Denver: great team, or the greatest team? Would you be satisfied with "one of the ten greatest teams?" Plus: hard times in the NFC South, where defense goes to die.
17 Feb 2010
by Robert Weintraub
"Trouble" is a relative word in this case -- the Ravens won’t resemble the Lions on defense any time soon. But there were some negative trends in 2009 that need to be addressed in the offseason. Football Outsiders' DVOA metrics (explained here) ranked Baltimore as the third-most efficient defense in the NFL and seventh against the pass. But a closer look reveals that much of the pass-defense success came from the excellent play by the linebackers and safety Ed Reed. Baltimore was the best team in the NFL at shutting down the opponent’s tight end and third at defending passes to opponent's running backs. Wide receivers had much greater success, with the Ravens defense ranked in the middle of the NFL pack. Some of the trouble against the pass can be attributed to a decline in the front seven. Baltimore's Adjusted Sack Rate dropped to 23rd in the NFL, although the defense was still stout against the run.
The Ravens have some aging parts surrounding Pro Bowl starter Haloti Ngata. Ray Lewis and Trevor Pryce will each be 35 next year and Kelly Gregg will be 34. Linebacker Terrell Suggs saw his pass-rushing production drop sharply in 2009. A banged-up Tavares Gooden never established himself at the "Jack" linebacker spot, forcing the team to start undrafted rookie Dannell Ellerbe. The secondary faces the frightening prospect of Ed Reed’s threatened retirement, plus a lack of depth at corner, exacerbated by the knee injury to promising rookie Lardarius Webb in December. The departure of defensive coordinator/Mouth That Roared Rex Ryan (not to mention several starters, including linebacker Bart Scott and safety Jim Leonhard) also has had a deleterious effect.
Small wonder then that despite a glaring need at wide receiver, the talk around Owings Mills is that the team could go defense-heavy in the draft. Without an infusion of talent, the unit could decline more rapidly in 2010.
Ravens fans suffered a collective coronary when safety Ed Reed muttered the dreaded word "retirement" after the playoff loss to Indianapolis. A little time has passed, and it appears that Reed’s complaints about consistent injuries, while no doubt sincere, may also be about negotiating a new contract. Clearly, it is in Baltimore’s best interest to keep the ballhawking safety, and the pending uncapped year should increase their flexibility in doing so.
Reed’s secondary cohorts safety Dawan Landry and corner Frank Walker are unrestricted free agents and will likely test the market. Quarterback Troy Smith is still ruing the tonsillitis that cost him the starting gig before 2008; with Joe Flacco firmly entrenched, Smith wants out. As a restricted free agent, he will need to be dealt, but the list of teams with a "Help Wanted" sign at the position is small in number. Smith may wind up with a change of scenery but not job description.
Wide receiver Derrick Mason has been the Ravens’ lone outside threat for a couple of seasons, but he will be 36 when next season begins. He too has mentioned stepping aside and is a free agent that could depart to be a mentor type. On the opposite side, wide receiver Mark Clayton is an RFA. Given the lack of options in Charm City, Baltimore will probably ask him to stay around for another year. Offensive tackle Jared Gaither is another RFA, but the Ravens will surely lock him up.
The Ravens, like their division rivals, are desperate for an upgrade at wide receiver. Ozzie Newsome might cast an eye toward the desert, where the Cardinals are lousy with receiving talent. The emergence of Early Doucet late in the year makes perennially disgruntled Anquan Boldin and RFA Steve Breaston trade possibilities. Breaston in particular would be a coup, as he also fills a need at punt returner (minus-0.6 points in the punt return game in 2009). The strong clubhouse and Flacco’s strong arm make the acquisition of "problem" wideouts like Terrell Owens or Brandon Marshall inside the realm of possibility. Assuming the full complement of defensive backs does not return, Texans' corner Dunta Robinson could be an intriguing fit. He isn’t likely to be franchised by the Texans, and while he has underperformed to this point, he could thrive in Baltimore’s aggressive 3-4.
The Bengals made a decision after 2008 to compete in the smashmouth AFC North with a power running game and a strong defense. Mission accomplished. Problem was, the team totally lost its ability to stretch the field, and in a league that prizes throwing the ball downfield more than ever, that’s not a long-term growth strategy. Quarterback Carson Palmer was 19th in the NFL in our DVOA ratings and was more erratic than he’s been since entering the league, completing only 60.5 percent of his passes. Whispers that he wasn’t over the elbow injury that cost him the 2008 season grew louder as the Bengals passing game got worse. To his credit, Palmer did lead several late-game comebacks and bought into the team’s commitment to the run despite being unable to build any momentum in the passing attack.
His receiving corps certainly didn’t help. Only Chad Ochocinco was reliably capable of getting open, and he was usually double-teamed, which helped lead to a 58 percent catch rate. The death of Chris Henry was tragic, but he was already on injured reserve -- the team missed his deep threat potential desperately, and Palmer stopped looking downfield once he went out. Laveranues Coles had a poor 57 percent catch rate, a far cry from the sure-handed T.J. Houshmandzadeh he was signed to replace. The Bengals lost their top two tight ends, Reggie Kelly and Ben Utecht, in training camp, leaving the position as a block-first, -second and -third proposition, held down by slow-footed J.P. Foschi and iron-handed Daniel Coats. Third-round pick Chase Coffman never recovered from an offseason foot injury or the tongue lashings he received on Hard Knocks.
The offensive line recovered from an abominable 2008 to run-block more than respectably -- the Bengals actually led the league converting runs in short yardage (just under 80 percent of the time) -- but the unit struggled to pass block. Palmer was only sacked 29 times, but the team totally reined in its five- and seven-step dropback packages. By season’s end, the Bengals were more conservative than Barry Goldwater. If the team is to build on its 2009 rebound, it must upgrade personnel on the flanks, get some speed in the lineup, and return to within shouting distance of its old, high-flying self.
Guard Bobbie Williams is the best UFA on the team, and it’s hard to imagine Cincinnati letting the heart and soul of the offensive line get away. The Bengals have good linebacking depth, for once, but keeping both Rashad Jeanty and Brandon Johnson isn’t likely. Look for Cincy to pursue one, probably Johnson, and let the other walk. Johnson was an excellent player on third down, both in coverage and as a blitzer, when defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer went to 3-4 looks. Jeanty is a solid tackler but less dynamic than Johnson (and besides, the Bengals always like to have a bunch of Johnsons around, although see below ...). A similar decision might come on the line, where rotation defensive tackle Tank Johnson and defensive end Frostee Rucker both surpassed expectations. After his playoff meltdown, Shayne Graham has probably kicked his last in Cincinnati. Running back Larry Johnson is unlikely to return, and Fullback Jeremi Johnson could be displaced by a younger blocker.
OCNN (Ochocinco News Network) has been trumpeting the T.O.-to-Cincy talk since the day after the season ended. "I got him," Ochocinco said when asked about the Bengals adding yet another miscreant. "I got him. I’d put him under my wing. 'Hey T, shut up.' I’d put him in a head lock. He’s good. He’s awesome. Look at his numbers. Why not?" Well, here’s why -- Laveranues Coles would have to be jettisoned, and the message to young receivers Andre Caldwell, Quan Cosby, and Jerome Simpson would be, "thanks anyway." Many Bengals fans wouldn’t mind that, but obviously, the 36-year-old Owens would be a short-term solution. Brandon Marshall also falls into the "keep him miles from the Bengals" category, but at least he’s younger. In terms of pure football ability, Marshall is exactly what the Bengals require -- a dynamic, outside-the-numbers threat who can make yards after the catch. But Mike Brown doesn’t like to give away draft picks. If Marshall is tendered at first-round level, the Bengals aren’t likely to make the move. Also, not even the NFL’s Secretary of State, Chad Ochocinco, would be able to control Marshall.
It’s hard to begin assessing the 2010 Cleveland Browns until we know exactly what sort of offense and defense the team will run, what personnel needs to be kept or acquired to fit the schemes, and what the new brain trust, which also includes capologist Bryan Wiedmeier, thinks of the current roster. We can guess at certain elements -- new president Mike Holmgren is a west coast offense guru, new GM Tom Heckert is an astute drafter of interior linemen -- but for the moment, rumors of Cleveland’s interest in players like defensive end Julius Peppers cannot be properly assessed.
The Browns appeared to be the worst team in the NFL at the three-quarter pole of 2009 but ended the season playing hard for coach Eric Mangini, winning their last four games. Mirage? Player self-interest? Or actual progress? The four wins were all over non-playoff teams, but the Browns found an identity behind Jerome Harrison’s punishing runs and all-purpose weapon Josh Cribbs making plays on special teams and with direct snaps on offense. The semblance of actual football left new boss Holmgren with little choice but to keep the ManGenius, for better or worse. How Mangini works with others will determine much in 2010 and beyond.
One area of concern, regardless of who calls the shots is depth on the Cleveland defense -- particularly in the secondary. Cleveland’s coverage ranked right at the bottom of the league in stopping opposing tight ends (32nd), passes to running backs (31st), and slot receivers (27th). Cornerback Eric Wright is developing well, but overall there is a paucity of speed and covering ability among the linebackers and safeties in particular.
Josh Cribbs, Josh Cribbs, Josh Cribbs. The return genius/Wildcat impresario was about the only thing worth watching for most of Cleveland’s season. His specialist role makes his contract demands a tricky test for the Browns front office, but there is little doubt about his impact. Should the Browns not meet Cribbs’ needs, there will be plenty of interest around the league for his services, although he will certainly be costly. Meanwhile, the Browns have several quality four-year unrestricted free agents that could walk. Running back Jerome Harrison, linebackers Matt Roth and D'Qwell Jackson, and guard Rex Hadnot are the main suspects. Safety Brodney Pool may retire due to concussion issues. Donte Stallworth was, unsurprisingly, released after serving his suspension.
Bringing in a quarterback to replace the Brady Quinn/Derek Anderson comedy duo is Topic A in Cleveland, and while big names like Donovan McNabb and Matt Hasselbeck dominate talk radio, Jason Campbell is a much better choice, in terms of age, cost, and production potential. Meanwhile, rumor mill gossip has the Broncos putting together a deal involving Marshall to the Browns in return for quarterback Brady Quinn. That seems unlikely, but the Browns should explore bringing the Denver Problem Child to Lake Erie. Back on planet earth, the secondary requires immediate upgrade, as discussed above. The Disease of More could prevent New Orleans from bringing back both of their UFA safeties, Roman Harper and Darren Sharper. Corner Carlos Rogers will only be available if a new CBA comes into effect and might not get an extension in D.C.
When Cincinnati slugged out an 18-12 victory in Pittsburgh in mid-November, Mike Ditka called it "the most blatant example of identity theft" he could recall. The classic Steelers formula of running the ball and playing great defense was seemingly absent in 2009, as the Steelers followed their Super Bowl title by failing to qualify for the playoffs.
Fans in the Steel City shouldn't fret too much. While offensive coordinator Bruce Arians has been under fire for a supposed tendency to throw too often on third-and-short, the Steelers ran it 66 percent of the time in Power situations (third- or fourth-and-two or less, and on the goal line). The NFL average is 63 percent, putting Pittsburgh right in the middle of the league. Also a myth: The league-wide conventional wisdom that Arians was afraid to run the ball in short-yardage situations because of deterioration along the line. Pittsburgh's offensive line actually was fifth in the NFL in Power situations, converting 72 percent of the time. It seems Steelers fans won't be happy until the return of a Rocky Bleier-Jerome Bettis backfield, not to mention 1975 rules and tendencies.
The real reason why Pittsburgh threw it more than in previous years is the fact that Ben Roethlisberger is the team's best offensive player. Our metrics rank Big Ben as the eighth-best quarterback in the league, both in total value (1,392 DYAR) and value per play (27.9 percent DVOA). His size and ability to conjure something from nothing have remade the team's identity, and probably none too soon -- if 2009 taught us anything, it's that the NFL is a passing league.
It was on defense that the Steelers let down. Overall, the defense wasn't bad -- its DVOA was eighth in the league, albeit down from the No. 1 slot a year ago. Obviously, Troy Polamalu's return to health should improve the unit at every level. But was his absence that important? Apparently so. In the five games Polamalu played, the Steelers allowed 5.36 yards per pass with seven interceptions and a pass defense DVOA of minus-30.9%. If they had played at that level the whole year, they would have ranked second in pass defense, trailing only the Jets. In the 11 games without Polamalu, the Steelers allowed 5.96 yards per pass with only five interceptions and a pass defense DVOA of 18.9 percent. That would have ranked them 27th in pass defense for the entire season.
Pittsburgh isn't likely to let outstanding nose tackle Casey Hampton get away. That could mean franchising him or getting a long-term deal done -- neither side is tipping its hand at the moment. Hampton's situation will affect other decisions, especially safety Ryan Clark. Clark is a feared hitter and strong in run support. He is in the Steelers' plans for 2010, but only if the price is right. The Pittsburgh M.O. has always been to let players go elsewhere if they don't fit in the team's wage structure, and Clark is a borderline case, especially if the team doesn't want to commit a sizable percentage of money to a single position (with Troy Polamalu making nearly $7 million). Right tackle Willie Colon is a restricted free agent, and a year ago his long-term prospects in black-and-gold were doubtful. Pittsburgh ranked near the bottom in running right in 2009, but the consensus in the organization is that Colon improved enough to re-sign. Bid a fond farewell to running back "No Longer Fast" Willie Parker, while corner Deshea Townsend at 34 seems destined for the woodpile.
Much depends on the labor talks -- there are lots of good young linemen who would become available if a new CBA were enacted. Donald Penn, Logan Mankins, and Jahri Evans are among the names. Assuming that doesn't happen, Pittsburgh could swipe tough but aging (33) guard Bobbie Williams from division-rival Cincinnati or younger (28) guard Rex Hadnot from another foe, Cleveland. New Hall-of-Famer Dick LeBeau might salivate over the chance to add a corner with potential like Dunta Robinson to his secondary. If Hampton leaves, Pitt could go for a big name nose tackle like Vince Wilfork or, more likely, a lesser-known name like San Francisco's Aubrayo Franklin.
27 comments, Last at 23 Feb 2010, 8:32pm by commissionerleaf