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?
15 May 2009
by Mike Tanier
The Ravens expect their young offense to get better as it gets older. That's why they only made minor changes on that side of the ball.
New tight end L.J. Smith gives the team a receiving threat who can take some pressure off aging Todd Heap. If Smith's fumbling and pass-dropping becomes a problem, fifth-round pick Davon Drew will see action. Drew, a converted quarterback, averaged 16.3 yards per catch at East Carolina in 2008, so he has the speed to stretch the seam. Heap remains on the roster and should still play a role as a blocking tight end.
The Ravens appear satisfied with Demetrius Williams as their third wideout. Williams missed the second half of last season with an Achilles injury, but the team didn't sign or draft any competition for his position. Williams was the least-used third wideout in the NFL, with just 23 targets; when he got hurt, the Ravens essentially phased slot receivers out of their playbook.
The offensive line will look different, with veteran Matt Birk replacing Jason Brown at center and rookie Michael Oher competing with either Jared Gaither or Adam Terry for a tackle position. The new faces will bolster a line that finished 22nd in the NFL in Adjusted Sack Rate. A more experienced Joe Flacco will also help lower sack totals.
Defensively, free agent Domonique Foxworth and rookie Paul Kruger will help offset the losses of cornerback Chris McAlister and linebacker Bart Scott. Kruger, who had 7.5 sacks in his senior season at Utah, adds another element to the Ravens pass rush. Terrell Suggs, Ray Lewis, and Samari Rolle were all re-signed, so the Ravens defense will look very similar to last year's.
There will be some competition on special teams, where Yamon Figurs is coming off a disappointing year as a return man. Free agent Chris Carr was a solid returner for the Raiders, and third-round pick Lardarius Webb had three return touchdowns in his college career.
There may be a kicker battle in Ravens camp, with Florida State rookie Graham Gano pushing inexperienced incumbent Steven Hauschka. Gano was 24-of-26 on field goals last season, and his only misses came from 50 and 52 yards. As a punter, he grossed 42.7 yards per kick, dropping four punts inside the 5-yard line in the Champs Sports Bowl. In 2007, he kicked off 63 times and averaged an acceptable 61.0 yards per kick. Hauschka was a kickoff specialist last year, with Matt Stover handling all but the longest field goal attempts. With Gano in camp, Stover's long Ravens career may be over.
Linebacker Dannell Ellerbe (Georgia) would have been a midround selection if not for a 2008 MCL injury and a 2006 incident involving a teammate's car, a fake ID, a strip joint, an accident, some alcohol, and a less-than-honest consultation with the police. Ellerbe recorded 93 tackles in 2007 and has the speed and tackling ability to be a special teams terror and a developmental player at weakside linebacker. Coaches will have to monitor his behavior, of course.
Receivers Eron Riley (Duke) and Isaiah Williams (Maryland) both have 4.4 "Pro Day" speed and are listed at 6-foot-3. Riley had better collegiate numbers (2,413 career yards), but Williams is the more interesting prospect. Russ Lande of GMJR.com feels that Williams can contribute as a true No. 3 wide receiver if he adds weight to his thin frame.
Buffalo quarterback Drew Wiley threw for 3,304 yards and 25 touchdowns in the Mid-American Conference and had a solid game (28-of-39, 330 yards, 1 touchdown, 1 interception) against Penn State two years ago. He's a camp arm who could make the practice squad. Fullback Jason Cook (Mississippi) is a high-character guy with experience as the personal protector on punt units. He should replace Lorenzo Neal on the roster.
If you are going to face the Steelers and Ravens four times per year, you had better be able to stop the run.
The Bengals had a solid run defense last year. They allowed just 3.3 yards per carry from Weeks 10 to 17; the Football Outsiders advanced DVOA stats (explained here) rank them as the third best run defense in the league during that span. The team spent much of the offseason making that run defense even better.
Free agent tackle Tank Johnson made just 21 tackles last year, 20 of them on running plays. But 16 of those tackles were "Stops," meaning he stopped backs after minimal gains. Johnson's average stop came after a gain of 1.9 yards. Second-round pick Rey Maualuga is a run stuffer by trade; the 250-pound USC linebacker recorded 230 tackles in three college seasons. He'll join second-year linebacker Keith Rivers, who missed the second half of last season, to give the Bengals two big linebackers who can stack, shed, and chase. Rivers recorded an impressive 22 successful Stops in six games of work.
The Bengals improved an area of strength, but they didn't do a good job of filling needs. Michael Johnson, a 6-foot-7 shot blocker at defensive end, was the only addition to a pass rush that produced just 17 sacks (though Maualuga can also help here). With Chris Perry gone, Cedric Benson is the featured back by default, and Laveranues Coles just barely offsets the loss of T.J. Houshmandzadeh. New backup quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan is a better game manager than Ryan Fitzpatrick, but the Bengals are still destined for the bottom of the standings if anything happens to Carson Palmer.
Worst of all, the Bengals reaffirmed their bad boy image by signing Tank Johnson, who has a long history of weapon-related arrests, and drafting Andre Smith, the king-sized Alabama tackle whose rep for immaturity and bad decision making was solidified when he left the Combine after performing badly in interviews. Instead of a full makeover, the Bengals opted to accentuate the positives. The changes won't amount to much in such a competitive division.
Darius Hill (Ball State) was a productive college tight end, catching 147 passes and scoring 28 touchdowns in three seasons. Hill is more than 6-foot-6, so he has potential as a back-of-the-end-zone goal-line threat, and he has some speed. The knock on Hill is his frame: He plays at about 240 pounds, making him a high-leverage blocker who gets pushed around too easily.
The signing of Florida long snapper Jason Smith means Brad St. Louis will have some camp competition. St. Louis has snapped in 139 games for the Bengals. Smith told a Florida radio show that Urban Meyer called the Bengals and lobbied on his behalf. Meyer was probably just trying to get an inconsolable Brad Childress off the line.
The Browns have a bad case of Vertigo. Not the dizzying illness, but the classic 1958 Alfred Hitchcock film.
In that movie, an obsessed Jimmy Stewart tried to turn Kim Novak into a carbon copy of his dead lover. In Cleveland, Eric Mangini is trying to remake the Browns into the Jets of the Cuyahoga. Thanks to some free agent signings and the Mark Sanchez trade, the Browns have enough ex-Jets to field a team within a team. The (probably) complete list includes: quarterback Brett Ratliff, defensive linemen C.J. Mosely and Kenyon Coleman, linebackers Eric Barton and David Bowens, and defensive backs Abram Elam and Hank Poteat.
Barton, Bowens, and Elam are the potential starters in the list above, but Ratliff is the most intriguing name. Ratliff had an outstanding 2008 preseason, completing 32 of 47 passes for 499 yards, four touchdowns and an interception. He was a favorite of the Mangini staff, and many felt he had the inside track to beat Kellen Clemens for the starting job if he stayed in New York. Look for Ratliff to gum up the already muddled Derek Anderson-Brady Quinn quarterback situation.
The Browns' offense took shape when the team drafted receivers Brian Robiskie and Mohamed Massaquoi in the second round. The two rookies join Braylon Edwards, Josh Cribbs, and David Patten in a rebuilt receiving corps with the depth to run the spread formations offensive coordinator Brian Daboll prefers. Both Massaquoi and Robiskie are tough blockers, so the Browns can run the ball from four-wideout sets or execute tunnel screens to Cribbs.
Even the offensive line will be different, with free agents Floyd Womack and John St. Clair, as well as first-round pick Alex Mack, seeking employment on a unit that finished in the middle-of-the pack in most categories in 2008. The newcomers could help in short yardage situations; the Browns finished 27th in the NFL in short-yardage conversions with a 59 percent success rate.
Then again, Mangini might just order Daboll to spread the field and throw on third-and-1. After all, that's how the Jets did it last year.
Graham Harrell (Texas Tech) worked out at the Browns rookie camp last week but left camp without a contract. Harrell recorded space-age stats in Mike Leach's spread offense, including 10,816 yards, 93 touchdowns, and a completion percentage over 70 in his final two seasons. Despite the production, Harrell is a system guy who is at his best when throwing tunnel screens or short lobs into wide-open spaces on the field. The Browns will have a hard time finding enough practice reps for Brady Quinn and Brett Ratliff, so another developmental quarterback is the last thing they need. Still, they were impressed by Harrell, and they could call him back if their quarterback situation starts to sort itself.
UCLA safety Bret Lockett was the only significant rookie free agent to get a contract from the Browns. With eight draft picks and a host of trade acquisitions to sort through, it would be hard for a street free agent to catch the coaches' eyes, anyway.
Rashard Mendenhall and Limas Sweed didn't make much of an impact as rookies. They'll have to fight for their jobs as sophomores.
Sweed appeared to have the third wideout slot locked up when Nate Washington signed with the Titans and the Steelers didn't pursue a receiver in free agency or the draft. After the draft, the Steelers signed former Rams and Lions receiver Shaun McDonald as an insurance policy.
Sweed has some advantages over McDonald. At 6-foot-4, he's a tough blocker who can duke it out with safeties when the Steelers run the ball from tight or bunch formations. He's more of a deep threat than McDonald, making him a better fit to fill Washington's role. About 20 percent of the passes thrown to Washington each year are classified as "bombs" by the Football Outsiders game charters, more than 25 yards through the air. McDonald, who averaged just 9.8 yards per catch last season, is better on short routes.
Mendenhall was penciled in to be the Steelers' short-yardage back this year, a role for which the 225-pounder seems tailor made. But the team hedged its bets by drafting Frank "the Tank" Summers. At 5-foot-9, 241 pounds, Summers is a perfect goal-line bowling ball. The Steelers desperately need Mendenhall or Summers to emerge as an up-the-gut runner; they ran the ball 28 times inside the 5-yard line last season but netted just 9 touchdowns.
Most of the other positions in the Steelers lineup appear set. First-round pick Evander Hood will slip into the rotation on a defensive line where the average age of the top five contributors last year was 31.8. The offensive line returns intact except for Marvel Smith, who started just five games last year. Kiewan Ratliff will take some sting out of the loss of cornerback Bryant McFadden. Most of their draft picks, including offensive linemen Kraig Urbik and center A.J. Shipley, were picked to fill roles in 2010 or beyond.
Even the Steelers ownership situation is stable, as Dan Rooney and oldest son Art Rooney organized a coalition of silent partners to buy shares of the team that the NFL forced other members of the family to divest. It adds up to the perfect Steelers offseason: top-down stability, minor improvements, and some healthy competition.
The Steelers signed two undrafted quarterbacks: Mike Reilly of Central Washington and Kevin McCabe of California University of Pennsylvania.
That's right, California University of Pennsylvania. True story: That was actually my third choice college, after La Salle and Delaware. At a college fair back in 1987, I met a very nice recruiter who sold me on CUP's charms, including a rural setting, small class sizes, and some other feature that excited me at the time. (A good math program? A 12-1 female-male ratio? A free tote bag for early enrollment?)
At any rate, I went to La Salle, and McCabe went to Virginia, where he threw a game-winning overtime touchdown pass in a victory over Wyoming in 2006. He threw two interceptions in his next start and was benched for the rest of the season. He transferred to CUP, where he played well enough for the Vulcans to keep Steelers scouts interested.
Reilly, meanwhile, threw for 3,706 yards, 37 touchdowns, and six interceptions in his senior season while rushing for 415 yards and four touchdowns. Those numbers contain Division II spread-offense helium, and the knocks on Reilly include a poor arm and a slow delivery. With three quarterback spots apparently set, he'll battle McCabe for the chance to make the practice squad, at best.
Wide receiver Cedric Goodman (Georgia) wasn't a starter in college, and at 6-foot, 189 pounds with 4.55 speed, he doesn't stand out as a size-speed prospect. Lande likes his competitive streak and thinks he could be a special teams contributor. Fellow receiver Tyler Grisham (Clemson) caught 60 passes in 2007 but just 37 in 2008. Offensive lineman Ramon Foster (Tennessee) is a long-armed 330-pounder who gets high marks for character. He'll get a chance to stick as a backup guard and right tackle.
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