Taking the good with the bad (cont.)
Posted: Thursday August 30, 2007 1:44PM; Updated: Thursday August 30, 2007 2:27PM
Trent Green's passing woes in the preseason are partially due to rust, but the lack of consistent protection in the pocket has prevented him from getting into a rhythm. But Green is not the only one struggling behind the makeshift line. Ronnie Brown has failed to find running room. Barring a quick improvement, the Dolphins offense will struggle moving the ball during the regular season.
Best defensive line
The Patriots combination of Vince Wolfork, Richard Seymour, Jarvis Green and Ty Warren anchor the top defensive front in the game. They have the ability to dominate the game from a 4-3 or 3-4 look and their versatility allows the Patriots linebackers to roam freely. Seymour has earned five Pro Bowl nods by dominating inside, but do not underestimate the impact of his counterparts up front. The reason the Patriots have been able to field a dominant defense the past few seasons begins and ends with their dominant defensive line.
Worst defensive line
Despite Romeo Crennel's impressive resume as a defensive coordinator, the Browns have the league's worst defensive line. No disrespect to Ted Washington, but having a 17-year veteran anchoring your interior line speaks volumes about the lack of depth on your roster. Shaun Smith and Robaire Smith flank Washington in the Browns' 3-4, but neither has established himself as a top pass rusher or run stopper. The Browns scheme around their defensive line woes, but their defense could ascend to a higher level behind better defensive-line play.
Best linebacker corps
Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs and Hunter Hillenmeyer get the nod as the league's top unit at linebacker. The Bears' trio makes their Tampa Two defense one of the most feared schemes in football. Urlacher gives their defense a dynamic speedster in the middle while Briggs is a ideal playmaker at the WILL linebacker spot. Both earned Pro Bowl nominations for their play, but do not underestimate the presence of Hillenmeyer at the SAM position. He is not an every-down player, but he is the glue that keeps this unit together. I know that supporters of the Ravens and Patriots will make their case for their linebackers, but the Bears penchant for turnovers and big plays gives them a slight edge in my book.
Worst linebacker corps
After watching the Cardinals struggle making the transition to the 3-4, I had to rate their linebackers as the worst unit in the league. It is not because the group lacks talent, but the new scheme does not fit their current personnel.
To fill roles in the new defense, several players have had to move into unfamiliar positions. Long-time starters Gerald Hayes and Karlos Dansby continue to fill inside linebacker spots, but Bertrand Berry and Chike Okaefor were forced to switch from their normal defensive end spots to upright outside linebacker positions. Both have struggled making the switch from being "hand in the ground" players to becoming upright linebackers and it has shown in their play.
With Okaefor suffering a season-ending injury in the second preseason game, the Cardinals have placed another former defensive end, Calvin Pace, into the lineup. With so many players playing out of position, it is not a surprise that their linebackers have struggled.
The Ravens' secondary specializes in making plays and creating turnovers. Anchored by Pro Bowlers Chris McAllister and Ed Reed, the Ravens have a knack for getting their hands on the ball. Safety Dawan Landry provides the steady presence in the middle and allows Reed to aggressively jump routes all over the field. And even though Samari Rolfe suffered an off-year in 2006, the former Pro Bowler still has enough skills to be a quality starter.
With such a star-studded lineup in the back end, it is not surprising that the Ravens led the league in interceptions (28) last season. Expect to see them match that total in 2008 as defensive coordinator Rex Ryan attacks offenses with a ton of blitzes off the edge.
The failings of the Giants' secondary led to the dismissal of highly regarded defensive coordinator Tim Lewis at the end of last season. Forced to play more Cover Two to mask the coverage deficiencies of corners Sam Madison, R.W. McQuarters and Corey Webster, the Giants were unable to make enough plays to get off the field in crucial situations.
This disturbing trend will continue this year in new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's aggressive, blitz heavy scheme. Madison and McQuarters lack the burst to run with top receivers and first-round pick Aaron Ross has struggled making the transition to the pro game. Safeties James Butler and Gibril Wilson are adequate, but neither is a big playmaker versus the pass. Unless the Giants' high pressure scheme generates a lot of sacks, their secondary will be exposed as one of the league's worst.
Best bookend pass rushers
Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips give the Chargers the best set of bookend rushers in the league. Two-time Pro Bowler Merriman has made his mark as one of the game's top pass rushers by racking up 27 sacks in his first two seasons. But his unsung counterpart has quietly developed into a dominant rusher on the opposite side. Phillips relentless motor and quickness allows him to consistently win one-on-one battles off the edge, and his 11.5 sacks last season signified his arrival as a big playmaker.
Most surprising offensive rookie
The Green Bay Packers selected James Jones in the third round and were widely roundly criticized in league circles. But the former San Jose State star has been sensational during the preseason. Showing outstanding hands and running skills, Jones has 16 receptions for 196 yards with two touchdowns through three preseason games. His performance has quickly earned him the trust of Brett Favre and he is poised to make a big impact as a rookie. Packer fans should be reminded of Antonio Freeman when they watch Jones play during the fall.
Most surprising defensive rookie
Paul Posluszny has made an immediate impact on the Buffalo Bills' defense. The second-round pick has been the team's leading tackler and has been an impact player in the middle. He fell out of the first round due to disappointing workouts, but his play during preseason has been stellar. Teams will regret passing on this solid "football player" in favor of better athletes.
Rookie most likely to have the "Devin Hester" effect
Another third-round pick who has made an instant impact during the preseason is Jacoby Jones of the Houston Texans. The small college star from Lane College has dazzled as a receiver/returner during the first three preseason games. He has returned punts for scores in consecutive games and added another receiving touchdown. The Texans have started to use him on reverses and other gadget plays in an effort to get him the ball. It remains to be seen if Jones can become the starter opposite Andre Johnson, but his preseason performance has made it obvious that he is a playmaker who will make an impact during his first year.
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