Our offseason Four Downs series ends with a look at the NFC West's biggest remaining holes and their most notable UDFA signings. The Rams and 49ers have to kick-start their passing games, Arizona's offense lacks a big dimension, and the Seahawks continue to rely on Russell Wilson's magic tricks.
15 Nov 2006
by Michael David Smith
Each week in Every Play Counts, I take a look at one particular aspect of a team throughout a single game. But I watch a lot of football during the season, making it my goal to see every team play a couple of times, and I notice a lot of little things that don't make it into Every Play Counts -- or any other column on the Web, for that matter. Little issues that don't get covered in the highlights but have an impact on wins and losses. So a couple of times during the season, Every Play Counts becomes Every Team Counts, my notebook of all the little things I've noticed throughout the past few weeks.
New York Giants
I love the six-lineman formation the Giants have rolled out. I consider Jim Finn the NFL's best blocking fullback right now, and the combination of Finn and Rich Seubert as a tight end makes for a great running scheme. Unfortunately, the loss of left tackle Luke Petitgout will make the Giants less effective running the ball.
My choice for most disappointing rookie is first-round defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley. He was a workout warrior at the combine, and the Eagles don't exactly have a great history drafting workout warriors to bolster their defense (see Mamula, Mike). Bunkley doesn't get many snaps in the defensive line rotation, and when he plays he gets pushed around too easily. Second-round offensive tackle Winston Justice hasn't even set foot on the field yet this year. It's not shaping up to be a very good draft for the Eagles.
Nose tackle Jason Ferguson is amazing. Every Cowboys game I watch, I come away thinking he dominated the center across the line of scrimmage from him. He completely changes the opposing offense's plan of attack on running plays because guards who might otherwise pull or block a linebacker are forced to help the center with Ferguson.
Outside linebacker Marcus Washington is dropping into coverage more and blitzing less, and that doesn't make much sense to me. Washington was a good fit in Gregg Williams' defense because he's so relentless when he rushes the passer. Now they're asking him to stop doing what he's best at and start doing what he's worst at.
The biggest problem I have with the Bears is that the offensive line doesn't seem complete. Offensive tackles John Tait and Fred Miller are good pass blockers but not good run blockers. Center Olin Kreutz and guards Roberto Garza and Ruben Brown are good run blockers but not good pass blockers. If they play a good defensive line in the playoffs, I think the whole unit will struggle.
The fascinating thing about rookie guards Daryn Colledge and Jason Spitz -- who have turned around the Packers' line -- is that neither one has great size or strength. They're not beating people by overpowering them, they're beating people with superior technique, the kind of technique that you usually see in 10-year veterans. Packers offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski spent the last two years in Atlanta, working with offensive line consultant Alex Gibbs, who is famous for getting great production out of relatively small offensive linemen, and Jagodzinski has imported Gibbs' techniques to Green Bay. Some accuse Gibbs of teaching dirty tactics, but I haven't seen any of that with the young Packers, just seen fundamentally sound blocking.
It's hard to understand why the Vikings, who added guard Steve Hutchinson, fullback Tony Richardson, and running back Chester Taylor as free agents, and got center Matt Birk back after he missed all of 2005, aren't any better running this year than they were last year. I think a lot of it can be traced to Brad Childress's offense, which in my opinion doesn't use Richardson effectively enough. The Vikings' runs look too fancy, like they're designed to break big plays, rather than just pound Taylor in behind Richardson and pick up a few yards at a time.
This is the black hole of the NFL, where no matter what they try, it fails. About the only positive thing to say is that Mike Martz does know how to design a passing game. It seems like no matter what the defense tries, Martz calls a few plays a game where Roy Williams finds himself isolated with a safety who can't handle him. The biggest problem on this team continues to be the offensive line. It's a mystery why they gave left tackle Jeff Backus such a big contract.
Signing center Jeff Faine and drafting guard Jahri Evans bolstered the offensive line. Between Evans, the great Marques Colston, and the solid defensive back Roman Harper (who was playing very well before he tore his ACL last month) did any team have a better draft than the Saints?
His numbers are mediocre, but Ashley Lelie is exactly the type of receiver Michael Vick needs: A guy with the speed to get downfield. So why are his numbers mediocre? Because the Falcons still run the kind of offense that fails to take advantage of Vick's deep ball. How many years have we been saying this now?
Guard Mike Wahle isn't as good a player as he was in Green Bay. He used to do lots of trapping and pulling and lead the way on runs to the outside, but now he just seems to stay in the middle and get overpowered by bigger defensive tackles.
Cadillac Williams is having a lackluster season, but the primary reason is the offensive line. The two rookies on the right side, guard Davin Joseph and tackle Jeremy Trueblood, have some promise, but the Bucs still need to make major changes in the off-season.
Losing defensive tackle Marcus Tubbs for the season is going to hurt, but I still think this defense is going to improve significantly down the stretch. There isn't a more talented group of linebackers in the league than Julian Peterson, Lofa Tatupu and Leroy Hill.
In his 13th season, Bryant Young is still their best defensive player. At this point, that says more about the 49ers than it does about Young, but still, it's quite an accomplishment that Young is playing at just as high a level now as he did as an impact rookie in 1994, when his teammates included Deion Sanders, Steve Young, and Jerry Rice.
Most overlooked reason for the Rams' offensive resurgence? Center Richie Incognito. The Rams drafted him last year, but he never got on the field thanks to a knee injury he suffered at the Indianapolis scouting combine. Now that he's finally on the field, Incognito has shown that he's a very good blocker, both on running plays and on pass plays.
I would strongly consider safety Adrian Wilson for the Defensive Player of the Year award. When he covers tight ends, they might as well not be on the field. When he blitzes he strikes fear in the hearts of every quarterback. When he plays the run he looks like a middle linebacker. Put him in Chicago and he'd win the award easily.
Against the run, no front seven is better than New England's. Against the pass, though, the Patriots struggle. All four linebackers can be beaten by good tight ends and running backs, and the defensive linemen don't seem to be rushing the passer as well this year as they have in years past.
New York Jets
The Jets' run defense is absolutely horrible. Dewayne Robertson should be thankful for Charles Rogers -- were it not for the Lions taking Rogers second overall in 2003, Robertson, who went to the Jets fourth, would be recognized as one of the biggest draft busts of recent years.
I've heard a lot about what a talented young tackle Jason Peters is, so I watched him closely as he went one-on-one against Dwight Freeney. I came away unimpressed. Freeney had what I thought was his best day of the year, beating Peters for a sack and generally creating havoc. Maybe it was just an off day, but Peters didn't look special on Sunday.
Nose tackle Keith Traylor is playing like a man possessed. He is absolutely shutting down opposing running games, and he already has a career-high four sacks this season. How is it possible that a 37-year-old who probably weighs closer to 400 than he does to 300 is this quick out of his stance?
General manager Ozzie Newsome has hit another bull's-eye with first-round defensive tackle Haloti Ngata. Ngata has started all nine games for the best run defense in the league, and he seems to be getting better each week. His presence makes Ray Lewis a better linebacker.
The biggest story in Cincinnati isn't Carson Palmer or Chad Johnson. It's Marvin Lewis's inability to build a good defense. Lewis looked like a genius as the coordinator of a great defense in Baltimore and a very good one in Washington, but it just isn't working in Cincinnati. Rookie linebacker Ahmad Brooks has promise, but aside from him I don't see much talent here. Sam Adams was a good player for Lewis six years ago, but now he's 33 and just doesn't have any gas left in the tank.
I thought the one-two punch of Reuben Droughns and rookie Jerome Harrison would give Cleveland a good running game this year, but clearly I was wrong. Losing 107 different centers during the preseason isn't a prescription for a solid offensive line, apparently. And neither starting guard, Cosey Coleman or Joe Andruzzi, is playing well.
Defensive end Brett Keisel has, I think, exceeded everyone's expectations. Kimo von Oelhoffen was generally considered a big loss in free agency, but Keisel has played very well while von Oelhoffen has done next to nothing with the Jets. The Steelers' defense is as good as it was last year, but it got a lot more credit last year because Ben Roethlisberger wasn't throwing so many interceptions.
Opposing defenses must figure there's no way they can possibly stop all of the Colts' weapons, so they won't even try to stop the tight ends. Dallas Clark, Ben Utecht, and Bryan Fletcher aren't particularly talented, but they all get plenty of balls thrown their way because they're allowed to get open.
They don't get any hype at all, but Rashean Mathis, Deon Grant, Donovin Darius, and Brian Williams comprise the best secondary in the NFL. We football fans should all be thankful that we get to see these guys take on Peyton Manning, Reggie Wayne, and Marvin Harrison twice a year.
When tight end Jeb Putzier followed new coach Gary Kubiak from Denver to Houston, people assumed he'd be a natural fit because he already knew the offense. But rookie tight end Owen Daniels is playing so well that Putzier can hardly get on the field. Daniels is the kind of tight end every quarterback loves to have in short yardage situations. He's a very good route runner and doesn't look like a rookie.
Late in Sunday's loss to the Ravens, the Titans, down one point, had forced Baltimore to punt. The TV announcers debated whether coach Jeff Fisher would put in Bobby Wade or Pac-Man Jones as the return man. When Fisher sent Wade on the field, the announcers agreed that it was a smart move because Wade, a veteran, won't make a mistake. Have these guys ever seen Bobby Wade return a punt? All he does is make mistakes. He had 10 fumbles last year. Last week he called for a fair catch on the 4-yard line. And on that punt against Baltimore he should have fair caught the ball but instead tried to return it, losing two yards.
Javon Walker is the best receiver in the NFL right now. Learning a new offense and playing with a quarterback, Jake Plummer, who's having a horribly inaccurate year, Walker is on pace to have career highs in receiving yards and yards per catch.
Is there a bigger drop-off imaginable than going from Shawne Merriman to Carlos Polk at outside linebacker? That's what the Chargers have had to do thanks to Merriman's four-game drug suspension. In Sunday's game against Cincinnati, Polk was a total non-factor as Cincinnati blocked him easily all day.
Yes, Kyle Turley is still in the league, but if you watch him play you'll wonder why. He can't block anymore. When is someone going to put him out of his misery?
Buddy Ryan coached a Hall of Fame middle linebacker in Chicago, Mike Singletary, and Rex Ryan coaches a Hall of Fame middle linebacker in Baltimore, Ray Lewis. Only a fool would put second-year middle linebacker Kirk Morrison, who plays for Rob Ryan in Oakland, in that category. But I am very impressed with Morrison every time I see him play. He's not quite as ferocious a hitter as Singletary and Lewis were, but he's a good athlete and a smart player. He'd be getting a lot of attention if he played on a halfway decent team. That Raiders' defense has a lot of guys who are playing hard despite the ineptitude of their teammates on the other side of the ball. Morrison benefits from playing behind the rejuvenated Warren Sapp, who is playing his best football in years. Rookie strong safety Michael Huff is picking up Ryan's defense nicely. Maybe Al Davis would have been better off just giving the head job to Ryan.
80 comments, Last at 19 Nov 2006, 1:17am by RC