AFC East and AFC North Preview by Jason King

The AFC North and East have sent six of the last eight conference representatives to the Super Bowl. This year figures to be no different as the Patriots, Jets, Steelers and Ravens are all emergent favorites to play for the Lombardi Trophy.  

AFC East

 The AFC East has been dominated by the Patriots over the last 10 years.  Are the Jets ready to win their first AFC East crown since 2002? Will the Bills or Dolphins be competitive or just easy outs?  All of these questions and more will be answered in the next 5 months.

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The Wildcat is still running strong in Miami by Lloyd Vance

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The Miami Dolphins led by main ‘Wildcat’ threat RB Ronnie Brown lead the NFL in rushing this season

After the Miami Dolphins success using the Wildcat formation in 2008, naturally everyone thought that the 2009 NFL season would be one where crafty defensive coordinators figured out how to “bust” the Wildcat.  But so far the Dolphins have continued their mastery of the Wildcat offense to a point where some defenders would rather “bad mouth” the offense than find a legitimate way of stopping it. New York Jets linebacker Calvin Pace said after his team couldn’t stop the formation in the Dolphins 31-27 win over NY Jets, “I can’t respect that stuff, all that Wildcat. We’re in the NFL. Don’t come here with that nonsense.”

Well Mr. Pace there is one thing that almost everyone I talk to around the NFL respects, and that is winning.  Whether you want to call the Wildcat  – really the Single Wing where there is an unbalanced line and someone other than the regular quarterback takes a shotgun snap while looking to pass, pitch, handoff, or run the ball – a “gimmick” or “nonsense”, the formation works for the Miami Dolphins.  To their credit, the Dolphins have been and still are committed to the offense more than any of the NFL’s 31 other teams.  Don’t call it a “fad” to Dolphins as their star Wildcat Ronnie Brown said, “It’s a part of our offense, it isn’t so much about stopping the Wildcat. It’s about stopping our offense.”

During the 2008 regular season, the Dolphins ran 90 Wildcat plays that accounted for 580 yards and eight touchdowns with of 6.4 yards per play. The formation gave defensive coordinators fits in preparing for it.  Carolina Panthers head coach John Fox in try to explain the difficulties for defenses with the Wildcat said, “In the Wildcat, the quarterback position can now be a runner. If the back is not the runner, he’s a blocker, so you get that overload in the running game.”  To explain it more succinctly it is old school 11 on 11 football.

Brown has been the ultimate Wildcat QB the past two seasons, going from a guy coming back from a tough knee injury to be a very good runner and more surprisingly a formidable passer.  Chargers safety Eric Weddle said of the formation and Brown’s ability in it, “When they go from a regular formation and come into ‘Wildcat,’ he (Brown) is so patient with it, you can’t just shoot a gap, and you have to all be assignment-sound. He just sits there and picks his way and finds a gap and hits it. He’s a good runner, a smart runner and patient.”

In 2008, the Dolphins rode the Wildcat all the way to the AFC East division title and one of the most miraculous turnarounds in NFL history.  The Dolphins going from 1-15 to 11-5 matched the 1999 Indianapolis as the only teams in history to make 10-game improvement from one season to the next.  Some thought the Wildcat would wane in popularity after the Baltimore Ravens stuffed the formation in the two team’s 2008 playoff game.  The Ravens held the Dolphins to only 52 total rushing yards and a modest 7 yards on two Wildcat plays in a dominating 27-9 win.  But to many people that saw the game, the real reason behind the Ravens dominance was in forcing five turnovers including 4 interceptions by Dolphins starter Chad Pennington.

Despite a solid campaign in 2008, this past offseason some veteran NFL people, like ESPN Monday Night Football Analyst Ron Jaworksi, still had mixed feelings toward the Wildcat and kept up the “fad” talk.  Jaws said, “I love the Wildcat. It’s great. I’m glad Dolphins QB Coach (David) Lee is up there working all the plays. Maybe he can give them to the college coaches, because that’s where they work. At the NFL level you must have a quarterback that plays from the pocket.” Also the number of teams running Wildcat direct snaps to others than their regular quarterbacks has fallen from 18 teams in 2008 to 7 teams through the first three weeks of this season.

Undaunted the Dolphins have stayed committed to the Wildcat.  In Week 2, the Dolphins rode the Wildcat to 239 rushing yards and possessing the ball for 45+ minutes in a 27-23 loss to the Indianapolis Colts. The loss to the quick-strike Colts led by QB Peyton Manning was tough, but the Wildcat was back on full display this past Monday Night.  The Dolphins showed mouthy New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan – Baltimore Ravens’ defensive coordinator in ’08  – that in Miami, the Wildcat offense is here to stay…well at least until someone can totally stop it. 

The Dolphins piled-up 151 rushing yards and converted nine of 14 third-down chances.  And when it mattered most they went to the Wildcat formation over and over, running out of the formation 4 times for 25 yards on their game-winning, 13-play, 70-yard scoring drive.  Overall the Dolphins ran 16 Wildcat plays for 110 yards (6.9 yards average) with RB’s Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams plus designated dual-threat rookie quarterback Pat White taking direct snaps in the formation.  Brown and Williams were nearly unstoppable in the physical win – the two veteran runners are on a pace for both to gain 1,000 rushing yards this season.  Brown scored a pair of touchdowns, including the 2-yard game-winner out of the Wildcat, while rushing for 74 yards and completing one pass for 21 yards to TE Anthony Fassano. Williams had 138 scrimmage yards with his biggest gain coming on a 59-yard screen pass reception.  We even go to see White come in and move the chains on a third down run.

After the game, Ryan was a little more humble about the Wildcat.  “I used to see all those gimmicks back when I was coaching college, and one thing we could always do is stop the run,” said the charismatic Jets head coach.  Ryan added, “It was a complete embarrassment by our defense and by me. I’ve never been involved in a game like that in my life.”  The Dolphins’ commitment to their rushing attack, including the Wildcat, has paid-off as they are averaging177 rushing yards per game, which by the way leads the NFL.  The Wildcat formation is also a huge hit in this year’s version of Madden Football and Brown has been known to give gamers tips on running the ‘Wildcat’.

Dolphins’ running backs, gamers, and fans are not the only ones going gaga about the Wildcat and running the football.  Both the Dolphins’ quarterback (2nd year QB Chad Henne who is 2-0 as a starter) and well-rested defense (allowing only 76 rushing yards per game) are also singing the Wildcat’s praises.  Going into their Week 6 bye, despite losing former starting quarterback Chad Pennington for the season with a shoulder injury, the Dolphins now have a record of 2-3 and are 2-0 in AFC East games. 

We will have to see if the Wildcat will continue to grow roots around the rest of the NFL, but in Miami the ‘Cat has found a home.

 

Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)

2009 NFL Power Rankings – Week 5

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After a big win over the J-E-T-S on Monday Night Football, RB Ricky Williams and Dolphins are moving up the Power Rankings

Each week the 2009 NFL Season’s “Contender” and “Pretender” scoreboard becomes a little clearer.  This year in the league, there appears to be two worlds, the “Have’s” and “Have Nots” with a smaller than usual parity-filled middle.  So much for “Any Given Sunday” talk as each week there are more and more blowouts –  Week 5 featured six games where teams won by 19 points or more.

In looking at the current NFL standings here’s the breakdown: The “Elite” – Vikings (5-0), Broncos (5-0), Saints (4-0), Colts (5-0), and Giants (5-0); “Teams on the Cusp” — Bengals (4-1), Eagles (3-1), Bears (3-1), and Falcons (3-1); “The Contender”, who are teams that are a step above average — Patriots (3-2), Jets (3-2), Steelers (3-2),  and Niners (3-2); “Stuck in the Middle” inconsistent teams, who are caught in the NFL’s parity-filled middle that either need to join the playoff hunt or fall back – Cowboys (3-2), Cardinals (2-2), Seahawks (2-3), Dolphins (2-3), and Chargers (2-2);  The “Pretenders”, who are also in the middle of the pack but are only a shade away from the league’s bottom rung – Panthers (1-3),  Texans (2-3), Redskins (2-3), and Jaguars (2-3); and lastly  the “Putrid” (i.e. You should just skip to the 2010 NFL Draft) – Browns (1-4), Raiders (1-4), Bills (1-4), Lions (1-4), Rams (0-5), Chiefs (0-5), Buccaneers (0-5), and Titans (0-5)

Now on to the rankings for this week.

1. Giants (5-0) – The G-Men were able to rest QB Eli Manning earlier than expected in a bludgeoning of the hapless Raiders.  Finally the Giants get more than a cupcake as they travel south to face the undefeated Saints and someone’s “O” has got to go.

2.  Colts (5-0) – Peyton Manning continues to play like a machine as the Colts won their 14th straight game with an easy win over the winless Tennessee Titans on Sunday Night Football.  Head Coach Jim Caldwell’s team gets a well-deserved bye week and just maybe injured players SS Bob Sanders and WR Anthony Gonzalez will be back after the off week.

3.  Vikings (5-0) – The Vikes easily handled the reeling host St. Louis Rams in a game that showed the dominance of DE Jared Allen.  In one of Week 6’s marquee games, the Vikings should finally get tested as they host the angry Ravens come to the Metrodome.

4.  Saints (4-0) – Hopefully during their bye week, the Saints stayed off Bourbon Street and focused on getting ready for the Giants.  The Superdome will be alive as the undefeated NFC East leading Giants led by QB Eli Manning and emerging receiver Steve Smith come to town for a much-anticipated FOX early afternoon special.

5.  Broncos (5-0) – “Young Belichick” Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels got the best of his mentor and he was pumped up by his young squad disposing of the veteran Patriots in overtime.  The road to respectability does not get any easier for the Broncos and their young head coach as they travel to San Diego to face a borderline desperate Chargers team.

6.  Bengals (4-1) — Marvin Lewis’ team was tough and gritty in beating the Ravens in Baltimore.  The Bengals not only brought some much-needed sunshine to defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer (wife passed away last week), but they also now look like the team to beat in the AFC North.  In a game where the Bengals will need to avoid a letdown, they will host the high-powered Houston Texans and All-World receiver Andre Johnson. 

 7.  Eagles (3-1) – The Birds came off their bye week with a vengeance and led by promising rookie WR Jeremy Maclin, they hammered the poor Buccaneers into an early submission.  Eagles head coach Andy Reid got his 100th regular season win over the Bucs and now Big Red is 11-0 after the bye for his career.  Next up, the Eagles will go a long way from Philly to Oakland, just so they can feast on the hapless Raiders.

8.  Falcons (3-1) – In a total surprise, the Falcons destroyed the Niners in their own stadium.  The Falcons were led by QB Matt Ryan, RB Michael Turner, and TE Tony Gonzalez as Singletary fumed over his team’s lack of focus.  Next up is a “Young Guns” shootout as the Falcons led by Ryan take on the Chicago Bears and strong-armed QB Jake Cutler.

9.  Bears (3-1) – The Bears got a much-needed rest during their bye week and hopefully injured players WR Johnny Knox, LB Hunter Hillenmeyer and WR Devin Hester were able to heal-up. In order to stay on the heels of the red-hot Vikings, the Bears will need to continue to win this time on the road against the improving Falcons on Sunday Night Football.

10. Steelers (3-2) – Mike Tomlin’s team climbed back over .500 after finally waking-up to dispose of the scrappy Detroit Lions.  Next up is the reeling Cleveland Browns at Heinz Field in P-Burgh and I am sure the Steelers faithful will not allow their heroes to “Sleep-on“one of the NFL’s worst teams, especially when they are an AFC North rival.

11.  Jets (3-2) – So much for Jets head coach Rex Ryan’s mastery of the Wildcat as the Dolphins ran all over the J-E-T-S in a big Monday Night Football win.  After two straight losses the Jets will need to pick-up the pieces and take care of business at home against the subpar Buffalo Bills.

12.  Patriots (3-2) – It seems like a million years ago that the Patriots ran roughshod over the NFL in 2007.  And the upstart Broncos showed the veteran Pats that teams are no longer fearful of their mystique in a thrilling overtime win.  Hopefully QB Tom Brady will find his long ball accuracy and the Patriots can find some semblance of a running game when they host the desperate for a win Tennessee Titans.

13.  Ravens (3-2) – The Ravens lost their second game in a row as the hungry Bengals seemed to want it more in a tough road win.  In a much anticipated game, it will be the Ravens’ attacking defense against graybeard quarterback Brett Favre as the Ravens travel to Minnesota to face a Vikings squad hitting on all cylinders.

14.  Chargers (2-2) – I am sure during the bye week that the Bolts tried to find their “swagger” again, especially underachievers L.T and LB Shawn Merriman.  Head Coach Norv Turner needs to fire-up an inconsistent Chargers team as they host the division-leading Denver Broncos in an AFC West showdown game on Monday Night Football. 

15.  Cardinals (2-2) – Looks like head coach Ken Whisenhunt’s bye week practices worked as the Cards fueled by QB Kurt Warner and a great goalline stand stopped the Texans in their tracks.  The Cards next go on the road to the Northwest to face an improving Seahawks team and their rejuvenated quarterback, Matt Hasselbeck, in a key NFC West battle.

16.  49ers (3-2) – I guess the Niners are not be ready for primetime just yet as they laid a huge egg in an embarrassing home loss to the Atlanta Falcons.  Head Coach Mike Singletary and his staff will be working overtime during the bye week to improve a team that is a little inconsistent.  Expect to see injured running back Frank Gore and just signed first rounder Michael Crabtree in the line-up after the bye.

17. Cowboys (3-2) – The ‘Boys continued their inconsistent ways as they needed a monumental effort from QB Tony Romo and emerging receiver Miles Austin just to pullout an overtime win over the reeling Chiefs.  During the bye week, head coach Wade Phillips and offensive coordinator Jason Garrett better figure out a way to save their jobs as the Cowboys will be facing some tough games coming up.

18.  Dolphins (2-3) – In a thrilling Monday Night Football AFC East battle, the Dolphins rode their stellar running game, including the Wildcat, to a late second win over the visiting New York Jets ( have lost two in a row).  After a big win over the J-E-T-S, I am sure it will be fun in the sun for the Dolphins and their Wildcat offense.

19. Packers (2-2) – The bye week allowed the Pack to heal their bodies and egos from a tough loss to the Vikings and you know who.  QB Aaron Rodgers and the Packers will look to feast on the retooling Detroit Lions when the young squad visits Lambeau this week.

20.  Seahawks (2-3) – Getting back starting QB Matt Hasselbeck was all the difference as the Seahawks were a new team on offense and defense in a dominating win over the Jaguars.  The Hawks will need to figure out if they are a “Contender” or “Pretender” as they host the NFC Champion Arizona Cardinals in a huge NFC West battle.

21.  Texans (2-3) – It was the same old inconsistent Texans as they could not string together two straight wins.  The Cardinals bent but didn’t break on defense and QB Kurt Warner picked apart the Texans secondary in a big win.  In a desperate spot on their schedule, the Texans travel to Cincy to face an ascending Bengals team led by stoic head coach Marvin Lewis.

22.  Panthers (1-3) – The Panthers put together a huge confidence building win over the crumbling Redskins and their beleaguered head coach Jim Zorn.  The Panthers will look to make it two in a row as they travel to Tampa Bay for a game against the Bucs that I am dubbing, “The Battle for the NFC South Basement”.

23.  Jaguars (2-3) – I don’t even know why the Jags got on their long cross-country flight as they never really showed up in Seattle, losing 41-0 to the Seahawks.  Next the Jaguars host the St. Louis Rams in a game that is sure to be a blackout, but would it even matter as both teams are not very good.

24.  Redskins (2-3) – For the second time this year, the Redskins or as some fans are calling them, “The Dead Skins”, lost to a formerly winless team.  The Panthers out-physicaled the Redskins and now it look like not “if”, but “when” will head coach Jim Zorn be fired.  For Zorn’s sake, the Redskins better not lose to the winless Kansas City Chiefs or it may be time for defensive coordinator Greg Blache or new offensive consultant Sherman Lewis to take over.

25. Titans (0-5) – It wasn’t even close as the Indianapolis Colts showed the reeling Titans what a true contender looks like in a dominating win.  It may be time to unveil V.Y as the Titans have nothing else to lose in a tough road test against the angry Patriots.

26.  Lions (1-3) – It took a while, but the Steelers returned to the place of their Super Bowl XL victory and pulled-out a hard fought win.  The Lions will probably be led again this week by QB Daunte Culpepper, which could prove to be a good thing as he used to be a killer of this week’s opponent, the Green Bay Packers.

27.  Chiefs (0-5) – Head coach Todd Haley’s team gave a terrific effort against the inconsistent Cowboys, but in the end the Dallas’ passing combination of Tony Romo and Miles Austin was on fire in their Week 5 win.  Next up is an ugly match-up against the equally deficient Redskins in game that could seal the fate of their beleaguered head coach Jim Zorn

28.  Browns (1-4) – “The Battle for Lake Erie” against the Bills looked more like one big quagmire as the Browns pulled out an ugly 6-3 win.  Hopefully Browns QB Derek Anderson will be able to complete more than two passes against the tough Steelers defense, which may get back Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu.

29.  Bills (1-4) – This game truly was the “Toilet Bowl” as the Bills and Browns combined for only nine total points in an ugly Browns’ 6-3 win.  The Bills will next travel to the big city to face a hungry J-E-T-S’ squad and just maybe underachiever T.O will finally get back in the endzone.

30.  Buccaneers (0-5) – The re-tooling Bucs, other than TE Kellen Winslow, looked very disinterested as the Philadelphia Eagles easily dismantled them at the Linc.  In an NFC South pride game, the Bucs will host the hopeful Panthers.

31.  Rams (0-5) – Steve Spagnuolo’s boys had no answer for QB Brett Favre and the Vikings in a disheartening loss. The Rams will look to get their first “W” as they travel to Jacksonville in a game that is sure to be blacked-out.  Well at least the team will not have to worry about Russ Limbaugh being part of their franchise any longer as the big-mouth talk show host was removed from a group trying to buy the team.

32.  Raiders (1-4) – I can longer sit by and rank the Raiders any higher than the last spot in my rankings.  Even though the Raiders have one win – it’s a “Miracle” by the way – there is no team in the NFL more dysfunctional or in a deeper hole.  With more “drama” regarding the police and NFL security nipping at Raiders head coach Tom Cable’s heels, the Philadelphia Eagles will fly across the country to eat this giant cupcake of a team.

 

 

Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)

Troubled Bears RB Benson Expected to be Released

It seems that troubled running back Cedric Benson has run out of the chances with the Bears organization as the team is expected to say “Bye, Bye” to him later today

(Philadelphia, Pa) Bears RB Cedric Benson’s visit to Halas Hall Monday will be his last as a Bear, according to the Chicago Tribune.  After Benson’s second highly publicized incident this off-season and the NFL cracking down on player misconduct by fining franchises, the move to cut the troubled running back seems logical. 

Benson was arrested this past weekend and was charged with drunken driving in downtown Austin, Texas. On the heels of the former Texas Star’s BWI incident, the mischievous running back probably had run out of chances with the Bears organization. Bears GM Jerry Angelo said of Benson’s latest arrest, “Disappointment is too much an often used word when we’re talking about Cedric. The No. 1 lesson for every player is protect your job. We’re all held accountable for our actions”.

I still remember covering the 2005 NFL Draft and attending Benson’s initial press conference.  Over and over in the media gathering the former University of Texas star –ran for 5540 yards and 64 TDs in college — talked about how “Ricky Williams” of all people was a role model to him.  Unfortunately for Benson even though he had Ricky’s dreads, he never produced Williams’ numbers on the field.  However Benson sure did find ways to follow in Williams’ troubled footsteps off the field plus exceed them by having repeated problems with the law.  Benson never produced over 1,000 yards in a season and had been questioned in the Bears locker room for his lack of desire with an overall impression that he was somewhat coddled by a patient front office. 

Bears head coach Lovie Smith tried every avenue in motivating Benson, but in the end the stoic coach must be thinking that he sent the wrong running back packing after the 2006 season — Thomas Jones left via free agency to join the Jets.  The 2007 season was a disappointment for Benson as a starter for the first time.  Benson couldn’t follow up his strong 2006 season — appeared to have turn the corner rushing for six touchdowns plus scoring in the Super Bowl while splitting carries with Jones – producing only 674 yards and 4 TDs plus being benched late in the season.

It clearly seems that the Bears have moved on after they selected upstart Tulane running back Matt Forte in the second round of the ’08 draft.  Bears offensive coordinator Ron Turner recently said of Forte, “I love Matt Forte, He’s got the size, he’s got the hands. He’s smooth as an athlete, very smooth. How many touches do I see him getting? A lot”.

The expectations were high for Benson after his selection as the fourth overall pick in 2005, but he now will need to find a new NFL home.  We will have to wait and see if some team takes a chance on Benson as a reclamation story or if he fades into “Blivion” as Mike Tyson would say.  Benson’s disappointing 3-year Bears’ career finishes with 1593 rushing yards, 3.8 ypc, 10 TDs, and 4 fumbles lost.  

Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and an award winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)

 

Are We Talking About Hair ???

(Philadelphia, Pa) — Apparently the upcoming NFL Owners’ Meetings in West Palm, Florida will resemble many American households from the 1960’s as hair length and style take center stage.  The Kansas City Chiefs have put forth before the owners a proposed rule that would require players to wear their hair in a way (“tuck” it) so that it doesn’t obscure the name plate on the backs of their jerseys.

Sure they are saying that it is a safety issue and that they are not telling players to “cut” their hair due to CBA language that forbids such edicts –The NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement between the NFL and the NFLPA expressly prohibits the imposition of discipline based on facial hair or hair length… ACLU would be on the phone quicker than lightning. 

But you cannot tell me that the “Father Knows Best -esque” bureaucratic NFL does not want to rein players in that look unsightly in their opinion.  The NFL is running a VERY dangerous course by forcing player appearance, they already dictate everything with uniforms down to towel length and socks not being pulled up so apparently “hair” is the next step.  I will be interested to see what will happen if the rule passes and a respected veteran like Steelers safety Troy Troy Polamalu doesn’t want to “tuck” his hair.

I personally really don’t care how many tattoos a player has or if his hair is down to his waist.  The key matter in player evaluation is whether the guy can bring the “wood” on the field or not.  I like that some guys have the unusual “forget image” attitude that they are willing to express themselves in a sport where uniformity has gotten out of control.  Plus as Dolphins running back Ricky Williams learn if you play with long hair, it is okay for an opponent to use it against you.

It will take 24 positive votes from the 32 franchises for the measure to pass and if it does look for some fun “barber” fireworks come training camp time.