"Last team with the ball wins" is a cliche, but sometimes cliches are the best way to get across the central narrative of an important game. If you like great quarterback play, you have to watch the NFC Championship Game.
27 May 2010
by Mike Kurtz
The Ravens continue to hit all of the right notes this offseason. Baltimore went into the draft looking to build the next generation of its defense -- and did so with style. GM Ozzie Newsome traded out of the first round, but even without a first-round pick, the team still managed to get great quality depth for the front seven with Sergio Kindle and Terrence Cody. Both players come with significant question marks -- fragility for Kindle and body maintenance for Cody -- but will have time to develop over the next few years.
That doesn't leave Baltimore with many holes, but cornerback remains the standout issue for what is arguably the league's deepest team. Domonique Foxworth is penciled in as one starter, but there's a huge hole across from him, where either undersized slot corner Chris Carr or 2009 third-round pick Lardarius Webb, coming off a torn ACL, will have to start. Furthermore, those three are backed up by undrafted free agents. If the Ravens can't muster up an elite pass rush -- and they didn't in 2009, ranking 23rd in adjusted sack rate -- they'll be exposed against the league's better passing attacks.
Marshall's Ashton Hall is an elite athlete who needs a lot of development time. The safety holds the Marshall school record for broad jump, and he broke Randy Moss' vertical jump record. Teammate Albert McClellan wanted to be the guy a bit too much and declared for the draft after a poor junior season, but he has potential. Tennessean and school sports editor Morgan Cox could provide the team with all-important depth at both long snapper and investigative journalist.
After losing three different starting tight ends in 2009, the Bengals are hoping that first-round pick Jermaine Gresham can deliver on his promise as a receiver and -- more importantly -- to stay healthy. They also added a wide receiver in third-round pick Jordan Shipley, who has great hands and enough ability at the line of scrimmage to make hay while the secondary is distracted with Gresham and Chad Ochocinco downfield. The Bengals' passing game should be ascendant in 2010.
When other teams throw the ball, though, the Bengals may be in trouble. The Jets exposed Cincinnati's poor coverage and poorly chosen tackling angles of Chinedum Ndukwe when they beat the Bengals in two straight weeks (Week 17, then the Wild Card game). While the team re-signed Roy Williams and added Gibril Wilson in free agency, none of the three options is particularly palatable as a three-down safety.
Safety Jeromy Miles has an ethic and discipline that might get him a roster spot among the famously lawless Bengals roster -- he played for Navy before transferring to Massachusetts. Louisiana defensive end Rahim Alem, meanwhile, is another high-character player who could work his way into the roster.
One of Mike Holmgren's main missions so far in Cleveland has been the overhaul at linebacker. Kamerion Wimbley, the team's disappointing 2006 first-round pick, was dealt to the Raiders for a third-round selection. Although Wimbley had 11 sacks in an extremely promising rookie season, he only managed to pick up 15.5 sacks in the three subsequent seasons, and the Browns weren't willing to pay him the contract extension that he'll be due shortly.
With the Browns staying in Eric Mangini's 3-4 scheme, the natural hope is that they get a pass rush from their outside linebackers. The new name here is Chris Gocong, who was acquired from the Eagles as part of the Sheldon Brown trade. Gocong had 42 sacks at the I-AA (now FCS) level in college, but he was used as a strong-side linebacker in Philadelphia's 4-3 scheme, limiting his ability to rush the passer. Gocong has all of five sacks through his first three seasons. (Although Gocong has just finished his fourth year in the league, he missed his entire rookie season with an injury.) The track record for players turning into excellent pass rushers without showing signs during the first three years of play is virtually nonexistent. The Browns will have to hope that changing Gocong's role will highlight skills some long-dormant pass rushing skills.
With Gocong a question mark and no other prominent pass rusher on the roster, don't be surprised if the Browns pick between outside linebackers Eryk Anders of Alabama and Auston English of Oklahoma in an attempt to find someone who can take down the quarterback. Bet on English making the roster. Anders was listed as a pass-rush specialist at Alabama, but he could only muster 6.5 sacks in three seasons of relatively significant play. English was a three-year starting end who had 18 sacks. Hey, maybe Anders can go back to playing Pyramid.
The Steelers had a plan for wide receiver going into 2010. A rupture of Limas Sweed's Achilles tendon was not part of that plan, and Sweed will now be out for the entire season. Fortunately, the team drafted some depth beforehand in Southern Methodist's Emmanuel Sanders and Central Michigan's Antonio Brown. Brown is a prototypical burner who will have trouble competing against Mike Wallace, but Sanders should fit nicely into the slot and complement Heath Miller. Neither of these players is expected to contribute much in 2010, though, which could create problems if Wallace can't adjust to his new role as the team's flanker, or if Hines Ward begins to slip with age.
Although it's a terrifying name to say for a team that's been battling image issues, there is a player available that could provide the Steelers with some valuable depth in the short-term: Terrell Owens. Owens was disappointing in his lone year with Buffalo, but he was also playing with Trent Edwards and Ryan Fitzpatrick as his quarterbacks. While Owens isn't the player he once was, he's an effective short-to-intermediate range receiver. His presence would allow Wallace to stay in the slot, where he was wildly effective last year. And while Owens has a bad reputation, he has that reputation because he's a prima donna. He doesn’t get into trouble off the field, which means fewer headlines to anger the Rooney family. The Steelers could handle Owens for a year -- and he'd be worth it.
Rarely do you have contract controversies over undrafted free agents, but one has emerged around former LSU left tackle Ciron Black. Black, who had a second-round grade before a disappointing senior season, was widely reported to have signed with the Steelers, but he ended up absent from the team's official list on the heels of denials by his agent. Unfortunately for Black, the debate about which chair to honor with his presence ended with all the options full, and he remains a free agent at the time of writing.
(Portions of this article originally appeared on ESPN.com Insider.)
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