2010 Division Preview: NFC East
Defense will be crucial in tough division, and Redskins may do it best
Injuries and inconsistency have plauged the Cowboys this preseason
How far the Eagles go will be determined by first-year starter Kevin Kolb
SI.com is previewing all eight NFL divisions, beginning today with the AFC East and NFC East. The AFC South and NFC South follow Wednesday, AFC North and NFC North on Thursday and the AFC West and NFC West on Friday.
The NFC East perennially is considered to be the toughest division in football, and with good reason. All four teams have been in the playoffs over the past five years and all four teams are legitimate playoff contenders once again this season. Last year's division champion, the Dallas Cowboys, are widely considered to be the favorite by many based upon how they finished the 2009 season, dominating the Philadelphia Eagles in back-to-back weeks on their way to their first playoff victory in over a decade. Their preseason has been long and rough, however, and the injuries and poor play that have plagued them throughout August can't remain if they hope to stay atop the division again in 2010. The beauty of the NFC East is because it is so competitive, there is no machination of the final standings in 2010 that should surprise anyone.
What the Redskins do best: Play defense.
The Redskins have very quietly had one of the better defenses in the NFL over the past few years and they expect to build upon that as they switch to a 3-4 base front under new defensive coordinator Jim Haslett. Haslett believes the Redskins have the personnel, especially in prototypical pass-rushing outside linebackers Brian Orakpo and Andre Carter, to successfully make this transition. With those two getting after the quarterback and veteran linebacker London Fletcher leading the run defense, the 'Skins should be stellar again in the front seven. If they can coax Albert Haynesworth into playing at a high level, they could be dominant. The 'Skins need this group to not only play well, but also force a lot of turnovers, something it hasn't done a great deal of in recent years and is the prime reason Haslett made the switch away from the 4-3.
What the Redskins need to improve: The passing game.
The passing game in Washington has not been up to snuff in recent years. They replaced Jason Campbell with Donovan McNabb at quarterback and brought in a coordinator who is fast earning a reputation as one of the brightest young offensive minds in the NFL: Kyle Shanahan. His specialty is the play-action passing game and the Redskins will use it to get big plays from a rather pedestrian group of wide receivers. The 'Skins hope to make up for their lack of elite receivers by getting big chunks of yardage from their dual athletic tight ends, Chris Cooley and Fred Davis.
Which Redskin needs to step up: Wide receiver Anthony Armstrong.
The 'Skins are expecting a significant contribution this season from the relatively unknown first-year player from West Texas A&M. Armstrong has been the breakout star of training camp, easily passing by former second-round picks Devin Thomas and Malcolm Kelly on his way towards the top of the depth chart. Based on Joey Galloway's age and the manner in which he flopped last season in New England, Santana Moss is the only sure-fire receiver on this team. Armstrong is quick in and out of his breaks and has played well enough this preseason that he is expected to be a key contributor, starting in Week 1.
Predicted record: 10-6.
The Redskins were a much more talented team than their 4-12 record from a year indicated and all they did this offseason was add a future Hall of Fame head coach, Mike Shanahan, and a quarterback who is still one of the 10 best in the NFL. Additions like that boost the confidence in the locker room. If they can use that confidence to get off to a fast start, they have as good a chance to win the division as any of the other teams. Seemingly every year in the NFL there is one team that goes from last to first. This year it is the Redskins.
What the Cowboys do best: Harass quarterbacks.
In an increasingly pass-happy league, the Cowboys may have the best tandem of outside pass rushers in the league. DeMarcus Ware has long been the gold standard among outside linebackers when it comes to rushing the passer and 2009 was no different as he notched double-digit sacks for the fourth consecutive year. What was different in 2009, especially down the stretch, was the emergence of former first-round pick Anthony Spencer. He had six sacks in the final six games of the regular season before continuing that trend in the postseason, when he tacked on an additional sack in each one of those contests. Supplementing the dynamic duo on the inside is Jay Ratliff, a Pro Bowl defensive tackle who can win most one-on-one matchups as well.
What the Cowboys need to improve: Offensive line play.
The Cowboys offensive line finished the 2009 season with a disappointing performance in the playoffs against the Minnesota Vikings. In the offseason Dallas jettisoned long-time starting left tackle Flozell Adams and replaced him with the relatively inexperienced Doug Free. The good news is Free appears capable of holding up at left tackle. The bad news is both left guard Kyle Kosier and right tackle Marc Colombo sustained injuries during camp that they will have to fight back from. Their replacements, Montrae Holland and Alex Barron, are average at best and the injuries have left the 'Boys with very little depth heading into the opener.
Which Cowboy needs to step up: Safety Alan Ball.
The only new starter on defense is Ball, who takes over at safety for former Cowboy Ken Hamlin. The Cowboys think Ball is a better athlete with more range and are confident he can make plays on some of the passes that Hamlin simply could not. Their hope is Ball's athleticism will help make up for his inexperience.
Predicted record: 10-6.
The Cowboys simply have way too many playmakers at important positions not to be in the thick of things until the very end. The problem is they are already beat up entering the season with injuries to safety Gerald Sensabaugh and linebacker Keith Brooking, in addition to Colombo and Kosier. Limping into a season, and playing so poorly in the preseason, is not the start they anticipated for a season in which the push is to reach a Super Bowl that will be played in their own stadium.