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?
08 Aug 2011
by Rivers McCown
Last season, the Broncos finished 30th in the NFL in our defensive DVOA rankings, including 31st against the pass. Champ Bailey is still a solid stater at cornerback, even despite being 33. Beyond that, the back four is a muddled mess.
Brian Dawkins will be moving to strong safety, as he's clearly lost a step at 36 and needs a less demanding role on the team despite his leadership skills. Replacing him at free safety will be rookie second-rounder Rahim Moore, a good safety prospect who saw his stock come down a bit last year after a tremendous sophomore year at UCLA. Andre' Goodman, also 33, is the ostensible starter opposite of Bailey. He was torched last year in his eight starts to the tune of 9.2 yards per pass play.
The primary reserves aren't any better. Nate Jones, who was re-signed to a cheap long-term contract, allowed 10.9 yards per pass play last season and has never been a regular NFL starter. Perrish Cox played a supporting role last year and was supposed to be an answer for Denver at cornerback, but after allegedly raping and impregnating a woman at a party, he could be facing jail time or a suspension. Either outcome should make it clear to the Broncos that counting on him long-term is a mistake. 2010 second-rounder Darcel McBath could potentially take over for Dawkins, but he spent most of last year receiving treatment from the trainers for a bad quadriceps muscle, a bum ankle, and the burn marks he incurred when he actually set foot on the field. Even with the return of Elvis Dumervil, the Broncos shaky secondary could keep them from getting much better against the pass.
The Chiefs addressed a few of their biggest issues in free agency, signing Kelly Gregg to play nose tackle and Steve Breaston as their second receiver. While they're set at a lot of positions, they do still have some question marks at linebacker.
Tamba Hali and Derrick Johnson are a great start at the position, at least provided that Johnson doesn't do whatever it was that put him in Todd Haley's doghouse again. The spot opposite Johnson in the middle is a total coinflip at this point. The Chiefs must not have been impressed by incumbent Jovan Belcher's performance, because they brought back Kansas City stalwart Demorrio Williams and signed San Diego's Brandon Siler just for good measure. None of these players have good advanced statistics against the pass by our numbers, but Siler is probably the best run stuffer of the bunch. It could be a platoon situation for the Chiefs.
Opposite Hali at the other 3-4 outside linebacker spot, Andy Studebaker looks like he'll get the first crack at the job. Third-rounder Justin Houston is waiting in the wings, and our SACKSEER projection system sees him as a player with a chance to be a true stud, which would be great if he had actually bothered to show up to training camp on time. With his chance to make a positive impression perhaps already gone, the Chiefs may have no choice but to turn to Studebaker.
Studebaker had 2.5 sacks last year in passing down relief of Mike Vrabel, but according to our game charting project, he also produced just four hurries over the past two years. To put that into context, Hali had 37 hurries by himself last year. Studebaker doesn't need to be Hali-quality, but the Chiefs probably need him to notch at least 20 hurries this season for their opponents to take their pass rush seriously.
After losing Nnamdi Asomugha to free agency, a reasonable guess might be that Oakland's biggest problem is the hole that he left. Close, but that would ignore a position that they've needed to turn over for years: offensive line. 2010 third-rounder Jared Veldheer will start at left tackle, and they re-signed center Samson Satele last week, but other than that they lost every starting offensive lineman they had to free agency. You could argue that this group wasn't good in the first place (after all, they finished seventh-to-last in Adjusted Sack Rate last year, and haven't finished above the bottom seven since 2005), and you'd be right -- but they haven't brought in any outside help and have turned the team over almost entirely to their young pups.
2010 fourth-rounder Bruce Campbell will probably find himself in the starting lineup, and rookie second-rounder Stefen Wisniewski may also have a chance to crack it as well. Khalif Barnes was talked up as a potential right tackle solution after being adequate as a swing tackle last year, but the Raiders would probably prefer third-round pick Joseph Barksdale to start there. After failing to sign ex-Ravens tackle Jared Gaither over physical issues, they instead inked retreads like Stephon Heyer and Seth Wand to try to solidify the line. Those aren't competitors for a starting job on a real NFL team: They're a cry for help.
Oakland is finally on the correct course to develop a good offensive line with all the draft picks they've spent at the position recently, but youngsters don't fix things overnight. With a potentially shaky line in front of him, and primary underneath receiver Zach Miller now residing in Seattle, it looks like yet another bad year for Jason Campbell to prove he's a starting NFL quarterback.
With the re-signing of Malcolm Floyd, the Chargers seem to have addressed most of their team's needs on offense and defense. Ex-49er Takeo Spikes probably isn't a long-term solution at inside linebacker, but the Chargers have spent a couple of high-round picks on players they'll be breaking in next to him this season in Donald Butler and Jonas Mouton, so a stop-gap signing while they figure it out probably isn't so bad for them.
The Chargers biggest weakness last year wasn't their offense or defense, but their special teams. They finished dead last in the NFL in special teams DVOA, with their kickoff and punt return coverage being an absolute travesty. Most memorably, they lost to the Seahawks in Week 3 almost solely because Leon Washington returned four kickoffs for 253 yards and two touchdowns. Losing a talented gunner like Kassim Osgood (as the Chargers did last offseason) doesn't seem like a big deal on paper, but after watching San Diego's special teams performance last year, re-signing him could have been enough to keep the division crown in Southern California.
Some of this will be fixed with simple regression -- no team can be THAT bad on special teams coverage again -- and some of it will fall to the hands of Kelley Washington, a highly-regarded special teamer who helped shore things up a bit for the Chargers after he signed with the team late in the season. General manager A.J. Smith also spent a seventh-round pick on Missouri linebacker Andrew Gachkar, who he believes will be an exceptional special teams player. San Diego is clearly taking the issue pretty seriously, and as long as they can just be mediocre on kick and punt returns, that should put them in the driver's seat in the AFC West.
(This article previously appeared at ESPN Insider.)
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