012 season. The Indianapolis Colts charged to an 11-5 record despite a Hall of Fame quarterback exiting stage left, first year Head Coach Chuck Pagano having to leave the team to battle Leukemia, which left interim coach Bruce Arians and top draft choice Andrew Luck to fend for themselves. Now a full year later we have to ask if the Colts will build on that success or take a step back.

Normally we shouldn’t have to until you realize former Offensive Coordinator Bruce Arians is now the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals. His development of Luck along with astute play calling, was part of the reason they had 7 game winning drives. There was no head coach to interject or suggest a few things that could have disrupted the flow Arians and Luck developed. Although they brought in Pep Hamilton, his former offensive coordinator from Stanford, will it be as successful a relationship on the professional ranks?? We have to get through his growing pains as a first time NFL offensive coordinator.

Andrew Luck avoids Mario Williams and gets off a past vs. Buffalo.

Andrew Luck avoids the rush to get off a pass against Buffalo.

Quarterback: Has there ever been a quarterback who answered so many questions about being the number one selection?? Only a few The Chancellor can think of and many shared the spotlight during their 2012 rookie campaigns. For the season Luck connected on 339 of 627 passes for 4,374 yards, 23 touchdowns and 18 interceptions. Yet there is a growing feeling that a sophomore slump is imminent.

The pendulum started to swing as the 2012 season was concluding. Over the second half of the season, defensive co-ordinators were drawing a bead on his tendencies and forcing him to pull the ball down more. He was sacked 41 times in 2012. Far too many…however they did sign Matt Hasselbeck if Luck was lost to injury.Without Arians, how will the in game adjustments be affected?? Especially those in the fourth quarter??

One theme that shows up is how he fared when he faced teams twice. When the Titans and Texans went against him a second time, his completion percentages were 47% and 50%. His maturation has to stay ahead of what he will see of opponents adjustments upcoming.  Don’t forget this is a quarterback who is mobile. People overlook that. He did escape the pocket 62 times for 255 yards and 5 touchdowns. With the pressure the Colts took last year, roll-outs could be utilized to great effect although it shuts off half the field for a young signal caller. Luck will have a setback year that will leave him relegated to a rank of average as a quarterback. Year 3 or 4 will see him regain some of his top shelf play from a good rookie season.

Offensive Backfield: Last year the Colts running by committee was to keep opposing defenses honest. Yet the inability to run the football may have been filled with the signing of former Giant Ahmad Bradshaw, just one week ago. Although in his sixth year, he has run for 1,000 yards in 2010 and 2012 while rushing for 4,232 yards during his career. More important is his 4.6 yards per carry where no Colt back had an average better than 3.9 yards. Bradshaw was a cap casualty in New York and should be the starter and upgrade this position to average.

TY Hilton along with Ahmad Bradshaw will be Luck's receivers to move the chains along with Wayne.

TY Hilton along with Ahmad Bradshaw will be Luck’s receivers to move the chains along with Wayne.

Receivers: Last year’s biggest coup was to talk Reggie Wayne (The [[_]]) in returning to Indianapolis instead of venturing out as a free agent. He was the go to guy, gathering in 106 receptions for 1,355 yards and 5 touchdowns. A spectacular season, yet at 35 (in midyear) can we expect another season at such a torrid pace?? He keeps himself in good shape and now has 968 receptions for 13,063 yards, 78 TDs for his career. Questions arise on his Hall of Fame candidacy yet there should be a slight drop off in production for 2013. http://www.nfl.com/videos/nfl-2012-elite-performers/0ap2000000122013/2012-Best-of-Reggie-Wayne

Last year the Colts had success developing TY Hilton in the slot (50 rec./861 yds /7 TDs) alongside a veteran Donald Avery (60 rec / 781 yds /3TDs). Luck may have to lean on Hilton and his underneath receivers more this season. Hilton will see his reception total go up to 80-85 receptions this year. We don’t know if  Hamilton will utilize the spread as Arians once did. Receivers will be average in 2013 based upon use and ability to score.

An All Pac 12 performer that lasted until the 4th round. Khaled Thornton from USC.

An All Pac 12 performer that lasted until the 4th round. Khaled Holmes from USC.

Offensive Line: This is the group Colts brass worried the most about. This line will have a new look now they drafted G Hugh Thornton of Illinois in the 3rd round and G Kahled Holmes from USC in the 4th. Holmes did play center for the Trojans for two of those years and offers some flexibility. He was an All Pac 12 performer and started 37 games for the Trojans. Both these guys will stick.

Why?? They made some changes in the off-season but will it be enough to keep Andrew Luck upright. We already mentioned they were 23rd in sacks allowed with 41, but they were second to last in hits allowed on the quarterback with 116. If they do that again, Luck will miss some time in 2013. Thank goodness for Luck’s scrambling ability or he could have missed time last year.

However this team needs a bit of a push in the running game as they were below league average with only 3.8 yards per carry. Toward the strong side the Colts were an anemic 38% in converting from the goal line or 3rd /4th and 2 or less. They had to revert to several quarterback draws to outfox defenses and they ran into a buzzsaw when they faced Baltimore in the playoffs. They couldn’t play heads up with such a physical defense and couldn’t score a touchdown. This will be a year of growth for this group and we have to wait into the summer to give them a grade as high as average up from bad.

Defensive Line: When making a transition to the 3-4 from the 4-3 as this team did in 2012, you are going to experience some growing pains. One new assignment that will transition is the right defensive end. Where Dwight Freeney was the speed rusher from the blind-side, to a space eating combination DT/DE that holds ground and power rushes. Freeney, with 5 sacks last season, didn’t fit this new model and along with cap considerations has been released.

Notice  Fili Moala, Ricky Jean Francois, Aubrayo Franklin, and 5th round draft selection Montori Hughes are all defensive tackles acquired this off-season to fit this new team need. They need to be more stout up front as this team was 26th in yardage allowed and 31st in average yards per play given up at 6 yards per pop. This defense couldn’t get itself off the field in the playoff loss to Baltimore. They allowed a whopping 7.8 yards per play, 439 yards of offense, and 6 of 10 times the Ravens were able to convert 3rd downs. This was against a Raven offense that had yet to hit it’s stride. This group has to make more plays and rates as bad and we need to see more before we improve this ranking.

Werner has to prove he wasn't a reach in the 1st round after a disappointing combine.

Werner has to prove he wasn’t a reach in the 1st round after a disappointing combine.

Linebackers: This is another group looking to make the leap from utilizing left over players to bonafide 3-4 linebackers. Former Packer OLB Eric Walden and Lawrence Sidbury were signed early on in free agency. The long armed Walden is versatile enough to rush the passer or clog intermediate lanes against the pass. Then the Colts landed Bjoern Werner of Florida St in the 1st round of the draft. When you draft an All American who finished with 23.5 sacks for his career and voted ACC Player of the Year, you expect him to be on the field. He’ll probably rush from a down lineman position in this first year. There are some questions about him coming out of the combine but we’ll see.

Incumbent OLB Jerrell Freeman (145 tackles / 2 sacks) may have to take an ILB position with all this competition and Robert Mathis (8 sacks) still in the fold. If the newcomers can provide the desired pass rush, Mathis can return to the strong side DE position as well. To improve on competition inside, the Colts traded for former Buffalo Bill Kelvin Sheppard. The Colts should see drastic improvements with all this reinforcement at linebacker. Taylor Blitz Times believes Werner will compete for AFC Rookie of the Year honors. The Colts have upgraded to playoff caliber with the assortment of talent brought in.

Vontae Davis is a member of a secondary in transition.

Vontae Davis is a member of a secondary in transition.

Secondary: One area the Colts wanted to improve was in the secondary. They signed free agent LaRon Landry to come in at safety and released Tom Zbikowski. Landry is a better pass defender and the Colts should move the sure tackling Antoine Bethea (100 tackles /0 ints/ 7passes defensed) to strong safety. However the Colts also selected S John Moyett in the 6th round.

At corner they re-signed Darius Butler and Vontae Davis to return as an up and coming set of cornerbacks.  In 2012, Butler returned 2 of his 4 interceptions for touchdowns and defensed nearly the same amount of passes (8) as Cassius Vaughn (9). Even though Vaughn started 10 games last year.

Davis, the younger brother of 49er TE Vernon Davis, is a superior athlete with the tools to become a legitimate NFL star. A little focus and a pass rush can help get him there. Last year he had 51 total tackles, 3 interceptions, 8 passes defensed and one sack.  He should be better with an improved pass rush and the secondary has a better center fielder in Landry. This group right now is average with a chance to upgrade this position this summer.

 

Overall: One saving grace for the Colts is they play in a relatively weak AFC South. The Tennessee Titans and the Jacksonville Jaguars have yet to find themselves and have no identity. They are in a two team race between themselves and the Houston Texans. However they got by on spirit and having teams off kilter facing a team that was unknown from a personnel perspective. Arians could just let loose with his play calling since he wasn’t the head coach. The fact they were playing for a higher cause (coach Pagano battling Leukemia) allowed the 2012 Colts to soar to that 11-5 record. Now it’s about their X’s and O’s and ability to professionally be better than their opponent.

Now with Pagano at the helm, expect a few more possessions to be called conservatively especially at the end of halves. Seven times they scored at the end of halves last year, where with a Head Coach thinking for the team overall won’t always be so aggressive with play calling.

Last year they went 3-1 against the NFC North, where now they face the NFC West with defensive powers in Seattle, San Francisco, and Arizona. Now if you throw in the Rams, they are facing last year’s 4th, 3rd, 12th and 14th best defenses. All of those figure to be prominent with the Seahawks and 49ers having Super Bowl aspirations. There is a four game stretch where we’ll learn where they’re going in weeks 11-14. They travel to the Titans, then go to the Cardinals, host the Titans, then travel to Cincinnati. Last year they swept the Titans but they were blood baths with one of them an overtime win.

Before they take on Houston who is the bully on the block. This team is going to be 8-8 this year if Luck is healthy the whole season. Things are worse if he goes down. When you have 9 games decided by 7 or less, a fickle bounce of the ball is the difference between being 8-8 or 12-4. Last year with Luck, pun intended, they were 11-5. With a first time NFL offensive coordinator, a second year quarterback who develped his play with a departed coach, and a look at this overall roster, this is a 6-10 team. However Andrew Luck is worth at least two more wins. Expect growing pains in Indianapolis for the 2013 season.

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2013 Chicago Bears Preview – Transition From A Defensive Minded Team

Marc Trestman has been hired to not only lead the Chicago Bears, but to maximize Jay Cutler's potential.

Marc Trestman has been hired to not only lead the Chicago Bears, but to maximize Jay Cutler’s potential.

As the Windy City says goodbye to Brian Urlacher,  it mirrors the thought process of the Chicago Bears organization as it moves from Head Coach Lovie Smith to Mark Trestman. The former was a “knuckles in the dirt” defensive guy favoring the “Tampa 2”, where the new philosophy with Marc Trestman is a wide open offensive one throwing the football down the field. His mission, should he choose to accept it, is to improve on Jay Cutler’s 58.8 % completion rate, and develop an offense that improves the production across from  Brandon Marshall.

Any way you shape it, the Bears have a quarterback who can become a top tier performer in Jay Cutler. However that window is closing as he approaches 30. The maturation has to happen now and Bear’s brass knows it, hence the move to hire Trestman. On every one of his stops as an Offensive Co-ordinator in the NFL,  he had to make good with an established starter. In 1988 he took over for Lindy Infante in develping Bernie Kosar with the Cleveland Browns. He took over in San Francisco after the 49ers won Super Bowl XXIX with Steve Young at the helm. His latest gig had him work with Rich Gannon and help the Raiders get to Super Bowl XXXVII.

Sure there were other stops and he has gained head coaching experience in the CFL where he was coach of the year in 2009 and won back to back Grey Cup championships. There had been a couple of issues between he and the media when he was an NFL assistant but now he’s the head man in charge. He has coached some of the best quarterbacks in the NFL and Jay Cutler should learn plenty from him. If the Bears offense can improve with a still formidable defense, how far can they go in 2013??

Jay Cutler is constantly on the cusp of leaving his detractors behind. Then he has a set-back. Will the real Jay Cutler please stand up or have we already seen the best of Jay??

Jay Cutler is constantly on the cusp of leaving his detractors behind. Then he has a set-back. Will the real Jay Cutler please stand up or have we already seen the best of Jay??

Quarterback: Every single year, the NFL shows itself as a copycat league. Whatever attribute a team exhibits on it’s way to winning the Super Bowl, teams with similar attributes think to themselves: Why not us?? In this instance of course we’re talking about Joe Flacco maturing and carrying a once proud Baltimore Raven defense to a world championship. How could the Bears not see themselves and Jay Cutler in the mirror?? So in comes Trestman just as the Ravens brought in former Colt offensive quarterback guru Jim  Caldwell last year.

In 2012, Cutler improved on his completion percentage 58.8% as compared to 58% in 2011. He completed 255 of 434 passes for 3,033 yards, 19 touchdowns to 14 interceptions. However his season was a tale of  two halves. He had a terrible 4 interception performance in a week 2 loss in Green Bay. Yet in the other 7 games to start the season, all wins, Cutler completed 60% of his passes for 1,648 yards 11 TDs and only 4 interceptions. The Bears raced out to a 7-1 start.

Once the second half of the season began, he faced tougher defenses and film was out on where and how the Bears were trying to get Marshall open. He faced three of the NFL’s top 11 pass defenses in the Seahawks, Cardinals, and Packers as he threw 6 interceptions to just 7 touchdowns. What would those numbers have looked like had he faced the #4 pass defense of the 49ers in a 32-7 Monday Night loss??

One knock The Chancellor of Football has on Cutler is his character. He is a good front running quarterback when things are going well. He doesn’t seem to make adjustments or corrections if he or the Bears offense as a whole gets off to a rocky start. Rarely will Cutler lead a come from behind last second drive for victory as he did in week  7 against Carolina. The Bears realize this and brought in some help in the form of offensive linemen instead of receivers. Thankfully Jason Campbell won’t be back but word on the street is they are bringing in JaMarcus Russell as a “camp arm”. There isn’t any depth behind Cutler if he were to get injured. The Bears are average at quarterback until we see evidence otherwise.

A full camp should bring out the best in Forte.

A full camp should bring out the best in Forte.

Offensive Backfield: The best situation coming into the 2013 season is Matt Forte will be in attendance for all OTAs and camps. Where last year he was holding out well into the summer. He started out slowly but ran for 1,094 yards (4.4 yd/avg) and 5 touchdowns. However his numbers out of the backfield were down last year.

With a longer training camp, Trestman can put together pass route combinations to better utilize Forte out of the backfield. Last year the Bears were too predictable and threw to him on screens mostly.

In obvious power situations, Michael Bush (114 car./ 411 yds / 5TDs) was the battering ram. His role keeps Forte from the heavy pounding taken on the 3rd and 1 runs. Many times the Bears need an attitude drive to establish dominance on the ground, Bush provides that as a 250 lbs back. Trestman will use Bush in the passing game more as well. The Bears should improve to playoff quality at the running back position.

Finally the Bears have a top shelf receiver in his prime. Brandon Marshall is a beast of a receiver.

Finally the Bears have a top shelf receiver in his prime. Brandon Marshall is a beast of a receiver.

Receivers: Reuniting with Jay Cutler returned Brandon Marshall to the NFL elite as a receiver. His 118 receptions for 1,508 yards and 11 touchdowns sent him to the Pro Bowl and garnered All Pro status. He can run all the short and intermediate routes and can muscle past most corners after the catch. This is a true receiver. Not the experiment that has wrecked the career of Devin Hester. The Bears absolutely have to get more out of their other receivers or the offense will bog down against top defenses again.

To improve on the anemic 24 receptions from tight ends last season, they cut both Matt Spaeth and Kellen Davis, then signed former New York Giant Martellus Bennett.  He should be able to stretch the middle of opposing defenses and catch 50 passes this year. The draft brings Marquess Wilson and the team signed free agent Demetrius Fields. Our darkhorse to emerge from the pack this year is Alshon Jeffery who showed promise last season. Trestman has a few pieces in place and should push this group to playoff caliber performance. Marshall alone makes them better than average.

Offensive Line: One of the equations necessary to allow Cutler to improve at quarterback is better protection. Finally the Bears answered the call with the drafting of Tackle Kyle Long out of Oregon  in the 1st round and Jordan Mills out of Louisiana Tech in the 5th. All of this after signing free agent T Jermon Bushrod formerly of the New Orleans Saints to a 5 year deal. Bushrod has been to the last two Pro Bowls at Left Tackle as Drew Brees has shattered numerous passing records. In his last two meetings against Clay Matthews III, he’s only given up one sack. Who do you think they had in mind when they signed him?? Shhh…

Keep in mind these guys are coming in to a line that was 25th in sacks allowed with 44 and 27th with hits on the quarterback with 87. So there will be open competition as a new coaching staff looks to put their stamp on the team. There should be 3 new starters and as many as four depending on how camp shapes up. Keep in mind the ink is just drying on 1st round pick Kyle Long’s contract so everyone will be in camp. Right now with the upgrade of Bushrod this group moves up to average with a chance to be playoff caliber.

Julius Peppers will have to get after opposing passers to cover up a youthful linebacker set.

Julius Peppers will have to get after opposing passers to cover up a youthful linebacker set.

Defensive Line: Although the linebacking corps is in flux, the front line is very solid and could become the new identity of the defense. The emergence of DT Henry Melton (43 tackles / 6 sacks) to go along with Julius Peppers (39 tackles / 11.5 sacks) helped the defense to an overall ranking of 5th. Each player made it to the Pro Bowl in 2012 as they paced the Bears who finished with 41 sacks on the season.

Peppers should be free’d up as the team takes more chances with a few more blitzes than they did under Lovie. One open spot is the one manned by Israel Idonije who finished with 7.5 sacks who at the time is unsigned. Yet last year the drafting of Shea McCllelan (2.5 sacks) from Boise St, this year’s 6th round selection in DE Cornelius Washington,and last year’s performance by Corey Wooten (7 sacks) says he won’t return. This line should be able to get after the quarterback while gobbling up linemen allowing the ‘backers to make plenty of tackles. This group is Super Bowl quality and getting younger.

Linebackers: For the first time in many years Lance Briggs will get what he always wanted, to be the man at linebacker. He used to fight for equal pay and attention of Brian Urlacher yet his play merited did merit it. Last year he didn’t make the Pro Bowl even though he turned in 112 tackles, 11 passes defensed, 1.5 sacks, 2 interceptions returned for 2 touchdowns, and 2 fumbles forced. He will be 33 as the stretch run of the season begins in early November, yet he remains a force.

Youth will serve as the Bears drafted a pair of linebackers that should make the teams and crash down on special teams. Yet look for 2nd round pick Jonathon Bostic to compete with free agent signee DJ Williams to compete for Urlacher’s former spot in the middle. In all actuality 4th round selection Khaseem Greene out of Rutgers, is the heir apparent to take over for Briggs. If he has a good camp this team could start two rookies as Nick Roach isn’t entrenched as a starter. This group needed to get younger and has in a hurry. Right now the Bears are playoff caliber with the signing of DJ Williams to go along with Briggs. One of the rookies should start.

Tim Jennings emerged as a Pro Bowl bookend to Tillman in 2012.

Tim Jennings emerged as a Pro Bowl bookend to Tillman in 2012.

Secondary: No team in football has a better pair of cornerbacks than the tandem of Charles “Peanut” Tillman and Tim Jennings. These two were a turnover force of epic proportions apart from covering skills. Tillman made 85 tackles, forced an obscene 10 fumbles, and returned all three of his interceptions for touchdowns. Yikes! An outstanding year no matter how you look at it.

Across from that production Tim Jennings blossomed into a Pro Bowl corner by intercepting 10 passes, made 55 tackles and defensing 21 passes. By the way Jennings missed two games in 2012 to boot. Tillman also defensed 16 passes to go along with his many plays. All this stellar coverage leaves the safeties to support the run. To help with multiple receiver sets, the Bears re-signed CB Kelvin Heyden who will lend depth to the cornerback position as well. This play at corner alone makes this group a Super Bowl quality group.

Overall: The majority of the Bears battles lie within the recesses of the mind. Jay Cutler hasn’t had a good game against Green Bay since his arrival. So they brought in an elite blocker to eliminate his nemesis in Clay Matthews III. He has to mature this year and get the monkey off his back with a win over the nemesis Packers.

They start with two big games at home and they do have a bye week before the Monday Night get together at Lambeau on November 4th. They only face 6 teams in 2013 that had winning records in  2012. If the Bears can get that win against the Packers and we believe they will, it will bode well for team confidence to finish the 2013 season. The Chancellor of Football has this team battling it out with the Minnesota Vikings, and not the Green Bay Packers for the NFC North. This team should finish 11-5 if they remain healthy. A definite spoiler in the playoffs.

Next up: 2013 Indianapolis Colts Preview

2013 Minnesota Vikings Preview – Quarterback Maturation Expected Now

Diagram of new stadium.

Diagram of the new stadium.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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NEXT: 2013 Chicago Bears Preview.

Taylor Blitz Times new logo!!

Taylor Blitz Times new logo!!