2011 New Orleans Saints Preview

Its amazing what happens in pro football when a team becomes Super Bowl champion.  Every little nuance is studied and every small flaw gets worked on until it becomes a crack, then transformed into a team’s Achille’s heel.  However when you think about it, the same problems the Saints had in 2009 were there in 2010.

In ’09 the ball just seemed to keep bouncing their way, from the Robert Meachem stealing the ball from a Redskin who intercepted Brees then ran it in for a TD, to the tipped pass to Darren Sharper who returned it for a clinching TD in a struggle with the Dolphins. What goes up must come down and all those you climb over to get that ring are all of those who will give you their best shot on your way down.  Does it wear on a team? Week after week everyone takes their best shot and the war of attrition sets in…yes  By the end of the 2010 season the New Orleans Saints were running on empty.  We at the Taylor Blitz Times are still waiting for the Saints to tackle Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch.  With the additions and target on someone else’s back, can they liberate the NFC South mantle from the Atlanta Falcons??

Quarterback: Aside from Green Bay and New England, no team is in better shape at the quarterback position.  You could argue that Drew Brees is still the NFC ‘s best quarterback over Aaron Rodgers.  Hell the NFL for that matter. Without his steady play this team would have slid into the abyss with a running game that wasn’t as formidable as the title run the year before.

Although Brees passer rating dropped to 12th, (90.9) he threw a whopping 658 times completing 448 for 4,620 yards, 33TDs yet had 20 interceptions. Having to overcompensate for the anemic running game and being forced to throw, contributed to the high turnover totals.  Sounds like a down year coming off of his 5,ooo yard masterpiece two years before but get this… He was still 3rd in yards passing, 2nd in touchdowns thrown while leading the league in completion percentage at 68.1%.  Even in the 41-36 playoff upset loss to the Seattle Seahawks he was forced to hoist 60 passes. Far too many.  He completed 33 for 404 yards and he was masterful in that game throwing no interceptions.  He now ranks 1st in every Saints  career passing category: yards, completions, attempts and touchdown passes.

What hasn’t been showcased is how to get the best of Drew Brees as a defense.  Even last season he threw several interceptions late in games when he was forced to take chances.  Sean Payton has constructed a passing game that gets the ball out of Brees hands the instant his back foot hits the turf.  They make great use of 3 and 5 step drops and bubble screens to get the jump on opposing defenses.

Teams may be better suited to come up and press his receivers and send overload blitzes at him because the way the rules are now, he’s going to go up the field throwing 5 to 6 yard throws.  Send a series of zone blitzes and overload blitzes to rough him up seems like the only way. Otherwise its basketball on grass and you won’t stop him.  He is in his prime and barring catastrophy should have another 5 years left in him.  Without question quarterback is Super Bowl quality in New Orleans.

Offensive Backfield: After being derailed by backfield injuries, the Saints pulled the second biggest coup of the 2011 draft landing Heisman winner Mark Ingram from Alabama.  They stole a lot of thunder being made on draft day by their NFC South rivals, the Atlanta Falcons, for trading up for Julio Jones, Ingram’s teammate from the 2009 National Championship team.  This solves a tremendous problem the Saints have had for several years now: running consistently tough between the tackles.

Many think Ingram is a “can’t miss” running back and an Emmitt Smith clone.  A patient runner with short choppy steps who runs with a low pad level to prevent him from fumbling while powering forward for the tough yards.  He had a few injuries in his senior season where he rushed for 875 yards, yet dazzled in his Heisman season where he ran for 1,658 yards and 17 TDs.  The running back position in the NFL is not a position where a player grows into it. All great running backs have their best years in the first three.  Running the football, Ingram will prove to be a fit immediately.

Speaking of a fit, time to talk about a running back who doesn’t. This should spell the end for Reggie Bush who couldn’t make it work in the pros unless he was in space. A bust with a few splash plays per year doesn’t merit the $11 million he is scheduled to make this season.  He has had some impact on special teams but face it, his 36 carries for 150 yards rushing and 34 rec. for 208 yards for a combined 2 TDs is nowhere close to enough. After Mike Bell departed for Cleveland, the rushing game was turned over to Chris Ivory, who led the Saints with 716 yards, and Pierre Thomas who gained 269 more.

Yet each proved unable to handle the pounding and the Saints had to bring in former Dallas Cowboy Julius Jones off the streets to man the backfield in the playoff loss to the Seahawks.  These backs just couldn’t stay on the field and when they were, the offense couldn’t sustain drives which caused team wide problems. Having to pass so much led to being unable to control the clock which put an undersized defense on the field too much. (See early 90’s Buffalo Bills) Its a systemic solution that one solid running back, in Mark Ingram, should  solve.  At running back the Saints leaped back to very good. He can also power the ball from in tight and the Saints should improve on 9 rushing TDs.

Receivers: The beneficiaries to all this passing is a receiving corp devoid of stars yet are solid intermediate receivers.  Marques Colston led the way with 84 rec. for 1,023 yards and 7 TDs followed by Lance Moore’s 66 receptions for 763 yards with a team leading 8 touchdowns.  What is unique is Colston, Devery Henderson, and Robert Meachem are the same type of receiver, tall, rangy and they play relatively slow.  Its Brees throwing the ball on time that makes this receiving corp look better than it is.

Yet Moore is quick and darts in and out of small cracks to gain 40 first downs out of his 66 catches. He and Colston  each made 1st downs on their receptions 60% and 67% of the time respectively.  This team runs the bubble screen as affective as any team in football.  This was an extension of their running game in 2010.

Yet this group is slow and defenses should press this group more. Teams are playing so fearful of Brees that they immediately drop into zones when this team has no burners on it.  Defense this receiving corps with combo coverages on their slot players and get physical with your corners on slower receivers and make Brees throw out of rhythm. This pressure on the receivers would make Brees pump fake and pull the ball down allowing your pass rush extra time to sack him.

Looks like the Saints will be moving on at tight end going with Jimmy Graham as Jeremy Shockey’s successor. Their numbers were nearly identical yet Graham reached the endzone 5 times to Shockey’s 3 yet this is a salary cap issue. They get to maintain that production while paying less and thats the NFL we follow now.  Receiver is serviceable to good in the Crescent City.

Offensive Line: In the words of Vince Lombardi, football is always going to be a game of blocking and tackling.  Well this offensive line had some issues with the blocking side of that equation. This team only rushed for 1,519 yards (28th) yet averaged 4.0 yards per attempt yet had problems pushing into the endzone when the team drove down close.  The 9 rushing touchdowns (28th) this team scored is evidence of that. What is unique is between the 20s this team ran off right tackle and gained first downs 67 times which ranked 9th.  You would think that would translate down at the goal line. Puzzling.

The Saints passing statistics from a line standpoint are mixed.  One of the aspects of Sean Payton’s playbook is for Brees to get the ball out quickly with 3 and 5 step drops.  The Saints were 5th lowest in sacks allowing 26th and were ranked 11th in allowing Brees to be hit 67 times.  They need to improve on their pass protection with the Buccaneers building a strong defensive front as a division opponent and the Panthers will be building a defense under former defensive co-ordinator and current Head Coach Ron Rivera.

Teams will be coming after Brees and if he is injured the Saints would be in trouble.  The New Orleans front did have a pro bowl performer in LG Carl Nicks out of Nebraska. This line is average to below average…just doesn’t get the push when close to the goal line and those passing numbers are high for a team that throws from short quarterback drop backs.

Defensive Line: This line had a fair year yet needs some help. Of the 33 sacks the Saints collected, 21.5 came from a committee of 7 linemen with none totalling more than DT Sedrick Ellis’ 6.  Will Smith needs to stop acting and rapping and get after the damn quarterback.  His sack total of 5.5 doesn’t cut it for a former first round draft pick and is down from 13.5 from the year before. In defensive co-ordinator Greg Williams scheme, DEs are to get after the quarterback and check on the run on their way there.

This is the system Jevon Kearse broke in with. So come on Smith, get after it. The Saints spent their1st round draft pick for the services of Cal DE Cameron Jordan to help bolster the pass rush. At 6’4, 287lbs he has the size and wingspan to rush in the pros.  His father Steve Jordan was a pro bowl tight end with the Minnesota Vikings in the 80s and 90s so the athletic pedigree is there.  They also drafted Greg Romeus out of Pitt to help get after the passer. Veteran DE Alex Brown may be the odd man out.

If the Saints want to regain the NFC South crown one thing they need to do is play a little more stout up front against the run.  This team was 16th against the rush and gave up a mediocre 4.3 yards per attempt. At times this line was shoved into the linebacker and the safeties faces. With big running backs to face in the division with Atlanta’s Michael Turner, Tampa Bay’s Blount, and Carolina’s Jonathon Stewart / DeAngelo Williams combo, this has to be a priority. Surprisingly they didn’t draft a DT, yet right before the lockout they picked up Shaun Rogers, former Cleveland Brown, to help hold the middle.  At 6’3 350 lbs he should eat up blockers and allow Vilma, and Shanle to make plays. Defensive front is slightly below average and they should get another DT when free agency opens up.

Linebackers: The anchor of this defense is Pro Bowl MLB Jonathon Vilma out of the University of Miami.  He led the team with 107 tackles, had 4 sacks and forced 3 fumbles. He’s instinctive and quick yet at 230 lbs can be engulfed by blockers so its imperative the DT play improves.  Scott Shanle (76 tackles) and Danny Clark (59 tackles) are the starters on the outside. They’re solid tacklers yet rarely make big hits or splash plays.

Between the two of them there wasn’t a sack or interception turned in all year…and they still haven’t tackled Marshawn Lynch.  Saint’s brass must be in agreeance with us since they spent two draft picks here on Illinois linebackers Martez Wilson and Nate Bussey in the 3rd and 7th rounds respectively.

Linebacker is below average thanks to the outside ‘backer play.  This group needs to force more turnovers and its puzzling that they don’t since they play pretty fast.

Secondary: When a pass rush can’t get to the quarterback, the play that is most affected will be that of the secondary. The starting quartet only pulled in 5 interceptions among them.  Former Buckeyes Malcolm Jenkins and Jabari Greer each had two interceptions.  The secondary missed the veteran play of Darren Sharper at free safety, however Jenkins is a converted corner and should grow with the position.  Its a good thing SS Roman Harper likes to tackle, he gets many shots at it. Not only did he make the pro bowl in 2010, he was second on the team with 94 tackles, had 3 sacks, and forced 6 fumbles. Thats a tremendous performance.

Tracy Porter only had 1 interception in 2010 while defending 6 passes.  This is as solid a secondary as the NFC South offers.  It rates better than what is shown statistically.  Once the pass rush resumes, this team will pick off more passes.  Porter in particular since Will Smith is on the same side.

It sounds like we’re piling on Smith but one of the recipes for interceptions is for quarterbacks too throw over a disruptive, tall pass rusher. If you can’t get to the quarterback, at least get your hands up.  This is how Lester Hayes once picked off 13 passes in a season behind a 6’8 Ted Hendricks, and an Everson Walls snatched 11 the next year behind a 6’9 “Too Tall” Jones.  Smith did deflect 5 passes last year so keep watching.

Overall: This is going  to be an interesting year for the Saints.  Drew Brees enjoys being one of the faces of the league, will he turn around and hand the ball off to Mark Ingram as much as he should??  Brees like any other good athlete has an ego.  This will be a good watch to see what he audibles to and how he responds if his rhythm is thrown off with a more balanced attack.  Will Ingram fit into the passing game well enough so they can have him as an every down back? If he is platooned, the Saints could suffer from the syndrome that affected the Dallas Cowboys last year.

They telegraphed what they were going to run based on which running back was in there.  Defenses would get the jump on them. We’re still unsure at Taylor Blitz Times if they did enough on the defensive front to solidify themselves against the run.  We see a mixed year coming up with a record of 9-7 to 10-6 and another wild card berth.

Pathp
Word count: 1256 Last edited by jeftaylor on May 20, 2011 at 12:00 pm

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2011 Philadelphia Eagles Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next Up: Indiannapolis Colts

2011 Baltimore Ravens Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next Up: Philadelphia Eagles

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.