Four Downs: AFC East
by Sean McCormick
Buffalo Bills: How can they fix the run defense?
Asking first-time defensive coordinator George Edwards to install a 3-4 defense despite inheriting a roster with a bunch of undersized front seven players seemed like a bad decision way back in August, and nothing that happened during the season made it look any better. Edwards jettisoned the notion of a true 3-4 early on, subbing in Alex Carrington or Spencer Johnson on running downs, but it wasn't enough to prevent Buffalo from finishing dead last in our Adjusted Line Yards stats. The Bills only stuffed running backs at or behind the line of scrimmage 13 percent of the time, well below the league average, and they were among the worst in the league at bringing down runners who reached the second level of the defense. During one particularly brutal three-game stretch, the Bills surrendered 689 yards on the ground, and they allowed at least 200 yards rushing in eight of their 16 games.
Nose tackle Kyle Williams was selected to the Pro Bowl on the strength of his 77 tackles and 5.5 sacks. While that wasn't enough to make up for the porous linebacker play behind him, he established himself as the centerpiece around which the new defense will be constructed. Some big name teammates are less likely to hang around.
Marcus Stroud will cost $4.5 million against the cap next year (if there is a cap, of course). Releasing him would open a starting spot for Carrington, a 2010 third-round pick who flashed ability as a rotation player. Aaron Maybin redefined being in the coach's doghouse, as he was unable even to crack the special teams unit, and it is almost a given that the former first-rounder won't be back. Shawne Merriman didn't play a down after being signed, but he'll be given an opportunity to rehab his Achilles. Even when Merriman was his old “Lights Out” self, he wasn't much of a run defender, so expecting him to set the edge as a base 3-4 outside linebacker is asking for trouble. Ultimately, the fix is going to come through a personnel overhaul, particularly at linebacker, but until then, expect Edwards to rely on multiple fronts and personnel packages as he tries to find something to slow down offenses.
Free Agency, Whenever It Happens, Watch
The Bills have some cap space to work with, provided owner Ralph Wilson has the inclination to spend money on free agents. The team will probably let safety Donte Whitner and cornerback Drayton Florence leave. The secondary is deep enough to withstand the hit, provided Terrence McGee can stay healthy for a full season, something he has been unable to do in recent years. George Wilson represents a cheaper alternative to Whitmer at safety and should be re-signed. Unfortunately, the Bills need help at big-ticket positions like left tackle and defensive end, and it's rare for elite talent to hit the open market.
Miami Dolphins: Is Henne getting a bad rap?
Back in August, there was a popular debate swirling around the Internet about the relative merits of the two young AFC East gunslingers, Mark Sanchez and Chad Henne. Sanchez had the cache, the high draft position, and the playoff wins, but Henne had the sturdy frame and the big arm. A surprising number of scouts and analysts agreed that Henne was the true rising star. Fast forward and Sanchez is coming off his second consecutive AFC Championship appearance, while Henne has apparently lost his starting job to some combination of Tyler Thigpen and A Player To Be Named Later.
There is no question that Henne's performance was disappointing for a player supposedly on the verge of a breakout -- he threw for 3,300 yards, but managed only 15 touchdowns compared to 19 interceptions. But Miami's pass offense was no worse than league average; in fact, it was the second-best in the division behind New England. And Henne's advanced numbers are closely aligned with the other AFC East signalcallers not named Tom Brady.
|AFC East Quarterbacks Comparison|
Standard statistics -- and popular perception -- suggest that Sanchez took a solid step forward in his second season and Fitzpatrick was a revelation who made a lost season exciting for the downtrodden Buffalo fan base, while Henne was nothing short of a disaster. But perception doesn't account for context, and it doesn't account for luck, either.
At Football Outsiders, one of the statistics our game charters compile is the number of times a quarterback threw an interception that the defender dropped. Although there are still a handful of games uncharted, our numbers currently have Sanchez leading the league with 15 dropped interceptions. No other quarterback has more than nine (our current count for Carson Palmer). So while Sanchez seemingly improved by cutting his interceptions down to 13, the reality is that he threw another 13 passes that easily could have been picked had defenders held onto the ball. The argument for Sanchez's improvement was largely based on the idea that he was playing smarter and limiting his turnovers, but the only thing that Sanchez really improved was his luck.
Who was the unluckiest quarterback this year? Chad Henne. Henne threw 19 interceptions on the season, but he only threw one dropped interception. That's not going to happen again. Henne remains a talented player, and the odds of his experiencing a rebound next season are pretty good. Before GM Jeff Ireland decides to blow a first-round pick on Jake Locker or Cam Newton, he may want to consider investing in more linemen and receivers to help out the guy who is already on the roster.
Free Agency, Whenever It Happens, Watch
The top priority is to figure out a way to retain nose tackle Paul Soliai, who had a breakout season. The run defense will to take a serious hit if Soliai leaves via free agency, and retaining him seems like a long shot. Soliai would only be eligible for a 30 percent salary increase if he re-signs with Miami, and there are no shortage of teams ready to break the bank for him should he enter the free agent market. Most of their other decisions are on the offensive side of the ball. Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown are both free agents. Williams is 34 and on the decline. Brown still has value as both a regular back and in the Wildcat, and there is a decent chance that the team will re-sign him and pair him with a new backfield partner. Richie Incognito performed competently and could return for the right price.
New England Patriots: Was the defensive improvement at the end of the season a mirage?
For much of the season, the Patriots were a flawed juggernaut. While Tom Brady and the offense kept pace with the prolific 16-0 team of 2007, the defense played the part of the red-headed stepchild. Despite the continual refrain from announcers and local media that the Pats defense was young and improving, it wasn't really the case.
There were some quality individual performances, most notably from rookie Devin McCourty, who snagged seven interceptions and provided credible coverage all season. However, through 12 weeks, New England's DVOA was 16.6%, which left them mired at 27th in the league. But starting with the 45-3 demolition of the Jets, the defense seemed to turn a corner. In Weeks 13-17, the Patriots ranked second in the league in overall defense and were the league's best team defending the pass. With everything rounding into form, New England looked borderline unbeatable heading into the playoffs. But the defense played poorly in a shocking 28-21 loss to the Jets, which opens the question of whether or not the late season improvement was real or a mirage.
It's dangerous to draw conclusions from a single game, but it's notable that the defense was unable to create any turnovers, which was a key to their late season surge -- the Patriots generated 24 turnovers in the second half of the season after only managing 14 through the first eight games. After being middle of the pack at pressuring quarterbacks, the Patriots were unable to get to Mark Sanchez even once, and rarely forced him to hurry his throws.
Some of the problems, however, had been bugaboos all year. New England's pass defense DVOA on third downs was 27th in the NFL, and Sanchez converted five of his nine third down opportunities, including touchdown strikes to Santonio Holmes and Braylon Edwards. The Pats also continued to struggle against slot receivers, as Jerricho Cotchery burned them for seven catches for 96 yards, including one big play on the drive after the Patriots had cut the lead to 14-11.
The solution is to add better pass rushers and to improve the depth at cornerback. The latter should happen when Leigh Bodden returns to take over one of the starting cornerback slots. That will allow Kyle Arrington to slide into the nickel and cut down the amount of time Darius Butler spends on the field. The pass rusher is going to have to come from free agency or, more likely, the draft, where New England has three of the top 33 selections.
Free Agency, Whenever It Happens, Watch
Logan Mankins is one of the premier interior linemen in the NFL, and he will get paid like one, whether in New England or elsewhere. Mankins has indicated the he will consider returning, but he has given no indication that he is prepared to accept anything less than market value. What makes Mankins' situation tricky is that left tackle Matt Light is coming off a Pro Bowl season and is also up for a new deal. While Mankins is younger and better, he plays a less important position, so it's possible the team will pay Light and attempt to draft a replacement at guard. Most of the running backs on roster are also impending free agents. BenJarvus Green-Ellis is restricted and will certainly be back; Kevin Faulk, Sammy Morris and Fred Taylor are likely at the end of the line. Faulk has a job on the coaching staff waiting for him should he choose to retire.
New York Jets: What happened to the third-down defense?
It was only fitting that the Jets season ended because their vaunted defense was unable to get the Steelers off the field on a third-down play. Allowing Ben Roethlisberger's pitch-and-catch to Emmanuel Sanders to seal a victory in the AFC Championship game was par for the course for a defense that was stout on first and second downs but positively inept when it came to closing the deal. New York's defensive DVOA splits by down will come as a surprise to those who think of Rex Ryan as a mad genius who blitzes quarterbacks into oblivion in passing situations. The Jets were a top five defense on first and second down, but their 32.1% DVOA on third downs was the worst performance of any defense in the league. Moreover, the Jets defense got worse on third down the further the offense had to go: In short-yardage situations, their DVOA was a relatively respectable 5.5%, but it jumped to a whopping 92.3% in third-and-long. In 2009, the Jets were the best defense in the league on third downs, so what exactly happened?
The answer is twofold. First, the Jets had a very difficult time covering No. 2 receivers. Early in the year, Antonio Cromartie matched up against the opponent's best receiver, while Darrelle Revis tried to play his way through a nagging hamstring injury. Teams made hay while they could, going after Revis repeatedly until he demonstrated he was healthy. Once Revis returned to form, quarterbacks shifted their attention to Cromartie, who was excellent at downfield coverage but who struggled to mirror quicker receivers in and out of their breaks. Additionally, the league caught up to some of the more exotic blitzes that worked so well in 2009. The Jets' sack totals actually jumped from 32 to 40, but the purpose of blitzing isn't simply to get to the quarterback. Instead, it is supposed to disrupt the offense's timing and generate rushed throws that turn into incompletions or turnovers, and that did not happen with enough regularity.
The good news is that the defense is almost certainly going to be better next year, and it's not just because Revis Island will be open to start the season. Defenses that are strong on first and second down but underperform on third down tend to get a bump the following season, as the third-down performance regresses back toward the mean. Even a moderate improvement could be enough to make this the best defense in football again.
Free Agency, Whenever It Happens, Watch
With no fewer than 17 pending free agents, it's safe to say that the 2011 Jets will look quite a bit different than this year's model. There is a fairly obvious hierarchy, however, as the team will make every effort to retain linebacker David Harris, receivers Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards, and Brad Smith, and cornerback Antonio Cromartie -- likely in that order. Early indications are that the Jets intend to franchise Harris, who was the team's MVP, and then turn their attention to signing Holmes to a long-term deal. Edwards, who has been a good soldier and a consistent player since coming over from Cleveland, is welcome to return, but only at the right price. Smith makes for an interesting case, as his value has come not so much as a receiver, but as a kick returner and a trigger man for the Seminole package, New York's version of the Wildcat.
Portions of this article originally appeared on ESPN.com Insider.