Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
12 Apr 2007
by Jeff Bathurst
Interesting to consider: "We've already spent a lot of time studying Willis McGahee to see what he does differently than Jamal [Lewis], and how we can all help each other." That was Ravens offensive line coach Chris Foerster in the Baltimore Sun, on the changing line in Baltimore.
Coming off a season in which the Ravens ranked No. 1 overall in DVOA, the team is not standing pat on one of its core elements. The departure of two linemen in free agency -- right tackle Tony Pashos took a big deal to move to Jacksonville and left guard Edwin Mulitalo was allowed to go away, landing in Detroit -- did a lot to force the issue, of course. So did the uncertain future of Jonathan Ogden.
Ogden is expected to make a decision on whether he will return sometime before the draft on April 28, and his call will play into whether Baltimore picks an offensive lineman early, and where Adam Terry plays next year. Terry, going into his third year, is slotted in as right tackle now, but would move to left tackle in Ogden's absence. Chris Chester, a center-guard, is also expected to get a chance to play.
Last year's group allowed only 17 sacks, second in the league, and led FO's pass protection ranking with a 3.1 percent Adjusted Sack Rate. The problem came in run blocking, in which the Ravens line ended up 19th in Adjusted Line Yards.
A deeper look shows that the malaise was spread throughout the group, but when the Ravens ran off left tackle, they ranked ninth in the league at 4.69 Adjusted Line Yards. Ogden and Jason Brown held down the left side of the line after Mulitalo's season-ending injury after four games.
According to Foerster, coach Brian Billick might be willing to change his power running scheme with new blood in McGahee as well as a changing, presumably younger offensive line.
What does this mean for McGahee? He's coming off a season in which he ranked 24th in the league in DPAR, but ran behind a line that finished 26th in Adjusted Line Yards, at only 3.95. The Bills actually succeeded with McGahee running to the left, ranking ninth around end and 14th off tackle.
The numbers bear out a possible change in the straight-ahead power game. McGahee and the other Buffalo backs ran 33 percent to the left and 51 percent up the middle last year, as opposed to 18 percent and 67 percent, respectively, by Ravens backs.
However, that could all change if Ogden retires, or if McGahee and the line don't mesh, for reasons of unfamiliarity, general greenness, or whatever. For what it's worth, McGahee has shown up for off-season workouts in Baltimore, something he refused to do in Buffalo. Stay tuned.
The biggest outside move by the Ravens, of course, was trading three draft picks to Buffalo for McGahee to replace Jamal Lewis.
The Ravens filled the holes left by the departed Pashos and outside linebacker Adalius Thomas by promoting from within, re-signing Jarret Johnson (three years, $13 million) and moving Terry in line for a starting position at either tackle. They also held onto backup running back Musa Smith, who should be decent cover for McGahee and Mike Anderson.
Moves the Ravens could make in the remainder of the off-season: Signing a fullback to replace Ovie Mughelli, who got Ovie-paid (in Baltimore's eyes) by the Falcons. A backup defensive tackle (Aubrayo Franklin left for the Niners) and a backup defensive back might also help.
Wading through the mock drafts, the Ravens, picking 29th as they are, of course are a tough team to project, but the main thinking seems to be offensive line.
As was detailed above, Baltimore is in a transition period with the line, not knowing the future of Jonathan Ogden and getting ready to mix in more young players with a new franchise back. There is little depth at tackle, so a guy who has been mentioned more than once is Justin Blalock, a 6-foot-4, 329-pound Texas Longhorn who started 51 straight games in college and was an all-American last season.
Also mentioned have been Auburn guard Ben Grubbs (6-3, 314), described as an "old-school mauler," and USC center Ryan Kalil (6-3, 291), who anchored the Trojans' line.
With Adalius Thomas gone, outside linebacker/defensive end is also a possibility, for depth if nothing else. That means Purdue's Anthony Spencer (6-3, 266) and Georgia's Charles Johnson (6-2, 272).
The big story on Action News, of course, is the eight-game suspension of wide receiver Chris Henry, which came down April 10 from the commissioner's office. While avoiding the fate of "See you in 2008" Pac-Man Jones, Henry is going to suffer, but less certain is how much this will hurt Cincinnati's offense.
Henry did find the end zone nine times among his 37 catches, but ranked 48th overall in DPAR and -- maybe more importantly, given his playing time -- also only 41st in DVOA among wide receivers. The overall health and lawfulness of Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh far outweigh the availability of Henry in determining the Bengals' level of success.
Here, let T.J. tell it. How much concern do you have? "No concern, zero," Houshmandzadeh told the Cincinnati Enquirer when asked about a possible Henry suspension. "If Chris gets suspended, it's just two options: Either me and Chad would just do more, because we can, or someone would step in and try to do what Chris is doing." Given that the Bengals also lost Kelley Washington, there is a depth issue, but the team is counting on guys like Tab Perry and Antonio Chatman to come back from injuries.
The bigger impact on the 2007 Bengals will be felt in the defense and in Carson Palmer's play after having a full off-season to prepare. Palmer was a Pro Bowl backup, played in all 16 games, and threw for 4,000 yards (a Bengals first), all after tearing up his knee in the 2005 playoffs. The slow early-season comeback from that injury is the main reason why his DPAR and DVOA numbers dipped from the Manning stratosphere all the way down to top-five in the league.
An offense that starts with Palmer, Rudi Johnson, Chad Johnson, and Houshmandzadeh already has a leg up in lots of games -- not least in keeping the defense off the field. One Bengals priority cited is to improve on third down. According to traditional NFL stats, Cincinnati converted 35.8 percent of the time on third down in 2006, compared to 41.7 percent for opponents. What do FO stats say? Yeppers ... the Bengals offense was 23d on third down (compared to fourth overall). That indicates room for even more improvement on that side of the ball.
An interesting piece in the Enquirer pointed out that the Bengals' top seven cap numbers are all draft picks of the team, and six of them have received restructured deals or contract extensions. (Defensive end Justin Smith, who has been franchise-tagged this off-season, is the exception.) The headline: "Bengals prefer to pay for performance." This is all to the good as far as player development, but reading between the lines, it also can mean: "We did almost nothing this off-season."
Putting the tag on Smith means paying $8.6 million to a pass rusher who has not yet reached 10 sacks in a season. Robert Geathers -- who did manage 10.5 sacks -- did get a long-term deal at defensive end. Also within the team, they held onto tight end Reggie Kelly (three years, $9 million) and third-down back Kenny Watson. But guard Eric Steinbach and defensive tackle Shaun Smith moved within the division to Cleveland, safety Kevin Kaesviharn left for New Orleans, and wide receiver Kelley Washington (New England) and tight end Tony Stewart (Oakland) also departed.
Bringing in center Alex Stepanovich from Arizona was the entirety of their pickups from outside the team, and as of this writing it was possible guard Stacy Andrews, a restricted free agent, could be lured away by the New York Jets. The Bengals would get a second-round pick if Andrews signs with the Jets.
Defense seems to be the priority for the Bengals, and rightly so. Their major team needs are all on that side of the ball, especially at linebacker, cornerback, and defensive tackle.
The majority of the mocks lean toward cornerback for Cincinnati, mostly citing the team's tie for 31st in pass defense last year in traditional NFL stats. DVOA ranked the Bengals slightly better, at 28th, but that's not good either. With Tory James also gone this off-season, and second-year man Johnathan Joseph moving in to start opposite disappointing Deltha O'Neal, depth is an issue. Among the cornerbacks mentioned are Michigan's Leon Hall (5-11, 193, team record for pass deflections), Pitt's Darrelle Revis (6-0, 197, also a punt returner), and Arkansas' Chris Houston (5-11, 185, came out a year early).
Linebacker, a source of much pain in years past -- see Odell Thurman and David Pollack -- is also a big hole, throwing in the release of Brian Simmons to the mix. Two guys who could fit the bill at the Bengals' draft spot: Miami's Jon Beason (6-0, 236) and Florida State's Lawrence Timmons (6-3, 232).
Among the boatload of defenders Cleveland has been bringing in under coordinator Todd Grantham is a curious find in former Bengals defensive tackle Shaun Smith. Smith, a 6-foot-2 325-pounder going into his fourth season, was a restricted free agent. The Browns gave him a four-year, $8 million contract after Smith played in just 34 games in three seasons, including seven starts, with 46 career tackles (according to NFL.com) and zero sacks.
Smith is tagged as the eventual replacement for Ted Washington, and after playing in the 4-3 for Cincinnati will man the middle for Cleveland, perhaps spelling Orpheus Roye or Robaire Smith (another new signee) at end.
The Browns' aim here is to stuff the run, instead of getting the stuffing knocked out of them, as in 2006. Cleveland was 29th in the league against the run according to traditional stats, yielding 142.2 yards per game and 14 touchdowns. FO's take? About the same. The Browns defensive line graded out to Adjusted Line Yards of 4.71, ranked 27th in the league. Getting more specific, on runs up the middle the Browns were 25th.
The addition of Washington last year was supposed to make the run defense better, and it was, but not nearly by enough. The 2005 edition of the Browns were atrocious up the middle, ranking 31st in the league. Overall, they gave up fewer Adjusted Line Yards, 4.49, but were worse relative to the league, 28th.
So, bully for Smith, who was on the Dallas practice squad in 2003, played in five games for the Saints in 2004, and then joined Cincinnati. Nice payday for an itinerant big guy. Whether that translates into more help up the middle remains to be seen. (The Bengals ranked 16th last season in Adjusted Line Yards, 27th up the middle.)
There have been plenty of moves in Cleveland this off-season, none more expensive than the plucking of guard Eric Steinbach from Cincinnati for a seven-year deal that could be worth $49.5 million and guarantees him $17 million. Early in the off-season the Browns also locked up two of their own offensive linemen in Hank Fraley and Lennie Friedman.
Here's a typo I couldn't resist repeating: "He has a definite competitive steak in him and he plays the game until the whistle blows. He plays hard and plays physical." -- Browns offensive line coach Steve Marshall on Steinbach, from CBS Sportsline. Mmmmm ... steak.
The Browns added another former division rival when they signed Jamal Lewis away from Baltimore, eventually trading Reuben Droughns to the Giants to make room. Think of good things to say here ... Lewis may be a slight upgrade from Droughns, but he's no savior and is likely more a one-year stopgap. He, uh, knows how to win, though. So he's got that going for him.
Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham -- the defensive line coach in Houston from 2002 to 2004 -- brought in three former Texans in defensive end Robaire Smith, outside linebacker Antwan Peek and cornerback Kenny Wright. Smith replaces Alvin McKinley, who signed in Denver. Peek will get some time rushing the passer, and Wright should be the No. 3 cornerback behind Leigh Bodden and perhaps Gary Baxter, who is still rehabbing from tearing both patellar tendons.
The team also added former 49ers safety Mike Adams following the departure of Brian Russell, who landed in Seattle.
The Browns are a team with many needs, and the tops are probably quarterback and running back. With the third pick, both should be eminently available. Stepping up their pursuit of Trent Green does not necessarily preclude the team from drafting a JaMarcus Russell or a Brady Quinn should one be available, but for the sake of argument, think of the team for this year and long term under the following scenarios:
1) Trade for Green, draft Adrian Peterson, add another quarterback later in the draft.
2) Draft Russell or Quinn, paired with Jamal Lewis, add another back later in the draft.
3) Stick with Charlie Frye/Derek Anderson and draft Peterson -- or whoever.
They could go any way. Sure, it would be sweet to have a competent quarterback behind center this season, with a young stud like Peterson and an old hand like Lewis rushing the ball. But are the Browns going to win this season? Or, do they learn with Russell or Quinn and stick it out with Lewis? (Under this scenario, you hope someone loves Calvin Johnson enough to ensure one of the QBs is there at three.)
The Browns' quest for Green will likely last until draft day, so don't expect anything soon.
Certainly the need for a long-term quarterback is paramount, but this is a team with big holes and many needs. They will probably seek help in the defensive backfield later in the draft, because of the injuries suffered last year and the general lack of depth.
This sounds like one of those college "media days" or something, but according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, at the NFL meetings in Arizona in late March, the coaches in the AFC North picked the Ravens to repeat as division champions in 2007. "They're the division champs," said Cincinnati's Marvin Lewis. "Last year was the Steelers, right?"
Well, no, Marvin, your Bengals won the division 2005, but we get it.
The Steelers' new head man Mike Tomlin didn't step right out and pick Pittsburgh, instead asking, "Are you kidding? Who would you like me to say?"
As Tomlin settles in and tries to win over the veterans on his side -- remember, Alan Faneca revealed himself as a big Russ Grimm fan, special teams captain Sean Morey signed elsewhere, and Joey Porter was dumped -- the departure of center Jeff Hartings has left a hole in the offensive line.
In that vein, the Steelers' one big outside arrival this off-season was Sean Mahan, who formerly manned the line in Tampa Bay. Mahan, who played left guard last year, is set to compete with Chukky Okobi and Kendall Simmons at center. Simmons would move over from right guard to play center, and Okobi was Hartings' longtime backup.
Pittsburgh slumped from 12th to 22nd in run-blocking last season, according to Adjusted Line Yards, and from 23rd to 25th in pass protection. Mahan is coming from a team in the Buccaneers who were 28th in rushing and 10th in pass protection.
Since runs up the middle were the Steelers' bright spot last year (13th overall, 4.43 Adjusted Line Yards), making up for Hartings' production might be key. And the willingness to move Simmons might mean two spots are available, not just one.
And one more from an AFC North coach in Arizona, on the shift to Tomlin: "Thank God, Bill [Cowher] and I never went toe-to-toe on the 50-yard line in front of anybody because he'd probably kick my butt," Billick said. "But it's the players, it's still going to be Pittsburgh-Baltimore; I can't imagine that changing dramatically."
Mahan was brought in, but there was a lack of big-ticket signings, which is nothing new in Pittsburgh. The hiring of Tomlin -- and, indirectly, the loss of Grimm and Ken Whisenhunt -- was the biggest change to happen to this team in the off-season.
Among its own players, Najeh Davenport returned to be a backup running back to Willie Parker, and defensive backs Tyrone Carter and Chidi Iwuoma (a special-teams star) came back.
It's Tomlin, his work with defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and his enthusiasm for the job, who will make the most difference. Besides Ben Roethlisberger, of course, who is the straw that stirs the drink. A strong return from Big Ben will take the place of any missed free-agent signings.
Hey, listen to Ken Whisenhunt, who seems never to have a shortage of opinions of his former team: "I think there is a culture there with the identity of the team, certainly with coach Cowher there a number of years, and they have been successful with that. I would anticipate they would continue with that same mentality with how they play football." Thanks, uh, ex-coach!
The release of Joey Porter means that Pittsburgh could use some help at outside linebacker or pass rusher. Clark Haggans and James Harrison return, but the mock drafts mostly center on pass rushers, most notably Georgia defensive end Charles Johnson, Nebraska defensive end Adam Carriker, Florida defensive end Jarvis Moss, and Florida State linebacker Lawrence Timmons.
Moss (6-6, 251) was "the next Jevon Kearse" when he arrived at Florida, but a staph infection after a pelvis injury kept him off the field for most of three seasons, until he returned in 2005. He started only 13 times in 26 games but was credited with 87 tackles and 15 sacks. Johnson (6-2, 272) left Georgia after his junior year after only starting one season, and being named "only" second-team all-SEC in 2006. Carriker (6-6, 292) probably brings the best resume of all, having been named the Big Twelve defensive lineman of the year and a third-team all-American. Timmons (6-3, 232), listed as a linebacker, started only one season for the Seminoles and had eight career sacks.
Outside of the pass rush, the Steelers could look for depth on the offensive line -- Faneca and Simmons are in the final year of their contracts, and Simmons could be moving to center. Running back also is a bit of a void past Parker and Davenport, although Verron Haynes could come back if his injured knee heals.
Coming this weekend: AFC South by Alex Carnevale.
FO thanks Jeff Bathurst, a former copy editor at the sports desk of the Philadelphia Inquirer, for helping us out with Four Downs this off-season.
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