How will the best division in football follow up on it's success in 2013? Can Seattle keep Michael Bennett?
29 Aug 2012
by Tom Gower and Mike Kurtz
Tom: And, we conclude our tour around the NFL, cardinal direction by cardinal direction, with a stop in the North.
Mike: One commenter last week asked whether there was anyone I liked this year. I like the North divisions. I like them rather a lot.
Tom: You're a Steelers fan. Of course you like at least one North team. We're still starting with the NFC, though.
Mike: Oh, boo.
Tom: Consider yourself blessed. The Steelers are the raisin in the sausage end, for you to revel in (a) the Inverse Hype Theory or (b) how awesome your team will be this year. We'll start instead with the local team...
Tom: I don't get this line. The Bears were 7-3 before Jay Cutler and then Matt Forte got hurt. They upgraded their skill positions. The offensive line can't get much worse. They have an easy schedule.
Mike: Yes, and the offense with Cutler is a definite upgrade from cover-your-eyes awful to merely atrocious! It is also worth noting that FOA 2012 has our Chicago projection at 10.2.
Tom: Said hallowed tome also has the Bears' slate of opponents at -5.7% DVOA, the easiest schedule in football.
Mike: Which is why they project to 10.2 wins!
Tom: I actually don't have much to say about the Bears, which is why I feel like pointing out that on defense they used either base 4-3 personnel or 4-2 nickel something like 99 percent of the time last year. That's an unusually strong preference against the occasional personnel mix-up on defense.
Mike: There really isn't that much to say about them, honestly. They worked around the edges and added some depth. They have an easier schedule than they did last year, but they hardly faced murderer's row in the 2011 campaign.
Tom: The Brandon Marshall trade drew a lot of the offseason ink, but I doubt it'll be a game-changing acquisition. Cutler's risk-taking mentality combined with a better target may lead to more forced throws, which scares me a bit.
Mike: Yeah, and the weakest part of the team is just as weak as it was last year.
Tom: But no weaker, and possibly a bit stronger if Gabe Carimi stays healthy. I don't think this is a serious Super Bowl contender, but do see a double-digit win team against a soft schedule.
Mike: It's very hard to bet against that schedule, I agree. Over.
Tom: Over for me as well.
Mike: The Saga of Matthew Stafford is maddening.
Tom: He threw a zillion passes and put up numbers, so people think he's better than he is. What's particularly maddening about that?
Mike: I think you're selling him significantly short. He ranked 10th in the league by DVOA last year.
Tom: Yes, because he had Calvin Johnson to draw double or triple coverage and bail him out. Take away the Megatron effect and you have something like the 16th best quarterback in the league. That's about where Stafford is, I think. He's perhaps a slight upgrade on Joe Flacco, who's been in the league a year longer. He's still young and hasn't played that much, thanks to injuries his first two years. He'll likely get better. He also needs to.
Mike: You are really sour about Stafford for some reason. Consider that he was effective throwing to Nate Burleson and Brandon Pettigrew (when adjusting for how awful these players are). Based on what I've seen of him I'm fairly impressed. I think he's in a different league from Flacco, for instance.
Tom: Watching Tennessee with and without Kenny Britt, I've seen the difference a big upgrade at wideout can have on quarterback play. Baltimore hasn't had anybody who can affect defenses the way Johnson can.
Mike: Anyway, it's frustrating because he keeps getting injured. It really has retarded his development.
Tom: Very true. I think Flacco is more inconsistent than Stafford, and it's very easy to remember the lows.
Mike: My bigger concern is with the Lions' running game.
Tom: The Lions have a running game the same way the Bears have an offensive line: every team has to have one, but they try not to think about it very much.
Mike: This is true, and it proved to be a liability down the stretch. Aside from Stafford's health, the other major concern is whether the defense can play in any sort of disciplined fashion.
Tom: The Lions don't have a defense any more than they have a running game.
Mike: I disagree. It's a pretty talented defense that regularly blows plays with boneheaded penalties, bad reads, and overpursuit.
Tom: They have a defensive line and hope that's enough to cover for everything else. They also lost their best cornerback, Eric Wright, in free agency. Wright's not exactly Nnamdi Asomugha, but he wasn't bad.
Mike: In fact, the defensive line is often a huge liability, which is why I mention overpursuit and penalties. And, as Andy aptly pointed out, despite these problems were still basically league-average against the run. I will grant you that the secondary is just bad.
Tom: Fine, they have a pass-rushing defensive line. Despite their loss of Wright, I think what they need more than anything else is a good free safety. Maybe I'm forgetting somebody, but it seems like a very long time since the Lions have had a player like that.
Mike: Well, the Lions have a tradition of bad secondary play.
Mike: Nothing about the secondary is particularly impressive, really, so they're going to have to rely on their pass rush pretty heavily. Lots of shootouts, but I think they've got a decent shot in most of them considering their easy schedule. Over.
Tom: Then again, this is a team that four years ago was beginning a season that would end without a win. The Lions had a great season last year, but I think they're poised to take a step back this year. Under.
Mike: Thirteen #&@$%^ing wins? Are you kidding me?
Tom: They did go 15-1 last year.
Mike: With 12.2 Pythagorean Wins.
Tom: Never you mind that they were 10-6 the year before with basically the same overall quality team.
Mike: That's not true: the 2010 Packers had a much better defense.
Tom: Overall quality. Worse defense, better (pass) offense. Overall DVOA was a little better in 2011, but not as good as 2009. They've had between 12.0 and 12.2 Pythagorean wins the last three seasons, and are facing the second-easiest schedule this year per FOA 2012. I could easily see them winning 13 or 14 games.
Mike: See, I think that's insane. They are a very good team, but very good teams still lose. I can't imagine easily seeing any team winning 13 or 14 games. I really don't buy the theory that the Packers defense is secretly amazing, either. I don't know why everyone is still expecting all-world performance from Charles Woodson, for instance.
Tom: I said "could" for a reason.
Mike: Long story short, I think they'll regress in both directions, down on offense, up a bit on defense, but not a tremendous amount. I think last year's defense is the real deal. Will they be Super Bowl contenders? Yeah. They might even win, but betting on 13 wins is insane. Under.
Tom: If you expect the Packers to be basically just as good as they were last year, over is certainly possible. I'm not sure they'll be just as good. I trust the defense to be a little bit better, but not like it was in 2010. As awesome as Aaron Rodgers was, natural regression would expect more interceptions this year. I'm tempted by the push, but will instead go with Under as well.
Tom: Playing an easy schedule matters less if you aren't any better than the not very good teams you'll be playing. That statement is worth a whole column or five in and of itself, but I'll leave that exercise for another day.
Tom: Peterson at least made it to a conference championship game where his team outplayed the opponent. Some bad luck and some B**** F**** happened, though, and the Vikings were stuck.
Mike: Yeah, that was an awful twist.
Tom: So unexpected, too.
Tom: Owner Zygi Wilf said during training camp this year he expected the Vikings to be division champs this year.
Mike: Everyone says that given half a reason to do so.
Tom: Exactly. It's like the kid in that old commercial, "I want to rise all the way to middle management." Nobody says that they'd love to go 7-9 or 8-8. Even if, like the Vikings, going 7-9 would be a four win improvement on 2011 results.
Mike: The problem is that the team is on the way down, not up.
Tom: I'm not sure they're going down. I concur with you it's hard to see them trending upwards. The Greg Childs injury dampers the optimism for the receiving corps, as does Jerome Simpson's suspension. John Carlson missing most of training camp has made it hard for Christian Ponder to develop much-needed chemistry with the personnel new offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave likely wants. And, remarkable as he is, I'm not expecting Adrian Peterson to be a fully-effective bellcow back for 16 games.
Mike: Well, he could be better than he was last year. In fact, I think he definitely will be. Offensive line, both in personnel and philosophy, is one of the few things I see an improvement in with the Vikes this year.
Tom: I'm on board with you there. I just don't see it as making that big of a difference. The defense, particularly the awful secondary, concerns me even more than the offense, and that's granting the quality of Jared Allen and Kevin Williams.
Mike: They're just not enough, and I don't think Ponder is anything worth talking about, especially with the non-weapons he is surrounded by. That said, I think last year, if not an aberration, was a significant underperformance. It's tough, but I think there's enough talent on this team to eke out six wins for the Over.
Tom: I see no more than one win in the division and still a struggle to find wins outside it. This is still a really bad team. Under.
Tom: We discussed Mr. Flacco earlier in this column, so I won't rehash that. Suffice to say I'll believe he's materially improved when he's able to demonstrate such for an extended period of time. Which means, if the Ravens want to win 12 games again, they'll need something pretty close to the league's top defense again. Hey, what do you know? Their one great pass-rusher is probably out until at least midseason.
Mike: Good thing their main rival is once again featuring the pass-blocking skills of Traffic Cone, thanks to the loss of DeCastro.
Tom: Yes, but the Ravens play 14 other games, none of them against the Bears, so they'll have to beat somebody other than Traffic Cone to win games.
Mike: True, and that is a big problem for a defense that worked so well last year because every aspect of it worked together like clockwork. Without Terrell Suggs' contribution, there is less pressure on opposing quarterbacks, and without that pressure, Ed Reed's prowling style is far less effective. That means fewer turnovers. With such a mediocre offense, the Ravens' defense needs to be stellar for them to be a contender.
Tom: And thus the Joe Flacco question is the one on which the season is likely to turn. Under.
Mike: It doesn't help that the slate of quarterbacks Baltimore faces this year is somewhere between worrisome and terrifying: Andy Dalton, Tom Brady, Matt Schaub, Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers, Peyton Manning and Eli Manning. And maybe Robert Griffin, if he turns out all right. That is a brutal schedule to face without your top pass rusher. Or with your top pass rusher just back from rehab. Absolutely brutal. Under.
Mike: (Those are some really good QBs.)
Tom: I am not in love with Dalton, but yes.
Mike: Speaking of Dalton...
Tom: I thought Jay Gruden really did a great job of scheming in a way that made Dalton successful last year. He came from a schematically simple college offense, and Gruden didn't ramp up the level of complexity.
Mike: No, Gruden has handled the situation rather masterfully, to my estimation.
Tom: From what I saw, Dalton mostly had an initial read, whether one receiver or a defender, and looked to vacate the pocket quickly if that throw wasn't there. Dalton seemed well-grounded in the offense, and did a very good job of throwing with anticipation for a rookie. Of course, having A.J. Green didn't hurt a bit either.
Mike: It will be interesting to see how Green's second season goes.
Tom: It will, especially with not much opposite from him. Simpson was far from a great player, but he was a decent complementary piece. I don't trust anybody the Bengals have to be that good this year.
Mike: True, although the Bengals did upgrade their offensive line significantly this year. Some of the pressure will be taken off Dalton and Green by virtue of a (possibly) improved running game, provided everyone can get on the mend quickly enough.
Tom: I like the offensive line, too, but I don't trust any of the running backs. BenJarvus Green-Ellis is going from a change-up and complement in a high-powered passing offense to potentially being The Guy. Bernard Scott is a bit part, as is Brian Leonard.
Mike: True, I was never particularly high on Law Firm.
Tom: The line was also below-average by Adjusted Line Yards last year. We saw the steady decline last year of Michael Bush, a better player than Law Firm, when he needed to be the RB1 and carry the ball 20 times every week. Cedric Benson, whatever his other flaws, could be that player. On the other side of the ball, I really like the defensive line, which is big, deep, and talented.
Mike: It is! Too bad the once-promising secondary behind it has all but evaporated.
Tom: It certainly has, even if the Reggie Nelson redemption project has been somewhat of a success.
Mike: Do we know what Leon Hall's status is?
Tom: He's apparently playing. Dre Kirkpatrick has missed all of training camp.
Mike: Yeah. What a mess.
Tom: As noted in the FOA 2012 Cowboys chapter, rookie cornerbacks aren't normally great anyway, but my expectations for him are even lower.
Tom: On the whole, though, this was a pretty average team that I expect to be pretty average again. Push.
Mike: That said, the Ravens are missing Suggs and Troy Polamalu is getting old. Dalton should improve and while Green may regress a bit and be blanketed, a better running game should keep teams a bit more honest. I see the Bengals as a winning team this year. Over.
Tom: Moving up to draft a running back when you don't have a quarterback, then seeing that running back miss the entire preseason, is a very Browns thing to have happen. Yes, they then did use a later pick on a quarterback, but he's older than Aaron Rodgers.
Mike: And he hasn't played competitive football in a decade.
Tom: Yes, but wasn't he the night manager of former Raider OC Tom Walsh's Bed & Breakfast?
Mike: Those sound like first-round qualifications to me!
Tom: Joe Haden's a nice player, so of course he got kicked out of practice and suspended.
Mike: You know, I have no idea what Holmgren's plan is. Does he even still have one?
Tom: Yes. The team is getting sold, and Joe Banner is going to fire him. That counts as a plan, right?
Mike: Well, it's definitely a plan.
Tom: Even for the Browns, that's sort of tragi-comic. They draft a franchise running back and a franchise quarterback, and a new management team is probably going to look in another direction. Trent Richardson will definitely be useful, but I never understood the whole Brandon Weeden thing. Especially because it was reported the Browns were prepared to take Kendall Wright at 22. If you think Weeden is the franchise quarterback you need, you take him at 22 and don't try to get by with Colt McCoy and an upgraded but still mediocre receiving corps.
Mike: I don't know why anyone think Weeden is the franchise quarterback, period.
Tom: He was drafted in the first round and will start as a rookie.
Mike: It's mind-boggling. Maybe it was Holmgren trying to save his job, but if so I can't imagine what he was thinking.
Tom: I feel bad for Joe Thomas. As hard as it was to find reasons for hope for the Vikings, I think the Browns are in even worse shape.
Mike: I just can't find anything to like about this team. We discussed a few weeks back about how hard it is for a team to only win four games in the modern NFL. In this division, with the fifth-most difficult schedule in the league, I have no problem predicting such a performance from the Browns. Under.
Tom: Under for me as well.
Mike: I think David DeCastro's injury turned this whole analysis on its head. Ben Roethlisberger is finally at a point where he can stop ramblin' and become an elite pocket passer, albeit with good elusiveness. This won't happen if he is once again being protected by Traffic Cone.
Tom: A left guard? Was Eric Steinbach's injury the difference between what the Browns might have done and did last year?
Mike: A left guard next to a suspect left tackle. You can prop one or the other up. You can't do both.
Tom: I'm not trying to deny it's a blow to their chances, but I think the improved version of Ben Roethlisberger we saw last season is even better equipped to solve that problem.
Mike: How so? The improved version of Ben Roethlisberger we saw last season got absolutely destroyed as the season wore on. He was brilliant when he was healthy, but by the end of the year that was basically never.
Tom: We saw him be very effective at times in the quick passing game. He'll still get broken down, but he's playing smarter. His injuries happened later than they would have had he tried playing the way he did five years ago.
Mike: It's true, but he's getting progressively more fragile with every new injury he takes. It is heartening that Mike Wallace is ending his holdout, at least.
Tom: I'm more concerned about a defense that suddenly gets old. There are too many guys with a 3 as the first digit in their age for me to be fully comfortable.
Mike: I'm less concerned with age on defense (Troy Polamalu and his slowdown's effect on the scheme aside) and more with injury. The linebacking corps is not in a happy place to start the season.
Tom: Well, the two often go hand in hand.
Mike: Jason Worilds is 24!
Tom: I said often.
Mike: It is true, though. Rather than restocking the defense with youth, the Steelers made a big play for offensive line help, and it should pay huge dividends down the road. They'll have to suffer through another middling season on defense to get there, however. Well, a middling season for the Steelers' defense is usually well above average, but you get my point.
Tom: Bah, middling.
Mike: It's easy to be sanguine about an off-year from this defense. They've been in the top 10 by DVOA in 10 of the last 11 seasons. That spread includes a number of transition years where the sky was supposed to fall and didn't.
Tom: I think the Steelers will need some good injury luck late in the season to be serious Super Bowl contenders. Given the rest of the division, though, I see them as the favorites notwithstanding those concerns. Over.
Mike: Injuries are a real problem for this team, but it's still packed with talent. While the biggest weakness hasn't been addressed in the manner the Steelers faithful were hoping for, the offensive line is bound to improve this year. I'm hesitant to actually say it, but Over.
Tom: And we're done. Scramble for the Ball takes next week off, as we run our regular staff predictions article. Mike and I will be back the next week for the first regular edition of our normal randomness, with your favorite weekly features (plus maybe some new ones). For those of you in search of Week 1 fantasy football advice, I will be hanging out early next week on the FO fantasy football message board.
Mike: Happy drafting!
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