Tag:Offseason checkup
Posted on: March 23, 2011 11:17 am
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Offseason Checkup: Atlanta Falcons

Posted by Will Brinson



Eye on Football's playing doctor for every NFL team with our Offseason Check-ups. Also, check out our checkup podcast:





It's pretty rare when winning your division and losing to the eventual Super Bowl champions qualifies as a "disappointment," but that's probably the case with the Atlanta Falcons, who really seemed destined to make a run at a championship in 2010.

Alas, destiny came unbound and Green Bay burnt Atlanta to the ground (surely that's not too soon) en route to taking down the Lombardi Trophy. What makes the way in which Atlanta lost interesting is that it was their bread and butter -- old-school, methodical football -- that left them unable to mount a comeback against the Packers

Having said that, this is a Falcons team that's built for the long-haul. Matt Ryan is an All-Pro for years to come, Roddy White is blossoming into one of the best receivers in the NFC (if not the NFL), and the defense as a whole appears full of young playmakers. Sure, Tony Gonzalez and Michael Turner might not be contributing five years down the road, but that doesn't impact 2011, when the Falcons will be absolutely primed to repeat their success from the previous year.



Speed, Explosiveness, Youth

In 2009, Atlanta was vulnerable to getting torched on big plays, and got gashed by opponents on 20-yard-plus plays 55 times, and 40-yard-plus plays 11 times. They addressed their secondary needs in the offseason, stealing Dunta Robinson away from the Texans (who then became historically bad against the pass, for what it's worth). In 2010, Atlanta gave up just 38 plays of 20+ yards and only six plays of 40+ yards. 

So, yeah, not a problem anymore. But what is a problem? The big plays created on the offensive end. Atlanta ranked next-to-last in the NFL in passing plays over 20 yards with 32, just two ahead of Carolina. You may recall that the Panthers didn't finish No. 1 in the conference. Add in six plays all season of 40-plus yards, and it's clear the Dirty Birds lack some explosiveness in the passing game.

This is partially a result of Mike Mularky's vanilla offense, and partially because Tony Gonzalez can't stretch the field quite as much as he used to. But it's primarily because Atlanta hasn't been able to find a true WR2 to pair with White and give Ryan a deep threat.



1. Speedy WR2 
The M.O. of Thomas Dimitroff and Mike Smith isn't necessarily to grab a WR early just because they need one. And it's unlikely that one of the true talents in this draft -- think A.J. Green and Julio Jones -- will get even close to the Falcons. It's possible they could use a draft pick on a speedy wide receiver, but it's also possible that they could look to boost their receiving corps through free agency (Santana Moss would fit the bill nicely; he's been wildly inconsistent as a WR1, but his downfield burst would fit well with what the Falcons need, especially as a second wideout). The ideal candidate -- as I noted in the podcast above -- is Steve Smith of the Panthers, but an intra-division trade seems like a pretty unlikely outcome.

2. Defensive End/D-line depth 
Defensively, the Falcons performed well in 2010, ranking in the top five in terms of points allowed and right about the middle of the NFL in terms of yards per game allowed. But they weren't anywhere close to the top in terms of sacks, ranking 20th with 31, 13 of which came from the aging John Abraham. Given the incredible defensive line depth in the 2011 NFL Draft class, it's almost likely that we see the Falcons address their pass-rushing needs with their first round pick in April. 

3. Running Back
Michael Turner has been a fantastic find for the Birds since they signed him as a free agent (especially considering people thought they'd overpaid), and Jason Snelling is a pretty good backup insofar as those things go. But at some point, Atlanta's going to need to find some additional running back depth in order to stay ahead of the curve and not find themselves empty-handed if Turner slows under the weight of excessive carries. They could also use a change-of-pace, third-down back, and the second round is a decent spot for them to address that need.



Atlanta's going to compete with the Saints -- and perhaps the Buccaneers?? -- for the division title in 2011, and it's hard to fathom a situation where they're not the favorites to win the NFC South this year. That's simply based on the fact that they return the entire nucleus of a team that showed it knows how to play a grind-it-out style of football and win close games.

And there's no question that this is a team for whom "winning the Super Bowl" isn't just a silly goal to have simply because football hasn't been played and "everyone's got the same record right now." The only issue for Atlanta, in order to take the next step, it seems is finding some explosiveness that the 2010 rendition of the Falcons lacked. Otherwise, building on the base they've already got means we'll be saying similar things about this team for years to come.

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Posted on: March 22, 2011 11:31 am
 

Offseason Checkup: Chicago Bears

Posted by Andy Benoit



Eye on Football's playing doctor for every NFL team with our Offseason Check-ups. Also, check out our checkup podcast:





Lovie Smith earned a new contract after his seemingly mediocre team ended its three-year run of mediocrity. The ending of the Bears’ season became THE story of the postseason when Jay Cutler left the NFC Championship with a strained MCL. The loss of Cutler’s strong arm confirmed what many already knew: the Bears had been paddling upstream all season against the current of their awful offensive line, ho-hum receiving corps and close-to-lethargic run game.

Credit Cutler and especially the surprisingly malleable Mike Martz for making late season adjustments that compensated for these weaknesses. Helping compensate for offensive shortcomings was the resurgence of a defense that saw MLB Brian Urlacher return from his ’09 wrist injury fresh as can be and long-time Panther Julius Peppers provide a much-needed pass-rushing presence while galvanizing the run defense.



 Every time you put on the film, Nick Roach, the athletic four-year linebacker, stands out. Roach, undrafted out of Northwestern, has been a special teamer who only starts when someone is injured. Last season, it was Pisa Tinoisamoa’s bum knee that propelled Roach to the first string. Predictably, Roach proved to be an upgrade over Tinoisamoa.

Roach's lack of size and abundance of speed make him better equipped for the weak side in a Cover 2 system. Obviously, this team’s weakside position is held down by Lance Briggs. But given Chicago’s options on the strong side, Roach is worth playing out of position.

(Not to push too much change too fast, but Briggs is actually built more like a strongside linebacker anyway. So if the Bears really wanted to mix things up – which, we know, they don’t – they could relocate their veteran Pro Bowler, too.)



1. Offensive tackle
Just because J'Marcus Webb started as a rookie doesn’t mean he’s the answer at right tackle. The lumbering seventh-round pick only started because the team’s Gatorade cooler didn’t have hands or feet and the tackling sled didn’t know all the plays. The Bears could also stand to upgrade at left tackle, though veteran Frank Omiyale survived well enough in that spot last season.

2. Interior offensive line
Center Olin Kreutz hit a wall in 2010. It wouldn’t be sensible to re-sign the 33-year-old. Left guard Chris Williams is a former first-round pick who didn’t take the field until 2009. You hate to give up on the guy this early, but watch him in pass protection and you see that you wouldn’t be giving up on much.

3. Wide receiver
Devin Hester is at worst a gadget play specialist but at best only a slot option. Johnny Knox is a zone-beater with speed to burn, but it’s hard to picture teams ever rolling their coverage to his side of the field. With Earl Bennett being almost strictly an underneath target, there’s room to insert a downfield playmaking weapon in this rotation.



Any team that hosts the NFC Championship and returns virtually all of its players the next season will have legitimate Super Bowl aspirations. But it wouldn’t be outlandish to proclaim these Bears a one-hit wonder. A little more firepower and a lot more blocking prowess are needed offensively. Defensively, the table is pretty well set, though coaches have for years been searching for a playmaker at the safety position.

Finding one may be necessary for putting this unit over the top. As things stand, this is far and away the second best team in the NFC North.

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Posted on: March 21, 2011 3:43 pm
Edited on: March 21, 2011 3:54 pm
 

Offseason Checkup: New York Jets

Posted by Josh Katzowitz



Eye on Football's playing doctor for every NFL team with our Offseason Check-ups. Also, check out our checkup podcast:





Rex Ryan has got to be the most entertaining coach in the NFL today, but he’s also proven he can, you know, coach pretty well, too. His quarterback, Mark Sanchez, has been fairly mediocre the past two seasons (he ranked 16th last season in passing yards, 19th in touchdowns, 27th in passer rating and 29th in completion percentage . . . but No. 1 in rumored romances with 17-year-olds!) and he was entering the season with a RB in LaDainian Tomlinson that had been left for dead by San Diego and another RB in Shonn Greene that only had 108 carries in his career.

While the offense didn’t finish in the top-10, though the running game was No. 4, the defense was, once again, spectacular. Yes, there were some disastrous games in there – ahem, the 45-3 destruction of New York by the Patriots after Ryan had talked all kinds of trash to coach Bill Belichick – but for the second-straight season, the Jets made the AFC championship game.

That’s not a terrible place to be.



Obviously, the quarterback position needs better production. Sanchez is barely passable in this position (get it?!), and he’s lucky he has such a strong run game and a defense that can make his win-loss percentage look pretty outstanding. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that the Jets could win a Super Bowl with Sanchez in charge, it just seems much more likely if he could develop into a top-10 QB.



NFL Offseason
1. Second cornerback
So, how does Nnamdi Asomugha sound in that spot? Fantastic, but pretty unlikely, I think. Antonio Cromartie possibly could return to the squad and he was more than solid for much of the year (he did have a couple awful performances, though), especially when Revis was injured. Perhaps, Kyle Wilson – the first-round pick from 2010 – will be ready to take his place after a relatively anonymous rookie year. But Revis really wants Cromartie to return, and he doesn’t seem to have great confidence in Wilson.

2. Defensive Line
A few days ago, an ESPN analyst ripped the front-three of the Jets and said the defensive success the past few years was “smoke and mirrors” and “bells and whistles.” We think that’s pretty unfair to a guy like Mike DeVito, coming off the best year of his career. But NT Sione Pouha is 32 years old, Shaun Ellis is 33 and the Jets already released Kris Jenkins and Jason Taylor. In Ryan’s defense, the nose tackle is one of the most important positions on the field, meaning he’ll have to find somebody who can compete against Pouha for the starting job and, barring that, can at least provide more depth.

3. Right Tackle
Apparently the Jets feel good enough about Vladimir Ducasse at right tackle, because they (sort of surprisingly) cut Damien Woody. It’s hard to tell how New York got to that analysis of Ducasse, who admitted that he struggled to learn the playbook last year and couldn’t win the left guard spot at the beginning of the season.



Ryan already has said the Jets will win the Super Bowl next year, and considering they’ve fallen only a game short the past two years, anything less than an appearance in Indianapolis next season will be a real disappointment. Assuming the Jets defense remains a top-five unit – and they probably should – Sanchez continues to improve and Ryan keeps his team stocked with g------ snacks, expect another deep playoff run. And, quite possibly, a Super Bowl appearance.

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Posted on: March 20, 2011 2:59 pm
Edited on: March 20, 2011 3:32 pm
 

Offseason Checkup: Pittsburgh Steelers

Posted by Andy Benoit

 

Eye on Football's playing doctor for every NFL team with our Offseason Check-ups. Also, check out our checkup podcast:





If you’d told the Steelers at some point during last fall that Ben Roethlisberger would get the ball with 2:07 remaining down six in Super Bowl XLV, they probably would have taken it. That final drive was about the only thing that did not go Roethlisberger’s way in 2010 (suspension aside, of course).

The Steelers, despite a depleted offensive line, got within arms’ reach of a Lombardi Trophy thanks to the emergence of young playmakers Rashard Mendenhall, Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown.

And, of course, thanks to their perennially staunch defense. Troy Polamalu took home Defensive Player of the Year honors (no matter what the humble safety says, the award was well-deserved) while the star-studded linebacking corps welcomed a new sensation: inside ‘backer Lawrence Timmons.



NFL Offseason

Don’t be shocked if Emmanuel Sanders supplants Hines Ward in the starting lineup sooner than later. This is more about Sanders than Ward. The second-year wideout is already Ben Roethlisberger’s go-to target in spread formations (granted, in part because Roethlisberger prefers to work the slot from four-and five-wide sets). Sanders has the quickness and tempo change to beat man coverage, and he showed marked improvements in understanding the offense as his rookie season wore on.

These days, Ward, 35, runs like he’s playing in sand. But he can still produce. His 59 catches for 755 yards last season were a drop below the back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons he had coming into the year, but his famous (notorious?) blocking remains sharp.



1. Offensive Tackle 1
After watching him lumber through last season, it seems like RT Flozell Adams is nearing that age where Tuesday afternoons and Saturday nights start feeling the same and relatives start dropping subtle hints about the dangers of driving after dark. No way the Steelers pay Adams the $5 million he’s due in 2011. The Steelers can go for the best OT available overall given that LT Max Starks is coming back from injury and could move over to the more-fitting right side.

2. Right Guard
Ramon Foster is not the answer. A simple review of last year’s front line personnel changes reveals that coaches will do just about anything to keep the undrafted utility man out of the starting lineup. Backup G/C Doug Legursky has better mobility than people think, but it’s not enough to make up for his lack of phone booth power.

3. Defensive End
Aaron Smith turns 35 in April and has missed all but 11 games over the past two years. Ziggy Hood was supposed to be primed to start by now, but the ’09 first-round pick does not have the power to be a true anchor outside. Hood must develop the type of agility that’s made Brett Keisel a force; it’s a tossup whether he will. Keisel will be 33 in September but shows no sign of decline. However, the Steelers like to draft players two years out, so finding at least one understudy still makes sense.



A run at a record seventh Lombardi Trophy is clearly not out of the question, though the Steelers won just 17 games combined in the seasons following their last two Super Bowl appearances. The defense is aging but not aged. The offense should only be better.

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Posted on: March 18, 2011 9:56 am
Edited on: March 21, 2011 10:35 am
 

Offseason Checkup: Green Bay Packers

Posted by Andy Benoit



Eye on Football's playing doctor for every NFL team with our Offseason Check-ups. Also, check out our checkup podcast:


In the postseason, this 10-6 number six seed got white hot and wound up bringing the Lombardi Trophy back home. Aaron Rodgers played the quarterback position as masterfully as anyone in the last five years. In three of Green Bay’s four playoff games, Rodgers threw three touchdowns and posted a passer rating above 110. The offense was aided by the emergence of running back James Starks, who helped lend balance to Mike McCarthy’s de facto spread West Coast system. But with the way Green Bay’s passing game was clicking, a backfield feature Gilbert Brown Frank Winters probably could have sufficed.

It’s easy to play offense when you have a defense that surrendered more than 20 points in only three games all season. Dom Capers was brilliant in concocting a byzantine 3-4 scheme built around the versatility of rover Charles Woodson, pass-rushing prowess of Clay Matthews, athleticism of corners Sam Shields and Tramon Williams and strength of the B.J. Raji-led front line.


Success, depth
NFL Offseason

Backup receivers Jordy Nelson and James Jones both had 45-plus catches and 550-plus yards in 2010. Don’t expect that to be the case in 2011. Tight end Jermichael Finley will be healthy and once again manning the slot in three-and four-receiver formations. Finley, the team’s most lethal weapon, will be priority No. 1. (Note: With Nelson and Jones both on the rise, it’s possible that veteran Donald Driver could become the forgotten wideout.)

With Finley being versatile enough to line up anywhere, we’ll likely see more formation shifts from Green Bay before the snap. For a defensive coordinator, that’s a terrifying thought given how shrewd Rogers is already in the presnap phase.


Not to cop out, but there aren’t any. When you lead your conference in injuries, all holes on your roster will be exposed. Unless, of course, you somehow plug them again and again. That’s exactly what the Packers did in 2010. Consequently, this team is now two deep at every position.

Of course, if you want to push the issue, you could argue for:

1. Backup interior lineman
The Packers brass is said to be high on Marshall Newhouse, but the fifth-round pick from a year ago is yet to see the field. Veteran utility backup Jason Spitz is injury prone and not likely to be back.

2. Outside linebacker
Snatching someone who can start ahead of Clay Matthews wouldn’t be a bad idea if the right player is available. Because of injuries, Brad Jones, Brady Poppinga, Frank Zombo and Erik Walden all started games at this spot last season. The athletic Jones was the best of the bunch, but even he did not shine as a surefire first-stringer.

3. Defensive rover
Charles Woodson isn’t going to live forever. And the 34-year-old is somewhat injury prone, anyway. Replacing the über-versatile veteran is next to impossible, but if Ted Thompson sees a safety he likes (and Woodson is more of a safety than corner these days), he could give his likely future Hall of Famer an understudy. Jarrett Bush, of course, filled in admirably when Woodson was out during the second half of Super Bowl XLV, but Dom Capers still had to trim his playbook.


Anything short of a Super Bowl repeat would be a failure. Every time a team wins a title, scores of hackneyed pundits squawk about how we could be seeing the beginning of a dynasty. That sentiment actually feels true with these Packers.

Rodgers is in his prime. So is the rest of the offense, which happens to be stacked at all the skill positions. Defensively, Dom Capers is the best in the business when it comes to in-game adjustments and variations of 3-4 blitzes. Capers has all the pieces he had in 2010, which includes four Pro Bowlers plus ascending NT B.J. Raji.

The lockout helps the Packers more than most teams because they’re deep and their core has been together for three years now.

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Posted on: March 17, 2011 2:06 pm
Edited on: March 20, 2011 3:03 pm
 

Offseason Checkup: Oakland Raiders

Posted by Will Brinson



Eye on Football's playing doctor for every NFL team with our Offseason Check-ups. Also, check out our checkup podcast:


For every single team in NFL history, sweeping the division has resulted in a playoff spot. As it should -- that’s six wins and an incredible headstart on the postseason race.

Then the 2010 Raiders came along.

They won all six of their division games and yet still somehow managed to go 2-8 in the remaining contests on their schedule. That resulted in Tom Cable’s firing and a lot of angry confusion in the Bay Area.

A much worse trait’s percolating around the Black Hole though: cautious optimism. Since Oakland’s fall from grace following their 2002 Super Bowl loss to the Bucs, Oakland hasn’t just been a lost cause. They’ve been the poster child for bad management.

2010 didn’t change that, but Raiders fans will probably try and tell you otherwise. Hue Jackson moving from offensive coordinator to head coach will give Jason Campbell some much-needed stability, and it should bode well for both the continued improvement of Darren McFadden and Oakland’s stockpile of burners at the wide receiver position.

But personnel losses on the other side of the ball -- Nnamdi Asomugha, mainly -- and a focus on scoring points might not exactly guarantee any more success in 2011.


Delusion, Stopping the Run

Part of the Raiders second-ranked passing defense was Asomugha’s ability to shut down half of the field. But part of it was also their inability to stop opposing offenses from piling up yardage on the ground; running backs averaged 133.6 yards per game (and 4.5 yards per carry) against Oakland.

That was good for 29th in the NFL and it’s pretty clear that “losing games” and “not stopping the run” go hand-in-hand. Chris Johnson (142 yards), Arian Foster (131), Frank Gore (149), Ricky Williams (95), Rashard Jennings (109) and even Dominic Rhodes (98) all put up pretty big numbers when Oakland lost.

Oddly, not once in a Raiders’ win did an opposing back tote the ball more than 20 times. Many times -- though not always -- that was because Oakland jumped out to big leads early.

And it’s possible that Jackson can continue that trend into 2011, but improved defense against the rush will avoid the need to make big and sometimes luck-driven leads a requirement.


1. Secondary
Stanford Routt’s the new No. 1 in Oaktown with Asomugha now departing to, um, somewhere. (We don’t know where yet, but he’s probably not coming back to Oakland.) Routt and Chris Johnson can work well together, but there’s a pretty good chance that losing Nnamdi will expose other areas in the secondary as teams work the entire field against Oakland. It’ll also stretch their safeties even thinner than before, something that could become a problem if Michael Huff and Tyvon Branch can’t step up their game.

2. Front Office Contract Guy
No, but seriously -- the fact that Asomugha and Kamerion Wimbley somehow BOTH managed to end up with funky as all get-out finales to their contracts is pretty indicative that something ain’t stirring the Kool-Aid in the front office when it comes to the guy who draws up the deals. Either that or Oakland really wanted to dump Nnamdi this offseason. Which makes less sense than accidentally messing up a pair of big-time contracts.

3. Outside linebacker
Branch and Huff were the leading tacklers for Oakland in 2010, which is good, because tackles are nice. It’s bad because it means that teams were pretty easily getting to the furthest layer of the Raiders’ defense. Letting people break big plays (the Raiders allowed 17 rushes over 20 yards, third-worst in the league, and 51 passes over 20 yards, 11th worst) was a nasty little problem for Oakland last year. And even with "franchise" player Wimbley sitting on the outside, Oakland needs some more run stuffers.


There'll be optimism in the Raiders' fanbase, because there always is. But there's not that much of a reason for it. They're losing one of the top two cornerbacks in the NFL, there's no guarantee that McFadden can continue his much-delayed breakout, there's a 100-percent certainty that Richard Seymour is a year older, and they're still starting Jason Campbell.

Oh yes, and they're still the Raiders too.

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