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September 2013

A More Diverse Alex Smith

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alexsmith

When Andy Reid and the Chiefs take on the Eagles tomorrow night, their opponent won’t be the only team with a mobile quarterback on the field. After being cast aside by the hyperathletic and uniquely mobile Colin Kaepernick last season, there’s a tendency to believe that Smith was the dull, safe quarterback while Kaepernick was the complete opposite: a dynamic game-changer that broached excellence and success in a way that Smith never did.

While this is certainly true in some senses, as Kaepernick is definitely a more explosive and effective playmaker than Smith, Smith is not a singularly talented quarterback that is incapable of having more than a neutral effect on games. There is no doubt that Smith is not in the upper echelon of quarterbacks, but in this golden age of signal callers, its not an insult to simply be considered ‘good’. And Smith is exactly that, a good quarterback that can take his team to the post-season so long as he’s complemented with a solid defense and a coach that believes in him.

We saw the effect that Jim Harbaugh had on Smith in relation to some of the previous coaches and coordinators that the 49ers rotated in-and-out around Smith during his first few years in the league, Smith compiling as many playbooks as I have textbooks around me right now. Harbaugh instilled confidence in him and Smith was having the best two seasons of his career up until an injury opened to the door for Kaepernick to steal the spotlight. But while Harbaugh’s effect on Smith was certainly positive, he also kept him on a leash, which exacerbated the gap between Smith (who was solely a game-manager for that team) and the naturally perilous Kaepernick.

There’s a reason that one of Andy Reid’s first decisions as the coach of the Chiefs was to trade what will likely end up being a second round pick for Smith. Smith proved in his last two seasons in San Fransisco that he was capable of being an efficient passer, more adept at handling pressure than his younger self, and also a threat with his legs. Ironically enough, Smith is a very good athlete and yet never had a chance to run the read-option elements of the 49ers’ offense on a consistent basis; only when Kaepernick was the full-time starter did that portion of the playbook become available on every down.

Through two games, it appears as if Reid is going to give Smith a chance to make plays with his arm and his legs. While Smith is still a bit tamed in that he isn’t going to try and fit the ball into tight windows too often, being impervious to potentially horrendous mistakes is not necessarily a bad thing so long as he makes the throws he should, as Smith has learned to do. And now, in addition to unscripted scrambles that Smith has become quite good at, Smith is finally getting a shot at running some of the read-option plays that he ran at Utah and that he didn’t get a chance to run a lot last year with the 49ers.

***

After being unseated from the dream job of quarterbacking a team with an overpowering run game and one of the two best defenses in football by Colin Kaepernick last season, who would have thought that Alex Smith’s career would benefit greatly by working with Chris Ault, the coach that prepared Kaepernick to be a difference maker and invented the Pistol formation when he was at Nevada? This ironic twist is just another interesting chapter in Smith’s saga, and it seems as if Ault is already diversifying Smith’s game after just two weeks. (If you’d like a stat to back that up, consider that Smith currently has more rushing yards than the Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Giants do as teams.)

I’ll admit that I overlooked the potential for Ault to infuse elements of the read-option to the Chiefs offense when they hired him as a consultant this off-season. When I first saw the news, I assumed Kansas City made this move in hopes of figuring out ways to stop the read-option, similar to how the Green Bay Packers sent some of their staff members to College Station this off-season to study the weaknesses in Johnny Football’s offense, but now we know that Ault is a dual-threat adviser in the same way that Smith is a dual-threat quarterback.

On Kansas City’s opening drive against the Cowboys this weekend, Smith had five carries for 40 yards. A couple of these plays were designed runs and the others were impromptu scrambles as the Cowboys went to man coverage. It was clearly an unexpected deviation from the general perception of the ‘Alex Smith gameplan’ and it’s a nice way for the Chiefs offense to throw different looks at the defense.

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The very first play from scrimmage was this beautifully designed triple-option that featured the base pistol formation with Dexter McCluster motioning into the backfield to act as the pitch man. Here you can see Smith is reading the defensive end, who is being left unblocked so that Anthony Fasano can get to the next level. The defensive end crashes, which means Smith keeps it and attacks the edge, which has been sealed. With McCluster spacing it out, Smith’s next read is Brandon Carr, the cornerback on the outside who can choose to take the quarterback or the pitch man. Carr actually does a pretty good job of disguising his intention and not getting out of position, and stops the play from being a big gain, but throwing this look out of this formation can give a defense nightmares if one player takes a wrong step.

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Smith is also adept of getting out of the pocket after going through his progressions and seeing nothing worthwhile. Though he once escaped the pocket too quickly, disregarding open receivers for futile gains, he’s become much better at diagnosing which situations best call for him to take off.

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This play came on a 3rd and 15 at Dallas’ 35 yardline, so a failure to convert here would have changed the complexion of what ended up being a one-point game. The Chiefs went with four wide receivers and a tight end on this play and the Cowboys countered with Cover 1, which is man coverage (usually in the nickel) with one safety deep. The Cowboys did a great job on their coverage and although there were a couple of underneath routes developing on the left side of the field, those completions wouldn’t have netted a first down. So instead, with the pocket collapsing on his blindside, Smith escaped to a ton of green grass on the right side and made a crucial 17-yard play with his legs.

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Later on the same drive, Smith finds a way to foil man coverage again.

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The Cowboys dial up Cover 1 again on this play but have also seemingly spied Sean Lee, one of the best middle linebackers in football, to keep Smith from running on them. Amazingly, by simply shifting the pocket to the right a bit, Smith gets Lee to bite and step to the right before Smith tucks the ball and takes off through a gap in the line on the left side for a 13 yard gain. Interestingly enough, Smith is starting to make defenses pay in the same way that Kaepernick did on passing plays, killing teams for playing man-to-man coverages, which puts their defenders’ backs to the action and gives him some space to get free.

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What was great about Kansas City’s gameplan against the Cowboys is that they came out with a couple of designed QB runs and had Smith pick up some yards with his legs on his own, which gave Dallas the sense that that was how they would play. Instead, the Chiefs incorporated spread elements and typical run formations throughout the game, offering up a diverse set of problems for the Dallas defense, only sprinkling in those read-options plays a few more times throughout the game.

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In the second quarter we got another dose of the read-option from the Chiefs. This time there was no pitchman; instead, the Chiefs work out of the Pistol with Heavy or Tank personnel on the field (2 TE-2 RB-1 WR). The fullback is going to pull and help set the edge on the right side while the rest of the line (with the exception of the playside tight end), block left to help open rush lanes for Charles. As they did for most of the game, the unblocked defensive end crashes on Charles, freeing up Smith to get a positive eight yard gain on the play.

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***

USATSI_7436472_154512334_lowresSmith has always been able to make plays with his legs and he racked up over 700 yards on the ground during his seven years with the 49ers. But his dual-threat ability has never been more pronounced than it is right now. With his very conservative approach to passing, being able to hurt the defense on the ground isn’t so much a luxury for Smith, but instead a necessity for his team to operate as efficiently as possible. It’s why Jim Harbuagh opted to stick with the more dynamic Kaepernick.

Eliminating the tendency to dink-and-dunk their way down the field by incorporating some read-option elements to an already strong running game gives the Chiefs the most dynamic offense that they’ve had in years. A season ago, it would have been hard to imagine Alex Smith’s implementation into an offense leading to a diversification in your offense’s options, but it goes to show that a little creativity in your scheme can go along way in furthering the effectiveness of its weapons.

2013 NFL Previews: NFC South

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brees

Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons are the only team in their division that won’t be substantially better this season. Of course, it’s hard to improve on 13-3, but instead of making improvements or even holding steady, the Falcons took steps back this off-season while their division foes got stronger. John Abraham and Dunta Robinson are gone and in to replace them are Osi Umenyiora and rookie Desmond Trufant, a fairly large dropoff at least in the first year of the transition. Right tackle Mike Johnson is also gone, as he’s done for the year with a fractured fibula. The only upgrade the the Falcons made this off-season was signing Steven Jackson to takeover as the primary back, filling the void of Michael Turner. Jackson is a better player, but the reason Turner lost effectiveness was because the miles on his legs piled up, and Jackson is not exactly a spring chicken.

Atlanta still has the makings of a tremendous passing offense, as Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez combine to give Matt Ryan a ton of options allover the field. That said, the offensive line is going to be a question mark this season, and may impede Ryan’s ability to get the ball downfield to his receivers on a frequent basis. Center Todd McClure retired, Tyson Clabo is gone and Sam Baker is an iffy left tackle and most of their replacements are either new or unproven. The Falcons will still put up points, but against teams with good passrushes, Ryan is going to be under a lot more pressure than he was last season, and, according to ProFootballFocus, Ryan only completed 55% of his passes when under pressure last season.

The Falcons don’t have a cupcake schedule this season, either. Along with every team in their division being better than last season, they also play the loaded NFC West, host the Redskins and Patriots and go to Green Bay to face the Packers. Going up against so many teams that can air it out with a poor secondary will also hurt the Falcons, and despite having one of the best seasons in their franchise’s history last year, I see the Falcons taking a step backwards this season.

Best-case scenario: 10-6 and another disappointing post-season

Worst-case scenario: 7-9 as they lose all of the close games that they managed to win last season

Prediction: 8-8 and a long look in the rearview mirror at their missed opportunities

Carolina Panthers

The Panthers were incredibly unlucky last season, losing a string of close games, mostly due to the incompetence of head coach Ron Rivera. While Rivera is still in town, one possession loses tend to even out over time, and the Panthers are 2-12 in such games since Cam Newton came to town. If the ball bounced differently in a few of those close games, the Panthers could have made a push for the wild card. They finished the season 5-1 and showed a lot of promise on both sides of the field, setting the stage for a big year in 2013.

The only thing that has me holding back on my excitement for the Panthers this season is the idea that new offensive coordinator Mike Shula may be limiting or completely removing the read-option from the playbook. I’d guess that the basis of this decision is wanting to keep Newton healthy, because there’s no other logical reason to abolish what was a productive part of the playbook last season. And even then, wanting to preserve the franchise quarterback’s health is not going to prevent San Fransisco, Seattle and even Washington from running the read-option a ton this season, so it would behoove the Panthers to reconsider if they do indeed plan on eliminating the read-option from the playsheet.

Outside of that, the Panthers have constructed an interesting roster with a ton of prowess in the running game and some solid options on the outside. Steve Smith has lacked a star complement for the majority of his career, but the trio of Brandon LaFell, tight end Greg Olsen and off-season addition Domenik Hixon should give Newton a few solid options that manage to open up the field a bit for Smith to find space. The Panthers may have one of the worst secondaries in football, but they have assembled a monster passrush headed by Charles Johnson, and their defense is anchored by stud Luke Kuechly, who may be the best middle linebacker in football. They’ll give up a lot of points, but they have an offense that can survive in shootouts and they should have better luck in games that come down to the wire.

Best-case scenario: 11-5, A savior emerges in the secondary and the Panthers ride Cam Newton into the post-season

Worst-case scenario: 5-11, Newton doesn’t evolve and the defense gets lit up

Prediction: 10-6, Newton has a career year and Kuechly wins Defensive Player of the Year

New Orleans Saints

I’m not sure there’s an easier bet for a rebound season than the New Orleans Saints. With Sean Payton returning from his one year suspension, Drew Brees should return to form after having a bit of a down year last season and when Brees is on his game, he’s right there in that elite group of quarterbacks with Rodgers, Brady and Manning that can lift their teams to new heights even if there are some deficiencies with the roster. That said, of those four guys, Brees is easily the one that will have the toughest job to do as he’ll have to score enough points to make up for what will likely be the worst defense in football. Most quarterbacks would be condemned by having such a horrible unit as their counterpart, but Brees is good enough to make a post-season birth for the Saints a possibility regardless.

Rob Ryan is the third most important man in the building for the Saints. With Will Smith out for the season and Jonathan Vilma expected to miss at least half of the season, Ryan’s schemes will have to make up for a dearth of talent. While he has a reputation for having a great defensive mind, his schemes produced an average defense in Dallas despite having a ton of talent to work with, so who knows how well his journey with this underwhelming bunch will go. At the end of the day, if Ryan can manufacture some kind of a passrush on third down and put his defensive backs in positions to produce turnovers, it will be enough. Giving up a ton of points isn’t the biggest problem in the world with Brees on your side.

At Brees’ side is a familiar cast of playmakers. Marques Colston and Lance Moore are the primary receivers on the outside and Jimmy Graham is the best tight end in football given what has transpired in New England over the past few months. Two new wideouts could burst onto the scene this season as well. Second year player Nick Toon, a 6’4″ receiver with great ball skills, and rookie Kenny Stills, a speedster that could become the new Devery Henderson this season, figure to get a lot of looks in New Orleans’ pass-happy offense. Supplementing Brees’ arm will be a trio of backs: Darren Sproles (the pass threat), Mark Ingram (the power runner) and Pierre Thomas (a little bit of both). It will be a tough task, but if there is any team that can score enough to make up for a horrid defense, it’s this team.

Best-case scenario: 11-5, The offense explodes and Ryan uses illusions to create a successful defense

Worst-case scenario: 7-9, The defense is too much to overcome

Prediction: 10-6 and a trip back to the post-season for Brees and the Saints

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Bucs are a popular sleeper team this season and for good reason. They have built a very good defensive unit and have found some foundational pieces on the offensive side of the ball that have them ready to compete in one of the tougher divisions in football.

It may have been a bit risky to shell out so much for a player coming off of an ACL injury, but if Darrelle Revis comes back and is 75% of his former self, he’ll be able to shut down a side of the field each and every Sunday for the Bucs. Behind Revis is one of the best safety duos in football with strong safety Mark Barron and new free safety Dashon Goldson taking the place of Ronde Barber. Barron is tremendous against the run and has shown some fashes of being a solid pass defender and Goldson had a career year against the pass last year. On the line, Tampa Bay has one of the most disruptive forces in football: nose tackle Gerald McCoy. A monster against the run, if he can get more pressure on the QB this season, Tampa will be a force to be reckoned with defensively.

Running back Doug Martin, coming off of an incredible rookie season that gets overlooked, as it should, because of the unfathomable success of Luck, RGIII and Wilson, will be the linchpin of Tampa’s offense this season. A solid passing attack should complement him with Vincent Jackson, Mike Williams and Kevin Ogletree on the outside for Josh Freeman to throw the ball to. Jackson and Williams were a tremendous duo last season and they are both able to stretch the field vertically, giving the offense a pair of homerun threats.

The reason the Bucs won’t be able to make the post-season? In a loaded conference in which each team has a franchise quarterback in place, Freeman acts as a microcosm for the Bucs. They are teedling in the middle between a playoff team and below average just as Freeman hangs in the balance between being a solid starting quarterback and out of a job next season.

Best-case scenario: 10-6, Freeman comes through and the defense raises to an elite level

Worst-case scenario: 6-10, Freeman is outed as a bust and Mike Glennon gets snaps late in the season

Prediction: 9-7, Competition for a wild card spot falls just short, but the path to the post-season is discovered

2013 NFL Previews: AFC West

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manning

Denver Broncos

The Broncos would have had a picture perfect off-season were it not for Von Miller’s six-game suspension that will leave the Broncos without their top defensive player for a few of their tougher games. The Broncos also lost Elvis Dumervil this off-season, which will only make the absence of Miller look worse in the coming weeks. On top of that, cornerback Champ Bailey won’t play tonight in the team’s season opener against the Ravens because of a foot injury. Last year the Broncos had tremendous luck with their defense in regards to injuries, with nearly all of their starters making it through the entire season without missing a game. They’re already missing a few key names this season, and while it’s not all because of injury, if their luck changes this season, it may do enough damage to knock the Broncos down a peg from being an elite defense to being merely a good one.

Of course, if your top issue is possible regression to a stout defense and your quarterback is Peyton Manning, I’m sure there are worst situations that you could be in. If the Broncos defense regresses any this season, it may be offset in the improvement of their offense. The Broncos already had one of the best receiver tandems in football with Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, and they killed two birds with one stone this off-season by signing Wes Welker away from the Patriots to act as the superstar version of Brandon Stokely in Manning’s offense while also stealing away Tom Brady’s top threat.

The Broncos ran the ball pretty well last season despite the lack of a dynamic back, but Manning’s offenses have always been able to run the ball at a decent clip because of how much attention the defense has to pay to the passing game. Denver could be an even better rushing team this season with the addition of Montee Ball to give the Broncos a trio of useful backs with Knowshon Moreno and Ronnie Hillman. This is far from an elite group, but it should be a productive one that complements Denver’s top-of-the-line passing game and effectively ices games that Manning and his receivers put away early.

When you play in a division as bad as the AFC West and you have Manning at quarterback, you essentially start the season with six wins. Given that, it’s virtually impossible to see the Broncos missing the post-season in 2013.

Best-case scenario: 13-3, If they win tonight and the senior Manning wins the Manning bowl in week two, it’s tough to see Denver losing any games except at Indy, at New England and at Houston

Worst-case scenario: 10-6, The only way they miss the playoffs is if Manning gets hurt

Prediction: 12-4 and a final post-season run for Peyton?

Kansas City Chiefs

The Chiefs are as good a candidate as any to have a Colt-like turn around, going from having the number one overall pick to competing for a playoff spot. Like the Colts, the Chiefs upgraded the two most important positions in the game this off-season, replacing Matt Cassel/Brady Quinn with Alex Smith and Romeo Crennel with Andy Reid. Now, the upgrade from Cassel to Smith isn’t as drastic as the upgrade from Curtis Painters to Andrew Luck, but it’s still significant. Smith had actually emerged into a very solid quarterback last season before he was benched for Colin Kaepernick, which is nothing to be ashamed about, and it will be interesting to see how he transitions from having a coach that had him on a bit of a leash to a coach like Reid that tends to let his quarterbacks run wild.

In addition to adding Smith, the Chiefs shored up their offensive line by drafting Eric Fisher with the number one overall pick in the line. So, at least for a season, the Chiefs will have a powerful tackle duo of Fisher and Brandon Albert, who the team tried to trade without finding a seeker. For an edge runner like Jamaal Charles, having two strong run blocking tackles is going to give him the full field to work with on stretch plays and once Charles is propelled into space he becomes one of the most dangerous players in the league. While Reid became notorious for ignoring his dynamic, shifty and explosive running back in Philly, Charles should get a substantial workload this season. Dwayne Bowe should be in for a monster season with a pass-heavy scheme installed and a solid quarterback at the helm. The weakness of the offense would definitely be the lack of a secondary playmaker outside the hashes, as Donnie Avery figures to be the #2 receiver this year.

Reid decided to keep the base 3-4 defensive scheme when he arrived in Kansas City. Middle linebacker Derrick Johnson is one of the best defensive players in the league at reading run and finding his way to the point of attack to plug the hole. Johnson and outside linebacker Tamba Hali are the anchors of this defense. While Johnson gives offenses fits by slowing their run game and contributing fairly well in pass coverage, Hali is a diruptive edgerusher that opponents are forced to scheme for. With the emergence of Justin Houston, a third round pick out of Georgia in 2011, as a tremendous pass rusher in his own right, the Chiefs have assembled a pretty solid linebacker corp.

The secondary will be the key to how much success the Chiefs will have this season. Last year their corners struggled to make any kind of an impact in the run game, and once offenses keyed on getting someone to the second level to deal with stud Eric Berry, they were able to gash Kansas City’s defense. With the exception of Berry, who is one of the best safeties in all of football, and lockdown corner Brandon Flowers, the Chiefs are relying on some new faces to make an impact this season. Sean Smith, formely of the Dolphins, was brought in to complement Flowers, and he has the talent to be productive. Kansas City also brought in Dunta Robinson, once a star corner for the Texans, who could get some looks in the slot or even as a safety at some point this season.

Best-case scenario: 9-7, Major strides for the offense and defense help the Chiefs contend for a playoff spot

Worst-case scenario: 5-11, Without Jim Harbaugh holding his leash, Alex Smith finds his way into traffic and becomes roadkill

Prediction: 8-8 and a step in the right direction for Andy Reid’s new franchise

Oakland Raiders

Here’s all you need to know about the 2013 Raiders: On April 2nd they traded starting quarterback Carson Palmer to the Cardinals for a pair of late draft picks and then traded for Matt Flynn to replace him. On April 27th they took Arkansas QB Tyler Wilson in the fourth round of the draft. On September 1st, Oakland waived Wilson, who went unclaimed and is now on the Oakland practice squad. On September 2nd, the San Fransisco Chronicle reported that Terrelle Pryor, whom the Raiders drafted in the 2011 Supplemental Draft, had won the starting job over Flynn and would start this Sunday. And just moments before I started writing this preview, I saw this report on NFL.com that says that people inside the Raiders organization don’t have faith in Pryor and instead believe Matthew McGloin, an undrafted free agent that stole Wilson’s roster spot in training camp, gives the team the best chance to win.

Al Davis must be rolling over in his grave.

Best-case scenario: 0-16 and a shot at Bridgewater or Boyd

Worst-case scenario: 5-11, Pryor wins the job and read-options his way to a few wins, robbing Oakland of a much needed top selection

Prediction: 2-14 and a chance to ruin Teddy Ballgame’s NFL career before it even begins

San Diego Chargers

This is clearly a rebuilding year for the Chargers as they usher in a new coach in Mike McCoy and a new general manager in Tom Telesco, but that doesn’t mean they are guaranteed to be terrible. I still haven’t given up on the idea that Philip Rivers is a quality starting quarterback and I’m leaning more towards his team’s lack of success being the absolute lack of a run game, a poor offensive line and a porous defense.

That run game is still a question mark, but San Diego brought over Danny Woodhead to go with Ryan Matthews, giving the Chargers a dynamic backfield that may not be tremendous on the ground but will definitely make an impact in the passing game. The receiving corp was poised to be a threat this year, too, but a pre-season injury to Danario Alexander, perhaps the best deep threat in the league last year, leaves the Chargers without one of their top options. Even still, Rivers should have some quality targets to throw to with the underrated Malcom Floyd, rookie Keenan Allen and slot man Eddie Royal lining up next to the declining but still productive Antonio Gates.

San Diego’s front seven on defense actually looks good in theory, but who knows if they’ll actually show up on the field. The excitement level for the defense dropped when Melvin Ingram, a budding star that played allover the field as a joker last season, tore his ACL in camp. D.J. Smith should be a solid pick-up for this team as a blitzer from the linebacker spot but he too is looking to fully recover from a serious knee injury. The secondary lost their two top corners this off-season – Antoine Cason and Quentin Jammer – but they both had underwhelming years and a change isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Derek Cox, coming over from the Jaguars, and Shareece Wright, who hasn’t played much after being drafted by San Diego in the third round in 2011, will both start on the outside. If they don’t give the defense a boost, at least playmaking safety Eric Weddle will be able to bail out the defense a few times with an interception or a big play in the run game.

Best-case scenario: 8-8, McCoy, who once ran a successful offense with Tim Tebow as the quarterback, gets Rivers back on track and the Chargers enter the off-season with hope for the future

Worst-case scenario: 5-11, Rivers loses a step and it becomes clear that San Diego’s rebuilding job won’t be over until they find a new quarterback

Prediction: 6-10, Subtle improvements for a team that’s better off having a down year while Peyton Manning reigns over the division

2013 NFL Previews: AFC South

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luck

Houston Texans

Somehow the Texans managed to have their best season in franchise history last year, which included one of the greatest individual defensive performances ever by J.J. Watt, while finishing the year as if they hadn’t made any progress at all. They stumbled their way through their first round victory over the Cincinnati Bengals and were handled with ease by the Patriots in Foxboro in round two. The Texans may have had a better shot if that game was in their building, but they cost themselves homefield advantage by losing three of their last four games including a 23-6 home loss to the Minnesota Vikings.

Houston’s biggest off-season acquisition is Brian Cushing, who is recovering from a torn ACL that he suffered in October. Cushing’s fill-ins were passable at times, but when you lose someone as terrific in both facets of the game as Cushing, getting a passable contribution in his place takes your team down a peg. Cushing is going to have to be brilliant this season as Houston hopes to replace stud Connor Barwin and Bradie James (a very good pass defender) with some young and unproven talent. The talent is plentiful, though. Few edge rushers possess more potential than Whitney Mercilus, and the Texans are giving him a big role this season in the wake of Barwin, though he’s going to have to make a difference in the run game to have a successful season. If Mercilus struggles against the run, expect rookie Sam Montgomery to get some run, as he displayed great instincts against the run at LSU. I’m also expecting big things from Jared Crick, who shows great power and feel when guarding the run.

Cushing’s return also helps the Texans’ pass defense because he’s very good at covering the middle of the field, but Houston is also counting on another return this season to help out their passing game: Jonathan Joseph. Joseph was deeply affected by injuries last season and it had a large impact on Houston’s scheme. If Joseph is healthy, the Texans can go back to putting Joseph at the line of scrimmage rather than giving receivers a cushion to make up for his inability to turn his hips and get up field. A healthy Joseph combined with the much-improved Kareem Jackson makes for one of the best cornerback duos in the league, and if Ed Reed has any more plays left in his tank to make, it will be tough finding open gaps in the Texans secondary. The one question mark will be how Glover Quin is replaced. Going by the numbers, Quin was the best coverage man on the team last season, and rookie D.J. Swearinger will be asked to hold his own in coverage and as a thumper at the line of scrimmage.

Offensively the Texans aren’t a ton different than they were last season. They lost James Casey to the Eagles and long-time WR2 Kevin Walters is with the Titans. The biggest addition for Houston would be DeAndre Hopkins, who they selected with the 27th overall pick in this year’s draft. Hopkins isn’t a burner but he has nice size and hands and will give Andre Johnson, still a top three receiver in the game, the most dynamic partner he’s ever had. Is that enough to boost Houston’s average offense from 2012 to new heights in 2013? I don’t know, and I’m not entirely sure that Arian Foster is still good enough to carry an offense. Foster had guady touchdown numbers in 2012, but he was very average on a per play basis, and highly regarded back-up Ben Tate wasn’t much better.

And then there’s the question about Matt Schaub’s viability as a Super Bowl quarterback. This is always the hardest pill to swallow when I try to talk myself into the Texans being a title contender, and if he couldn’t outduel Tom Brady in Foxboro last season, what’s going to change that this season (aside from the defense bailing him out)? Houston’s defense is going to keep them in virtually every game they play in, but it’s been over a decade since a team with a “good” quarterback won it all. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but if it happens, it’s going to be on the shoulders of J.J. Watt, not on the arm of Schaub or the legs of Foster.

Best-case scenario: 12-4, A repeat of last season with the veterans staying healthy throughout

Worst-case scenario: 9-7, Schaub takes a stepback and Watt misses time

Prediction: 10-6, Another tremendous season for a once downtrodden franchise, but will they ever reach the next step?

Indianapolis Colts

The Colts were the benefactor of some very odd happenings last season. From Andrew Luck leading the league in dropped interceptions to the #ChuckStrong movement that helped Indy capture a couple of wins that had just as much to do with emotion as it did with the talent level of their team. If, say, the Titans had put together an 11-5 season under the exact same circumstances as the Colts did last year, I’d be forecasting regression, but with this Colts team, I can’t help but see them maintaining the pace that they set last season.

Though his 11 wins matched Russell Wilson’s and one-upped Robert Griffin, Luck really wasn’t on the same level as his fellow rookies last season in terms of overall production. An seemingly obvious reason for that would be that Luck didn’t threaten defenses with his legs the same way that Griffin and Wilson did. While it’s true that Luck didn’t punish defenses the same way that Luck and Griffin did – with that hip read-option – Luck was every bit as good as both in the run game last season. According to Football Outsiders, Luck ranked third in the NFL amongst QBs in DYAR (defense-adjusted yards above replacement) behind Wilson (2nd) and in front of Griffin (5th).

No, the reason that Luck was a little behind Griffin and Wilson last season was because he wasn’t as good with his arm. Luck only completed 55% of his passes, flirted with a healthy dose of completions to the opposition and ended up with 17 picks, the fourth most in the league.

I only paint this grim picture of Luck’s otherwise tremendous rookie season to illustrate how much better he can be in this upcoming season. The Colts had a merely average offense last season and they made moves this off-season to bolster their depth. First and foremost, Indy went out and improved their awful offensive line, which had a lot to do with Luck’s rushed decisions last year. The Colts signed guard Donald Thomas away from the Patriots and inked former Lions tackle Gosder Cherilus to a lucrative deal before drafting tackle Hugh Thornton and interior lineman Khaled Holmes in the third and fourth rounds respectively.

At the skill positions the Colts added Darrius Heyward-Bey to add an explosive vertical threat to a group of talented receivers and running back Ahmad Bradshaw to give them a number one back. Bradshaw was quietly tremendous last season and is exactly the kind of back that can thrive in Indy’s spread out offense. The Colts played with four wide outs and in singleback sets as much as anybody last season and they threw the ball a ton. Bradshaw is capable of making a difference in the passing game and he’s great on draw runs, which are the kind of plays that Indy will throw in there to change up the pace. With Vick Ballard now acting as Bradshaw’s back-up, a more natural role for him, the Colts will have quality depth at running back to go along with their loaded cast of pass catchers at receiver and tight end.

Provided Luck makes a leap forward this season, the defense is the only thing that will hold Indy back from having a huge year. Provided they can stay healthy, the Vontae Davis and Greg Toler cornerback combo will give the Colts a much better duo on the outside than they had to begin last season, and LaRon Landry will be a massive upgrade if, you know, he can stay healthy. Indy also added two very good defensive tackles in Ricky Jean-Francois and Aubrayo Franklin that will give the Colts a strong inside presence against the run, but the rest of their font seven is still iffy.

Best-case scenario: 12-4, The offense becomes elite and the defense improves marginally

Worst-case scenario: 6-10, Those dropped interceptions are caught this time around, and the defense continues to struggle

Prediction: 11-5 and back-to-back post-season appearances for Andrew Luck

Jacksonville Jaguars

Jacksonville will have a very interesting decision to make in a few months from now between Teddy Bridgewater, Jadaveon Clowney and perhaps Tajh Boyd if he plays well enough to become a top prospect. That’s pretty much the only thing that matters for the Jaguars this season. On the field, management has to be hoping that Blaine Gabbert doesn’t have a fluky season and somehow wins five games. This season is all about clearing cap, setting Justin Blackmon straight and preparing to select a franchise player in the first round of next year’s draft. They desperately need a quarterback, but Clowney is the kind of gamechanger that can anchor a defense for a decade, so deciding on Clowney isn’t so bad if they follow it up with another dreadful season in 2014 that allows them to go after Brett Hundley or Marcus Mariota in the 2015 Draft.

Best-case scenario: 0-16 and the number one overall pick

Worst-case scenario: 5-11 and the seventh overall pick

Prediction: 3-13 and the number two overall pick

Tennessee Titans

If there’s a quarterback in the league that needs to have the read-option implemented to make him a valuable quarterback, it might be Jake Locker. It is clear that Locker will never be an elite passer, but he’s not even a good one at this point, so allowing him to take advantage of the athletic ability that made him such a good player at Washington would be a smart idea, and the Titans even have a speedy running back in Chris Johnson that could gash defenses that fall for the misdirection. Unfortunately, outside of some elements of the pistols potentially being added to the playbook, the Titans don’t appear to making the read-option a staple of their offense, which seems like a missed opportunity to me.

Tennessee won’t get the most out of its offense until Locker shows he can win with his arm (or his legs), so this might be yet another down season for CJ2k. On the brightside, the Titans went out and added Chance Warmack, Andy Levitre and tight end Delanie Walker, three very good blockers that should help open up rush lanes for Johnson, who was often tackled in the backfield on plays that had no chance from the get-go last season. Outside of Johnson getting in the open field, though, the Titans offense is going to lack excitement and production. With an inexperienced front seven and an iffy secondary, this is going to be a bad year for the Titans, and they’ll need to make a splash in next year’s draft to become a good team anytime soon. Assuming the off-the-field stuff scares other teams off, may I suggest Johnny Manziel to quarterback this team? At least then they’d have to start running the read-option.

Best-case scenario: 4-12 and a top five pick

Worst-case scenario: 7-9 and Locker fools the front office into giving him another shot

Prediction: 6-10 and mediocrity in a year when they’d rather be awful

2013 NFL Previews: NFC North

in NFL by
rodgers

Chicago Bears

The Bears lost two key figures this off-season: head coach Lovie Smith and long-time franchise cornerstone and defensive anchor in their famed Tampa-2 system Brian Urlacher. Urlacher retired this off-season after the Bears failed to budge on their offer of $2.5 million for last season with Urlacher and Smith was fired after nine seasons of defensive brilliance and offensive apathy.

While his offenses were always comically incompetent, Smith’s defenses were consistently great, ranking #1 in both pass and rush defense last season by a wide margin according to Football Outsiders. The defense should be tremendous again this season under new head coach Marc Trestman, whom the Bears plucked from the CFL, but you have to wonder how good the Bears could have been had they ever found an offensive coordinator that could complement Smith’s defensive units with a productive offense.

Similar to soon-to-be-televangelist Ray Lewis, Urlacher’s loss will likely have a larger effect on the team’s culture rather than their play on the field. The Bears did a solid job re-stocking the linebacking core by signing D.J. Williams away from the Broncos and drafting Jon Bostic out of Florida in the second round to complement Lance Briggs. Nick Roach was the bigger loss for the Bears defense this off-season; Roach was iffy against the run last season but few outside linebackers around the league held up better in the pass game than Roach did last season.

On the other side of the ball, this is a make-or-break year for Jay Cutler. A big reason Cutler was so bad last season was his awful offensive line not giving him any time to make proper reads or even getting fully into his drops, but he still shows flaws for a veteran quarterback. To help give Cutler a cleaner pocket the Bears went out and got Jermon Bushrod from the Saints, drafted guard Kyle Long with their first round pick and took projected starting right tackle Jordan Mills in the fifth round.

If Cutler has time to throw, he’s bound to find someone that can make plays on the outside. Brandon Marshall is one of the most reliable receivers in football, Alshon Jeffery has flashed potential as a great number two receiver opposite of Marshall, even if he’s more of a possession guy than a defense stretching speedster, Martellus Bennett will give the Bears a big target up the seams and few running backs can hurt defenses in as many ways as Matt Forte.

The tools are all there for Cutler to utilize, and if his line protects him this season, it’s up to him to prove he’s an elite quarterback, or Chicago may be in the market for a signal caller next summer.

Best-case scenario: 11-5, Cutler has a career year and the defense dominates

Worst-case scenario: 6-10, Cutler fails to deliver and the defense struggles to find a new leader

Prediction: 7-9 and a quarterback search in the summer

Detroit Lions

The Lions are one of the sexiest teams in the league entering the 2013 season, which is odd for a team coming off of a 4-12 season. But Detroit was subjected to some bad luck that isn’t likely to beset them again and they’ve made some improvements to cover up the major blemishes that cost them big last season. They’ve rotated some new lineman in to infiltrate what was an underproductive group in 2012, they drafted Ezekiel Ansah and Devin Taylor to help make up for the loss of Cliff Avril and Kyle Vanden Bosch and they drafted cornerback Darius Slay out of Mississippi State and signed safety Glover Quin away from The Texans to help sure up the secondary.

To be sure, those aren’t perfect remedies and Detroit will be far from perfect on the offensive line and against the pass this year, but they also have one of the best defensive lines in football and an offense that should rank amongst the best in the league at scoring points.

Last season Matthew Stafford essentially replicated his monstrous 2011 season according to the all the advanced metrics, leaving behind just one incredibly large discrepancy between the past two seasons: 21 touchdowns. A lot of this has to do with that bad luck I mentioned, but it was still odd to see Stafford go from 41 touchdowns in 2011 to 20 touchdowns while throwing for roughly the same amount of yards and without a jump in interceptions. As I’m sure anybody that owned Calvin Johnson in their fantasy league would know, Johnson was tackled at the one-yardline six times last season, an unfathomable stat for a 6’5″ guy that could probably gain five yards just by falling forward.

The Stafford-Johnson duo, with a little Ryan Broyles and Brandon Pettigrew (Bedlam!) mixed in, helped lift the Lions to a top 10 finish in total offense despite the lack of a clear-cut number one running back. That said, Joique Bell and Mikel Leshoure were not all that bad last season, and they provide excellent depth for Detroit now that the Lions have Reggie Bush as the starter. Bush is not an every down back but the Lions don’t need him to be with Bell and Leshoure behind him, and Bush acts as a dynamic playmaker that can catch the ball out of the backfield and operate well as a fluid cutter in a spread offense.

The Lions are very much a boom-or-bust team with the way they like to sling the ball around the field and with the iffy state of their secondary (although I’m a big Chris Houston fan), and also in regards to their, shall we say, “interesting” personalities and firecracker (but probably not good) coach. But of all the risks you are taking with the Lions, health is the number one issue. If Stafford, Bush and the key players on defense can stay healthy, this team has a chance to have a dominant offense and a scary, if overall average, defense because of their front four of Ansah, Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley and Jason Jones.

Best-case scenario: 10-6, Bush gives the offense a dynamic dimension and the passrush helps out the secondary

Worst-case scenario: 5-11, Bush and Stafford miss a few games and the Vikings are suckered into giving Ponder another year because of his two games against the Lions (remember Matt Flynn?)

Prediction: 9-7 and I’m not totally sure Jim Schwartz doesn’t get fired anyways

Green Bay Packers

Because of how entertaining the new class of young quarterbacks is and because of how entertaining the hip new offenses those guys are running are, the Packers have rolled under the radar this off-season. Part of it is because of the disheartening way that the 49ers handled them both in the regular season (when Alex Smith was the starter) and in the post-season (when Colin Kaepernick made a mockery of their defense), leaving us with a sour taste in our mouths regarding the Packers, and part of it is because Tom Brady’s imploding supporting cast has dominated the headlines amongst long-standing superstar quarterbacks.

But that doesn’t mean that Aaron Rodgers isn’t still the best quarterback in football, and it doesn’t mean that the Packers aren’t still one of the most dangerous teams in the NFC. I’m not totally sure that the Packers present as dynamic and dangerous of an attack as the Seahawks and Niners do and I’m pretty sure their defense is a notch below (though still very good), but what I am certain of is that Rodgers is the kind of guy that’s going to look back on the past two seasons as total failures and comeback strong this season, desperate to remind people that he’s the best in the business.

And he’ll be well equipped to do that. Despite the loss of Greg Jennings, the Packers still have Jordy Nelson and James Jones on the outside, Jermichael Finley at tight end and Randall Cobb in the slot. Cobb is the key here, as his versatile skillset makes him an asset in every facet of the game. Green Bay has a package filled with plays just for Cobb, lining him up in various different spots on the field and finding ways to get him the ball in space to allow him to work. Just about every receiver the Packers put on the field is capable of getting open on their own merit, but Green Bay also schemes their players open extremely well, which means they can plug-and-play just about anybody and expect Rodgers to make them a threat.

Green Bay was able to put up the third best passing offense in the league last season (according to Football Outsiders) despite a running game that was just average. To change the equation and to give themselves a multifacted attack, the Packers used second and fourth round picks on Eddie Lacy and Jonathan Franklin. While Lacy has the bulky frame of the duo, Franklin is also a physical back, giving the Packers a pair of punishing groundhogs. Lacy will be the starter this season and he’s the better player. While Franklin has a bit more speed, Lacy is far from a snail and his ability to catch the ball will surely make Rodgers happy to finally have a reliable dumpoff option coming out of the backfield.

With a sturdy defense that has only fallen short over the past few years because of injuries, the Packers should dominate their division this season. The only question left is whether or not they have the personnel and the scheme to slow the dual-threat quarterbacks like Kaepernick, Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III they are sure to see in the post-season. If they can hold up against the mobile QBs, they’ll have a spot in the Super Bowl waiting for them.

Best-case scenario: 12-4, The running game flourishes and the defense establishes continuity

Worst-case scenario: 8-8, Injuries overcome the roster and sideline Rodgers for a few games

Prediction: 11-5 and a meeting with Kaepernick and company to decide who will represent the NFC in the Super Bowl

Minnesota Vikings

Here’s how good Adrian Peterson was last season: Each week I’d go back and re-watch every Vikings game to see him play even though I knew there would be some Christian Ponder plays mixed in. In all seriousness, Peterson looked like one of the best running backs of all-time last season, ripping off a ridiculous six yards a carry despite the fact that everybody knew he was getting the ball and loaded the box to stop him.

He was elusive and nimble when he needed to be, picking his gaps with the surgical precision of Dr. James Andrews, and a powerful brute when he was man-on-man with a linebacker. He came ever so close to setting the record for rushing yards in a season, all just months removed from watching his knee snap like a broken pencil. It’s pretty crazy that Peterson could have a 2,097 yard season and then set his goal at 2,500 yards for the next season as if he was disappointed. And it’s even more crazy that it’s not a total impossibility.

The only thing standing in his way is a lackluster passing game once again subjecting him to more loaded fronts and specially prepared schemes. Minnesota attempted to make life easier on Peterson by re-signing right tackle Phil Loadholt and fullback Jerome Felton (Peterson owes Felton a nice Rolex for the tremendous work he did in the trenches last year, somewhat offsetting the numbers advantage that defenses would have) and by acquiring a pair of talented wide receivers. Of course, as good as Greg Jennings was with the Packers, Percy Harvin is inarguably a better football player, and as tantalizing as Cordarrelle Patterson’s frame and footspeed make him, I’m not confident in Ponder’s ability to consistently find either one of them downfield. Ponder only excelled when making short, quick passes to Harvin and getting the ball to Kyle Rudolph in the redzone last season, and hasn’t show the ability to toss the ball past the first down marker with accuracy.

Minnesota’s expectations for this season were raised when Peterson put the team on his back and carried them to an improbable playoff appearance, but it’s more likely that this is another transition year for the Vikings rather than a step towards Super Bowl contention. The defense will be better with the addition of rookies Xavier Rhodes and Jacob Lacey to the secondary and first round pick Sharrif Floyd should look great at the defensive tackle spot in Minnesota’s 4-3, but this unit is not yet complete enough to be considered a strength. And even if the defense did take a major step forward in 2013, it would all be for not if Ponder doesn’t exceed expectations. Unfortunately, the question, at least in my mind, is not ‘Will Ponder ever become an above average starter?’ but instead ‘Will the Vikings realize Ponder isn’t the answer sooner rather than later?’.

Best-case scenario: 9-5, Peterson has another monster season and the defense creates turnovers

Worst-case scenario: 5-11, Ponder doesn’t connect with either of his vertical threats and the secondary gets burned in a pass-heavy division

Prediction: 6-10 and more flirting with the history books from Peterson

2013 NFL Previews: AFC North

in NFL by
green

Baltimore Ravens

Last season, the Ravens were the latest team to accomplish what has now become a somewhat regular feat in the NFL, making a dramatic run to a Super Bowl victory despite having a mediocre regular season. It’s still crazy to look back at the things that the Ravens did last year to win it all. While the perception of the Ravens over the last decade has been that they are a smash mouth defensive team, Baltimore won in spite of their defense last season. Ray Lewis’ swan song got the headlines, but by season’s end he was hurting the Ravens more than he was helping them.

What their Super Bowl victory came down to, aside from Jimmy Smith holding Michael Crabtree on the biggest play of the game, was Joe Flacco having the best stretch of his career under Jim Caldwell. The Ravens made a shocking decision to fire offensive coordinator Cam Cameron after Week 15, which turned out to be crucial in propelling the Ravens to a Super Bowl.

But don’t expect a repeat, though. Baltimore’s already below average defense lost several key players (not including Lewis) including Paul Kruger, Dannell Ellerbe and Cary Williams and the offense also one of the key players on their title team: Anquan Boldin. Now the Ravens will be relying on Jacoby Jones to hold up on the outside as their number two receiver even though he’s been primarily a slot receiver throughout his career. Torrey Smith is nice, but he’s not a superstar #1 receiver that demands double teams. With Dennis Pitta sidelined for most of the season with a fractured hip, defenses are going to key in on Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce, and Flacco’s first season as the face of the franchise may not go so well.

Best-case scenario: 9-7, Rice and Pierce dominate the run game and scheme covers up for a lack of defensive talent

Worst-case scenario: 6-10, The offense lacks verticality and the defense suffers through a down year

Prediction: 7-9, Not totally unlike the Giants of recent years, Baltimore will follow up an average season that finished with a bang with an average season that finishes with a whimper

Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals have put together a talented roster with playmakers on both sides of the ball and superstars to give them the foundation of a potential playoff threat. But despite the brilliance of A.J. Green and the best defensive line in football, this team can’t reach the next level without their quarterback taking a step up. The Bengals had a great shot take out the Texans in the first round of the playoffs last year as their defense put them in a position to move on, but the offense simply couldn’t move the ball, due in large part to Andy Dalton’s inability to throw his man open or get the ball down the field with accuracy.

This is a big year for Dalton. If he hadn’t had Green alongside him to make him look better, he would have looked like a disaster over the past couple of seasons. Dalton is an OK quarterback with an average skillset, but that’s simply not enough in today’s NFL where a QB with an average skillset is probably a below average quarterack relative to his peers. Dalton can manage games well, but even then he isn’t immune to poor reads and mistakes, and he simply hasn’t show any ability to raise the production of his teammates.

Knowing this, Cincinnati went out and got themselves a couple more young offensive weapons in the first two rounds of the draft. In the first round the Bengals picked up Tyler Eifert, a big tight end that can work well with Jermaine Gresham in two tight end sets, and Giovani Bernard, a dynamic and shifty back that can make plays out of the backfield and provides a stark contrast to starter BenJarvus Green-Ellis. With Andre Hawkins playing somewhat of a Randall Cobb-role in the slot and Mohamed Sanu complementing Green, the Bengals actually have some talent on the offensive side of the ball.

If the Bengals can get more out of their offense this season, they’ll be primed for a big year. They have an underrated secondary that should get a boost out of second year corner Dre Kirkpatrick, who missed most of his rookie season due to injuries, a solid linebacking core with the emerging Vontaze Burfict and free agent additions James Harrison and Aaron Maybin leading the way, and they have one of the scariest front sevens in the league. With Carlos Dunlap, Michael Johnson and Robert Geathers on the ends and Geno Atkins and Domata Peko at the tackles, there is no better combination of passrushing and run plugging defensive linemen in football. Were it not for J.J. Watt having one of the best defensive seasons in NFL history, more folks would have picked up on Atkins having one of the best defensive seasons in NFL history, at least for a nose tackle. On top of getting 13 sacks, Atkins also ranked fifth in the league according to Football Outsiders against the run, stopping 86% of the rush attempts that came his way.

The Bengals have done a really good job building a complete roster, with the exception of securing a franchise quarterback. Unfortunately for them, having that franchise quarterback is the number one requirement to be a Super Bowl contender, and it doesn’t seem like Dalton is the guy that will lead them to the promise land.

Best-case scenario: 10-6, Dalton takes advantage of his weapons and the defense remains strong

Worst-case scenario: 6-10, Dalton turns out not to be the answer and the secondary gets picked apart

Prediction: 9-7, I think Dalton can get this team back to the playoffs, but the ceiling of this team is just about that unless he takes a big step forward.

Cleveland Browns

The Browns have seemingly identified and acquired talent some of the most important positions in the game over the past few years, but as their subtle acquisitions pile up, their search for a quarterback continues to go on without an answer. Joe Thomas is one of the best left tackles in the league, Joe Haden is one of the best coverage corners in football, D’Qwell Jackson provides the defense with a very good captain in the middle of the field at linebacker and Trent Richardson appears to have the makings of a franchise running back, a throwback runner that can handle the rock and take the pounding that comes with the role as an every down back.

But in the passing game, the Browns remain well behind the times. Brandon Weeden was a great quarterback during his time at Oklahoma State, but he thrived in a system that spread the field and got the ball out of the backfield as quickly as possible, which played perfectly into Weeden’s hands as someone who can fire the ball accurately and quickly when asked to make quick reads. While he needed to get drafted by a team that could start him right away because of the years he lost to baseball, the Browns were a poor fit in every other way last season, leading to an awful rookie season for Weeden. Cleveland was far from progressive offensively, and forcing Weeden to play a tranditional, throwback style that took him out of his element.

Luckily for Weeden, the Browns went out and hired Rob Chudzinski as their head coach and Norv Turner as their offensive coordinator, and both guys have histories designing and running spread offenses. Weeden has looked a lot better in the pocket during the pre-season and the addition of some quick, air-raid style passing principles could go a long ways in making Weeden more comfortable and improving the overall quality of the offense. Next on the list for the Browns would be to add a dynamic receiver that can make big plays. Right now Cleveland lacks a true number one wideout and instead has a cast of solid #2 options. If Weeden and the defense can take a step forward this season and Mike Lombardi can use his second off-season to add some playmakers and depth upfront, the Browns may have something to look forward to next season. But for now, the jury is still out on Weeden.

Best-case scenario: 8-8, Weeden gets better acquainted with the pro game and the defense finds a passrush

Worst-case scenario: 4-12, The Browns start more than one quarterback by week 10

Prediction: 7-9, Weeden shows modest improvement but the lack of playmakers remains evident

Pittsburgh Steelers

For the first time since I can remember, the blue collar Pittsburgh Steelers couldn’t assert their will in the run game. In fact, it wasn’t even a slow decline for the Steelers, who went from having the sixth best rushing offense according to Football Outsiders in 2012 to having the second worst rushing offense in football last season. Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman and Rashard Mendenhall were the primary backs for the Steelers, and all of them produced horribly, but of course, it wasn’t all their fault. Injuries played a big part in Pittsburgh’s inability to run the ball, keeping the backs and the team’s best offensive linemen off the field.

The Steelers, who will be testing out a new outside zone blocking scheme this season, will be getting right guard David DeCastro and center Maurkice Pouncey back this season at 100% after DeCastro missed most of his rookie season with a broken kneecap and Pouncey played through several nagging issues. Unfortunaley, the injury bug has already gotten to rookie running back Le’Veon Bell, who suffered a lisfranc injury that will cost him the first couple of weeks of the season. Even with a healthy offensive line and an improved system, Redman and a hampered Bell is not going to remind anyone of the days when the Bus would run over everybody in his path.

Pittsburgh will also be looking to see how their receiver heirachy plays out now that Mike Wallace is with the Dolphins. The Steelers decided to spend their money on an extension for Antonio Brown last season rather than saving up to re-sign Wallace, so he left for a more lucrative offer. Brown is certainly one of the league’s more explosive outside threats, but big seasons from Emmanuel Sanders and Markus Wheaton are going to be required if this Pittsburgh offense is going to be able to overcome the loss of Wallace, Heath Miller injury (he’ll miss at least a few weeks as he recovers from his torn ACL) and a running game that is still a question mark.

It appears as if this could be a second straight down season for the Steelers as they attempt to somewhat rebuild their roster for the final years of Ben Roethlisberger’s career, but they could surprise and turn up as a playoff team because Dick LeBeau is still alive and kicking at age 75, and his defensive schemes and playcalling make Pittsburgh one of the best defensive teams in the league even when they lack the raw talent. The Steelers lost Casey Hampton and James Harrison this off-season, but the Steelers have Steve McClendon and Jason Worildis waiting in the wings to replace them, and a solid unit still intact for LeBeau to coach up beyond the sum of their parts.

Best-case scenario: 10-6, Bell and Redman exceed expectations and Big Ben stays healthy

Worst-case scenario: 6-10, Roethlisberger struggles with is annual injury and the defense pays for a lack of talent

Prediction: 7-9, One more down year in preparation for phase two of their retooling job

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