Protect Your Head: NFL Preview Part II

A couple of additional thoughts on the depth chart, if it's true that Calvin Howell is worried about his propensity for concussions I'm on board with whatever he chooses to do about it. A football scholarship to the University of Texas, while immensely valuable, is not worth living half your life with lessened mental capacity. Of course intellect and healthy thick hair is basically all I have going for me so losing half my assets would be something I would have to weigh very carefully.

A major theme in part I of my NFL preview, if it wasn't obvious, was offensive line play. With everyone trying to spread you out and throw 35x a game OL play becomes all the more essential. Asking 5 men to pass-protect or execute blocks well enough in the running game is a different story than asking 7 or 8 blockers to do the same. Mistakes are magnified, tackles are left on an island, and running backs have fewer choices in selecting holes.

In the NFC that's going to make a big difference as we sort out the contenders. We start in the East, with (some of) your

Dallas Cowboys:

A friend of mine once boasted after a now highly criticized trade via facebook status, "Nathan is wondering how teams will cover Terrell Owens, Jason Witten, Marion Barber, Tony Romo's scrambling AND Roy Williams now." I responded, "by blowing past your fat line."

I really appreciate Jason Garrett's schemes, their running game is very sound with a lot of counters and draws behind that hefty line that were producing 8 yards a pop early last year, and the passing game is no. 1 in accordance with what we know from statistical analysis to be most effective in producing efficient offense. Tony Romo makes questionable decisions and maybe a better analogy for Colt McCoy than Drew Brees in his tendency to play the hero and make things happen with his feet.

You can win a championship with him provided you have a safety net with your defense. Austin Miles is evidently a terror, Dez Bryant one of their most talented wideouts in years, and Witten and Aggy Alum Martellus Bennet make for a 2007 Missouri style conundrum for coordinators trying to package defensive personnel.

Then you have Julio Jones, Marion Barber and Tashard Choice, a legit hydra unlike the one we have halfheartedly talked ourselves into here in Austin. But the line is still trouble. They replaced Flozelle Adams with Doug Free when 2 false start penalties stopped being the trade in for 2 sacks and became an addendum. Free is solid enough to maintain their pass-heavy scheme but the problems come elsewhere.

Gurode is still a force inside and paired with Davis make for an interior OL that is perfectly-suited for holding holes open, if not forcibly relocating defenders. This group is like the 08 Sooner squad though that sat on all the lesser foes and then got ripped apart by Texas and Florida's athleticism. Kyle Kosier's hard work and effort runs out in matchups against people like Kevin Williams and Marc Colombo looks like 6 year old reaching for the cookie jar when confronted with speed on the edge. Addressing the lack of athleticism at tackle should have been priority no. 1 for the Cowboys and failing to do so will be the difference in the playoffs. Again.

The defense is loaded though. Ratliff creates interior pressure, DeMarcus Ware is possibly the best pass-rusher in the league and Anthony Spencer is no slouch either. I don't know of a better LB corp than Wade Phillips' crew. Mike Jenkins is approaching lock-down status and with Terrance Newman that's a nasty pair of corners. Safety has been the missing piece since coverage responsibilities ended Roy Williams reign of terror and the answer doesn't seem to be there yet but they get enough playmaking from the front 7 to make things happen.

New York Giants:

It's hard to pick a 2nd NFC East team from a loaded division so I have picked my favorite line. Will any of you blame me if the Redskins or Eagles come out ahead? You'd better not you pack of savages.

The biggest difference with the Giants since they won a superbowl is, well I was going to say the loss of Plaxico Burress but really it was the deterioration of their defensive line, let's just say Burress made a big difference as well. Hakeem Nicks seems like a possible replacement now and I'm big on Steve Smith. Their backs are strong and Eli has been placed slightly above suspicion since that bloody helmet catch that almost ruined my faith in football as a reasonably fair contest.

It's all about this line though as every starter is above average and the guards are phenomenal. Seeing them make the road that left Tiki Barber looking like an ass was actually a solid consolation prize for the end of the perfect season. Richly satisfying, what a jackanape.

Return to grace on defense is predicated on the return of Umenyiora, the continued Sam Acho-esque versatility of Justin Tuck, the health of a talented secondary (Thorpe!), and essentially the same kind of pressure-package brilliance they had in 09 with departed DC Steven Spagnuolo. I don't know if the new guy has that kind of genius but they need a Muschamp-type thinker to turn their speed and versatility into pressure and situational effectiveness again. No Strahan, Spagnuolo or Burress though means no heavy artillery and no Superbowl. Heading North,

Minnesota Vikings:

There were 2 things I didn't like about the Vikings before, defensive effectiveness away from home and ancient Brett Favre deciding outcomes under pressure.

Now they don't have Sidney Rice and no. 2 is going to be a lot worse. The man was a perfect compliment to Favre's big arm and joyful gun-slinging because speed, size and ability to high point the ball. Percy Harvin, Berrian, and Shiancoe is decent. You aren't throwing over everyone with that lot.

Adrian Peterson, like many great backs, is slightly overrated. He is explosive in a straight line, runs with solid lean, and can tote the rock repeatedly in a game. He doesn't have a lot of wiggle though and can be victimized by a pileup just like anyone else with the extra feature of occasionally coughing it up. Although the fumble against Chicago was a ridiculous no-call on a facemask that absolutely determined the outcome of that game. I don't know what I'm talking about, he's the obvious feature and could carry this offense all the way. Toby Gerhart makes sense as a 2nd back.

The line is good. McKinnie and Loadholt are very adequate tackles and Hutchinson is still a force at guard. This isn't the elite wrecking force it looked to be when Hutch first came aboard but it's far from a liability. Overall I don't foresee the same kind of production as last year without Rice and Favre a year older but if they can minimize turnovers the other side can make things happen.

This may be the best defensive line in football. Pat Williams is old but most teams would take him, Kevin Williams is still very much one of the best tackles in the entire league. The real burn is on the edge though, where they punish you with Jared Allen AND Ray Edwards. It's just too much. The Williams' demand attention but the ends are too good to be unaccounted for.

Losing EJ Henderson at the end of the last year hurt them in their Cover-2 schemes and the overall health of the back 7, which is plenty good enough to back that line, along with an understanding by the offense that they aren't the unit that makes it happen, will determine whether or not Favre gets his 2nd title.

The trick is this, the leadership of the team is an overmatched coach who looks like a serial killer and a 40 year old QB who tries to do too much but holds leverage due to the quality of the backup (Tavaris Jackson is no steamin' Willie Beaman). I don't like betting on football teams with poor leadership/chemistry. You can't get away with that in this sport.

Green Bay Packers:

Everyone seems to like this team to come out of the NFC and I don't even begin to understand why. Take Aaron Rodgers on your fantasy team, he makes things happen for them like Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh and with a far weaker line.

And there we hit the catch, how are these Packers going to handle DeMarcus Ware or Jared Allen in the playoffs? They have 1 pretty good tackle and then the other 4 OL are average or slightly above. They drafted Brian Bulaga to shore it up but you should know that kind of OL uncertainty isn't going to pass the examination of the Nickel Rover labs. Except with Texas of course.

Jennings and Driver make for a strong enough WR combo but when you add Ryan Grant and JerMichael Finley it begins to add up. I'm skeptical overall, but you know they'll score points. New Orleans should hope they run into Minne/Dallas and get picked off before they come down to the Superdome.

There are some solid pieces on defense, which makes their inability to avoid shootouts with any and every good offense a little puzzling. Ultimately it's a group perfectly suited to stop the run and has limited resources for getting pressure after Clay Matthews. BJ Raji might change that in year 2 as a tackle with pass-rush potential but he is ideally a nose and that place is filled.

The corners are 2nd only to the Jets group and supported quite capably by Nick Collins. I think another year of development and drafting for pressure would make for a stronger team but the clock is ticking on Charles Woodson and Al Harris. Nevertheless this isn't the Saints offense and they aren't going to have enough to get through the playoffs.

Heading south,

Carolina Panthers:

Can I call them a sleeper? I think Delhomme's departure is addition by subtraction. Sort of like how losing Julius Peppers actually makes them better. Wait no it doesn't...

I'm buying Matt Moore as the caretaker in their power-running scheme. Between Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams this is one of the more explosive ground attacks in the league. Naturally it's anchored by one of the best lines in the league.

Like the Jets, Carolina benefits from having a star at Center; Ryan Kalil, Will Ferrel's protege and the former anchor for another awesome 2-headed ground attack you should be very familiar with. After that they have studs at either tackle position, a pretty intelligent way to build a line.

Add Brandon LaFell to make room for Steve Smith and you have a playoff offense.

Thanks to Julius Peppers' departure that's as far as they get though, Chris Gamble plus some solid options at safety and corner paired with Jon Beason's linebacker corp can keep you in front of them but any of the better offenses should be able to work them down the field. A commitment to the running game becomes all the more important in minimizing offensive snaps for attacking this back 7.

Their tackles aren't suitable for much besides keeping the linebackers clean (think Ohio St. D) and they only have a few prospects for replacing Peppers' impact. I do like Jerius Norwood in that role long-term.

New Orleans Saints:

Loaded offense. Drew Brees. You couldn't ask for a much better trigger-man for Sean Payton's game plans. The line is highly rated but they are vulnerable. Minnesota kept their overall yardage down but not the score, Indy was short-handed, DeMarcus Ware murdered them.

Stinchcomb is a quality tackle but inside with Jahri Evans is where the major talent resides. They made Pierre Thomas into an effective back and made it impossible to commit the necessary secondary resources to stopping the pass, which might have made a bigger difference for them than their new blitz-happy defensive philosophy, imo.

Colston is an All-NFl caliber player and then they just overwhelm you with their overall quality. Meachem, Shockey, Bush, Henderson. None of them are going to star but you can't ignore them either, not with Brees running the show.

Will Smith is a strong pass-rusher and Darren Sharper's turnover production make the defense look good for how they set up the offense. It's a very sensible philosophy though, to attack on defense and create opportunities for Brees and co. You aren't going to win by keeping everyone in front and forcing long drives, better for the opposition to score quickly or not at all.

It's a tough draw to count on that formula again but no one in the NFC really looks like a complete enough team to sustain drives on this group while keeping the offense down. I think they are a good bet to make the SuperBowl again. Heading west though,

San Francisco 49ers:

If only they weren't quarterbacked by Alex Smith. The putridity of their division coupled with the quality of their defense makes them a near-certainty as a division winner. What's the worse that could happen? The quarterback is injured? David Carr goes in, you change one spread-made man for another.

Let's talk about that defense though, first you have Patrick Willis who was born to play Cover-2 Mike Linebacker. The former Rebel had 152 tackles, 3 forced fumbles and 3 picks last year. This in made possible in large part due to the contributions of tackles Aubrayo Franklin and Justin Smith. Franklin keeps guys clean and Smith is a disruptor. Way back in Hammurabi's Code it read that if you have 2 strong defensive tackles the offense has to do your will. This ancient law is important today since San Fran lacks a premier end. No matter, they play half their games against fecal matter.

They drafted Mike Iupati to assist a decent line in protecting Smith but at the skill positions we find the real talent. Frank Gore gets his every year despite having been surrounded by mediocrity to this point and this year he is looking left and right and finding Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree...and that's about it. I know it's not much, hell maybe Bradford can make something happen in St. Loius but someone has to win this division. And it unjustly can't be any of the East teams that would stomp this schedule like dry cow patties in dedfischer's backyard.

There isn't anyone else I really feel like talking about. Minnesota was the most talented team before Rice went down, the Giants are missing a similar piece in establishing themselves, the Cowboys are running at it again with the exact same deficiency that has held them back the last 2 years with a core that is 1 year older.

The Saints still have a coherent strategy for beating up on anyone they play and they lure you into their shootouts with the overaggressive defense. I'll take Baltimore or the best AFC team to bring them down with defense because I don't think you can play that way and survive 2 consecutive years of playoff matchups without a loss but they should at least get past the rest of this lot.

I'm exhausted, any thoughts?

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