How did New England find the right combination of offensive linemen this season, and where are Seattle's biggest weaknesses in pass protection?
15 Aug 2011
by Rivers McCown
The Bears finished with the 28th ranked offense in the NFL in our DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) ratings last season. Chicago seemed to have a decent, if not overwhelming, core of skill players in Jay Cutler, Matt Forte, Johnny Knox, Greg Olsen, and Devin Hester. So why did the offense perform so poorly? Their root of their problems moving the ball came from the unit closest to it on the snap: their weak offensive line. The Bears finished dead last in Adjusted Sack Rate, allowing a league-high 56 sacks, and also finished 29th in Adjusted Line Yards, our attempt to measure the impact of an offensive line in the running game.
Chicago offensive line coach Mike Tice added Wisconsin first-rounder Gabe Carimi in the first round of the draft, but the Bears didn't otherwise pursue any solutions in free agency. They also let Olin Kreutz, a six-time Pro Bowler, walk. Kreutz was getting a bit older, but losing him over a reported $500,000 has left the Bears with even more shuffling than they would already have had to do.
J'Marcus Webb has all the physical talents that Tice looks for in his tackles, but starting him immediately led to poor results in pass protection last season. With Carimi on board, the plan is to move Webb to the ever-important left tackle spot, which could leave Cutler feeling the heat just as often as he did last season. Longtime Bears guard Roberto Garza will shift to center to replace Kreutz, while former first-rounder Chris Williams, who failed at tackle, will remain at left guard. The unit clearly needed changes, but that's a lot of upheaval for one offseason.
If there is a bright side to all the Bears' tinkering on the line, it's that they were able to trade Olsen and replace him with blocking tight end Matt Spaeth. Mike Martz's offenses have traditionally ignored the tight end as a receiving threat, and the extra blocking help looks like it will be necessary with all the new faces at important positions on the line. The Bears are arguably deeper than ever at receiver with the addition of Roy Williams, but how much their offense will improve depends solely on how well the rebuilt offensive line performs.
While writers scrambled to be the first to stick a lasting moniker on the Detroit defensive line after they were able to add Nick Fairley next to Ndamukong Suh in the draft, and the Lions made a pair of nice signings to supplement their linebacker corps in Stephen Tulloch and Justin Durant, the secondary was mostly ignored. There were some rumblings that Detroit might make a run at Nnamdi Asomugha or Johnathan Joseph, but instead they had to settle for ex-Browns cornerback Eric Wright.
Wright, like fellow Lions cornerback Chris Houston, was freely available despite a starting pedigree largely because he was ostracized by his team. Unlike Houston, Wright's play actually earned a lot of the criticism. Wright improved against the run last season, but he has allowed marks of 10.4 and 9.9 yards per pass the last two seasons. To make room for him at corner, the team moved Alphonso Smith to nickelback.
Detroit already has a solid defensive core in place, but with Amari Spievey still learning the ropes at safety, they don't have a sure-fire starter in the secondary outside of Louis Delmas, the Lions will need their pass rush to continue to deliver if they want to be a true playoff contender this year. In the meantime, there's nothing wrong with bargain-buying a corner like Wright and seeing if they can get more out of his talent than Cleveland did. There will be other drafts and offseasons for this young core to address the problem.
It's hard to find much fault with the reigning champions, but they did have problems with their running attack last season. In the playoffs, Green Bay could only manage more than 3.8 yards per carry on the ground in one game: their opener against the Eagles.
Ryan Grant finished 10th among running backs in DVOA during the 2009 season, so his return should provide a boost, but running backs coming off season-ending injuries at 28 aren't a zero-risk proposition. It's also not the full extent of the problem: Green Bay fell from eighth in Adjusted Line Yards in 2009 to 23rd last season. A full offseason to digest the playbook should help 2010 first-rounder Bryan Bulaga at right tackle, but the Packers are going to have another rookie in the starting lineup after selecting Ole Miss tackle Derek Sherrod with the 32nd overall pick. They'll initially start him at guard to replace Daryn Colledge, who signed with the Cardinals in the offseason.
Eventually, Sherrod will probably move to left tackle to replace Chad Clifton, but for now, his assignment is to help re-tool the Green Bay running game on the inside. It's not implausible to think there could be a vast improvement there this year, but it's also not a sure thing. On a loaded squad like the Packers, that is about as close to a weakness as you'll find.
With Sidney Rice departing for Seattle, the Vikings were left with a bit of a quandary in free agency: which free agent receivers were good enough to prove an upgrade on what they already had? They decided on ex-Falcons receiver Michael Jenkins. After re-inventing himself as a dependable underneath option in Atlanta in 2007 and 2008, Jenkins caught just 56 percent of his passes in each of the last two seasons, losing playing time to Harry Douglas all the while, and upgrading on him was a major focus for Atlanta. They sent a slew of draft picks to Cleveland just so they could move up and select Julio Jones, rendering Jenkins irrelevant for the Falcons.
How desperate are the Vikings for a good receiver? Despite Bernard Berrian's deep speed being lost to injury and his salary making him a prime candidate to be released, the Vikings are thinking about starting him. If any team should have been kicking the tires on the microfracture recovery of Steve Smith or betting on a return to form for Jerricho Cotchery, it should be Minnesota. Instead, they seem oddly content to go with Berrian and Jenkins as their options after Harvin.
Visanthe Shiancoe should continue to be a solid underneath threat at tight end, but this receiving group is looking an awful lot like the Redskins group that Donovan McNabb played with in 2010, when his receiving options were Santana Moss, Chris Cooley, and a bunch of unknowns. Adrian Peterson has a way of making up for things like this, but the offense Minnesota has assembled this offseason is just begging for their opponents to assign a deep safety to Harvin and stack the box.
(This article previously appeared at ESPN Insider.)
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