2016 AFC North Previews & Predictions

Burfict returns however S Reggie Nelson has moved on.

Burfict returns however S Reggie Nelson has moved on.

The last time we looked in on the AFC North, the Pittsburgh Steelers were embroiled in an epic playoff battle with the Cincinnati Bengals when the unexpected happened… Vontaze Burfict sealed what looked like the first playoff win of the Marvin Lewis era. Then a Jeremy Hill fumble while trying to run out the clock opened the door, and a few senseless defensive penalties allowed the Steelers to steal an 18-16 win.

These two antagonists renew acquaintances in week 2 in Pittsburgh and a few questions arise. Will the Steelers be able to move the ball on the ground with LeVeon Bell serving a 3 game suspension?? Can QB Andy Dalton get that signature win vs. a top AFC contender??  Have the Bengals learned from last year’s meltdown in January??

2016 AFC North Predctions

steelerimage1. Pittsburgh Steelers 11-5 **

2. Cincinnati Bengals 11-5 *

3. Baltimore Ravens 6-10

4. Cleveland Browns 4-12

Cincinnati has a tough beginning to their season with 4 of 6 on the road which includes trips to Pittsburgh in week 2, and to New England in week 6. How New England fares during Brady’s 4 game suspension dictates how desperate the Patriots could be for a win. Typically these are the games Andy Dalton always seems to lose. Will 2016 be different?

bell2Speaking of suspensions, the Steelers will be without LeVeon Bell for the first 3 weeks of the season. The only AFC team they play in that stretch will be against the Bengals. So they have time to catch Cincinnati with a slow start. They’ll have to run the ball with DeAngelo Williams and rely on Ben Roethlisberger (319 of 469 for 3,938 yds 21 TDs/ 16 ints) and Antonio Brown.

Last year Brown came in 2nd to Cam Newton for the Taylor Blitz Times MVP for 2016. With 136 receptions for 1,834 yds and 10 TDs, he was within reach of both NFL records for receptions and yards. He’s quick in and out of his cuts and has the speed to get deep. Barring injury he’ll have a similar season with the added attention in Bell’s early season absence

With age catching up to Adrian Peterson, Bell is arguably the best back in the NFL when he’s healthy and will be rounding into shape as the Steelers make their playoff push.

The Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns will definitely be on the outside looking in. The Ravens will have Terrell Suggs and Steve Smith to lead them into battle on both sides of the ball. However the Ravens struggle to run the football and Joe Flacco will be coming off of major knee surgery himself. Before his injury he was playing like the east coast version of Alex Smith and checking the ball down too much. Now with him possibly being gun-shy expect more of the same.

One intriguing story to watch is the resurrection of Robert Griffin III and Terrelle Pryor in Cleveland. Head coach Hue Jackson has mentored a series of NFL quarterbacks to successful seasons. This could be a perfect storm of coaches and players all having something to prove and the ability to get it done. If Josh Gordon stays with the team, this could be fun to watch. It will come to fruition in 2017 not this year. However they will be a competitive team to watch offensively.

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The RGIII v. Kirk Cousins Debate

With the Washington Redskins coming off a 45-14 loss to the New York Giants last night, many would think this would be the worse time for this conversation. Au contraire, for no time would be better for this debate than coming off this abominable performance.

Cousins or RGIII??

Cousins or RGIII??

Supporters of Robert Griffin III heard all week how Cousins was going to supplant him as the starter. The Chancellor of Football is one, for the record, who believes Cousins will become the permanent starter. Those in Griffin’s camp could be heard in the aftermath of Cousin’s 4 interception performance against New York. Yet were these people the week before?

Cousins dazzled in a week 2 shootout against the Eagles. He had gone 30 of 48 for 427 yards and 3 touchdowns. In that game he showed the complete package an NFL quarterback is supposed to have in his passing arsenal. The ability to make the proper read and trajectory on his throws. To throw the football on time within the zone of a defense.

So what happened this week??

Cousins was unglued by the Giants defense.

Cousins was unglued by the Giants defense.

To some it could have been the fact Cousins was starting in a prime time game where most of America was watching and came out nervous. There is some truth there but ultimately the clock in his head as a QB was thrown off by the early sack and forced fumble by Matthias Kiwanuka. One, two, three and boom he was hit and the ball came out. He played rushed the rest of the night.

A closer look reveals that ace Defensive Coordinator Perry Fewell tricks quarterbacks into false pre-snap reads. His defenses for years have masked their intentions well. I can think of several plays where he confused Tom Brady in Super Bowl XLVI. His pre-snap read was a Cover 2 and at the snap of the ball, the two safeties stayed put 15 yards downfield. Fewell had a linebacker take the deep middle. Take  a look…

If Fewell can confuse a Hall of Famer playing in his 5th Super Bowl, he can rattle a young QB with less than 15 starts.

RGIII has to learn to let route options 2 & 3 open up downfield and less of this.

RGIII has to learn to let route options 2 & 3 open up downfield and less of this.

Robert Griffin III upon his return has to show he can be durable enough to be a starter. An even closer look shows he has to stay with the full development of a play from a specificity standpoint. Many times he comes off his receivers too early and either scrambles or quickly flips it to the running back. He has to learn to let the pass patterns move the defense to their predesignated spots to open where his passes should be thrown.

Its this facet of the game Griffin III needs to develop where Cousins has, but needs experience against complex defenses. This is the impetus on what will happen between these two. Which will come first??

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

Run, Griffin III, run!!

Run, Griffin III, run!!

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

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

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

Shanahan: RG3 will “set a record” for recovery from knee surgery

Run, Griffin III, run!!

Run, Griffin III, run!!

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

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

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

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Huge Quarterback Salaries: Feast or Famine

nfl-logoWhen the final gun went off at the end of Super Bowl XLVII, the first item up for business for the Baltimore Ravens was to work out the long term deal for Joe Flacco. General Manager Ozzie Newsome inked his quarterback to a lucrative 6 year $120.6 million deal. With that in mind, the Green Bay Packers are on the verge of an even bigger contract for Aaron . Which brings up the question: Are these huge quarterback salaries worth it?? Have they translated into Super Bowl wins??

When we’re talking about these over the top contracts we’re not talking about the contract where a back-up or a player is trying to resurrect their career like Drew Brees was in 2005. We’re talking about the $80 – 100 million plus contract extensions to lock up a quarterback long-term. Every GM beams with the quarterback in the photo-op, but are they crippling their own franchises??

Peyton Manning was an icon in Indy.

Peyton Manning was an icon in Indy.

The one that comes to mind first is Peyton Manning. He came into the league in 1998. By the end of 2003 he played out his rookie contract and was given the franchise tag in 2004. He then went on to sign a 7 year $98 million contract that made him the highest paid player in 2005 with a cap cost of $17.766 million for 2006. The fall-out?? Say good-bye to franchise all time leading rusher Edgerrin James via free agency that very same year. However the Colts did make it to Super Bowl XLI later that season but one of the issues had been with so much money tied to the offense, they couldn’t sign any key defensive free agents to get to a championship sooner. They weren’t the same type of team when they took on the New Orleans Saints in Super Bowl XLIV. Gone was a superstar in wideout Marvin Harrison, replaced by lessor talents in Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie. It’s a miracle they made it to that title game.

When you look at the other fall-out they lost several defensive starters in that same 2004 year in Cornerback David Macklin, Cornerback Walt Harris, and Linebacker Marcus Washington. Fortunately they had Cato June and S Bob Sanders who were already on the roster to replace them. However June, the leading tackler on the championship ’06 team, signed a free agent deal with Tampa before 2007 and Sanders career was derailed by injuries.

Yet with another contract looming he was franchised again in 2011. Had a deal not been reached he would have counted $23 million against the cap that year. But a deal was reached on a new 5 year deal worth $90 million that back-loaded money so he only counted $18 million against the cap. Having learned from previous years Manning cited he wanted the Colts to be able to retain other players. By 2010 they were an average team. They were 10-6 only because of his brilliant play. It wasn’t the 20th ranked defense that had given up 388 points (81 more than the AFC Champion ’09 squad). It wasn’t leading rusher Donald Brown (who?) that ran for 497 yards and 2 touchdowns. So when his neck injury hit, the entire house of cards collapsed as they went 2-14 and had to purge the team including Manning.

Brady is a 3 time Super Bowl champion.

Brady is a 3 time Super Bowl champion.

Of course you can’t mention Manning without bringing up Tom Brady. In 2008 the Patriots were coming off their 18-1 season where they had lost Super Bowl XLII. They had signed budget priced free agents in Randy Moss, Wes Welker, and Donte Stallworth the year before and became a juggernaut. His contract has been extended multiple times to offer cap space yet he’s still counting nearly $13.8 million against the cap this year where originally he was going to count $16-18 million before. Notice the Patriots have signed only middle of the road free agents over the last few years. So it was surprising they signed WR Danny Amendola to a $31 million deal.

However a closer look at it and you noticed they haven’t had any other high-priced free agents come in and help him get that fourth Super Bowl win. Even receivers Chad Ochocinco and Brandon Lloyd were marginal free agents at best. The defense has totally been purged and Bill Belichick has a young defense that has had some growing pains. They did make it to Super Bowl XLVI but lost to the Giants and Eli Manning for a second time. They don’t have the cap space to sign quality free agents yet remain close but no championships.

In 2010 he signed a four-year extension worth $72 million to relieve cap space then in February of this year re-worked it to a 3 year $27 million extension. He thought the latest move would keep Welker in town. When it didn’t he was upset about it. Yet it was the back and forth between he and Peyton Manning who would be the highest paid players have crippled their teams in other areas. The real reason they didn’t win it in 2007 and 2010 were pedestrian defenses. They were the Achille’s Heel that showed up in the waning minutes of  Super Bowl XLII when Eli Manning started his drive.  Let’s face facts , in 2011 when they lost Super Bowl XLVI they were 31st in the NFL in overall defense. Gone were Richard Seymour and Asante Samuel who had made plays for them. In 2007 they were at least 4th in defense but weren’t pressed in games since they were ahead by so many points.

Romo is the newest member of the $100 milion club.

Romo is the newest member of the $100 milion club.

Now wait…wait this just in *Walter Cronkite voice* “The flash making it official, Jerry Jones has just signed quarterback Tony Romo to a 6 year deal worth $108 million.” They get some immediate cap relief but who else have they signed with any merit?? Exactly. Now don’t forget we’re a week or two removed where Aaron Rodgers will not discount double check a contract worth $120 million. The sticking point will be how much is guaranteed?? $60-65 million??

You’ll note before last season the New Orleans Saints signed Drew Brees to a 5 year $100 million contract. Yet who have they signed to shore up that porous defense that ranked dead last allowing 440 yards per game and gave up 454 points for the season?? They’re supposed to be competitive in a division that has Tampa improving and Atlanta fresh from a birth in the NFC Championship?? The Chancellor doesn’t think so.

Yet you look around, Manning’s Broncos and Brady’s Patriots seem like the only teams that are favored to be contenders. Over in the NFC it’s the San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, and the Atlanta Falcons who are the favorites. The Giants and Eli Manning’s $90 million contract and the aforementioned Aaron Rodgers and the Packers seem to be on a tier below. In fact it was Colin Kaepernick (4 yrs / $5.2 million) and money spent on a better team that ousted Green Bay 45-31 in last year’s divisional round. Now that they’re going to sign Rodgers to his mega deal, they can only keep Clay Matthews yet Charles Woodson and receiver Greg Jennings are now gone.

The league will come to realize this yet it’s hard to see teams not overpay for the best at their positions. The Tony Romo signing is baffing since he has only 1 playoff win in 7 years. Yet when he faced the Redskins and Robert Griffin III (4yrs /$21 million) for the NFC East Title he came up short as he has in big games since ’07. $108 million for a perennial 8-8 quarterback??

What we’re seeing here is a changing of the guard. You have the teams with all their money tied into elite quarterbacks facing young counterparts with smaller contracts on more complete teams. We hadn’t even brought up Andrew Luck and the Colts yet either. Joe Flacco signs his huge deal and watches all his teammates walk out the door as Peyton Manning once did. Each team has to do what is right for them but these contracts are crippling the rest of the roster. The only big money quarterback to win a Super Bowl was Eli Manning and even his Giants have not been in that top-tier of contenders. The NFL is catching on and in another 2-3 more years of watching this, you’ll know who the teams that will be the contenders. Find the team with the young quarterback with money spent on defense. The Atlanta Falcons and Matt Ryan are at that tipping point.

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Taylor Blitz Times new logo!!

Taylor Blitz Times new logo!!

 

NFL Wild Card Week – Seattle Seahawks @ Washington Redskins

Russell Wilson has proven himself all season long. The playoffs shouldn't intimidate him.

Russell Wilson has proven himself all season long. The playoffs shouldn’t intimidate him.

Now after a blistering finish to the NFL regular season we have two of the NFL’s best stories meeting in the Wild Card round. This might be the first time two rookie quarterbacks have faced each other in the NFL playoffs. Where there has been great and deserved fan-fare over Robert Griffin III resurrecting the Redskins, think about the maturation of Russell Wilson. After beating out high priced free agent Matt Flynn, he has taken the job and improved as the season has gone on.

The first battle-line that can be drawn: Can Russell Wilson win this game on the road?? In the early stages of this season you’d have to say no, but if you look at his performances in the latter stages of this campaign you have to say yes. Some prognosticator today will blurt out the Seahawks 3-5 road record today. Don’t forget they had to grow into allowing Wilson more playbook freedom as the season progressed. The defense kept them in games early and each of those losses were by 6 points or less.

The reason we’re watching this team in the playoffs and not the Chicago Bears is their week 13 , 23-17 win in Soldier Field. Wilson came of age as he hit Sidney Rice for the game winner in that overtime thriller. Serious wild card ramifications were on the line and Seattle pulled through on the road. Couple that with his 3 rushing touchdown performance on the road against Buffalo in Toronto, this team is now portable. Wilson, along with RGIII, are no longer rookies. When you’re in your 17th game in the pros, you now know what to expect. Get this: Dating back to October 18th, Russell has only thrown 5 interceptions with only 2 of those coming on the road and none in his last 3 away from Seattle. He’s a smart player and has grown as the games have grown more important.

From th eopener to the present, Robert Griffin III has come to be the face of the veteran laden  Redskins.

From th eopener to the present, Robert Griffin III has come to be the face of the veteran laden Redskins.

Did we just say something about growing as the games have grown more important?? Robert Griffin III’s rookie season can only be marveled at. Did you see the exchange between he and Santana Moss as the clock wound down against Dallas in the season finale?? Our CEO can’t remember the last time a rookie quarterback held that much sway as a leader among teammates much older. Someone may say what about Andrew Luck?? For the most part the Colts are young whereas this Redskin team is full of veterans.

However this is the NFL playoffs and something has to give… We have a Redskin team in the midst of a 7 game winning streak against a Seattle team that has won 7 of 8. This game is going to come down to defense…plain and simple. The Seahawks are 4th overall and have only given up 17 points on average in their last few outings. The Redskins are 28th. When it comes to defensing the run, the Redskins are actually ranked high…5th against the run. However a closer look reveals that they are 30th against the pass so that is a bit of a misnomer.

KJ Wright leads the NFL's 4th best defense in 2012.

KJ Wright leads the NFL’s 4th best defense in 2012.

In all actuality the Redskins have been abysmal on defense. Six teams have scored 27 or more on this group this year. Sure none have scored that much in 4 weeks but let’s ask the question: Does that have more to do with the Redskins defensive prowess or does that have to do with scaled back game plans by opponents as the temperatures dropped?? We told you as far back as week 2 that this Seattle defense was supremely stout. https://taylorblitztimes.com/2012/09/21/nfl-week-3-nfc-west-not-just-the-province-of-the-49ers/. They have been no further back than 6th in all of football.

With a gimpier RGIII in a knee brace, this defense can track him down and make life miserable for Redskin 1,000 yard rusher Alfred Morris.  Griffin will have to throw into the lair of Cam Chancellor and Pro Bowl S Earl Thomas. The portable running game that doesn’t need the quarterback’s play-faking that will get on track is Marshawn Lynch, who has run for 1,590 yards and 11 touchdowns. Although Alfred Morris has outgained him (1,613 yards /13TDs) lets face it…. he benefits from a mobile RG III keeping the backside of the defense honest. Without that, the speedy Seahawks should be able to cascade down on Washington’s running attack.

The defensive prowess stepping to the fore…we have to pick Seattle in this one.