Indianapolis Colts – Super Bowl Favorite In the AFC??

Most of the time you look at what a team projects to and you waffle with will the team play up to those expectations. In the case of the 2015 Indianapolis Colts, the maturation of the rebuilding process beginning with Peyton Manning’s release, should pay off this year.

Luck scores in last year's playoff win in Denver.

Luck scores in last year’s season opener in Denver.

Let’s face it the Colts struck gold in the selection and development of Andrew Luck. Every year he has elevated his game along with another playoff accomplishment. At the end of the 2013 season, he brought the Colts back in a 45-44 wildcard thriller before falling to Brady’s Patriots in the divisional round. Last year his Colts won a couple playoff games including a 24-13 win against Manning’s Broncos signaling a changing of the guard.

In that game he out-dueled Peyton and looked to be the more confident quarterback with more command of the field. Our eyes didn’t deceive us. Luck was sure of himself and his teammates fed off his energy. Along with his playmaking ability, you could see he was capable of carrying a franchise.

However once again Luck and the Colts were struck down by the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game 45-7. What was different about the loss last year is we clearly saw he didn’t have the talent around him to beat New England. The year before they were just a step behind Brady’s boys where last year, a retooled Patriot secondary obliterated the league’s #1 passing attack.

It’s evident: To get to the Super Bowl the Colts need to get Luck some dogs to help lead the pack. Enter Frank Gore and Andre Johnson.

How many championship teams over the years have brought in grizzled veterans to lend experience and tone for a young team?? Remember when the ’81 49ers brought in “Hacksaw” Reynolds and Fred Dean?? How about the ’92 Cowboys bringing in Charles Haley and Thomas Everett?? What about the ’01 Patriots bringing in LB Bryan Cox?? The latter was just as impotant.. go back and see which “alpha dog” lead them onto the field for Super Bowl XXXVI. it was Cox…yet I digress

Gore set the tone in San Fran just like Lynch does in Seattle.

Gore set the tone in San Fran just like Lynch does in Seattle.

Frank Gore brings a punishing, tone setting style to an offense that can be described as finesse up to this point. Indy couldn’t knuckle up with two tight ends and impose their will on a defense. Gore brings that will and toughness to an offense relying too much on trickery. Knowing his time in the light is short, his hunger to get back to the Super Bowl will fuel the team’s urgency to win now.

The same can be said for fellow [[_]] alumnus Andre Johnson.  Year after year he’s had to watch the Colts foray into the NFL playoffs as his Houston Texans stumbled. They played in Super Bowls and AFC Championships. Now they have retooled on the run and came within a game of the big dance last year. How envious has he been watching this from up close in the same division?? So he’s staying within the division  (Calvin) and joining ranks with Gore to bring a veteran hunger to forge a tougher team mentality than the last few years.

Andre Johnson fightDid we say a tougher mentality?? Now I know you remember the fight between Johnson and former Titan Cortland Finnegan. Well this is a microcosm of the toughness he’ll bring to the offense converting 3rd and 7’s over the middle this season. A 7 time Pro Bowler will work the intermediate routes while TY Hilton will blow the top off opposing defenses.

With all the departures in New England this team should ascend to Super Bowl L. A third shot at New England with an even more mature Luck will come up rosy for Indy. Don’t forget LB Robert Mathis will return to join free agent DE Trent Cole to rush the passer. They join former Taylor Blitz Defensive Player of the Year D’Qwell Jackson to improve last year’s 11th best defense. If this team is playing with a lead they will be hard to beat.

All they need is a good draft to address a few needs and luck when it comes to injuries.

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Super Bowl XLVII Preview: Ray Lewis and His NFL Legacy

Ray at a Baltimore practice session.

Ray at a Baltimore practice session.

The mere mention of his name conjures up images of frighteningly intense play from his great 2000 season. We have seen and heard his pregame speeches and he has spawned an entire generation of Middle Linebackers to imitate his play. One such player will line up for the San Francisco 49ers in Patrick Willis. Do you think it’s a coincidence that he wears number 52?? With this being his last NFL game how do we see him going out??

While it’s true that Lewis has lost a step, he’s been very effective as of late. In the AFC Championship he was in on 14 tackles. Against Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos in the divisional round, he had 17 tackles and 1 fumble recovery. What you don’t see are the flash plays that he was able to achieve in the early 2000’s. However you do see a veteran linebacker take the minimum amount of steps necessary to make plays from his position.

The 2012 Ray Lewis in Lando Calrissian facemask. Are we sure he won't intimidate Colin Kaepernick on gameday??

The 2012 Ray Lewis in Lando Calrissian facemask. Are we sure he won’t intimidate Colin Kaepernick on gameday??

This is a veteran linebacker that needs to key with the zone option read Colin Kaepernick will run at them on Sunday. In the Ravens defense, when they see this play, Lewis needs to stay on Frank Gore and the outside guys in Dannell Ellerbe, Paul Kruger, and Bernard Pollard have to be there to hit Kaepernick early to get his attention. Lewis out in space would definitely be a liability at this time. He, Haloti Ngata, and Terrence Cody have to take care of Frank Gore at the point of this play.

If the Ravens can prove to use the front 3 to eat up the blockers and limit Gore’s effectiveness on the read option, Lewis will be able to scrape from inside out if Ellerbe and Kruger can keep containment. This will have to be later in the game once the read option has been neutralized up front. This game may be won or lost on this premise. Lewis needs to flow from his Inside Linebacker position to the cut back point of this play with containment. If the 49ers can stretch the outside, Lewis will not be able to make it to that point to stop Kaepernick.

Ironically, he was the last player introduced in Super Bowl XXXV when players were introduced individually.

Ironically, he was the last player introduced in Super Bowl XXXV when players were introduced individually.

Don’t underestimate the value of leadership and what it means to motivate men. It’s a lot like going to war with Genghis Khan to those fellow players in the huddle with him. Warriors bring out the best in fellow warriors. The Ravens had lost 4 of 5 at the end of the season without him. During that time they had allowed 27.7 points per game in those 4 losses and only 4 turnovers. Take out the 2 special teams touchdowns against Denver, Baltimore is only giving up 16 points per game and forced 8 turnovers upon his return.

His place in history is secure. Simply put, he is the greatest Middle Linebacker of the last 50 years. Dick Butkus ruled the first 50 and the eras are different and here, we pay homage to each era. More players have used his example how they need to be when it comes to being a leader on his or her team. You have some that lead by words before or during a contest, or you have those who lead by deed. When you have both you catch lightning in a jug. When you have a player that players from other teams look to for leadership and counsel off the field, what does that tell you??

He has a chance to walk off into the sunset with another Super Bowl triumph. The first team achieved greatness because of his will. We’re hard pressed to think this second incarnation of the Ravens won’t do the same thing.

Epilogue: You know..everyone is entitled to their opinion of Ray Lewis. Rather than go on your page and say something, I’ll say it here. I hear others saying he is no role model from his obstruction of justice charge following his trial. What is disturbing is anyone who still vents how he is a murderer and such never seem to keep it to themselves…including a Mrs. Wes Welker. Now, I’m sure those of the opinion went over every nook and cranny of that trial’s evidence to find him guilty…right??

Brian Billick on the sidelines of Super Bowl XXXV.

Brian Billick on the sidelines of Super Bowl XXXV.

Maybe not, but there are many that preach forgiveness and all these virtues yet have none for the man. Let’s ask the question… Why?? I’m sure you donated money to funds set up for the the two deceased men who were killed in that fight. Correct?? By the way do you know their names?? Have your opinions, but I find it ironic we’re headed to Super Bowl XLVII some 12 years later and I can hear Brian Billick’s voice the second they arrived in Tampa for XXXV.

He stepped to the podium and sternly said ‘We’re not going to re-try Ray Lewis and go over that trial. Number one it’s inappropriate and two you’re not qualified.’ No matter his repentance those still feel compelled to say or express venomous comments at the mention of his name as though you’re pure of sin or misdoing. Seriously?? So no matter what he’s done, you have decided to be judge, jury, and executioner on his character forever. Nevermind charitable works, turning his life over to Christ and the lives he has touched. What would you say about him if his behavior was that of an athlete with run-ins after the fact?? Out in the nightlife with questionable behavior?? We’d be listening to how unrepentant his behavior is or had been.

What really is upsetting is how so much of this smack of racism. For African Americans it’s an unspoken but understood issue that once you fall from grace you won’t be forgiven. In Lewis’ case in many instances on the web, OJ is always brought up and it seems to be the same people with the race bating. How many of these have written the Atlanta District Attorney or the Atlanta police department looking for follow-up investigation information?? Yet do we hear murder yelled out every time we saw or speak of actor Robert Wagner, whose wife Natalie Wood, drowned mysteriously with just a few people on the boat?? Aside from one outburst a few years before he died how often was “Chappaquiddick” yelled at Ted Kennedy after the drowning incident that involved Mary Jo Kopechne in 1969?? I don’t remember that slur following Kennedy around every where he went.

In those latter two incidents the person was there but the venom was never delivered anywhere near the frequency of bombs hurled at Lewis. This upsets me to no end because we don’t hear of the Robert Blake incident with this frequency either now do we?? Everyone needs to come off of their high horse and those that hide behind the “concerned citizen” cloak have nothing to fear. Unless you’re going to meet up with and have a fight with a younger Lewis outside of a bar with each of you banked by sets of friends you have nothing to worry about. He’s turned his life over to Christ and has led an exemplary life after that in the name of redemption. At what point do you forgive?? Just a thought…

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Taylor Blitz Times new logo!!

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Edgerrin James Belongs In The Hall of Fame – From The [[_]]

The 49-45 upset of UCLA put [[_]] and Edgerrin James on the map. Miami return to prominence happend that day.

The 49-45 upset of UCLA put [[_]] and Edgerrin James on the map. Miami return to prominence happend that day.

When you stop and think of professional athletes, so few live up to their potential. In the case of Edgerrin James, no other NFL player had to live up to more coming out of college and he had a hurricane to thank. Although he played for the Miami Hurricanes (The [[_]]), it was Hurricane George that postponed a Miami v UCLA game that was supposed to be played in September of 1998 to December 5th. For many, the college football season was over and the nation watched Heisman hopeful Cade McNown and the 10-0 Bruins who were 1 win away from playing for the national championship. In a wild 49-45 upset, James burst onto the national scene with a 39 carry 299 yard 3 touchdown performance that returned the [[_]] to national prominence and made himself a top NFL prospect.

Since Miami had been down for years following NCAA sanctions, this was the first national glimpse of this immense talent. What followed in the April draft 4 months later added more pressure. Everyone forgets the Indianapolis Colts had drafted Marshall Faulk to resurrect the franchise in 1994 and had just drafted Peyton Manning in the previous year. Having traded Faulk away, it was a forgone conclusion they needed a running back in the #4 spot and Heisman winner Ricky Williams from Texas was there for the taking. General Manager Bill Polian opted to take Edgerrin James instead and it was this move that solidified the franchise. Some experts doubted James calling him a one game wonder.

Going into the 1999 NFL season Edgerrin had a lot to live up to. Could he consistently show the power and speed he displayed to a nation when he dismantled UCLA in that landmark game?? How in the world did he get selected ahead of a Heisman winner who just rushed for 2,124 yards and 28 TDs and was considered a can’t miss NFL superstar by pundits and coaches?? If that weren’t enough, Faulk had been a 1,000 yard rusher 4 times in 5 years including 1,319 yards rushing and 908 yards receiving in 1998. Marshall caught 86 passes and had scored 10 touchdowns in a Pro Bowl season and a rookie that wasn’t Ricky Williams was supposed to top that?? The Colts had been 3-13 in 1998 and now Edgerrin is going to be paired with a second year QB that threw 28 interceptions as a rookie?? No way….

In leading the NFL in rushing with 1,553 yards and scoring 17 TDs he laid to rest the competition with Ricky Williams who gained 884 and only 2 touchdowns in an injury plagued year. In the video you just heard that he had a rookie year better than 5 of the 6 who had been rookie rushing champions. First include Hall of Fame member Earl Campbell who gained 1,450 yards in his initial campaign. He also outrushed Hall of Fame member Jim Brown in his. Now someone will scoff Brown played in a shorter season and he did, but his 942 yards in 12 games comes out to 78.5 per game. Far fewer than the 97 yards per game James accumulated while helping the Colts go 13-3 and win their first AFC East division championship since 1987.

James in contemplation before the 2005 AFC Divisional Playoff against Pittsburgh.

James in contemplation before the 2005 AFC Divisional Playoff against Pittsburgh.

For an encore he became the first back since Eric Dickerson to start his career with back to back rushing titles in 2000. In his greatest season he ran for 1,709 yards with 13 TDs while catching 63 passes for 594 yards and another 5 scores. If you’re keeping score at home that is 4,444 yards from scrimmage and 35 touchdowns in just 2 years. The only back that could compete with that was Marshall Faulk who had gone on to power The Greatest Show on Turf Rams.

In 2001 James suffered a devastating knee injury and missed 10 games which sank the Super Bowl aspirations of the Colts. In the following season he only rushed for 989 yards and 2 touchdowns. His average had dropped from 4.4 in the previous 3 years to 3.6 and the whispers around the league were he’d never be the same. Not only did he bounce back, over the next 5 seasons he topped 1,000 yards rushing including 2 with over 1,500 yards in 2004 & 2005. Five seasons with over 1,000 yards rushing after reconstructive knee surgery…what was there left to accomplish??

Unfortunately the Colts regular season successes didn’t equal playoff success. The ’99 season ended when Indianapolis was upset 19-13  by the eventual AFC Champion Tennessee Titans. Post season losses to the Jets, Patriots, and finally the Steelers in 2005 kept James from winning it all with Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison. The three had been the face of the team for 7 years together and his contract was up. The salary they would have to bring him back as a free agent would have crippled the franchise. Yet Colts owner Jim Irsay thought so much of James and his contribution to the organization that when the Colts did win it all in 2006, he presented him with a Colts Super Bowl ring even though he now played for the Arizona Cardinals. A classy move.

A triumphant James walks off the field after winning the NFC Championship.

A triumphant James walks off the field after winning the NFC Championship.

What looked like the swan song for James turned out to be false, he had one more surprise for critics that claimed he had lost a step. In 2007 he teamed with Kurt Warner and Larry Fitzgerald on an improbable run to Super Bowl XLIII the very next year. Most of the publicity went to Warner since he was a reclamation project that arose like Lazarus, yet they don’t make it without James’ 1,222 yards rushing and 7 touchdowns.The combination of James on the ground, Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald downfield proved too much as the 9-7 Cardinals soared through the playoffs. They beat Atlanta, Carolina, and finally the Philadelphia Eagles 32-25 in the NFC Championship. Only to lose the Super Bowl on a last second touchdown to the Steelers 27-23 in one of the best games ever.

However every good thing must come to an end and James had led an incredible football life. Think about his accomplishments and what can be attributed to him. How many recruits chose to go to Miami after watching his exploits against UCLA that day when all other teams were not playing?? Miami had received the Death Penalty and had been down for four years after dominating college football for a decade. His performance announced the return of Hurricane football. In the next three years after his 1999 graduation, Miami won the Sugar Bowl and played in two straight national championships winning one in 2001. How many running backs went to The [[_]] because of his influence?? Clinton Portis, Willis McGahee, and Frank Gore came right after him. It was alleged he even donated $250,000 to the school at one time.

How about his low-key personality and league wide respect he garnered while he played with the Colts?? He was one of the first superstars that wore dreadlocks and coming from Miami he broke many stigmas that are unfairly attached to Hurricanes from a nation wide perspective. He was never in trouble away from the field and was thought of so highly he was given a Super Bowl ring by the team he no longer played for. Think about that for a second. All of this in the era of the “ME” athlete. When was the last time you heard of such things in the era of free agency?? Did the San Francisco 49ers give Joe Montana a Super Bowl ring when they won in 1994 after Joe left in 1993?? Give that some thought…

James and Colts Owner Jim Irsay at the Ring of Honor Ceremony.

James and Colts Owner Jim Irsay at the Ring of Honor Ceremony.

He completed his career with seven 1,000 yard seasons.  Finishing with 12,246 yards 80TDs, to go along with 443 receptions 3,364 yards and another 11 TDs. Up until his arrival in 1999 the Indianapolis Colts hadn’t won their division in 12 years. Afterward they won it 5 times during his tenure. In Arizona, the Cardinals had not played for the NFL championship since 1947 until James arrived. 1947??? That is 60 years!! He was voted All Pro four times and led the league in rushing twice. In a Hoosier Dome that once had Eric Dickerson and Marshall Faulk as tenants, it’s James who is the franchise’s all time leading rusher with 9,226 yards and 64 touchdowns. He’s also been inducted into the ring of honor for both the Miami Hurricanes and the Indianapolis Colts.

Did you know James, Barry Sanders, and Eric Dickerson are the only backs since 1980 to have 4 different 1,500 yard seasons?? Do you realize dating back to 1957, only James, Jim Brown, Earl Campbell, and Eric Dickerson are the only runners who began their careers as back to back rushing champions in their first two years?? Did you recognize every back mentioned with him in this paragraph are all in the Pro Football Hall of Fame??

For induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, I present to you, from The [[_]], Edgerrin James!!

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2011 Seattle Seahawks Preview

What a strange and goofy odyssey the Seahawks took their fans on last year.  They became the first team in NFL History to make the playoffs with a losing record going 7-9.  This is a team that could look completely listless as they were in a Halloween loss to the Raiders 33-3, yet look like a world beater like they did in their 41-36 wildcard victory over defending champion New Orleans.  Get this…the Seahawks gave up 97 more points than they scored in 2010 (310 for / 407 opp.) while posting the 28th best offense and 27th ranked defense. Which makes one ask the question; Who in the hell are they? Are they a division champion or a team that was just the best of an NFC West that was just terrible?? In their first year under Pete Carroll few new what to expect from this team.  Now with a season under our belt, we’re going to take a shot at it…maybe

Hasselbeck throwing the rock

Quarterback: If you were to ask me this question before last year’s playoff tilt against the Saints, I’d say it might be time to see what the Seahawks have in Charlie Whitehead.  Lets face it for much of last season Hasselbeck looked uninspired. He seemed to be an aging quarterback on a fading team and out of nowhere came this masterful playoff performance. Against the Saints he threw for 272 yards, 4TDs and only 1 interception.  He was even better in the loss to Chicago where after a mediocre first half, he wouldn’t let his team quit.  His 258 yards and 3TDs withstanding, it was his leadership and inspirational play that rallied the Seahawks to finish with a flair.  What happened?? Who was the guy wearing #8 for them in the regular season??  You know the guy who threw for 3001 yards, 12 TDs with 17 interceptions and a dismal 73 quarterback rating. Lets see if we have this right…14 regular season games 12TDs v. 2 playoff games and 7TDs. Tell him they’re all playoff games and Hasselbeck may throw for over 50TDs this season.

Obviously that isn’t going to happen but there was a button pushed psychologically for Hasselbeck going into those playoffs and it might have been the way the Seahawks were being mocked by the media. If he plays like that with his back against the wall Carroll may want to keep that fire lit with a spirited competition for the starting quarterback role with Hasselbeck and Whitehurst. In the two games that Whitehurst started, he went 57 of 99 for 2TDs and 3 interceptions.  If Hasselbeck were to go down again the season won’t be lost. However they have to plan for the future and next year may need to draft a quarterback.  When the Seahawks passed on local college star Jake Locker and didnt draft a quarterback this year, we know he thinks he can get one more good year out of ole #8.  Quarterback is average in the Emerald City

Offensive Backfield: Well here we are with the University of Cal Golden Bears backfield of 2007 with Marshawn Lynch starting and Justin Forsett backing him up.  Oddly enough Forsett had slightly better numbers when he was in the lineup with a 4.4 yards per carry average.  As with the case with Hasselbeck, Lynch didn’t seem inspired until the post season.  With that thunderous 67 yard run in last year’s playoff win over the Saints, he showcased what he can do and what he possibly could be.  That has been the problem, he showed a flash here and there in Buffalo yet would slip back into an easy to tackle, marginal running back. Last year Lynch rushed for 573 yards on 165 carries for a 3.5 yard average and that has to improve for this team to return to the playoffs.

Forsett is better suited as a 3rd down back.  He shows burst, just not the bulk you want in a runner when its time for the 10 play 75 yard clock killing 4th quarter drive. Evidence of this is he only scored twice rushing the football to Lynch’s six.  He plays better in space when a defense isn’t keying on him.  He rushed for 523 yards and caught 33 passes for another 252 yards out of the backfield.  Decent but not spectacular.  At running back the Seahawks are below average.  This group just doesn’t pass the eyeball test and when focused upon is easily stopped.  As a team, they only had 6 games where the Seahawks ran for more than 100 yards.  Thats an indictment of their line but also their backs who rarely make plays in space.  Maybe thats why the roar of the crowd was so loud on that playoff run by Lynch.  This team should have drafted a running back.

Receivers: This was a position in flux over the entirety of 2010.  First they released T.J. Houshmandzadeh before the season.  They traded Deion Branch back to the New England Patriots and shuffled their receivers to the tune of 5 different starters over the course of the season. Former USC WR Mike Williams resurrected his career and was fairly productive between the 20s catching 65 passes for 721 yards yet he only scored 2 times.  Then in the draft the Seahawks draft the same type of receiver in Kris Durham who is 6’5 and 215 lbs, another possession type receiver with not much burst. Why would you need two of the same type of receiver when you lack playmakers?? Puzzling selection to say the least.

The Seahawks did have 2 younger receivers come to the forefront in Deon Butler and Ben Obomanu, who could be the match set of receivers for this team in the near future.  Butler caught 36 for 385 yards, while Obomanu caught 30 for 496 yards, and they each scored four times.  Golden Tate out of Notre Dame rounds out this group and is trying to learn the pro game at receiver after switching to receiver from running back in college.  He did grab 21 receptions for 227 yards yet showed nervous hands which is understandable for a young receiver.  He is suited to the slot receiver role in a 3 receiver set where he can come out of cuts quickly and get up field after the catch. Unless one of these receivers has a breakout year, this group is slightly below average and doesn’t pack a punch.

Offensive Line: Aha, we found the source of the offense’s problems.  Do you realize this team was 31st in rushing yards, 30th in rushing average as a team (3.7 yds per carry) and was 16th in allowing their quarterback sacked 35 times?? Come on you have to be good at one of them don’t you?? This team could only power the football for the first down 54% of the time up the middle and 57% of the time on 3rd and 2 or shorter.  When push came to shove this line didn’t get enough push. Now here are some well spent draft picks. First they took James Carpenter in the 1st round, a 6’4, 321lbs. mountain of a man who was a blocker for 2009 Heisman winner Mark Ingram at Alabama. Will he be a guard or a tackle? Hmm.. They spent their 2nd selection on Wisconsin G John Moffitt, who at 6’4 319lbs can come off the ball and punish linebackers if  he gets to the 2nd line of defense.  Hopefully this team will run the football with more regularity this season keeping pressure off these rookies when it comes to pass protection.

One of the reasons the sack total was higher than anticipated was rookie T Russell Okung settling into his LT spot.  If he meshes with the two young studs they drafted this group could come off the ball and really improve the Seahawks ability to run. The question is will the coaching staff call those running plays as often as they should? They didn’t draft these guys this high to sit the bench.  The Seahawks never adequately replaced Steve Hutchinson from a few years back.  They may have finally done so.  We’ll give the offensive line a grade of average for now until we see these guys take the field.  If they return with the regulars from last year,  completely below average.

Defensive Line: Surprisingly the Seahawks had a decent pass rush that produced 37 sacks in 2010.  Not a bad total for the league’s 27th defense.  That total was high enough to rank 13th in the NFL for rushing the passer.  Chris Clemons swo0ped in for 11 sacks, while former Colt and current pass rush specialist Raheem Brock came in for 9 sacks as well. This was the bulk of the Seahawk pass rush with several rushers coming on for 1 sack a piece.  DT Brandon Mebane teamed with Junior Savii for not only 2 sacks from the defensive tackle’s sacks they combined for 43 tackles. That isn’t enough and they need to get enough inside push to offset the pass rushing from the outside. The Seahawks were a dismal 21st against the run and couldn’t stop their opponents when they needed to.  They could use a boost here.  They did draft Levingston Lazarious in the 7th round from LSU, but at 6-4 292lbs, he seems suited to play end more than tackle.  This defensive line is below average and am surprised they didn’t make more of an attempt to address this in the draft.

Linebackers: The strength of this defense can be found in this linebacking corps. Lofa Tatupu, David Hawthorne, and Aaron Curry started all 16 games and made plays all over the field. It was OLB Hawthorne who led the team in tackles with 105 tackles, he forced 2 fumbles and did have one interception last year. Yet it looks like the brass is trying to replace him.  They used two draft picks on outside linebackers K.J. Wright in the 4th and Malcolm Smith in the 7th from Pete Carroll’s USC tree.  This could push him to have an even more spectacular 2011 campaign.  Lofa Tatupu is a solid MLB, but I expected him to make more splash plays than he does.  He’s instinctive and solid diagnosing the play but if a lineman gets on him he doesn’t shed blocks that well. He did shed enough blocks to make 88 total tackles and had 1 sack, an interception and forced one fumble. Just a little more out of Tatupu and ….

Which brings us to #1 draft pick Aaron Curry out of Wake Forest. At 6’4, 250 lbs., this is a linebacker that can really run.  He made 70 tackles, forced 2 fumbles and had 3.5 sacks when he did blitz.  His 3rd year should be a breakout year for him now that he is used to the pro game. He can get to the flank and defend against the pass and should intercept a few passes this year as well.  Last year you could see plays where he was a half step off in recognizing specific plays, with his athleticism and study those will be turnovers this year.  He should make his first pro bowl in 2010.  Watch this kid… Linebackers are good with a chance to be great if Lofa could just….

Secondary: This was an active secondary. SS Lawyer Milloy had a real good year logging 89 tackles and 4 sacks on blitzes.  He also forced two fumbles yet I can’t remember the last time I saw him intercept a pass. He has always been beatable when you can get him to cover man to man. See last year’s TD play by Greg Olsen (The U) in the playoff loss to the Bears.  He’s muscular and hips don’t swivel that well yet in a zone or phonebooth (near the line of scrimmage) he is as solid as they come.  Age is a concern though and at 38 he could age in a hurry during the season. Earl Thomas had a good year at FS leading the team with 5 interceptions and had 71 tackles which was 5th best on the team.

Corner play was up and down with Marcus Trufant and Kelly Jennings (The U). Jennings play picked up when he returned to the lineup from injury.  Although he missed 2 games he led the Seahawks with 13 passes defensed and may be rounding into a solid NFL corner. Trufant often got his nose dirty making 80 tackles which was 4th on the team. So where is the down side?  As a tandem, they only had two interceptions which prompted them to draft CB Richard Sherman from Stanford and CB Byron Maxwell from Clemson. One way or another they should get more active corner play.  It looks like they will move Marcus Trufant to SS to replace Milloy since he is willing to tackle and is 8 years younger.  The Seahawks are slightly above average and are the beneficiary of a weak front that doesn’t put teams in obvious passing situations. However they were exposed in the playoffs by Jay Cutler and Drew Brees and looked tired at the end of the season.  They need help from the defensive front.

Forsett

Overall: After all this research we still don’t know who the Seahawks are.  If they can get the return they expect from their top two picks on the offensive line this can be a much improved team. Lynch will have a 1,000 yard season and they could win 10 games.  Still can’t make since of their picking two linebackers when one led the team in tackles and the other is on the verge of stardom.  Why not pick up defensive line help? Puzzling… This team is puzzling and we have to wait and see which Matt Hasselbeck comes into the new season. Will they make it back to the playoffs? Still unclear however they have to watch out for the Rams.

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.

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

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2011 New England Patriots Preview

Somewhere in Massachusetts the question is still being asked; “What happened?” A Patriot team that re-invented itself on the move, by going back to the more conservative offensive approach that brought three championships earlier in Tom Brady’s career. Brady finished the season on an 11 game streak without throwing an interception.  A young defense that seemed to be jelling as the playoffs neared.  Jerrod Mayo led the league with 175 tackles while the Patriots held 4 of their last 5 opponents to 7 or fewer points.  Only 5 weeks removed from a 45-3 beatdown of division opponent New York, and here they were going into the rematch in the Divisonal playoffs…uh “What did happen?”

Will the Patriots march to another 14-2 record? What will Bill Belichick address with his stockpile of picks going into this year’s draft?  Did the New York Jets tilt the balance of power in their favor and did they gain a psychological edge over their divisional opponent?  Things to keep an eye on as this season unfolds.

Quarterback: There isn’t a quarterback in the NFL that rates as high as Tom Brady.  He won the MVP for 2010 unanimously for arguably the best of his 11 career seasons.  With a pedestrian receiving corps and series of backs, he threw for 36TDs and only 4 interceptions.  At midseason, we were unsure how Brady and the Patriots offense would fare after moving Randy Moss.  Tom made Julian Edelman, an older Deion Branch, and TEs Gronkowski and Hernandez look like seasoned pros as the Patriots moved to more of a possession passing game.  After setting the record for most pass attempts without an interception at 335, Brady set another career record for touchdown-to-interception ratio at 9.0. It seems time to remove Brady from contemporary comparisons and focus on his place in history.  He has an overall record of 125 wins and only 37 losses to go along with his 3 Super Bowl wins.

However there is a book on Brady as there is on every other quarterback, you have to hit Brady early and get him to look down at the rush.  This happened in Super Bowl XLII against the Giants and the camera caught Brady with that same flustered look in the loss to the Jets.  We have to remember that Brady is going into year 12 and his mobility is limited and seems to wince when someone is going to hit him in the legs.  This has become more evident since his 2008 knee injury.  When a team can get to him physically Brady can throw errantly as he did to David Harris of the Jets in the first quarter which set the tone in last year’s playoff loss.  Of course this is easier said than done yet Brady is going into the stage of being one of the game’s elder statesman and the question has to be asked;  How much longer can he play at such a high level?  At least another four years in our opinion.  Quarterback is Super Bowl quality in Foxboro

Offensive Backfield: This backfield is in need of an upgrade.  Danny Woodhead and Ben Jarvus Green-Ellis are marginal at best.  Woodhead played commendably during the second half of the season, rushing for 579 yards total.  Green-Ellis ran for 1,008 yards and 13 TDs and did not fumble over the entire season.  They ran for many yards out of passing formations and won’t be affective when game planned for.  When push came to shove and the Patriots had to run in the playoff game they couldn’t, as evidenced by their 5 for 16 effort in converting 3rd or 4th downs against the Jets.  If Belichick can get his hands on a solid, physical running back like Ryan Williams of Virginia Tech,  or Mikel Leshoure of Illinois.  With six of the first 33 picks in this year’s draft, its conceivable they could select both of these guys and return to having a real power back like a Corey Dillon.  Woodhead and / or Green-Ellis would be better served as 3rd down backs then they could release Kevin Faulk who is long in the tooth.  Woodhead was a great story and is this team’s version of Rudy which is nice but Rudy won’t run this team to the Super Bowl.  Serviceable to below average if they stand pat.

Receivers: Wes Welker is the best slot receiver in football and is as elusive a player there is in the NFL.  His numbers were down in 2010 with 86 catches for 848 yards v. the 123 catches for 1,348 he garnered in ’09.  It was the move to a possession offense that brought down his numbers with many of the receptions that he would have seen now being thrown to rookie TEs Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. In fact Gronkowski set a team record for TDs by a TE with 10 while catching  42 receptions and 546 yards for the season.  Hernanadez caught 45 passes for 563 yards and 6 more TDs.  The 2 tight end alignment became more prevalent after Randy Moss’ departure and the short passing game offset the rushing game.

Brad Edelman is a Welker clone and is serviceable but can’t get deep.  Deion Branch played several games like the Branch of old and may benefit after a full training camp. The new deep threat is Brandon Tate who is a burner yet needs to learn a few set up moves to get himself deep.  There are nuances a receiver uses to set up a cornerback to get behind them and Tate will be a better receiver once he learns them.  Its conceivable to see the Patriots address the receiver position as well with Branch going into his 11th season and Welker his 9th.  Injuries are starting to add up and there is a chance for these receivers to be tightly covered without any serious burners.  As a group these receivers are serviceable.

Offensive Line: Remember earlier when it was said that the best way to get to Brady was with a pass rush?  Well here comes the problem. This veteran line  was among the best at protecting Tom Brady coming in 3rd in fewest quarterback hits with 52, and 3rd in fewest sacks allowed with 25.  Starts up front with Matt Light at LT who takes on the best blindside rushers and keeps Brady upright.  A solid tackle whose fellow linemen G Logan Mankins, C Dan Koppen, G Dan Connolly, and fellow tackle Nick Kaczur may be the best offensive line in the biz.  They also paved the way for 1,973 yards and 19 TDs.  There were several times where this offensive line couldnt get a push on a critical third and two yet the Patriots make the most with astute play calling and short throws to the TEs to offset this.  The week of the Super Bowl the Patriots offensive line won the second annual Madden Most Valuable Protectors  Award for the most outstanding offensive line. This is a Super Bowl caliber offensive line and along with Tom Brady made some marginal RBs and WRs look like stars.

Defensive Line: The beef upfront starts with Vince Wilfork, the immovable DE / DT from “The U”.  As we go to press this week the ink is drying on the free agent contract for Marcus Stroud formerly of Buffalo.   Wilfork has been joined by Gerard Warren in clogging the middle of the Patriots line allowing for linebackers to make tackles unselfishly.  Evidence of this?? The leading tackler in the NFL in 2010 was Patriot ILB Jerrod Mayo with 175.  Thanks in large part to Warren and Wilfolk tying up blockers.  Mike Wright and 2nd year DE Ron Brace need to stay on the path to improvement that led to such a strong defensive finish.  However the Patriots could use 1 or 2 of those first 6 picks here to improve a pass rush that relies on ‘backers to get to the quarterback and not it’s D-Line. Thirteen sacks by the D-Line is not enough.  Steady up front but not spectacular.

Linebackers: This group begins and ends with the stellar play of Jerrod Mayo, who was a first team All Pro selection after leading the league in tackles with 175.  Following him along the Belichick learning curve is Brandon Spikes from Florida.  Entering his second season watch for teams to try and fool him out of position as they did early in his rookie season to no avail.  No one has been teaching excellent linebacker play over the last couple of decades like Bill Belichick, expect him to round these two into shape and anchor his defense for the next decade. If there is an injury that robs either of time, there is special team ace Gary Guyton to fill in nicely.  Decent set of linebackers with room to grow.  Throw in second year linebacker Jermaine Cunningham and you can see Belichick has much to tinker with.

Secondary: This was the area the youth movement on defense made some strides that may come to benefit the Patriots entering 2011.  Rookie Devin McCourty picked off seven passes on his way to his first pro bowl.  Brandon Merriweather the starting FS from Miami has to reel in a sometimes undisciplined approach that saw him gain notoriety from a head to head shot on Ravens tight end Todd Heap last season.  Aside from that this was a Pro Bowl safety with a penchant for making big plays in the secondary once teams made it past the linebackers.  Merriweather tied twin strong safeties Patrick Chung and James Sanders for second on the team with 3 interceptions.   There should be a spirited battle between former 1st round pick Darius Butler and Kyle Arrington for one of the corner spots.  This is a young, aggressive secondary.  One with two pro bowlers on it and with continued improvement could grow into the best in the NFL. With 3 quality corners and safeties, Belichick can turn them loose in very exotic dime packages to confuse rival passers.  A good secondary with a chance to be really good this year.

Overall: If you detected a pattern of looking back to the AFC Divisional loss to the New York Jets during this article, there was a reason for it.  This is the only team that stands in the way of the Jets playing in that elusive Super Bowl.  It will be the Jets v. these Patriots for the AFC Championship Crown.  A little improvement in the running game will benefit this team greatly.  Once teams realize Brady can’t get deep on them they will have the intermediate routes fully clogged with defenders to smother his hot routes and crossing plays.  If the Patriots stay pedestrian in the running game they will continue to lose during the playoffs and not get back to the Super Bowl and excorcise the demons of Super Bowl XLII and subsequent back to back home playoff losses.  Take some of the pressure off of Tom Brady and they can overcome the Jets, without that pressure, the Patriots pedestrian receivers will doom them against superior Jets corners again.  Thanks to the Jets winning last year, let it be known that a rivalry has been born.  Hatfield v. McCoys for the AFC Championship.  Rex Ryan said, in one of his rookie press conferences, that he wasn’t ‘brought in to kiss Belichick’s rings’ … What you going to do about it Bill??  A good draft by the Patriots can tilt the balance of power back in their favor. Can the Patriots match their 14-2 record??  I think there will be a slip from that to maybe 11 or 12 wins but they will be there battling in the end.

Next: 2011 Chicago Bears Preview