We look back at Atlanta's worst games this year to see what weaknesses New England might exploit. Those weaknesses include pretty much everyone on defense, but is there a secret to stopping the Falcons offense?
11 Aug 2011
by Brian McIntyre
When the Dallas Cowboys used the 24th overall pick of the 2010 NFL Draft on Oklahoma State wide receiver Dez Bryant, they became one of the deepest groups of receivers in the league. Miles Austin was coming off his breakout season, earning Pro Bowl honors for the first time with 81 receptions for 1,320 yards and 11 touchdowns. By our advanced statistics, Austin finished fourth in receiving DYAR and fifth in DVOA. Dallas also had the talented-but-inconsistent Roy Williams, Patrick Crayton (who ranked 32nd in DYAR and 16th in receiving DVOA in 2009), Sam Hurd, and Kevin Ogletree, a second-year undrafted free agent from Virginia that the club was high on.
Crayton was shipped to the San Diego Chargers last September, where he posted a DYAR of 172 and DVOA of 41.1% before dislocating his wrist and missing the final six games. This offseason, Williams was a salary cap casualty and both he and Hurd have signed free agent contracts with the Chicago Bears. That leaves Austin, Bryant, and a group of receivers that has combined to appear in 36 NFL games with just 11 receptions for 136 yards. Most of that production comes from Ogletree, who caught three passes for 34 yards in six games last season before joining Bryant on injured reserve.
According to our game-charting data, the Cowboys used three-plus wide receivers on 46 percent of snaps, which ranked 17th in the league. Four-plus wide receivers were used on just 3 percent of snaps, with head coach/offensive coordinator Jason Garrett using more two-tight end sets (34 percent, 10th in the league). Still, given that Bryant is coming off an injury-plagued rookie season and remains under consideration for continued use in the return game, the Cowboys should be in the market for an experienced No. 3 receiver.
Few NFL executives were as busy as Eagles general manager Howie Roseman during the post-lockout free agent frenzy. Roseman acquired cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie from the Arizona Cardinals in the Kevin Kolb trade before using the team's abundant salary cap space on All-Pro cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, Pro Bowl defensive end Jason Babin, and defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins, addressing their most pressing post-draft needs. Roseman also added depth on the offensive line (Evan Mathis, Ryan Harris) and former Top 5 picks in quarterback Vince Young and running back Ronnie Brown to backup Michael Vick and LeSean McCoy.
One question that remains is who starts at middle linebacker. Once teams were allowed to resume communication with their players, the Eagles informed the oft-injured Stewart Bradley that he would not be re-signed this offseason. (Bradley later signed five-year, $30 million contract with the Arizona Cardinals.) Replacing Bradley, at least for the start of camp, is 2011 fourth-round pick Casey Matthews. At 6-foot-1 and 230 pounds, Matthews is much smaller than Bradley, who stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 258 pounds, and is not dynamic athlete. Instead, Matthews is an instinctual player with a high football IQ who showed a knack for making the big play (30 tackles for a loss, nine quarterback sacks) from his inside linebacker position at the University of Oregon. Last season, former Eagles defensive coordinator Sean McDermott frequently blitzed his linebackers –- the Eagles used zone blitzes on 12.3 percent of defensive plays, second-most in the league -– yet they accounted for just 10.3 percent of the team's 39 quarterback sacks. Matthews' instincts may increase the effectiveness of first-year coordinator Juan Castillo's blitz packages.
If the responsibilities associated with playing the position are too much for the rookie, second-year linebacker Jamar Chaney, who has been working on the strong side, could move to the middle. A seventh-round pick in 2010, Chaney replaced an injured Bradley at middle linebacker for the final three meaningful games last season. In those three starts, which included the playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers, Chaney totaled 33 tackles and a forced fumble. Or, as they have with great frequency this offseason, the Eagles could look outside the organization for an answer. Three-time Pro Bowl middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu, who would add experience and leadership to a very young group of linebackers, could be an interesting fit in Philadelphia.
The Osi Umenyiora standoff has dominated the headlines at the start of camp, with the two-time Pro Bowler riding the stationary bike in the Tour de East Rutherford while his teammates practice and his agent negotiates a new contract or orchestrates a trade. Despite that, the Giants are actually well-stocked with pass-rushing ends. Justin Tuck is coming off another double-digit sack season, 2010 first-rounder Jason Pierre-Paul showed flashes of pass-rush potential last season, and recent re-signing Mathias Kiwanuka was off to a fast start in 2010 (four sacks in three games) before a neck injury ended his season. Besides, when Umenyiora missed the entire 2008 season with a knee injury, the Giants defense ranked seventh in Adjusted Sack Rate.
The bigger question along the defensive line is how will they replace the interior pass rush that new Washington Redskins defensive tackle Barry Cofield provided over the previous five seasons. Chris Canty has shown little in terms of pass-rush ability (two quarterback sacks in 24 games) since signing a seven-year, $42 million contract. 2010 second-round pick Linval Joseph, who the team is counting on to start, appeared in just six games as a rookie and didn't record a hurry. The Giants used another second-round pick in 2011 on North Carolina defensive tackle Marvin Austin, who posted nine quarterback sacks in three seasons before he was suspended for his senior year.
Free agent tight end Kevin Boss signed with the Oakland Raiders, and Ben Patrick, who was signed to provide insurance for a possible Boss departure, abruptly retired, leaving the Giants with Travis Beckum and Bear Pascoe at the top of the depth chart. Beckum and Pascoe have combined to catch 31 passes for 252 yards and two touchdowns in their careers, which does not even match the 35 receptions for 518 yards and five touchdowns that Boss provided the offense in 2010. The free agent tight end market dried up quickly late last week, with Zach Miller signing with the Seattle Seahawks and Bo Scaife going to the Cincinnati Bengals. The Giants added veteran Daniel Coats, who has 30 receptions for 291 yards in his four-year career, including a 2010 season with zero catches in ten games with the Bengals and Denver Broncos. A lack of starting-caliber tight ends on the free agent market could lead general manager Jerry Reese to look to add one via a trade, where he could potentially kill two birds with one stone. The Seahawks were one of the teams believed to be interested in Umenyiora, and after signing Miller to a lucrative contract, they may be willing to move John Carlson, who is entering the final year of his rookie contract.
As expected, the Redskins traded quarterback Donovan McNabb when the lockout was lifted, acquiring up to two sixth-round picks from the Minnesota Vikings. And as expected, it provided zero clarity to the team's quarterback position. Throughout the player-run workouts during the lockout, John Beck has operated as if he were the starting quarterback, even though the 2007 second-round pick of the Miami Dolphins has not started or even appeared in an NFL game since his rookie season, when he ranked 49th among 51 qualifying quarterbacks in passing DYAR. So eager was Beck to get into the team's facility and meet with the team's coaching staff, he showed up a day early and was turned away by security staff that did not recognize him.
Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan brought in free agent Kellen Clemens, who spent last season as the No. 3 quarterback behind Mark Sanchez and Mark Brunell with the New York Jets, and re-signed Rex Grossman, who finished the 2010 season as the Redskins' starting quarterback. In those three games, which included two opponents -– the Dallas Cowboys and Jacksonville Jaguars -– who ranked near the bottom of the league in pass defense DVOA, Grossman completed 55.6 percent of his 126 pass attempts for 840 yards, seven touchdowns, and four interceptions. Those numbers may not look too bad on paper, but with opponent adjustments, his numbers become a little more Grossman-esque:a DYAR of -76 to go with a DVOA of -19.1%.
Shanahan does not expect to announce a starting quarterback until the end of training camp, but having to choose from three quarterbacks who have not played extensively since 2007 -– the same season Shanahan was molding Jay Cutler into a Pro Bowl quarterback -– is a clear sign that the position will be a top priority in the 2012 draft.
(This article previously appeared at ESPN Insider.)
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