Our offseason Four Downs series ends with a look at the NFC West's biggest remaining holes and their most notable UDFA signings. The Rams and 49ers have to kick-start their passing games, Arizona's offense lacks a big dimension, and the Seahawks continue to rely on Russell Wilson's magic tricks.
22 Oct 2005
by Aaron Schatz
Football fans love to see two division rivals face off with something to prove. But it's not business as usual this weekend in the NFL's northern divisions. It's been a long time since the "something to prove" in a Green Bay-Minnesota matchup was "which team is less pathetic," and it's been even longer since Cincinnati found itself playing for a two-and-a-half game division lead.
The upstart Bengals can show they are a true Super Bowl contender. The Steelers must avoid dropping to .500. In a game of this magnitude, it would be nice if both teams were at full strength, but injuries will play a major factor in determining the winner.
Last week, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and star receiver Hines Ward watched from the sidelines as backup Tommy Maddox turned the ball over four times in a loss to Jacksonville. Roethlisberger will return this week, but Ward remains a question mark. His absence would be a major blow to the Pittsburgh offense.
But the most important injuries for Pittsburgh are not on the offensive side of the ball. Two of Pittsburgh's top three cornerbacks, Deshea Townsend and Ricardo Colclough, are injured and unlikely to play. That leaves one starter, IkeTaylor, to defend Chad Johnson, probably the best receiver in the NFL today. Not only is Johnson almost impossible to defend, he's also not the only option for quarterback Carson Palmer, who will be unafraid to target his other receivers if Pittsburgh's part-timers can't cover them. Rounding out Cincinnati's balanced offense are Rudi Johnson, who's averaging 91 yards per game on the ground, and third-down back Chris Perry, who has emerged as a major receiving threat out of the backfield.
It will be important for Palmer to have enough time to find his receivers down field, and the battle around the line of scrimmage pits strength against strength. Cincinnati's offensive line has the league's second-lowest Adjusted Sack Rate, a measure of sacks per pass play adjusted for down, distance, and opponent. These five linemen will have to block Pittsburgh's defensive front seven, which has the league's third-highest Adjusted Sack Rate.
If the Steelers want to keep the ball out of Johnson's hands, it will be easier to keep the ball away from the Bengals' offense altogether by dominating time of possession. Pittsburgh running backs have carried the ball an average of 28 times per game, which puts the Steelers in the NFL's top five, and they led the league in carries last year.
Cincinnati's clear defensive weakness plays right into Pittsburgh's preferred style of play. The Bengals cannot stop the run. They tried to fix this issue in the offseason, and their wins have somewhat masked the problem because opponents fell behind and had to abandon the ground game. Nonetheless, the Bengals stuff opposing runners at the line less often than any other team and give up the most conversions on third-and-short. Since the Bengals are especially poor on runs up the middle, they'll get a big dose of veteran Jerome Bettis, but they'll also see plenty of the younger and shiftier Willie Parker. Pittsburgh will get yards on the ground, but they'll need to get points there as well to overcome Cincinnati's advantages in both health and home field.
Quarterbacks and running backs get the glory while offensive linemen stay mostly anonymous. But this game is a lesson in the domino effect that can occur when a subpar blocker replaces a good one.
Green Bay lost guards Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera to free agency, while Minnesota lost center Matt Birk to injury and guard David Dixon to retirement. Both offenses have fallen apart this season, except against New Orleans -- the team that represents each team's only win. The Packers offensive struggles haven't gotten the same press as the Vikings' because their win against the Saints was bigger and more recent.
According to Football Outsiders' Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) ratings -- which break down each play of the season and compare it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent -- Green Bay's offense has dropped from eighth in 2004 to 16th this season. Minnesota's drop has been even more severe, from third to 29th.Without these stalwart linemen, neither team can run the ball: DVOA ranks Green Bay 27th in run offense, Minnesota 29th.
Much of this game will turn on the question of which team's mediocre front seven will be able to penetrate the other team's porous blocking. But the ball will get into the air at some point,where Minnesota has an advantage. DVOA ranks the Vikings eighth in pass defense, but the Packers just 23rd. Cornerback Fred Smoot seems to be the only one of Minnesota's big-name off-season acquisitions to make a real difference: the Vikings have allowed just nine receptions over 20 yards, and just 23 receptions between 11 and 20 yards. Both numbers rank fourth in the league.
The Vikings have been quite susceptible to the underneath pass, however. With Packers tight end Bubba Franks questionable with a knee injury, look for a big play by Favre's new secret weapon, David Martin, who already has two touchdowns this year.
Wideout Nate Burleson was supposed to replace Randy Moss as Minnesota's top weapon, but he's been injured, and the Vikings are counting on his return to jump-start their passing game. But Green Bay's pass defense has put up extremely odd numbers. The Packers are the best team in the league against no. 1 receivers, keeping Carolina's Steve Smith and Detroit's Roy Williams to less than 15 yards apiece. But they get slashed by pretty much everyone else. That means Burleson's comeback could end up as the coming out party for someone like rookie receiver Troy Williamson.
You may have also heard that Minnesota is having some sort of off-field problem involving a boat. In a division where no team is better than 2-3, it is hard to say that the loser of this game can pack it up for the season. But given their legal distractions, a Minnesota loss at home would certainly get the suitcases ready for storage.
by Michael David Smith
This spring, as all 32 NFL teams considered trades, free agents, and draft choices to improve their rosters, the Denver Broncos did something peculiar.
In a radical overhaul of its defensive line, Denver signed former Cleveland Browns defensive end Courtney Brown to a free agent contract, then traded a fourth-round pick and running back Reuben Droughns to Cleveland in exchange for defensive tackles Gerard Warren and Michael Myers and defensive end Ebenezer Ekuban. For good measure, they added Andre Patterson, Cleveland's defensive line coach the past two seasons, to their coaching staff.
The Broncos, who visit the Giants on Sunday, were roundly ridiculed for their decision to import Cleveland's line. It's not unusual for teams to emulate other teams, but usually unsuccessful teams copy good ones. Denver acquired the defensive line of an inferior team, one that finished dead last in the NFL in rushing yards allowed in 2004. What were the Broncos thinking?
Whatever it was, it worked. The 5-1 Broncos are fifth in the league against the run, allowing only 88.3 yards a game. A better question than what Denver was thinking might be: What did Denver know that other teams didn't?
For starters, the Broncos didn't take much of a risk in acquiring the players, all of whom have contracts that are manageable under the salary cap. They also didn't mind trading Droughns (who played well in 2004), because he projected as the third-string back behind Mike Anderson and Tatum Bell. And sending a fourthround pick to Cleveland wasn't overly painful because many fourth-round picks don't contribute anything to their teams.
The four linemen might have lacked production in Cleveland, but no one ever questioned their talent, particularly in the cases of Brown and Warren, both of whom came out of college with exceptional combinations of size and speed. Cleveland chose Brown with the first pick of the 2000 draft and he played well at times but couldn't stay healthy, finishing each of the last four seasons on injured reserve. The Browns took Warren third overall in 2001, and the greatest disappointment was that he wouldn't work hard enough to get into shape. The Dallas Cowboys took Ekuban, another lineman with size and speed, 11th overall in 1999. Myers lasted until the fourth round in 1998, but he was an All-America candidate until he was suspended during his senior season at Alabama.
Brown, Warren, Ekuban, and Myers have excelled this year because all four of them can keep offensive linemen occupied and prevent them from blocking the linebackers -- exactly what coordinator Larry Coyer's scheme asks of them. Denver's three linebackers -- Ian Gold, Al Wilson and D.J. Williams -- have great speed and can make tackles as long as they don't have 325-pound guards in their faces. In Cleveland, Browns coach Butch Davis wanted Brown, Warren, Ekuban, and Myers to make the tackles themselves on running plays, which clearly isn't their strong suit.
The biggest question for Denver's new linemen is whether they can generate a pass rush. Coyer prefers to get all of his rush from the front four, freeing linebackers and defensive backs to play in coverage rather than blitz. So far, the Broncos have recorded only eight sacks, which has taxed their young and inexperienced secondary. A week after being sacked four times against Dallas, Eli Manning should have more time to pass against Denver.
And that's why, as much as the Cleveland imports have helped, Denver's most important defensive lineman on Sunday could be a holdover: right end Trevor Pryce. Pryce has yet to register a sack this season, but after missing all but two games with a back injury last year, he looks healthy again and is showing off a great first step that has allowed him to draw several holding penalties. Pryce will battle Giants left tackle Luke Petitgout, a matchup that will generate less hype but play a larger role than Champ Bailey's coverage of the Giants' Plaxico Burress.
For Pryce's linemates, no hype is just fine. After going from college stars to draft disappointments in Cleveland, they're operating under the radar as a major part of a first-place team.
These articles appeared in Friday's edition of the New York Sun.
12 comments, Last at 24 Oct 2005, 5:14pm by Michael David Smith