by Danny Tuccitto
Baltimore Ravens: Who will catch their play-action passes?
Going back to 2008, our game charting database shows one consistent tendency of John Harbaugh's offense: reliance on play-action passing. In Brian Billick's last season as head coach, Baltimore ranked 20th in play-action passing frequency. Since hiring Harbaugh, they've used play-action more than any other offense in the NFL, ranking first, third, and first in 2008, 2009, and 2010, respectively.
Strategically speaking, the play-action pass is all about deception. It requires the defense to read and react to run, and at least one receiver capable of exploiting that mental error. With Ray Rice, newly signed fullback Vonta Leach, and a powerful run-blocking offensive line, Baltimore definitely has a good enough running game to achieve the first part. The question for 2011 is whether or not they have the second.
For the past three seasons, the ageless Derrick Mason was that receiver on the outside, and -- when healthy -- Todd Heap was that player down the seam. Both are no longer with the team. In fact, of their top four pass-catchers in 2010, the lowest of the four in yards per catch is the only one who remains on the roster: Anquan Boldin.
Rookie second-rounder Torrey Smith is currently projected to replace Mason in the starting lineup. Having run the 40-yard dash in 4.43 seconds at the combine, Smith certainly has the speed to take advantage of safeties peeking into the backfield on play action. The problem is that, on top of the poor history of rookie wide receivers in general, Smith was viewed by scouts as a raw talent heading into the draft. Therefore, his learning curve figures to be steep, especially in mental aspects of pass offense like selling a play action.
2010 third-rounder Ed Dickson will be taking over for Heap. We ranked Dickson as this season's 19th-best NFL prospect, so, like Smith, the talent and opportunity are there. However, as we noted, Dickson's weakness thus far is as a run-blocker. In a pass offense predicated on making the defense think it's running, that skill is important; and it's one that Heap became a master at over time.
Cincinnati Bengals: Will the run offense be good enough to take pressure off of their rookie quarterback?
Continuing an accelerating NFL trend in recent years, all indications are that the Bengals will start rookie quarterback Andy Dalton immediately. The good news for Cincinnati is that Dalton is unlikely to be the 2011 version of David Klingler or Akili Smith. To wit, our Lewin Career Forecast projection model identified Dalton as the best quarterback prospect in April's draft. However, the bad news is that it's unclear whether or not the Bengals have a good enough run offense to parlay a rookie starter into a winning season.
It's often been said that a good running game is a rookie quarterback's best friend. In this case, stats agree with the conventional wisdom. Since the league expanded to 32 teams in 2002, there have been 12 quarterbacks who started 10 or more games in their rookie season. If you look at their teams' winning percentages in those starts, you find that they're highly dependent on the quality of their run offense; to an extent that far exceeds the importance of a good running game to non-rookies:
|Rookie QB||Team||Year||Rush Offense
Aside from franchise miracle-workers Matt Ryan and Sam Bradford, the trend in the table is as clear as a 12-quarterback sample is going to get: In today's NFL, if a team wants to win games with a rookie quarterback, they likely need to have an efficient running game. Statistics aside, though, this makes perfect sense from a pure football perspective as well. The more efficiently a team can gain yards on the ground, the less they have to rely on an inefficient passer-in-training to gain them.
After re-signing center Ryan Cook, left guard Nate Livings, right tackle Dennis Roland, and running back Cedric Benson, the Bengals enter 2011 with the same run offense contributors as they had in 2010. Continuity is usually a good thing. In Cincinnati's case, however, they're continuing with players who produced the NFL's fourth-worst run offense last season, most of the blame for which falls on Benson. Out of 23 running backs who carried the ball more than 200 times in 2010, Benson was next-to-last in DYAR. Furthermore, except for 2009, he's ranked no higher than 42nd in DYAR among all qualifying backs over the past four seasons.
Cleveland Browns: Is this the year they've finally fixed their run defense?
At the very least, you have to give the Browns an "A" for effort. Since the franchise resurfaced in 1999, Cleveland has ranked higher than 20th in run defense DVOA exactly once (2002). Seemingly the entire time, they've tried everything in their power to improve.
In terms of scheme, they started out with Romeo Crennel coordinating a 4-3 under head coach Chris Palmer, then had Foge Fazio and Dave Campo coordinate a 4-3 under Butch Davis, then brought Crennel back to install a 3-4 as head coach, and then hired the duo of Eric Mangini and Rob Ryan to fix Crennel's 3-4. None of it worked.
From a personnel perspective, the past 12 seasons have essentially been a Keystone Kops routine. Aside from 2002, Cleveland's front office was never able to put together a defensive middle that (a) perfectly fit their scheme, (b) stayed in town for more than a year or two, and (c) avoided injury. In 1999 and 2000, they only had one good defensive tackle (Gerard Warren). In 2001, 2003, and 2004, they had two good defensive tackles (Warren and Orpheus Roye), but didn't have a good middle linebacker. In 2005, Crennel stubbornly switched to a 3-4 despite minimal talent at nose tackle and inside linebacker. From 2006 to 2008, they found one good inside linebacker (D'Qwell Jackson), but nothing else. Finally, the past two seasons have seen them acquire talent at nose tackle (Shaun Rogers and Ahtyba Rubin), but lose Jackson to consecutive season-ending pectoral tears.
Thankfully for Browns fans, things are looking up for the run defense in August 2011. Mike Holmgren got rid of Mangini's ill-suited 3-4 by hiring Dick Jauron, a master of the 4-3, as the team's defensive coordinator. In the draft, Holmgren selected Baylor's Phil Taylor to anchor the defensive interior alongside Rubin. On the injury front, Jackson is finally healthy, and will be starting at middle linebacker.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Will Hines Ward's replacement please stand up?
In our Valentine's Day edition of Plugging the Holes, we expressed some concerns about Hines Ward. Namely, we mused about whether or not, as a 35-year-old wide receiver coming off his worst season in recent memory, Ward is done as a major contributor to the perennial Super Bowl contender. That was before news of his offseason thumb surgery. With the rest of the starting offense not suffering from the same age affliction, and the defense poised for another age-defying run, we see no reason to move away from Ward's situation as Pittsburgh's biggest hole.
Complicating things is the fact that Ward's likely replacement, Emmanuel Sanders, just underwent his third foot surgery of the offseason. Of course, as we said in February, even if he's somehow able to get healthy by Week 1, Sanders's skill set -- along with that of fellow youngster Antonio Brown -- is better suited to replace Mike Wallace than Ward.
All of this begs the question, "What happens to the Steelers' offense if they only have one efficient wide receiver this year?" Well, barring a free agency or waiver wire coup over the next couple of months, the first thing that'll have to go is Bruce Arians' addiction to three-or-more-receiver sets. Although it's almost always good to kick a habit, our charting stats show that the Steelers' offense has been one of the best in the NFL over the past three seasons with three or more wide receivers in the formation.
So, as was the case with the AFC North's other superpower, what we have here is a recipe for a downward spiral. If Ward is done and Sanders can't replace him, then the Steelers only have one efficient wide receiver this season. With only one efficient wide receiver, they have to move away from what the offense does best. We're not saying it's going to happen, just that it's the one thing that could derail Pittsburgh's 2011 season.
(This article previously appeared at ESPN Insider.)