Statistical storylines (cont.)
Pittsburgh Steelers: Can Dick LeBeau's defense keep its head on straight in the postseason?
The famed Steelers defensive coordinator has been the little Dutch boy of football.
He's stemmed the rising tide of passing yards in recent years by fielding units that have dominated by today's standards and even compare favorably to the Steel Curtain teams of the 1970s.
The 2011 Steelers led the NFL surrendering just 4.9 Real Passing Yards Per Attempt (which includes the impact of sacks). It was an incredible number in this day and age. The Steelers surrendered the same average per dropback in their dominant Super Bowl winning season of 1978 and were only fractionally better (4.8 YPA) in 1979.
The difference has been in the playoffs, where LeBeau's defense has suffered notable meltdowns in big games. The Steelers barely survived a 377-yard effort by Kurt Warner in Super Bowl XLIII. Aaron Rodgers ripped the team for 304 yards and 3 TDs in Super Bowl XLV.
And then came the ultimate indignity in the 2011 playoffs, getting torched by famously inaccurate Tim Tebow for 316 yards on just 21 attempts. Tebow's average of 15.0 yards per attempt was the greatest in NFL postseason history by a QB with at least 20 attempts.
For some reason, the Steelers defense has been a different unit in the postseason. They need to find a way bottle the regular season formula to become champions again.
San Diego Chargers: Can San Diego solve its major problems on pass defense?
Philip Rivers was widely blamed for San Diego's disappointing 8-8 season in 2011. He did have a down year by his standards, and quarterbacks are always lightning rods when things don't go well.
But in reality, San Diego's biggest issues were on defense, and on pass defense in particular. In that respect, the Chargers were much like the Cowboys: disappointing teams with big-name quarterbacks who shouldered the blame.
San Diego simply could not stop anybody in the air: No. 27 in Defensive Passer Rating, No. 28 in Defensive Real QB Rating and No. 28 in Defensive Real Passing Yards Per Attempt.
Hell, it's a miracle they went 8-8 with a defense so porous against the pass.
So San Diego did the smart thing in the draft: they grabbed defenders with their first three picks, as well as a handful of veteran defenders, such as Atari Bigby, who played for the Seahawks last year.
If that unit can make only slight improvements, it will help the team go a long way toward capturing the AFC West title. San Diego still has the best offense in the division (No. 5 league-wide in scoring in 2011) and missed out on the crown only by tie-breakers last year.
San Francisco 49ers: Will newfound offensive weapons give Alex Smith & Co. and elite offense?
Smith was the proverbial "game manager" last year, playing solid, mistake free football at quarterback.
Paired with a blazing defense and a team that played highly efficient situational football in all phases of the game, it lifted San Francisco to a 13-3 record and put them within one game of the Super Bowl.
The 49ers are now looking for turn that efficient offense into a game-breaking offense. They drafted A.J. Jenkins and the electrifying LaMichael James with their first two picks, while adding veteran wide receivers Mario Manningham and Randy Moss in free agency.
Manningham was the Giants' hero of Super Bowl XLVI. Moss is only one of the most productive receivers in the history of football.
The moves are certainly enough to excite football fans. But they will work only if coach Jim Harbaugh and his team keeps their focus on the fundamentals that got brought them so far in the space of one season.
St. Louis Rams: Is Sam Bradford closer to a bust than he is to a star?
The 2-14 Rams had problems in all phases of the game last year, not the least of which were on offense: St. Louis scored a Stone Age 12.1 PPG, dead last in the NFL.
Sure, Sam Bradford's injuries hurt the team. He missed six games. But even then, St. Louis was only 1-9 in the games that he played and never scored more than 20 points in any of his 10 starts.
Bradford has yet to show any of the statistical hallmarks of an elite NFL passer at this point in his career.
The most damning evidence is his average per pass attempt. A solid NFL quarterback will average 7.0 YPA. An elite NFL quarterback might average 8.0 YPA. A historic young quarterback might average nearly 9.0 YPA. In fact, Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger averaged an incredible 8.9 YPA in each of his first two NFL seasons.
Bradford has averaged a dismal 6.0 YPA. That inability to get the ball downfield is the biggest reason the Rams have struggled to put points on the board the last two seasons.
You can cite a dearth of talent around him. And there's certainly some merit to that argument.
But history shows us that elite quarterbacks, even young quarterbacks, get the ball downfield effectively and make everyone around them better. We've yet to see that kind of statistical upswing out of Bradford's Rams.
Seattle Seahawks: Will Matt Flynn and/or Russell Wilson survive a year of "As The T.O. Turns?"
The inevitable Terrell Owens drama is only a problem if he makes the team. And the jury is still out on that decision.
Owens did not catch a single pass in his debut this past weekend for the Seahawks, a 30-10 win at Denver. In fact, he was targeted five times, and along the way dropped what should have been a long touchdown pass from Matt Flynn.
Perhaps both Flynn, the free agent signee from Green Bay, and Russell Wilson, the promising third-round draft pick out of Wisconsin, are secretly wishing that Owens doesn't make the team.
After all, the volatile wide receiver has a long history of shooting his way out of town, aiming directly at the quarterback along the way. Neither one needs the drama as each lobbies for the starting gig. So far in the preseason, it's advantage, Wilson.
In fairly equal time, the rookie has averaged 8.5 YPA with 3 TD, 1 INT and a 110.5 passer rating. Flynn is a distant second in all areas: 3.9 YPA, 0 TD and a 56.9 rating.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: How long will it take Greg Schiano to build a competitive defense?
It's hard to overstate just how bad Tampa's defense was in 2011.
It was the worst unit in franchise history, by most any measure, from points allowed (30.9 PPG) to Defensive Passer Rating (97.2) to run defense (5.01 YPA). In fact, only seven teams in the Super Bowl Era were worse against the run.
2006 Colts -- 5.33 YPA
2003 Chiefs -- 5.17 YPA
1976 Chiefs -- 5.15 YPA
2008 Lions -- 5.14 YPA
1973 Patriots -- 5.09 YPA
1969 Bengals -- 5.07 YPA
2011 Raiders -- 5.07 YPA
2011 Bucs -- 5.01 YPA
That made rookie head coach Greg Schiano's mission pretty easy: almost any move he makes is certain to improve one of the worst defenses the league has ever produced.
Tennessee Titans: Can the Titans build an identity under Mike Munchak?
It's hard to name one distinguishing characteristic of the Titans in 2011.
They went 9-7, averaged 20.3 PPG and surrendered 19.8 PPG. They did very little very well, but did very little poorly. They even ranked a perfectly mediocre No. 16 overall in our Quality Stats Power Rankings.
The lights also went out on the team's marquee offensive star, the once-explosive Chris Johnson, who was remarkably unremarkable in 2011: he ran for 1,047 yards, averaged a perfectly average 4.0 YPA and scored just 4 TDs.
The greatest indictment of the Titans might be that they don't have an identity. At least Jeff Fisher's squads had a reputation as a team that was going to punch you in the nose each and every week, even if the results in the win column varied year to year.
Handing the reins to second-year quarterback Jake Locker may help forge that identity and, more importantly, give the team the more important lift on the playing field.
He took only limited snaps last season, but at least provided some excitement when he did. His 4 TDs, 0 INT and 99.4 passer rating gave the team the closest thing it had to a statistical signature in 2011.
Washington Redskins: Is Robert Griffin III the second-coming of Cam Newton?
The quarterback situation in Washington has been so desperate in recent years that the Feds offered it a bailout.
That bailout's name is rookie RGIII -- a freakish physical phenom, multi-dimensional talent and 2012 Heisman Trophy winner who will run the Redskins offense in 2012.
He has a big act to follow, too. After all, 2011 Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton produced one of the great rookie seasons in history last year with the Panthers. So now the pressure is on.
Comparing college production is not usually a very good barometer of pro success. But for now, it's the only way we have to compare RGIII to Newton statistically.
And in that respect Griffin was much more effective than Newton passing the football in their Heisman-winning seasons:
Newton: 66.1 percent completions, 2,854 yards, 10.2 YPA, 30 TD, 7 INT
Griffin: 72.4 percent completions, 4,293 yards, 10.7 YPA, 37 TD, 6 INT
Doesn't ensure Griffin a stellar rookie season. But it does offer Redskins fans plenty of reason to hope that happy days are here again.